Q&A on Monday 20 February 2017 included Attorney-General George Brandis QC.
Brandis showed rather unhappy aspects of himself, as he sought to justify enormous and extravagant expense allowances for Federal parliamentarians while justifying the meanness of NDIS funding, disability allowances, Community Legal Centre funding and the harshness of automated Centrelink debt recovery.
There was a common theme in Brandis’ position. He seemed to prefer meanness to generosity. He seemed unsympathetic to people who are struggling to survive; he does not care what we do to refugees; he does not care that his party has lied systematically to the public for years about boat people; he can’t be bothered to check the law in an area which, whatever your position, is contentious.
He chose to blame Labor for every difficulty, no matter that his party has had years to correct the situation which, he asserted frequently, was created by Labor. I don’t have much time for Labor, but watching him blame everything on a government which was defeated four years ago is simply pathetic.
It would be charitable to assume some kind of neural deficiency rather than a deep-seated personality disorder.
On robo-debt, Brandis seemed mildly concerned that a man had committed suicide after being chased for an alleged debt of $18,000 (this was later revised down to $10,000, without explanation). The way the system “works”, the burden is on the recipient of the debt notice to prove the demand is wrong. Most lawyers (at least, most lawyers who have actually practised law) respond instinctively against civil claims in which the Defendant has to prove that they do not owe the money claimed: the usual situation is that the person who makes a claim must prove it.
Brandis urged that anyone who received a robo-debt demand should ring Centrelink and discuss the claim: he seemed not to understand that getting Centrelink to answer a phone call is extraordinarily difficult. Several people in the audience with practical experience of the matter told Brandis how difficult it is to get Centrelink to answer a call, but our esteemed Attorney-General continued urging the same course. He cruised calmly on like a Spanish galleon in full sail, completely untroubled by any facts. Perhaps that’s the world he lives in: when he wants to speak to someone he simply instructs a staff-member to arrange it. He appears to know nothing of the world experienced by ordinary people, and did not seem willing or able to learn anything about it.
When tackled about the reduced funding for Community Legal Centres, he tried to blame Labor. It seemed not to occur to him that, as Attorney-General, he could arrange increased funding for Community Legal Centres and for Legal Aid. After all, Community Legal Centres deal with about 260,000 clients each year. Their total funding is about $40 million a year. So it costs the government about $153 per client for a CLC to help people who can’t afford lawyers. That’s pretty good value, but government funding is about to fall to about $30 million a year. Brandis did not seem to notice this as a problem, just as he didn’t notice the grotesque difference between his position on welfare payments and his position on parliamentary entitlements. Interestingly, Brandis presides over a department which spends about $792 million per year on lawyering. He has access to excellent legal advice.
Perhaps Brandis regards his government’s legal problems as vastly more important than the legal problems of any ordinary Australian.
And then we got to refugee policy. Confronted with the awkward fact that several thousand men, women and children have been locked up on Nauru and Manus for over 3 years, Brandis again tried to blame it on Labor. It is true that Kevin Rudd’s government put them there, but Brandis party, in government, could have removed them. Instead, it left them to swelter for years on end, suffering torment and abuse which includes hundreds of reported cases of child sex abuse and at least 5 deaths that we know of.
But the most surprising development was when I asked Brandis directly whether boat people commit any offence by arriving in Australia seeking protection from persecution. He said Yes, they do. He is wrong about that. I asked him to identify the provision in any legislation which makes it an offence. He protested that he could not be expected to identify a particular statute and a particular provision. He is wrong about that, too. The Coalition government has, for the past 15 years, called boat people “illegal”.
I assume Senator Brandis sometimes finds time to consider his party’s policies. So he can hardly have missed the fact that men, women and children who have fled persecution were being branded as “illegal”, and were being locked up in shocking conditions for years.
Unless he has slept through the past 15 years (and I would not rule that out as a possibility), Brandis must be aware of a few related things:
- the Coalition, of which he is part, has called boat people “illegal” for the past 15 years;
- some irritating people (including me) have been pointing out for years that boat people commit no offence by coming to Australia as they do.
- If they don’t commit any offence by coming here, calling them “illegal” is misleading at best, and dishonest at worst.
- He has a big staff of highly qualified lawyers and access to lots more.
If he had ever had any of his staff research the question, he would know affirmatively that boat people do not commit any offence by coming here the way they do.
And yet, when I asked him what offence he thought they committed, he protested that he could not be expected to remember what section of what Act.
If the first Law Officer of the country paid more attention, he might have paused to wonder whether his own party’s marketing was honest or not; he might have paused to wonder why no boat people are ever prosecuted because of their means of arrival.
But it seems that our Attorney-General is much too busy enjoying the fat perks of office to think about these things. Either Brandis does not care or he is a hopeless lawyer. In either case, it will be a relief to see him leave the Parliament and the country.
The only available conclusions are either:
- He has never bothered to have the question researched; or
- He lied, because he knew the true answer
Really, Attorney-General? Did you expect anyone to believe you?
Brandis is a disgrace to the office he holds. The first law officer of the country should be a bit more curious and a bit more honest.
[Incidentally, both before and after the show, Brandis conspicuously avoided speaking to me in the Green Room. So I will add pettiness and a lack of manners to my criticism of him]