The view from Billinudgel

Time is running out for George Brandis
Don’t be surprised if the Attorney General never returns from summer holidays

Last week George Brandis got an early Christmas present: in the turmoil and ferment of parliament’s final week for the year, our Absurdity-General escaped his latest balls-up with a minimum of outrage.

Indeed, if one wanted to be charitable, one could consider that he was just another distraction. And in one sense he is, which is no doubt why Malcolm Turnbull once again affirmed his full confidence in his resident buffoon.

To some cynics (Bill Shorten among them) this affirmation seemed about as sincere as a Mafia kiss, but at least the PM could be relieved that his maladroit supporter was only in the headlines for a couple of days, and that there was now a full couple of months of summer during which Brandis could be quietly shuffled off, either from his portfolio or, better still, from the parliament.

Because, politically, Brandis is a dead man walking. The summer break will give him a reprieve, but no more than that. If, as the senate has resolved, he comes back to another inquiry – and one that looks not just as egregious incompetence but also a real suspicion of corrupt behaviour – he cannot survive. Neither the political nor, perhaps more importantly, the legal establishment would allow it.

The latest scandal involving the Bufo marinus of the Queensland bar had its origin on the other side of the continent, where the Western Australian treasurer, Mike Nahan, devised an interesting scheme to resolve the impasse over the remaining funds of the Bell Group masterminded by the convicted felon Alan Bond.

Nahan’s wheeze was always on the far side of dodgy: it revolved around legislation that would make his state the preferred creditor for the loot over the Australian Tax Office. And, apparently, his fellow Liberal, the Commonwealth’s Treasurer Joe Hockey, was agreeable.  

This arrangement would obviously have concerned the ATO, and, one would have thought, the rest of the gang in Canberra; but, according to Brandis, the first he knew of it was when a couple of colleagues noted it and his personal bugbear, the Solicitor General Justin Gleeson, appeared representing the ATO in court.

When Brandis was finally briefed on the action, he had nothing much to say until Gleeson pointed out that not only was Nahan’s scheme bad law, but it was also probably unconstitutional. This fairly elementary legal intelligence reportedly came as a shock to he nation’s first law officer, but, at Gleeson’s insistence, he told his number two to pursue it in the High Court – he could hardly do anything else.

But what is not clear is whether he was genuinely ignorant of the implications of the case, or whether he deliberately ignored them. Obviously, in either case he should immediately have resigned. Instead, he blustered through a very long speech in the senate which left most of the relevant issues unanswered, and as a result is facing yet another committee of inquiry – given his record, the senate might as well make it a permanent, standing committee to save time.

Malcolm Turnbull, yet again, was forced to declare his full confidence in his government’s Aunt Sally – as always, he had no choice. And, as Bill Shorten remarked, this was around the first anniversary of Turnbull’s declarations of confidence in Stuart Roberts, Jamie Briggs and Mal Brough, all of whom have since departed. Perhaps that is the confidence Turnbull means – that Brandis will not be returning when parliament resumes.

His colleagues will not miss him, but perhaps his opponents will. They will have to find a new fall guy. 

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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