POLITICS

Australia's Top Two Legal Officers Are At War Over Government Advice

Attorney-General George Brandis says calls for his resignation are 'hysterical'.

06/10/2016 10:37 AM AEDT | Updated 06/10/2016 11:44 AM AEDT
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Attorney-General Senator George Brandis says calls for his resignation are 'hysterical'.

CANBERRA -- A dispute between Australia's top two legal officers has devolved into a complicated war of words, with claims of misleading parliament, "lying about lying", "hysterical claims" and calls for the Federal Attorney-General George Brandis to be sacked.

Senator Brandis and Australia's second-highest law officer, Solicitor-General Justin Gleeson SC, have different recollections of a meeting last November where Brandis claims an important and binding legal direction was given over contentious constitutional matters such as marriage equality and anti-terror citizenship laws.

The November meeting had been called to address Mr Gleeson's concerns his work had been "hampered" over a lack of consultation. Brandis claims he gave the Solicitor-General a binding direction that his legal advice be blocked to anyone in the Government, including the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, without the Attorney-General's permission.

Justin Gleeson has publicly and flatly contradicted the claims, saying in a Senate submission that he was not consulted and he said the first time he heard about the direction was in May, when the advice was also tabled in the Senate in a document.

The tabling of the document on May 4 is crucial as Labor is now accusing Senator Brandis of misleading Parliament on the issue and has called for him to resign.

AAP Image/Dan Peled
Federal Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus says the Attorney General should resign.

"George Brandis is here now lying about lying," the Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus told RN Breakfast.

"He has been caught out in this false statement to the Australian parliament. The false statement is that he consulted the Solicitor-General about an important change."

"He has no option here but to resign because he behaved disgracefully."

But the Attorney-General has denied he mislead parliament, saying he consulted with the Solicitor General in his Canberra office on what he now downplaying as an "administrative issue".

"Everything I said to parliament was accurate," Senator Brandis told reporters in Canberra.

Senator Brandis said two sets of handwritten notes were taken by note-takers during the meeting.

"Obviously there is a difference in interpretation between him and me to the effect of the meeting on the 30th of November last year," he said.

"It is not at all unusual that two people might be in a meeting and come out of with a different interpretation."

Senator Brandis cites section 12b of the Law Officers Act, which states: "The functions of the Solicitor-General are to furnish his or her opinion to the Attorney-General on questions of law referred to him or her by the Attorney-General."

Law Officers Act 1964
Functions of the Solicitor-General

The Attorney-General said this section had been used lazily across government and he was insisting on it.

"That's what Mr Gleeson in effect was complaining about," the Attorney-General told RN Breakfast.

"So what we discussed at some length was how we would go about regularising the practice."

The Attorney-General also said his department has backed him up.

"At the time my brief came to me from my department to sign the instrument, my department advised that the consultation obligation has been fulfilled," he told Sky News.

As calls for him to resign, Senator Brandis said Mark Dreyfus is over-stating the case "as always" and he won't be going anywhere.

"The number of times Mr Dreyfus has made hysterical claims, which he can't then back up, I have lost count of."

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