POLITICS

The Turnbull Government vs The World

Are these the fights the Government has to have?

25/10/2016 10:30 AM AEDT | Updated 25/10/2016 3:08 PM AEDT
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Andrew Meares, Fairfax
Attorney-General George Brandis says the Solicitor-General's resignation was the "proper course of action".

CANBERRA – The cracks are showing in the Turnbull government with the result of Cabinet ministers picking or ramping up long drawn out fights with statutory bodies and the Canberra bureaucracy.

In a stunning turn of events, Australia's second highest law officer Solicitor-General Justin Gleeson resigned Monday saying his relationship with the Attorney-General George Brandis was "irretrievably broken".

"It's a pity that the relationship broke down," Malcolm Turnbull told ABC Brisbane Tuesday. "But that does happen in other circumstances."

It sure does.

It's now apparent there had been a similar terminal breakdown in relations between the Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce and the then head of his department, the sacked Agriculture Department boss, Paul Grimes.

And there are the ongoing attacks on the integrity of the President of the Human Rights Commission Gillian Triggs, a prime example of playing the woman rather than tackling the work of the Commission. Although Professor Triggs has recently done herself no favours.

The Government -- in which Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull promised to restore public integrity -- insists it is a matter of trust. So does the Opposition.

"This is a government that can't bear criticism," Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus told RN Breakfast on Tuesday.

"(The Government) attacks everybody who dares to speak the truth to it, and then turns around and says to anyone who raises this like me, 'You're politicising this now'."

The Solicitor-General, who has been in a public spat over Senator Brandis' unprecedented decision to restrict access to his expert legal advice, is the first Solicitor-General to resign in 100 years.

Gleeson claimed he had not been consulted over the direction by Brandis and had complained about being left out of deliberations on controversial constitutional matters, such as national security legislation and the same-sex marriage plebiscite.

"The right decision has been taken," Turnbull said. "And the more important issue above all is that my government is focusing on the issues that matter to all Australians.

"I am up here in Brisbane talking about infrastructure."

Brandis has not been able to see what the fuss was about. He insists he was being helpful and tidying up a lazily applied direction to the Solicitor-General. But Gleeson had a very different view. His strongly-worded letter of resignation to the Attorney-General can be read here.

The Opposition and many members of the legal community insist Senator Brandis himself should have resigned, but Government ministers welcomed the resignation saying Gleeson has only himself to blame as he should not have spoken to Labor about his problems with his job.

Dreyfus had called Gleeson during the July election caretaker period, which the Treasurer Scott Morrison said put the Solicitor-General in an "untenable position."

"The Government has to be able to trust its own lawyer," Morrison told ABC 730. "Now he's taken what I think is the honourable course of action here. I think the only one that's been available really to him now."

But Dreyfus is unrepentant. "I talk to senior public servants. Surprise, surprise," he told the ABC.

"This is a Government which is a terrified of criticism, which wants to run, it seems, some kind of police state where the senior public servants in this country have to ask permission of their Minister before they talk to anybody."

Meantime -- after a year's delay -- the Agriculture Department has released a letter from the then Department head Paul Grimes to Barnaby Joyce, in which Grimes questions the minister's integrity over a long-running saga involving controversial changes to Hansard -- the official transcripts of all public proceedings of the Australian parliament.

Joyce was caught out correcting an answer he gave to Parliament that exaggerated the number of farmers receiving drought assistance, but he blamed the correction on a 'staffer'.

Grimes was sacked last year citing differences in direction with Joyce.

"I am writing to advise you that I no longer have confidence in my capacity to resolve matters relating to integrity with you," Grimes wrote to Joyce, citing the "Hansard matter".

"There are established processes under the Public Service Act for resolving circumstances where a relationship between a secretary and a minister has broken down irretrievably."

"As I have conducted myself appropriately at all times, I have no intention of resigning or stepping aside."

Just over a week later Grimes was gone.

Public confidence in the Turnbull Government, and the Prime Minister, appears to be eroding.

The latest Newspoll has Turnbull's satisfaction rating at just 29 percent and his support as preferred Prime Minister down to 42 percent, the lowest level for Turnbull since he ousted Tony Abbott.

Support for Labor Leader Bill Shorten as preferred PM is even lower, at 32 percent.

That is something the Opposition should be worried about, but they seem too busy seeing cracks in the Coalition.

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