07 October 2016
by Michael Koziol

George Brandis denies he misled Parliament, resists calls to resign

George Brandis

Attorney-General George Brandis has vehemently denied misleading Parliament and refused calls to resign amid an extraordinary and escalating brawl engulfing the country's top lawyers.

Senator Brandis insisted he consulted appropriately before ordering that all ministers, including Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, obtain his written approval to seek legal advice from Solicitor-General Justin Gleeson.

In an explosive submission to a Senate inquiry, Mr Gleeson said he had not been consulted about the controversial change, and would have opposed it "in the strongest terms" if given the chance.

Labor subsequently accused Senator Brandis of misleading Parliament about the consultations, and called on him to stand down as the country's first legal officer.

But Senator Brandis denied any wrongdoing, citing a November 30 meeting in which the pair had discussed "this very issue" at length, including specific plans to reform the way the government sought Mr Gleeson's advice.

"I've not misled the Parliament," Senator Brandis told ABC radio on Thursday. "There were consultations. [The meeting] went for about an hour. The main topic of that meeting was this very issue."

But the exact nature of that discussion is now in doubt, after Mr Gleeson told a Senate inquiry that "at no time at that meeting" did Senator Brandis indicate he was considering making such a legally binding direction.

Mr Gleeson also complained that he had not been adequately consulted about two major policy issues in the Attorney-General's portfolio: same-sex marriage and a proposal to revoke the Australian citizenship of foreign fighters.

Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus accused Senator Brandis of "lying about lying", and repeated calls for his resignation.

"He's been caught out," Mr Dreyfus said. "The Attorney-General has no choice but to resign because he has behaved disgracefully and regrettably."

Solicitor-General Justin Gleeson

The complicated stoush arises from a mutual desire to change the way in which Commonwealth agencies engaged the Solicitor-General for legal opinion.

Mr Gleeson approached Senator Brandis on November 12, 2015, to discuss his concerns that appropriate procedures were not being followed and were hampering his ability to do his job.

Section 12B of the Law Officers Act maintains that the Solicitor-General's duty is "to furnish his or her opinion to the Attorney-General on questions of law referred to him or her by the Attorney-General".

Senator Brandis said a "lazy practice" had developed over many years of government departments referring matters to the Solicitor-General that were "well below his pay grade" and without the Attorney-General's involvement.

He told Sky News that he had "largely though not entirely followed [Mr Gleeson's] suggestions" in trying to change that practice. Labor had "vastly overcooked" what was "a dispute about very little", he said.

"Mr Dreyfus always overstates the case in the manner of a very unskilful barrister," Senator Brandis said. "The number of times that Mr Dreyfus has made hysterical claims which he can't then back up I've lost count of."

But Mr Gleeson's strongly-worded submission to the Senate inquiry, established by Labor with the help of the crossbench, would suggest the disagreement is no minor tiff.

"Had I been consulted ... I would have made a submission to the Attorney-General, in the strongest terms, that [the change] should not be made," Mr Gleeson wrote.

Senator Brandis insisted the ongoing stoush had not undermined the "cordial, professional relationship" between himself and the country's second law officer.

"Mr Gleeson and I have worked together now for more than three years. I have a very high regard for him as a lawyer," Senator Brandis said.