Prime Minister Tony Abbott has been forced to defend George Brandis in parliament after the Senate passed a motion declaring him “unfit to hold the office of Attorney-General” over the government’s criticism of Human Right Commission president Gillian Triggs.
The Opposition pressed the issue in Question Time, asking Mr Abbott if he still had confidence in the nation’s chief law officer.
Mr Abbott responded “of course” and accused Labor of playing personality politics.
“What we have seen yet again from the Leader of the Opposition is the jeering, sneering and smearing which is unfortunately all this opposition is capable of,” he told Parliament.
“Of course I have confidence in the Attorney-General.
“The Attorney-General is a stalwart defender of free speech in this country, but he also wants to ensure that free speech is not abused.”
The Senate has censured Mr Brandis for seeking the resignation of Professor Triggs and failing to defend her from “malicious attacks”.
The fallout from the public spat between the government and Prof Triggs continued on Monday when the upper house spent hours debating the Labor motion condemning Mr Brandis over his handling of the issue.
Opposition Senate Leader Penny Wong claimed the attorney’s “deplorable” treatment of the commission and its president made him unfit to hold office as the nation’s most senior law officer.
Mr Brandis vigorously defended his position, claiming the public deserved to know why the government had lost confidence in Prof Triggs.
Delaying an inquiry into asylum-seeker children in detention until after Labor lost office could only be seen as protecting that side of politics, he said.
“To say that is not to attack her character, or to be a bully-boy, it is merely to explain why a conclusion has been reached,” he told parliament.
The censure motion, which won the support of the Australian Greens and several crossbenchers, also claimed Mr Brandis did not fully reveal his conduct during Senate estimates last week.
The attorney dismissed that as “entirely incorrect”.
Federal police are investigating whether Prof Triggs was offered an inducement to resign from the commission’s top job, after she revealed an alternative position had been raised.
Mr Abbott and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop have both denied the allegation.
The motion, won 35 votes to 32, was Labor’s second attempt to censure the attorney over the saga.
Greens Leader Christine Milne claimed Mr Brandis had been complicit throughout an “unwarranted witch hunt” on Prof Triggs, led by Mr Abbott.
Mr Abbott has also questioned Prof Triggs’ decision to recommend a $300,000 compensation payment for a detained murderer.
Ms Wong said government senators had “manifestly failed” to defend the attorney-general throughout the debate.
Mr Abbott strongly backed Mr Brandis after Opposition Leader Bill Shorten queried how the prime minister could still have confidence in the attorney-general.
“This government has an abundance of confidence in the judgment and the competence and the integrity of the attorney-general,” Mr Abbott told parliament.
Labor was only interested in “jeering, sneering and smearing”.
Mr Abbott again reiterated his claim the government had lost confidence in Prof Triggs, adding she was incapable of understanding that it was better to get people out of detention, than it was to put people into detention.