Federal Attorney-General George Brandis is trying to downplay a public feud with the nation’s second-highest law officer, saying he has not misled parliament over the fight and the pair have never had a “cross word”.
A Senate inquiry has been launched into a decision by the Attorney-General to force all requests for the solicitor-general Justin Gleeson SC to provide legal advice to the government to come through Senator Brandis’ office first.
Mr Gleeson has made a submission to the inquiry, highlighting concerns his office was not consulted on important matters such as the government’s anti-terror citizenship stripping legislation.
He also said he was not consulted on Senator Brandis’ decision to stop requests for advice going directly to his office during a meeting in November 2015.
“At no time at that meeting did the Attorney-General indicate that he was considering issuing either a legally binding direction concerning the performance of the functions of the solicitor-general or a requirement that a Commonwealth person or body could only approach the solicitor-general for advice after receiving the Attorney-General’s advance approval,” Mr Gleeson wrote.
“At no time at that meeting was there a discussion of restricting access to the solicitor-general to give legal advice.
“It is critically important that persons such as the Governor-General, Prime Minister and officers of parliament are able to approach the solicitor-general for advice in an uninhibited fashion.”
The Attorney-General disagreed.
“[The meeting] went for about an hour, the main topic of that meeting was this very issue,” Senator Brandis told the ABC’s Radio National program.
“Not one, but two note-takers took contemporaneous notes of that meeting, which I produced to the Senate committee yesterday.
“And those notes show, without doubt, that the matter was discussed.”
Senator Brandis said the Law Officers Act, which governs positions such as that of the solicitor-general, only allows Mr Gleeson to give his legal opinion “to the Attorney-General on questions of law referred to him or her by the Attorney-General”.
The new practice direction came into force in May this year.
“The practice had developed lazily across government over some years that there were many matters being referred to the solicitor-general that were not of high constitutional importance,” Senator Brandis said.
“Many departments and agencies were acting in evident ignorance of the requirements of [the Act].”
Senator Brandis was questioned on the matter in parliament last month, where he maintained he had consulted with Mr Gleeson.
That has led to calls from the federal opposition that the Attorney-General had misled parliament and he should stand down.
“We have Senator George Brandis now lying about lying,” Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus told reporters in Melbourne.
“The second law officer, Justin Gleeson, the solicitor-general, has put beyond doubt, for anyone that cares to read his submission, that the Attorney-General of Australia has misled the parliament.
“He should resign, and if he won’t resign he should be sacked.”
Read Senator Brandis’ submission to the inquiry below: