While Malcolm Turnbull is publicly defending his scandal-ridden Attorney-General, privately he is infuriated that another George Brandis blunder will dominate the last week of Parliament.
The Prime Minister told Parliament on Monday that Senator Brandis had offered a full explanation of the circumstances behind his involvement in an alleged “secret” deal with the Western Australian government over the settlement from Alan Bond’s Bell Group.
Mr Turnbull – who is thought to be considering an end-of-year ministry reshuffle as early as this week – claimed that Labor was only trying to cause mischief by pursuing the matter.
Senator Brandis has mired the government in controversy over claims he tried to get the Commonwealth to ‘run dead’ in a High Court case so the WA government could jump the creditors’ queue and claw back $1 billion from the Bell Group collapse.
The move would have lost taxpayers $300 million, but then-solicitor-general Justin Gleeson allegedly ignored a directive from the Attorney-General and instead successfully acted on behalf of the Australian Taxation Office to have WA’s strategy thrown out of court.
Despite his public support for the Attorney-General, the Prime Minister is livid over the latest embarrassment and is demanding answers from Senator Brandis.
And with the fallout over the saga set to continue for some time yet, it has given rise to speculation Senator Brandis could become a victim of an imminent Cabinet reshuffle.
In answer to the accusations of entering into a corrupt secret deal with WA, Senator Brandis delivered a half-hour explanation to the Senate around midday on Monday and also fronted the media to protest his innocence.
But his statement has thrown up more questions than it answered, as well as casting a cloud over other government ministers and former treasurer Joe Hockey.
Senator Brandis denied making a deal with the WA government and that there was ever any agreement between himself and his WA counterpart Michael Mischin.
‘It was Joe Hockey’s fault’
He said there was written correspondence between Mr Hockey and WA Treasurer Mike Nahan, but he didn’t think it comprised a formal deal.
“I was not involved in, and at the time they took place had no knowledge of, the discussions between Mr Hockey and WA ministers,” Senator Brandis said.
“Mr Hockey never mentioned them to me.”
The role of federal ministers Christian Porter and Kelly O’Dwyer were also brought into question over how much they knew about the deal and the advice they gave the Attorney-General.
Revenue Minister O’Dwyer looked particularly nervous when in response to a question in the House of Representatives she read out a prepared answer (technically against the rules).
Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus asked the Prime Minister what he knew about any instructions Senator Brandis had given the solicitor-general.
The PM’s public support
Mr Turnbull said he didn’t know what advice was given, but he was happy with Senator Brandis’ explanation.
“The shadow attorney-general is asking me what transpired in a conversation between two distinguished members of the bar at which I was not present,” he said.
“Obviously I don’t know what transpired between them, but the Attorney-General has set out his account of the events. It is comprehensive and I refer honourable members to it.”
Labor less than impressed
And while Senator Brandis insisted Mr Dreyfus was being loose and reckless with the truth, the shadow attorney-general repeated his call for the A-G to be sacked.
“According to Senator Brandis, the Bell litigation mess was the fault of Joe Hockey, West Australian Treasurer Mike Nahan, West Australian Attorney-General Michael Mischin, Christian Porter and Kelly O’Dwyer, but remarkably, somehow he escaped blame himself,” Mr Dreyfus said.
“It is far too convenient for Senator Brandis to blame Joe Hockey, when he is not in Parliament, let alone the country, to defend himself.”
Labor’s leader in the Senate Penny Wong said that Senator Brandis had thrown Mr Hockey “under a bus”.
Greens Senator Nick McKim described Senator Brandis’ explanation as a “hospital hand-pass” calculated to “crunch” Mr Hockey.