Senator Penny Wong – response to questions without notice regarding the refusal of the Australian Attorney-General, Senator George Brandis, to use the legally correct phrase “occupied East Jerusalem”

photo of Senator Penny Wong
June 23, 2014

There was Senator Brandis’s notorious foray into foreign policy, where he suddenly invented new government policy on the Israel-Palestine conflict—which has jeopardised Australia’s interests in this strategically sensitive region of the Middle East.

Full speech

Senator WONG (South AustraliaLeader of the Opposition in the Senate) (15:01): I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Attorney-General (Senator Brandis) to questions without notice asked by Opposition senators today.

Questions today dealt with three of the Attorney-General’s most recent blunders. There was Senator Brandis’s notorious foray into foreign policy, where he suddenly invented new government policy on the Israel-Palestine conflict—which has jeopardised Australia’s interests in this strategically sensitive region of the Middle East. There was also his rush to judgement on the impact of the High Court decision in the Williams No. 2 case, where there was no need for the Solicitor-General to provide advice—because Senator Brandis QC was on the case, delivering his verdict on the judgement before the ink was dry. Finally, there was his greatest triumph of all, where this cabinet minister has succeeded in uniting Australians across the political divide, uniting Australians from all religious, ethnic, political and social backgrounds against his plans to remove legal protection against speech that offends, insults or humiliates on the basis of race.

In fact, this Attorney-General has a rare distinction. He is one of the few cabinet ministers who has single-handedly created an enormous grassroots movement against him and his own government. It is quite a political feat. Those on the other side must constantly be asking rhetorically, ‘I wonder who it is that George has offended this week?’

Senator Brandis’s responses to these questions today were—in part—what we have come to expect. What we generally expect from Senator Brandis is smug and self-important rhetoric and deliberate obfuscation—and we know we always get pomposity. We know that George is always pompous. But interestingly, and I will come back to this, we also saw a new side of George—

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Wong, you should refer to senators by their correct title.

Senator WONG: I apologise, Mr Deputy President.

The PRESIDENT: Thank you.

Senator WONG: We saw a new side of Senator Brandis, who has magically discovered the benefits of reticence. He is all of a sudden—a man who generally you cannot shut up—talking very little. One can surmise why that is. You need only look at some of the commentary about what Minister Bishop has had to promise and implement with respect to Senator Brandis’s injudicious comments in Senate estimates.

On the ABC website this morning I was interested to read some character assessments of Senator Brandis from his own colleagues. They covered a range of areas, including: ‘I think Senator Brandis would not know a live animal if he fell over one,’ and various other things. One can surmise where that came from. But the most interesting character description was one of his own Liberal colleagues describing him to the ABC this morning as ‘intellectually arrogant’. I do not fully agree with that character assessment. ‘Arrogant’—true; that goes without saying. But ‘intellectual’? I do not really think so. Senator Brandis might have installed a $15,000 taxpayer funded wall-to-ceiling bookcase in his office—complete with stepladder—not once but twice, but that does not make him an intellectual. He is meant to be the first law officer of the land, not an assistant law librarian.

Would a true intellectual defend the Racial Discrimination Act amendments that he was putting forward by arguing:

People do have a right to be bigots, you know.

Is that the response of a true intellectual? Would a true intellectual take his riding orders on the Racial Discrimination Act from a single newspaper columnist and ignore every community organisation in the land? Would a true intellectual rush so ignorantly into foreign policy by claiming that no Australian government has ever accepted the term ‘occupied’ in relation to Palestinian territories? Senator Brandis’s last blunder has triggered a rolling foreign policy fiasco for the government and has damaged Australia’s interests. This is not the act of an intellectual. It is the act of someone who is reckless and arrogant.

Senator Brandis is meant to be the first law officer of the land, not a freelance foreign minister. So it is no wonder that the actual Minister for Foreign Affairs has instructed the Attorney-General to stick to his day job. The position of Attorney-General is an important one in our system of government. It is a position which requires integrity, intelligence and sound judgement. It is not a position for someone who acts like he is in student politics. It is not a position for someone who has been described as a bull who brings his own china shop. It is certainly not a position for someone who displays the arrogance and poor judgement— (Time expired)

Link to parliamentary Hansard

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