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‘Contemptible’ attack on Moraitis not fair game: Brandis

Attorney-General George Brandis has the back of his departmental secretary, calling questions on the conduct of Chris Moraitis a “disgraceful, contemptible attack on the integrity of a respected independent public servant”.

And Brandis (pictured) has delivered a passionate sermon on the integrity of public servants, saying they’re not fair game the way politicians are.

Gillian Triggs, the president of the Australian Human Rights Commission who came under sustained attack from the government last week, “isn’t a public servant”, the Attorney-General declared in Senate question time today. And anyway, “her integrity has never been attacked by anyone”.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the government had no confidence in Triggs last week, declaring the AHRC report into children in immigration detention facilities — criticising both sides of Parliament, but released just last week — a “political stitch-up”.

Last year, Brandis dispatched Moraitis to convey his displeasure at her work, when Triggs says an offer to leave the AHRC and take up another government position was offered. Labor has asked the Australian Federal Police to investigate whether it amounted to an “inducement” of a public servant.

Labor successfully moved a censure motion against Brandis in the Senate today. Senator Jacinta Collins criticised Moraitis’ appearance at Senate Estimates last week, calling him a “most unsatisfactory witness”.

During question time, Brandis said “there has been no partisan attack on the president of the Human Rights Commission”:

“There was, however, and you [Penny Wong] as the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate ought to take responsibility for this, a disgraceful attack on the integrity of the secretary of my department Chris Moraitis by your colleague Senator [Jacinta] Collins,” Brandis said. “A disgraceful, contemptible attack on the integrity of a respected independent public servant …

“It is one thing … for there to be spirited criticism and political attacks on a political opponent, as I suffered this morning. That’s fine, that’s the way this process works. But senior public servants doing their job ought not to be the subject of the kind of despicable character assassination we saw of Mr Moraitis …”

Brandis said Moraitis gave:

“… uncontradicted evidence that no inducement was offered. I gave uncontradicted evidence that no inducement was authorised. Professor Triggs did not suggest that an inducement had been offered to her.”

Triggs told the committee a “specific role” was offered: “We [Triggs and Moraitis] both knew the topic and the issue that would use my skills in that area of law.” But added: “He did not say or do anything that he should not have done.”

Collins, however, took a darker view. She told the Senate on Monday that Moraitis had proved a “most unsatisfactory witness”:

“I invite anyone to just simply observe the body language. The body language alone tells a story here. I hope Mr Moraitis regrets that he didn’t tell the Attorney to go and do his own dirty work. I hope Mr Moraitis regrets that he didn’t do more earlier to deal with this scurrilous witch hunt on the Human Rights Commission. I hope he does regret those things. But I look forward to the clarification he will provide on his evidence …

“The evidence from Professor Triggs was clear, it was consistent, and it was presented in what could be assessed as a credible manner. If you look at the evidence provided by Mr Moraitis, it’s a different story. His story on the inducement just doesn’t pass the pub test …

“He is even trying to claim the word ‘resignation’ wasn’t mentioned at their meeting. He says he could not recall whether Professor Triggs’ resignation was discussed. Mr Moraitis must think that avoiding the word ‘resignation’ will buy him a get out of gaol free card. But he is mistaken.

“His implausible evidence on this point only serves to undermine his credibility, and I suggest he stop — he stop serving the Attorney in this way … It’s no wonder Mr Moraitis couldn’t bring himself to sit up at the bar table or speak clearly into the microphone during those hearings.”

On the AHRC, Brandis said:

“It is absolutely essential … that the Human Rights Commission, and all its officers, command the confidence of both sides of politics, the opposition and the government … because the Human Rights Commission on occasion has to criticise the government of the day.

“And the only way in which the Human Rights Commission can be credible when it embarks on a task like that is to be seen, like Caesar’s wife, to be beyond blemish. In this case, beyond political blemish.”

The earlier censure motion against Brandis — which carries no penalty or constitutional consequence — condemned him for:

  1. Failing to defend the President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Professor Gillian Triggs, from malicious attacks;
  2. Seeking to obtain the resignation of Professor Triggs by facilitating the offer of an alternative role that would have required her to relinquish her position as president;
  3. Refusing to fully account for his conduct when appearing before a committee of the Senate;
  4. Undermining Australia’s commitment to upholding human rights; and
  5. Being unfit to hold the office of Attorney-General.

More at The Mandarin: Tom Burton: how ‘independent’ is the AHRC anyway?

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The Mandarin

The Mandarin staff journalists.