After George Brandis v Justin Gleeson, who would want to be Solicitor-General?

Solicitor-General Justin Gleeson SC said his relationship with the AG had become untenable. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen Attorney-General Senator George Brandis will have to appoint a new Solicitor General. Photo: Andrew Meares
Nanjing Night Net

There is a pantomime-worthy piece of theatre in Parliament where a new Speaker is “dragged” to the chair, in a nod to the historical perils of a post in which a monarch might remove their head for proffering an unpalatable message.

The gnashing of teeth might be rather more real for the next occupant of the office of Solicitor-General, a role that similarly requires the holder to bestow advice on recipients who may at times be reluctant to take it.

The public brawl between Solicitor-General Justin Gleeson, SC – the government’s chief lawyer –and Attorney-General George Brandis has been about as edifying as a ritual beheading and ended as most in political and legal circles expected.

Brandis, who has exhibited a certain indestructible quality during almost two decades in Parliament, was never going to resign over the saga.

In speaking out about a “radical” directive he regarded as unlawful and a threat to the independence of his office, Gleeson would have known he would come under pressure to quit.

Less than a fortnight ago, Gleeson faced a sneering inquisition from government Senators on a Labor-backed inquiry into whether Brandis misled Parliament by claiming he had consulted Gleeson about a controversial change to the way he would be briefed.

“If you want to get into the political game, join the Parliament,” chief attack dog and Queensland Liberal Senator Ian Macdonald goaded Gleeson during the explosive hearing.

They are words likely ringing in the ears of any senior barrister approached to take on the post of Solicitor-General, which will be vacated by Gleeson on November 7 – a day before the Senate inquiry is due to release its report.

Who exactly would sign up for a politicised post is unclear, let alone an eminent silk who could make more at the private bar if financial reward is the motivation.

There is no doubt Gleeson could have opted to keep quiet, potentially smoothing his path to a High Court appointment.

But it is worth remembering what kicked off this row between the country’s two most senior law officers.

Gleeson wrote to Brandis on November 12 last year, raising a range of concerns including that his advice on a controversial proposal to strip Australians involved in terrorism of citizenship had been taken out of context.

Brandis had told a parliamentary committee that Gleeson had advised the laws had a “good chance” of withstanding a constitutional challenge, but Gleeson had not been asked for his advice on significant revisions to the bill.

Those concerns were raised in private and, it seems, they were not addressed.

It is more than a matter of intellectual pride. As the government’s chief lawyer, Gleeson would be asked to defend those laws in the High Court and the government ought not use his office to justify its policies politically if it does not reflect his position.

The men met on November 30, ostensibly to discuss this letter.

Brandis subsequently issued a legally-binding direction on the last sitting day of the Senate before the July 2 election which required all ministers to seek the written permission of the Attorney-General before asking the Solicitor-General for advice.

The directive, which took effect on the same day Gleeson was alerted to it, was widely regarded as fettering an independent office and posing a risk the Solicitor-General could be “frozen out” of advising the government.

Gleeson, rumour has it, has now opted for the less chilly climes of the London bar.

The next occupant in the office should be under no illusions: speaking out might cost them their head.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.