Senate debates

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Personal Explanations

3:32 pm

Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party, Attorney-General) Share this | | Hansard source

I seek leave to make a brief personal explanation as I claim to have been misrepresented.

Leave granted.

This morning two Fairfax newspapers, The Age and The Canberra Times, carried on page 1 a story by the journalist Mark Kenny, the effect of which may be gathered from the headline in The Canberra Times: 'Brandis accused of intervening to keep honours list coalition friendly'. The story suggests that I had used my position to seek to influence deliberations of the Council for the Order of Australia in an inappropriate fashion. The story is completely untrue. First, the story suggests that there was something inappropriate or unusual in my participating in the deliberations of the council. The journalist writes:

According to a source close to the committee, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity, committee members were surprised when the Attorney-General took literally his ''ex-officio'' membership and chose to attend in person and to engage in active discussion of individual award recommendations.

The article goes on to say:

According to the source, the attendance of any politician at the committee ... is uncommon.

That suggestion is wrong. As the vice-president of the Executive Council I am a member of the council, so of course I attend its meetings and participate in its deliberations. There is no differentiation between categories of members. The Commonwealth has always been represented on the council by the vice-president of the Executive Council or his delegate.

I understand that, during the term of the previous government, that that government was represented at various times by Senator Faulkner, Senator McLucas and Senator Lundy. Likewise, under the Howard government the vice-president of the Executive Council routinely attended either personally or by delegate. A short while ago I spoke to Dr David Kemp, who was the vice-president of the Executive Council from 1998 to 2004, who told me that he regularly attended meetings of the council and, indeed, to the best of his recollection, attended all meetings of the council to which he was invited.

I also spoke to former Senator Minchin, who was the vice-president of the Executive Council between 2004 and 2007, who told me that it was his practice, always, to delegate a more junior member of the government front bench to attend meetings of the council on his behalf. I was also contacted today by a former chief of staff of the Hon. John Moore, who was vice-president of the Executive Council from 1996 to 1998. He pointed out to me that Mr Moore was punctilious about fulfilling his obligation to attend every meeting.

The meeting concerned occurred on Wednesday and Thursday of last week. I attended the Wednesday meeting but on Thursday, because of estimates obligations I was represented at the meeting of the council by the Hon. Joshua Frydenberg. My principal concern about the article was not, however, the ignorance of the journalist about the way in which the council is constituted and conducts its business. Of even greater concern is the unverified, anonymous, hearsay allegations that I had used my position to favour coalition-friendly nominees. That allegation is absolutely false, as anyone who attended the meeting would be well aware. The journalist would be aware that I am unable to refute the allegation with particularity without breaching the confidentiality of the council. Were I not bound by that obligation of confidentiality I could refute his allegations with particularity. Significantly, the journalist does not claim that his anonymous source was a member of the council.

The journalist filed the story without giving me the opportunity to comment. He records:

Senator Brandis was unavailable for comment late on Monday due to a cabinet meeting.

But the cabinet meeting did not begin until 5 pm and was over by 8 pm. evertheless, the journalist went ahead to make the allegation without taking reasonable steps to enable me to respond.

The Chair of the Council for the Order of Australia, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, telephoned me this morning to offer his apology, which, of course, I told him was unnecessary. Significantly, Air Chief Marshal Houston told me that he spent about 20 minutes last night on the telephone trying to convince Mark Kenny that his story was untrue, yet he went ahead and filed it anyway. He dealt with Air Chief Marshal Houston's specific and emphatic denial of his story in a brief sentence near the end of the article. I am sure that the word of Air Chief Marshal Houston deserved to be treated with more respect than Kenny's story did.

The situation, therefore, is that the journalist Mark Kenny went ahead and filed a story based on unverified hearsay and anonymous sources, reflecting on me and, in a broader sense, reflecting on the Council for the Order of Australia after it had been specifically and emphatically denied by the chairman of the council, the person in the best position to know whether the story was true or false, and having been told by the chairman of the council that it was false. The conduct of Kenny in filing the story in those circumstances was at best grossly unprofessional and unethical, if not actually deliberately dishonest. It ought to be retracted and the journalist ought to apologise to all members of the Council for the Order of Australia.