The curious classification of the Kerr-Queen correspondence and other stories

Last Friday morning 14 October 2016, like Australian law and politics nerds everywhere, I was glued to my computer screen as Solicitor General Justin Gleeson SC took a seat before the Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs.

An Honours thesis sat neglected as I glanced from monitor to smartphone, tweeting the key answers and watching aghast as Senator MacDonald boorishly dismissed the standing rule that he show respect to the witness, who is the nation’s most senior law officer who is not also a politician.

Like most people, I thought there were three matters. The first is that the Attorney General directed all requests for the Solicitor-General’s advice be approved by him (links below). This was followed by the AG telling Parliament he consulted the SG on the change. Under scrutiny, it turned out this consultation was more like a conversation. Or a question. Perhaps George asked his mate Justin what he thinks.

Attempting to blur the lines between collegiality and the formal business of government could be seen as intellectually dishonest at best.

Next was the way SG Gleeson’s advice on draft bills was represented by Brandis QC to shadow AG Dreyfus QC. In writing. According to Gleeson, his advice on a marriage equality plebiscite bill and on the (now) Citizenship Act related to earlier drafts than those which were tabled in parliament (more links below to these too).

Not to put too fine a point, but George Brandis QC is Attorney General. He told shadow AG Mark Dreyfus QC, in writing, that SG Justin Gleeson SC had advised him, and thus the government, that a majority of the High Court would reject a constitutional challenge to an act which allows the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection to remove citizenship from Australians, including children who are born here.

Children. Born here. The Minister. Peter Dutton. Their Australian citizenship. The High Court. In its original jurisdiction. Where it can strike down Commonwealth laws as unconstitutional.

Anyone tut-tutting that Gleeson appeared angry has no reverence for the law or its institutions. To not express any emotion at such flagrant abuse of democratic principle and disregard for international law would be the true wrong.

But there were four matters.

I remember hearing Sir John Kerr correspondence. I remember thinking no wonder Dreyfus is on fire if that is in the mix. Then there was a knock on the door and the BestHonoursStudentEver™ arrived and I had to drag myself away from the Senate Committee to concentrate on… well. Much the same thing really. His research is on whether the judiciary can operate as a restraint on power in the face of neoliberal overreach in the parliament, and his reading has taken him to Lord Coke asserting judicial independence in 1610.

Plus ca change n all that. But speaking of overreach, Kerr had disappeared. The other stories were too big. All are covered amply by The Guardian and others:

Brandis orders his office must approve requests for SG advice

The Attorney-General issued a disallowable instrument, of all things, directing all requests for legal advice from the SG first be signed off by him, Brandis. The horns were sounded on 3 June by Fairfax, where James Massola located other sources of ‘frostiness’:

“Several suggested the relationship between Senator Brandis and Mr Gleeson had grown frosty over matters, including the 2013 same-sex marriage High Court case, the 2015 advice Mr Gleeson provided over changes to citizenship laws and over the drafting of same-sex marriage plebiscite legislation.”

Indeed, indeed. And here we are.

As he reliably does, Richard Ackland in The Guardian provided an accessible legal explainer, warning us all that rustlings were afoot or as the headline put it, Brandis has a history of meddling… and he was at it again.

Brandis made the order in May, immediately after the brought-forward budget and immediately before the pre-announced double dissolution election over the ABCC bill. The timing alone indicates something other than an informal or routine decision.

The ins and outs of Brandis’ moves are reported with great clarity by Karen Middleton in The Saturday Paper here. Her piece includes a particular detail on the correct interpretation, according to former Solicitor General and Chief Justice of the High Court Sir Anthony Mason QC, of the Law Officers Act 1964 (Cth) s 12: Functions of the Solicitor General.

Hold that thought.

The bill to authorise a Marriage equality plebiscite

Those mentions of marriage equality and citizenship bills are not insignificant either, not least because the bills have – and ought to have – significant constituencies of interest. Marriage equality and citizenship are matters which impact, a lot, on the type of society we are and want to be. Even the anti-marriage equality debate indicates that a significant proportion of the electorate thinks this is a thing that goes to what matters in our society.

A marriage equality plebiscite, thank goodness, is dead in the Senate. There is no need to rake over in detail the coals of yet another government mess. Lane Sainty has done a sterling job, such as here. Details of the bill are at the Parliamentary Library here.

But it is worth noting that the Prime Minister will likely have to drag the plebiscite carcass to the next election. It is combined party room policy after all; and what’s a few superannuation changes for the rich between friends when we can put queer lives at risk for the sake of a puerile political compromise playing out just like the eye-wateringly expensive opinion poll to settle conservative scores that produced Brexit?

The Australian Citizenship Amendment (Allegiance to Australia) Bill

The Australian Citizenship Amendment (Allegiance to Australia) Act 2015 (Cth) did pass, with much less fanfare than the Plebiscite bill failed to pass. I wrote thousands of words on the thing, which is a dogs breakfast of xenophobia and disregard for international law.

But as is the way of these things, when a bill is passed by both major parties, there is insufficient conflict to generate media interest in the detail. So we have yet another piece of utterly unnecessary terror-mongering law to go with all the others – Foreign Fighters, Data Retention, the Military Call-Out powers that have steadily blurred the line between civil and military functions since the Howard years.

All these laws needlessly extend the authority of government agencies, from the spies to the military, to ever more brutally control us, the citizenry. Up to and including executive cancellation of citizenship from Australians, which in turn implies executive detention: a non-citizen can be imprisoned indefinitely without trial.

This is called ‘immigration detention’.

Still wondering why Gleeson was visibly angry that Brandis passed his advice off as capable of surviving a High Court challenge when a different, later citizenship bill was tabled in the parliament? Any lawyer – most people – would be livid.

Whether Australian citizens are safe from the goon squad formed by Morrison and now commanded by Dutton and Quaedvlieg also matters to what kind of society we are and want to be. Remember the blokes who trapped themselves in Flinders Street Station because Melbourne did not want armed thugs harassing brown people on its streets?

Ah yes, Operation Fortitude. Melbourne was the winner on the day.

A week went by… and finally the Kerr-Queen correspondence got a run

The Kerr-Queen correspondence story emerged independently of the Brandis-Gleeson stoush. The story is that Professor Jenny Hocking and barristers Anthony Whitlam QC and Tom Brennan are taking this matter to the Federal Court.

It goes like this. The classification of the Kerr-Queen correspondence is private or personal; despite the fact that the content of the letters is the creation of a constitutional crisis in an otherwise stable constitutional monarchy between the monarch and her representative in a member of the Commonwealth.

An official classification is subject to the 30-year rule; while personal correspondence would remain under wraps until 2027, that is, for 50 years after Kerr’s exit from the Governor-Generalship.

Writing for Fairfax, Tony Wright remarks that the classification is curious. Tom Brennan is more forthright. In his opinion titled Australia Owns its History, Brennan sets out the origin, meaning and purpose of the Archives Act 1983 (Cth) and writes that Sir John Kerr’s letters to the Queen

“were official, and not personal. They were records of the official establishment of the Governor-General within the meaning of the Archives Act and Australian law has been clear since 1983 that they were to be made publicly available pursuant to the open access provisions of the Archives Act 30 years after their creation… Mr Turnbull is determined that all proprieties will be observed in any approach to Buckingham Palace. Those proprieties require that Mr Turnbull not seek the agreement of the Palace to release of documents, the release of which is required now by Australian law.”

It is a beautiful, brief, opinion. After a nod to the etiquette of notifying the Queen of any release, Mr Brennan concludes:

“We Australians do not need to ask the British Monarch for her consent to our accessing that history: our Parliament secured that for us in 1983.”

The case is that the letters should be released because the letters are official correspondence and therefore fall within the 30-year rule, which has expired, according to the relevant statute, which is the Archives Act 1983 (Cth).

This will come down to the current classification (personal) and the correct classification under the Act (official).

Law is magic. The law could (for example) determine that on the true meaning of the Act, using rules of statutory construction, which are legal rules, that the classification is in law official, not private, despite being in fact private and not official. At the moment. On paper. Once the classification becomes official in law, it becomes official in fact too.

I know that sounds confusing, but this is why law is so intimidating. This is the power of the law, and in a principle that got an airing in the USA this week, everyone then abides by the decision and goes home. Peacefully.

Messrs Brennan and Whitlam may be seeking an order for immediate release from the Federal Court. Or an order that the National Archives correct the classification, which would remove any legal barrier to release. Similarly, Brandis could presumably oversee a classification change tomorrow. Or the National Archives could correct the error, without political interference, and the whole thing would be resolved.

That would be a lot cheaper. Running the Federal Court is costly, and there is no justification for the Attorney-General or any other politician to expend court resources on secrecy and legacy disputes.

Who cares?

Why not just put on the public record the workings of our constitutional monarchy? It is peaceful and stable, no? What is the problem? Kerr is dead, Fraser is dead, Gough and Margaret Whitlam are probably busy with those appeals from the Hague. Is it protocol? What protocol lol these are people who endorsed a constitutional coup. Is it a rule? Who will enforce it? Her Majesty? Please.

But we are talking about the Kerr-Queen correspondence. This is as much an issue as any raised before the Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs. I will try to make this as non-boring as possible.

Firstly, the barristers are Anthony Whitlam QC and Tom Brennan. Barrister royalty. But Turnbull, who is as Sydney Bar to his bootstraps as he is anything to his bootstraps (ie nothing he won’t flick for political expediency) is stuck in lock-step with Brandis, for the obvious reason – Turnbull wants to keep his job.

Meanwhile, Brandis is locked in a power struggle with Gleeson, another top flight member of the Sydney bar. It is widely agreed that Brandis would lose this dispute on the merits. It is only political power – institutional hierarchy and backing Turnbull – that is the difference between misleading parliament and not resigning.

But that power struggle pales in comparison to the one in which Turnbull is locked. We might like to think that the fate of our constitutional monarchy over forty years ago, or safeguarding the already wrecked reputation of a dead Governor-General who acted to transfer legitimate sovereign power from an elected government to an unelected conservative party, has nothing to do with Abbott-Turnbull.

But it does. It really does. They really are like this. Why, why are they like this?

Because legacy matters. Incumbent power is the strongest force in the liberal democracies. Conservatives like to posture as the natural party of government, and obscuring the truth of their actual legacy is essential to that.

For instance, Professor David Flint offered the explanation that Kerr classified his correspondence this way to protect the Queen. As though Her Majesty requires the colonial chivalry of a dead sot from another hemisphere, an embarrassment of a representative who could not possibly have caused her anything but exasperation at best.

The classification is to protect Kerr, and Fraser, both of whom, have I mentioned? Are not alive to see it. But again, the bigger project is legacy. Outside of abusing the power of incumbency, lying about legacy – history written by the winners – is the entire conservative armoury.

This is because conservatives can not compete on the merits. Their policies and practices are abhorrent on any decent human measure. That leaves abuse of incumbent power to perpetuate meritocracy mythology, the biggest lie of liberalism, and to construct false legacy.

This in turn founds the kind of façade that projects, for example, an image of someone like Malcolm Turnbull as a credible figure of political leadership. Yet the evidence of his leadership – of the Australian Republican Movement (ARM), of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, and as Prime Minister – show that he is anything but.

Speaking of the ARM and Prof Flint – best known for heading up the group Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy – Tony Abbott updated his register of interests this week to record his appointment as a patron of the Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy. Turnbull and Brandis are going to ask the palace. Abbott is flexing his monarchy muscles. But it was all so long ago? Don’t believe that line.

We may want to think our leaders are not as engrossed in their own ego struggles while collecting huge salaries on our coin to run the country. But the evidence is available. Who was proclaiming victory at the NSW Liberal Party convention today? Abbott, and also Turnbull. Who was collecting big bucks to run the country and New South Wales while plotting and scheming over internal party politics?

In contrast, who drafted a decent bill, negotiated cross-bench support, governed a policy area competently, passed a budget? Anyone? Or did the ruling party faff about and accidentally vote with the Opposition to call itself to account? The Liberal Party call itself to account? Are they joking?

This government has not yet passed a budget. Now check out the deficit. The one that was a disaster at less than a third of the size. But there is plenty of time and resources to protect legacy and party room numbers. Of course there is.

There is a take-home message here.

The Archive Act was passed in 1983. What does that say?

It was the year Labor regained power from Fraser, the day that government was finally won back from Kerr’s cur, a little over seven years after Kerr wrote to the Queen and sought advice from Anthony Mason and then did what no Governor General ought to do.

Conservatives: the natural party of government who create constitutional crises to seize it.

An Archives bill may seem a strange priority, but Labor was on to it. Immediately. They won government, they moved on legacy. Labor did this legitimately. It is how government is supposed to be done: win an election, pass a bill into law. Of course Labor had one eye on legacy and why not? What political party does not, especially after a bruising like that?

Here is the thing: the archives law governs all official documents and when they are released. This is how law is supposed to work: all equal before it, nobody above it. It is the most fundamental principle of democracy, the rule of law itself, a government of laws and not of men.

In contrast, tricky and inaccurate classification of a particular set of documents, which will reveal (yet again) the character of one man, does not uphold the rule of law. It protects an individual. This is the difference between the two major parties. Social democratic ideology, by definition, places the social good above the individual benefit. Conservatism, and its bastard offspring neoliberalism, does not.

There is no reason to ever agree with conservatives like Abbott or Brandis who wax lyrical on convention and tradition – which is always, and only, self-serving. That is the individualism coded into their own founding ideology. On the other hand, the passing of the Archives Act 1983 (Cth) was smart, and it was timely. It is legitimate, and it ought to be obeyed by the incumbent Commonwealth government.

There is every reason for the Federal Court to grant the orders sought by Professor Hocking; and there is every reason for Labor to show that it is committed to social democratic principle which, on the historical record, it has been prepared to uphold.

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5 thoughts on “The curious classification of the Kerr-Queen correspondence and other stories

  1. For starters, sorry I missed this earlier (bloody work), plus, I totally missed the whole Kerr Queen correspondence thing in media as well, geez, that is dodgy beyond belief 😦

    This raises even more questions for me though…

    1. JBish & likes of SKY/ABC keep saying the S-G is the Governments Solicitor. I thought he was the Commonwealth’s Solicitor, that is all of Government (including opposition MP’s, Governor General etc.?

    2. SKY/ABC keep saying “MPs” have to go through A-G to seek advice from the S-G, but, I thought it was ALL, so that includes both the PM and more importantly the Governor General as well?

    So thinking on Kerr business… Does this mean that if the GG had some massive issue with the Govt (not that I ever want another dismissal drama), he would have to get permission in writing from Brandis first to seek advice from the S-G as to what his legal responsibility was and how to go about tossing the Govt? This seems totally untenable and obviously not something that would work in practice?

    Same with an MP/Senator – not in Govt – who may think they have been offered an illegal inducement for a vote. They would not be able to raise that with the S-G to get advice on whether to take it further if they have to outline it to the guilty party in the first place?

    1. Okay I’ll do my best here I” not a Constitutional law expert. The “govt solicitor” wording is disingenuous and disrespectful. He is Solicitor General of the Commonwealth, referred to as Commonwealth Solicitor in the High Court same way Gleeson addressed his resignation letter to “Attorney” without the “General”. Bishop is attempting to down grade the status with words, it’s a lawyer-pollie trick.
      Re the Dismissal, yes, under this rule Kerr would have at Law been required to get AG approval first. But this is the thing. A manufactured constitutional crisis is done on a wing-and-prayer power grab, not abiding by rule of law. That’s what makes this mode of govt we are seeing so drastically wrong, in general terms. Brandis says the change is consistent with the Act. Every lawyer up to former SG and High Court CJ Mason QC says it is not. Yet Brandis blusters on, and Turnbull fucking lets him. Coz numbers factions politics. Not to mention all on our coin

  2. Sorry mate… Another question…

    SKY love to refer to the fact that Dreyfus was on the Joint sitting committee that were ok with the new citizen stripping regime, BUT, that was the advice that Brandis said Gleeson had signed off on, which we find out later, Gleeson did NOT sign off on. So. This begs the question… Would Dreyfus – and other non LNP members – of the Committee have gone down that road of the citizenship stripping IF they were aware of the true nature of Gleeson’s legal opinion of it?

    1. Another “at law” vs “in real life” question. In real life Labor were intent, at the time (may they change) on not being wedged on natsec. So probably woulda voted with it because the amendment was framed as an anti terror measure.
      That said, there is a very good case at law that Brandis misrepresented Gleeson’s advice to Labor and misled parliament on same. I would personally LOVE to see the court challenge and how it plays out

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