Freedom's just another word for nothing left to loseYears from now, George Brandis will be an old man blustering into restaurants with "Don't you know who I am?". He will be dining well when somebody approaches him whom he doesn't recognise, but Brandis will retain too much of the pollie instinct not to tell the person to go away.
- Kris Kristofferson, Me and Bobby McGee
"Excuse me", the person will say, "aren't you George Brandis?". It will have been a while since he was recognised like that.
"Yes, yes I am".
"I just wanted to thank you for saving us from the [racial epithet]s".
In that moment, he'll be crushed. Why don't people remember [some incremental advance in liberty, since reversed], or [some other small achievement of which he might be proud, but which none but lawyers notice]? Why is his legacy consumed by bigotry? Even more than John Howard, he will go into his dotage mystified that others don't regard him as the open-minded and tolerant fellow at which he prizes himself.
I believe Brandis is sincere in his belief that he went into politics to advance the scope of freedom available to Australians. He just hasn't done a very good job of it. The reason for this is because he isn't as committed to it as he makes out, which I've pointed out elsewhere. There is no strong, lifelong vow to anything that will define Brandis' career in any way other than as the bigots' friend.
Garfield Barwick was bankrupted during the Depression. As Attorney General he rewrote the law of bankruptcy, and as a High Court judge he came down against the heavy hand of government. Nicola Roxon's father died from smoking-induced lung cancer, and as Health Minister and Attorney General she took down tobacco companies with plain packaging and other measures. Brandis has no backstory, no depth like either of those. He talks about freedom in idle, school-debate terms. He does not and cannot draw on the lives of people different to himself, nor even on instances from his own life which might resonate with others.
Like all politicians Brandis will regard the odd concession to his enemies as so much foxing, distractions from some main/long game. The trouble is that he isn't that good at playing the game. This may account for his closeness to the IPA: the way John Roskam plays internal Liberal Party politics is similar to the way Brandis does, offering quid up front and no quo in return. Tim Wilson's appointment to a body that he wanted abolished is much better for Wilson than it will ever be for Brandis and any agenda he may have.
Brandis had entered the Senate on shaky ground factionally. Early in the century faced the prospect of losing preselection with nothing much to show for his career, either in politics or in the law. He ran interference for Howard in Senate investigations into "children overboard" and became a minister toward the fag end of his government. As delivery boy for Howard, and now Bolt, Brandis is more defined by them than they were/are by him.
Those who stand to benefit from bigotry are few and, as Pauline Hanson's career shows, ungrateful. Those who stand to lose from it are many, and not bound or inclined to regard him favourably either. He's just another jack-in-office in Canberra who made it harder for people for whom life is hard enough. Acts of violence or even derision cannot and will not be traceable to Brandis directly, and any attempt to do so will only overburden the decrepit nag that serves as his high horse. We all stand to lose from diminished social cohesion at home and greater distrust abroad, which is what comes from an Attorney General who sides with bigots.
Bolt had been a critic of the previous government and a fan of this one. His pride is such that he will not suffer any reputation as a kept boy and he will turn on this government when it suits him. For now, Brandis will happily wear the opprobrium that comes with representing Bolt, in that lawyerly way where a client's reputation never rubs off onto the lawyer. Politics isn't like the law in that regard, and
Bolt didn't get where he is through sticking by George Brandis. Bolt will still be going after Brandis is gone.
Brandis' proposed repeal of s18C of the Racial Discrimination Act is not a done deal, despite what the press gallery might have you think. It's not clear that Brandis can cut a deal with a disparate Senate, or work out some way to wedge Labor into voting for it. Peter Costello managed to negotiate the GST with the Democrats, and Peter Reith did the same with industrial relations changes (which is what we called them back in the day); but neither Brandis, nor any member of this government have shown such negotiating skill. Of all the turmoil in the previous parliament, never were Rudd or Gillard wrong-footed through some deft manoeuver by Brandis.
What else is he going to do, federal-state relations? Rename 'chairpersons' as 'chairmen'?
Brandis will puddle along and retire without having achieved much at all. There is no evidence that he himself is a bigot (some of his best friends, etc), but those who are will regard him as a friend and helper when others turned away. He may write a book but it almost certainly won't be any good. He'll retire seeking forgiveness to any he'd wronged and with goodwill to all, and the lack of achievement will cause many to think more fondly of him than is possible now.
Even so, what little achievement he has already is pretty much the only legacy he can or should expect. He'll feel diminished at being the bigots' friend, but he won't have much choice; a terrible position for any lover of freedom, whether real or merely professed.
Update: speaking of those who love the idea of liberty more than its practice, Chris Berg wrote a poor book on the subject and has come out panhandling in defence of Brandis, Bolt and the whole sorry self-inflicted mess.
Berg sounds unhinged when he snarls at the existing statute and its pesky reasonableness-and-good-faith. Andrew Bolt was found guilty of having been dishonest in his dealings with the facts on Aboriginal identity. While Berg sneers at judges deciding what's free speech (until the High Court agrees with him - such a relief for all concerned, no doubt), judges are actually quite good at sifting through fact and falsehood and deciding who is or isn't a liar.
Andrew Bolt was convicted of lying. Chris Berg is defending his 'right' to lie, just as he did when Conroy proposed to regulate the way newspapers deal with mistruths. To defend Bolt it is necessary to be dishonest in a way that goes beyond your Berg-standard straw man work. Berg and Bolt and Brandis want a public debate where what's true or not doesn't matter. With such heedlessness all you have is assertion, and the one with the biggest megaphone wins. Andrew Bolt and Adam Goodes had bigger megaphones than their opponents; only Goodes used his for truth and generosity: two values to be prized more highly in public debate than Berg using the Australian of the Year as cover for dishonest abuse against Aborigines.
Courts take frauds out of business every day. Courts have a role in weeding out powerful voices for dishonesty in race debates, and dishonesty about who even is allowed to participate in such debates. This should not change simply because the B-boys wish it so. They have not made their case at all, let alone honestly and in good faith.
Now that the budget is under development we can influence how we are taxed and governed. Joe Hockey's first budget will not be sidetracked by Brandis' culture-war pas-de-deux with Bolt. Given that most of the Senate is hostile to Brandis' proposals and to the general thrust of the budget, all this baggage puts the government in a more difficult position than wise management would have put it in.
If the government had to get either the budget through the Parliament, or Brandis' reforms, which do you think would it choose? Puts the straw-man arguments of the B-boys into relief, doesn't it.