Farewell Soapy, but will Australia's new attorney-general be any better?

Law and order surveillance enthusiast George 'Metadata' Brandis is off to London. His replacement, Christian Porter, is a Star Wars tragic who avoided taking responsibility for Centrelink's robo-debt debacle.
Written by Stilgherrian , Contributor

I'm no fan of Australia's favourite attorney-general, Senator George Bandis QC. You may have noticed. So I'm not exactly saddened to see him heading to London to become Australia's high commissioner there. That's what we call an ambassador to another Commonwealth nation.

Brandis became attorney-general on September 18, 2013. In less than a year, he'd become a running joke in the tech sector. He was seen as yet another enthusiast for digital surveillance who didn't understand how it worked, or what its implications might be.

In the wake of the Snowden revelations, we were seeing a groundswell of opposition to what some quite rightly called a "surveillance state". But Brandis had proclaimed that law and order would be a cornerstone of this time in the office. The mandatory retention of telecommunications data was a key agenda item.

Some of us were calling for an end to the misleading term "metadata" and all the spin, but Brandis pushed ahead in a process smothered in secrecy. Brandis was unfit for purpose as our cyber defender, I said. I labelled his arguments paranoid fears and used-car salesmanship, going beyond logic to Derpcon Zero.

The most famous incident of all was when Brandis spent more than six excruciating minutes on live TV failing to explain what metadata even meant. The patient persistence of interviewer David Speers won him a Walkley Award.

The need for mandatory data breach notification laws was obvious in 2014, but such laws are only -- finally! -- coming into force this month.

Brandis pushed copyright law reforms that protected big copyright holders from the evils of the internet. He was against invasion-of-privacy protections. He criminalised re-identification of de-identified government data. And more recently, we've seen the proposed banning of encrypted communications.

Finally, his office was the opposite of agile.

Brandis believes that the government "got national security policy right".

"Our state and federal governments, in the main, have successfully trod a difficult path, finding ways to lay down new levels of security while still allowing both privacy and liberty," Brandis said in his valedictory speech on Wednesday.

"We have not overreached. The eight Bills I introduced each contained carefully calibrated measures designed to give the agencies the powers they needed, but not more. The public never had reason to fear that governments were using the threat of terrorism as a pretext for a grab for power. So public confidence in the agencies remained, and remains, very high."

Whether you agree with that assessment or not, it has become clear that Brandis tries to live up to his liberal philosophy. Away from matters of tech, we've seen his passionate support for marriage equality, and his passionate crushing of racism and other bigotry from fellow senators.

"Although the attorney is a political official, as the first law officer he has a higher duty: A duty to the law itself. It is a duty which, as my Cabinet colleagues know, on several robust occasions I have always placed above political advantage," Brandis said.

As the Australian Financial Review's Laura Tingle wrote on Thursday, Brandis "has been on the side of the angels in a savage Cabinet battle over a proposal to strip terrorists of their citizenship".

That, then, is the illustriously saponaceous record of George "Soapy" Brandis.

His nickname, by the way, is from long-running British TV series Rumpole of the Bailey. Lawyer Horace Rumpole referred to his pompous and priggish head of chambers as "Soapy Sam", an allusion to a 19th Century bishop, Samuel Wilberforce, who was described as having a manner that was "unctuous, oleaginous, saponaceous", and who opposed Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.

Australia's new favourite attorney-general is Christian Porter, an MP from Western Australia. His track record does not fill me with confidence.

Porter is a former state attorney-general and treasurer. Before that, he was a senior state prosecutor. One would hope that this has given him the same respect for the rules as Brandis, but with more political experience, leading to fewer gaffes. Brandis' stuff-ups, it must be remembered, led to chunks of his attorney-general's responsibilities being carved off and added into the new Ministry of Home Affairs.

Porter is also, as the Sydney Morning Herald noted, a "graduate of the London School of Economics ... Star Wars tragic and one-time contender for Cleo magazine's eligible bachelor of the year".

On the other hand, as social security minister, Porter presided over the disaster that is Centrelink's automated debt recovery program, the so-called robo-debt system. Tens of thousands of its demands for repayment, issued to some of the most vulnerable members of society, were just plain wrong. The bureaucratic processes it operated under were guilty until proven innocent, the exact opposite of how our laws are meant to work.

In June 2017, Porter was defiant on the system's flaws. "This is not a matter for apology," he said. This is despite a Senate report saying the system should be halted until it's fixed, and that as minister, Porter was uninformed.

This week, Porter toned down proposed foreign interference laws, but that was a political decision in response to a media backlash, not one based on principle.

Porter may be a more clued-up politician than Brandis, with better understanding of technology. That's not exactly hard. But so far, there's little sign he'll bring significant change to the portfolio.

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