Diary Australia

Australian diary

18 February 2017

9:00 AM

18 February 2017

9:00 AM

After such a long hot summer it is oddly refreshing to be back in Canberra for the start of the 2017 political season. However my first big commitment is not political, but judicial. The nation’s entire legal establishment gathers at the High Court on the last Monday in January as Susan Kiefel becomes the 13th Chief Justice and James Edelman the 53rd member of the Court. The ceremony is heavy with dignitaries: the Governor-General is there, as are the President of the Senate and the Speaker. All of the State Chief Justices are in attendance, as well as the leaders of the Bar, bedecked in the full-bottomed wigs reserved for such ceremonial occasions (except the Victorians, whose Chief Justice, in an unsought gesture to modernity, has banned the old custom).Recommending the appointment of High Court judges is one of the most important – and enjoyable – things an Attorney-General does. All four of mine – three judges and the new CJ – have been free of controversy, and hence little remarked by the Press Gallery (although I gather they have put a few noses out of joint among the Sydney Bar). In the United States, as we are seeing at the moment, the nomination of a new member of the Supreme Court is an event of the greatest political significance. Blessedly, that is not so in Australia, although the members of our highest court have just as much power and influence as those of America’s.I recommended Kiefel and Edelman purely because of their ability as lawyers; nevertheless they both have great, though very different, stories. The new CJ famously left school at 14 and made her way as a legal secretary, before embarking on a very successful career at the Bar and on the bench. Edelman’s career is one of such preposterous accomplishment, littered with so many glittering prizes, that it reminds me of Max Beerbohm’s description of the Duke of Dorset in Zuleika Dobson, his great Oxford romance novel. Edelman, himself an Oxonian, combined a brilliant academic career (the youngest professor of law ever appointed by Oxford) with a successful practice as a barrister in Perth and London, then joined the Supreme Court of Western Australia at 36. Only three people have been appointed to the High Court at a younger age: the great Sir Owen Dixon, and the two political appointees of the Scullin Government, Evatt and McTiernan. There is an audible intake of breath among the serried ranks of silks when I point out that, God willing, Edelman will still be a member of the Court in 2044.

On the morning Parliament resumes, many coalition MPs and Senators, together with a sprinkling from the ALP, attend the traditional ecumenical service, this year held at St Christopher’s Catholic Cathedral. Malcolm Turnbull’s choice of reading is Psalm 15, which reminds us that only those who keep their word may dwell in the house of the Lord. This is fitting, given the events which are to transpire in the Senate later in the morning. Perhaps it was deliberate.

Resignation speeches are meant to be Parliamentary occasions of great significance. They can be moments of high drama which have, on occasion, brought down governments – like Malcolm Fraser’s resignation from the Gorton Government in 1971 and Sir Geoffrey Howe’s from the Thatcher Government in 1990. At the very least, they provide a platform for a politician who has decided to take the ultimate political step, to explain himself. So when Cory Bernardi rises in his place (still among the government benches) to announce his resignation from the Liberal Party, expectations are high. They are not fulfilled. In an anaemic speech of barely 600 words, Bernardi offers nothing close to an explanation of why he can no longer remain within the party on whose platform he had been elected 3 times, most recently only 7 months ago. On this of all occasions, platitudes (‘we need to find a better way’; ‘we need to restore faith in our political system’) do not cut the mustard. Cory’s pose as a political outsider has never been plausible. He is the insiders’ outsider: nurtured entirely within the political establishment, mentored by the Liberal elder statesman Nick Minchin; a State then Federal Vice-President, and factional chief within the SA Liberal machine. His brand of far-right politics may get the blood racing among a handful of Liberal Party branch members (and – dare I say? – some Speccie readers), but he’s an inside-the-beltway politician posing as a populist.

Pauline Hanson, with her consigliere James Ashby, comes to my office for afternoon tea. Unlike Cory, Pauline is a true outsider, not a renegade insider. She is as much a cultural figure as a political one, with whom hundreds of thousands of Australians identify. Although her politics are very far from mine, I find her pleasant to deal with: polite, gracious and warm. Yet Labor senators, under the aegis of Penny Wong, have gone out if their way to be as personally offensive to Hanson as possible. (Wong ostentatiously boycotted her maiden speech, a studied insult and gross breach of protocol.) Wong – darling of the Q&A crowd – is a very brittle parliamentarian, fluent enough in debate but easily provoked and quick to lose her temper.

The whole Senate is united in genuine sorrow to pay tribute to the late Russell Trood, Emeritus Professor of International Relations at Griffith University and Liberal Senator for Queensland. It was Russell’s surprise election in 2005 that gave the Howard Government its unexpected Senate majority. A gentle and loyal friend, a prescient scholar and a great parliamentarian. Vale Russell.

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