In the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs examination of the Attorney General's Department estimates, things were going swimmingly until questions were raised about advice to Ministers. Then some wheels started to come off.
Senator Nettle (the Greens), picked up on press reports that the Attorney General had indicated that any move by David Hicks to sell his story about Guantanamo Bay could result in civil action under the proceeds of crime legislation. Her simple question (page 67) "Has the Department provided advice?" saw the Secretary, Robert Cornall, dig in:
Mr Cornall—We do not normally disclose details of advice that we give to the Attorney-General.The Chair and Opposition Senator Brandis (just out of his Ministerial office), then gave the Secretary a little lecture, including a reference to Senate procedures, on how he was required to answer questions of this kind, but to no avail.
Senator NETTLE—I am not actually asking you what the advice was; I am asking whether you have been asked for advice on it.
Mr Cornall—No, we do not normally disclose that either.
Senator MARSHALL—You are required to.
Mr Cornall—I do not believe we are.
The same issue arose later in the day when (Page 69) Senator Brandis himself asked about advice to the government on questions of potential liability arising from the 'Sorry' statement to Parliament last week, even giving rise to a departmental officer refusing to indicate whether advice had been given in writing or orally. Senator Brandis thought he might be on a winner when he later (page 73) asked about advice to the Government concerning arrangements for Parliamentary sittings without the need for a quorum or questions, but dipped out again.
It was on again with the same result (page 118), when questions about advice were raised (page 118) with the Australian Government Solicitor's Office.
The best the Minister in the chamber Senator Ludwig could manage was that he would ask the Attorney General whether answers could be provided, and the Committee is seeking further advice about the point of principle.
Separately from all this, Senator Ray, raised in the course of the examination of the Prime Minister's Department (page 92 in the transcript referred to in the item below), the suggestion that it should be compulsory for the Government to table in the Parliament legal advice as to the constitutionality of an act of government. At least there the Minister, Senator Evans, said that he could see the point and would have a further look at this.