ATTORNEY-GENERAL

Thursday 01 December, 2016

Mr TARZIA (Hartley) (15:23): I rise today to speak about a very unsettling matter that has been stirring this month, following the Attorney-General's controversial Senior Counsel appointment. The appointment has caused concern for many in the legal profession and has been displeasing and somewhat cringe-worthy to everyone else, to say the least. Indeed, members of this government are drifting further and further out of touch with the people of South Australia.

Mr TARZIA (Hartley) (15:23): I rise today to speak about a very unsettling matter that has been stirring this month, following the Attorney-General's controversial Senior Counsel appointment. The appointment has caused concern for many in the legal profession and has been displeasing and somewhat cringe-worthy to everyone else, to say the least. Indeed, members of this government are drifting further and further out of touch with the people of South Australia.

The rarity of someone being appointed Senior Counsel whilst not practising goes without saying. Almost all of those who currently hold the title are practising barristers. Given the criteria necessary to be appointed, as set out in the Supreme Court Rules, I note that in his time as planning minister he has been less than exceptional. Take the Gillman land deal for example. What a train wreck that has turned out to be. This is also the man who oversees child protection reform. Make your own assessment about the handling of that. Outstanding achievements, on the other hand, have been somewhat seldom.

I am not here to question the Attorney-General's legal experience prior to his election to the parliament, but instead let me bring to light the reasons why this appointment has been of concern to so many. It appears that his appearances before the Full Court of the Supreme Court are as numerous as any young barrister's. The real issue is the circumstances under which this appointment has been made. This is a time when the Attorney-General should be focusing on more pressing matters such as addressing weak home detention laws and the need to improve child protection in this state.

Under the Supreme Court Civil Supplementary Rules 2014, SCs are selected collectively by the entire bench of the Supreme Court. In a statement by the Courts Administration Authority, criteria for selection include legal learning, experience in skill and advocacy, integrity, availability to prospective clients, and independence. I find it hard to believe that he could be considered independent when in a political role, as the member for Enfield, nor does it seem that the Attorney-General meets many of the other criteria, in my humble opinion.

Adding to the awkwardness of the Attorney-General's appointment is that the Chief Justice chose to absent himself from the decision because he did not want to be seen as approving the Attorney-General's application, or to be seen as snubbing him by blocking it, as I read in The Advertiser a couple of weeks ago. Interestingly, the Chief Justice also noted that as part of the application process for appointment the Attorney-General, in his role as Attorney-General, was consulted on all the applications except his own. The fact that the Attorney-General saw fit to potentially question other SC aspirants, or his competitors if you like, is somewhat outlandish.

Perhaps the most cringe-worthy element of all of this is that the Attorney-General's response has been so arrogant. He claims that he is entitled to nominate for the SC position. I bring to the attention of this house the word 'entitled'. In this sense of 'entitlement' claimed by the Attorney-General, it is extremely arrogant and it is the sort of thing that South Australians are sick and tired of in politics. It would not surprise me if today is the Attorney-General's last sitting day in parliament because he has clearly checked out.

To say that he is entitled actually insults the long-serving best legal brains—both men and women—who go well beyond the criteria laid out day in and day out, men and women who have proved a high level of professional eminence and distinction, who have immense advocacy experience and skills, who understand the law inside and out and whose integrity is at the heart of their character with unquestionable independence. These men and women have not only worked hard in their stellar legal careers but also advanced the cause of things like equal opportunity (which we have been talking about today) and have provided pro bono assistance over the years to the community and they have truly earned the title of 'silk'.

The part of this whole scenario that I find most puzzling is the process. Why is it that the Attorney-General's application was accepted after applications were closed? It is this part of the process that truly needs to be reviewed and tightened, as the Attorney-General's application was not featured in the consultation process with legal groups due to its lateness. Submissions were due by 30 June and submissions any later than this, one might reasonably think, should be deferred for the following year's consideration or simply rejected; however, it was not.

I recently read in The Australian that in 2014 the New South Wales Bar Association rejected an application because the paperwork was lodged 15 minutes after nominations closed, and the applicant unsuccessfully appealed this decision. Why is it any different for John 'above the law'? The untenable selection process for Senior Counsel needs a complete overhaul to restore public faith in the system. Under a Liberal government, the Attorney-General's application for SC would have been ruled out on the grounds of lateness and any future bid would need to be listed publicly for consultation before it was approved to add transparency to the process. I wish to conclude my remarks with a quote from the late Abraham Lincoln, who said, 'Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power.'