Attorney-General George Brandis and Australian Human Rights Commission president Professor Gillian Triggs during a Senate hearing at Parliament House in Canberr. Photo: Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
A censure motion against Attorney-General George Brandis over his attacks on the president of the Australian Human Rights Commission has passed in the Senate.
The motion, moved by Labor senator Penny Wong, said that Senator Brandis had failed to protect Professor Gillian Triggs during an extraordinary personal attack on her by the Abbott government and Coalition senators during a Senate estimates hearing last week.
Attorney-General Senator George Brandis defends himself against the censure motion. Photo: Andrew Meares
The vote was passed 35 to 32 votes, which included the support of independent senator Jacqui Lambie and Palmer United Party senators Glenn Lazarus and Dio Wang,
The censure motion was based on criteria including failing to defend Professor Triggs from "malicious attacks", seeking to obtain her resignation by offering another role, refusing to account for his role; undermining Australia's commitment to upholding human rights, and being unfit to hold the office of attorney-general.
There are no constitutional or legal consequences by the motion passing, but it means there was "dissatisfaction with the performance of a particular minister". The movement of a censure motion could have significant political impact.
Senator Lambie told the Senate: "The systemic abuse of hundreds of children in their care is our great shame."
"We all share a great shame because of the harm done to these innocent little human beings."
Senators Bob Day and Nick Xenophon voted against the censure motion, while senators John Madigan, David Leyonhjelm and Ricky Muir did not vote.
Senator Brandis is the third Abbott government minister to be censured.
Former defence minister David Johnston was censured in November after saying he wouldn't trust the government's shipbuilder ASC to "build a canoe", while Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash was censured in March 2014 for misleading the Senate and refusing to produce documentation about her employment of a junk food industry lobbyist in her office.
There have only been five cabinet minsters censured in the past decade.
Senator Brandis has said he lost confidence in Professor Triggs in November when she struggled to explain why the commission did not announce its decision to look into children in detention until after the 2013 election.
During debate over the motion, Senator Brandis repeated he lacked confidence in Professor Triggs.
"Professor Gillian Triggs, I'm very sorry to say, has cost the commission its reputation," he said.
While Senator Brandis has consistently said he no longer has confidence in Professor Triggs, he maintains she is a "good person", a fine lawyer, and that her heart is in the right place.
Senator Wong said it was Labor's job to stand up against bullying statements and "endless attacks" on Professor Triggs.
"We have an important job to do today and that is to stand up for our system of democracy which recognises the importance of independent institutions," she said.
"We believe that independent statutory bodies ought to be able to do their job without fear or favour."
Following the censure motion, Labor and the Greens called for Senator Brandis to resign.
Labor frontbencher Mark Drefus said Senator Brandis had lost the faith of Australia's legal community.
"Senator Brandis is not fit to hold the office of Attorney-General," he said. "The time has come for Tony Abbott to show some leadership and demand his resignation.
"As Attorney-General his role should be to defend Professor Triggs, instead he has joined with the Prime Minister in attacking her."
Greens leader Christine Milne said: "The current Attorney-General is unfit to hold the office. His behaviour has demeaned the Senate and the Parliament."
Last week, Senator Brandis was subjected to heavy criticism from Australia's legal fraternity over his dealings with Professor Triggs.
The president of the Australian Bar Association, Fiona McLeod SC, said she had never seen an attack stoop to such a personal level, which appeared designed to distract from the detention inquiry.
"It is alarming that it is has descended on such a highly regarded and respectful lawyer," Ms McLeod said.