QC push compared to Abbott’s knighthoods

The Labor Party has denied it ever officially endorsed reviving the practice of naming the state’s best barristers Queen’s Counsels, comparing the proposal to former Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s politically disastrous move to reinstate Australian knighthoods in 2015.

Jan 21, 2019, updated Jan 21, 2019
The SA Labor Party has compared a push for the reinstatement of appointing QCs to Tony Abbott's politically disastrous move to knight Prince Philip in 2015. Photo: Abbott (left) greets Prince Philip following a British D-Day commemoration ceremony in 2014. AAP / Leon Neal

The SA Labor Party has compared a push for the reinstatement of appointing QCs to Tony Abbott's politically disastrous move to knight Prince Philip in 2015. Photo: Abbott (left) greets Prince Philip following a British D-Day commemoration ceremony in 2014. AAP / Leon Neal

As InDaily revealed last week, the SA Bar Association wants the State Government to once-again appoint top barristers to the title of Queen’s Counsel (QC).

It argues that those appointed Senior Counsel (SC) by the Supreme Court are disadvantaged when seeking work, especially overseas.

The association’s resolution approving the proposal, passed in August last year, states that “there is support from both sides of politics in respect of the reinstatement of Queen’s Counsel” and includes a 2015 quote from then-Attorney General John Rau, in which he argues that QCs are more easily recognisable than SCs.

But shadow Attorney-General Kyam Maher told InDaily this morning that Labor had not changed its policy on the matter since then Premier Mike Rann stopped appointing QCs – leaving the appointment of SCs to the Supreme Court – in 2008, and compared the idea to Abbott’s move to knight Britain’s Prince Philip on Australia Day in 2015.

“The Labor Party has a policy and that’s a policy we’ve had for a decade … nothing has changed since,” he told InDaily.

“My understanding is that in 2015, the then Attorney-General John Rau said he was open to the discussion … but it went no further than that.

“We think it’s like Tony Abbott’s reintroduction of the knighthoods.”

Abbott’s decision to award the knighthood was widely mocked as out-of-touch and helped precipitate his ousting from the prime ministership later in 2015.

But Bar Association president Mark Hoffmann told InDaily the association had discussed the issue of QCs with people inside the Labor Party when it consulted its members on the issue last year, and that it was accurate to say at the time that there was support for the proposal on both sides of politics.

“What was put in the memo circulated to the SA Bar was accurate and appropriately founded when prepared and circulated,” said Hoffmann in a statement.

“As you will see from the memo it says no more than that there was support from both sides of politics which was completely accurate.

“As you will be aware there have been material changes in the ALP in recent times.”

Hoffmann said he did not write the memo.

This is an unfounded piece of poor spin from an amateur member of the Opposition.

Last week, InDaily revealed an excoriating letter from Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Chris Kourakis to Attorney-General Vickie Chapman, sent in September last year, savaging the idea of reinstating QCs, arguing it threatened the independence of the judiciary and was potentially unconstitutional.

Hoffman said this morning that Maher contacted him after InDaily’s story was published last week. He said he referred Maher to a media release from Rau in 2015, which stated that while “most people would recognise a QC as being a senior lawyer appointed to a prestigious position, many struggle to instantly recognise SC in the same way”.

Hoffman said he received no response from the shadow Attorney-General.

Speaking with InDaily this morning, Maher turned his criticism on Chapman, arguing she should be spending no time considering the honorifics of elite lawyers and should instead be working on more important things.

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“We think it’s ridiculous to be spending any time on a matter like this,” said Maher, urging his Liberal counterpart to focus on “community safety issues” instead.

Chapman has repeatedly stated that she has higher priorities than this issue, but that the Government is considering the Bar Association’s proposal.

“This is an unfounded piece of poor spin from an amateur member of the Opposition,” said the Attorney-General in a statement.

“The truth is and as I’ve said from the beginning, I am currently working through a long list of priorities for South Australians, such as domestic violence prevention, strengthening sentencing laws and ensuring South Australians have faith in our legal justice system, and these are my top priority.

“I have been approached by the Bar Association to consider their proposal to reinstate QC as a title. My position on this matter remains unchanged, the Government is currently considering the proposal of the South Australia Bar Association based on its merits.”

Maher also said it was extraordinary that “the Attorney-General keeps having fights with the most senior judicial (officers)”.

He noted her conflicts with Bret Walker SC over a push to compel Commonwealth public servants to appear at Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission, with Independent Commissioner Against Corruption Bruce Lander after she issued a public statement concerning one of his investigations without permission, and with Kourakis over the issue of QCs.

But Chapman said that categorising the latter as “a fight with a senior member of the judiciary is a rank overreaction and is far from reality”.

For his part, Rau told InDaily that he had one conversation with the then-president of the Bar Association in 2015 on the matter of QCs, since other states had by then reverted to the monarchical post-nominal and NSW was in the midst of a public debate on the issue.

“I said to him ‘ look, do you people have a view about this, one way or the other?’” said Rau.

“They were waiting for New South Wales (to settle on a position).

“I said ‘okay, fine’ … that was as far as it went.”

He said he never brought any such proposal to Cabinet because the association never got back to him about its position – including at any time last year when it passed the motion backing a return to QCs.

Rau told InDaily last week that he was indifferent to whether top barristers were called SC or QC, although he characterised the 2008 move as “some sort of misguided republican gesture” and could see some merit in reversing it.

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