MARK Dreyfus this week became just the second Jewish federal attorney-general, a position first held by Sir Isaac Isaacs nearly a century ago.
Dreyfus, who has been a Labor MP since 2007, was appointed to the post as part of a ministerial reshuffle, forced on Prime Minister Julia Gillard after several of her lieutenants, including former attorney-general Nicola Roxon, quit politics.
Speaking to The AJN moments after being sworn in by Governor-General Quentin Bryce at Government House in Canberra on Monday, Dreyfus said he was “deeply honoured”.
“It’s a great opportunity, and I look forward to continuing the work of our Labor government in this term and the next term,” Dreyfus said, dismissing speculation that the reshuffle was indicative of a government in the death throes.
“Quite the reverse. [The cabinet reshuffle] shows the depth of experience and talent that there is in our parliamentary party,” Dreyfus explained.
The Member for Isaacs in Melbourne (the seat he won by a whopping 22 per cent in 2010), Dreyfus was rewarded for his work as parliamentary secretary for climate change as well as a glittering legal career.
The 56-year-old Queen’s Council hit the ground running when he was forced to defend the government’s unpopular proposed consolidation of anti-discrimination acts, with his tenure as the country’s first law officer just hours old.
A hot-button issue with the Jewish community, Dreyfus said the spotlight should be cast on the Coalition’s proposal to repeal Section 18C of Racial Discrimination Act, also known as the Racial Hatred Act. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott last year said he would scrap the act if elected, a move met with scepticism by Jewish leaders.
“The government’s position is that the hate speech provisions, which have been in the Racial Discrimination Act sine 1994, should continue unchanged.
By contrast the position that the Coalition has taken is that Tony Abbott has called for repeal of Section 18C, George Brandis has called for repeal. The government is firmly committed to the continuation of those provisions.”
Dreyfus refused to concede that recent decisions by the government to abstain on a UN vote to give the Palestinian territories observer status and Foreign Minister Bob Carr’s condemnation of Israel’s planned settlement expansions signalled a change in federal Labor’s attitudes towards Israel.
“Differences of opinion over particular votes or international decisions that are taken by Australia need to be seen properly in context and not immediately assumed, because there’s some difference of opinion, to represent any lack of support for Israel, which continues – as I would hope it continues from the Coalition.”
The great-grandson of Jews murdered in the Holocaust, Dreyfus last week took exception to comments by senior Liberal Christopher Pyne, conflating the Gillard government with the depiction of a crumbling Third Reich in the movie Downfall.
“There is no place in Australian political debate for comparing any Australian government to Hitler’s Third Reich.”
“He [Pyne] has responded to my call for an apology by failing to apologise. I’m going to leave it by simply referring him to the circumstances of my father’s and my grandparents’ arrival in Australia.”
Pyne told The AJN he was merely comparing the “chaos and dysfunction” of the government with “scenes from the fictional movie, Downfall”.
“Nevertheless, if this has caused any offence I apologise,” Pyne said.
He noted that Dreyfus accused Tony Abbott of being like Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels in an op-ed last year. “While I have publicly retracted my statement, Mr Dreyfus has refused to apologise for his comment and in fact claims to stand by it.”
New Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus.