Trouble prone Attorney General causes major angst: Senator George Brandis. Photo: Andrew Meares
Attorney General George Brandis was freelancing when he suddenly announced a policy change to describe Israeli-held East Jerusalem as "disputed" territory rather than the standard descriptor of "occupied" used by Australia and other governments before now.
With Australian agricultural contracts at risk of being cancelled or reduced amid uproar in the Arab world, Fairfax Media has learned that the avowedly pro-Israel Mr Brandis's switch to what he regards as less freighted or perjorative language, was not agreed in cabinet nor even run past the Prime Minister's office.
The issue is causing major angst even though Tony Abbott publicly backed in his trouble-prone Attorney General.
Speaking on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange just hours after the Brandis decree on behalf of the coalition government, Mr Abbott agreed that the term "occupied" East Jerusalem was loaded.
"It is important, as far as you can, not to use loaded terms, not to use pejorative terms, not to use terms which suggest that matters have been prejudged and that is a freighted term," he said "The truth is they are disputed territories and let’s try to ensure that disputes are resolved fairly to all as best we can in an imperfect world."
However insiders say the Prime Minister was given little choice because to contradict his senior minister and top law officer would have been deeply embarrassing.
But while the government is hunkering down, arguing no material damage could come from a simple terminology change, the issue is proving incendiary with representatives of embassies from Pakistan, Turkey, Indonesia and Iran all attending a meeting with the Department of foreign Affairs and Trade in the aftermath of the announcement.
And it is not just Arab states that have a major problem. Farmers in Australia are worried about export contracts of wheat to the Middle East and other parts of the Islamic world, and that has the Nationals concerned.
Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce is one in Cabinet who believes the policy change was unhelpful.
It is the latest example of the hardline approach to policy being taken by the purportedly moderate Mr Brandis who brought a tsunami of criticism on the government with his defence of the right of Australians to be bigots as he attempts to weaken racial vilification laws.
It is understood Mr Abbott, who is still in the US, is being urged to "fix" the problem how East Jersusalem is referred to, when he returns.