Thursday, 13 December 2018

6PR – Mornings with Gareth Parker



Subjects: Religious freedoms, Federal ICAC

GARETH PARKER: Another cricket tragic is the Attorney-General Christian Porter, good morning.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Mate, how are you going?

GARETH PARKER: Okay. There's two very important things I want to talk about. But very briefly, very briefly; should Western Australia go after the Boxing Day Test?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Absolutely. Why wouldn't we? We've got the best stadium in Australia, if not the world at the moment and I just think it's healthy codes to share around great events.  Like part of cricket's great appeal is it's a truly national game and I think it should move around. The grand final for footy should move around as well.

GARETH PARKER: Okay. We'll pass that on to the relevant governing bodies. Lots on the agenda today. Two big announcements - one around religious freedom, the other about corruption. We'll come back to the corruption one. What does your bill that you've announced with the Prime Minister this morning, what does it actually do? We hear about protecting religious freedom - okay, everyone agrees with that - but what does this bill actually do?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Sure. Okay, so there are four Discrimination Acts that presently exist in Australia - the Sex Discrimination Act, Race, Age and Disability Discrimination Act. Those acts basically say that if you have one of those attributes people can't discriminate against you because of that attribute. So for instance, at the moment if you're invited to a function and were declined entry into that function because of your sex or your age or your race, that would be against the law. But if you were invited to a function and turned up and refused entry because you were Islamic or because you were Jewish or because you had no religion, that is not unlawful. And what we're saying is that the final part of our anti-discrimination system should be that you can't be discriminated against because you're a religious person or indeed because you're an atheist. So this we think is just a sensible final step in Australia's anti-discrimination law.

GARETH PARKER: So does - in practical effect, it elevates religion or non-religion to the same status as age, disability, gender when it comes to discrimination and the laws that are currently in place?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Yeah. You'd have the same sort of protections against discrimination based on that attribute, that is religion, as you would other attributes such as your gender or your age. That's what it does.

GARETH PARKER: Is there any evidence that people are being discriminated against on the basis of their religion at present?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Yeah. I think that if you read the full Ruddock report and read the newspapers. I mean, that incident - the example of someone being refused entry to a room because of their Jewish faith, that happened here in New South Wales where I am today, not that long ago. There have been instances of people arguing based on their religious belief that the traditional view of marriage - the definition of marriage is the only appropriate definition of marriage and have been sacked for it and have had to run unfair dismissal cases. There's a Baptist care organisation in Queensland that sent an e-mail out to its staff during the same-sex marriage plebiscite asking them to vote against, just like Qantas sent an e-mail out to its staff asking them to vote for, except the Baptist organisation ended up being hauled before tribunals in a legal proceeding. So it does happen and what we think is that people should have the same protections against that type of thing, as they do based on their sex or their age, or the fact that they might have a disability.

GARETH PARKER: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, recognised religions; do these protections extend to Scientologists or people who claim to follow some other bizarre religion that they've made up themselves?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Yeah, so we're fairly well advanced in the drafting, but you've obviously got to define religion in a way that people who fill out the census as Jedi Knights aren't going to be able to claim religious protection. So you've got to be sensible around the edges there, but that's something that state and Commonwealth law do all the time when they define things like charities set up for religious purposes and so forth.

GARETH PARKER: So would it be the same test?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well it would be a similar test, yeah.

GARETH PARKER: Not unsurmountable?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: No, not at all. I mean, some of these drafting exercises are not uncomplicated, but the architecture of discrimination legislation is pretty well known. You define the attributes.

GARETH PARKER: Yeah, but it's easier to define age and gender and race than it is religion, which is about belief rather than things that are biologically determined.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well even with respect to the Sex Discrimination Act, over the years they've had to go back and revisit the definition to include intersex status or marital status. So there's an ability to always evolve definitions, but it's not beyond the wit and wisdom of us to draw an appropriate line between Orthodox and recognised religions and things that people would not reasonably constitute to be religions.

GARETH PARKER: Okay. So under the new rules, would a Christian school be able to refuse admission to a Muslim student or vice versa?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well that is a very good question. All of these bills like sex and age and race discrimination set up the things that can't be done to you because of your attributes and always have exemptions. So the starting position would it would be unlawful to refuse admission to a room or a club or a church. But there are always going to have to be exemptions, so it would of course, naturally be the case that you would create an exemption so that you could not have someone who is a member of the Catholic priesthood applying to be a rabbi for instance. So of course, you've got to draft those exemptions. But the essential principle is the fact that people shouldn't be refused membership or a promotion in their workplace because of their religion.

GARETH PARKER: This is one of the problems though isn't it, when you start legislating for rights is that these things, butt up against one another in ways that can be quite unpredictable and can be quite unintended.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well I think that's very true and we've seen that in the debate about school kids in religious schools. Everyone agrees that there are two principles - one that religious schools should be able to conduct their affairs and teach in accordance with their doctrine and their faith. We also agree that school kids shouldn't be discriminated against based on their gender orientation. However, trying to find the perfect balance between those two things is a very, very difficult process. Scott Morrison, the Prime Minister had a bill which we think found a good balance between those things, even offered a conscience vote on it and that was declined. So, of course, drafting these types of bills is not without its complications. But ultimately, what you want to do is say that if people are protected from an unfair and discriminatory behaviour in certain circumstances, why not the circumstances that attach to their religion because religion and its expression is a very fundamental right for a huge number of Australians.

GARETH PARKER: Yeah. Well all of us have got the right and the freedom to practice our religion or not practice any religion. So that's true. We're running a little bit out of time, but I want to get on to the corruption issue as well. You are going to create some sort of body now; what are the essential details?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Yep. So we will create what will be known as the Commonwealth Integrity Commission. There'll be three commissioners - a head Commissioner; one commissioner who is in charge of looking into law enforcement agencies from the ATO right up to the AFP. So, if you like, they investigate the investigators. The other side of the organisation will be a public sector integrity commissioner who can look at everyone in the public sector, politicians included going right down to contractors. So of course, in a government as large as the Commonwealth Government there are always risks that develop, particularly when large amounts of money are being exchanged and there's procurement and contracting. So for the first time ever, there'll be a dedicated, specialised peak body with sufficient investigative powers and resources to have referred to it the most serious allegations of corruption and its job will be to build briefs, uncover, detect and then hand those briefs over to the DPP to prosecute.

GARETH PARKER: Will it have coercive powers or public hearing powers like the CCC for example in this state has?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: It will have strong investigative powers; it will not be a public hearing body. We've made a conscious decision to have a body that investigates and whose job it is to build briefs for an eventual trial. We didn't want to establish a body that has show trials based on no rules of evidence and ends up writing reports that make claims of very substantial criminality, without having abided itself by rules of evidence. And the reason why we did that is because we've seen cases in WA going right back to Mike Allen, in New South Wales with Margaret Cunneen; when a report's been written, a finding - very serious finding – against the individual has been put in the report and later it's been found to be totally without merit and basis, and we want to have a more rigorous approach.

GARETH PARKER: Attorney-General, thank you for that and thank you for all your appearances on the program this year. We won't talk again before the end of the year, but to you and to your family - I hope you have a great Christmas and we'll do it all again next year.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Yep. And to you and your listeners and make sure everyone gets out to the cricket.

GARETH PARKER: Absolutely. Christian Porter, the Attorney-General.