Thursday, 17 May 2018

6PR – Mornings with Gareth Parker



Subjects: Perth by-election; Citizenship; Foreign Interference Bill

GARETH PARKER: The Attorney-General, Christian Porter, joins us on the line. Lots to talk about today. Christian, good morning.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Good morning Gareth.

GARETH PARKER: Appreciate your time. We'll talk about tax cuts, we'll talk about the dual citizenship issue that just will not die. But I want to start with the Perth by-election and I want to play, first of all, what you told us a couple of weeks ago.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I would have thought on the back of the announcements - the $5.4 billion worth of investment that we announced, with $3.2 billion from the Commonwealth, that we have got a very strong case that the Coalition Turnbull Government is looking after West Australians and Western Australia, and we can run a great campaign in Perth. So, I don't know who will be a candidate, but I'm sure that we will recruit very strongly.

Turns out there's not going to be any candidate in Perth.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, as they say, mate, a week is a long time in politics.

I mean, when we had that conversation, we were looking at one by-election across the entirety of Australia, which was in Perth, and since that conversation and this conversation, we've added four more federal by-elections and a state by-election. So, I guess the party, as those on the Liberal Party executive have noted, made a decision based on money, affordability and where they want to push their resources. I think Labor might be breathing a bit of a sigh of relief…

GARETH PARKER: Well, of course they will. They get a rails run. I mean, they've guaranteed. Patrick Gorman just kissed on the bum. I mean the luckiest bloke in Western Australia because he just gets to walk into a seat in Parliament without any challenge at all from your side.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: That observation goes unchallenged. I mean, he does get to walk straight into a seat. But look, a decision has been made, and as I say, at the time we had that conversation, you were looking at one by-election…

GARETH PARKER: Sure. Do you agree with the decision?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, I don't have privy to the sort of financial constraints, but I do know that running by-elections are a very, very expensive businesses, and a difficult, clearly difficult decision, has been made about where you put your resources in…

GARETH PARKER: Because a lot of grassroots members, and not members of the party but just general sort of Liberal supporters, are very unhappy about it.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Yeah, and I understand why they would be. But as noted by the executive that made that decision, they're very expensive businesses, and trying to push resources into what looked to be the strongest prospects of a victory, are the basis of a decision they've made.

And of course, I think, obviously here, what's going to be completely critical is this Darling Range electorate, and the by-election there courtesy of Mr Urban. So, it's also the case that Longman's going to be a completely critical seat in Queensland. So, a difficult decision and they made it based on their understanding of the finances of it. But I would understand that people in Perth would want to vote for the Liberal Party would be disappointed.

GARETH PARKER: Is it just about the finances of the party, or is Malcolm Turnbull scared to have what could turn into a referendum on the Liberal Party versus the Labor Party's performance on fixing the GST issue?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: But if it were to be a referendum on that I can't understand how we would do anything other than well because our position is so much more advanced, because our willingness to consider the Productivity Commission exists, where as Labor have, through Bill Shorten, just completely ruled it out. Whereas, we've had $3.6 billion worth of compensation, plus another 3.2 two only a week or so ago.

I think the story that we had to tell there is far superior to anything Gorman and the Labor Party could muster and I would have thought that they would get hurt by that.

GARETH PARKER: Seems like a good argument to pick a candidate in and have a go.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well again, financial concerns have overridden those other concerns that we've just discussed.

GARETH PARKER: So, the party's at a low ebb then if they can't afford to put up a candidate in the seat where the demographics of Perth are changing? It's a 3.3 per cent seat. It's hardly unwinnable.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, I mean there are estimates out there that for every dollar that the Liberal Party across Australia is able to raise for campaigning purposes, the Labor Party has $4 at their disposal. They have enormous ability to raise money through the unions and through organisations like GetUp! which effectively campaign directly for the Labor Party, and we are at a massive financial disadvantage across Australia. And that's not something that is anything other than real and this is a constraint that we've got to work within. So, people who are on state executives of the Liberal Party across Australia have got to make these really tough decisions.

GARETH PARKER: Okay. We'll move on to the citizenship, I'm going to call it the zombie citizenship crisis because it just refuses to die. I noticed that …

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: It would have ended earlier had people done the right thing.

GARETH PARKER: Well that's true, but I noticed that there are some people who are putting around the idea that what we need here is a referendum to change the Constitution to prevent this from happening again. Am I alone in thinking that is the most ridiculous proposal going around because there is no chance that Australian voters will agree to change the Constitution in that way?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I would have thought your assessment is about spot on. I mean the was a report released today from a parliamentary committee and I'll read you something from a constitutional expert in that report, which I reckon sums up the situation. This is Anne Twomey, who is a noted constitutional lawyer, she says: “The current problem was not caused by a matter of principle, but rather by the fact that some members and senators did not make the effort to inquire into their circumstances and take the necessary steps at the appropriate time to avoid disqualification.

I don't think you could get a neater summary of what the actual sort of nub of this issue was from Anne Twomey. And I just think that most Australians accept that that is a fair description of the situation. So that you'd step from a failure to sort of undertake the necessary inquiries into individual circumstances and then renounce in a timely fashion, that you take a huge leap from that to constitutional change.
We'll consider the report, obviously very carefully. There are some things in it that are absolutely worth considering about trying to tighten and make quicker administrative processes to assist people who want to run for parliament and who need to renounce citizenship. All of that is absolutely worth considering, but I think it has been said by Mathias Cormann, who is in charge of electoral affairs today, this is not a Government that's minded off the back of this committee report and recommendation to enter into the idea of constitutional change to fix a problem that individuals can fix themselves by proper inquiry.

GARETH PARKER: Alright. Is Anne Aly, the Member for Cowan, in the clear?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, I mean we've always, as a party, taken as authoritative indication from embassies, and foreign national bodies, and citizenship organisations that are representative of government, taken their view as authoritative as to people's citizenship status. But obviously there was a question in The Australian newspaper today or yesterday with respect to what has come out of the embassy. But we've just taken the view that if an embassy says that someone is not a citizen in the first place, or that they subsequently renounce, then that is an authoritative statement about citizenship. But you know, there are, well there's some curiosities about this. It appears that Anne Aly's citizenship was able to be renounced by a council of ministers in Egypt inside 48 hours, which would be an extraordinarily …

GARETH PARKER: Maybe they're efficient. It's good government.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, that would be one of the more efficient bureaucracies on Earth. But …

GARETH PARKER: Alright. Doesn't sound like you're going to sort of chase her down though. Wait and see where it goes.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, I mean, this is a letter that comes from - it's unsigned - but it appears to come from the Egyptian Embassy that says that Anne Aly effected, so finalised the renunciation of her citizenship.

I think one thing that would be useful to hear from Anne Aly, which she's declined to offer anyone, is what day did she actually nominate? Because that is an important question. Because the renunciation, on one view, has to occur before you actually nominate, rather than at the close of nomination. So, it's a pretty simple question I think that Australians and particularly people in her electorate deserve an answer to – which is what day did you actually nominate for Parliament.

GARETH PARKER: Okay. You mentioned The Australian.

The Australian's editorial writers have got some very strong influence, sorry, advice for you today, that is to drop this Bill that we've talked about a little bit in the past, that I think has good aims, to try and minimise foreign influence on Australian institutions and Australian parliaments and all the rest of it. But I'll just quote from the first line of it; ‘rarely has a single piece of legislation been so poorly thought through as the Federal Government's Foreign Influence and Transparency Scheme Bill.’ Are you going to dump it?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Look, the need for this Bill is absolutely clear and I think that even all of the media organisations and academics who put in critiques and suggestions for change acknowledge that there is a need for a Bill of this type. I believe that the Bill can and should and will be subject to very improved drafting through the committee process. I think that there have been things that have come out of a consultation process that clearly warrant changes to the Bill. I don't think the answer is to simply drag it and submit an entirely new Bill. I think the issues that have arisen through the consultations that I've conducted since I inherited the Bill reveal where the likely amendments need to occur and that they can be done to peoples’ satisfaction. But ultimately, it is necessarily a broadly drafted Bill because what we're trying to do is have transparency to the extent that we can shed light on where foreign influence in Australia's political and governmental processes actually occurs.
So, where certain activities are conducted on behalf of a foreign principal for the purposes of governmental influence, or lobbying, or affecting the outcomes of elections, what we say is that they need to be transparently knowable to the Australian people through a register. And the need for that register, as exists in other countries that have had these types of interference in democratic elections, is clear, as in the United States. The question is: how do you draft it in a way that minimises the regulatory burden? We're not a government in the business of trying to unnecessarily have a regulatory burden on media or academics or anyone in our civil society. But I don't think that the answer here is withdrawing and resubmitting the Bill. I think the answer is to pursue the amendments through the Joint Standing Committee process, and where national security legislation has been subject to this committee process in the past, there have been hundreds of amendments, overwhelmingly which the government has adopted.

GARETH PARKER: So it can be saved.

Thank you, Christian. Appreciate your time today.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Thank you. Cheers, Gareth.