Thursday, 25 January 2018

6PR - Mornings with Gareth Parker



GARETH PARKER: Pleased to welcome my next guest, a regular from 2017 who re-joins us in 2018 with a new job; the Federal Attorney-General, Christian Porter. Good morning.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Morning, Gareth. It's very interesting that your intro music is Australian Crawl. That doesn't happen too often in radio, mate.

GARETH PARKER: Not often enough, in my opinion.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: More power…no, absolutely. I'm a massive fan, great guy, James Reyne.

GARETH PARKER: Have you got used to people calling you Attorney yet? Attorney-General?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, they certainly don't call me that at home and not very often around the office, I'd have to say.

GARETH PARKER: No respect.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: No, none, but that's what keeps you sharp and working hard. Mate, it's a very important portfolio, obviously, in the context of government, and there's a massive amount of work to do in it, and in many ways, quite different from Social Services. So, I mean, the budget that we're effectively managing in Social Services was getting up towards $150 billion across the entire welfare system, and the Attorney-General's budget is very considerably less than that. But of course, there's these issues around terrorism, national security, a range of reforms that we're establishing to create the Home Affairs Department in cooperation with Peter Dutton.

And of course, there are a whole range of incredibly important legal areas that affect families all the time in Australia, and family law and the family law courts is one of them, and that'll be a particular focus for me this year. So, an enormous amount to do in a very challenging portfolio.

GARETH PARKER: The family law reforms are of great interest, not just to me, but I know to listeners of the program, so we'll definitely check in with you on that throughout the course of the year as that whole review progresses….

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: And there are things like that we can do before that review, and in the early days looking through this portfolio. So, George Brandis commissioned the first review of the family law system; so the actual laws that govern separation and divorce and the procedures of the court. But it seems to me in the early days, looking through the portfolio, that even before that report is with Government, that there are a whole range of ways that we can conceivably make the actual court processes themselves better and more efficient and more customer focused, if I can use that sort of commercial term.

Because yes, of course this is a legal process, but it's a legal process that has a really important effect on families.  It's never a positive or happy time for any family separation or divorce, so trying to have processes that are efficient and streamlined, and court structures that minimise delay seems to me to be something that can be done without…. and potentially in advance of the actual thoroughgoing consideration of law reform itself. And in some ways, what I'm trying to do is bring some of the economics experience in the previous portfolio to bear in this portfolio and try and work out ways to make the system more customer-focused and more efficient and to see itself not merely as a legal system but as a system that's servicing individual Australians effectively as clients at a very difficult time in their lives.

GARETH PARKER: Yeah. I'm pleased to hear that because you're right, it's a legal process but it shouldn't be a legalistic process. I think that there's plenty of areas to explore alternative dispute resolutions within the framework of the family court, and we've just got to get these cases dealt with more quickly and at lower cost, because there's nothing worse than seeing… look, relationships break up, that happens. It's sad, it's a reality, but nothing worse than seeing people prolong things and spend all their money on lawyers rather than retaining that money to keep the family show on the road.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well the time to trial can be, I think, significantly improved inside existing resources by having a thoroughgoing look at the types of processes and doing what you've suggested, being less legalistic and litigious in these processes. You know, the best way to have time to trial reduced is to ensure that fewer people go to trial.  And generally speaking you shouldn't be going to trial unless there are absolutely irredeemable difficulties and arguments that can't be resolved in any other way. So my early weeks in the portfolio have, in my mind, identified this as a really big priority for the year.

GARETH PARKER: Do you think that family lawyers will be able to be convinced of the merits of that approach?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, the family law system doesn't exist for the lawyers, right? So …

GARETH PARKER: Well, it shouldn't.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: No, and of course the assumption that you're entering into is that they'd be negatively pre-disposed to this because it could have an effect potentially on fees.  But everyone benefits if the system is efficient, including lawyers. So I think that, in terms of any reform to processes and structures, lawyers will be a big part of that. And you have to listen and get advice from lawyers, because of course they know the system very well, and many family lawyers that I talk to in this jurisdiction around Perth that I've known for a number of years have come to me voluntarily, and said: look, these are practice that we see working that actually don't work very well in the interests of our clients. So, lawyers very often have great insight and they care about their clients, right? So, you know, there may be some lack of enthusiasm at some points in time, if it means potentially less litigation and less fees, but the system doesn’t exist for the lawyers.

GARETH PARKER: No, I agree with that statement. We'll follow that with interest.

Can I just ask you on a personal level; this job, it almost seems to me as though your entire career has been aiming at this job in some respects, given your background as a prosecutor. You were the State Attorney-General among other portfolios as a state MP. Was it sort of always, was it ever a specific ambition?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: No. I mean, I can honestly say not particularly.  Like, I'm probably an economist and lawyer in my own mind. Like, I like both and I'm trained in both.

They're intensely interesting disciplines, both of them, in very different ways.  So when we left the portfolio, Alan Tudge and I, of Human Services and Social Services, we, with good work that had been done before us with Scott Morrison and others, had put Australia in the position where it has now the lowest number of working-age Australians dependent on welfare since the 1980s. That, probably, I would say is one of the more significant things that I have ever done in public life. So, as a project to be engaged in, that was an amazing project. You kind of have to flip your mind into a slightly different way of thinking and preparing and dealing with your portfolio in a more legal portfolio, but the bottom line, Gareth, is that whether you're in state politics or federal politics, when the Premier or Prime Minister ring you up and say I'd like you to take on this job, that is your national service obligation and you say yes that's fantastic. You just prepare yourself for the fact that it could be any job at any time.

GARETH PARKER: You mentioned earlier the changes to the arrangements in which the terrorism threat is to be monitored and managed. That's the creation of a new Home Affairs Department. Your responsibilities as Attorney-General dovetail with that. They're a bit different from the previous arrangements. The new spy legislation has attracted some comment from the Inspector-General, the person who is appointed to oversee and have oversight of those arrangements, and she is making some criticism that she won't be able to do her job and potentially journalists might be punished if they release certain information. Are those criticisms valid?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, so this is part of the Parliamentary Committee processes. And yeah look, I've read the input from that person and I'll be obviously taking it seriously, as will the Parliamentary Committee. I think overwhelmingly the changes that we're suggesting are not only positive but completely necessary to try and keep pace with what are constantly evolving threats.

So there are probably three big things that we can summarise for your listeners that are happening. One is, structurally, there's a change to create a Home Affairs Department that brings the major protective and investigative agencies under the command and control of the Home Affairs Minister, with the Attorney-General retaining and, in fact, having an enlarged oversight role, to protect the type of things that you've just mentioned; the freedom of speech, association rights of journalists, and the transparency and efficiency of the system. So there's that machinery of government change.

There is a Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill, and there is a National Security Legislation, Espionage and Foreign Interference Bill. Those two bills effectively modernise the way in which the legal framework exists for us as a country to be able to combat terrorism, and particularly domestic terrorism. The reality, I think, Gareth, is if you don't constantly evolve your laws and structures and processes to the threat, then you place your population at greater and unnecessary risk. So of course we take into account critiques, and they're very important. But equally important is modernising the law.

GARETH PARKER: Very briefly, do you have any intention to revisit the role and powers of the Human Rights Commission in the 18C debate?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: No, not particularly. I mean, I think we engaged in a range of reforms both to 18C, but also to the processes, or attempted reforms to 18C, but successful reforms to the processes of the Human Rights Commission.  I think overwhelmingly they're incredibly positive reforms to the Human Rights Commission processes. I mean, the reality is that what we saw occur in the Queensland University case where young students were effectively dragged through an intensely expensive and personally damaging litigation process, in some instances, without actually getting notice about respondents in that process until the day that they're expected to be on the court's door, was a terrible …

GARETH PARKER: But you don't intend to make any further changes at this stage?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, the reality is that we proposed a range of changes and some of them were successful and others weren't, so the complexion of the Senate hasn't changed sufficiently enough to warrant re-raising that issue.

GARETH PARKER: Alright, Christian, appreciate your time. Good to chat to you again in 2018. Looking forward to …

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Good luck to the Scorchers next week, by the way.

GARETH PARKER: Hear, hear. And we can all go because the cap's been lifted.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Yeah, we'll get a chance to talk about that at some point in time I'm sure. What a crazy decision at first instance and what a good result in the end.

GARETH PARKER: Thank you Christian.