Subjects: John Setka; press freedoms
GARETH PARKER: Joining us as he does most Thursdays, the Attorney-General, the Industrial Relations Minister - from Canberra this week, where Parliament is sitting. Christian Porter, good morning.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Morning, Gareth. Busy week.
GARETH PARKER: It is indeed and there's been a huge campaign about the public's right to know mounted by pretty much every major media organisation in the country; we'll come to that.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Sure.
GARETH PARKER: But John Setka yesterday dropped his Supreme Court challenge against Anthony Albanese's bid to kick him out of the ALP. So he's gone from that. He still leads the construction union in Victoria. Is he a fit and proper person to do so?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, we want to bring in laws that would say that someone who's behaved like John Setka is not a fit and proper person. But the laws haven't been sufficient to have him and his career ended as a union official. My view is that he's not a fit and proper person to be a high ranking public official of a registered organisation.
But having said that, I mean, he's a notorious person and he's broken a lot of laws. But, like since January 2017, there've been 80 officials of the CFMEU who've racked up 420 contraventions of industrial law; that's since January 2017. None of them are John Setka. But he actually, as notorious and as law breaking and as awful as he is, he represents about one per cent of all of the lawbreaking of the CFMEU.
GARETH PARKER: He's been flat out trying to deal with his own problems, I think. But anyway, so what does that…
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, there's just a lot of law breaking is the fact of it. I mean, there just - there is just a list of union officials that - I mean, 80 in the last two years, 80 union officials have amassed 420 contraventions. The business model of the union is to bully and intimidate and breach the industrial law of the country and getting fines is just part of their business model.
And we say you should pass legislation that says if an organisation into the future behaved like the CFMEU, you'd have the capacity to ask a judge to deregister them and the judge would consider all the facts of the matter and whether it was just or unjust. The Labor policy is effectively do nothing – like literally do nothing, oppose the laws that would reform the system, and just let them go on as they've been going on.
GARETH PARKER: A lot of this hinges therefore on the crossbench and Jacqui Lambie in particular, who has said that she may well support your laws if John Setka doesn't stand down from the CFMEU. There's no indication that he'd change his mind at this point about that. Have you talked to Jacqui Lambie about this?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Yeah. I've had good constructive conversations with Jacqui Lambie, with One Nation, with Rex Patrick, the South Australian Senator. So, you know, those conversations have been very constructive. You know, Jacqui Lambie was bullied by John Setka. He bullied a female Member of Parliament to try and influence her vote. Full stop. I mean, that sort of behaviour no Australian thinks is appropriate and it's just behaviour which under the present state of the law gets repeated and repeated and repeated. The Federal Court judges, you know, they're pulling their hair out; they give fines. It just goes on and on and on. And as I say, the Labor response is just don't do anything about it and that probably has something to do with the fact that they have taken $14 million off the CFMEU over recent years.
GARETH PARKER: So on that, if Setka is not fit to be a member of the ALP but he leads the Victorian union, should Anthony Albanese refuse donations from the CFMEU?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, he won't even answer that question, which I presume means that they will keep receiving donations from the CFMEU. But, you know, it's an inescapable point of logic. If this guy's record is too awful, replete with too much lawbreaking that he should be kicked out of the ALP, then why would you accept money from a branch of a union that he runs?
GARETH PARKER: Okay.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Because the money that the union amasses is built on a business model of breaking the law.
GARETH PARKER: Well ultimately it comes from members, doesn't it? And if members are happy for their leadership to behave this way, what right do you or anyone else have to get involved?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: But I don't know whether they are happy because what happens is, you know, like, the case that was in the Federal Court last week was a case of lying contrary to the law to an electrical apprentice at a student accommodation construction site who was there to install solar panels and tell him he couldn't work there unless he was a member of the union. Just lying; a model of bullying. And some people, you know, it affects them, of course. But it's a business model where membership is garnered and encouraged by intimidating people who aren't members.
GARETH PARKER: Okay.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: And every Australian worker has a right, a freedom of association to choose whether they want to be a member of the CFMEU or not. But what they do is intimidate, bully, and lie to people to force them to join.
GARETH PARKER: My only other observation is that for a long time, union leaders in that particular union on both sides of the country have behaved that way and they seem to keep getting re-elected by their members. Anyhow.
I do want to ask you about this Right to Know campaign. All of the major newspapers in the country went with it on their front page on Monday. You, as the Attorney-General, are very much at the heart of this. What have you made of the campaign? Do the media organisations have a point?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: I think they have some points. I think some of the issues they raise are perfectly logical, sensible issues. I think that actually, as a Government, we're dealing with them in a sensible way. So …
GARETH PARKER: Would you reform FOI, for example?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, I think that that's an issue that's now - the strongest, most powerful committee in Parliament is the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security and they're considering how warrants that might affect a journalist are operated pursuant to; they're considering submissions around FOI laws; they're considering submissions around the classification of documents by government agencies.
GARETH PARKER: But FOI is a joke though, isn't it? Everyone knows that FOI's a joke and everyone knows that departments and ministers, when they've got things they don't want out, they use every delaying trick in the book to prevent it from coming out.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, this is an Act now that was introduced by Labor. I think it is in- it's time to look at it.
GARETH PARKER: But you know that that's how it's handled and it's bipartisan, it's Labor and Liberal and it's state and federal; they all do it - you all do it and you frustrate the intent of the law, which was some sunshine.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, I mean, as I look over, for instance, my record of FOIs, it's open, I think. But, you know, one of the issues that does arise is that there are just thousands of these and some of them are sensible and meritorious and others are less so. So trying to have a triage in the system I think is important.
But yeah look, there's no doubt that these are things that warrant consideration, possibly reform. We've got the most powerful bipartisan committee in Parliament looking into these things. But where I start to have some - and again, as sensible, and that's been looked at by state attorneys-general.
But where I stand have some difficulties with it is where you get a request for blanket exemptions - using the word of the media alliance - for journalists who are, quote, just doing their jobs.
The idea there'd be a specific exemption written into every single Commonwealth criminal law that could possibly be applied against a journalist to me seems outside the edge of reasonableness and workability. I mean, it's not impossible to consider circumstances where someone who is in the profession of journalism nevertheless goes too far and breaks the law and they shouldn't have a blanket exemption in those circumstances where they do go too far. You know, by the same token, journalists are subject to warrants with respect to their data - like call charge records - and I think that's fair and appropriate as long as it's done in front of a judicial officer, if there's a reasonable basis for doing it.
You shouldn't have a situation where you could prevent a serious criminal offence but because you're prevented from getting a warrant because the person who might be the subject of it is a journalist, you can't prevent the offence. And I think again, Australians would think that's unreasonable. So it is a matter of finding a balance.
GARETH PARKER: Can you point to a journalist or a media organisation that's endangered national security in the way that it's conducted itself in, say, the last ten years?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, Julian Assange was-
GARETH PARKER: Well, he's not a journalist. I'm talking about an Australian media organisation.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: He was given a Walkley.
GARETH PARKER: Well, he shouldn't have been. I want an Australian media organisation.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, there are a range of areas where, for instance, the Director-General of ASIO has said on a number of occasions, the former director-general, that journalism right here and now is being used as a professional cover for espionage. Now, you know, this goes to the question of who is called a journalist and who is not called a journalist. But merely by being an active member of a profession…
GARETH PARKER: I agree with you - I agree with your earlier statement that there shouldn't be a blanket exemption. I actually disagree with some of my colleagues in the media about that. I'm more inclined to agree with you. But I do - I bristle at the suggestion that mainstream media outlets in this country go around endangering national security.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Okay.
GARETH PARKER: Because I don't think that, in my experience, they do. I think they take that responsibility very, very seriously before they decide to publish.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: I think that's right. But of course, that is because there are laws that would prevent that. But one good example I think is the fact that in the United Kingdom, a number of mainstream professional journalists hacked into the phones of private individuals grossly contrary to the law …
GARETH PARKER: Dreadful. Dreadful.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: … to get a - to get a story. So I can't accept that it just never happens.
GARETH PARKER: No. Dreadful. But I'm talking about media outlets endangering the national security interests of the country.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well - though what is being asked for is an exemption to laws that might affect journalists for, quote, doing their job. Now, that's national security laws, that's criminal laws, and there have been instances where journalists have gone too far. And that United Kingdom example is one of those and there just shouldn't be a blanket exemption because of someone's belonging to a profession.
What should be the measure of criminality is conduct, not the profession in which the conduct occurs.
GARETH PARKER: I agree with that. I agree with that. We might continue this debate on another day because we're out of time. Christian Porter, thank you for your time.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Thanks, Gareth. Cheers.