Subjects: Trade; redress; Roman Quaedvlieg; Banking Royal Commission; s44; espionage media reporting; foreign donations
PATRICIA KARVELAS: My first guest tonight is the Attorney-General Christian Porter. Minister, welcome to National Wrap.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Thank you, Patricia. Good to be here.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: On trade, how could Australia support an EU referral to the WTO without jeopardising our arrangement with the US?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, I think that history provides some kind of context here. So, in 2002, I think it was, George. W. Bush placed 30 per cent tariffs on imported steel into the United States and those tariffs, I think from recollection, didn't last more than 21 or 22 months based on a WTO action which was successful and which showed that America at that point in 2003 was in breach of its international trade obligations and commitments. So, it's not as if this is without precedence first of all that tariffs have been engaged in by American presidents from time to time, particularly in the steel industry, that they've been the subject of WTO actions previously and that in at least that instance in the not too distant past it was a successful action.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: So, in that context Australia could join that action and not affect that trade off, the carve-out where we've been exempted?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, you're talking about a hypothetical situation. What I'm saying is that historically it's not without precedent that these types of tariff increases internationally in the United States have been the subject of WTO actions before. But, whether that would be the case here and what Australia's position would be, we're nowhere near making decisions on those matters yet. I mean, what Australia has managed to achieve through the very quick and decisive work of our Prime Minister, is an exemption to these particular tariffs which is of enormous benefit to the Australian economy and Australian workers in the steel industry. I noted in your promo that some people are even complaining about that very big win for Australian workers, which I find really quiet astonishing.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: On the redress scheme for survivors of sexual abuse, what is your message to churches and institutions that fail to sign up to that national redress scheme?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, we had a very, very significant announcement on Friday with the Prime Minister and the Premiers of Victoria and New South Wales that Victoria and New South Wales will both be joining the national scheme. And I'd personally like to thank the New South Wales and Victorian Attorney-Generals that I've worked with closely over the last 12 months and they've been incredibly engaged in the process and they've been collegiate, where they've wanted more information they've sought it, they've been incredibly cooperative and we've landed in this position that we have now very large national coverage for redress.
But there've been some responses to that announcement that I would have to describe as underwhelming. One in particular I thought was nearing on disrespectful to victims and that particularly unfortunately was from the Attorney-General in my home state of Western Australia where they said that they weren't in a position to make a decision about joining the national redress scheme because they had a lack of information. And I find that just remarkable.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: But what's your message to the churches…
CHRISTIAN PORTER: …we've been consulting on this for 12 months…
PATRICIA KARVELAS: that won't sign up?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, I'll get to the churches in a moment. But the state of WA has had ample information before it. They've had incredible opportunities to seek further information on particular matters if they thought that that was necessary. They've never done that. And then after this announcement on Friday they sent out a spokesperson. The WA AG doesn't even do it himself. They sent out a spokesperson to say they can't join because there's not enough information. And it's just incorrect and I think that victims in WA would be very angry about that. I think that was a disrespectful response.
The response on the part of the Catholic Church I would describe as pretty underwhelming. The Archbishop Hart in Victoria basically said that they would carefully examine the basis upon which the Victorian Government was entering the scheme to determine; and I'm quoting him here, ‘if it is an appropriate scheme for victims’ end quote. And then suggested that in Victoria they would need, the Catholic Church, another review.
I mean this issue has been reviewed more extensively than probably any issue in Australia's recent modern history. So, the idea that the Catholic Church in Victoria needs yet another review of the circumstances in which the Victorian Government has done the right thing before they finally sign on, I think, is starting to look like excuse for the sake of making excuses and delay which again I think victims would be more than a little bit upset about.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: The Financial Services Royal Commission's first round of public hearings on consumer lending starts this week, many experts don't think the commission will get its work done in the timeframe you've allocated. Are you prepared to look at the timeframe again?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, I've had no indication from the commission that the timeframe's inadequate. If any indication came to me as the Minister administering the Royal Commission, of course we would have a look at that, but again this is a hypothetical based on not much more than some view that someone has put in the commentariat . But…
PATRICIA KARVELAS: But if we look at past, as you say, history you looked at with the WTO, we've got history as royal commissions, they often need more time don't they?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, some of them do and some of them don't. I mean, what's the specific evidence that we've got that the timeframe here is inadequate? Now, it may be that at some point in time a view is put around timeframe by the Royal Commission and his staff to me and my office but no such view's been put and we’d consider that if and when it came.
But I do think essentially that the timeframe is adequate. It certainly was I think commensurate to the timeframes given for other royal commissions. And the redress Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse was a very, very long royal commission even by the standards of the longest royal commissions in Australia's history and the issues that attached to the Banking Royal Commission, I think, are somewhat more discrete, but again, we'll wait and see how this translates in the first several months but they've made a very good start.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: You will now decide whether Roman Quaedvlieg loses his job. When can we expect that decision, can you give me a timeframe here?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, I've said publicly that that decision will be made inside weeks, and I won't be going any further than that. Obviously, Patricia, I have been asked by the Prime Minister to make a decision based on a very lengthy report from Martin Parkinson, the head of Prime Minister and Cabinet. And as a decision-maker, I can't go into the process itself or the intricacies of the matter but I will be making a decision as quickly as I reasonably can.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: On the national security legislation, the media union has welcomed your changes but want working journalists to be dealt with by a blanket defence. Will you consider a blanket defence?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: No, we've said that we won't do that. We have very much strengthened the defence and narrowed the offence as it applies to journalists. So, a journalist now could avail themselves of a defence that they published information even if that information was, say, top secret, that they published that in the reasonable belief that it was in the national interest to publish it and that would provide a defence.
But the idea that there should just be a blanket exemption for a journalist or a blogger or an academic or a lobbyist, I don't think is one that the Australian public would accept.
For instance, if a journalist received thousands of documents, made no effort to try and sort those through to work out which ones could endanger the lives of people in the public or the life of an ASIO agent, and publish that indiscriminately, then I think that the Australian public, and certainly the Government, considers that that should well be the basis for a charge.
Now, I'm not suggesting that the overwhelming majority of journalists would ever do that but there have been incidents internationally, say for instance with someone like Julian Assange, who ascribes to a doctrine of radical transparency as he calls it, where he has released documents under the guise of journalism in effect and he's done that indiscriminately and in a way that has endangered lives …
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Yeah, but Labor says …
CHRISTIAN PORTER: …In those very rare circumstances we think …
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Labor says you have failed to consult properly with stakeholders or the public on the original Bill. Are you prepared for more consultation and changes rather than ramming this through?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, I don't accept the suggestion that anything is being rammed through. These amendments that we have drafted have gone back up to the committee; they'll be the subject of additional recommendations from the committee. This is the tenth tranche of 10 parts of national security reform legislation, and they've been subject to around about 270 amendments through the very deliberative process of the parliamentary Joint Standing Committee, and we're in the middle of that process. So, nothing happens in a way that you would describe as anything being rammed through. These amendments now are up for scrutiny, we'll consult further on those as we will on all the other parts of the espionage and foreign interference legislation.
But I would say that these Bills are very important to Australia's long-term national security, and as a government they represent the tenth tranche of reform, and these reforms are designed at, and are proving effective in keeping Australians safe.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett has written to the Government warning that your foreign donations bill will stifle public advocacy and put a bureaucratic noose around the neck of every charitable trust in Australia. Given that critique, are you willing to look at those elements which particularly affect charities?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, I don't accept that critique, as much as I admire Jeff Kennett. And the reality is that the charities which listed themselves as engaging in political expenditure, which under the proposals that we have made would not be able to be funded by purely overseas donations, they represent 0.05 per cent of all the charities operating in Australia. We have a very simple contention with this legislation, that no organisation should be able to influence the outcome of things as important as Australian elections or outcomes of political decision-making on key issues solely with foreign money being applied through that organisation to achieve that outcome …
PATRICIA KARVELAS: …sure, but given the strong critique…
CHRISTIAN PORTER: …I think that that's something that most Australians…
PATRICIA KARVELAS: But given the strong critique from charities, isn't this something that the Government has to reasonably look at again?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, you say it's a strong critique but I don't think the evidence shows that it is a particularly strong critique. When only 0.05 per cent of charities are registered as expending money for political purposes i.e. in a way that they would be affected by this legislation, I hardly think that that is going to be the end of the world for the charitable sector.
But what we do get through this legislation is clear transparency and line of sight so that we can ensure that foreign money does not get employed in Australia through intermediary organisations in a way that is designed to affect the outcome of Australian elections and the outcome of important issues in the political landscape.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: So, you're not prepared to make any changes that reflect those concerns?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, that's not at all what I'm saying. I mean, there have been a range of amendments through legislation. There are none particularly that we find persuasive at this point in time with respect to the foreign donations legislation. And I might just also point out that the ALP, the Labor variation of this legislation which they sought to bring in several years ago, also purported to ban charities and other organisations in Australia exclusively using foreign donations to affect the outcome of Australian elections and on political issues in the Australian democracy.
So, it's something which in principle Labor have supported in the past. And again, I'm not finding the advocacy on the part of some in this sector particularly convincing when the facts show that the situation that excludes this type of conduct is a tiny slither of existing charitable conduct.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Minister, many thanks for your time tonight.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: That's a pleasure, thanks Patricia.