Thursday, 13 December 2018

ABC Radio Melbourne – Drive with Raf Epstein 13th of December 2018



Subjects: Federal Integrity Commission, Religious Freedoms Bill

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Christian Porter is the Attorney-General in Scott Morrison's Government. Thanks for joining us.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Yeah, good, pleasure.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Look, a few weeks ago, the Prime Minister said some sort of national integrity commission was a fringe issue. What changed?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, we've been working on it and certainly the Government's been considering it since January. I took what the Prime Minister to mean - and I don't disagree with him - was that in the things that we were dealing with in Parliament, there were far more urgent and important matters than this. But nevertheless, this is a matter that should be addressed, particularly given that the view that we've reached after looking at the Commonwealth integrity arrangements is that there is room for some fairly significant improvement.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Is it that you were looking at arrangements or you're forced into it? Every other party has been calling for this for years.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: We were looking at arrangements since January, Raf. So, if you have a look at the material that we've put out today - like, I'm an okay lawyer, but I wouldn't have been able to put that together in 10 days, mate. This has been something that we've been working on for a long time. And it's a fairly complicated area, because Australia has this multi-agency approach to integrity over a really broad public sector. We've got different specialised agencies responding in different specialised areas. So, trying to bring that together and create a new agency inside that framework is far from uncomplicated. And that was one of the criticisms I had of the private member's bill, is it didn't, amongst other failings in my observation, it didn't take into account the landscape that already exists and where it works well and where it probably needs some improvement.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: If people are to take you as being genuine that you've changed your mind on this because issues have arisen, why did it take so long? I mean, that's more than four years before the Government decided to look at the issue. What changed four years into the term when you thought: we have to look at this?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I mean, you always - governments work in order of priority. And no one is suggesting in Australia that there's serious evidence of systemic or endemic corruption. I mean, the Labor Party support change in this area, but when they announced their support for change, they themselves noted that there's no evidence of systemic and endemic corruption. So, the urgency of the issue, frankly, has meant that it's one of those issues that you're dealing with towards the end of a term of government rather than the beginning.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: It's two terms - took you four years. I still don't know what prompted the Government's interest in this issue? Was it just that all the other parties - I mean, the Greens have been calling for it since you were in Opposition, Labor for a number of years. What prompted the Government's interest in the issue?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, we obviously listened to people who are observers and experts on the outside of government. But also, we see things inside government. So, from my personal perspective, I can say I've seen the operation of the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity, which is an agency under my portfolio.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: They (ACLEI) look a lot at the police and those sort of …

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Thank you, that's right. So, they look into the AFP, Customs, so Border Force, inside Home Affairs. And as part of this plan, we are massively enlarging their jurisdictions, so they'd also be looking into the ATO and ASIC and ACCC. And I looked at the way they operate. I think they operate very well, but I took a view that there are aspects of, say, for instance, the Australian Tax Office, which make them look, at times, not dissimilar to the AFP. I mean, the ATO is a very serious investigative agency. So, after a considered look at the landscape - and also considering some of the failures of these types of bodies at a state level - we've devised a model. And, you know, you can say it took too long for someone's preference, but what you do at least get when you look at this in a considered, sober, and detailed way is you get the best model. I don't think the private member's bill was the best model, and Labor have said they support something but not told us any details about what it is that they might support.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:I'm not saying it took too long. I was just asking what prompted it. But perhaps we should ask: what sort of misdemeanours or crimes this new body would look at. I can think of two instantly that are controversial, but I don't know if they're criminal.

There's a Minister, Michaelia Cash, in your Government. Her office is accused of tipping off the media about a police raid on a union office. I don't know if - I doubt that's a significant breaking of the law. And then there's Sam Dastyari, who was a Labor Senator - essentially accused of accepting money from a donor to somehow change policy. Would either of those qualify for the body you've proposed?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, the body would work this way. That it would be tasked with investigating, based on a referral from other agencies that exist in government, corruption offences. And there are a broad suite of those in the Commonwealth Criminal Code and Crimes Act. So, offences like receiving a corrupting benefit as a Commonwealth public official, abuse of public office. These things are well known offences, they've got a very broad definition or remit-

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: …and sorry to interrupt, Attorney-General. Some sort of enforcement body has to refer to the corruption body, that's the only way they would start an investigation?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: The other way that, is that they can start an own-motion investigation if they were investigating matter A and in the course of that investigation, it gave rise to concern about matter B. They could start an own motion investigation.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: So, police - some other enforcement body's got to raise a concern before your federal corruption commission has a look at it?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Yes, but that's not at all an unusual set of circumstances, particularly when you've got a multi-agency framework. So, for instance, someone could complain, like any member of the public can, to the AFP, about a criminal offence or their view that one had been committed. If the AFP took the view that this was the type of criminal offence that this new organisation was specialised in investigating, they would hand the matter on. If the Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority, looking into a matter dealing with a parliamentarian, considered that it was such a level of seriousness that it needed be moved up to the Commonwealth Integrity Commissioner, then it would move it up. And one of the reasons for that is that something that has happened in the states is that having no filter mechanism for-

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Yeah, I mean here, we've had both sides of politics refer matters to the IBAC in Victoria.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: But it gets used as a political boxing ground.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Okay, so that can't happen with the federal one?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: We've designed it in a way so that there is appropriate filter mechanism. But of course, there are own-motion investigations if the body itself looks at something in the context of an undergoing investigation and thinks they need to look at something.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Sure, they'd do it themselves.

Okay, 1300-222-774 is the phone number. Christian Porter is the Attorney-General. He is, of course, part of Prime Minister Scott Morrison's Cabinet and team. You are going to get an election, so these very measures will be tested, although now it is bipartisan policy. Different models, I'm sure the Attorney-General would be keen to point out. But 1300-222-774. Christian Porter, if I can turn to protections for discrimination against religion. Again, over the course of this government, you've twice tried to weaken the protections around race discrimination, but you're strengthening the protections around discrimination for religion; why?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, I don't accept that we have attempted, and nor have we ever engaged in any outcome that's weakened protections around race discrimination. I think you're obviously referring there to proposed amendments, some of which were successful - some weren't - around 18c. And of course, you'll note from the announcement today that there'll be no analogous section for section 18 or 18 in what we proposed as a religious discrimination bill. The reason being, that that would basically send Australia back into a place where you have laws of blasphemy, which I don't think anyone thinks is a good idea.

But the essential point of this is at the moment, say for instance if you were denied membership of a club or entry to an event that you've been invited to because of your race, that would be unlawful and quite properly so. But if you were denied entry to the club or to a premises or an event you've been invited to because of your religion, that's not unlawful.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Is that happening? Is there evidence there's some widespread religious discrimination?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Unfortunately, it does happen from time to time. And there are examples of it. And I think that they're touched on in Philip Ruddock's review. But we've seen employees in private industry expressing on Facebook pages their support for traditional view of marriage sacked from their job.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: So, you wouldn't be able to do that anymore under this law?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: No, you would not. That would be unlawful discrimination. If that was linked, that sacking, to a person's religion - which in that example that I gave you - it was. I mean we had a prominent Jewish leader turned away from a Labor Union Multicultural Action Committee launch in New South Wales not that long ago. And again, if you are turned away from a meeting or an event or a club based on your race that's unlawful; but based on your religion, it's not. And we think that the freedom to express your religion, or indeed the freedom to express the fact that you are irreligious or an atheist, is actually a really fundamental human right and the expression of that right is something that you shouldn't be discriminated against because of.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: And is there anecdotal evidence for that or is there fundamental evidence? I mean, one of the reasons you have bullying programs for LGBTQI kids at school is there's overwhelming evidence they've got significant mental health problems. Is there substantial evidence, I don't know, academic or otherwise, that there's a problem with people being discriminated against because of their religion?


RAFAEL EPSTEIN: I mean a Facebook post or two, anecdote don't make policy, do they?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, principle makes policy. So why would anyone in Australia think that it's fair and reasonable to turn someone away from a club that they've applied to be a member of because of their religion but not allow that because of someone's race? I mean, principle makes good policy. But there are examples. There's the Porteous case in Tasmania where the Catholic Archbishop, in a pamphlet, advocated the traditional view of marriage and then becomes subject to legal proceedings. I just don't - whatever your views on marriage might be - and I was a supporter of same sex marriage - I don't think that a person who, consistent with their faith, maintains a view of marriage as being a traditional view of marriage, that they should be subject to legal proceedings because of that.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: A political question.


RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Are you comfortable going to an election adamantly protecting the right for churches and synagogues and mosques to discriminate? Is that something you want to be known for as one of your priorities? Here in Victoria, the Liberal Party is-

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: But we're not doing that. How are we doing that?

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Well, that's what the religious discrimination- that's what your bill provides…

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: No, not at all.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: … you just said to me, you're protecting that privilege - but you're saying that a priest can preach that homosexuality is a sin …

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, we're saying that Christian church…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: … and can't be discriminated against because of that.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: A Christian church should be able to teach the Bible and not be discriminated against because they're teaching the Bible.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: I'm not disputing what you're saying you're doing.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, I'm disputing your characterisation of it, which I think is completely skewed and totally misrepresents the situation. Seventy per cent of Australians identify with one or other religion. Many Australians take that…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Are you happy with that being one of your priorities? You can express that priority however you like. Are you happy that being one of your priorities going into a federal election?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, there are millions of religious Australians and offering them the same protection against discrimination that other Australians get protected by virtue of their sex or their race or their age seems imminently reasonable. And indeed, if you have a look, Raf, the people who recommended this indeed included the head of the Human Rights Commission. So, it's not like the Liberal Party is out on some limb in thinking that it's reasonable to protect people from discrimination based on their religious views.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Christian Porter is the Attorney-General. He will be talking to us about these issues in the lead up to an election, which is likely in May next year. Christian Porter, appreciate your time.


- ENDS -