Wednesday, 31 January 2018

ABC Radio RN Breakfast



Subjects: National Integrity Commission; Wage Growth; Intelligence and Espionage laws; Cabinet leaks

FRAN KELLY: As we've been discussing today Labor has got the jump on the Turnbull Government promising to set up a federal anti-corruption agency if it wins the next election. The Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus is offering to work with the coalition to make a National Integrity Commission a partisan policy.

  • MARK DREYFUS: Where you've got a government that's spending something in the order of $400 billion of Australian taxpayers' money every single year - and it's a growing amount - that there's a potential for corruption. Where there are contracts worth many millions of dollars, sometimes billions of dollars that have been handed out there is, of course, the potential for corruption

That's the Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus speaking to us earlier. The Federal Government is yet to embrace this notion of a federal watchdog, but the Prime Minister was not ruling it out.

Christian Porter is the newly appointed Attorney-General. Attorney-General, welcome to Breakfast.


FRAN KELLY: Bill Shorten and Mark Dreyfus say a federal anti-corruption body will help restore public confidence in politicians in Parliament. Do you agree with that and that we need that?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, I noted in your introduction you talked about the Opposition getting a jump on the Government. My comment would be, it's not a race to an outcome and both sides of politics agree on this. In fact, it was made quite clear by Labor yesterday that there's no evidence of a widespread problem with fraud or corruption at the federal level. We have a very strong system in place at the moment.

But as to the question as to whether that system of maintaining integrity in the federal public service and in federal government could be improved by having a single consolidated body, as a Government we're not close minded to that.  But of course as is always the case the devil is in the detail. And these types of bodies have been operating in a variety of states for different periods of time and of course the results I have to say generously, have been somewhat mixed. In fact, the ICAC here in New South Wales has come under at times intense criticism because of its processes. Indeed no less than criticism from its own inspector …

FRAN KELLY: Indeed it has come under criticism but it also revealed widespread corruption at the public service level and political level too. I mean, many politicians' careers have ended because of ICAC in New South Wales, and not all of it because of ICAC maybe having too broader brief or operating as some would say too close to a ….

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Sure, but then again people's careers have ended because there've been public hearings of which not much has eventuated. So, finding a body that operates in a way that actually improves the detection and enforcements is the key here.

At the moment we have a range of bodies, they're doing a very good job. As I say we're not closed minded to this concept. But the way in which you would have to proceed is to define, with absolute transparency, precision and clarity, how the body would operate. You'd have to go through a long public consultation process. You commit to a model once you've determined what the model is and consulted on it, not beforehand. I mean that's a headline-grabbing exercise.

FRAN KELLY: There's still a lot of ‘ifs’ there in your answers and I wonder why. I mean the Government's had a report since mid-September from a Senate committee arguing that we need a watchdog with quote ‘broad scope and jurisdiction to address integrity and corruption matters’.

Most of the Parliament now supports an integrity commission. Major legal groups, many senior jurists, we've heard some this morning. What more evidence do you need before you are convinced to head down this path even if it does require some kind of consultation about the model?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, as you know we have received a report and it is a very, very long detailed and complicated report …

FRAN KELLY: You've had four months to look at it. I'm sure you're up to that job.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Sure, but it's not a report that is absolutely unequivocal. And it's a report that notes many of the problems that accompany these bodies and the way in which you have to make very important decisions about how the body would exercise discretion, for instance, to conduct either a public or a private hearing. And one of the difficulties that has arisen in many of the states is that that discretion is so much at large, that careers have been ruined in public hearings, from some which little has eventuated.

FRAN KELLY: Okay, so are we arguing about the model here rather than you getting close, is the Coalition close to saying: yes, we do need this, now let's work out what more?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, I can only repeat what I said which is we're not closed-minded to the idea but the model has to be debated.

I mean, this is a consolidated body to oversight transparency and integrity at the federal level. Surely the process that designs that model should be absolutely transparent and we shouldn't pre-judge the necessity of the model until we've actually had a fair consultation process around the detail of the model.

FRAN KELLY: Are you worried about what we know of Labor's model, one commissioner, two deputies, fixed five year terms with the powers of a standing royal commission?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, I mean, their model is silent on all of the key issues that you actually have to decide. I mean, what they've said is they've got seven principles. Well, these are the principles that are attached to virtually every single one of these types of bodies. The critical questions are the detail about how its jurisdiction would operate; who has the discretion to the exercises to whether or not you have a private or a public hearing; who oversights the body itself? And this is an issue that has different models in each of the different states and in my observation having worked in the WA jurisdiction, having watched New South Wales very carefully, there are better and worse ways to go about doing this. But that is not a process that you can simply jump into by media release I'd have to say.

FRAN KELLY: You're listening to RN Breakfast; we're speaking with the Attorney-General, Christian Porter.

Christian Porter, if we could look more broadly at Bill Shorten's speech yesterday, it was a major pitch to what he labelled the left behind society. Until just last month, you were the Social Services Minister. Do you have an understanding, a sense of how tough many people are doing it because of the cost of living, because of flat wages growth, and rising bills?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, I think the first and foremost matter of importance to most families in Australia, and I certainly saw this in the Social Services portfolio, is whether or not people are employed. And last year the Turnbull Government created more jobs than any single year on record.  I mean more than 1000 jobs each and every day. And in fact, at the end of my time as Social Services Minister we'd reached a point after many years of hard work and job growth, where there were less people, so a lower proportion of people dependent on welfare of working age in Australia than any time since the 1980s. And that is a great result for families because it means less welfare dependence because of more employment.

FRAN KELLY: But couldn't you argue that what's the point of a growing economy and strong job creation if the benefits aren't flowing through to the kitchen table, if people are seeing their wages frozen and the bills go up?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, the presumption there, though Fran, is that there's no benefit in the two scenarios where there's unemployment in a family or full employment in a family, and the reality is that when you're creating …

FRAN KELLY: Well no, I'm not saying that.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, when you're creating in excess of 400,000 jobs in a year and that translates to less welfare dependency, greater employment, and wage earning in thousands and thousands of families across Australia, that's a very significant improvement for those families.

FRAN KELLY: But as the productivity rate and corporate profits are racing ahead much more quickly and strongly than wages growth, there's something wrong isn't there?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, wages growth has been flat and economists will say there's a variety of reasons for that. But the first and foremost way in which you ensure that there’s upward pressure on wages is to ensure high rates of employment, where you've got employers chasing people for jobs. That is the way in which you will ensure that wages growth comes back to normal levels. But of course, the first point in all of this is that if you have a job, compared to being dependent on welfare, your family is significantly improved in every single respect. And that is a result that we have been producing, better than any modern government.

FRAN KELLY: OK. The latest shakeup of intelligence and espionage laws before the parliament committee now, concerns have been raised by a wide array of groups over the last days; journalists, charities, lawyers, universities, even churches are all claiming overreach. You're not going to have much luck getting this through Parliament if there are no further safeguards, are you? Do you accept that the laws are too vague as somebody as said?


FRAN KELLY: …or many people have said, actually.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, there have been a lot of submissions and you've nominated a lot of the bodies that have submitted, I'm reading the submissions very carefully. And this is a serious process, the parliamentary committee process, and one of its great virtues is it does allow for improvements in the drafting of the bills where genuinely there is either an error or where things can be improved in a definitional sense. So, I'm very open-minded to all the submissions, I think some of them have shown greater merit and better understanding of the legislation than others like, they're not all right, Fran.

I'd also say that all of the bodies seem to acknowledge a need for these two pieces of legislation and what they seek to achieve. Yes, it is the case, however, that some have argued that drafting can be improved, others have argued that there should just be large carve outs and exemptions. So, you know probably won't surprise your listeners that the lawyers say it's very important but it should apply to us, as do the journalists, as do the academics.

FRAN KELLY: Well, what about your Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security? Even she's worried? Margaret Stone told the parliamentary committee that this element which says the legislation would make it an offence to hold or share information which is inherently harmful to national security, could stop her staff from doing their jobs if they're investigating spy agencies, for instance, they could be committing an offence.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Yeah, and I've read that submission, I must say I don't entirely agree with it, and I'll be speaking with Margaret to try and get a better understanding of why she's reached that conclusion. I mean, there are very significant protections in the legislation and that already exist under things like the Public Interest Disclosure Act, that allow for that whistleblowing of information. And this doesn't change anything in the Public Interest Disclosure Act. But again, Fran, I'll take all of those submissions …

FRAN KELLY: What about journalists? The MEAA described the law as criminalising journalism.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, again I think that that is a somewhat strange statement to make. I think that that's sensationalist, and I don't think it's accurate.

The reality is that this legislation, the two pieces; the Espionage and Foreign Interference Bill and The Foreign Interference Transparency Scheme ; modernise espionage law, provide for a very high threshold before offences could be proved and prosecuted, a very wide and broad range of protections and they are meant to tackle a problem that clearly exists in Australia, as it does in other modern western democracies where there is massive attempts to influence our political system by overseas principles and governments.       

FRAN KELLY: Okay. And just briefly, another day, another Cabinet leak, this time it's Labor's problem not yours. The Rudd Government was warned according to this Cabinet document in April 2009 of the inherent risks associated with the Home Insulation Program. The rollout proceeded, as we know, four young installers died. Your government held a royal commission into the program with no adverse findings against Kevin Rudd or his ministers. Do you accept there's really not much more to learn about this scheme?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, yeah I've read the news reports about that leak. I mean, the pink batts scheme was an absolute disaster, and Labor had a lot of warnings that it would be a disaster and proceeded anyway. So, I'm not really sort of over the moon that there's anything particularly new in this. We knew it was a disaster, common sense told us they had a lot of warnings; they were inept in that respect.

FRAN KELLY: Christian Porter, thank you very much for joining us.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Thank you very much, cheers.

FRAN KELLY: Attorney-General Christian Porter.