Sunday, 10 June 2018

ABC TV - Insiders



Subjects: national security; family courts reform; Royal Commission into institutional child sexual abuse

BARRIE CASSIDY: Attorney-General, welcome.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Good morning Barrie.

BARRIE CASSIDY: So is there an urgency around this related to the upcoming by-elections?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: There is an urgency insofar as these two bills, the Espionage and Foreign Interference Bill and the Foreign Influence Bill are meant to work in tandem. They're meant to protect Australian citizens, protect our national security but, ultimately, they're also meant to protect our democratic processes. We have heard from the Director-General of ASIO that the efforts by foreign countries and foreign agencies to effect changes of Australian opinion in a covert way, to influence democratic outcomes, are on the rise so it makes complete sense to have these laws in place before the next large democratic event.

And I might just add that these laws, for the first time ever, will make it an offence to covertly interfere with Australian democratic processes so, of course, it's very important to have those laws in place before the next big set of democratic process.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Because you are quoted as saying the bill was necessary to address a current threat before the by-elections. But even if this bill was passed, you wouldn't have time to set up a register, would you?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: No. The register will take some time to set up

BARRIE CASSIDY: What would be the point, then, because it's all about the register?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well no, it's not merely all about the register. The Espionage Bill, at about section 92, establishes the first ever offence of foreign interference in our government, political and democratic processes. The bills are meant to work in tandem so having both laws in place before the by-election is not only important in terms of signalling the seriousness with which we take any efforts to interfere but it also establishes, for the first time, a law, a criminal offence against that interference.

BARRIE CASSIDY: What kind of a threat are we talking about here?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Do you mean examples of the types of behaviour?

BARRIE CASSIDY: A threat to a by-election, what's the threat to the by-election processes?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Foreign interference might take a number of forms. It might look like hacking into an AEC website to change voter registration information. It might look like covertly posing as a constituent when you're actually acting for a foreign nation to meet with a political representative to get them to change their mind, view or decision on a particular matter. And these types of events and occurrences have been evidenced overseas, particularly in the context of the last American presidential election.

The advice we've had, and it’s been given publicly by the Director-General of ASIO before committees - is there are increases efforts on the parts of foreign countries and foreign intelligence agencies to shape and form Australian opinions and to effect outcomes inside our democratic processes. So, having the appropriate laws in place, which actually for the first time make it an offence to do that in that covert way, all of us in government think is an important part of our national security.

BARRIE CASSIDY: But why would they do the sort of thing you are talking about? Are they trying to affect the result of the elections or are they simply trying to make the elections look a bit chaotic?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, potentially both of those things but the reality is that a foreign country, substituting a view and passing it off as a view that's emanated inside Australia, would be a very dangerous, long-run affair for our democracy. I mean Oxford University studies have put the amount of false news, emanating very often from foreign sources in one state, Michigan in the 2016 election, as half of all the news content online. There were Twitter bots and Russian troll farms paying for advertising on Facebook in the context of the American election. So these types of events, occurrences, behaviours that we’re seeing arise in the context of democratic elections all around the western world are not something we are immune from. Being properly prepared is the job of this government. Again, the description by the agencies, and the Director-General of ASIO, of our present laws to deal with this sort of behaviour is they are inefficient, unworkable and outdated.

So the view that we take in government is that the time to get the outdated laws out and the new laws in is as soon as possible. And I think also Christopher Pyne was asked the question why the rush? He made the point; well it hasn't been a rush. This legislation has been before the relevant committee for in excess of six months now.

BARRIE CASSIDY: I just want to be clear, though: Are they trying to affect the result of the elections? Do they have their favoured party? Are there Manchurian candidates out there or is it simply about trying to erode trust in democracy?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Fundamentally it's the latter. I mean you weaken a democracy by creating a sense of division or dysfunction and you can very easily do that by placing opinions and trying to affect opinions and just causing general chaos in the context of elections.

I mean for instance, Barrie, with our foreign influence register bill, it's the case that foreign governments and foreign political parties try and affect Australian opinion on a range of issues all the time and there's nothing particularly wrong with that. So for instance, in my home state of Western Australia, a Consul General wrote an opinion piece trying to affect Australian opinion, that's fine, it happens all the time. But if a foreign country pays for and engages a former Australian ambassador or former Australian cabinet minister to write an opinion piece on behalf of that foreign country, and the fact of that relationship is not made transparent and is not readily knowable for the Australian people, we think that ultimately is something which causes corrosion of our democratic system so the foreign influence register is designed to ensure, that where we have effectively a foreign government, pushing a view inside the Australian democratic system by an Australian minister or former ambassador, or former Australian minister that we know about it and that relationship is transparent.

BARRIE CASSIDY: So just for example, you have Andrew Robb a former cabinet minister writing a piece or it might be Bob Carr a former premier in New South Wales, is that the sort of thing you are talking about? As long as it's known where they are coming from?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, if they were engaged to write a piece by a foreign principal, which might be a foreign government or foreign political party or indeed a company that has close and controllable links to a foreign government or foreign political party, there’s no problem that they write the opinion on behalf of that organisation, group or party, or even that they’re paid to do so and in the employ of that group, but the point is that we want to know about that relationship so we can judge, on its merits and in full transparency, the opinion they're putting. Otherwise you have a situation where the opinions that further the interests of a foreign country in the Australian democratic process aren't known to emanate from the foreign country. All of us in government think that is a growing concern, as evidenced by a range of democratic elections around the world.

BARRIE CASSIDY: It does seem to have the feel of unintended consequences about it.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: In what respect?

BARRIE CASSIDY: Well, if you put out laws like this, you can inadvertently catch people.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: The registration system doesn't make it an offence to undertake work for a foreign government or put an opinion on behalf of a foreign government in Australia, it just asks that, if you are doing that, that you enter that fact on a registry. There are penalties if you fail to do that. But, of course, there is a degree of regulatory burden that applies to a system like that and what we've tried to do with the recent amendments that I've submitted back up to the Parliamentary Joint Committee is lessen and reduce that regulatory burden by more focused application to foreign governments, foreign political parties and foreign companies that have a direct linkage or control element with foreign governments. But, ultimately, the ill that we're trying to cure here is worth at least some regulatory burden because, having a situation exist where enormous efforts are gone to in a covert way, to shape Australian opinion on behalf of foreign interests, is not in the interests of Australia's national security or our democracy.

BARRIE CASSIDY: I want to ask you about the idea of combining the Family Court and the Federal Court to speed up the process, which is obviously very slow at the moment. There seems to be some concern within the judiciary though that the lack of resources is the bigger problem.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, I would respectfully disagree with that. The reality is that waiting times have blown out in the Family Law Courts in Australia. That causes a great deal of angst for families during what is quite usually a very miserable time of their life. The best thing we can do for families is get them in and out of court processes very quickly so that they can get on with living their lives post-divorce or separation. Tens of millions of dollars have been allocated to the federal courts dealing with family law over the last several years and in the last several budgets. Generally speaking they have not been allocated straight up to judicial resources but rather to things like counsellors and parent management hearings and things that try and decrease that litigious process but the reality is that the structure has been fundamentally flawed and simply applying more money in effect for more judges inside a flawed structure isn't going to produce the results that are in the best interests of Australian families, which is quicker process. So what we have determined to do is merge two courts, make them one, have a single entry point, a single set of rules, processes, procedures, ensure that families can move through the entire gambit of the system far simpler and cheaper and pay less money to their lawyers on their way through.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Sure and they get a judgement sooner than otherwise. But it’s the follow up, Chief Justice Diana Bryant has said it is so under-resourced, there is no real ability to see whether orders are complied with and she said she feels as though the government doesn't understand the effect this is having on families.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well I think Diana Bryant also said she viewed a consolidation of the courts as something that was a worthwhile processes while she was there.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Sure, the question I'm raising is about resources and follow-up work and that sometimes orders are not complied with and very little is done about it.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, what I would put is that, as I say, tens of millions of dollars has been applied to the Family Law Court process over the last several years and it's simply not produced the results we would have wanted. In reality, that is because the fundamental structure is a big problem. I mean, there are about 22,000 matters that are listed for a final determination between the two courts that presently exist and, each year, 1,200 people are moved from court to court. So for instance, if you start in one court and move to the other, you might wait 11 months to be moved from court A to court B and you literally start again in court B under a whole new regime, with a whole new set of rules, practice directions, procedures and forms that you need to fill out. So imagine the waste of judicial resources, not to mention the cost in time and effort and legal fees for those families involved.

Now you cannot fix that problem just by applying more resources to the existing structure because you will always have these families ending up being family law footballs, bounced around from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. So a fundamental structural reform is an absolute necessary condition to further improvements.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Now it's a big week for Attorneys-General everywhere because it's time to respond to the Royal Commission into child abuse. What's the format this week?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Yes, I think most jurisdictions agreed to respond just inside six months, which I think runs out next week.

There were 409 recommendations. Several hundred that applied either partly or wholly to the Commonwealth and so the Prime Minister and myself will be making some announcements about our response to those recommendations.

Obviously we've been studying the Royal Commission very, very carefully and in a considered way and we'll make those announcements. I might add, though, the enormous success about establishing the redress scheme, from recollection, addresses I think about 80 or so of those recommendations that were directed at the Commonwealth. So the incredible success of getting now all but one of the states and territories on board, all of the large non-government institutions, churches and charities, I think means, at last calculation, we'll have a coverage of the Australian population, in terms of those who will need to apply, over 90%. That is a very, very significant accomplishment in a relatively short period of time and in fact, addresses a great number of the recommendations. But, of course, we'll be talking more about that next week.

BARRIE CASSIDY: One of the most contentious recommendations is a priest be forced to reveal what they hear in the confessional. What's your view on that?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: My personal instincts are protective and that, ultimately, the need to protect people from sexual abuse but particularly children is something that should take some precedence. That recommendation was actually made predominantly to the states and territories who, essentially, handle the law around mandatory disclosure in the context of matters such as education and child protection...

BARRIE CASSIDY: You don't want a different rule in different states, do you?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: That's right. Ultimately you have to have a degree of harmonisation and consistency. There is also complication about how this relates to a provision in the Commonwealth Evidence Act. This matter was discussed last Friday at the Council of Attorneys-General and it’s that body that will be largely taking the role in ensuring the recommendation is met and that the recommendation is met in a way that is consistent and ensures that there aren't legal complications so that you don't have different systems operating in different states.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Christian Porter, thanks for your time this morning.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Thank you, Barrie. Cheers.