Subjects: Counterterrorism legislation, return of foreign fighters, Witness K, Newstart.
QUESTION: (Inaubile) What happens there, what sort of time period are you looking at?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, just the usual time period, for assent. It’s obviously one that we want to have into law as soon as possible. This was put in to the Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee in January I believe. They reported some time after that. Obviously we had a full general election, so we’ve had a lot of argument from Labor right up until the 11th hour when they supported the bill. The legislative pattern from Labor now seems to be to oppose everything right up until the point that they cave in and support the lot of it, which is on the floor of the Parliament in the last seven minutes of debate. And the reality is, had we avoided that process, this bill could have been law much earlier.
QUESTION: Why, if you’re saying it’s so urgent now, why wasn’t first it raised back in 2014, when the first raft of counter terrorism bills began to be worked through.
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well I think when you have a look at the submissions that were made to the Parliamentary Joint standing Committee, the first raft of foreign fighters which occurred over a several year period from about 2010, came back, my recollection is that there were about 250 of those, that 25 of them who returned were known to police, and 8 ended up involved in terrorist incidents. And that was a learning experience from some time ago. This is the second wave of foreign fighters, so we anticipated precisely the situation that has developed, which is that after a geographical supremacy over these fighters, that they would coalesce in a place – in this case it’s on the border of Syria and Turkey - and start trying to return home. So this is precisely the situation that we anticipated, based on a situation was faced many years ago and which we learned from.
QUESTION: What do you say to critics who say that these laws are unconstitutional and it’s not Parliament’s choice as to whether people have (inaudible) or not, that’s for the High Court?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well it is very often the case that people who for philosophical reasons don’t like a law, argue it’s unconstitutional, but we have very strong advice that it is constitutional. But what we are doing is a very rational response to a very dangerous situation. Where someone wants to return to Australia and we know they have been radicalised, and history tells us that they will be very dangerous to the Australian community, we delay their return, assess their return, and manage their return. Now that is constitutional, but most importantly, that is in the absolute best interest of every Australian on Australian soil.
QUESTION: Will you release the advice that says it’s constitutional?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: You will know David that we do not release advice of that nature for this very reason, that if at some point in time, someone wanted to argue that, then our advice will inform our behaviour and our submissions in court, and we’re not going to telegraph that obviously to someone who might take a contrary view.
QUESTION: And what about the 40 foreign fighters who have returned under your Government’s watch, what assurances can you give the public about them? Given that we saw a very interestingly timed article on Sunday that released these figures and also said that some of them posed a serious risk to Australia’s national security.
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, the first point is that if we had better co-operation from Labor, who ultimately on the floor of Parliament last night agreed with this legislation, despite in effect not doing that for a very long period of time, the laws could have been in place earlier. But it’s self-evident, that where people return that we have assessed as dangerous, that all appropriate controls and circumstances and efforts are made to protect the Australian people, and obviously I can’t go into individual cases in any detail.
QUESTION: Why was the recommendation to increase Newstart removed from a draft bi-partisan Parliamentary report?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, I’m not sure what bi-partisan report you’re talking about. I mean, the recommendation to increase Newstart was probably most notably the subject of a Greens motion in the Senate, which Labor voted against in the last Parliament. Labor voted against that motion in the Senate in the last Parliament.
QUESTION: Attorney-General, based on what we know about these two cases, are there any circumstances under which you would approve the prosecution of Annika Smethurst and Dan Oakes and Sam Clark?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well look, I’ve said I’m seriously disinclined to see prosecutions of journalists where their journalism is orthodox journalism in the public interest. And I’ve said that, and I’m happy to say that again, but if what you’re asking me to do is to make a judgement which I would be required to do, pursuant to the issue about whether or not I would grant consent - that requirement is for me to look at evidence that may or may not come up from the DPP at some potential point in the future. If you’re asking for me to give a view on that evidence before I’ve seen it, that in itself would be unlawful process and I won’t to it.
QUESTION: Police often make decisions about whether to proceed or finish an investigation based on the prospect of a prosecution. Given you’re saying you would be disinclined, shouldn’t the police drop the investigation?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: That’s a question you might want to ask the police.
QUESTION: Do you think they should drop the investigations?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I’ve said what I’ve said, which you’ve accurately put to me, and that is the appropriate thing to be said in this circumstance where I could also potentially be looking at a brief at some point in time pursuant to a statutory duty to consider whether or not I would give consent.
QUESTION: At a G7 meeting with Xanana Gusmão it was asked for you to reconsider the trial of Bernard Colleary and Witness K but the criminal hearing is on Friday. He says that the East Timorese feel betrayed by the supposedly friendly country, will you reconsider that before Friday?
QUESTION: Do you believe that Newstart should be increased, and if not, why not?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, my view on Newstart is this. First of all, the characterisation of Newstart as a (inaudible) payment, ignore that fact that the overwhelming majority of people who receive Newstart receive at least one other payment. It’s the case that when you earn Newstart, you can earn up to an amount from wages, without losing a dollar of the Newstart amount. No one is pretending that that is, other than a difficult payment to live on - for anything other than a short period of time. But the design of Newstart is to ensure that people come in to the system and go out. And fundamentally as a government is this – getting people out of the welfare system. And as a Government we have removed 150,000 people from the welfare system into work. Labor during their six years had 250,000 moved from work into the welfare system. So the absolute best way that you can assist someone living on a difficult Newstart payment for a short period of time, is to get them into the workforce, which we are doing very very successfully.
QUESTION: And what do you say to your Coalition colleagues then, who are speaking up about Newstart, is it time for them to quieten down?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well I haven’t read those reports this morning, and no one has raised that issue with me, but we have had a very, very good track record in moving people out of the Newstart system and into employment. It’s probably as good as any modern Government, and that is always the main game in welfare policy.