Monday, 18 June 2018

Doorstop – Parliament House - Mural Hall


E & OE

Subjects: CHRISTIAN PORTER: Mediscare Bill passes Parliament; Foreign Influence Bill; Clive Palmer

Thanks for being here. It is a significant day for Australia's democracy today. The, what has become known as the Mediscare Bill has passed the Australian Parliament. I just wanted to make three comments about the significance of this Bill. The first is that the integrity of the Australian democratic system absolutely relies on the proposition that we have a clear, statutory statement of principle that it is a criminal act to use modern mass communications to deceive Australian voters, and that's what the Mediscare Bill does today.

The second point about this is that the new offence, which will make it a criminal act for anyone to impersonate or contend that they are acting on behalf of a Commonwealth body, will apply to a very broad range of Commonwealth bodies, from Commonwealth departments like the Department of Attorney-General to Commonwealth corporations like the NBN, right through to critical service delivery agencies of the Commonwealth such as Medicare, Centrelink and the NDIS.

The third thing I'd like to note is that the Bill very importantly, and this is critical again for the maintenance of our democracy, contains a civil injunction power so that if something like the Mediscare campaign happened again, where the Labor sent text messages reporting to be from Medicare, impersonating Medicare, then injunctive proceedings could be listed straight away to prevent that sort of behaviour and prevent the mass deception of the Australian voting public.

I'll just finish today, of course, invite your questions in a moment, but finish by saying if you want a good dose of Labor Party hypocrisy, consider this: this Bill went through with the Labor Party's support. The Labor Party in effect agreed to the creation of a criminal offence which would make it unlawful, make it criminal, to now do in the future precisely what they did as the cornerstone of their last federal election campaign in terms of Mediscare. So they have now agreed and voted in favour of making criminal, precisely what they based the larger part of their last election campaign on. So if you want a good dose of Labor hypocrisy, there's probably few better examples than the passage of this legislation with their support. But it's absolutely necessary, with the by-elections coming up, to maintain the integrity of our democratic system and not allow text messages and mass modern media communication to be used to deceive Australian voters before an election.

QUESTION:Those powers for an injunction to be lodged straight away; what use would that have if we saw a similar scenario where someone tried to send text messages out on the very day of the election, isn't it too late…?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well literally, with that sort of injunctive power, you could be knocking politely on the judge's door at 2am in the morning if that were necessary, and orders could be made if it were appropriate to do so very, very quickly.

The point being that very often, these terrible and deceptive campaigns are run deliberately late in the piece to try and make it very difficult for them to be countered and particularly when they rely on robo-calls or text messages. So what this Bill would enable people to do is if that deceptive conduct which was criminal was evident, that you could actually get an injunction in a very short period of time and it could be prevented, stopped dead in its tracks. Of course, later the substance of the acts would be investigated and if they constituted criminal offence, people would be prosecuted. But the important point is that we have to have mechanisms in place to prevent Australians from being deceived.

QUESTION:The Foreign Interference Legislation is currently being looked at by the Joint Intelligence and Security Commission, Committee. What do you make of, as that happens, Huawei lobbying Senators and Members to allow them a seat at the table when it comes to building the 5G network?

CHRISTIAN PORTER:Well, I mean all companies lobby the Government, that's fine. But the central point of our foreign transparency and influence register is transparency. What we say is that if you are an ex-diplomat or an ex-government minister or just someone involved in government relations, and you are acting on behalf of what we would define as a foreign government-related entity, and you're lobbying government, you are trying to affect an outcome for government decisions or you're trying to affect an outcome of an Australian democratic process, that's fine - happens all the time. But we simply want it done with full transparency. There's no stigma on being on the register, perhaps even more expansive registries exist in the United States, there's no stigma on being on that. It's just that we want to know what those relationships are that sit behind the lobbying or the attempts to influence a government outcome or process.

QUESTION: Mr Porter, would you be, or is the Government considering making minor changes to the latest amendments to that? We're hearing for example a suggestion that it should be 20 per cent of foreign ownership, for example.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: So we're going to follow a very similar process that we did with the espionage Bill. So we submitted central amendments to that Bill. The Parliamentary Joint Committee then considered those amendments, added a number of their own. We considered those in a relatively short period of time, and there is in substance broad agreement.

We've now submitted up with respect to the influence and transparency register amendments that we think deal with the major issues that were given rise to during the committee process. The committee is now considering those amendments. I have every expectation that they're going to produce a report imminently, and that that report will largely accept or endorse the amendments that we've sent up, but perhaps also have some further and additional amendments from the committee. If that's the case, we'll consider them in very short time. The expectation is that both the Bills would be dealt with in the House of Representatives and the Senate next week, and we'd be waiting for that report on the influence and transparency register to come out very shortly so that we could deal with both the Bills in that final week, because they are meant to be bills dealt with in tandem. They don't work one without the other.

QUESTION: So do you think, for example, there should be some alignment with the Corporations Act for that 20 per cent?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, I mean, if that's a recommendation that comes out in addition to amendments that we've made, we'll obviously give it due consideration. And look, the reality is that I'm in close contact with Mark Dreyfus. He's been enormously helpful and working in a bipartisan way with respect to the espionage Bill, and he's carrying on that conduct with respect to the foreign influence and transparency register. So I would expect that, you know, they're the sort of discussions that we'll be having over the next several days.

QUESTION: Given Clive Palmer's business dealings with the Full Court, do you think he'll even be eligible to run for parliament again?

CHRISTIAN PORTER:Well look, I don't know the answer to that question, but I will say it wasn't one of the better press conferences I've seen.

QUESTION: Do you think that with regards to the power that you're hopping to give the Secretary of your department to put people or companies on that register, how frequently do you think that situation would arise where a person or a company hasn't self-declared and your department would have to step in?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, that depends on the vigour with which people self-declare. And so I've noted previously that this is of course a matter of self-assessment, self-declaration. It's not the companies so much that need to do that due diligence, it's the people in Australia working for the companies or working for the organisation or the body that is reported to have links back to a foreign government or foreign political party. But a person in Australia, whether they're a former diplomat or former minister or someone involved in government relations and government affairs, they would ask themselves the primary question; am I involved in a process where I'm trying to influence a government outcome? And if the answer to that is yes, and of course there's nothing wrong with that, then they have to answer the secondary question, which is; am I doing that by acting on behalf of something which under the Act is defined as a foreign principal?

Now, if there's vigorous self-declaration, the use of the transparency notice regime might be minimal. But what I would say is of course it's the case that the Secretary and the Government would never use that transparency notice process unless they had a very, a very high belief that they would be able to prove that the organisation in question is a foreign principal, because of course the transparency notice can be challenged in the AAT if someone took the view that the Secretary's notice declaring some body to be a foreign principal couldn't be sustained, they could challenge that. So we would use it obviously only where we thought that the decision that a body was a foreign principal could be supported in an evidentiary basis.

QUESTION: Even with what you're saying about the AAT there, there has been a concern raised that there's a lack of procedural fairness here in notifying people that you're about to be put into this situation.

CHRISTIAN PORTER:Well, it is the case that the rules of procedural fairness do not apply to the transparency notice itself, but that's not an unusual process when powers are delegated to a secretary for declarations of that type. But of course, if a transparency notice were to be challenged in the AAT, then all of the standard processes of that tribunal, including all of its standard procedural fairness processes, will be abided by and they're very strong procedural fairness processes.

QUESTION: So you wouldn't be open to changing that part of it?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well no, we would not be open to changing that part of it, and I don't think that there's any reasonable suggestion being made in that sense. Okay. Very good, cheers.