Subjects: Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme; citizenship, federal election in WA, Council of Attorneys-General
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: The last occasion that we were here in June of this year, I was talking to you all about the, what were then amendments to the Foreign Influence Transparency Register Scheme and the passage of that Bill and the espionage and foreign interference bill. Today I'd simply as a matter of statement like to note for you all that the actual operation of the systems put in place by those two bills will commence on December 10. So it will be the case from December 10 that all persons, bodies, companies, groups organisations who are engaged in a range of trigger activities which are to do with the influencing of Australian democracy and democratic decision makers, those people who are doing those trigger activities in a relationship, whether at the request of - or funded by - a foreign principal will have to register the nature of that relationship and the activities that they are undertaking. On 10 December that starts. That will be a fully transparent scheme obviously - those relationships, once they're registered starting on 10 December - will be publicly available for every Australian to understand what relationships exist and why people are doing some of the things that we understand that they have been doing in Australian democratic affairs. So it's a very significant step forward from where were at in June, and a system that I think is cutting edge in terms of the way in which any democratic country deals with the potential of interference in its affairs.
JOURNALIST: Has that been modelled on anywhere internationally?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: The closet (unclear) I guess is the American FARA system which is a register of foreign agents which has been going since the 1950s. But we would say that this is probably an advance on that system although we did learn a great deal from studying their system.
JOURNALIST: Presumably it's long over-due, in other words you would've liked to have had it in place sooner.
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well it's always the case that these very complicated pieces of legislation take some time. So these were two bills that will operate in tandem. The Foreign Influence Transparency Register which starts in December, was itself complicated. The other bill was a complete redraft of every single national security offence on our books – espionage, mutiny, sabotage and many others including the introduction of a whole suite of new offences of foreign interference. And all that was designed to try and first of all modernise the Australian law but also to counter the potential for the sort of activity occurring in Australia that we saw in America during the context of the 2016 presidential election campaign. Whereas the Americans have discovered and indicted Russian agents, and organisations were funding a campaign of misinformation designed to undermine the American democracy, that could quite easily happen in Australia and until the passage of these laws and the establishment of this system, we were unprepared for it, so it would have been nice to have it in slightly earlier but it is in and it was an arduous and detailed process.
JOURNALIST: A few terrorism questions..
JOURNALIST: The legal community has raised concerns about new laws to strip terrorists of their citizenship regardless of how long they've served, can you guarantee you can do this (unclear)?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: There's no doubt that we can. And these aren't new laws; these are a refinement of existing laws which were last updated in 2015. But as the Prime Minister noted yesterday there are a range of Australians who - to the absolute best of our investigation and knowledge - are dual citizens who have committed terrorist offences and our first and foremost requirement is the safety of the Australian people. Where we are legally able to take Australian citizenship off a person who's committed a terrorist offence, we will do so. My appraisal and that of the Prime Minister and the Minister for Home Affairs is that the present drafting of the legislation makes that process far too difficult and that does not meet the expectation of the Australian public. We cannot leave people with Australian citizenship - which is the greatest privilege on offer in our democratic system - once they have committed serious terrorist offences and we know they have citizenship to another country.
JOURNALIST: So, whilst there might be concerns with lawyers, you're confident that you've got the community alongside to go further with this?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I'm absolutely confident the community is on side, I'm confident it's the right thing to do and I'm also confident that the sort of kneejerk statements that we had from the Law Council of Australia and Morry Bailes - to name but one - are misinformed. There are ways in which you can improve the legislation to make a process known to the law and an appropriate process that's supported by the Australian people, a better and simpler process, so that we do not have people in Australia maintaining their citizenship who've committed serious terrorist offences when we know they have citizenship of another country.
JOURNALIST :Stripping that citizenship though, is there any ramifications around international law?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, we are a convention to the treaty against statelessness and we will not be placing ourselves in breach of that treaty. There are ways in which the law can be amended and refined to make the process simpler while maintaining all of our international obligations. But the bottom line here is that Australians consider - as the Government considers - that if someone is a dual citizen, that is to say a citizen of Australia and known to us a citizen of another country, and they've committed a terrorism offence, they should lose their Australian citizenship. And the basis for that is that they are no longer doing the basic thing that is required of all Australians through their citizenship, which is owing true allegiance to their country, which is Australia.
JOURNALIST: In the simplest of terms though, can you outline why you believe that it won't be contravening international law?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Because we'll take every effort to be satisfied that someone has a secondary citizenship, which means that once their Australian citizenship is taken from them, we are satisfied to an appropriate level that they are not stateless.
JOURNALIST: The PM says if they can't be deported, they could remain in immigration detention. Aren't there legal concerns about leaving people in that detention indefinitely?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, I mean, detention and immigration detention is, again, a known feature of our system that occurs in rare cases but it does occur. And the reality is that we can not force a country to repatriate someone and so there are instances where there are elongated stays in immigration detention. But ultimately our first and foremost concern is not for the terrorist, it's for the Australian public that we're trying to protect.
JOURNALIST: You sort of touched on this but do you risk breaching international obligations by potentially leaving them stateless?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: No because the advice that I am giving and the advice that I'm receiving is that we are refining a system that presently exists to make it more appropriate, to make it simpler and of course that system has at its core that we investigate to ensure that someone is not made stateless.
JOURNALIST: Just on encryption, the proposed laws, why is there such an emergency around getting that done?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, as has been noted by the Minister for Home Affairs, the reality is that an enormous number of the people that we are investigating for incredibly serious offences - not merely offences against Australia in terms of terrorism - but offences against individuals such as offences- child sex offences - these offenders are using encrypted applications which makes it incredibly difficult for us to investigate, to prosecute and fundamentally to prevent the offending that's going on. And this is a fact of our present system. I must say the encryption legislation has been before the committee now for some time. The Joint Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security by and large works well but I think a question does arise as to why it takes so long to go through a process of looking into bills. And particularly the conduct of public hearings, it seems to me can be done far quicker than it is being at present.
JOURNALIST: In The West today (unclear) Peter Dutton may be promoting crime tourism through a re-interpretation of immigration regulations. Is that the case?
Look I think that is a very dramatic over statement of the situation that exists. We'll be talking about that situation today. But there are legal limits that exist in Australia as to what you can do with people who might be persons of interest with respect to offending or potential witnesses that are also citizens of another country and want to return to their home country. So we'll talk about that today but again in that situation the Home Affairs Minister Australian Government always operates inside and in accordance with the law and based on the best advice as to what our powers are.
JOURNALIST: Just back on citizenship, what guarantees does Australia have from the second country that they'll actually be accepted.
ATTORNEY-GENERAL:Well part of this issue is that there are many countries in the world where going to that country to source documents as to establish the citizenship status of someone who is originally from that country is not always a very simple process. And when you are undertaking an assessment as to whether or not someone has dual citizenship there's a question about the standard you want to take that assessment to. Now we will always be satisfied that someone is a dual citizen of another country but what we are saying is you might not want to be relying wholly and solely on information from that country to make that determination to a reasonable standard.
JOURNALIST: Just back on the urgency around encryption, are you disappointed about how long that is taking?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Yes I think that these things should be done quicker. I mean there is a very important role for the Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee but there's also a responsibility on the part of that Committee to move these things through its processes and conduct its public hearings in a compressed timeframe. And the experience that we had with respect to the espionage bills and the foreign influence bills that we've been speaking about today is that when ultimately it had been going on for many, many months, in fact in excess of nine months, and we put pressure on the Committee to produce a report and a result, they did. So it's always the case that these things can be done somewhat faster and there is no more important issue facing the Australian Government and the Australian people than ensuring we can properly investigate paedophiles, terrorists and people who mean our people and our country harm.
JOURNALIST: So by dragging its feet that Committee ….would you say it is putting public safety at risk?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well I'm not using that language what I'm saying is that their processes are appropriate processes but there is a very fundamental obligation that those processes be conducted fairly and quickly.
JOURNALIST: Just on the looming federal election. The GST deal's now been done you've got the change in leader and he's hit the ground running he's been here once or twice. How confident are you now heading into an election that you'll do well in terms of as a government.
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well I can maybe answer that by saying that in my electorate of Pearce one issue is emerging as the central and most important issue for the next election campaign; it's not the GST because we fixed that now, it's housing prices. And my view is that the Bill Shorten policy of ending negative gearing for all existing properties which just simply takes buyers out of the market is clearly going to drop the prices of family homes in my electorate by 10 per cent. And through the mortgage belt of my electorate out to Ellenbrook and all the coastal suburbs that rightly scares the hell out of people. So I can make this prediction the single biggest election issue in my electorate and I think across WA will be that there is a Labor policy to take buyers out of the market for property which will decrease the value of your family home by upwards of 10 per cent. That will be the central issue in this election campaign in WA. It is huge in my electorate.
JOURNALIST: So that must make you personally very comfortable that you're going to hold your seat?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well it does. There are people in my electorate emailing me and ringing me –the goal in my electorate is to own your home, see that home increase in value and over the many years that it increases in value potentially buy an investment property. And Labor has an 'increase tax policy that destroys that dream in my electorate and that issue is red hot.
JOURNALIST: How did you land on that 10 per cent figure?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well there are several economic studies that say that and the most recent is from the Master Builders Association.
JOURNALIST: Is that across the board or just Pearce…
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well they estimate that that is the point at which prices will drop as an average across Australia because of this policy. For every single family home in Australia. Everyone who's got a mortgage who wants to see the value of their home increase – once Labor got in and did what they promised to do which is end the negative gearing tax concessions they would remove an enormous number of buyers from the market and this is economics 101 – if there are less buyers for a product the price of the product drops – as demand drops the price drops. And the best estimate is that those prices will drop up to 10 per cent. And that is a massive problem for West Australian homeowners in what is already a soft property market.
JOURNALIST: Just on a different track, will we see a resolution before the end of the year to splitting super for defacto couples?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Yes, well I can't give an absolute watertight guarantee on the actual dates, but this is something I've worked on in a very cooperative way with John Quigley. For years there's been a stand-off between the Commonwealth and the state – in WA – the result of that stand-off is that when defacto couples end their relationship in WA you've not been able to split superannuation assets. Generally speaking, just as a matter of statistics, the man in a relationship has a larger amount of superannuation, that hasn't been able to be split and that has caused great unfairness and inequities and it has meant that many women have come out of defacto relationships not getting the type of settlement that they would anywhere else in Australia. So we hope that will be the law and changed by Christmas but if not soon after.