Thursday, 13 December 2018

Press Conference with The Attorney-General The Hon Christian Porter MP

Transcript

E&OE…

SUBJECTS: Religious freedom, Commonwealth Integrity Commission.

PRIME MINISTER: Thank you for joining us today, I'm joined by the Attorney General to announce two important decisions the Government has made that I believe are absolutely central, along with so many others, to the proper functioning of the successful modern democracy in which we live. The first of those is the Government's response to the religious freedoms report that was undertaken by Phillip Ruddock and his panel. The second is to announce the establishment of a Commonwealth Integrity Commission. Let me deal with each of the issues in turn and I'll ask the Attorney then to do likewise in some detail for these announcements.

There is no more fundamental liberty that any human being has, than their fundamental right to decide what they believe, or not believe, for that matter. To have a religious faith or not to have a religious faith and of that religious faith, what particular religious faith they may wish to pursue. Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, Islam, but equally within all of these religions we know there are different aspects of the way people practise those faiths.

What you believe should always be a matter for you and it has always been very tightly identified with who you are as a person. It has been one of the key issues of identity going back centuries, this is not a new thing. What people believe has always determined, in so many ways, what they're about. As I say, whether it's to believe in a particular religious faith or not to. These equally I think, go to who people are and they should be able to get about that, free of harassment or intimidation or discrimination in any way, shape or form. Just as you should be able to do depending on your sex or your gender or sexual identity or your ethnicity or any of the other protections that currently exist in our laws today. Anti-discrimination is an important principle in a modern democracy and so it's important that that principle of anti-discrimination and the protection of people's religious liberty are addressed in this country. There is some unfinished business that we're seeking to address in the announcements that we're making today and I want to thank Phillip Ruddock for the recommendations that they've made.

The protection of religious freedoms is therefore synonymous with our identity and it's particularly so and relevant in Australia, because in our incredibly diverse multicultural society, 70 per cent of Australians identify as having a particular religious belief. Now, much has been made of the fact that the 30 per cent of those who don't, has been growing. That is, I think, a description of the diversity that exists in Australian society. But let's not forget 70 per cent actually do identify with having a particular religious faith. But if you look at some of our largest, our most long-established, as well as some of our most recent arrivals to Australia, the proportion of those in those communities expressing an identification with a religious belief, is far higher. 95 per cent of Indian-born Australians, Greek Australians, Filipino Australians, over 90 per cent of Italian and Lebanese Australians identify with having a particular religious faith - and those faiths are many,  Hindu, Christian, Muslim - across each of those nationalities.

So if you support an open, tolerant, multicultural Australia - and we are the most successful immigration country, immigrant country, in the world, daylight second - we have shown the world over centuries, as we've continued to improve, as we've continued to strive to ensure that we protect the social cohesion that has gone along with the most successful immigration programme that any country has ever run - that we maintain those protections of tolerance and respect.

So if you support a multicultural Australia, then you'll be a supporter of religious freedoms. You'll understand that religious faith is synonymous with so many different ethnic cultures in Australia. You can't know where one stops and one starts, it's a way of life and that way of life is part of a harmonious Australian culture overall, it's critically important for our continued success.

We know that not all Australians share the same religious beliefs and we know that the religious composition of Australia is changing. That's fine, of course it's fine. It's part of a modern society that respects and tolerates each other. But I do know this; that Australians are substantially united, that all beliefs and all Australians, including not having a belief, should always be respected deeply by each and every citizen.

Now, the protections that we're announcing today, that we intend to introduce, they're not about protecting any religious institution, they're not about protecting any individual religion. In fact, they're not about those religions. It's about protecting Australians and an Australian's right to believe in what they want to believe. Those individual Australians, if they're of faith, or not, but who just go about their daily lives - quietly, they don't seem to impose their religious beliefs on others, they are a guide and a light to their own lives, how they want to raise their families, how they live in their communities - these protections are about them. They're about their right to choose. They're about the choices they want to make for them and their families and their communities, choices that they believe makes them stronger, equips them better to deal with the many challenges that life brings them. So it is important, it needs to be protected and that is the basis upon which we asked Philip to go and look at these issues, to consult widely, as he did - Christian may speak more about that - and to listen.

So, we have listened, we have heard and we believe there are three things that fundamentally need to be done.

The first of those is what I'd call administrative tidy-ups. I mean there are some things in our laws which frankly, have just got a bit outdated. I don't think we're as offended today by the blasphemy of sailors that we once probably were over 100 years ago. So, laws against blasphemy in the Maritime Act probably need to be updated and I don't really say this flippantly. Our laws always have to be updated to reflect where we are today. There are a range of issues that we need to address; there are a range that deal the Charities Act and things like that, which are sensible. I would describe them as low-hanging fruit, just things that should be completely uncontentious and enabling this to go forward.

There are also the issues that we've sought to try and address in recent weeks through the Parliament and regrettably, we've been unable to do that. As you know - and my offer still stands - that if the Parliament were to be able to have a conscience vote for all members of the Parliament to resolve the issue on the Bill that I sought to put forward, it does three things. It protects students from discrimination on the basis of their sexual identity, it ensures that schools can have reasonable rules, and it ensures that religions can teach according to their faith. Then, I think these are three commonsense principles that I'd be more than happy for the Parliament to be able to debate and vote on, on the free conscience of every single member. So that offer stands.

But what we are proposing in relation to those issues and the broader employment issues, is there is a requirement under the Fair Work Act that these matters would be consulted on with states and territories and the response from the Government will be to refer those matters off to a process where the Australian Law Reform Commission, who would report in the second half of next year and bring forward some further recommendations about how they might be addressed.

The third area is to really address this fundamental issue of anti-discrimination and ensuring we complete the work. That is, to establish a Religious Discrimination Act and to appoint a Religious Freedom Commissioner within the Human Rights Commission. The latter will be particularly responsible for issues around collecting information and understanding the issue more fully, working closely with communities, as well as engaging in education programs and the like.

The protections that have been afforded to ensuring anti-discrimination against a person on the basis of their religion or choice not to have a religion, would be set out in the same way that those anti-discrimination protections already exist in relation to other issues such as ethnicity, gender and so on. The Attorney can go into that.

Now, on the second matter, on the establishment of a Commonwealth Integrity Commission, this is an exercise we embarked on in January of this year. We haven't kicked up a lot of dust about this because we've just been working on it. We think it is always important to raise the bar and maintain the bar to ensure the public can have confidence in the integrity of Commonwealth public administration. These are sensible changes we're outlining today. They learn the lessons, I think, from many of the failed experiments we've seen at a state jurisdiction level. I have no interest in establishing kangaroo courts that frankly have been used - sadly too often - for the pursuit of political, commercial or bureaucratic agendas in the public space. I think those exercises have sought to undermine public confidence, not improve it. They have not added to the integrity of public administration and they've become playthings of the usual actors. That's not what we're about.

We're about having a robust, resourced, real system that will protect the integrity of Commonwealth and public administration. Now it is true to say that when this comes to these issues, Australia is a long way ahead and in fact leads the world when it comes to protecting the integrity of our administration. We are a standard-bearer in this area and what we're announcing today I think will enable us to continue to play that role. We will continue to be a model.

We have looked at all the alternatives and we believe that this is the best way to achieve this. It is the most sensible, measured, carefully considered way to address these issues. We're not interested in jumping on a bandwagon or anything like that, so that's why we've been quietly getting about this work since January of this year.

We actually have a formal, carefully considered proposal, unlike the Labor Party who are yet to even define what on earth it is they're talking about. This is a real proposal, with real resources, real teeth, but one that I think protects our Commonwealth public administration from the weaknesses of many other systems.

I'll hand to the Attorney to go over those matters, thank you for your attention.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL, THE HON CHRISTIAN PORTER MP: Thank you PM. Perhaps if I start with the Religious Freedom Review, today of course, we'll be releasing Phillip Ruddock's full report, a very fulsome and detailed response by the Government to that report. It's probably notable that there were 15,000 public submissions to that process, 90 consultation meetings. The panel report - I think when you read it you'll agree - is a balanced and sensible document, as you'd expect from the quality of the people who delivered that document. Essentially, the Ruddock Report concludes that we now in Australia have an opportunity to better protect freedom of religion and a means of doing that. They suggest in many of their recommendations what that means, what that methodology of better protecting religious freedom will be. You'll see from the recommendations that Phillip Ruddock has produced, that some are legislative, some are administrative and policy-based. As the Prime Minister has noted, we've responded in three stages, if you like. We've accepted 15 of the 20 recommendations directly. A final five we agree with the principle underpinning those five recommendations, but they will be the subject of a referral to the Australian Law Reform Commission that I'll speak to in a moment.

The first stage of response, as the Prime Minister noted, is to immediately move to legislate in a general omnibus bill, some fixes to some problems across the statutory landscape at the Commonwealth level. The types of things that are recommended there, I don't expect will be particularly contentious, but things like amending the Charities Act to make it clear that the advocacy for the traditional view of marriage can't be a disqualifying purpose. So, charities can keep that view of marriage if they wish to and still be a charity. Clarifying in the Marriage Act that religious schools can't be compelled to have their facilities used for same-sex weddings, really rather simple things in line with other amendments that have already happened.

There are also important administrative issues. The Commonwealth will take a lead role in developing a set of model guidelines which will be meant to, after consultation with the state, have a consistent national framework that explains to parents what their rights, responsibilities and duties are, when they want to withdraw a child from a part of education at a school that might contain moral or religious matters that are contrary to the doctrine of that family. So these are matters that we'll move on directly.

Secondly, there will be the drafting of a Religious Discrimination Bill and I'll come back to that in a moment. Thirdly, five recommendations, which are recommendations one, five, six, seven and eight - which effectively pertain to this central issue, as to how you best balance, with respect to schoolchildren and teachers at schools, the rights of religious schools to maintain conduct and teaching in accordance with their faith, but also ensure that there is not discrimination against teachers or students.

Now, with those five recommendations, the Ruddock Report itself suggests a potential way to draft going forward to better balance those two competing rights. Of course the Prime Minister, with respect to schoolchildren, has produced a bill and offered a conscience vote which is another way of balancing those rights and one that we as a Government think is a very appropriate way. But it's quite clear that there is an inability of Parliament to resolve this issue. The concept that we have landed on here, is to move those five recommendations around those two central principles after consultation with the states and territories on terms of reference, to the Australian Law Reform Commission, so people who are expert and knowledgeable in matters of drafting can produce specific drafting that may be capable of bipartisan support.

Had the process that we'd followed earlier been successful, that may not have been necessary. But that is an excellent institution. It's also notable that the Ruddock Review recommendations go to finding better balances between those two competing principles, not merely in Commonwealth law - so in our Sex Discrimination Act - but also in the Fair Work Act and also in the state variants of anti-discrimination legislation. So, if we can come out of an Australian Law Reform Commission process with a better way of balancing those two competing principles that works consistently across the states, the territories and the Commonwealth, then that will be a very good outcome. This I think is the appropriate mechanism to try and drive that outcome forward.

It's also notable that this touches on the Fair Work Act which requires the Commonwealth, if there are any potential changes to that piece of legislation, to consult with the states.

Then finally, the Religious Discrimination Bill, which we are well-advanced on the drafting of and which we would have out early next year, so that people can see it. The architecture for discrimination legislation in Australia is well-known, it's not overly complicated. An attribute is defined - such as age or race or sex or disability or, in this case, the adherence to a religion or the right to not adhere to a religion - and then certain prohibitions are placed on people in terms of their treatment of other Australians based on that attribute. So you are protected from discrimination because of that attribute and then there are certain exemptions drafted as is appropriate. I don't think that that would be a very contentious bill, necessarily, it follows a very standard architecture. But what the Ruddock Report said, is that there is a need for such a bill.

I would put it to you all this way. In Australia at the moment, if you're invited to a function at Parliament and at entry to the room of that function, you were denied entry because of the fact that you had a disability or because of your race, or because of your age, or because of your sex, that would be unlawful. But if you were turned away from that same room because of your religion, that would not be unlawful in Australia. So this, if you like, is the fifth and final pillar of an overarching architecture that prevents discrimination for Australians, directed to Australians, based on attributes which should never be the basis for discrimination.

So if I can leave that summary just there, of the religious discrimination issues and just move on to the Commonwealth Integrity Commission. There are quite large amounts of material that are now available on my Department's website and we have hard copies to distribute to you here. That's the result, as the Prime Minister noted, of work that commenced in January.

If I could describe that work this way; the first step that we took in assessing whether a Commonwealth Integrity Commission was necessary and if so, how it should be designed and operated, was to completely process-map all of the integrity arrangements that exist at a Commonwealth level. You'll see that process map. What that process map said to us was that whilst the present multiagency response - where a variety of agencies respond to integrity and corruption issues across the public sector in different parts of the public sector - that there was something missing. That something was a single, dedicated, specialist and peak body to investigate criminal corruption across the public sector. So we have created that body, a model for that body and that is what we are going to describe very briefly now.

The Commonwealth Integrity Commission would have two divisions; a law enforcement integrity division and a public sector integrity division. So there would be a Law Enforcement Integrity Commissioner, a Public Sector Integrity Commissioner and an overarching Commonwealth Integrity Commissioner. The Law Enforcement Integrity Division is, in effect, an enlarged variant of a present body which many of you will be familiar with is the Australian Law Enforcement Integrity Commission. Now, that body operates very well. It has jurisdiction at the moment over the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, the Australian Federal Police, AUSTRAC, Department of Home Affairs, and some parts of the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources. This part of the new Commonwealth Integrity Commission will be an enlarged ALEIC and that side, the law enforcement division, will have additional jurisdiction over the following bodies; the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority, the Australian Securities and Investment Commission, the Australian Tax Office and the entirety of the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources. The point being, that the very, very substantive powers that ACI has are appropriately tailored to the fact that it is investigating the investigators. But when you look across the public sector, there are a range of bodies, whilst not necessarily traditionally viewed as law enforcement bodies, that have many of the attributes of law enforcement bodies. The powers of the ATO to investigate, for instance, are very, very serious. So having that organisation and other quasi law enforcement organisations brought into the jurisdiction of a Law Enforcement Integrity Division, which will be better equipped and better resourced, but operate to the same jurisdictional standards and with the same powers is one half of this organisation.

The other half of the organisation will be the Public Sector Integrity Division. That will cover the rest of the public sector, including all departments, agencies, their staff, parliamentarians and their staff, staff of federal judicial officers, as well as Commonwealth service providers and recipients of Commonwealth funds. So that is to say, organisations like the NDIS, organisations that contract with the government.  That is obviously, as you'll see from process maps that we're able to provide to you, a very large number of people where there will be coverage. The Public Integrity Division will investigate allegations of criminal conduct and corruption in the public sector. It will not investigate non-criminal misconduct.

The way in which the Public Sector Integrity Commission half of this organisation will work is to investigate, pursuant to existing known standards of criminal offences in our Crimes Act and Criminal Codes, that relate to corruption. An important part of this process will be that we will update and modernise those offences, include new offences and create a new division in Chapter 7 of the Crimes Act, so that all of the offences - which we might broadly describe as corruption offences that apply to the public sector - are in one place, are well known, have high visibility and have been refined and improved for modern purposes. So, for instance, we are intending to create a new offence of "aggravated corruption by a public sector official," which would in effect be repeated offending of other types of corruption than exist in the Criminal Code. We would also create a new "failure to report corruption" offence. We would also look at an aggravated offence which involved "corruption and corruption offending pursuant to known offences by senior members of the public service".

The Public Sector Integrity Division of this new organisation will have slightly different powers to the law enforcement side of the organisation, noting that they are investigating different types of behavior in different types of organisations at varying degrees of severity. There is an enormous amount of detail that will have in a written form available to you and I would just leave and end this part of the presentation by noting that the detail that you have in front of you, I think, indicates a sober, cautious, detailed process which asks two questions; "Is such a body able to make integrity better, rather than worse at the Commonwealth level," and; "How does that body operate inside an already relatively well-functioning structure?"

I would just ask you to look at the detail that you're being provided with today and compare it to Labor's approach; which is a press release which they say was the result of 12 months' work and consultation that tells no-one in this room anything, of any detail, about what it is that they would propose.

PRIME MINISTER: Thank you, Christian and to re-enforce that point, both of these announcements that we've made today, that are central to our functioning as a successful democracy, have been the product of a long process of careful consideration. There's substantive detail for you now.

So happy to take questions, can we deal with religious freedom and then we'll deal with the integrity commission and then we can deal with the other issues, just to make sure we're staying in the same subject areas.

JOURNALIST: On religious freedom Prime Minister, if these changes are so important as you have said, why has your Government sat on the Ruddock report for seven months and why are not proposing to take any legislative action until after the election?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, wrong on both counts. First of all, I have been Prime Minister for four months, just under that in fact, and so I can only take responsibility for my actions when it comes to dealing with this and we've been taking this process, this report, through our process as a Cabinet, considering it carefully to make the announcement we have today. These are serious issues and we have had a full and frank conversation as a Cabinet, as a team, to come to the decision we have today. We will seek to legislate these matters, particularly in relation to firstly the tidy-up issues and also a Religious Discrimination Act, if we're in a position to do so and gain the support for it, very happy to.

Let's take one at a time, there's a lot of people here.

JOURNALIST: Just on that as well, is the a reason you're not looking to legislate until after the election? Is it because you see this issue as a distraction leading into the election when your main issues are -

PRIME MINISTER: I am looking to legislate before the election.

JOURNALIST: Okay.

PRIME MINISTER: I'm looking to legislate before the election, I'd happily deal with it. Whether it's the issue of discrimination against gay students and the reasonable rules on teaching according to faith, I was happy to have that in the Parliament last sitting fortnight. Bill Shorten wouldn't agree. He wouldn't agree to give his own members a conscience vote on the issue or agree to the legislation. I'm happy for us to advance a Religious Discrimination Act and also to deal with the other legislative matters before the next election. I would hope that they would have the support of the Labor Party to support not just religious freedoms, but also multiculturalism in Australia.

JOURNALIST: Is there any evidence that the religious of freedoms that you're seeking to protect has been denied by any school?

PRIME MINISTER: By any school? What I've seen, let me answer more broadly as well in terms of schools. For those who think that Australians of religious faith don't feel that the walls have been closing in on them for a while, they're clearly not talking to many people in religious communities or multicultural communities in Australia. I remember a conversation I had with one such community in Western Sydney and they said they left where they came from, to come to Australia because of religious persecution in the countries they were living in, only now - they feel - to be potentially facing the same sort of limitations to how they practice their religion in this country. That made me incredibly sad; that one of the great liberties Australia has always been known for - at perception and indeed in their mind in fact - is being curtailed. I don't think that's something I should allow to stand.

JOURNALIST: Do you have any examples of that?

PRIME MINISTER: I have many, but I mean that has been the experience relayed to me by people in these communities all around the country, as it has been relayed to Philip Ruddock in the process of consultation he went through. What I do also know is that there's not one religious school that I'm aware of who would seek to expel any child on the basis of their sexuality. Nor is there any threat of that occurring to my knowledge, but I still agree that should we be able to agree and have that matter dealt with in the Parliament in the process I have described and I'd be happy to do so.

So religious freedom, I mean, why in this country should it be - as Christian said - illegal for someone to turn someone away because of a disability, or their gender, or their sexual identity, but it's okay to turn someone away because of their religion? I mean, how can we allow to stand in Australia? That shouldn't be happening here.

JOURNALIST: If you're seeking to legislate this before the next election, do you believe that this could be a vote-winner for you?

PRIME MINISTER: I don't care, it's the right thing to do.

JOURNALIST: You say these protections are about the people who don't seek to impose their religious beliefs on others, the ones who don't. What about those who might seek to impose their religious views on others, even those within their own community and their own families, are there protections against those who would seek - ?

PRIME MINISTER: It's protection for people for what they believe or choose not to believe, Hugh. The point I'm trying to make is that the vast majority of Australians who go about their religious faith, do so in a very peaceful way. Their faith means a lot to them and their religious practice means a lot to them. And they feel that the walls are closing in on them a bit and I want to make sure they don't feel like that and they can get about their lives, their faith and their religion - or the reverse of that if they choose that. I mean it's a free country, it's a free society. People should be able to proclaim what they believe and discuss it in an open forum, like on any other issue. It shouldn't be a taboo topic in Australia.

We're a free society, you can talk about whatever you like. But what I am saying is there is a mainstream majority of Australians for whom religion is an important part of their life and they want to just be able to get on with it and live their lives in accordance with that and not have the Government start telling them where and when they can go, what they can say and how they should raise their children, how their kids should be educated. They just want to be able to choose the life they've chosen that's what I'm standing up for.

I think people know what I believe on this. I have been very consistent on this issue for over a decade in public life. This is not a new issue for me, it's an issue of long-standing conviction. It's not about any one religion. I have always understood that anyone's religious belief in this country is only as protected as another person's religious belief.

ATTORNEY GENERAL: Could I just add to that. Legally what discrimination legislation does, is offer protection "from"; from the harsh or unfair treatment of another person or body against the individual based on their attribute, their race or their sex, or in this case their religion. In terms of examples, I mean, that example I gave of someone being turned away from a room that they were invited to because of their religion, happened here in this state. It happened here.

PRIME MINISTER: It happened in Parliament House.

ATTORNEY GENERAL: We've got examples of Baptist care organisations in Queensland, in their management, putting a view to their staff about what the result of the plebiscite on same-sex marriage should be or how people should view marriage, just in the same way Qantas did to its' staff. Yet that Baptist care organisation's executives are brought into proceedings at law in Queensland. There are examples of people having Facebook conversations with their work colleagues where they put a view in favour of traditional marriage being sacked and having to run unfair dismissal cases against their employer. So this offers those people the same protection that they would have, if that discrimination had occurred based on their race, or their sex, or their gender.

JOURNALIST: PM, if a Muslim woman goes into a bank now or a courtroom with a full face niqab or a Muslim refuses to stand for the anthem or refuses to stand for a magistrate or a judge, that is now protected under your proposal?

ATTORNEY GENERAL: All discrimination legislation defines the attribute, then sets out the things that can't be done to the person because of their attribute. Then we'll set out a variety of exemptions. Of course the reason why we will have a draft exposed, is to stress-test that set of staged statutory proposals. But in the sort of circumstances you're talking about, there are always limits and exemptions. I would think it would be very much the case that a judge would still have the ability to call a person into contempt in a court if that person did not obey a lawful direction of a judge.

JOURNALIST: On gay students, you pledged to action on that issue this year. You are the Government, you control the House of Representatives and you haven't attempted to legislate?

PRIME MINISTER: I have.

JOURNALIST: Well you could have brought the legislation up -

PRIME MINISTER: I have attempted to legislate and Bill Shorten refused to give a conscience vote to his members to do it. He refused to support the legislation. So I have attempted to legislate. I said it wanted to do it in a bipartisan way, I said I wanted to do it in good faith. The Labor Party played politics with it. They broke that commitment, they broke the way which I said would be a fair way deal with it. I don't want to play politics with this issue. I'm happy to have the Parliament to decide it and I couldn't tell you what the numbers would be ultimately, on how that bill would go. But I'm quite happy to let all of my members, as their leader, vote their conscience on this issue. The question for Bill Shorten is, why is he not prepared to do it? Why is he prepared to whip the votes of members in his own Party, in his own caucus, to force them potentially to go against their conscience on these issues? I'm not going to do that to my members.

So I reject absolutely the idea that I have not sought to follow through on the commitment I have made. I absolutely followed through on that.

JOURNALIST: Then why not put legislation through the Parliament?

PRIME MINISTER: I already answered your question.

JOURNALIST: A slight detour, on the confessional seal, you want a unified approach from the states on that. Are you satisfied that, where the states are headed in terms of a priest being forced to, you know, give up information they've learned from the confession?

ATTORNEY GENERAL: That's gone to the council of attorneys-general. As you know it's largely a state issue, because it's an interface with state criminal law. The ACT have the laws entirely as you described. The Northern Territory has also, or is just about to legislate. It appears to me that process is moving forward, albeit not incredibly swiftly, but it is moving forward.

JOURNALIST: When will the review be completed?

ATTORNEY GENERAL: The second half of next year is our anticipated timeframe.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, another matter. There is a lot of concern being expressed about suppression [inaudible]. Can you reassure the Australian people that the criminal justice system is doing what it should be doing at the moment?

PRIME MINISTER: I'll refer you to the Attorney General.

ATTORNEY GENERAL: Well, suppression orders are a matter for the courts. I don't have detailed knowledge - not having been sitting in that court at the time - as to what the basis and the reasons for that suppression orders were so I'm just not qualified to give you that answer.

JOURNALIST: The Ruddock Report didn't recommend creating a religious freedom Commissioner, so why has the government decided to do that?

ATTORNEY GENERAL: The view that we took is that if you take this seriously, that when you have a piece of discrimination legislation, that it is wise and very useful to have someone in the Human Rights Commission who is for all intents and purposes responsible for the conduct of Australian affairs and for the consideration of matters pursuant to that legislation. So it seemed to us to be a logical connection to the commitment to actually legislating this area.

PRIME MINISTER: We've had a good run around this park for this one, we'll move to the Integrity Commission.

JOURNALIST: No, on the Integrity Commission, if I may. Couple of questions, will [inaudible] where this will capture, just to be clear, does it capture elected officials and will it act retrospectively, so a perciveid corrupt action was happening today, might be captured by a Commission that is not legislated until the future?

ATTORNEY GENERAL: It will not operate retrospectively. If we might offer a view from the Government - retrospective criminal law is probably the most serious and unwarranted thing that any government anywhere, in any democracy can do. So we're not doing that here.

But in answer to the first part of your question, it would cover elected officials, so parliamentarians, ministers. The way in which the body would operate is that you'll see with the multiagency framework that there are already a whole range of institutions that deal with different parts of the public service. So for instance, an organisation that this Government created, the Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority looks into expenses and issues in respect to parliamentarians. If that body for instance, in the course of one of its' inquiries, found something that it considered might constitute criminal corruption, they would refer that matter to this new body, who would take over the investigation of that matter. So this is a system of referral inside the multiagency framework that presently exists.

JOURNALIST: What protection will whistleblowers and journalists receive under the Integrity Commission?

ATTORNEY GENERAL: Well, there's been some steps forward recently on the whistleblower issues in federal politics. Obviously in the drafting process here and we'll consult heavily, that is an issue as with Parliamentary and legal privilege, that final detailed drafting needs to be landed on.

But we want to do three things with each of those issues; not abrogate legal or parliamentary privilege and ensure that there's sufficient protection for whistleblowers. But that's part of the detailed drafting process.

JOURNALIST: Can I ask on an unrelated issue?

PRIME MINISTER: On the commission?

JOURNALIST: No.

PRIME MINISTER: Let's stay with commission, I'm happy to come back to it.

JOURNALIST: You mentioned a "kangaroo court" can you expressly state whether you think the NSW ICAC is a kangaroo court?

PRIME MINISTER: All I can say both as a resident of New South Wales and having watched this over a long period of time, there's a litany, a litany of cases there, which didn't come close to best practice. The way that it has been used here in New South Wales, as a tool to pursue any number of different issues, the rules that sit around access to information, puts information into the public - and frankly on occasions acting outside its own rules, it would seem - how it's released information, it has been the lesson in what not to do.

ATTORNEY GENERAL: I might just add to that, this body is one of referral from existing multiagency approaches. It is not a body that will conduct public hearings and it will not write reports where it makes findings of corruption on a piece of paper against an individual. It is an investigative body with serious investigative tools, that is well-resourced, specialised and the peak body for building briefs against people who have acted corruptly and moving those briefs to the DPP. The reason for that, if I might just give you these words from Brett Walker SC, he said: "We should no longer be told that an individual has engaged in corrupt conduct, let alone that he or she has been found to have done so because their conduct involved the commission of a criminal offence. No other agency briefing a prosecutor or committing a charged person for trial simply informs the community that the person in question is a criminal. That would be a very serious kind of misinformation in a society still attached to the notion of a fair trial before conviction." So this is not a show-trial body.

JOURNALIST: So it will effectively operate in secret? How is that open justice, justice being seen to be done?

ATTORNEY GENERAL: An investigative body necessarily investigates in a non-public way which is very different from operating in secret. But where is justice done in circumstances where someone is investigated by a body pursuant to rules of evidence which no one here would accept are orthodox and then simply makes a finding against that person? For instance, in many matters here in New South Wales, it's had those findings overturned by the High Court.

JOURNALIST: Will the evidence that is gleaned from the inquiry be able to be used in a court of law against that person?

ATTORNEY GENERAL: Yes, I mean the purpose is to be able build a brief to establish criminality beyond reasonable doubt.

JOURNALIST: Because in ICAC, you don't need, you're not allowed to use that evidence?

ATTORNEY GENERAL: This is going to be bound by the rules of evidence so that you are building briefs. Our view is, the best way to combat corruption is to undercover it, investigate it and prosecute it.

JOURNALIST: I know you said you have been working on this since January, but you will be accused of only acting on it now because of the pressure from the crossbench. How do you respond to that?

PRIME MINISTER: The way I respond to that, I don't think those accusations are being made impartially. I mean we have been working on it since January, they're just the facts. Australians can probably see from the detail of our response today that this has not been done in a hurry. This has been done after long and careful consideration. I really want to commend the Attorney Christian Porter, for the extraordinary work he has done here and his Department as well, that have pulled this together.

This is a very complex issue. It's a very serious issue. You can't deal with it in a press release which you pretend is the result of a year's worth of work. If that's the best the Labor Party can come up with a year's worth of work, well, I think that says a lot about how they consider this serious issue. I mean, what you got here is a serious response from a serious government.

JOURNALIST: Can I ask, just a quick response, if I can. Overnight, quietly, Cardinal George Pell has resigned from the Vatican, his career there now appears to be at an end. Would you make a comment about that career both here in Australia and in the Vatican?

PRIME MINISTER: No I wouldn't. Thank you.

[ENDS]

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