Wednesday, 19 September 2018

 Press conference with the Prime Minister, Hon. Scott Morrison MP

Transcript

E&OE…

SUBJECTS: Food safety;

Prime Minister
The Hon. Scott Morrison MP

Attorney-General
The Hon. Christian Porter MP

PRIME MINISTER: Good afternoon everyone. Over the last few days, we have seen a very distressing series of events unfold relating to the tampering with strawberries, particularly out of Queensland. This is a shocking and cowardly thing for this individual and others who have jumped on the bandwagon, to have engaged in.

It's shocking because it is taking away from strawberry farmers what they have invested in to reap at this time of year. They made their decisions. I was talking to a Gavin from Caboolture a little while ago. They invested back in their crops in January. This is the peak season when they get the return from that investment, so they can start investing in next year. This is their way of life.

Some idiot, for his own reasons, or her own reasons, has engaged in an act of sabotage it would seem that has put all of that at risk for these people, just out there having a go. Not only that; mums and dads and their kids have been put in the position of having real concerns and indeed fears. It's not on. We can't put up with it.

Now, the authorities are pursuing this matter with full vigour. The Queensland government and the Police Service are the lead agency on that investigation and the Minister for Home Affairs will appear here later today and provide you with an update on those matters. In fact, the Commissioners are all here today for a broader meeting and so there will be an opportunity for them to update you on that investigation. But what is important is the action that needs to be taken. Now already, I commend the Queensland Government, I spoke to the Queensland Premier yesterday and they'll put in $1 million into some investment to help the industry get back on its feet. That's good and we support that. We've also announced $1 million that we're putting in to support the industry and for FSANZ which is the food regulation authority to support additional inspectors and other industry-based programs. So, that's important and we'll be doing that.

But it's also important to send a very clear message, to ensure that we have the right penalties and have the right offences that are in place to ensure that we protect against these sorts of things into the future. So yesterday I asked the Attorney-General to consider these matters and what we'll be doing is two things when it comes to federal offences.

The first one is increasing the penalties for those who would be found guilty under the existing provisions, from 10 years in prison to 15 years in prison. That basically takes you from someone who has an offence for forgery or theft of Commonwealth property, they currently get 10 years. That's what you get 10 years for. What you get 15 years for, are things like possessing child pornography and financing terrorism. That's how seriously I take this, that's how seriously our Government takes it. That will be an increased penalty for those who engage in this sort of thing.

But the other thing we're doing is to create a new offence which deals with the issue of recklessness. Now, any idiot who thinks they can go out into a shopping centre and start sticking pins in fruit and thinks this is some sort of lark or put something on Facebook which is a hoax, that sort of behaviour is reckless. Under the provision we'll be seeking to introduce swiftly, that type of behaviour would carry a penalty of up to 10 years in prison. It's not a joke. It's not funny. You're putting the livelihoods of hard-working Australians at risk and you're scaring children. You're a coward and you're a grub.

If you do that sort of thing in this country, we will come after you and we will throw the book at you. We will be seeking to have that law brought in before this Parliament rises this week. Of course I'll be seeking the support of all parties in the Parliament, which frankly I'd be very surprised if we don't receive. I'm sure we will and we will be working to that end very swiftly.

The Attorney will seek to introduce that into the Parliament tomorrow morning. As soon as we have those amendments in a position to be shared, we'll be doing that and working cooperatively. I expect nobody goes home until that is done. Because anyone who is thinking of engaging in this copycat behaviour, should know - there should be signs up in every single grocery store or wherever you buy your strawberries or wherever you buy your other fruit - you do that, you face jail. They can be very clear about those warnings. I want that to be law by the time we rise from this Parliament at the end of tomorrow. Now, the other thing I want to suggest to people, having spoken to Gavin today, is we'll put these deterrents in place, but we need to encourage a calm.

I encourage you, as Gavin was saying to me, the strawberry farmer, they don't want people to go back and buy twice as many strawberries or anything like that. Just go back to buying strawberries like you used to and take the precautions that you should. Because this is an industry that can right itself more quickly than others, if that demand returns. He told me there are some 120 growers in Queensland alone affected by this and they've seen the prices drop by about 50 per cent, which they have had to do in this circumstance. But the demand has still fallen. Now it's important that they can get out there and be paying their workers to be picking the strawberries in the fields, so those fields don't get contaminated. That's another issue we're going to have to deal with and work closely with the State government to ensure that we can preserve the fields. That strawberry farmers don't have to walk away from the fields because there is that risk of contamination and other diseases that can get into those fields. That means they have to be just written off. We don't want to see that happen. It's already starting to happen but if Australians can just go back to loving their strawberries and buying their strawberries, of course taking the necessary precautions, then I would encourage them to do that and be careful how they go about it. There's been a lot of other things being done to provide that protection, but common sense is always the best one. The clear message is this; this is not on. This is just not on this country. We will act, the State governments I know will act as well, and that's to protect and keep Australians safe, for the food that they love.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Thank you PM. As the PM noted, later today there will be a more fulsome briefing about the progress of the investigative side into this matter. Needless to say, it looks at this stage like you are looking at multiple instances across multiple states. No doubt investigations will show a whole variety of motivations, all of them criminal, but different motivations nonetheless. I think it's fair to say that the reasons for the actions I'm about to describe, as far we're concerned is that it represents a scale of criminality relating to primary food products in Australia, that is unprecedented in Australia.

Yesterday, the PM asked me to consider whether the strength and adequacy of the existing laws to punish and deter the sort of shocking behaviour that we're seeing, is adequate. Having considered it overnight, I've made two recommendations, broad recommendations to the Prime Minister, which I will describe to you as briefly and as accurately as I can. As was noted, we'll proceed with urgency in the drafting of the Bill. As soon as that Bill is available, which we except to be later on this afternoon, I'll liaise with the Opposition to secure their support for the passage of that Bill which we'll hope to be tabling tomorrow. Before describing the two changes that have been recommended based on my advice, I just wanted to make the point that proposing ways to strengthen or improve the criminal law should not be taken for anyone who is engaged in this behaviour or thinking about this behaviour, it should not be taken to mean there are not already very significant criminal offences on the Commonwealth and State books and very significant penalties. There are ways to improve those, which I will note. But at the moment, the essential penalties and laws are in section 380 of the Commonwealth Criminal Code Act. They relate to the contamination of goods, including food. There is a general offence of contaminating food or other goods with the intention of causing public alarm or anxiety or significant economic loss or the intention to cause harm to public health.

As the Prime Minister noted, that presently carries a maximum of 10 years. There are also separate offences relating to similar behaviour, specifically where the loss is borne by a corporation or a Commonwealth authority or relates to trade. There are also offences of threatening to contaminate goods and making false statements about the contamination of goods, they also presently carry 10 years. The very serious a starting point here is to note that in the age of social media, if anyone were to do something as criminally stupid as make a false statement about the contamination of food or post a YouTube video of yourself contaminating food - even if you didn't intend for that to be consumed by someone, you are potentially engaging in what is already very, very serious criminal behaviour.

The two changes that can strengthen and improve the situation overall. The first relates to broadening and strengthening those contamination of food offences I've just raised. As the Prime Minister noted, the existing maximum penalty will be increased from 10 years to 15 years for all four of those offences, which already exist on the Commonwealth statutes. Now, I've just noted that those existing offences rely on their existing an intention to cause the anxiety or cause the harm or cause the loss. We will introduce four new additional offences that mirror the existing offences and in each case, the mental element will be lowered to that of recklessness, rather than intention. The simple point here is that if you're a copycat perpetrator or you have some motivation other than intention, if you attempted to argued that it could not be shown beyond reasonable doubt that you had formed any specific intention to cause the anxiety or the loss or risk of harm, that would not prevent your prosecution. That is a very important addition to our criminal offences, which is why the PM is going to insist that it be passed by the end of the week.

The second change relates to more the recent offence of sabotage that was set out in the Espionage and Foreign Interference Bill. You will recall that the Espionage and Foreign Interference Bill amongst a variety of other changes, modernised the offence of sabotage. It did that by broadening the range of infrastructure that could be the subject of sabotage, so that the modern meaning of sabotage is now to include infrastructure that related to the provision of utilities or services, including the transport of people or goods related to those utilities or services. Now the sabotage offences will be amended by amending the definition of sabotage to cover sabotage of goods intended for human consumption where it's prejudicial to national security. That would be done by amending the definition of public infrastructure in the Criminal Code.

The simple point here, is that on a larger scale sabotage has been recently conceived to include sabotage of infrastructure that allows for the provision of electricity or water to Australian citizens, because they are essential to our citizens wellbeing and therefore our national security. While this is not a national security issue particularly, it is unprecedented behaviour that highlights how food supply chains can potentially be just as important to Australia's wellbeing, so our national security, as the provision of water or electricity. So, that would be the second type of amendment that will occur.

The Bill should be drafted by the end of today and I'll be discussing it with Labor this evening. Thank you.

PRIME MINISTER: We are not mucking about on this. We're going to get about it. Happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister is there any prospect – I'm not a lawyer so this might be a dumb question – but is there any prospect of this being applied retrospectively to cover the current action?

PRIME MINISTER: I'll let the Attorney-General answer that.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: The answer is no, for two reasons.

PRIME MINISTER: Because he is a lawyer. [Laughter]

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Sometimes I forget. There are already very significant offences and penalties. This represents a refining and improvement and strengthening of the penalties. It is something that Commonwealth governments and State governments have rarely, if ever done, is to retrospectively apply criminal law. The reason we are doing this so quickly is that we do think there is a need to strengthen and improve the law and this sends a massive deterrence message to anyone out there who would further cripple this industry.

In my electorate, Berry Sweet Farms that I've visited many times with Anthony and Leanne, they're some of the people that have been affected by this. We are moving to do this very quickly.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, what if anything do you know about the motives of the person or people doing this and what makes you think increasing the sentence from 10 years to 15 years will stop them, if they're not deterred by the 10 year penalty now?

PRIME MINISTER: On the first point, I'll allow the Minister for Home Affairs and the Federal Police Commissioner to provide you with an update on where the investigation is. That's appropriate for them to comment on that and not for me.

There are two parts to what we're doing here. I'm trying to stress very clearly the seriousness with which these types of acts of sabotage should be considered.

I don't care if you've got a gripe with a company, I don't care if you've got a gripe with your fellow worker. This is a very serious thing, which is damaging our economy, but it's affecting families. The amount of traffic, I know, just mums and dads talking to each other the course of this week is totally understandable. They need to know that there's a clear message being sent about how we see these things. On the second point and the new offence which relates to recklessness - and we would hope the states would look at similar measures in their own jurisdictions - is to have that deterrence value straightaway. That people do not go and add to this problem and that they understand and they checked themselves. Because if they don't check themselves, we will.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, do you think it's right and appropriate for Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Stokes to have such a heavy hand in the recent leadership spill?

PRIME MINISTER: Why don't we talk about strawberries and not politics for a second?

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, to what extent does this new "reckless" measure, with social media, provide potential for further action against reckless behaviour in other areas?

PRIME MINISTER: Right now I'm focused on what is happening around the contamination of the fruit that Australian children eat. That's my primary focus now, I'm not considering the broader potential applications of these things, I think that can be done at a different time period. Right now, this is about acting to address what I think is a very significant concern to the Australian community, which they would expect, the Commonwealth, the Prime Minister, the Government, our Government, to act upon.

JOURNALIST: Can you tell us or the Attorney tell us maybe how recklessness is likely to be defined, that would be helpful. Do you have an idea about how?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I'm afraid the unfortunate answer I have to give you is that it's always determined by the facts of the case. But "recklessness" is a standard known to the criminal law. It applies to many Commonwealth offences.

Perhaps if I can give you this broad summary. If you were to put a pin in a strawberry because you wanted to cause damage to a former employer's business, then clearly you would be able to be shown to have the intent to cause that harm. Unfortunately - and this has always been the case and perhaps there is a greater and more elevated amount of this that occurs in the modern age - but there are also acts that you could describe as "callously and criminally stupid". This type of new offence is meant to scoop up those offences and make it easier for the prosecution to successfully prosecute and then have punished, people who act with that sort of "callous and criminal stupidity".

JOURNALIST: PM, Pauline Hanson has [inaudible] today saying that this is an act of terror and the farmers should get up to $75,000 in compensation. Can I ask whether you agree with that and secondly, Mr Porter is there any guarantee that the person who is caught and charged or tried for conduct under Commonwealth legislation, under current legislation [inaudible] state legislation?

PRIME MINISTER: On the first question, I think we have to choose our language carefully here and how these things are described. You'll see with the Minister for Home Affairs and the Federal Police Commissioner brief you, they will describe these offences and these activities, I think, in the appropriate way. We will continue to look at what's happening here on the ground in terms of its impact on the farmers themselves.

One of the things that's really concerning me, as I said in my opening remarks, is to ensure that these fields continue to get picked. Because when the demand drops by half and you can't pay people to pick them that means you can't pay people to pick them even to destroy them. Then you're having to walk away from a field.

Now the primary responsibility for those things actually rests with the State Government and in the same way, it's a bit like how we're dealing with the drought. The issues of what happens around feed and transport, all these things held by the State Governments. We are looking after the people directly involved in terms of farm household assistance and so on. So there is I think, a clear separation of who is responsible for what. In these circumstances, I think it's always important that people focus on the job they have, to do that as best as they can and to work with others and cooperate with the jobs that they have to do.

So we'll stay in close contact, particularly with the Queensland Premier, but as we know, this issue is not now restricted to just coming out of Queensland. But as you'll be briefed on later today, the primary offences that led to this, allegedly were coming out of Queensland. They can add to that more.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: So these offences which had recklessness as the new mental element, would be meant to cover the field. This is one of areas of criminal law where there are parallel State and Commonwealth offences. Once this change is made, we're confident that based on the nationhood power and corporations power that the new "recklessness" offence would apply to all this misconduct, irrespective of where it occurred. It may also be the case and I think it will be the case that each of the states and territories, when there's slightly more time at hand, are able to update their offences so they would then mirror the Commonwealth offences, so there'll be clear alternative. But this is meant to cover the field.

JOURNALIST: You have mentioned that there's different jobs for different people. How much data have you got across the country about the impact on the industry and how much risk there is of contaminated fields and things? Therefore what scope there is for the Commonwealth to possibly provide further or alternative forms of assistance to the industry?

PRIME MINISTER: That data is coming in and the impacts are just now starting to be felt. It's very anecdotal at this point, about how many fields have been affected. There are a lot of people who were picking strawberries a couple of days who are now no longer picking strawberries. A lot of those are on backpacker visas and things like that. They're starting to move on from the towns, so that also has an impact on the towns, with those workers not being there, with their wages not being spent at the local pub and things like that. They're the obvious second round effects that you see in an instance like this. So the data will continue to be collected, the incidents will be looked at. Predominantly, I think that falls to State governments to deal with that. But at a Commonwealth level we'll stay closely in touch. I'm not ruling anything out. But we've got to make decisions based on the data. But the one thing people can do to avoid all that, is what was said to me earlier today by Gavin; that is, go back to buying strawberries in the usual way. You know, make a pav this weekend and put some strawberries on it.

JOURNALIST: Is there some possible intervention you can make at a workforce level to sort of say the Commonwealth will help fund the cost…

PRIME MINISTER: I'm not going to pre-empt anything here. I think that these are the steps we're taking now. We'll continue to monitor what is occurring on the ground and what additional measures may be necessary. But right now I think it's about in particular, putting the deterrence in place so that the issue is not compounded. I just hope whoever was involving themselves, particularly not just in the original incident and offences, but those who compounded it just by being idiots, that they just check themselves and wake up to themselves and understand that there's nothing funny about that. I would hope that common sense would prevail. But we'll continue to work with them, alright? We're going to take it step by step. We're aware of some of the risks here. We're aware of those risks and we just have to see the extent that they're materialising and what's the best way of dealing with them. We're just going to work together, we've just got to work together on this each day and try and get things back to normal as quickly as we can. The Australian public can do that as well.

JOURNALIST: [inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER: I'm not that interested in the politics today, I'm staying with the strawberries.

JOURNALIST: You're not going to address my question at all?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I may, but I'm going to deal with strawberries first. I know the media is gallery is terribly interested in politics but frankly I'm more interested in what kids are eating at the moment.

JOURNALIST: Well I actually have a question that comes from the Blacktown West Public School who are in the building today. One of the children asked this and I couldn't answer the question so perhaps you can Prime Minister. He said, "Why do so many Prime Ministers get replaced?"

PRIME MINISTER: When you're asked to do a job, you step up and do the job. That would be my encouragement to that young person. He's - is it he or she?

JOURNALIST: He.

PRIME MINISTER: He's going to be asked to step up to do jobs over the course of his life and you prepare yourself to do that when you're called upon. That's what I'm doing. That's what I'll continue to do that and today that's exactly what I'm doing.

We have a real issue going on here, with what's happening with strawberries and other fruit. We can't allow that to keep going on. I'm not going to get distracted by those other issues, I know there are plenty of people who are interested in them, but I think they're more interested in the real damage being done to these farmers and the concern and anxiety it's causing in our community.

So my answer to him is I'm going to stay 100 per cent focused on those issues. Last one?

JOURNALIST: [Inaudible] died in Darwin, we've learned that multiple complaints were made to Child Protective Services about the family and they fell on deaf ears. Is there a problem with Child Protective Services in the Northern Territory?

PRIME MINISTER: Well I've just been with Chief Minister Gunner today and we've had a discussion about a number of issues. These are matters that really, they're responsible for and they need to address. If there is a need for any Commonwealth action here, then I will always be open to protect children.

I think I mentioned to Paul Murray the other night, in my office I've had for many, many years, a plaque of a young girl who was 11 years old, Shirley Ngalkin. She was raped and she was drowned in the Northern Territory. That led to the Government taking a lot of serious actions at that time, under the Howard Government. If I ever believe it's necessary for the Commonwealth to take action in this area, then I will. Because I want to see children protected. Now, there was a politics question.

JOURNALIST: Yes Prime Minister, just in terms of the recent reporting and the revelations that both Kerry Stokes and Rupert Murdoch had quite a heavy hand in the leadership spill? Do you think that is right and appropriate?

PRIME MINISTER: Well I don't think it happened.

JOURNALIST: You completely contest this?

PRIME MINISTER: I don't believed it happened at all and you'd think I'd know given I was involved. Thank you, cheers.

[ENDS]