Subjects: Huawei; national security; elder abuse
DAVID SPEERS: Well Attorney-General Christian Porter joins me now for more on this. Thanks very much for your time this afternoon Attorney-General. John Lord there says his operations, Huawei in Australia obeys the laws of Australia, just as they do in the UK, in France, in Germany, therefore there is no conflict he says. Do you accept that?
Well look I see that question David, as directed at a process that's underway with respect to obviously potential tendering parties for the 5G network and as the Prime Minister noted there is a process - a statutory process - part of that process is considering national security issues. I'm just not going to be commenting on that process and prejudging. It's not actually a process that's under my portfolio.
DAVID SPEERS: Well no, I'm not asking you to. I'm just asking you whether in your view Huawei does follow Australian law. Does it abide by Australian law?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well I'm sure that all companies in Australia undertake their absolute best endeavours to obey Australian laws and I'm sure that Huawei is no different from that. But I, you know, I mean I'm not an expert on Huawei's practices from start to finish nor am I an expert on every single practice of every company in Australia but we expect all companies to behave lawfully.
DAVID SPEERS: And are you able to say whether in your view Huawei is linked to the Chinese government?
Well I mean Huawei is a Chinese company. I mean that much is self evident. They are a very large company as their CEO in Australia noted in the preview package that you put to air. Corporate structures in China are different from those in Australia and different from those in other countries. I'm not an expert and nor am I being required to judge in these circumstances whether or not it meets that threshold that you've put forward.
DAVID SPEERS: Well okay, but again it's a straightforward question. Do you think it is linked to the Chinese government? Are you saying that's not something you're aware of?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well I don't think that is a straightforward question David. It's not even close to a straightforward question. I mean the reality is that Chinese corporate structures and relationships with government in China are very different from the relationships of corporate entities to government in Australia. And again I'm not being called on to make a call or decision. There's a process underway with respect to the 5G network and that's going to run its course and it's a very detailed, orderly, statutory-based process which any responsible government would engage in.
DAVID SPEERS: Just explain to us how that process works for the 5G network that we're talking about here. What is the process?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well there were Acts of parliament passed which relate to the protection of our national security in the creation and establishment of infrastructure. One of the criteria that's taken into account, as the Prime Minister noted there's criteria around national security, I guess the analogue would be the Foreign Investment Review Board process with the investment of foreign companies and foreign entities in key and strategic infrastructure. But essentially it's a process of determining whether or not national interests are served in a security setting by a particular party investing or tendering in a process.
DAVID SPEERS: And if a party is connected to a foreign power, a foreign government, they're not allowed to be involved?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: No, far from it. The question is far more intricate and detailed than that but it's a question that is asked and answered based on advice from a range of agencies with evidence-based submissions made to executive government.
DAVID SPEERS: Because of course Optus is part-owned by the Singaporean government so that doesn't prevent them from any involvement in the 5G rollout.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: No, of course not and there are defence companies in Israel very closely linked to the Israeli government. The BBC is wholly owned by the British government. So these situations in terms of corporate structures arise from time to time and from context to context. But in the case of investment in infrastructure where there are some national security implications, then the question about the appropriateness or desirability of any particular party being able to participate in that ultimate creation of the infrastructure is determined on a case by case basis. And one of the evergreen truths in these set of …
DAVID SPEERS: Yeah so, and...
CHRISTIAN PORTER: … of circumstances is that all cases are different.
DAVID SPEERS: No, indeed. But the reason I asked that is just to establish that if Huawei is barred from any involvement in the 5G rollout it's not because of the fact it may have a link to a foreign government, because as you cite a list there of others that do, if they are barred this would be for some national security concern about this company or indeed about China.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well you're wanting me to prejudge a process that is not yet complete that we conduct in government and we ask questions about the appropriateness of investment in national security infrastructure and infrastructure with national security components. So, obviously national security as the Prime Minister noted is one of the many things that we take into account.
DAVID SPEERS: What's the timeframe on the decision here with this 5G network?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: You'd have to direct that at the minister who is involved. I'm not…
DAVID SPEERS: Okay.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: … directly responsible for that process. I just couldn't answer that question for you.
DAVID SPEERS: Okay. You are responsible however, for the new Foreign Interference Transparency Register that the Government hopes to set up. It is still being looked at by a parliamentary committee. Would that register, if it if it becomes a reality, would Huawei have to be listed on that register?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well that's a question that would arise in certain circumstances and have to be considered in the context of those circumstances. So for instance with the amendments that we have submitted to the committee on the Foreign Influence Register, the transparency register, if someone were engaged by that company or another company they would ask themselves a series of questions. Firstly, is the person engaged involved in parliamentary or government lobbying or are they working in a way to try and affect an outcome in the government and democratic processes of Australia? If the answer to that question was yes, the secondary and subsequent question is: am I doing that whilst being engaged by a foreign principal? And the definition that we've submitted includes the notion of a government-related entities, so a business that's closely related, controlled and directly linked by a foreign government. So any person who was acting for a company and involved in government relations or lobbying or trying to affect democratic outcomes in Australia would need to ask themselves those two questions. And they'd have to do their due diligence, not only about the way in which they're acting on behalf of the company in question but the nature of the company in question. But I can't answer that out of the context of the specific actions of someone who might be acting on behalf of a company that you've mentioned.
But ultimately it's a system of transparency and self-reporting and those are assessments that the person engaged by the company would need to make.
DAVID SPEERS: Yeah, and if they make that judgment under self reporting as you suggest there, let's stick with this example, John Lord we just heard from there, the chair of Huawei in Australia, if he says what he's been saying that he's not linked to the Chinese government, he doesn't believe he should be listed on the register. What happens then?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well I mean if for any company, an advocate or an employee of that company who is engaged in parliamentary or political lobbying in Australia made a determination after due diligence and inquiry that they were not working for a foreign principal because the company they are working for didn't have links or controllability aspects to a foreign government then they make that decision. The amendments that we've provided to the Parliamentary Joint Committee do allow for a mechanism which would be effectively a declaration by the Secretary of my department, Attorney General's Department, that the organisation of the person was working for did in fact meet the criteria of what we've defined as a foreign government related entity and then in that case that person…
DAVID SPEERS: ….And how would the secretary arrive at that decision?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well the secretary would take into account all the best information, advice that all of our agencies had to offer. But importantly if such a decision were made by the Secretary of my department that decision could be argued and effectively revoked by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal in effectively an open court setting. So if the Government were ever to use that transparency notice power that would exist in the act they’d obviously do so based on best advice and with sufficient evidence at their disposal to prove what they thought was provable.
DAVID SPEERS: And I guess this is where it gets potentially difficult because, I mean, what's the point of this register if you're not willing to actually list those who need to be listed on it? And if it is an open court setting, as you say, when it hits that Administrative Appeals Tribunal, would the Australian Government really be prepared to put in an open court setting intelligence information to prove a link between a company like Huawei and the Chinese government?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, you're again pre-judging the willingness of the Government to do something with respect to legislation that's not yet passed. But let me explain it this way-
DAVID SPEERS: ….I'm just wondering about the plan for how this would work - under the legislation you put forward, would there be a willingness for the Australian Government, if it needs to list a company or you know an employee of that company, is it willing to use intelligence in an open court setting to do so?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well look, as a government whose primary concern is maintaining the security of our government, the safety of our people, and the security of our democratic processes, we're not intending to pass legislation that we would ever be unwilling to use. What we're saying with respect to this transparency register scheme and the transparency notice provision that we've just discussed is that if an Australian, whether they be a former diplomat or former government minister or someone involved in government relations, is lobbying and trying to affect an outcome in our democratic system, that's fine. If they're doing it because they're employed by a foreign principal, whether that's a foreign government or a foreign company with close ties to a foreign government, that's fine. But we want those relationships to be transparent.
If it were ever the case that we considered that someone wasn't declaring a relationship that did exist and that they were engaged in trying to influence democratic outcomes, then of course we'd be willing to use the power that we have at our disposal to make that process and that relationship transparent.
Now, you say that might at times be difficult. Well, no one would dispute that, but that doesn't detract from the fact that it's a very necessary part of any democracy, that if someone in Australia is putting a view meant to try and change public Australian opinion or a government decision and that view appears to be made by an independent Australian observer but that person's actually employed and paid by a foreign principal, I think the Australian people want to know that and we want to pass legislation so that that's knowable.
DAVID SPEERS: Yeah, and I don't disagree. I'm just wondering whether you'd really use intelligence information to prove what you know in a court setting so that a company or an individual could be listed.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, the AAT regularly hears matters in a tribunal setting that involve intelligence information and there's a particular Act that allows for that information to be heard in a discrete and sometimes in-camera way; so, for instance passports are cancelled from time to time. So those types of matters are not unknown to the law or the AAT or to government, but as to your point: we would be seeking to pass this legislation for the purposes of making the relationships transparent. There's no stigma in registering the relationship. It's just that the Australian people should know if someone is advocating for a certain outcome on behalf of a foreign government, a foreign party.
DAVID SPEERS: No, indeed. Yeah, absolutely. And it's an important point you've just made to anyone - because as you say, it's a self-reporting system - that they know the Government's willing to go to, even if it has to, a closed session of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal to put intelligence before the tribunal if a company's not willing to list itself when it should.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, of course. And indeed, the entire transparency register scheme has serious penalties at the very end of a long line for people who don't register themselves if they're engaged in democratic lobbying on behalf of a foreign principal. But ultimately, like any offence, the Commonwealth Government would have to be able, willing, and ready to prove that offence in a court. So the entire system, it revolves around the ability and willingness of the Commonwealth Government to prove something.
But let me say the Turnbull Government wants these relationships transparent. If they're not transparent, they corrode our democracy and of course there'd be a willingness to use the powers that we think are utterly appropriate to make relationships between lobbyists and people trying to affect our democratic system and foreign principals transparent in Australia.
DAVID SPEERS: Attorney-General, could I just finally turn to an announcement you made today: a new national body to help victims of elder abuse. It's a growing problem, as you pointed out today. It seems one of the biggest problems with elder abuse is either the elderly may not know they're being financially ripped off or perhaps it's a family member and therefore they don't necessarily want to speak up when they're being taken advantage of. How will this new body you've announced today help tackle some of those sensitivities?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Yeah. And the second issue you raised is material and some of the very early research results that we're getting back, is that when elderly Australians are abused, either in a physical context or financially because they're having assets stripped away or they're being pressured or bullied in to giving away details and money in a bank account, quite often that's at the hands of family members doing the wrong thing. But there's an embarrassment and a stigma that attaches to it and very often it's not reported by the old person - and of course the older Australian in the context of family relationships doesn't want to upset or rock applecarts inside a family relationship. So it is a very difficult problem.
The organisation that we've announced the creation of today, the EAAA, the Elder Abuse Action Australia organisation, sits as a peak advocacy body above a whole range of coalface service deliverers that all collectively ensure that if an older Australian finds that they're being financially abused or taken advantage of, or a concerned family member thinks that that might be happening, there's some somewhere to go; there's a peak body that will advocate for their rights and they can get assistance.
DAVID SPEERS: Alright. I still imagine it's going to be an awkward process, though, if someone really doesn't want to, you know, dob in a family member - is there a- I don't know, a way to do it anonymously that's going to get around some of those issues?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, ultimately many of the types of things that happen which we would characterise as elder abuse in financial or physical settings represent criminal offences, and where they occur it's highly desirable that they make their way to the authorities and police - generally state police - for appropriate investigation. But even before that point, David, as you realise, early alert that something is going wrong often stops $50,000 being taken out of a bank account pursuant to a false power of attorney or the deeds of a title being handed over to someone who shouldn't be pressuring an older person to do that.
So prevention is a big part of what we're doing and yes, part of this advocacy is to make sure that elderly Australians do not feel confined or restrained from reporting instances as early as possible when they are being put to a disadvantage.
DAVID SPEERS: Christian Porter, Attorney-General. Thanks so much for joining us this afternoon; appreciate it.
CHRISTIAN PORTER:Thank you, David. Cheers.