Monday, 14 October 2019

ABC AM - With Sabra Lane



Subjects: Religious Discrimination Act, Medevac Bill and foreign interference

SABRA LANE: The Federal Parliament resumes today. The House of Representatives now has only four sitting weeks for the rest of the year. The Attorney-General Christian Porter is also Manager of Government Business in the House, and he joins us now. Good morning and welcome to the program.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Good morning Sabra.

SABRA LANE: You were determined to legislate religious discrimination by the end of this year. Given the feedback you've had, how realistic is that?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Oh, I think we'll certainly have a bill that will be introduced and part-debated. I think also it's clear from the consultation process that there will be a committee process inside Parliament and that will also be a fairly heavy and contested space. So, I'd say definitely introduction. I think we'll get quite a distance through the debate. I wouldn't be perfectly sure about full passage, but you know, you set targets and goals and you push towards them.

SABRA LANE: Alright. And I know from your talking points that have been accidentally emailed around Parliament this morning that you're going to hold some roundtables next week. Firstly, how embarrassing is it that your talking points are out there?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well I didn't know that they were, but I mean these things happen from time to time and in any event there will be invitations out to those consultations, so it's not really like it's a big secret, Sabra.

SABRA LANE: And will you genuinely take on board feedback or is this just a tick-the-box exercise?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Oh no, absolutely. I mean, I've consulted with over 90 groups in multiple sessions, each of the sessions going for two hours, many more than that. And it's not like we pretended that every piece of drafting and use of words in the legislation in its draft form was completely perfect. We've learned quite a bit on the way through and we said, say for instance from the beginning that it was difficult for us without the expertise to understand how religious aged care and hospitals work and what might be their requirements. So we've had special sessions with them, so yeah, I mean there will be changes. But they're not changes at the margin nor are they massive or substantial changes. And …

SABRA LANE: [Interrupts] Are you reading all the submissions yourself?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Yeah, yeah, yep. Well I mean, absolutely. I mean, look, a lot of the submissions that we - you know, 10,000 submissions which are a pro forma half-page email. But the serious and substantive submissions, of course I read. And I think that there's been three views that have been emerged. Big business don't want to have any limitation whatsoever to their ability to control what their employees do. Religious and faith groups are generally pleased with the protection that having religion as an attribute would offer, but they'd probably go further in giving themselves greater autonomy around employment of staff. And I think the third thing is LGBTI groups would go further again another way around further limiting people's ability to say things in accordance with their religion even if those things aren't malicious or said in bad faith. But this is a balancing process, trying to make sure that all three of those things are as accommodated as they possibly can be. But not everyone's going to be perfectly happy, that's the nature of this type of legislation.

SABRA LANE: Well, how are you going to find a middle ground here? Because both secular and religious groups are deeply unhappy with what you've proposed and you've got the Uniting Church also saying that it fears that this might open up discrimination against vulnerable groups. Where are you going to find the middle ground that keeps everybody happy?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, deeply unhappy is your take on it. I mean, my view is that the religious groups, largely speaking, want this protection. They think the fundamentals of the bill are sound. They want more in some areas and less in other areas. LGBTI groups want more restriction of speech and less protection for religion in other areas, and big business have got their own view. But it's a balancing exercise. And the idea that everyone's going to be sort of marching in the streets with placards congratulating the Government on the bill I think is not where we're going to end up, but that doesn't mean that there won't be a passage and a pathway through Parliament …

SABRA LANE: [Talks over] But you might need …

CHRISTIAN PORTER: … and ultimately an improvement for people's protection of their religious rights to express themselves.

SABRA LANE: You might say that; you've got people like Rex Patrick who's saying he's yet to be convinced that there's a problem that needs fixing.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well I found with Rex, with all due respect, he's yet to be convinced until ultimately he gets convinced and that's a process, right, with the crossbench. But I mean for people like Rex, I'd be sitting down and saying, you know, well last year, there was a head of a senior Jewish organisation in New South Wales refused entry to an invited function in New South Wales Parliament House and that's totally lawful in New South Wales. But had he been refused on the basis of the fact that he might have had a disability or because of his sex or gender or age, that wouldn't be lawful. And the fundamental thing here is that there is a need to ensure that people's religious belief doesn't exclude them and doesn't form the basis of discrimination against them.

SABRA LANE: The Government is hoping to reveal the medevac bill this week- well, the laws this week. Jacqui Lambie says that she won't be horse trading over this bill. Will you persist?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Absolutely. I mean look, our position on these sort of matters I think is accepted by middle Australia. It's rejected by some, but it's absolutely crystal clear …

SABRA LANE: [Interrupts] So Jacqui Lambie's not voicing concerns of middle Australia?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: No, I don't believe that she is. I mean we took our vision as to how border protection should work and our track record as to how border protection should work to a full election and it was fully endorsed. And part of that was retaining the orderly system of medical transfers that successfully worked to date, where the Minister does have an ultimate discretion. Now, there's a simple matter of principle which we think is fundamental to our border protection, fully endorsed in election, and we will be absolutely crystal clear that that's our position. The Opposition have got multiple views on this, multiple views on energy policy, on environmental policy, on tax. They've reached a space where you can't actually tell what their position is, but everyone knows what our position is.

SABRA LANE: Alright. Four Corners is putting the spotlight on the university sector and foreign interference tonight. The Government's set up an investigation into interference in universities. Is this all too late? Will we ever gain full knowledge of how much research has gone offshore and will we able to unmask all of those working covertly for foreign actors?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well I haven't seen, obviously, the show yet. I'll be watching it with enormous interest. I think the first point to make is that as a government we have greatly strengthened and pushed enormous resilience into the ability of us as a society and as a government to respond to foreign interference and influence - major rewrites of the law last year. Universities are a not insubstantial part of that, but they are autonomous organisations and we have to work in cooperation with them and they need to make themselves very hard targets for this sort of behaviour. And we've seen with New South Wales ICAC and the money flowing into the Labor Party there that Australia has a diverse variety of mechanisms to uncover this type of undue interference and influence of particularly foreign money but also efforts to influence Australian public policy or to elicit information that would otherwise be kept at arms' length from foreign principals. So universities have got to take a deal of responsibility for themselves and Dan Tehan, the Minister, has been working with them on this but I think that there's a fairly large amount of work that would remain to be done in this space.

SABRA LANE: Attorney General Christian Porter thanks for joining AM this morning.