Subjects: Food safety, court reform, religious freedoms
PATRICIA KARVELAS: The federal government is moving to toughen laws against fruit tampering as cases of needles found in strawberries, apples, and bananas multiply. There have been over 100 reports of contaminated fruit across the country, but authorities appear to be struggling to get a clear picture of how many are related to the original incidents in Queensland. The Government wants maximum sentences for sabotaging food increased from 10 to 15 years, and prosecutors will only have to prove recklessness rather than intent.
Christian Porter is the Attorney-General and he joins me from our Parliament House studio. Christian Porter, welcome to RN Drive.
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Thank you, Patricia.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Take us through the changes that you've outlined today.
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: So, we're making some substantial changes to the criminal law. Obviously we're now looking down the barrel of around about a hundred incidents of contamination of food, strawberries particularly, and what look like fairly isolated incidents that occurred first in Queensland have spread across Australia. What we're very and frankly concerned about it the copycat nature of some of these incidents. At the moment, there are four offences in the Commonwealth Criminal Code which deal with the contamination of food. They carry 10 year maximums and they rely on the prosecution being able to show that the person intended an outcome such as harm or causing alarm for the population or loss for a business. And what we are doing is increasing the penalty for those four offences by five years to 15 years, which makes them substantially more serious offences.
We're also going to create four new offences where the mental element, the standard which would have to be shown, is recklessness. So, for instance, if you placed a YouTube video of yourself contaminating fruit and the label of the company or the producer was there, and that would clearly cause harm and economic loss and anxiety on the part of Australians who want to consume this type of fruit, then potentially you could be held liable for that offence of recklessly causing that outcome.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Minister, Australia already has laws that cover this kind of offence and these new laws won't be retrospective, so how do they actually make us safer?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, all laws are meant to have a deterrent effect, so increasing the penalty for the existing laws in itself has a deterrent effect. But also we are filling what we think is something of a gap in the law and, as I said, the existing offences require ultimately a prosecutor to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the person who contaminated the fruit in question did so, beyond reasonable doubt, with an intention to cause anxiety for Australians or to cause economic loss to a business or to cause harm to individuals. And proving that beyond reasonable doubt, that level of intention, particularly given the scale and type of criminal behaviour we've seen, is not always going to be a simple matter.
And given the copycat nature of some of the offences and the spread of them and the escalation in a very, unfortunately, quick fashion across Australia, we considered that there also needed to be a very quick response to these types of circumstances that seem to have arisen where people think it's funny or a good idea to have what you could I think best describe as a hoax contamination of fruit which has to have the eventual effect of damaging both people's confidence in eating fruit, very unfortunately, and causing economic harm to very hard working Australians who are producing this fruit, and we think that an appropriate response is to ensure a proper criminal penalty exists for that type of behaviour.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: But you want to draft these laws and make them law in 24 hours. Have you considered that given that very quick turnaround, there may be unintended consequences?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: No. The idea of behaviour which causes a negative outcome for Australians being criminalised because you do it recklessly is a standard and structural offence very well known to the Australian criminal law, both at a state and federal level. I've practiced in criminal law myself for many years and I understand how these offences work. We want to have a response which is calm but very quick and the reason why is the behaviour has very unfortunately escalated; it's causing damage and harm to hardworking Australians; it's leading to the contamination of fruit that our children eat. And a response which is swift and clear and which creates the deterrent effect that we've spoken about is absolutely necessary here.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay, so even-
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: …..and I don't foresee unintended consequences of this. As I say, it's a very well-known way in which to structure an offence.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: So, if arrests are made after these new laws are passed, would the people arrested be subject to these new laws?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, if their conduct had occurred after the laws were passed; and we intend to have these laws passed by the end of the week, so in the not too distant future, the very near future, if you did something as criminally stupid as put a YouTube video of yourself up contaminating fruit, that could well fall within the context of a hoax offence and if you were reckless to the inevitable outcome of causing anxiety amongst Australians or economic loss to businesses, you could be facing a very serious penalty.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Where will these sit alongside state and territory laws? Do you want state and territories to adopt similar laws? How does it work?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, I would expect that they will have a very good and quick look at what we're doing and the existing four contamination offences, which we're increasing the penalty from 10 to 15 years, also finds a replication in almost all of the states, I think bar for Western Australia. So, it will be very much open for the states to follow our lead on this and we hope very much that they do and I'll be communicating with my state Attorney-General counterparts as early as tomorrow about this. But the Commonwealth Code criminal offences are actually meant to be of general application, so once we pass these laws they will be able to be applied to all of the conduct no matter where it would occur in Australia.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: If you're just tuning in, my guest is the Attorney-General Christian Porter - 0418 226 576 is our text line.
You said earlier today that you don't see this as a national security threat; what do you think the motivation is, then? Is it too strong to call this domestic terrorism?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, I think it is too strong to describe it in those terms. One other amendment that we're making to our law is with respect to the definition of sabotage. That was recently modernised and updated to allow for sabotage to include the deliberate disruption of chains of supply for electricity and water. And whilst this is not a national security issue, what it has done is alert us to something which is unprecedented, and that is the fact that people can very easily disrupt chains of supply for food security in Australia. Now, that hasn't reached that level here yet and we're not suggesting it will, but it does speak to us of the need to also tweak that definition of sabotage because families' and Australians' supply of electricity and water is no more or less important than their food supplies.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Growers say the hysteria from authorities has created copycats and damaged the industry. What's your response to that critique, that some of the response we've seen has perhaps meant that we're seeing more crime committed?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, I've not heard a grower say that.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Well, the ABC's quoting growers right now on the ABC website saying that they feel like some of the response has been so hysterical and the naming of brands has meant that copycat offences have happened.
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, I think that the naming of brands is somewhat unhelpful but I've not had any growers contact me and I've got many in my electorate of Pearce, which is 14,000 square kilometres with a lot of berry growers and fruit growers and market gardeners, and in fact I spoke to a couple who run Berry Sweet Farms in Bullsbrook in my electorate just this morning about the type of responses that we're undertaking. I think the responses are appropriate; they identify a gap in the law, they're meant to send a very strong deterrent message to people who would otherwise engage in this type of behaviour that it is not funny, that it is dangerous, that it hurts and potentially can hurt individuals, and it damages businesses. So, I think that this response is clearly meant to draw a line and provide ample and quick warning to people that this behaviour must stop.
Now, I don't believe that that is in any way an over-response. I think that's the appropriate response. It's quick and so it should be.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Would a reward or financial assistance for farmers be potentially more effective than increasing the maximum sentence by five years? I mean is that something that's worth looking at?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, our investigative services are excellent here at a Commonwealth level; they're cooperating with equally excellent state investigative services in Queensland and throughout Australia. The normal course here is to use a lot of the skills and techniques available to the AFP and State Police to investigate these matters. And we're also obviously, in the very early stages of that investigation. I would expect that that investigation will provide an outcome, but of course, it's usually the case that you offer rewards once your traditional avenues have been exhausted and this is the very early stage of that process.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Just on some other issues, the Senate succeeded in delaying hearings into the proposed merger of the Family Court and the lower level Federal Circuit Court until after 23 November; how much will this delay the final start date?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: It will delay the final start date but not, it won't be much more than six to eight weeks. So I would expect, and having spoken with Rex Patrick, the Senator who moved those motions, that we can have all of the public hearings completed in December, which means that we would be able to pass the legislation in the first sitting weeks of next year, which will mean that we can have a sitting date fairly early in next year. So look, it's taking longer than I think is necessary because it's not overly complicated legislation. But nevertheless, that's how the Senate has chosen to deal with it. It will involve a little bit of delay, which is unfortunate because this legislation is meant to actually prevent and cure and fix delays that occur in the system. And now, the Senate has delayed the legislation. So it's unfortunate.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: But should you have done more to get Labor on side with these reforms? Isn't that part of the issue here?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well Labor haven't said that they're not onside; this is the fascinating thing about this Patricia, is that there has not been, whether it is a crossbench Senator or particularly the Labor Party, anyone who's raised any particular or specific objection with anything in this Bill. So that to me looks like Labor delay for the sake of delay and that's not in the best interest of court users who want a cheaper, more efficient and faster system.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Just on religious freedoms that the new Prime Minister Scott Morrison says he wants to make a priority; is that going to be something that you're ultimately responsible for and can you give us an indication of when the Ruddock review will be released and revealed?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL:Yes. So the Prime Minister's obviously said that he's very interested and he himself is going to take leadership on that issue. I've had the report and have been working through producing a response to that report and I've been in discussion about the terms of that response with the Prime Minister. So, you know, that's not too far distant, but I think it is important to make sure that when you release a report of that nature, that you've got a detailed response that can be released parallel with it or shortly after it, which is what we're working on at the moment.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Do you think there's any evidence that people's religious freedoms are currently curtailed in this country?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Yes I do.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Where? How?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, if I can give you the example of a Baptist group in Queensland, a service delivery group and one of the senior executives of that group sent an email to the staff - not doing much more and doing so in fact, in a very polite way than any other company or many other companies did during the same-sex marriage plebiscite - which was to advocate a certain position with respect to how staff and employees should vote. And that email has been the subject of a civil action in Queensland against that individual and the organisation. That action ultimately failed and it's now the subject of an industrial relations action. So what I would sort of propose here is that, if it's okay for Qantas to send to all of its employees an email in a polite and respectful way, advocating that a vote be cast in one particular way and that is not the subject of civil and punitive action against Qantas, then why shouldn't it be okay for a Baptist organisation to send a civil and polite email to its own staff, suggesting that they vote in a particular way. And I think that does strike to the issue that you've asked me to elucidate, which is examples of where people's religious expression has been curtailed.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Minister, thanks so much for your time.
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Thank you very much.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: That's the Attorney-General, Christian Porter.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: I wonder what you make of the Government's changes or suggested changes; they want them legislated by the end of the week. Tougher new laws against fruit tampering as cases of needles found in strawberries and apples and bananas multiply - tougher sentences. Basically increased from 10 to 15 years and prosecutors will also have to prove recklessness rather than intent.
- ENDS -