6PR Mornings with Gareth Parker
Subjects: Leaked Cabinet papers; foreign interference; federal corruption body
GARETH PARKER: The Attorney-General, Christian Porter, joins me in the studio this morning. Christian Porter, good morning.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Yeah, good morning, Gareth.
GARETH PARKER: How does a filing cabinet full of supposedly secret government documents end up at a second-hand auction and then in the hands of the ABC?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, I'll give the first part of the answer, and that is it absolutely should not happen. I mean, from time to time these things have been known to happen. I mean, I remember when I was studying in the United Kingdom and an MI5 officer left a laptop on a train. I mean, these things do, from time to time, happen. They absolutely should not. So, Martin Parkinson is the head of Prime Minister and Cabinet; he's leading an investigation to answer that exact question. I don't have that answer yet, but it would seem that there's very poor observance of what are very strict procedures for dealing with documents which have a range of security ratings, like top secret, and the other one is very important, it's for Australian eyes only, and of course Cabinet documents themselves are secret.
So, this absolutely shouldn't happen. There are very strict rules about document management and handling that are designed to ensure that this doesn't happen, and clearly at some point they've been breached. How that came to occur is going to be the subject of an investigation.
GARETH PARKER: Do we know whose office the filing cabinet was last in?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: I just don't know the answer to that question and I don't want to guess around that, but the purpose of the investigation is to find that out. What it appears, by looking at the documents and I've seen the list of them online like any Australian who went onto the ABC website; they cover a range of years, they cover a range of different cabinets of both sides of politics. So, it looks like they represent some kind of storage of documents that had been generated over quite a long period of time.
GARETH PARKER: So, does that suggest they may be more departmental than political office or…?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Look, you know, that would be a rational guess, but we just don't know, and that's why you've got to have an ongoing investigation into this to sort through how this came to be. But it absolutely shouldn't happen, and it can potentially be very damaging to Australia's interests and to its national security.
GARETH PARKER: Did the ABC do anything wrong by publishing?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Not in my observation, although the ABC themselves, as I understand it, had looked at the documents and themselves determined documents which they considered, in their reasonable observation, it would not have been in Australia's national security interest to publish or distribute more widely.
So, they've made their own sensible determination about that, which seems to me to be a proper ethical approach by journalists, consistent with their code of ethics.
GARETH PARKER: So, you're not criticising in any way what they've done at the moment?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, I mean, based on the information which is not terribly voluminous at the moment it doesn't seem to me that they've done anything particularly out of the ordinary.
GARETH PARKER: Alright. Well, any idea on the timeframe for the investigation?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: No, I don't, but I'm sure that like other Cabinet ministers, I'll be briefed on that in due course. But it's led by Prime Minister and Cabinet.
GARETH PARKER: Okay. Alright, well, we'll wait and we'll watch, and in the meantime I wonder if there is more material to come out of it.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: I should just also note on that, there were a few headlines that described ASIO's presence at ABC offices in Brisbane and elsewhere as a raid. It certainly was not that. The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet had been in negotiations with the ABC about return of the documents and ASIO officers …
GARETH PARKER: So, it was a prearranged thing?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Yeah, they were there under agreement.
GARETH PARKER: Sure. A very interesting story in The Australian, that the head of the ASIO, or one of the senior leaders of ASIO, basically says that there has never been more foreign activity and foreign interference in Australian domestic affairs than there is right now at any time since the Cold War.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Yes, and in fact a statement not dissimilar to that was made by ASIO in their annual report, which was also the subject of fairly wide media attention last year, I think. You would imagine quite properly that ASIO are very tempered in their statements. So, where they say that, I think we can place Australians' great faith in the fact that it is a correct and sober observation of the modern environment that we live in. So, that's the sort of environment that we're dealing with: espionage, foreign interference, attempts to interfere with political and democratic processes, and then of course a whole range of very malicious attempts to disrupt our national security and destroy the safety of Australians.
We've prevented a range of terrorist attacks, over a dozen, in the not-distant past. So, we're living in a very high threat environment and, as ASIO said, probably more dangerous in many respects than any time since the Cold War. The Government's response to that is multi-faceted. Two very important parts of that response are two Bills that are before the Parliament at the moment and going through the committee phase. One of them is known as the Foreign Interference Transparency Scheme Register Bill, and that's about trying to have a degree of transparency so that when lobbyists or other organisations are acting on behalf of what are defined as foreign principals, that we as Australians, and particularly politicians, know that that's the case through a register, which is based on - but has very significant differences - to a scheme that runs in the United States. And the other is the Espionage and Foreign Interference Bill.
GARETH PARKER: And that's the one that media outlets, and others, are nervous about.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Yes, and look, I'm not at all dismissive about some of the matters they've raised.
GARETH PARKER: You willing to amend the draft bill?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: I think it's inevitable that there will be amendments and refinements to some of the drafting, and that's the proper part and parcel of the process that we're going through at the moment, which is that media organisations and other groups can come in before a parliamentary committee, a joint standing committee, with both sides of politics represented.
GARETH PARKER: There seems to be some concern from even people who are religious people, saying that if there's lobbying on behalf of, say, the Catholic church, then that might offend these laws if someone's not registered as a foreign agent.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Look, there are stronger and weaker submissions that represent better and worse understandings of the legislation. I just respectfully say I think that's not one of the stronger submissions that have been made. There is a very, in my observation, broad and overarching defence to all of the offences that are set up in the espionage Bill for journalists. And I can read it to you: it is a defence to a prosecution for an offence by a person against this provision relating to the dealing or holding of information that the person dealt with or held the information in the public interest, and in the person's capacity as a journalist engaged in fair and accurate reporting.
GARETH PARKER: So you think that, so long as you're public interest reporting as a journalist, you should be covered by that exemption?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: I think that that is a very broad definition. There are some things that are defined in the legislation as never able to be assessed as being in the public interest. I mean, for instance, giving up the identification of undercover agents and things of that nature, which I don't think anyone …
GARETH PARKER: I can't think of a media outlet that would do that.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: No. But what journalists have put and what we, the Government, have listened to closely is that they think there is enough breadth to create at least some degree of uncertainty in that definition, so we'll look careful at that.
GARETH PARKER: The Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, outlined his agenda for 2018, if you like, at the National Press Club earlier this week and he spoke about a whole range of things. The one that I want to talk to you about is the idea that Labor thinks it's time for a federal corruption body, in line with what they call ICAC in New South Wales, perhaps what we have here as the Corruption and Crime Commission. Why shouldn't there be a dedicated corruption body overseeing the federal level of Parliament?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, it may well be that that is something that does eventuate and could be, potentially, an improvement on the present arrangements. What we have at the moment is a multi-agency approach. We've got between six and 10 senior agencies that have oversight for integrity and anti-corruption in different parts of the Commonwealth infrastructure and architecture. So you've got, I won't go through them all, but there's a specialist system of agencies. Now, there's very strong and robust protections, and indeed Bill Shorten himself noted and suggested this, that no one's suggesting that there's a problem with corruption at the federal level. This is a question about how you would structure the responses so you that you get an improved outcome, and the outcome at the moment is, I must say, very strong, very robust. There's no obvious problems.
Now, you and I have seen in this jurisdiction with the CCC some successes and some pretty unhappy failures, and that's been repeated with ICAC in New South Wales. The key question here is: how would you specifically design such a body? What would be its particular jurisdiction? What would be its compulsory powers? Would they be in the nature of a standing royal commission and if so what jurisdiction would they have? How would they exercise a discretion to have public and private hearings?
The first questions that spring to my mind are, if you had a situation arise like we had with Senator Sam Dastyari, would that be the subject of an investigation with the standing powers of a royal commission to compel evidence, and if so, would you end up with public hearings? At whose discretion would they be called? And would you have people like Bill Shorten or others themselves being called to give evidence around how it was, potentially, that Sam Dastyari came to have what looked like security information?
Now, these are important questions that I think you have to go through in a methodical way, in a public process of consultation with a couple of models.
GARETH PARKER: Okay, so the thing you want to avoid is a political show-trial?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, I think that you can't have a system where the response to integrity and corruption issues itself causes a massive base of problems.
GARETH PARKER: Alright. We'll continue to follow the debate. We're out of time. Christian Porter, thanks for coming in today.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Thank you.
GARETH PARKER: We'll speak to you next week.