Skip to main content

6PR Mornings with Gareth Parker



Subjects: Palace papers and coronavirus

GARETH PARKER: The Attorney-General and Industrial Relations Minister is Christian Porter who joins us on Wednesdays. Christian, Good morning.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Good morning. How are you?

GARETH PARKER: Yeah good, thanks for your time. I want to start with the Palace papers- the Palace letters. Obviously, this is of enormous historical interest. As a first law officer of the Commonwealth what have you made of the revelations yesterday?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well I've started reading them - I haven't got through them all. But yeah I mean, if you take an interest in law and politics and history they're pretty fascinating reading. I'm no forensic historian but I think the theory that some held was that these letters were meant to evidence or support a theory that somehow the Queen and the Palace gave a royal green light to the use of the reserve powers - I certainly don't think that they show that. So I think that sort of theory has probably lost a lot of weight if not been debunked. But nevertheless, they make for fascinating reading of the times. These letters sent after the event, obviously privately from Menzies to Kerr putting Menzies' view to Kerr about what Kerr had done, so, they are just fascinating, but I don't think that they proved the theory that many people held - they don't seem to support that.

GARETH PARKER: And yet people attached to that theory seem remaining wedded to it. Well, some people - I won't speak for everyone. But some of the public commentary in the last 24 hours doesn't seem to change a lot of minds for the true believers.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: No, no. And look, some people hold theories about a whole range of things that they don't seem to be dissuaded from even if the evidence that they say existed and fought to have released for a long time gets released and doesn't provide the evidence. And I think the best narrative histories are the ones that actually revolve around a search for truth and have excellent historic and scholarly efforts to uncover evidence which is very often the case that it's found in letters or correspondence. So this is very important but I don't think it proves the theory that many have put, and I think clinging to that theory starts to look a little bit fringe at this point in time.

GARETH PARKER: Some people saying - including the Leader of the Opposition, Anthony Albanese - that this revelation adds weight to a case for an Australian republic. What do you make of that call?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Look, I'm sort of a constitutional conservative. So, I think our system works remarkably well, probably the best working system in the world. The idea that when we've got actual problems around employment, around dealing with the health crisis that we're in, ensuring that our economy can grow its way out of the most tumultuous period in at least 100 years - the idea that we would even entertain spending oxygen on a debate about a republic, to me, seems bizarre. But I'll leave people to their views and we'll just get on with the job of trying to make sure the country grows out of an economic shock that it's had because of the pandemic.

GARETH PARKER: Okay. But as a constitutional conservative self-described, does the revelations about Kerr in any way change your perception of the way our Constitution operates? So the way our system operates? Does it give you any pause? Or question about the role of the Governor-General?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well I think that again, it's very interesting but I don't think it tells us anything about the role of the Governor-General that we didn't really already know. And the fact is that the Governor-General there exists with reserve powers as a mechanism to create the overarching separation of powers and balance of powers between the parliament and the executive - and he or she is important mechanism in that, and we've seen that demonstrated on occasion. It's been written about ad nauseam, it's a system that's served us incredibly well. And I think that many people who argue that 1975 was an event that should be an event that pushes us towards a republic don't like the fact that there's any degree of unclarity or uncertainty in the system. But I wouldn't conceive of this as being unclear or uncertain. We know what the Governor-General can do, we've seen it done and it's that power that keeps executive governments on their toes. And that is part of the separation of powers, part of the balance of powers that good functioning democracies have got, and we're probably the best functioning democracy in the world. And if you don't like this system, it's incumbent to suggest the next one. But I wouldn't be wasting energy on that at the moment when we're trying to grow our way out of a crisis. And people who advocate a republic have tried fruitlessly to argue for a better system than the one we've got for 40 plus years without much success. So, whether or not they want to be devoting their energies to that or more important matters is a matter for them.

GARETH PARKER: Well, we're seeing some pretty stark choices emerge in the way that you deal with an outbreak of COVID-19. In Victoria they've gone the lockdown route; in New South Wales it appears that they will take a different approach, at least to begin with, to try and avoid lockdowns as much as possible. Who's got this right? Or don't we know?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, that'll be tested in due course. But I must say that, I mean, the theory at its best that this is, that when you see an outbreak in a community or a setting like aged care - which we expect that we would see, that we will see on an ongoing basis - that you contain, in a ring-fence corralling way, that outbreak as hard as you can, as early as you can.


ATTORNEY-GENERAL: And if you can do that effectively and respond with absolute clarity and with enormous speed, in a very localised way to that outbreak; and, contact trace rigorously then I think that the New South Wales model is the approach that actually gets you the better health result in the end. But it also allows you the better economic result because you're not closing down massive numbers of people in postcodes and thereby massive parts of your economy. So, the theory has always been, through the medical advice, that if you can have rings of containment and you can respond very, very quickly and, very, very sharply, and with the full force of every resource you've got at your disposal - to a local outbreak, aged care, suburb, wherever it might be - and then contact trace rigorously, that that's the best approach. And that's not simple obviously, but I think that speed is incredibly important. So, the Commonwealth, obviously we've provided every assistance that we can to the Victorian Government to contain the outbreaks. We've got 478 ADF personnel now in place in New South Wales supporting the police force with checkpoints, the ADF has become very skilled at contact tracing. So, we offer up resources to try and help in that ring of containment process. But it is not easy; but it is absolutely critical to the health and wellbeing and economic livelihood of the Australian economy.

GARETH PARKER: So, was that the failure in Victoria? That they failed to respond with that clarity and speed that you're saying is required if you're going to follow the New South Wales strategy - that is you don't get on top of it early. We always saw lingering community transmission in Victoria and so you've got to take much bigger, much more damaging economically, and just to people's freedoms, measures later down the track to try and put the genie back in the bottle?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, it's not a time to sort of be critiquing …

GARETH PARKER: [Talks over] Sure.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: …Victoria or any particular response. We know what the theory is; making the theory work in practice is not always easy. But you know, everyone in Victoria is working really hard to keep this contained, we're doing our level best as the Commonwealth to assist them and largely that's through the ADF but a range of other methods. So, we're funding 50 per cent of all the COVID cases, the management of them in the health system in Victoria and elsewhere to alleviate the financial pressure on the jurisdiction. But it's not a time for critiquing, but it's always a time for every jurisdiction - New South Wales, Victoria, the Commonwealth - to learn continually from the experiences that we've had in the practical management of COVID, because it's going to be with us for a while. And so long as we've got Australians returning home, and so long as we're having to manage quarantine, then we're going to have to make sure that that our management processes are absolutely best practice all the time. And obviously, if you've got situations where quarantine processes at hotels are breaking down, then you've got a problem on your hands and those problems can snowball very quickly as we've seen.

GARETH PARKER: Christian, thank you for your time this morning.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: It's a pleasure.

GARETH PARKER: Attorney-General and Industrial Relations Minister, Christian Porter.