6PR Mornings with Gareth Parker
Subjects: Coronavirus, sports grants, Ensuring Integrity Bill, Commonwealth Integrity Commission.
GARETH PARKER: The coronavirus situation. It appears to me, hearing what the Prime Minister has said this morning, that there is now a level of seriousness or an extra level of seriousness that the Government is now taking with this whole affair. There was a meeting of the National Security Committee of Cabinet this morning. Obviously, some decisions have now been announced. I'm already getting a bit of a sense from some of the community that they think that this issue is a bit of a beat up. The announcement from the Government this morning suggests otherwise.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, we've always taken it seriously. We've had several meetings of the National Security Committee meetings, on this topic. I mean, today's announcement is about how we deal with people in the Chinese province that has been closed down, where the epicentre of the virus is, and we think that there are hundreds, up to 800 Australians, potentially who are there, 600 citizens. We think there are some permanent residents. And it has spread outside that province but that province has been closed down. So people who are in China outside that province, they can come home and they need to make some really quick choices for themselves, I think.
GARETH PARKER: [Talks over] Yeah. So-
CHRISTIAN PORTER: As the Prime Minister said, we can do this, perhaps once, perhaps in these circumstances, perhaps with this province, but it's not going to be something that's going to be repeated.
GARETH PARKER: Right.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: The people in that province- that province has been closed down. So, us having an assisted exit using a Qantas chartered jet, is something that we think that we should do for the well-being of those Australian citizens.
GARETH PARKER: So is the concern there, if this outbreak spreads beyond that province, that you may not have an opportunity to evacuate people from multiple locations if that's what transpires?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, it has spread outside that province but the Chinese Government has only closed down the comings and goings from that particular province. Now, there's nothing to say that they might not do that for other provinces at other points in time. But we now have an ability on our best assessment - this still depends on a range of issues being sorted through with China, to get a chartered jet in there, a 747, to prioritise people. And the Prime Minister's language was around isolated Australians and those at risk and obviously, the virus itself is of greatest effect and danger to the very young and the very old. But also, there are going to be people who are in the province who may have been living there for many years, and notwithstanding that they hold dual citizenship now. They'll already have their support networks and be very familiar with the Chinese systems and medical systems. But some priority, I think, has to attach to people who were there for a short period of time whether that was as a tourist or on business and all of a sudden find themselves without a real choice in terms of coming back. But the travel warnings have been changed for the rest of China. There are Australians in China, I would think that they would want to make decisions very, very quickly about whether it's wise to stay. That's up to them. But this is something which is very specific to this time and set of circumstances.
GARETH PARKER: When the official advice now from DFAT is to reconsider people's need to travel to China and not to travel to that province. Should that work the other way as well? Should we be considering whether we actually allow flights from China into Australia for a short period of time until we understand what we're dealing with?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, with the flight that we will attempt to organise out of the province most affected, we will quarantine people who avail themselves of that at Christmas Island. Now, other flights that are coming in from China, we're using all best efforts to screen and there are also efforts at the Chinese end to screen people going onto planes.
GARETH PARKER: But the problem is it seems as though this virus is present in people before they display symptoms, so, that makes screening of it very difficult.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: [Talks over] That's actually not known yet. So…
GARETH PARKER: That's what the Chinese authorities are saying.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, our best information - and we are obviously being updated all the time - that that is speculation at the moment, as far as our best medical information given to us stands at present. And if that is-
GARETH PARKER: [Interrupts] So we don't know basically.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, that would be an unusual set of circumstances. I'm not a virologist but I understand that would be very, very unusual. It's not impossible. But when we receive advice to that effect, then we would relook at some of the protocols that are in existence at the moment. But we're being very, very careful. There's some scrutiny at the Chinese end. There's enormous scrutiny at our end. But you know obviously, there are a lot of flights coming in from China. And again, we want to see Australians who are outside the most affected province have the ability to come back, subject to all the protocols that we have in place. But we think that for these 600 or so Australians, they are in a very, very difficult set of circumstances because they have been, in effect, robbed of the choice to come back.
GARETH PARKER: So that's what the Australian Government wants to provide them is that choice.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Correct.
GARETH PARKER: Okay. A lot of people are sceptical about information coming out of China, whether it's fully accurate and the full picture. What does the Australian Government believe?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, we obviously have had the benefit of the best people that we have on this. We've replicated the virus in Australia…
GARETH PARKER: Yes.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: …which is of enormous assistance, I understand. We have multiple sources of information. Obviously, many of those are official Chinese sources. But, if I can put it this way, we stress test all sources of information with other sources of information to give ourselves the best possible picture of what's going on. But it's clearly a very dynamic set of circumstances and not that long ago, the Chinese were talking about 1000 cases. Now we're talking at over 6000. Some of that might be what the virologists call catch up, which is information coming out late. Some of that is the genuine spread of the disease, but it clearly is spreading at a rate which should cause concern.
GARETH PARKER: Okay. Bridget McKenzie - the Australian Sports Commission, according to the ABC, a complaint about her actions in the case of the sports grants saying that it compromised the appearance of their independence. It's a pretty damning complaint, isn't it?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well again, I've- as I said to you last week, I fundamentally think that ministers have and should exercise their ultimate discretion over grants. I've had- I've done that myself on many occasions and many times the department has not liked that at all. So it's not-
GARETH PARKER: [Interrupts] This isn't a department, this is an independent statutory organisation.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well it's a Commonwealth Corporate entity.
GARETH PARKER: Yeah.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: It's an agency under the minister's authority and the minister has authority under that- over that agency. So yes, it's a slightly different constituent body but again there is ministerial authority. Now the fact that the rankings that were provided by the body itself differed from those the minister, I would understand that might make the body itself unhappy.
GARETH PARKER: And ABC said she had a spread sheet that basically breaks it down electorate by electorate, trying to find the marginal ones to dedicate the money to. I mean that's not a proper way to allocate money, is it?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well again. I've not seen that spread sheet and I don't know the veracity of that from the ABC, but-
GARETH PARKER: [Interrupts] If it were true that wouldn't be an appropriate way to allocate the money, would it?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Look the ranking that the Minister gave actually ended up with more Labor seats getting the funding than would have been the case based on Sports Australia's assessment. Now-
GARETH PARKER: [Interrupts] A whistle-blower told Sky News that was to cover their bums, effectively.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well I've got to say whenever I look at grants programs you do have an eye to whether or not the electorate, in an overall spread, represents a reasonable distribution between Labor, Liberal, National electorates because otherwise you're liable for criticism that you're favouring one over the other. So I mean, you really can't win sometimes in those circumstances.
GARETH PARKER: If the- if Philip Gaetjens, the PMamp;C Secretary comes back and says she's breached the ministerial code of conduct is that it? Is that the end of the story? One she goes?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: We'll have to say what he says about that.
GARETH PARKER: Well if, if he finds that she breached the Ministerial Code of Conduct-
CHRISTIAN PORTER: [Interrupts] The Ministerial Code of Conduct is a matter for the Prime Minister and he's Commission the head of Prime Minister in the Cabinet to look into that particular issue. I've been asked to look into a narrow legal issue about where the authority for the ministerial discretion, which was provided for in the guidelines, comes from - like what's its basis? Now, that advice isnrsquo;t back with me yet and I'm sure it will be before the first sitting week and it will come under scrutiny.
GARETH PARKER: First sitting week is next week.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Yeah. Looks alright.
GARETH PARKER: It's on the Agenda. The Ensuring Integrity Bill, this is the, the bill designed to make union officials behave properly. Have you been talking with the cross-bench over Christmas?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Yeah. Well I mean we, we have been talking with the crossbench. I noticed in The Australian today that Jacqui Lambie sort of indicated that she'd like to have further discussions around her particular amendments. So there's still a potential passage for this legislation. It's a very important legislation, the lawlessness on Australian construction sites is out of control and the CFMEU just seem to take massive fines as the cost of doing business - that's the cost of their business model. So this is very important legislation. I'll be talking with Jacqui, as I will with Rex and I'll also talk again with Pauline. I think the case for the legislation is very, very strong but obviously Jacqui is going to be a very important part of that.
GARETH PARKER: How far away are you from announcing details of a federal corruption body, an ICAC or similar.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Very close. It's a, it is a very large piece of legislation -over 300 pages, so it is very close. It's not uncomplicated because we already have a pretty successful multi-agency approach and we're not doing what the, the Greens bill would effectively have favoured which is to put a line through that and create one body to do what many bodies were doing. So this body has to fit into the existing architecture, so it's not uncomplicated. But-
GARETH PARKER: [Interrupts] Will it, will it actually have some teeth though?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Absolutely. I mean the powers that it will have both on the law enforcement integrity and the public sector integrity side will be will be greater powers than a royal commission.
GARETH PARKER: Greater powers than a royal commission. Will be able to do what the CCC here does, and haul people in for hearings and those sorts of things?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Yes. And hearings can be public on the law enforcement side. We don't favour public hearings on the public sector side for a variety of reasons. But yes, people can be compelled into hearings, they can be compelled to give evidence under threat of criminal penalty. It will have the ability to tap phones, gather evidence, have warrants, greater powers than a royal commission.
GARETH PARKER: When would you like it to be up and running?
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well I think it'll, it'll take some consultation but the reality is that people have different views about how these bodies should operate. They've been not uncontroversial in a range of states and my observation there's better and worse ways of doing it which is reflected in the model that we've got. But we want to have a genuine period of consultation. Of course then it has to, itself, run the gauntlet through the Senate and receive support from cross-benchers and or Labor. So I can't give a watertight guarantee as to when it might be operative because that's based on matters outside of my control, but I think that after a genuine period of consultation if people, whether they prefer slightly other models or prefer this model, this represents a massive change to the Commonwealth landscape as to how you deal with integrity and criminal corruption issues. And if people want to see an agency with enormous powers, incredibly well-funded, operating in this area then we've got a model on the table and it's one that we took to the last election. So I'd hope that we get Senate support for it.
GARETH PARKER: Christian Porter, thank you for your time.
CHRISTIAN PORTER: Cheers, thanks Gareth.
GARETH PARKER: The Attorney-General, the Industrial Relations Minister, Christian Porter.