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6PR Mornings with Gareth Parker



Subjects: Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme; coronavirus

GARETH PARKER: The Attorney-General Christian Porter is in Canberra. Christian, good morning.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Yeah, morning, Gareth.

GARETH PARKER: The coronavirus response, I'll come to in a moment. But there's a story in the Herald Sun which I think deserves some further explanation about the foreign influence transparency scheme. This is one of the things that your Government did last year to try and get a bit of clarity around people from foreign governments who might be trying to influence political decisions here in Australia. Reading Ellen Whinnett's report, it looks as though you're not happy with how it's been operating and you've almost started from scratch.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well the first year was always going to be allowing people to register, and if you like, the second year was going to be looking at people and organisations where we might have had a reasonable expectation that they would register and starting to pursue answers to questions as to why they haven't. So look it was in the first year a matter of allowing people to register. I took a view that probably the way in which we were triaging our resources to ask the right questions of the right people who hadn't registered wasn't right, wasn't well-balanced and probably wasn't the best target selection. So, yeah, I've made some pretty substantial changes to the team and the way they operate and the way that they develop their briefs around who it is that they should be inquiring of as to why they haven't registered. But for your listeners, the way it works, there's no one - no one has a problem with foreign principles or foreign governments engaging people in Australia to speak with Governments or engage in activities that are lobbying activities or advertising activities. I mean, that's a normal and natural part of the way in which countries operate in each other's jurisdictions. But what we don't think should be happening is that if someone is writing opinion editorials to influence government policy and they're doing so at the request of a foreign government, that that should be a secret. People should know why people are making statements and what policy they're trying to influence and who in effect that they're working for. And we've had a lot of registrations in the first year. But certainly now, we're looking into those sort of organisations and activities where we would have had a reasonable expectation that someone might register and we're asking why they haven't.

GARETH PARKER: And about a third of the registrations have been from China, which is far and away the biggest number. Do you take any significance from the fact that Huawei appear to have abandoned their board here in Australia?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well I think there's obviously some degree of commercial decision making there, because as all Australians would know, we made a decision through our Cabinet and National Security Committee not have that company to participate in the construction of the 5G network in Australia and we did that on all the best advice that was available to us. So that will obviously decrease their commercial footprint in Australia. The Director-General of ASIO in his, I think, very impressive and landmark speech last week in Canberra did say that the types of laws like our foreign influence register and our complete redrafting of the espionage laws, in his words, are driving more cost into the risk calculus, and he means therefore foreign intelligence agencies or any individuals who would seek to, in a non-transparent or secret or clandestine way, try and influence democracy and democratic decision making in Australia.

So having rewritten all of the espionage offences, created an entirely new offence of foreign interference, and then developed a register for those people who were seeking to influence Australian Government at the request or bidding of a foreign principal, we've developed an entire new set of rules and laws and registration schemes to cover the ground of this activity. And as Mike Burgess has said, that is changing the nature of the activity, because it's increased the risk factor for people who are active in that space.

And you're right, one country was the larger portion of registrations, but there were 39 registrations, 167 activities undertaken, 67 different foreign principals, and 27 countries are registered. And there's nothing wrong with registering. I mean under the American equivalent, our embassy registers as a foreign government-related entity in America. But the point is that if someone is acting on behalf of a foreign principal or a foreign government-related enterprise and they're seeking to influence the outcome in Australian politics, then we want to know who it is that they’re seeking to influence for.

GARETH PARKER: Fair enough. Can I take you to the response to the coronavirus? And you made comments earlier this week about putting in bio hazard powers to do certain things, quarantine people in certain ways which is all fine. I think we understand those measures. What I am interested in is the ongoing economic impacts and the likelihood of quite disruptive economic impacts if this virus does in fact take hold in this country, as it has in many other countries around the globe. If you've got scenarios where people can't go to work, either because they are in quarantine themselves or they're having to look after kids if the schools close or if they're having to look after a loved one, there is pretty quickly going to pile up some obvious consequences around sick pay, earning incomes. For business, it's going to be an issue about whether they can continue to run their business in the absence of key staff or indeed key supplies from global supply chains. How far is the Federal Government prepared to go to support the Australian economy in the likelihood that we see some of those outcomes?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well the Prime Minister's talking about preparing the early fiscal responses to corona and in terms of how far those fiscal responses would go, our intent is to base responses on the best possible advice and estimates and predictions of what it is that we're likely to experience. And I must say that that is not a simple process at the moment because unlike a financial crisis, which involves a credit squeeze and confidence problems that resonate through a stock market, as you pointed out here, this involves a physical emergent situation that translates into economic loss in a variety of ways. And the nature of the economic loss and its effect on the economy is obviously going to flow from the extent to which the virus takes hold in Australia and the speed with which it spreads through the community.

So those things are at the moment, unknowns. We have estimates and then we have to translate those estimates into estimates about what effect - as you point out - a number of people not turning up to work will have on the Australian economy. In other countries, people being absent from work, disrupting supply chains which has a resonant effect in what you might or might not be able to produce or build or make here in Australia.

So the predictions will start to flow and be publicly known over the next days and weeks. But of course, they're preliminary; there's going to be an extent to which they change over time and you would appreciate that many lessons were learnt in the response to the GFC and you obviously don't want to under respond, but you do not want to waste money on precipitous over responses by the same measure because that lasts with you for decades after the emergency passes.


CHRISTIAN PORTER: So we are acting on the best advice and data and we're also realising that the best data and predictions that you can get in are going to have some very high margins for error at this stage.

GARETH PARKER: Absolutely. And it's unpredictable by definition. Time's tight. So I just want to - I want to leave you with this thought and get your response to it. If there is a scenario where numbers of people, whether it's thousands, tens of thousands of people, particularly if you are economically precarious, so not if you've got a good government job where your sick leave's guaranteed, if you're a casual employee who all of a sudden has to take time off work, I don't think it's that big a stretch to see that pretty quickly some people are going to have issues with paying rent, paying mortgages, paying utility bills. Do the banks and the utility companies need to prepare themselves for some sort of response here if in fact a worst case scenario or even just a medium case scenario unfolds in this country?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Yeah and they should be absolutely thinking about those things. I mean there all already hardship schemes in place with state government utilities and with banks in terms of mortgage payments and so forth. I think that all those types of organisations would be well placed to consider how those schemes operate, what sort of increase they can cope with without the parameters of them having to be changed and reconfigured. I mean that just makes common sense response to what is an emergent situation. As you say, we just don't know how many people this is going to affect physically and how many of those people who are physically affected are going to be affected in terms of their work pattern.

One thing to remember though for your listeners is that the severity of the impacts on people's physical health is amongst the overwhelming majority of people who contract COVID-19 very, very mild.


CHRISTIAN PORTER: And indeed, it seems to have the mildest effect thankfully on children.


CHRISTIAN PORTER: So there will be a flow on effect to people who are unable to work as this moves through the Australian community. But we need to, I guess, approach that in a staged way and understand what numbers that is producing in terms of its effect and respond according to the best data.

So I don't think that the best approach is to come out of the block so hard, so early in front of the data that you run the risk of doing things that might not be necessary.

GARETH PARKER: Okay. It's obviously an unfolding situation and it will be for several weeks to come. I appreciate your time this morning.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Thank you, Gareth. Cheers.