6PR Mornings with Gareth Parker
Subjects: Borders, paid pandemic leave, Beirut explosion
GARETH PARKER: Christian Porter is the Attorney-General. He's back on the program. Christian, good morning.
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Good morning Gareth.
GARETH PARKER: So, the politics became too difficult in the end, do you apologise to West Australians for this?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, I'm very sorry that the case was started in the first place. But I can't wish it away. I have an obligation as the first law officer of the Commonwealth to the court to tell the truth, to assist the court. I've got an obligation as a Cabinet Minister to protect all Australians and, obviously, I'm a local Member of Parliament. Sometimes finding the balance between those three positions means that you make yourself unpopular with all three of the people that you're trying to help. But I'm not sure that that balance could be struck any differently in the early stages of this. But, over the course of the weekend, I spoke at length with the Prime Minister. I think, ultimately; the decision for us was about the fact that being in the matter as an intervener was degrading our ability to act at the highest levels of cooperation with the Western Australian Government. That is the Federal Government with West Australian Government, to keep West Australians and all Australians safe.
GARETH PARKER: So, what's the suggestion? That the McGowan Government was so angry about your intervention in this, that it was threatening National Cabinet solidarity or threatening efforts to fight the coronavirus?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: No, I'm not saying that there were any threats of any nature whatsoever. But, I mean, clearly, the McGowan Government were very annoyed at the fact that we were an intervener in the matter. And as I say, as was in the Prime Minister's letter, the most important thing we thought, ultimately, in all the circumstances was to preserve the co-operative nature of the relationship which has been very, very successful so far. But, look I'm an Officer of the Court...
GARETH PARKER: ... So, right.
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: ... the High Court, and I have an obligation, as Attorney-General, to assist them and to do that in a way that has the Commonwealth, tell what we think is the truth about a situation that relates to the Constitution. Now, some people in running health strategies and protective strategies will say the Constitution doesn't matter or should go out the window. I've sworn an oath, that I will be the one politician in Australia who doesn't do that.
GARETH PARKER: So, on that, there's a direct quote by the Premier, who said that: 'we're in a pandemic; constitutional niceties, I'm not interested in those'. Is that a wrong position at law?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, that's the position that many people might be inclined to take, and fall on the side of what they perceive to be the most protective response. But there is an obligation, ultimately, to preserve people's safety in a way that's sustainable. And the point of having the Commonwealth intervene was to try and find what is the best outcome given section 92 of the Constitution, which is pretty clear in its terms; what is the best outcome for a sustainable policy that protects West Australians and all Australians from the transmission of the disease that is at the core of this pandemic. Now, the safest position you can have is the position that is in the long run sustainable and, you know, the Commonwealth being in or out of this case doesn't change the constitutional question, doesn't change the fact the court's going to consider it. And I think that there is a real question around how you prepare for what is a possible, if not likely, outcome. But the present circumstances and policy is found to be unconstitutional.
GARETH PARKER: Do you sort of stand by this claim that you are no more than a middle man? Because the Government aren't having it; the McGowan Government aren't having it. They're saying that without your expert witness, without your evidence, Clive Palmer's challenge would've fallen in a heap because it was so hopeless?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, we're an intervener. We filed a notice of intervention and when this matter first started up, there was the West Australian issue. There were applicants from Queensland; one of them was called Travel Essence, they had five applicants, small businesses, individuals. There is a standard form by which you intervene, but the nature of intervening is that there are two sides. There's the plaintiffs, of which there were multiple when this thing started. There's the other side which were the state governments, who had the total border closure policies, and the Commonwealth intervenes. We intervened assisting the court. Now, we put a position that we thought that there was a high likelihood that the policies, as they were formulated originally, in the long run would be likely found to be unconstitutional. I've said that on your show a number of times and there's no retreat from that fact. And I think that if this matter goes all the way, that could well be the likely outcome. But that doesn't mean that we're cheerleading or barracking for either side. We're before the court, assisting the court as an intervener, telling the court what we think to be the truth of the constitutional situation and I think something about the evidence needs to be understood here. There were multiple experts who produced a joint report and the nature of that report is to try and find the common ground, between all of the experts. Expert from WA, experts from the Commonwealth, experts from the plaintiff. And there was a joint report including evidence from the West Australian Chief Medical Officer that the hard border closure to everywhere versus travel bubbles doesn't make that much difference to the transmission of the disease. Now that's not our evidence, right? That was evidence in the joint report from Western Australia. So, where the State Attorney-General said last week that the case would already be over in WA, it would've won if we hadn't been in it, I don't think that's being upfront. That's not how this matter is proceeding or has proceeded or will proceed. Like they're short of the plaintiff withdrawing, there is the real prospect that you face a decision that goes against your policy.
GARETH PARKER: Do you think, in a political sense, despite your oath to defend the Constitution, do you think in a real political sense that the Liberal brand has been damaged here? Clearly Liza Harvey was desperate to get this issue off the agenda because she faces an election. Do you think that the federal Liberal brand in WA has been damaged by this affair?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: It's just not what it's about. Like, I mean...
GARETH PARKER: ...It is in the mind of the public though.
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, but that's not what it's about for decision makers, Gareth. It's really not. Like, I mean, the State Government here is doing their level best to help people to save lives and save livelihoods. That's what the Commonwealth Government has been doing since the beginning of the pandemic. There will be moments in it where there are disagreements. There'll be moments of high cooperation. Commentators will talk about whether or not, during moments of disagreement, one or other brand has been damaged. But ultimately, everyone is trying to find the best balance as to how you prevent, slow the transmission of the disease but also not destroy hundreds of thousands of economic livelihoods across Australia and in Western Australia. Like, that is the very difficult balance that we've been trying to strike from the beginning. And you're not always going to get that balance perfectly right, but if in trying to cooperate and form that balance, at times, you'll find yourself in a position where you've done something which is unpopular, well that's just how it is...
GARETH PARKER: Okay.
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: ...This isn't a popularity contest, it's a contest to try and find the best results for individual human beings in Australia for both their health and their economic future and their kids' economic future.
GARETH PARKER: So, on that, is there any further consideration to extending pandemic leave to other professions outside aged care? The $1500 emergency payment in Victoria, could that be extended to other states if necessary?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Yeah. I mean potentially. So, as you point out, there's been a Fair Work Commission which has given pandemic relief to people specifically in the aged care sector. Some other companies, large companies, have decided on their own terms to give two weeks pandemic leave. We, as the Commonwealth Government, have now tried, as part of a cooperation with the Victorian Government, to have a consistent position in Victoria. So, if you like, the Victorian Government is going to pay $1500 for pandemic leave for people who are required to isolate to people in Australia on visas. We will pay the $1500 to Australian citizens who are here but required to isolate and don't have any other means of support. So we're doing that cooperatively with the Victorian Government. We've got that up and running now, and there's a number that people in Victoria can ring. And if other states want to talk to us about mirroring that cooperative relationship, if a set of circumstances approximating those that have arisen in Victoria occur in another state, then that is clearly an open door. But it is an example where there's compromise, cooperation at the highest levels, to try and fix a problem, and it's a problem that we don't even know the scale of. I mean, whether or not this is a reason why people are not abiding by requirements to isolate, we just don't have the data on. But if it is a possibility, then closing off that reason or potential reason for people not to do the right thing is definitely, I think, good policy and we've done it in a cooperative way. And yeah, it could be extended but that's a conversation to have between the Prime Minister and premiers and through National Cabinet, I think.
GARETH PARKER: Dreadful, frightening situation in Beirut with that explosion. Do you have any updated information from DFAT about whether any Australians or any other Australians are affected?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Look, there's been a report of one Australian who may have lost their life but I can't confirm that at this stage outside of the reporting that's occurred. I've not been officially briefed on it. It's moving pretty quickly and those briefs go in first instance to the Foreign Minister. But I mean, like a lot of Australians, I've seen the footage and the nature of the explosion. This thing is quite massive. So, obviously there's going to be an enormous amount of work done to try and work out potential causes, and we're working very hard with our resources in Beirut to find out exactly what or how many Australians might have been affected.
GARETH PARKER: We'll keep waiting for updates. Christian, thank you for your time as always this morning.
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: No problem Gareth. See you next week.