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6PR Mornings with Gareth Parker



Subjects: China; Banerji High Court case; religious freedoms

GARETH PARKER: The Attorney-General, the Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter joins us on Thursdays. Today he's here in the studio. Christian, good morning.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Yep, good to be down here. The traffic was a bit interesting but it's good to be down here.

GARETH PARKER: Well maybe we need more congestion busting projects.


GARETH PARKER: Well, your colleague Ben Morton and Alan Tudge said that to the Transport Minister this morning and it seems she didn't like it - she said it was a political stunt.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: I just do not understand why you'd turn down in excess of a billion dollars’ worth of Commonwealth money to build a fantastic piece of infrastructure and employ West Australians.

GARETH PARKER: That simple?


GARETH PARKER: Okay. Well the debate will continue I'm sure.

A couple of really interesting things to talk about - I want to start with your colleague the Member for Canning Andrew Hastie who's written a very direct piece in the Sydney Morning Herald this morning. And I read part of it earlier. But he's really, I think, asking us all to wake up when it comes to China and its aspirations, and its aims, and where it sees its place in the world and where Australia sits between China's ambitions, and our traditional security and economic relationship with the United States.

He's basically saying that these are the two rivals of our generation and we need to take China at its face value when they say that they want to dominate this century and beyond. He's saying: right now here in Australia our greatest vulnerability lies not in our infrastructure but in our thinking. If we don't understand the challenge ahead for our civil society - in our parliaments, in our universities, private enterprise, our charities then the choice will be made for us. Our sovereignty, our freedoms will be diminished. It’s pretty direct stuff.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Yeah I don't happen to personally agree with it I must say. I think the relationship with China is far more complex and mature than is indicated in Andrews article and it's a relationship that we manage. But Australia always makes its own decisions for itself.

I mean one of the things that Andrew says is we're going to have decisions made for us. That's never going to happen and it's not happening now. So it's a mature relationship, it’s very important for us with respect to trade there are both friendships and similarities with China, and there'll be differences from time to time. And we manage those and we have to manage that relationship just as we manage other important relationships to us in the region.

So I think that there is a danger in radical oversimplification of the relationships that with have both with China and with other countries in our region.

GARETH PARKER: Is that what you think Andrew's done here?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, it's his view. It's not a view that I share.

GARETH PARKER: Is he radically oversimplifying things?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well I think that there is an oversimplification in it in my observation. But I talk to Andrew about these things very often and testing your views and opinions with other people is a useful thing to do.

GARETH PARKER: You wouldn't contest the idea though that China has mounted a very concerted influence campaign across a whole series of institutions in our country though? For example the Confucian Institutes in our universities which we've seen, the way that it funds and supports Chinese language media in this country. I mean these things are happening.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, as I say Australia makes its own decisions for itself and I think Australians have a government at the moment that is always wise to any efforts to diminish our sovereignty and our autonomy, or to influence our democracy which is one of the reasons why we brought in very strong legislation last year - to curb foreign influence. But that legislation is country agnostic, it's not directed at any one particular country. It's meant to strengthen democratic institutions in Australia against all possible influence or interference.

GARETH PARKER: I know that's the line for public consumption but that's not the reality in the background is it?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: But it is the reality.

GARETH PARKER: It's now how the Chinese see it.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well it is the reality because what we are doing is protecting ourselves. We're not targeting any other particular input. So what you've got is a government who makes its own decisions - decisions are always made in Australia's best interests. And I think that you've see with a long line of legislation and other actions recently that we jealously guard our sovereignty and our democracy.

GARETH PARKER: Might we, particularly in this State, have to face the reality that at times in the future we might have to suffer some economic pain in order to defend our interests? That is, if China decides to turn the tap off economically because it wants to make a political point that's something we might face?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well I think that you make all decisions on their merits and on a case by case basis and that’s, I think, the best approach for all individual decisions. But again, we've been a government that's shown that we make decisions in Australia's best interest.

GARETH PARKER: Okay. Really interesting case in the High Court yesterday about a public servant who was dismissed on the basis of her activity on Twitter. Now, she did that anonymously but she was a public servant, she was very critical of asylum seeker policies and this sort of thing. She lost her job, appealed and won - appealed to the High Court, lost again. Does this case place limits around what public servants can say in terms of their freedom to communicate political information, political ideas on social media.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, yes. But what it does is it reinforces and approves the limits that have existed for a hundred years. So the theory is this, that as important as many of the inheritances that we got about democracy from Great Britain, as important as is the separation of powers, checks and balances, is the independence of the civil service. The Civil Service cannot and can never be a politicised organisation.

And so actions that erode or damage the independence, or perception of independence, of the civil service have never been allowed. So in 1915 you couldn't write a Letter to the Editor if you were a civil servant bagging out the Government. You can, in a meeting with a Minister or senior members of the government put a different view and give frank and fearless advice and information to try and influence an outcome. But once an outcome has been determined on and policy has been set by democratically-elected governments then the public service job is to support that policy and enact that policy.

So the High Court has basically reaffirmed that standing status quo on principle that we've had for 100 plus years and how could you do otherwise? You cannot have a civil service that is independent where you've got members of the Civil Service going out and effectively bagging out individual members of the government and government policy on Twitter - it just can't …

GARETH PARKER: So, yeah. Does that mean that public servants can't comment on political issues in their private capacity?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well that is a slightly more complex but what was occurring here was someone who was in the Department that was dealing with the particular issue - which was border protection and offshore processing - was both advising and supporting the Government on Government policy and at the same time outside the realms of employment hours on Twitter, heavily and colourfully criticising that policy. You can't you can't do those two things at once.

It's not a decision that says that public servants can't put a political view from time to time, but what they can't do is put a political view in a way that compromises both the reality and perception of the independence of the public service. And in that extent it just maintains the status quo.

GARETH PARKER: We've talked about employers and their ability or not to control what their employees do or say under contracts in, particular in relation to the Israel Folau case which we've been through a couple of times. Does this decision have any bearing on those issues do you think? Or is this narrowly confined to questions of what public servants can or cannot do?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Very narrowly confined to the public service. Like, my own instinct is a lot of very large companies are going too far down the route of trying to control what their staff say and do in their spare time under the guise of brand management for their company, my sense is they've probably gone a bit too far down that path. But this is a very, very old; hundreds of years old is this principle that is that if you are a public servant…


CHRISTIAN PORTER: …you can give fearless and frank advice to the Government to help policy be developed. But once policy is developed by democratically elected governments you support the policy and you enact the policy.

GARETH PARKER: On the question of your Religious Freedoms Bill that's coming up - have you managed to win all your colleagues over as you travel around and talk to them all?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: 've learnt a lot about religion, Gareth. It's been a series of-

GARETH PARKER: What do you mean?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, I mean I'm not a non-believer but I'm not a particularly religious person so I'm not - I've read a lot of stuff but Scripture's not one of the things that I read regularly. So I've learnt a lot. And I think that it's been a really healthy process because drafting gets stress-tested and people put views. And of course you get this quite long list of hypothetical type situations. And it's amazing that just when you thought you heard every single hypothetical situation that could arise, someone comes up with another one.

But in a way writing legislation is like providing a mathematical formula. I mean you plug the numbers into it to see what would happen at the end of the day through that sort of process and that's been a really helpful process. So we're getting very close with that legislation.

GARETH PARKER: Okay. We'll watch this space. Christian Porter.


GARETH PARKER: Thanks for your time.