Skip to main content

Sky News Breakfast Interview with Laura Jayes



Subjects: Coronavirus; Foreign Influence Transparency Register; Sports grants;

LAURA JAYES: Attorney-General Christian Porter has warned that under existing biosecurity laws Australians could be detained and there is even a provision to shut down mass gatherings.

Joining me is Attorney-General Christian Porter. Thank you for your time.

Christian Porter How long can you detain people under these laws?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well the power of detention is very much a last resort, people's consent is sought but this is for things like testing someone or requiring a sample and so forth - things that the overwhelming majority of people consent to. But there is an ability as a last resort in those circumstances, as there is in a number of other health laws to have someone detained, but it is only for the purposes of allowing the thing to occur that you need to do such as taking the sample or so forth.

LAURA JAYES: So what kind of circumstances would you enforce them under the coronavirus?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, the COVID-19 circumstances that we're anticipating that we may face might require particular requirements on Australians coming and going from a certain place. So an example is if something like a fever clinic is established where people convalesce from the acute fever that you get with coronavirus, most Australians are used to walking in an out of a hospital, fairly much without any restrictions - but it maybe that in those circumstances if it's considered on a medical advice and determined by the Chief Medical Officer and in consultation with his counterparts at the state and territory level - that you need further restrictive requirements then they're the types of things that you could see occur here.

I mean one example is the Diamond Princess, the cruise ship - that was declared under the Biosecurity Act a human health zone. So it was for that reason that we were actually able to organise the return of the Australians on that vessel to Australia in a way that our Chief Medical Officer had determined was safest for them, safest for their families, safest for the Australian community.

So in general terms it means that the Government does have the ability to impose a number of restrictions in circumstances where people might not usually to have been restricted.

LAURA JAYES: So for example, international travellers - if someone arrives from overseas and they are showing symptoms of coronavirus; you're particularly concerned about them spreading infection in the community; they don't want to be detained. Can you forcibly detain someone in that circumstance?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: If they're refusing to do a thing that we consider to be absolutely necessary like undergo a brief decontamination or provide information about where they've been and who they've been in contact with or potentially to provide a sample so that that could be tested for the disease, then yes, detention is an option. And I must say, that power under the Biosecurity Act is actually used quite regularly at our borders, at airports, in circumstances just like the one that you've described.

But I think Australians would be less used to the idea that that power might be used at a clinic that was established, or at a hospital. But the reality is that these laws were updated in 2015 and prior to that our Quarantine Act dated back to 1908 and was more fit for a time when Australia got most of its visitors and incoming traffic by ocean liner. So we prepared by updating our laws in 2015 for precisely the type of circumstances where you may have to engage in pandemic planning which we - unfortunately we are doing at the moment.

LAURA JAYES: Changing tack now, looking at the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme. You've essentially remodelled this. It looks like Chinese influence first, both covert and overt, will be the focus. Is that right?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well the legislation itself was never country-specific, we've said that on a number of occasions.

The application and enforcement of the legislation isn't country-specific. But yes, I wasn't overly impressed with the early stages of the operation of our resources and the application of our resources to making this Act as effective as it can be. So we've got some…

LAURA JAYES: Are you talking about the Tony Abbott targeting?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, I thought that was ridiculous; I thought it was poor target selection. I didn't think it represented great triage or useful application of valuable government resources under the legislation. So, we've undergone a range of changes with respect to the way in which we are applying our resources - very much looking at the types of behaviours that might be registrable under the Foreign Influence Transparency register. But those behaviours that occur in key sectors that are, potentially, of the greatest concern to Australians - and which Australians would most think they should know about.

And this is of course a transparency register, there's nothing wrong with acting on behalf of a foreign principal and we've had many, many registrations already under the scheme. What we're concerned about is those organisations which would meet the definition of a foreign government related entity or foreign principal – have working for them people who may be engaging in registrable activities but haven't registered. So we're into a next phase and we've certainly brought in some specialist expertise to focus on particular areas of the Australian economy.

LAURA JAYES: Well, while you're in the business of overhauling - the Sports Grant Scheme has become a bit of a joke, hasn't it?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, I must say there's been a number of, sort of, very extravagant statements made over the last several days in Senate Estimates. I mean, we had Kristina Keneally yesterday accusing the former minister Bridget McKenzie of forging a document - I mean, accusing Bridget McKenzie under parliamentary privilege in a Senate Estimates Committee of a serious criminal offence with absolutely no evidence whatsoever.

LAURA JAYES: But didn't we learn yesterday, Attorney-General. Sorry to interrupt, but didn't we learn yesterday that the Prime Minister changed the projects in round three of this funding scheme on the day the election was called? That stinks, doesn't it?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well again, your characterisation of it relies on what I've got to say is assertions made by Labor Members which don't actually bear out to the facts. On 4 April the decision by the Minister was made. Now, that was clearly the case. You've now got Labor (shadow) Ministers accusing the Minister of backdating that decision-making document - like, forging a document. They're accusing the Minister…

LAURA JAYES: Does that ever happen?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: … of a criminal offence. Does it ever happen?

LAURA JAYES: Backdating?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, it clearly did not happen here - the Minister has quite clearly said that that's not the case. But you know Laura, surely it's a matter of some seriousness when parliamentary privilege is used by Kristina Keneally to accuse a former minister of a criminal offence with zero evidence. And they've got form here. The Labor Party and Mark Dreyfus have overseen 10 referrals of Government Ministers to law enforcement agencies for investigation for criminal offences with zero results.

LAURA JAYES: Well sure, but this is separate to that.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, it's in addition to that.

LAURA JAYES: As a lawyer you must be - have been embarrassed by some of the flimsy arguments that have been put forward by your side of politics as well?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, the Sports Grant Program was run in accordance with the guideline. Now, people might take views about whether or not Ministers should assert their own views as to the merit of programs over and above the views of the department. I happen to think that that is a fair and reasonable process. But I understand that people might have different views about that process.

But allegations of criminal conduct by Minsters with no evidence whatsoever to support that allegation, to me that's the problem that's emerging here. I mean, how many times does the Labor Party have to make a false allegation, totally unsupported by evidence; refer it to the police, and it doesn't get investigated - for that to be an actual issue? Like, 20 times, 50 times, 10 times?

LAURA JAYES: Okay, but in the interest of transparency – that’s a fair point but in the interest of transparency release the Gaetjens report, why not?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well the Gaetjens report was a report which was a Cabinet deliberative report. Now..

LAURA JAYES: But it never went to Cabinet though, did it?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, it went to a Cabinet committee…

LAURA JAYES: Have you seen it?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: …which means that it's a Cabinet deliberative document.

LAURA JAYES: Have you seen it?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I was on the, I was on the committee that the report was presented to for the purposes of Cabinet decision-making, and my legal view about that would be.

LAURA JAYES: Well, can you tell us what's in it that's so, that is so precious that can't be released?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, my legal view about that is the same legal view that Attorney's-General of Liberal and Labor persuasion have taken for 100 years and that is that documents which go to Cabinet for the purposes of deliberation and decision-making are covered by Cabinet confidence and aren't released. Now, that's been an essential principle of Cabinet government for 100 plus years, observed by both side of politics. So, Cabinet documents don't get routinely released, as you know.

LAURA JAYES: Christian Porter, we'll have to leave it there. Thanks for your time.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Thank you very much, Laura. Cheers.