THURSDAY, 13 DECEMBER 2018
SUBJECT/S: National Integrity Commission; Religious Freedom; Ruddock Review; National Space Agency;
BILL SHORTEN, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: Good afternoon everybody. We could have had a National Anti-Corruption Commission if the current government had listened to Labor and the Australian people a year ago.
I am pleased that the Government is now taking this step towards Labor's plan for an Anti-Corruption Commission, forced to do so by the weight of public opinion. But having reviewed some of the detail of the announcement, a couple of hours ago, I'm afraid that one can only draw the conclusion that the Government's heart is not in having a fair dinkum Anti-Corruption Commission. It's too little, too late.
Mr Morrison's proposal is not a fair dinkum Anti-Corruption Commission, it is too limited in scope, too limited in power, and it has no transparency. I also think that Mr Morrison should explain to the Australian people why he wants to set up a National Anti-Corruption Commission, which curiously exempts himself and the current government from any scrutiny by the new Anti-Corruption Commission.
I would like to hand over to Mark Dreyfus, our Shadow Attorney-General, to talk a little further about what's missing from Mr Morrison's too little, too late, not fair dinkum Anti-Corruption Commission.
MARK DREYFUS, SHADOW ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Thanks very much Bill. You'd have to say that the Morrison Government has been dragged kicking and screaming to this announcement that they've made today. All through this year since Bill Shorten announced our proposal for a National Integrity Commission on the 30th of January, all through this year, we've had Mr Morrison and his colleagues, varying between an outright rejection of the idea, or deriding the idea. So we had the Attorney-General back in May writing to me, saying there was no persuasive evidence for a National Integrity Commission. We had the Prime Minister himself saying this was a “fringe issue” just a matter of weeks ago in the Parliament. We had Christopher Pyne saying on the 19th of November, he said "I don't think that's necessary".
So what's changed? Clearly the Government, for some political reason, it thinks it has finally got to announce support, but just like the banking royal commission, they have been dragged kicking and screaming to this idea.
Mr Morrison and Mr Porter were at pains to say in their press conference earlier today that they had been working on this for many months. Looking at what they have produced after the months - you have to say it's a pretty thin proposal. What they've done is produce a consultation paper. They're not actually going to do this Integrity Commission, they're simply going to take a commitment to the next election. The detail they're leaving to be worked out. There is actually more detail in what Bill Shorten and I announced back on the 30th of January than what we see from the Government today. What they've announced is a proposal with limited scope, limited, powers and no transparency and, in fact, I would say they've got some explaining to do, just as to why they have decided to produce such a limited form of Integrity Commission.
SHORTEN: Happy to take any questions.
JOURNALIST: How does your model differ?
SHORTEN: Well, I'll get Mark to supplement it. But we put down seven design principles when we announced this a year ago. One is that that we should instead operate as an independent statutory body, the Government has said that, and there should be one commissioner with two deputy commissioners. To be fair, the Government has said that.
But, what they haven't said, is that the commission should have a sufficiently broad jurisdiction, that it should have the equivalent powers of a standing royal commission. The Government's not fair dinkum Anti-Corruption Commission has no capacity at all for public hearings, it has no power for the royal commission or the anti-corruption commission to initiate their own investigations.
So somewhat unusually, Mr Morrison's Anti-Corruption Commission wouldn’t have been able to have found the Obeid corruption, and indeed many of the New South Wales 11 Liberal MPs who have been punted from Parliament, would not have been caught under Mr Morrison's Commission.
But I might get Mark to talk a little bit further of the weaknesses in this body.
DREYFUS: Thanks Bill.
Bill's covered some of the deficiencies in what the Government's announced today. I would add that the Government apparently wants to restrict this to criminal conduct only and that is simply not good enough. What we need is a broad overarching integrity commission that is capable of looking at all forms of misconduct, right throughout the Australian public service, through all aspects of government and, again, so that is limited in scope as to what it can investigate. It is also limited in scope, the Government's proposal, as to who it could investigate. It appears that the Government would want to limit this to public servants, it's mentioned contractors but it actually needs to be an Integrity Commission which looks at the whole field of government. It needs to look at everybody who is engaging in corrupt conduct anywhere in our system of government.
We would have included and would include, if we are elected and have the opportunity to implement this, the judiciary in a National Integrity Commission. The Government's proposal has limited powers and we think that's not sufficient, as Bill has already mentioned. The Government is proposing that a National Integrity Commission would not have the power to initiate its own inquiries. Effectively, what the Government is saying is that they're going to simply take across all of the existing various single purpose integrity bodies that we have at the Commonwealth level, put them under some kind of overarching commission but not actually add to their powers, not add to their scope and we simply think that's not good enough.
I'd end by pointing out that the government has said, Mr Porter made this clear in the press conference this morning, that no public hearings would be held by the proposed National Integrity Commission that the government is putting forward. We think that's simply not good enough. The public of Australia do not want a secret tribunal. What they want is public hearings, not perhaps all the time - in our model, we would leave this to the Commissioner to decide when public hearings were appropriate - but you have to have the capacity to hold public hearings simply to get the educative effect, the anti-corruption effect, of educating the public by holding public hearings. And a point that's often being made by David Ipp, the former commissioner of ICAC in New South Wales, by holding public hearings, you encourage others to come forward with allegations of corruption which is an absolutely vital function to be served by an Integrity Commission
JOURNALIST: So just to clarify that point - are you saying that politicians and their staff should be subjected to public hearings?
SHORTEN: What we've said on public hearings is that whilst the presumption is that they're not, we recognise there is an educative role.
I sat down in January with the leading anti-corruption campaigners in Australia, representatives of Transparency International, former judges who've been in charge of successful anti-corruption bodies. They made it clear there has to be some element of public engagement otherwise it won't have the educative effect. Now, we've said we'll consult where that discretion lies but the idea that you can have justice in secret, the idea that the public don't get to actually see the system at all and it's ruled out from day one, damages I think some of the purpose of having an Anti-Corruption Commission.
Let's face it - it's a few days before Christmas. Mr Morrison's heart is not in this issue. He said tackling corruption was a "fringe issue" 17 days ago and now has come up with a fringe answer. The fact of the matter is that this is too little, too late. And the very point that it is more limited in scope than the experts say, more limited in powers than the experts recommend and that there is no transparency whatsoever to be continued and the fact that Mr Morrison wants to exempt the conduct of the Liberal Government that he now leads, just speaks volumes of the fact their hearts are not in tackling corruption at the national commonwealth level.
JOURNALIST: Just to be really clear that you're actually - you think that this body should be able to look at past cases as well as future cases of alleged corruption?
SHORTEN: We can see - well, first of all facts occur now which may be relevant to the future. And Mr Morrison has made it very clear that he doesn't want his Government's decisions to be available to the same scrutiny as future governments.
This very last minute conversion to some sort of anti-corruption commission doesn't really strike one as being fair dinkum by Mr Morrison. You can see the fingernail marks on the marble of Parliament were he was being dragged kicking and screaming.
We said in January, the public need to have greater confidence in Australian politics. We're not saying that we think there is corruption that we're aware of - and if we were, we’d report it. But the point about it is Australians think that too many decisions happen behind closed doors. Other levels of government do have anti-corruption protections. We think we need to update the Commonwealth anti-corruption protections to meet the community standards. A year later, only due to the weight of public opinion - and I acknowledge the work of the public here, just bringing pressure on the Government - Mr Morrison said, well I better have something to say. But the problem is what he's got to say isn't fair dinkum. It's not enough and we've already seen what the third party experts are saying. I think people are pleased that it's being a discussion but the problem is you've got to get the right answer when you admit there's a problem.
And again, I'm afraid to say I think the current Government has missed the opportunity to get it right. They know there is a problem. They should actually sit down with Labor and work with us on these issues. I think we can do better in this country and we do it by working together. But this anti-corruption commission needs more power, more scope and the opportunity for some transparency. I think Mr Morrison has to explain why he thinks that his government's conduct should be exempt from any monitoring of an anti-corruption commission.
JOURNALIST: So will Labor support legislation to set up this commission?
SHORTEN: We will and we've said we'll do this in government. We've already outlined our design principles a year ago.
It is such a shame that Mr Morrison has such little respect for the Parliament and scrutiny that we're only going to sit for 10 days in the next eight months. And I really regret that Mr Morrison's rushing these announcements out now when he could have told us in Parliament. If he's been working on this for months, what was the crucial idea he designed since Parliament rose which meant that he couldn't raise it back when we were all there together to work on this important reform together?
JOURNALIST: MPs, as you mentioned, will be covered by this new anti-corruption watchdog. Polls show that MPs really don't have the trust of the public or voters for that matter. Do you believe that our current members serving in parliament are corruption free?
SHORTEN: I'm not aware of any corruption full stop. But I mean there's a range of institutions of public life which could afford to do better with the restoration of confidence in the public - the media, institutions of power, wherever. We're doing our bit. Labor's put forward an anti-corruption commission set of design principles. We've been campaigning on it.
I do acknowledge that the Government has finally been forced to follow Labor's lead by weight of public opinion. But this proposal that the Government's come up with, it's just not a fair dinkum anti-corruption commission.
JOURNALIST: On another matter, religious freedoms. Are you prepared to pass laws before the next election?
Well, we would need to see the laws, wouldn't we?
But let's go to the principle behind your question. We support religious freedom, we always have - it's in our platform, the Labor Party platform. It has been in it for many years. So obviously, we'll look at whatever proposal the Government has.
But when you use that time period of before the next election, gee it's a shame that the Government sat on this religious freedom review since May. Seven months have passed and now the Government has unfortunately only scheduled 10 days of Parliament in the next eight months - and one of those weeks, three or four of those 10 days will have to be dedicated to the Budget.
So I am not sure that Mr Morrison has allowed enough time for us to debate these issues. We will consider the detail but I also must flag that I thought the first cab off the rank, so to speak, was going to be removing discrimination against kids. But unfortunately, Mr Morrison has now proposed a review which on average takes another year.
I do - and I also have to say I am worried, if there is any plan by the conservative right of the Liberal Party to make religion an election issue, I think Australians don't want to see religion as an election issue.
We will work constructively on the principle of religious freedom but I am concerned if the government or elements of the government - I should say, have some sort of political desire to make religion a political football in the next election.
JOURNALIST: Are there parts of the government's religious freedoms proposal that you can't support? That you can rule out supporting?
SHORTEN: I think in all fairness, Rachel the government just announced it this morning. Yet again, I just wish the government hadn't sat on this issue for seven months, waited for parliament to rise and then is sort of trying to legislate by press release. Let's sit down and work on this together and I think we can come up with the right answers.
JOURNALIST: Is there a need for the Religious Discrimination Act?
SHORTEN: I have to say when I travel around Australia whilst some people say to me they feel that the role of religion in society is not sufficiently respected, most of the issues I get when I travel around Australia are about, will my kids get an apprenticeship, I can't afford the price of the first home and my kids are locked out of the housing market. Most people tend to raise with me aged care packages and lack of support for older people living with dementia. People raise with me hospital waiting lists for elective surgery. They want to make sure that their child is getting enough resources to get the best possible education. People raise with me about the cuts to penalty rates, people raise with me the spiralling, out of control electricity and gas prices in both households and businesses. There are a lot of issues which are raised with me by Australians. I could not say to you that religion is in the top 100 issues that get raised with me but nonetheless I accept for some people it is a very important matter and it is a principle which the Labor Party supports.
JOURNALIST: Would you pursue any of these recommendations in government or was the report just a waste of time?
SHORTEN: Well, first of all, I just wish the government had given us the report seven months ago. Why is it that this religious freedom debate has to be weaponised as a source of partisan advantage? I think one of the things which Australians like about Australia is we don't have religion as a big item of argument in our political system.
We look at countries around the world where religion is a big argument within politics, I don't think that is the path that Australia wants to go down. I respect the role of faith in people’s lives and I respect the right of people to be able to have religious freedom. Whatever God they worship, or indeed if people worship none, that's fine by me, I am a live and let live person. I get concerned though if we want to see an argument which says that somehow there should be an argument about religion in politics. I don't think that has been the traditional Australian way. Anyway, we will rather than look at the politics or any motivations behind the far right of the Liberal Party pursuing this agenda, let's just deal with the issues and I think we can get to the right outcome.
JOURNALIST: Does Labor support moving the National Space Agency to Adelaide or are you going to stick to your previous policy of keeping it in Canberra?
SHORTEN: Well we certainly want to see jobs go to Adelaide and we are certainly very committed to a space agency. Therefore we will look at the evidence and if it is the right case to move jobs to Adelaide we certainly will.
We certainly want to see more done for South Australia and that is why Labor has been such a strong supporter of helping save the steel industry in Whyalla, which will save thousands of jobs.
Of helping build the defence capability, defence construction capability in South Australia which will lead to thousands of jobs.
And I know the government has a new-found interest in jobs in South Australia but gee it's a shame they let the car industry go on their watch. And I have travelled to Elizabeth which was the home of the car industry in Australia along with Melbourne and gee I hate seeing the people who have lost their jobs there. It is terrible.
Anyway, we're certainly up if the Space Agency should be in South Australia and we see the government logic, we're all for that.
JOURNLAIST: The government has committed $41 million to that if you're elected will you honour that commitment?
SHORTEN: Not only will we honour it, we've committed first. But anyway, sometimes in politics if we get the right answer I am not worried whose name is on the proposition.
For me, it is about making sure that Australia is part of the technology race of the future. I am very bullish about our investment in science and technology, that's one of the reasons why we want to uncap the number of places for people going to university, it's why we're going to restore proper funding for public TAFE, at the centre of our technical education and of course as a part of that we are not only keen to see the Space Agency be developed, we are keen to make sure that our $100 billion plan for investment in rail over the next two decades is supported and it's why Labor's strongly supporting the bipartisan way our building of our national defence construction capability.
JOURNALIST Are you comfortable with the way suppression orders operate in our legal system?
SHORTEN: I think you're referring to the current debate at the moment which I know has outraged significant parts of the media. I'll leave that for you to argue with the courts. It's a very sensitive matter and I think we are going to see more on that unfold in coming days aren't we?
JOURNALIST: On another issue the midyear economic review MYEFO is due on Monday. What do you want to see in it?
SHORTEN: Well first of all, I would like to see a wages policy from the government. I'd like to see better tax refunds for people who earn less than $120,000 than the government's proposing. I'd like to see greater support for our hospitals and schools. I want to make sure that we see a plan to decrease energy prices. I want to see the battlers get more attention from this government rather than just an ongoing talk about giving tax cuts and tax relief to the big end of town.