Member for Isaacs

ABC Radio Melbourne Mornings Jon Faine 4 February 2013

04 February 2013

TOPICS: Discrimination consolidation legislation; same-sex marriage; Victorian state-election; role of Attorney-General; Legal Aid; Native Title

Minister for Emergency Management


TOPICS: Discrimination consolidation legislation; same-sex marriage; Victorian state-election; role of Attorney-General; Legal Aid; Native Title

JON FAINE: Later this morning the Governor General will swear in some new ministers to Julia Gillard's front bench as well as some new parliamentary secretaries. Depending on your perspective this is either shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic or as the Prime Minister tried to reassure her own party over the weekend,
just an orderly transition.

One of the new senior members of the front bench is the Victorian member of Parliament, Mark Dreyfus QC, who will be the new Attorney General and for the purposes of declaration I put on the record I have known and worked with Mark many times over the last thirty or so years. Mr Dreyfus, good morning to you. Congratulations.

MARK DREYFUS: Good to be with you, Jon.

JON FAINE: Free speech is one of the first issues you're going to have to deal with. Did Nicola Roxon make a mess of the free speech reforms?

MARK DREYFUS: Not at all. She has put out a consultation draft and I think that's really important to keep that upfront, which puts together, Jon, the five Acts that together make up our antidiscrimination law and they've been built up over some four decades. You get a number of inconsistencies when you've got different Acts legislated at different times and I think it's a worthwhile aim to try and put them together in a
simpler form. That's the first…

JON FAINE: [Interrupts] Yes but it's triggered a massive campaign by media organisations and for instance, the IPA already claiming a victory saying Nicola Roxon's departure is a win for the IPA.

MARK DREYFUS: Well, I suppose they like to make themselves as important as they possibly can but they need to understand…

JON FAINE: [Interrupts] But they're right, they've been campaigning over this and it looks like - well, are you going to change the draft?

MARK DREYFUS: We - I'm going to be considering all of the submissions that have been made. I'm going to be considering the work of the Senate committee which is still deliberating. In fact, the secretary of the Attorney General's department is going to talk to the committee today and put before the Senate committee looking at this consultation draft of a bill to make some suggestions about possible re-drafts.

JON FAINE: Okay, well what's your view? Should it - should it be against the law to insult someone?

MARK DREYFUS: My view is that it's very, very important that we strike the appropriate balance between protecting the Australian community and preserving free speech and I don't think anyone could doubt my commitment to free speech over very, very many years. I've participated in some of the landmark free speech cases in this country and I…

JON FAINE: [Interrupts] So what do you want the law to reflect?

MARK DREYFUS: I want there to be a continuation of the protections that have been built up over the last four decades, and very useful ones that they are. Protections for the Australian community against unfair discrimination. So I want the new…

JON FAINE: [Interrupts] But you didn't answer my question, should it be against the law to insult someone?

MARK DREYFUS: … not just in private space of course and not in ordinary conversation, which is some of the more ridiculous suggestions that have been put forward. We're not talking about conversations down the pub here. What we're talking about is in the workplace, in particular situations that there ought not be unfair
discrimination and that's the purpose of antidiscrimination law at the moment.

JON FAINE: Were you happy with the result - sorry, not happy with, did you think the outcome of Andrew Bolt's case was correct? Are you satisfied that that's how the law should work?

MARK DREYFUS: Those are the hate speech provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act. They have been part of the law since 1994. They provide an incredibly important protection for the Australian community, most notably they've been used against people that have tried to say that the Holocaust did not happen. They've tried to say to people who have got tattoos on their arms, who are survivors of the Holocaust that they're making up stories. That gives grave offence to not just the Jewish community but to all right thinking members of the Australian community. Those are the hate speech provisions that I think are a very important
protection for Australians.

JON FAINE: Do they need to be in some way tweaked or fine-tuned?

MARK DREYFUS: I don't believe so. I think that one could look at some procedural issues about why some of those cases take so long to resolve but apart from that they're a very important protection for the Australian community and they contain within them defences based on free speech and those defences protect political
comment, protect theatrical work, protect public comment and strike, in my view, the right balance.

JON FAINE: Do you want to see the law changed on same sex marriage?

MARK DREYFUS: I've made my position clear, Jon. I voted in favour of the private member's bill introduced last year in the Parliament and I support same sex marriage for Australians.

JON FAINE: You're now the Attorney General, you're - you have an opportunity to push it harder.

MARK DREYFUS: The Australian Labor Party at the last national conference adopted a policy which said that it's a matter of conscience for individual members - Labor members of Parliament. Unfortunately Tony Abbott did not allow the same conscience vote within his party and when the vote was brought on last year in the Australian Parliament it was defeated, in part I would suggest because many members of the Liberal and
National parties who would vote in favour of same sex marriage for Australians were not permitted to do so.

JON FAINE: The Herald Sun today on is front page tells us that State opposition Labor leader Daniel Andrews, as part of his pitch for next year's State election, is saying he would introduce reforms where jurors would get to recommend to judges what they think an appropriate sentence might be if they convict in a criminal case.
Do you think juries should have their role extended like that?

MARK DREYFUS: I think it's a very, very useful idea. I think that we under estimate the worth of juries. I think juries represent the views of ordinary people. They bring the law in closer touch with community views. That's incredibly important and I've always resisted attempts to reduce the role of juries either in criminal or in civil trials. I think they've provided - my personal experience is of juries in defamation trials and I know that they are - provide an incredibly useful role and in relation to…

JON FAINE: But sentencing has always been the exclusive preserve of the judge?

MARK DREYFUS: I don't think the suggestion that Daniel is making is in any sense other than that the jury should be able to make a suggestion to the judge. And, certainly at a personal level, I can say that juries - I've had jury members or people who have served on juries complain to me, “we never found out the result, we were never told whether the accused person had prior convictions before we gave our verdict and after we gave our verdict our business was done”. I think it's important that what the jury has learned about the facts of the case if the accused is found guilty…


MARK DREYFUS: …should benefit the judge also…

JON FAINE: All right.

MARK DREYFUS: …and inform the judge in his sentencing task.

JON FAINE: Will you be getting personally involved in cases the way Nicola Roxon did, particularly politically sensitive cases like the Slipper-Ashby one?

MARK DREYFUS: I'm proposing to carry out the traditional roles of the Attorney-General.

JON FAINE: Is it implicit there that she wasn't?

MARK DREYFUS: It's to ensure that the Government receives the best possible legal advice on all legal matters in which the Government is concerned and I have absolutely no doubt that that was - that's what Nicola Roxon did in her role as Attorney General, ensure that the Government receives the best possible legal

JON FAINE: Did she overstep the mark?

MARK DREYFUS: I don't believe in any sense that Nicola Roxon overstepped the mark. I think that she was a very fine Attorney General and can point to some notable achievements, in particular the plain packaging for cigarettes which will ensure better health for Australians and is a world first achievement.

JON FAINE: Legal Aid claims to be in crisis. You're now responsible for allocating money within your portfolio. Is there any extra money to improve access to justice for ordinary Australians?

MARK DREYFUS: It's been a personal concern of mine since 1997 when John Howard in his first year as Prime Minister halved the Commonwealth's contribution to legal aid. We have made some increases in legal aid since coming to Government, since our first budget in 2008 and I think that legal aid plays a very, very important part in protecting Australians in making sure that there is access to the legal system
for all Australians. I'm certainly going to be looking at it, Jon.

JON FAINE: Early in your career you worked at the Northern Lands Council as a researcher. The mining industry are calling for reforms to Native Title laws and many in the indigenous communities say it need an overhaul as well. Do you have an appetite to re-open that debate?

MARK DREYFUS: I'll certainly be listening to what the mining companies have got to say and I'll be listening to what Aboriginal communities have got to say. You're right to say that my first professional job was as a field officer at the Northern Land Council in the Northern Territory. I was dealing then with Aboriginal people and mining companies. I look forward to talking to them again.

JON FAINE: Well it's going to be a rough and rocky road. How much can you achieve in what is it, seven months?

MARK DREYFUS: I'll be continuing the work of the Government, the important law reform that this Government is engaged in right through to the election and into our next term, Jon.

JON FAINE: We will wait and see and I look forward to speaking to you from time to time and thank you for your time this morning.

MARK DREYFUS: Thanks, Jon.

JON FAINE: And congratulations. Mark Dreyfus, QC, the member for Isaacs which is based around the suburbs of Moorabbin and the like, the new Attorney General.