SHADOW MINISTER FOR CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM
MEMBER FOR ISAACS
ABC TV AFTERNOON BRIEFING
TUESDAY, 16 MARCH 2021
SUBJECTS: Complaints against Christian Porter; March4Justice; Workplace culture in Parliament House.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: And as revealed there by Jade Macmillan, we are now looking at a sort of future for the Attorney-General's return where, because of perceived constant conflict of interest issues, he will be not dealing with the Federal Court. So, this is kind of an unusual arrangement where the Prime Minister has made the determination that the Attorney-General shouldn't be presiding over matters relating to that court because of his private defamation action against the ABC and ABC journalist Louise Milligan in relation to that article. Now, that obviously makes his job a little more complicated.
This is an issue that the Labor Party has been pursuing. Now, just a bit of context on this, the Labor Party is one of many, the Greens too, who are pushing for an independent inquiry into the Attorney-General and these historic rape allegations and whether he's a fit and proper person. To be clear, the Attorney-General categorically denies the historic allegation. But, this obviously is a complicated issue for the Prime Minister who has had to, essentially, declare that the Attorney-General won't be dealing with these matters which have an overlapping theme in relation to the defamation action.
For more on that I was joined a short time ago by the Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus. Mark Dreyfus, welcome to the program.
MARK DREYFUS, SHADOW ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Good to be with you Patricia.
KARVELAS: Is it appropriate for the Attorney-General to return to his role if he can't perform all of his duties?
DREYFUS: No, and in fact he should have stood aside some weeks back. It's not appropriate that there be these serious allegations of sexual assault hanging over the Attorney-General of Australia. He should have stood aside and there should have been an independent inquiry commenced some weeks back.
KARVELAS: He'll avoid anything to do with the ABC or the Federal Court. What would that look like in practical terms?
DREYFUS: It's just making the point more clear. We've got the Prime Minister saying that, in his opinion, the Attorney-General can return to work but he won't be able to do some parts of his work because of what the Prime Minister accepts is a conflict of interest. There is a larger point though, Patricia, which is that this Attorney-General has a tremendous cloud hanging over him. This Attorney-General has to establish that he's fit for office, fit for the high office that he holds as the first law officer and the Prime Minister seems to be pretending that all of this has been made to go away because the New South Wales Police can investigate no further. We had the Prime Minister today, disgracefully, pretending in Question Time that the New South Wales Police had fully investigated this matter. They didn't, and that needs to be made clear and I think it is clear to Australians because that's why Australians are calling for there to be an independent investigation. They know that there has not been an investigation of these serious allegations.
KARVELAS: So, given the Prime Minister does want to keep him in his role and is just talking about the conflict of interest areas, what's your analysis? Does this mean he won't be able to oversee the process of folding the Family Court into the Federal Court?
DREYFUS: Possibly. I don't know how it is said that you can draw some kind of line around parts of the Attorney-General's job but that seems to be what the Prime Minister is proposing. What he should be doing, what the Prime Minister should be doing, is showing some leadership for once, trying to clear the air, trying to restore the confidence of the public in this high cabinet office and stand Christian Porter aside. There's plenty of examples of this happening in Australian political history, plenty of examples of John Howard standing ministers aside, examples of Tony Abbott, of Malcolm Turnbull, of Julia Gillard or Kevin Rudd for that matter, standing ministers aside when there are serious allegations made against them. That is the accepted means of doing this and to suggest that Christian Porter's fitness for office has been determined by an incomplete New South Wales Police investigation, that's a nonsense. Suggesting, as the Prime Minister might be trying to do, that a defamation action can resolve anything, that's a nonsense too.
KARVELAS: So, would it have been simpler for the Attorney-General's portfolio to have been temporarily handed to another minister rather than carving out areas?
DREYFUS: Completely, and that's what should have happened. That's the accepted means of dealing with questions of fitness for office when they come up. The Prime Minister's own Statement of Ministerial Standards says that it's for the Prime Minister to finally determine whether or not a minister is fit for office and that same Statement of Ministerial Standards envisages that the Prime Minister will establish an independent inquiry. Why the Prime Minister is pretending that there's something unusual about this only he could explain and only the Prime Minister could explain. Though I think it's pretty clear to Australians why he keeps banging on about the rule of law, which has nothing at all to do with the current situation.
KARVELAS: Australia has some of the toughest defamation laws in the world. How do you rate Christian Porter's chances of success?
DREYFUS: It's a long time since I've been in practice Patricia, even though I did used to practice in defamation law. One of the interesting things, if I can take off my political hat and put on a lawyer’s hat, is that he will have to prove that he was identified by the piece that he's complaining about that was published by the ABC which did not name him and that's a relatively unusual feature of defamation actions. I'm more troubled about the use that the Government might seek to put this defamation action to, as an attempt, which they're already making, to muzzle further discussion or to suggest that because this matter is now part of a private defamation action by Christian Porter that that should be enough. It's nothing of the kind. It's just as I've said, a private defamation action and it will resolve only that question of Mr Porter's reputation. It won't resolve his fitness for office. That's why we need an independent inquiry.
KARVELAS: Are you concerned that it will have a chilling effect on journalism?
DREYFUS: I think that the defamation laws for many decades have had a chilling effect on public interest journalism in our country. I appeared in some of the free speech cases that have been argued out in the High Court of Australia, one of them the Theophanous case and other one the Lange case which were directed at establishing a defence for discussion of government and political matters. The reason why Mark Speakman and other state Attorneys-General have agreed on changes to the defamation law is that that those changes that occurred in the 1990s to Australian defamation law haven't been enough. We've still got a massive chilling effect of defamation law on proper discussion, open discussion of political matters in our country.
KARVELAS: Were you shocked by accounts of bullying and sexual assault detailed by former Labor staffers in that closed Facebook group?
DREYFUS: Of course. I’m not a member of that Facebook group but of course I've read of what's appeared in the Facebook group and been told of it. They are shocking accounts and we need to make sure that we have a culture in all political parties that ensures that that kind of conduct does not occur. All political parties, as my colleague Tanya Plibersek said this morning, all political parties can do better - Labor, Liberal, The Greens Party, the National Party - all political parties.
KARVELAS: And do you agree with your colleague Tony Burke who told me here yesterday that he thinks that if an allegation is made of a Frontbencher, for instance, on your side of politics, they should stand down while there's an investigation?
DREYFUS: It's going to depend on the nature of the allegations. That's why Labor over the last two years has worked on a code of practice, worked on policies to deal with sexual harassment, to deal with bullying, to set up a proper complaint process. Of course there should be investigations. Of course people should feel free to bring their complaints forward, and in an appropriate circumstance that Frontbencher concerned should be stood aside.
KARVELAS: At least one of the incidents described rape, should that be referred to police?
DREYFUS: I'm not going to comment on any individual allegations because we don't have the details, we don't have dates, we don't have names. But I'd encourage anyone, anyone who is a member of staff of any political party, just as I would encourage any woman anywhere in Australia, if they have an allegation of rape, to bring that forward to the appropriate authorities which is going to be, usually, the state police in each state or territory police in the territory.
KARVELAS: Do you recognise any of the behaviour described in any of your male colleagues?
DREYFUS: No I don't, but I've not gone through - as I say I'm not a member of this Facebook group - I haven't gone through every single one of these allegations. I'd encourage anyone who's got allegations of this kind to come forward. It's very important. That's the way we are going to get to a change of culture. I feel that the Labor Party, partly and importantly because we've moved to a situation where half of our Federal Parliamentary Labor Party are now women, we've been working on a change of culture in our party. We've got more work to do. A part of that work is going to be people bringing allegations forward, those allegations being listened to and those allegations being acted on.
KARVELAS: Do you agree with Senator Jenny McAllister who told me yesterday that the men involved should self-identify?
DREYFUS: Yes, as far as that's possible. I'm not sure about the mechanism that we’d go about it because, as I say, this is a closed Facebook group. The allegations have been put forward on an anonymous basis. But men who have been perpetrators of these kinds of acts need to reflect on their own conduct, they need to be part of the change that we need to have take place.
KARVELAS: Thank you so much for joining us.
DREYFUS: Thank you very much, Patricia.