SUBJECTS: Abbott Governments back down on repeal of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act; National Security; Mandatory data retention.
EMMA ALBERICI: To discuss today's counter-terrorism announcements and the Government's decision to quit plans to change the Racial Discrimination Act, I was joined a short time ago from Melbourne by the Shadow Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus.
Mark Dreyfus, thanks very much for joining us.
MARK DREYFUS, SHADOW ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Very good to be with you.
ALBERICI: After more than a year spent vowing to change Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, were you surprised to see the Government abandon those plans?
DREYFUS: I've thought all along that the Government was going to have to back down on this plan to repeal the race hate protections that Australians have enjoyed for almost 20 years.
It's a humiliating back down by Senator Brandis, by the Prime Minister. And they've had to be dragged kicking and screaming to this back down, but I thought eventually this day would come.
I congratulate all those community groups, the thousands of Australians across the nation who have fought so hard against this and have made their views known, their very strong views known to the Prime Minister, to the Attorney-General: that this change did not represent the kind of Australia we want to have.
ALBERICI: In fact, recent opinion polls put the level of opposition to these changes at somewhere around 90 per cent. Now, given that level of opposition to these changes to 18C, why do you think the Government was so determined to push ahead?
DREYFUS: George Brandis said this was his signature policy. He said it was the first item of legislation he was going to act on. Tony Abbott has been promising to repeal Section 18C since October of 2011. It's almost two and a half years, in fact yes, almost two and a half years.
I have not been able to understand why the Government has not listened earlier to the very strong views that have been expressed. I've heard this at forums and community rallies and meetings across Australia, from Australians from all walks of life, all community groups, all ages, saying to me things like, "This isn't the kind of Australia we want to have."
Saying things about the White Australia policy, pointing out to me that this is sending the wrong message about Australia to India and China and places where we're trying to attract overseas students.
A myriad of reasons has been put forward. I haven't understood why the Government hasn't listened before now. But the Government has finally been dragged to this position and in a humiliating back down George Brandis has been forced to give up his signature policy which as late as last night he was still spruiking.
He was still saying last night that there was a need to repeal Section 18C.
ALBERICI: By way of explanation today, Tony Abbott said he didn't want to do anything that puts our national unity at risk. In what way were the proposals to strengthen free speech in any way putting our national unity at risk?
DREYFUS: Well, I think it's the reaction of the Australian community that apparently has concerned the Prime Minister but he hasn't been listening before now.
It should have been apparent to him before now, from the reaction from community groups from well before the election, that this was the wrong policy; that the Liberal and National Parties had not made out a case for repeal.
And I can say that I am pleased from the point of view of the national mood or the national conversation by making the point that Nova Peris made so eloquently in a letter to the Prime Minister some time back when she said to him, "This is not the kind of legislative change that a Government of Australia ought to be proposing when we are trying to forge a national consensus about amending our constitution."
And I think that the removal of this - not that I fully trust the Government not to come back to it at some future point - but the removal of this attempt to repeal our race hate laws will assist in getting the right momentum in building on what I still hope is bipartisan support for a change to our Constitution.
ALBERICI: The Prime Minister said if he was starting from scratch with the Racial Discrimination Act he wouldn't include the words "to offend or insult". Do you agree the language casts too wide a net in hindsight and perhaps does tend to stifle free speech?
DREYFUS: Not at all. This is a balanced law. Clearly Tony Abbott and the Attorney-General, George Brandis, had not read the small number of Federal Court decisions about this provision, Section 18C, which make it clear that each of those terms that you referred to informed the other. It's understood to deal with serious acts of racist vilification, of race hate in public. There's already a very-
ALBERICI: -Pardon the interruption though, but that's something different. Race hate and abuse: they're quite different to the terms "offend and humiliate," aren't they?
DREYFUS: But they're read together with the other terms, "insult and intimidate" and that's my point. And all of the cases and all of the thousands of examples that have been dealt with by the Human Rights Commission show us that it's been used for serious cases and it is balanced by a protection of free speech that's in Section 18D which Tony Abbott and George Brandis always conveniently forgot to mention any time they were talking about Section 18C.
We've got the balance there. I'm pleased that this law has been saved and I again congratulate community groups and the thousands of Australians who spoke up. It shows that it's worth speaking up.
I'm hoping that the thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of Australians who have spoken out against the budget are going to be listened to there too.
ALBERICI: The Institute of Public Affairs says this is a broken promise. Are they right or is it just a matter of good politics?
DREYFUS: The Institute of Public Affairs has been one of the prime movers behind Tony Abbott and George Brandis' push to repeal these protections against racist speech. Of course they're disappointed. I'm not actually much interested in the views of a right-wing think tank on this subject. They've shown themselves unable to understand modern Australia by the way they've pushed for these provisions to be removed.
ALBERICI: On another issue today, Mr Abbott said the overall terrorist threat hasn't changed since September the 11th, 13 years ago. Does the Labor Party share the Government's assessment on that?
DREYFUS: There's still a risk of terrorism in Australia. That's been so since at least 2001 and I was pleased to hear from Mr Abbott saying that the terrorist threat has not changed. We're not getting, apparently, some artificial ramping up of fear about terrorism.
It's a serious threat. It's one that we took very seriously in Government, of course, and it's why we will work constructively with the Government to consider any proposals they put forward to change our national security laws.
But, of course, we haven't been consulted. We had an offer of consultation on the latest announcement of some as yet very unclear ideas from the Government about an hour before the Prime Minister's press conference today. We've accepted that offer. And I look forward to the detail coming forward. We will consider it.
ALBERICI: So no guarantees of support from Labor just yet?
DREYFUS: No. The Government should not assume in relation to anything the detail of which has not been consulted on with the Australian community, consulted on with the Australian Parliament, that there is a blank cheque from Labor simply because Labor is conscious of the threat to our national security posed by acts of terrorism.
Of course we're conscious of the threat but every time there is a proposal to make incursions into Australians' freedoms, into the things we value as a society, it's for the Government to justify those changes, to explain those changes and of course to consult deeply and at length with Australians about what the changes are proposed.
ALBERICI: Well, one of the changes being proposed is to make it a crime to visit certain countries like Iraq and Syria unless there's a legitimate reason to do so. Is there merit to such a proposal?
DREYFUS: Well, that's of course something that rings alarm bells because what the Prime Minister spoke of was a reverse onus provision: making someone who's charged with a criminal offence prove that they had a lawful reason for being in a particular place.
Apparently - we don't have the detail - the Government is going to declare certain places to be places that you will need to explain why you visited them. Australian law forever has had a concern about reverse onus provisions, particularly when you are talking about that kind of incursion into traditional rights and freedoms.
The Government bears a heavy onus itself to justify that sort of change.
ALBERICI: Academics, aid workers, journalists, family members: there could be a range of legitimate reasons to travel to troubled countries. Is it possible in the end to determine - being a QC yourself - do you see any difficulties in determining whether or not someone is actually up to no good?
DREYFUS: There is a great deal of difficulty. And you've given there, Emma, some very good examples of the reasons why thousands and thousands of Australians, some of them having come from countries that are now in a troubled state, such as Syria or Iraq or Jordan or Lebanon or Turkey, all of which might be identified as places - not necessarily themselves war zones - but places that you might have to prove that you had a legitimate reason for going to.
I think that those thousands and thousands of Australians who do have legitimate reasons for going to those places and know that they do would be very concerned that it is being suggested that they might be exposed to a criminal prosecution.
ALBERICI: Much of the Government's announcement today assumes Australians are being radicalised overseas and yet we've seen in Britain that the father of a 20 year old British man who was fighting in Iraq and Syria has revealed that his son was brainwashed and radicalised while studying medicine at university in the UK. Is there any evidence that the same sort of thing is happening here?
DREYFUS: We know, Emma, that there is radicalisation of people in the Australian community, leading them to take up the cause of violent extremism. That's one reason why in government we had programs that went under the name of Countering Violent Extremism.
Regrettably the new government has seen not to fund those programs in its current budget. I'd be calling on the Government, since the Prime Minister mentioned something about countering violent extremism today, to put their money where their mouth is and go back to funding these programs which I think were of use. Because they're about working with communities, trying to get alternative messages to vulnerable young people who might otherwise go down the wrong path - because that is what we are talking about here.
I don't have a great deal of confidence in the Attorney-General. Clearly the Prime Minister's not prepared to trust him with matters of social policy. I'm not convinced that the Prime Minister should be trusting him with matters of national security either.
And I don't have much confidence that the Prime Minister will pick up that challenge that I've given him, which is to properly fund or to start funding programs that we had in government which are about working with communities to steer troubled young people, misguided young people away from violent extremism.
ALBERICI: Tony Abbott is committing $630 million to beef up Australia's intelligence agencies. He says he will use Operation Sovereign Borders as a sort of template of what works well in terms of agencies coordinating. Do you agree that's been an example that should be followed here?
DREYFUS: In fact, we don't have the detail of this supposed additional $630 million. It's over four years. It's been said to be going to increase the resources available to ASIO, to the Australian Federal Police, to the Office of National Assessments and to Customs and, presumably, to ASIS.
Now that's five agencies. We need to await the detail to know what's meant by an additional $600 million over four years.
ALBERICI: The Government will ask companies separately to keep people's phone and internet data for two years or so. Is that a good idea as far as helping security agencies monitor the behaviour of people of interest?
DREYFUS: That's something that was announced in the media this morning, apparently, by Senator Brandis without it having been fully discussed in Cabinet. That also became apparent over the course of the day. We learned from the Prime Minister something that's been approved in principle. We're now to await the detail from the Government of this mandatory data retention proposal.
I'd point out that in government, as Attorney-General, I said that Labor was not prepared to proceed with such a scheme at that time. Obviously we've heard the arguments from the Australian Federal Police, from ASIO, about why data retention is important to them. But equally, I've heard the concerns expressed by Australians now for some time about the potential incursions into privacy, the potential incursions into freedoms.
And what that means is that any proposal has to be accompanied by safeguards, by oversight. And the Government will need to explain who is going to be bear the cost because industry has made it clear that there's some very, very substantial costs associated with keeping data that is not needed for commercial purposes. Because that's what we're talking about, Emma.
ALBERICI: Mark Dreyfus, we have to leave it there. Many thanks for being with us tonight.
DREYFUS: Thanks Emma