Subjects: Abbott Government changes to Racial Discrimination Act; 18C
BILL SHORTEN, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: There is no doubt that our security agencies need the right powers to keep Australia and Australians safe. And Australians who travel overseas to fight for terrorist causes, they should feel the strongest weight of the law for their actions. We have been offered a briefing in the last two hours on today's announcement by the Government. Labor has accepted the offer of a briefing and we will carefully consider the latest announcements today by the Government after we have received this briefing.
However, we are deeply concerned that the Prime Minister has sought to use today's announcements as cover to finally dump his deeply unpopular changes to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. Indeed, as late as last night, the Attorney-General was defending the Governments changes to 18C. For nearly a year, the Attorney-General has seen, as his most important priority, as giving the green light for racists and bigots to be racists and bigots. His priority as Attorney-General has been to allow racists to be racists. This has been a dreadful waste of national energy. His priority has as Attorney-General, has not, in fact, been to introduce national security laws and update laws - it's been to pursue the unfair changes to section 18C.
What is clear that between last night and today that the Attorney-General of Australia has been rolled by his Cabinet: George Brandis has been humiliated by his colleagues today. And further, the Prime Minister's reckless acts to try and change 18C were always destructive and have been determined to be destructive by their own cabinet. Prime Minister, giving Australians the right to be bigots was always a destructive action - there is no right to be a bigot in this country.
This embarrassing back down has been forced on a Prime Minister who did not want to announce what he has announced today. But I predict this will not be the only back down that this Prime Minister will make in coming days. I suggest to the Prime Minister that you should back down on your GP tax. Back down on making it harder for working class kids to go to university. Back down on your cuts to pensions, to schools, to hospitals. Back down on your cuts to pensions. This is the most embarrassing of the back downs so far that this government has made, nut it is most certainly not the last. Tony Abbott, you should back down on your budget of unfair promises and broken lies.
I might ask my colleague, Mark Dreyfus, to talk my specifically about matters that were announced today.
MARK DREYFUS, SHADOW ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Thanks very much Bill. I would congratulate all of those community groups and the thousands of Australians right across the country who have made their voice loud and clear to the Government so as to force the Government to back down on its proposal to repeal the protections against hate speech that this country has benefitted from for almost 20 years. Australians right across the country at rallies, at public meetings, have made their voice clear. In thousands of submissions made to the government saying No. No in completely clear terms to the Government saying "This is not the kind of Australia we want. This is not the kind of message we want to send to young Australians. It is not the kind of message we want to send about our country internationally". And the Government has been forced into a humiliating back down. It is a particularly humiliating back down for the Attorney-General, Senator Brandis, who as Bill has said, as recently as last night was saying how the Government proposed to get rid of section 18C. Clearly he has been rolled by his Cabinet colleagues; the Prime Minister has been dragged to this back down. It is a good thing. And now that we can move on to, I hope, more productive national debate than about this very divisive debate that we have had to endure now for the whole term of the Abbott government.
SHORTEN: We are happy to take any questions, thank you.
JOURNALIST: Will you give these counter-terrorism laws bipartisan support?
SHORTEN: There is no doubt that our security agencies need the right powers to keep Australia safe. So the principle of supporting and building our national security is a bipartisan principle.
But Labor also respects the concerns about people's privacy. It is most important that in the pursuit of national security, that we make sure that we respect the concerns of not treating ordinary Australians as criminals. There is great complexity in maintaining and storing information about 23 million Australians and we need to ensure that we get the balance right between making sure that we have strong national security and the rights of our citizens to their legitimate privacy. We will take the briefings that have been offered and we will carefully consider these matters in coming days and weeks.
JOURNALIST: In reference to 18C, do you think we lost the chance for a sensible middle ground?
SHORTEN: We have a sensible middle ground in Australia already. The Government, for the last 10 months, has pursued changes which are deeply unpopular in many, many parts of our community. Today's back down by the Abbott government on their insistence of a right for bigots to be bigots, is a victory for people power and ordinary Australians against unfair changes which would damage the way this country is working very well right now.
JOURNALIST: Are you concerned about reversing the onus of proof? After all, this is how Egypt was able to convict Peter Greste?
SHORTEN: When we talk about changes when are made to our laws, it is important that, first and foremost, we maintain our national security. But indeed, thinking about the example which you are raising, we have to be vigilant that we protect the rights of our citizens. We are up for improving and updating our national security laws. But what we will never do, is compromise the right of our citizens to be free. We need to be vigilant in defending our liberties. Once liberties are handed away and rights are handed away, it is very difficult to get them back and indeed, we believe that the sort of thing which we have seen with Peter Greste with being unfairly jailed in Egypt shows why we need to guard our liberties of our citizens very carefully.
JOURNALIST: The Prime Minister today made some fairly strong comments on the baby Gammy situation. What is your take on that?
SHORTEN: There is no doubt in my mind that we need to make sure that this most complex situation, where you have couples, legitimately seeking to have children, in many cases going through the roller-coaster of IVF, that if they are able to pursue the ability to have children, they should be able to do so. But it has to be done in a way which respects the rights of the parents, both natural and also the surrogate parents. So this is the most complex matter but I do not underestimate the degree of challenge and the amount of emotional upheaval which all of the participants, parents, the natural mother that they all go through. We just need to walk this process very carefully with respect to everyone involved.
JOURNALIST: So do you think in respect to the surrogacy laws involving Australians overseas, do they need to be tightened urgently?
SHORTEN: I think it is so incredibly complex because there is so much at stake. But one thing I don't underestimate is parents, Australians who want to be loving parents, I can understand that they are most motivated to try and have that most amazing experience of being a parent. We have to balance that and make sure that when it engages in jurisdictions beyond our own, that the rules are really clear. Because the sort of upheaval and turmoil we have seen in recent days is just devastating for everyone.
JOURNALIST: We are seeing Israeli troops moving out of Gaza soon. What do you think about that?
SHORTEN: I think any measure which goes towards the re-establishment of peace in Gaza and indeed that whole region is fundamentally important. They are good signs. Labor has been very clear on this matter. We think that the Hamas using schools to send missiles into Israel is unacceptable and we also deplore, absolutely, the appalling loss of civilian life on the Palestinian side too. So the sooner that peace reasserts itself the better and it can't come too quickly.