26 February 2015
Transcript - #2015022, 2015

Interview with Rafael Epstein, 774 ABC Melbourne

SUBJECTS: Human Rights Commission Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention, Professor Gillian Triggs

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Coming up we will be joined by Mark Dreyfus the Shadow Attorney General, and Bruce Billson who is the Small Business Minister, part of Tony Abbott’s Cabinet. The furore over the Head of the Human Rights Commission continues to the bizarre extent today of Julie Bishop the Foreign Affairs Minister saying that Gillian Triggs was not offered another job. That’s despite the Head of the Attorney General’s department yesterday, the official who supposedly met with the head of the Human Right’s Commission, that official twice saying he couldn’t specify what job she’d been offered…..there were some sensitivities. Despite that, Julie Bishop says there were no offer a job.

The Government’s got itself in a mess, Malcolm Turnbull is capitalising on it.

But has Labor gone too far? Accusing politicians of crimes didn’t go down too well in the past, should they be making those sorts of claims today. We’ll get to that soon…..

Joining us in Canberra is Bruce Billson the Small Business Minister, the Member for Dunkley, fan of Frankston and a member of Tony Abbott’s team. Bruce Billson, welcome.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Let’s always give the Riviera of Melbourne a plug down in Frankston in the Mornington Peninsula.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

That’s so never going to stick but you keep going with the Riviera!

MINISTER BILLSON:

Haha, I am perpetually optimistic, you know that.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Mark Dreyfus doesn’t quite have a Riviera. He is the ALP Member for Isaacs; he is the Shadow Attorney-General and part of course Bill Shorten’s team. Mark Dreyfus good afternoon.

MARK DREYFUS:

Great to be with you Raf, and I have to say that part of the fair city of Frankston is in my electorate because Bruce’s electorate and mine are neighbours.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Not that neighbours fight down our part of the world Raf.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Of course not, good neighbours make good fences you know. Let’s get in to this rather messy dispute over the head of the Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs, the Professor – whether or not she was offered a job if she stepped down. I think a lot of it could turn on a crucial bit of exchange yesterday.

You’re going to hear Penny Wong, the Labor Senator and Chris Moraitis, who is the man in charge of the Attorney-General’s Department, he is a public servant. He was sent to convey some sort of communication from the Attorney-General.

You have a listen to Penny Wong and George Brandis’ top public servant:

PENNY WONG: I’m suggesting that you knew perfectly well that the two propositions are linked – the resignation and the offer of a new position.

CHRIS MORAITIS: I did not know whether there was an express linkage. All I was asked to convey was there was a lack of confidence…

PENNY WONG: Sorry? You did… what was your answer? I did not know if they were expressly linked?

CHRIS MORAITIS: I don’t think there was an express linkage.

PENNY WONG: Right.

CHRIS MORAITIS: I did not know about this…

PENNY WONG: Did you understand there to be a linkage?

CHRIS MORAITIS: As I said you can’t have… my view was it could not be… it couldn’t fulfil the second legal role while doing the first.

PENNY WONG: So they were linked?

CHRIS MORAITIS: Well one would follow it from another possibility.

PENNY WONG: One would follow from another. [inaudible] One would follow from another… so the offer of another position would follow from the resignation?

So that dispute there is Gillian Triggs – was she encouraged to move along? Was she offered another job? It seems she was. How to characterise that appears to be the dispute.

Mark Dreyfus, I’ll start with you if I can, you’re the one who wants the AFP to look into this.

There may be a lot to criticize but there is absolutely no prospect of this ever becoming something subject to a charge or a criminal investigation, is there?

MARK DREYFUS:

That’s a matter for the Australian Federal Police to look at, that’s why I’ve asked for them to investigate. I’m not going to sit in judgement on this and that’s why we have police, we have a Director of Public Prosecutions and we have courts.

There is certainly enough that emerged in Senate Estimates yesterday to warrant an investigation by the Federal Police. The bit you played is but one of many statements made by Professor Triggs, by the secretary of the department and by the Attorney-General Senator Brandis himself, which show that this meeting took place.

The secretary was sent to Sydney; sent to say that the Government no longer had confidence in Professor Triggs, that’s outrageous in itself. And then to discuss another specific job with her, and I leave listeners to draw their own conclusions about that. This does need to be investigated.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

I am just curious – you say you are not sitting on judgement on him but you are bringing the AFP in. I think when Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop were in Opposition they accused the Prime Minister over her role as a lawyer of being in breach of the law.

It’s a really messy place to take politics isn’t it? To accuse the other side or even raise the prospect, of a criminal offence.

Shouldn’t you focus on the criticism of the actions of the Government rather than raising the prospect of some criminal offence?

MARK DREYFUS:

I think we can do both. It is a disgraceful and shameful attack that’s been mounted, a personal attack at that, that’s been mounted on someone that’s got statutory tenure of five years to protect her independence from attacks like this.

She is not there, Professor Triggs, President of the Human Rights Commission, she’s not there at the whim of the Government but it’s become an all too clear and common characteristic of this Government that they attack everybody who criticizes.

They want to shut down all criticism and it’s a failure, a complete failure, probably deliberate failure to recognise the independence of this statutory commission. It’s there as our conscience. It’s there to point out when there have been failings to observe human rights.

It’s there to judge the actions of the Commonwealth Government and that’s both Labor Governments and Coalition Governments against the human rights framework that is in the law.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Bruce Billson, I’d like to ask you. It seems very clear that the criticism from even inside your own Party is that the Prime Minister and George Brandis have gone too far rather than saying we have got less kids in detention than Labor – they have attacked the umpire.

MINISTER BILLSON:

I think that would mischaracterise the course of events here Raf. What happened was when there was 10 times the number of children in detention under the previous Government, Professor Triggs and the Human Rights Commission contemplated an inquiry. But they consulted with the Labor ministers and the Labor ministers advised Professor Triggs that they thought that would be too political and that such an inquiry should be conducted after the election…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

But you are making assumptions though…

BRUCE BILLSON:

No. This is all clear.

Let’s get past this nonsense. This is utter nonsense what we are listening to from the Labor Party here. They, in terms of compromising the independence of the Human Rights Commission, did so by encouraging Professor Triggs not to commence an inquiry when there were 10 times – 2,000 children – in detention but to wait until after the election. That compromised her independence.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

You say that Labor said that, we don’t know that Labor said that.

MINISTER BILLSON:

There has been no contest on that.

No. No. That is not a supposition. There has been no contest on that course of events, none whatsoever.

Now we have got people, including Mark Dreyfus, trying to retro-fit some facts on a very simple premise. The Human Rights Commission’s independence and impartiality is its currency -that is its gold.

It was compromised prior to the last election because Labor ministers sought to deflect Professor Triggs’ interest away from an inquiry at a time when there were 10 times the number of children in detention, and then decided to start the inquiry after the election. That brought into question the impartiality of the conduct of the Commission led by Professor Triggs.

Professor Triggs sought to inquire of the Attorney-General whether those events and others had caused the Attorney and the Government to lose confidence in her, she asked that question. She asked that question.

The Attorney made it clear through his department secretary that that partisanship and lack of impartiality had damaged the Human Rights Commission, undermined its independence and therefore that had caused a loss of confidence in her.

That was not in any doubt and the Attorney-General Brandis has made it clear he has a high personal regard for Professor Triggs…

MARK DREYFUS:

Ha ha ha.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Mark can laugh away.

MARK DREYFUS:

All of this is fiction.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Rumpole, you can laugh away, you got your time on the stand. I have been asked a question, I am dealing with it.

Professor Triggs has been…

MARK DREYFUS:

What do you want me to call you, a used car salesman?

BRUCE BILLSON:

…well that would be cheap shots and that is all we get from Labor these days. You are more classy than that Mark, but let me finish.

The Attorney-General has made it clear of his high personal regard for Professor Triggs and the respect and high standing he has for her international legal experience and knowledge. The issue was that calibre and those talents have a place, can make a constructive contribution – that was the issue.

That is the topic of the discussion as the department secretary conveyed back the message to Professor Triggs after she had asked about whether the conduct of certain activities in the Human Rights Commission had damaged the confidence the Government had in the Commission and in her conduct. And because of its partisanship, because of its lack of independence and because of the conduct that happened prior to the last election under a Labor Government when an inquiry was not commenced, when there was 10 times the number of children in detention – it happened to be commenced after the fact. That is why the impartiality and damage…

MARK DREYFUS:

Bruce is gonna keep talking unless you shut him up.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Can I just ask Bruce Billson, one thing is really not clear to me; I will play you a little bit of Malcolm Turnbull who I think is expressing some of the criticism that was expressed yesterday in the Party Room.

But before I get to that – the Foreign Minister Julie Bishop today said in Parliament that Gillian Triggs was not offered another role. The quotes have been running all day on Sky, it is very clear that the Attorney-General’s senior public servant twice yesterday wouldn’t specify the role that she was offered because there was some sensitivity around it, but he certainly was talking about a role that she was offered.

MINISTER BILLSON:

That is not right, Julie Bishop is correct. What the department secretary of the department of the Attorney-General did, which I will do now, and I will do it again if that is helpful for you, is to recognise the capacity of Professor Triggs as an eminent international lawyer. She has been very skilled and recognised, she has high personal standing but in relation to her conduct at the Human Rights Commission; it is her and through her actions that has brought into doubt the impartiality and the independence of the Commission.

That is what is at play here and mind you the other thing that is important – we are getting the kids out of detention! There are under 200 there now and that is exactly where the focus has been.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

I’m aware this isn’t your portfolio so I don’t think you’re at fault to have not read all of the transcript from yesterday, but many media including Sky are running repeated quotes from the head of the Attorney-General’s department talking about the jobs that were offered, saying he couldn’t talk about them because there were sensitivities involved.

Yet the Foreign Minister is saying no job was offered?

MINISTER BILLSON:

I have said to you; let me repeat it at the risk of boring your listeners: The personal standing of Professor Triggs is not in doubt here. Her eminence as an international lawyer is not in doubt, that skill set and that capacity can do a lot of good for the interests of our nation and that is what has been recognised. That is the conversation.

Now for people wanting to verbal that further and say ‘Oh therefore, what’s the job? What’s the job?’ –

No, it’s the capacity of an eminent individual who has extreme talents that can be put to good use in the service of the Commonwealth of Australia. That is not contested.

What is also not contested is that that same individual, with all of that high personal regard and capability brought an institution into question because of the lack of impartiality and the partisanship around which an important inquiry about the health and wellbeing of children in detention – one tenth the number that were there under Labor – was postponed at the request and after consultation with Labor Government ministers, because they thought it was too political in the lead up to the election.

They are separate issues Raf, that is easy to see, but Mark will do his very best to conflate them and try and come up with some Watergate conspiracy theory.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

I will leave it to people to say whether or not you answered that question.

Mark Dreyfus, there is some substantial merit in the argument that there are many less children in detention under the Coalition. That’s a big tick in the Coalition’s column isn’t it?

MARK DREYFUS:

Absolutely, and I’m the first to say what a good thing that there are less children in detention, but it remains a terrible thing that there are still more than 200 children in detention and the length of time that some of those children has been in detention is now more than a year and a half.

Anyone in Australia who has read the report will know what damage that is continuing to do to those children and that’s what we should be talking about – the children.

I regret to say Bruce has just brought further disgrace and shame on this Government because he is continuing this dreadful, disgraceful personal attack on an eminent Australian lawyer Professor Triggs.

Clearly the message about Professor Triggs’ eminence and competence didn’t get through to the Prime Minister because he spent the last two days attacking her personally…

MINISTER BILLSON:

Mark, you love this muckraking stuff, don’t you? This is not why I got into public life – to have these tedious ‘in the beltway’…

MARK DREYFUS:

If you could let me finish… this is about respect for the rule of law. This is about having an Attorney-General and a Prime Minister that are prepared to respect our institutions, to uphold the task that is being done absolutely in accordance with the law by Professor Triggs and the Human Rights Commission.

The only damage that has been done to the standing of this institution, the Human Rights Commission, is damage done by Tony Abbott and George Brandis and Julie Bishop and regrettably Bruce Billson, who has just joined in the chorus of disgraceful criticism.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Were you one of the ministers that she spoke to prior to the election Mark? Were you one of the ministers that suggested…

MARK DREYFUS:

What nonsense.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Why don’t you just answer the question, were you one of them?

MARK DREYFUS:

No and it is nonsense to suggest I was.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Gentlemen, gentlemen. I think Bruce Billson there is a significant problem, aside from the politics of this, it’s very clear there are people in the Liberal Party who think the focus is completely misguided.

Yesterday there was a criticism voiced in the Party Room – I would interpret that criticism coming from the Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

I would like you to respond Bruce Billson, let’s just have a listen to Malcolm Turnbull speaking today.

MINISTER TURNBULL: I know Gillian Triggs for… I’ve known her for some years. She is a very distinguished legal academic and this debate about Gillian Triggs, it misses the main point. The main point is the children. Children in detention is something nobody wants, we certainly don’t want that. What our policy has demonstrably resulted in children being taken out of detention so that’s what we should be focused on.

Bruce Billson – that is a very deliberate kick at the Prime Minister’s tactics on this isn’t it?

MINISTER BILLSON:

Or it might be a statement of the obvious. I think I was trying to make the same point but you were very keen to continue delving into this ‘in the beltway’ conversation about who said what and how that could be constructed.

It is about the kids. This is why we have stopped the boats, because that does not see lives lost at sea and it does not see kids detained. There are still 192 children in detention, one tenth of the peak under the previous Labor Government. We are working very hard to get the children out of detention.

Many of the recommendations that were in Professor Triggs’ report to improve the care and the treatment and the support for children had already been actioned and implemented – a key priority of this Government.

And the other key thing to take into account: For some of the children we have not been able to get out of detention it is because that is what their parents want. They wanted to maintain the family unit together.

These are some of the considerations in a complex process of trying to make sure the proper care is afforded to children through no fault of their own, were prey to people smugglers, have undertaken horrendously dangerous journeys with 1,200 lives lost at sea – that has got to stop.

And that is what we have stopped and now we have to deal with the legacy of 50,000 unlawful arrivals under the previous Government and we are working very, very hard at that.

MARK DREYFUS:

Other than the last bits of Bruce’s talking points there, that’s the kind of discussion that I would have hoped that we could have had from the Government instead of attack on Gillian Triggs.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

*** [Traffic report] ***

I will go to a few calls. Andrew has called from Seaford, hi Andrew.

ANDREW FROM SEAFORD:

I just wanted to bring up the point; I think the Government at the moment is just trying to take the focus away from the contents of the report. I don’t really care when it was written and who was in parliament but the fact is that the report has some pretty serious recommendations and they need to be dealt with. I just think both parties are being really petty and to be honest I am so sick of the politics at the moment, it’s like watching some school boy bloody TV show. It’s ridiculous; I think both parties need to pull their head in.

LES FROM WHITTLSEA:

It’s obvious that Mr Billson has been sent there by the Libs, they are in damage control and he has gone in there to play this down. Professor Triggs may be a wonderful person but all the Libs are saying is they are trying to backdoor and say that you’re just not right for this job, and they’re trying to move her on. Why don’t they just own up to it.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

I’ll ask you to start Bruce Billson and to address that but also Andrew’s point, clearly dissatisfied with both sides.

MINISTER BILLSON:

There is no scope to use the phrase ‘just move someone on’, it is a statutory appointment and I think we all cherish the independence and impartiality of the Human Rights Commission and I would have hoped Professor Triggs equally values that as a key tenet of that institution’s important work.

Yet sadly that key tenet has been brought into question – that is what this is about.

On the first issue, I agree completely….

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Any responsibility on your side of politics for this being as nasty as it is?

MINISTER BILLSON:

In terms of the questions that were asked by Professor Triggs of the Attorney-General, he gave an answer. There were other episodes around a manslaughter case involving a person whose wife lost her life at the hands of someone who had been detained and who because of that lost their visa and therefore needed to be detained and there was a recommendation that we should pay compensation for that.

That is a very curious way when the Government of both persuasions is trying to make sure people released into the community do not represent a threat, and that was another area where there was some conjecture and that is part of what has led to the conversation and the query that the Professor had.

On the issue of the recommendations, I am glad my fellow Seaford citizen was querying about that. Many of those recommendations as I mentioned earlier simply reflect existing Government policy and programs.

We knew upon coming to office that more resources and an improvement in some of these services that are supporting children in detention needed to be implemented, and they have. That is also alongside trying to get as many kids out of detention as we possibly can. At that level, the report that the caller mentioned did have some recommendations but the shelf life had passed.

They had already been implemented, had been put into effect because we recognised there was a need to improve those services.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Mark Dreyfus, if you can respond on two things. One thing you haven’t covered here, I know it has been covered elsewhere- the Labor minister’s communications while Labor was in Government with Gillian Triggs and then the point from Andrew about the general tenure of politics.

MARK DREYFUS:

It’s perfectly appropriate for the head of the Human Rights Commission to talk to any minister at any time.

It is perfectly appropriate for her to reach the decision that she did.

The only attack on the impartiality of this Commission and on the impartiality of the President has regrettably and disgracefully come from the current Government. None of their complaints, none of their criticisms have any substance.

What they should have done is quickly publish the report instead of sitting on it for two and a half months. If it’s right, as Bruce says that some of these recommendations have already been acted on, that’s an excellent thing, let’s hear that.

That’s what the response of the Government should be, not this disgraceful personal smear of an eminent Australian lawyer who has done nothing more than her job. The suggestion that she has acted with any partiality, let alone to use the Prime Minister’s disgraceful phrase ‘as a political stich up’, is just wrong.

Her report deals with the period when Labor was in Government and it deals with the period up to the 11 November when she gave the report to the Government.

Why the Government sat on it, didn’t table it as they should have, could have looked at it for a couple of weeks – but why not table it in November last year? Why not publish the report and say we are getting on with this? Why not be a Government that says we are very concerned about children and we are going to respond in detail to the recommendations of the Human Rights Commission, which we take seriously.

But no, instead, typical of Tony Abbott, typical of Julie Bishop, typical I regret to say of Bruce Billson, we have a personal attack that has done untold damage to the Human Rights Commission. This was all unnecessary. It did not need to be made into a personal attack on Professor Triggs.

I find it disgusting and disgraceful and the damage that has been done to the status of the Human Rights Commission, which has served Australia for more than three decades, will take a long time to repair and that damage has been caused by this Government.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Let me help you out. Surely the question is, Mark Dreyfus, you agree that Labor ministers talked Professor Triggs out of conducting an inquiry, prior to the election?

MARK DREYFUS:

No!

MINISTER BILLSON:

Well you just said it is perfectly reasonable to talk to ministers and the intention was to start that inquiry but that was too political under Labor but perfectly acceptable after the election. That is the issue.

MARK DREYFUS:

That is not the issue. It’s the Coalition which has chosen to try to besmirch Professor Triggs’ eminent reputation. They have failed because if anyone has lost confidence it’s the Australian people in this Government.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Nice distraction Mark. You know exactly what happened.

MARK DREYFUS:

It’s no distraction

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Okay gentlemen, can I press pause there. As a way of trying to pour oil on troubled waters and to try and put you both on the spot – two nice words to describe your opponent? I’ll give you a few seconds to compose yourselves but just two nice words, two good descriptions of the man sitting next to you. I’ll start with you as a Minister Bruce Billson, two nice things to say about Mark Dreyfus.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Chiselled good looks, well dressed but does not spend nearly enough time in his electorate and in Frankston city.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Okay and Mark Dreyfus, two nice things about your opponent?

MARK DREYFUS:

Cheerful and knows how to talk.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Oh! Coming from you sir!

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Gentlemen, thank you for your time.