17 June 2015
Transcript - #2015069, 2015

Interview with Rafael Epstein and Mark Dreyfus QC Shadow Attorney General, 774 ABC Melbourne

SUBJECTS: Question Time, Cabinet, citizenship laws, Operation Sovereign Borders, Budget, China FTA, Royal Commission into Trade Union Corruption

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Joining us in Canberra is the man who even touts his blood group as positive, that’s how happy he is all the time. Bruce Billson is his name. He is the Member for Dunkley. He is the Minister for Small Business, part of the Federal Cabinet under Tony Abbott.

Bruce Billson good afternoon.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Hi Raf and hello to your listeners.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

And Mark Dreyfus, who is I would say Bronwyn Bishop’s favourite. I reckon he is the Speaker’s favourite. He is the Shadow Attorney General and the Member for Isaacs as well. Hi there Mark.

MARK DREYFUS:

Very good to be with you Raf. It is my smile that she likes.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Oh right. I knew she was affectionate towards you for some reason. Obviously it is the smile clearly.

Quick question actually Mark Dreyfus, when the Speaker turns off your microphone half way through your point of order, is that annoying? Just part of the game? What is your emotional response to that?

MARK DREYFUS:

My colleagues can still hear me but unfortunately listeners around Australia cannot. And yes it is pretty annoying. She should let us finish and she should not turn the mic off.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Bruce Billson very quick response.

MINISTER BILLSON:

What can you say? Mark looks like a scene from a silent movie where the jaw is going but not much is coming out. It is not actually the Speaker that turns the mic off.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Oh.

MINISTER BILLSON:

I think it is a service run by the ABC at the back of the chamber and when the Speaker declares that there is no point of order, yet someone advocating their position wants to keep going that is kind of the end of it when the Speaker makes a judgment.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Right there is a technician who switches it off.

MINISTER BILLSON:

And I know from Mark’s experience he still feels he has good content to offer.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Of course.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Even if the Speaker’s made a decision and that is usually where it happens.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Ok fantastic. And I can even hear one of you has a mobile that is either tweeting away or SMSing away which is good. I just like the fact that my Federal MPs are multitaskers – that is good.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Yes that is me I confess.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

No no that is ok.

MINISTER BILLSON:

There is some Twitter traffic going out saying we are bonding on air Raf at the moment.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Oh good. But only journalists and politicians are on Twitter. Anyway let us get into the serious stuff.

Bruce Billson, citizenship discussion.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Yes.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Let us see if I can get an answer on this one.

Would it not be a good idea for Federal Ministers in Cabinet discussing stripping citizenship to see the advice of the Solicitor General while they are having that discussion? It seems pretty clear you and others were not shown that advice. You should see that advice before discussing the issue should you not?

MINISTER BILLSON:

I will not comment on specific discussions because that is not what a Cabinet Minister does Raf and you would be aware of that, but in the ordinary course of events, the responsible Minister bringing forward a Cabinet submission points to the policy considerations, implementation considerations and they seek as they are required to do relevant legal advice and any other advice they feel is necessary.

That is usually all encapsulated in the submission and that is the ordinary course of events. So Cabinet submissions – in fact I cannot think of one where the specific legal advice that may have been a part of its formulation has been brought forward unless someone has asked for it.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

So normally you do not see legal advice?

MINISTER BILLSON:

No well we see a Cabinet paper and a Cabinet paper draws out the policy issues and weighs up what alternatives there may be for implementing a policy objective.

There is an attestation usually in the Cabinet paper.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Like an excerpt?

MINISTER BILLSON:

No it is not even that, it is usually just a validation saying this is lawful and in accordance with the responsible powers…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

But is this one not a little different?

If the Solicitor General, as reported I think it was Chris Uhlmann’s story, anyway an ABC story suggested the Solicitor General was concerned about the constitutional validity of stripping citizenship. It is kind of important to see before you talk about it is it not?

MINISTER BILLSON:

That is a consideration that is at the heart of every Cabinet submission Raf. One cannot bring forward a proposal to exercise the Commonwealth’s powers unless being satisfied that that is in accordance with the heads of powers in the Constitution.

Your listeners may recall the Williams Case, Williams 1 and 2, where an eminent constitutional lawyer has run the arguments that the federal level, the Commonwealth Government has been overreaching in some areas…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

This is very different.

MINISTER BILLSON:

I am not sure it is other than of your interest Raf. In the ordinary course of good governance, getting legal advice where it is relevant and making sure there is a valid head of power for whatever is proposed is just the ordinary course of business.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Mark Dreyfus I would like a response. I would also like an indication from you. It seems to many observers that the ALP, the Opposition is stepping away from backing this stripping of citizenship, this proposal. Is that right?

MARK DREYFUS:

Just if I could comment on Bruce’s proposition about Cabinet first, we know from the extensive Cabinet leaks about the only meeting apparently at which Cabinet has considered this that the Minister brought this without any papers at all. That is extraordinary in itself.

We can see the divided and dysfunctional nature of the Government on this and I would repeat what we have been saying now for months – let us see a bill, let us see a proposal from the Government so that Australians can see what is proposed.

And I do not think it is just you interested in this Raf, as Bruce has just suggested, I think every Australian citizen is very interested in whether we have got a Government that wants to arm itself with the power to strip citizenship on a ministerial whim.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Are you backing away from it, it seems? I am reading between the lines of your comments and Bill Shorten’s. It looks like you are less enamoured of it than you were when it first came up for discussion.

MARK DREYFUS:

When it first came up for discussion we did not have much detail other than the Government was pointing to the fact that we have now got armed groups of so-called non-state actors like Islamic State that are engaged in an armed conflict with Australian serving personnel on the other side.

There is a principle that has been in our citizenship law since it was first enacted by a Labor Government back in 1948 which is that if you take up arms against Australia with another country, that is the end of your citizenship.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Never used I think.

MARK DREYFUS:

And never used but that is why we need to see the proposal. So what Bill Shorten said was in principle, yes we will have a look at updating it if it can be updated.

But weirdly, what we saw earlier this week, was some talking points the Government had which named me for having said on the ABC’s Insiders program that I had tremendous concerns about this. That is about three weeks back. I think I have been proved entirely right in the three weeks since because we have had conservative constitutional lawyers like Greg Craven, we have had senior former Liberal Cabinet Ministers like Amanda Vanstone, Malcolm Turnbull and others very publicly saying that they are very concerned about this proposal.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Bruce Billson I would like you to address Mark Dreyfus’ point on process. It does seem highly unusual to not have any papers when discussing the proposal.

I will put in a footnote if I can so you do not do it. It was a slow motion multi-car pileup watching Labor’s process in government last night in The Killing Season. So putting aside previous government, the process on this particular citizenship proposal does not look like what we expect of federal government.

MINISTER BILLSON:

I thought you were giving me points for directly answering your questions there Raf and not venturing into the political commentary that Mark ventured into.

No, I do not accept your characterisation at all. The position of the Government is clear- where people with dual citizenship have left our country to go and fight against our interests and in some respects our capacity to bring civilisation to brutalised communities that are being terrorised, that those people engaged in that brutalisation and terrorist conduct have forfeited their right to come back to this country.

That is the policy idea. That is clear. That has been consistently enunciated and the details of doing that, as Mark has described, push off from concepts that have been in our citizenship laws for a long period of time. But what is different is you do not have sworn nation state enemies clear battle lines and fronts, this is non-state actors and that is the concept…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Sure but Bruce Billson when you are making these decisions…

MINISTER BILLSON:

Can I finish Raf?

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Well no because I do not think you are addressing the question.

MINISTER BILLSON:

I think you are wrong Raf. It might not be the answer you are looking for but I cannot be more direct. Our position is absolutely clear…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

I want you to see legal advice before you do something significant legally. Is that not a fair request of a Federal Cabinet?

MINISTER BILLSON:

No I am happy to take the advice of my colleagues who are responsible for ensuring that the propositions presented to Cabinet are lawful and within a valid head of power. That is their job, that is their job day in day out just as you are responsible for the content on your program.

What we have said is that we are clear…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

But if I do something questionable legally I ask the legal department.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Please let me finish Raf. Please let me finish. And then do you go to air and read out the legal advice to all your listeners? That is a ridiculous notion.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

No no but I have considered it and seen it.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Our Ministers are responsible for making sure the propositions they bring forward are legally valid, have a valid constitutional head of power and draw from a range of advice. And we do not get the advice chapter and verse tabled, what we do have is important policy discussions about ensuring our nation is safe by dealing with this new threat to our stability where terrorising and radicalised people leave our shores to engage in the most brutal act against modernity, frankly, with some horrendous conduct and then expect to be brought back into the bosom of our community.

That is a nonsense and that is not what we stand for. Where there is a discussion and what the discussion and decision points, where they come together, is what you do for people who may not have dual citizenship, but may be able to exercise dual citizenship but may not have chosen to do so.

That is more nuance and that is why we are having the public consultation to take the Australia public into the kind of safeguards that we need as a nation to protect our country from the horrendous things that are going on and people that choose to engage in them but then want to come back to the peace and good order of our nation. That is the issue Raf.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Can I see if I can get a brief response to something that I know is murky for many different reasons, however, around the issue of paying people smugglers to smuggle people, that is the claim. I would like to ask you both and I will start with you Bruce Billson but I want to get Mark Dreyfus’ response as well.

Is it ok in principle to pay criminals money in the course of enforcement and investigation? It happens a lot. Is the principle ok with you Bruce Billson?

MINISTER BILLSON:

The principle of stopping the boats and the loss of life at sea…

MARK DREYFUS:

Answer the question Bruce.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Mark you get your go and I would have thought we would have a discussion about the free trade agreement, I thought we could talk about the Food and Grocery Council. I know every week we have the same discussion and that is ok and I am happy to go through that exercise, but we have been through this before.

I am not going to offer a commentary on what is happening in the field. What I am happy to say and reassure your listeners is there is nothing in the Government’s suite of policies that has dealt with 50,000 unlawful arrivals, 800 unlawful boat entries, 1100 deaths at sea – we are using a lawful toolkit to deal with that significant public policy challenge and it is working.

That is what people are interested in and we are conducting ourselves lawfully. That is what the public needs to be reassured about and that is exactly the assurance that I am given them. And I am not going to get into what about this tool or what about that tactic, what about that intervention.

That is not helpful and that gets right into the heart of what is happening at an operational level and as Bill Shorten said, some of that information to disclose it is unlawful and that is why he got himself into trouble yesterday after playing this up, demanding the Coalition say things that he said he is not prepared to say himself.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Mark Dreyfus?

MARK DREYFUS:

The Government opened this up by having two Cabinet Ministers come out and say no, that no payments had been made. The Prime Minister then equivocated and it is that equivocation which has created the problem…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Ok but the principle. Sometimes cops pay informants- that happens all the time.

MARK DREYFUS:

Paying for information is a very, very different proposition from paying the captain and crew of a people smuggling boat to smuggle the people on that boat back into Indonesia in breach of Australian law, in breach of Indonesian law.

And that is the allegation that has been made and because the Government itself has first, not abided by the principle that we don’t comment on operational intelligence matters, but rather gone out and said no, that is Peter Dutton and no, from Julie Bishop and then straight away the Prime Minister within days equivocating on it, we have now been left with this dreadful position where apparently the Government has created an incentive for people smuggling operations to continue.

That is the concern. There seems to be some substance in the allegations that have been made. I am not saying that they have been proved but we see on our television screens wads of cash, we see allegations that are being investigated by an Indonesian government inquiry. The Government needs to clear this up.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Ok. Mark Dreyfus, Bruce Billson I will get back to you in a moment. Let us get a quick traffic check.

[Traffic report]

 

Bruce Billson is the Small Business Minister, part of Tony Abbott’s Federal Coalition. Mark Dreyfus, the Shadow Attorney General, part of Bill Shorten’s team.

Minister, when do you start to rely on some good numbers like consumer confidence, business confidence? Some surveys have been very positive lately. You have had a good month with jobs figures. When do you know for sure they are telling the real story about what is going on in the economy?

MINISTER BILLSON:

Well you never rest on your laurels Raf. There has been some good numbers. The unemployment numbers are encouraging but they need to continue to improve. The jobs growth is I think about five and a half times the rate in our first year compared to the last year under Labor. We have got record numbers of businesses being formed and our jobs and small business package is resonating in a very positive way but we have to keep going.

Just today, the free-trade agreement with China, that on top of the other north Asian agreements opens the door to hundreds of millions of new prospective customers that we are well placed to delight with our services economy, with our food and our beverages, with our resources – these are important opportunities to grow the economy and the jobs that are there because we need to accelerate that effort.

So encouraging signs, strong green shoots in a number of areas of the economy in housing and construction, we are seeing non-mining business investment up.

They are good news Raf but we have got to keep at this because there is still too many people not able to fully deploy their talents.

We have got 519,000 jobs lost in small business under the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd Governments that we need to recover and that is why we are focusing on energising enterprise. Nice numbers, encouraging, but we have got to keep going. We do not rest on our laurels.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

We are going to have to get used to not the kind of growth that we need. That just seems to be way where the economy is sitting. I know that the figures sound the same, 2%-3%, but we look like settling back at something closer to 2% than 3% and that is a big issue with unemployment. Have I got that right or wrong?

MINISTER BILLSON:

Fair observation. Mid 2s is what is being forecast but even after the IMF have adjusted, and that is for this year, but even the last quarter at 0.9% for one quarter. If we were in the United States they simply multiply that by four and go wow 3.6%.

We do not do that, we look at each quarter separately and recognise that was a strong quarter and we are working hard to keep the momentum going. And according to the IMF and independent forecasts we are anticipating an uptick in growth and that is what we need to make sure all people are able to contribute to the economy, have that opportunity to do so.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Mark Dreyfus they are doing ok on the economy the Government are they not? They might not be doing every policy you would like them to enact but the numbers are decent.

MARK DREYFUS:

I think we have still got to be concerned about confidence. Obviously there has been some readings recently from some of the more volatile indexes which are weekly ones but I was disappointed last week by the Westpac Consumer Sentiment Survey which showed that what had been an initial post-Budget bounce in confidence has fallen back, it has totally reversed and of course the position on consumer confidence is that it has fallen back 14% since the election.

So the long-term trend there in confidence, and I am not talking the economy down, the long-term trend in confidence is very concerning. And I am not really surprised because this is a government which has demonstrated utter confusion and chaos in the way in which it is managing the economy.

We had a Budget last year which was said to be all about the debt and deficit disaster with severe measures and severe cuts needed. This year we hear no more about it and that is probably because people have now released and the Government knows that people have realised that this government has doubled the deficit on this watch.

Cannot point to anything the Labor Government did. It has doubled the deficit and it is a very conflicted confusing message that the Government has been sending and that is why business and consumer confidence regrettably remains low. We need to do a lot more. I am in agreement with Bruce that we need to do more. I am in agreement with Bruce that there might be a few green shoots as he puts it but we need to have those green shoots blossoming.

The Government needs to do a great deal more that it has done to date and I would not want any listeners to say I am not pleased about the reaching of an agreement in general with China for a free trade agreement. It has got great potential to benefit Australians over the next couple of decades. But again, we need to see the detail.

As you have heard my colleague Penny Wong the Shadow Trade Minister saying we cannot sign off fully on it until we have gone through the detail of it. But of course, that is why Labor worked through our term in government towards this free trade agreement with China and I would have hoped the Government might have thanked Labor a little bit more for the efforts we had made which they have now built on to reach this agreement.

MINISTER BILLSON:

That is exactly what Andrew Robb did Mark.

MARK DREYFUS:

I would like a little bit more.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Come on you are giving listeners the wrong impression. It was a gracious speech recognising this free trade agreement had a long gestation period. It was quite gracious.

MARK DREYFUS:

Well I thank Bruce too for that acknowledgement as well.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Can I ask at the risk of degenerating the conversation, two quick questions to you both.

Firstly to you Mark Dreyfus, there is another story about Bill Shorten’s time as union leader. Just dropped on The Age’s website so you would not have seen it. I just wonder Mark Dreyfus, are you worried that is credibility is taking a significant hit with these stories on top of the Commission?

MARK DREYFUS:

I am worried that we have got a government that is choosing to use the very important mechanism of a Royal Commission to further its political…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

But there stories are independent to the Commission?

MARK DREYFUS:

I have not seen the story I cannot comment further. I do know that Bill Shorten has spent his working life looking after the interests of working people. That is what he is still doing as leader of the Federal Opposition. That is what he did as a union leader.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Bruce Billson, you have got a significant problem with the polls. You are significantly behind the Labor Party for a long time. The Victorian Liberals assured me their polls would turn around last year and they did not. You have got a problem do you not?

MINISTER BILLSON:

We have got work to do Raf and I would love to come on here one day and let us talk about that work.

Free trade agreements, Food and Grocery Code through the Parliament, better targeting of income support, nice $52 a fortnight boost for pensioners and making sure that those that need income support get a decent pension, the Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman – there is so much positivity going on yet we have this circular conversation Raf.

MARK DREYFUS:

That is Bruce’s blood group again.

MINISTER BILLSON:

I am sorry for being optimistic. If that is the biggest criticism people can run at me I wear that but Mark is talking about confidence numbers come off and he forgets to mention the euphoric levels of confidence when Labor was kicked out. And you have just got to look at The Killing Season, I thought that had more to say about what was going on in the ALP.

MARK DREYFUS:

Could not resist. You are gripping as a TV critic now.

MINISTER BILLSON:

I am just getting on with my work and people can form their own conclusions and maybe listen to some of Labor’s own people about how they are going and how they roll.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Very quickly gentlemen, both of you look down at your shoes, do you need to shine them for the Midwinter Ball tonight?

MINISTER BILLSON:

No I did mine on Sunday along with my girls’ shoes because they looked a bit scuffy.

MARK DREYFUS:

I can confirm that Bruce’s shoes are brilliantly shiny and I think I can fairly say mine are too, ready for the Midwinter Ball.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Ok gentlemen enjoy it. Thank you.