18 June 2015
Transcript - #2015070, 2015

Interview on Sky News – the Nation

with David Speers, Janet Albrechtsen,
Mark Dreyfus, Peter Beattie

SUBJECTS: Citizenship laws, people smugglers, superannuation.

DAVID SPEERS:

Good evening welcome to the program. Looking back at this week the Government will argue that it has been getting on with business. Things like the China Free-Trade Agreement being signed, the pension deal done with the Greens, the small business package through the Parliament and also today the white paper of northern Australia.

For Labor, we have seen a lot more pressure applied to Bill Shorten than we are used to as the allegations and questions continue to mount over his time at the Australian Workers’ Union before entering Parliament.

But the real battle this week and certainly the battle for next week is over citizenship laws. The Government’s latest step on national security, its plan to revoke the citizenship of dual nationals involved in terrorism. Indeed today the Prime Minister has accused Labor of rolling out the red carpet for terrorists based on some comments earlier in the day from the Shadow Attorney General Mark Dreyfus.

Joining us tonight the Small Business Minister Bruce Billson, Janet Albrechtsen columnist with The Australian newspaper, Peter Beattie the former Queensland Labor Premier and Shadow Attorney General Mark Dreyfus. Welcome to you all.

I would like to start with you Mark Dreyfus. The Prime Minister as I say has reacted strongly to the words you had to say this morning to my colleague Kieran Gilbert. Just to repeat them, he was asking about terrorists fighting in Raqqa and you answered, what is the best approach, you answered ‘you get them back here’. So explain to us what your view is on veto dual nationals or not. What is the best approach to Australians who are fighting in the Middle East?

MARK DREYFUS:

Your colleague Kieran was actually interviewing me about the citizenship law in general and in the middle of this interview he asked me, perhaps I answered as a lawyer would, he said how do you convict someone fighting in Raqqa in Syria? And I said ‘get them back here’.

That has been converted bizarrely by the Prime Minister and by Peter Dutton into some completely different statement including the ridiculous, and it is absolutely ridiculous, proposition that Labor is rolling out the red carpet for terrorists. This is nonsense. This is complete nonsense. And the context for your question David is what is the citizenship law that the Government is proposing?

DAVID SPEERS:

I want to get into that. I guess the starting point is, if Labor is in principle supporting removing the citizenship from dual nationals involved in terrorism. Do you believe it is best to bring them back to Australia or not?

MARK DREYFUS:

We think that the current law, and that is what the question to me was about and that is what my answer was about – just like the Prime Minister said back in April – that people who are fighting, people who are participating and breaking Australian counter terrorism law in Syria or in Iraq should be prosecuted and convicted. Those are the Prime Minister’s words.

Or I could quote the Australian Federal Police today who put out a media release which announced that they have an arrest warrant for the Australian doctor who has been working in Raqqa in Syria and he has been in the news. And they have said that he is now wanted for terrorism offences, not fighting offences, but terrorism offences of joining a terrorist organisation and recruiting through a terrorist organisation and that he will be arrested if he sets foot on Australian soil.

Now is that rolling out the red carpet for terrorists or is the Prime Minister rolling out the red carpet for terrorists? I do not think so.

DAVID SPEERS:

Should any Australian involved in terrorism in the Middle East be brought back here as a preference to be prosecuted and jailed?

MARK DREYFUS:

That is what the Prime Minister was talking about back in April when he talked about cooperating with the Turkish Government to get Australians back here to be prosecuted.

I find it quite alarming that we have got a Prime Minister that is prepared to turn just about anything into political advantage. I want a Prime Minister that is going to approach national security in a calm, measured and orderly way and that is precisely the opposite of what we are seeing from the Prime Minister.

DAVID SPEERS:

The Prime Minister argues though that for dual nationals it is possible, he would say, to strip their citizenship. Do you agree that with dual nationals it is best to strip their citizenship and leave them over there, or is it always best to bring them back and prosecute them?

MARK DREYFUS:

We need to see what the law is that the Government is proposing.

DAVID SPEERS:

But Labor has said in principle you want to strip the citizenship from dual nationals so is that your view as well?

MARK DREYFUS:

We have said very clearly in response to all sorts of ideas that are being put forward by the Government, starting on January the 20th 2014 - so eighteen months back, Scott Morrison has Immigration Minister started talking about this. The Prime Minister has had several goes through 2014 and has been talking about it through 2015. Finally, apparently we are about to be favoured with a Bill. Now that is what the discussion should be about.

DAVID SPEERS:

But do you in principle support revoking the citizenship from dual nationals?

MARK DREYFUS:

What we have said in principle is that we already have in Australian law in section 35 of the Citizenship Act a provision that says if you take up arms with a foreign army for a foreign state against Australia, your citizenship is automatically cancelled. So that is the current law.

There is two other ways in which you can lose your citizenship following conviction in both cases. That is conviction for fraud in obtaining a citizenship or conviction for an offence and admitted before you became a citizen.

DAVID SPEERS:

In principle do you want to extend that to…?

MARK DREYFUS:

It is complex and it does not lend itself to three word slogans. What we have said is that in the current time, we now have armed groups. That is actually a phrase that the Canadians have used in their citizenship legislation because they have had a look at this too, and those armed groups are not states, we call them non-state actors seems to be the terminology that people are using and we have said, in principle, if we can find a way to deal with people fighting as non-state actors or with these armed groups who are analogous to fighting in a foreign army for a foreign state at war with Australian then that is something that we think could allow an updating of our citizenship law.

DAVID SPEERS:

A few other questions here though and I will come back to them. We will go to whether we need a conviction first and what appeal they might be able to have and all of that.

Janet I am interested in your views on this. What you have heard from the Government, are you comfortable with the direction they are heading in?

JANET ALBRECHTSEN:

I am and I will tell you why. Let us start with the law, I actually do not think it is incredibly complicated Mark because if you could go to section 35, as Mark said the current section says that you automatically lose your citizenship, if you are a dual citizen for starters or you are a citizen of Australia and another country, and you take up arms against Australia for that other country you automatically, immediately lose citizenship.

There is no court involved in that process. So what the Government is proposing here is actually introducing an additional filter on top of that which is the Ministerial discretion. There is a lot of hysteria about the lack of a court process but we already have a provision. Now this provision at the moment does not cover, as Mark said, the situation with Islamic State. So we need to update that.

DAVID SPEERS:

But under the current provision you can, once that is automatically revoked, you can appeal that in court.

JANET ALBRECHTSEN:

Sure of course. But as Malcolm Turnbull said today anybody can go off to court. You cannot stop that happening and I do not think the Government is proposing to stop that happening.

The question is when the court process kicks in. Does it kick in before the Minister revokes the citizenship or after?

Now currently, there is no court process before citizenship comes to an end under section 35.

What needs to happen, I think, is that that section is updated to recognise the reality of what we are confronting in Syria and Iraq. That does not necessarily mean a court process. It might mean review at the end and I think what you will find is the Government is proposing exactly that.

This has been a long process with lots of discussions, as Mark said, but what the Government is actually doing is doing the hard work here. I do not recall Labor doing too much on national security legislation. In fact, I remember Brett Walker when he tabled his fourth and final report last year, he was very curt in his comments of what he called the official silence from Labor over all of his suggestions in his previous reports.

So to the Government’s credit, Brett might now be unhappy but there are many reasons for that. Not because of what he said in his report and what the Government is now doing in response to that, but to the Government’s credit they are picking up what Brett Walker suggested in his report on this front and many other fronts.

DAVID SPEERS:

I want to just look at this issue about what court process there could be around this, whether this is just a ministerial power to flick someone’s citizenship and even boot them out of Australia if they are in Australia. Bruce Billson what is your view on how much involvement there should be with the courts before someone loses their citizenship?

MINISTER BILLSON:

My view is the Cabinet’s view, and the Cabinet’s view is dual citizens who travel overseas to be part of a barbaric anti-modernity campaign where there is terror and terrorising and being terrorised themselves, that are exposed to that brutality – that is not in our nation’s interests.

That may involve direct attacks on our military personnel and people forfeit the right to retain their citizenship. It is not that complicated.

That decision would rest with the Minister and where there was a question about the Minister arriving at that conclusion and the process being flawed, someone could point to where they feel there has been a flaw in the process and that would be an appropriate opportunity through the courts. So it is not that complicated. This is not that complicated.

I will have to go back to the video and review what Mark said because I think I am a little bit more wiser. A bit like a State of Origin decision last night, you will need the super slow mo to work it out, but it is not that complicated.

That is the proposition that we put out. That is our position. That is what we are clear on. The issue of those that may have an alternative avenue to citizenship that has not been exercised, that is the subject of discussion and consultation. That has been our consistent and clear position and it picks up Brett’s recommendations when he was overseeing.

DAVID SPEERS:

Is it that simple to use?

MARK DREYFUS:

No it is complicated and it is disturbing that in the week that we have celebrating the 800th anniversary of magna carta, one of the chief points of significance about that 800th anniversary is to remind us all of the need to guard against executive overreach, against the executive seeking to exercise power without restraint, the executive seeking to exercise power on a whim. I have described it this week as a ministerial whim, Bruce is confirming that.

MINISTER BILLSON:

You call it a whim, you put this cloud of words around simple policy concepts that we cannot extract a clear position from Labor.

MARK DREYFUS:

I think Australians put their trust in courts Bruce.

MINISTER BILLSON:

No I think Australians put their trust in clarity of policy, a Government that can articulate their position…

MARK DREYFUS:

Australians put their trust in courts and if you let me finish the point.

MINISTER BILLSON:

You have had a pretty good run and I was listening intently and I will need to check the video.

DAVID SPEERS:

Ok so what exactly would you still like to hear from the Government?

MARK DREYFUS:

I want to see the bill that the Government is proposing because we are having at the moment a false discussion where the Government has put out a whole range of ideas, they put out a tiny pamphlet of six pages which they have said is a discussion paper. They have appointed Philip Ruddock to go out and talk to Australians about citizenship. We have heard little more about that. And as I say they have had 18 months. This is no way to deal with important national security questions.

DAVID SPEERS:

Specifically, does it concern you that the Minister could revoke citizenship without a court conviction?

MARK DREYFUS:

Of course it does. It concerns me to hear this Government talking about any power that is to be exercised without involving the courts. I would point to what Canada has done which is to amend their citizenship law and at every point concerning revocation for the commission of a crime or revocation because of involvement in terrorism or revocation because of fighting with an armed group against Canada, because they have updated to use that phrase armed group fighting against Canada. It involves a court.

DAVID SPEERS:

But not in the UK, they have gone with a different model.

MARK DREYFUS:

That is a different model and that is why the Government apparently is saying, and they have only ever talked about the UK, I am more interested in looking at what Stephen Harper, the Prime Minister of Canada, the great friend of Tony Abbott. And the US do not at all cancel citizenship.

And we have not even gotten to the constitutional problems that conservative constitutional lawyers, that former senior Liberal Cabinet Ministers like Amanda Vanstone, the constitutional lawyer I was referring to was Greg Craven, have pointed to.

DAVID SPEERS:

Some very serious concerns. But if you are saying we need a court conviction before that happens, back to Kieran’s question to you this morning, what do you do about someone who is in Raqqa? How do you get the evidence to convict them in court?

MARK DREYFUS:

And that is why last year we assisted the Government to amend the Evidence Act, the law of Australia to make it easier to get a conviction against people who have been fighting and people who have breached Australia’s counter-terrorism laws.

DAVID SPEERS:

I am not saying this is the wrong thing but you are saying bring them back here to prosecute them on that law.

MARK DREYFUS:

I am arguing for the rule of law Kieran.

DAVID SPEERS:

David. You have spoken to both.

MARK DREYFUS:

I am thinking Kieran. I am arguing for the rule of law.

MINISTER BILLSON:

If you follow that through and yet you bring someone back from what you are describing for a conviction here, what is your proposition? That does bring them back so that puts them light on the comments this morning that you have sought to distance yourself from.

MARK DREYFUS:

I am not distancing myself from any comment I have made at any time. Do not verbal me.

MINISTER BILLSON:

If they are brought back here and then you are saying they are convicted here. What is the proposition? I think you are verballing yourself. But if they are brought back here for a conviction, what are you proposing? That we then extradite them through non-state actors into areas where there is terrorism and not formal governance. How does one then exercise the withdrawal of Australian citizenship?

MARK DREYFUS:

That is a question that should be directed to the Prime Minister when he was talking in April.

MINISTER BILLSON:

We are clear on our proposition.

MARK DREYFUS:

He was talking in April about cooperating with the government of Turkey to bring people to trial. I put my trust in judges and juries.

DAVID SPEERS:

Peter let me bring you in here. How do you view this because it is a complex area and there are fairly legitimate competing arguments that we want to keep terrorists out of the country but we also want to see them locked up and be punished for their crime.

PETER BEATTIE:

David I think the important thing that Australians want is some bipartisanship on this issue, because this is terror, this is, we saw it happen in Sydney, we know the challenges we face, this is a time when we actually, we have got to put party politics aside and actually get people to sit down, look at the legislation together and come up with something sensible. Let us look at the actual provisions that are being discussed, I do not know because I have not seen it and no one else has. But it seems to me there are two cases – if someone is an Australian citizen then you cannot take their citizenship off them because they cannot be stateless so they have to be brought home and they have to go through the judicial system.

That is point one and that is the easier part of this to understand.

The second one, of course, is someone who has got dual citizenship – the paths are two ways, you can either bring them home and have them convicted here, assuming that the evidence existed or you go through the process the Government is talking about, that is, the Minister makes a determination, they lose their citizenship and as Peter Dutton said to you in an interview earlier today, you then have the right for judicial review either to the Federal Court of to the High Court. They are the two different models. Now I just would hope that, frankly, as an Australian that we can get both sides of politics for god’s sake to actually bloody agree on this. It is too important for our future to play politics on it.

MARK DREYFUS:

And I agree with Peter, as I have said very often now, Labor shares the objective with the Government of keeping Australians safe. That was our objective in Government, it remains our objective in opposition but that does not mean that we will agree David on every single means. This is a complex area and rather than the Government seeking to score political points and being incredibly quick to level false accusations against me or against Labor, let us have a measured discussion, because that is the only way in which you should be considering national security laws.

DAVID SPEERS:

This, it seems to me, is going to come down to the process actually around the Ministerial discretion. Now if the Minister still has the power to strip someone’s citizenship without a conviction, but there is the power to appeal that in the courts back here, would that satisfy you?

MARK DREYFUS:

Well there is two ways you can look at judicial review or appeal and one is what happens – I will give you an example – with passport cancellations, if the Minister for Foreign Affairs determines that - this is not revoking citizenship, it is a much less a step of cancelling a passport – you can appeal against that decision of the Minister to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and it is the full merits review. It is heard by the Security Division of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, usually the President of the Tribunal, certainly a Deputy President would do it – and it is very often a closed hearing because National Security evidence is led before the Tribunal. But there is a merits review, I have not heard the Government talking about merits review, I have heard the Government rather talking about judicial review which is just…

DAVID SPEERS:

Explain the difference, this is very important…

MARK DREYFUS:

… it is a much more limited form of review where you are reviewing for what is called error of law which might be a breach of natural justice or failure to have regard to relevant considerations. It is looking at the process, that really is administrative, the other is on the merits.

Yes, one is looking at the process the Minister has used; the other is a full review afresh so that the Administrative Appeals Tribunal stands in the shoes of the Minister and makes the decision again.

DAVID SPEERS:

Alright, so if we applied that example that you have given for passports to citizen and had the Security Division of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal able to look at, on a merits basis, the decisions that have been taken – would that be satisfactory?

MARK DREYFUS:

Well that would be fully involving, not the courts, but the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, which is quasi-judicial, but minds will differ on this and …

DAVID SPEERS:

I am just trying to pin your view down.

MARK DREYFUS:

There is no absolutely wrong answer.

DAVID SPEERS:

You would be more comfortable with it.

MARK DREYFUS:

Of course! Because, as I say, this is why we have checks and balances. The whole system is full of checks and balances David for good reason.

DAVID SPEERS:

What is wrong with that model?

MINISTER BILLSON:

Well our position, we have made clear and we thought we had agreement on it.  Well….

DAVID SPEERS:

You have not put out a policy yet.

MINISTER BILLSON:

The policy consistency on from what was being said by Labor was that we would have a review of the process. A judicial process. Why? The material that would need to be considered, that is something that we are concerned about. Our intelligence sources, we do not want those out there.

DAVID SPEERS:

But if it was in a closed hearing of the Security Division of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

MINISTER BILLSON:

David, you asked me what our position was, and our position is – a process review. Not a full merits review, we have said if the Minister has arrived at a conclusion and has not done so in terms of the procedures and the considerations that he or she is required to take account of and there has been  some error of law, then fine. In terms of the conclusion, that is not the proposition that we have been proposing.

DAVID SPEERS:

Janet, now we are getting down to the key…

MINISTER BILLSON:

Just with the point that has been made a number of times…

DAVID SPEERS:

… indeed but this is where it is going to come to by the sounds of it. What do you think? A merits review or just a judicial review on the process. Is one better than the other? I mean…

JANET ALBRECHTSEN:

I suspect what the Government is going to do is have a review on the process, not on the merits. I think that is a far stickier thing to get into for the Government because, I mean what, let us remember again what we are dealing with.

You know there is an enormous gap, we know that the laws need to be fixed, there are gaps in the law. There is an enormous gap between gathering intelligence in a place like Syria and gathering evidence that is admissible in a court. Often these decisions are based on intelligence so when someone automatically, under section 35, loses their citizenship because they have gone off to fight for a foreign army, that is based on intelligence right, that just happens automatically, it is not a court process. I am completely comfortable with the same test applying to someone who goes off and fights with what is a non-state actor in exactly the same kind of circumstances, but there is no-merits…

DAVID SPEERS:

It has been a while since it has happened in a foreign conflict but when that has happened…

MARK DREYFUS:

It has actually never been used, section 35 as I understand it.

DAVID SPEERS:

Well there you go, ok so we do not know whether it …

JANET ALBRECHTSEN:

But we have been happy to have it on the books for many many years.

DAVID SPEERS:

Sure. But is the ability there to appeal that on a merits basis or is it just a process review?

JANET ALBRECHTSEN:

Well there is no merits based review of section 35.

DAVID SPEERS:

No but if, ok but if you do lose your citizenship because you have fought with a foreign army you can still appeal that in the courts here. That is right is it not?

MINISTER BILLSON:

Nothing stops anybody going to the courts but the law is clear, the law says if you fight with a foreign army you lose your citizenship.

DAVID SPEERS:

But you can appeal that and say it was not me, I was not there fighting with the…

MINISTER BILLSON:

People can go to court anytime they like, whether that is about change is an entirely different thing.

MARK DREYFUS:

This  kind of disagreement we are seeing between Bruce and Janet is reflective of the kind of disunity…

MINISTER BILLSON:

Mark, we are not disagreeing, we are having the conversation… and you are so quick to get stuck into other people about their approach…

JANET ALBRECHTSEN:

Mark, we need to be having these conversations. I mean these are important laws they need to be right, I mean what I find more curious is that we cannot actually pin you down on what you agree on.

And again, let me repeat, as Attorney General I do not recall you introducing national security laws because they are difficult.

There is no question bringing in metadata laws, bringing in new citizenship laws, they are difficult and they require, there will be lots of disagreement. You know the tension between individual liberty and national security you know it is a difficult tension. People draw the line differently.

DAVID SPEERS:

Ok, correct me if I am wrong. It does not sound like there is a huge amount of difference between Mark Dreyfus and Janet Albrechtsen on this point. That if the law applies, and someone can have a merits based review, that would be a better mechanism.

No, I think it is difficult because I think it raises a whole lot of issues about where the, about how you use intelligence.

You know, if you could use it without endangering Australians in Syria, for example, then that is probably fine.

But, you know, do not imagine that any of this is easy so.. you know I know that Mark you say that people put their faith in judges and courts. We also put our faith in Governments; the one thing everyone agrees on is that the Governments are there to keep us safe. Now if I had the responsibility for 23 million Australians, I can tell you, I would not be taking too many chances. I do not want the Australians, dual citizens, who are over in Syria. I do not want them back in Australia.

PETER BEATTIE:

David, there is one other point we should add here though.

If we are saying, and I actually agree with this, that in a dual citizen case, the Minister has the right, based on evidence to take away the citizenship provided that there is a judicial review process, wherever it is and provided it is on the merits, then I am actually comfortable with that.

The point is, do you trust, in the end, politicians or do you trust the courts? Now I have to say to you, at the end of the day, while I am as hard as possible when it comes to dealing with terrorism and I agree with the Government’s position on taking away citizenship for dual citizens.

I do not think, at the end of the day, I would trust politicians. If you wanted to know where my faith is? And I agree, Janet is right, Governments are there to keep the people honest, sorry to protect the community, court is there to keep the Government and politicians honest.

At the end of it, the best way to protect the community is to make sure that the courts have the final say.

DAVID SPEERS:

Alright, to finish on this whole issue. Got to the politics, do you believe that Labor is rolling out the red carpet for terrorists?

MINISTER BILLSON:

I saw Mark’s comments and they were staggering. If Mark is saying the context of them was something different than I saw, well I accept that. That certainly did not sound…

MARK DREYFUS:

What about withdrawing Bruce?

MINISTER BILLSON:

Well I am taking you at your word because I think many of us should and because many…

MARK DREYFUS:

And you should, I expect it.

MINISTER BILLSON:

You are very quick to protect your reputation but everyone else listened….

MARK DREYFUS:

I expect others to be…

MINISTER BILLSON:

But everyone else listened to what was being said…

MARK DREYFUS:

No we listened to the misrepresentation by the Prime Minister.

MINISTER BILLSON:

… and it was remarkable how everybody misunderstood what you were saying, but I know you are confident that you are clear in what you were saying. The art of communication is conveying meaning accurately to others; everyone else missed it so there must have been some problem with translation.

MARK DREYFUS:

I want to hear Bruce Billson withdraw, the foul accusation that I or Labor is rolling out the red carpet for the terrorists.

MINISTER BILLSON:

I am not going to withdraw that…

MARK DREYFUS:

You should…

MINISTER BILLSON:

Because I saw the interview and I was staggered to hear what you said….

MARK DREYFUS:

This is political point scoring that the Prime Minister has encouraged, Bruce is one of his senior Ministers and of course he does not want to disagree….

MINISTER BILLSON:

Mark you must resist your projection tendency, you do this in every interview, you quickly go on the assault to go after what other people are doing while I am trying to work through the issues.

MARK DREYFUS:

Thank you Bruce for the criticism….reputation of my party from a vile….

MINISTER BILLSON:

You should use your words more carefully, a man of your wisdom

MARK DREYFUS:

And disgraceful attack by the Prime Minister which had no basis and you know that Labor is not doing anything of the kind. You know that Labor stands with the same objective as the Government; we showed that during our six years of Government

MINISTER BILLSON:

Which is why your remarks were so discordant and attracted the attention, not just in the chamber, but everyone else that heard them

MARK DREYFUS:

No, nothing warranted the disgraceful attack made by the Prime Minister.

DAVID SPEERS:

Minister, I think the Prime Minister is the only one…..

MARK DREYFUS:

… and nothing warranted the disgraceful attack made by Peter Dutton.

DAVID SPEERS:

He was the only one to suggest that this meant that Labor was rolling out the red carpet for terrorists.

MINISTER BILLSON:

If you take the words as they were stated, to bring people back here, to bring people back here…

DAVID SPEERS:

To be convicted and gaoled…

MINISTER BILLSON:

to be convicted, which was somewhat discordant from what has been discussed previously, that is the basis of the comment and the comment was fair and reasonable.

MARK DREYFUS:

Except for what that the Prime Minister himself has said and what the Australian Federal Police said as recently as today.

DAVID SPEERS:

Janet, is the problem with this statement from the Prime Minister, that our current laws as they stand, until this is introduced would mean we are rolling out the red carpet.

JANET ALBRECHTSEN:

Well it shows how urgent it is to change the laws; I think that is what it shows.

But could I make another point – the whole notion of bringing terrorists back home – I mean you look at every western country that is dealing with this problem, and they are all dealing with it.

Radicalisation takes place in gaols so if we have a dual citizen and we bring them back and we put them through a court process and they go to gaol, I can tell you - you look at the history in all the European countries and back here in Australia.

Certainly the terrorists who are involved in the Paris attacks, they had been radicalised in gaol even further, they met the people that conducted the other attacks in the Jewish deli in gaol.

So radicalisation in gaol is something that we ought to remember. I do not want the dual citizens back. If we can revoke their citizenship and not have them brought back to Australia, I think that is the ideal positon in terms of our safety.

DAVID SPEERS:

We have got to get to a quick break. I want to talk about people smugglers as well and whether it is ok to pay them…

MINISTER BILLSON:

… about small business people?

DAVID SPEERS:

We will get to that perhaps, under any circumstance, stay with us.

AD BREAK

 

DAVID SPEERS:

Good to have you with us tonight. I don’t want to spend too long on the whole people smuggling saga that dominated the start of the week – but Mark Dreyfus you were Attorney General under the Labor Government.

Are you able to say at all whether Australian foreign spies ever paid people smugglers for information, intelligence or whatever?

MARK DREYFUS:

Yeah, I have been asked this question several times this week, and I can say that at no time in the six years of Labor Government did the Government or any public servant pay a people smuggler to smuggle people back into Indonesia, which is what the current allegations are about. 

DAVID SPEERS:

Alright, but pay them for anything?

MARK DREYFUS:

And more generally, I am not going to comment on any individual operation, but I have said this before too – I think Australians would be surprised if our intelligence agencies and our police were not paying from time to time for information from a whole range of people in the course of carrying out their intelligence work, or the AFP in the course of doing cooperative work with the governments of other countries, where the AFP have been invited to work with the governments of other countries.

Similarly, paying people in connection with disrupting people smuggling syndicates- I think people might be surprised if that hadn’t occurred. But that is a hugely different thing to what the accusation that is levelled against the current government is.

Which I’m afraid the current government has made a tremendous mess of, by first having two ministers go out and deny directly - not say that they would not comment on operational matters, but deny that this happened.

Followed by the Prime Minister’s equivocation, leading to a state of dreadful uncertainty and a potential incentive for people smuggling.

DAVID SPEERS:

Yes Janet it does seem that was probably a mistake initially for those ministers to deny anything. To actually say ‘this didn’t happen’.

JANET ALBRECHTSEN:

I think there has been some inconsistency. I think what has been messier though, quite frankly is Labor’s to-ing and fro-ing from you know Monday to Monday night to Tuesday.

You know on Monday they came out strong against taxpayer’s money being pumped into a vile industry, and then after Monday night’s question on the 7.30 Report as to whether Labor had made any payments, they went very quiet on Tuesday, only to regurgitate it again on Wednesday.

And when Bill Shorten got up in Question Time yesterday to ask whether money had been paid to people smugglers, predictably, the Prime Minister got up and said, ‘well   let’s go over your history on border protection’.

I mean I don’t think this has been a big loss in any way, for the Government. I think that it has been ‘well actually could you just remind us the Labor Party; what is your policy on border protection?’

I mean I think it beggars belief. This was a big issue during the Howard years, and we saw the Labor party flip flop.  It was an issue for the six years of the Rudd Gillard Government and they changed their position a number of times.

They still haven’t worked out as a party, whether they agree to turning back boats. We have to apparently go to the Labor Conference to figure it out.

They have had years to coalesce around a border protection policy. But as a Party, even after the biggest policy failure this country has seen, they can’t firm up their view on it.

DAVID SPEERS:

I’ll come to that, but Bruce Billson…

MINISTER BILLSON:

Yes David?

DAVID SPEERS:

…would it concern you at all if a payment was made at sea to a people smuggler?

MINISTER BILLSON:

When the Howard Government left office- four people- count them four were in immigration detention.

Over the six years of Rudd Gillard Rudd - 50,000 unlawful arrivals, 800 boats, 1100 lives lost at sea.

This had to stop, and we have stopped that.  That is what we have done.

DAVID SPEERS:

I get the context. Yes. I understand the context.  My question though is about…..

MINISTER BILLSON:

…we have introduced a range of measures, all of which are lawful. All of which are lawful. We operate as a lawful government on the integrated strategy, and that is what we have been doing.

DAVID SPEERS?

Alright, but would you have a problem with a payment being made to people smugglers?

MINISTER BILLSON:

I am not getting into that. I am not getting into that.

DAVID SPEERS:

Peter Beattie would you?

PETER BEATTIE:

Yes I do. I think, look, there is no doubt that from a political point of view, the Government’s in a strong position. I don’t disagree with Janet on how this has played out, but is that the right thing?

What concerns me is that Australia has always taken the higher ground than this.  We have actually led, and had respect in the international community.

I would find – and forget about the politics – I would find it offensive, that our spies, and Bruce is right, of course it is legal, cause they are allowed to, spies are allowed to do this – it is quite legal under their Act.

Bruce is right it is not illegal, is it morally right? No.  I think paying some of the sleaze bags of the 21st century money to take people back, I find that morally offensive and I think that affects Australia’s reputation in the world.

DAVID SPEERS:

The bottom line though is we don’t know exactly what happened, whatever it was last month in relation to this boat of 65 people. We don’t know what an ASIS officer was actually paying for, if a payment was made.

Why is it ok to ask questions about this at all? I mean you know….

MARK DREYFUS:

…..Because the Government has made a mess here, and they need to clean it up.  The problem is, that the Government by the way in which it approached this; by the two ministers being categoric and commenting on operational matters but then followed by the Prime Minister’s equivocation, have created an incentive for people smugglers and that needs to be reviewed. And that only suggests…

DAVID SPEERS:

Ok. The question to Peter Dutton and to Julie Bishop initially was ‘was a payment made to turn back a boat?’ And they answered no. That doesn’t preclude a payment being made for information, for intelligence, for something else.

MINISTER BILLSON:

And I think that is what happened under the previous Government…. $21 million ….disruptive activity…..

MARK DREYFUS:

That is not an answer to a question about the conduct of operations by this government or the conduct of anything by this government to attack Labor, and that is what Tony Abbott does. That is what Bruce Billson does, and apparently that is what Janet does.

DAVID SPEERS:

Alright, but…

MARK DREYFUS:

It is not an answer. Every time a question has been raised. Every time, in Question Time, out of Question Time, all we ever hear. And it might be some political win for the Government to attack Labor every time.

Absolutely, but I don’t find that very satisfying, and I don’t think Australians find that very satisfying….

JANET ALBRECHTSEN:

This is the point we don’t want to go back to. We don’t want to go back to the position where basically we have outsourced people smugglers, so the Government will do whatever it needs to do to stop the boats arriving. They have managed to do that. There are a lot of people who are sceptical as to whether they could do it. They did do it.

None of this is nice work. None of these decisions are easy. I prefer not to pay…I don’t know what happened. I don’t know what happened- if they paid people smugglers to disrupt that boat from coming to Australia so that the message got through to a bunch of other asylum seekers most of whom are economic asylum seekers wanting to get to Australia.  Ok.

If that is the message that gets out, and again it stops the boats coming to Australia, I’m in full support of that because I don’t want to see more people dying at sea.  It is not a political point….

DAVID SPEERS:

There’s a live debate going on in Labor at the moment about the policy position on turn backs in particular.

Peter, what is your view on it?

PETER BEATTIE:

Look I don’t think the party has handled this terribly well over a long period of time. Part of it is because let’s be frank, this is not a position that a lot of people would appreciate or even support.

But the Labor Party is caught, in a sense, it is a battle of conscience. We actually don’t want to see genuine refugees abandoned and thrown out the door and treated like garbage. There is a human compassion within the Labor Party about treating people with dignity and respect.

Then there is the political reality of course, that if you allow boat people to turn up in some unfettered way, they jump the queue, and of course that creates a huge political problem at home.

So of course the Labor Party is going to have an internal struggle about this, it’s a struggle of conscience. I don’t actually see that as a bad thing – is it good politics? No. But is it the moral thing to do? Again, yes it is.

DAVID SPEERS:

So what to do, on turn backs?

PETER BEATTIE:

Well that is the problem.  I mean I think frankly the Government’s program, and I don’t have any joy in saying this – yes it has been a success.

But what we have to remember, and I come back to Janet’s point – I can understand exactly what Janet said before about ‘look if we have to pay people smugglers to do this, yes, let’s do it’.

However, you do pay a price for that, and the price for that is our standing in the region. I can agree with it on one level Janet, but I think well how do we go to Indonesia?  How do we lift the moral standards of all the countries in our region? How do we provide moral leadership?  We have lost the higher ground on that. And that I think is not in our long term national interest. That is my worry.

DAVID SPEERS:

Alright. Mark Dreyfus, to you then on this. What is your view on turn backs?

MARK DREYFUS:

I am not going to give you a view on turn backs. This is the global problem, and I have referred in the past to competing compassions.

Of course we want to see an end to people drowning trying to reach Australia to seek refuge. 

But equally, Australia should be wanting to assist with this global problem which is growing greater.

And for a Prime Minister of Australia to respond to a tragedy unfolding in the last few weeks in the Andaman Sea between Myanmar/ Burma and Bangladesh and say in response to the plight of some thousands of Rohingyas:  Nope, nope, nope, - I don’t think that that is an appropriate response from an Australian Prime Minister….

MINISTER BILLSON:

……. local politics again doesn’t it…..

MARK DREYFUS:

Bruce is quick to say that.

MINISTER BILLSON:

You are the one wanting to know ‘he said, she said’ and I tried to talk about policy outcomes and you do not want to talk about policy outcomes…

DAVID SPEERS:

I am just trying to establish the policy. This is a conundrum for Labor and it is a battle of conscience. But, you know we have had 18 months or more now of turn backs by the Government…

MARK DREYFUS:

In circumstances that have not been explained to Australians.  Where the details are not clear….

DAVID SPEERS:

No for secrecy reasons they maintain….

MARK DREYFUS:

I think Australians are entitled to a great deal more transparency and accountability.

DAVID SPEERS:

And until you get that….So until you know exactly how that is working, and get all that detail, should Labor support turn backs?

MARK DREYFUS:

We need to know for example whether or not this is in compliance with Australia’s obligations under the Refugee Convention. These people who have arrived in our country, whether by plane or by boat, seeking refuge are not illegal, to use one of the…. 

DAVID SPEERS:

How do you establish whether it is or it isn’t?

MINISTER BILLSON:

Well I mean, a couple of things, if people arrive unlawfully, they arrive unlawfully.

It doesn’t preclude them from making a claim for refugee status. It is a fiction though, to suggest calling them unlawful arrivals is anything wrong and it is pure politics.

What we focused on…..

MARK DREYFUS:

It is not pure politics to draw a distinction…..

MINISTER BILLSON:

The policy outcomes are important, the lives that are now not being lost at sea is important.

The opportunity for our generous, big hearted humanitarian program, to go to people, who have none of the freedoms, to spend money, to buy passage, to move at their will, to be able to spend what amounts to about half a billion dollars of payments to people smugglers.

That is not a refugee program.

That is an organised crime arrangement. That is why we are trying to shut that down. And then our refugee programs can go to people who are in camps who could only dream of the freedoms of moving freely and have the resources to do so, that is the policy issue that is there, and that is our focus.

MARK DREYFUS:

There are a lot of appropriate objects of our compassion. And Bruce is seeking to invoke compassion for those waiting, for example in Refugee camps. In preference to some other people, who are probably equally deserving of our compassion.

My complaint is against demonising of people who are doing no more than seeking refuge from what I hope is a good country that has signed the Refugee Convention back in 1951 under the Menzies Government and which has later extended to a world-wide, it initially started with European refugees. And it requires of us that we provide asylum to people seeking it from us. And calling them illegals is not a starting point.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Unlawful arrivals.

MARK DREYFUS:

Unauthorised arrivals is the better term because it doesn’t involve demonising.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Ok. Would you rather than would you Mark? Ok….

MARK DREYFUS:

It is the term illegals that I am particularly taking objection to, which many Coalition Ministers take delight in using…..

DAVID SPEERS:

Alright I want to take a quick break. Then I want to shift gears after that to talk about, well the disagreement on pensions this week.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Can we talk about small business?

DAVID SPEERS:

We might chuck that in as well. Stay with us….

MINISTER BILLSON:

We should do that.

AD BREAK

 

DAVID SPEERS:

One of the more interesting political and policy outcomes this week was on pensions – the government did a deal with the Greens on the pension changes put forward in the Budget.

Labor announcing you are not going to support them.

So a question to both of you – Mark Dreyfus to you first. Why should retirees who have their own home, plus a million dollars in assets, still be getting a pension?

MARK DREYFUS:

What we have seen this week is the Greens Party and the Liberal Party and the National Party decide that they are going to cut pensions.

DAVID SPEERS:

Why should someone with a million dollars get a pension?

MARK DREYFUS:

Approaching it, just by looking at someone with a million dollars is not the right way to look at it. This goes right down to someone with only $289,000 dollars…. Who will lose some of their part pensions. 

DAVID SPEERS:

But you have opposed the lot. Not just those. You’ve opposed taking it away from those with a million dollars.

MARK DREYFUS:

This is going to effect at present, some 330,000 Australians who are getting part pensions.

DAVID SPEERS:

Ok -but why not negotiate this? As I say with a million dollars, on top of their own homes you are still saying they should get their pensions.

MARK DREYFUS:

These are people who have worked all their lives, that is what we are hearing.

DAVID SPEERS:

I know they’ve worked all their lives, but they have earnt…..

MARK DREYFUS:

They’ve worked all their lives on the basis that an aged pension, these are not people who had available to them compulsory superannuation, under the Labor government, under Keating.

DAVID SPEERS:

But they have still been able to put away a million dollars.

MARK DREYFUS:

But they’ve been able to save throughout their working lives.

And their expectation was that the aged pension, wrongly described as a welfare payment by Scott Morrison this week, was going to be available to them.

And I think they are entitled to know that the Australian government is going to fulfil that….

DAVID SPEERS:

Not only the Greens but ACOSS are also saying – you’ve got to reform it, you’ve got to make it fairer.

MARK DREYFUS:

This is a Government who said there would be no change to pensions before the last election. Tony Abbott said it often. And here we are with a grubby deal being done with the Greens, who regrettably have been duded because they thought…..

DAVID SPEERS:

Well you could have done a deal with them. Are you right behind Bill Shorten’s position on this?

MARK DREYFUS:

Absolutely. 

They thought they were getting a review of the tax concessions that go to people in receipt of very high superannuation payments and unfortunately they are disappointed because Tony Abbott has ruled that out.

DAVID SPEERS:

Bruce Billson, yes people on a million dollars’ assets would still be getting the pension if you didn’t make this change, but under the changes you make and there are still a lot further down the income scale.

People have saved up only $500,000 dollars and that isn’t a lot to live off in retirement. It would give you an income stream of probably 20 or $25,000 dollars. Maybe a little less than that.  They too would lose around six thousand dollars a year.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Was that the clunk of your jaw hitting the desk over there Peter over this policy position?

I couldn’t work out why Labor is opposing this and I thought that your non verbals were in a similar space but here it is about …

Let’s explain what the changes are. This is where the threshold, the area where there is no tapering, no reduction in the income support offered through a pension commences, so for those people with modest investments, they are advantaged, so you are seeing a good tens of thousands of Australians on very modest additional… they will benefit… and then when you get over that threshold, the taper rate …..

DAVID SPEERS:

They get an extra $30 dollars a fortnight, but my question with those they have saved half a million dollars, $500,000 dollars, so it does not generate a lot of income for them in retirement, but they will lose nearly six thousand dollars.

MINISTER BILLSON:

They will still get the benefit of that but the taper rate is being returned to where it was prior to the Howard Government.

DAVID SPEERS:

No no no, they lose the pension to the tune of $5,700 dollars…

MINISTER BILLSON:

That is the taper rate, yes that is the taper rate, that is the effect of the taper rate. So that is three dollars rather than one dollar fifty and the effect is they will be in a position where they…

DAVID SPEERS:

They lose nearly six thousand dollars, you can call it whatever but that is what they lose.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Of course, yes and that is the taper rate, so that is based on what is the deemed rate of income.

So what people will have choices about is where to invest their money.

The point about income support is that we do not want to take taxes off some people to provide an income support payment when there is a capacity for people to provide for their own means.

That is the essential idea and here the taper rate has that impact over a higher level of threshold, that taper rate is increased and that is why you get to the millionaire, where we are saying well, the income support offered by the pension is not a retention of the kids inheritance program, that is not its purpose and that is why we have brought it out.

DAVID SPEERS:

Take that argument to those who have got several million in super. Don’t the current tax rules provide an incentive for them to pass it all onto the kids?

MINISTER BILLSON:

Mark touched on the issue when he said – well these people have saved. Well our argument is, well people who have put aside for their retirement…

DAVID SPEERS:

Shouldn’t they use their super?

MINISTER BILLSON:

When people put aside for their superannuation, they are using up their super. We are encouraging them to provide for their retirement.

Where the debate is in Canberra, as you know, is should we be focussing on those people that have made those choices to provide for their own retirement or, as we are saying, when you are looking at providing income support, it should go to those who need that income support, that is the difference in the policy.

DAVID SPEERS:

Peter, did Labor make the right call this week?

PETER BEATTIE:

My view is no, I do not think they did. I think that frankly the Labor Party is wrong on this and the Government is wrong on superannuation.

The country has got economic difficulties. Bruce I do not understand the Government’s position on super, it makes no sense to me and I do not understand the Labor Party’s position on pensions.

I think frankly, this was a time when there should have been some common sense and both parties should have agreed to crack down on those who are in a wealthier position so that we can restore some economic credibility. That is my view about it.

And this is why I think in the end a lot of Australians sort of struggle with the political process because the Labor Party’s view on super is a strong sensible issue. Chris Bowen has articulated it very well and I think the Government’s position on pensions is equally a strong position. They should have come together.

DAVID SPEERS:

Janet let me just get a view from you on this.

PETER BEATTIE:

Bruce I could not care less about the politics of it.

DAVID SPEERS:

I just want to hear Janet.

JANET ALBRECHTSEN:

I do, I do and that is what the Greens have basically done. They have said that what we are doing on pension rates – remember these pension rates, this taper rates were brought in when there was a $17 billion surplus. So, Australia finds itself in a very different position now when there does need to be a change to the pension system.

I think in due course superannuation will be looked at. The Government does not want to break a promise on superannuation but it is also very different to introduce a higher tax on someone to actually try to fix up the spending side of the Budget and there is no question that we need to be looking at where to draw the line. We need to be supporting those more who need it and taking support away from those who can support themselves more. I think that is what the pension changes are all about.

PETER BEATTIE:

The same argument also applies to super I agree with that.

JANET ALBRECHTSEN:

Yes but it is a tax. It is fundamentally different Peter.

PETER BEATTIE:

Yes but it is the same in the sense that you are putting the financial burden on those who can afford it – the wealthy, and that is in my view a more equitable and fair basis.

DAVID SPEERS:

And saying to people right up and down the spectrum you have actually got to use your superannuation.

PETER BEATTIE:

Exactly. That is what it was designed for the country has got a financial trouble so you have got to do something to rectify it.

DAVID SPEERS:

Ok we are out of time. Small business next time.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Come on you are just teasing me now.

DAVID SPEERS:

I did mention you got it through though. You got it through.

MINISTER BILLSON:

That was an aside. We needed to spend a good quality few minutes on it.

DAVID SPEERS:

Next time I promise. Thank you all very much for joining us. Thanks for your company. See you the same time next week. Bye for now.