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2SM Super Radio Network

The Hon Mark Dreyfus KC MP


Subjects: The Voice to Parliament; Robodebt; China relations; AUKUS; AFL

RICHARD KING: Joining me now, in fact he’s coming to, dare I say it again, my neck of the woods, our Federal Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus who's on the line. Good morning. Attorney-General.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL MARK DREYFUS: Morning, Richard. Great to be with you. I'm in Newcastle.

KING: Oh, you are in Newcastle now, right?


KING: Well, look, I won't hold it against you. I grew up in Melbourne. I've always been a Melbourne Demons supporter. I hear you're a St Kilda supporter?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Yes, I'm a long-suffering, say St Kilda support. Those two go together - long-suffering and Saints.

KING: Well, I'm a Knights supporter in the NRL, I'm a long-suffering Knights supporter as well. So we've got something in common there. Now, the purpose of the visit, you'll be getting together with our local Federal Member for Newcastle, Sharon Claydon and holding a press conference. I believe it's all about the Voice to Parliament today?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Yes, and I'm doing a forum at the University of Newcastle arranged by the wonderful local Member, Sharon Claydon, I'm looking forward to it. I've been doing these Voice forums and Voice meetings all across Australia. And of course, that's heading to Australians all having a say in changing our Constitution in the second half of this year.

KING: So why is it, in your opinion, so important that there is Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal Australians? Why do we have to have that Constitutional Recognition?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I think it's vital that we recognise the 65,000 years of history and continuous connection to this land by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. This was a very generous invitation given to the people of Australia by the Uluru Statement from the Heart. And it answered the question, not should there be Recognition, I think most Australians would think there should be, but it answered -

KING: But why? Why should there be? That's what I'd like a clear explanation of. Why should there be Constitutional Recognition? Why is it so important?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Because of the special place that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people occupy in our country, that 65,000 years of history and continuous connection is very important. And the Voice is the way to recognise, because we know that when governments hear from communities we get better policies that will improve lives. So, the two things go together, we've got Recognition, and we've got consultation.

KING: Right. Okay, the Voice to Parliament. A lot of people say, you know, there are lots of Indigenous voices to Parliament now that we have, you know, a number of Federal MPs, who do have an Indigenous heritage. Also, too, we've had things like ATSIC etc. Is this just going to be another giant bureaucracy, this Voice element?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: No, it's not going to be a giant bureaucracy. It's going not going to be a government department. It's not going to deliver programs. It's a Voice. It's going to provide independent advice to the Parliament and the government. And you mention ATSIC, a pretty good example of why we need to put this in the Constitution, we want this to be permanent. ATSIC of course was just a matter of legislation, it was abolished by the Howard Government, and that's, of course, always a risk if you just have legislation. Putting it in the Constitution, we know that it will be permanent, and it can't just be abolished.

KING: Well, if the Voice is providing a Voice to Parliament, how does the Voice, however many people are tapping into the aspirations, the needs and the wants of Indigenous communities right around Australia, how do they go about doing that?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: It's going to be chosen by First Nations people based on the wishes of local communities. It's going to be representative of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and it's going to be accountable and it’s going to be transparent. It's going to work alongside existing organisations and all of those principles have already been put out there.

KING: And there's a bit of confusion about whether these people are volunteers or whether they're on a government payroll. How exactly will it work?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I think that like everyone else that's working as part of our system of government the people who are part of the Voice will be paid for their time. But that makes them no different to anyone else that's working as part of our system of government. I get paid, public servants get paid, people who work as consultants to government gets paid.

KING: Do you accept the fact that people are jumping up and down saying ‘we don’t understand this, we need more detail’. There's been a reluctance to give some detail. People point to what's available online, which is hundreds of pages. Will there be, between now and whenever it happens towards the end of the year, a lot more detail?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Of course there will be Richard. But what we're essentially talking about here is a very simple idea. It's an advisory body made up of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, which will give advice to Parliament and the government on issues that affect their communities. It's that simple. By the end of this month we'll have the Constitution Alteration Bill in the Parliament. It'll be debated in the Parliament. We're hoping to have it passed by both Houses by the end of June, and then the campaign itself will start and later in the year, we'll have the referendum vote.

KING: And what's your response to, and I get a lot of listeners that ringing in say, ‘Oh, this is a divisive policy, this will be more divisive than, than whatever we've had in the past’?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I think it's the reverse. I think it's a unifying moment for Australia. This is about taking the country forward for everyone and it's the best chance we've had to address the injustice of the past.

KING: My guest is Federal Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, who will be in my neck of the woods. I get criticised for using that expression all the time back here in Newcastle. A different subject Robodebt. The Royal Commission wraps up today. Findings due at the end of June. You previously said in Parliament “The Robodebt debacle is one shocking example of what can happen when the government throws accountability above the law, it must never happen again.” Do you hope that this will deliver justice for victims and families?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: It's the last day of what has been months of shocking evidence, Richard about how the former government, even after it knew that what it was doing was illegal, kept sending these illegal debt notices to hundreds of thousands of Australians, and some of the most vulnerable Australians as well, causing untold misery. The evidence has been shocking and now we can await the report of the Royal Commission which is due by the 30th of June. But as I said in parliament, I’ll say it on your radio station, we need to make sure this doesn't happen again. That's why we have Royal Commissions like this. And former Chief Justice of Queensland Catherine Holmes has conducted this Royal Commission and she's now going to write her report.

KING: The Sydney Morning Herald have run a series of articles suggesting we're on a war footing and can expect, within the next three years, war with China and a lot of people are afraid about all this talk about war. This is a good example of some of the calls I've had in the last couple of days.

CALLER 1: I'm angry with the talk of war with China. I believe by talking things up as a foregone conclusion makes it a reality. As mother that really, really upset me.

CALLER 2: I think it's disgusting talking up about this war that hopefully we will never have. This scaring our young teenagers, one of whom is my grandson, a 17 year old kid. We have all had a gut full of it.

KING: A lot of people have had a bit to say about China and that, you know, we're on a war footing etc. Do you agree with former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's comment on China that Australia as an ally of the United States and a strategic partner of China should be working to help prepare relations between the two countries or do you think we shouldn't be getting involved?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: That's been our consistent position since we came to government in May last year. It's both in Australia's interest and China's interest that the relationship is stabilised. And what you've heard from Foreign Minister Penny Wong, from the Prime Minister consistently, is urging restraint, de-escalation. We share the region's concerns, other countries in the region’s concerns about risks of miscalculation. And what you've seen from the Prime Minister and several ministers is discussions held with China. They've been constructive discussions with their counterparts. I think we can grow the bilateral relationship. I think we can uphold our national interest, if both countries can navigate the differences wisely.

KING: And finally, AUKUS, obviously been a hot topic and I gather that our Prime Minister will be heading to San Diego on the West Coast of the United States and standing beside Rishi Sunak from the UK and of course, Joe Biden, the US President, to make a massive announcement. There's been a lot of people putting their 20 cents worth in, even overnight. There's been leaks as to apparently what what's going to happen. Do you think it's been helpful for former ministers and a Prime Minister putting their 20 cents worth in on what's obviously a fairly closely guarded secret until the revelations are made sometime next week?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I think we should all await the announcement that's going to be made as the Prime Minister said, by him by Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and by Joe Biden, the President of The United States in San Diego, Monday US time, and I won't be making the announcement this morning.

KING: But you are hoping that your team in the AFL, St Kilda, I think you've got Fremantle up in the first round, which is I think next weekend, isn't it?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: You bet, you bet.

KING: All right. Good luck, and thank you very much for your time this morning.