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ABC News Breakfast – Michael Rowland

The Hon Mark Dreyfus KC MP


Subjects: Solicitor-General’s Advice regarding Scott Morrison’s Ministerial Appointments; Lachlan Murdoch defamation action against Crikey

MICHAEL ROWLAND: Let's return now to the Solicitor-General's advice over the actions of the former Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Joining me now from Sydney is the Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus. Mr Dreyfus, good morning to you.


ROWLAND: So when will we see the terms of reference for this inquiry?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: We're discussing this now and soon the Prime Minister will be announcing what the terms of the inquiry will be into what was a very, very alarming advice from the Solicitor-General that was published yesterday. We've had an undermining of the principles of responsible government in our country by the former Prime Minister appointing himself to five ministries and keeping it secret.

ROWLAND: Okay, so we wait to see how the inquiry will look. What will it be? A judicial inquiry, for instance? Will a judge or former judge be heading it up?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: As the Prime Minister said yesterday it's going to be an eminent legal person inquiring into this matter. And we do need to inquire, we need to nail down all of the details and we need to have recommendations as to how to make sure this never happens again. We've done what we can in the Prime Minister announcing yesterday that all details of all appointments of ministers will be published by our government. So we're doing what we can to restore trust and integrity in government in Australia, but we need to make sure this never happens again and that might mean a change in the law. That's what the inquiry is going to help us get to.

ROWLAND: I know we're still waiting for the details but do you foresee the framework of the inquiry being such that the former Prime Minister Scott Morrison would be compelled to appear to give evidence?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I'm hoping that won't be necessary Michael. He's said that he'll cooperate with an inquiry and he should. He still hasn't properly explained why he appointed himself to five ministries. This hiding behind the pandemic won't cut it. He kept it secret, which actually raises questions about what he thought he was up to. The inquiry is going to look into the detail. And of course, Mr Morrison should be cooperating and so should all of the former ministers in the government. So should Mr Dutton make sure that all of the former ministers cooperate with the inquiry so we can get to the bottom of what happened and make sure that our responsible government system is not undermined in this way ever again.

ROWLAND: I think from just my reading of Mr Morrison's Facebook post yesterday his support for the inquiry, any inquiry, is conditional. He says he'll cooperate as long as any inquiry looks at the states’ and territories' roles in the pandemic. What do you say to that?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: That's the sort of blame shifting that we've become accustomed to for Mr Morrison, always pointing the finger at someone else, always seeking to drag in other people. He was responsible for appointing himself to these five ministries, we need to hear from him. And we need to hear from the other ministers in the former government to get to the bottom of what happened. And he shouldn't be hiding behind the pandemic and he shouldn't be pointing the finger at states and territories. This is about our national government. This is about the conduct of the former Prime Minister and the conduct of the former government, some of whom, some of those former ministers are still in the Parliament. Mr Morrison is still in the Parliament. That's what this inquiry needs to get at.

ROWLAND: Have you got a rough idea of the timeframe we're talking about as to when the inquiry will report back? Weeks? Months? Before Christmas?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: The Prime Minister made it very clear yesterday that this is going to be an expeditious inquiry. It's going to report promptly, so it won't drag on. We need to get to the bottom of what happened and we need swift recommendations as to how to change the law to make sure that this undermining of our system of responsible government never happens again.

ROWLAND: I just want to finish with another story, big story this morning and that of course is News Corp Co-Chairman Lachlan Murdoch launching defamation action against Crikey over a story Crikey wrote calling the Murdoch family unindicted co-conspirators of Donald Trump in the January the sixth riots. Now, of course, we're not going to go into the details of the action, but I do know in the past you have been, Mark Dreyfus, a big supporter of defamation law reform in Australia and importantly, the public's right to know. As a general principle, in your view, do you believe Australia's defamation laws are still too strict?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: We need to strike a balance in defamation law between protecting the reputation of everyone and ensuring that there can be free discussion of particularly political matters. That's the balance that the courts have tried to strike. That's the balance we try to strike in our defamation law. I'd commend, in particular Mark Speakman, the Attorney-General of New South Wales for the work that he's done on trying to get that balance right. It's something that we discussed at the Meeting of Attorneys-General just over a week ago. Collectively, we are all working to make sure that our defamation laws are right, that we can have freedom of discussion of political matters, but at the same time, where it's warranted, protect people's reputations from unjustified attack.

ROWLAND: Mark Dreyfus. Appreciate your time this morning. Thank you.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL:  Thanks very much Michael.