ABC Radio National – Breakfast with Patricia Karvelas
Subjects: National Anti-Corruption Commission; Bernard Collaery; Religious Discrimination Legislation
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Labor pledged to swiftly establish a federal anti-corruption commission during the election campaign, and with a raft of new independent MPs preparing to flex their muscle when Parliament resumes the pressure is on the Government to deliver a body with teeth. Attorney-General. Mark Dreyfus joins me now. Mark Dreyfus congratulations, of course, on this important role.
MARK DREYFUS: Thanks very much Patricia. Good morning to you. Good morning to your listeners.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: There's little detail on what your anti-corruption commission will look like. Will you be starting from scratch or will you use independent MP Helen Haines' template?
MARK DREYFUS: My department swung into action, Patricia, as soon as the election result was clear. We've now got a task force of senior officials headed by a Deputy Secretary completely devoted to ensuring that we will legislate a national anti-corruption commission this year. And the full resources of the department are now directed to drafting the very best bill that we can bring to the Australian Parliament.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: You say that because the Commonwealth is the last to legislate an anti-corruption commission you can pick and choose the best from the states and territories. Can you give me an idea on what you see as best practice?
MARK DREYFUS: There's a whole range of features that have been obviously discussed over the last three years, a lot of it in response to the inadequate model that the former government put forward. The commission is going to be independent, it's going to be powerful, it's going to have the powers of a Royal Commission. And some of the contentious matters that we've looked at are the scope of the commission. It's going to deal with serious and systemic corruption, it's going to be able to receive allegations from a whole range of sources, it's going to be able to, at its discretion, hold public hearings and all of those are important features and, of course, important differences from the former government's model. And it'll be able to look into the past. That's another deficiency of the former government's proposal. We think that it's completely inappropriate to suggest that an anti-corruption commission, once set up, would only be able to look at matters that arose after it was set up. That can't be right. None of the state and territory anti-corruption commissions function on that basis. They've all been able to look back into the past at their discretion when they think it's appropriate.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay, so two questions on this; how far back into the past?
MARK DREYFUS: That's going to be a matter for the commission.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: What's your view?
MARK DREYFUS: No, I'm not going to express a view. It's not for us, as the Government, to direct this commission.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Hang on a minute, let me just get some clarity, because I'm confused about that. Won't the legislation make it clear about how far back you can look?
MARK DREYFUS: We're going to leave this as a matter for the discretion of the commission. And I've speculated about this, in the lead up to the election, saying that one can imagine that where you've got allegations concerning someone that's still in public life, still a senior public servant, where there's a big pattern of corruption that stretches back years into the past, that's going to be a matter that the commission is likely - but I'm not going to direct it, it's independent - it's going to be a matter that the commission's likely to want to investigate.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Could it go back 20, 30 years?
MARK DREYFUS: Well, the longer back you go, the less likely it is that there's going to be a public interest in that investigation going forward. We've seen that with Royal Commissions. And of course there are similarities between the National Anti-Corruption Commission that we're going to set up and a Royal Commission, we've seen that with Royal Commissions, the further back you go into the past - this is just common sense the harder it is to investigate and, in many cases, the less present benefit there is in investigating.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: So, I know that the 15 year timeframe has been speculated on, as you say, before. Is that the sort of timeframe that is within the public interest still?
MARK DREYFUS: You're continuing to press on this...
PATRICIA KARVELAS: That's how I roll.
MARK DREYFUS: ... and I'm not going to set limits on this commission. It's independent. That's the key to it. It's not there to accept instructions from the government of the day. It's there to be independent.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: You say most of the hearings would be held in private. What would justify a public hearing in your view? How will that be articulated in the legislation for when the threshold is met for a public hearing?
MARK DREYFUS: There will be circumstances in which it is clearly in the public interest for a public hearing to take place. The experience of the state and territory commissions - because almost all of them have got the power to hold public hearings - is that they are sparing in the holding of those public hearings. They can, potentially, be very useful. A number of the anti-corruption commissioners around Australia with whom I've spoken about this have pointed out to me that it's a way of building confidence in the activities of the commission, if people can see it in operation. It's a way of showing how the commission is going about its work. And very often the holding of public hearings, some commissioners have told me, is something that prompts others to come forward. It brings out evidence if people hear of the investigation because the public hearing is being reported on. But overwhelmingly the work of these commissions is conducted by private hearings. They're sparing in their use of the public hearings.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: You say that you want pork-barreling included in your corruption body's remit? So are you saying pork-barreling will be regarded as corruption?
MARK DREYFUS: No, I'm not saying that. And I haven't said what you've just said I said.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Alright, so what do you want to say?
MARK DREYFUS: I've been repeatedly asked about pork-barreling, that's the use of discretionary grant programs for private purposes. And if such programs - and this goes for any government program - if a government program falls within the commission's view of serious and systemic corruption, because that's what we've said is going to be the ambit of the commission's responsibilities, if any program of the Commonwealth Government falls within serious and systemic corruption then that's going to be a matter which the Commission can determine that it will look at.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: When will the full design of the commission be announced?
MARK DREYFUS: We're going to bring a bill to the Parliament. And I'm going to be consulting before we do that, I'm certainly going to be consulting with the crossbench. As you said, in your introduction, the election of many independent members of the Parliament who campaigned on integrity issues tells us about the level of public support for this anti-corruption commission. It's a nation building reform. We're treating it extremely seriously. It's, as I've said, a paramount objective for the Government. I'm looking forward to consulting right across the Parliament on the details of this.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: So, if you have it legislated by the end of the year Attorney-General, does that mean it could be operational by next year?
MARK DREYFUS: We are going to legislate to create this anti-corruption commission, put the legislation in place, by the end of this year. That is the most clear commitment that we've given during the course of the campaign when it might be operational. If the legislation is passed by the end of this year it'll be a matter, as always for the establishment of a Commonwealth agency, of finding premises, finding staff appointing the commissioners, and then then it can get up and running.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: And what sort of timeframe might that might that look like?
MARK DREYFUS: I'd be hoping around the middle of 2023.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay, thank you. I need to ask you a couple of other questions which I think are quite important. Let's talk about the case against Bernard Collaery, who, along with his former client Witness K, were charged for their alleged role in exposing a 2004 bugging operation in Timor Leste. As you said you are hoping to seek an urgent briefing. We spoke earlier with the Greens Senator Nick McKim, he says Bernard Collaery is a national hero and that you should intervene. You're now the Attorney-General, should the case continue?
MARK DREYFUS: You're right that I have expressed concerns in the past. And you're also right that I said that I would seek urgent briefings. They are happening. I've been in the job precisely a week, Patricia, and I'm not going to be commenting further until I've completed those briefings.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Are you likely to intervene to say that the case should not continue?
MARK DREYFUS: I'm not going to be commenting further until I've sought these briefings – sorry, I've sought the briefings and they've started - until I've completed the briefings. This is a serious prosecution and intervention in the prosecution process is something that has to be taken extremely carefully. And I'm not, and certainly I won't be commenting further.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Just finally, prior to the election Labor said it would seek to legislate a Religious Discrimination Act and scrap the ability of schools to expel gay and transgender students at the same time. But a timeline hasn't been given. Are you still committed to religious discrimination legislation? And when would you do it?
MARK DREYFUS: Very much so and it's something that we will do, as we've said, in the course of this Parliament. Unlike the commitment on the National Anti-Corruption Commission where we've put a timeline on it by saying we are going to legislate by the end of this year, we haven't put such a timeline on the religious discrimination legislation that we will be bringing before the Parliament. But be assured, Patricia, we are bringing religious discrimination legislation before the Parliament. I have a very sharp memory of being interviewed by you at about 7:30 in the morning after an all night sitting for Federal Parliament earlier this year, when I think we'd sat to about 5 am in the morning. And one of the things I said to you in that interview was that, if we were successful at the upcoming election, we would be returning to this subject and bringing legislation to the Parliament on religious discrimination. That's why we voted for the government's bill, even after our amendments, only one of the amendments we supported, was successful. Because at its core, there is an appropriate, at the core even of the government's bill, there was an appropriate structure of anti-discrimination law, bringing in a prohibition on discriminating against people on the grounds of their religious beliefs. So I think we've made our position clear. It is a matter again of drafting legislation, which we will be doing and we will be bringing legislation to the Parliament.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Attorney-General, the first of I hope many, many conversations as you have such a big workload ahead of you. Thank you for joining us.
MARK DREYFUS: I look forward to it. Patricia, thanks very much.