Skip to main content

ABC Radio National Breakfast – Patricia Karvelas

The Hon Mark Dreyfus KC MP


Subjects: Media Freedom Roundtable; Whistleblowers; The Voice to Parliament 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Across this country, some people are investigated by authorities for simply trying to do their job. It's something journalists and whistleblowers have had to contend with for years when probing people or issues some would prefer to keep in the dark. Yesterday the Attorney-General held a meeting with key media figures on how to better protect journalists and their sources and Mark Dreyfus joins me now. He's the Attorney-General. Welcome to the program.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL MARK DREYFUS: Morning Patricia. Good to be with you.

KARVELAS: There are a whole range of issues on the table here - privacy laws, whistleblower protections, defamation, warrants such as those that were used to raid the ABC and the home of journalist Annika Smethurst in 2019. How are you going to address these issues?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I think it's good that you're reminding people about what happened in 2019 where we had search warrants executed on the offices of the ABC and the home of an Australian journalist. It prompted a national outcry and it also prompted a couple of Parliamentary inquiries. I think most Australians agree that journalists should never face the prospect of being charged just for doing their jobs. I think there's agreement across the Parliament and across the community about that and that improved protections are overdue. Sadly, like so much else about the former government, the two Parliamentary inquiries reported and nothing happened. There were bipartisan recommendations for change. So, my purpose in having this media roundtable yesterday with journalists and media organisations coming to Parliament House, was to restart a process of reform. As you said, there's a lot of different areas but chief among them is getting a better consideration of public interest on warrant issuing.

KARVELAS: You mentioned all those recommendations, the two committees, the fact that the government did accept those recommendations but didn't ultimately act. You've said you will, so when will we see the changes?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: This is the start of a process. I've invited journalists and media organisations to put forward further thoughts. It was the start of that conversation yesterday. But I'm hopeful of moving on the warrants matter later in this year. And, of course, we're underway with a reform of the Privacy Act, we're underway with a review of secrecy offences. All of these things have got implications for journalists and free media in Australia. 

KARVELAS: Media groups, as you know, are arguing they should be allowed to contest warrants before authorities can carry out a raid. Do you think they should be allowed to?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, that's not where the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security landed. It opted for, on a bipartisan basis, a different approach to making sure that the public interest, that undoubtedly there is in freedom of the press, is protected. They opted for a different route of having public interest advocates involved in the process of issuing warrants. And of course, as you've just pointed out, there's media organisations that are suggesting a different process of what's called contested warrants should be considered. That's ahead of us, considering where we're going to land on this. I'm making the point though that our starting point is this report by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security from 2020.

KARVELAS: But you will consider the media's calls then?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL:  I'll consider any ideas that land us in the direction of where we wish to be with proper consideration of protecting the public interest and protecting journalists who are just doing their jobs. That's our objective. There's clearly, if you look at the United States or you look at the United Kingdom, different ways of achieving that objective.

KARVELAS: There are still also concerns, in fact, major concerns, around protections for whistleblowers. What more will you do to protect whistleblowers?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: We've got a bill in the Parliament now which I regard as the first stage of reform of the Public Interest Disclosure Act which, of course, the last Labor Government with me as Attorney-General brought to the Parliament in 2013. When I did that I provided for a statutory review to take place. That is a compulsory review. The former government did carry out that review, it reported in 2016, and again, same story from the former government, nothing happened. I've dusted off that report by an eminent Australian public servant Philip Moss and some of his recommendations form the basis of this first bill that's in the Parliament now, with a Parliamentary committee reporting on the 10th of March. I've said that I wanted to do this first stage of reform ahead of the National Anti-Corruption Commission coming into operation around the middle of this year. And I've also said that there's going to be a second stage, a wider set of reforms to the whistleblower protection scheme to make sure that it's fit for purpose, that it serves the purpose of people feeling protected when they report on wrongdoing.

KARVELAS: Last year you dropped that prosecution of whistleblower Bernard Collaery but you haven't done so for David McBride, who has been prosecuted for allegedly leaking top secret Defence information to the ABC, or Richard Boyle, who's revealed unethical debt recovery practices within the ATO, the Australian Tax Office. Will you drop those cases?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I'm not going to comment on either of those cases, which are right now before the court and in particularly in the case of Mr Boyle, he has relied on the Public Interest Disclosure Act as a defence. There was a preliminary hearing on that very point by the court in Adelaide and we are awaiting the judgment of the court in Adelaide on whether or not he's entitled to the protections that already exist. But I won't comment further on either of those cases.

KARVELAS: If you're just tuning in, this is Radio National Breakfast and we're speaking with the Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus. I just want to change the topic to talk about the Voice referendum which is due later this year. Next month the Government will put the Referendum Machinery Act to a vote. That's the law that determines how the referendum will happen. You've been negotiating with the Opposition to pass it. You've already agreed to fund information pamphlets. What else are you looking to offer the Coalition for their support?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Those discussions are continuing and we want there to be, as far as possible, agreement across the Parliament on how the referendum is to be conducted. I think there is already agreement that we need to modernise the really antiquated processes that applied to referendums. Currently, most of it comes from an act that passed in 1912. We need to modernise it to make sure that this referendum that's going to be conducted in the second half of this year looks like, as far as possible, a general election and there have been, so far, cooperative discussions with the Opposition. The much more important bill, of course, is the Constitution Alteration Bill which is going to follow in late March and that will contain the words to change the Constitution. But the process is on track and we are, as all of my colleagues the Prime Minister and Linda Burney have kept saying, wanting this to be an inclusive, cooperative process which involves the whole Parliament.

KARVELAS: You mentioned the second bill with the wording and obviously that's going to be a key moment for the Parliament. Should the Voice be able to provide advice to the executive government?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Those are the words that were included in the draft that the Prime Minister laid out in the historic speech that he gave at Garma on the 30th of July. And that's the intention, presently, that the Voice, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice that was called for by the Uluru Statement from the Heart back in 2017, be able to speak to the Parliament and to the executive.

KARVELAS: So you say that was the intention. There are some constitutional lawyers, because it is contested, that would like that removed. Do you think it needs to stay in?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, that's a discussion that we will continue to have.

KARVELAS: What's your view as the Attorney-General?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I'm convinced that the Voice will be effective if, as a Constitutional requirement, it is able to make representations to the Parliament and to the executive. But I also understand that when we introduce the Constitution Alteration Bill, it will go to a Parliamentary committee. There will be public submissions as is appropriate and we'll come to final wording when the bill is debated in both Houses of the Australian Parliament, which will be a process finalised, probably, in June. 

KARVELAS: You're right there will be a process but the people behind the Uluru Statement, as you know, want executive in there because they want to have a Voice to the people making decisions to the Cabinet, the decision makers, not just the Parliament. Do you do you think that that's kind of a key word to provide strength to this Voice?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I've made the point that those are the words that were included in the Prime Minister's draft provisions. Those are the words that we are currently considering and they're remarkably simple words. They start with: 'in recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as the first peoples of Australia' and go on to say: 'there shall be a body to be called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice' and then it says: 'the Voice may make representations to Parliament and the executive government on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples'. And the final words are that the Parliament is to make laws about this. It couldn't be simpler. That was the Prime Minister's purpose in his speech at Garma, to show Australians just what a simple process this is.

KARVELAS: So, Attorney-General, let me put this to you - one of the warnings about having that wording from some, not all to be clear, is that it will lead to court cases and litigation. What's your response to that?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: People have been litigating questions about our Constitution since Federation and the fact that it's possible to point to possible Constitutional litigation I don't think should deter anyone. We need to make sure that it's understood that this is a principle to be inserted in our Constitution. The structures are left to the Parliament to make laws about and that will happen after the successful referendum at the end of this year.

KARVELAS: Attorney-General thank you for joining us this morning.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Thanks so much for having me Patricia.