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Radio interview – ABC RN Breakfast

The Hon Mark Dreyfus KC MP


Subjects: PwC; Julian Assange; The Voice to Parliament.

HAMISH MACDONALD: This is RN Breakfast. The Greens say they will refer PwC and its former partner Peter Collins to the National Anti-Corruption Commission once it begins operating next month. Speaking to RN Breakfast this morning Greens Senator Barbara Pocock alleges there was a multi-institutional go-slow, which meant that while Commonwealth agencies knew about these matters at least five years ago, very little was done to either inform ministers or bring PwC to account. She wants a broader investigation of the Big Four consulting firms and their rapidly increasing role in the delivery of policy and services. Mark Dreyfus is the Attorney-General, he joins me now. Welcome back to Breakfast.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL MARK DREYFUS: Great to be with you Hamish.

MACDONALD: Barbara Pocock says she will refer PwC to the anti-corruption commission. What does that process look like? How long would that take?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, it's going be a matter for the National Anti-Corruption Commission and I'm pleased to say that the National Anti-Corruption Commission, in keeping with our commitment that we made to the Australian people at the last election, will commence operations on the first of July. We legislated last year, we've appointed the Commissioner, the Deputy Commissioners, the other senior officers, and it will be in full operation on the first of July. It's going to establish whatever processes it thinks appropriate because the key to the National Anti-Corruption Commission is that it is independent. It won't be directed by me, it won't be directed by the Government, it won't be directed by Members of Parliament, it will be independent and it'll be able to receive references or complaints or allegations from anyone in the Australian community.

MACDONALD: What are its powers though, in this space?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, it has the power to investigate government departments, it has the power to investigate senior officers, it has the power to investigate contractors to government.

MACDONALD: Part of what the ATO has been saying in Senate estimates this week is that it was essentially prevented under secrecy provisions from referring this to the relevant ministers and departments when it knew this information about PwC. Could they though, if this were happening now, refer it directly to the NACC?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I'm not going to make a comment on whether or not any matter could be referred to the National Anti-Corruption Commission. That's been my consistent policy for years in talking about what the National Anti-Corruption Commission could look like, in passing the legislation through the Parliament and right now I am not going to be making a comment or giving a quote on whether or not any particular matter could be referred or should be referred.

MACDONALD: The secrecy provisions, I think, would have surprised many Australians. I'm just trying to help our listeners understand whether those secrecy provisions similarly would have prevented this being put to the NACC?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, the matter has been referred by Treasury to the Australian Federal Police. That's another good reason why I shouldn't be commenting. Of course, there are secrecy provisions around our taxation system, Hamish. It's a key to tax compliance that Australian taxpayers know that the financial material that they provide to the Australian Taxation Office will be kept confidential. But I'm not going to comment on what implications that the secrecy provisions there are for the Australian Federal Police or for that matter for the National Anti-Corruption Commission.

MACDONALD: Can you help our listeners understand, though, why the ATO shared this information with the AFP back in 2018 but no further investigation was pursued then, but is now?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I wasn't in government in 2018. I am in government now. And our government has referred this matter to the Australian Federal Police who are now going to be investigating.

MACDONALD: But are you curious to know the answer to that, though?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I think it's a sub issue Hamish. What's important is that PwC be fully accountable for their actions. These are deeply troubling allegations that have come to light thanks to penetrating questioning in Senate estimates by Senator Deb O'Neill and other Senators, and it now will be investigated by the Australian Federal Police and I understand from something that the Treasurer Jim Chalmers said yesterday it's going to go back to the Tax Practitioners Board as well.

MACDONALD: PwC, as you know, has so far refused to name the nine partners that it stood down this week. Are you able to offer any assurances to the public, given that we don't know who they are, that none of these people are continuing to sit on Commonwealth boards or publicly appointed positions?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Our position is that PwC needs to be fully accountable for its actions.

MACDONALD: Sure, but that doesn't answer the question I just put. Are they sitting on the on any Commonwealth boards or publicly appointed positions?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I think it does answer the question Hamish. PwC needs to be fully accountable for its actions. This has got some way to run yet. The matter of the names is part of the continuing investigation, the continuing handling in this matter by the Tax Practitioners Board, and no doubt in the investigation by the Australian Federal Police.

MACDONALD: But does that mean the public should know who those people are to be assured that they're not continuing to serve in any such roles?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I'm going to let this matter take its course. And as a matter of principle PwC needs to be fully accountable for this deeply troubling conduct that's come to light.

MACDONALD: On another issue, news reports this morning suggests the FBI is reportedly seeking to gather new evidence against Julian Assange interviewing his biographer, you've repeatedly said this case should be brought to a close. Were you aware that there's an additional or a new investigation taking place?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Until I read that this morning, no. But our position has been very clear for a long time now that this matter has gone on for too long. And that remains our position.

MACDONALD: And what's your what's your view of a fresh investigation?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I'm not going to comment, Hamish because this matter has gone on for too long and we're doing everything we can to make sure that it's brought to an end.

MACDONALD: You have passed the bill for the Voice referendum in the House of Representatives, it'll now go to the Senate passing that will trigger the real campaign. What does that mean for the rules governing campaigns. A referendum has specific provisions, doesn't it?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: It does. It was a big moment yesterday, Hamish, in the House of Representatives. For the first time since 1999, the House of Representatives with an absolute majority has passed a Constitution Alteration Bill. And the next step is passing it with an absolute majority in the Senate. And then we will be on to the referendum process that Section 128 of the Constitution sets out a timetable and by the end of this year, we will have a referendum at which the Australian people will be able to vote in what will be a unifying moment for our country. A time, and a real cause for hope and optimism in our country, an opportunity to do the two things that the Voice does, which is recognising the First Peoples of our country in the Constitution and listening to the First Peoples, giving them a voice so that they can speak on laws and policies which affect them. And I am very much looking forward to the referendum towards the end of this year at which the Australian people will have the opportunity to vote and I am confident that they are going to vote yes.

MACDONALD: So when will we know the date that it will take place?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: We'll be setting the date after the Senate has passed the Constitution Alteration with the necessary absolute majority. As I said, once that happens, Section 128 sets in train a timetable which says that the referendum has to be held, not less than two months after passage by the both Houses of Parliament and not more than six months. So everyone will know the timeframe. On the day that this passes through the Senate with the required absolute majority.

MACDONALD: The AEC Commissioner has said that he's seeing more instances of misinformation on the Voice and threatening behaviour. Is the AEC properly resourced to tackle this?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: The AEC is properly resourced. The AEC is one of the prized institutions of our democracy. They conduct elections with absolute regularity. We have compulsory voting in our country. We have certainly adequately resourced the AEC and I have been talking to the AEC Commissioner, the AEC Commission has been coming to talk to the Referendum Working Group and talking to ministers about all of the steps that the AEC is taking to make sure that this referendum is properly conducted. And I share of course the concerns that the AEC Commissioner has expressed about the levels of disinformation and misinformation that have been swirling around but I'm confident that the Australian people will put that misinformation and disinformation to one side when they come to vote at the referendum later this year. They will understand, the Australian people will understand what a unifying moment this is for our country.

MACDONALD: There will be these official pamphlets produced, is there anything to prevent them containing misinformation?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: The contents of the official pamphlet are effectively a 2000 word essay for Yes and a 2000 word essay for No. They are to be written by the Members of Parliament in both Houses who have voted yes for the Yes part of the pamphlet and those Parliamentarians, Senators and Members who have voted No, are responsible for the No part of the pamphlet. It's up to them what the pamphlet contains.

MACDONALD: So there's not really anything to prevent them containing misinformation?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Good judgment and moral conduct should ensure that we have a respectful tone in this debate. And both the Yes case and the No case that are presented to the Australian people in this pamphlet, which the Liberal Party asked for. They demanded that we have this pamphlet, which has been part of referendums in the past. Both sides are responsible for ensuring that we have a respectful tone in this debate, including in this pamphlet.

MACDONALD: Are you a bit blind to the realities of modern political campaigning by placing that much stock in in moral judgment?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, hope springs eternal, Hamish, and I have confidence in my colleagues in this Parliament. They know the importance of respectful debate. They know the importance of reasoned debate, and they know that as a country, we have to go on working with each other whatever the outcome of this referendum. But I know that Australia will be a better country if we have a Yes, a resounding Yes result at this referendum.

MACDONALD: Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, thank you very much for your time this morning.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Thanks very much, Hamish.