Topics - Senate; EPBC Act; Visit by UN Envoy; Arts; Domestic Violence; Turnbull Government
BARRIE CASSIDY: Here is our program guest, the Attorney-General, Senator George Brandis, who is the new Government Senate Leader, and as such, he'll need to build bridges with the crossbenchers and he joins us now from Brisbane. Good morning, welcome.
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Good morning, Barrie.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Have you got a strategy, new strategy to improve relationships with the crossbenchers?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well I've reached out to each of the crossbenchers during the past week and my message to the crossbenchers is that the Government does want to work with you, we respect your different perspectives on legislation. We hope to have a harmonious and cooperative relationship with each of the crossbenchers and my door will always be open. And I've offered them all the briefings that they may wish to take up in relation to any piece of legislation about which they have concerns. So, Barrie, I'm looking forward to….I already have a friendly relationship, particularly with some particular crossbenchers with whom I've served for some years, like Nick Xenophon, who is in my office very frequently, but I expect to build on that.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Is Senator David Leyonhjelm one of those? He told Fairfax last month that George hasn't won any hearts, he's not the most warm and cuddly bloke in the Senate. Have you got a bit of work to do on him?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: : I get on very well with Senator Leyonhjelm. In fact I had a beer with him only last week.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Okay. Now what about this issue though that they do have over the electoral reform, which would make it harder for micro parties to get elected? How vigorously will you pursue those reforms?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well the Government's made no decisions in relation to that matter, so there's really nothing to talk about.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Well you made no decisions because you don't want to get the crossbenchers offside?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well we have not made any decisions in relation to Senate voting reform. There was a report of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, Barrie, as you would be aware of, but the Government has made no decision in relation to the recommendations of that report or indeed otherwise in relation to that issue.
BARRIE CASSIDY: So does that imply a problem doesn't exist?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I'm merely telling you that we've made no decision in relation to that matter.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Can you explain why you've taken no decision?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, Barrie, there are many issues on a very busy national agenda and priorities matter. The ordering of those priorities matters and there have been other issues that have been more important, frankly, than the issue that you're raising now.
BARRIE CASSIDY: But the makeup of the Senate though surely is an important issue and even the prospect of early elections means more micro parties, that the country seems to be frustrated by the fact that these micro parties get elected too easily.
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, look, these people all played by the rules. I mean, all eight of the Senate crossbenchers were elected fair and square under the existing rules. And it's not as if it's only minor parties and independents who try to calculate where their advantages, best advantage lies when it comes to Senate preferences. So do the major parties.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Alright. Can you clear up this issue on the - you're making it harder for environmentalists to challenge mining projects in the courts. What is the status for that bill now?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, the bill has been introduced, as you know. No decision has been made by the Government not to proceed with it. I think we need to understand the context of this, Barrie. Section 487 of the EPBC Act is a very unusual, indeed unique, provision. It says that although you are a person who is not affected, either directly or indirectly, by a decision, nevertheless you have standing to seek review of a ministerial decision in court if you happen to be interested in the environment in purely an academic or public policy way. Now, that is a variation of the position at common law. The ordinary orthodox position at common law is that the only people with standing to approach the courts to contest a decision are people who are either directly or indirectly affected by it. And all the bill does is seeks to restore the ordinary common law position.
BARRIE CASSIDY: But at this stage, can you say whether it will go ahead or it won't?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: No decision has been made by the Government not to proceed with it.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Not to proceed, but will it potentially be under review at some point?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well I can't pre-empt what discussions may occur in the future, but at the moment, as I say, we have made no decision not to proceed.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Now this other issue on the UN envoy who postponed a visit to Australia because of the laws around detention centre workers, do you find that embarrassing?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well I've seen the report. I don't know anything about the particular facts of the case, but can I just make this point to you Barrie that Australia does cooperate with the United Nations in relation to our human rights obligations, in particular through my department, the Attorney-General's Department. We are in very regular dialogue with relevant United Nations agencies who do a periodic audit of compliance by all the member states with human rights obligations and we have undertaken that exercise in my department quite recently.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Is it true though that this envoy, simply by talking to some of the workers at these detention centres, would put them at risk?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, I'm a little loath to comment on a case where I don't know all of the facts. Certainly there are some prohibitions in relation to communicating with third parties, but I'd prefer, if you don't mind, Barrie, to get myself briefed on the facts of this particular case rather than merely be a commentator on a newspaper report.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Now on arts funding and you lost responsibility of that to Senator Mitch Fifield. You redirected over $100 million in the Australia Council to new programs. Was that a factor, do you think, in losing responsibility for arts?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I doubt it. Having been made the new Leader of the Government in the Senate, I can tell you, Barrie, I have quite enough to do with that task and being the Attorney-General. It's a portfolio that has traditionally sat within the Communications portfolio. I myself think that that is actually a better fit for the portfolio and I'm sure my friend Mitch Fifield will be a very fine arts minister.
BARRIE CASSIDY: And what he is saying now, he's suggesting that decisions could be overseen not by ministerial discretion, that is, funding allocations, but an expert panel. Does that suggest that he has learnt the lesson?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: No, because that was the way it was always going to work. In fact, advertisements for assessors had been placed to consider applications under the new program. But in any event, Barrie, that's a matter for Senator Fifield and for obvious reasons I'll leave commentary on the implementation of the policy from this point to him.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Okay. Domestic violence, where we started the program. Some of that money will be spent in your portfolio. Can you give more details on how that will be done?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Yes, I can, Barrie. I think this is…I think it's emblematic of the new government that this is our first major announcement, although there had been much work done during the previous government as well to bring us, to put this into shape.
Some $15 million of the $100 million of new money that was announced by the Prime Minister and Senator Cash last week will be spent within the Attorney-General's portfolio to fund 12 specialist domestic violence units within community legal centres in areas of Australia identified as being areas of particular need. And I'm announcing today the location of those 12 areas, including places like south western Sydney, north eastern Victoria, north western Tasmania, Alice Springs, Townsville and others. About half of them are in regional Australia and about half of them are in the cities. And as well, four specialist health justice partnerships, so that doctors and nurses who meet the problem of family violence head on can be in a position to work with the legal service providers and community legal centres to ensure that all of the needs of women in particular in these situations are catered for. When a woman presents to a hospital, for example, having been the victim of domestic violence, she has many needs apart from immediate medical needs - financial counselling, crisis accommodation, legal advice and other needs and these need to be catered for in a holistic way, so that's what these programs are designed to do.
BARRIE CASSIDY: And I just want to ask you finally about some of Tony Abbott's comments in the interview with the newspapers where he makes the point that though the leadership has changed the policies haven't. Does that remain the case? Is that what's happened here, we've had a change of personnel, but the policies will remain the same?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well first of all, Barrie, never underestimate the importance of a change of leadership itself. Never underestimate the importance of the fact that there are no fewer than eight new faces around the cabinet table. So this is a very different government. That being said, the Prime Minister said last week that the policies of the previous government would continue, but nevertheless he foreshadowed that there would be, from time to time, revisions as you would expect of any new government. Now, we will be reviewing some of those policies from time to time, but the broad approach of the Coalition government to attack the problem of debt and deficit, to keep our borders secure, to keep our communities safe, they were the guiding principles of the previous government and they'll continue to be the guiding principles of the Turnbull Government.
BARRIE CASSIDY: If he was though, for example, to tweak climate change policy, would the party tolerate that?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, let's not get ahead of ourselves, Barrie. The Prime Minister was actually asked about this in the House of Representatives on Tuesday and he made the point that what we need to be concerned about is outcomes, not methods. There are various ways to achieve outcomes, but the direct action policy developed by Greg Smith, who was as I point out to you, is the great - Greg Hunt, I should say - is the great climate change intellectual of this Parliament. He has developed an effective package which has Australia meeting and hitting its targets, in fact doing a little better than hitting its targets. So, that's what works, that's what works, Barrie.
BARRIE CASSIDY: But since Tuesday though of course when Malcolm Turnbull said that, China has now signed up to a nationwide ETS by 2017, the past view has been Australia shouldn't get ahead of the game, but now it seems that an ETS is just a way of keeping up.
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Barrie, as I say, we have a suite of policies in place at the moment that work, that achieve the targets, that achieve the outcomes.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Thanks for your time this morning. Appreciate it.ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Thank you very much, Barrie.