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Meet The Press -

View in ParlView



27th March 2005-03-27


MEET THE PRESS PRESENTER PAUL BONGIORNO: Taxing times for the Democrats but their leader Lyn
Allison soldiers on.

some of that surplus to provide low- and middle-income earners with a tax cut?

PAUL BONGIORNO: As she struggles to rebuild her party after what turned out to be for them the GST
deal from hell. And later - Julian Burnside QC on terror laws and human rights. But first, what the
nation's press is reporting this Sunday March 27. All papers carry stories on the asylum seeker
protest at the Baxter detention centre, South Australia. In violent clashes yesterday two people
were trampled by police horses and six have been arrested. The Sydney 'Sunday Telegraph' leads with
"Costello won't let States off his GST hook." John Howard and Mr Costello are preparing to take the
States to the brink over the GST tax row. The Brisbane 'Sunday Mail' has "Canberra works on plan
B." The Federal Government is working behind the scenes to bring Schapelle Corby home to Australia
even if she's convicted of drug smuggling in Indonesia. In Melbourne, the Sunday 'Age' says
"Liberal plan for four-year terms." The paper quotes the chairman of the Electoral Affairs
Committee, Tony Smith, saying four-year terms for Federal Parliament should be introduced by 2010.
Last week saw the fallout of the GST brokered between the Howard Government and the Democrats then
led by Meg Lees. Six State taxes set for abolition were put on hold for five years to compensate
for the compromise which saw the new consumption tax taken off food. The Commonwealth is accusing
the States of reneging on the 1999 agreement. An interested observer - today's guest, Democrats
Leader Senator Lyn Allison. Welcome to the program Senator.


PAUL BONGIORNO: Well, the Treasurer on Wednesday reminded everyone of the role the Democrats played
in brokering the GST through Senate when he was demanding the States abolish the remaining indirect
taxes the GST was meant to replace.

TREASURER PETER COSTELLO (MARCH 23): Originally they were all going to be removed in 2001. When the
GST revenue was applied to a narrower base as part of the deal with the Australian Democrats it was
clear that all of those inefficient taxes could not be abolished immediately.

PAUL BONGIORNO: Well, Senator, do you believe the States are in the wrong here and they should
stick to the 1999 agreement and abolish the remaining business taxes?

LYN ALLISON: Well, that agreement was for them to review those taxes. As I understand it, many of
the States have already dropped those taxes. Some have not, but I would argue that a review of
State taxes, if there was to be one, should look at other State taxes like gambling revenue for
instance. I think that there are far more socially damaging aspects of that tax collection than
there are in the business sector. And bearing in mind that I think it was about $8 billion was
handed over to the business sector as part of the GST negotiations. But the real point to make is
that the Government, I think, the Federal Government ought to be looking at its own tax system.
We've got a system whereby those people earning as little as $6,000 are taxed well below the
poverty line. So, we're saying let's look at PAYE taxes and let's reform the income tax regime.
Bring the threshold up to at least $10,000 and look at, for middle-income earners, making their tax
system progress along with CPI.

PAUL BONGIORNO: Well, just clarifying that other point. Obviously you were in the party at the time
of the negotiations with the Government. Your then leader Meg Lees said last week that she believes
that Peter Costello, he's the one who's reneging, he's the one who's gone back on his word in
regard to what the States could do with their GST revenue.

LYN ALLISON: Look, from my point of view, the Government has gone back on some of the arrangements
it agreed with us. And I point to fuel excise. The Government has declared that it will hand back
$1.5 billion in diesel excise to the transport sector and our agreement with the Government was
that it would introduce incentives for alternative fuels and that we would move to a much cleaner
fuel environment. Now, the energy white paper that was released late last year was very much in the
opposite direction, so that for me is a major backdown.

PAUL BONGIORNO: Well, you were one of the Democrat senators who supported the GST. Isn't it the
biggest mistake the party's ever made?

LYN ALLISON: I think it was important to spread the tax burden and to increase the tax take on
consumer items and to spread it to services. We already had tax being imposed on some goods but not
all, so I think it was a sensible reform and I think it was good to give the States a guaranteed
revenue stream. So, no, I think that overall, we put in fairness protections in the GST, removing
food, removing the GST off health and education for instance, and I think that was important.

PAUL BONGIORNO: So, no regrets. But what about the price the party itself played - I mean, your own
division in Victoria, South Australia, New South Wales, the party literally shattered after the
GST. The latest Newspoll, for example, has your support so low it can't monitor it. Have you got
any plans? Is there a comeback plan here?

LYN ALLISON: I think that most people criticised us not so much for the GST itself and for agreeing
with it, but for the implementation of the GST, in other words - we didn't sell it well enough, is
what's coming through and so I think if you looked at our polling support post the GST it was
actually higher than before we reached that agreement.

PAUL BONGIORNO: Some people are saying that the Democrats as it were have got the death rattles -
you'll be halved - your number in the Senate will be halved come July. How can you hold on to what
you've got and rebuild?

LYN ALLISON: I think we can do it. But, the reason we've lost support, Paul, is not so much the GST
as the fact that infighting, behaviour amongst not just members of Parliament but the party itself
didn't sit well with our claim to being honest, compassionate and democratic. So, I think that...
We've just done an enormous study. We've invited more than 1,000 people who have told us what they
think about what went wrong and what we need to do and they said that we need to revisit our values
and our ideals and go back to them. And I think there's no easy way of recovering our position.
It'll take time.

PAUL BONGIORNO: Many see you as a reluctant leader. Are you happy in the job?

LYN ALLISON: I am indeed. Yes, I think it is a very important job and I'm enjoying it. So, I'm not
reluctant. I'm very, very keen to see the party resume its status and very keen to win my seat and
those of my colleagues at the next election.

PAUL BONGIORNO: We're just about out of time in this segment. Before we go, the Labor Party have
referred a Liberal Senator Ross Lightfoot and his wonderful adventures in Iraq to the Privileges
Committee. It has been pointed out that the Privileges Committee, in fact, can suspend a senator
from the Senate for a period, which, of course, would then mean the Government doesn't have his
vote. Would you support any such suspension?

LYN ALLISON: Well, I think it's very rare for the Privileges Committee to take that sort of action.
So, firstly, I doubt that it would be the case, because the Democrats are actually not on the
Privileges Committee and the two major parties are always either in Government or
Government-in-waiting and would not like to see that done to them, but it would set up an
interesting situation if the Government then lost the numbers after June 30.

PAUL BONGIORNO: You say you wouldn't be tempted when it comes to a vote in the Senate to do that?

LYN ALLISON: I think we'd have to see the evidence against Senator Lightfoot. I think he's been
foolish, probably, at best.

PAUL BONGIORNO: Time for a break. When we return with the panel, the treatment of asylum seekers
and we'll have the results of an exclusive IPSOS Mackay poll on what Australians think of
compulsory voting.

PAUL BONGIORNO: You're on Meet The Press with Democrats leader Lyn Allison and welcome to the panel
Julia Colagiuri, Radio 2GB, and Michael Millett, the 'Sydney Morning Herald'. On Wednesday
Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone announced a new 'removal pending bridging visa'. The name says
everything. It'll allow failed asylum seekers out of jail after three years but the visa may apply
to only 12 of the 112 who have been locked up for that period or longer. So, will it allow them to

IMMIGRATION MINISTER AMANDA VANSTONE (MARCH 24): They've had all of their hearings in various
tribunals and courts. The answer is no. One of the conditions will be that they accept that and
agree to return when return to their country of origin becomes feasible.

PAUL BONGIORNO: And that raises questions for Julia.

JULIA COLAGIURI, RADIO 2GB: Senator, what are the Democrats' concerns about those visa conditions?

LYN ALLISON: Well, obviously people are going to be sent back. They've been blackmailed into
agreeing not to take further action. Our main concern, though, is the number of people who are
still in detention who may have appeals and so forth before the courts. In our view, they're the
ones who don't need to be locked up. They're the people who are less likely to abscond and in our
view there should be no-one in detention unless they are a security or health risk.

JULIA COLAGIURI: Government backbenchers have raised similar concerns about the visa and the
conditions on it. They're characterising this change in Government policy as a small step on a long
journey. How do you change this shift - how do you characterise this shift in the Government's

LYN ALLISON: It is indeed a small change, there is no doubt about that. And, look, I think the
Government's actions have been really disappointing over women and children for instance. The Prime
Minister declared that there would be alternative accommodation for them, but again the blackmail
was you have to be out of detention centres without your husband, and very few took up that option.
So, I think we're seeing small carrots dangled before asylum seekers and not much at the end of the
day by way of policy relief.

JULIA COLAGIURI: The protest that we've seen at Baxter this weekend, some violent scenes there, do
they help the cause of trying to end mandatory detention?

LYN ALLISON: Violence is never useful, I think, in demonstrations of opposition to Government
policies, but from what I can gather, the protesters were hugely outnumbered by police, mounted
police at that, and they were charged on one occasion. They were forced to camp four kilometres
away from the site. All of that suggests that we're clamping down on people's rights to protest,
and doesn't seem fair to me.

MICHAEL MILLETT, 'THE SYDNEY MORNING HERALD' : Senator, if we can turn to mental health. You're
chairing an inquiry into the state of mental health in Australia. That was triggered by the
Cornelia Rau affair, but it doesn't seem as though the Cornelia Rau affair will actually be part of
the investigation. Isn't that a cop-out?

LYN ALLISON: Look, I think the Cornelia Rau case was an opportunity for us to get approval for that
inquiry to proceed in the Senate. But I'd, in fact, been developing terms of reference and talking
about the need for a Senate inquiry for some time before that. We will look at the circumstances
that give rise to people with mental illness ending up in custody, whether it's immigration
detention centres or prisons. Our prisons are hugely over-represented by people with mental
illness. The statistics are frightening. And it seems that people have been removed from
institutions a couple of decades ago but either they end up homeless or they end up in another form
of institution which is our prisons. So, I think that there is great scope for us to look at not
just the services that are provided and the 62% or so people who miss out on services, as to look
at prisons and detentions centres and whether or not they give rise to mental illness, which is my
observation, having been to Marybinong detention centre many times. I've seen people deteriorate in
terms of their mental state. So, I'm in no doubt whatsoever that immigration detention centres
cause people illness.

MICHAEL MILLETT: The treatment of Cornelia Rau was an issue, though, that angered many Australians.
Shouldn't it be a specific part of the inquiry?

LYN ALLISON: Look, I think it may well be part of the inquiry if we have a submission from Cornelia
Rau's family. The committee will look at that and I can't pre-empt what we will do with regard to
speaking with her family, but it's certainly part of the terms of reference, although I would
expect that it will be more broadly about the situation that gives rise to someone ending up in

PAUL BONGIORNO: Doesn't the Cornelia Rau case show up appalling attitudes on behalf of the
Immigration - potentially - on behalf of the Immigration Department, police officials, guards in
our detention centres? You're not going to go anywhere near there, are you?

LYN ALLISON: Oh, we certainly are, yes. We have - one of our terms of reference is to look at how
people are treated, who come up, whether it's to Centrelink or to police or to immigration
detention officials and how well people are informed about the rights of people with mental illness
and how they're treated. That will be very much central to our inquiry.

JULIA COLAGIURI: Senator, just turning to the Schapelle Corby, case defence lawyers have criticised
the Government's handling of the case so far in terms of the assistance that's been offered. What
do you think of the Government's handling of the case?

LYN ALLISON: Well, we've been urging the Government to do whatever it can to make sure that justice
is delivered in this case. It's a very frightening prospect for Miss Corby. I'm not in a position
to know whether she's guilty of importing drugs into Indonesia, but again I think the Government
must do all it can. I'm also not in a position to know whether bringing a prisoner from a Victorian
prison who has hearsay advice about what might have transpired will be useful or not, but it's
probably worth a go.

JULIA COLAGIURI: Well, in relation to that transfer, it's going to cost taxpayers a lot of money.
Should the Government be testing the evidence of this prisoner before they send him overseas?

LYN ALLISON: Well, certainly, and if there is some substance to this allegation that there are some
questions that need to be raised about our security at airports. Just how is it that drugs can be
put into a passenger's baggage and then transferred at the other end? I think it raises enormous

PAUL BONGIORNO: Senator, just before we go, the Prime Minister has disappointed some Liberals by
saying he will not change Australia's compulsory voting law before the next election. But the
debate isn't over. An exclusive IPSOS Mackay poll for Meet the Press finds 74% of Australians
believe voting should remain compulsory. Only 24% believe it should become optional. And a very
high 79% of those supporting compulsory voting are Liberal voters, 75% Labor voters. No
constituency for change there, is there?

LYN ALLISON: No, and I would argue there has not been any constituency for change in the Senate for
a long time. You will remember the Prime Minister's reform proposals that fell flat. People, I
think, do support the Senate and I think that after June 30, one week is a long time in politics,
but three years of a Government having absolute control of the Senate, I think, will draw people's
attention to the need for a better balance in the Senate and for neither of the two major parties
to have absolute control.

PAUL BONGIORNO: There's been suggestions that, well, certainly from some Liberals, I think a former
federal director of the Liberal Party, that maybe the way in which the Senate is elected should be

LYN ALLISON: Yes, and there are certainly plenty of members, both of the Senate and the Lower
House, who've argued in the past that that's what should happen - get rid of proportional
representation in the Upper House. Now, that would disenfranchise 25% of people who at previous
elections have voted for non-major parties and it would remove the voice of those people and any
say in the development of legislation.

PAUL BONGIORNO: We're talking a lot of temptation today. Do you think John Howard would be tempted?

LYN ALLISON: I'm sure he would be, but I guess the challenge for us and others who are not in the
major parties is to point out to people the risks associated with that.

PAUL BONGIORNO: We're right out of time. Thanks for joining us today, Senator Lyn Allison. And
coming up, human rights advocate Julian Burnside QC. And Mark Knight in the 'Herald-Sun' deals with
Tony Abbott's bombshell paternity disappointment for the cartoon of the week. A stork with sound
recordist Daniel O'Connor in his beak says, "Er, sorry, wrong delivery." A shattered Tony Abbott
says, "I don't want to even ask what next."

PAUL BONGIORNO: You're on Meet The Press. And welcome to one of Australia's most outspoken
defenders of human rights, lawyer Julian Burnside. Good morning, Mr Burnside.


PAUL BONGIORNO: This weekend's Baxter detention centre protests have certainly focused attention on
jailing asylum seekers. We'll come to those issues in a moment. But ASIO chief Dennis Richardson on
Wednesday returned to that other debate on human rights fuelled by Draconian laws to combat

ASIO DIRECTOR GENERAL DENNIS RICHARDSON (MARCH 23): In my view, the notion that such laws
constitute a victory for terrorists is sheer nonsense. Their victory lies in the death of innocent
civilians, ours lies in its lawful prevention.

PAUL BONGIORNO: Well, Michael has some concerns too.

MICHAEL MILLETT: Mr Burnside, doesn't the ASIO chief have a point that legal niceties don't count
for much when it comes to the state of Australian lives?

JULIAN BURNSIDE: No, I don't agree with that. We are really talking about the fundamentals of
democracy. It's been one of the triumphs of democracy that we have introduced notions like no jail
without trial, trials to be proved beyond reasonable doubt, no arbitrary arrests by the executive
unless you're being held for trial, and the idea that a trial should come speedily after arrest.
We've now got an extraordinary set of laws in Australia by which a person who is not suspected of
any offence at all can be taken off the street and held incommunicado for a week and be required to
answer questions on pain of five years imprisonment and the only basis on which - the basis needed
for that - is that they are thought to have information about someone else who might be involved in
terrorist offences. Now, the idea that any innocent non-suspect person can be taken off the street
for a week and held incommunicado, I think, is terrifying. It's not what democracy is about.

MICHAEL MILLETT: The Government argues, and so does ASIO and the AFP, that you can't set the legal
system in stone, that essentially we're dealing with a scourge of 21st century of terrorism and the
legal system has to shift with it.

JULIAN BURNSIDE: Well, you know, terrorism is not a novelty and anyone who remembers the Red
Brigade and other groups in the 1970s and the troubles in Ireland in the early part of the 20th
century and subsequently, realises that terrorism is not new. The introduction of Draconian laws to
combat terrorism really hands to terrorists the victory that they seek, because by throwing away
the cornerstones of democracy we effectively give them what they're asking for. Now, we have
managed to survive all sorts of outrages without debasing the legal system. It seems to me that
what's happening now is a debasement of the legal system and, more fundamentally, a debasement of
what democracy is about.

JULIA COLAGIURI: Just turning, Mr Burnside, to the removal pending bridging visa, how many
detainees currently in detention under the Australian Government's policy do you believe will be
eligible for this new visa?

JULIAN BURNSIDE: Well, no-one seems to be able to answer that, but my understanding is that it's
about 10 or 12 people at most.

JULIA COLAGIURI: How many people are currently in detention who, do you think, should be eligible
for some kind of release?

JULIAN BURNSIDE: Roughly 120, I gather, although I would argue that they all ought to be eligible
for release at the moment, because we haven't had any new arrivals now for about three years. None
of these people have committed an offence. So, by definition, we have innocent people held in jail
for three years plus. You know, the only argument for this is that it's supposed to send a message
- well, the message seems to have got through a long time ago. From now on the cruelty seems to be
quite pointless.

JULIA COLAGIURI: The Government would argue, but, that it needs to keep reinforcing that message,
that it can't afford to let the guard down in essence or that maybe asylum seekers will get the
message that it is fine to start travelling to Australia again.

JULIAN BURNSIDE: Yeah, first of all there is an assumption that the message gets through. Anecdotal
evidence suggests that people who pay the people smugglers don't actually know where they'll end
up, let alone knowing that Australia has got a policy of mandatory detention. I've spoken to a
number of Afghans, for example, who landed in Woomera before they knew they were in Australia, let
alone that they were coming to Australia. Second, and I think more fundamentally, is this - we know
that the people who are held in immigration detention have not committed any offence. So what we're
doing is jailing innocent people in order to send a message to people smugglers.

PAUL BONGIORNO: Mr Burnside, if I can pick you up there. The Government argues that by coming to
this country without a visa they are coming unlawfully and, therefore, they've committed an

JULIAN BURNSIDE: No, the Government implies that by calling them illegals, but the truth is that
they have not committed any offence under the Act. And quite frankly, if they had committed an
offence, do you imagine that any court would sentence children to three years imprisonment for
coming along with their parents without a visa? Of course they wouldn't. It is not an offence to
arrive in Australia without a visa and ask for asylum. We're jailing innocent human beings and
we're jailing them in order to send a message to other people. The mistreatment of innocent human
beings to mould the behaviour of others is seriously bad conduct and it's conduct which most people
would not approve of. It's the sort of thing that hostage-takers do, it's the sort of thing that
terrorists do.

MICHAEL MILLETT: Do you plan any international test of this system then, is there some way of
actually exposing it?

JULIAN BURNSIDE: The only forum in which it could be tested, I guess, is in the International
Criminal Court, because there seems to be a fairly clear argument that the arbitrary detention of
people in order to combat a particular group may comprise a crime against humanity contrary to our
law, section 268.12 of the Criminal Code. But, more importantly, this has got to be exposed in the
court of public opinion. The House of Lords, in the decision that Dennis Richardson referred to,
said very clearly in late December that laws which provide for the indefinite detention of
terrorist suspects is a greater threat to democracy than the terrorist threat they're intended to
combat. Now, I should have thought that by that test, what we're doing to innocent asylum seekers
fails every test of democratic principle.

PAUL BONGIORNO: We're right out of time. Thank you very much for joining us today Julian Burnside
QC. Thanks to the panel, Julia Colagiuri and Michael Millett. Until next week, it's goodbye from
Meet The Press.