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Sunday Agenda -

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Sunday Agenda

Senator George Brandis, Shadow Attorney-General

9 August 2009

Interview with Senator George Brandis, Shadow Attorney-General

Sunday Agenda program, 9 August 2009

Helen Dalley: The Federal Opposition is facing up to some tricky issues; how to handle the ETS;
implications for Malcolm Turnbull's credibility and leadership following the Ute-gate affair; and
what to do about Al-Shabab, the Somali terror organisation unveiled in raids in Melbourne last
week. Joining us to discuss all this is Shadow Attorney-General Senator George Brandis who is
speaking from Brisbane this morning. Senator Brandis, thanks for your time and welcome to Sunday
Agenda.

George Brandis: Good morning, Helen.

Helen Dalley: Now, the question marks over Malcolm Turnbull's leadership will not seem to go away.
How much support does he have?

George Brandis: I think notwithstanding the headlines you see from time to time that are inspired
by a few malcontents in the party room, Malcolm Turnbull continues to enjoy very strong support in
the party room and I have absolutely no doubt that he will lead the Coalition to the next election.
Can I make this observation, Helen, that I think that plainly the last couple of months have been a
very trying time for the Opposition. But I think the Australian public like to see a new leader
under the blowtorch to see what he's made of. Now, Malcolm Turnbull has been under the blowtorch in
the last few weeks and that will probably continue for a little while yet. And I know Malcolm very
well, I know him to be a very

strong, a very determined, very tough and resilient man and I think after this episode the
Australian people will come to appreciate that.

Helen Dalley: What would you think that the Australian people might be thinking after this
blowtorch has been applied to him? I mean in a sense you can't say that he has total support
because there's been open speculation, the most recent about Andrew Robb in the leadership. Would
Andrew Robb make a good leader?

George Brandis: Well, I'm not going to lend any credence to that sort of speculation. The
speculation by the way came from one newspaper story relying upon an unnamed source. There will
always, as I said a moment ago, be Malcolm tents in any political party. And when the going gets a
little rough, as it has in the last few weeks, those malcontents will seize an opportunity to cause
a little bit of mischief in the paper. But you know that's a good news story but the reality is
that Malcolm Turnbull has the overwhelming support of the party room and the unanimous support of
the shadow cabinet.

Helen Dalley: Well, Malcolm Turnbull is being savaged, certainly in the opinion pages, let alone
the polls. I mean some are saying that his finger-pointing at the treasury official is just blame
shifting. And others are saying he should have just apologised and moved on and been able to in
effect change the subject for you. And others are saying that he hasn't told the Australian people
what he's learnt out of this debacle. Now, surely that would be making some of you in the party
room very nervous about the chances he has to turn things around and convince voters not to
annihilate you at the next election.

George Brandis: I think he's handled it very well in the past week. I mean he put out on Tuesday a
very detailed statement. I don't think many people doubt this that Mr Turnbull and Senator Abetz
acted in good faith. They were provided with information by a person who appeared to be credible,
in fact was the person that the Rudd Government itself had chosen to run this 'OzCar' scheme. So,
if there was anybody who could speak with authority about the matter and could have been relied
upon I think most people would realise that it was Mr Grech. But having said that I think the
public have moved on frankly, Helen. I think people are now bored with this Ute-gate issue and for
the government to keep re-agitating this looks more and more like point scoring and less and less
like governing.

Helen Dalley: All right. Well, there's also the possibility though of your leader and Senator Abetz
coming before the Senate Privileges Committee. Now, you're a barrister, how damaging for the
leader's credibility would coming before this committee be?

George Brandis: Well, let's not get ahead of ourselves, Helen. Senator Evans, the leader of the
government in the senate, last week said that he was proposing to put up a reference to the senate,
to refer the matter to the Privileges Committee. That hasn't yet happened. The government doesn't
in fact even have as you know a majority in the senate, but were it to occur the Opposition would
look very carefully at the terms of the proposed reference, and depending on what the terms were we
may or may not support it. We won't support a political witch-hunt.

Helen Dalley: All right. But Senator Fielding has said that he will support it this time and the
Clerk of the Senate, Harry Evans, has provided an opinion that rehearsing or scripting evidence to
be given by a witness or coaching a witness, or the other way around, could be contempt and he said
that how would you describe Harry Evans's opinion?

George Brandis: Well, I have my own views. I am in fact the chairman of the Senate Privileges
Committee, Helen, and I have my own views about what does and doesn't constitute contempt.

Helen Dalley: Do you agree with Harry Evans?

George Brandis: I agree with what Mr Evans said in another opinion that he gave to Senator Minchin,
the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, where he said that to discuss evidence with a witness
in advance of a senate committee hearing is not contempt unless it constitutes trying to influence
the witness away from the evidence that he wants to give; or words to that effect. And I'm at pains
to make this point to you, Helen; it is the most commonplace thing in the world for senators to
discuss with people who are coming before senate committees, for all manner of reasons, what their
evidence will be. Now, what Mr Grech has told us is that he suggested lines of inquiry to Senator
Abetz. There was no suggestion . . .

Helen Dalley: He also said he was under enormous pressure though and Harry Evans did say that it
goes both ways, whether it be the witness or the politician, that it could be contempt, what
happened in that case.

George Brandis: But what Mr Grech said, that phrase, let's not take it out of context now. When Mr
Grech said he was under enormous pressure he very plainly didn't say that he was under pressure to
change or to shape his evidence.

Helen Dalley: No. But what do you think of Harry Evans's opinion that it doesn't matter whether the
politician perhaps in this case, and we don't know that for sure yet, didn't try and influence Mr
Grech, but that it could be the other way around and that that doesn't matter, it still could be
contempt?

George Brandis: Well, that's not the way I read Mr Evans's advice I must say.

Helen Dalley: So, you're critical of that view?

George Brandis: Well, that's not the way we read Mr Evans's advice. We need to tread very warily
here. But I say again that for a witness who is going to come before a senate committee to have a
discussion with senators in advance is a very commonplace thing. There's absolutely nothing wrong
with that.

Helen Dalley: All right. So you think collusion before a senator committee is okay?

George Brandis: Well, that's a loaded word, Helen.

Helen Dalley: But that's essentially what it is.

George Brandis: Well, when does a conversation . . .

Helen Dalley: They colluded together to decide what to say.

George Brandis: Well, that's not right. What we know about this is what both Mr Grech has said and
what Mr Turnbull and Senator Abetz have said and none of the participants in this conversation have
ever suggested that Mr Grech was pressured by Senator Abetz or Mr Turnbull to change or shape his
evidence in a particular way. In fact what they've all said, and what we know from the documents
that Mr Turnbull and Senator Abetz produced, is that Mr Grech was suggesting to them lines of
inquiry so that he could put on the public record at that senate hearing the issues about the
'OzCar' scheme which were of concern to him.

Helen Dalley: All right. Let's move on. You've been calling for the group Al-Shabab to be listed as
a terror group. This was obviously revealed this week in the terrorism raids. Now, the government
has not rushed to do that but it is mulling it over and they've indicated that there might be a
paper released looking at the whole proscription process. Would you support that?

George Brandis: Well, let me just correct you if I may, Helen. What I have said is that the
Opposition does not want to get in the way of this process but that in view of the events that
happened in Melbourne earlier this week we would be most surprised were Al-Shabab not to be listed,
but nevertheless we acknowledge that this is a fine process of assessment. It's not a political
assessment, it's a national security assessment and the Opposition doesn't want to abridge or in
any way interfere with that process. Now, having said that, given what we know about Al-Shabab, it
would be surprising were it not to be listed. As to Mr McClelland's statement yesterday that he is
going to put out a discussion paper, this is the same attorney-general who last year promised to
put out a white paper on counter-terrorism which is yet to see the light of day. So there does seem
to be a little bit of foot-dragging on the whole area of counter-terrorism policy by this
attorney-general.

Helen Dalley: All right. They certainly are very slow at doing those things and even with this
group, but on the other hand wouldn't it send its supporters underground if it was proscribed,
making it much harder for the authorities to monitor this group?

George Brandis: Well, that's why I've been very careful in my choice of language here, Helen, and
said that the Opposition will await the national security assessments that inform these decisions.
But you know these people are obviously operating covertly in the first place. I mean this was an
underground operation that was picked up by ASIO, so I don't think driving them underground is
really the issue here.

Helen Dalley: Okay. Onto parliament this week, will you vote for the government's emissions trading
scheme when the vote comes on?

George Brandis: No, not in its current form. Malcolm Turnbull has made it very clear that the
emissions trading scheme in the form that it's being presented to parliament is inadequate; it
contains fewer protections for Australian industry, particularly agriculture and mining than the
Waxman-Markley bill, which is currently before the United States Congress, and in its current form
we won't vote for it. Having said that we are eager to or happy to sit down with the government to
discuss amendments, and Malcolm Turnbull put out a detailed nine point statement two weeks ago
which outlined the areas in which the Opposition considers the bill ought to be amended.

Helen Dalley: Now, Mr Turnbull's view seems to be in favour of cutting a deal sooner rather than
later. He has put out those amendments. Is there any possibility of negotiating a compromise before
the vote goes to the senate this week?

George Brandis: Well, that's a question that lies squarely at the feet of Mr Rudd and Senator Wong.

Helen Dalley: So, there's been no discussion so far?

George Brandis: Not that I'm aware of and Mr Rudd and Senator Wong have in a very high-handed and
dismissive way basically said well we're not interested in talking to the Opposition. If they were
serious about getting the best result for the Australian public you'd think they wouldn't be quite
so arrogant as to dismiss out of hand any ideas the Opposition has to suggest.

Helen Dalley: If your amendments don't get up, which sounds likely, and the bill is voted down by
you, does that buy you more time or are you just delaying things and risking the view in voters'
minds that you're against any scheme and uncertain about your policy within your party?

George Brandis: Well, Helen, two things about that; first of all there should be no doubt that we
are not against any scheme, in fact the Coalition took as part of its policy to the 2007 Election
commitment to introduce an emissions trading scheme. The first emissions trading scheme that was
ever developed by any Australian minister was developed by Malcolm Turnbull when he was Minister
for the Environment in the final year of the Howard Government. That's the first point. The second
point is this; I think that public opinion in this debate is beginning to shift. I'm sure that the
overwhelming majority of the Australian people want firm action taken on the question of climate
change, and the Opposition understands that and we support firm action being taken in the form of
an ETS. But equally I think that the public are concerned that the government is going at this like
a bull at a gate, ahead of Waxman-Markey in the US Congress, ahead of Copenhagen in December. And
what the public want is the right ETS to be developed which contains the maximum protections for
Australian jobs and Australian industry. The way the government is going about that they seem to be
on a different trajectory.

Helen Dalley: Senator George Brandis, we'll leave it there. Thanks so much for joining us.

George Brandis: Thank you, Helen, good morning.