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Transcript of interview with Peter Van Onselen, Paul Kelly and Troy Bramston: Sky News Australian Agenda: 6 March 2016: Tony Abbott; Defence White Paper; ALRC Freedoms Inquiry report; Racial Discrimination Act; Tim Wilson; ABCC Bill; industrial relations reform; same-sex marriage plebiscite; release of Nikki Savva's book



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SENATOR THE HON GEORGE BRANDIS QC

ATTORNEY-GENERAL

L

EADER OF THE GOVERNMENT IN THE SENATE

6 March 2016

TRA

NSCRIPT - Sky News Australian Agenda, interview with Peter Van Onselen, Paul K elly and Troy Bramston

Topics: Tony Abbott, Defence White Paper, ALRC Freedoms Inquiry report, Racial Discrimination Act, Tim Wilson, ABCC Bill, industrial relations reform, same-sex marriage plebiscite, release of Niki Savva’s book

E&OE………………………………………………………………………………………………….

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Our guest today is the Attorney-General and the Leader of the Gove rnment in the Senate, Senator George Brandis. Thanks for your company.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Good morning Peter.

P

ETER VAN ONSELEN: Let’s deal with this Abbott issue off the top I suppose and then we can get in to some other matters. It is one thing, isn’t it, for Tony Abbott to offer fearless views in the Party Room, that’s what it’s there for. Was it a mistake for him to go on the record with Greg Sheridan in relation to the White Paper?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: What Tony Abbott said in the Party Room, to deal with that is sue first, is he made some observations that nobody disagreed with, and Mr Turnbull in

responding to what Mr Abbott had had to say commended him and the work that his government had done. Mr Turnbull’s description of the work that Mr Abbott had done during his period was, he described it as courageous, and not in the Sir Humphrey Appleby sense by the way, but it was a well meant and very sincere compliment. So I think the fact that Mr Abbott, as a

former Prime Minister, chooses to make a contribution, to make some observations in the Party Room, that are actually very well received by those who have heard them including by Malcolm Turnbull, is not something that should produce, frankly, the de

gree of excitability that it has.

Now in relation to the Defence White Paper, the Defence White Paper is one of the great achievements of this Coalition Government. It was initiated, as we know, and much of the work of it was done through Mr Abbott’s period. It was brought to fruition by Senator Payne

as Defence Minister during Mr Turnbull’s administration and the White Paper does lay down a comprehensive plan for Australia’s defence and strategic positioning for decades ahead. Obviously one of the issues in the White Paper is the question of submarine capability and the point I’d make to you Peter is that the advice from Defence says the CDF Air Marshal Binskin and the Secretary of the Defence Department Dennis Richardson made perfectly clear this past week, the advice from Defence has not changed between Mr Abbott’s administration and Mr Turnbull’s administration.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Which brings it back to my question, in a sense, that second pa rt of it. Was it a mistake of Tony Abbott to go on the record for Greg Sheridan and say that

he was flabbergasted by the delay on the subs?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: L ook I’m not going to be a commentator on Mr Abbott’s language. The main point to be made is that this Defence White Paper is an achievement of both administrations. As I say it was begun during the Abbott administration. It was initiated by the first Defence Minister in the Coalition period, Senator Johnston, and brought to completion by Senator Payne during Mr Turnbull’s administration. It is a very, very fine body of work and rather than concentrate on some stray remark Mr Abbott may have made to a journalist last week I think we should look at the substance of this. It’s an historic and very substantial achievement that will, among other things, redress the balance of all those years of neglect by the Labor Party of Australia’s Defence procurement and strategic position.

PAUL KELLY: Do you think it should be possible for Tony Abbott to defend the record of his own government without attacking decisions taken by the Turnbull Government?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Paul we’re all very proud of the record of the Abbott Gove rnment. Mr Turnbull was a member of the Abbott Government, as was I. We sat around

the same Cabinet table and some of those decisions that the Abbott Government made, which resulted for example in the securing our borders so that Australia doesn’t have the sort of problem that the Europeans are trying to come to terms with, mass flows of people across borders and across oceans, that is one of the achievements of the Abbott Government of whic

h we are proud. And it’s not so much a question of defending the legacy of the Abbott Government, we are all proud of the achievements of that Government. Now we know that ther

e was a change of leadership in September of last year and that’s now for historians to discuss but the reality is that this is a Coalition Government, lead first by Mr Abbott, then by Mr Turnbull in which there is continuity as well as difference.

PAUL KELLY: At the end of the week Tony Abbott made a commitment that he wants to ensur e that the Labor Party does not win the next election, that he will be committed to a

disciplined approach when it comes to the election campaign. How important is it that Tony Abbott stand by those commitments?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well I’m sure he will stand by those commitments and y ou said in your editorial before Paul that one thing that Tony Abbott is determined not to be

is Kevin Rudd and that’s absolutely right. Tony Abbott has absolutely no respect whatsoever for Kevin Rudd but more importantly he has absolutely no respect for that kind of politics,

that political modus operandi. Mr Abbott couldn’t have been more unequivocal in Tasmania on Friday in his support for the re-election of Malcolm Turnbull’s Government and I think that,

I more than think, I’m absolutely certain he will do everything he possibly can to secure its re-election and the fact that he may speak in the Party Room, the fact that he may c

ontribute to debate is not at variance from that. In fact, we welcome Tony Abbott’s contribution. He’s the former Prime Minister. He has a secure place in the Liberal Party pantheon but now Mr Turnbull is the Prime Minister and Mr Abbott obviously from a diff

erent vantage, from a different position, will be making his contribution to our overall success.

PAUL KELLY: Sure but if we look at the last couple of weeks, particularly the last we ek, the reality is the Government has looked pretty brittle. There has been a distinct lack of

discipline inside the Government ranks over taxation, all sorts of people speaking out. How confident are you that there can be a restoration of discipline and stability in the ranks of the Government?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I think the Government is disciplined and stable and we’ve had some discussion. Can I tell you Paul, I think there are very few areas of Australian public policy that do not benefit from a thorough discussion and you instance the tax policy, now Mr Turnbull and Mr Morrison quite deliberately, late last year, initiated a national conversation about tax policy and that was, it was always intended that that would run for a period of months, it would run for quite a considerable period of time, so that all the options, all the possible permutations and combinations for tax reform could be looked at and I think that’s a good thing. Compare that with the way the Labor Party has gone about tax policy by publishing policies that have been rushed, that have been undercooked, that have been poorly thought through and are now revealed to have unintended consequences.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Sticking with the economic issue around tax policy and the like, it ’s awkward isn’t it? Because it’s one of these areas where in the heat of a leadership change,

or a leadership challenge, Malcolm Turnbull made his main argument, his raison d’etre for taking over the Prime Ministership, that there had been a lack of economic leadership, his words, on the night of the coup. At the same time as that now we see this Quadrant article which has come out with Tony Abbott defending the economic legacy of the Government, a government that Malcolm Turnbull was part of, that’s a square peg in a round hole, it’s a difficult, awkward situation for the government.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well I wouldn’t adopt that metaphor and I must confess I ha ven’t read Mr Abbott’s Quadrant article but the point I want to emphasise to you and to

your viewers Peter is that Mr Abbott speaks from within the heartland of the Liberal Party, as does Mr Turnbull. They both want the same thing. They both have fundamentally the same approach to public policy. They both have the same objective to set the Australian economy up so it’s a more productive economy. To use Mr Turnbull’s favourite term, so that it is a more agile economy. Tax reform is an important part of that but the way we’ve gone about this, it’s instructive of how difference it is from the way the Labor Party have done about it. Every new idea on tax that the Labor Party has put on the table is an idea for a tax increase and as we’ve seen with their negative gearing policy, it has been an underdone, poorly thought through set of policies which are now revealed to have unintended consequences that

would strike at the heart of the willingness of Australians to invest at the very time we want Australians to invest.

We, by contrast, are having a thorough careful, deliberative discussion about this important area of public policy ahead of reaching a landing on certain important issues ahead of the B

udget. Now it’s a very instructive comparison between the Labor Party’s unconsidered, poorly thought through approach and the Government’s calm, deliberative, thorough approach.

TROY BRAMSTON: Senator, you’ve made the point this morning that Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull are largely on the same page. Tony Abbott wants to see the re-election of the Government yet there has been a sharp division that Paul alluded to this week and that is over the timetable for the delivery of new submarines. This is not an issue of Tony Abbott de

fending his legacy or making a contribution in Party Room debate, we saw him on the front page of The Australian this week criticise a Government policy. Is that helpful only months away from an election?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well I’ve already addressed that issue Troy. The Defence W hite Paper speaks for itself. It’s a very important document, it’s been the work of many

hands and many minds over some two years and I think I’ll let the Defence White Paper spea k for itself.

PAUL KELLY: I want to address the Australian Building and Construction Commission Bill because there has been quite a bit said about this over the last couple of days and there is a degree of confusion about it. Is it the Government’s intention and priority to m

ake this a double dissolution bill?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well the Government is committed to the ABCC Bill. As you know, the Bill has been rejected once by the Senate. It came back to the Senate in recent weeks. It’s been sent off, quite gratuitously I might say, to a Senate committee which is due to report on the 11th of March which is the Friday of the week before we return for the last we

ek of the Autumn sittings.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Just a very quick question on that Senator. Is it your unde rstanding that that is technically a double dissolution trigger?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: That is an open question. As you know Peter, under se ction 57 of the Constitution a double dissolution trigger occurs in one of two

circumstances: when there has been a rejection a second time after the intervention of three months of the same bill, or there has been a failure to pass that bill. The High Court has only once in the PMA Case in 1975 considered what constitutes a failure to pass but let us wait and see.

PAUL KELLY: But let us go to the issue. Is it the Government’s intention, is it the Government’s priority to make this a double dissolution bill?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I t is our intention in the remaining three days of the Autumn sittings, which is the last three Parliamentary days before the Budget, to deal with Senate voting reform and the Labor Party in the past week has been engaged in the most shameless filibuster I’ve ever seen to prevent that kind of reform, the reform embodied in that Bill from even being voted on. I expect in the remaining three days, which has very few hours according to the Senate’s sitting schedule for dealing with Government business, I think the Government business time is likely to be fully occupied with the Senate voting re

form.

PAUL KELLY: I understand that point, that the Senate voting reform is the priority. What I’m asking about is the ABCC Bill. What is the standing and status of this Bill? Is it the Government’s intention that it become a double dissolution bill?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: We would like the Bill dealt with. We’d like to see the Bill passed of course. We’d like to see the Bill pass so it doesn’t become a double dissolution trigger.

PAUL KELLY: I understand that point but you know the question I’m asking. If we assume that there is ongoing opposition to the Bill will it become a DD Bill?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I ’m not expecting that in the remaining three sitting days before the end of the Autumn sittings the Senate will have the opportunity to deal with that Bill.

PAUL KELLY: Well then surely there is a problem there because the Government is talking up, as an option, a July double dissolution. Surely it’s not tenable to have that without

the ABCC as one of the bills?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well there is a constitutional basis for a double diss olution at the moment and as you rightly say this is only an option, no decision has been

made about …

PAUL KELLY: There is a constitutional basis for it but surely it would be a political fa rce for the Government, for the Government to call a DD without the ABCC Bill being one

of the bills?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well Paul that may well be your view. The fact is that indus trial relations reform has been one of the most important issues in the political

discussion in Australia for a long time and one of the two existing trigger bills, the Registered Organisations Bill, is every bit as important as the ABCC Bill and that frames the industrial

relations debate… [interrupted] … and if I may go on, as well looming in the background of all of this are the findings of the Heyden Royal Commission. The Australian public know that the need for reform of industrial relations law, the need to restore lawfulness to the workplace, not just in the construction industry but particularly in the construction industry is a very, very front of mind headline political issue at the moment.

PAUL KELLY: Just bef ore we leave this issue, some industry people who are very concerned about the situation at the moment have even gone so far as to suggest the Government has done a deal with the Greens to get Senate voting through but not push the ABCC Bill.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well I haven’t seen those comments.

PAUL KELLY: So is there any truth in that?

ATT

ORNEY-GENERAL: I have not seen those comments. I’m sure there’s no truth in that.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: We need to take a break here on Australian Agenda. We are talking to the Attorney-General, as well as the Leader of the Government in the Senate

George Brandis. We’ll be back in a moment.

[Ad break]

TROY BRAMSTON: Talking about the Government’s agenda in Trade Union Governance and there is a number of Bills that go to that issue in the Senate at the moment. This we

ek is also the 20th anniversary of the election of the Howard Government. John How ard has said in the past week he’d like the Liberal Party, or the Coalition rather, to revisit broader industrial relations reform. Is that something that you also aspire to do perhaps, at the election coming up or in the next term?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well our focus Troy at the moment is on the two related iss ues of trade union governance and trade union behaviour and in the case of some rogue

unions, infamously the CFMEU, the fact that large and important, critical areas of the economy have become effectively ungoverned spaces because of the conduct of that particular union and its leaders. So our focus at the moment, off the back of the Heydon Royal Commission whose findings were devastating frankly, is to restore lawfulness to the workplace and that has implications for trade union governance which is why I referenced before the Registered Organisations Bill, that is a very important part of that package of reforms.

TROY BRAMSTON: But are there other elements of industrial relations reform? Let me ask you just as an example, statutory individual contracts which you would have an

interest in as the Attorney-General. These used to be part of the Liberal Party’s DNA, they are now off the agenda. Do you think that an issue like that should be part of the Coalition’s forward agenda?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well I’ve answered your question Troy. Our focus is on g overnance and rule of law issue. That is where we re-enter this debate.

PAUL KELLY: Do you agree with a report from the Australian Law Reform C ommission this week arguing that section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act imposes an

unjustified interference with freedom of speech?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well as you know Paul I have had many critical things to sa y about section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act over the years. There are very few

people, very few serious participants in this debate who say that the section, as it is presently worded is ideal. When Professor Rosalind Croucher, the chairman of the Australian Law Reform Commission produced the report of the ALRC’s Freedoms Inquiry on Wednesday she did make the point that it is arguable that section 18C in its current form may violate what the High Court has recognised as implied constitutional right to freedom of political communication. That being said, in August of 2014, Prime Minister Abbott, after reasons whic

h he explained at the time and reasons which I supported at the time and continue to support, decided to take the reform of section 18C off the table and that is where the position is at the moment.

PAUL KELLY: I understand that, I understand the position of the Government. However we do have this substantial report, we do have this substantial report by a substantial body looking at section 18C and basically suggesting that section 18C, in its current form, can’t be justified in relation to freedom of speech so I’m just asking - aware of the Government’s position, what your view is on that recommendation, on that assessment?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well it is an important recommendation. I’m not sure if y ou’re making a philosophical point or a legal point or perhaps both. Insofar as you are

making a legal point it’s my understanding that issue may very well be tested in the current proceedings involving the QUT students in which I believe the point of whether section 18C violates the implied right of freedom of political communication is going to be put into issue.

PAUL KELLY: Well let me ask the question another way. Given the almost fanatical de fence of section 18C by the Australian Human Rights Commission, how important is it to

have an alternative view of section 18C from the Australian Law Reform Commission?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well the Australian Law Reform Commission of course is a body that is not an advocacy body, it’s a specialist body of highly competent lawyers,

academic lawyers, judges, practitioners as well who look at the statute law of the Commonwealth and areas of potential law reform with an expert’s eye. It’s not an advocacy body, it’s not an ideological body, it is an expert panel if you like.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Isn’t that all the more reason though for the Government to maybe look at some sort of compromise in this space? It seemed like it was a very black and white debate in terms of whether or not you make a full change or not. The Government decided to walk away previously from it but a compromise position might be something that a Turnbull Government could look at.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well it’s a question of political agenda Peter. There are, to be blunt, and you know how strongly I have been associated with this debate and feel

about this, but to be blunt there are more important issues at the moment. There are more important issues which is why reform to section 18C is not on the table. Of course the Government is mindful of, and respectful of, observations of somebody of the stature of Professor Rosalind Croucher, and you made a slightly disobliging reference a moment ago to the Human Rights Commission, but might I remind you that when we call for public submissions about reform of section 18C and the Australian Human Rights Commission put in a submission, even the Australian Human Rights Commission acknowledged that there was an argument for reforming section 18C.

PAUL KELLY: I guess the extraordinary feature of all this is, given when people look at the merit of the issue that there is a strong case to review section 18C, what does the Government do about this? I understand it’s off the table at the moment. When does it possibly come back on the table?

ATT

ORNEY-GENERAL: Well Paul I think this will continue to be a vexed issue. As I said a moment ago to Peter, it is a question of priorities, it’s a question of where issues take their place on the agenda. We are towards the end of a Parliamentary term, we have an e

lection a matter of months, if not weeks away, and for that reason this is not a discussion that the Government is embarking on at the moment.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: In a slightly related question, can I ask you about your appointment to the Human Rights Commission Tim Wilson? He’s looking to now become a colleague of yours in the Parliament, running for pre-selection for the Liberal Party for Andrew Robb’s seat. Would you like to see him enter Parliament?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I would. I’ve endorsed, written a letter of support and endorsement for Tim Wilson in the Goldstein pre-selection. I think Tim Wilson did an outstanding job as Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner for, and I have expressed frustration in the past that for too long the human rights debate in Australia had become a cul-de-sac almost of political correctness and identity politics and the appointment of Tim Wilson at the end of 2013 as Human Rights Commissioner completely changed the terms of that debate. It liberated the debate from being a cul-de-sac of identity politics and political c

orrectness and reminded the Australian people of a very fundamental truth about human rights, that the most important human right of all is freedom. So I can think of very few people in the recent past who, outside of the Parliament, have shown such a, dare I say, nimble capacity to rewrite the terms of an important public debate than Tim Wilson showed in the two years he was the Human Rights Commissioner. He would be a huge asset to the Parliament.

In saying that I mean no disrespect to other candidates, now I don’t know the other candidates, but I believe it’s a very strong field. But you know Peter, the Victorian division of the Liberal Party has always been very very good at talent spotting. It’s always been very, very good at picking up the brightest people coming through their ranks and giving them the opportunity in reasonably safe seats to make substantial careers in Canberra. A generation ago we had the likes of Peter Costello and Peter Reith. In current politics we have people of the ability of Josh Frydenberg who can go into the Cabinet, be senior Cabinet Ministers and potentially contenders for leadership positions in the Party.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Do you see Tim Wilson in that light?

ATT

ORNEY-GENERAL: I do. I know him well enough and I’ve seen his political capability at close hand long enough to know that he is a person of that quality.

PAUL KELLY: When, as Attorney-General, will you bring forward legislation e stablishing the arrangements for the same-sex plebiscite in the life of the next Parliament?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Early in the life of the next Parliament.

PAUL KELLY: But when would you bring the legislation forward?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: It’s our intention to do that early in the life of the next Parliament should the Government be re-elected. The Labor Party have made it clear that they would not support, in this Parliament, a Bill to constitute a plebiscite, nor would the Greens, and for reasons we discussed in a different context a little while ago there isn’t the time to do that in any event, it would be a futile exercise. Were the Government to be re- elected, there will be a plebiscite. The plebiscite will occur before the end of this year. The Bill to constitute the plebiscite will be introduced early in the life of the new Parliament so as we can have the plebiscite before the end of the year and in the event that there were to be a ‘yes vote’ the Government would legislate to give effect to the wishes of the people.

PAUL KELLY: This is a Cabinet decision is it? That the plebiscite will be before the end of this year - after the election, before the end of this year?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: That is what we have in mind to do, yes.

TROY BRAMSTON: When you say the Government will legislate to give effect to the outcome of the plebiscite would you expect all members of the Coalition to vote that way in Parliament?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well look, I said in the Party Room when this matter was discussed last August that I thought this was a conscience matter and I haven’t changed my mind. Let us take for example, let us assume for example the plebiscite were, that the ‘yes' vote were to succeed at a plebiscite, but let us assume that in some of the more conservative parts of Australia, some more conservative electorates, perhaps in regional Australia, that

electorate would vote no. I think it would be perfectly understandable why a Member of Parliament representing a conservative electorate and having conservative views themselves might choose to vote no and I don’t have a problem with that, but I would expect that there is little, virtually no doubt at all, that if the public votes ‘yes’ the Parliament will follow.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: What about your personal views on this. I’ve seen a lot of discussion about the process. Are you in favour of same-sex marriage?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Yes I am. Like a lot of people this is a position I have come to over the years and after a lot of reflection. My position on this issue is somewhat similar to David Cameron’s position. I believe that marriage is one of the fundamental institutions in society and I think it’s important that the fundamental institutions of society reflect the fundamental values of a society and treating people, gay people equally, is I think we may say one of the fundamental values of modern Australian society. So I find the conservative argument for gay marriage, the argument that David Cameron championed in the United Kingdom, the most persuasive argument of all. And David Cameron famously said that he supported same-sex marriage, not in spite of the fact that he was a conservative, but because he was a conservative and I think the evolution of this debate and the way people have in a slow, careful, deliberative conscientious way reached the conclusions they have actually shows the conservative disposition to change about fundamental social issues at its best.

PAUL KELLY: Do you think the plebiscite will be carried?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Yes I do.

PAUL KELLY: Okay. If you can’t get the legislation for the plebiscite through the current Parliament why can you be confident you can get it through the next Parliament?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well we will be saying to, let it be assumed the Government is elected as I expect it is likely to be, we will be going to the election promising a plebiscite before the end of the year. If we were to be elected on that promise and the prospect of a plebiscite which I think most people expect would be carried, the ‘yes’ vote would be carried, I’d be very surprised if the Labor Party were to stand in the way. But if they did it would be the Labor Party standing in the way.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Can I just ask a few process questions here? So a plebiscite, before the end of this year, irrespective of the timing of the election, assuming that the Coalition wins, details of that plebiscite question revealed ahead of the election and Cabinet….

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Correct. Revealed ahead of the plebiscite.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Ahead of the plebiscite.

PAUL KELLY: Well the question was - ahead of the election. That is, will you reveal the question for the plebiscite in the election campaign?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: We will be saying in the election campaign, as we say now. This is not something that hasn’t been disclosed before. We believe those who favour, as Mr Turnbull does and I do, a reform of the law, we’ll be proposing that the relevant sections of the Marriage Act, which contain the current definition of marriage inserted during the period of the Howard Government, should be amended to reflect the reality that is the case now in most comparable Western and Christian democracies.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: But the wording of the question won’t necessarily be spelt out before the election but obviously it will be spelt out before the plebiscite.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Indeed and the substance of it. Nobody is seeking to conceal anything here. We want this to be as transparent and as open and as fair a process as possible.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: And assuming it is successful, the plebiscite that is, before the end of this year, assuming that the government is re-elected, then you would anticipate that it would be legislated early in the life of the second term of the Coalition Government?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I would expect it would be legislated by the end of this year.

PAUL KELLY: You are clearly concerned about Labor’s 100 day commitment here.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Not really.

PAUL KELLY: You obviously are, you obviously are. I meant to actually say you want the plebiscite before the end of the year, you want to have an argument to use against Shorten’s 100-day commitment.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Once again I’ll leave the commentary to you. What I’m saying and what has been the case for a long time now, the public have known this, is that if the Coalition were to be elected there will be a plebiscite, that plebiscite we plan to hold before the end of this year and in the event there were to be a ‘yes vote’ in the plebiscite the Government would introduce amendments to the Marriage Act to give effect to it.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: And one quick final one on this as well - this is the Government’s intention? You’ve clearly spoken to the Prime Minister about it but it still has to be approved by Cabinet but you would anticipate that it will be?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: We made these decisions in August of last year, I mean timing issues are at the margin but we made the substance of these decisions during Mr Abbott’s period of Government at a very long and famous Party meeting in August of last year.

TROY BRAMSTON: Okay last night Malcolm Turnbull became the first Prime Minister to attend the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. What is your view about that? I gather that some Coalition parliamentary party members would not approve of his attendance

and I would also suggest some members of the Labor Party would not approve of that too. What is your response and your view about that?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I think it is completely unremarkable. I mean this is not the first time that Mr Turnbull has been to the Sydney Mardi Gras. I think he and Lucy have been there several times. It happens in his electorate. It’s probably the biggest annual event in Mr Turnbull’s electorate so, you know, it’s a good thing that he did but it’s an unremarkable thing.

PAUL KELLY: I’d like to ask you, in relation again to same-sex marriage. As Attorney, what guarantees and protections for religious freedom will be associated with this plebiscite?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well this is very, very important Paul and I’ve been in discussions, a lot of my time in the last several weeks in fact has been spent, me or my office, have been in discussions with various interested parties and stakeholders from both the ‘yes’ and the ‘no’ points of view and they of course have importantly included the churches. As recently as Friday afternoon I had a long session with Archbishop Coleridge in Brisbane to discuss these issues and what they all want is a fair vote, a fair, as I said before, a fair and transparent process.

Now, my view, and again I have said this many times, I said it at a speech at the Human Rights Commission last year among other places, that the protection of the rights of churches and of religious people to conduct ceremonies of marriage in accordance with the teachings and liturgies of their faith is very important here so let’s be clear about this. What we are talking about changing is the civil definition of marriage. In Australia today, for most people, marriage is a secular, not a religious event. A majority of people have marriages conducted by civil celebrants, not marriages conducted in churches. What we are talking about when we say changing the definition of marriage in the Marriage Act is changing the secular definition of marriage. We must always be respectful, and we will be respectful. There is already provision in the Marriage Act by the way that protects the rights of religious people and the conscientious right of civil celebrants too, by the way, not to conduct ceremonies of marriage at variance from their own religious or conscientious beliefs.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Can I ask you a question before we let you go Attorney about this new book on the Abbott Government that has been released, or is about to be released, by Niki Savva. We’ve seen some extracts in The Australian on the weekend as well as other News Corp papers. Does it surprise you that someone like Senator Connie Fierravanti-Wells, or indeed the now Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, have gone on the record with some of their comments that we’ve already seen released?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well you know Peter, this is not The History Channel, this is the Sky News channel and I think these…..

PAUL KELLY: But this is news, this is news.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well these are events that have passed into history and I think we should leave this for the historians.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Do you really think it will be nothing but a history discussion during the course of an election year with the election, as you’ve said, potentially only a matter of months away?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I think this is not what is on the mind of the Australian people. What is on the mind of the Australian people is which government, which team is best placed to set Australians up for the next generation, for the next period of economic prosperity as we move out of an economy based on the mining boom, and we move into the next stage of Australia’s economic story. That’s what’s going to be on the minds of the Australian people this year.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Senator George Brandis, we appreciate you joining us on Australian Agenda, thanks for your company.

[Ends]