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Transcript of interview with Jon Faine: ABC Radio Melbourne: 1 March 2017: Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act; ABC; Brandis and the Bell Group

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SUBJECT/S: Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act; ABC; Brandis and the Bell Group

JON FAINE, HOST: Mark Dreyfus QC is the Labor Party’s Shadow Attorney-General. He’s also responsible - intriguingly this morning - for the broadcasting portfolio, the communications portfolio which we’ll come to in a moment as well. Mr Dreyfus good morning to you.


FAINE: This issue of 18C has completely obsessed various people in the Parliament. The Committee yesterday seemed to sit on the fence, so where to from here with this debate?

DREYFUS: Let’s make sure that this is the end of it. There’s a consensus on this committee that they shouldn’t make any recommendation for change to the substantive law and it is long past time that we put this to an end. It should be dead, buried and cremated, to use Tony Abbott’s phrase. It’s only a tiny tiny number of anyone interested in politics and some kind of far-right group in the Liberal Party who have continued to push this. And this inquiry was meant to recommend changes as I understood the government’s intention. It hasn’t, let’s bring this to an end and leave the law that protects Australians from race hate speech in place.

FAINE: In which case those who are insisting that there is a grave injustice here have to accept that in fact their obsession is not shared. They don’t seem to accept that so far. In fact if that was the case they would have given up long ago.

DREYFUS: Well it’s got some kind of talismanic status in the far right of the Liberal Party, so much so that the former Prime Minister last week was not just calling for a repeal of Section 18C, he wants to abolish the Human Rights Commission in its entirety. That shows you the kind of direction from some people in the right of the

Liberal Party. But this is a government that has lost its way if it thinks it should be spending any time at all on this issue. Rarely, I agree with the Treasurer who said not a single job is created by this debate about Section 18C. Why don’t they get on with actually debating real issues like the cut to penalty rates which is affecting 700,000 Australians or developing some coherent policy for energy. There’s any number of issues that are of much, much more importance to Australians than this one. We’ve got a law that’s worked well for over 20 years, leave it in place, stop arguing with it. Or at least if you must continue arguing among yourselves, go and inflict it on yourselves and don’t bother us with it.

FAINE: Much the same could be said about the obsession some people in the community and the Parliament have with gay marriage.

DREYFUS: Well I don’t see that in any way as an obsession. This is a matter of basic rights for hundreds of thousands of Australians…

FAINE: It doesn’t create one job, it doesn’t help one business. Some people care a lot about it, most people go “eh so what?”

DREYFUS: Well it’s deeply affecting for hundreds of thousands of Australians. I think it’s an issue of an entirely different kind and a different order. This obsession with Section 18C is a niche issue at best and you only get to argue about it if you want to ignore the absolutely clear evidence before this committee and clear statements for years and years and years from groups in the community who are affected by racial intolerance, who are affected by racial abuse, they say loud and clear that this law works. This law provides protection, this law draws a line, it sets a community standard and that’s why it should be left in place.

FAINE: Couple of other things while I have you, I notice on the front cover of the Financial Review that the Commonwealth Bank claimed to be cleared of problems in their CommInsure life insurance business. Deloitte’s and the law firm DLA Piper and Ernst & Young have all been brought in as consultants. They interviewed all the people at the bank..

DREYFUS: But they didn’t interview any customers Jon. I saw this!

FAINE: Not one. So what sort of a review is this in your view?

DREYFUS: It’s not much of a review when you’re not actually interviewing the customers. Most reviews I’ve ever heard of about service and about the way in which organisations are delivering their services think it appropriate to interview customers. To have a review that didn’t smacks of some absurdity.

FAINE: Yesterday at Senate Estimates the Managing Director of the ABC and my boss was giving evidence. A couple of points, you’re the Shadow Minister for Communications at the moment with responsibility for this area - she was asked about funding for the ABC and I’m paraphrasing here that she didn’t think it was her role to lobby government for additional funds for the ABC. What do you make of that?

DREYFUS: I think it’s very disappointing. I think that the ABC needs in the Managing Director a champion for the work of the ABC. There have been very major cuts to the funding of the ABC under this government since 2014 and every previous Managing Director, at least every one that I recall, has been a champion of the ABC. Someone who says “this is the services that the ABC needs to provide”, this is what we wish our ABC to do, and with these levels of funding we are not going to be able to provide a whole range of services.

FAINE: She says her job is just to make do with what she’s given. And to be as operationally efficient as she can be.

DREYFUS: Well I have a different view of the role of the Managing Director, I think there needs to be a champion. Malcolm Turnbull used to be a champion for the ABC but he’s not now, the Minister won’t be a champion for the ABC and now we have the Managing Director not wanting to be a champion for the ABC. I think that’s unfortunate. I think the role goes well beyond just being a manager, I see the role of Managing Director as being a public advocate for the ABC, someone who will get out there and argue the case for why we need an ABC, why it’s a vital role as the national broadcaster and why the cuts that have been inflicted on the ABC are harming the ABC.

FAINE: If she says it’s not her role, it certainly is a departure from any of the predecessors that anyone has memory of as far back as the history of the ABC goes. But if it’s not her role, is it the role of the board? We’re about to find out who our new chair is. There’s a bit of a vacuum there at the moment. So whose job is it if it’s not Managing Director?

DREYFUS: I think that’s a rhetorical question Jon, I think it is the job of the Managing Director. It should be the job of the minister as well, to get out there and argue for the ABC, get out there and explain why it’s a national treasure, and why we are all tremendously advantaged by a healthy, well-funded ABC.

FAINE: We invited Michelle Guthrie to join us this morning on this program and her media manager declined on her behalf so that will continue to be a mystery. But she also was asked about the shutdown of shortwave transmission for the Pacific and particularly the Northern Territory and said ‘we consulted with people’ but then had to concede that consultation was after the announcement and not before. She said there were only 15 complaints. Now you’ve made submissions about this, she said there were only 15 complaints -

DREYFUS: Well the equating of 15 complaints to the number of people affected - that’s another disappointing thing Michelle Guthrie said in Senate Estimates last night. It’s simply wrong. One of the Liberal senators there pointed out there is now a Senate committee inquiry which has received 52 submissions. Again, regrettably, Michelle Guthrie seems to have been dismissive of this. A whole range of groups, including and in particular the elected representatives of the Northern Territory, have very directly complained to the ABC, making the point they didn’t consult about it. The idea that you would equate 15 complaints with the number of people affected is simply wrong and it ignores, Jon, the fact that the people who most rely on shortwave transmission are people least in contact, are people who are most remote

in Australia. I found the sudden announcement of closure of that shortwave transmission, which reaches people not only in the outback Australia but reaches people across the Pacific - so it’s got a soft diplomacy role if you like - very disappointing. It’s the ABC management seemingly not understanding the importance of its services.

FAINE: Well we will continue to cover the ABC, even though I work for the ABC, we’ll cover it without fear or favour as we would with any other government agency. Just finally Senator George Brandis provided an explanation to the Senate yesterday on some questions that you had been putting about his involvement in a complicated piece of litigation in West Australia, the wrap-up of the Bell Resources case. Are you satisfied with his explanation now?

DREYFUS: It’s a continuing farce. This Attorney-General is either lying or incompetent. I say that - it’s a harsh thing to say - I’m not sure which is worse. He’s saying he can’t recall a conversation with the Western Australian Attorney-General about this litigation in the High Court and he misled the Senate, he’s attempting to cover it up, and the Prime Minister should be demanding, instructing him to properly explain what he did in relation to this shameful affair which of course is about dudding Commonwealth taxpayers of $300 million.

FAINE: Thank you for your time and answers to those questions. Mark Dreyfus QC, Shadow Attorney-General and also responsible for the Communications portfolio.