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Transcript of interveiw with Deborah Knight: Channel 9 with Deborah Knight: 15 February 2019: James Ashby and Brian Burston; Medivac Bill

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The Hon. Christian Porter MP Attorney-General


Today on Channel 9 with Deborah Knight Friday 15th February 2019


Subjects: James Ashby and Brian Burston, Medivac Bill

DEB KNIGHT: Now, when it comes to drama, Federal Parliament gave Married at First Sight a run for its money this week. The first Canberra session of the year saw dust ups in the hallways, blood smeared on a Senator's door, vocal protesters, and the first defeat of a government in the house in 80 years. And they say politics is boring. For our regular Friday pollies chat, I'm joined by Labor's Anthony Albanese in Canberra and the Government's Attorney-General Christian Porter here in the studio. Good morning to you both, gentlemen.

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Good morning, Deb.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: Let's start with the drama, first off, surrounding Pauline Hanson. This fight in the halls of Parliament between her chief of staff, James Ashby, and One Nation defector, Brian Burston. Christian, you wonder why politicians are on the nose. This sort of behaviour is just appalling.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Yeah it's awful. I mean, no one wants to see it. Thankfully I missed it. It's just something you don't expect in the halls of Parliament. You don't expect it in any workplace. It's just terrible.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: Yeah, so what can be done about it? Obviously we've seen the investigation under way and we've seen James Ashby's pass being revoked, but do we need to actually take more action her, stronger action?

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ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well it's a matter for the President of the Senate. My personal view is he did exactly the right thing and acted swiftly and removed the pass that allows James to wander the halls, which was the right thing to do in my observation. Obviously it is a matter for those, sort of authorities to look into it. But look, ultimately, you know, this is something that requires some form of attention by authorities because you don't expect people to be assaulting each other in any workplace. And that's what's gone on, it's just as simple as that.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: And blood, Albo, smeared on the door of a Senator's office. I mean, this is going beyond the pale. We know things are getting personal, though. You guys do get fired up in Parliament, but this is going too far.

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Now, well One Nation is a circus, of course. And one of the problems voting for some of these extreme minor parties is you never know what you'll get. Brian Burston, of course, is one of the people who was elected who changed their political party whilst they've been in their first term. And I think the President of the Senate has acted completely appropriately in cancelling James Ashby's pass. And indeed, the authorities do need to look at this. It's very clear from the videos that an assault has occurred here and if that occurs anywhere, action should be taken, let alone within the Parliament House building.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: Absolutely. Well we have consensus on one thing, at least.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Bipartisanship, so early.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: Bipartisanship, who'd have thunk (sic) it? Now Christian, the Government …

ANTHONY ALBANESE: It’ll be downhill from here, Deb.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: Well, look out. Here we go.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Don't be such a pessimist.

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well Pyne has gone missing, it's been such a bad week.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well I'm so much more convivial and easy-going.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: He's in the air, he's flying, alright. We won't bag him when he's not here. Let's not do that.

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Now the Government's, Christian, tenuous hold on power was highlighted this week. You simply didn't have the numbers to actually stop this law allowing the medical transfer of refugees from Manus and Nauru, and then you dragged out Question Time yesterday to avoid a potential…another defeat on the Royal Commission into the treatment of disability care sector. If you can't govern, surely you should call an election today?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, I mean, our view is that the law that was passed by Labor on Tuesday night in alliance with the Greens is a terrible law. I mean, it's bad for the country. I mean, obviously we're disappointed to lose a vote on the floor of the House of Representatives…..

DEBORAH KNIGHT: And you nearly lost another vote yesterday, so if you don't have the numbers, surely the public should actually be having a say here?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: There was actually nothing that had come from the Senate to vote on yesterday, with respect to that issue.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: Well you dragged it out so that they couldn't.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, it was a long Question Time, but, I mean, the important issue here is what's in the best interest of the Australian people. That laws that Labor passed on Tuesday night are terrible. I mean it's now the case that a Swedish backpacker has a greater, more stringent character test than someone coming from Manus and Nauru on a Medivac that can be initiated and effectively finalised without the discretion of the Minister, by two doctors. I mean, that is a bad law for Australia.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: But the reality is that you are overplaying the reality of this law. I mean, the PM saying that it's going to open the floodgates is not the truth because it applies to the existing refugees on Nauru and Manus. And saying that murderers and paedophiles will be led in is also not true because there's still ministerial discretion. Why are you scaremongering over this?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I just think, respectfully, you're wrong on both points. So it was previously the case that the Minister had an overarching discretion, so if someone had been charged with or convicted prior to sentence, or there were reasonable intelligence briefings to suggest that they engaged in serious criminal conduct, it was previously the case that the Minister could exercise the discretion to prevent that person coming to Australia.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: And what, that doesn't apply in the law here?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: That has now changed. The laws that Anthony and his party changed …


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There is still ministerial discretion.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: The ministerial discretion is very narrow. It relates to …

DEBORAH KNIGHT: But it still applies.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, it is a very different discretion and much narrower from the discretion that previously existed.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: But it’s still ministerial discretion.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, there’s ministerial discretion that's looks like this, right, which is what we got now, and there is ministerial discretion that looks like that, which is what is was previously. It's as simple as that. So this is not hypothetical; there are people in these offshore processing facilities who have been charged with very serious offences, including sexual offences against children…


ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well we are going through that audit now, and we will face 300 applications in the not too distant future.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: Which doctors are actually - they don't agree with that number. We've got this sort of disagreement on the numbers.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well how would they know? Because they're individual doctors dealing with individual offshore processing transferees. Those applications will come into us and we will see that in the next several weeks, there will be hundreds of these applications. And we will be on a very tight timeframe to try and work out the types of backgrounds, criminal history checks that we're talking about now. But we are already aware of people who have been charged for assaulting doctors offshore.


ATTORNEY-GENERAL: And we won't have the discretion to stop them from coming.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: Albo, Labor, you guys are ramping up the claims of scaremongering here, which you know, you're no innocents here, when it came to the whole Medicare Privatisation Bill you ramped

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that up at the last election, so no one’s innocent when it comes to scaremongering. But is it true that Labor was given the advice, that if this Medivac Transfer Bill came in that we would see more asylum seekers and more boats coming to Australia?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: No, that's not right, Deb.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: That's not the official advice?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: And look the Attorney-General knows that he's talking nonsense, with respect. Let's be clear about why this has happened. This has happened because of government incompetence, that the people on Manus and Nauru - who are the only people this legislation applies to - have been there for more than five years, and the Government's failed to settle them. This legislation makes no changes, zero, to any of the border protection measures which are in place. This was a very simple principle though, which is that if someone who is in our care - after all Australia has responsibility for - needs medical assistance, they will be able to see it. Subject to of course, the ministerial discretion, which you quite rightly have pointed out, is absolutely still there.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: So why does it feel as though we're looking at completely different bills here? Because the Australian public is being told totally different stories from both sides of politics. Who do we believe?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well don't believe him because he's totally mischaracterising the bill.

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Have a look at the law.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Look, the reality is this. The law used to be the case that the Minister had an overarching very broad discretion on character grounds to refuse people who, for instance, had been charged with a serious criminal offence.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: So it's narrower but it’s still there?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, the ministerial discretion exists but it is considerably narrower, radically narrower. So it's the case now that a person charged with a serious criminal offence, or where there's a reasonable grounds based on intelligence that they'd committed a serious criminal offence, there is now no power for the Minister to refuse that person. But they could refuse a Swedish backpacker on those grounds.

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Absolute nonsense, absolute nonsense.

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DEBORAH KNIGHT: Albo I've got to ask you …

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: You need to read the bill Anthony.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: Albo I've got to ask you, why is Labor actually going down this path when it comes to boat people, too because it is Labor's kryptonite? This is the strength of Scott Morrison, on stopping the boats as Immigration Minister. It's almost as though you're allowing the Prime Minister to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat (sic) here.

ANTHONY ALBANESE: What we did, Deb, was what Parliamentarians have a responsibility to do, which is vote for a bill based upon advice, and based upon the merits that are in that legislation. Christian pretends that there's a short time-frame. These are people who have been investigated. People know what they had for breakfast yesterday, Deb. They've been in detention for more than five years. And the fact is the Government has failed. The fact is we've seen fatalities of people here, not just serious injuries and people being critically ill, we have seen people die. And we have a responsibility to act, just as we have a responsibility to make sure that we have strong borders. But you can be tough on people smugglers, without being weak on humanity.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: Alright well, gentleman thank you for joining us.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Sounds like you can have it all, sounds too good to be true doesn't it?

DEBORAH KNIGHT: Well we will see what voters think because the election does loom ever closer. But thank you gentlemen for joining us.

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Just call it, Christian.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: See you next week, mate.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: Alright, Monday here it comes, Parliament resumes.