KIERAN GILBERT: This is AM Agenda. With me now is Special Minister of State Scott Ryan and Assistant Minister to the Shadow Treasurer Matt Thistlethwaite. Gentlemen, good morning to you both.
Scott Ryan first to you on the 18C debate. I know that you’ve argued the free speech case for some time, but I’ll put to you what the Trade Minister said. When you remove the insult, offend and humiliate you make that bar all that tougher to argue for groups like the Jewish community, the Chinese community and others that don’t want any change to the Racial Discrimination Act.
SCOTT RYAN: Well as my colleague Steven Ciobo mentioned, the Government is going through a process on this, I mean it’s a significant issue. There have been events that have required this to be looked at again. What happened to the QUT students, I don’t think any Australian thinks that should happen to fellow Australians.
GILBERT: That goes to the process of the commission doesn’t it, more than anything?
RYAN: So what the Government did was it called a parliamentary joint committee of inquiry into this, and we’re going through our processes and there will be a party room meeting later today.
GILBERT: Now Matt Thistlethwaite, your thoughts on this, because there have been quite compelling arguments made that the legislation should more accurately reflect its intent as decided and ruled by judicial precedent, Susan Keifel, the current Chief Justice, was the former Federal Court judge who ruled on this and toughened, basically, the interpretation of the Act beyond simply offend and insult. So, already the judicial interpretation is tough. Why not toughen the legislation to mean what it says?
MATT THISTLETHWAITE: Well, I and my Labor colleagues are strongly opposed to this Kieran. Let’s be clear about what Malcolm Turnbull and the Government are proposing here. They now want to allow Australians to be able to go around to insult and offend other Australians based on their race. Now I say to Scott, and I say to Malcolm Turnbull and the Liberal Party, have the Aboriginal people not gone through enough in this country? Have we not done enough to them that we’re going to now do this in our laws? I had a group of young Jewish boys and girls from a primary school in my electorate a couple of years ago that were subject to racial insults and offence on a bus on their way home. Now it caused a big stir in our community. These are the things that this Government want to allow to be able to occur in Australian society. This was a test of Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership, and he’s failed it dismally. Even Tony Abbott stood up to the right wing of the party when they were proposing this and didn’t allow it. This is a bad reform.
RYAN: Kieran, I’ve got to respond to this, this is complete crap. What is it about the Labor Party that they always assume that their fellow Australians will do the worst possible thing?
THISTLETHWAITE: Well you want to allow it to be able to occur now. If there’s no problem why are you changing the law?
RYAN: Let someone else talk.
This confected outrage I see, where the Labor Party – whether it’s on the plebiscite – we can’t trust Australians to have a debate about that. When it’s on difficult issues, they always jump to the worst. They always stoke fear in the Australian community. Now this law, has clearly not been working
THISTLETHWAITE: Well no, no I say to you -
RYAN: Let me finish.
THISTLETHWAITE: Name for me one person who was wrong …
GILBERT: Let’s hear the Minister, let’s hear the Minister finish and then you can reply.
RYAN: We have an issue here with the fact that what happened to those QUT students should not happen to our fellow Australians. It should not happen. The process can be the punishment.
Now the idea that Labor is going to run around and say we somehow want Australians to do this, that’s offensive. I mean the Prime Minister issued a multicultural statement yesterday …
THISTLETHWAITE: You’ll allow Australians to do this, you’ll allow them to do it.
RYAN: … that talked about our success. What Labor does, is that Labor wants to stoke fear, just like on the plebiscite. They actually want to capitalise on this.
GILBERT: But you’re saying that, before I get, you’ll have your chance to reply Matt. It’s not just Labor that’s critical, you’ve got many community groups who’ve been very strongly against this. As I’ve said the Jewish lobby, Aboriginal groups, the Chinese groups, these are quite influential parts of our society.
RYAN: And there are many people who are not on my side of politics that have said the bar is too low – not just in terms of process, but also that insult and offend are a particularly low-bar. Now people, not just Liberal Party members, have said that. We’ve had that come out of legal inquiries, we’ve had prominent human rights lawyers say that sort of thing. Now, this is about striking an appropriate balance. It’s about making a law work, but it’s also about saying ‘I have faith in my fellow Australians to behave’.
GILBERT: All right Matt Thistlethwaite, your thoughts? And the figures and individuals that Scott refers to include Gillian Triggs, who have said that offend and insult are bars that do not necessarily articulate the intent of the law. So even she said it. Why not make some amendment, and if harass is in there, harass and intimidate, wouldn’t that be a more accurate description for what we’re talking about here?
THISTLETHWAITE: It’s about the leadership we show on this issue of racial discrimination. It’s really about the tone that you set for the nation. And this law has worked well for the last 30 years. Now Scott Ryan raises the QUT students. Now, in all aspects of the law there are people that make claims that don’t proceed to prosecution and hearing, and this was one of them. The case was weeded out through the process …
RYAN: After two years!
THISTLETHWAITE: … and the enquiry established that there were process issues that could be fixed, and Labor has supported them, supported those process changes in the law. But I say to Scott, and I say to the Government, name one person who has been wrongfully convicted under these laws? Name one case where someone was wrongfully convicted under these laws and justify the changes, they can’t.
RYAN: What Labor dismisses here is that being dragged through this process even when you’re not told about it, having to pay lawyers or find people to act for you pro bono, being on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars …
THISTLETHWAITE: Name one wrongful conviction, name one? You can’t.
RYAN: The process here is partly the issue. The process isn’t just about the way they’re handled, it’s also about the bar that you set. I have long said …
GILBERT: What do you say then to an individual who’s offended or insulted by something that’s said to them on a bus? You say we shouldn’t leap to the worst of our fellow Australians, but you would concede that in our population we do have people who say offensive and believe offensive things.
RYAN: And truth is, a lot of the time, there was an example in Melbourne a few years ago now where someone did misbehave and they said some horrific things to someone, I think it was on a bus. There are other criminal charges, you can’t go around threatening people, and behaviour can be threatening. So there are other normal criminal charges that can be used for threatening behaviour, and they are entirely appropriate. But the problem here is that Labor is running around stoking fear. Labor wants this to be divisive, rather than for it to be a law that works, because like everything else, whether it’s on the plebiscite, they are playing politics, and they always assume the worst of their fellow Australians.
GILBERT: The key argument here in terms of free speech is to remove the subjectivity of the words within the legislation. So if you include harass then, doesn’t that include those Jewish students that you referred to, that you met with, or Aboriginal constituents of yours, that word harass or intimidate surely then that would provide the coverage that would protect them from that sort of behaviour?
THISTLETHWAITE: Look the Government is watering down the law at the nub of it …
GILBERT: Are they watering down the law or are they potentially targeting it by removing the subjectivity of it?
THISTLETHWAITE: No they’re watering down the law. Removing insult and offend waters down the law, and they’re doing it under this guise of free speech. Now, free speech is covered by section 18D of the Racial Discrimination Act, so there’s no claim that can be rationally made that people don’t have freedom to speak on particular issues under the notion of free speech, so it’s rubbish.
GILBERT: I want to move on to the issue of same-sex marriage. A report in The Daily Telegraph suggesting yesterday that there’s potential for a plebiscite via postal vote is that something that you’re looking at?
RYAN: Look our policy is to have a plebiscite. The plebiscite that Bill Shorten said a few years ago would be a good idea.
GILBERT: It’s not another way to go about it though, the postal vote or something like that?
RYAN: The issue with the plebiscite, is that we put in place a fair process. It had public funding, it had guidelines, reflected past practice such as the 1999 constitutional referendum, and that would have given every single Australian a decision. And let’s not forget, that was meant to be held more than a month ago. Now I was of the view that the plebiscite was going to be passed quite easily. I actually think it would have been a very strong signal of public support for change. I support change, and it would have been legislated a month ago.
GILBERT: Well that’s the point isn’t it? Malcolm Turnbull can keep saying to those that argue that he’s been weak on this issue, then he says ‘well it would have been legal under the law as of February this year if you allowed that plebiscite to go ahead’.
THISTLETHWAITE: The Australian people want the Parliament to deal with the issue. They want us to make a free vote in the Parliament and that’s the policy of the Labor Party. In the lead up to this decision being made last year we consulted with gay and lesbian rights communities. I had a meeting in my office with people from my community and I asked them ‘what would you like me to do on this issue?’ They were clear, they wanted us to vote against the plebiscite and to ensure it was a vote of the Parliament. They don’t want individual’s rights uniquely determined, setting a precedent in Australia by a vote of the Australian people. It’s going further than it’s ever gone before in determining an individual’s social rights and we shouldn’t do it, and that’s why Labor is opposed to a plebiscite.
GILBERT: Let’s finish off now on the issue of company tax cuts.
Scott Ryan, if you get through the tax cuts up to a certain threshold, let’s say $10 million dollars a year, would you still see that as a win?
RYAN: Well we hope to get it through as we promised at the last election. Remember Kieran, just like the plebiscite, this is a policy we announced and took to an election, and what we’re always seeking to do is to legislate …
GILBERT: Well there’s no way you’ll get the whole thing through.
RYAN: Well that’s only because Labor here is not respecting the fact that we won an election and we got public support for something we clearly argued beforehand. I mean, the crossbench only matters in the Senate when you have a destructive Labor Party. Whether on the plebiscite, whether on corporate tax cuts, whether on balancing the budget mess, Bill Shorten only ever plays politics.
GILBERT: It’s arguable how much public support you’ve got for that though, that particular measure.
RYAN: It was clearly part of the Government’s mandate. Bill Shorten only ever plays politics. Instead of the national interest, it’s always Bill Shorten’s political interest, and that’s what he’s doing on our Enterprise Tax Plan.
GILBERT: Now to you Matthew, are you giving the Government a bit of a free kick here in the sense that it could also now, it’s not going to be spending that $40 billion plus spend that it budgeted for those tax cuts over the next 10 years, that’s not going to be spent so the budget bottom line is going to be healthier?
THISTLETHWAITE: Our policy is very clear, it’s tax cuts up to the value of $2 million dollars, they’re genuine small businesses. And let’s be clear what the Government is proposing here over the next decade. We’ve all seen last week what the banks have been doing to Australians. They were all here for the hearings. These are the companies that this Government wants to give a tax cut to. The biggest banks in Australia that have been ripping off customers and treating them poorly, the Government wants to give them a tax cut. Yet, at the same time they want to slug pensioners, they want to slug the unemployed and they want to slug families, that’s unfair and Labor won’t stand for that.
GILBERT: Gentlemen I appreciate your time, we’re out of time. Matt Thistlethwaite, Scott Ryan, a quick break back in just a moment.