Transcript - ABC Capital Hill - November 2021

23 November 2021

SUBJECTS: National Anti-Corruption Commission; Religious Discrimination Bill; State and Federal Government relationships; Prime Minister’s lies.
JANE NORMAN, HOST: To discuss these issues and more I'm joined now by our Tuesday political panel Queensland Nationals Senator Susan McDonald and West Australian Labor Frontbencher Matt Keogh. Welcome to you both, nice to have you both back in Canberra, in the studio again. Thank you for joining me. Now look, I just want to pick up Jacqui Lambie has a way with words she certainly cut through with that, um, Susan McDonald, you had a Coalition Party Room briefing this morning. We are waiting for legislation on a Commonwealth Integrity Commission any indication that it'll happen in this final fortnight?
SUSAN MCDONALD; NATIONALS SENATOR FOR QUEENSLAND: Oh, look, we didn't talk about that, we did spend a lot of time talking about the religious discrimination bill, something that I support, it's quite inaccurate that it's a sword, not a shield. And in fact, I'm looking forward to the sort of protections that Australians expect for their community.
NORMAN: Okay, I definitely want to delve into that issue, because it's a big piece of legislation or policy we can talk about, but in terms of that Federal anti-corruption commission, it was an election commitment. This could well be the final sitting fortnight before we head to another election. Is that a broken promise?
MCDONALD: I don't think this will be the final sitting week before the election. But you know, the Prime Minister has not told me anything differently. So I can't give you any more information than that.
NORMAN: All right, but does the government need to actually stump up now with some legislation given it is a promise, as Jacqui Lambie pointed out, three years old?
MCDONALD: Yeah, I look, I see a lot of requirements and expectations on parliamentarians around their disclosures about how they behave, ministerial codes of conduct. You know, if we need to have more legislation, fine. I haven't seen it be wildly successful in other States, where we seem to be able to have people hung drawn and quartered on a on a media inquiry. You know, Gladys Berejiklian, is a case in point of very long drawn-out process that seen her leave the Parliament, and we've not yet seen a case for her to answer. So no doubt this is coming before us, it's not something I've been focused on. There's plenty of other things that we're focusing on in Queensland in particular, as we come through COVID.
NORMAN: Okay, well, Matt Keogh, we know that Labor already has a proposal for an anti-corruption commission. So as Susan McDonald was pointing out, there are a vast array of views on this, you have a legal background, you come from WA, which has the Triple C (Crime and Corruption Commission), which has often been criticised. How do you strike the right balance in this?
MATT KEOGH, SHADOW MINISTER FOR DEFENCE INDUSTRY: Certainly there's a balance to be struck. But there's no doubt that we need to have an Integrity Commission at a Federal Level. And I think it's quite concerning to hear here and also from what Senator Birmingham was saying before, really undermining the whole argument for even needing a Crime and Corruption Commission or a Federal ICAC - call it whatever you like. We thought the government had said that they were going to do this, that they were going to bring forward legislation, now you've got a Government Minister undermining the case for even needing one. I think that's very concerning and troubling to the Australian public. We've seen so many rorts, so much concern raised about government activity and at a federal level, there is no Anti-Corruption commission and Labor wants to deliver one.
NORMAN: Is this an issue that voters raise with you? Do you think voters really care about this integrity, anti-corruption?
KEOGH: They absolutely do. It's quite interesting, you know, being out, door knocking over the last few months talking to people on the phone out in the community. They're concerned about the rorts that they've seen in government funding programmes, they're concerned about the way in which the government hasn't been able to be held to account on this and that there's no proper body to investigate the claims that we're seeing coming out from this government and they see these bodies at a state level. And whilst there might be problems with how certain of them interact or operate in particular ways, the overarching concern is why is there not a body here at a federal level, to look at what federal governments do?
NORMAN: Let's move on to the bill that is going to be introduced this week, we understand the Prime Minister himself will present the religious discrimination bill to the Parliament tomorrow. So it'll go through the lower house, which means there'll be a debate and a vote before it gets up to the Senate. Where you reside at the moment, but from your briefings this morning - we haven't seen the precise details, a lot has been leaked, but what exactly does this bill seek to do?
MCDONALD: Well, it seeks to act as a protection. In Australia, we have a Sex Discrimination Act, we have a Race Discrimination Act, and a religious discrimination act makes sense. It is not going to act like a sword has been suggested it will be a shield for those people who want to be protected to be able to hold a religious views. In my part of the world where people are less caught up in discussing things at length, they believe in a fair go, a right of fair play and I think that they will be very pleased to see that great work done by institutions, schools and hospitals, and private individuals will be able to hold their privately held religious beliefs. They cannot espouse views in a ways that belittle or attack other people. But if they make comments in good faith, that is okay. And that is the country that Australians want to live in, where it is okay to be yourself, to be able to say things in a way that doesn't attack, belittle or harm other people. And in the same way that we've seen the race and sex discrimination acts work, I think we'll see the same thing with religious discrimination act. I've seen some suggestions that the act might be used to allow for people who are gay or other sexualities to be sacked or expelled from schools, there is protections in the other acts that would not allow that to happen. People will have to clearly mandate their mission. And so people will have transparency and a clear choice about where they work, where they send their children to school, and they do have other protections from a range of acts in this country. So I feel very comfortable that this is a practical, balanced measure, to allow Australians who believe in being able to hold their own views. And to be able to push back against this, you know, this counterculture state the we're developing into where it's not okay to have a view at all.
NORMAN: Just to talk about the party room briefing today, we understand more than a dozen Coalition MPs rose to speak about this bill in particular. Are there MPs in the party room who believe that this goes too far or doesn't go far enough? I mean, is this really one of the biggest issues that are on voters minds right now?
MCDONALD: So I obviously can't talk about what happens in the party room. And I won't comment on that. But I can tell you that the biggest thing that's on people's minds that they talk to me about is the shortage of workforce in regional Australia about the problems about operating their business.
NORMAN: So aren’t we talking about that in the Coalition party room?
MCDONALD: Because you've just discussed about another election commitment. This is taking one of those election commitments forward, it has taken some time, because there's been so much consultation around the country, appropriately…
NORMAN: Are you frustrated with how long it's taken?
MCDONALD: No, because my experience in the Parliament is that you have to spend time doing good work on legislation before it comes to the Senate. And the case in point is the appalling politics done by One Nation yesterday, not even turning up in Canberra to introduce the legislation.
NORMAN: Five of your Coalition colleagues voted for that Legislation
MCDONALD: It was voted for people who are promoting that they're saying they voted for it, they didn't vote for it, they can't vote for it, when you're not in the chamber.
NORMAN: One Nation didn't vote for it but five Liberal National members, did by the way.
MCDONALD: That is exactly right. That is true. But what I'm saying is, is that the legislation was poorly written would have had adverse consequences on funding for states, particularly for institutions like nursing homes, they would have lost funding. I mean, I just thought it was appalling to introduce legislation like that. And so back to my point. That's why we spend time consulting making sure that legislation that's introduced is good, it's been well consulted, and it's fit for purpose.
NORMAN: Okay, I want to talk a bit more about One Nation and Queensland I want to bring Matt Keogh into this debate. Now, I'm understanding we know that some Labor MPs have received a briefing on this religious discrimination bill, I don't think the whole party has. But let's just talk broadly about the principle we know what's trying to be achieved. Do you believe that there is a problem that needs to be solved?
KEOGH: Well, we think we know what's trying to be achieved because we haven't actually seen the bill. So whilst at a conceptual level, we're perfectly comfortable with the idea of protecting religious freedom, because, you know, it's Labor's introduced most of the anti-discrimination law that we see in this country already in a whole range of other areas. We're just waiting to see the bill to see if it lives up to what we've just heard, that it is apparently going to be doing. I've seen lots of leaks in the newspaper, we said to the Government, we would like to work with you to make sure we get a bipartisan bill. But we haven't seen that, and now we're going to have to wait until the Government tables the Bill in the House before we even get to see if it even lives up to what the Government says that it's going to do, so that we can really understand it and then make a position from there. But we can't, no one in the Parliament can take a view on this Legislation without having seen it.
NORMAN: Yeah, I'm not asking you to take a view of the legislation itself. But do you believe that there is a need for the Federal Government to codify religious freedoms?
KEOGH: It's certainly the gap in our anti-discrimination suite of Legislation. And it's been that way for a long time, largely, actually, because it was opposed by the Conservative parties like, all anti-discrimination legislation has been through the history of the Federal Parliament. But and that's why that gap has been there. So we see that the gap that exists and getting it right is really important, because there are competing rights that exist there, as we see in the international covenants as well. So which is why seeing the legislation is so really important. We understand and we support the concept of protecting religious freedom. But certainly we need to see the detail of what the government's proposing to do to see how it deals with these competing interests.
NORMAN: Would you be comfortable - we understand that one aspect of it is to allow religious institutions like schools to be able to, I suppose positively discriminate against people whose faith doesn't match up with theirs. So effectively to prioritise the hiring of people who share their religion. Is that kind of a concern for you?
KEOGH: Well, certainly under existing anti-discrimination laws around the different states and it differs by state how this is done, there are exemptions that apply for religious teaching institutions. I think it's also important to understand the difference between say how someone identifies and how they behave and how that fits up with, you know whether that's any code of conduct with any organisation at all employers have those sorts of rules around a whole range of different things, but I can't comment until we see the bill.
NORMAN: Yeah. Okay. Totally that’s fair. Now, just moving on to another issue. Obviously, we're heading towards an election campaign. We know that the pandemic has given state Premiers like an incredible amount of prominence and in many cases, popularity. Susan McDonald, we've seen recently, federally, the Coalition seems to be needling the Queensland Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, it’s been picked up by the Federal Labor team. How worried are you about you know, these popular, prominent Premiers, their popularity, I guess, rubbing off on the Federal Labor Leader.
MCDONALD: So the states - Queensland in particular, and WA probably have made an art form out of States rights versus the Commonwealth Government. And, and I'm someone who has always previously supported States rights. But it has been really disappointing to see that abused through the National Cabinet process where there would be agreement from all the states around what they were going to do. And then they would walk out and if you were to look at the just the requirements to cross state borders around the country, right now, I deal with so many distressed people who said it's this to enter this state, this to enter another and it's now it's changed?
NORMAN: a patchwork.
MCDONALD: That's right. It's a real patchwork. Exactly. And that's caused a lot of distress to Australians, you know, to our own people, much less people who are trying to enter across the borders.
NORMAN: Normally voters differentiate between State and Federal level. I'm just curious, there's a bit of an X factor heading to this election, because we've never seen Premiers so prominent before and a lot, you know, both Palaszczuk and McGowan had been re-elected during the pandemic. I mean, does this pose a real problem for the Coalition?
MCDONALD: Look, I think people do differentiate very clearly, certainly, in Queensland, I've watched that, that you can have a Labor State Government and a Coalition Federal Government, the people are well equipped to make differences at different levels of Government. That's been the case over the last 20 or 30 years that I've observed. So I think people are looking for different things from their Federal leaders. Certainly the success of the Coalition in keeping people economically safe, keeping people employed, connecting to businesses, and the broader issue. I mean, Australia declared a pandemic two weeks before the World Health Organisation in January, you know, we've got a strong track record of keeping Australians safe, of keeping those bigger borders closed, to allow for that to happen and to allow for the states to deal with their internal hospital systems. Now in Queensland hospitals are ramped, ambulances are ramped. I think there is a deal of crisis in Queensland as we consider what's going to happen without you know, what's happening without COVID. How are we going to deal with it when it does come in? But look, I think that Australians generally do differentiate very clearly. And, and so we'll see.
NORMAN: Well, what do you reckon Matt Keogh? In WA, Mark McGowan, well, he basically wiped out the Liberal Party in the last election. So I mean, are you hoping? Or do you anticipate that his popularity might rub off on Anthony Albanese?
KEOGH: I think the voters differentiate as well. But the key thing here is you've had State Premiers make strong calls to protect the communities in their states. And it's Scott Morrison that's politicised that by coming out and attacking the Labor State Premiers over those policies that the people in those states are clearly very happy with. But what he hasn't done is attacked the Liberal States which have exactly the same policies. So he's the one who's politicised this, and I think if anything's rubbing off, it's the concern of people across the country who look at that and say, I'm really happy with the job that my State Premier has done. Why am I, why is my State being attacked by the Prime Minister? And I take that personally, in Western Australia, we saw most grievously not only with Scott Morrison joining with Clive Palmer to try and bring the border down through the court system, but then calling Western Australians “cave people”. Western Australians are very happy in their cave, you know, they don't have any restrictions there at all.
NORMAN: I have family there, I know.
KEOGH: Yep, and, and I think that's the thing that the Federal Government has failed to recognise is that the State Premiers are doing what the people want to see, which is keeping them safe. And by doing that they've also kept the economy strong. Within those states, and especially in Western Australia, we've been able to keep the resources industry going, which has kept the whole country afloat.
NORMAN: And just before I let you both go for Question time, I wanted to ask you finally, the Prime Minister has been branded a liar by the French President, by Malcolm Turnbull, Labor has taken this line of attack. I'm just wondering how much do you think the integrity of the Prime Minister matters to voters?
KEOGH: I think the integrity of the Prime Minister is absolutely fundamental and it does matter to voters and it is something that is raised with me - it's certainly become a more and more pressing issue where people, they’ve worked out Scott Morrison. And they saw it on display yesterday in Question Time and in the Parliament where the Prime Minister wasn't even able to give a straight answer to something that happened two years ago where it was on the record in text messages. The people, this is the highest office in the land. People expect integrity in that office.
NORMAN: Susan McDonald, what do you reckon? Is this line of attack cutting through? And do you think it'll matter at the next election?
MCDONALD: I think you started it - there's an election in the wind. And that's where we're seeing, we're seeing things politicised like, where somebody goes on holidays with their family.
NORMAN: But it was the Prime Minister's failure to just answer a pretty direct question. He had to correct the record twice.
MCDONALD: I think that more broadly, the idea of the Prime Minister's integrity – I have only ever found him to be very straight, terrifyingly straight in his dealings with me. I think Australians act on what they… on the actions they see. I think that they are seeing a Coalition Government who has led them through a pandemic that we have never seen before of this scale and nature in the world. They are acting on how they feel, how their families, dealing how they've, if they've got a job, if they've got a roof over their heads, and how safe they feel. And so I think you'll see Australians judge on the situation that they're in. And I think that the sort of politics that we're seeing, it certainly doesn't play out in my part of the world. People are really over it. They're overseeing shouting matches on TV. They want to have people who are serious about running the country.
NORMAN: And love civil discourse just like this! Matt Keogh, Susan McDonald, thank you for your time.