28 May 2014



SUBJECT/S: Proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act; Royal Commission funding; Cuts to Science

CHRIS HAMMER: Joining us now is the Liberal Senator for the ACT, Zed Seselja, and Michelle Rowland, the Member for Greenway in Sydney’s west; also the Shadow Minister for Multiculturalism. Senator Seselja, to you first: should the Government’s proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act be watered down or should they be kept as first presented by Senator George Brandis?

ZED SESELJA: I don’t think it’s a matter of watering them down. I said when the exposure draft was put out there, I thought some changes were warranted. I think the exemption was to broaden my opinion and I’ve said that before and I maintain that view and I suspect that we’ll see some changes there and I think that would be a good thing because I think it is an important change, I think freedom of speech is a very important thing to defend. It’s challenging defending things like freedom of speech because it means defending speech of things we don’t like as well as speech that we do like but getting the right balance I think is important so I think that the exemptions are too broad and certainly could be redrafted but in terms of the principle of not making it unlawful to offend or insult someone on the basis of their race I think is a good principle. I think we shouldn’t have those type of restrictions on speech, frankly because I don’t think they work. I don’t think that legislation actually stops some small parts of our community from holding very abhorrent views.

HAMMER: Is it still okay, in the words of the Attorney-General, to be a bigot?

SESELJA: No, let’s just be clear on what we’re talking about.

HAMMER: That’s what he said.

SESELJA: It was a philosophical point I suppose and it needs some context. The context is we don’t regulate everything we hate. We don’t regulate every bit of speech that we don’t like and I’ll give you an example: in the South Australian state election we had, I think, some very bigoted advertising from the Labor Party saying ‘can you trust Habib?’, the implication of course that the Liberal candidate of Middle Eastern background couldn’t be trusted partly because of the surname. Now I think that was highly offensive. I think that was highly bigoted but we don’t regulate it. At the moment it’s not banned that type of speech. No one was brought before the Racial Discrimination Act for that but we condemn it. We saw in the US where they don’t have these kind of laws because of their freedoms. We saw recently someone who made some shocking racist comments. He wasn’t prosecuted but he was dealt with very swiftly as an owner of an NBA franchise. So we see racism dealt with; what the Coalition is arguing is banning speech is not necessarily always the right way to go and that’s where we want to get better limits around speech.

HAMMER: Okay, Michelle Rowland. Are you smelling victory on this issue?

MICHELLE ROWLAND, SHADOW MINISTER FOR CITIZENSHIP AND MULTICULTURALISM: George Brandis should immediately drop his plans to water down the Racial Discrimination Act and give the green light to racial hate speech in this country. That is what he should do right now. The community has spoken.

HAMMER:  So there’s no room at all for any modification of the Act?

ROWLAND: I would say this: George Brandis went forward with a one page draft. A one page draft which he said was open to public consultation for four weeks. In that time, over 5000 submissions were made. We see very clearly public opinion, 88 per cent of the Australian public opposed to what he proposes to do. This is a government that said it would make decisions based on fact. It would make decisions based on rational thought. There has been no case, no exposure draft with some sort of accompanying explanation about why these changes are needed at all. There’s no case that has been made out for why the Racial Discrimination Act needs to be changed. And I would challenge the Attorney-General to make those submissions public, let us know how many of them actually agree with him and on my intel it is a minute number who actually agree with him. The public has spoken loud and clear, community groups have spoken loud and clear. This piece of legislation has served Australia well for some 20 years. There has been no case made for why it should be changed.

HAMMER: Senator is the reason the changes may be watered down is because the government really can’t afford politically to fight on this issue at the moment because it can’t have such a battle on its hands selling the Budget?

SESELJA: No, I think this was put out as an exposure draft and we’ve seen comment from the community, we’ve seen comment from members of the backbench; myself and others have made statements about it but it is important that we get it right and I think that’s a good process. I think it’s good that we go to the community and get their feedback but the principle is also very important, the principle of do we really think it’s reasonable that someone should be dragged before the courts because they say something that may be offensive? I think that is far too low a bar. I think it’s reasonable to say that bar is too low.

HAMMER: But the proposal redefines the dictionary definition of intimidation to be the threat of physical violence so it’s not how I understand intimidation but how most Australians would understand the word intimidation.

SESELJA: What it does do is for the first time have a definition of racial vilification and to actually have a law against racial vilification. So there’s two aspects to this: at one level its taking away the ability to drag someone before the court…

HAMMER: So it’s expanding or contracting?

SESELJA: Well, it’s getting a better balance I would argue. So what it’s doing is it’s taking away this very low bar where someone can be dragged before the courts because they say something that’s offensive. I don’t think that’s reasonable. I don’t think that simply because someone expresses an opinion that is offensive, if it’s offensive argue against it, say why it’s offensive. If it’s highly offensive, condemn it.  But where it crosses the line into racial vilification that’s where the law kicks in and I think that’s a good balance. There still will be protections. There will be protections against genuine race hate and racial vilification, but we won’t have this very low bar that we have in the legislation at the moment.

HAMMER: Michelle Rowland, is the Australian society not sophisticated enough and mature enough to have a robust discussion around these issues, whether you can argue the point without fear of being hauled before a court as the Senator says?

ROWLAND: The vast majority of actions that are brought under the Racial Discrimination Act are actually not in a court. They are actually done through conciliation and you can see the statistics yourself, they are there as evidence. The people who have the most to lose out of this are in fact many of the people in our society who are the most vulnerable. And I include in that, not only people from ethnic communities but also indigenous communities. A large number of cases have actually made it into the courts are to do with indigenous people and in fact one of the reasons why this piece of legislation came about was a result of very important inquiries, including the Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody which made a specific recommendation to this point. So when you have the majority of matters that are brought under the Act actually settled in conciliation, when you have the balance already there between freedom of speech and racial hate speech, which is what the legislature was very conscious of when they first brought it into the Parliament, when you have a body of law that has already been developed very clearly about what constitutes to offend, insult or humiliate. Again, I say this: there has been no case made out to water down these provisions and this Government should abandon its proposals immediately.

HAMMER: Okay. Let’s move on to another issue, again connected to the Attorney-General. And that’s reports of funds being diverted from the Royal Commission into institutionalised child abuse into the Royal Commission investigating Labor’s home insulation scheme. Michelle Rowland, are you concerned about this or is this simply the sensible use of government resources?

ROWLAND: I am concerned because royal commissions are very important processes.  And they should be respected and they should be funded appropriately. I am concerned to ensure that the Royal Commission into institutionalised child abuse is actually resourced properly, that the people who are appearing before that and want to bring their stories out before that and be heard and actually have a proper process, we need to make sure that they are properly resourced. I think it’s important for this government to confirm that it is absolutely committed to this royal commission. It is a very important process. Questions are being asked in Estimates, of course we will see what else comes out of that. The key for this Attorney-General again: what did he know, when did he know it? Because if these reports are accurate you can understand why the community is concerned and why people with a special interest in this royal commission would be concerned as well.

HAMMER: Senator is the Government under resourcing the Royal Commission into institutionalised child abuse?

SESELJA: No. And the Government is committed to properly resourcing the Royal Commission and the Royal Commission will continue to be properly resourced. What we’re talking about here was, as I understand it, an underspend in one part where money simply wasn’t spent. I think it was on capital and some contingency that was there. It wasn’t spent in one area so it’s being used for another important royal commission where four people lost their lives so these are both important inquiries. It’s not about comparing one to the other, it’s simply an underspend that was there. I think it is an efficient use of money. The government will ensure that both of these royal commissions are properly resourced. We are committed to it. We want to get to the bottom of this issue and allow victims to have their say, to be able to be heard and in some cases be able to get justice where that’s appropriate and where that’s possible so this has been a terrible scourge in our community and I think the Royal Commission is very appropriate.

HAMMER: So in these economic times the government was over resourcing the royal commission?

SESELJA: Well I think there’s a historical thing, I think the initial funding would have been committed by the former government and we are still committed to it. I’m not going to say they over resourced it, there’s a significant amount of resources there  and that’s as it should be.

HAMMER: Okay. Senator, your colleague Dennis Jensen the Liberal MP has criticised the Government’s approach to science research in the Budget, criticising cuts to the CSIRO, to the Australian Research Council, asking where is the coherent coordinated approach to science policy and the government doesn’t have a science minister, it’s leaving itself open to criticism on this front isn’t it?

SESELJA: Dennis has his views and Dennis has always been a very outspoken member of the Liberal Party and he often disagrees with the Liberal Party. And I can understand why people get concerned when there are cuts in various areas. We all get concerned when we look at a particular area and say there’s less spending here. All these are worthy programs but what we have are very difficult budgetary circumstances that we’re responding to so it’s well and good for people to say we shouldn’t cut here or we shouldn’t cut there, but the reality is that there are savings to be found in all areas of government expenditure. Science is one of those. What I’m confident is those savings will be found in an efficient way that doesn’t undermine scientific capacity that goes to efficiencies, that goes to better administration. I think that’s a reasonable thing for governments to do. We can always argue the toss about whether you’ve made too many savings here or there but we have some serious budgetary problems. We’re headed for $667 billion of debt. We don’t want to get there. The Coalition is committed to paying down debt to better managing our finances and within that there are all sorts of difficult decisions.

HAMMER: Michelle Rowland?

ROWLAND: Aside from the unravelling of the government’s backbench in trying to sell this Budget or in the case of Mr Jensen, obviously not trying to sell this Budget. The fact is that these cuts to science are ill-conceived. They are short sighted and they will harm Australia in the long term. To have something like $111 million cut from science and the CSIRO is detrimental to Australia. We hear everyone talk about the ‘clever country’. We are not going to be the clever country. We are not going to be leaders in the Asian Century if we don’t have a focus on science and innovation and that is what is sadly lacking in this Budget. This is a government that doesn’t even have a science minister. In contrast, Bill Shorten has taken on it himself to be the person on the Opposition side to prosecute the case for science. And this goes beyond science. You can look at the many cuts that are being made across the board and the impacts of them including the closure of very important research facilities. I see one of the telescopes in Coonabarabran is being shut down. I don’t see the Member who covers that area getting out and speaking about it against the Budget. I stand to be corrected if he has but I’d welcome him speaking out against it. But also in terms of innovation, Chris Bowen gave an excellent dissertation on this point to the National Press Club in his Budget reply address and he pointed out that if we want to be a leader, not following Silicon Valley but actually developing our own entrepreneurialism here in Australia in the ICT sector then we need to have investments in this area and this government in this Budget has completely ignored or cut this area. You can’t possibly have a situation, we can’t possibly have a situation where we talk about wanting to increase productivity in this country when every study will tell you the best way to increase long term productivity and sustainable productivity is investment in ICT. Even when you look around our region, you can see countries that have done that well and are reaping the benefits of it. Australia in contrast is going backwards in this Budget.

SESELJA: Michelle, with respect, are you saying that the Labor Party never cut money for research and development? You did.

ROWLAND: With respect, I’m saying this is your Budget and if you can’t go out and sell it -

SESELJA: Let me finish. You’ve just given a long speech on how you should never cut science but we saw cuts under the former government and in fact when we look at CSIRO and other cuts, some of those cuts started under the former government so I don’t think it’s fair to say the Coalition is just cutting and the Labor Party would only ever expand on research and development. That’s not the case. There are Budget limitations, even your government realised that from time to time and made cuts. Some of those cuts we agreed with, some we didn’t but you cut back on areas of research and development so we want to get a better balance. Things like a medical endowment fund of $20 billion is a massive increase in research and development so that’s got to be a positive. Surely that’s something you would welcome so don’t pretend that the Labor Party never made cuts in these areas, in fact in the CSIRO in various areas there were efficiencies that  made cuts or savings so this happens under both governments, let’s be fair.

HAMMER: Can I ask you, the $20 billion medical research fund, endowment fund, that’s in the Budget, would that go ahead if the Medicare co-payment is knocked over in the Senate or if the Government doesn’t go ahead with it?

SESELJA: Well, it’s got to be funded and what we’ve said is it will be funded from a co-payment. I visited the John Curtin Medical School here in Canberra recently and they are very excited about the prospect of significant increases in medical research.

HAMMER: But you really can’t guarantee it unless the co-payment goes through the Senate and that’s…

SESELJA: Let’s wait and see. Clearly we have to fund it. There’s no magic money pudding. Unlike the former government we can’t just come up with ideas without being able to fund them so if you’re going to have a $20 billion medical research endowment fund which I think would be a wonderful thing, you do have to fund it. And we’ve said we’ll fund it through a co-payment for GPs, something which someone like the Shadow Assistant Treasurer Andrew Leigh has argued for in the past, something that Bob Hawke argued for in the past, this is not a new idea. This is not a radical idea. People contributing to their own health with a $7 co-payment but a dividend for our community as a result of that is a good outcome.

HAMMER: Okay. Senator Zed Seselja, Michelle Rowland. Thank you so much for your time today.