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Transcript: ABC News Breakfast Saturday 26 Oct

October 26, 2019



SUBJECTS: Angus Taylor scandal; Surveillance legislation.

HOST: It's time now for our Saturday pollie panel and we are discussing Federal Energy Minister Angus Taylor's letter to the City of Sydney Lord Mayor, Clover Moore and the Governments proposed facial recognition database. Joining us from Melbourne is Labor MP Andrew Giles and from Brisbane LNP Senator Paul Scarr. Thank you both for joining us this morning. Just to give some background to what has happened this week regarding the Federal Energy Minister Angus Taylor, he's now said he'll apologise to Sydney's Lord Mayor, Clover Moore for not clarifying those figures he used to criticise her over the council's travel costs. He said that neither he nor anyone in his office altered the allegedly forged documents. Labor has now called on the NSW Police to investigate this matter. Paul Scarr, I might start with you. Why did you leave it to Labor to report this to the police?

PAUL SCARR: Well, I don't think that was something which was up to us, it was Labor's decision to refer the matter to the police. Really, that is a question that should be directed to them as to why they took that action. I think, just making a general point with respect to that whole issue of matters being referred to the police by politicians, in a political sphere, I think politicians from all political parties need to reflect pretty carefully before they refer matters to police for investigation. There are things which I think properly remain in the political domain and things which should be referred to the police. I think politicians of all political stripes need to consider that pretty carefully.

HOST: Although Senator it's an offence to make a false document with the intent to influence the exercise of public duty. The Prime Minister has recently said that nobody is above the law. So, why isn't that the case here?

SCARR: Well I agree absolutely with the Prime Minister that nobody is above the law but you have a situation where the Labor Party, in a political context, has referred the matter to the NSW Police. Where the minister's been quite clear that altered he, nor anyone in his office, has altered a document and, as far as I understand it, there is no evidence that the Minister or anyone in his office has altered the document. As for this concept of influencing public servants or people who are discharging their public duties, I would be surprised if anyone thought that a Minister in a Coalition Government could influence someone as formidable as the Lord Mayor of Sydney, Clover Moore.

HOST: But Senator I'm a bit confused, are you saying that if there was a forgery of a document then that would have to be pursued criminally, but it's clear the Energy Minister Angus Taylor is not responsible for it. So why wouldn't he be supporting Labor's push to find out, to get to the bottom of this? The document he had was in a strange format that was unlike any that are normally used, it was wildly off, there was actually $229,000 spent by the Lord Mayor's office, the whole council on travel in 2017-2018, not $15 million, why doesn't the Minister want to get to the bottom of this?

SCARR: Well, the Minister has put out a statement last night saying he's going to apologise to the Lord Mayor of Sydney for not verifying...

HOST: But in that statement, Senator, he said that the Labor Party has dramatically over reached. SCARR: But I think really these questions should be directed to the Labor Party as to why they thought it was appropriate to refer the matter to the police.

HOST: We will in a second but it's the LNP who are saying that the Labor Party has "dramatically overreached" this is from the Minister's statement that you are referring to, by claiming that the documents were forged or altered, he says there is no basis for these assertions. Well who is responsible? If it's not somebody else that altered them, well who is it?

SCARR: Well I think in that context, the Minister's stating that neither he nor anyone in his office altered the documents. So, I think also, when you look at the referral the Labor Party made to the police, there is a political dimension to it.

HOST: Alright let's bring in Andrew Giles. Is there a political dimension to Labor reporting this to the police and should this have remained in the political domain, as the Senator said?

ANDREW GILES, MEMBER FOR SCULLIN: Well obviously it can't remain in the political domain. There are very serious issues that go to potential breaches of the New South Wales Crimes Act and it's not us who raised this issue it was the Prime Minister who put very clearly the onus on all of us to act in accordance with the law. Now the letter that Angus Taylor sent yesterday vindicates Labor's decision to refer this matter to the police because it raises so many more questions than it answers and I really don't understand and I think anyone who listened to Paul would fully appreciate that it's only Angus Taylor who can make it clear what has in fact happened. The document that he pushed to the Daily Telegraph and I guess there is another question here isn't there? Why was Australia's Energy Minister trying to get up a nasty story about the Lord Mayor of Sydney? I mean what business is it of his? Doesn't this also explain why under his watch emissions are going up. HOST: Sorry Andrew to be fair, if those figures if they had been true and there had been a $15 million expenditure on travel from one council, then you would expect that would be something worth pouncing on. The problem wasn't that he was pouncing on it; the problem was that it wasn't true.

GILES: Well yes, I guess that is the case, but Josh isn't it odd that the Energy Minister would be spending all this time looking at the City of Sydney's travel reports? I think he's got other jobs to do. But in any event, why won't he produce his metadata or any other evidence which demonstrates what actually happened in terms of accessing the documents? There is absolutely no basis upon which he stands up his claims here. I think Australians should be very concerned about this and also concerned about this and also concerned about the total failure of the Prime Minister, the hypocrisy of the Prime Minister not to keep to his word about ensuring his ministers obey the law.

HOST: Paul Scarr, what do you say to that?

SCARR: Will I think Andrew is demonstrating this is a matter in the political domain with the context and substance of that answer to be frank. It's a political issue and I think Andrew just demonstrated that.

HOST: Well Andrew Giles there are plenty of investigations that go on just in the political domain. They are often carried out. Was Labor a little premature in referring this to the police so quickly?

GILES: No. We gave Angus Taylor the opportunity to answer questions in the House of Representatives in Question Time. He didn't answer them and in fact, his statement to Clover Moore yesterday, makes clear just how unsatisfactory his answers were. Angus Taylor can clean this up by releasing all the documents, all the evidence the City of Sydney has which will demonstrate at what point his office received access to the documents on the website, or indeed he could make a full statement around any other evidence around him about what he knew about these obviously forged documents and what he did with them. He hasn't done so. He was late to apologise and frankly his apology raises many more questions than answers.

HOST: Just lastly Andrew, I assume that you would concede that it was unlikely that he knew that these figures were wrong, on 30th September, the Daily Telegraph in Sydney report on page 3 that the City of Sydney outlay on flights outstrips that of Australia's foreign minister. This was all part of the same story that Minister was pouncing on in collaboration with News Ltd, I mean you would not if you were a minister exactly want this story to be on the front-page, so, are you willing to at least withhold judgement and assume that he wasn't complicit?

GILES: What I would like Angus Taylor to do is to make clear exactly what he knew and when about the documents. Looking at them, it's clear that they were forgeries, and I'm not suggesting of course that he was involved in the commission of that but he has very serious questions to answer, as does the Prime Minister and I think his statement yesterday adds to that and I would like him to come up and make clear the answers today.

HOST: I think we might move to our second topic now, Parliament's intelligence and security committee this week rejected the government's facial recognition laws. Now under this plan, drivers licence, passports and visa images would be stored in a national identity database and would be made available for facial matching. Given what the Intelligence and Security Committee did this week, Senator Scarr, what is the government's plan now with the legislation?

SCARR: The government will be looking at the recommendations from the committee and working with the committee to progress the legislation. From my perspective, I think this is a great example of the system actually working. You have got a Joint Committee with representatives from the House of Representatives and the Senate working together. Six Liberal members and five Labor members I think doing their research hearing evidence getting submissions from a broad cross section of the community. Not just from peak organisations like the Law Council of Australia but also from every day citizen who express their concerns. Those concerns were considered and recommendations given to the minister.

HOST: Is that an acknowledgement that things need to change?

SCARR: I think this is an example of the system actually working and I pay tribute to the 11 members of the committee, both the Liberal and Labor members, because they actually did their homework, they looked at the legislation and their report is quite an excellent document assessing all of the evidence and coming back with some measured recommendations. I think that this is an example of the system working.

HOST: Andrew Giles we know that this is the way that the world is going, technology is moving so fast, artificial intelligence is evolving so quickly, our faces are recorded and our passports and drivers licences and obviously there would be great gains to be made in terms of efficiency of dealing with government institutions if they had simple ways of identifying who we are. However, this bill first introduced in 2018 would have allowed the Department of Home affairs to basically obtain facial images from state drivers licence databases and photographs held by the States and Territories. On that narrow question, whether or not the Department of Home Affairs should have access to state drivers licence photos - should it?

GILES: Look, what we are seeing more overreach from a Minister that has build an enormous architecture around himself in his Home Affairs department and what we have seen from the Parliamentary Committee's report is, as Paul said, the Parliament doing its job, but really the onus should be on the Minister and the Government to actually clearly articulate what they are doing and why. In this space, we are always trying to strike the balance between making sure Australians are kept safe and appropriate protection for privacy and civil liberties. It appears no such consideration took place by the Government before introducing this bill.

HOST: But Andrew it's easy to get a free partisan kick when in opposition but this is going to be something the Labor Party will have to deal with next time it's in government and this is the new reality we live in the 21st century. There are obviously huge gains and efficiencies to be made if government departments like Home Affairs can have access to this sort of technology, should they be able to?

GILES: Well the free kick here is only offered up Josh because of the way in the government conducted itself. These are difficult issues, I think everyone appreciates that we have to always strike the balance, but we should strike the balance by having the conversation about what we are trying to do first before we introduce legislation. That is what the Parliamentary Joint Committee has said; it's asked the government to go back to the drawing board. We have had a consistent record of working constructively with the government in this space and I imagine we'll do so when they have another go at striking the balance in the near future.

HOST: Paul Scarr identity theft is a growing problem. The Government says it's not about mass surveillance but can you understand people's privacy concerns around this, and is it a little bit of overreach?

SCARR: Well first can I just take on one of the points Andrew made there. We have be clear this legislation came out of an intergovernmental process, so this was the Federal Government and the State Governments deciding that something needed to be done to address identity theft. Identity theft costs Australians approximately $2.2 billion a year. One in 20 Australians is impacted by identity theft every year. Of course, there was no intention through this legislation to introduce mass surveillance. I think that that's been recognised by both the Labor and Liberal members on the committee. So something needs to be done but we need to get the balance, as Andrew said, between civil liberties and privacy, and also protecting against identity theft and also making sure that our national security interests are protected.

HOST: LNP Senator Paul Scarr and Labor MP Andrew Giles, thank you for your time this morning.

GILES: Great to be with you.

HOST: Thank you very much.