HOST: It’s a Wednesday morning, it’s after 8:30, it’s Two Tribes. Christopher Pyne and Anthony Albanese on the line; good morning to you both.
PYNE: Good morning Will.
HOST: Now guys, thanks for joining us as always. Now the Question Time yesterday was dominated by discussion about the changes to the Racial Discrimination Act where the Government is proposing to get of the passage about offending, insulting or humiliating people and replace it with the word harass. But I’ll start with you if I can Chris; what would you say to Asian Australians or Muslim people or Indigenous Aussies in the seat of Sturt today who are going, is this going to make it easier for people to be really rude about me?
PYNE: I would say to them that what we are doing is restoring credibility to 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which has become used by activists to really shut down opinion rather than its purpose when it was formed by the Labor Party, which was to stop people being persecuted because of their race. Now when a law is being used to prosecute cartoonists or students with an opinion about the case of the Queensland student saying that a room, that the university was using segregation to oppose segregation, to hardly intimidating or harassing anyone, then I think the law is being over used and what we’re trying to do is make it stronger, make it fairer and make it serve its purpose, which is to stop people being intimidated or harassed because of their race. So in fact I would say to my Asian and Jewish and other constituents in my electorate, this will make Section 18C do what it was supposed to do in the first place. I would also say to them, you know the law was never designed to stop people having hurt feelings and if people want to hurt my feelings that’s obviously disappointing, but it shouldn’t be illegal.
HOST: To you Albo. If Labor supports the status quo on this issue, doesn’t logic tell you that that means Labor was quite comfortable seeing these Queensland university students being dragged through the courts and seeing the now deceased cartoonist Bill Leak having the spectre of prosecution hanging over his head for so long as well.
ALBANESE: Well there was no spectre. 18D makes it very clear that journalists basically, you’ve got a bit of a free for all in the basis of freedom of the press. And everyone knows that that’s the case.
HOST: But that’s not the way it played out. Sorry Albo, that’s not the way it played out with Bill.
ALBANESE: Yes it is. I’m afraid that in terms of, it was very clear that Bill Leak would never have been found guilty of anything.
HOST: But he still had to go through the process.
ALBANESE: Well lots of times people will make allegations and processes being fixed up is one thing, and I certainly agree that processes could be streamlined so that straight away if there’s a frivolous or vexatious claim it could be dealt with immediately. That I agree with.
But the issue here is the Government can’t explain what it wants people to be able to say that they currently aren’t allowed to say under the current law. And that’s what the Government can’t point to. Why this change? This is all about the internals in the Liberal Party. I’ve got to tell you not once in my electorate or anywhere I’ve been in Australia has someone come up to me and said that I think the big priority for the Government is to change 18C. Of all the challenges that we have. And Barnaby Joyce, of all people, has called it out by saying exactly the same thing that I just said.
HOST: But Governments can walk and chew gum at the same time though. I mean you don’t (inaudible) ask a lot of questions about it if it doesn’t matter.
ALBANESE: This Government isn’t walking and it isn’t chewing gum and it isn’t governing. This is a Government in search for a sense of purpose.
HOST: So back to you Chris Pyne. Why has the Government’s position shifted around on this so much? In a way it feels to me like the death of Bill Leak and Malcolm Turnbull’s great respect for him and friendship indeed with him made the PM go you know what, stuff this, I’m actually going to do something about it now.
PYNE: No that’s not what happened and I can tell you as a member of the Cabinet that this was discussed by the Cabinet before Bill Leak passed away. It’s obviously very sad about Bill Leak’s death but that wasn’t the reason why it’s been done. Since it was last considered a couple of years ago quite a lot has changed and the 18C as it stands now has lost a lot more of its credibility. Even Gillian Triggs the head of the Human Rights Commission who has not been described as a great supporter of this Government has said that 18C needs to be reformed. Very significant jurists around the country have said 18C is not fit for purpose. And, of course, as Anthony said we are actually proposing a whole raft of other changes to the procedures and operations of the Human Rights Commission, which will also make a very significant difference because as a Liberal I want to see the Human Rights Commission have credibility and have the support of the entire country. And I don’t think that’s the case at the moment because the perception is that it operates on the basis of political correctness rather than its purpose which is to protect people from discrimination so I think this will strengthen the Human Rights Commission and the law.
HOST: Under the changes Christopher Pyne, what now constitutes harassment? Does it need to be persistent?
PYNE: No it doesn’t have to be persistent but persistence would help to constitute harassment for example for low level harassment. But you can be sexually harassed with one incident in the workplace for example. So an incident can be so egregious that there only needs to be one of them for it to be harassment.
HOST: But if I was to use a racial epithet that was entirely insensitive but it was a flippant throwaway line, can I now be prosecuted under 18C?
PYNE: Well you would have to ask the lawyers at the Human Rights Commission whether what you said was inappropriate and therefore for it to be prosecuted under the new law. I can’t give you that advice right now because it would depend on a whole raft of different circumstances at the time. But harassment and intimidation suggest a more, certainly persistence, but also intention to harm the person to whom the intimidation and harassment is being directed, whereas the current words which (inaudible) insult or offend have been so twisted now that even the High Court has had to explain what they mean. Now when you get to that point, when people are taking actions against Bill Leak because of a cartoon that they didn’t like, which they said hurt their feelings that is not the purpose of the Racial Discrimination Act.
HOST: Your point earlier Albo, where you were saying the Leak case shouldn’t have panned out the way that it did and having some procedural qualms about the matter in which the Queensland University students’ case unfolded. If Labor thinks that there’s a procedural sort of issue with it, are you actually advocating procedural change? Because it looks to me like your position is well no, we’ve got other things we should be worrying about, let’s just ignore this and talk about something else.
ALBANESE: I’ve got to tell you David that the idea that this is the number one priority for the Government when they’ve got an economy that’s tanking and they’ve got underemployment, when they’ve got – they can’t work out, we’ve got a Gonski bus out the front of Parliament House today, they can’t work out the education funding for schools and this is a priority for the Government. And guess what, they’re not going to get it through the Senate, it would appear. They then will be back to the beginning and they’ll be able to say to the hard right of the Liberal Party, well we tried. I mean obviously in the Bill Leak case I made my position very clear, including to Bill Leak who I had a discussion with about it.
HOST: That was after our interview, I remember.
ALBANESE: Yes it was absurd the idea that he would be prosecuted for that. Absurd.
PYNE: But he was.
HOST: He was.
ALBANESE: He wasn’t. He wasn’t. That’s just not true.
HOST: Only because it was dropped though.
ALBANESE: No, that’s not right. There was a complaint. Like I’m sure there are complaints to whatever the communications appropriate tribunal is about you two blokes from time to time and you respond to the complaint.
HOST: I think we’ve got a clear sheet so far, but we’ll take it one day at a time.
ALBANESE: Surely there has to be at least a complaint.
HOST: Maybe about this segment.
ALBANESE: I’m sure there is. Probably about all four of us. But there wasn’t a prosecution of Bill Leak.
HOST: We could go on all day about that.
PYNE: Anthony is (inaudible) truth politics.
ALBANESE: It should have been thrown out immediately in terms of…
HOST: It should have been. But it wasn’t.
PYNE: I can’t let Anthony get away with saying the economy is tanking when in fact it’s growing; the fastest economy in the G7 nations.
ALBANESE: It’s all going well mate. Underemployment…
HOST: All right we’re going to leave it guys. Chris Pyne, Anthony Albanese, thank you so much for joining us.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.