Subjects: The mourning period for Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II; Optus cyber attack; China-Australia relations; Taiwan; Anti Corruption Commission Bill; support to Ukraine; allegations at Hawthorn Football Club; Voice to Parliament; republic debate; cost of living; soaring inflation in the United States; the upcoming Budget.
Today marks the end of the mourning period for the passing of Queen Elizabeth II. I want to thank all of my colleagues for the way in which they’ve approached the last fortnight. Two weeks ago, the Prime Minister called me in the early hours of the morning following Queen Elizabeth’s death, and I’ve sought every day since then to be reasonable in our approach.
Obviously, there’s a lot that we could have said about different political issues over the course of last fortnight, but that wasn’t in accord with, I think, the spirit of the last two weeks of the mourning period. I want to pay tribute to the Prime Minister and to his government as well for honoring that arrangement, and also to the Governor-General as I mentioned yesterday at the service.
Both the Prime Minister and the Governor-General, I thought, in leading the delegation of the 10 Australians, really represented our country and was a great source of pride for our country as well, to see us represented there, and today, as I say, brings the mourning period to an end.
I think the contributions in the Parliament have been exceptional, and it’s a bipartisan approach which I think has really served our country well. It’s been in our national interest to behave in the way that we’ve behaved over the last fortnight. That period comes to an end, there are a couple of issues that I wanted to comment on.
Firstly, the issue around the Optus customer information or data breach. Now this may well be the biggest data breach in Australia’s history. Nine or 10 million people have had their data, their personal information potentially compromised. We don’t know much more detail than that because the Minister Clare O’Neil is missing an action.
I think there are a lot of Australians who rely day-to-day on their internet connection on their telephone obviously, and devices otherwise, that they would be using their homes, people may have shared passwords; there are a lot of people who are very concerned, particularly older Australians, about what has happened here and they need the reassurance from the government to provide that understanding of what is happening.
Is there a further likelihood of an attack by this group? Do we know whether it’s an organised crime group or do we believe that it’s a state actor that’s involved? Do we believe that there is a further compromise potentially? The system integrity – has it been restored within Optus? I mean these are questions that Clare O’Neil should be answering.
We’ve asked for a brief from the ACSC, and we’ll receive that soon I hope, but this is a very, very significant problem for the government, and the government had all the answers before the election, including how they were going to help families on cost of living and the rest, and they’ve completely walked away from any of that responsibility.
So I think it’s important for that information to be provided by the Minister and provided today to provide reassurance to those customers who are most affected by this most egregious breach.
The second issue; obviously we welcome the meeting between Penny Wong and her counterpart. It’s important that the conversations take place. We want to support the government in their international relations. I’ve made that very clear when Penny Wong and the Prime Minister engaged in the Solomon Islands. But as Labor pointed out when they were in opposition, you’ve got to pay on results, and in the Solomon Islands the situation has only deteriorated since Penny Wong first engaged and in relation to her engagement with the Chinese; well, I hope that we can have an outcome in relation to some of the human rights issues that will have been raised. I hope that we can have an outcome in relation to other issues – including the trade sanctions that are in place now – and the talk is one thing, but the outcome is really what we need and for those farmers, for those businesses, for those employees, for those people who are affected by the trade sanctions at the moment, that China’s imposed, we need to see the outcome, not just the talk and I hope that Minister Wong’s discussions can lead to the outcomes that we want. But, so far, that hasn’t happened. I’m happy to take questions.
Mr Dutton, on Taiwan; your Shadow Defence Minister said today he supported what the US President Joe Biden said, but said it was a change in posture, which is what he was supporting. Is this eroding the strategic ambiguity that the US and Australia has abided by since the 70s?
Well, I saw the interview Andrew Hastie had this morning, I thought it was an excellent interview. I think he was stating the obvious in terms of what the President of the United States has now stated on four separate occasions. Now, the White House has provided clarification after each of those occasions, and there’s speculation about the US intent in terms of that language, both by the President and then by the White House spokesperson. I’ll leave others to draw conclusions about that.
But the fact is, we live in a very uncertain time, and we want to be very close to the United States, as we are to the United Kingdom and through AUKUS. We’ve got an arrangement which will give us the best chance of security in our country for decades to come. We want to give every support to the government to see the nuclear submarines and the other deterrence capabilities achieved through AUKUS.
There’s no reason why there should be a delay in any of that, so I hope that all of that can be realised as quickly as possible. But I think Andrew was commenting on statements made by the President of the United States now on four occasions and what we’re seeing in Europe at the moment, is clearly a deeply concerning development, and if people think that peace will just prevail for the next 80 years, as it has for the last 80 years without anything being said, or any statement being made, or anybody being rebuffed or a statement of our values or principles, then I think it’s a grave mistake.
But he was expressly asked whether it was a change in posture. He said ‘yes’, then he said he supports that. So, if you’re supporting a change in posture, that would essentially mean that he’s walking away from strategic ambiguity and supports an intervention.
Well, let’s see what the US has to say. That’s their language. The White House has had statements to make, and we’ll see how that transpires.
Mr Dutton, what’s your disposition on the National Anti Corruption Commission Bill? Is it still to pass the Helen Haines model with whistleblower protection and scope to investigate political donors, or could you back Labor’s bill?
Well, I said when I first came into this job that I support the ICAC and certainly I do. I believe very strongly that there is no place for corruption at any level of government, within our system at all. The powers that are required within an ICAC to achieve that are very important.
At the same time, as we’ve seen in South Australia and elsewhere, public servants are caught up in this. We’ve seen people commit suicide as a result of show trials and false allegations that have been made against them, retracted investigations that go on for years. So, we’ll continue our discussions with the government in relation to that, that’s been the direction of my Party Room, and we’ll continue that discussion, but I support in principle an ICAC – the form of that and the way in which we want to work with the government – we’ll make more comment on that in due course.
Mr Dutton on Ukraine; this morning you said that there potentially has been delays inside the Defence Department regarding the Bushmasters. Do you think there is actually delay in terms of the delivery of these vehicles?
Look, I think Richard Marles is a good Defence Minister, and he’s a good friend of mine, as you know, but he’s got to show leadership.
We took very quick action –within weeks of President Zelensky’s request – to deliver those Bushmasters and the weapons systems that they require.
Now, if there are further outstanding requests from the Ukrainians, as I understand there is, then we need to understand from the Defence Minister whether the hold-up is in the Cabinet process, within the ERC process, whether the NSC hasn’t ticked off on it, or whether there’s a bureaucratic grind going on within the Department. Wherever the problem is, it needs to be resolved.
As I found out as Defence Minister, it’s a decision that you have to make and you’ve got to give the Department direction to honour the commitment that you’ve made, and that hasn’t happened, obviously.
We delivered over a quarter of a billion dollars worth of support to the Ukrainians within a very short period of time.
Now, Richard Marles this morning on the Today Show made it clear that this is going to be a protracted ordeal in the Ukraine – tragically, I think that’s right – so, if he’s made a decision to go slow in the equipment that he’s providing because he has to provide it over a longer period of time, then I think he should be frank about that, but at the moment, we just don’t know.
Just back on the federal integrity commission, do you support this idea that’s now being floated by Helen Haines, that people should be subject to commissioning even if they don’t have any actual contracts with the government, but you know, if they’ve approached the Minister?
Just secondly, if I might, the Hawthorn AFL horrendous reports we’ve seen this week, do you think that every AFL club should now be undertaking a review of how they’ve treated or handled Indigenous players?
Well, just on the second issue. I support the actions of the AFL in undertaking inquiries. It’s obviously a very serious allegation or series of allegations that have been made and I would take comfort frankly from the CEOs, if you look at Gill McLachlan or Peter V’landys, others, they take very seriously the issues in relation to Indigenous players, protections around women players, participation, all of those sorts of issues and they’re running professional organisations – probably the most professionally run sports businesses in the world. So, I think Gill McLachlan’s shown the leadership over the last few days that’s been required, or that you would expect and I’m sure if there are other decisions that need to be made, they’ll make that. It’s best made, not by politicians, but at that level.
On the integrity commission, well, as I’ve said, I support a body which roots out corruption wherever it is, but I do have a problem with, as I say, show trials. I don’t support people who have been promoted within the public service that gives rise then to a complaint that’s investigated, that takes a year or two, that brings an end to that career when there was no substantive allegation. I don’t like the fact that some of these investigations go on for years and people aren’t cleared. I think it’s a denial of justice in that circumstance – of natural justice – and so they’re the broad principles that we have approached the negotiations and the discussions with, and we’ll see whether there’s agreement.
Just a follow up on Katina’s question. Do you believe that unions should be able to be investigated under a federal ICAC and just on a second question, Hollie Hughes said last night on Sky that ‘the American President was starting to look like elder abuse’ – just your comments on those remarks?
Well, I haven’t seen those remarks, I don’t have any comment to make in relation to them. Look, in terms of the unions, if there is a union for example that is providing training services to the Commonwealth, then under the government’s Bill they would be captured. So again, I’m just not going to have a clause by clause public debate about it at the moment. I’m happy to have further discussions in due course, but at the moment, we’re having discussions as I’ve pointed out. I’ve spoken to the Prime Minister on the issue and we’ll continue that in good faith.
Mr Dutton, is there any update on the Coalition’s position on the Voice to Parliament – any further discussions?
No, I mean the last discussion that we had in the Joint Party Room on this issue I made a couple of points. I mean I’m concerned that the government is making a lot of this up on the run. It’s an incredibly important issue and I know that there are a number of Indigenous leaders now who are, I mean, being quoted in articles on background, I get that, but there is a lot of concern when you speak to people in private about whether the government really has thought all of this through as to what the implications will be, the basic questions can’t yet be answered.
The original position of the Prime Minister was to put a question on the Saturday and then provide the detail on the Monday. They backflipped from that position. I see Pat Dodson is now talking about legislation, I don’t know that Linda Burney is. They all seem to be on different timelines.
As well as you, I know the well-oiled machine of the Labor Party, if they’ve got a campaign to roll out, it’s pretty seamless and I just don’t see that at the moment. They’re making a lot of it up on the run.
I think there are questions that reasonably should be answered and we’re approaching it in good faith, but I hope that the Prime Minister can provide those answers.
On the protests that are taking place now in Iran, The Iranian Women’s Association here in Australia says that it’s disappointed that the Australian Government hasn’t taken a strong stance on the crackdown against protesters, as have other countries like Canada. What should the Australian Government be saying?
And if I can, you were once Home Affairs Minister, based on what we know publicly about the cyber attacks on Optus, are you worried that it’s a state actor?
Well, on the first issue, we condemn any acts of violence against women in Iran. We’ve seen instances in India, elsewhere. No matter whether people are our closest friends or international players that we wouldn’t normally converse with regularly, it’s unacceptable and should be condemned as a violent act against women – no ifs or buts – and I’d be surprised if the government didn’t have the same view.
On the cyber attack, I’m keen to get more information because there are many sophisticated actors out there. Some of them proxies for state actors, but as we saw during the course of COVID, countries including China were seeking to extract health records, aged care records, (inaudible), the rest of them because they’re a commodity and they can sell that information. They also pull up individual records and collate records on individuals of interest to them. So it could quite easily, conceivably be the actions of a state actor, but of course we don’t know because Clare O’Neil is nowhere to be seen.
So, basic detail is not being provided. It’s not going to compromise any investigation that’s underway, it’s not going to put the government in a position where they’re unable to stop another attack. I think they should be open and honest with the Australian public and transparent about what’s going on because a lot of people worry that their personal data has been stolen and could be used for all sorts of purposes.
With the mourning period over, is now the time to start officially talking about a republic?
No, I think as the Prime Minister has pointed out, there’s a time and a place for that debate. There’s public polling at the moment that indicates people’s intentions. We’ll see what happens in time and the government’s been clear that they’re not bringing forward a vote.
I’d be happy to contest a vote at the moment I must say, because I think in the outpouring and the grief that we’ve seen I think there’s also been, sort of a jolt to the reality of the stability that’s been provided to us through the monarchy and what promises to continue as well. Having the caliber of people like Adam Bandt or Clive Palmer, or others running around as presidential candidates, is probably not in our country’s best interest.
Mr Dutton, there’s thousands of Russians that are trying to flee the country at the moment after Vladimir Putin spoke about conscription or drafting people into the Russian army. Should Australia be doing anything to offer those people protection?
Well again, it’s a very difficult issue. The Australian Government is not in a position to have military support for those people or to have a presence in country that can provide that place of safe haven. So, there are practical limitations on what the government could do, but there may well be instances, circumstances where people can make claims and they would be assessed according to the international standards that we’ve signed up to and humanitarian laws otherwise.
What should Australia be doing to prepare for a possible recession in the US? Are we vulnerable to those global headwinds?
Well, it’s a good question. One of the things that I am very proud of is that the Australian economy is stronger than the US economy, it’s stronger in its fundamentals than the UK economy and probably stronger than most other developed economies in the world. Now yes, debt’s gone up, Labor supported all the debt and they wanted more debt, I must say, over the course of COVID in terms of the JobKeeper payments and the business support payments etc, Instant Asset Write Off – Labor supported all of that. So don’t believe that Jim Chalmers by surprise found that there was debt in the budget, they supported all of that spending and they wanted more – another $80 billion worth which we didn’t support.
So the fundamentals of the economy are strong; unemployment is at a five decade low, the labour market is very tight.
The US will go into recession. I think there’s general agreement with the commentators and the economists on that. The UK is very likely to go into recession, to say the least. Broader Europe is a concern – the debt issues from the GFC have only compounded – that money’s been cheap in recent years and manageable, but that resurfaces potentially as an issue. So, there could be very significant headwinds over the course of the next couple of years.
But governments always have those curveballs thrown at them. They always have issues to deal with. Now, John Howard never envisaged that he would have to deal with the issues he did over the course of his government, Kevin Rudd the same, Julia Gillard, and so on. So this Prime Minister knows what’s coming and my concern is that even with the strength of the Australian economy – and in my judgment we won’t have a recession here unless Labor really stuffs it up – and that’s my concern. If they make the wrong decisions, then Australians will feel more pain than otherwise they might. So, we will watch, we’ll support good policy, but we’re going to call the government out where they make bad policy as well.
Jim Chalmers is obviously handing down his first Budget in a couple of weeks. He’s flagged – he wrote today that they “will have to try and deal with issues in our clogged supply chains that are forcing up inflation”. The RBA Governor flagged a couple of weeks ago that the homebuyers grant, for example, had contributed up to two percentage points on that inflationary figure. Is it time to start winding down those kinds of grants and programs and you say it’s up to Labor to do the right thing, what is the right thing?
Well, Labor’s been elected and they said they had the answers so let’s see them in the Budget. If they haven’t got the answers then they should throw their hands up, because I mean Jim Chalmers – and the Prime Minister spoke about for example a $275 cut to electricity prices – they promised it on 100 occasions before the election, they’ve never mentioned it once since then. So, if they’ve got the answers, let’s see them in the Budget.
Homebuyers, first home buyers, it’s a very significant issue, and again, if the government’s got supply side answers to this issue, well, we’ll see it in the Budget no doubt. If they believe that the measures that have been put in place are too generous or should be wound back or should be provided in a different way, well that’s for the government to provide an answer to, but home ownership in our country is especially important to every generation and every government should be doing what we can to provide support because it’s a significant asset, that not only underpins the family, but also that couple or that individual or that relationship, whatever it is, into retirement. And as you all know, Labor can get this terribly wrong. In Queensland at the moment, the land tax suggestion is going to drive up rents and it’s going to drive investment out of Queensland (inaudible) and Labor could make those same mistakes nationally as well.
Thank you very much.