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The Morrison vacuum

Jun 14, 2019 • 14m48s

As Scott Morrison searches for a path to legislate his tax cuts, concerns over press freedom continue to trouble his government.

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The Morrison vacuum

14 • Jun 14, 2019

The Morrison vacuum

[Theme starts]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Elizabeth Kulas. This is 7am.

ELIZABETH:

The week in politics has been dominated by concerns over press freedom. The issue now threatens relations with the crossbench, as Scott Morrison looks for a path to legislate his tax cuts. Paul Bongiorno on the Prime Minister’s untidy week and his uneasy relationship with the press.

[Theme ends]

ELIZABETH:

Paul, how would you describe this week in politics?

PAUL:

Well, look, there’s the feeling that we're basically in a vacuum and I don't think it's got a lot to do with the fact that the Coalition had an unexpected election win.

[Music starts]

PAUL:

And it really didn't have an agenda that captured the imagination of the nation so that we are looking every day for a new headline to say what our government is doing today to make us all happier and better off.

ELIZABETH:

Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper.

PAUL:

So, I think that Scott Morrison has been assiduously doing nothing, very much.

ELIZABETH:

And nature abhors a vacuum?

PAUL:

It certainly does, and in politics, especially events have a habit of filling vacuums. And what we've seen particularly in the last two weeks, is the spectre of an incipient police state. Those raids on journalists in Canberra and in Sydney continue to reverberate.

ELIZABETH:

And how did the Prime Minister respond to those reverberations?

PAUL:

So it's taken about three or four days but Scott Morrison has come up with a new formula. What he's doing now is he's listening.

Archived tape - Scott Morrison:

"What I’m going to do on this issue is, listen, carefully, I think we have to keep these matters in perspective..."

PAUL:

He's certainly getting an earful from all quarters but particularly the media, media owners, media managers and I'm pretty sure that Scott Morrison and the new Communications Minister Paul Fletcher have sat down and put their heads together and they've come up with this form of words...

Archived tape - Scott Morrison:

"If there is a suggestion or evidence or any analysis that reveals that there is a need for further improvement of those laws, well the government is always open to that…but it’s important that we honour both of those principles."

PAUL:

He says I intend to proceed calmly, and soberly, and...

Archived tape - Scott Morrison:

"And consultatively. Thank you all very much."

ELIZABETH:

Hmm so he's saying I'll hear others out. I’ll hear the press out on this and I'll get back to you.

PAUL:

Yeah. He said well we'll look at reform but it's clear they're not very excited about it.

ELIZABETH:

OK. And so what does current legislation for press freedom and press protections look like?

PAUL:

Well there are limited protections for journalists and whistleblowers, some of these were introduced in a very restricted way in the last couple of years. But George Williams, the constitutional law expert, has been through legislation since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States and he's found 50 pieces of new law that erode the very democratic freedoms, including the rights of freedom of speech and liberty, that they're designed to protect. And Elizabeth, since that analysis by Williams, there's been another 25 pieces of legislation that fit into the same category of restricting freedoms and putting jail terms on journalists. You know this is the sort of conclusion that one would expect, maybe, if you examine the laws of China.

ELIZABETH:

And Paul is there pressure on the government right now to change this, to increase those protections for both journalists and whistleblowers?

PAUL:

Well, look, there is. News Corporation, that's Rupert Murdoch's Australian arm, it's been on the case as you'd imagine for a long time and its senior executive, Campbell Reid, said this week that there's no need for another inquiry. He says the dangers associated with the expanding dossier of laws that can put journalists in jail has been raised repeatedly with governments and politicians over the past decade. Reid says the Government should stop ignoring what it's being told, you know, to put it another way, it's all very well for Scott Morrison to claim he's listening, as far as Campbell Reid’s concerned, the Prime Minister and other senior politicians on both sides, have got tin ears.

ELIZABETH:

Paul, this whole episode underscores the sometimes tense relationship between the government and the press. You've had reports out of the last joint party room meeting to that effect. What did you learn?

PAUL:

Yeah, it's interesting how things seep out of party room meetings. Scott Morrison decided to give them a pep talk and one of the key things he told them was remember journalists aren't your friends. He cautioned the assembled MP’s and senators not to be flattered by invitations to go on the various TV and radio programs. And this is a take out I got from a couple who were in the room, because “the media is intent on catching our politicians and embarrassing governments.” So while we had the new Communications Minister Paul Fletcher saying a couple of times in interviews this week that freedom is a bedrock principle in a democracy. They're actually not all that keen to see pesky journalists be given too free a reign.

[Music starts]

ELIZABETH:

And what did what is known as coalition MPs you have spoken to you what are they saying about how this is playing out?

PAUL:

Well one wasn't all that impressed by the way, which the Prime Minister's got this new listening form of words and he's waiting for someone to come up with evidence. He said look the fact of the matter is the government just wants this whole issue to go away.

ELIZABETH:

We’ll be right back.

[Music ends]

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ELIZABETH:

Paul, you’ve heard that Morrison has told his MP’s at the first joint party room meeting that quote “journalists are not your friends.” And at the same time we've seen these AFP raids on media organisations that are not a comfortable look at all for democracy in this country. Is Labor doing something to address this?

PAUL:

Well, yes, the new Shadow Minister for Home Affairs Kristina Keneally, she's now calling for a parliamentary committee but to scrutinise the national security framework that we have in place, one that Labor helped put in place. She said it should review the balance between national security and press freedom. In other words, she wants a joint committee, that is one made up of members of the Senate and the House of Representatives, to look at all the national security laws and see what their impact is on Australia as a free state.

ELIZABETH:

And Labor have obviously offered bipartisanship to all of these laws over the last decade and more, is Keneally being hypocritical here?

PAUL:

Well, Keneally pleads that the party has been in opposition since 2013. It is true that Labor has sponsored many amendments but ultimately as she says the Government needs to show leadership on the issue. But but you're right, former intelligence analyst and whistleblower, the MP Andrew Wilkie, remember he blew the whistle on the Iraq war and the intelligence that the government said it was receiving. So a genuine whistleblower in the national interest. He said Labor's been largely complicit in the incremental erosion of our freedoms and that's a prophetic voice that we all hope is listened to.

ELIZABETH:

Paul, this issue of national security and of press freedom is attention that isn't going to be going away anytime soon. But it also interacts with other parts of the Government's agenda. Can we go to what happened this week with senator Rex Patrick from the Centre Alliance?

PAUL:

Well in the new Senate, the Government needs four of the six crossbenchers to pass its legislation if Labor and the Greens are against it. So he is a crucial vote. Now, he was very upset, very animated by the raids the other week, he put out a press release on the day that it had happened saying that the Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton and his departmental secretary Mike Pezzullo quoting “hate media scrutiny” and he said that the raid on journalist Annika Smethhurst’s apartment reeked of intimidation and retribution.

ELIZABETH:

Is that such a controversial position from Rex Patrick... is that such a unique position for him to be taking?

PAUL:

Well, it did upset Pezzullo a great deal. We know that a Pezzullo is a very powerful bureaucrat heading what is now I think the biggest department in the federal government in terms of its reach. And Pezullo as a result is at the top of our security architecture. Well it emerged that he phoned Rex Patrick. He says he wasn't trying to intimidate it. He just wanted him to reflect on his unfounded comments about Pezzullo and Dutton hating, hating scrutiny. But Patrick, of course, he said actually that the phone call was polite and Pezzullo was, you know, quite measured but when he hung down the phone he had to think about it.

[Music starts]

ELIZABETH:

And what conclusion did he come to?

PAUL:

Well, it didn't take him very long apparently to be alarmed by it.

Archived tape – Rex Patrick:

"I’ve tried to reconcile in my mind what the phone call was about. And the only thing I can think is that he was trying to get me to be quiet in respect of my criticisms of the Department of Home Affairs."

PAUL:

To stop him criticising the Department. And in one comment, Patrick said “in effect this is the head of our security apparatus ringing up a senator saying I don't like you commenting in the way you did.” That is definitely overstepping the mark.

Archived tape – Rex Patrick:

"That’s a step that has gone way too far. "

[Music ends]

ELIZABETH:

Yeah, it's not a good look.

PAUL:

Well, it's not a good look at all.

ELIZABETH:

And why does that matter for Morrison beyond the event itself?

PAUL:

Well, as I pointed out the numbers in the Senate, and even though the government that is the Coalition has improved its position, the Senate still falls short of a majority to get its legislation through. So he'll be relying on Rex Patrick and his colleague Stirling Griff, they'll be two votes for crossbench support to pass the 158 billion dollar three stage tax cuts package. Pauline Hanson got into the act. She said at this stage she's not inclined to pass the whole package. She said she wants billions spent on a new Queensland coal fired power station, she says to “reduce energy prices.” Exclamation mark to that comment. But anyway. And and she also says she wants to see the Bradfield Scheme to ensure water security in Australia. That's the scheme dreamt up by an engineer John Bradfield, in the thirties to turn the northern rivers south. First of all, that scheme has been ridiculed for the past 50 years as being impractical. But besides that, Pauline Hanson's got a cost for it. She says those two alone would cost 20 to 25 billion dollars. So, she wants those billions that would go into the top end tax cuts to be diverted to her schemes.

ELIZABETH:

So Paul, if we could move back to Rex Patrick, just for a moment, he’s of course a key vote in the Senate. What does Morrison make of his Departmental Secretary calling Patrick up to say essentially “reconsider those comments that you’re making publicly?”

PAUL:

Yes, it was interesting that it didn't take much prodding in one of the doorstops that Morrison did this week after news of the phone call came through. Morrison said well, it's not appropriate. That is the phone call wasn’t appropriate. And he discussed it with Peter Dutton and the Prime Minister claimed that the Dutton had an appropriate conversation with the secretary.

ELIZABETH:

And do we know how that call between Dutton and Pezullo actually went, what happened?

PAUL:

Yeah, we did get an insight of this and to claim that it was appropriate is highly debatable. In a statement to the ABC..

[Music starts]

Dutton said he advised the secretary “it was counterproductive to make this call because I, that is Peter Dutton, I've always found Senator Patrick to be a person of the sort of character who would seek to misrepresent the secretary's words.” And the secretary agreed the contact was inappropriate and that's where the matter ends. That's where the matter ends, well, you're just telling Rex Patrick that basically he's a liar and misconstrue things for his own purposes. It’s hardly a way to get him onside.

ELIZABETH:

That’s one way to handle it.

PAUL:

Yeah.

ELIZABETH:

So it's not the best end to the week for the government then?

PAUL:

No, it’s surprising for a government that pulled off such a stunning election win. They've had yet another untidy week.

ELIZABETH:

Paul, thank you so much.

PAUL:

Thank you very much, Elizabeth. Always lovely to chat.

[Music ends]

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ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:
It was a big day yesterday for Adani’s Carmichael Coal Mine in the Galilee Basin. Initial work can begin on the mine after the Queensland Government approved the Indian company’s groundwater management plan.

The approval comes a day after the Australian Conservation Foundation succeeded in its Federal Court challenge to the federal government’s approval of the mine’s water scheme. The government conceded the case, accepting that it had lost public submissions in the course of the approval and failed to consider other responses. That federal approval will now be considered again.

And the British Home Secretary has signed an extradition order for Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, following a request from the U.S. government. Assange will face an extradition hearing in London today.

7am is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz and Atticus Bastow with Michelle Macklem and Eliza Berlage.

Erik Jensen is our editor.

Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Equate Studio.

If you’ve got a moment, please consider subscribing to the show through your favourite podcast app. Or leave us a review if you listen on iTunes or Stitcher. It helps others find the show.

This is 7am.

I’m Elizabeth Kulas. See you next week.

The week in politics has been dominated by concerns over press freedom. The issue now threatens relations with the crossbench, as Scott Morrison looks for a path to legislate his tax cuts. Paul Bongiorno on the prime minister’s maxim: journalists are not your friends.

Guest: Columnist for The Saturday Paper Paul Bongiorno.

Background reading:

All quiet on the Morrison front in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein and Ruby Schwartz. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Equate Studio.

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14: The Morrison vacuum