Topics: COVID-19 response; important changes from the Morrison Government to make social media safer; Morrison Government partnering with industry to crack down on text scams; Federal ICAC.
MATT WEBBER: Karen Andrews is the Minister for Home Affairs and the Member for McPherson, and there is much to discuss, as there always is. Ms Andrews, good morning.
KAREN ANDREWS: Good morning, Matt.
MATT WEBBER: First things first, Minister – Omicron, the new variant and a special meeting, I believe, convened for later in the day?
KAREN ANDREWS: Look, in relation to Omicron it’s certainly a variant of concern. The world is watching that; we’re watching that here in Australia. There will be a number of meetings that are held today, tomorrow and no doubt in days subsequent to that. So, my understanding is that there will be meetings of various Government Ministers today to look at what the implications of this variant are. I will be participating in those meetings as the Minister for Home Affairs. At this stage, we’re in such an early stage in relation to this variant. We’re really – along with many other nations – trying to find out as much as we can about its transmissibility to know what we need to do to protect Australians.
MATT WEBBER: Minister, the decision to let migrant workers back in and international students – of course, particularly relevant here on the Gold Coast – will those decisions now be under review, do you think?
KAREN ANDREWS: At this point in time, we are still proceeding with the announcement that we made last week in relation to international students, economic cohorts – which are skilled migrants and others – coming into the country. Obviously, we will need to take the advice from our health professionals, as we have done in the past. But we all know two things: one, how important those cohorts are to us and particularly on the Gold Coast to make sure that we’re getting the students in, and the workers, particularly for our hospital areas. We know really how important it is for us to be able to do that. But secondly, I think that many Australians at least understand the need for us to be able to live and work in the COVID environment in which we find ourselves. Now I said that well over 12 months ago – as have many others – and I think that where we look at the Omicron variant yes, we have to be cautious; yes, we have to listen to all of the advice and take the health advice; but I think it’s probably fair to say that we’ve had a number of variants already. It’s reasonable to assume that there will be other variants and we have to make sure that we put in place the processes to be able to deal with it. Now, importantly, Australia’s vaccination rate sits at over 86 per cent. That puts us in very good stead, particularly compared to other nations where some of those are still in the 30 per cent.
MATT WEBBER: To the online space and telecommunications too. We’ll get to the latter in a moment, but over the weekend we heard our Prime Minister say that under new laws people who believe they’ve been defamed online will be able to get court orders forcing social media giants to reveal who’s responsible for the posts and such matters. This proposed legislation, why this and why now? Who asked for it?
KAREN ANDREWS: It’s very important legislation and I can recall when I first was moved into the Home Affairs Portfolio – which is seven or so months ago now – I was asked about this particular issue by the media. I said it was very important that these trolls – these people who were out there doing the wrong thing online – should not be able to hide behind some sort of pseudonym. So, it’s been around as an option that we need to look at for quite some time. We have worked as closely as we possibly can with industry – understanding that parts of the sector are not going to think this is a great idea – but our focus is on protecting Australians, because there are so many people out there who have been defamed online and who have had serious consequences to them, whether they’re schoolkids or at work. For our schoolkids – they’ve been subjected to cyberbullying, and it’s had real implications for them. For some people – their reputations get trashed at work because of people making online defamatory remarks. I think it’s absolutely the right time for people to know that the Government is giving them the opportunity to take action. I have little to no sympathy for any of the social media platforms that don’t want to assist in this quite frankly; if they’re not prepared to expose who these people are, they will be the publisher and they will wear the implications of that.
MATT WEBBER: Member for McPherson, Home Affairs Minister, Karen Andrews with me. I think of COVID issues bubbling away; I think of Federal ICAC; I think of climate-related issues. We finished the year with a kind of a sideshow about religious freedoms and now this trolling thing; is it a little bit of an underwhelming way to finish the year off?
KAREN ANDREWS: No, I do not think so. In terms of the range of issues that this Government is dealing with. Quite frankly we’ve been dealing with a lot of issues during the course of COVID, it’s just that many people have had their full focus on that. Now without a doubt, there’s more legislation that’s been introduced or is being introduced now – namely, the Religious Discrimination Bill. That work has been underway for some time, a lot of consultation has been done, particularly by the Attorney General, Michaelia Cash. But in terms of the national security legislation which I have had passed, some of that was actually introduced into the House last year. It’s gone through its processes of consultation; processes of examination by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security; we’re now at the stage where this legislation has been either introduced or come back following the committee recommendations, and they’re being formalised. But from a national security point of view, I am delighted that we’ve been able to get through some legislation last week that deals with critical infrastructure.
MATT WEBBER: On other matters – telecommunications – you’re looking to shut down scam text messages and the like and have an announcement about this today: an important regulatory amendment empowering the telecommunications sector to identify and block SMS scams at the source. Can you tell us a bit more about this?
KAREN ANDREWS: Yes, absolutely and I think it’s actually an important step, one of many that we’ve taken on a range of issues, including dealing with scam issues, but also this really goes more broadly to the issues of cybercrime, because this is what these people are. The scammers are criminals; some of them are very well organised; some of them are operating from overseas and, basically, what they are doing – and many of us would have already been affected by this, we have would have had an SMS message coming through that may be telling us that a parcel has arrived; could be at the local post office, but it could be through one of the other delivery organisations. We click on that, and we are scammed immediately; often it’s malware that goes on to our system; it could be a ransomware attack; it could be just gathering information; sometimes it’s ‘pay an extra $5 to make sure that your delivery is delivered ASAP’. All those sorts of things make it really difficult for consumers to understand whether or not they’re fake or whether or not they’re genuine, but we want to crack down on the ones that aren’t genuine. So, what these regulations do is make it easier for the telcos to get in there and put in the tech that they need to be blocking these SMS messages.
MATT WEBBER: What about those painful messages from Craig Kelly and Clive Palmer and the like?
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, it’s interesting that you raise that. Many people have raised that as well too. It’s dealt with under other legislation; this is actually specifically dealing with things that are largely criminal by nature, that are actually trying to scam people and get their money. I’m certainly not excusing any of the other messages that are going out by others, but this actually deals with making sure that the opportunities for scammers to get there and take people’s identity or get money out of them or put malware on to their system is vastly reduced.
MATT WEBBER: Our Prime Minister in Parliament late last week talking about talking about federal ICAC:
SCOTT MORRISON: Which is has seen the most shameful attacks on the former Premier of New South Wales Gladys Berejiklian, Mr Speaker. What was done to Gladys Berejiklian the people of New South Wales know was an absolute disgrace Mr Speaker and I’m not going to allow Mr Speaker – I’m not going to allow that sort of a process-
MATT WEBBER: The conversation was about a Federal ICAC, and we know that there has been some discussion ongoing about all of this, but how comfortable are you seeing your leader, our Prime Minister, use parliamentary privilege to undermine a statutory authority empowered by law to keep our public officials on the straight and narrow? I’m talking about New South Wales ICAC.
KAREN ANDREWS: There were many parts to the issue that the Prime Minister actually spoke about last week in Parliament. Firstly, there was – clearly – a very strong defence of Gladys Berejiklian, and many people are concerned about the fact that Gladys Berejiklian – who was widely considered to be a very good Premier – resigned and is no longer Premier of New South Wales. That’s no reflection on whoever took her place, but Gladys Berejiklian was a very popular leader, widely considered to have done a very good job particularly through the COVID pandemic-
MATT WEBBER: We’ve seen other popular leaders fall foul of ICAC in the past. I think of Nick Greiner, and his government was the one that instituted ICAC in the first place. We’re still waiting on the report to be handed down by ICAC to New South Wales Parliament so how can it possibly be appropriate for a Prime Minister to undermine it in the manner that he did in the Lower House?
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, I think there are a lot of people who have particular views on the ICAC process itself and I think – to be clear – the point that the Prime Minister was trying to make is that any Federal integrity commission should not be a kangaroo court. Now, there’s been a lot of comments that have been made about-
MATT WEBBER: So, do you say that the New South Wales ICAC is a kangaroo court?
KAREN ANDREWS: I think there’s a lot of things that have happened that actually make it really difficult for the individuals concerned, and it goes back to the reputational damage that these people have been subject to. A lot of allegations are made, particular lines of questioning. It’s all very public and the individuals concerned have to go through a process of defending themselves in an incredibly public forum that is subject to a lot of commentary by the media. All of those things will be considered reasonable by some people, but I have very strong views that we should be working down the path of making sure that people have the opportunity to be well represented, to put their points of view across, and they should not be subject to anything like a kangaroo court where their reputations are damaged before they have the opportunity to respond and defend themselves.
MATT WEBBER: But this in the same breath – I mean, you’re asking a lot of people in terms of transparency, this new idea that you’re floating around social media and removing anonymity from that process when you’re not willing to turn the gaze back on your own Government. I’m thinking about Christian Porter’s blind trust of legal donors and the like. Do you see how people might be talking about hypocrisy given these kinds of developments?
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, if we’re going to talk about my personal views, I actually think that there should be high levels of honesty, transparency and integrity by all elected officials and it doesn’t matter whether they’re independents or whether they’re part of a political party; whether it’s local, Federal or state governments; so I do actually support that. What I do think though is that there should be a fairness element to that; so there are proper procedures put in place so people are treated fairly and equitably. I’m not going to defend people who have done the wrong thing, but I do think that everyone should have the opportunity in a fair and reasonable manner to respond to issues of honesty, transparency and integrity without it being a kangaroo court, which is actually destroying people’s reputations in the process.
MATT WEBBER: So, what might it look like then? What would a Federal ICAC look like from your point of view?
KAREN ANDREWS: Look, I think we’ve actually made it very clear what our position is in relation to a federal integrity commission and we’re very happy to proceed with that, but we are looking for bipartisan support for that. I think that is important for us to be able to do; but I do think – to go back to what I said before – we need to actually have an opportunity for a level of scrutiny and politicians; elected officials; elected representatives should actually be treated fairly and equitably and not basically hung out to dry before they have an opportunity to defend their reputations. That is really the nub of the issue.
MATT WEBBER: Karen Andrews, we’ll leave it there. Appreciate your time this morning as always.