SUBJECTS: AFP raids, freedom of the press, public interest journalism.
JONATHAN GREEN: Michelle Rowland is the Shadow Minister for Communications. Welcome.
MICHELLE ROWLAND, SHADOW MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: Thank you.
GREEN: AFP, as you heard there, says there's no political interference or pressure in these raids, these investigations. Are you satisfied by that explanation?
ROWLAND: Well Labor's issue here has never been with the AFP, who conduct their duties without fear or favour. The questions here go to the government and the relevant ministers, including Minister Dutton and the Attorney General. Now, the AFP would've needed a referral to undertake these raids, and there are serious questions being raised here about not only these raids but also investigations that weren't followed up when leaks occurred, including that issue of the Medivac proposal. So in this sense I think that it's important to recognise the issues in question here go both to existing powers, also to what the Government's view is on this, and the question's that still haven't been answered. And I think it's important to note, and even just judging from the correspondence I've received in the last 24 hours or so from constituents and from a number of people right around Australia, this is an issue of deep concern to the Australian public.
GREEN: So you don't take Acting Commissioner Gaughan at his word? He says there was no political interference, that there was no pressure, that there was a referral at the beginning of the investigation but none around these raids in the last 48 hours.
ROWLAND: I'm not suggesting any interference. What Labor has been saying is that there are questions that the government needs to answer. Labor has never taken an issue with the AFP conducting its job.
GREEN: Well, so let me clarify that. I mean, if there are questions for the government to answer but they're not interference with the AFP, what are those questions?
ROWLAND: The questions go to issues of who gave these referrals, on what advice where they given? We want to hear this from the government themselves, from the Ministers themselves.
GREEN: Wouldn't that amount to political interference?
ROWLAND: I'm not suggesting that at all, and Labor hasn't been suggesting that. But there are serious questions here about what referrals were given. There are questions here about when referrals haven't been given. We need to remember this is all in the context of the fact that this is not normal. This is not correct for a Prime Minister and for Minister Dutton to behave and give comments as if this is normal or it’s business as usual. These raids are extraordinary, and it's not just Labor saying that, it's very respected commentators saying that.
GREEN: Is there a selectivity in the leaks that are followed up by the AFP? For example, you've mentioned the Medivac leak and potentially that leak of information from the office of Michaelia Cash.
ROWLAND: Well, that's precisely my point. My point is why are some of these referrals followed up and others not. It's a very genuine question and one, again, that needs to be put to the government.
GREEN: I imagine the AFP might say it rests with the severity of the potential offence?
ROWLAND: Well they could say that, but again the issue is that the AFP needs a referral in order to conduct these investigations.
GREEN: There's a complex set of circumstances here. We have a police force enforcing the law, but as a consequence of that we may see charges levelled against journalists and certainly the potential of prosecution of whistleblowers. Do we need extra protections around both those circumstances, around the whistleblowing, around the journalism?
ROWLAND: Well you're absolutely right that it is a very complex area, and calls for a bill of rights scenario to enshrine freedom of our media from interference, these have been around for a long time. There have been advocates for and against. Some cautioning against what it would mean for other areas of the law and other rights. So that scenario is not new. It certainly isn't an area that has been settled but...
GREEN: What's your feeling about that?
ROWLAND: I think it is very difficult to judge in the context of what we have before us. It is very easy, I think, to say 'well this means that the law needs to be changed in any number of different areas.' But what I do think we need to look at, Jonathan, is the fact that a lot of this in Australia has been undertaken by convention to date. And again, just to point out that these raids happened as a result, and pursuant to, laws that have been in place for a very long time.
So there has always been this tension between national security issues and freedom of our media. But I would caution against knee-jerk reactions. Now that is not to say the issue of whistleblower protections is new. That has been around for a very long time. Labor has long supported protection for whistleblowers and mechanisms by which that can be improved. But your comments at the start are absolutely right. This is a complex area of law, not only because it goes to advocacy for law reform and it crosses over between national security and freedom of our media, but it has always been subject to convention in Australia as well.
GREEN: As you say, the raids, in particular the ones yesterday, they're pursuant to legislation which dates back to the First World War. So it's not part of that slow escalation of legislation in this area which has taken place with almost unanimous bipartisan support in recent years. If there is a legislative effect which is beginning to chill press freedom, to imperil, potentially, the flow of whistleblower information, is that not a point on which you and the government fundamentally as parties agree?
ROWLAND: Well let's be very clear. When we had pieces of legislation going to this issue, including the changes about a year ago, Labor worked very diligently on these matters with PJCIS. They were lengthy but necessary deliberations to make bad proposed government legislation better, and some of these measures included protections for journalists. Very specific protections including in relation to metadata access for journalists requiring a warrant, public interest defences for journalists, and Labor worked very constructively with the sector to secure these amendments. But as you say again, this is a complex area of tension between different priorities within our society, but it does go to an issue that Australians, I think, have always held as fundamental, and that's a free media. No-one's going to say they don't support a free media in this country, but then we are faced with these tests, our commitment and our commitment as a nation and the commitment of the government is one that Australians want to hear about and want to have affirmed in action, not just in word.
GREEN: Yes, it's an easy thing to say, a harder thing to do. And as you say too, complex, and perhaps an area deserving of further inquiry. Your colleague, Mark Dreyfus, this morning said Labor might welcome or indeed move itself to establish a Senate Inquiry to look into these raids. Do you support that idea?
ROWLAND: Well that's one option, and as Mark Dreyfus pointed out too this is one we are open to assessing as a range of options. But I think ultimately this is a question of existing laws and it's a question of the government needing to answer how we got to this point.
GREEN: How do we respond if, as the AFP suggests is a possibility, that there are arrests of journalists in the coming days or weeks?
ROWLAND: It's deeply disturbing, and as John Lyons from the ABC pointed out, this chilling effect is not some fanciful notion. It's actually something that's very real. When you look at the scope of the warrant this is about any contact with any digital footprint at all, and one wonders whether this will actually silence people who want to serve the public interest. So not only journalists, but also people who have a legitimate interest in bringing these issues to the fore. And I would point out too, you know, I have long been an advocate for supporting public interest journalism and let's be frank: journalism in Australia and around the world has been fundamentally challenged by the rise of digital platforms as an example, the costs of doing business, we've got an ACCC inquiry into digital platforms coming out later this month, and they all go to the issues of supporting public interest journalism. We've had inquiries into that, we've seen recently a philanthropic group set up to support public interest journalism, but this is a step even before that. This is about enabling public interest journalism to actually happen rather than ensuring that it's commercially viable.
GREEN: Yes. Michelle Rowland, thanks for your time.
GREEN: Michelle Rowland is the Shadow Minister for Communications.