Radio National, Breakfast

FRAN KELLY:

One month on from those high profile AFP raids on media outlets and the Morrison Government has announced a Parliamentary Inquiry into press freedoms. Parliament's Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security will review the impact that national security and counter-terrorism laws have on the ability of journalists to do their job. Labor has proposed its own inquiry, but this one has a specially appointed committee with broader terms of reference. The Shadow Home Affairs Minister Kristina Keneally told us earlier that the Parliament and the people would be better served by a dedicated inquiry.

FRAN KELLY:

Paul Fletcher is the Minister for Communications, he's in our Parliament House studios.

Minister, welcome back to Breakfast.

PAUL FLETCHER:

Good to be with you, Fran.

FRAN KELLY:

So Cabinet last night approved this press freedoms inquiry. What do you want it to achieve?

PAUL FLETCHER:

Well the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security is arguably the most powerful committee in the Parliament. It has a track record over recent years of considering complex matters and achieving a set of recommendations which has bipartisan support that subsequently being reflected in legislation. Now, since the two instances of the AFP executing search warrants in early June, there have been concerns expressed by journalists about the impact on their work and the impact on press freedom. Of course, press freedom is a bedrock principle in a democracy, but it needs to be weighed up against the importance of keeping Australians safe. In a democracy we often need to weigh up competing principles.

Just last Thursday, media organisations came together and indicated a range of issues where they believed there was a case for having a look at the balance between press freedom and keeping Australians safe. For example, one of the issues that was raised there was the question of whether there ought to be contested hearings in relation to warrants authorising investigative action in relation to journalists and media organisations. Now that's one of the matters that we're proposing could be considered by this Inquiry by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security.

FRAN KELLY:

But in fact, I mean, that’s a good argument isn't it for a broader committee because those media organisations, well in the first case, they argued we don't need a committee, we know the problem, we just need to get on looking at the laws. But also they wanted changes, for instance, to the laws that protect whistleblowers, the Freedom of Information laws, the process around marking documents secret or top secret. Some of these issues will be outside the remit, as Kristina Keneally was making that point, wouldn't it, of the National Committee for Intelligence and Security matters?

PAUL FLETCHER:

Well there's a couple of points you made there, Fran. The first is the argument that we ought to simply get on and change the current legal settings without looking at what's involved. Now, it's good parliamentary practice and procedure that where you've got complex issues, where you're weighing up competing considerations that need to be balanced – press freedom and keeping Australians safe –  that what you do is you have a careful, thorough, measured look at the issues. I mean, the Prime Minister's been very clear here from the outset, in terms of the Morrison Government's position, that if there's evidence or analysis that suggests there's a need to have a look at the laws and the way we've got that balance set, we're open to it. But we want to do it in a consultative and measured fashion.

That's why we're proposing this Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security should hold this inquiry. It is a committee which has a strong track record of considering complex issues, of weighing them up, of arriving at a bipartisan position and taking that forward.

FRAN KELLY:

Yes Minister, I understand that, but it's also the committee that ticked off on all these national security laws in the first place. Does that make it the right place to go back to to start seeing if they got it wrong?

PAUL FLETCHER:

Well the starting point, Fran, for any inquiry is the terms of reference and the terms of reference ask the Committee to inquire and to report back on such things as the experiences of journalists and media organisations that have or could become subject to the powers of law enforcement or intelligence agencies and the impact of the exercise of those powers on journalists work. So the key point here is what are the terms of reference for this Committee in weighing up these matters and providing advice including, ultimately, to the Parliament and to the Government.

So these terms of reference do go squarely to the issue which has generated a lot of commentary in recent weeks following the execution of those two search warrants by the AFP in early June which is how do we strike this balance? When the AFP are going about their work – bearing in mind that they do that without reference to Government, Minister’s aren’t involved in these decisions – what are the factors that impact on that? What the Committee’s being asked to look at is what is that balance? And so the terms of reference are key and these terms of reference go squarely to the issues which have been the subject of a lot of commentary over recent weeks.

FRAN KELLY:

So just go back to the question, the point I made before though – do the terms of reference allow, for instance, the wider remit that the media organisations were calling for last week which included changes to laws for public whistleblowers, changes to FOI laws for instance? Would they allow that to be considered? Or is that completely outside the remit of a Committee like this?

PAUL FLETCHER:

Well, this Committee has been given the Government’s proposal, which the Prime Minister has put into a letter to the Leader of the Opposition and he’ll be discussing with the Leader of the Opposition later today, the proposal is that the Committee would be charged with investigating these matters which have been the subject of considerable contention and commentary over recent weeks.

Now, in relation to the question of whistleblowers, as you know there’s a Public Interest Disclosure Act which was passed in the dying days of the former Labor government. It’s been…

FRAN KELLY:

[Talks over] Which has been shown to be an issue here – that’s part of the problem, isn’t it?

PAUL FLETCHER:

It’s been widely criticised and separately the Attorney-General has stated that he intends to have a look at the Act. But the point I’m making is that the terms of reference for this Inquiry, the Parliamentary Joint Committee into Intelligence and Security Inquiry that the Government is proposing are really squarely directed at many of the matters which have excited…

FRAN KELLY:

Sure.

PAUL FLETCHER:

…and generated a lot of commentary over recent weeks following the AFP execution of those two search warrants.

FRAN KELLY:

Just going directly to your terms of reference – you say: without limiting the other matters the Committee may consider, two issues for specific inquiry are whether and in what circumstances there could be contested hearings. But also b) the appropriateness of current thresholds for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to access electronic data on devices used by journalists and media organisations. Is that an acknowledgement that the current laws dealing with electronic data are overreached and need to be changed?

PAUL FLETCHER:

Well, no. What it is, is a recognition that there has been advocacy by media organisations and journalists in relation to those laws. Now bear in mind those laws were arrived at through a careful deliberative process. But we’re always open, as the Prime Minister has said, to having a look at whether there is evidence and analysis that makes the case to change where the balance has been set. So that’s what this Committee would be asked to do under the terms of reference that have been proposed by the Government and the Prime Minister will be discussing with the Leader of the Opposition later today.

FRAN KELLY:

Given, as Kristina Kenneally said earlier, the proposal or the Committee she’s proposing would have a wider remit. It’s wider issues than just national security legislation, as we’ve discussed, whistleblowers and others. Would you have any problem with there being a second inquiry established?

PAUL FLETCHER:

Well, the Government’s view is that the inquiry that we’re proposing really goes to the matters that have been the subject of considerable discussion over recent weeks and the concerns expressed by journalists and by media organisations. We certainly understand that the two, the execution of those two search warrants in early June, has caused concern amongst working journalists as they go about their daily work – we do understand that. The Prime Minister’s been very clear on that point and that is one reason, amongst a number including the fact that we’ve now had the media organisations come together with some more specific suggestions. What we’ve said is let’s establish this Inquiry, this Committee has wide powers – it’s arguably the most powerful Committee in the Parliament – and let’s give it these terms of reference to have a look squarely at these issues which have generated considerable commentary over recent weeks.

FRAN KELLY:

[Talks over] I understand. Just briefly and finally though Minister, if Labor goes ahead to establish this Joint Party Committee, will the Government support that and cooperate with that?

PAUL FLETCHER:

Well, we’re focussed on the plan that we’ve put forward. We think this is the right way forward, that’s what the Prime Minister will be discussing with the Leader of the Opposition. And, we think that’s the best way to address the issues which media organisations and journalists have raised. Ultimately, what we want to do is have a serious engagement with the issues, and that’s been our overriding consideration.

FRAN KELLY:

Paul Fletcher, thank you very much for joining us.

PAUL FLETCHER:

Thank you Fran.

FRAN KELLY:

Paul Fletcher is the Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts.