Senator the Hon. Mathias Cormann
Minister for Finance and the Public Service
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for Western Australia
MATHIAS CORMANN: This week the Parliament has the opportunity to step up, to keep the Australian community safe, to help our law enforcement and intelligence agencies to keep our community safe. A situation where terrorists, child sex offenders and serious criminals are able to communicate with each other beyond the reach and without being able to be detected by law enforcement and intelligence agencies presents an unacceptable level of risk. The best available advice to the Government is that this is a risk that must be addressed swiftly. It must be addressed by the Parliament this week.
So we call on all Members in the House of Representatives and in the Senate to join in with the Government, to act on the advice of our law enforcement and intelligence agencies and to ensure that terrorists, child sex offenders and serious criminals are not able to communicate with each other, in secret, beyond the reach and beyond the capacity to be detected by those hard working men and women in our law enforcement and intelligence agencies who work every day to keep our Australian community safe.
Happy to take questions.
QUESTION: Would the NSW Government be better served by bringing the election forward to the second of March?
MATHIAS CORMANN: The New South Wales Government is going to the election later in March based on its outstanding track record, its plans for the future and its analysis and presentation to the people of New South Wales on why the alternative is a very bad option for the people of New South Wales. We wish them all the very best of luck of course.
QUESTION: Senator, is Malcolm Turnbull a miserable ghost?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Malcolm Turnbull is a private citizen. He is a member of the Liberal party of New South Wales. He is entitled to his views. I wish him well.
QUESTION: He named you as one of the people who is responsible for the current situation the Liberal party faces. What is your reaction to that?
MATHIAS CORMANN: I do not accept that. The developments in the final week of August are a matter of public record. The decision was made by Malcolm at the time to bring on a leadership spill, a surprise leadership spill. The result was that his position became irretrievable. The party made a decision, the party room made a decision, to elect Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg as our leader and deputy leader. We are getting on with the job of delivering stronger growth, more jobs and getting the Budget back into surplus as soon as possible.
QUESTION: So what do you make of the intervention, then, last night? Calling for the New South Wales democratic party to stop the potential challenge against Craig Kelly?
MATHIAS CORMANN: He is entitled to his views. In the end, the matters in New South Wales are a matter for the New South Wales Liberal party state executive. I am confident that they will make a decision based on their judgement on what is in the best interests of the Liberal party in New South Wales, in the best interests of the Government and the country moving forward.
QUESTION: He said he is retired though. Is this retirement in your opinion?
MATHIAS CORMANN: That is a question that you would have to ask him.
QUESTION: There are a number of tech companies who are warning that if you rush this bill through as it currently sits you might actually risk making encryption systems weaker on a national, international level from an Australian perspective. Isn't it better to stick with the original plan, let the committee run its course and legislate next year, rather than rushing this through?
MATHIAS CORMANN: The proposition that this is being rushed through is completely wrong. This has been in the system for some time. This has been talked about for some time. As a Government, which is committed to keeping the Australian community safe, our responsibility is to act on the advice of our law enforcement agencies. The advice from our intelligence and law enforcement agencies is emphatic, that we must deal with this prior to Christmas. We are going into a highly risky period. We are not prepared to accept this level of risk having potential terrorists, child sex offenders and serious criminals continuing to talk in secret without being able to be detected by our intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Everyone in the Parliament has to make their own judgements. We have made our judgement. We have made the judgement to act on the advice of our law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Everybody else can make their own judgements.
QUESTION: Can you convince the crossbench in a week, though?
MATHIAS CORMANN: This is not a matter of convincing any particular party. This is a matter of everyone rising to, quite frankly, the responsibility they have for the Australian community. All of us have a responsibility to do what is required to keep the Australian community safe. Bill Shorten, as the person in the Parliament who aspires to be Prime Minister has a particular responsibility to do what is required to keep the Australian community safe. He needs to reflect very carefully on his responsibilities and on the fact that we have emphatic advice from our law enforcement and intelligence agencies in relation to what is required. He should act consistently.
QUESTION: Apologies, you said you wanted it done before Christmas, why is that?
MATHIAS CORMANN: It is a matter of public record. The best available advice to the Government and to the Parliament for that matter, from our law enforcement and intelligence agencies is that the period before Christmas is a particularly risky period. The proposition that somehow we should let potential terrorists, people potentially contemplating terrorist attacks to communicate with each other in secret beyond the capacity of intelligence and law enforcement agencies to detect their communications is highly irresponsible and reckless.
QUESTION: Minister, with just more than, around four weeks before Christmas, even if these laws are passed this week, it is very unlikely that any intelligence agency in Australia would be able to compel a company to build them a new capability to work around an encryption to solve a terrorist plot around the Christmas period. The time frame is just too short.
MATHIAS CORMANN: I will leave the speculation according to your opinions to you. All I can say to you is that the emphatic, the absolutely emphatic advice that the Government has from our law enforcement and intelligence agencies, is that we must act as quickly as possible and this week, absolutely preferably this week, given that we are about to go into the Christmas period.
QUESTION: Just back on Malcolm Turnbull really quickly, you said that he is a free man and he is welcome to his own opinion. Do you then welcome his further interventions?
MATHIAS CORMANN: I stand by what I said. He is a private citizen. He is entitled to his opinions. Australia is a free country. It is entirely a matter for him as to how he conducts himself.
QUESTION: Minister, Peter Dutton is away again this week, is that a bad look for him and the Government?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Peter Dutton has had a very serious injury. He is on medical leave as I understand it. I have just come back after 87 hours away, 44 hours of which were in the air. So I am not entirely up to date with where his injury is at, but as I understand it, he is on medical leave.
QUESTION: Was a decision made to delay the election to May to hang onto power for as long as possible?
MATHIAS CORMANN: No. The timetable always was that the election was due by the end of May. As you might recall, in 2016, Malcolm as Prime Minister decided, rightly we felt at the time, to go for a double dissolution election, which meant that for this election, half the Senate has to be replaced by 1 July 2019. That means that the timetable always was that the election was due by the end of May 2019. Nothing has changed in relation to that.
QUESTION: But Mr Turnbull is saying that the Government agreed to go early.
MATHIAS CORMANN: I have to say, I was then as I am now, the Leader of the Government in the Senate. I was not aware of a final decision having been made in relation to the timing of the election in 2019. I certainly was aware that various options were being contemplated, which is not unusual. But I am certainly not aware that a final decision had been made in relation to the timing of the election under Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister.
QUESTION: Does March 2 remain an option then?
MATHIAS CORMANN: That is entirely a matter for the Prime Minister. That is the way this works under our system. What we have clearly indicated though, we intend to deliver a Budget, a surplus Budget for 2019-20 on the 2nd of April. That is what we announced last week. I will let you do the maths. It means that the election would be sometime thereafter. As we know, it is due by the end of May.
QUESTION: How do you claim to try and portray a united front when you have got members of the party, former members openly warring with each other?
MATHIAS CORMANN: I would not subscribe to that characterisation …interrupted
QUESTION: There is some sort of division.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Australia is a vibrant democracy with a lot of people who have a variety of opinions. But I would encourage you to look at the fundamentals. This is a Government, which five years ago inherited a weakening economy, rising unemployment and a rapidly deteriorating Budget position form the Labor party, as well as chaos at our borders. Five years on, our economy is stronger, employment growth is much stronger, the unemployment rate is below where it was and well below where it was anticipated it would be and the Budget is on track to surplus and indeed, we have restored integrity at our borders. So, this is a Government which is delivering for the Australian people, which is making sure that funding for the essential services in health, in education, in terms of the Pharmaceuticals Benefits Scheme, on national security, is guaranteed over the long term. That was not the situation we inherited when we came into Government. From time to time, and this is not new, this has always been the case, from time to time issues come up that get very strongly and passionately debated. That is just all part and parcel of living in a democracy.
QUESTION: The encryption bill, you said the threat is emphatic. Is it imminent?
MATHIAS CORMANN: What I said actually was that the advice from our intelligence and law enforcement agencies was emphatic, that we needed to act swiftly to ensure that terrorists, child sex offenders and serious criminals cannot continue to communicate with each other beyond the reach and beyond the capacity of being detected by our intelligence and law enforcement agencies … interrupted
QUESTION: It sounds like it is imminent though, the way you are talking about it.
MATHIAS CORMANN: The way I am talking is that the advice that we have from our intelligence and law enforcement agencies is that we must act swiftly to ensure that those agencies have the capacity to detect and take action to prevent serious threats to the safety of our community.
QUESTION: Are you looking forward to the week in Parliament?
MATHIAS CORMANN: I always look forward to a week in Parliament. It is going to be a great week. There is a lot to be done. I look forward to talking to you about it all week.