November 22, 2021


SUBJECTS: Morrison Government’s failure to follow through on election commitments; religious discrimination legislation; the Government’s toothless anti corruption commission proposal; Hanson and Rennick threats to withhold votes; Queensland vaccine response.
MATT WEBBER, HOST: Murray Watt, Labor's Senator for Queensland. I catch him on the eve of what is going to be a pretty significant last week or so in Parliament. Mr. Watt, good morning.
WEBBER: There's a lot on the legislative agenda. Well, there kind of is. There's not a - it's not a huge list, but there's some big ticket items that are worth discussing. Can we begin with religious discrimination?
WATT: Yeah, well, as you say, Matt, there are some big items to be got through the Senate before the year rises. And, in particular, there's a couple of things that the government promised to do at the last election, which they still haven't actually delivered on. One of them is the religious freedom legislation and of course, the other is the promise they made to introduce a national anti corruption commission. And we're now on the eve of another election, they still haven't delivered on either of those commitments, and they're fast running out of time. So we would expect that we will probably be dealing with at least one of those before the year rises.
WEBBER: Could we talk about the religious freedoms legislation now? You haven't seen it in final form yet of course?
WATT: That's right. It makes it a little bit hard to give you too much information because the opposition hasn't received a copy of that legislation yet. What we've said all along is that we're happy to work with the government to protect people's religious freedom. We think that that is an important thing to do. Just like Labor has always supported protections against discrimination on grounds of gender or sexuality or race or anything else. So we are happy to work with it but until we receive the legislation, it's a little bit hard to know what's happening. I think the reason for the delay really is that this is one of many issues where we're seeing significant division within the government. They've got conservatives on one end arguing for a position, they've got moderates on the other end and that's why we're nearly out to another election and they still haven't delivered on that promise they gave their supporters before the last one.
WEBBER: Senator Murray Watt with us on mornings this morning. I suppose the significant feature of what it is that you're expected to be debating across the week is -  making inverted commas signs as I speak to you - but the "Israel Folau proposal", if I can call it that. Should people be allowed, for instance, to promote what many would consider a homophobic view based on genuinely held religious beliefs? Now, where would you stand, for instance, on something along those lines?
WATT: Well, again, this is one of the aspects of the bill, but it's hard to know what the government is actually going to do. Because even over the last few weeks, we've seen them change position, at least if you believe what you read in the newspapers. They were very clear at the last election to some of their support base that they would legislate what's become known as the Folau Clause, and then it was out and then it was back in and then it was back out. So it's a bit hard to know. In terms of the principle, Labor has never supported discrimination of any kind. We will obviously look at the bill once we actually receive it, but we don't sort of see this as an opportunity to impose new forms of discrimination on parts of the community. But we are very open to protecting discrimination against people on the basis of their religious belief. We think that that's where there might be an issue and as long as the government can draft the legislation in that sort of way, then of course, we'd be open to working with them.
WEBBER: I thought Australians were sick of being told what to do, Senator Watt?
WATT: Yes, well, it's a little bit ironic, isn't it? That we've got a Prime Minister who one day runs around saying that governments have done enough, they've imposed enough regulation on people and then in other ways he wants to impose more regulation. Another example of that, that we may be dealing with before the year's out, is the voter ID legislation. So the government seems to want to introduce more regulation around the way we conduct our elections to require people to provide drivers licenses or other forms of identification, when the government's own reviews of our elections have shown that there's no no real issue when it comes to fraudulent voting. It's one of those things that the conservative side of politics always trumps up, that this is an issue. But there's absolutely no evidence. I don't think there were any prosecutions of anyone around voter fraud after the last election. And yet, this is something that the government wants to impose more regulation on. But you know, whether, for any of these pieces of legislation I think one of the other interesting things this week is the comments that have been made by Pauline Hanson and even Government Senators like Gerard Rennick. They've been very clear that they won't be voting for government legislation, unless the Morrison Government takes a stand against vaccination mandates. Mandates that, I might say, have been imposed by every state and territory government. We only hear the Morrison Government picking on Labor states it would seem, but those mandates are being imposed by every state and territory government and I think this is a real test for Pauline Hanson and Gerard Rennick and the others making these comments. They've really gone to the trenches over the need for the Morrison Government to get rid of those mandates and said that they would withhold their vote. If they back down and do vote with the government on any of this legislation we've been talking about it will just show that their word is worth nothing.
WEBBER: I want to talk about vaccine mandates and the rollout in Queensland specifically in a few moments, but let's let's just concentrate on federal ICAC for a minute. This has been something that's been in headlines, it's been analysed, it's been the subject of opinion pieces for what seems like time immemorial now. Are you expecting for something to materialise before Parliament rises in a few days time?
WATT: I would certainly hope so. As I say, this is a commitment that the Government made before the last election and we're now nearly at a point where we're going into another election without a national anti corruption commission. I don't think it takes your listeners too much guesswork to work out why it is that this government doesn't want to see and hasn't moved on an anti corruption commission. When you think about the range of scandals we've seen from car park rorts, to sports sports, to Christian Porter's anonymous donations. All of these kinds of things are building up and that's why we need a national anti corruption commission. The problem with the version that the government is putting forward is that every expert who knows anything about integrity legislation has said that it's weak. It's powerless. It's toothless. The model that the government is putting up doesn't have the power of a corruption commission and wouldn't have the power to investigate matters of its own choosing. It can only investigate things that the government refers to it, as if any government like this one is going to refer the kinds of rorts and scandals that they've perpetrated to a corruption commission. So, we think there's got to be some significant improvement to what the government has put forward so far, but at this stage, there's no sign of that legislation even being tabled.
WEBBER: So Senator, what would you propose? What kind of referral system for instance would you prefer to see?
WATT: Well, we think that a serious national anti corruption commission has got to have the power to investigate matters that aren't necessarily referred to it by the government of the day. That is a key measure to ensure its independence. We think that there is a case in some circumstances for public hearings. That's one of the other things that the government doesn't want to do. You know, it wasn't that long ago that they were all squealing about Gladys Berejiklian's treatment in public hearings, but as those public hearings have unfolded, I think that the public has seen that there are questions to be answered in that case. And without public hearings, we may not have gotten to the bottom of it. And one of the other things about the government's model that's of concern is that it wouldn't be retrospective. So it would have no power to look at any of those scandals or corruption that we've seen within this government over the last eight long years. So there's some pretty obvious things there that we think can be dealt with. But as I say, you know, the latest reports are that the government's not even going to table this legislation this year. Despite promising to do so over and over again and despite promising to do so at the last election,
WEBBER: Before I let you disappear Senator, can I ask you this. Queensland tracking pretty well in terms of its vaccination numbers. Now the last numbers I looked at - 73.1% double vaccinated, 84.4% single dose vaccinated. So sort of closing in at a rapid rate on that 80% double vaccinated figure. Would you be urging your state counterparts to potentially dilute some of the mandatory requirements set to be instituted by December 17, if targets are met well in advance or indeed exceeded?
WATT: I'll be urging my state counterparts to do what they've done throughout the pandemic, which is to listen to health advice. I'm not a doctor Matt, you aren't either, we're not the experts on these matters, and no one in the state government is apart from the health experts they've got advising them. So if the health advice from our Chief Health Officer and others is that that would be safe to do so, of course we should do that. But, if the advice is not then I don't think we should. The last thing we want to see as we reopen borders and start to open up the economy again is people placed into lockdown again. I spent a bit of time at Palm Beach yesterday on the beach and it's good to see some of those businesses starting to move again. But it would not be in the interest of those businesses or Gold Coast workers to have to go back into lockdowns if we don't follow health advice. I think that the thing that's really done Queensland well throughout the pandemic is following health advice, not being guided by what's in a politician's political interests, and that's what I'd be urging my state counterparts to keep doing.
WEBBER: Appreciate your time. Thank you, Senator.