LYNDAL CURTIS: The Federal Government has released draft legislation [Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill 2012 Exposure Draft] to consolidate Australia’s discrimination laws. The changes are designed to provide more protection and a simpler regime, although the Opposition worries about shifting the burden of proof onto the respondent and some elements of the consolidation. Both sides of politics are ruling out changes to the GST [goods and services tax] in the wake of Independent Rob Oakeshott suggesting both have raised the prospect of reviewing the tax as part of broader reform after the election. Joining me today are two Senators, Liberal Simon Birmingham and Labor’s Louise Pratt. Welcome to you both.
LOUISE PRATT: Good afternoon.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good afternoon, Lyndal.
LYNDAL CURTIS: We’ll go first to the proposed changes to the discrimination regime.
NICOLA ROXON: We are providing one definition of discrimination, being unfavourable treatment, one defence, being justification for acting in that way. All of the existing exemptions will continue and I think that this will make it both simpler for people who want to make sure they are complying with the law to understand what those standards are. It will make it easier for people who have been treated badly to make a complaint and, indeed, it will make it easier for people who have a complaint made against them to be able to have unmeritorious complaints dispensed with and disposed of much more quickly.
GEORGE BRANDIS: We certainly do not support the reversal of the onus of proof, which is a feature of this new Act. There are certain areas of Commonwealth law where there is a reverse onus of proof. As a matter of general principle that is a bad thing. Our law operates on the basis that, if a person is accused of wrongdoing, it’s for the accuser to make the case, not for the wrongdoer – the alleged wrongdoer, I should say – to prove they’re innocent.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Louise, what does this proposal entail? Why does it need to be done?
LOUISE PRATT: Well, we’ve currently got five different anti-discrimination acts in this country and they all operate in slightly different ways. At the same time, lesbian and gay and transgender Australians are also left out of anti-discrimination protection, so it’s high time that all these pieces of legislation were brought together as well as making it easier and more transparent for people to be able to access their rights.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Does that mean easier and more transparent for both sides – for those who are claiming discrimination and for those who are responding to those claims?
LOUISE PRATT: Most certainly, it does. In particular, it’s difficult for companies and organisations around this country to deal with what are essentially five different acts and so we see that having a simpler, unified system in which all looks… which is all unified will make it easier for everyone on both sides of the debate.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Simon, as we saw, your Shadow Attorney-General, George Brandis, has questioned the reversal of the onus of proof but the Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon, says companies, businesses will now have to have one defence – that the actions are justified. Would that make it easier to fight against a discrimination claim that somebody may not see is warranted?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, these are certainly some of the details that we need to work through, Lyndal. We do have genuine concerns, as Senator Brandis said, that this change reverses the onus of proof and we don’t think, in the way that our legal system operates, that that is an appropriate thing to do. In the end, accusers should make a case, those accused should be able to defend themselves against that case. Of course, we have mechanisms and means to support people who need assistance in making such cases, through legal aid systems and other systems that may apply, but, at its core, we should be ensuring that we don’t change that system. Simplifying, streamlining our laws: not necessarily a bad thing but, as always, the devil can be in the detail and just one of those areas is that these new laws appear to include a new potential area of discrimination known as ‘industrial history’. We’ll be looking forward to seeing very closely what ‘industrial history’ means and what it is that the Government is perhaps trying to put through, in that regard, that some may consider not to be as worthy or justified as some of the other areas that Louise just raised.
LYNDAL CURTIS: As Louise says, this is combining five laws into one. Your side of politics, your Leader, Tony Abbott, has been very strong on deregulation, getting rid of red tape. Does it show you a little bit that getting rid of red tape sometimes isn’t as easy as it seems, that there is devil in the detail?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: There’s always devil in the detail when you work through these things. Sometimes streamlining laws, having less acts or statutes on the books, though, doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve actually made things simpler or easier or streamlined them at all. One act can be far more complex than five acts necessarily are, so that’s why you need to go through those things with those core principles – that you’re actually seeking to make it simpler and easier and fairer at the outset – and they’re the tests that we’ll be judging these types of proposals by.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Louise, one other change will mean that aged care providers can’t discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity. Why is that being done?
LOUISE PRATT: Well, there are currently couples in Australia who, through no fault of their own, need to move into aged care and find that they’re not able to share their bedroom with their lifelong partner. Now, that kind of discrimination is simply not on in today’s Australia and we want to make sure that people can exercise their rights.
LYNDAL CURTIS: It is a constant process, though, isn’t it – keeping laws up-to-date with community standards and making sure that they match the community expectations?
LOUISE PRATT: That’s exactly right and this legislation is still to come before the Senate and Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee and so we will have a little bit more consultation yet to go.
LYNDAL CURTIS: And, Simon, you see that as a worthwhile change?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: That sounds very much like a worthwhile change, an important change and of course we need to make sure that the laws are refreshed to keep pace with community expectations and community standards. We also need to make sure that, as I said, sneaky areas like ‘industrial history’ don’t suddenly come in that see employers being held to account because they have concerns that somebody’s past work practices or union activities may have an impact on the workplace.
LYNDAL CURTIS: We might move on now to tax reform and Rob Oakeshott says senior unnamed representatives from both sides of politics have told him they want to find a way to review taxation, including the GST, after the election, but the major parties aren’t flagging that themselves.
TONY ABBOTT: The only party leader that Rob Oakeshott talks to these days is the Leader of the Labor Party, so he may well know that the Labor Party has a secret plan to increase the GST, to change the GST after the election. We have no plans, none, and I invite Rob Oakeshott to campaign in his seat for changes to the GST if he thinks they’re necessary.
PENNY WONG: I can be very clear with you, and I think I’ve been clear on this program [Breakfast, 891 ABC Adelaide] before, we said during the last term of government, and we said clearly during this term of government as well, the Labor Party is not going to be increasing the rate nor extending the base of the GST.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Simon, isn’t it the case that the states’ tax bases are shrinking, that some of the state taxes are inefficient? We know the problem there – the GST was introduced in part to solve that. Is it not worth looking at it again in the context of that debate over the tax bases of the states?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Lyndal, I’d make the first point there that I am yet to hear the states call for anybody to look at these types of changes. The Coalition has a perfect track record in this regard. When we wanted to introduce a GST, we took it to an election and we told the Australian people upfront that’s what we’d do in 1998 and that’s what we did afterwards…
LYNDAL CURTIS: And you were happy to have a debate about it.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: And we were willing to have a debate and we were willing to fight on those terms. We’re equally being crystal clear at present: we’re not proposing changes to the GST; we won’t be putting such changes in should we win government at the next election. If the states want to propose a debate about how the GST works, in terms of generating revenue for them, let them start that debate.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Louise, Ken Henry’s tax review [Australia’s Future Tax System Review] proposals were lengthy. They were aimed at a long-term review of the tax and transfer system. Only a handful of those were taken up and not all in whole. What is the worth of doing a review like Ken Henry did – first, leaving the GST out of it and then it seems like politicians don’t want to have another debate about tax reform?
LOUISE PRATT: Well, we are prepared to have a debate about tax reform but not on increasing or widening the GST. We’ve asked for a review of the GST [Greiner-Brumby GST Distribution Review] and that’s currently been given to government and we’ll… I…
LYNDAL CURTIS: In the context of the states – how it’s broken up between the states?
LOUISE PRATT: Yeah. It will be made public, I would expect, in the near future and there are important questions on the table for a review like that, including, for example, the fact that Western Australia collects much less gambling revenue than other states and yet other states don’t have their gambling revenue included in their GST distribution, so there are important issues that need to be considered.
LYNDAL CURTIS: It does seem from both sides of politics that tax does seem to be a politically troubled question, that people don’t like the idea of talking about tax increases, when tax reform may involve increasing some taxes but getting rid of others. Is the political climate just not suited to a lengthy and often complex debate like that?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Lyndal, I think it was a lengthy debate to get to the tax reform that we actually had that brought in the GST and saw a whole suite of state taxes and other taxes reformed or eliminated. That was a very long process of national debate and it was…
LYNDAL CURTIS: And that was a very long time ago now.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: It was some time ago. I would say, if Louise wants to talk about reviews that are being had, well, she’s part of a Government that claimed to have a root-and-branch review of the tax system but then said ‘we’re going to take the GST out of that.’ Now, that, transparently, therefore was not a root-and-branch review of the tax system because the Henry Review had these exclusions put into it right from the outset, so, if you’re going to have systematic reviews, you should allow them to look at the entire system, but what we’re saying is very clear at present: we think there are other priorities for government – getting the Commonwealth’s books back in order, getting rid of the carbon and mining taxes… the carbon tax something Julia Gillard, of course, promised not to have in the first place and that Rob Oakeshott, equally, never campaigned on but then voted for when elected to this place after the last election.
LYNDAL CURTIS: And now just a final question for you, Simon, because it falls within your portfolio. The Senate is debating one Murray-Darling bill [Water Amendment (Long-term Average Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment) Bill 2012] this week and may debate another [Water Amendment (Water for the Environment Special Account) Bill 2012] next week. What’s the debate this week about?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: This week’s debate is about inserting an adjustment mechanism to the Water Act that will ensure the future Murray-Darling Basin Plan could be moved up or down a bit depending on environmental and economic circumstances in communities. It’s an important addition to the Plan. It’s something all of the states have supported in principle and it’s something that the Coalition is supporting because we know that we started this process in 2007 and we do genuinely want to see a fair outcome for the river and the river communities, to the whole system, of developing a Murray-Darling plan for the future.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Now, the Environment Minister, Tony Burke, is giving an address to the National Press Club on Thursday. Do you think we’re likely to see… although he’s probably not telling you what he’s doing… likely to see the final Plan being unveiled before the year’s out?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, I hope that we will see the final Plan. He is committing to introduce it into the Parliament next week. I trust that’s what Minister Burke will do. I hope it’s a Plan that provides the safeguards for rural communities that allow us to support it and actually get on with delivering something in this regard. It’s been a century-plus-long debate – the River Murray – in this country. It’s time that we actually took those 2007 reforms of the Howard Government and saw something enacted under them by this Government.
LYNDAL CURTIS: And that’s where we’ll have to leave it today. Louise Pratt and Simon Birmingham, thank you very much for your time.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Thanks, Lyndal, Louise.
LOUISE PRATT: Thank you.