Anika Wells MP on ABC Afternoon Briefing

SUBJECTS: Religious Discrimination Bill; National Integrity Commission; Covid-19 vaccine misinformation; Government rhetoric on Taiwan; Scott Morrison loose with the truth.
PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST:  Time now for my political panel Liberal MP Dave Sharma and Labor MP, Anika Wells are both my guests. Hello.
KARVELAS: Dave Sharma, the Religious Discrimination Bill has finally been released. It's exciting. You've previously expressed concern about it. I spoke to Equality Australia and they're still very concerned about elements of this bill now that they've seen it. Are you satisfied with it?
SHARMA: Well, I'm still studying the bill. Patricia, I have had a number of conversations with Equality Australia, including just yesterday, and over a number of weeks. I am pleased that a number of the parts of the earlier draft of the bill which I found most troubling have been removed. The so-called conscientious objection provision, that Folau clause provision. And I do accept that this has been a good faith effort by the Attorney General to balance the needs and desires of the religious community with those of other communities, including the LGBTIQ community. So I still want to look into the detail a bit more, I perfectly understand and accept the need for legislation which protects people of faith from discrimination as a result of their faith. But I just want to make sure that whatever we pass does not allow people have faith to discriminate against others because of their faith. And that's a can be a fine line to strike.
KARVELAS: And that line according to Equality Australia, Dave Sharma has not… they haven't got the line right. Particularly, they've pointed me to the statement of belief clause, which they believe will override state legislation. Are you also concerned about that?
SHARMA: I've looked at that provision, I think it's important that people are allowed to make statements in Australia, whether it's of religious belief or political belief or any number of other things. And without those statements necessarily being unlawful unless they cross a certain line. You know, we're a society that believes in, in free speech, except if it does things such as incite violence, or constitutes defamation, those sorts of things. So I think there certainly should be a space for religious people to make statements of belief. I need to look at the detail of the legislation, though, to see, you know, is it going to erode other people's rights not to be discriminated against, for instance.
KARVELAS: Anika, the more controversial measures have been stripped from the bill, those being medical practitioners’ ability to refuse certain procedures and the Folau clause, but as I say, Equality Australia still says that it's a flawed bill. What do you think should Labor support the bill?
WELLS: Well, I'd like to see the bill if that's all right. If that’s not too much to ask, as an elected representative.
KARVELAS: It's out now. It is available. To be fair right now. I've just gone through certain elements. Yeah.
WELLS: Terrific. I'll hop on to that. I've been talking to constituents before speaking with you. But that's come out this afternoon. After eight, nine years, of the Liberal government in office, in what is what maybe seven sitting days left for the term? It's interesting, the timing of this bill. To answer your actual question. Like what Richard said to you, Labor is prepared to work constructively. We have been prepared to work constructively each time the government has gone through this process. I do worry, some of the stakeholder groups have said that there are more detriments and negative consequences than advantages in their views. So there are still things we're going to need to work through. But in all honesty, Patricia, I have now done 62 mobile offices, this term, and this is not something that constituents are coming to talk to me about at those mobile offices. They are coming to talk to me about a national integrity commission, every single mobile office, and it has been 1000 days since that was promised by the Prime Minister and I don't see that scheduled for the sitting week in the seven days we have left.
KARVELAS: Okay. Dave Sharma, are you disappointed that your government has not yet introduced the national integrity legislation but has prioritised this?
SHARMA: Look, it's an important piece of legislation. But I just make the obvious point that we by and large, the past 18 months been dealing with legislation and policy measures relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, a once in a century global health scare. And I don't apologise for that. I think every Australian would expect us to prioritise their public health and saving their livelihoods through this period. It does mean that some of the things we expected to get done this term are happening later in the term than we would have planned, than we would have liked. But this is the nature of exigencies and unforeseen events. This is what happens. But you know, we're committed to doing it. And I know, the attorney has been working very hard on this religious discrimination legislation. And she's also been putting a lot of time into an anti-corruption commission piece of legislation as well.
KARVELAS: Ok. But shouldn't the anti-corruption commission legislation have been the priority in your view?
SHARMA: No, I don't think so necessarily. I mean, both of these processes have been underway for some time. There's been exposure drafts that have been to public consultation, there have been submissions received, they've both been proceeding in parallel. I don't know when each process started and whatnot, but I think they're both equally important. And, you know, I don't think the fact that one there's been legislation is being released today and the other one hasn't been, is necessarily a reflection of where they sit at the moment.
KARVELAS: But the government did say you wanted to release the legislation just like you have now with the religious discrimination by the end of the year. So do you want to see your government do that next week?
SHARMA: I’d like to see it done as soon as possible.
KARVELAS: Next week?
SHARMA:  I also want to make sure it's done right. And I also want to be assured about the contents. I mean, these are difficult pieces of legislation and…
KARVELAS: Oh, you’ve had enough time, surely?
SHARMA: Well, I think if you see the level of contention, if you like, that's gone through the public submission process and the consultation drafts. I’m not necessarily sure that you know, we have got it right yet. And I’m quite prepared to give the attorney the time she needs to get this right before we introduce it.
KARVELAS: Anika I want to raise another issue with you. The Prime Minister is being pressured by some of his own colleagues to try and overturn vaccine mandates. And earlier I spoke to Senator Gerard Rennick about this.
WELLS: My patron Senator. Yes.
KARVELAS: There's a lot of concerns about those state mandates, people losing their jobs, adverse consequences. Do you have any sympathy for some of those concerns?
WELLS: No, I don't. And I don't appreciate Senator Rennick, whose office is a couple of suburbs over from mine, constantly whipping this up. This is meant to be the one government presenting the one unity message that vaccinations are important for all Australians. We do it to look after one another. And it's important that if you can, you do. It is difficult conversations that we have with our constituents each week, people are genuinely hesitant. You can work through that if you are honest with one another about those concerns and the constructive way forward. I don't think that whipping up social media discontent and the kinds of things that… you know I got a piece of material whipping up discontent letterbox dropped in Lilley last week, saying contact Senator Rennick’s office if you've had a negative experience. Since those protests last week, many Queensland State MPs have had their officers attacked and have had threats made against them, not one, not two many. This is seriously deteriorating the national debate about a really important issue. And if they're not going to be constructive, they should hand over the keys and let a government lead.
KARVELAS: Gerard Rennick told me Dave Sharma when I pressed him on the kind of information he's sharing, which has all these kind of horror stories of, of adverse effects, one was completely wrong, and he had to withdraw and apologise for. But I sort of put to him that there was an obligation to actually tell the other dominant side of the story, which is the vast success of vaccines, which are the facts. He said every day premiers talk and you can hear it somewhere else. Is that appropriate for a senator to say you can get that information somewhere else and just to focus on this minority of exaggerated cases?
SHARMA: Well, I'll leave that judgement to Senator Rennick’s conscience, but certainly, the approach I've taken has been based on the evidence, and the overwhelming evidence suggests that vaccines are overwhelmingly safe. Yes, there are adverse events with a very small number of cases as they are with nearly every medical intervention, including taking, you know, paracetamol or ibuprofen. And it's important, I think, not to alarm people or be alarmist when you're talking about these things. Yes. Explain the risks, explain the potential adverse consequences, explain the side effects, but by and large, I think people know this in Australia now. I mean, we’re over, you know, 85 per cent, vaccinated, double vaccinated. I think people know intuitively that if this was really a risk, they would know people in their circles or family networks and whatnot who've suffered from this. And that's overwhelmingly not the case. So I think I mean, people do need to be very careful about this. I don't want to stifle debate. People are free to express a view. And if we look like we're hiding information, then people would then be suspicious that there was some sort of conspiracy or cover up, but I think, especially publicly elected leaders need to do need to show a high degree of responsibility.
KARVELAS: And there's not a high level of responsibility if he says you can get that other information somewhere else is there?
SHARMA: Well, it's certainly not how I would conduct myself no.
KARVELAS: But he is in your political party. So there has to be some consequence doesn't there for him if he's, if he's, you know, exaggerating by emphasis, information, which doesn't tell the story, which is that vaccination is overwhelmingly safe.
SHARMA: Well, every politician is elected by the public and that's who they're answerable to. I mean I'm not Gerard Rennick’s boss. I can't go around disciplining him. Ultimately, he's answerable to his voters and the people of Queensland and I'm sure they'll reach their verdict, you know, when he's next up for election.
KARVELAS: Anika, is that is that fair enough? Obviously all MPs, Senators they are preselected. They run at an election. Is that where ultimately the consequences should lie?
WELLS: It's all so gentle and benevolent, isn't it Patricia? Like listening to Dave just there, ‘Well, that's up to his conscience’. And you spoke to Senator Rennick at the start of your programme, and he said he had an hour with the Prime Minister yesterday. He has cabinet ministers facilitating urgent meetings with our best constitutional lawyers to, for him to work through the process. The consequences sound like Senator Rennick has been elevated by the LNP party room. And we're hearing LNP member after LNP member come out and speak in public about how they have a proud, rich tradition of crossing the floor because they're all independently minded. And that's part of being a Liberal and they're proud to be part of a party where everyone's voices are welcome. So where are those actions? Where's the crossing the floor for modern Liberals on climate action when they tell us they're passionate about things like climate action. No one's crossing the floor there because of supposedly these insidious consequences. Where are the insidious consequences for the five Liberals who crossed the floor yesterday on anti vax?
KARVELAS: Alright, again, changing the topic to another big story. It’s a sitting fortnight so there are some huge stories. Dave Sharma. The Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong says the Morrison Government is embarking on the most dangerous election tactic in Australian history in relation to the government's Taiwan rhetoric. Is that fair?
SHARMA: No, I think she's completely wrong. I think the mistake she's making is, is some that many in her party have made. Which is to pretend that to continue the fiction with the Australian public that our strategic environment is benign and we have nothing to worry about. I think that's a great disservice to the public debate here in Australia. I thought all Peter Dutton was doing last week and all Australian cabinet ministers have done in recent weeks and months is to point to an obvious fact that anyone in the business knows that our regional security environment is deteriorating, and we're dealing with a more aggressive and assertive power to our north. And if we don't level with the Australian public about that we get the sort of, you know, we won't get the public support for the measures. We need legislation, defence budget, military acquisitions, to defect to defend and protect us.
KARVELAS: But you’re meant to de-escalate? Isn't that what you want your sort of frontline ministers to be doing to de-escalate these tensions not to inflame tensions?
SHARMA: Well, ministers are also meant to carry a debate in the public and convince the public of why measures and policy approaches are necessary. We've increased the defence budget for argument's sake. We've gone from 1.5 per cent of GDP under Labor to near 2 per cent of GDP. Now that's likely to increase further. We need to explain to the public why that's necessary. And we need to have a rational debate with them about it. And you don't do it by saying there's nothing to see here, you know, move on. And that's, you know, the fiction that Penny Wong continues to perpetuate that everything's fine and rosy and if only the Morrison government kept their mouth shut from time to time, everything would be fine. That's not the case. It's fundamentally not the case.
KARVELAS: I don't know if she quite said that. But I understand what you're trying to say. If I can put it to you Anika. Isn't the government, as Dave Sharma has put it levelling with the public about the rise of China and the challenges to our region?
WELLS: Is that what Scott Morrison is doing? I remember back in May, Scott Morrison said that we had a one country two systems' position on Taiwan, and that is not Australia's position on Taiwan. So is Scott Morrison out there putting the facts and making the case to the Australian people? I would say no, I think that Australia's reputation has taken a battering under Scott Morrison as Prime Minister. And I think that that matters. I think that that's important. And I think what Penny Wong was saying today was she was suggesting I guess, how we restore that reputation and how we are constructive rather than warmongering. And that begins with working constructively with our neighbours in the Pacific Islands in Southeast Asia.
KARVELAS: Okay. A very disturbing thing has happened this afternoon. Tasmanian independent Senator Jacqui Lambie is accusing One Nation of publishing her private mobile number on social media and she's got all sorts of threats as a result. Dave Sharma are you concerned about that?
SHARMA: Look, if that's true, I haven't seen the reports. I condemn it. Absolutely. I'm very concerned about that. We've seen you know some of the consequences unfortunately in the UK of attacks against parliamentarians. And I think everyone should be very mindful of people's security and privacy in this environment of publishing someone's address or home details or mobile number is not okay.
KARVELAS: What do you think, Anika and what should the consequences be?
WELLS: If that is true, that is abhorrent and I am disgusted. If that is the case, that the Morrison Government continues to facilitate Pauline Hanson and One Nation and their aims and objectives on the floor of the Senate. Pauline Hanson and Malcolm aren’t even here, aren’t even in Canberra. They didn't come down from Queensland and yet they were still able to put their own Bill on the floor of the Senate and have it voted on because that is how under the thumb the Prime Minister is to One Nation and their demands. They are emboldened to do and say things like this, this afternoon. And it’s abominable. And Scott Morrison needs to atone for this and rule out working with One Nation, asking for their preferences, giving them his preferences, immediately.
KARVELAS: Alright, just finally, it's been the big discussion point this week in Question Time. Labor has been asking questions of the Prime Minister to extract whether he's truthful. Labor's been trying to paint the Prime Minister as loose with the truth. So a question for you Dave Sharma. The Prime Minister, he did refer to Sam Dastyari as Shanghai Sam, didn't he?
SHARMA: Look, I don’t know Patricia,
KARVELAS: But he did. I can send you the tweet.
SHARMA: Did he said that Patricia, I believe you.
KARVELAS: You should believe me, because I wouldn't make it up.
WELLS: Wouldn't believe the PM though.
KARVELAS: But wait, wait, let me stay with Dave Sharma if I can. Why doesn't he just admit it, then? I mean, he just did it.
SHARMA: Patricia, I don't know the answer. You can put that to him. I don't know. I didn't hear what he said in response to that question. But, look, I mean, I will take issue with the overall thrust of the debate here. I just think it's childish. You know, I think people expect more. It's like going around in the schoolyard saying, Oh, you lied to me. No, you lied to me. I mean, you know, grow up everyone, let's debate the issues.
KARVELAS: Sure but if I can demonstrate that there has been a lie, isn't that different?
SHARMA: I guess so. But I mean, look, you know, politicians are running on policies and platforms. You know, I don't think any of us holds ourselves up to be some sort of secular Pope. I'm sure I haven't been unimpeachable throughout my public life.
KARVELAS: So have you lied on the public record?
SHARMA: Not that I'm aware. No, Patricia, but if someone contradicts me, they're probably right. I do my best to be honest, and truthful and faithful and keep my promises and everything else. But I'm an imperfect human being as well.
KARVELAS: Okay. Um, Anika? Is that a reasonable critique of what you guys are doing that it's childish?
WELLS: No, I think that integrity matters. I think the truth matters. I think that accountability matters. I think that transparency matters. I think that whether or not the leader of our country possesses those values is important. And I am just beseeching Australian voters at this point to vote on those values when it comes to the federal election.
KARVELAS: Yeah, well goes to that question, doesn't it? Dave Sharma. You say it's childish, but truthfulness from our most senior political leaders, the Prime Minister, the most important office in the country? Surely, that's an important question, right to resolve?
SHARMA: Well, I mean, if you want to go to these questions, and I've taken all the political attack lines, so let me do one in reverse. I mean, going to an election saying, you know, there'll be no Carbon Tax under a government I lead and an introduce the one after the election, I think, is a breach of faith and a breach of truth. That's politics. So that's what happens. But you know, if you want to talk about integrity in public life, well, there's a classic example.
KARVELAS: Anika is that the classic example?
WELLS: Well, playing out Dave’s example there. The voting public voted Labor out at the next election. There were consequences for being duplicitous if that's what Dave wants to argue that it was. I would argue, then that the fate of the next election would be federal, would be pretty clear on that basis. I think I am worried in the two years that Dave and I have been elected, how much public debate and trust in politics, public life and politicians has deteriorated? And I think if we do not do something about that soon, we do not introduce a national integrity commission. If we do not uphold standards, through the parliament through privileges, through how we account for politicians, whether we give them their seats back at the election. I think it's really important that Australians do that. And I really hope really, really hope that they choose to do that at the federal election.
KARVELAS: Okay, well, you're both hoping that you win because that's what you guys want. Both of you your sides to win. Thank you for joining me.
SHARMA: Thanks, Patricia.
WELLS: See you later.