SUBJECTS: Julian Assange; Fairfax
Spence Denny: Now, the breaking news story today – we will get to the issues with Fairfax shortly if we can – but the breaking news is Julian Assange is seeking asylum in Ecuador and whether or not they’ll grant that remains to be seen, but the question here is the Australian Government doing enough to actually assist Julian Assange? Penny Wong?
Penny Wong: Well, obviously Mr Assange’s decisions, including this decision are a matter for him. The Australian Government, as we’ve made clear, have offered him the same consular assistance that is available to other Australians and I don’t understand there to be any evidence for example that there’s anything inappropriate in terms of the legal proceedings in the UK to date, but ultimately this is a matter for him.
Denny: Has he made an application to the Australian Government to come home?
Wong: I’ll have to ask the Foreign Minister to speak to you about that. He’s certainly made public statements about issues, but we made clear he is being treated in terms of the consular assistance available to him as any other Australian citizen.
Denny: Chris Pyne, as I said does it seem unusual to you an Australian citizen is seeking asylum in South America?
Christopher Pyne: Well, Spence, what is suggests to me is Julian Assange believes he will get asylum from Ecuador and there is some evidence that that will happen because he’s been communicating with Ecuadorian officials over some time. I understand he’s been doing radio there through the President of Ecuador – I think I’m right in saying that and obviously he believes Ecuador will grant him asylum. Our view in the Australian Opposition is the Government has got this right. Apart from Julia Gillard’s premature declaration of criminality of Julian Assange, which she realised earlier in the piece. We think due process has been followed in English Courts. The Australian Government has given appropriate assistance. Julian Assange of course could have returned to Australia at any time before he was charged in England and if he’s chosen to seek asylum in Ecuador it’s obviously because he thinks that will protect him from being sent to Sweden.
Denny: If I could move onto the future of Fairfax. It’s obviously been dominating the news over the last couple of days; 1900 jobs to go, the Age and the SMH converting to tabloid, Gina Rinehart has acquired a lot of shares and has refused to commit to the charter of editorial independence. She’s asking for three seats, as I understand it, on the board of Fairfax and Wayne Swan has described it as a threat to democracy. Penny Wong, what’s your take on this?
Wong: I think there are a few things here. Obviously we do have a different view to Ms Rinehart on how much tax she and other wealthy miners should pay. We think they should pay a fair amount of tax and that should be shared more broadly amongst the Australian community, something, which I know Christopher opposes, but I think what we also have said that the principle of editorial independence is important and Ms Rinehart should express support for it, but what we don’t agree with is any proposition that Government should regulate to seek that outcome because I think that will be a contradiction in terms that the Government is trying to regulate for editorial independence. Ultimately this is a matter for the company. The point I made when I was asked about previously, I said look one of the important things that is part of the Fairfax brand is people do have a regard for the quality of the content and the quality of the journalism and anything that would undermine that reputation would obviously be a bad thing in terms of the company’s brand and the value proposition.
Denny: That was the proposition that sprung to mind to me. Who’s going to buy a paper if they think, even if they perceive that it’s somehow commercially affected?
Wong: Well, actually Malcolm Turnbull makes that point, he’s made that point previously and I think he makes it today in one of his op-eds where on this issue I think he’s pretty close to the Government’s position which is, we don’t agree with regulation, but if there’s any suggestion that someone would use their ownership or part ownership of the newspaper to express their commercial interests, that’s not a good thing for democracy, that wouldn’t be a good thing for consumers.
Pyne: Spence, I think the interesting thing that’s been exposed in this story in the last couple of days that goes straight to democracy in Australia is not wealthy Australians, but the Australian Greens who believe that to protect freedom of the press, the Government should be regulating it. Of course that was the view of the Soviet Union, of East Germany, the current regime in North Korea. The only way to maintain freedom of the press is just that. It’s not for Government to regulate or control what should be printed in our newspapers and it speaks volumes that the Greens are a very different party than just an environmental conservation party. There are a lot of people in the Green who think the Government should be doing just that; regulating the press in order to allow public comment that supports their position.
Now if Gina Rinehart decides to increase her stake in Fairfax, to go on the board of Fairfax, it’s a publically listed company, she’s perfectly entitled to do that. As Malcolm Turnbull has said if she were to turn the papers into a mouthpiece for herself, people would stop buying them and therefore of course you’re not going to do that. The hysteria that this is being met with by some sections of the Government like Wayne Swan and the Greens just doesn’t meet the BBQ test of what they are trying to create.
Wong: Just a couple of comments there. I think a little unfair to put Wayne Swan in the same position as the Greens given that he doesn’t agree with them. Even though the Greens position is not the Government’s position; we expressed our view on that. In fact the person who is closest to the Government’s position is Malcolm Turnbull. The point I make to people is I know people are concerned about this. The reasons you don’t want Governments to regulate, apart from (inaudible) is imagine if you had Barnaby Joyce in a future Coalition Government as the Minister for Communications. Would you really want Barnaby Joyce making a decision about what was editorial independence?
Pyne: The current Minister for Communications Stephen Conroy made something of a hash of the Australia Network tender, but since you’ve done so well this morning, let’s not start winding you up.
Pyne: Matthew and David are the ones that cause all the trouble when we’re on.
Denny: You can’t be bothered fighting with each other.
Wong: It’s a cold morning in Canberra.
Denny: It’s always a cold morning in Canberra.
Wong: No, no, it’s minus four and we’re both, like, “it’s too cold”.