KIERAN GILBERT Thanks for your time. Let’s start off, first of all, on the immediate crisis. Do you welcome the fact the Prime Minister listened to the concerns and went straight to Alice Springs yesterday?
JULIAN LEESER Yes, Kieran. We welcome the announcements that have been made, particularly in relation to restriction of alcohol, particularly in relation to extra funding for the police. I think one of the other particularly good things is safe places for young people to go at night-time, but it shouldn’t have taken this long. It took a long time for the Prime Minister to get up to Alice Springs. This has been an issue that has been raised by various Northern Territory parliamentarians whether it’s Jacinta Price on our side, whether it’s Marion Scrymgour, the local member there, who is a Labor member, whether it’s the Northern Aboriginal Australian Congress, which is the Health Organisation, whether it’s the Mayor of Alice Springs. These issues have been building for some time and it shouldn’t have taken this long for the Prime Minister to go up and see what was going on there. I went to Alice Springs, it was the very first visit I did as the Shadow Minister because I wanted to see what life was like there on the ground itself. And the way in which the Northern Territory Labor government has dealt with the alcohol restrictions has led to this alcohol-fuelled violence. And I welcome the greater restrictions on alcohol sales that have been announced by the Prime Minister.
KIERAN GILBERT Did the former Coalition Government federally drop the ball by allowing those laws – the Stronger Futures laws that put in the ban – to allow them to lapse in the months after the election?
JULIAN LEESER No, the Stronger Futures laws were always going to come to an end. It’s the question of the way in which the bans were then dealt with going forward. I mean, it would have been an obvious thing to continue the bans until such time as communities requested them be removed and have some sort of process in place to demonstrate that there wouldn’t be alcohol-fuelled violence. Instead, the bans came off instantly. And that’s why you’ve seen a lot of the chaos there that you’ve seen in Alice Springs in recent months. It’s just extraordinary that the rule of law, that law and order in a major regional Australian centre could break down as much as it could have in an entirely avoidable way, in my view.
KIERAN GILBERT So do you believe that that ban should be reinstated next week when a report is delivered back to the Prime Minister, to have been given a week to do that? Would you like to see the blanket ban reinstated?
JULIAN LEESER Well, I think I’d see what the report says, but I think we certainly know from a whole range of communities that increased access to alcohol, often in some of these communities leads to increases in violence. And particularly where there are people in community whose main source of income is welfare, that’s money that is being spent on alcohol rather than on basic needs – around food, around clothing, around shelter, around looking after the children and so on. So, I think anything that reduces the level of violence and lawlessness is a good thing. And the level of violence and lawlessness – I mean you can see it even from the images in Alice Springs. I remember seeing it there just of the shops being boarded up in the middle of the day. That’s a terrible thing to see. It’s not something we’d see in other Australian cities. The fact that you see young people walking the streets at night-time because being at home just isn’t safe indicates that there are fundamental things that have broken down in those communities.
KIERAN GILBERT What do you believe has driven this reaction in the Northern Territory and from the government that has been so reticent about maintaining the bans that clearly worked in terms of maintaining at least a level of calm across Alice Springs and its surrounding communities?
JULIAN LEESER Well, I think you have to remember, the Northern Territory Government, until only 48 hours ago, was suggesting that any sort of ban was effectively racist. I think that that’s just wrong. I think when you’re hearing aboriginal leaders themselves calling for these bans to be reimposed – particularly organisations like the major health organisation, the Aboriginal controlled Health organisation in Alice Springs – you need to pay attention and you need to listen. And I welcome the advocacy of my federal parliamentary colleagues, particularly Jacinta Price, who’s been talking about these issues for the entire time she’s been in the Parliament, and Marion Scrymgour, the Labor member for Lingiari, who as well, has been talking about these issues. And I think when local members talk about issues, when you’ve got Indigenous health organisations talking about issues, when you’ve got the local mayor talking about issues, people need to listen, whether they’re in the Territory Parliament or whether they’re in the Federal Parliament. The fact that this has been going on as long as it has, I think, is a disgrace, and it shouldn’t have taken this long to get the Prime Minister’s attention.
KIERAN GILBERT You have been expressing concerns, as has your leader, Peter Dutton, about the lack of detail around the Voice to Parliament. Have the comments from the Prime Minister today, and, in recent days, about the eight key principles, about fleshing them out through consultation with the parliament before the final wording is delivered to the referendum. Have they placated your concerns at all?
JULIAN LEESER Well, Kieran, let me be very clear. I have been a very long-term supporter of the idea of the Voice since long before I was a member of Parliament. I worked with Indigenous leaders on some of the early concept plans for Voice. I even set up an organisation, Uphold and Recognise, to encourage constitutional conservatives to support the idea of the Voice. And I chaired a committee with Pat Dodson, which came up with a number of those principles that have been rearticulated by some of the government’s working groups there. The reason I made my speech at the weekend and the reason why Peter Dutton has been asking the questions he’s been asking is because as we travel the country, we hear that people just do not understand what this is. And I think if people don’t understand what this is, they’re not going to be able to support it. And that’s certainly what I’m hearing from people. I want to see this succeed. But I keep talking to people who I would have expected would be supporters who say to me, they want to vote for this, but they don’t understand how it will work, they don’t understand what it will do, and they don’t understand how it will make a difference to people’s lives on the ground. And I don’t understand myself why the government hasn’t adopted a more orthodox process in terms of dealing with this. Why they haven’t responded to Peter Dutton’s letter. Why they haven’t made a formal response to the Calma-Langton report and why they haven’t set up processes, proper processes to deal with both the amendment and the creation of the national body.
KIERAN GILBERT To help reassure you and Peter Dutton, why don’t you take up the Prime Minister’s offer and attend the Referendum Working Group with the Opposition Leader to talk to the Indigenous representatives that are working through this right now?
JULIAN LEESER Well, I’d be delighted to attend the Indigenous working group. I look forward to meeting to meeting with them and talking to them and hearing what they’re doing and also putting the concerns that I’m hearing from Australians who want to support this but don’t feel that they have enough detail. The reason why this has become such an issue now is that on the 28th of December, the Prime Minister went to the Woodford Festival and announced we’ll have a referendum this year. On the first of January, the Minister said that we’re going to have legislation in the Parliament in March for a referendum, probably in August. So suddenly these issues. We’ve been talking about the need for detail ever since Peter Dutton became Opposition Leader. I said it, I was up at Garma with the Prime Minister. It was my first comment. People need to understand how this body is going to work and I just don’t think the Government explained. I don’t think they’ve been listening. And I don’t think they are adopting a normal process. So when I make a contribution to this debate in this way, it’s not to try and muddy the water or to make things difficult. It is actually to say, ‘look, there is danger ahead’. If you are serious about getting a result, you need to answer the reasonable questions that reasonable people are asking.
KIERAN GILBERT So should you take the Opposition Leader with you to the Referendum Working Group? You’ve said, yes, you will attend, but the Prime Minister’s offered that invitation for you and Mr Dutton. Wouldn’t that help clear things up, provide your input one way, their responses?
JULIAN LEESER I think ultimately, it’s a matter for the working group to invite Mr Dutton, but I’m sure if they invite him, he could speak for himself. I’m sure it’s a matter that he’d give very serious consideration to.
KIERAN GILBERT Would a voice to Parliament help navigate a crisis like we’re seeing right now with the rivers of grog that have opened up after the lapse of the alcohol ban? Do you think a voice type of body would help navigate a way through this? Would prevent the sort of calamity, really, that we’re seeing unfold in Alice Springs?
JULIAN LEESER Kieran, when I spoke on Saturday, I said there were two key things that I particularly like about the idea of the Voice. The first is that as a Liberal I believe in the dignity of the individual and I think you should consult individuals on the policies and laws that affect them. And I said, secondly, I believe in the principle of subsidiarity. That is, decisions and responsibility for decisions should be made at the local level, closest to where the action is. And that’s why I support the idea of local, regional and national voice bodies. So you are actually getting that local voice into the discussion. Now, had we won the last election, we had committed to the implementation of the local and regional bodies as recommended by the Calma-Langton Report. The Government has not yet committed to that at all. And it’s precisely because of the question that you ask me that I think the Government needs to provide more details so people will understand – how would a voice body actually assist in dealing with the issues in relation to violence in Alice Springs? As people have pointed out, there have been plenty of prominent Indigenous people from the Alice Springs community who have been saying, ‘these issues need to be dealt with, they need to be dealt with now’. The question is how does a Voice augment those voices? How does it provide some formal structure? These are the sorts of things that I think the Government needs to explain so that people can see the practical effect of what they are proposing to do.
KIERAN GILBERT Julian Leeser, Shadow Attorney-General and Spokesperson for Indigenous Australians for the Coalition. Thanks. Appreciate your time. Thanks
JULIAN LEESER Thank you Kieran.
Sydney Jewish Museum4 December 2023 Some years ago, the great Indigenous leader Noel Pearson spoke of the three great chords that tie our nation together.