Scott Morrison has taken a stronger position over the raids on a News Corp journalist and the ABC, appearing to open the door to a law change, saying his government “is absolutely committed to freedom to the press”.
The Prime Minister emphasised that the matters were “pursued by the AFP operationally at complete arm’s length from the government, not in the knowledge of the government, not at the instigation of government ministers.”
He said the issues were referred by department heads, not by ministers, last year, before he took office as prime minister.
Speaking in Portsmouth in the south of England at the D-Day 75th anniversary events attended by 13 world leaders, Mr Morrison insisted: “Matters are referred to police on a regular basis and it’s only the federal police that then make decisions about how they proceed with those investigations, and it would be entirely inappropriate for the government of the day to be interfering in those.”
He said he had spoken with editors and others about the safety of whistleblowers, and could “understand why these issues can cause great anxiety”, as he appeared to open the door to a possible change to the law.
“I think it’s important we pause and as these issues are worked through in the days ahead that if there are any issues that we have to address, then I am open to discussing those,” he said.
“If there are issues regarding particular laws, they will be raised in the normal way that they should be in a democracy, and they are matters I am always open to discuss, as any prime minister would be.”
The extraordinary searches of a journalist’s home and the ABC offices have caused deep concern both in Australia and internationally.
Criticism of the raids by the British media and rights groups came at an unfortunate time for Mr Morrison on his first big international trip as Prime Minister. The BBC called the raids “deeply troubling,” while The Telegraph noted the searches had “led opposition MPs and media figures to query whether the recently re-elected centre-right Liberal Party was engaging in a campaign to muzzle press freedom.”
The media was braced for more “heavy-handed” action as the AFP remained at the ABC offices on Wednesday, trawling through more than 9200 items in relation to reports published two years ago regarding alleged unlawful killings and misconduct by Special Forces troops in Afghanistan.
The second raid came just a day after the Canberra home of Annika Smethurst, political editor of News Corp Australia’s Sunday newspapers, was stormed by seven AFP officers who spent seven hours poking through her personal items, including her underwear drawer.
“At the moment, what we are dealing with are two separate investigations following a normal process and any suggestion that these were done with the knowledge of or with the instigation of government ministers is completely untrue,” said the Prime Minister.
“All I know is that the AFP are pursuing an investigation independently under their authorities created by statute and it’s their job to do that consistent with that statute. And they are conducting investigations each and every day, all the time, and they have their standards and rules for conducting those investigations and I’d expect them to uphold those. And so where there are any concerns about how anything has been conducted or how they’ve handled these matters, and if there are any complaints to be made, then those complaints should be raised and we could look at those.”
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Mr Morrison also revealed he exchanged a few “friendly remarks” with Donald Trump at the commemoration events in Portsmouth, where the President and wife Melania sat alongside the Queen, UK Prime Minister Theresa May, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Canadian PM Justin Trudeau.
Asked about the tariff war, Mr Morrison said: “We have a very strong relationship with the United States, but it is a general topic of discussion, that this issue as I said yesterday, is having an impact on my the global economy and it’s in the interest of all states, all nations that this matter is able to be resolved in a positive way, and it will enable our trading system to continue.
“We need to ensure that the multilateral institutions that govern world trade are modernised, and the United States has some very legitimate concerns about how those rules are operating and particularly when it comes to protection of intellectual property and they raise a lot of genuine issues, but equally we need to work within the rules-based system because that is what has been very important for Australia and other trading nations like Australia, and we want to see that continue.”
Mr Morrison also held a bilateral meeting with Mrs May, and discussed the challenges presented by Brexit.
“I wished her all the best in her future and she is always welcome in Australia,” he said.
“I’ve enjoyed my working relationship with her, as did my predecessor.
“I wish the UK Conservative party all the best as they go through their process. And there are some very significant issues here to be resolved and I have no doubt that they’ll get about that as quickly as they can.
“It’s another area of instability that obviously for the global economy but particularly in this part of the world needs some resolution.
“Now the fewer uncertainties there are in the global economy, whether they’re trade tensions between great powers or unresolved issues in relation to Brexit, economies always work better where there’s greater certainty.
“I would simply just like to see, and I’m sure many other countries who are here today to see, that certainty improved.
Because that is what will lead to a stronger economy and that is what will lead to better outcomes for our citizens.”