ABC News 24 Breakfast

Subjects: Easter, Archbishop's criticism of banks, mining and politicians, Syria.

Transcript, E&OE

7 April 2012

ANDREW GEOGHEGAN: Minister, thanks very much for joining us. Can I just ask you on a personal note: what does Easter mean to you, and do you think Australia is perhaps losing that relevancy of Easter?

CRAIG EMERSON: I think Easter is a celebration of the miracle of life. I'm a Catholic boy - a very flawed Catholic boy - but for Christians it is a time of celebration after the death of Jesus on the cross and the Resurrection. But whether you're a Christian or not, I think it is a time to reflect on the miracle of life.

I remember when our first boy was born, and I looked at this little baby and just could not understand how I would have had a part in creating that wonderful little human being. So I think it is a time to reflect on that, reflect on the beauty of the world around us - the natural beauty, our children. These are all good thoughts during this time of celebration. I'd add this, if I could, too: the word 'hallelujah' has to be the most beautiful word I've ever heard, and it's the basis of a gorgeous song as well, and certainly Christians do sing Hallelujah on Easter Sunday.

GEOGHEGAN: Well, many people have commented that society today has become very selfish. What do you make of the comments from Anglican Archbishop Dr Philip Freier, who is calling on Australia's banks and mining companies to share the wealth?

EMERSON: I think there is merit in that. And obviously with respect to the mining industry, the Government not only agrees with that sentiment but is putting it into action through the mining tax, which will in fact share the wealth through increased superannuation for 8.4 million working men and women in our country; small business tax breaks; and extra infrastructure investment. So we agree with that philosophy.

In relation to the banks, we do need strong banks - there is no doubt about that. And the strength of our banking system helped, amongst other things - including economic stimulus - to guide us past the global recession. We avoided that. But I'd simply say to banks: when they do feel that they need to make staff redundant, you know, please consider the human dimension of that.

I know some do - possibly all do - but we know in families, when you lose a job often it is a terrible tragedy within the family and can cause all sorts of angst and even family breakdown. So I'd just ask that all employers consider that when they have to make that terrible decision to lay off staff.

GEOGHEGAN: Now, Archbishop Freier has also taken aim at politicians. He's saying we need to move away from the three-year election cycle and also that 24-hour news cycle that politicians feed. Do you think that those comments have some merit, and perhaps politicians do lack that long-term vision in Australia and are more worried about being re-elected in those short, three-year cycles?

EMERSON: Well we are on ABC 24, but I think it's a great program - and that's why it's a real pleasure to be on the show - but, look, I think it's always worth reminding politicians that we need to look to the horizon and beyond it. I would assert, on behalf of the Government, that the whole Asian Century White Paper exercise is exactly about that: making sure that we can take full opportunity of the Asian century; that our kids get the best possible jobs; that we provide through engagement with the region the fantastic diversity of career opportunities, including studying in Asia. So I think that this is exactly what we are doing. But it's always welcome to have a reminder that we do need to look beyond the 24-hour news cycles. And often we're actually accused as a government of being too obsessed with polls, where in fact Julia Gillard is exactly the opposite.

Often I get asked questions about 'why won't you change your policy on carbon pricing or on the mining tax if they are not popular in the polls?'. And we say, precisely for the reason, that we need to look beyond opinion polls, beyond the three-year parliamentary term, and to have a vision that extends to the horizon.

GEOGHEGAN: Do you think it is time to have another look at the length of federal terms? Most states have moved to a four-year term; why don't we do that at the federal level?

EMERSON: We had a crack at that in 1988 and it went down in a screaming heap - because the Coalition initially said it would support it and in the end it didn't. And any referendum that doesn't have bipartisan support - and particularly in an area such as extending parliamentary terms - is bound to fail; absolutely bound to fail.

I know that in New South Wales there was an argument that the four years was too long, and people were waiting to change the Government of New South Wales. And now they've got one which is not doing the right thing on Sydney Airport. But at that time I remember the debate was maybe there had been an error, and that four years was too long. And that's why I think the original question that you posed about looking beyond three years and four years, off to 15, 20, 25 years, is the right question. If governments do that, then I think that the electorate in any event will applaud it, acknowledge it, and think 'this is a government that is moving beyond three or four years'. And that's what we're seeking to do through the Asian Century White Paper exercise.

GEOGHEGAN: Craig Emerson, just before you go, can I ask you about Syria? A ceasefire is due to come into effect next Tuesday. If that does not eventuate, what are the options?

EMERSON: We'd have to go, I think, back to the Security Council. I saw the footage on your program just now; it's extremely worrying. It's obviously not a situation where there are preparations for a ceasefire. Military activity within Syria against its own people is ongoing. So I am pleased that the UN Security Council has backed Kofi Annan's peace plan developed on behalf of the Arab League.

We just can only now set out in the clearest terms to the regime in Syria that this violence is unacceptable and that the Security Council will need to have a fresh look if, in fact, the ceasefire doesn't take effect on 10 April.

GEOGHEGAN: Trade Minister Craig Emerson, thanks very much.

EMERSON: Thanks for having me on the show.

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