KIERAN GILBERT: Hello and welcome to the program this morning. The ongoing fall-out of the scandal around the Parliamentary Speaker Peter Slipper: the Independents are throwing their weight around; their votes even more vital now in this precarious Parliament. And what does it all mean for the Government’s Budget, to be delivered two weeks from today? My first guest this morning on AM Agenda, the Minister for Trade Craig Emerson, joins us from Brisbane. Mr Emerson, thanks for your time.
CRAIG EMERSON: It’s a pleasure, Kieran.
GILBERT: Even if the criminal allegations are cleared in time for the 8th of May, the Budget, and Peter Slipper is returned, is it really … is it tenable for him to return to the Chair with those civil allegations remaining … not dealt with?
EMERSON: I think what we always need to do is have a single standard for the treatment of these issues. In relation to civil proceedings, we know that civil proceedings were initiated against Malcolm Turnbull, not only as Leader of the Opposition but as a Cabinet Minister in the Howard Government; same thing with Michael Wooldridge. We didn’t call for anyone to step aside, to have their vote negated, in those circumstances. And that’s what this is all about. All Mr Abbott wants to do is engage in muckraking and trying to get a vote negated so he thinks that that will get him to The Lodge. Let’s apply a single standard; not two standards — one for the Liberal Party and one for everyone else.
GILBERT: This is a sexual harassment claim, though. It’s a standard that Mr Abbott said that he would apply if the Coalition wins the next Government. It’s a serious allegation that’s been made. Does this need to be dealt with differently for the sake of the Office?
EMERSON: I’d make these points, Kieran: that, yes, there’s no doubt that allegations of sexual harassment are serious. And these matters need to be clarified. I fundamentally — fundamentally — believe in the presumption of innocence. And the fact that an allegation is made is not a fact proven. It is not a fact proven. And if we go back to 2003, according to Mr Ashby — which does not make it true; and I hasten to add, does not make it true — then a staff member went to Tony Nutt, who was then Prime Minister Howard’s Chief of Staff, with allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour. And according to Mr Ashby — which does not make it true — Mr Nutt then said ‘go away and don’t have anything further to do with it’. So let’s again have a single standard here. If there is an allegation of improper sexual behaviour, then that one standard should apply. But what Mr Abbott wants to do is apply one standard to the Liberal Party and one to the rest of Australia, and that’s unacceptable. The motive behind it, if you look at his behaviour over the last 18 months or so, is to do everything he can to change the balance of the numbers in the Parliament so that he can get to The Lodge without explaining how he’s going to fill his $70 billion Budget black hole and reconcile all these irreconcilable policies. It’s not going to happen, Mr Abbott. We’ve had stable government; we’ll continue to have stable government. Roll up your sleeves; do some work; get out of the gutter.
GILBERT: You made reference to Tony Nutt, the former Chief of Staff to, and former senior official within, John Howard’s office for many years. He issued a statement last night responding to this affidavit from James Ashby. He says … he made reference to the fact that the relationship that was raised with him years ago, that the key difference was that that was consensual. He goes on to say that some of the false reports, and the remarks made on it, have been defamatory, according to his legal advice. But the key difference between that case and this is that that was consensual and this, according to Mr Ashby at least, was harassment.
EMERSON: Well, indeed, and I don’t know …
GILBERT: But there is a difference.
EMERSON: … whether it was consensual or not.
GILBERT: That’s the point, though.
EMERSON: I don’t know whether such a visit ever occurred by a staff member named …
GILBERT: But you’re trying to link the two. But it was consensual.
EMERSON: And what I’m saying is she didn’t go there to say ‘look, I thought you should know — this is according to Mr Ashby — ‘I thought you should know that there’s a consensual sexual relationship between Mr Slipper and a staff member, but I just thought I’d pass it on’. She obviously went there concerned. She went there concerned about that. And Mr, Nutt according to Mr Ashby, dismissed her concerns. Then Mr Abbott last night said “oh, but we moved to deselect Mr Slipper”. Well, he was pre-selected in 2004, after this purported incident. In 2007, in 2010, Mr Abbott accepted the vote of Mr Slipper to become the Leader of the Opposition. And then Mr Slipper has put out a letter late last year to his constituents saying that Mr Abbott, in front of the Liberal Party Director Brian Loughnane, reassured him yet again that he would be preselected either for Fisher or for Fairfax. These are the sorts of questions that Mr Abbott needs to answer. Why is it, if Mr Abbott believed that there was inappropriate behaviour on the part of Mr Slipper — and I make no such judgement against Mr Slipper — why did he leave it between 2003 and 2011 to act, and take the guy’s vote to make him Leader of the Opposition and, indeed, three years after this alleged incident in 2003 went to Mr Slipper’s wedding? This is what I’m saying: Mr Abbott has only one motivation here. He doesn’t care about the merits of the case; he just wants to change the numbers in the Parliament.
GILBERT: Okay, well what about … you talk about the legal grounds for having the civil case dealt with differently to the criminal allegations. And there probably are legal grounds for that argument to be made — obviously, a presumption of innocence as well; that the man’s entitled to a presumption of innocence — but …
EMERSON: That’s right.
GILBERT: … in terms of the perception, the perception of having a Speaker overseeing the Parliamentary proceedings with this cloud hanging over him … surely for the good of the office and, indeed, the good of the Government, which has suffered a cumulative stench around the Government up through the Thomson saga and now this. Wouldn’t it be better to have him stand aside at least until all of this is dealt with?
EMERSON: As Attorney-General Nicola Roxon pointed out last night, these are allegations. And if we get into a world where all that is required for a Member of Parliament to have his or her vote negated is a civil allegation of inappropriate behaviour, get ready for a lot of it. Now they won’t happen on our side, but they would happen on the Coalition’s side because there’d be civil allegations left, right, and centre. If we established a standard to which Mr Abbott does not apply to his own Members, if we established a standard that if there is a civil case against you, and is in some way unsavoury, then you have to stand aside and have your vote negated — which is what Mr Abbott wants that to happen — well then of course there would be a landslide of civil allegations against Labor MPs, against Independents, against Greens. Because this is the new standard that Mr Abbott thinks should apply. We can’t have these perverse …
GILBERT: Okay. What about that question, Minister, about the impact on the Government? As I said this is just adds to the cumulative effect of a number of different sagas: the Thomson saga and the various other controversies around a minority government. It just further undermines the legitimacy, doesn’t it?
EMERSON: I think I was answering that question. And what I’m trying — seeking — to convey is that there is a presumption of innocence. And if we create a set of incentives, Kieran, where all you need to do is make allegations in a civil case and you wipe out people’s votes, the Coalition will do it left, right, and centre. Left, right, and centre. But of course they won’t apply it in their own situations. There’s a Senator from South Australia who’s the subject of civil allegations, as I understand it, about false and misleading conduct. Is that a trivial matter? I mean, is that a trivial matter? Is that one that we should dismiss?
GILBERT: No. I want to ask you a couple of last questions though…
EMERSON: … and the reason I put this — the reason I put that — is that doesn’t affect the balance of power in the Senate. What this is all about is seeking to affect the balance of power in the House.
GILBERT: Just quickly … if you can answer these quickly for me: Andrew Wilkie — are you going to look at a reopening talks with him to try and renew that alliance?
EMERSON: Well, we are committed to reform in respect of poker machines. We’re the only party that actually is, and Andrew Wilkie will need to make his decisions on that basis. If he thinks that the Coalition, who wants to do absolutely nothing at all about problem gambling, is the better choice, well that’s a decision that Andrew would have to make.
GILBERT: And finally on the Geelong … the Broadmeadows jobs at Ford. What does the Government know about that?
EMERSON: Well, we are working with the relevant companies. This is a very difficult situation. We want to avoid redundancies. It’s a supplier that is in a fair bit of difficulty. And it just does show that the automotive industry is under pressure in this country. And that’s why we are supporting the automotive industry. We’re supporting, certainly, Ford we’re supporting Holden, because we think that this industry has a very good future. Again, there’s the contrast: we’ve had nothing but criticism from Mr Abbott, who obviously sees the automotive industry just doesn’t matter in Australia. We think it’s really important — it employs something like 46,000 people. They’re all Australians and they all deserve a bit of support.
GILBERT: Minister, thanks for your time.
EMERSON: Okay, thanks Kieran.
GILBERT: Trade Minister Craig Emerson there in Brisbane.
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