ABC 702 Sydney

Subjects: Peter Slipper, Craig Thomson, the Budget, carbon pricing.

Transcript, E&OE

30 April 2012

ADAM SPENCER: Adam Spencer with you. Craig Emerson is the Minister for Trade and he joins us this morning. Minister, thank you so much for your time.

CRAIG EMERSON: That's fine. That's fine, Adam.

SPENCER: When did you first hear about the decision the Prime Minister had made about Craig Thomson and Peter Slipper?

EMERSON: I was aware of the Craig Thomson developments on Saturday.

SPENCER: And it was Saturday night, I believe, that Craig Thomson and the Prime Minister sat down and had their discussion. There are disputes as to whose decision this really was, Craig Thomson saying he'd arrived at the conclusion at about the same time as the Prime Minister; Sam Dastyari saying to us before seven o'clock this was clearly the Prime Minister's call. What's your take on those events, Mr Emerson?

EMERSON: Well, both are true, and that is the Prime Minister had come to this view and did ask Craig to stand aside from the Caucus. Craig was heading in this direction in his own mind, so the two converged. But it was the Prime Minister's call.

SPENCER: When the Prime Minister says that a line had been crossed, that something had happened that forced her to act, many people are saying 'what had happened: the Craig Thomson saga has been dragging on for a lot more than a year. These allegations date back many, many years?' What's transpired in the last 48 hours to make anything different in the issue of Craig Thomson or Peter Slipper?

EMERSON: It's true in relation to Craig that it has been going on for a long time. He pointed out that he's had two baby girls in the time that this inquiry's been underway from Fair Work Australia. But neither of the two issues could be seen in isolation, Adam. They were having an effect together on public perceptions of the standing of the Parliament, and that's why the Prime Minister came to the judgement that she needed to, and should, appropriately move in relation to both Craig Thomson and Peter Slipper.

SPENCER: And so, when Peter Hartcher says on the front page of today's Sydney Morning Herald it's therefore 'a decision made of political expediency rather than any principles', is that a valid concern?

EMERSON: Well there is a principle of the integrity of the Parliament, and the Prime Minister was concerned about damage to the standing of the Parliament in the minds of members of the public. I think that's perfectly legitimate. I don't regard that as political expediency. I think it's a genuine concern about the standing of the Parliament and that's why Julia Gillard as Prime Minister made that decision.

SPENCER: But in terms of trying to protect the integrity of the Parliament, is this not too little too late?

EMERSON: I don't think so. I mean, it's not the first time there have been investigations into Members of Parliament. These two have come together, if you like. It's converged in the minds of members of the public and that was having an impact on their view of the standing of the Parliament. But there have been investigations before; there have been, in fact, charges before. In relation to both Mr Slipper and Mr Thomson, there are allegations but there are no charges against either man. And so I think it's not the first time that this has happened. It's certainly the case that in the previous Parliament there were three Members of Parliament, all Coalition members, who were under police investigation out of concern that they might have been rorting printing entitlements. By the way, they all stayed in the Parliament, they all stayed in the Liberal Party, they all voted in the Parliament. Mr Abbott as Manager of Government Business and Leader of the House publicly defended their right to remain in the Parliament, to remain in the Coalition and to vote on legislation, which they did on numerous occasions.

SPENCER: On topic of things that have been around for a while, journalists are freely saying that Peter Slipper's been known as someone who sails close to the wind when it comes to entitlements and liabilities and the like for a long time. With all the things that are now coming out about Mr Slipper, and he maintains his innocence on all charges, what was the Prime Minister thinking in appointing this person to the Speaker of the House? Was there some thought that these allegations, these suggestions, would not come back to haunt Mr Slipper? If the integrity of the Parliament is paramount, why put someone who's been dogged by these sort of claims for so long in the most important position in the House of Parliament?

EMERSON: Well, bear in mind that Peter Slipper at that time was Deputy Speaker of the House, and the vacancy arose when Harry Jenkins decided to step down. Peter Slipper was then elected to the position of Speaker. I think anyone who watches Parliament, Adam, would accept that Mr Slipper as Speaker has discharged his responsibilities in a very professional and fair way. Yes, he has had allegations against him before; that is true. But these are allegations made, not allegations proved. And I think, and I think most people, despite the controversy around this, would fundamentally believe in the presumption of innocence. And Mr Slipper is entitled to the presumption of innocence just as Mr Thomson is. And we should not be judge and jury. Certainly Mr Abbott, who's appointed himself as judge and jury, should not do that because we need consistency in the application of standards. We're not getting that. We have one standard by Mr Abbott for the Coalition and another for the rest of Australia.

SPENCER: Now that the Labor Party is relying on a series of Independents, Greens MPs and the like to secure passages of Bills through Parliament, how strong do you think is the support of Craig Thomson and the Independents?

EMERSON: Well, Craig has indicated that he is a Labor man; that he will continue to support the Labor agenda. So, I don't think there's anything fundamentally different there. We know Mr Windsor and Mr Oakeshott will not support motions of no confidence unless there are absolutely exceptional circumstances. They will support supply. And I make this broader point: that the Coalition has been predicting, as have commentators, from day one that this Government won't last. We're already in the situation where more than 350 pieces of legislation have passed. It was said that that couldn't happen. It was said that we couldn't get the mining tax through the Parliament. It was said that we couldn't get the Clean Energy Bill through the Parliament. All of those things actually happened, and we'll continue to legislate in the interests of the Australian people. The Budget comes down next Tuesday. We will return the Budget to surplus and we expect to get support for supply from the Independents. So, life goes on.

SPENCER: Today's Financial Review has some quotes from Mr Rob Oakeshott suggesting a bit of sabre-rattling, saying if he doesn't get his $3.5 billion to match the NSW Government to complete the Pacific Highway by 2016 he might have to have a serious look at the Budget. In these tough financial times and the Government's desperate bid to return the Budget, to surplus, is there $3.5 billion around for Rob Oakeshott?

EMERSON: I'm not going to divulge contents of the Budget. But it's not unusual, Adam, for Members of Parliament, and particularly Independent Members, to indicate what they want to see in a Budget. That's perfectly legitimate. It's happened before; it'll happen again. But Mr Oakeshott and Mr Windsor, against enormous pressure from outside including from the Coalition, have continued to recognise that what's really important here is ongoing stability in the Government so we can make the decisions to lock in Australia's future in the Asian Century. We want to make sure that young people have a great diversity of career opportunities, that there are good jobs and indeed high-quality jobs for working Australians. That's what the Government is on about, and we have enjoyed the support of Mr Windsor and Mr Oakeshott and we appreciate it.

SPENCER: All the polls suggest you're going to have to get some of those things done very quickly, Mr Emerson, with the greatest respect. Because, again, disastrous poll numbers – as low as 30 per cent in the current poll – claims some Labor Members are admitting privately that they'll win only 30 seats at the next election. What chance is there that Labor can turn? And we're not talking a one-off poll. I know people don't pay too much attention to the polls and things like that, but consistent, relentless, monotonous, disastrous poll results. What chance is there that the Labor Party can seriously turn this around in time for a Federal election?

EMERSON: Well, I'm an irrepressible optimist, and I've been around…

SPENCER: You'd have to be.

EMERSON: … for a very long time. And I certainly know that there were many times when Caucus members and definitely the media wrote off the Hawke Government. We have a misty-eyed view now that it was always going to win elections. Bob Hawke won four elections, and we were in very difficult circumstances on a number of occasions, usually for the same reason. And that is getting on and making the hard decisions, the big tax reforms, implementing a fringe benefits tax, capital gains tax – that was going to be the end of the world. Well, here we are putting a price on carbon. Adam, I freely concede that that is not a popular policy, just as tax reform wasn't popular back in 1985. Nevertheless, if a government's got guts and vision it will go ahead and implement those policies, and then the polls will take care of themselves. Ultimately it's the people on a particular Saturday who will make the decisions; not people who respond to opinion polls mid-term. So, we'll just keep doing the right thing by Australia.

SPENCER: Are you absolutely optimistic that Julia Gillard will be the Prime Minister who leads Labor to the next election?

EMERSON: Yes I am. There's no question of that. It is true, as you say – and I'm not going to do anything other than directly answer your question – that we are down in the opinion polls. We know that. But come a period shortly after the 1st of July when Whyalla is still on the map; it hasn't been obliterated by the carbon price, but people have received compensation of $10.10 on average per person, compared with the price impact of $9.90 per week, they'll see that this scare campaign against the carbon-pricing Clean Energy Bill is just that. And then we will have a situation where the Coalition will explain why they are going to cut pensions, increase tax and put a million people back in to the tax system who had been taken out by a trebling of the tax-free threshold. Why? Because Tony Abbott will promise that under him electricity prices will fall. Pigs might fly.

SPENCER: We'll have to wait and see, Mr Emerson. Thank you so much for your time.

EMERSON: Thanks a lot Adam. Thank you.

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