Sky AM Agenda

Subjects: Newspoll, Budget, Government advertising, Craig Thomson.

Transcript, E&OE

15 May 2012

KIERAN GILBERT: Good morning and welcome to the program. Today, some rare news for the Government in the latest Newspoll: its primary vote up three points; it’s now at 30 per cent. This follows the $5 billion in handouts announced last week in the Budget — the “Battlers’ Budget” as Wayne Swan describes it. With me to discuss this and all the other issues of the day, from Brisbane the Deputy Opposition Leader in the Senate, Senator Brandis. Good morning to you.

GEORGE BRANDIS: Good morning, Kieran. How are you?

GILBERT: Very well thank you. And with me here in the Canberra studio, the Minister for Trade Craig Emerson. Mr Emerson, thanks for coming in.

CRAIG EMERSON: Always a pleasure.

GILBERT: The opinion poll today: it’s not much, but psychologically do you think it’s a bit of a boost for Labor, given how bad things are?

EMERSON: Well our attitude is there’s a lot of hard work ahead of us. We’ve brought down a Budget with a surplus, which also is a buffer in times of uncertainty. It may well give the Reserve Bank the basis of considering further interest rate reductions. But the payments that you mentioned, Kieran, in your introduction — Schoolkids Bonus, increased family payments — are there to help working people meet their cost-of-living pressures. And, of course, the other aspect, if you like, of the opinion polls is the big drop in the primary vote for the Coalition. And that, I would suspect, is on the back of Mr Abbott’s pledge to repeal the Schoolkids Bonus and to take back increases in family payments.

GILBERT: But it’s coming down from 51 per cent. That was a record high.

EMERSON: Oh, sure. And that’s why I say we’ve got a lot of work to do here. But we are steering …

GILBERT: You’re not even at base camp.

EMERSON: … the economy…

GILBERT: When you’re facing Everest, you’re not even at base camp yet…

EMERSON: Well I think the primary vote is 30 per cent. This is a poll; it’s not an election. I think the primary vote at the election was 38 per cent. So, yes, there is more work to do.

GILBERT: But psychologically for your colleagues, obviously many of them rattled by how bad things have been — you’ve had the Queensland election recently, and then the opinion polls down in the 20s — to have a “3” in front of it, psychologically at least, it’s not much but is it something to work with?

EMERSON: Well it’s 8.30 in the morning and I haven’t been on the phone to my Caucus colleagues. But I would imagine that people would take some heart from the fact that if you continue to do the hard work, implement good policies for working Australians, do the right thing, return the Budget to surplus, then that will be acknowledged.

GILBERT: The poll, Senator Brandis, did show that the Budget was popular for families earning under $90,000 a year. Does it show that the Coalition might have got its tactics wrong in responding to this Budget?

BRANDIS: Well, I’m bound to say that I can’t not be very happy with this morning’s Newspoll. And it just goes to show what a desperate situation this Government has got itself into that they seem to be high-fiving one another because their primary vote is at 30 per cent. As Mr O'Shannessy, who’s the commentator on the opinion polls, said to you an hour ago, Kieran, this is the difference between terrible and catastrophic. If there were to be an election held today, this Government would get a New South Wales-style result rather than a Queensland-style result, so I’m hardly going to be complaining about it. Might I also add that the other major opinion poll, Nielsen, in the Fairfax papers on the weekend, had a 58-42 spread. So that’s about where I think this has been at for a very long time now, frankly: the Coalition in the high 50s; the Government in the mid- to low-40s. It bounces around a little bit from week to week, as we know. But, as I say, for a Government to be expressing satisfaction that its primary vote has reached 30 per cent tells you everything you need to know.

GILBERT: Well, something else that is interesting and, I think, consistent Senator, is the rating of both leaders. There is a sense that no one is really that popular at the moment in the eyes of the electorate. Both leaders seem to be on the nose: Mr Abbott’s approval 34 per cent. It is better than Julia Gillard’s, but not much better.

BRANDIS: Well, Mr Abbott’s the preferred Prime Minister. He’s the preferred Prime Minister by … I think it was 5 per cent last time; 4 per cent this time. But, look, in the end what matters is the bottom line and the reason the Coalition has had very favourable opinion poll outcomes for more than a year now reflects, at least in part, the sure-footedness with which Mr Abbott has led the Coalition. So we are extremely, extremely happy with his performance

EMERSON: George says there’s this high-fiving going on, on the Labor side, completely ignoring what I’ve said — which is that there’s a lot of work still to do. But the backslapping of the Coalition, where George says ‘well, this is the difference between New South Wales and Queensland’, quoting Martin O'Shannessy and all this — they’re rolling out the Chesterfield lounge, getting it ready to push back into the Prime Minister’s Office, measuring up the curtains. Good on you George; the more Liberal backslapping and self-congratulations that goes on, the better. Because the Australian people see in Tony Abbott a guy who’s constantly negative and who has actually said to the mums and dads of Australia ‘I don’t trust you to spend any increases in family payments or the Schoolkids Bonus on your kids because I think you’re going to squander it on the poker machines’. So that’s a deep insult to the working men and women of this country.

GILBERT: Senator? Your response?

BRANDIS: Well, I mean, well … that’s a lot of nonsense. And, can I pick you up, Craig, on something you said a bit earlier. You keep talking about a Budget surplus. There is no Budget surplus; there is a projection of a surplus of one and a half billion. You’re a member of a Government that in last year’s Budget cycle was out by $22 billion in your projections between Budget night a year ago and the Budget papers this year. By the end of next week, Craig, by the end of next week, your Government, which borrows $100 million a day to support its debt, will have borrowed more than the Budget surplus.

EMERSON: George, we will rely on Treasury costings and Treasury analysis. We won’t rely on an accounting firm that you attacked me for criticising, which was actually done …

BRANDIS: I’m nor relying on ….

EMERSON: Let me finish. Let me finish. 

BRANDIS: I’m simply pointing out …

EMERSON: … which was actually found to… George. The accounting firm that you relied on at the last election, which I did criticise — you thought that was outrageous. This is an accounting firm that got done for misconduct by the professional accounting association. And what we know is that Mr Abbott will not subject, will not subject, the Coalition’s $70 billion …

GILBERT: How do you know that?

EMERSON: They’ve said so … $70 billion dollar…

GILBERT: No they haven’t; they said they’ll be upfront with their costings before the next election.

EMERSON: Yeah, yeah. They’ll take it to a Mosman bookkeeper.

GILBERT: You’re verballing him now.

EMERSON: No I’m not. I’m not. So I’ve got two debates here. One going on with you, Kieran …

GILBERT: No, I’m just picking you up on the point because they’ve said that they’ll be very clear.

EMERSON: Let me… instead of you continuing your advocacy on behalf of George. What I’m saying is that you said how do I know that: I know that because the Coalition has consistently said that they don’t trust Treasury, they don’t trust Finance and they will not participate in the Parliamentary Budget Office process and oppose the legislation. That’s how I know it.

GILBERT: Let’s get Senator Brandis to respond.

BRANDIS: Craig, Craig, Craig. For a start, first: you won’t even fund the Parliamentary Budget Office, so let’s not have that line from you.

EMERSON: It’ll be there George, don’t worry. And you’ll ignore it.

BRANDIS: Secondly, what I was pointing out was that in last year’s Budget, Treasury said the projected Budget deficit would be $22 billion. In this year’s Budget, when we have the latest estimates of how the last financial year turned out, the estimated Budget deficit was $44 billion — an error of 100 per cent.

EMERSON: You’ve airbrushed out cyclones; you’ve airbrushed out floods.

BRANDIS: How do you expect anyone to take seriously …

EMERSON: That’s fine, George.

BRANDIS: How can you expect anyone to take seriously this wafer thin projection surplus?

GILBERT: Okay. You’ve made that point. Let’s move on.

EMERSON: You don’t trust Treasury and you don’t trust Finance, and you won’t subject your costings either.

GILBERT: Let’s move on. The carbon tax ads if we can: $36 million campaign for the carbon tax assistance. There’s no mention of the carbon tax. This seems almost Orwellian in its design.

EMERSON: Well that’s complete rubbish.

GILBERT: How is it?

EMERSON: That is complete rubbish.

GILBERT: There is no reference to the carbon tax, and these are payments designed to…

EMERSON: I’ll respond to your advocacy: that is complete and utter rubbish.

GILBERT: It’s not advocacy. I’m raising the point about this advertisement.

EMERSON: You’re a more willing debater than George. George, he’s outdoing you. I will answer …

GILBERT: I think it deserves a question…

EMERSON: Yeah, the question’s fine and …

GILBERT: And an answer.

EMERSON: And if I could, you know, just squeak in a little answer here, if that’s all right with you.

GILBERT: Go for it.

EMERSON: Right. It’s about information being provided to the public in terms of the cash payments that they are to receive imminently.

GILBERT: For what?

EMERSON: Well, obviously, for putting a price on carbon; obviously for that. It is not a secret, Kieran, that there is a carbon price, a carbon tax coming in on the first of July. To announce, using taxpayers’ money, that there is a carbon tax coming in on the 1st of July would beg this question: don’t people already know that?

BRANDIS: I think we know there’s a carbon tax coming in on the 1st of July.

EMERSON: Exactly. Thank you, George. Thank you. That’s exactly my point.

BRANDIS: But you could keep reminding us of it if you like.

EMERSON: Thank you, George. It’s Brandis and Emerson versus Gilbert.

GILBERT: Okay. Senator Brandis, your thoughts? This Government’s certainly not the first Government to spend millions of dollars. Let me just make the point: it’s not the first Government to spend millions of dollars in advertising for a policy with which it’s delivered, popular or otherwise. If you think of WorkChoices, GST — the Coalition spent millions of dollars on those things.

BRANDIS: That’s absolutely right. There was quite a bit of government advertising during the Howard Government. And I remember having these debates with Craig on this program and in other media forums during that time, in which Craig denounced government advertising as the worst thing in the world.

EMERSON: No I didn’t.

BRANDIS: Yes, you did. And you said the one … and the one thing that the Rudd Government will do — remember the Rudd Government: the one you stabbed? — will do is we’ll get rid of this government advertising. I remember …

EMERSON: We did not say that.

BRANDIS: I remember solemn lectures …

EMERSON: Completely untrue. Completely untrue, George.

BRANDIS: … about this by Senator John Faulkner in the Senate, about the evils of government advertising.

EMERSON: George, you show me where we said there will be no government advertising. Next week, bring it on to the program; show me where that was said. Show me where it was said.

BRANDIS: And now we have an even greater … a much greater abuse of Government advertising that anything Mr Howard could have been accused of. You don’t even have

GILBERT: Why is it greater?

BRANDIS: … you’re too ashamed of the carbon tax to even mention the carbon tax in the advertisements.

EMERSON: You just made your own case, George. You just made your case. Everyone knows it’s coming in. That’s it.

BRANDIS: Everyone knows that the carbon tax is coming in on the 1st of July, which makes these advertisements …

EMERSON: They don’t know about the cash payments.

BRANDIS: … which makes these advertisements even more unnecessary and even more an egregious waste and abuse of taxpayers’ money, to the tune of $270,000 a day.

GILBERT: Well we’ve got to pay some bills here and take a break for some ads, so let’s pause this lively debate and we’ll be back in a moment.

[commercial break]

GILBERT: This is AM Agenda. Thanks for your company this morning. With me here in the Canberra studio, the Trade Minister Craig Emerson, and in Brisbane the Deputy Opposition Leader in the Senate and the Shadow Attorney-General Senator George Brandis. Senator, is the Coalition going to be pushing along the lines, when it comes to Craig Thomson in the Parliament, to examine the legal fees? That issue: who paid for it; when it was disclosed. Is that the way you’re going to try and make the Parliament hold the MP accountable? Because, obviously, there are other matters happening through the … likely to happen … through the court system outside of the Parliament.

BRANDIS: Without going into the detail, as you wouldn’t expect me to, about what the Parliamentary tactics of the Opposition will be next week, you’re right when you say there are a number of questions to be answered about these legal fees. And they include: what did Julia Gillard as the Leader of the Labor Party know about the Labor Party’s funding of Craig Thomson’s defence? Why wasn’t this financial benefit that was conferred on Craig Thomson and was a reportable interest recorded as it ought to have been of the Register of Parliamentary Interests? What else did other senior Ministers, particularly Ministers from New South Wales, know about these arrangements to in effect keep Craig Thomson afloat? So those and other issues — this is just another aspect of the sleazy affair. It’s been covered up. It is beyond belief that the Prime Minister, as the Leader of the Labor Party, didn’t know that the Labor Party was funding this man to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees. So, this is obviously a matter that will be pursued.

GILBERT: Mr Emerson, you’ve been very strong, as have others, in saying that Craig Thomson deserves due process here. And I think that’s agreed by the vast majority of people in this debate.

EMERSON: Not by the Coalition.

GILBERT: I think … we’ll get Senator Brandis to respond to that in a moment. But on this issue of privileges and the entitlements that Senator Brandis is referring to, this is something entirely appropriate for the Parliament to consider, isn’t it?

EMERSON: Well these questions were asked of the Prime Minister in the last sitting week. I think we got maybe one day to about six questions on the Budget and then on to this matter; the next day a couple of questions then on to this matter — shows that the Coalition has no interest in policy debates. I think we need to get to the bottom line of this. This is not a matter of high principle from the Coalition. The Coalition simply wants to change the numbers in the House of Representatives and will do anything, anything, to seek to achieve that objective. Now, I would be really interested …

GILBERT: Why shouldn’t Parliament…

EMERSON: I don’t mind them asking questions — that’s fine. I don’t mind people delivering their verdicts in the community on Craig Thomson.  That happens. That’s life. That’s a democracy. But what I don’t like is the fact that the Coalition is continually seeking only one thing, and that’s to change the numbers in the House of Representatives. And they are prepared to do this:  — and this is why I get so agitated about it to be honest -  they are prepared to say that it is right for Mr Abbott and Coalition MPs to sit as judge and jury and vote MPs out of the Parliament  -  MPs who are elected; MPs who represent 90,000 voters, about 150,000 people. And what they’re signalling is that if Mr Abbott did win Government, he would reserve the right using the precedent they’re seeking to establish, to vote out any Labor or Independent MPs against whom any allegations have been made. I think this is a profound, fundamental threat to Australia’s democracy. That’s where the debate should now centre:  on what the Coalition is seeking to achieve there.

GILBERT: Okay, Senator Brandis. Yep.

BRANDIS: I think, Craig, you’re becoming a little hysterical, if I may say so.

EMERSON: Not at all, George. Thank you for your diagnosis.

BRANDIS: What you are seeking to do, as your Prime Minister and all of your colleagues are seeking to do, is to protect Craig Thomson. Because but for Craig Thomson’s tainted vote, this Government would not survive, and the electorate would get the election that it desperately wants.

EMERSON: That you desperately want.

BRANDIS: When we say we want an election, and we do, we reflect what the opinion polls themselves tell us is the sentiment of the very clear majority of the Australian people. So don’t please treat public opinion with such contempt. In relation …

EMERSON: I don’t. I don’t, George. I just don’t think there should be an election whenever a Party is behind in the opinion polls. I think that’s absurd.

BRANDIS: In relation to Mr Thomson, there is no doubt whatsoever that Members of Parliament are accountable to the Parliament for their conduct. They are subject to the disciplinary jurisdiction of the Parliament. For example, the failure of Thomson to declare these hundreds of thousands of dollars of legal costs which the Labor Party has paid for him, that’s not justiciable by a court; that is entirely a matter of parliamentary privilege.

EMERSON: Well we better boot out Tony Abbott, because he failed to declare for two years.

BRANDIS: … exclusively…

EMERSON: Two years.

BRANDIS: … exclusively justiciable by the Parliament itself, so we make no apologies…

GILBERT: Senator, the point …. let me just ask you this

EMERSON: If you fail to declare you should be excluded from the Parliament. There goes the Opposition Leader.

GILBERT: That is a valid point: that many Members on both sides of the House have been guilty of this in the past.

EMERSON: Including Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey. Should they be thrown out of the Parliament, George? This is extraordinary.

BRANDIS: Look, look, Craig…

EMERSON: Look, look!

BRANDIS: Where have you been in the last year?

EMERSON: I haven’t been involved in seeking to eject Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey from the Parliament.

BRANDIS: This is a man who is subject to the most serious findings by your own quasi-judicial agency, Fair Work Australia — 156 breaches, including serious breaches. The use for personal benefit and for his own election campaign of nearly half a million dollars of members’ funds.

EMERSON: And do you say he should be ejected from the Parliament? Is that what you’re saying?

BRANDIS: And now you’re trying to cover up the fact that your own political party has been funding his legal costs?

EMERSON: No, I’ve been saying have the debate. As the alternative Attorney-General in this country, George Brandis, are you saying it should be the prerogative of politicians to vote other politicians out of the House of Representatives?

BRANDIS: You can’t. Under Australian law you cannot expel a Member of the House of Representatives.

EMERSON: Then why does your leader keep doing those things?

GILBERT: Let the Senator respond, please. Senator Brandis, your response?

BRANDIS: Thank you very much Kieran. First of all, there is no right of the Parliament to expel a Member. There used to be. But that was removed by the Parliamentary Privileges Act in 1987. There is, in a sufficiently serious case, a right to suspend a Member, and a right to censure a Member. Members of Parliament during the Howard Government, when the Labor Party had the numbers in the Senate — it was not uncommon for Ministers to, for example, to be censured. So there is a range of disciplinary jurisdiction …

EMERSON: How many were suspended, George?

BRANDIS: There’s a range of disciplinary jurisdiction that the Parliament has over its Members. And in the most serious case, there is a jurisdiction to suspend which, on my reading of history, has been exercised about seven or eight times in the last century by both sides of politics.

EMERSON: I think in 1929 …

GILBERT: All right, let’s get your response. But you’ve got to concede that when we talk about the seriousness of allegations, these are right up there, aren’t they?

EMERSON: Oh, they’re serious allegations…

GILBERT: And findings by Fair Work Australia?

EMERSON: Yes. And Mr Thomson says that he provided a 70-page response to that and it was either totally or substantially ignored. And that’s why …

BRANDIS: No, no, it wasn’t ignored. It was [inaudible]

EMERSON: See, George is taking sides in what should be an objective process. But, be that as it may…

BRANDIS: Hang on a minute: it’s not an objective process.

EMERSON: I actually think…

BRANDIS: It’s not an objective process.

EMERSON: I actually think…

BRANDIS: It’s not an objective process. Mr Thomson is…

EMERSON: Righto, George. You let us know when you’re finished.

BRANDIS: Mr Thomson is implausibly maintaining that it wasn’t him; that he’s done nothing wrong. And others have looked at this material, including me, are asserting that he has done something wrong.

GILBERT: Let’s have Craig finish. I’m sorry — you did have a fair crack at this one, Senator.

EMERSON: I’m simply saying that this matter seems to be headed to the courts. I think that the courts should determine this matter. I do not believe that the Prime Minister or the Opposition Leader or Senator Brandis should sit as judge and jury. And what terrifies me, to be honest, about our democracy is Mr Abbott’s proposal that if he becomes Prime Minister he will sit as judge and jury and eject Labor MPs from the Parliament. It’s a disgrace.

BRANDIS: He’s never said anything like that. Mr Abbott has never said anything like it …

EMERSON: It’s exactly what he’s moving every day in Parliament. Every day in Parliament he moves motions to do exactly that.

GILBERT: Okay, we’re out of time. We’ve got to go. Senator Brandis, Crag Emerson. Thanks for that.

EMERSON: Thanks a lot.

BRANDIS: Thanks Kieran.

GILBERT: Good to see you both.

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