KIERAN GILBERT: With me to start the program this morning, the Minister for Trade Craig Emerson. Mr Emerson, thanks for your time. Scott Morrison says it's not about policy; that the Government's the problem. Given the track record over the last few years, he's got a valid basis to make that point, doesn't he? Thousands of asylum seekers since 2007.
CRAIG EMERSON: In order to get any legislation through the Parliament you have to have a majority in the House of Representatives and the Senate. Previous governments have had to grapple with that reality. It's a reality that the Australian people wish upon the Parliament. We fully respect that. Mr Howard would not have been able to get the Nauru processing centre through Parliament without the support of Labor in opposition. So this argument that the role of oppositions is simply to say 'no' and to oppose is not borne out by history. All of the national security legislation after the World Trade Centre bombings in the end, as a result of the negotiations, passed through the Parliament because Labor in opposition accepted that it had a responsibility to behave in the national interest. Now Mr Abbott is saying 'the role of Opposition is to oppose; you can go and get knotted'.
GILBERT: They're also saying that you've lost credibility on this issue. And if you look at the numbers: since 2007, more than 19,000 asylum seekers, over 330 boats; in the period from 2002 to 2007 there were less than 300 asylum seekers. Doesn't the record show the Government's change of policy has caused … has created this mess?
EMERSON: Look, we can go over that. I'm happy to do it, about push factors and all of that. I think rather than do that, let's use our time to do what the Australian people legitimately expect us to do — and that is to seek to find a response that is effective. Now, the argument about who said what to whom and who did what to whom is about the past. We are at a position where people are dying at sea …
GILBERT: Yeah, that's right. It's beyond an argument now, isn't it? That's a reality. It was a mistake …
EMERSON: It's a serious obligation on the…
GILBERT: … a policy mistake, really, to change, which has led to the influx of boats and now you've got to come up with a solution.
EMERSON: All right, if you want to go back into the past: the advice about Nauru was that it, while it may have been effective for a time, the reality had dawned upon the people smugglers that the majority of people who went to Nauru ended up in Australia anyway, or New Zealand, and therefore it was no longer a deterrent. There are often things that may be seen to be effective at some point in Australia's history, but it doesn't mean that they will remain so. And that was the advice …
GILBERT: But you also scrapped the temporary visas …
EMERSON: Sure, but let me just add to this — and I didn't mean to interrupt you — but that was the advice of the man who helped design, conceive and design Nauru: Andrew Metcalfe the head of the Immigration Department.
GILBERT: But it was part of the whole change. And I don't want to rehash everything, but the reality is that's the starting point, isn't it? The reality is today, 19,000 plus asylum seekers since the election of the Labor Government, as opposed to 300 or less than for the last half of the Howard Government.
EMERSON: Well sure that's a nice little bit of selective quoting then. If we want to do the terms of the two governments, then we compare like with like.
GILBERT: But the relevance of that is … because that was after Howard changed the policy …
EMERSON: All right. We are going to spend, regrettably, a lot of time going over the past. But you're asking the questions; I'll answer them.
GILBERT: The reason I'm asking you is because the Coalition says …
EMERSON: Because you want to dwell on the past.
GILBERT: No, because the Opposition says you've lost credibility on this issue — so it comes to an issue of credibility. That's what Morrison says: that it's whether or not you have got the credibility to implement a decent policy.
EMERSON: Okay, well I'll respond to the past then. We'll keep spending our time on the past.
GILBERT: Well, no, it's about your Government's credibility on this issue.
EMERSON: You asked me; you said there are these two sets of figures. There was a war in Afghanistan, right; Hazaras left Afghanistan in large numbers. There was a war in Sri Lanka; that happened after the Howard Government ceased to exist. These are new developments that led to a new round of asylum-seeker behaviour. Now, I say let's move on; let's seek a compromise. Let's not go down the Scott Morrison path that it is morally fine not to compromise because he considers that the Government hasn't got credibility. The Prime Minister has said that she is willing to compromise. The Opposition Leader tragically has said he isn't.
GILBERT: Okay, let's move on now. I will be discussing this issue with Greg Hunt in a moment, the Liberal front bencher. On to Hazelwood, the coal-fired electricity generator: it's sought a bail-out, or relied upon a bail-out from its international parent company. Is this the … well, it's the latest one; there was another coal-fired generator that did the same thing the day before. Is this the carbon tax working as it should be: closing down or at least making these facilities unviable?
EMERSON: The carbon price is designed to change the energy mix. That is, to move gradually from high emissions technologies to lower emissions technologies, including renewable energy. And therefore, we are seeking to achieve a clean energy future. That can only be done with changes. We can't get into a political world where a political party says 'we're going to introduce a price on carbon but nothing will change'. There will be changes. And the idea that high emitting power stations emit less or change their technologies, or the whole generation mix changes towards low emissions technology, is what is behind the carbon pricing mechanism.
GILBERT: So the Hazelwood development … that this is a sign that the carbon tax …even already sending the right signals to the …
EMERSON: It's meant to send signals. And in this case, the generator appears to have sought and obtained finance privately. There is also a government fund to assist in that transition. That has not been accessed; the company have made a decision to go private.
GILBERT: Gary Banks from the Productivity Commission has criticised the Government's $42 million bailout of Alcoa, suggesting it's simply going to shift costs to other parts of the economy and won't save jobs anyway.
EMERSON: I've seen that analysis — and I do respect Gary Banks a lot — but I think we need to put the whole thing in perspective. In relation to Alcoa, they are saying it's not related to the carbon price — first point. Secondly, I've done a graph, Kieran, of effective rates of protection of industry over the last 40 or 50 years. It is lower now than it has been at any time in half a century. So we do get criticism of people saying 'you're providing too much support for Australian industry'. There's actually less support now than any time in history. And I think from that, if you like, market-based philosophy, there should be some acknowledgment of that.
GILBERT: It's not really protection, this issue, to wrap up our discussion with. It might be a sort of protection, but the discussion from the Government relating to Gina Rinehart and her assuming control, or at least board positions, at this stage in Fairfax. She suggested last night on Four Corners that she might just pull her entire share. Given the contracting nature of the media at the moment in this country, what's your view on the wealthiest person in the country saying 'okay, I'd like to invest in media'? Is it not a good thing in part, because there's a lot of money leaving the industry?
EMERSON: Ms Rinehart is entitled to invest in media, to abide by the laws of the country — I'm sure she would. So I don't have a problem with that.
GILBERT: Have you got a problem with some of your colleagues who are already saying that we should be careful of it? That it's a threat to democracy and that sort of thing?
EMERSON: I think you asked whether someone should be able to invest in media. My answer is 'yes, they should'. In relation to editorial independence, which I think is what colleagues are talking about, my own view is that if Ms Rinehart were to get in a position where she was seeking to influence the editorial content, then she would run up against this: if Ms Rinehart said 'I want editorial content, news stories, that portray climate change as not existing, as 'absolute crap' — to use Tony Abbott's words — then I think she'd lose a lot of readers. So in that sense, the market would adjust. If those newspapers became — and I'm not saying this would happen; I'm not — but if they became very hard right wing then the readership of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald would leave.
GILBERT: Thanks for your time this morning.
EMERSON: A pleasure.
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