KIERAN GILBERT: We’re now going to cross live to Darwin. The Trade Minister Craig Emerson is standing by. Minister, thanks very much for your time. The Indonesian President of course in Darwin holding those talks today. You heard what Bob Carr said there about the need to get away from the transactional issues within the relationship — the people smugglers, the drug cases and so on — and focus more on the closer ties, whether it be strategic or economic. Now, you speak to your Indonesian counterparts. Do they express frustration that there isn’t that higher-level engagement, or at least focus, between the two nations?
CRAIG EMERSON: Well, there in fact is, but I think the point that Bob was also making is that the media tends to be interested in the day-to day issues, the news if you like, and that can be at the expense of building that relationship with a country that has more than 240 million people, Kieran. It’s the 16th largest economy in the world now, and by 2020 it’s expected to be a top 10 economy, right on our doorstep. And this is why we’re engaged in this exercise, the consultations and talks today. It’s why Prime Minister Gillard has launched Australia in the Asian Century White Paper. And I spent a lot of time talking with my counterpart Gita Wirjawan, as do other ministers, to build that relationship, to have more students coming to Australia from Indonesia. The President’s own son studied at Curtin University, and I was talking to the President’s wife about that last night. There’s obviously a lot of warmth in the relationship, but we want to build it and diversify the relationship.
GILBERT: I spoke to one of the Indonesia experts from the ANU yesterday, who made the point that only the same number of Australian students studying Bahasa Indonesian… the same number that there was in the 1970s hasn’t grown at all. It’s exactly the same figures that we’re talking about today.
EMERSON: Yeah, and I think this is a perfectly valid point. Bahasa in my book is not a difficult language to learn. When you’ve got 240-odd million neighbours, and of course Bahasa is spoken in Malaysia as well, we do need to do better. And these are the sorts of issues that will be dealt with in the Asian Century White Paper. Because I think, Kieran, that there’s no better investment that two countries can make than investing in the talents of our young people. The Indonesian leadership for example — the Vice-President was educated at the Australian National University, and Marty Natalegawa, the Foreign Minister, did some of his education in Australia. These are great investments for the future and with the 16,000 students studying in Australia they become ambassadors for Australia when they go back to Indonesia. So, this will be a particular focus of the Asian Century White Paper.
GILBERT: What’s the economic outlook in Indonesia? We talk a lot about China, but Indonesia, as you say, a few hundred million people we’re talking about. It’s a big, big market potentially as well. What’s the economic outlook and the trade implications for Australia and our exporters?
EMERSON: Sure. Well in the last decade, that is the decade of the 2000s, Indonesia grew at an average of 5 per cent per annum. Last year it was six and a half per cent per annum. These are very, very strong growth rates for a large economy such as Indonesia’s. As I say, 16th largest in the world. So, the economic outlook for Indonesia is an extremely good one. When I go and visit CEOs around Australia and they ask about the various countries that I’ve visited and assessments of them, I always put Indonesia right up there with the best of them as a location for Australian investment. We’ll be talking today with the President about, obviously, not just the short-term situation for live cattle exports but very much the possibilities of Australian companies investing in Indonesia to build that goodwill, to build the relationship. At present, Indonesians consume about two kilograms of beef per year, and Gita Wirjawan the Trade Minister thinks that that could be increased to 20 kilos — so a tenfold increase, which would be very good news for our Northern Australian cattle farmers. That’s the sort of discussion that we’re having. Also, infrastructure investment in Indonesia is something that they’re very keen on, so the relationship is going from strength to strength, Kieran.
GILBERT: I have to ask you about the carbon tax and your performance yesterday. Peter Garrett, your colleague, says you do ‘a terrific job … as a trade minister. That was on Twitter. I’ve got good news for you this morning, Trade Minister: Richard Wilkins, the great entertainment reporter from the Nine Network, says you’re ‘one to watch’, so you might have a career post-politics.
EMERSON: Well, I think on that basis, Peter Garrett is a good judge and Richard’s assessment might be kind but probably not right on the mark. Singing is not right up there with my other abilities. But I was trying to get a very important point through here, Kieran, and that is we’ve had a year or more of Mr Abbott going around terrifying communities and they have taken this to heart. They have been very worried in the Illawarra, in the Hunter Valley, up in Gladstone, and, yes, in Whyalla, about the implementation of a carbon price. I was there on the weekend — beautiful weekend, wonderful people, great outlook — and that was the point that I was making: that Mr Abbott wants to keep talking about horror movies; that they’ll be wiped off the face of the earth. They don’t appreciate it. And in my own way I was backing in the people of Whyalla.
GILBERT: You’re not making light of it, as you’ve been accused of by some of your critics overnight?
EMERSON: Yeah, well that sort of criticism was inevitable. What we were making light of is Mr Abbott’s doom and gloom prophecies. You know, these arguments or claims that a leg of lamb would cost $100; that price increases would be unimaginable, and that seven regional cities and communities would be wiped off the map. I’m sure you recall Mr Abbott going to steelworks in Illawarra — he went to OneSteel in Whyalla — really trying to terrify those workers and their families. And then in the Parliament I was sitting there one night when the Steel Transformation Plan came up for debate and for a vote. Not only did the Coalition say ‘no’, Mr Abbott said ‘the no’s have it’ — that is, he forced a division. So strongly was he committed to trying to block the Steel Transformation Plan, and that is a very strong message that I want to send to the working people of this country: that Mr Abbott goes around feigning interest in their welfare but in fact when he goes into the Parliament, he votes against their interests. And, of course, with the carbon price being implemented, we’ve got a trebling of the tax-free threshold, which means that people earning up to $18,200 are taken out of the tax system completely. And it’ll be up to Mr Abbott to explain why if he’s in that electricity prices will fall — no one believes that — and that he would cut the age pension, increase taxes, and take that tax-free threshold way back down to $6,000. He’s got a lot of explaining to do.
GILBERT: Trade Minister, appreciate your time this morning from Darwin. Thanks for that.
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