Sky AM Agenda

Subjects: Sydney protests, new Defence Secretary, Securency, Sunday penalty rates, China growth.

Transcript, E&OE

18 September 2012

KIERAN GILBERT: Good morning and welcome to the program. The angry demonstrations continue to spread across the Muslim world, the latest in Jakarta – Indonesian police there forced to fire water cannons and tear gas to break up an angry crowd that marched on the US Embassy there. The latest protest against that controversial US film. There were also protests in Afghanistan and Pakistan that continue, while the Hezbollah leader made a rare appearance – public appearance, that is – in Beirut at a peaceful protest in Lebanon. For more reaction now on the fallout in Australia – the continued analysis and response to the protests in Sydney – with me, the Trade Minister Craig Emerson and the Shadow Environment Minister Greg Hunt. Gentlemen, good morning to you both.

GREG HUNT: Good morning, Kieran.

CRAIG EMERSON: Good morning.

GILBERT: We've had the Muslim leaders in Sydney meet last night. They're going to make another statement mid-morning apparently in response. Minister, first to you: what do you make of the Australian response to the protests at the weekend? Has it been sufficient from the Muslim community? And what about the police response: was that appropriate?

EMERSON: Well, police did a fantastic job and there's no place for violence. Obviously, everyone can have strongly-held views and demonstrate peacefully if they have those views and want to express them. That's our democracy. We are a robust democracy, but we're not a country that accepts violence as a way of expressing an opinion.

GILBERT: There are some suggestions that police should have gone further – arrested them when they had them in their sights rather than now have to chase those responsible. Should they have been tougher on the day?

EMERSON: These are operational matters. I would consider it completely inappropriate for politicians to start passing judgement on police other than to say what I said. And I think the police did a terrific job, in difficult circumstances – police were injured in this situation. They didn't know in advance that this group was assembling; it was done through social media. And the other people who I do share some empathy with are the very Muslim groups that you're talking about, the peace-loving Muslims in Australia. They are the vast majority. They know that this flows over into – or can – into general attitudes towards the Muslim community. That's a huge shame, because there are so many good Muslim, peace-loving people here in our country who do enrich our country. But the others give them, and give everyone, a bad name.

GILBERT: It's a small percentage isn't it, Greg Hunt, of the vast majority that are of that nature, that contributes to society and are peace-loving? I see the Muslim clerics in Melbourne looking to try and cool things down and smooth tempers as well.

HUNT: The overwhelming majority of people from all backgrounds in our society, in particular from Islamic backgrounds, are peace-loving. They are tremendous citizens; they're part of the richness of our culture. But you do have a splinter that practice and preach extreme hatred. They preach violence, and that's completely unacceptable and has to be condemned absolutely, categorically outright – not just from political leaders, but in particular from the mainstream of Islamic leaders. The second thing here is …

GILBERT: Have they been doing that enough?

HUNT: I understand that there has been some, but most significantly there is likely to be a stronger response. So that's a legitimate, appropriate, important step. The second thing is, in our view, the police have behaved exceptionally well. They conducted themselves with dignity and with good judgement under extraordinary provocation and pressure, and we should congratulate and thank them. They've put themselves on the frontline. The remaining question is, on a slightly allied issue, why did the Government not even consider the character around Taji Mustafa, who appeared last night on the ABC, who has been preaching extreme hate, extreme violence. And the Government has adequate powers under Section 501 of the Migration Act to assess and to judge on whether this person is a fit and proper person to come into our country.

GILBERT: Let's play that, a bit of what that British Muslim leader said last night on the ABC. He said that Tony Abbott was being an opportunistic politician and when I just say this – let's have a listen:

TAJI MUSTAFA (ABC CLIP): If they want to revoke my visa on the basis of my character, as it was said in Parliament, they should come and have a cup of coffee or maybe a barbie with me. On a serious note, it's these kinds of irresponsible statements that actually stoke up mistrust between communities.

GILBERT: That the British leader … Muslim leader that we spoke about. He's a member of the Hizb ut-Tahrir organisation. He spoke at the Australian arm of that group at the weekend. He says that if people have an issue with his character they should have a coffee with him. He sounded reasonable, even though some of the arguments he made weren't reasonable at all. Is it something that the Government should have done to have looked at not allowing him to visit Australia?

EMERSON: It's a great pity that the Coalition has sought to weave these together to try to get some sort of political dividend out of this. This is a very serious … the riots on the weekend were very serious. I think we have already expressed a bipartisan view in condemning them. In relation to Mr Mustafa, I'm not aware of evidence where he has incited violence. Inciting violence can attract the law, the application of the law in Australia. Expressing views doesn't of itself attract that application of the law. Secondly, the organisation of which he is a member is not a proscribed organisation. It was not proscribed by Phillip Ruddock, when he was the Attorney-General, and the government of the day – the Howard Government – defended that decision. Now, I heard Kevin Andrews, who was the Immigration Minister … towards the end of the last term of the last Howard Government, across the table shouting to Chris Bowen: 'you didn't have the guts; I had the guts' in relation to Haneef. Well, that ended well, didn't it? I mean, the guy who didn't do his homework – he acted against Mr Haneef – and that turned out to be a very big problem.

GILBERT: Let's hear from Mr Hunt. I should point out to our viewers that the gentlemen concerned that we just played that clip of, has now left Australia. This is about the principle of allowing or not him into the country in the first place. And as the Minister pointed out, Hizb ut-Tahrir, this organisation which exists in Australia as well is not proscribed as a terrorist group here. It's not in the US; it's not in Britain either.

HUNT: This is the same statement, with great respect, that the Prime Minister made on the weekend. So the Prime Minister wrote to Tony Abbott saying that Hizb ut-Tahrir is not a proscribed organisation. That's correct. But there are two completely separate issues. One is, given the events of the last 24 months – where they have changed and developed their position to a far more radicalised level – should the Government do this? Secondly, completely irrespective of whether the organisation itself is proscribed; the preaching of hatred, the preaching of destruction of another sovereign state by violence, which has been part of Taji Mustafa's language – it is directly covered by Section 501 of the Migration Act. The Government either doesn't have the will or doesn't understand its own powers.

GILBERT: So Hizb ut-Tahrir: the main worry that you have relates to its position on Israel, is that right?

HUNT: No, no. Its broader position is about the use of violence. That language has been upped in the last 24 months. It's a completely fresh development in the path of this organisation. And in terms of Taji Mustafa, he himself has preached the overthrow and destruction of a sovereign state through violence, which is one of the considerations directly set out in Section 501 of the Migration Act.

GILBERT: Is it something the Government should consider then: relook at it? The Attorney-General should look at it?

EMERSON: You can't consider these things politically, and you can't consider them recklessly. The character tests can be applied, and – as the Immigration Minister yesterday said in the Parliament – he has applied that in the past. But if you apply it simply because you're under political pressure, or you don't give it proper consideration, you end up with a Haneef case. Now, no one in this room – I don't think anyone in Australia – likes the idea of people preaching about the destruction of Israel. No one. No one supports that, but there is a democracy and the question is whether the guy has broken the law, whether he has failed a character test. And it's all very good for the Coalition to send a letter to Mr Bowen, and as soon as the stamp was put on the letter – metaphorically – it's in the hands of the media, which shows the true Coalition agenda here. It's got nothing to do with this guy.

HUNT: [inaudible] …riots at the weekend …

EMERSON: It's got everything to do … I didn't say you didn't. It was late last week. And the media had it about five minutes after Mr Bowen had it, and that actually indicates the real agenda here. It's not about Taji Mustafa; it's about seeking to stir up something in order to get a political dividend. We have to apply a character test rigorously and properly.

GILBERT: Just quickly, if we can. We need to move on.

HUNT: Very briefly: time and time again we will forewarn, foresee a problem. When that problem comes to pass, the Government tries to say 'it was all about a political agenda …'

EMERSON: It was.

HUNT: Actually it's about good governance. And good governance is, whether it's home insulation program …

EMERSON: Oh, here we go. For goodness sake.

HUNT: Foresee the problem; forewarn about the problem; and hopefully avoid the problem.

EMERSON: And it hits the media before it hits the Minister's desk.

GILBERT: Let's go to Defence. One of the top bureaucrats in the country – the head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the former Ambassador to the United States, former head of ASIO – appointed to Defence Secretary. Do you welcome that?

HUNT: Dennis Richardson is an outstanding Australian; outstanding human being; outstanding administrator. Our issue is not with Dennis Richardson; it's the fact that in Duncan Lewis we have lost perhaps the most qualified Defence Secretary we've ever had, within 12 months. And it's absolutely clear that the wrong person has gone. It's not the Secretary that should have gone; it's the Minister that should have gone …

GILBERT: He's still staying within the tent, so to speak: he's going to be the Ambassador to NATO.

HUNT: Let's be absolutely clear that this was a silent protest about the fact that our Defence budget has been slashed. And we are now at 1938 levels in terms of GDP, the lowest we've been since before the Second World War. And when you look at the submarine program, when you look at the Defence personnel program, the backflips in terms of treatment of Defence personnel: complete ministerial chaos.

GILBERT: There is a lot of disquiet about the cuts – you must concede that – within Defence.

EMERSON: Well, I'll come to the cuts, and I'll directly answer that. But the idea that Duncan Lewis has gone is a bit of an insult to NATO, isn't it? I mean, this is a pretty important job in Brussels and he's well qualified for that job. Similarly, Dennis Richardson, with his background, is very well qualified to be the Secretary of the Defence Department. So I think we've had a win on both fronts. In terms of the Defence budget, it's exceeded $100 billion for the first time. I think it's in the forward estimates at $103 billion. And in per-capita terms, it is higher than any of the G7 countries and China other than the United States. So in per-capita terms we are more than pulling our weight in defence.

GILBERT: Not in GDP terms, though. One and a half per cent of GDP.

EMERSON: Okay, we can do a seasonally-adjusted factor, too.

GILBERT: But that's how people look at it, though, isn't it? That's how people judge it. Is it not?

EMERSON: I think it's legitimate to work out how much each Australian is contributing towards the cost of the defence of the nation. And the fact is, in per-capita terms, we are above every G7 country other than the United States, and above China.

GILBERT: All right. We've got to go for a quick break and we'll be back in just a moment. Stay with us.

[ad break]

GILBERT: This is AM Agenda. With me this morning, the Shadow Environment Minister Greg Hunt and the Trade Minister Craig Emerson. Let's move on to the RBA bank note scandal: the Governor has been called before a Parliamentary Committee on the fourth of October, as well as a couple of other key players within the Reserve Bank. Does he have anything to answer for here?

EMERSON: Well obviously there are some questions that have been asked in the media – by the Fairfax media – about the past in relation to Securency. I think Glenn Stevens has answered those questions properly. He will subject himself to further questions, but I want to pledge our upmost support for Glenn Stevens as Governor as of the Reserve Bank. He's done a magnificent job in steering the economy through the application of the right monetary policy settings for a long time. People will argue about a quarter-point interest rate here and there. But, look, I think the attitude towards any of these sorts of things is if there is information to disclose, then it should be disclosed. That's Glenn Stevens' attitude towards it, and he's a terrific Australian and has done a great job.

GILBERT: Some of the claims have been made against your Department previously as well in relation to officials representing Securency … [inaudible]

EMERSON: Yes, and we have said we will continue to cooperate absolutely and fully with the Australian Federal Police in providing any information that may be of value to them. And my attitude to all these things is always be open. I'm not going to make a political point here, Greg, but it was a period from about 1999 to 2006. We're happy wherever we can to shine a light on any suggestion of any impropriety by anyone within the public service or more broadly.

GILBERT: All right. And Greg Hunt, your thoughts about the RBA Governor being called before a Parliamentary Inquiry on this issue? Do you think that there's much to answer for within the Reserve Bank itself?

HUNT: I think it's completely appropriate for a parliament to ask questions, to seek answers, to seek complete transparency. Personally, I have the absolute highest regard for Glenn Stevens and the senior executive at the RBA. But everybody's interest is served by complete transparency, whether it's through the Parliamentary process or through any inquiry that the Government may seek to call, or through the Federal Police. So, complete transparency is our belief and our best advice to those involved.

GILBERT: Let's move on to another issue: penalty rates on Sundays. Bill Shorten has rejected calls for the abolition of penalty rates. This is ahead of the review in this area. What's the Coalition's stance on that?

HUNT: Well, we've been absolutely clear: we're not changing them.

GILBERT: Craig Emerson? Retailers will be disappointed. They had wanted some review here, particularly on Sundays where people are paid a lot more than they are on other days.

EMERSON: And penalty rates are factored in to people's take-home pay. And cutting penalty rates means cutting their take-home pay. And a lot of people who …

GILBERT: Some of these shops are saying they'll shut down – they won't operate on a Sunday because it's not viable for them.

EMERSON: Well, people have to make their own decisions, but we're not going to cut penalty rates. We're the people who did get rid of WorkChoices, where penalty rates were removed under … and I remind people the no-disadvantage test was pulled out of WorkChoices. We're not going back to WorkChoices. The only people, and I'm not saying Greg is, but the only people who are flirting with the idea of going back to WorkChoices is the Coalition. We've got various members of the Coalition and people outside, such as Peter Reith, urging the Coalition to go harder and to go back to the bad old days of WorkChoices.

GILBERT: Greg Hunt was pretty clear there, though – unequivocal, I would have thought. "We're not changing them."

EMERSON: I believe Greg won't change them, but Greg won't be the decision-maker; Tony Abbott will, if he were to become Prime Minister.

HUNT: Tony's [inaudible] were stronger than mine.

EMERSON: Well, I've heard Tony before: the rock-solid, iron-clad promise not to tamper with the Medicare safety net.

HUNT: Coming from the carbon tax people.

EMERSON: I'm telling you: rock-solid, iron-clad promises don't matter much to Tony Abbott. And Tony Abbott did say that oppositions tend to be permanent debating societies, and even the strongest positions in Opposition can be revisited in government. That's in The Australian newspaper.

HUNT: There is one important area here, and that is what we have seen recently is a return to militant unionism. So we've seen the Grocon dispute in Victoria, and that is why we think that one change that needs to be made, and that we will make is, the return of the Australian Building and Construction Commission – because we're seeing some militant union leaders increasingly assert control so as projects are being stalled, things cannot be done and practical, sensible steps are not being allowed.

GILBERT: What about retailers? What do you say to small businesses?

HUNT: We do think we need the ABCC back.

GILBERT: Well what about small businesses – members of your core base, really, who are worried about the penalty rates on Sundays, and you're not going to bat for them, though?

HUNT: I respect the views. Our position's clear.

GILBERT: Okay. Let's move on. I just want to ask you about Shell: its concerns about growth in China. It says that its numbers don't reflect the official reports on growth out of China. So this is the latest major company expressing worries about it. Are you still confident of a soft landing in China?

EMERSON: I am, and there seems to be an industry of businesses and commentators trying to talk down the economic situation in China. Shell can make their own judgments; that's up to them. But the fact is we talk to our Chinese counterparts all the time. Obviously, the fact that much of Europe is going backwards has an impact on China's exports. But they are moving to address that through increased investment in rolling out the very fast train tracks into Western China. What are they made of? Steel. So I think people can be assured that there's going to be continued strong demand for Australian iron ore and coal. The prices have come down from historic highs, but they're on a shoulder. They haven't collapsed. They are on an historic high shoulder just not the record peaks of a little while ago.

GILBERT: Okay. So it does seem, according to many, it's dropped by … the iron ore price has dropped a lot quicker than many had anticipated. But I've seen a lot of forecasts around that it could go up just as quickly.

HUNT: Sure. Whether or not China grows at six and a half or seven and a half per cent, that's obviously to be determined. But what we have seen is, in Martin Ferguson's words, 'the top coming off the boom'. And the Government has created a situation where, in our judgment, they've squandered the boom. Now you say 'how does that happen?'. They didn't cause the rise of the dollar or the decrease in international commodity prices. What they have done, though, is created incredibly slow bureaucratic processes. They've put in place sovereign risk through the carbon tax and the mining tax. And all of these things together created an environment where it is simply more difficult to attract foreign investment, and it is simply more difficult to proceed with projects ….

EMERSON: To the great disappointment of the Coalition, investment is at a 40-year high – at 40-year highs! This is a record boom that the Coalition is seeking to say has not happened, because they don't want it to happen. The fact is that most of the benefits of this boom are yet to be realised. Rather than squandering it, we've invested it in infrastructure after a 10-year infrastructure drought in this country, and we're investing heavily in education.

GILBERT: I've got to wind up our chat this morning. But gentlemen, thank you very much. Good to see you both.

HUNT: Thank you.

EMERSON: Righto.

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