Sky AM Agenda

Subjects: Craig Thomson, Cory Bernadi, Abbott in Indonesia, PM in India.

Transcript, E&OE

16 October 2012

DAVID LIPSON: Well, let's go now to our political panel. Trade Minister Craig Emerson joins us from Brisbane. Thanks for your time this morning. And the Shadow Attorney-General Senator George Brandis is with me here in the Canberra studio. Thanks for your time, Senator.

CRAIG EMERSON: That's a pleasure, thanks David.

GEORGE BRANDIS: Morning, David.

LIPSON: And I will get to the Leaders' trip, or trips, in a moment. But first I want to go to Craig Thomson. The former Labor MP has finally been charged over allegations he misused union funds on prostitutes and travel, among other things. He is fighting this civil case through the courts. And there is a concern, in the Government at least, that if this sends him bankrupt then he would be forced from Parliament. The Government says it has no intention of bankrolling him again, as it did last time. This was the Attorney General speaking on 730 last night.

NICOLA ROXON [clip]: I'm not the person that's instructing in this, but the Prime Minister and the Labor Party have been very clear that there is no intention to provide legal or financial support to Mr Thomson, who now sits on the cross-benches. He's no longer a member of the Labor Caucus.

LIPSON: Craig Emerson, first to you. Last time the New South Wales branch of the Labor Party supported Craig Thomson to the tune of around $350,000. Was that a mistake?

EMERSON: Well, that's up to the state branches of political parties. And I think it might just be worth explaining – you said that the Government has no intention of bankrolling Craig Thomson – the Government has not allocated taxpayer funds to this issue. And I know you probably didn't mean to create that impression, but I wouldn't want your viewers to think that the Government is organising taxpayer funds to go to Craig Thomson's case. In relation to the Labor Party, which is a very different matter, that's handled at the state level. And to be honest with you, I don't follow these things on a daily or even a weekly basis. They don't actually affect me as a Minister. And my understanding from public statements is that the state branch of the ALP in New South Wales is not going to fund Mr Thomson if he's not a member of the Labor Party. And, so, he's entitled to his day in court – and he'll have that.

LIPSON: Now that there are solid civil charges against him, or at least tangible charges in the courts, why doesn't the Government take the higher moral ground as the Opposition has demanded and not accept the so-called "tainted vote" of Craig Thomson?

EMERSON: We've never believed that a Member of Parliament who's duly elected should not have a right to vote in the Parliament; in this case, for Craig Thomson to represent the people of Dobell. Similarly, we don't believe that Mr Slipper should be denied a vote for that matter. Mr Abbott agrees with this. He thinks it's fine to take Mr Slipper's vote, but not take Craig Thomson's vote. They both have civil allegations against them. They're both in court on those civil allegations. Mr Abbott has found a moral difference between Mr Slipper, who he probably thinks is more likely to vote for the Coalition than Mr Thomson, about whom he says it's a "tainted vote", and as a matter of high principle he wouldn't take that vote. The truth is they're both Members of Parliament. There were allegations against a Senator, Mary Jo Fisher. The Coalition, despite Mr Abbott saying they did not take her vote, they did, on more than 40 occasions. Despite the Coalition saying that it paired someone from the Senate with Mal Colston – I researched that – that was untrue; they took his vote, including on the sale of Telstra. All I'm looking for is some sort of philosophical or moral differentiation. On this there isn't on the Coalition's part; the Labor Party says we will take, accept the votes of people who are duly elected and are in the House of Representatives or the Senate representing their constituents.

LIPSON: Senator Brandis, do you believe there is a real prospect that Craig Thomson could be forced from Parliament before the next election, or will he be saved by the bell?

BRANDIS: Look, I don't know the answer to that question because ultimately the Parliament doesn't have the power to expel a Member. I can't imagine that a person as amoral as Mr Thomson would do the right thing and resign, but can I just put this in context for you please, David. Fair Work Australia, after a very, very long investigation – so long that the Opposition actually criticised how long it was taking – has now delivered a 200 long odd page Statement of Claim in which they have made detailed and specific allegations which give the lie to everything Craig Thomson has ever said about this matter: his denial that he misused union members' funds for prostitutes, for luxury goods, for other personal affairs. Now, the fact that Fair Work Australia, after conducting such a thorough investigation, has now taken it to the next step – to progress this civil claim against him to recover the half a million dollars' worth of union members' money that he took – I think is a very grave matter. They wouldn't have taken this step unless they had been advised on an objective, clinical, forensic analysis of the evidence that they would succeed in that claim. And I think the laying of criminal charges against Craig Thomson can't be very long in coming because … could I just illustrate this point: if I were to steal a thousand dollars from you, then I would commit a crime. But you would also have a civil claim against me to recover your thousand dollars. But the same conduct as constitutes the civil claim constitutes the crime. Now, I think it would be very surprising if in view of the view of these facts that Fair Work Australia have taken, if as I say, a criminal charge is long in coming.

LIPSON: But it's much harder to get criminal charges through than civil charges.

BRANDIS: There's a different standard of proof – that's the difference. But my point is that the same facts as alleged in the Fair Work Australia civil proceeding would constitute, if proved to the appropriate standard of proof, a crime.

EMERSON: David, could I come in here …

LIPSON: Yeah, I'll give you a chance to respond just briefly, Craig.

EMERSON: I need to do that, yeah. There are two serious allegations – in fact, quite astonishing statements – from George Brandis, who is the Shadow Attorney General. He said these charges against Mr Thomson give the lie to everything Mr Thomson has said. That is a complete denial of any sense of natural justice for Mr Thomson. Senator Brandis, like Mr Abbott, has already acted as judge and jury and delivered his verdict. Even more concerning is that Senator Brandis just said criminal charges can't be far away. Now, I don't know anything about criminal charges …

BRANDIS: I'm making that prediction.

EMERSON: Well, you're a Shadow Attorney-General and it would be deeply disturbing if you have information about the likelihood or other of criminal charges being laid against Craig Thomson. I have no idea. But for a Shadow Attorney General to say that criminal charges can't be far away is frankly outrageous, and I condemn it completely. If you are involved in any way, Senator Brandis, if you are involved in any way you need to reveal that. If you are not involved, then I think it is extremely irresponsible for a Shadow Attorney-General to say that criminal charges aren't far away.

LIPSON: Okay. We've got a few topics I do want to get through. One of them is Cory Bernadi. He's actually given his first interview to Mark Kenny from The Advertiser since he made those comments linking same-sex marriage to bestiality. He's not backing down from those comments at all, George Brandis. Are you comfortable sitting on the same bench as him?

BRANDIS: Look, I haven't seen Senator Bernadi's interview. I did hear what he said in the Senate a few weeks ago. I'm of the view that Mr Abbott acted appropriately in demoting him to the backbench. It was the second time that Senator Bernardi had been demoted to the backbench, having been previously demoted by Mr Malcolm Turnbull for other injudicious and inappropriate comments. Now, he is a backbencher; backbenchers have a greater freedom, as it were, than frontbenchers to indulge their own particular views. But what Senator Bernardi said in his speech, certainly in the House of Representatives … in the Senate – and if he repeated it in this interview, as I say I haven't seen – does not represent the view of the Liberal Party, the National Party or the Coalition. It's his own view, I think shared by hardly anyone.

LIPSON: Okay. We've got to take a quick break, but we'll be back with the Leaders' visits to India and Indonesia right after this.

[ad break]

LIPSON: Welcome back. We're still joined by our political panel, George Brandis and Craig Emerson. I want to move now to the Leaders' trips overseas. Firstly to you Senator BRANDIS:why didn't Tony Abbott raise towing back the boats directly with the Indonesian President?

BRANDIS: Well, first of all, obviously I wasn't there – and I haven't yet had the opportunity to have a conversation with Mr Abbott to be briefed about exactly what was said. But I understand from reports this morning that there was a general discussion between Mr Abbott and President Yudhoyono about the issue, and then at the next tier down – at the senior minister level -there was a more detailed discussion between Mr Morrison and Julie Bishop and Mr Natalegawa, the Indonesian Foreign Minister, about towing back the boats. So the grab you ran around Mr Natalegawa was a reference to the conversation between Mr Abbott and President Yudhoyono. It's the most commonplace thing in the world that when leaders meet they speak at levels of generality. The more detailed aspects of policy are filled in at the next level down – at senior ministerial level – or between governments at officials' levels. So that doesn't surprise me at all …

LIPSON: This is a key plank and a very controversial plank of the Opposition's policy. Isn't it a contradiction to say 'I'll be discussing policy in private; not engaging in megaphone diplomacy', but then not actually discussing it in private and talking about it constantly in the Australian media?

BRANDIS: Well, I think that there is really only one question that matters, and that is: was it raised? Well, it was raised. It was raised between Mr Morrison and Julie Bishop, the respective Shadow spokesmen, And Mr Natalegawa, the Foreign Minister.

LIPSON: Craig Emerson, that's true, isn't it? You'd know as Trade Minister that the ministers usually smooth out all of the curly issues, or some of the more curly issues, and leave the softer diplomacy up to the leaders?

EMERSON: This is a private meeting involving the Leader of the Opposition and the President of Indonesia. And the Leader of the Opposition has been saying that the Coalition would work in very close harmony with the Indonesian Government, in criticising our Government. The Trade Minister for Indonesia, who was out on Friday, said that the relationship between Australia and Indonesia had never been in better shape. Mr Abbott shapes up to say he's going to raise this issue of tow-backs with the President of Indonesia, falters, lacks the courage to do so – and it's not for the first time. He was supposed to raise it in Darwin earlier in the year. This time he really meant it, but he didn't get around to doing it. Now we're here, oh well he didn't really want to do it. I mean, the guy acts like a tough guy here in Australia for his audience. If he was really tough he'd go to Indonesia; he would have raised it as he said he would do so. But he knows exactly what answer he would get, and that is the answer that Marty Natalegawa and others have given. And that is, they completely oppose Mr Abbott's policy of towing back boats. And that is not – that is not – a formula for working in close harmony with Indonesia on people-smuggling or on any other initiative.

LIPSON: George Brandis?

BRANDIS: Well, look, I think as I said before it would be sensible to hear precisely what Mr Abbott has to say about this discussion with President Yudhoyono before …

EMERSON: We heard that.

BRANDIS: … before engaging in the sort of swagger and rhetoric that we've heard from Craig Emerson. But let's put this in context …

EMERSON: Hold on. Marty Natalegawa said it wasn't raised.

LIPSON: Let … Craig Emerson, let's let George Brandis …

BRANDIS: Let's put this into context: this problem is not getting better; it's getting worse.

EMERSON: Here we go.

BRANDIS: Last weekend, there …

EMERSON: Here we go. The issue is whether he was raising tow-back or not, and he did not. He said he would and he did not. It's as simple as that.

LIPSON: Minister, look. If I could move on: there's one last question I want to ask about this. Is the fact that there was a meeting at all, Craig Emerson, a sign that Indonesia expects Tony Abbott to be elected Prime Minister next year?

EMERSON: I would be amazed if the Indonesian Government did not meet, at its request, with the Leader of the Opposition and senior Shadow Ministers. This is the courteous and sensible thing to do. We would fully support that sort of meeting. But it was a private meeting where Mr Abbott had every opportunity to raise this tough tow-back policy. He says that working in harmony with Indonesia is fundamental. He's criticised the Government for allegedly not working in harmony with Indonesia. And on the key issue he lacked the courage – that's the fact – he lacked the courage to raise this issue directly with the President of Indonesia.

LIPSON: Okay. Well we've got one other issue I want to touch on: and that is uranium to India. I know this enjoys bipartisan support here in Australia, but not everyone's comfortable with it; particularly the Greens, for example. Uranium for peaceful purposes would be exported, but doesn't that just free up uranium for non-peaceful purposes, Craig Emerson?

EMERSON: Well if that's the policy, and that's the philosophy, then there'd be no uranium exports from Australia. I mean, there is a Government policy – a Coalition policy – that Australia can and does export uranium for peaceful purposes. What we're doing is undertaking negotiations on a protocol with India to ensure that that is the case: that the uranium is sold for peaceful purposes.

LIPSON: George Brandis?

BRANDIS: This is, as you say, bipartisan. It's only recently become bipartisan, by the way, when John Howard initiated this policy in 2006. It was savagely criticised by the Labor Party, but when they got into power they saw the sense of it and adopted it. I think it's very important that Australia nurture the relationship with India. I think it's been neglected by this Government. Prior to this visit, Julia Gillard spent one day in India in her entire Prime Ministership. India is the great south Asian power. It's an important balance in power to the influence of China. It's a very important source for stability in the south Asian region, particularly given the instability in Pakistan to its immediate northwest. So, I think the Government has been very slow out of the blocks on this, but I'm glad they have adopted John Howard's policy. And I'm glad they found their way to India at last.

LIPSON: Okay. George Brandis, Craig Emerson, thanks for your time this morning.

EMERSON: Okay, David. Thanks.

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