ABC Radio AM

Subjects: Asian Century White Paper; Newspoll.

Transcript, E&OE

29 October 2012

NEWSREADER: Dr Emerson joins us now in our Parliament House studios. To speak with him is our chief political correspondent Sabra Lane.

SABRA LANE: Minister, good morning and welcome to AM.


LANE: Haven't we heard this all before?

EMERSON: I don't think so. And, in fact, I don't think we've heard it for a very long time. Ross Garnaut released a report to government in …

LANE: 1989.

EMERSON: Yeah, 1989.

LANE: He was talking about this being a recommitment so …

EMERSON: And that was a report called Australia and the North-East Asian Ascendency. It was a report to government. In my lifetime I can't remember a report of this nature produced by government involving a set of commitments to make sure that we are in the right place at the right time, in the Asian region in the Asian Century, when the centre of economic gravity is shifting to our region. You know, by the end of this decade the economic size of Asia will be greater than that of Europe and North America combined.

LANE: It's an ambitious plan – "a road map for Australia's future," the Government says. But as you've just heard business say, there's little cash involved for these big ideas. Where is the money going to come from?

EMERSON: Well, there is money, and I'll explain that. But I think it is ironic that business, rightly, argues that the budget should be returned to surplus, and the budget should be in good repair right through the period. And we're making the decisions to create that sort of space. For example, the decisions that we've made to apply means-testing, or stricter means-testing, to various benefits are equivalent to 2 per cent of GDP, or a saving of $50 billion by the end of this decade. So we are making room. And I find it a little ironic that some business groups are saying nothing can work without more money. There's plenty of money going to be dedicated to the response to the Gonski reforms. And through the conditionality in implementing those reforms we will be requiring the states to ensure that we have the arrangements in place for greater Asia literacy, for young people being able to access resources to study those key languages in the region. So, there's money; there's the commitment on the part of the government; there's an intellectual and philosophical framework.

LANE: Okay. Isn't there also a mismatch here, given the paper does talk about the need for an innovation and money on higher education – yet the mid-year budget update, which was only delivered a week ago, we saw a cut and a major slowdown in funds to this sector. So, isn't there a mismatch here between …

EMERSON: There's been a 42 per cent increase in funding on research by this Government, and the forward estimates contain future increases. And it's true that some of those increases will be now smaller than they otherwise would have been. But we are committed to ensuring that we are an innovative nation. And it's not just spending on research and development, on our universities more generally. And we now have a university system where we've uncapped the places, so that the universities can compete for students and get more of them. To add to that, 12,000 Asian Century scholarships where our young people can study in the region and young people from the region can study here. It actually dwarfs the Colombo Plan.

LANE: The paper also talks about this goal of making Australian students Asian-literate by offering them languages from kindy to Year 12. How are you going to actually make that a reality? Where are you going to find the teachers to deliver all of that?

EMERSON: And this will be the subject of the negotiations with the states in implementing the response to the Gonski reforms. This is a responsibility that Peter Garrett will have with the Prime Minister. It will be a tough negotiation. But in the past there have been various laudable attempts to increase the literacy of our kids in these sorts of Asian languages. But they haven't been very successful. And so we need to weave it into the arrangements with the states, rather than just bolt it on to the top – which has tended to be the mistake of the past. No real criticism of past governments and past initiatives; you learn by doing. And I think the error has been just to add this on to a curriculum. This will actually be integrated into the national school curriculum for the first time.

LANE: It also talks about infrastructure bottlenecks and the like. But, I mean, we've been talking about things like the second Sydney airport for two decades. How are you going to make it reality: turn the talk into action?

EMERSON: Well, indeed. And I'm glad you raised that. What we need is an annual increase in our productivity of about half a percentage point, to get those increases in national income from $62,000 to $73,000. Now that is achievable, but you're right: there are infrastructure bottlenecks. And we have a government in the Gillard Government which is the only one that is actually committed to easing the infrastructure bottlenecks at Sydney Airport. But you do need the State governments. It would be helpful if we had cooperation from the Opposition on this, but let me just point out to you some of the things that are happening on this front in terms of infrastructure bottlenecks. We've got now through the national rail system much faster speeds than we've ever had before. And for the first time in Australia's history, within months we're going to have a national regulator for heavy transport on roads, for maritime, and also for rail safety. So these are actually concrete efforts, and they are paying dividends to lift our productivity. And that's what this Asian Century White Paper does: it brings together all of these efforts that are being untaken – the regulatory reform, the tax reform, the investment in infrastructure, the investment in education – in order to achieve this vision, that is a splendid vision, particular for young people; a fantastic diversity of career opportunities available to them.

LANE: All right. Turning to Newspoll this morning: the survey has the two major parties tied at 50-50. The PM's net approval rating is now minus 16; Mr Abbott's is minus 28. What does that say to you? Will it boost the morale of those in Labor?

EMERSON: They've thrown the kitchen sink, the bathroom vanity and the carport at the Prime Minister and here she is, still standing, making the tough decisions that are needed. She's shown a resilience that I think is respected in the Australian community. And the Asian Century White Paper is the latest instalment on the effort that the Prime Minister is making. Always looking forward. Looking forward, not only to the short term – next week, the week after, about which I think there is legitimate criticism of the political process more generally – but here we've got a Prime Minister who's interested in the next 25 years. And I think that's fantastic, and the Australian people are coming to appreciate that she will stand up for Australia. She'll stand up for a strong economy and in making sure that people get a fair share of the benefits from that strength.

LANE: Minister, thanks for your time this morning.

EMERSON: Thanks, Sabra.

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