DAVID LIPSON: We’re going to take you now to an interview recorded just a little earlier this morning with the Trade Minister Craig Emerson. I started asking him about the Government’s plans to excise the Australian mainland from the migration zone for asylum-seekers, and asked him why was it that a plan that was considered too extreme for John Howard’s party room was now being considered by Labor.
CRAIG EMERSON: We’ve given in-principle support to the Houston Panel recommendations, and they act as a whole. We’ll have a discussion about that, but certainly there is a recommendation in the Houston Panel Report to remove any incentives for asylum-seekers to drive for the mainland, which is a longer journey and a more dangerous one.
LIPSON: It will also remove rights, though, for asylum-seekers that do make it to the Australian mainland. They won’t be able to stay in Australia to be processed.
EMERSON: That panel presented a coherent report, and I think it’s not appropriate to pick out single recommendations here and there. What the Government did, and it also took this to the party room, is to endorse in principle the coherent range of policy recommendations that are set out in the Houston Report. So we’ll have a discussion about that.
LIPSON: The reality is, though, that not many asylum-seekers at all actually make it to the mainland any more. So is this more about sending a strong message on asylum-seekers?
EMERSON: It is a dangerous journey. And I think that’s a consideration that everyone in the Parliament has had in mind following the terrible deaths at sea that have occurred, going back to the dashing up against the rocks at Christmas Island of a vessel, and all the graphic images that the Australian people saw there. But there are plenty of other deaths at sea that the Australian people didn’t witness via their television sets; they are just as tragic. And this is a consideration in, I think, the minds of all decent Members of Parliament on both sides: that is, that we must do everything we can to avoid people — and remove the incentive for people — to make that dangerous journey, pay people-smugglers and then lose their lives at sea.
LIPSON: And are you confident it will get through the party room and then the Parliament?
EMERSON: I’m not one who anticipates these things. What I am is one who joined with others in accepting in principle the recommendations of the Houston Panel as a cohesive whole.
LIPSON: A Parliamentary committee has raised concerns about Australia’s diplomatic network. It’s described it as ‘seriously deficient’. Is that a concern to you as Trade Minister?
EMERSON: When I started economics at Sydney University oh-so-many years ago, we were asked to discuss the economic problem which is how to satisfy humankind’s illimitable wants from limited resources. And, of course, everyone has ideas — most of them meritorious — about extra spending, including these ideas. I think the committee has done good work here. But it doesn’t mean that there is room in the budget to implement all of the recommendations that come to us. Again, on television, I saw advocacy of extra defence spending; I’ve seen advocacy of extra spending on business by the business community; I’ve seen advocacy of extra spending on support for unemployed people. There’s lots of advocacy, and it is the Government that has to balance these competing demands. Having said that, there is a bigger diplomatic presence than there was under the previous government. And the White Paper sets out some extra initiatives that we’re considering — but again subject to budgetary constraints — including extra diplomatic presence in Shenyang in China, in eastern Indonesia, in Phuket in Thailand, and in Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia.
LIPSON: Speaking of budgetary constraints, why didn’t the Prime Minister personally guarantee the surplus in Question Time yesterday? She was asked several times to.
EMERSON: What the Prime Minister said is that she stood by MYEFO and she stood by the figures in MYEFO. And the figures in MYEFO are for a surplus, just as they were in the actual May budget. And we are reaffirming through MYEFO that we intend to bring a surplus down, and it is on track.
LIPSON: But by not saying the words herself, doesn’t it make her look a little bit cagey on the surplus?
EMERSON: I don’t think so. We are reaffirming — of course we would — the figures in MYEFO; we are reaffirming the surplus in MYEFO; and we’re on track to deliver that surplus.
LIPSON: So you have no doubt at all that things like the mining tax revenue that we talked about last week and other issues will lead to …
EMERSON: I was slightly amused by the debate about the mining tax not collecting revenue in three months. I mean, this is the ultimate in short termism. Next you know we’ll be getting phone calls ‘did the mining tax collect any revenue today?’. I mean, it just can get to ridiculous debating points. It is a profits-based tax. One of the reasons that collections may be down compared with projections of some time ago is that profits are down. Wow, there’s a surprise! A profits-based tax: if profits are down, the profits based tax receipts are lower than were projected some considerable period ago. I mean, it gets to this point. Labor actually supports profits-based tax, including the Petroleum Resource Rent Tax. The Coalition supports royalties, such as Campbell Newman’s attempts, and his announcement, to increase royalties. That’s a genuine deterrent, a genuine deterrent to mineral exploration and development.
LIPSON: Okay. The White Paper suggests that a third of company board members have deep experience in Asia. Don Argus says that could inadvertently degrade the skills base of any particular board. What do you think about that aspiration to have a third of company directors with that experience?
EMERSON: I think it’s a noble aspiration. And this White Paper has a set of concrete proposals and it has a set of ideas that should be the subject of a public conversation, including this one. I notice people are railing against proposals for quotas. There are no proposals for quotas, so rail they might.
LIPSON: And, just your thoughts on Don Farrell. He’s apparently this morning said that he’ll vacate the number one Senate spot in South Australia for Penny Wong. What do you make of that?
EMERSON: Well I haven’t caught up with that. If Don has done that, then it’s a noble gesture. But these are internal party matters. I do know that Don Farrell and Senator Penny Wong make a great contribution to our Government. And they’ll both be elected. But it’s really a matter for Don. If he’s done that, then that’s very magnanimous. Because we’ve got talent on our front bench — there’s no doubt about that. Both Don Farrell and Penny Wong are talented and they are doing a great job for Australia.
LIPSON: Do you think it was bad optics for him to be placed as number one in front of such a senior member of the Government?
EMERSON: Well we do have internal processes in our organisation, just as there are in other political parties and voluntary organisations and companies — and it’s called democracy. And democracy was exhibited last Saturday where a majority of people voted for Don Farrell. A very substantial minority voted for Penny Wong. If this has happened well that’s fine, it’s a magnanimous gesture, a generous gesture in many ways by Don. But let’s see how it all pans out. As I say, they’ll both get elected, and they deserve to.
LIPSON: Craig Emerson, thanks for your time.
EMERSON: Okay, thanks.
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