Canberra Doorstop

Subjects: Craig Thomson, steel industry, high dollar, Liberals' protectionism, Treasury.

Transcript, E&OE

25 August 2011

CRAIG EMERSON: There's been a new development in the Craig Thomson matter; and that is that the Shadow Attorney-General, Senator George Brandis, rang the New South Wales Police Minister before sending documents to the New South Wales Police Commissioner, and advised him he was doing that. And then the New South Wales Police Minister rang the New South Wales Police Commissioner.

We have the utmost confidence in the New South Wales Police Commissioner. But it is passing strange that the Shadow Attorney-General would ring the Liberal Police Minister in New South Wales to tell him of an impending lodgement of documents with the New South Wales Police Commissioner. And it is even more curious in the context that the New South Wales Premier, Mr O'Farrell, has already reached a judgment on this matter, and last week called for the resignation from Parliament of Craig Thomson.

This raises questions about inappropriate behaviour, and Senator Brandis' statement today explains nothing. It doesn't explain why he held a press conference here earlier in the week that ran for around half an hour and did not reveal that he had rung the New South Wales Police Minister.

This raises questions about inappropriate behaviour, and many people will be wondering if this is a proper thing for a Shadow Attorney-General to do.

In Australia, people cherish two notions — one is the presumption of innocence, and the other is the separation of powers between the parliamentary or government system, and the legal system.

There is no sensible explanation as to why Senator George Brandis would ring the New South Wales Police Minister and not happily reveal that, voluntarily, in a lengthy press conference. And it came out today.

And the final point about this is the New South Wales Police Minister has changed his story. In the statement that his office made to the media this morning — or made last night and it was published this morning — he said that he rang the New South Wales Police Commissioner about this matter, and today his officer said he mentioned it to him in passing.

They can't even get their story straight.

And finally, Mr Abbott would have known that Senator George Brandis was going to ring the New South Wales Liberal Police Minister. Mr Abbott has a lot of explaining to do, as does Senator Brandis. And to say that it was simply a courtesy beggars belief.

It obviously raises questions in people's minds about the interest, or otherwise, of the Liberal Party in putting pressure on other people on what is an important and sensitive matter. We express, again, our full confidence in the New South Wales Police Commissioner, and the work that he's doing.

QUESTION: In what way has a Federal MP ringing a state MP breached the separation of powers?

CRAIG EMERSON: This is a federal shadow attorney-general ringing a state police minister. It's not two MPs ringing each other. And it's to advise that the Shadow Attorney-General would be lodging documents with the Police Commissioner, and suggesting that a crime has been committed.

This is not just a friendly chat between two MPs of the same political party. One occupies the position of New South Wales Police Minister, and the other wants to occupy the position of the Attorney-General of Australia, the highest law officer in the country.

QUESTION: Mr Emerson, are you suggesting that pressure's been applied in [indistinct]…

EMERSON: I am simply suggesting this: that Senator Brandis and Mr Abbott should provide a full explanation, a plausible explanation, as to why they decided politically that it was appropriate to ring the New South Wales Police Minister when it clearly was not appropriate to do that. Nor did Senator Brandis volunteer any of this information in a lengthy press conference. It only was confirmed when it was released into the print media overnight.

QUESTION: But if it's not going to influence Commissioner Scipione, why does it matter? Are you saying that it would influence the Commissioner?

EMERSON: No, we have complete confidence in the integrity of Mr Scipione. He's a fine man and he discharges his obligations objectively and professionally. But it raises questions about inappropriate behaviour when members of the same political party that are occupying very senior positions would ring each other and discuss this issue before the material is lodged with the police.

And the fact is that they weren't just two members of a political party; they are members of the Liberal Party, one occupying a senior ministerial position and another wishing to occupy a senior ministerial position — and in the context where the Premier of New South Wales has already made his judgment, and that is that Mr Thomson should resign from the parliament.

Senator Brandis would know the sensitivities of this, and I believe he would be reluctant to do it. But that's why not only does Senator Brandis have a lot of explaining to do, so does Mr Abbott.

QUESTION: Minister, the … you are demanding an explanation from Tony Abbott and George Brandis?

EMERSON: Yes.

QUESTION: What is the difference between your demand for that explanation, and Tony Abbott's demand for an explanation from Julia Gillard about what discussions she has had with the Member for Dobell?

EMERSON: Because there is no suggestion of inappropriate behaviour involving the Prime Minister and Craig Thomson.

And this matter is now a matter of assessment, not investigation at this stage, by the New South Wales Police. And yet we had Tony Abbott walk into the Parliament and falsely claim yesterday that an investigation is underway. He knows that to be false. And it is false. It may or may not become an investigation.

But in terms of conversations between the Prime Minister and Mr Thomson, there's no suggestion of inappropriate behaviour there. There's no suggestion of criminality. But in the case of the Shadow Attorney-General ringing up the New South Wales Police Minister, in a Liberal Party whose state Premier has actually said that Mr Thomson should resign from parliament, of course that's going to raise in people's minds whether this was appropriate behaviour, whether this was proper behaviour.

QUESTION: Why do you say that it's obvious that Mr Abbott would have known? Why would he have known about that?

EMERSON: I know Senator George Brandis. And Senator George Brandis and I debate each other twice a week. Senator George Brandis has said publicly, even yesterday, that his lodging of these documents with New South Wales Police was a legal matter, not a political matter.

Well, why on earth — why on earth — if it's a legal matter, not a political matter, would you ring a senior office holder of the Liberal Party in New South Wales, the New South Wales Police Minister? If it's a legal matter you just send the documents to the police, to the Police Commissioner, and you keep out of it the New South Wales Liberal Police Minister. And you stay out of it yourself and don't have conversations with your Liberal counterparts in New South Wales.

QUESTION: But how can we say with … how can you say with any certainty that Mr Abbott knew about this?

EMERSON: I'm saying that George Brandis actually knows and understands something, something about the separation of powers. I doubt that Mr Abbott does.

QUESTION: Graham Richardson has said that there's a stench surrounding this scandal. How big a problem has it become for your Government?

EMERSON: Well of course this is a distraction in terms of the media coverage of these events, and I'm not complaining about the media coverage of these events. But it masks these facts: that yesterday evening the legislation for the plain packaging of tobacco went through the Parliament. There has been some media coverage of that.

It masks the fact that we've reached an historic health agreement — an historic agreement with the states; a historic agreement on transport reform that has overturned 100 years of unnecessary regulation.

It means that those policy achievements of this Government — and including forcing the Coalition into a back-down on seeking to breach the World Trade Organization rules — while deserving of media coverage, aren't getting the media coverage because of this other matter.

QUESTION: But that's the Labor Party's fault.

EMERSON: Well, this is a matter that is continuing to be discussed in the media. We understand that. I'm simply saying that we are not doing anything other than getting on with the job of governing. We've had all of our legislation passed through the Parliament. All of our legislation passed through the Parliament. We're moving to put a price on carbon.

And — but I understand, I understand why the media is interested in this particular issue — It now has the … where we're up to is that the New South Wales Police are doing an assessment, not an investigation. Once they do that assessment, there may or may not be an investigation. If there were an investigation, then the matter would continue for some considerable time. But I'm not here seeking to predict that. I have no idea. I'm just saying that this matter is still here and it may still be here tomorrow, next week and the week after.

QUESTION: Minister…

EMERSON: But we'll still do the public policy work.

QUESTION: On trade, would a lower interest rate and, therefore, lower dollar be good for Australian industries? And is Paul Howes right to be advocating this?

EMERSON: Well, a lower dollar would boost the competitiveness of our export-oriented industries and import-competing industries — there's no doubt about that. But the fact is we've got the terms of trade at a 140-year high and the dollar is actually set in the marketplace. I understand why Paul Howes and other union leaders are exasperated with the situation in respect of manufacturing, because these manufacturers have worked hard. They've innovated. And now they're being burdened with a high Australian dollar. But the fact is the dollar was floated in 1983 — when the dollar floats, it floats.

QUESTION: [Indistinct] there's a feeling around about the need for protectionist measures. Does that worry you? You're a big free trade…

EMERSON: I actually think the union movement, itself, has been responsible in this regard. It hasn't called for tariffs to be re-established or the remaining small tariff rates to be increased.

But what has happened, with potentially tragic consequences, is that the Coalition has become the party of protection. And let me explain why I say the Coalition has become the party of protection: because they have sought to enforce upon the Parliament a Bill on the importation of apples that would clearly breech Australia's obligations under the World Trade Organization. They have sought to do the same thing with the palm oil labelling Bill.

Both of these are protectionist measures. Both of them would violate Australia's obligations under the World Trade Organization and yet Mr Abbott doesn't care about that. He doesn't care about the fact that Australian businesses could be smashed through a retaliatory trade war. Why? Because he just wants a cheap and easy way to the Lodge. Well he's not going to get it.

QUESTION: Behind-the-border trade restrictions in steel, like steel specifications that seem to be shutting some Australian companies out of the market. Have you looked at that? Is that a genuine concern?

EMERSON: I haven't actually seen such documentation, but I have met with industry groups who say that that is an issue. They've confirmed that they've taken that up with the Industry Minister Kim Carr. Of course, we don't want unwarranted behind-the-border restrictions, but the evidence needs to be produced. I understand that Martin Ferguson has said that he hasn't seen, or is not convinced, by such evidence.

But if people want to put that sort of evidence in front of governments, of course we'll have a look at it. But the point is we are working to boost the competitiveness of manufacturing wherever we can, without reverting to protectionism — and that's the course that Tony Abbott has charted for the Liberal Party and the National Party.

And I know this: that supporters of Peter Costello and supporters of Malcolm Turnbull have had a gutful of Mr Abbott's populism in turning his back on market-based economic policies, on the open competitive economy. And he's doing it for base short-term opportunistic political reasons, and trashing — trashing — the reputation of the Liberal Party as an open-trading party in the process. And I just think that there is going to be more and more tension as those Liberals watch on in disbelief as Mr Abbott adopts these absolutely short-term opportunistic policies at the national expense.

QUESTION: Doug Cameron said this morning that he thought that Kim Carr and Martin Ferguson should look harder, essentially, for evidence that Australian companies are being locked out. What do you make of those comments?

EMERSON: Well, I'm sure that Martin Ferguson and Kim Carr are perfectly capable of reading documents. If there are more documents, then I'm sure they're perfectly capable and willing to read those documents. Let's have the debate. Let's have the debate based on evidence. And, as I say, I understand the exasperation of manufacturing businesses and the unions whose members work in them, where they have done everything to be — that they can think of — to be efficient and then they get affected by a high dollar.

But the fact is, we floated the dollar in 1983. And, at this stage, not even Tony Abbott has recommended refixing the Australian dollar so that Treasury officials get up every morning at 7 o'clock, have some Wheaties and some orange juice, and decide the value of the Australian dollar. But who knows, that could be Tony Abbott's next policy.

QUESTION: What does it say, what does it say about the skills and courage of Australian manufacturers that they need Peter Beattie to take their hand and lead them through the door to try and get work?

EMERSON: I think, actually — happen to believe — that advocacy of this sort is very important. And I've… without dwelling on it, talk about our mission to China. Actually, getting people to meet each other, deal with these sorts of issues, can be quite effective, can be quite effective. It can remove misunderstandings, create more information. And I think that that is a good approach, because sometimes misunderstandings do arise. Sometimes people don't have all the information that they need and maybe it is the case — and it could well be the case — that there are Australian suppliers, Australian manufacturers who are competitive and yet those who are looking for inputs may not be fully aware of that.

So, I see absolutely no problem and real advantages in the sort of role that Peter Beattie is undertaking.

QUESTION: Should Australia be involved in a greater global push to demand that China does float its currency?

EMERSON: Well I think the United States is a very large economy and they've been seeking to persuade China to increase the value of the exchange rate. There have been increases in the value of the Chinese currency and I'm sure those debates will continue. I'm sure that our Treasurer will be part of those debates.

But in the end, what we have to do is everything we can to boost the competitiveness of Australian industry, consistent with our free trade philosophy, consistent with open competitive markets. And we must never, we must never turn our back on open, competitive markets and embrace protectionism the way that Tony Abbott has displayed his capacity to do so in the last month or so.

QUESTION: Did you raise the currency issue in your meetings in China and if it…

EMERSON: I did not, and I'll tell you why I did not, because I met mayors and provincial governors and mayors and provincial governors are not involved in the setting of the Chinese exchange rate.

QUESTION: Do you think, though, that if we did do it, that it would just be an empty or symbolic gesture. Are you implying, I guess, that we're something of a bit player in these negotiations?

EMERSON: No, I'm simply saying that very large economies have been talking to and urging the Chinese authorities to increase the value of the exchange rate. If people want to add their voice to that, I don't see any particular harm in doing that.

QUESTION: The House says that some of the work of Treasury is dodgy. Perhaps there is … that could be examined if interest rates aren't cut. Do you share any of these concerns? Is there any basis for…

EMERSON: I'm very happy to let the independent Reserve Bank make its independent decisions. And in respect of Treasury, the Commonwealth Treasury is a very professional outfit. I'm going to reveal something shocking: sometimes they don't get everything right, but that's all right; neither does everyone in the world get everything right on every occasion. But I think that Treasury are a professional outfit and they do their very best with the information that's available.

It's just that in a globalised economy, from time to time not all the information is available and things move around pretty quickly.

Thanks very much.

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