SANDY ALOISI: The Australian political landscape has been reshaped in recent days, with the announcement by Bob Brown that he's quitting Parliament and resigning as the Leader of the Greens, the party he founded.
Labor is hoping the loss of the veteran leader will see some Green support go back to the Government.
To look at that and other political issues, Marius Benson is speaking to the Trade Minister, Craig Emerson, who's now leading trade talks in South America.
MARIUS BENSON: Craig Emerson, before I ask you about Australian politics, as Trade Minister you've just announced that some trade sanctions on Burma are to be eased to encourage democracy in that country.
EMERSON: Indeed, it's a broader set of sanctions that are being eased, and it is to encourage reform. In respect of the number of people subject to financial sanctions and travel sanctions, that will fall from 392 to 130 individuals. That means that civilians, including the President and other reformers within the Government and the Parliament, will be removed from the list. And on trade, we'll discontinue the existing policy of neither encouraging nor discouraging trade or investment with Burma, and take a more active encouragement pathway, which will be good for the Burmese people, and of course also good for Australian business.
BENSON: Turning from the politics of Burma to the politics of Australia, people are trying to decide what the impact of Bob Brown's decision to stand down as leader last week will be. Labor analysts are expressing a hope that perhaps there'll be a drift back of those voters who left you for the Greens; might drift back towards Labor. Do you share that hope?
EMERSON: That's possible. Bob Brown is a man who's led the Green Party with considerable success. He, by all standards, could be regarded as a charismatic leader. With Bob going, only time will tell - but it certainly wouldn't be a plus for the Greens having Bob Brown depart. And, you know, we'll just see how it all pans out in respect of what it may or may not do to Labor's primary vote.
What we'll continue to do is implement policies in the national interest, in important areas: different policies to those of the Greens, fundamentally different, including the issue of returning the budget to surplus.
BENSON: Well just on that issue of returning the budget to surplus, Christine Milne is saying today that she'll fight moves to cut services - Government services - to achieve that surplus. Is the surplus up for negotiation?
EMERSON: No, it's not. We have made a firm commitment based on sound economics to return the budget to surplus. Ratings agencies are relevant here: we're rated Triple A by all three ratings agencies - the first time in Australia's history that that has happened - and it's in no small part due to fiscal consolidation. We want to create the capacity for the Reserve Bank to further reduce its cash rate. It's down to four and a quarter per cent, compared with six and three-quarter per cent when Labor came office. It would be a boost to the economy, a boost to confidence and to small business and to home borrowers, to have a further reduction in interest rates. And that's why returning the budget to surplus is so important: it will create room for the private economy to expand, and the Reserve Bank to consider favourably, if it so determines, to reduce the cash rate further.
BENSON: Craig Thomson, the Labor backbencher who has been the subject of many allegations of improper conduct as a union official, has over the weekend refused to cooperate with New South Wales police investigating those allegations against him. Should the Prime Minister direct Craig Thomson to cooperate with the police?
EMERSON: Well I've seen reports, and it is a little hard to comment on this all the way from Brasilia. But the reports suggest that Craig Thomson has been taking legal advice on this. They're matters for Mr Thomson and his legal advisers and the police. And I don't think it's really up to other politicians to get in and provide alternative legal advice to Mr Thomson. He is entitled, as all Australians are - irrespective of whether they're politicians; irrespective of the state of the Parliament - to the presumption of innocence.
BENSON: You don't rely on Craig Thomson as critically as you once did, because you have a bit more breathing space with the defection of the Liberal, Peter Slipper, to be Speaker for the Labor Party. He's reported in News Limited papers today to have spent $75,000 on taxis and limousines in an 18-month period. And, of course, in the past he's had to repay wrongly claimed entitlements. Is Peter Slipper an embarrassment to you?
EMERSON: Well, he's not the Speaker for the Labor Party, incidentally; he's the Speaker for the Australian Parliament.
BENSON: He was recruited by Labor.
EMERSON: Well, he's taken up the position of Speaker, and that is an independent role. And he actually discharges that role with really great independence. In relation to his travel entitlements, these are very open and transparent processes. And Mr Slipper, Craig Emerson and every other Member of Parliament is accountable to the public, and needs to operate within entitlements.
BENSON: Craig Emerson, thanks very much.
EMERSON: Thanks very much, Marius.
ALOISI: The Trade Minister, Craig Emerson, speaking there to Marius Benson.
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