ABC TV News Breakfast

Subjects: Craig Thomson, Peter Slipper, polls.

Transcript, E&OE

30 April 2012

MICHAEL ROWLAND: We're joined now by the Federal Trade Minister Craig Emerson. Mr Emerson, good morning to you.

CRAIG EMERSON: Hello, Michael.

ROWLAND: Well, what has Craig Thomson done wrong? Based on Tony Abbott's argument there, the Government must have known something to trigger this quite extraordinary move against him.

EMERSON: What an outrageous set of suggestions from Mr Abbott. Mr Thomson is the subject of an investigation. He is frustrated about the length of it. I think just about everyone is. But there is no charge against him. He has not been charged with anything, and Mr Abbott needs to answer this question: if he believes that someone who is under investigation should not have a vote in the Parliament, why did he personally support, as the Leader of the House, the votes of Mr Andrew Laming, Mr Ross Vasta and Mr Gary Hardgrave. In the case of Andrew Laming, he voted with the Coalition on more than 50 occasions. Now as the Leader of the House, Mr Abbott publicly defended the right of those three MPs to continue to vote in the House of Representatives. And, by the way, we didn't contest that. We believed that that was right.

ROWLAND: Okay, well, Craig Thomson hasn't been charged with anything and he says that he's a true Labor man. He'll continue supporting the Labor Government. But the Prime Minister says a line has been crossed in regard to him. Now she had a great deal of trouble explaining yesterday what that line is. Over to you: what line has been crossed?

EMERSON: Well, there was a convergence of both the Craig Thomson matter and the Peter Slipper matter, such that the Prime Minister formed a judgement that the reputation or the standing of the Parliament was being affected in the eyes of the community. The Prime Minister has a responsibility to uphold the respect of the Parliament, and so she formed the judgement that these actions were necessary. And I think that that's the right judgement to form. But the Prime Minster also fundamentally believes in the presumption of innocence. Neither Mr Slipper nor Mr Thomson has been charged with anything. And, again, in terms of the consistency or lack thereof of the Coalition, Mr Abbott knows that in the Senate there was a Senator who was not only investigated and charged, but she was found guilty of assault. She continued to vote. When Mr Abbott was asked about this on the 22nd of April he asserted falsely that Senator Mary Jo Fisher did not participate in the Senate. She did. She voted against the Clean Energy Bill.

ROWLAND: Okay, leaving Peter Slipper to one side – of course he's been in the headlines for a week now. But there was nothing new concerning the Craig Thomson case over the last week or two. What was it that triggered this move against him? And, also, on that basis, do you think the Prime Minister has acted a bit too late on that front?

EMERSON: No, I don't. And we fundamentally believe in the presumption of innocence. By the way, Michael, we believe that in respect of Coalition MPs, Labor MPs and the broader Australian community – we're not selective about this. But to answer your question directly: there was a convergence in the view of the public, which we understand, between the Thomson matter and the Slipper matter. It's obvious that the Slipper matter had attracted a lot more attention in the last 10 days or so. But neither looked like it was going to be resolved in the very near future – much to the disappointment and frustration, I think, of everyone in relation with the Craig Thomson matter -including Craig himself who, he actually pointed out, had two baby daughters while this investigation has been underway. But it came to a point where the convergence between these two issues was calling into the question in the mind of the public, the integrity of the Parliament. A Prime Minister then needs to deal with that issue, and she did decisively on Saturday.

ROWLAND: Up until Sunday the Prime Minister was arguing that Peter Slipper could in fact return to the Speaker's chair if he was cleared of those criminal allegations. You are one of her strongest defenders in the public sphere. Do you feel a bit silly now that she has done this big about face?

EMERSON: No, no I don't. And I'll tell you this Michael: while ever I've got breath in my body I will defend the basic notion of the presumption of innocence; not trial by other people; not trial and moralising by Mr Abbott. He needs to apply a single standard: not one standard to the Coalition and another standard to everyone else. He's been unable to answer your questions and, indeed, I understand the Mal Colston matter has come up. Now, how did the sale of Telstra get through the Senate? How did it get through? With Mal Colston's vote – that's how it got through. So Mr Abbott … the Liberal Party is hypocritical about this; has always been hypocritical about it. They have a born-to-rule mentality where they think there should be one rule for themselves and another rule for the rest of Australia. No, that's not going to happen. We are going to persist with the presumption of innocence. But there was a convergence of the two issues. There was the very serious issue of the reputation of the Parliament and that's why the Prime Minister acted.

ROWLAND: Do you believe this Government will still run its full term?

EMERSON: Of course it'll run its full term. And we have had, again, fed by the Coalition, but also commentators almost from day one, Michael, saying this Government can't last – it's a minority government. Well, 350 pieces of legislation have been passed. There have been, I think, more than 50 motions from the Coalition that effectively amount to seeking to bring the Government down in some way or another. And none of those have succeeded – not one of them. Why? Because we do have in Mr Windsor and Mr Oakeshott, Mr Bandt and often Mr Wilkie, a view that there should be a stable government. The people made their decisions last August, September. Those decisions are being implemented in the form of this Government. We will continue to make the hard decisions; not necessarily always the popular decisions. But that's what any government needs to do and is elected to do: make the decisions that are right for the Australian people, not only today and tomorrow but into the long term. And that's what Julia Gillard is doing. She's tough as nails; she's a good leader. And, yes, we have a minority government, but it is a stable government, much to the exasperation of Mr Abbott, who has still not put the dummy back in his mouth after he spat it out when he wasn't anointed Prime Minister by the Independents.

ROWLAND: Finally, Craig Emerson: you're a marginal seat holder in Brisbane. Are you prepared to go to an election with a Prime Minister leading a party with a primary vote of below 30 per cent?

EMERSON: The election that … the poll that will count, and I know politicians always say this, is the one that's held on that relevant Saturday in 2013. And if we get out of bed every morning, Michael, and we check the polls and we say 'look, the polls are down – we better make some popular decision, some sort of gimmick', then that's when the Australian public really are onto you. And we won't do that. There has been legitimate criticism about governments being governed by or heeding opinion polls. What we're doing is making sure that we do the right thing by the working men and women of Australia – not always in the short term the most popular thing. We don't want to be a government that is dictated to by opinion polls. There's one dictating that'll go on, and that is that we should as a government discharge our responsibilities to govern in the national interest for the long-term benefit of the working men and women of this country.

ROWLAND: Craig Emerson in Canberra, thank you for your time this morning.

EMERSON: Okay, thanks Michael.

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