JON FAINE: Craig Emerson has been told to go out and put his best foot forward for the Gillard Government this morning, and is popping up in media, on television and this morning here on this program on radio as well. Mr Emerson is the Trade Minister in Julia Gillard's Government. Good morning to you.
CRAIG EMERSON: Good morning Jon, and if I could start with a correction: I haven't been told to go out; I've offered to go out because I believe passionately in what I'm arguing for.
FAINE: And what is that at the moment? It's a government that according to this morning's … the unanimous view of the columnists in the newspapers … a government that's either on its last legs or at least has seriously lost its way.
EMERSON: Well I disagree with that too, as you'd imagine I would. It's a government that's presiding over a very strong economy which will be strengthened further when we bring down the Budget on Tuesday week to give the capacity for the Reserve Bank, if it so desires, to reduce interest rates further, Jon. Four and a quarter per cent now, compared with the six and three-quarter per cent that we inherited. These interest rate movements don't happen by accident. We've created the pre-conditions for successive reductions in interest rates. And we're planning for the long-term future of this country by engaging Australia in the Asian Century. And these are …
FAINE: And that's not what anybody's talking about.
EMERSON: I fully understand that. But you asked me what am I on about – that's what we're on about. I'm happy to defend the Prime Minister and this Government because it is a good government making the right decisions – sometimes courageous decisions, admittedly – …
FAINE: Courageous? Yes Minister, courageous. Please, Craig Emerson.
EMERSON: Well, indeed. Putting a price on carbon by any standard is a courageous decision. It is a visionary decision, Jon, and one that has been shirked by governments going all the way back to the 1990s. I was involved with Bob Hawke preparing an environment statement when we first started ringing alarm bells about climate change, and right through that period including the Howard Government when Mr Howard said 'we need to put a price on carbon' was another "gonna". He was just about to do it; he was gonna do it; then he lost office. Malcolm Turnbull said we should. We were trying to do that. Julia Gillard has done it and that's a very good example of what I'm talking about.
FAINE: Okay. You can do all of those things and get no credit for it whatsoever. And even if it is the distractions of politics, they have to be better managed surely than your lot are managing to manage them at the moment. If the Slipper and Thomson episodes are indeed what brings a government down rather than its economic management, then that shows you're failing on those fronts.
EMERSON: Well, again, I will espouse and advocate very strongly a principle here Jon: and that is the presumption of innocence. The presumption of innocence has meant that in relation to Craig Thomson we haven't sought to encourage Craig or decide that Craig should go to the crossbenches. But the problem is this Fair Work Australia investigation has got all the hallmarks of Blue Hills – it continues. And as Craig himself points out, he's had two baby daughters while this investigation's been underway.
FAINE: Sure, but Mr Temby's report's about to come down. The inevitable conclusion to draw is that you've been briefed, or someone in the Government's been briefed, on what the Temby report is going to find, and you thought you should act beforehand.
EMERSON: Well, that's a conclusion that would be completely wrong. I have no idea what's in the Temby report; the Prime Minister doesn't know what's in the Temby report. What I do know is that the Temby report does not, and I repeat does not relate to the period when Craig Thomson was a union official. So how could the bringing down of the Temby report have a bearing on this?
FAINE: Because it could well say that there is a culture of corruption of which he has been the beneficiary and he has been responsible and that it all reflects poorly on his time when he … as a powerbroker after his time in charge of the union…
EMERSON: That doesn't relate to the period when Craig Thomson was a union official, so how could it comment on the time when Craig Thomson was a union official?
FAINE: Because he's a beneficiary of a culture that he was involved in.
EMERSON: The release of the Temby report, whenever that might be, had no bearing whatsoever, no bearing whatsoever on the Prime Minister's decision.
FAINE: Williamson, who was a key Labor powerbroker in New South Wales: he's had to stand aside. The whole stench surrounding corruption within this trade union and the inability of the Labor Party, and I might say the ACTU, to see it for what it was, is what's come back to bite you.
EMERSON: I think you'll recall, Jon, that the ACTU has formally disaffiliated the HSU from the ACTU.
FAINE: Yeah, but years after the first matters were raised.
EMERSON: No one is defending the culture of the HSU. No one is defending the behaviour of the HSU. What we should defend, Jon, no matter what prejudgments you or your listeners or anyone else wants to make, we always should defend the presumption of innocence. Craig Thomson has not been charged with anything – has not been charged with anything – and therefore deserves the presumption of innocence.
FAINE: So why did Julia Gillard stand him down yesterday?
EMERSON: Because of the convergence of events: that is, the Peter Slipper matter plus the Craig Thomson matter combined with the acknowledgement based on the performance of Fair Work Australia that that report doesn't seem to be going anywhere fast. It's been four years in the making. Craig's had two babies since then. And we did need to make a judgment. The Prime Minister did, as to the damage ….
FAINE: You can't have it both ways, Minister.
EMERSON: Can I finish …?
FAINE: You can't on the one hand say presumption of innocence and on the other say you've got to act.
EMERSON: All right well, look John. Okay, you make your speech and just let me know when you're ready.
FAINE: Well you can't have it both ways, can you?
EMERSON: Can I now answer?
FAINE: You can answer my question.
EMERSON: Good. Okay. The judgement that was made was that the convergence of events called into question the standing of the Parliament in the minds of the public. That's a judgement that a Prime Minister must make. Now, it is not right that as soon as an allegation is made against a Member of Parliament that that Member of Parliament be stood aside. It is not the practice of this Parliament; it is not the practice of this Coalition, even though the Opposition Leader today is saying that Mr Thomson's vote should not be counted. Coalition MPs were the subject of police raids – police raids – and as Leader of the House, Tony Abbott defended the right of those Coalition MPs to vote in the Parliament. And a Senator only recently was not only investigated, she was charged and found guilty …
FAINE: Yeah, for shoplifting. It's not even on the same calibre.
EMERSON: Actually, of assault. So assault's a minor offense? Okay, that's your judgement. But the point is this wasn't a situation where someone was just under investigation. And when Mr Abbott was asked about that particular case and consistency, he stated that Senator Mary Jo Fisher did not vote in the Senate. There is an inconvenient truth … the inconvenient truth is that she did. She did.
FAINE: It's a very different thing, so let's cut to the chase….
EMERSON: Let's explain that. Why is it a very different thing when someone who is charged and found guilty, because they're Coalition, because they can then vote – and Mr Abbott defends the right of Senator Mary Jo Fisher to vote, of Andrew Laming of Gary Hardgrave and of Ross Vasta to vote, even though their offices were raided by the police? And you say it's a very different thing that Coalition MPs …
FAINE: No. I'm saying that Mary Jo Fisher plight is quite different to Craig Thomson's …
EMERSON: But Mr Abbott is saying that Craig Thomson should not be able to vote in Parliament. I'm simply pointing out that there is a massive inconsistency here.
FAINE: Okay. Would you agree politics is about perceptions?
EMERSON: Of course it's about perceptions, but…
FAINE: And the perception of the Gillard Government is …
EMERSON: But if in every instance there is a perception that the Government should behave in a particular way, and then the Government says 'all right, this is an unpopular policy we'll abandon it', then that is not governing in the national interest.
FAINE: No, 'this is an unpopular policy because we're not explaining it particularly well. We're incapable of getting clear air to sell and explain our agenda'. That's the problem you've got now.
EMERSON: Well that's your judgement, Jon, and I'm using your program, as you might have noticed, to talk about the Budget next week. Thank you very generously for giving me the opportunity to do that, because that's really what Government is all about. I accept your argument that this is a distraction. I accept that argument. But, nevertheless, we will persist in governing in Australia's long-term interest. And sometimes I'm afraid that might make … involve making decisions that are not popular in the short term. Certainly the Hawke Government through tax reform – introducing a fringe benefits tax, capital gains tax, an asset test on pensions, which I know went down very badly with the Herald Sun in Melbourne in 1984. Big campaigns against all of those. Big campaigns against all of those. What would the Hawke Government do in those circumstances? Fold its tent? Capitulate? Have a look at the opinion polls: say 'what do the Australian people want'? No. It involved courageous decision-making. You've got a courageous Prime Minister in Julia Gillard, and she'll continue to make decisions in the long term interests of this country.
FAINE: Okay, and just finally: the whispers are around again about leadership ructions, challenges. Is anyone doing the numbers?
EMERSON: No. And I was asked about this a little earlier. And I was asked if anyone had spoken to me and the answer was no. There'll always be chatter; there'll always be chatter, by the way, on both sides. I accept that in these circumstances, when we're down in the polls, there'll be more chatter on our side than on the other side. But let's not ever believe that everyone in any political party is very, very happy all the time. Of course it's possible that people are talking to the media. I have no evidence of it, other than media reporting. No one has spoken to me, and we've had that matter settled. We've had that matter settled, and what we need to do now is bring down the Budget and continue to make the right decisions for the working men and women of this country.
FAINE: I spoke to … contacted two of your ministerial colleagues this morning. One said by text 'I'm overseas thank goodness'; the other one said on the phone call 'no, I can't do an interview – I'm just about to get on a plane'. And I said, 'well is it a long or short flight – we could talk to you when it lands?'. He said: 'I hope it's a long flight; I'm seeing what's the longest one I can catch.' Half in jest, but that showed a state of mind …
EMERSON: Okay, but if I could say this: I'm proud of this country. I think this is a wonderful country, and I actually would rather be in Australia than any country overseas. With all due respect to my colleague, the fact is this is a really great country. We can make it better. We're working to do that through education reforms, through our economic policies, through creating a fairer society here, Jon. These are all really important tasks and we're discharging them.
FAINE: All righty. Thank you for your time.
EMERSON: Okay, thanks Jon. All the best.
FAINE: It's been interesting. Craig Emerson is the Minister for Trade, senior Minister in Julia Gillard's Government.
- Minister Emerson's Office: (02) 6277 7420
- DFAT Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555