Sky AM Agenda

Subjects: Craig Thomson, Peter Slipper, Budget, polls.

Transcript, E&OE

30 April 2012

KIERAN GILBERT: The Prime Minister yesterday said that a line had been crossed in terms of people's respect for the Parliament. I spoke to the Minister for Trade this morning, Craig Emerson, and began by asking him what was that line that the Prime Minister was talking about.

CRAIG EMERSON: There was a convergence in terms of community perceptions of the Parliament. The two matters became intertwined in the public mind and I understand why. Craig Thomson has pointed out that he's had two baby daughters since the Fair Work Australia investigation was launched into him. The presumption of innocence remains extremely important, Kieran, and I know it's out of fashion these days. Both men are entitled to the presumption of innocence. But there's also a legitimate issue about the regard with which the Parliament is held, and the Prime Minister made the right judgement call.

GILBERT: But the Prime Minister for months and months has backed Craig Thomson. Now, she says a line has been crossed. Nothing actually happened though, did it? Nothing changed in that scandal and, indeed, with the Slipper matter. We've known what's occurred for weeks.

EMERSON: Well, as I say, the two matters have become entwined. And the public – we understand this – has become concerned about the reputation, the integrity of the Parliament. It's legitimate; in fact indeed the Prime Minister has a responsibility to respond to that. She did so in a very decisive way.

GILBERT: But if it's about respect for the Parliament, why didn't she act sooner? Because nothing has changed in either of those issues over the last couple of days. Why didn't she act sooner?

EMERSON: Well, because they are entitled to a presumption of innocence. And in the case of Craig Thomson, you would have hoped, I think reasonably, that these matters would have come to completion. They haven't. It's not immediately clear when they will, so it would continue. And in relation to Mr Slipper, there are both criminal allegations and civil allegations against Mr Slipper. The criminal allegations relate to Cabcharge usage. The civil ones relate to, as you know, workplace behaviour. And therefore that matter, too, may not come to an early conclusion.

GILBERT: Do you think it should have – would have – been better for the Government and indeed for the Parliament if Mr Thomson had moved to the crossbench sooner?

EMERSON: Well, actually, I don't. And the reason for this is what I said before: the out-of-date notion, the out-of-fashion notion about the presumption of innocence …

GILBERT: Well, it's out of date now because the Prime Minister has acted …

EMERSON: Craig had indicated in the conversation with the Prime Minister that he was prepared to move to the crossbenches because he was concerned about the impact of this not only on the Parliament, not only on the Government, but on his own family. And I think people should just reflect for a moment that Craig Thomson's a dad. He's a human being. He deserves a bit of consideration, particularly Kieran, when there are no charges against Mr Thomson. There are no charges against Mr Slipper…

GILBERT: But now the Prime Minister has seen it fit that these allegations are serious enough to have him moved to the crossbench now. So obviously she believes that the allegations are serious enough to act. Why … doesn't it reflect on her judgement that she hasn't done it sooner?

EMERSON: I think in different ways you've asked the same question three times – and I'll give you one answer three times.

GILBERT: Well, the reason why I'm asking you this is because not only does the electorate question the Prime Minister's judgement in large part now, but so many of your fellow members of Caucus are bewildered by the lack of judgement.

EMERSON: Well, I don't accept that. But let me say this: the moment an allegation is made against someone, if that leads to their transfer to the crossbenches, their suspension from a political party, then we will have a landslide of allegations against Members of Parliament – usually by the Coalition against Labor Members of Parliament. It is legitimate …

GILBERT: But you can work out whether something is vexatious fairly quickly, can't you?

EMERSON: It is legitimate for the Prime Minister to extend to Mr Slipper and to Craig Thomson the presumption of innocence. It was legitimate, I think, to hope that these processes would come to a conclusion. I don't find too many people who believe that the Fair Work investigation has been done expeditiously. What has happened is that the Fair Work investigation has been going, I think, for four years, and there's no particular end in sight to those processes.

GILBERT: Well, surely the Prime Minister must have realised a bit sooner that this was lingering.

EMERSON: So, what? At the beginning of four years, as soon as an investigation is launched into someone then they should go to the crossbenches. I am saying …

GILBERT: You refer to one investigation; there's a police investigation and other audits …

EMERSON: And I am saying that if we are in a world where we have two standards – of course, one for the Coalition and one for Labor – that as soon as an allegation is made against someone they should go to the crossbenches, that is a very bad situation.

GILBERT: Okay, well can you sit here …

EMERSON: And I'll tell you this – I'll answer your question – what are we to make of the double standards of the Coalition when they have had not only a Senator who was investigated, charged and found guilty? Tony Abbott was asked about the fact that she wasn't in any way transferred to the crossbenches. He actually said …

GILBERT: It's a very different gravity of allegation.

EMERSON: No it wasn't. Oh, okay, stealing is not a grave situation? I think it was assault – not a grave situation? In the case of Andrew Laming and Gary Hardgrave and Ross Vasta: stealing from the Commonwealth – an allegation – not very serious? Is that what we're saying: stealing -okay; assault – okay; shoplifting – okay? Unsubstantiated allegations against Mr Thomson – he should go to the crossbenches immediately and not have his vote counted? When Mr Abbott was asked on the 22nd of April this question: 'but what about Senator Mary Jo Fisher? She voted in the Parliament,' and he said: 'no, she didn't'. That was untrue. That was untrue.

GILBERT: Can you sit here and tell me this morning that the Prime Minister has not lost some faith in the Caucus over the handling of these matters? That her judgement is not being questioned once again in the Caucus?

EMERSON: What always happens …

GILBERT: Because it is, isn't it?

EMERSON: I have heard nothing; absolutely nothing, Kieran; zero. Now, newspapers report stuff and I'm supposed to say in response to this question that newspapers have reported something and therefore I believe it's true. Sorry, I am not going to do that. What I can report is what has been said to me, which is zero, nothing.

GILBERT: Well, okay. It's not just newspapers that are reporting it. Very senior members of the Labor Party are now saying that the Prime Minister just can't get anything right. This morning Michelle Grattan in The Age – a very respected journalist – says that she needs to fall on her sword for the good of the Labor Party.

EMERSON: Well, Michelle is entitled to her opinion and she is a well-respected journalist. But Julia Gillard is making the hard decisions, the right decisions, for Australia. There will always be chatter in political parties. I could sit here salaciously and talk to you about what Turnbull supporters believe about Tony Abbott. But I'm not going to because it's just sideline chatter.

GILBERT: Well, can we expect more bold announcements? This is obviously trying to have a circuit-breaker with these two scandals that have plagued the Government. Can we expect more bold announcements, policy changes on the carbon tax or whatever else?

EMERSON: Well, what you'll see is a bold budget, and that's coming up on Tuesday week. And of course that's going to be a very important document in terms of the future of this country, most particularly in relation to the capacity of the Reserve Bank to adjust interest rates down again from 4.25 per cent, compared with the 6.75 per cent we inherited from the previous Coalition Government, which said that it would keep interest rates at record lows and did not. There were 10 interest rate rises subsequent to that statement. That's the sort of thing you can see in the budget. Yes it will be bold; yes it will return the budget to surplus; AAA-rated economy; the envy of the world. That's what you'll see.

GILBERT: It will be very hard to deliver such a tough budget in the political context that you find yourself. There's not much capital …

EMERSON: You've got to do the right thing by Australia. And we have these interviews where day in, day out, week-in, week-out you say 'you need to do stuff that's popular, Craig'. You know, 'see if you can turn up the vote in some of the opinion polls'. That's not how we govern. And in fact there was legitimate criticism of governments that they are obsessed with opinion polls and the 24-hour media cycle. And when a government is not we still get these exhortations: 'come on; get some tricks going'. You know, 'turn up the knobs and see if we can get some increase in the Labor primary vote'. We're not going there, Kieran; we have to do the right thing by the country.

GILBERT: Okay, Craig Emerson. Thanks for your time. I appreciate it.

EMERSON: Righto. Thanks.

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