Media conference, Melbourne

Melbourne

Subjects: Christopher Pyne and James Ashby, HSU, Peter Slipper.

Transcript, E&OE

2 May 2012

SKY NEWS COMPERE: And we're going to interrupt that to take you to the Trade Minister, Craig Emerson. Let's take a listen.

CRAIG EMERSON: … the contact details of Mr Ashby last night. Mr Pyne was saying he can't recall seeking the contact details of Mr Ashby after having met with Mr Ashby and then drinking with Mr Ashby for almost two hours. It's emerged that, indeed, Mr Pyne did seek the contact details of Mr Ashby. He did so through a text message and through an email.

Mr Pyne must stand up in front of the Australian media and explain why he has changed his story between yesterday and today, where yesterday he was saying that he had no need to contact Mr Ashby, there was no reason to contact Mr Ashby, and he couldn't recall seeking Mr Ashby's contact details – and today it has emerged that in fact he did.

He did seek Mr Ashby's contact details after a drinking session with Mr Ashby lasting almost two hours.

If Mr Pyne is saying that he had no need to contact Mr Ashby, why did Mr Pyne seek Mr Ashby's contact details through both an email and through a text message and receive, in response to those requests, Mr Ashby's contact details?

Mr Pyne changes his story on a daily basis.

Mr Abbott and Mr Pyne, when they were first asked about any prior knowledge of the impending publication of the claim against Mr Slipper, both said that they had no specific knowledge of it. The reason they insert the word "specific" is to cover up the fact that they did have knowledge and they had agreed between them to say they had no specific knowledge.

That's where the evasion and the concealment began. And that has continued to escalate, with Mr Pyne changing his story between last night and today, last night saying that he didn't remember seeking any contact details from Mr Ashby, saying he had no need to seek any contact details from Mr Ashby; and being caught out today, having to concede he did, in fact, seek those contact details through both an email and through a text message.

So Mr Pyne does need to stand up in front of the Australian media, front the media and answer the questions and explain why he seeks to evade and to conceal the true involvement of the Liberal Party in the preparation of this document by Mr Ashby.

QUESTION: What exactly is your allegation?

EMERSON: My allegation is that Mr Pyne is seeking to conceal the truth. Mr Pyne last night had one story; today he has a different story.

His story last night is that he had no need to seek the contact details of Mr Ashby and he could not remember doing so. Today, when it's revealed that he did that, after the two-hour drinking session with Mr Ashby, he had to concede that he may have sought those details. Well, he did seek those details. And from Mr Pyne, he says that he had no need for those details. Why did he ask for them? Why did he ask for them?

These are the sorts of questions that Mr Pyne must answer.

QUESTION: On what evidence is this based?

EMERSON: This is based on revelations in the Sydney Morning Herald today where the relevant journalists have seen both the email and text messages from Mr Pyne seeking Mr Ashby's contact details. Why, after a two-hour drinking session with Mr Ashby, would he then seek his contact details? Why would he say last night that he has no memory of doing so and no need to do so? Obviously, he felt he had a need to do so, because it's been revealed that in fact Mr Pyne did seek the contact details through an email and a text message. And those contact details were provided to Mr Pyne.

QUESTION: On Sunday, the Prime Minister said she was acting to protect the reputation of Parliament by asking Mr Slipper to stand aside a bit longer. Do you feel that you risk damaging the reputation of Parliament by continuing this saga?

EMERSON: I think there is a public interest in people knowing what involvement the Liberal Party had in encouraging and preparing, assisting in the preparation of the document that Mr Ashby has lodged as a complaint against Mr Slipper, a document that makes allegations of criminality and sexual harassment.

The Australian public deserves to know the role of the Liberal Party in doing that. When Mr Abbott was asked this question a few days ago he said to his knowledge there was no involvement of any Member of Parliament on the Coalition side. Well, here we have the leader of … the Manager of Opposition Business actually contacting Mr Slipper's office after a two-hour drinking session and requesting Mr Ashby's contact details and receiving them.

If there was no reason to do that, why did he do it? That's what the Australian people deserve to know.

QUESTION: You don't think you risk taking this into even murkier waters?

EMERSON: I think the truth is always important. And the truth has not emerged because Mr Abbott and Mr Pyne have remained evasive about this, to the extent that Mr Pyne is changing his story. Last night he's saying that he had no need to contact Mr Ashby, there was no reason to seek his contact details. This morning, in the face of facts, he has had to concede that he did seek those contact details.

If there was no reason to do so, why did he do so? And, therefore, there are very large missing parts to this story. And the Australian people deserve to know the missing parts of the story, that is the involvement of Mr Abbott, Mr Abbott's office, Mr Pyne, other MPs – whether in fact they were involved – and staffers. And these are the questions that need to be asked. What was the involvement of Mr Abbott in the preparation and support for the preparation of this document? What was the involvement of Mr Abbott's office? What was the involvement of Mr Pyne and his office and other MPs and the LNP more generally? Because there's a second report in the media today saying that the LNP was aware of the preparation of this document before it was lodged.

So obviously people in the Liberal and National parties were aware of the preparation of the document. That has now emerged. What we, I think, need to know on behalf of the Australian people is who was aware and what role they played in the preparation of the document.

QUESTION: Why does [indistinct] suspect some sort of conspiracy going…

EMERSON: Well, obviously, there's a cover-up going on. There's no doubt that there is a cover-up going on. You have Mr Abbott saying he had no specific knowledge. It is not a coincidence that Mr Pyne used exactly the same phraseology. Obviously, Mr Abbott and Mr Pyne have gotten together to use the term "specific knowledge" to cover up the fact that obviously they had some knowledge, that the LNP – the Liberal and National parties – had prior knowledge of the preparation of this document.

Why not simply say that they had prior knowledge but they weren't involved? Why evade the truth that obviously they had prior knowledge? I think these are legitimate questions to ask on behalf of the Australian people.

QUESTION: What's your response to the AFP confirming that Mr Slipper's court allegations require further investigation?

EMERSON: My response is the same response that Labor Members of Parliament will give, and that is let investigative processes proceed without pressure and without interference.

QUESTION: Your colleague Anthony Albanese said last Friday Mr Slipper's release of Cabcharge documents cleared him. Did he jump the gun on this?

EMERSON: Well, Mr Slipper did furnish photocopies of Cabcharges, and on that basis Mr Albanese made his statements. Now, if there's an investigation, let that investigation proceed.

We on the Labor side, on the Government side, do not interfere in investigations. The Coalition does. Senator Brandis, as the Shadow Attorney-General, rang the New South Wales Police Minister about this matter – a highly improper act, highly improper act. We have had demands from the Coalition on almost a daily basis to instruct Fair Work Australia to complete its report; that is, to interfere in the processes.

I think everyone has been frustrated about the length of time for the preparation of that report. But we stand by an important principle here, and that is not interfering in investigative processes.

QUESTION: Do you regret [indistinct] taking on Mr Slipper in the [indistinct] controversy [indistinct]?

EMERSON: Well, Mr Slipper was the Deputy Speaker before he became Speaker. He was doing a good job as Deputy Speaker. And even Coalition MPs would concede that once Mr Slipper became Speaker, he discharged those responsibilities very professionally and very fairly. There are no criticisms of Mr Slipper's capacity to be the Speaker. What has happened is that the Prime Minister has said to Mr Slipper he should remain stood aside, not only pending the completion of the criminal allegations, but also the civil allegations of sexual assault. That is the proper … sorry, sexual harassment. That's the proper course of action. That is what has happened.

QUESTION: What's your response to the news police have raided the HSU offices in Sydney?

EMERSON: Again, the police are independent of government. In a civil society, in a Western democracy, that's how it should be. And the police should be able to do their work without pressure or interference and, in my case, commentary on it. Let the police, who are the professionals, do their job.

That's what we say on our side of the Parliament. What the Coalition does is rings up police ministers in New South Wales, Liberal police ministers in New South Wales – a highly improper act on the part of Senator Brandis, as the Shadow Attorney-General. He puts himself forward as the alternative highest legal office-holder in the land, and, yet, actually believed that it was okay to ring up the New South Wales Police Minister. It is not.

So there's the distinction: Labor consistently saying allow investigative processes to take their course; the Coalition demanding interference in those processes and seeking to make representations to police ministers. We believe that's highly improper.

QUESTION: Going back to Mr Ashby and Mr Pyne, what exactly do you think the Opposition is trying to cover up [indistinct]?

EMERSON: Well, I think what we need to do is ask those questions of Mr Pyne, in this sense: he keeps changing his story. At the outset, when these questions were first asked, and this was more than a week ago, Mr Abbott and Mr Pyne said they had no specific knowledge of these allegations before they appeared in the newspaper on the weekend. They both used the word "specific", obviously to cover up knowledge that they did have.

No one has suggested that Mr Pyne sat down as a legal whiz and wrote out the document. No one is suggesting that. The question was a perfectly reasonable one from the media, and that is, 'what knowledge did you have, did you know?' And they both answered no "specific" knowledge, which means that they rehearsed their lines to conceal what is now obvious – and that is, that they did have knowledge of the impending publication of this document.

So I think the Australian public deserves to know what knowledge Mr Abbott and Mr Pyne had of the preparation and impending release of the document; why Mr Pyne, after having said he had no reason to seek Mr Ashby's contact details, has now had to concede that he did that? In the space of not more than 12 hours, Mr Pyne has changed his story. Why wouldn't he have said that he's met Mr Ashby, they had drinks for two hours, the matter didn't come up and that was the end of it? Why not say that?

In fact, when he was first asked about contact with Mr Ashby, he said that he goes past the Speaker's office from time to time and passes the time of day. You gathered here, and everyday Australians would believe, passing the time of day constitutes saying 'hello', perhaps commenting on the weather and moving on. But it emerged that they spent two hours together. Why didn't Mr Pyne say 'we actually did spend two hours together' if he's got nothing to hide? 'But this issue didn't come up and that was the end of the matter and I sought to make no further contact.' It turns out that he did seek to make further contact.

Why do they continue to conceal the truth from the Australian people?

QUESTION: [indistinct] "no specific knowledge" – that seems like pretty typical politician speak. Isn't it a bit much to hinge this whole theory on that shared language?

EMERSON: No. That's one proposition, about "no specific knowledge". The second proposition, and it's actually the one that I began with, is that Mr Pyne said last night he had no reason to seek Mr Ashby's contact details and could not remember seeking those details. It turns out he did seek the details. When he went back to his office on the evening or the night of 19 March, after spending almost two hours with Mr Ashby, he did indeed seek the contact details through an email and a text message. If he had no reason to do it, why did he do it?

I think these are legitimate questions for the Australian public.

QUESTION: It could have been that the exchange of contact details was totally innocent.

EMERSON: Well why not reveal, when he was asked about this, that he did in fact seek the contact details, if it was totally innocent. And when he was asked yesterday afternoon 'did he seek Mr Ashby's contact details', as was alleged by two sources, he said, 'I can't remember', and that there would be no reason for him to do so. So why would you then, as it transpires, seek the contact details from someone whom Mr Pyne said there was no reason to seek those very details? Why?

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