SCOTT BEVAN: For more on this story, we're joined by the Trade Minister Craig Emerson, who's in Canberra. Minister, thanks for your time this morning. You've alleged that the Coalition has engaged in a cover-up. But based on what Mal Brough has said, wasn't he simply doing the right thing when he was approached by Peter Slipper's staffer, who had serious concerns?
CRAIG EMERSON: He didn't have one meeting; he had three meetings. And as recently as last weekend, when the question was put directly to Mr Brough whether he had any involvement, he described that as "nonsense". So, less than a week ago Mr Brough described as "nonsense" any suggestion that he was involved in the claim against Mr Slipper. He's now saying he came forward voluntarily. He came forward because he was dragged kicking and screaming, because he has sought to cover up his involvement, as has Mr Abbott who, on the 23rd of April said that to the best of his knowledge no one in the Coalition had any prior knowledge of this claim before it was published in the newspaper. Now, obviously, what Mr Abbott has been saying is that he didn't have any "specific" knowledge; so has Mr Pyne. They have been carefully selecting their words so as to conceal their knowledge of this matter before it turned up in the newspaper.
BEVAN: But Minister, Mr Brough has said any talk of conspiracy, any talk of cover-up, is, quote – and you heard the word there before – "scurrilous"; that to make such a claim is simply scurrilous. That there was any form of conspiracy here.
EMERSON: And this from a man who less than a week ago described the suggestion that he might have been involved in the preparation of this claim as "nonsense". Now, Mr Brough has completely done a 180 degree backflip on what he said a week ago. It is a straight falsehood. He has concealed the fact he was involved in these meetings. If you were asked 'were you involved', and you replied 'it's nonsense', then obviously the journalist – in this case Samantha Maiden – would be entitled to believe that he was telling the truth. He was not telling the truth; it's as simple as that. Now, Mr Abbott is not available to do media today. Mr Abbott has been asked about this allegation from me and the Labor Party of a cover-up. During the week he closed down his press conference when he was asked about that – scurried away from the media. If Mr Abbott has nothing to hide, why is Mr Abbott hiding from the media? He will not answer a direct question and give a direct answer; always has these weasel words; always has these qualifications. And the Australian public deserves to know the truth.
BEVAN: Minister, Mr Brough has said he has done nothing wrong here. He would have been doing something wrong – he would have been less of a person – if, when approached by a staffer in distress, he had not taken this action, if he had not met with him and listened to him. Do you concede that he has, in regard to being approached by a staffer in distress, that he's done the right thing?
EMERSON: What I am happy to acknowledge is that if Mr Ashby approached Mr Brough on one occasion, and Mr Brough, realising that he was conflicted – that is, Mr Brough wants to be the Member for Fisher; he is seeking pre-selection for the LNP for Mr Slipper's seat of Fisher – he could have said 'I will, therefore, arrange some legal advice'. He could have done that. I understand that. But instead he met three times – not once – as Mr Brough said just this morning. He met him three times. There was a massive incentive for Mr Brough to be involved, because Mr Brough and Mr Abbott would be the direct beneficiaries of this involvement. Given that massive conflict of interest, Mr Brough surely, surely, should have said 'I will put you in touch with counsellors; I will put you in touch with legal advice. But the fact is I'm seeking to be the candidate and therefore the Member for Fisher against your boss, and I should therefore not immerse myself in this'.
BEVAN: How much of this is about yourself and others in the Labor Party trying to change the focus, simply to take away – particularly on the eve of a Budget – take away the focus on the troubles of the Speakership?
EMERSON: Well, in fact, when these questions were first put to the Coalition after the revelations that were reported in the newspaper, when they were first put the language was very slippery. That's what concerned us, because Mr Abbott and Mr Pyne both used the language of having no "specific" knowledge. Now, Mr Pyne himself has changed his story three times in respect of his meetings with Mr Ashby. Three times he changed his story. Senator Brandis last night on ABC television asserted that Mr Ashby is a member of the LNP, and it would be perfectly reasonable for Mr Brough to meet him as a pre-selector. Mr Ashby is supposed to not be a member of the LNP. He is supposed to have quit the LNP. So is he in the LNP? Is he not? Was he working for Mr Slipper, or was he working for Mr Brough? I think these are reasonable questions. And Mr Abbott needs to answer them. He needs to stand up in front of the media and say what he knew, rather than having no "specific" knowledge. What contact did he or his office or other Federal MPs have with Mr Ashby, and/or Mr Brough? But the fact is if Mr Abbott has nothing to hide, why is he hiding from the media? He is hoping that the Budget will come along and sweep this away, and he won't have to answer the hard questions. Well, Mr Abbott, you will have to answer the hard questions, because you have been involved in a cover-up. The Coalition has been involved in a cover-up. Mr Abbott has been involved in a cover-up, and he should front the media instead of running away from the media.
BEVAN: Minister, if a distressed staffer had approached you, what would have been your response? How would have you reacted?
EMERSON: The response that I just gave: and that is if I was in a conflicted situation I would ensure that that distressed staffer had counselling, support. And, given that the distressed staffer apparently was making criminal allegations, I would have then said 'I'll seek to arrange a legal adviser to come and see you'. Then I would have dropped out of it, because of the massive conflict of interest. The fact is Mr Brough, Mr Abbott and the LNP had a very strong incentive to be further engaged in this. They decided to be further engaged in it, rather than simply to provide options for Mr Ashby in terms of both the legal advice and, of course, any counselling. That's what I would have done, if I was approached. But that is not what they did. They stayed with it, and then they sought to conceal the involvement of Mr Brough in it. Only one week ago Mr Brough flat-out denied that he had any involvement. He just said straight to the media – to Samantha Maiden – that it was nonsense, any suggestion that he'd been involved. He said any suggestion that I would be involved is "nonsense". That turns out to be completely false.
BEVAN: Minister, with the Budget on Tuesday night, how concerned are you, how concerned is your Party, that the key word on everyone's lips, including the electorate's, will not be "surplus", it will be "Slipper"? And therefore you won't be able to sell your message of a Budget surplus?
EMERSON: We will. And we are bringing the Budget back to surplus, for the very good reason – despite the criticism the Government is getting for that – because it will give the capacity to the Reserve Bank, if it so judges, to further reduce interest rates. It has already reduced the cash rate in November and December and then just as recently as Tuesday, when they cut it by half a percentage point. What we'll want to do is give the Reserve Bank the capacity to do that further. The Budget will carry its own story. What I'm saying is that we will not now relent and allow Mr Abbott to continue to hide from the media. If Mr Abbott has nothing to hide, why is he hiding from the media?
BEVAN: Trade Minister Craig Emerson in Canberra. Thank you for your time this morning.
EMERSON: Thanks Scott.
- Minister Emerson's Office: (02) 6277 7420
- DFAT Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555