Doorstop, Parliament House

Subjects: Senator Heffernan, Craig Thomson, single parent payments, childcare costs.

Transcript, E&OE

20 May 2012

CRAIG EMERSON: Hello. Under the principles the Labor Government has supported and continues to support, Senator Heffernan is entitled to due process and the presumption of innocence. Under the principles that Mr Abbott supports, if he applies those principles even-handedly, he will refuse to accept Senator Heffernan's vote, he will stand him down from chairing the relevant Senate committee, and he will move to dismiss Senator Heffernan from the Liberal Party.

Labor seeks only one thing: and that is consistency in the application of due process and the presumption of innocence. Mr Abbott seeks to have one principle for the Liberal Party and one principle for the rest of Australia. We seek consistency, and that is that Senator Heffernan under Labor principles is entitled to the presumption of innocence; he is entitled to due process. But Mr Abbott insists on applying a different set of principles. Under Mr Abbott's principles, he must demand that Senator Heffernan resign from the Liberal Party, step down from chairing the Senate committee and refuse to accept his tainted vote.

QUESTION: If Mr Abbott doesn't apply Mr Abbott's principles, would Labor seek to apply Mr Abbott's principles?

EMERSON: Labor will apply Labor's principles, and Labor's principles are that all Australians are entitled to presumption of innocence and due process without interference. Mr Abbott has applied a different set of principles. Under Mr Abbott's principles, he must demand that Senator Heffernan step down from the chairing of a Senate committee; he must dismiss him from the Liberal Party; and he must refuse to accept his tainted vote.

QUESTION: Would you like Senator Heffernan to make a statement to the Parliament?

EMERSON: Sorry?

QUESTION: Would you like Senator Heffernan to make a statement to the Parliament?

EMERSON: Well, again, under the principles that Mr Abbott has consistently argued should apply to the Parliament, Senator Heffernan would be required to make a full statement to the Parliament. What I am seeking to do is apply the principles that the Labor Government has consistently applied, and they are the presumption of innocence and due process being able to take its course.

Mr Abbott cannot have it both ways. He cannot have one set of principles for the Liberal Party and another set of principles for the rest of Australia. And that's exactly what Mr Abbott is seeking: to have one set of principles for the Liberal Party and another set of principles for the rest of Australia.

QUESTION: What's your advice for Mr Thomson tomorrow when he finally addresses the Parliament?

EMERSON: I have no advice for Mr Thomson; Mr Thomson will make his statement and that will be completely up to Mr Thomson.

QUESTION: Do you think it's fair that Mr Thomson uses Parliamentary privilege to potentially name people that he [indistinct] against?

EMERSON: Let's not anticipate and prejudge Mr Thomson's statement. Let's allow Mr Thomson to make his statement.

QUESTION: Do you think, regardless of what Mr Thomson actually says, that the Liberal Party will try to get him referred to the Privileges Committee to get him suspended from the Parliament?

EMERSON: Mr Abbott will seek to do whatever he can to change the balance of power in the House of Representatives. What he is seeking to do is to change the balance of power in the House of Representatives so that he can become Prime Minister.

We seek on behalf of the Labor Party only the consistent application of principles, the principles that are rightly available to all Australians: which are the presumption of innocence and due process. But if Mr Abbott can insist on a different set of principles, then under Mr Abbott's principles he should require Senator Heffernan to resign from the Liberal Party; he should require Senator Heffernan to step aside from chairing the relevant Senate committee; and Mr Abbott should refuse to accept Senator Heffernan's tainted vote under Mr Abbott's principles - not under Labor principles, but under Mr Abbott's principles. Consistency is what we seek.

QUESTION: So, in seeking consistency you want Mr Abbott to apply something that you don't actually agree with.

EMERSON: I am simply saying that we are applying the same principle that should apply to all Australians. I opened my remarks by saying that Mr Heffernan is entitled to the presumption of innocence and due process like all Australians. There cannot be and must not be one rule for the Liberal Party and one rule for the rest of Australia. Mr Abbott has an opportunity to change his principle to that which applies to all Australians instead of seeking to apply one rule and one set of principles to the Liberal Party and another to the rest of Australia.

QUESTION: Is there a possibility there will now be an opening of the floodgates and we'll see a series of claims from both sides and advisers and it's a bit of an unedifying look for the Parliament.

EMERSON: Well, I think that Mr Abbott needs to take stock of his behaviour, where he has appointed himself as judge in the case of Mr Thomson and indeed in the case of Mr Slipper. It is not for Mr Abbott as Opposition Leader to self-appoint as the judge in these matters. There are legal processes. There are normal investigative processes. At every opportunity Mr Abbott has sought to intervene in those processes to put pressure on investigators. And I am simply saying to Mr Abbott, 'maybe it is time that you took stock, Mr Abbott, of the principles that you seek to apply to the Government and to the rest of Australia, when you are unwilling to apply those principles to your own man Senator Heffernan. It's as simple as that.

QUESTION: On another topic, are you entirely comfortable with cuts to payments to single parents? [Indistinct] Are you expecting that you'd have sympathy from your colleagues who are expected to pick up and speak about this at Caucus tomorrow?

EMERSON: This was, again … sorry, this was a grandfathering provision. And we are actually supporting single parents and other people through increased payments overall in particular areas, such as the supporting parent's benefit payment. But some people have a different view to that.

The point is that we need to bring the Budget to surplus; we are returning the budget to surplus. A surplus is the sign of a strong economy, and it's an important buffer for single mums and for everyone else in times of global uncertainty.

QUESTION: Is there a case for increasing the Newstart Allowance by at least $50 a week?

EMERSON: Well, as I say, we have made a decision and made the necessary savings to bring the budget back to surplus. That's what we're focusing on, and through that we are creating some room for the Reserve Bank, if it so judges, to reduce interest rates further. They've come down from 6.75 per cent inherited from the previous Coalition government to 3.75 per cent. If they come down further as a result of the return to surplus, that's a good thing. It's a good thing for all Australians who want lower interest rates, and that includes people who are looking for jobs.

QUESTION: Dr Emerson, just going back to these sorts of scandals, would you personally favour a code of conduct for MPs?

EMERSON: Look, I think a code of conduct is something well worth discussing. That has been the subject of work in the House of Representatives; it has been the subject of work in the Senate. For reasons that I don't fully understand, Senator Cory Bernardi, a Liberal Senator, has deferred or delayed the completion of that work until the end of the year.

QUESTION: Would you personally favour one, though?

EMERSON: Well, I'd need to have a look at the content of any …

QUESTION: But haven't you looked at it? There's been a report tabled.

EMERSON: I'm waiting for the Senate to complete its work, and then we'll have two reports and then we can make a judgement on a code of conduct.

I will point out that Mr Howard had a code of conduct and it was violated in something like seven times by Coalition frontbenchers. And Mr Howard abandoned that code of conduct.

QUESTION: But that was for ministers, I think, not general MPs, wasn't it?

EMERSON: Sure, sure. Well, let's just see what a proposed code of conduct looks like. In principle, it's worthy of support, but what it really requires is a forensic examination of proposals so that we can make sure that if there were a code of conduct, it's effective.

QUESTION: How far advanced are the Government's discussions with the childcare industry over the suggestion that we could cap fees?

EMERSON: Well, I don't want to add to speculation about the childcare matter. But let me say that the Government has moved by increasing the childcare benefit and rebate over a period of time, plus trebling the tax-free threshold to take some of the pressure off cost-of-living increases for people who take their kids to childcare. I think that's a good thing, and so I'll need to leave it at that.

QUESTION: But this capping was something that's actively been discussed, it sounds like.

EMERSON: Well, as I say, I just can't speculate on it. But be assured that this Government is aware of the cost of childcare and contributing to cost-of-living pressures, and we have taken measures to ease those cost-of-living pressures. This is something to which the Government is very strongly committed.

Thanks very much.

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