NEIL MITCHELL: Now, the Federal Minister for Trade is on the line. Mr Craig Emerson, good morning.
CRAIG EMERSON: Good morning, Neil.
MITCHELL: Thank you for your time. It's reported today that the Government's considering raising similar allegations about a Coalition MP. Is that correct?
EMERSON: I'm not aware of that, Neil. But obviously there were concerns raised about an MP yesterday in terms of his pecuniary interest statements, and that's been sent off to the Privileges Committee.
MITCHELL: Yeah, but there's … you're not aware of any allegations referring to misappropriation or anything like that?
EMERSON: No, I'm not. And I'm actually ringing from Malaysia. I have been following developments, obviously, on this matter for a very long period of time, but I haven't had the opportunity to talk to anyone on the Government side about any such allegations. Craig's made his statement yesterday; it was a very long statement.
Look, I understand, Neil, that people who ring in to your program will have a view about Craig's statement. That's just the way it is; Australians form those judgments.
But I fundamentally believe it's not for the Leader of the Opposition to appoint himself as chief judge in these matters. There are investigations underway. We fundamentally believe that investigations should be allowed to proceed, to be conducted by the professionals, independent of the Parliament and without any interference or pressure or pre-emption.
MITCHELL: But if that's your case, why was he suspended from the party, effectively?
EMERSON: Well, you know the Prime Minister gave a very long press conference on that, and there was a convergence of events in relation to both Craig Thompson and Peter Slipper — and the PM formed the view that the standing of the Parliament was being adversely affected, and that's why that decision was taken.
MITCHELL: Yeah, but that's also a presumption, isn't it?
EMERSON: No, it isn't and…
MITCHELL: No? No?
EMERSON: …the PM said at that time, and I have said countless times before and since, that every Australian is entitled to the presumption of innocence, and there shouldn't be two rules: one rule for the Liberal Party and one for the rest of Australia.
We have serious allegations against Senator Heffernan. I don't know about the veracity of those allegations, but if we applied Tony Abbott's…
MITCHELL: Oh, but hang on, but the Heffernan thing's in no way similar. I mean, this … that was…
EMERSON: Hold on, hold on.
MITCHELL: That was a disagreement between adults and a…
EMERSON: No, no, hold on. It is an allegation of assault which is being investigated by police. And let's not trivialise assault.
MITCHELL: No, well that's true; that's true. But are you saying he should be stepped down?
EMERSON: No. What I'm saying — actually saying — is that under Tony Abbott's system of justice, he should be not only asked — required — to step aside from his position as chair of a Senate References Committee…
EMERSON: … his so-called 'tainted vote' should not be accepted by Mr Abbott.
EMERSON: I'm simply pointing out, Neil, that there must be one justice system in Australia for all Australians; not one for the Liberal Party and one for the rest of Australia.
MITCHELL: Okay, but I still get to the point that Craig Thomson has been effectively suspended from the Labor Party. You say there's convergence with the Peter Slipper thing. So if the Peter Slipper thing hadn't arisen, he would still be in the Labor Party, would he?
EMERSON: No, I don't think that flows logically at all. I'm simply saying we were where we were; there obviously was a feeling in the community, which I understand, the public …
MITCHELL: And it's not prejudging him to have him step down.
EMERSON: … its attitude to the Parliament or its view on the Parliament was not a good one, and the Prime Minister made that decision. She did not prejudge the guilt or innocence of Craig Thompson.
We actually don't do that on the Labor side. That's really the preserve of Mr Abbott, who has appointed himself, obviously, as chief judge. He would not want to be treated that way himself. He would not want his Coalition MPs to be treated that way.
MITCHELL: Is this really about Tony Abbott? Is this really about Tony Abbott? Or is it about the standing of the Parliament, and is it about the fact that the Parliament and the Government seem to be frozen in this unseemly debate about the decency of Craig Thompson, rather than…
EMERSON: Well, indeed, we've…
MITCHELL: …concentrating on what we should be concentrating on?
EMERSON: Indeed, indeed. We've sought to move on to debate the Budget and get various pieces of legislation through the Parliament. That's exactly my point.
MITCHELL: But it wasn't the Opposition that forced the Craig Thompson…
EMERSON: We're happy to move on.
MITCHELL: …statement. It was the crossbenchers that you need to keep happy.
EMERSON: Well, it was the Parliament at large, and the statement has been made. And we're happy to move on. I agree with you, Neil. I'm very happy to have…
MITCHELL: Okay, so?
EMERSON: … a debate about Budget items; about the passage of other pieces of legislation. It's actually the Opposition who do not want that to happen.
EMERSON: I wonder who the Shadow Minister for Education is, for example? Most people wouldn't know that's Christopher Pyne. He never talks about his portfolio.
MITCHELL: What is…
EMERSON: We do talk about public policy matters. We do seek to get legislation through the Parliament. That's what the Australian people expect of parliamentarians. But the fact is Mr Abbott and Mr Pyne continue to demand further debate about Mr Thomson. He's made an hour-long statement. The police are looking at these matters; …
MITCHELL: Look, Mr Emerson…
EMERSON: … it's been referred to the Federal Court. Let's let those processes proceed.
MITCHELL: Mr Emerson, it's being talked about because it's been going on for four years and because the public expect decency and transparency from their politicians — and there's argument that that's not happening. And after four years we get a statement. After nearly four years he's thrown out of the party. I mean, it's just — anyway.
EMERSON: Well, the four years was the Fair Work investigation…
MITCHELL: Okay, let's look at that.
EMERSON: Hold on. Neil, are you suggesting that the Government of Australia in any way collaborated with Fair Work Australia…
MITCHELL: No, I'm not.
EMERSON: …to drag out a report for four years and to produce adverse findings against Mr Thompson?
MITCHELL: No, I'm not. But I am suggesting — I am suggesting — that this Government has gone easy on him because it needs his vote. That's what I'm suggesting.
MITCHELL: And I think it'd be absolutely naïve to see anything else.
EMERSON: And I'm suggesting that Craig Thompson, like everyone else – everyone – is entitled to both a presumption of innocence and due process. That should be uncontroversial.
MITCHELL: All right. Well, what about … do you extend that presumption of innocence to the people he's accused of setting up the conspiracy?
EMERSON: Well, they can make their statements and they are able to make their statements…
MITCHELL: No, but what…
EMERSON: …and I am not pre-empting them.
MITCHELL: All right, so they're entitled to be assumed innocent. So everybody's innocent in this at this stage?
EMERSON: I would say…
MITCHELL: Did you believe him yesterday? Did you believe him?
EMERSON: No, hold on. Could I finish? You just made a statement, and I thought I might deserve a right of reply.
I'm simply saying that it is not for me as a politician to make judgments on Craig Thomson or anyone else. I have not sought to criticise others involved in this particular controversy. What I fundamentally believe we should hold dear as Australians is due process and the presumption of innocence; not appointing kangaroo courts; not supporting Mr Abbott seeking to throw people out of Parliament. Imagine if he did get elected prime minister, and he was leading a majority government. If he didn't like, or saw allegations against, MPs who were either Independents or Labor, by his methodologies he'd be able to just vote them out of the Parliament. That is a very dangerous path for our democracy.
MITCHELL: I assume on that basis you didn't support John Howard when he was disciplining ministers over travel rorts?
EMERSON: Well, what I didn't support was … I did actually support John Howard very much — very much — when he said three Liberal MPs who were the subject of a police investigation over printing entitlements — that is stealing from the Commonwealth — should not be stood aside, should not be stood aside, and should enjoy the presumption of innocence. That's exactly the Labor position that we applied to the three Coalition MPs.
We also applied it to Senator Mary Jo Fisher, who was charged — not only investigated, but charged — with criminal offences. We didn't ask for her to be stood aside. Mr Abbott said he did not accept her vote in the Senate, which was completely untrue. He lied about it. He did accept her vote in the Senate.
MITCHELL: Mr Thomson — did you believe him yesterday?
EMERSON: Well, that's not the issue. I've already foreshadowed…
MITCHELL: Fair enough. Fair enough.
EMERSON: … that I will not enter into…
EMERSON: …a debate about evaluating statements of Mr Thompson…
EMERSON: …because I'm a Member of Parliament and I personally believe ...
MITCHELL: All right.
EMERSON: ... that's for judges and police and juries, if there ever were any in this case.
EMERSON: He's been charged with nothing.
MITCHELL: That's true.
EMERSON: He's been charged with nothing.
MITCHELL: His comments … what about his comments about Fair Work Australia: that it's biased and pumping out drivel?
EMERSON: Well, I…
MITCHELL: This is a pretty serious allegation. Will the Government look at this further?
EMERSON: Well, in fact, this is what Mr Abbott has been saying. Mr Abbott had been…
MITCHELL: But hang on, hang on, hang on. This is … this is Thomson saying…
EMERSON: Can I finish a statement at all? Or not?
MITCHELL: Well, you just keep turning it back to Tony Abbott. In fairness, it is not about Tony Abbott; it is about the way the Government is handling this, because you are in Government; he is in Opposition; and oppositions snipe — as Bill Kelty pointed out to you the other day.
EMERSON: Well, you asked me my view about the Fair Work Australia report. The Fair Work Australia report is now out. We have not…
MITCHELL: No, I asked you about Mr Thomson's comments on the Fair Work Australia report, and whether you agree with them?
EMERSON: We have not sought at any time to interfere in the Fair Work Australia report, in its construction or its timing. Now that it has taken four years and now that it is out, we have expressed frustration, which I think is shared with everyone, about the length of time taken…
MITCHELL: Is it a biased report, Mr Emerson?
EMERSON: …to produce the Fair Work Australia report. I'm not going to get into an evaluation of the Fair Work Australia report, Neil. I'm a Member of Parliament. It is a bit like asking a judge three-quarters of the way through a trial what he thinks he's going to do at the end of the trial. It's thoroughly inappropriate, in my view, for politicians to sit as judge and jury in these matters.
Your listeners obviously reserve the right to express an opinion. I understand that.
EMERSON: I have no problem with it. I just don't believe that judges or, in this case, parliamentarians, should pre-empt the findings of investigators and should bring down a judgment against Craig Thomson. Let the due process go — let them proceed — and MPs should not seek to interfere in them.
MITCHELL: Thank you for your time.
EMERSON: Thank you, Neil.
MITCHELL: Craig Emerson, the Minister for Trade.
- Minister Emerson's Office: (02) 6277 7420
- DFAT Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555