ABC News 24 Breakfast

Subjects: Craig Thomson, leadership, people-smugglers, Malaysia FTA, China.

Transcript, E&OE

9 June 2012

ANDREW GEOGHEGAN: Well the New South Wales Labor Party has paid almost $350,000 in legal fees for embattled federal MP Craig Thomson. A large portion of the money was paid to Fairfax Media to settle defamation action launched by Mr Thompson in 2009. Labor Party officials have reportedly said that the contributions were made to prevent Mr Thompson from declaring bankruptcy, which would disqualify him from being an MP.

Well, for more we're joined now from Canberra by federal Trade Minister Craig Emerson.

Good morning to you, Craig Emerson. I do want to have a chat about your recent trip to Asia in just a moment, but can I first get to those revelations that Craig Thomson and the New South Wales Labor Party paid around $350,000 in legal costs for him. Is that appropriate?

CRAIG EMERSON: Here's the ABC on the big picture again. We've got all these policy matters to discuss, the strength of the economy, trade deal with China - and we're on a state administrative matter about which I know nothing. I can't help you on that, Andrew, but if you and the ABC want to consistently press ahead with issues relating to Craig Thomson, leadership and all that sort of stuff, I just don't think it's very edifying for the ABC. But obviously you've read your audience and you believe this is what they want.

I'm here to talk about policy. I don't know the details of what goes on in the New South Wales party administrative structure. I'm from Queensland. I don't involve myself in those matters and I can't help you on it.

GEOGHEGAN: Well we're going to talk about policy in a moment, but I was just wondering … I mean, are you surprised by those revelations?

EMERSON: I just answered the question. I have no information on it. I am not a member of the New South Wales administrative committee party apparatus. I've just completed a 19-day visit to seven countries which look to Australia as the envy of the world, and the ABC yet again thinks that the big picture is about New South Wales administrative matters. Obviously you've read your audience; you believe that that's what the audience wants to talk about. I don't have any further information on it. You can ask me the same question 23 times; I'll give you the same answer.

GEOGHEGAN: Okay, well let's move on then …

EMERSON: Twenty three times and then we'll run out of time and you'll say, 'well we'll talk about policy next week'.

GEOGHEGAN: Okay. Look, we're going to talk about policy. There is another issue in the papers today that three Labor senators, who are poised to lose their seats the next federal election, have said they would absolutely have a better chance of saving their seats if Labor dumped Julia Gillard and returned to Kevin Rudd. Can I ask for your comment on that?

EMERSON: Yes, you fulfilled my prediction. I said that you would talk about Craig Thomson and leadership. Now you're on the leadership issue.

GEOGHEGAN: Well, this is in the public domain.

EMERSON: I don't have anything more to add to that …

GEOGHEGAN: This is what the newspapers are saying this morning.

EMERSON: I don't have any … do you want an answer or not?

GEOGHEGAN: Yes, thanks.

EMERSON: I don't have anything more to add to that. That matter has been settled. I'm happy to talk about policy. I'm happy to talk about the state of the economy. I'm happy to talk about Glenn Stevens and his views that the glass is at least half full and rising. If you've got any time to squeeze in to deal with those matters, I'm happy to have a discussion about it …

GEOGHEGAN: Okay, you've made that clear. Let's turn …

EMERSON: I'm not going to go to administrative matters in New South Wales; I'm not going to go to leadership. We can spend the rest of the time with me saying the same thing over and over again, or we can now move on to policy.

GEOGHEGAN: Okay, you've made that clear. Can I ask you then: you have just signed off on a free trade agreement with Malaysia? Before we talk about the finer details of that, you're still pushing for a refugee swap deal with Malaysia. There must be some concern there in the light of the revelations that an alleged people smuggler was given a refugee protection visa.

EMERSON: No, we've obviously negotiated a swap deal with Malaysia. The problem is that we can't get that through the Senate or the House of Representatives - and the reason for that is Tony Abbott believes that more boats equals more votes. What he wants to see is more people coming to Australia, because he thinks that that actually will benefit the Coalition. I think it's a disgraceful policy position for Mr Abbott to adopt, because it means more people dying at sea - and that's a really bad thing, particularly little kids who don't get a say in it.

GEOGHEGAN: Indonesia has …

EMERSON: Sorry, I'll just pop that back in. [fixes earpiece]

GEOGHEGAN: Okay, while you're doing that hopefully you can hear me. But Indonesia, which I'm sure you're aware of, has called that situation of the people smugglers - the revelations this week - quite extraordinary. What explanation's been given to Indonesia?

EMERSON: Well I haven't been in discussion with Indonesia on people smuggling matters, but I do know that the Indonesian authorities have indicated that Mr Abbott's policy of turning back the boats into Indonesian waters breaches international conventions and they're totally opposed to it.

GEOGHEGAN: All right, let's turn back to the Malaysia free trade agreement.

EMERSON: There you go! I knew we'd get to it at some stage.

GEOGHEGAN: Indeed. What are the benefits for Australia?

EMERSON: Well it sits on top of the ASEAN Australia New Zealand Free Trade Agreement, which is a gold standard agreement. What this does is accelerate tariff reductions: about 97 per cent of all of our goods exported to Malaysia will be entering Malaysia tariff-free, and that will increase to about 99 per cent over time. And it opens up the service industry market very much for Australian legal professions, accounting professions.

In fact when I got back, Andrew, I was able to look at a folder of letters that I've received from various industry associations congratulating the Government on that. Malaysia's a big economy, growing all the time, and I think it sets a new standard for free trade arrangements that we can negotiate with other countries.

GEOGHEGAN: Well, speaking of which: China. Obviously, you'd like a deal done with the Asian giant, but that's been on the drawing board for seven years. Why is it taking so long?

EMERSON: Because there are very difficult issues. You're right; it was initiated by the Howard Government in 2005. Multiple rounds of negotiations were conducted; they didn't get anywhere. China has now approached me saying that they would like to put in place, if possible, at least the foundations of a free trade agreement upon which we could build over time. I think that would be a good thing. It really does depend in part on what China regards as the non-negotiable basis of any such package. But I do think it's a good opportunity.

I will make a point here, though: I think that our prospects are being damaged by the statements that are coming out daily by Senator Barnaby Joyce, who's a senior shadow cabinet minister, with his anti-China tirades. That is not helping the atmospherics. I would think it would be in Australia's interests to negotiate a basic deal upon which we can build over time. But this isn't helping.

GEOGHEGAN: But isn't one of the major issues the fact that China wants freer investment in Australia by Chinese government-owned companies?

EMERSON: No, I'm not sure that that's actually what they're seeking there. We do have Foreign Investment Review Board screening processes, Andrew, for every dollar invested by state-owned enterprises in Australia. They understand that that's important in terms of the community being comfortable with it. We had that screening process, but at the same time we do have substantial investment by state-owned enterprise businesses in Australia. We think that that's a good thing. It's helping create jobs in Queensland, in South Australia with LNG developments, mining developments; some agricultural developments at a very modest rate.

But, again, this is where both Barnaby Joyce and Tony Abbott are saying that this is very suspicious behaviour and they don't really support it. What we do have is this Foreign Investment Review Board screening to give the community assurance that when we do assess these that they are assessed against the national interest.

GEOGHEGAN: And Craig Emerson, can I also ask you about there's some concern that environmental and labour clauses in these deals are compromising the FTAs.

EMERSON: Well, there's no evidence of that at all. And, indeed, in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, the United States is actually wanting to insert, you know, reasonably sophisticated environmental and labour clauses. There are nine countries, total, in those negotiations. I don't think there's a huge amount of controversy about that. So, yeah, I've seen those reports Andrew; I just don't agree with them and the evidence doesn't support them. I mean we are negotiating successfully free trade agreements and will continue to do so.

GEOGHEGAN: Craig Emerson, thanks very for your time.

EMERSON: Okay. Thanks Andrew.

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