GLENN BARTHOLOMEW: Border protection is expected to dominate Parliament when it resumes today for the final sitting week before the winter recess. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott is refusing to back down on his hard line on offshore processing. That's despite calls from the Government and some of his backbenchers for a compromise. The carbon tax will also be high on the agenda, of course, with the tax itself now just six days away. For a Government view on the final sitting week — a busy one — Marius Benson is speaking to the Trade Minister Craig Emerson.
MARIUS BENSON: Craig Emerson, the issue of asylum seekers is going to dominate in Parliament this week. On that issue the Government has given a lot of ground. Is there any part of the Pacific Solution advocated by the Opposition that you're still unwilling to adopt?
CRAIG EMERSON: We are very concerned about towing boats out to sea. The advice of the Navy is that it's dangerous — not only for asylum seekers but for Navy personnel themselves. Their experience is that asylum seekers are highly likely to scuttle any vessels if they are towed back out to sea, and yet this is what Mr Abbott is advocating.
BENSON: Well the Opposition policy is to tow them back when it can be done safely. Would you be in favour of that?
EMERSON: It can't be done safely — that's the advice of the Navy. And this not only would put asylum seekers' lives at risk, it would put the lives of Navy personnel at risk.
BENSON: Is that the only sticking point now?
EMERSON: We've already put various proposals to the Coalition over a protracted period of time. Mr Abbott should listen to the wise counsel of Mal Washer and Malcolm Turnbull and seek a solution here that means that people aren't dying needlessly at sea. Instead, he's saying 'go off to the Greens'. Now the Greens have never supported offshore processing. The Coalition does support offshore processing. The Coalition, under Mr Abbott, is claiming that Nauru will work. We don't believe it will, but we have said 'let's talk about that'. He doesn't want to talk about it. What he wants is for more boats to arrive, and I think that's an appalling situation. People are dying at sea and the Australian people rightly expect the Parliament to solve this matter.
BENSON: Are you accusing Tony Abbott of encouraging boat arrivals even with the risk of death for political ends there?
EMERSON: I'm saying that Mr Abbott does not seem to be as concerned about people dying at sea as would warrant him to budge from his position, and that position appears to remain that boats should be towed out to sea. That does not create a safe situation either for the asylum seekers or for the Navy. This is the public advice of the Navy.
BENSON: Can I leave asylum seekers there and go to the fact that yesterday was the second anniversary of the Gillard Government, and that every indicator is that the Government enjoys less support now than it did when Julia Gillard took over from Kevin Rudd. That obviously wasn't your plan when you dumped Kevin Rudd.
EMERSON: Well, what we do have is a price being applied to carbon. That is a big reform. It is not a popular reform. Most reforms are not popular. Two years ago there wasn't a policy under the Labor Government of proceeding with putting a price on carbon. There is now. It's the right policy and we'll see that policy through. But assistance is flowing to families, is flowing to people on low incomes and will continue to do so. The carbon price comes in on the 1st of July and we will keep working on that. But we know we have to continue to work hard to get the support of the Australian people and we'll do that.
BENSON: Do you accept that in terms of public perception, in terms of public support on your second anniversary, you don't have much to celebrate?
EMERSON: What I say is that we will continue to work hard because that's what governments are elected to do.
BENSON: Do you see any evidence that suggests that a public that hasn't liked you for two years will like you in your third year?
EMERSON: Well, it does take time for reforms not only to be formulated but to be implemented. Putting a price on carbon starts on the 1st of July and that's less than a week away now. We will continue to do the right thing by this country and we'll explain as best we can the policies that we are implementing. What I can almost certainly assure you is that the sky won't fall in on Sunday — Mr Abbott believes it will. I think there's a fair chance of the sky staying right up there where it's been before and there is therefore a fair chance that the Australian people, who are quite anxious about the impact of putting a price on carbon, will realise that this has been the mother of all scare campaigns.
BENSON: Craig Emerson, thanks again.
EMERSON: Okay. Thanks a lot, Marius.
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