ABC Lateline

Subjects: asylum seeker policy; carbon pricing; James Ashby case.

Transcript, E&OE

29 June 2012

EMMA ALBERICI: Now to discuss one of the biggest weeks in federal politics for some time we were joined earlier from Canberra by the Minister for Trade Craig Emerson and from Melbourne by the Manager of Opposition Business Christopher Pyne. Gentlemen, welcome to Lateline.

CRAIG EMERSON: Thank you.

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Good to be with you Emma.

ALBERICI: Now, this is question for both of you and perhaps I'll start with you Craig Emerson. How in good conscience did you leave the Parliament this week for a six week recess without having resolved this critical issue of asylum seeker policy?

EMERSON: We need a majority of the Parliament in order for legislation to pass and we could not get that majority. We tried everything. We won't agree to a policy of towing boats out to sea into Indonesian waters; that would destroy cooperation with Indonesia. It is very dangerous and we won't agree with that sort of policy. But we did try various options. We said we would reopen Nauru. The Coalition is saying “no, you must not proceed with Malaysia because it is a non-signatory.” By the way, Indonesia is a non-signatory, but it's all right from the Coalition's point of view to tow boats back to sea into Indonesian waters. Somalia on the other hand is a signatory nation, so the Coalition's okay about a processing centre in Somalia but not in Malaysia.

So it reached levels of absurdity. We couldn't get the Greens to support any position; we could not get the Coalition to do it. We don't walk away from this with any joy, with any pleasure, and that's why we're setting up this committee of three eminent Australians to advise us before the resumption of Parliament of any other options that might be available.

ALBERICI: Christopher Pyne, we hear now reports this afternoon that Tony Abbott has said that regardless of what this committee of three eminent Australians comes back with, your party won't support them. Is that correct?

PYNE: Well not quite. What Tony Abbott has said and I read what he said in the transcript is that the Coalition knows that there is a policy that does deter people smuggling and it worked from 2001 to 2008 when you might remember there were about 4,500 illegal arrivals in 2000 and then there were basically none. There was a trickle from 2001 to 2008 and then when the current government lifted the Howard government laws around border protection, there's a spike such to the case that in the first six months of this year alone there've been 5,000 arrivals, last year there were 4,500 arrivals in total for the year.

So, we know there's a policy that works. It's the Temporary Protection Visas at its core and it's offshore processing and that is a policy we will definitely support. And Tony Abbott said he'll certainly meet with Chief Air Marshall Angus Houston and others, but we know that there is a policy that works and the Government knows there's a policy that works as well, but they simply won't adopt it out of the Prime Minister's vanity and pride, which is a great pity.

ALBERICI: Christopher Pyne, how does the policy of towing boats back to Indonesia work?

PYNE: Well it worked in the Howard government. About six boats were towed back by the Navy into Indonesian waters, into Indonesian ports and none of them met any of the tragedies that we've seen in the last week. And of course, it's a significant deterrent; it's not something you do when it would be unsafe to do so, but where it is safe to do so, it is a significant deterrent.

EMERSON: They say that in relation to Malaysia it's a non-signatory, but so is Indonesia. And you just heard Christopher saying yes, that's what they want to do, tow boats back into Indonesian waters. He says where it's safe to do so: the Navy says it never is; they will scuttle their boats. And what happens to the people who are towed back to Indonesia? They can't be processed there because they're a non-signatory.

ALBERICI: Let's ask the question. What does happen to asylum seekers when they're towed back to Indonesia?

PYNE: They are processed by the Indonesian Government.

EMERSON: They can't be under your legislation.

ALBERICI: But Indonesia is not a signatory.

EMERSON: They can't be.

PYNE: Hang on. They are dealt with by Indonesia under their laws.

EMERSON: They can't be. They can't be. Under your laws, Christopher, they cannot be. It's not a signatory to the Refugee Convention. They cannot be. It's impossible.

PYNE: Craig… am I going to be allowed to have a go, or he's just going to keep interrupting, Emma?

EMERSON: Sure.

ALBERICI: No, no please. Please give us your response Christopher Pyne.

PYNE: Thank you very much. When a boat leaves an Indonesian port and it is towed back by an Australian naval vessel, they are the Indonesian government's responsibility, because they have left from an Indonesian port and they're on Indonesian boats. Therefore, they're then taken care of by Indonesia, like any of the other asylum seekers that are in Indonesia.

EMERSON: They can't be.

PYNE: I'm not saying they're taken care of under our laws. I'm saying they're taken care of in Indonesia. And it happened in the Howard government at least six times. No boats were ever lost at sea and it was a very significant deterrent. But it's not the most important deterrent. The most important deterrent was the Temporary Protection Visas and they worked. And if the Government had wanted to this week, they could have compromised with the Coalition. Tony Abbott rang the Prime Minister at one o'clock on Wednesday to talk about this and she wouldn't even take his call and she is yet to speak to him this week. So this doesn't sound to me like a Prime Minister who's negotiating in good faith. She's never asked him to come around to the office to talk about it. She hasn't rung him this week.

EMERSON: She stood up in the Parliament.

PYNE: She hasn't even returned his call. She's used megaphone, megaphone diplomacy to demand that Tony Abbott come to her table when in fact he rang her and said he'd like to talk to her about it and they wouldn't even put the call through.

EMERSON: Christopher says firstly that the Coalition policy worked and it can work again. The Coalition policy cannot be implemented under the legislation that they are seeking to put through the Parliament because Indonesia is a non-signatory. My second point is this…

PYNE: They won't go to Indonesia.

EMERSON: Well they get towed to Indonesia.

PYNE: That's a different matter altogether. That's not an offshore processing centre.

EMERSON: They cannot be processed there. So what do they do, perish at sea?

PYNE: We've never said there should be a processing centre in Indonesia.

EMERSON: They cannot be processed under your legislation.

ALBERICI: Well how are they going to be dealt with when they go back to Indonesia if not processed; what happens to them?

EMERSON: They disappear.

PYNE: Emma, they're Indonesia's responsibility.

EMERSON: Oh for goodness sake.

ALBERICI: But you know they're not Indonesians. So once they get back…

PYNE: They're Indonesia's responsibility. Not Australia's responsibility.

EMERSON: And that is the end of cooperation.

ALBERICI: Excuse me, sorry Craig Emerson.

EMERSON: Sure.

ALBERICI: But it would be Australian vessels bringing them to Indonesia, so doesn't the Australian Government therefore then take on some level of responsibility?

PYNE: Well in the Howard Government we did it and it worked.

EMERSON: Oh here we go.

PYNE: We did it and it worked.

EMERSON: Yes and the Indonesians have said they will not cooperate. They have said to us — they have said to you Christopher, to your side — they will not cooperate in interception of boats if we start towing boats, if Australia starts towing boats back to sea in Indonesia.

ALBERICI: But Craig Emerson, at the end of the day here, isn't it the Greens that bear the most responsibility for what failed to happen in the Parliament this week? I mean the Greens have turned out to be fairweather friends though haven't they in the end?

EMERSON: Well it's not about being friends.

ALBERICI: I mean it doesn’t look like Labor is getting much out of this relationship you've struck with them.

EMERSON: We've managed to get the budget through; we've managed to get a lot of policies through including pricing carbon…

ALBERICI: Which was their policy.

EMERSON: …and the mining tax. Well hold on, hold on. It was actually John Howard's policy if you want to go into history.

PYNE: Carbon tax was their policy, you're quite right there; the carbon tax was their policy — the Greens policy.

EMERSON: Putting a price on carbon was John Howard's policy. We supported it, we had…

PYNE: It was the Greens policy, Emma was right.

EMERSON: So we are going to interrupt. Right, okay. You wanted to know about my attitude towards the Green Party. The Green Party have again, as they did on carbon pricing, when we had the original carbon pricing mechanism, have gone for policy purity. They've gone for policy purity on carbon pricing which meant that we could have had it in; we're now only going to get it on Sunday and the sky won't fall in. But for policy purity reasons they have said they will not budge. They want onshore processing, that's what we've got. That's what the High Court delivered and there is no purity in people dying at sea. There is no policy purity in people dying at sea and therefore I think the Greens do have to bear a good share of the responsibility. But let's not just allocate blame, let's get on with finding an effective response and that's what this eminent persons group is designed to do.

PYNE: You must be running short of breath.

EMERSON: Well that was a clever comment Christopher; you know back to kindergarten debating.

ALBERICI: Can we just move on to the carbon tax which we've just touched on there. Now under the Coalition's emission reduction fund, Christopher Pyne, companies that have emissions above their business’s usual level — this is quoting Greg Hunt — they will incur a financial penalty. How will that be calculated? And that sounds a little bit like some kind of a levy or a tax.

PYNE: Well, you'll have to ask Greg Hunt that question, Emma. I wasn't given any warning that I should have been studying the detail of Greg Hunt's carbon pollution reduction fund.

EMERSON: It's the direct action plan. It is your plan.

PYNE: If you'd asked me to I'd be happy to have studied it closely. Obviously that's a technical detail question.

EMERSON: It's not. It was raised in the Parliament.

ALBERICI: This is under the Coalition's direct action plan, which has been released.

PYNE: The direct action plan elements, the general elements are that we'll plant millions more trees in order to capture carbon; that we will improve farming techniques dramatically, so that farming techniques will send less carbon into the atmosphere and we'll invest very heavily in new and better technology in order to make our environmental emissions less damaging. Now they're the general aspects of the direct action plan which I support. How the actual fund will work in terms of the detailed question you asked I simply can't tell you tonight.

EMERSON: Well Emma I know more about the direct action plan than Christopher and this isn't a surprise question because it was raised in Parliament. And it does work effectively as a carbon tax; that is, above the specified level of emissions that you talk about. In addition, they have to buy, they have to spend taxpayers' money to the tune of $1300 per household. Come the 1st of July — that is, on Sunday — Mr Abbott says he will remove the carbon price, therefore, under him the price of electricity will fall — that is not the lived experience of any Australian. He will then have to cut age pensions, increase personal income taxes, and take the tax-free threshold back from $18,200 to $6,000, otherwise he adds to his $70 billion budget black hole.

ALBERICI: Christopher Pyne?

PYNE: If you abolish the carbon tax, there will be an immediate effect in the economy because jobs won't be at risk again as they are now in many industries and people know that. Businesses like refrigerant gas which are increasing their costs by 400 per cent won't have to do so because there won't be a carbon tax anymore. The need for electricity prices to rise 18 per cent in New South Wales, half of which is because of the carbon tax, won't be present any more. So, the public know that common sense tells them, that if they get rid of the carbon tax it will have an immediate impact on reducing the pressure on cost of living.

ALBERICI: Mr Pyne, has your party — in light of this week's Federal Court documents lodged in the Peter Slipper affair — has your party asked Mal Brough to explain his involvement with James Ashby, the accuser in the case against Peter Slipper?

PYNE: Emma, I don't know the answer to that question. Mal Brough is a member of the LNP in Queensland. Obviously he's not a member of the Coalition Party room in Canberra. He was of course years ago, before 2007 he was a Member of Parliament, but I guess any matters to do with the LNP wanting to investigate Mal Brough's role should be matters for the LNP and perhaps those questions should be put to Bruce McIver who is the president of the state division. I understand Mal Brough does want to seek pre-selection for Fisher but those organisational matters are not matters that I am responsible for I'm afraid.

ALBERICI: Were you disturbed to read those Federal Court documents this week implicating Mal Brough?

PYNE: I think the most important thing about the Ashby matter is whether the Federal Court finds if he was sexually harassed by the Speaker or not. I don't think who knew what and when is really going to be a very important matter to the Federal Court.

EMERSON: Christopher has sought to conceal his engagement with Mr Ashby, saying he did but see him passing by. He spent an hour and a half drinking with him. He denied seeking his email address and his mobile phone; it turned out that he did. Now in relation to Mr Brough; he originally said when asked about whether he had met Mr Ashby that it was nonsense and that it was outrageous to suggest that he was in any way involved. Turns out he was very heavily involved, even more heavily involved than he revealed under pressure to The Australian newspaper, because he was in it up to his neck.

And it is up to Mr Abbott now to make a full statement as to the nature and extent of involvement in the LNP, both in Canberra and outside of Canberra, in the Ashby matter, because we now have plenty of evidence in relation to Mr Brough and also Mark McArdle, who is a minister in the Campbell Newman Government. Let's have a full disclosure by Mr Abbott, instead of him saying he had no specific knowledge of these allegations, despite the fact he had a press release out at 9:15 that morning; he had press conferences; he had Coalition frontbenchers lined up for the Sunday programs; he did the 7.30 report on Monday night — obviously he had prior knowledge.

ALBERICI: Christopher Pyne, why did you say there was no contact with James Ashby when later it was found that you did send him an email later on the same night that you'd been drinking with him; an email that you've later said was innocuous. It in fact said, ‘You see only Australian Parliament House address.’ What did that mean?

PYNE: That's exactly right. It's so boring.

ALBERICI: But what did it mean?

PYNE: Well in the conversation that night in the Speaker's office, which was for about 50 minutes and one beer was consumed, I was talking about the fact that I'm basically a technophobe and I can't handle more than one email address and I know that a lot of people have a lot of other email addresses and it's such a boring response.

EMERSON: Yeah, private ones.

PYNE: I don't have any private email addresses. I only have one.

EMERSON: That's what you were discussing.

PYNE: That was the whole point after that very boring and innocuous email.

ALBERICI: Overarching all of this, Craig Emerson, isn't it now evident that it was a flawed decision by your government to appoint Peter Slipper as the speaker, purely for short term political gain?

EMERSON: No, it doesn't. And Peter Slipper, like every Australian, is entitled to his day in court. And that's what's going to happen on 23rd of July. There are other allegations made against Peter Slipper by James Ashby that were subsequently withdrawn after they got a big splash in the Daily Telegraph published by Steve Lewis.

Now Christopher has just said that of course he was open about his meetings with Mr Ashby, he wasn't. At first his response was that he just saw staffers and gave them the time of day as he walked past the Speaker's office. He in fact he spent, he says 50 minutes, I don't care how long it was, a long time with Mr Ashby. He denied seeking his email address; that is false as well. And as for Mr Brough, Christopher saying he gave a full statement of account of facts in The Australian newspaper, that was only after, only after, he was pressured, because people came to know that he had in fact met with Mr Ashby. And when he was first asked about that he said it was nonsense. Later he had to say to the Sunday Telegraph "I have been evasive"; quote "I have been evasive.” 

So let's not have this pretence that there's been full and frank disclosure of the involvement of the LNP in the Ashby matter. They have been involved for a very long time, including a former Howard government minister who wants Mr Slipper's seat and a current minister in the Campbell Newman government.

ALBERICI: Gentlemen, we have to leave it there. Thank you both very much for your time this evening.

PYNE: Thank you Emma. Thank you Craig.

EMERSON: Thanks Emma. Thanks Christopher.

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