KIERAN GILBERT: Good morning and welcome to the program. There's been another twist in the Peter Slipper-James Ashby saga. Queensland Police are now reportedly investigating allegations made against Mr Ashby. Also, on a very different story, the Australian Ambassador to the United States Kim Beazley's pessimistic forecast to US political figures during a recent leadership dialogue in the United States, about Labor's prospects at the next election. Coming up, my guest the Deputy Opposition Leader in the Senate, Senator Brandis. First, though, this Tuesday morning I'm joined by the Trade Minister Craig Emerson. Mr Emerson, thanks for your time.
CRAIG EMERSON: My pleasure.
GILBERT: First of all: allegations of an underage relationship against Mr Ashby; reports last night on the ABC under investigation by Queensland Police. What do you make of this? Yet another twist in this saga?
EMERSON: Labor applies the same principles to Mr Ashby as we apply to everyone else in this country: that is, the presumption of innocence; that the investigative processes should take their course without pre-emption and without interference.
GILBERT: And when you think we've seen everything in this story, though, there's been another element to emerge. Are you surprised that this saga has so many different elements to it?
EMERSON: The proper authorities to look at this are the police. So that they can have a look at these allegations, we should stay out of it. Politicians should stay out of it. Just as politicians should have stayed out of the allegations at the outset against Peter Slipper. Those allegations were made. Mr Abbott had a press release out at 9.15 on the day that that story broke in the Daily Telegraph, by Steve Lewis. Mr Abbott then went on to say he had no 'specific knowledge' of any of this before it occurred. He's never explained what he means by 'no specific knowledge', but he was free and quick to judge. I will not judge Mr Ashby. I fundamentally believe that the investigative processes should continue without interference – and that's the right thing to do by Mr Ashby, by Mr Slipper, by everyone else. And I'll add one thing though: there was no criminal allegation in relation to Mr Slipper's treatment of Mr Ashby. This is a criminal allegation – I think that's an important distinction.
GILBERT: Okay. But Mr Slipper was the Speaker of Parliament – or is the Speaker. That's also an important distinction. Mr Slipper is the Speaker of the Parliament. So that's why that generated so much focus at the time. It's why he had to stand down.
EMERSON: I understand why it generated media attention and public attention. But there's a responsibility on the part of politicians not to prejudge these matters. Mr Abbott has a habit of sitting in judgement, bringing down his judgement irrespective of investigations. We will not do that.
GILBERT: Let's look at the sanctions against Fiji. Diplomatic relations have been renewed with Fiji; a High Commissioner to return there for the first time since 2009. What's changed? It doesn't seem that much has changed: still no democratic election; not for another two years – 2014.
EMERSON: With sanctions, I think it's always a case of being in a position where you are, in effect, dealing with bad behaviour but also seeking to encourage better behaviour. And that's the judgement that's been made by New Zealand, by Australia: that we are seeking to encourage better behaviour to create the conditions for free and fair elections. And what has happened is that high commissioners will be established in each of those countries.
GILBERT: So you've realised that the stick hasn't worked, so you're going to put the carrot out.
EMERSON: No, no. I think in relation to … I think carrots are important in these things, because if you just have a wall of sanctions, irrespective of the behaviour of any country, then what they say – and this happened with Myanmar: the reformers were saying 'well, you're playing into the hands of the hardliners if, no matter what they do, no matter what progress is made, you keep sanctions in place'. And we eased off on the sanctions with Myanmar. So it's a same sort of approach. It is true, you're right, it's …
GILBERT: There just doesn't seem to have been much development.
EMERSON: Well, there have been discussions and we are seeking free and democratic elections. And this is the judgement that's being made by Australia and I understand supported by the Coalition on this occasion.
GILBERT: But nothing's changed really, has it? It's still a 2014 election.
EMERSON: I think there is some encouragement, but I don't want to go into all the detail of that. It is a matter of judgement and the judgement that's been made by both Australia and New Zealand, who work very, very closely on these matters, is that there is a case for providing some incentive to Fiji at this stage in what we expect to be a transition back to democracy.
GILBERT: Barry O'Farrell, the New South Wales Premier, is discussing the prospects of Chinese Government companies investing in $40 billion worth of New South Wales assets. You'd welcome that sort of message?
EMERSON: China would be very confused at this particular point in time. Good on Barry O'Farrell, because he actually understands the value of foreign investment, including from state-owned enterprises. He's specifically talking …
GILBERT: But that's unfair, isn't it? That's unfair, because Tony Abbott in his speech last week welcomed foreign investment. It was all couched in very strong messages, that he welcomes foreign investment.
EMERSON: Yeah, yeah. He said 'I welcome foreign investment'. But if a foreign investor, that is a state-owned enterprise, looks to take an interest or buy an Australian company, it will 'rarely' be approved.
GILBERT: Not to take an interest; to take control.
EMERSON: Yeah, okay. Well the Qenos plant in Victoria, in Queensland, would never have continued. That's a manufacturing operation and it was actually rescued, right, by a Chinese state-owned enterprise. Similarly, the Century mine, which would have closed, probably, without Chinese state-owned enterprise investment. It would have closed under Mr Abbott's policies. But the fact is that the Coalition is absolutely all over the place on this matter. You've got sensible people like Kelly O'Dwyer and Jamie Briggs consigned to the backbench, saying the Coalition should welcome foreign investment, not only in words but in policy; and then you've got Mr Abbott who's having his policies written by Barnaby Joyce. It must be pretty galling – but, more importantly, it's very confusing to the Chinese authorities.
GILBERT: But you talk to officials and people who watch the Australia- China relationship: they say it doesn't … what really matters is what you do in Government. Now, we saw the Deputy Ambassador yesterday calling on a greater engagement between Australia and China when it comes to, not just resources, but infrastructure, finance. Is the Government doing enough on that?
EMERSON: Well we are. And Wayne Swan's just come back from China not long ago; I've been to China. I think it's about the 47th Ministerial visit to China since the change of Government in 2007. We are indicating to China – subject to the normal Foreign Investment Review Board processes, which for state-owned enterprises means screening of every dollar of investment – that subject to that, passing a national interest test, foreign investment from China is welcomed. It's very confusing on the other side. I don't think you, or anyone else, can argue other than it is completely confusing on what their policy position is.
GILBERT: But the Government has had its own issues with state-owned enterprises, like Huawei, the communications company that wanted ….
EMERSON: Yeah, but that was a completely different issue related to national security.
GILBERT: But it's also…
EMERSON: And it was actually supported by the Coalition.
GILBERT: But you're saying that there shouldn't be open slather, should there, in terms of foreign investment …
EMERSON: Of course. I just covered that territory, saying that there is a national interest test for state-owned enterprises. Every and any dollar of proposed investment is subject to that screening. Mr Abbott is on the record as saying that for state-owned enterprises the threshold should be reduced from $244 million. It's zero. It's zero. Now he either doesn't know that or, more worryingly, did know it and just thought he would play to the advantage of himself and Barnaby Joyce politically, by pretending it wasn't zero; that it was $244 million and needed to be dropped.
So we've got utter confusion on the part of the Coalition. Let me add this point please, Kieran: and that is that the Coalition is now saying they're pretty well settled on reducing the threshold for foreign investment screening for non-state-owned enterprises, for private businesses, for agricultural land. That's the end of free trade agreement negotiations. Let me make that clear: that is the end of a free trade agreement between Australia and China. And yet Mr Abbott on the same trip when he was saying that rarely would these investments be welcome is saying that there should be an acceleration of negotiations. He would kill it stone dead. He would kill the FTA negotiations stone dead.
GILBERT: Why does the Deputy Ambassador, Chinese Deputy Ambassador to Australia, see it necessary to get out there, to the Canberra University yesterday, and make that call for greater engagement? Obviously, he has some concerns about where things are at the moment.
EMERSON: Wayne Swan and I both have regular meetings with the chairman of the National Development Reform Commission – the NDRC – a very powerful authority in China: Zhang Ping. They do their five-year plans. Whenever I go to China and I request a meeting, I get it. Whenever Wayne Swan goes there, he gets it. We are in constant contact with the Chinese authorities, including with some of the major state-owned enterprises. There's not a lot more that we could do. If there was one more thing we'd do, we would do it, because we're very keen on this. We actually understand that Australia's development does depend on foreign investment, whether it's British, whether it's American, whether it's Japanese, whether it's Chinese, whether it's state-owned enterprise or private.
GILBERT: Let's look at one other issue to wrap up. Kim Beazley has told US political figures during a recent dialogue in the United States that Labor could be left with just 30 seats after the next election. Is he on the money with that forecast?
EMERSON: Let's be clear: Kim Beazley is reported to have told people that. I wasn't at the lunch. I've just spoken to someone who was. He didn't hear any such statement; any such statement. I was at the dialogue. I was, as I say, not at that lunch. I heard not one person subsequently say this. Not one person. But this is the second … these are supposed to be confidential discussions. That's the basis of the dialogue. This is the second breach of that confidentiality and, in fact, again an inaccuracy. It was briefed out of the meeting with the Vice-President of the United States that Mr Abbott was given pride of place and he was called 'Prime Minister' twice. False; just false. So I don't know what's going on, but what I can say is that if the Coalition is in the room, you can't trust them.
GILBERT: If Kim Beazley did say it, is it appropriate for an Ambassador to be making such statements? Whether it's off the record or not?
EMERSON: I can't respond to that, because I've had someone, just now, on the phone who was in the room, and he said 'I have no recollection of any such discussion'. I was with people shortly after that lunch – because I was working on a speech for the State Department that night. Not one person – not one person, Coalition or Labor – mentioned that. And suddenly it's a revelation. Now that's why I question whether it was said. But the fact remains that it is the people of Australia who will determine who is the next Government, who will determine what happens in each individual seat. And we should wait until that election. We will continue to do the right thing by Australia; make the tough decisions. The people will decide.
GILBERT: And, finally, a related issue to that forecast, whether it's true or not: Labor's not in the best position at the moment. Yesterday we saw that Nielsen poll: the primary vote is still low, but a shift in terms of sentiment on the carbon tax. Are you confident that that is a turning point, because obviously the primary vote needs to follow that if you're in a chance of getting anywhere near competitive?
EMERSON: Swotting over opinion polls is one thing. And I know … and I don't have any problems with you and I discussing it, and politicians discussing it. I imagine that the public would say 'these people are obsessed with opinion polls, 'cause it seems to be all they discuss'. I don't really like to discuss them, but you ask a question. There has been a big turnaround in people's perceptions of the cost-of-living impact of the carbon price. There's no doubt about that. Whether a vote is up one or two percentage points, those things come and go. But this is quite a profound shift, and it shows Tony Abbott's credibility has fallen to the ground. The sky hasn't, but his credibility has.
GILBERT: And we didn't just discuss polls this morning, did we?
EMERSON: No, no. I thought it was a very good around the world.
GILBERT: A bit of policy as well.
EMERSON: That's right.
GILBERT: Thank you; appreciate that this morning.
EMERSON: Okay. Thanks, Kieran.
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