ABC News Radio

Subjects: Asylum-seeker report, Labor in Queensland.

Transcript, E&OE

13 August 2012

MARIUS BENSON: Okay. Let's go to politics because federal politicians, they're back in Canberra for the first time for the first of nine sitting weeks between now and Christmas, and Labor is hoping to revive their electoral fortunes, knowing the prospect rests heavily on these weeks ahead. For a Government view on the return to Parliament, I'm joined by the Trade Minister Craig Emerson. Craig Emerson, good morning.

CRAIG EMERSON: And a chilly good morning to you, Marius.

BENSON: A very chilly start to the day in Canberra. I don't know if that's a portent for things political, but let me ask you about the issue which is going to be at the top of the agenda — which is asylum-seekers. You have the expert panel releasing its report at midday today. I understand the report's already with the Government. The key issue, perhaps, for the Labor Party, is: are you prepared to drop the Malaysia solution as part of your mix of ways to deal with asylum boat arrivals? Is Labor now prepared to do that?

EMERSON: The Government will take this report very, very seriously, and we will give a lot of weight to the findings of the report, and any recommendations that the report produces. We are open-minded about this. We are absolutely committed to doing everything we possibly can to stem the flow of boat arrivals, because we fundamentally believe that this Parliament has an obligation to save lives at sea, and lives are being lost at sea.

BENSON: Can I just check how open-minded the Government is, because to win the support of other Members of Parliament beyond Labor, specifically the Opposition, you may have to abandon the Malaysian solution. If that's necessary, is that within the scope of the Government? Is that something that the Government is prepared to do?

EMERSON: As I've indicated, I think it's better Marius, and I'd love to answer your question directly but I'd need to see the report, and let's see what the report brings on that. But I can say that we have an open mind on this matter. I urge that the Coalition similarly adopts an open mind on it. The signs aren't good, although I've seen reports that Scott Morrison has said that they will consider the report seriously. I hope that's more serious than the closed-door meetings that took place over about two or three months that produced absolutely nothing. But let's take Scott Morrison at face value; let's hope that his boss doesn't overrule him again. And let's hope that we can get a breakthrough on this impasse which is costing lives.

BENSON: When you say you're prepared to … you have an open mind on the matter, that means you're prepared to consider things like abandoning Malaysia, reopening Nauru — you've already said that — reconsidering temporary protection visas — you've already said that. It's fairly clear that you are now prepared to basically adopt John Howard's Pacific Solution, which you've criticised in the past. Is it time to admit that that was a mistake, to abandon the John Howard solution?

EMERSON: It wasn't a mistake. The analysis from the Department of Immigration has consistently said that the Pacific Solution as it then was had run its course. Now if we get advice from this expert panel which warrants a change of policy we will consider that change of policy. We simply ask that the Coalition similarly adopt an open mind instead of saying that it's only interested in implementing its policy position. It's not in government, and the idea of towing boats back out to sea and endangering the lives not only of asylum-seekers but Navy personnel is one we don't embrace. We do have an open mind, and let's see what Angus Houston and his two colleagues produce in that report. We seek only that the Coalition similarly has an open mind. The Greens seem to be saying that the current policy, which is a policy necessitated by the High Court, of onshore processing is the right policy. We don't believe that to be the case.

BENSON: You've been in your electorate obviously for a fair amount of the six weeks that Parliament's not been around. All the polls say that Queensland in particular hates this Government and they have a very low opinion of the Prime Minister. What are voters in your electorate telling you when you talk to them?

EMERSON: The voters with whom I've spoken are absolutely stunned, first and foremost, by the savagery of the cuts of the Campbell Newman Government. This is a result of a post-election commission of audit, and that's exactly what Tony Abbott has promised: a post-election commission of audit, if he were elected. It's just a way of disguising savage cuts, not only to jobs but to services. And frankly, Marius, that's what's fundamentally occupying the minds of people in Logan City and the broader electorate of Rankin. There is also some discussion about carbon pricing, and the fact that the price effects have been nothing like those predicted by Mr Abbott.

BENSON: Jeez, those voters are telling you exactly what you want to hear!

EMERSON: Well I'm just telling you that the dominant issue is the cuts that 'Can Do' Campbell can do and is doing. Now if you think that that's contrived, that that's something that the people of Queensland are telling me because I want to hear it, well fundamentally, Marius, you're wrong. That's what they are telling us.

BENSON: Craig Emerson, I'll leave it there. Thanks indeed for talking with us this morning.

EMERSON: Righto. Thanks, Marius.

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