ANDREW GEOGHEGAN: For more on the asylum debate and other issues, we are joined from Canberra by Federal Trade Minister Craig Emerson. Craig Emerson, welcome.
CRAIG EMERSON: Good morning, Andrew.
GEOGHEGAN: Offshore processing centres are being prepared for reopening: there will be some 1500 places at Nauru, 600 at Manus Island. Yet as we’ve just heard, around 450 people arrived this week alone. Once capacity has been reached, what then?
EMERSON: What we’re seeing, Andrew, is akin to a closing down sale. That is, the people smugglers came to appreciate that the Parliament was serious, that there was a real prospect of this impasse that has existed since the High Court decision was brought down being broken — and in fact the impasse has been broken with the legislation being passed as you showed in the preview package. And so obviously there’s a surge of people trying to get in before that, but they will be going to Nauru or to Manus and we expect that this will provide the sort of deterrence that Mr Houston and the others on that committee expect that it will too. That’s what they’ve said in that report, that report has been embraced by the Government and we’re implementing its recommendations.
GEOGHEGAN: But if those processing centres are filled to capacity, will that still provide a deterrent?
EMERSON: Well, I think we’re getting very much into hypotheticals there. There has been a surge because of the knowledge that the Parliament was likely to pass this and of course the same sort of issues would have arisen. We’ve had the Opposition saying that Nauru worked before — maybe it did, but it had run its course — and they are saying just pick up the phone to the President of Nauru. Well I don’t think there is going to be an issue of more asylum seekers arriving than there is capacity there. The Coalition remains confident that Nauru will be capable of handling this, we are too. We have to stick to this principle, Andrew, and that is no advantage in coming by boat. Everyone deserves a crack at being accepted as an asylum seeker and if they are accepted a crack at being able to come to Australia without preference to people arriving by boat and that’s the underlying principle here.
GEOGHEGAN: What’s the feeling in caucus about this decision, given it’s been months in the making.Clearly you ruled it out initially, now we’re back at the beginning in a lot of ways. What’s the feeling in caucus?
EMERSON: Oh look, I think the feeling is frankly that so many people have died at sea and many people have undertaken an emotional journey over this. That is, those people on the progressive side of politics more generally who have supported onshore processing have been more compassionate. Many of those have accepted that people dying at sea is hardly compassionate, and so they have moved their view on this. We’ve always sought an effective deterrence. We’ve had our doubts about Nauru on its own. We still believe that Malaysia is an integral part of the regional solution, and that too is validated by the Houston report. Nevertheless, what we’ve been able to get through Parliament at this stage is Nauru and Manus and we’ll proceed with those.
GEOGHEGAN: So you are still pushing for the Malaysia people swap deal? Obviously we’ve had a thousand refugees from Malaysia here already. The other side of the bargain is yet to play out.
EMERSON: Well what we’re saying is that we’ve embraced in-principle all the recommendations of the Houston report, and that is one of the key recommendations: that we must have a regional solution to what is a regional problem. Nevertheless, the report also suggested that we set up the facilities at Nauru and Manus without delay. Again, your preview package has shown that that’s happening, and that too will have its effect, Andrew, in sending a clear message not only to the people smugglers but to asylum seekers is that that is their destination if they seek to come to Australia by boat, and further that they will be there at no advantage in relation to other asylum seekers who are in refugee camps. That is, they will have made the journey for no good reason. They’ve paid money and would be taking very big risks because we have seen tragically so many people dying at sea.
GEOGHEGAN: Craig Emerson, let’s just move on to the issue of Julian Assange. Can you confirm that consular assistance has been offered to him but not accepted?
EMERSON: Consular assistance is regularly offered, I can confirm that, to Mr Assange. We always do that to all Australian citizens. All you can do is offer. I’m not aware of whether he’s accepted or rejected those offers. The issue now is really a legal issue involving the United Kingdom, Sweden, and Ecuador. Yes, he’s an Australian citizen, the role that we can play in that is to offer consular assistance.
GEOGHEGAN: Declassified diplomatic cables revealed by Fairfax newspapers this morning reveal that the Australian embassy identified a range of criminal charges that the US could bring against Assange, is that correct?
EMERSON: Well what has happened there is that the embassy is doing its job, and that is getting prepared for the possibility of an extradition but having no evidence — or certainly I have seen no evidence — that the United States is actually preparing to do that. But you would want as an embassy to be in a position that if this were to arise hypothetically in the future, you wouldn’t be standing flat-footed and unable to provide advice back to the Government in Canberra. So I wouldn’t read too much into it. People can attach their own probabilities or possibilities as to what the United States may or may not do in the future, but the fact is that there’s no evidence, no evidence that the United States is seeking to extradite Julian Assange. If they were, they would be able to seek an extradition from the United Kingdom where he now is, rather than waiting for him to go to Sweden. So obviously they haven’t done that and the embassy is doing its job just to be in a position to advise the Government if it believed that an extradition effort was imminent. There is no evidence of such an extradition effort.
GEOGHEGAN: If it were, would the Australian Government object to the extradition?
EMERSON: We would just use the normal processes that are involved. That is, there is an extradition treaty involving the United Kingdom with the United States, as I understand it; there’s an extradition treaty involving Sweden with the United States. We would obviously continue to do what we do for all Australian citizens and that is to provide consular assistance. But I think we are getting a little bit into the world of hypotheticals because as I keep saying Andrew, there is no evidence that the United States is seeking the extradition of Mr Julian Assange, we aren’t aware of that, all that was happening is that the Post in Washington was doing some contingency planning in the event that such an eventuality arose.
GEOGHEGAN: All right, but you’re saying that the Australian Government has no role to play currently in that stand-off between Ecuador and the UK?
EMERSON: That’s right: between the UK and Ecuador, this is a matter between those two countries. The UK has said it’s sought to negotiate a result here but remember that this issue about Mr Assange between the UK and Sweden is not in relation to Wikileaks, it’s in relation to allegations of something that he may or may not have done in Sweden itself and that’s up to the legal authorities in those countries. The legal processes have been followed, Andrew, and given that they have been followed there’s no particular role for Australia beyond ensuring that Mr Assange has reasonable consular assistance and that’s what we’re offering.
GEOGHEGAN: Craig Emerson, let’s just move on to the Government’s Manufacturing Taskforce, it released its recommendations this week. Which key recommendations are you going to enact?
EMERSON: Well we’ve agreed in-principle to most of those recommendations. Fundamentally, Andrew, we believe that the future of manufacturing lies in production for exports, in what are called value chains. If we can participate in the enormous growth and opportunity that’s being presented by the Asian Century then we’re producing not just for a small domestic market, but for the massive markets of the region. By 2030 there’ll be 3 billion middle-class customers in Asia: that’s a fantastic market and we need to ensure that our manufacturing sector is well-positioned to compete in those markets. Sometimes that might mean producing components of finished products rather than producing all of the finished products, that’s the idea of the value-chains. And then you get services wrapped around those, whether they be legal services or research and development, we think that’s a very important avenue for the expansion of manufacturing which is under a lot of pressure at the moment.
GEOGHEGAN: Well clearly because… well, one of the reasons is because of the high Australian dollar. The former Treasury Secretary Ken Henry has told manufacturers that they should not expect a respite from the dollar and that they should adapt their business models, including by shifting more production to Asia. Do you agree?
EMERSON: Well that’s what I’m talking about with the value chains, but shifting production doesn’t necessarily mean shifting jobs. We can still participate in those value-adding exercises here in Australia with our manufacturing, but where it does involve becoming more competitive through cost reductions through some parts of the manufacturing chain, well that’s a smart thing to do. And what Ken Henry is pointing out is that the value of the dollar that is set in the market is actually a vote of confidence in the Australian economy with a record pipeline of investment, we’ve got investment at 40-year highs; we’ve got inflation at 13-year lows; we’ve got unemployment coming down; we’ve got a Reserve Bank cash rate at nearly half that which we inherited. So all of these are very good indications for the future, and indeed productivity growth has started to pick up and this has been a point that we have been making for more than a decade. Industry itself has been saying they’d like to see productivity growth picking up — well, it is. So these are all good developments, but I tell you that a bad development would be to go back to the bad old days of industrial relations tension and confrontation and that’s actually what state premiers and industrial relations ministers are now advising Tony Abbott, that they if they were to get into power would again revisit the old WorkChoices — maybe it’s better known as ‘NoChoices’ because that’s what they want to do, to deny working Australians any choice.
GEOGHEGAN: Craig Emerson, thanks very much.
EMERSON: Okay, thanks Andrew.
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