MARIUS BENSON: Parliament is back this week in Canberra. And its return coincides with some good news and some less good news for Labor. Newspoll, in today's Australia, shows Labor's electoral fortunes rising, while a new book by the former Labor MP Maxine McKew has put the decapitation of Kevin Rudd back in 2010 back on the agenda. At the same time, the Prime Minister was yesterday pushing the Government's view for Australia's future in Asia with the release of the Government's White Paper on Asia. As part of the new regional drive, the Trade Minister Craig Emerson has a new title as Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Asia Policy – and that Minister joins us now. Craig Emerson, good morning.
CRAIG EMERSON: Hello to you, Marius.
BENSON: Widening responsibilities in Asia for you?
EMERSON: Yes, indeed. It's a coordinating role. I won't be doing the particular policies; they're the responsibility of individual Ministers, and will remain so. But it's just to ensure that we have a fully coordinated approach to deliver on the goals in the White Paper, and also public advocacy of what we're doing. Because this is more than about government policy; it's a whole change in mindset as we adjust to the great opportunities of the Asian Century. By the end of this decade the Asian economy will be bigger than the economies of Europe and North America combined. So this is a fantastic opportunity for our country and our young people in particular.
BENSON: And there has been universal – literally universal – welcome for the statement of those goals of greater prosperity for Australia through greater integration with Asia. Tony Abbott says 'full of laudable goals', the White Paper, 'but no commitment'. Is it just a motherhood statement, and there's no real commitment? And real commitment means money.
EMERSON: It's much beyond that. And not all problems and challenges are solved by money. But having said that, one of the biggest commitments is in relation to education – and we are making room for the reforms arising out of the Gonski panel report. And in those reforms we will be making assistance or funding to the states conditional upon a greater emphasis on Asian languages and Asian literacy more generally. So you don't always have to have a new bucket of money whenever you're announcing policies. In fact, there's virtue in using existing commitments to achieve those sorts of outcomes, plus the extra space that we're creating for the education funding.
BENSON: But you're actually… at the moment you're speaking of extra space for education funding. The reality is that there's program: The National Asian Language Program. It's been running for four years at a cost us $62 million. It ended this year and it wasn't replaced. You're actually reducing the financial commitment to Asian languages.
EMERSON: Well, there won't be a reduction once the funding in relation to the Gonski report is fully implemented, Marius. But it is true that in relation to attempts in the past to improve Asian literacy in our schools and beyond they have been particularly successful. We recognise that, and rather than just bolting something on to the education system, we want to make this integral to the education system – and that's the difference.
BENSON: Mr Emerson… Dr Emerson … you were a Rudd loyalist in 2010. You were described in Maxine McKew's book as one of a "small handful of Ministers" in Kevin Rudd's office of the morning when he was departing the Prime Minister's Office. Were you aware that there were moves against Kevin Rudd for months before then, as reported in Maxine McKew's book?
EMERSON: No I wasn't. But I will now finish that discussion by saying that was two years ago. We're looking now at the next 20 years, Marius. And I'm really not going to spend a lot of time reflecting on what happened two years ago. I haven't read Maxine's book; I don't really intend to read that. That's no particular slight on Maxine; I just don't tend to read these political treatises, because the Australian people elect us to govern in the national interest; to look forward, to make sure we build a strong economy and to share the benefits of that economy. That's what occupies all of my time and, frankly, I don't have time or the inclination to reflect backwards. I'm always looking forward.
BENSON: And on the evidence, the Australian people still think about Kevin Rudd's sacking and they think about it with some disquiet. You said you weren't aware of any plotting months before or preceding it?
EMERSON: Marius, we could spend the next 10, 15 to 20 minutes on this…[indistinct]
BENSON: Well, let me ask you a specific question, Craig Emerson. If I could ask you a specific question?
EMERSON: I am not going to spend a lot of time on this, Marius.
BENSON: Sure, let me ask you a specific question.
EMERSON: A major document was released yesterday. It is an exciting document. And if you want to spend the rest of the interview on 2010, I'll just give you the same answers. It'd be pretty boring radio.
BENSON: Simon Crean says that it was a mistake to sack Kevin Rudd, although he now backs Julia Gillard. Are you in agreement with him on it being a mistake?
EMERSON: I back Julia Gillard, and I'm absolutely in agreement on that and I'm not going to reflect back. I'm always projecting forward, and that means that we need to make the hard policy decisions that are needed to lock in our country to the Asian Century. They've thrown the kitchen sink at Julia Gillard as Prime Minister and here she is, still standing, still making the hard decisions. She's tough as nails, and that's what we need as a leader.
BENSON: Craig Emerson, thanks again.
EMERSON: Thanks very much, Marius.
- Minister Emerson's Office: (02) 6277 7420
- DFAT Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555