ABC News 24 Capital Hill Interview

Subjects: Immigration legislation, White Paper on the Asian century and Leadership.

JULIE DOYLE:   Hello and welcome to Capital Hill.  I'm Julie Doyle.  While the Government's asylum seeker policy is still in limbo, another boat has been intercepted north of Christmas Island - this one carrying around seventy-five passengers.  And while the Government grapples with that issue, it's also announced work will start on a white paper looking at Australia's role in the Asian Century.

Joining me today to discuss these issues, we have Labor's Parliamentary Secretary for Climate Change, Mark Dreyfus, in Melbourne and Liberal MP, Scott Buchholz, in Brisbane.

Now Mark...

MARK DREYFUS: Good to be with you, Julie.

JULIE DOYLE: Thank you for joining us.  Starting with you, Mark.  Another boat has arrived and the Government still doesn't have its border protection policy sorted out.  What's going to happen to these people?

MARK DREYFUS: Well, I have to say first of all that we have introduced legislation in the Parliament which is designed to put the situation of the Government, put the power of the Minister back to where it was understood to be before the recent High Court decision.  And we have made it clear that we're expecting the Liberal Party to do the right thing. To consider this in the national interest and make sure that the Government has the necessary powers to deal with, in particular, the people smuggling business.

This is a matter for the Minister for Immigration as to the handling of the most recent boatload. They will be taken to the Christmas Island facility and I would be expecting them to be checked, and that's the purpose of the detention, and processed in the usual way.

JULIE DOYLE: But is it fair for these people to be remaining in limbo though while the policy is sorted out when they do have the legal right to seek asylum here?

MARK DREYFUS: Well I don't think it is right to speak of them being in limbo.  The only thing that's in limbo is the Liberal Party's position on the legislation that we introduced to the House of Representatives last sitting week.  And I'm still expecting the Liberal Party to do the right thing.  To properly consider the national interest and to put the Minister and the Government in the position it was understood to be when, in fact, these amendments were first introduced to the Migration Act back in 2001, to put it back to that situation.

JULIE DOYLE: Well Scott, you've heard those comments there.  What is the Coalition's position on this?  Why won't you support the Government in these changes that they're trying to make here to the Migration Act?

SCOTT BUCHHOLZ: Yeah, thanks Julie.  Our situation - our position with reference to immigration is crystal clear and has been for twelve, ten years.  It's Nauru for us.  It is wishful thinking on behalf of the Australian Labor Party that we would support them in this move.

I remind the Australian Labor Party that they are actually in a coalition agreement with the Australian Green's.  When it comes to these type of situations, you would think that they would have support from their own coalition partner.  That doesn't happen to be the case at the moment and I think it's a far-fetched request that the Australian Labor Party would be requesting the support of the Opposition when our position has been rock solid.  It is Nauru, it is temporary protection visas and it is turn the boats around where possible.   

Since this Government's come to office we've - now we're up to over two-hundred-and-forty boats and in excess of twelve thousand people, which have come to our shores not through the front door.

JULIE DOYLE: But if you are so committed to offshore processing. Why won't you support the amendments that the Government is trying to get through here?

SCOTT BUCHHOLZ: Well our position is crystal clear: it is Nauru.  We believe that our case is fine.  It's the Government's position which has changed virtually on a month-to-month basis as their options have come - have fallen away.  So, no, our position is clear and we'll be holding our line.

JULIE DOYLE: Well, just moving on to another issue and the Prime Minister has announced today that the former Treasury Secretary, Ken Henry, is going to lead the development of a white paper looking at Australia's role in the Asian region. 

And she made that announcement in Melbourne today.  Let's have a listen to some of that speech.

JULIA GILLARD: The white paper on Australia in the Asian Century should generate a set of general propositions to guide policy development over the long term; to guide preparations over the next five years for major policies and projects which would become a reality over the next ten to fifteen.

JULIE DOYLE: That's the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, there.

Now, Mark, last time Ken Henry did a major review for the Government, most of the recommendations weren't taken on board.  Will this time be different?

MARK DREYFUS: This time we have got a white paper which is going to be - as you've just heard the Prime Minister say, a very far reaching, wide-ranging review that's going to position Australia for what she called in the speech today, the Asian Century. It is an excellent speech that I'd commend to everyone because it grapples with the immense changes that have been happening in our region.

The Prime Minister made the point, for example, that China, a country with one-point-three billion people, has seen its economy grow in the last twenty-five years by a factor of twenty - that is twenty times growth and that India is moving in the same direction.          

And these levels of economic growth, the kind of changes that we're seeing year-on-year in China, in India and in the rest of Asia, are what will be the hallmark of the century that we are now ten years into.   And it's absolutely the right thing that we engage with it, that we position Australia correctly and that's what the Prime Minister's set about today.  That's why she's announced this white paper and I'm very much looking forward to the work that Dr Henry is going to chair.

JULIE DOYLE: Well, Scott, what do you make of this?  Do you think this is a sensible approach to - and try to engage the neighbours in the region?

SCOTT BUCHHOLZ: Absolutely.  I mean, with reference to China's demand on our resources.  Notwithstanding their domestic growth, as Mark just alluded to, there is going to be an enormous amount of demand in years to come for - on our resources here in Australia.  We do rely heavily on our Asian partners. 

I just feel sorry, sometimes, for Ken Henry.  He must feel - he must be one of the most frustrated blokes in the Treasury.  I think, was it, over one-hundred-and-thirty-eight recommendations he made at the last - in his last position as Secretary to Treasury.  Notwithstanding that you could count on one hand those recommendations that were taken up.

In addition to that, one of the recommendations that he did make in that application - in that submission was that superannuation shouldn't - explicitly said, should not shift from nine to twelve per cent.  The Government, you know, always alludes to the point that they take expert advice.  Well, in this case I sympathise with Ken Henry and the challenges in front of him.

JULIE DOYLE: Mark, given what happened last time with the Henry review, as I mentioned to you a bit earlier, can we expect a commitment that these recommendations will be taken up?

MARK DREYFUS: I think we are getting a bit ahead of ourselves there Julie.  The Prime Minister's just announced today this white paper on Australia's place in the Asian Century and I'm looking forward to that work being done by a group of people which will be headed up by Ken Henry. 

There will be a cabinet sub-committee that will be working on this, it'll be assisted by experts as well and it's absolutely the correct thing for the Government to be doing.  To have a traditional white paper process that's going to be a lasting contribution to thinking about how to best position Australia to take best advantage of what's coming, what we can see coming at us, in what is rightly called the Asian Century.

JULIE DOYLE: So you think there will be some concrete action then coming out of this?

MARK DREYFUS: I think of course there'll be concrete action, but it's important to conceptualise these things right.  It's important to look at and analyse what is happening, what growth we can expect in China, what growth we can expect in India, what's going to be the shape of their economies in ten, twenty, thirty years' time and what the relationship Australia will have with those economies, what that's going to be.

And you get to there by thinking about these things and the Prime Minister's speech today is a really excellent starting point.  I think everybody in Australia is aware of the vast changes that are occurring in our region and they know that, as a nation, we need to confront those changes and to make sure that we're as best positioned as we can be.

JULIE DOYLE: Well Scott I saw you there having a bit of a chuckle at that, so what's your response to that?

SCOTT BUCHHOLZ: I just, again I feel for Ken Henry.  I just think that when it comes to government intervention in this particular sector, I've got confidence in the credibility of the Australian businesses that - which demand will meet the Asian supply. 

So put the commercial perspective to one side and then if you want to start talking about political pressure, I'm just concerned as to how - or how much clout the Australian Government thinks they will have when it comes to advising the People's Republic of China in following our lead on certain issues.  I think we'll be very responsive to China's demands.

JULIE DOYLE: Now while we're talking about Ken Henry's work and issues that are tax related, we've got the tax forum next week.  And Mark, some of the big issues aren't going to be on the agenda - the GST, the mining tax - is there any point in having this get-together next week?

MARK DREYFUS: Absolutely and Scott's already referred to the fact that there's a range of Henry recommendations from Ken Henry's review of the tax system that have yet to be fully considered.  Everything is on the table for this tax forum next week, to look at those ideas from the Henry Review and other ideas as well.

But what we've said in advance is that we won't be changing the rate of GST, we won't be changing the base of GST and nor - and I'll add to that - nor is there any particular good reason why we should put on, as part of the agenda for this tax forum next week, a re-examination of the mining tax.

We've spent eighteen months in a pretty lengthy, pretty detailed and very deep conversation with the Australian people and the mining sector, about what is to be the proper form of the mining tax.  We know that Australians should be getting benefit from the mining resources boom that we're presently undergoing and we also know that it's been an extensive negotiation involving the mining industry and we've got to an outcome now that does not need to be gone over again.

What does need to be looked at is a whole range of options and I'm very much looking forward to this tax forum next week for that reason.

JULIE DOYLE: Scott what do you think of this, do you think the Government's avoiding these issues by not having them on the forum?

SCOTT BUCHHOLZ: Julie, you know what, at the moment in this nation we are suffering some of the most horrendous cost of living pressures that we have seen in the last twenty years.  Consumer business confidence is at record low levels. You

know what a tax summit means?  A tax summit means more taxes on top of the nineteen taxes already, or increase in tariffs that this government has introduced since coming to power.

Us in the Liberal Party, we believe in freeing up businesses and allowing them to prosper.  I mean, more tax summits just means more taxes.

JULIE DOYLE: Just moving on quickly now to the final issue today and Mark Dreyfus, speculation about Labor's leadership continues, it's in the papers again today.  Is this just a distraction the party can't afford?

MARK DREYFUS: This is a distraction that is fed by the Liberal Party which likes to play the sort of look-over-there-type politics, to distract from the lack of leadership that's being shown by Tony Abbott.  The lack of attention to the national interest on things like amendments to the Migration Act and I think that the sooner we get back to real issues and stop with this sort of nonsense that the Liberal Party's been feeding now for some weeks, the better.

It's a non-story and you'd had to - I was present when the Prime Minister gave this excellent speech today about Australia's place in the Asian Century.  You know, we have a prime minister that is absolutely doing an excellent job; she'll be leading us to the next election and I'm looking forward to that.

JULIE DOYLE: Just very quickly Scott, what's your response to that briefly?

SCOTT BUCHHOLZ: Well, I think Mark's in the lower twenty-five per cent of the polling of Australia that believes that the Prime Minister's doing an excellent job.  I just - as a party we take too much credit for the praise that Mark just put on us about spreading the fear.  I mean, it's a miracle that we were able to put the words into Kevin Rudd's mouth the other day when he had that Freudian slip about being the Prime Minister, and how he was enjoying the role.

But irrespective who's the Prime Minister, whoever's the leader of the Australian Labor Party, the Australia Labor Party is the Australian Labor Party and always will be the Australian Labor Party when it comes to a lack of policy, a lack of direction, consistent blow-outs in the Budget, currently poor polling and it all stems from a lack of leadership.  If you're going to take a leaf out of someone's book, find yourself a leader, stick with them and take it to the election.

If that's Gillard we'll go hard, I mean if you're going to take any notice of the polls she's probably not a good fit for you at the moment.

JULIE DOYLE: Well we'll have to leave it there Scott, I'll have to cut you off; we're running short on time as always.  Thank you both for joining us today.

MARK DREYFUS: Thanks Julie.

SCOTT BUCHHOLZ: Thanks Julie; thanks Mark.

MARK DREYFUS: See you, Scott.

JULIE DOYLE: And thank you for joining us on Capital Hill; we'll be back again at the same time tomorrow.