Transcript of press conference, Canberra
SUN 29 APRIL 2012
Subject(s): Peter Slipper; Craig Thomson; Poker machine reforms; Parliament of Australia; Fair Work Australia; Budget
PM: Good morning. Australians are entitled to expect that people in public life uphold the highest standards.
They’re entitled to look at this Parliament, the building where I’m standing today, and see an institution that they can respect.
I understand that the matters involving Mr Slipper and Mr Thomson have caused Australians to become concerned about standards in public life today.
I also understand that both Mr Slipper and Mr Thomson are entitled to the presumption of innocence. Both men strenuously deny the allegations made against them.
I returned to Australia yesterday and since my return I have worked to make decisions about what is right in these circumstances.
I feel keenly that Australians are looking at this Parliament and at the moment they see a dark cloud over it. I want to ensure that Australians can look at this building, look at this institution, and feel respect for this institution.
Consequently, since my return from overseas I have done two things. I have spoken to Mr Slipper this morning. I have indicated to Mr Slipper my concerns about respect for the Parliament in these circumstances.
I have indicated to him that I believe it is best that he stand aside from the position of Speaker for a further period of time.
Mr Slipper has indicated to me that he is also of that view, and I anticipate that during the course of the day he will put out a statement to that effect.
I have also spoken to Mr Thomson. I had a conversation with him last night.
I indicated to Mr Thomson that I had decided it was appropriate for him to no longer participate in Labor caucus, to be suspended from the Labor Party.
Mr Thomson indicated to me that over recent weeks he has been thinking very deeply about these questions.
He is very frustrated by the amount of time that has been taken by Fair Work Australia dealing with the matters in respect of him. He had anticipated that those matters might be resolved more quickly.
He has been thinking deeply about his own circumstances and he had also reached the view that it was in the interests of the Labor Party for him no longer to participate in Labor Party meetings or the life of the Labor Party.
Now I stress in relation to both men, my decisions in relation to both of them, should not be seen to relate to a pre-judgement of the matters of which they – the allegations that they are dealing with.
Each of them is entitled to a presumption of innocence, and in making the decisions that I have, I am not pre-judging the issues that either of them face.
But I have made a judgement about the Parliament and about respect for the Parliament. I have made a judgement about the best thing to do in these circumstances.
Now I understand that many will question why I haven’t reached these decisions earlier, why I have reached these decisions today.
To put it at its most simple, I think that there is a line which has been crossed here.
This is something that you need to judge in all good conscience and with your best endeavours.
And I believe a line has been crossed about respect for the Parliament, and that has given me sufficient concern that I believe it was the right thing to act and to take the decisions that I have taken yesterday and today in relation to Mr Thomson and Mr Slipper.
I’m happy to take any questions. Yes, Phil.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister you say there’s a dark cloud over the Parliament, what do you say to people who will say that the only way to clear that is to just clear the decks completely and call an election? What would be your response to that?
PM: My response to that would be it’s in the interests of the Australian people that Parliament keeps functioning and that the Government keeps working.
I've just returned from overseas, where amongst other things I have spoken to leaders in Singapore and in Turkey about the economic times in which we find ourselves.
We live in a world of global economic uncertainty.
You might well have noted over the last few days that the UK has entered a double-dip recession.
It is consequently in the interests of Australians that the Government continue its careful management of the economy, keeping the economy strong, making sure that it operates in the interests of working people, and for which we deliver a Budget which will continue to keep our economy strong and benefit working Australians.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, last week you were standing by the precedents of process and so forth in relation to Mr Slipper, and you cited similar precedents in regard to Mr Thomson, have you until this point underestimated the depth of feeling about these two issues, and has that only dawned on you since you’ve got home?
PM: Well certainly since I’ve returned to Australia I’ve been increasingly aware of the depth of feeling. I was not unaware of it when I was travelling overseas.
These matters have been building for some time. I do feel deeply about the presumption of innocence and I do feel deeply about parliamentary precedents too.
And I do not think it would be in the long term interests of the nation for us to say that whenever an allegation is raised about a parliamentarian that the automatic expectation is that they stand aside from the office they hold.
I think that could be an invitation to people over time to make frivolous allegations. I would be worried about that.
So, in all the circumstances here, what I've endeavoured to do is make a judgement about what is right. We’ve got to uphold respect for the Parliament. We’ve also got to understand the presumption of innocence.
My job, as Prime Minister of the nation, is to make the best possible judgement call about what enables respect for the Parliament.
I do believe a line has been crossed here, and because a line has been crossed, I’ve acted.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, can you identify exactly where the line was crossed, what particular incident or development (inaudible)?
PM: I don’t think this is a chemical formula about one molecule plus another molecule gives you an answer.
I actually think it’s a judgement call about what is the right thing to do in a complicated set of circumstances, where there is a competition between principles I think we would all say we believe in.
A principle of respect for the Parliament, and the presumption of innocence, which is part of our Australian way of life.
But given the circumstances here, I’ve needed to make a judgement on behalf o the Australian people, about what best marks respect for the Parliament in these circumstances and I’ve made it.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister (inaudible) pick you up on two points. One is that you’ve come back and you’ve realised that the sentiment and depth of feeling has made you make this decision, and secondly you also say that frivolous allegations shouldn’t force someone to step aside. Those two things indicate that you either think these matters aren’t frivolous-
PM: No, I don’t.
JOURNALIST: -or you’re doing this for the voters.
PM: No, no, no, you should, both of those conclusions are completely untrue, and not in accord with what I said.
I answered Phil Coorey’s question over here and I indicated to him I was not unaware of the depth of sentiment whilst I was travelling overseas, but of course coming back to Australia, being right here now, I have felt very sharply the judgements and concerns of the Australian people.
You would expect that, for me to feel that more when I am here, in my home, in my nation, on home terrain, than whilst I was travelling overseas, but I wasn’t unaware of these matters when I was overseas.
I am making no judgement about the merits of the allegations against these two men. I am not in a position to do so, and it would be totally contradictory to the presumption of innocence for me to pretend that I am in a position to do so.
My reference to frivolous allegations was about my concern over the long term – it should not be construed in relation to today’s events – it was my concern over the long term about where we might get to if it became the accepted automatic standard that someone the subject of any allegation immediately stands aside from their position.
That has not been the standard of Australian politics or the Parliament in the past.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, could I just be clear about this, when you say a line had been crossed, is that in relation to the public sentiment, and secondly what agreement do you have or what arrangement have you made with Mr Thomson regarding his vote, will it be a formal agreement in respect to how he votes when he’s on the crossbenches?
PM: Well Mr Thomson no doubt will address some of these matters himself, but Mr Thomson across his life has been a believer in Labor things and I believe he will support Labor proposals in this Parliament.
But I have made the decision that it is not appropriate at this time for Mr Thomson to participate in the workings of the Labor Party itself.
When I spoke to him last night he had been reflecting deeply on these questions too, and had also formed the view that that was the appropriate course at this time.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, do you accept that you have made a serious error of judgement in both these matters. Did you consult widely with your Cabinet in coming to these decisions, and haven’t you left Anthony Albanese out to dry after defending Mr Slipper up hill and down dale over the last few days?
PM: Well I suspect the answer to all of those questions is no, but let me go through them a step at a time.
I’ve taken the decisions that I’ve announced today so they have not been the subject of broad consultation with my Cabinet colleagues.
They are my decisions as Prime Minister.
On the work of Mr Albanese, Mr Albanese does a remarkable job on behalf of the Government and the Parliament as Leader of Government Business.
Mr Albanese, over recent days, has been dealing very clearly with one of the principles that I’ve outlined to you standing here today, which is the presumption of innocence.
And I do think, when we look at all of the circumstances here, it does cause you to look at two things – respect for the Parliament and respect for the presumption of innocence.
Both are very fundamental to our Australian system and our Australian way of life. I’ve had to make a judgement call as Prime Minister about what in these circumstances best enables Australians to look towards this Parliament with a sense of respect.
It’s a difficult judgement call but I’ve made it.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, do you believe you will have the numbers in the House to pass your Budget and all of its associated measures?
PM: Well we, last Budget, passed the Budget bills in record time, and delivered the Government’s program.
We will bring to the Parliament a Budget which is unambiguously in the interests of our nation today; it is in the interests of our nation to return our Budget to surplus.
Having just travelled and talked about circumstances in the global economy and circumstances in other nations where people are facing, you know, the sort of things we see across Europe, the UK going into a double-dip recession, millions of people unemployed, nations looking at dragging themselves out of the depths of economic crisis over years and years and years, and here we are in Australia due to the careful management of the Government, we have a strong economy, strong fundamentals, low unemployment.
What that means is it’s unambiguously in our nation’s interest to deliver a Budget surplus, and we will.
That will give us a buffer for the future, it will give the maximum room to the Reserve Bank to move in its independent judgement, and even as we bring the Budget to surplus we will deliver a Budget that is in the interests of working Australians.
Yes we’ll go here and then come across.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, can you clarify what you mean by Peter Slipper standing aside for a further period, is that until all of the allegations against him are cleared up, but also had you done this sooner, do you accept then that public sentiment, distrust in Parliament, wouldn’t be at the level it’s at?
PM: Look I think it was, I think the timing here is the appropriate timing.
I’ve worked through these questions since my return and I’ve made some judgement calls since my return, and I’ve announced those judgement calls to you today.
It flows from what I’ve said to you about respect for the Parliament that I think these circumstances in relation to Mr Slipper and Mr Thomson need to reflect that view about respect for the Parliament and that’s how long they need to last.
I think I promised Louise one and then we’ll go over here and come back over.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, I guess the arrangement does give the Independents, bring them back into the game with the ball, especially Andrew Wilkie. Will you reconsider the, Andrew Wilkie’s mandated (inaudible) pokie reforms?
PM: The circumstances with the poker machine reforms is that the proposition that Mr Wilkie passionately believes in, and I understand the depth of his passion about it, but the proposition that Mr Wilkie passionately believes in would not command support, majority support in the House of Representatives.
There is nothing that has changed about that. That is the circumstance. That is the fact.
What the Government is proposing to do is to bring to the Parliament the most comprehensive set of measures to address problem gambling that has ever been dealt with by a national government in this nation’s history.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, you say that this decision has been influenced by your understanding of the depth of sentiment. You also say that you understand there will be questions about how long it’s taken to come to this decision. Are you concerned about the depth of sentiment about how long it’s taken you to come to this decision?
PM: I’d want you to understand what’s motivated me here. What’s motivated me here is what is right in these circumstances.
PM: The views of Australians as they look at the Parliament matter. They matter to the functioning of our democracy; they matter to the life of our nation.
I have made a judgement call which I believe is right because I want Australians to be able to look at the Parliament and respect the Parliament, and I believe a line had been crossed about the ability of Australians to confidently say that they had respect in our Parliament.
I have, of course too, keenly felt the obligations about the presumption of innocence and I continue to keenly feel those obligations in relation to the presumption of innocence, but I have made a judgement call in the circumstances that we find ourselves.
JOURNALIST: With respect Prime Minister, I was asking about the depth of sentiment about the length of time that you have conceded. People will raise questions about your judgement in taking this long to make this decision.
PM: Look, and people can draw their conclusions. I’ve acted as I believe is right.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, could you just clarify, I’m not understanding. When you said that the Speaker should stay stood aside for a further period of time, is that until all allegations against him are resolved? Could you give us some more information about that (inaudible)?
PM: As I’ve indicated to you I believe Mr Slipper will make his own statement today so you should look at Mr Slipper’s statement.
PM: Well, I’m just about to tell you that Michelle, thank you.
As for me, my view about this is it is all about respect for the Parliament and in these circumstances I have formed the view that it’s appropriate for Mr Slipper to stand aside for a further period.
For me, coming at it as I do through the view about what is, what matters in terms of respect for the Parliament, I believe it is unlikely in my view that it will be appropriate for Mr Slipper to resume the chair before the matters that are the subject of contention are dealt with fully.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, just on Mr Slipper, will he be able to vote during the period that he’s stood aside and will he stay on full pay?
PM: He is standing aside from chairing the Parliament, he will continue to, you know, formally hold the office of Speaker, he has stood aside from – my understanding is Mr Slipper will say he will stand aside from chairing the Parliament, acting as Speaker in that sense, and I’ve indicated to you what I believe, and what I indicated to Mr Slipper was my view.
My understanding of the constitutional circumstances here is that means that he does not vote in the House of Representatives.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, the Opposition has repeatedly asked you to express confidence in Mr Thomson, which you’ve done repeatedly, does this now mean you don’t have confidence in Mr Thomson?
PM: Well, what it means is I’ve formed a view about what’s in the best interests of the Parliament and the nation at this time.
I make no pre-judgement whatsoever of the matters in relation to Mr Thomson. To do so would be inappropriate.
I’ve obviously formed the view, matters are at a stage that Mr Thomson should not continue to participate in the Labor Party, that’s my view.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, what has changed in the last week or however long it has taken you to make this decision, compared to when you’ve previously said that you had full confidence in Craig Thomson and (inaudible)?
PM: Well I think there’s a combination of circumstances here that I’m dealing with and my view about integrity and respect in the Australian Parliament.
PM: Sorry, I’ll go to Phil.
JOURNALIST: Go to Sid first.
PM: Alright, I’ll go to Sid, very generous.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, your view, has it been informed at all by the Fair Work Australia report into Mr Thomson or the pending report by Mr Temby QC?
PM: No, and I don’t have those reports available to me.
PM: Right, okay, they’re channelling each other. Originality in the press pack. Yes Louise, for what will be an original question I’m sure.
JOURNALIST: I hope so.
PM: You wouldn’t want anybody to accuse you of groupthink. Surely not.
JOURNALIST: Are you confident that Craig Thomson won’t quit the Parliament?
PM: Look, there’s nothing that would indicate to me that Mr Thomson is considering that.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, you say that this is a series of circumstances you’re dealing with now, Mr Slipper, Mr Thomson has formed this view. It still doesn’t take away from the fact that you’ve repeatedly said that you have confidence in Craig Thomson, that he deserves the presumption of innocence and should stay in his position. Is this motivated by voters and perception that voters will see?
PM: It’s motivated by my view about what best harnesses respect for the Australian Parliament.
JOURNALIST: (Inaudible) why, what is it about what you’re telling us today, don’t you think the public will just conclude that this is another (inaudible)?
PM: Let’s deal with your question in some detail.
First and foremost, in relation to Mr Slipper, I would remind that Mr Slipper did not arrive in the Parliament on the day that he took the Speaker’s chair.
Mr Slipper was preselected by his political party on nine occasions, was viewed as an appropriate representative for them in the federal Parliament, as recently as last September Mr Abbott, the Leader of the Opposition, expressed full confidence in Mr Slipper.
Mr Slipper has served as Deputy Speaker of this Parliament before moving into the Speaker’s chair.
So in those circumstances, I think in Mr Slipper the decision being made for Mr Slipper to become Speaker of the Parliament, it was against a backdrop of him being a long-term parliamentarian, continued confidence in him by his own political party and having served as a Deputy Speaker of the Parliament and in serving as a Deputy Speaker of the Parliament, having been perceived by the Parliament generally to have done a good job.
So that’s the backdrop in relation to Mr Slipper.
The backdrop in relation to Mr Thomson is that allegations have been made about Mr Thomson, which he strongly denies and continues to strongly deny.
He is entitled to a presumption of innocence, and I have made that point on more than one occasion.
But I am now dealing with a set of circumstances where I believe in, you know, for Australians generally, and for me making a decision about these circumstances, a line has been crossed about respect for the Parliament and I have acted so that Australians can respect the Parliament which of course I want them to do.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, are you eager for the Labor Party to (inaudible) the preselection for Dobell with a candidate locked in place, and if that’s your own view (inaudible) two months after being strongly endorsed by your party (inaudible)?
PM: The answer to the second question is yes, absolutely. The answer to the first question is I’ve made no decisions about any of those matters and haven’t considered them.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister you say that (inaudible) Mr Thomson strenuously denies the allegations. Have you received an explanation yourself from Mr Thomson in response to the allegations, an explanation that convinces you that that’s a viable position?
PM: I do not believe it’s appropriate, and I am not going to put myself into the position of adjudicating these matters. They need to be dealt with through proper processes. It would not be-
PM: And if I did it would be based on incomplete information, and so wouldn’t that be a very silly thing to do. Let’s be very clear here.
There is not one person standing here today, not me or any of you who is in the possession of the full facts in relation to either of these matters.
No-one is in that position and if no-one is in that position, then no-one should be pretending that they are in the position of being judge and jury here.
That would be very inappropriate, and I’d ask each of you if you were the subject of allegations that you strongly denied, how you would feel if someone without complete information determined that they knew exactly all about it and that they had a view about you.
You wouldn’t be very happy with that, that’s why our system has a presumption of innocence.
I don’t believe as a nation we want to get to the stage where people are pre-judged before they get the opportunity of dealing with matters properly.
JOURNALIST: So should the Fair Work report be out?
PM: Look, as I’ve said consistently, the handling of the Fair Work matter is a matter for Fair Work Australia. I do note in my discussion with Mr Thomson, he did express frustration about how long this matter has taken.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, you have adjudicated on this matter. You say no-one should but you just have in your-
PM: I’ve adjudicated on the, I’ve specifically said to you and I invite you when the transcript of this press conference is available, to check my words and you will see that at each and every time I have said to you I am not making any pre-judgement about the allegations that either Mr Slipper or Mr Thomson face.
What I’ve indicated to you is I have made a very definite judgement about the question of respect for the Australian Parliament.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, do you think you’ve made that decision in time for respect to be restored for Parliament, the Speaker’s position and perhaps (inaudible)?
PM: Yes, I do.
JOURNALIST: On another matter, you (inaudible) that you shouldn’t tell Fair Work Australia as an independent body what to do, but you’ve indicated what the Reserve Bank should do-
PM: That’s not true either.
JOURNALIST: You also criticised High Court judges for not supporting Malaysia deal, so why won’t you tell Fair Work Australia which you (inaudible)?
PM: Nice try, but sooner or later you’ve got to hit the facts of things rather than just come and make things up, I didn’t realise we were operating a pack of fiction writers in the press gallery, I thought we had journalists interested in the facts, so let’s go through the facts.
I have never, at any time, instructed the Reserve Bank what to do. That is completely untrue. I would never do so, it would be wrong for me to do so.
When I speak about the Reserve Bank I consistently make the point that the Reserve Bank is independent of government, and it exercises an independent judgement about interest rates.
Of course governments can take decisions about fiscal policy and this Government has taken a decision about fiscal policy and returning the Budget to surplus.
Number two, on the High Court case, I engaged in commentary about the High Court case after the case was determined. That is a very different set of circumstances than trying to instruct an independent agency when a matter is still being dealt with.
I can only imagine the headlines and the commentary if in the middle of a High Court case I started issuing instructions to High Court judges about what to do.
Any other questions?
Thank you very much.