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Transcript of interview: Sky News, Australian Agenda with Peter van Onselen: 28 October 2012



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Australian Agenda 28 October 2012 Dr Craig Emerson and Alexander

Downer

Sky News

Australian Agenda

Dr Craig Emerson and Alexander Downer

28 October 2012

Interview with Dr Craig Emerson and Alexander Downer

Australian Agenda program, 28 October 2012

Peter van Onselen:

Welcome back, you're watching Australian Agenda where Simon Benson, Paul Kelly and

I have been talking to the Trade Minister Dr Craig Emerson, and we're now joined as

well by former Foreign Minister during the Howard years, Alexander Downer. Thanks for

your company.

Alexander Downer:

It's a pleasure.

Peter van Onselen:

We're going to be talking about China and the Asian century and so forth, Mr Downer I

don't think we're going to let you get away without talking about the South Australian

Liberal Party as well. We'll get to that a little bit later.

Alexander Downer:

Australian Agenda 28 October 2012 Dr Craig Emerson and Alexander

Downer

My hands are clean.

Peter van Onselen:

Well, we'll will see about that.

Craig Emerson:

And I'll do an exit stage left.

Peter van Onselen:

First question, 'the Australian' reported on the front page pre-emptively, I suppose,

about some of the information about what's coming out in relation to this Asian century

white paper. Paul Kelly talked about it in his editorial. Dr Emerson, let me just start with

you here, is the Government's aim to really make this a central focus of between now

and the next election in terms of strategy for the nation going forward?

Craig Emerson:

Yes, it is and it's a good thing that we are because the region is growing at phenomenal

rates and we want to alert the Australian people to the basic facts that by the end of

this decade the economy of Asia will be bigger than that of North America and Europe

combined. So as a result of visionary decisions made particularly by the Hawke and

Keating Governments we did fashion an open and competitive economy in anticipation

of what's called the Asian century. Here we now have an opportunity to sell into what's

going to be three billion middle class customers by 2035. What they will want beyond

our traditional resources and energy is high quality food sources, so a chance for the

Australian Agenda 28 October 2012 Dr Craig Emerson and Alexander

Downer

revival of country towns and the bush more generally, and they will want sophisticated

services. So here are fantastic job opportunities for our young people and we think it's

very exciting and that's why we're setting out a road map. It's not so much a series of

sexy announcements, but a road map for the future. Ross Garnaut in 1993 produced a

report 'Australia and the northeast Asian ascendancy', this is actually a Government

report, it's a white paper, and it sets out the road map and policies.

Paul Kelly:

Let me just ask you, are the current policy settings adequate or does Australia have to

do more and better in terms of innovation, in terms of more tax reform, in terms of a

better performance from the educational institutions. I mean, is Labor going to live up

to the spirit and benchmarks of this paper?

Craig Emerson:

Yes.

Paul Kelly:

So there will be policy changes then?

Craig Emerson:

What we will do is continue with what is already a well articulated reform agenda,

which includes the very items that you suggested. The reason is the reason that you're

inferring, and that is we do need to continue to lift productivity growth in this country.

In the last 12 months it was 3.7%. One 12 month period doesn't make a summer but

Australian Agenda 28 October 2012 Dr Craig Emerson and Alexander

Downer

that is actually stronger than at the peak period of the mid to late 1990s’ productivity

growth. So there is something positive going on there. The reform agenda is education,

it's innovation, infrastructure, it's tax reform and it's regulatory reform. What the paper

shows, and these are treasury projections, is that if we can lift productivity growth on

average by 0.5% a year we can lift Australians' incomes per person from $62,000 to

$73,000.

Peter van Onselen:

Alexander Downer, let me bring you in on this because when I hear Dr Emerson talking

it sounds like there was this whole of 11 and a half years where Australia didn't engage

with Asia. He harks back to the Hawke-Keating years and now the Gillard Government.

I mean, you were the foreign minister during that time, what's your response?

Alexander Downer:

That's the way they play the game in politics. But I think the serious issue here is a little

different. I mean listening to Craig and what I read in 'The Weekend Australian'

yesterday it doesn't sound as though this is anything more than a statement of the

obvious. Everybody knows that Asian economies are growing, we don't need to be told

that. We know about the burgeoning middle class, we know about the huge growth in

Australia's trade in Asia. China was our fifth largest trading partner when I became the

foreign minister, it was our largest when I finished. So none of these things are -

Craig Emerson:

What a guy!

Australian Agenda 28 October 2012 Dr Craig Emerson and Alexander

Downer

Alexander Downer:

It's nothing to do with me, I'm sure it's to do with the private sector. But the point is we

all know this. The question is a completely different question that I think Australia

needs to address, and it's how are we going to engage with Asia. Now one of the

issues, and I know Craig Emerson and I are pretty much on the same page here, that

Australia needs to address is the question of investment. Most of our offshore

investment goes to the Anglosphere - it goes to Britain, it goes to the US, New Zealand

and Canada. I'm not against that of course, wonderful countries, but what is interesting

about Australia is we don't invest in Asia much at all. Number two, what is our approach

to inward investment. There is huge resistance in this country, not necessarily from the

Government and the Opposition, but huge resistance in this country to a lot of foreign

investment from Asia.

Peter van Onselen:

The National Party is a real issue there for the Coalition.

Alexander Downer:

2.6% of all foreign investment of Australian investment comes from China. There was a

50% decline in Chinese investment into Australia last year.

Paul Kelly:

Why did that occur?

Alexander Downer:

Australian Agenda 28 October 2012 Dr Craig Emerson and Alexander

Downer

I think there are two reasons. I think the strength of the Australian dollar has been a bit

of an issue, although that's not a new issue, it is just in the last year. I have to say this,

I've been in China recently and I've talked to a lot of senior officials in China and

business people. My sense is that there is a message coming out of this country, I'm

not blaming anybody particularly for it, but there is a message coming out of this

country that it's equivocal about Chinese investment.

Paul Kelly:

Do you think that's right, minister?

Craig Emerson:

I agree.

Alexander Downer:

Compared, by the way, to the message that comes out of the UK, France and Germany.

Paul Kelly:

How concerned is the Government about this?

Craig Emerson:

Very concerned, and I will personalise it to Barnaby Joyce. I know that Alex can't name

anyone, I can. He's a guy who has wanted to be...

Australian Agenda 28 October 2012 Dr Craig Emerson and Alexander

Downer

Alexander Downer:

Michael Danby, I could name him.

Craig Emerson:

Here is a guy who has wanted to be the deputy prime minister of Australia. I'm not sure

that Michael's statements reverberate through China but Barnaby Joyce's do.

Alexander Downer:

He's a Government MP.

Craig Emerson:

Barnaby Joyce's do. Barnaby Joyce wants to be the deputy prime minister of Australia.

He is the leader of the Nationals in the Senate, he's a shadow cabinet minister, and his

ranting and raving is definitely having an impact on Chinese perceptions of the

desirability of investing in...

Paul Kelly:

Do you know that?

Craig Emerson:

I do know that.

Australian Agenda 28 October 2012 Dr Craig Emerson and Alexander

Downer

Paul Kelly:

You do know that?

Craig Emerson:

I do know that.

Paul Kelly:

How do you know that?

Craig Emerson:

I can't tell you. I'm sorry, I can't. I will give you some insight.

Simon Benson:

Dr Emerson, it's not a secret though. The Chinese press have been banging on about

this over the last couple of weeks, and with respect to your comments about Barnaby

Joyce he is in Opposition and they are talking about the Government. Even in 'The

China Daily' last week they were talking about the problem with Australia is the Chinese

know that the Australians need Chinese investment but they don't believe we want it.

That is a clear message in China, you would know this.

Alexander Downer:

Australian Agenda 28 October 2012 Dr Craig Emerson and Alexander

Downer

I really do, I think that is a message.

Craig Emerson:

You are asking me about what information I have. The information is this: my

counterpart is Commerce Minister Chen Deming. He actually says to me that ‘we think

that the Australian Government is not playing politics, the Australian Government does

welcome foreign investment’, there have been a couple of issues that is true, but the

fact is that they think this is a really good place to invest. The debate about foreign

investment, that is the desirability of otherwise, has intensified in the last 12 months led

by Barnaby Joyce. Some sensible people in the Coalition, such as Julie Bishop, are

trying to restrain him, but he is not being restrained. Even when we announced during

the week, the Prime Minister announced that there be a land register just for a bit of

transparency, Barnaby Joyce welcomed it but then took the opportunity again to

condemn the Government for allowing Cubbie Station to be acquired by a consortium

that included Chinese interests.

Alexander Downer:

I have to say knowing China as I do, and I know it very well, there are a whole series

of decisions that Australia has made which have not been well received. Some of them

may be justified and some of them not. But this goes back - Barnaby Joyce is not the

Prime Minister of Australia, let's not build him up into some great titan of a political

figure. He's just one guy and he is in Opposition.

Craig Emerson:

Oh come on, he's a shadow cabinet minister.

Australian Agenda 28 October 2012 Dr Craig Emerson and Alexander

Downer

Alexander Downer:

I know you think he's a huge figure but I personally don't think he's that big a figure.

That's where we do differ. Look, the decision that the Government made for right or for

wrong, or the non-decision it made in relation to Chinese investment in Rio, this goes

back a little way, was very important. They took a message from that. Now I have a

vested interest in what I'm going to say next time on the Australian board with John

Brumby of Huawei, and the decision that the Government made - and they are certainly

going to defend it so I'm not attacking them over this - but the decision they made in

relation to Huawei's involvement in the NBN it resonated through China. So there are a

lot of different messages that we're sending out, and I'm hoping the white paper - all I

know is it's just a statement of the obvious at the moment, but...

Craig Emerson:

It's a bit premature.

Alexander Downer:

It is a bit premature but you've leaked some of it to the newspapers and you've been

talking about it at huge length this morning, so I'm able to absorb a certain amount of

information myself. There might be something special and new in it but I don't think so.

We have to think about how we're falling behind here. A 50% decline in Chinese

investment in Australia, and China is the world's second biggest economy with huge

savings to invest.

Paul Kelly:

Australian Agenda 28 October 2012 Dr Craig Emerson and Alexander

Downer

Let's go to this issue...

Craig Emerson:

Let's agree on that.

Alexander Downer:

We are not disagreeing, I'm just trying to get you away from your very well scripted

party political points.

Craig Emerson:

I don't follow scripts, Alex.

Paul Kelly:

If we look at the white paper, is one of the real messages, is one of the real takeouts

from the white paper is that we have to be searching for and accept a much higher

degree of foreign investment from China, presumably that's what we want, do you think

that this can be acceptable for Australians in political terms?

Craig Emerson:

We have to win the political debate, but the answer is yes and this is a debate that

must be won. Because the history of Australia since European settlement is that we are

a country that doesn't save enough to develop a vast continent, it's as simple as that,

and we need the savings of other countries. If we're going to turn our backs on some

Australian Agenda 28 October 2012 Dr Craig Emerson and Alexander

Downer

forms of Chinese investment - and again I will be political here because when Tony

Abbott was in China he said forms of Chinese...

Alexander Downer:

We got through about two minutes.

Craig Emerson.

...Chinese investment by state-owned enterprises where they were acquiring Australian

enterprises will rarely be approved. Rarely be approved. Now you say oh, who's

Barnaby Joyce he's just obscure, the alternative prime minister of Australia, not a

backbencher from the Coalition, went to China and actually said, you know, all those

investable surpluses in your state-owned enterprises they will rarely be approved if they

involved acquiring an interest in Australian business.

Alexander Downer:

I don't know how far we're going to get with just a party political debate. You can take

the statements that government ministers have made, you can state decisions that

government has made, you can do all sorts of things. But the real issue, let's think

about it not in terms of sort of puerile politics, but let's think about it in terms of the

country. I think we have a bigger problem than we realise in terms of attracting Asian

investment into Australia and the white paper should be, more than anything else, an

opportunity to send out a hugely strong message about how welcome this investment

is. Now Paul says do we need more Chinese investment in Australia? You know what

the answer to that question is, it's not Tony Abbott or Barnaby Joyce, the answer to

that question is a three letter word - yes. That's what we need.

Australian Agenda 28 October 2012 Dr Craig Emerson and Alexander

Downer

Simon Benson:

Can I ask this as a simple question then, is this white paper simply the Government

sector catching up with what people in the private sector already know and have known

for a long time because they are dealing with China on a daily basis?

Craig Emerson:

I think the private sector itself can become more Asia savvy. I'll give you another word

that I think summarises the white paper - people. This is about people. In Asia in

particular it is personal relationships that are really important, and I think our business

community would accept that there's more to be done in travelling to Asia, spending

time in Asia getting to know people.

Paul Kelly:

How do you get business to do that then, minister?

Craig Emerson:

We've got a couple of initiatives, they're modest, but this white paper is really designed

not just for government policy, it's a policy for Australia at large. Corporate policy, the

policy of the public service to become more Asia literate, Asia savvy. The policy for

business board members to do the same thing. So it's not just what's the Government

going to do about it.

Alexander Downer:

Australian Agenda 28 October 2012 Dr Craig Emerson and Alexander

Downer

Already there is a very good program that's been going for many years of public

servants travelling for Asia for six weeks or something.

Craig Emerson:

Exactly. We have set that up.

Alexander Downer:

I was in the Huawei research headquarters in Shanghai recently and who should be

there, but about 20 senior Australian public servants, interestingly enough, in Huawei

as part of their tour of Asia they do once a year. So these things we've been doing for a

long time.

Paul Kelly:

Mr Downer, can I ask you is there a need for finessing, given the diplomatic realities of

Australia's close relationship with the US with our emerging strong relationship with

China including through investment, is there diplomatic difficulties that are on the

horizon there?

Alexander Downer:

We always found it pretty easy to deal with this question which is often run in the

media. There is this terrible, terrible line that is run in Australia...

Craig Emerson:

Australian Agenda 28 October 2012 Dr Craig Emerson and Alexander

Downer

I'm about to agree with you, Alex.

Alexander Downer:

That we have to choose between America and China. This is because again there is an

element, isn't there, in the Australian community which is taking its lead from parts of

America I always say, from sort of Boise Idaho, where we're sort of on the crest of a

war with China. I mean we're not about to go to war with China, nor is America.

Craig Emerson:

And nor is any choice needed.

Alexander Downer:

And so a choice is not needed. We used to say, and Howard and I always said to the

Chinese leadership, you know our position in relation to the Americans, you know our

cultural and historic links with America, that's just how we are. They're our great friends

and that's just how we are, but we really need to deal with you. They always accepted

that and we had a pretty easy relationship.

Simon Benson:

There are political components presumably to this paper, and one of them I'm

assuming will be Australia's role in terms of being a midway point or a broker, if you

like, between some of those issues. Not so much between the US and China but

between China and its neighbours. China and the Philippines, China and Vietnam, China

Australian Agenda 28 October 2012 Dr Craig Emerson and Alexander

Downer

and Japan. Does this address where Australia's role in Asia lies politically in helping

being a friend to all those people and trying to broker peace agreements within those...

Craig Emerson:

It does but...

Alexander Downer:

No. Don't go around telling the Philippines that we are going to broker their relationship

with China.

Craig Emerson:

Exactly. Let's not overestimate...

Alexander Downer:

They will think that's pretty presumptuous.

Craig Emerson.

...the role of Australia in dealing with bilateral or regional tensions. If we can play a part

of course we will play a part for peace and stability, but we're not the big shots, the hot

shots...

Simon Benson:

Australian Agenda 28 October 2012 Dr Craig Emerson and Alexander

Downer

So you're not overstating Australia's importance in being - well I mean ASEAN...

Craig Emerson:

I think if there is a dispute between two countries we don't have to amble in there and

say ‘boys, you know, how can we settle this dispute’.

Simon Benson:

I wasn't suggesting that, I was suggesting what is Australia's role. It's not just

investment and economic, it is political and...

Craig Emerson:

The successful security council bid helps in that regard. And if I could say while we're

falling over ourselves in a wonderful spirit of bipartisanship, John Howard has made

some very sensible statements about the region just recently. Of course, as have Bob

Hawke and Paul Keating. But Howard on the issue of investment from China is very

strong and very clear.

Peter van Onselen:

Let me do what I can do break any spirit of bipartisanship and ask you, Alexander

Downer, about one of the things that's apparently in the white paper according to 'The

Australian' reporting on it yesterday, is this idea that Australia needs to embrace

growing population. Now the Government has walked away from the big Australia

notion because of political concerns, what is your view on this issue?

Australian Agenda 28 October 2012 Dr Craig Emerson and Alexander

Downer

Alexander Downer:

I'm not an MP so I am a...

Craig Emerson:

You could be.

Peter van Onselen:

We're going to get to that.

Alexander Downer:

No, we're just going to keep talking. My father was the Immigration Minister in the

Menzies Government, I am a huge supporter of immigration and I think there is a

different issue here. I think as you get into the Asian century you get into the middle of

this century with the demographics of most of the world changing and population

growth declining. There will be an increasing competition for skilled and talented people

from growing economies and we will up against it competing with the Europeans, the

Americans, the Canadians, maybe Latin Americans and so on. Again, we have to be an

open country, we should be out there building our immigration program, focusing on

skilled migrants. Because if it's just family reunion and you're bringing in unskilled

people you will lose the public and actually you will lose the social control but if you

have skilled migrants you can really make it work for the economy and you can make it

work for sort of a culturally diverse society. So I'm a huge support supporter. I know

Kevin Rudd talked about 35-million people or something.

Australian Agenda 28 October 2012 Dr Craig Emerson and Alexander

Downer

Craig Emerson:

Projections into the intergenerational report.

Alexander Downer:

I just want to say this, he was criticised for that and I thought what a pity. Because I

thought...

Paul Kelly:

By Julia Gillard at the last election.

Alexander Downer:

Because I thought Kevin Rudd was dead right.

Paul Kelly:

Let's just ask this question then: we saw at the last election campaign Julia Gillard

make it absolutely clear that she opposed any idea of a big Australia, and what we saw

the Government do was to scale back the rate of increase in the immigration program.

So how committed is the Government to a strong immigration program and the idea of

a big Australia.

Craig Emerson:

Australian Agenda 28 October 2012 Dr Craig Emerson and Alexander

Downer

Very committed, but it's a more sophisticated debate than simply whether it's big or

small or medium. Here we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to boost our country

towns and our regional centres by supplying all of those three billion customers, middle

class customers in Asia with premium quality foods. States like South Australia,

Tasmania, the north of Australia. You know, again is this a threat? That's one

proposition. I say it's an opportunity. I come from the bush, we had to leave in 1970

when my dad got sacked because there was a drought. Now those country towns can

be revived, we can have an expansion in those towns. They want it, they don't want to

lose their doctor, they don't want to lose their bank, they don't want to lose the

hospital. Those country towns can benefit from the Asian century.

Peter van Onselen:

So we can afford to be a big Australia.

Craig Emerson:

We can afford to have more people in those areas where they want more people. Now

that doesn't necessarily mean...

Alexander Downer:

You can't tell people to go and live in Wagga or Port Augusta because you get them in

there but what are you going to say after six months, you're not allowed to leave?

Because they'll just get in the car and drive somewhere else.

Craig Emerson:

Australian Agenda 28 October 2012 Dr Craig Emerson and Alexander

Downer

There won't be too many people in Penrith working on dairy farms I can promise you.

Peter van Onselen:

Let me ask you this then, Alexander Downer, from what you see here do you see this

as platitudes more than substance? One of the things I'm interested in the report...

Alexander Downer:

Well I haven't read it.

Craig Emerson:

The 'Financial Review' hadn't and they panned it yesterday.

Alexander Downer:

Just to talk about the growth of Asia, blah, blah, blah, everybody knows that. Every

parrot in the pet shop can tell you that.

Peter van Onselen:

They're talking about university links as well. There's discussion about the need for

greater university links between Asian institutions and Australian institutions.

Alexander Downer:

Australian Agenda 28 October 2012 Dr Craig Emerson and Alexander

Downer

There are huge links between Australian universities and Asian universities, and

Australian universities have focused very much on Asia. I think personally Australia as a

regional education centre is an important part of the vision and I think that's going to

be in the white paper. That's what the Australian education sector has argued for a very

long time. I mean you can go back to the 1950s, to the Colombo plan, and the students

that came then. There has been a decline, of course, in number of Asian students in

Australia in the last, what, two or three years. Perhaps there was some muddling over

visas, that's been rectified though now, and that caused a problem. But it did cause a

problem. Then there's the dollar. Then there is the allegations about Indian students.

Craig Emerson:

Which has now been settled. It was a big problem two or three years ago.

Alexander Downer:

So Gillard's visit to India might help to calm that down. So Indian numbers have not

been continuing to rise, I am hoping they will rise again. So yeah, this isn't new, this is

just a continuation.

Craig Emerson:

You will see more of this a little later in the day.

Peter van Onselen:

In the paper itself.

Australian Agenda 28 October 2012 Dr Craig Emerson and Alexander

Downer

Isobel Redmond:

We have agreed to put a line in the sand and say, ok, everything is a new start from

today. We did shake hands afterwards, and I'm sure we will be, to use his phrase,

pushing the reset button.

Peter van Onselen:

That was the leader of the Liberal Party in South Australia, Isobel Redmond, speaking

shortly after she won a showdown against Hamilton-Smith. He was trying to knock her

off as leader, she held off, I think it was 13 votes to 12, but she was standing there

alongside Hamilton-Smith's running mate. He was running as deputy for Hamilton-Smith, Mr Marshall, but, of course, he actually won out to become the new deputy to

Isobel Redmond. Alexander Downer, I'll ask you in a moment about the speculation

about yourself, but you'd have to concede it's a bizarre, at the very least, situation to

have the deputy that was running against Isobel Redmond become her deputy after the

candidate he was trying to run to knock her off with loses by one vote. That's far from

ideal, surely.

Alexander Downer:

I wouldn't have thought it was a problem. They work together in the same party, they

believe more or less in the same things.

Peter van Onselen:

He was on a ticket trying to get rid of her.

Australian Agenda 28 October 2012 Dr Craig Emerson and Alexander

Downer

Alexander Downer:

He was. Certainly on a ticket to trying to get rid of her deputy, and he succeeded in

doing that.

Peter van Onselen:

But it would have been the equivalent in '94 of you losing to Hewson and then your

deputy Costello becoming the deputy to John Hewson. That would have been

ridiculous.

Alexander Downer:

Right but - I'm trying to remember who it was now. It was Michael Wooldridge. Every

situation is different, the analogy is meaningless. I think they can work it through pretty

well. They've had their leadership ballot, they've made their decisions, they've got

about, what, 15 months to go till the next election. They simply need to concentrate on

doing the job and close down all this leadership speculation from now on.

Peter van Onselen:

Just one question on you, because you have been talked about, is there more chance of

you playing full forward for the Western Bulldogs than leading the South Australian

Liberal Party?

Alexander Downer:

Well I don't like the Western Bulldogs I like the Crows, the Adelaide Crows is my team.

Look, I'm not even an MP and as famously my wife has said when asked ‘are you 100%

Australian Agenda 28 October 2012 Dr Craig Emerson and Alexander

Downer

opposed to your husband going into politics’, she said I think that number is pretty

much right. So I'm not even an MP. I'm happy doing what I'm doing.

Paul Kelly:

If we just switch to the Coalition, the polls are indicating that Julia Gillard in terms of

personal satisfaction is increasing her position vis-a-vis Tony Abbott, what does Tony

Abbott need to do to modify his tactics?

Alexander Downer:

Well I wouldn't give him public advice. I think on the whole he's been an extraordinary

successful opposition leader in the sense that he's caused the Government havoc.

You've seen already on this program this morning the way they continually talk about

Tony Abbott. I mean he's a so co-prime minister of the country, that's how they've built

him up. They have launched a furious attack on him recently. I think he needs to

counter these attacks and counter them quickly. Every time there is a...

Paul Kelly:

How can he do that?

Alexander Downer:

This let me give you an example, this is a thought I've had. At one stage the Labor

Party said that Tony Abbott doesn't like strong women. You know what my answer to

that would be, that is an incredibly offensive thing to say about my wife and my

daughters. You're suggesting they're just weak vassals of a strong man. That is not true

Australian Agenda 28 October 2012 Dr Craig Emerson and Alexander

Downer

and I won't have them criticised and attacked in that way. I would go on the counter-offensive against this. I think it is disgraceful to go around calling people sexist and

misogynist. I mean you can attack the Prime Minister whatever the gender of Prime

Minister, she should be able to take it and not start saying you shouldn't attack me

because I'm a woman. That's very 19th century. So, yeah, I think it's important to

counterattack the personal assaults. I remember Kevin Rudd having a great line during

2007, which wasn't exactly true about John Howard, but he said look, they're going to

throw everything at me personally, I accept that. I am going to be absolutely trashed as

a personality. But, you know, that's the way the Liberals operate. I think Tony Abbott

needs to make it clear what's going on here. It's personal character assassination for

party political reasons - and counter it. Not walk away from it. I think sometimes he's

walked away from it a bit, I think he should go straight back at it and counter it and

counter it really strongly and turn the debate back on them.

Simon Benson:

This isn't just a short term issue for Tony Abbott, these personal attacks have been

recent of course and they probably would go some way to explaining the polls, but his

personal ratings have been consistently low for two years. He does have a popularity

problem. Why do you think that is?

Alexander Downer:

I don't think in a way that matters very much. I mean Paul Keating had - of course he

lost in the end but he had a popularity rating problem. John Howard when he was the

Opposition Leader before the 1996 election was less popular.

Peter van Onselen:

Australian Agenda 28 October 2012 Dr Craig Emerson and Alexander

Downer

Does coming prime minister act as a circuit breaker do you think, if he does win the

election he gets a fresh start.

Alexander Downer:

Of course. The public only know him as an opposition leader, I doubt they much

remember him as the Health Minister now, they only really know him as the Opposition

Leader. I've been the Opposition Leader, and I've read people want me to be in South

Australia again, it's a woeful job. Your job is that, it's to oppose. And the Government

says well you're being negative. Excuse me, what opposition leader goes around and

praises the Government? They have no vested interest in doing that. But it doesn't

make you popular. So opposition leaders are not always but invariably less popular than

premiers or prime ministers.

Peter van Onselen:

We are out of time but we appreciate you joining us on this episode of Australian

Agenda. Last chance, no lingering desire to become premier of South Australia?

Alexander Downer:

Surely the last time I have to talk about that topic.

Peter van Onselen:

We're done, we appreciate you joining us and thanks for your company. Thank you to

Simon Benson and Paul Kelly, and thank you for your company as well. We'll be back at

the same time next week. See you then.