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Minister comments on exports and poll results

ELLEN FANNING: As the Prime Minister flies out of Canberra, this morning, bound for Singapore and Malaysia, his first day back at work is being overshadowed by conflicting predictions about the ALP's electoral standing. According to a poll conducted for the Sunday Age newspaper, the Liberals lead Labor by 12 per cent in four key marginal seats, but a Morgan Poll to be published this week, has Labor gaining to within four points of the Coalition.

A.M's Catherine Job has spoken to one of Labor's key electoral strategists, the Trade Minister, Bob McMullan, about those polls. In this interview, they also discussed Senate McMullan's prediction that there will be a balance of trade surplus by the end of this decade.

Well, the National Party Leader, Tim Fischer, says the export boost is simply the result of recovery from a Labor-induced recession. Here's Senator McMullan's response.

BOB McMULLAN: Well, I have to say, I have been in politics 20 years. It is the most ignorant remark by an alternative deputy prime minister in those 20 years. What we're talking about is the proportion of GDP which is going to exports, so irrespective of the rate of growth, what we're talking about is how much of that growth is being created by exports. Also, quite evidently-because we gave him a copy of the document; it's a pity he didn't read it before he spoke - it also shows that this is a long-term trend over a decade, so he just absolutely failed to understand the first thing about this document.

CATHERINE JOB: Of course, a different argument runs that it was because of the recession that manufacturers started to send their goods offshore, their market not being good not enough domestically. So could this be attributed, nonetheless, to the recession?

BOB McMULLAN: It's just remotely possible that that's what made it start, because if you go through our history, there is a little bit of history to suggest that people have exported surplus capacity in recessions, but the tremendously important thing that this report shows is that for the first time, at least in the last 30 years - perhaps for the first time ever but the figures don't go that far - with the growth coming back, the exports are continuing. The export growth is actually being maintained.

CATHERINE JOB: Nonetheless, the Coalition believes more effort could be put into those bilateral rather than multilateral trade negotiations, Tim Fischer hinting, for instance, that a Coalition government could get quicker results on the difficult matter of high-speed ferry sales to America with a Cairns Group-type push by Australia; whereas, he seems to believe the Government's approach is rather laissez faire, believing it's too intractable a problem.

BOB McMULLAN: Tim had never heard of the Jones Act until I put out a report about it last year. Referring to it, I suspect, Tim is right. We do need to continue to focus on the Jones Act but, given that last July we made it the number one issue - or right at the top, equivalent with a couple of others - at the top of a new market access check list that we're working with the United States on, it is at the top of the priority list.

CATHERINE JOB: If we can turn, now, to the poll results published in yesterday's Sunday Age, and your role, of course, as a key Labor strategist for this election campaign. Not only do those results say there's a massive swing against the Government in four key marginal seats, but voters there seem unaffected by the industrial relations debate nominating, instead, the economy and unemployment as their main concerns. That's much harder ground for you to fight on, isn't it?

BOB McMULLAN: Well, no, I don't think so. But I have to say, very few of the major pollsters would take a poll in the first week of January. I mean, you just can't get a representative sample because so many people are away on holidays and that's why you find the major pollsters not reporting at this stage. So I don't take the poll very seriously, but I do accept-and I don't think there's anyone in Australia that doubts-that the Government continues to be behind in the polls.

CATHERINE JOB: On the matter, though, of what concerns those voters in those marginal seats....

BOB McMULLAN: Yes.

CATHERINE JOB: ... the economy and unemployment - much harder ground for the Government to fight on than industrial relations which you had hoped, of course, would move swinging voters away from the Opposition.

BOB McMULLAN: I still think it will but I have to say it's been the media that's been saying a scare campaign on industrial relations is the biggest issue in the election. It's not my view and, as far as I know, it's never been the Government's view, but industrial relations is a big issue and, as the facts come out, the contrast between Government and Opposition will become more apparent. But the big issues are: Who has got a vision for Australia? Where is Australia going to go in the next century? Do you want somebody who is going to be articulating and developing a strategy towards a vision? Or do you want someone who's spent 20 years being an ideological politician but now says: Look, I don't actually believe in anything; I'm just going to sit there and nothing will change; don't worry?

CATHERINE JOB: Do you really believe that is what will affect the swinging voters and not whether their kids can get a job, or whether they might lose theirs?

BOB McMULLAN: One is a consequence of the other. You shouldn't ever underestimate the voters. They're intelligent people, and they know that there is no jobs in the future, there is no potential for us to maximise the opportunities for our kids which is what we're all concerned about - the Government, families, you, everybody. Of course it's what we're all concerned about. We might disagree about the best way to do it. If there isn't a vision of where the country's going, a sense, for example, of looking and integrating with Asia, generating the job - taking advantage of the opportunities that are there, having a strategy to see to. That's what I mean by vision. I don't just mean some airy-fairy thing. I mean, something that says to them: This is where the opportunities are going to be for your children in the next century; we have got a sense of the direction of it and a strategy to get us there.

ELLEN FANNING: The Trade Minister, Senator Bob McMullan, and he was speaking, last night, to Catherine Job in Canberra.