Subjects: Labor’s plan to increase regional road investment; Abbott Government’s $80 billion cuts to health and education; Pensions; Mandatory sentencing for trafficking of illegal fire arms; National Security; Citizenship.
BILL SHORTEN, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: Today, the Labor caucus has met and we have resolved to compromise on a very difficult issue. Labor has looked at the choice between handing back the Government’s fuel excise to oil companies or providing better funding for regional and suburban roads. Labor is prepared to work with the Government on this measure. We believe that the Government should accept our compromise, our proposal, which says we will support their measure in return for $1.1 billion of this excise being spent on roads, both in regional Australia and suburban Australia. This is a good idea because it goes some way to addressing the $15 billion local government infrastructure debt by providing a billion dollars plus on roads in the next two years. What we want to do is see confidence being built. We want to see extra jobs being created. We certainly don’t want to see Australians’ money being handed to oil companies and we are also very committed in a sensible issue by issue fashion towards tackling the doubling of the deficit by the Government from last year to this year and we will step up, if the Government and only if the Government accepts this proposal from Labor to put jobs first and oil companies second. I would like to ask my colleagues to talk further about this offer from Labor to help provide a breakthrough, a circuit breaker to the Government’s impasse on fuel excise. Chris Bowen then Anthony Albanese.
CHRIS BOWEN, SHADOW TREASURER: Thank you, Bill. Joe Hockey has doubled the Budget deficit over the last 12 months and today the Labor Party is showing that we are prepared to take difficult decisions to deal with that issue. Today, we are saying if the Government’s prepared to provide the equivalent of two years, the first two years of the revenue from the indexation of petrol excise to local government to fund important infrastructure right across the country, then we will support that measure. Our announcement today does a few things. Firstly, it provides an important economic stimulus. Local government has projects ready to go right across the country. But they haven’t been able to be funded. The Government has cut indexation of grants to local Government and Labor is stepping in to assist to fill that breach. That is important for our economy. Secondly, because of the Government’s tactics, the Parliament would have been faced with a difficult decision, to refund the indexation already raised, the revenue already raised from indexation not to motorists but oil companies. Not something that the Labor Party is prepared to see happen. Now, the ball is in the Government’s court. The Labor Party makes this offer to the Government in good faith. It is now for the Government to consider their position. We make this offer in a spirit of ensuring that local government gets the support it needs to build roads right across the country. That is what this is for. It also ensures a contribution to the long term health of the Budget. The long term health of the Budget which is important. That is what the Australian people want. Politicians focusing not on today, not on next week but on the next 10 years which is the approach Labor has taken. Labor is more than prepared to make difficult decisions. This was a difficult decision for us, for our ERC, our shadow cabinet and our Caucus. We don’t like to see petrol taxes going up at all, but difficult decisions are necessary and Labor is prepared, where we can, to make a positive contribution to do so and that is the offer today to the Government and it is up to the Government now to respond.
ANTHONY ALBANESE, SHADOW MINISTER FOR INFRASTRUCTURE AND TRANSPORT: Thanks very much Bill and Chris. This is a responsible decision, it is a pragmatic decision but it is the right decision. I have been having discussions with the motorist’s organisations, with local government about these issues and about infrastructure for some time. Why is Roads to Recovery the appropriate vehicle to benefit from the proposal that we are putting to the Government today? Roads to Recovery is paid to every local government in the land. It is paid proportionately so that those councils that will benefit the most if the Government takes up this offer are those in regional communities and those in outer suburban communities. Those drive in, drive out suburbs who will, of course, pay more, in terms of if you’re in a regional community or in an outer suburban community. We looked at other options. The difficulty with the proposal of channelling this money into public transport, for example, is that it is difficult to see how you could benefit the whole of Australia by funding just one or two projects and of course, in a week where the regional rail link in Victoria, benefitting 54,000 additional commuters every day in Melbourne, Ballarat, Bendigo and Geelong is open. Our record on public transport investment is there for all to see and literally, there to experience. We will have more to say about public transport, consistent with our approach into the future, prior to the next election. This proposal benefitting Roads to Recovery at a time where $925 million was cut from financial assistance grants in the Abbott Government’s first Budget will go some way to making sure that immediate job creation occurs and that we fix some of the local roads that councils look after. 75 per cent of our road network is looked after by local government. The benefit of roads to recovery, as opposed to major infrastructure projects, is that it is labour intensive rather than capital intensive. Most of this injection of investment, $1.1 billion, will go to job creation, directly in local communities according to the priorities that are set by those local communities, those 565 local councils. That is why I would urge the Government to take up this offer to ensure that we don’t have a situation come August whereby rather than motorists benefitting in those local communities, the big oil companies receive a refund.
JOURNALIST: Mr Shorten is this an admission that you were wrong to oppose this policy and recognition that you’ve been a policy free-zone?
SHORTEN: This was a very difficult decision. Let’s look at the circumstances since the Government first introduced this. On one hand it is a matter of record that from 2014 to now, this Government, the Abbott Government has doubled the deficit. But furthermore, Australians were presented with Hobsons choice. On the one hand if Labor didn’t compromise, if we weren’t pragmatic, if we weren’t willing to be reasonable what would happen is all the money that Australian motorists had paid would go back to oil companies by the way in which they engineered the regulations. So I can tell you, when Labor has a choice between giving Australian money to oil companies or ensuring that we can have $1.1 billion worth of road construction, worth of jobs, confidence, stimulus, we’ll always pick Australians over oil companies.
JOURNALIST: What you are doing today is backing a tax increase. You said that this was a tax, a big tax on everything, it was going to hurt ordinary people, that it was going to turn every petrol bowser into a tax collection agency for a rotten Budget. You said it was going to hit low to middle income Australians. You said it was a bad idea. You said it was a rotten idea. You said you’d never support it. Something has changed very profoundly or have you over egged that. What’s changed?
SHORTEN: In a beauty parade, between giving money to oil companies and putting money back into Australian roads, generating jobs and confidence, it is clear which way Labor has to go. We’re making the difficult decision because what Australians want at the moment is they want less of, you know, Liberal versus Labor on every issue and the politics and negativity. What we’re demonstrating, with my Shadow Treasurer and my Shadow Infrastructure Minister and myself, is Labor is willing to show leadership. We are willing to compromise because we understand that the price of not compromising would have left all Australians far worse off than they otherwise would.
JOURNALIST: Mr Shorten, you say the money would go to oil companies, just to clarify, that would only be in this first year wouldn’t it? After that it would be money in the pockets of the motorists?
SHORTEN: Well how much money do you want to give an oil company before you think it is a good idea.
JOURNALIST: It’s a small amount in the first year though isn’t?
SHORTEN: Well again, if you ask Australians do they want to have the money that they’re paying spent on roads or going to petrol companies I know what Australians think. We didn’t create the set of circumstances and let’s talk very straight here. You all know, you all covered the 2014 Budget. First of all the Government surprised everyone with their broken promises and then they’ve said that they were to have a deficit of a certain number. Their deficit in 2014 was about $17 billion I think and imagine how disappointed Australians are that within 12 months their second Budget, the Abbott Government’s second Budget brought down by Joe Hockey, has a deficit of $35 billion. These are changing circumstances with a Government not able to manage its books and furthermore, again, what we’ve come up with, through the good and creative thinking of my team is not a proposal which will just see the money not go anywhere or go to petrol companies. We’ve got a system which will see local councils who have had savage cuts as Anthony’s said – $925 million, what we’re doing is putting money back into local communities for local roads, for local motorists. The more that you drive, the more that you pay, the more you benefit from this measure.
JOURNALIST: Sorry, in the last month Labor’s now agreed to pass $7.5 billion in savings over four year forward estimates, tax free threshold [inaudible]. Is that a recognition that if you win the – if you win the next election, your own revenue options are limited and in that vein, will you reverse the pension cuts that went through the Senate last night if you win the 2016 election?
SHORTEN: Well there’s a number of propositions in what you’ve put Phil so I’m going to ask Chris to go to some of them. But understand, Labor’s changing the political game here. We’re changing the rules of the game on Tony Abbott. We’re saying that we put Australians ahead of the political games. We’re saying that we don’t want petrol companies to get this money. We’re saying that we do want to see jobs in local communities and our outer suburbs and our regions. Labor’s saying, and yes we are certainly are preparing to be competitive in the next election. With Labor what you get is pragmatic consideration of the ideas based on all the facts as situations change. That’s who we are and we’ll always put Australian jobs and Australian families first. I’ll just pass you over to Chris to follow up on some of the other matters.
BOWEN: Thanks Bill. Well clearly the Budget deficit has doubled over the last 12 months. That means that everybody in this building needs to make difficult decisions. Having doubled on Joe Hockey’s watch, it is everybody’s responsibility to make a contribution. As Bill has said and we’ve all said, it is not an easy decision for the Labor Party but we know, of course, that this is a decision which some people will be unhappy about. But we are happy to make difficult decisions, not unfair decisions. Now in relation to the announcements we’ve made recently, the dependence spouse tax offset was actually a new measure in the 2015 Budget, I saw some reporting saying it was a change of Labor’s position, that’s not actually quite right. It is a new measure in the Budget which we indicated we could support, in many instances finished a process begun under the Labor Government. In relation to the personal income tax cuts, again, having a look at the Budget situation, the doubling of the Budget deficit, it’s not a situation where the Labor Party could continue to resist that proposition before the Parliament because ultimately, ultimately the Australian people look to the Government and the alternative Government to show a responsible approach. We’ve always said where there’s something that is fair, we will back it. If it is unfair we will oppose it all the way, as we’ve done on many instances in this Government’s successive unfair Budget.
JOURNALIST: You talked about this new pragmatism. You guys are yet to answer the question about whether you would reverse the decision on pensions. But further to that, can you tell us what you would do with the $80 billion in health and education cuts, as you saw them, in last year’s Budget. Would you reverse those too?
SHORTEN: Well first of all, I am sorry, Phil did ask that question at the tail-end of his other questions about pensions. Labor will always stand up for pensioners and fight for the pension. We’re the ones who’ve blown the whistle on Tony Abbott’s breaking of election promises. Let us not let Tony Abbott off the hook. You’ve all seen that famous footage of him the night before the election, September the 6th, the last roll of the dice, Tony Abbott’s asking people to vote for him. He says there’ll be no cuts to pensions. Yet he’s broken that promise time and time again. We will have to measure the impact of these changes, we will watch the impact of these changes and as time proceeds we’ll develop our policy for the next election.
In terms of the health care cuts and the education cuts, I’m glad that your question recognises there are $80 billion worth of cuts. Like you, we turn up to Question Time every day and we see the Prime Minister constantly mislead Australia saying there are no cuts. You know how we runs the argument, he says that because there is any increase in education funding, that wipes away the fact that the promise he made of being on a unity ticket on education before the election, that like it’s air brushed out of history, that never happened. Furthermore, when he talks about that sort of false test where he says States run schools – well your States are responsible for the administration of schools, they do pay the teachers, we get that. But what he never then says is it’s the Commonwealth who’s a large funder of the schools. So we know that the education system in Australia is heading to a cliff if this Government carries out its massive cuts.
In terms of our policies, what I can say to Australians as we develop them, in terms of how we help Australian schools, Labor is always a better bet to fund schools better than the Liberals. And as for the health cuts, the $50 billion, I don’t know what is going on in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, but this idea that you’ve got people proposing policies that totally step out of the funding of hospitals, the Commonwealth totally steps out. This is the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Prime Minister can’t be too cute and say that a Federation Green Paper which would be a flagship of what he’s proposing, that he sort of disowns it all at the start. The point about it is what happens if the Commonwealth gets out of hospital funding or indeed just does the $50 billion worth of cuts that the Government are now definitely doing, longer waiting times for elective surgery, lesser funding for emergency wards. This is an immediate threat to the health of Australians.
JOURNALIST: What have you done in terms of getting in touch with Mr Abbott? Have you written to him with this offer and will you be sitting down personally with him?
SHORTEN: I’m happy for Chris to talk a bit further about the offer but let’s be clear I’m hoping that this offer has been well and truly conveyed by yourselves to the Government.
BOWEN: Just to deal with the matter, we are making this offer now to the Government. I spoke to the Treasurer a short time ago and obviously to the Finance Minister but I don’t speak for the Government. I would be cranky if they spoke on my behalf and they would be cranky if I spoke on their behalf. They obviously will need to consider their position and respond accordingly.
JOURNALIST: Mr Shorten, if you are returned to Government will you return the $50 billion in health cuts that you say are there and the $30 billion in education cuts, will you put that money back?
SHORTEN: Sorry, I sort of thought I dealt with that with Andrew, but I will repeat it. We know one, that the Government said before the last election, remember that, you know, it is compulsory viewing SBS, September 6, Etihad stadium – Tony Abbott said there would be no cuts to health, no cuts to pensions, no cuts to education, he’s broken his promise ever since then. Now what we’ve seen is $80 billion worth of cuts being proposed by the Government in education and health, and I’m glad your question recognises that, because every person in Australia knows it except the Government is not willing to admit it. In terms of what we will do, we’ll unveil our policies but we are always a better bet based upon our history to better fund health care and education than the Government.
JOURNALIST: So Gonski’s dead. The Gonski reforms are dead, right?
SHORTEN: That is a very dramatic statement.
JOURNALIST: Will Labor bring them back to life?
SHORTEN: Labor has never given up on needs-based funding. Let us be very clear- we will take a policy to the next election – let me even go passed yourselves to parents, kids and teachers. Labor will have a needs-based funding approach which assures that Australian children, according to their need, receive improved funding for their education. There is nothing more important for a nation than to give our next generation the best start in life. Now we want to make sure if kids are in small schools or if kids are in the regions or if kids come from indigenous backgrounds or if kids come from low SES areas, that they get the same deal in terms of education as every other child in Australia, that will be our policy, and we will continue to unveil it as we approach the election.
JOURNALIST: Do you think crocodile safari hunting should be allowed across Northern Australia? Nigel Scullion says it’s very close.
SHORTEN: I honestly don’t know. In terms of crocodile hunting, we will take that on notice. You boys can add in on that if you want?
BOWEN: No, yours is just fine.
ALBANESE: No, no crocodiles on the roads.
JOURNALIST: On Tony Abbott’s promises, you said that you enumerate some of them on health and education and why it is so bad that he has broken those promises. You are standing here today helping him break another promise on no increased taxes and no new taxes. What is the difference between pragmatism and hypocrisy?
SHORTEN: I agree with your proposition that Tony Abbott’s broken promises in education, health and indeed taxes and petrol; you’re right, spot on, can’t disagree with it. But what I also say is that Tony Abbott having done this, in terms of petrol excise, I think all reasonable people would say do you want the money to go to a petrol company or do you want the money to go into roads? That is the Labor Party I lead. We will always choose jobs. We will always choose the regions and our suburbs over some sort of political game. Tony Abbott has played political brinksmanship. What we’re saying is that don’t do any more of this sort of political games. Let’s put Australia first. I lead an Opposition who many of you have said we have to be more willing to compromise and cooperate. What we’re seeing today is leadership from Labor, faced with an unenviable choice and a difficult decision; we will choose jobs, roads, councils, motorists, not oil companies.
JOURNALIST: Is this motivated by wanting to gazump the Greens after the pension deal last week – how much of this was motivated by that?
SHORTEN: I’ve got my colleagues, I can hear they want to answer this, but let me go first on this one. The Greens deal last week, what did they actually get? They got the extension of a submissions deadline for six weeks. That is not a deal. That is a con job by Tony Abbott.
JOURNALIST: Just on citizenship, will you now support what the Government is putting forward?
SHORTEN: Well let me again restate our principle position which we have had all along. Labor supports the extension on principle of people who take up arms against Australia, who fight for another country, the extension of that definition to people who take up arms against Australia working for a terrorist organisation. The questions remain, we haven’t seen the legislation. The Government has offered us a briefing for tomorrow which we will accept. But why has it taken 18 months for the Government to bring in this legislation? You look at the transcripts, Government ministers have been talking about this for 18 months. Furthermore, this has been a tortured process from within the ranks of the Government. Many of you talk privately to Liberal ministers; you know they’ve been divided. We have seen the Solicitor-General’s opinion apparently contradict what the Government immediately wanted to do. We have seen the Independent National Security Monitor verballed by the Prime Minister. Labor is hoping when we look at this legislation, that we have already had a win, that we’ve already moderated what might have been a truly unenforceable, unjudiciable law. It is in no national security interest for the Government to put up a law for political purposes which couldn’t actually be enforced. For us the real enemy is terrorism, it is not the Government.
JOURNALIST: Mr Shorten, you said before that you were trying to rewrite the rules of the game. Isn’t it the case that in this game they played and you lost, you have been outfoxed and outmanoeuvred and wedged?
SHORTEN: What we believe is the Government broke a promise when they introduced this petrol tax. So first of all, anyone who rewards the Government and says they have been clever by breaking a promise, I think misunderstands the Australian –
JOURNALIST: Well you’re rewarding them, you’re agreeing to their policy.
SHORTEN: You’re pretty sophisticated; you understand that the Government was presenting us with two choices and the deadline was fast approaching – it was August. What do we do, do we say hand taxpayer money to oil companies or do we try and ensure that we can put roads funding first, that we can put jobs in council areas first, confidence, stimulus in our suburbs and regions.
JOURNALIST: Why didn’t you say that at the outset Mr Shorten?
SHORTEN: Well first of all, the Budget deficit then was $17 billion. You know it’s amazing that under Mr Abbott and Mr Hockey they have doubled the deficit in 12 months. That is an amazing that outcome, and unfortunately it puts pressure on everyone to have to make hard and difficult decisions. As Chris said, this is a difficult decision. We offer it to the Government though because Australians want this Parliament working, they don’t want everyone at each other’s throats.
JOURNALIST: Can I just get clarity on your position on pensions, despite opposing the Government’s pension’s cuts, its reforms, you can’t give a commitment going into the next election that you are going to restore that funding. What is your position? Are you going to keep that save or are you going to restore that funding?
SHORTEN: We are going to measure the impact and monitor the impact of these changes. There is 330,000 part pensioners who’ve just basically been mugged by the Government. There is the prospect that 700,000 Australians who are approaching retirement in the next 10 years, one in every two, stand now to lose the pension. We think there is significant unfairness. We will measure and monitor the impact of this Government decision now the Greens and the Liberals have combined to break their promises. In terms of unveiling our own funded election policies, we will do that closer to the election, not today Joe.
JOURNALIST: How will you monitor the impact before the election? The changes don’t apply though to 2017.
SHORTEN: Well we’ll talk to people about the measurement of their incomes and how they model it. You know this whole government, you know the Government have said they’re going to have an assets test above – I think it is $289,500 for a single or $451,000 for a couple pensioner. You know, in those assets includes your motor car, your white goods, your Manchester. We’ve got to see exactly – I don’t think the Government quite understands how unfair what they have done is. We will talk to people – National Seniors is up in arms over it. We will be monitoring the impact of that and as we get closer to the election, appropriately will unveil our policies. Two more questions please.
JOURNALIST: Mr Shorten, the Federal Government wants mandatory minimum 5-year sentences for people who are caught trafficking illegal firearms. Labor’s previously said no to this suggestion. It is back before the House of Reps today. Is it something you will reconsider and potentially support?
SHORTEN: We will weigh up the issue. We have said about mandatory sentencing in the past, we don’t want it to have an untoward effect on policing. There are pros and cons, and like so many issues to do with security and law and order, you want to make sure we understand the detail. On one hand, some police say that it’s a good thing. On the other hand others say well if you’ve got a sort of, of a drug mule or someone – not a drug mule but someone low down in a criminal hierarchy, if they face mandatory sentencing, it becomes hard for the police to unravel a crime network and get to those at the top of the tree. Last question thanks.
JOURNALIST: Mr Shorten, do you think too much focus has been put on the citizenship element of the counter-terrorism range of measures, do you think more focus should be put on de-radicalisation efforts here at home? Do you think there is this debate about citizenship has overtaken the debate somewhat?
SHORTEN: Well it’s important that we have the best legal tools to back up the efforts of our security agencies and it is also important that we support our communities and minorities in our community with de-radicalisation. I like I think most Australians, we deplore terrorism and I suspect like most Australians, the news overnight that one, maybe two Australian terrorists have been killed – truthfully, that is what happens when you go to conflict zones and also, I like most Australians will probably not be shedding any tears about the reported death of these terrorists, if correct. But in terms of how we fight it, you’re quite right on part of your question – the strength of Australia is our multiculturalism. The strength of Australia is that we are from many countries and we become one here. It is important that majorities never persecute or put down minorities. We need to work with communities to help de-radicalise, as well as making sure that our law enforcement agencies and our national defence have the best resources possible. Thanks everyone see you in Question Time.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.