May 2, 2014

Joint press conference – North Queensland

Subject/s: Commission of Audit Report Release; The Abbott Government’s Twisted Priorities and Broken Promises. Reef at risk under Abbott, Tony Abbott’s broken promises will hurt Far North Queensland

ANTHONY ALBANESE, SHADOW MINISTER FOR INFRASTRUCTURE, TRANSPORT AND TOURISM: Today we want to talk about the commission cuts that released its recommendations yesterday. What this is is a blueprint for to jobs, for lower growth and economy, for trashing the national economy. Far North Queenslanders should brace for cuts to education, cuts to health, cuts to jobs, cuts to support for the tourism sector either in the Budget in a week’s time, or whenever Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey have the chance, because we now know that they went to the election based upon a series of lies.

They had a plan to get into government, but they don’t have a plan to govern, except for vicious cuts and a redistribution of wealth from those who can least afford it to those who least need assistance. At the same time as they’re talking about massive cuts, every time you go to a doctor, every time you want your kid to get a decent education, they are implementing a more than $5 billion paid parental leave scheme. The fact is this: They inherited a strong economy, an economy with strong employment and economic growth, with inflation, with low interest rates, and with, importantly, a Triple A credit rating. Ever since they came into government, they have been attempting to create a case for massive cuts so they can put their conservative ideological agenda into practice.

What that means is privatisation of essential services, cuts particularly to regional Australia. Here in Cairns we can see what happens when you have a Commission of Audit made up of people from the top end of town in Sydney and Melbourne. They come up with recommendations that suit the top end of town in Sydney and Melbourne and ignore regional Australia. The commission says there should be no funding for regional support in Australia, that that should be left to states and local government. It comes up with the bizarre recommendation of states implementing their own income tax, and in my area of tourism, they come up with devastating recommendations.

Firstly, an end to all regional tourism grants, an end to the T-Qual scheme which has been cut by the incoming government, and a halving of funding for Tourism Australia.

Tourism Australia is the body out there promoting Cairns and Far North Queensland in India, in China, in Indonesia, and in the US, promoting tourism jobs and economic activity here in Far North Queensland. We know that are 4,000 small businesses here in Far North Queensland relating to the tourism sector. We know that tourism creates some 250,000 jobs in Queensland, 900,000 jobs nationally, 60,000 jobs directly created as a result of the Great Barrier Reef here, one of the world’s great iconic sites. And yet we have a proposition of cutting tourism funding in half, putting it back into the departments so that they lose the expertise and essentially have just a few bureaucrats running tourism agenda for Australia. This is an example of the short-sightedness of the Government’s approach, a short-sighted approach that would lead to cuts now, but much lower economic growth and therefore less jobs in the future. I might ask colleagues to comment.

MARK BUTLER, SHADOW MINISTER FOR ENVIRONMENT, CLIMATE CHANGE AND WATER: Thanks, everyone, for coming along. As Anthony has said, this Commission of Audit report is nothing short of a blueprint for a budget of broken promises and twisted priorities, whether you are an aged pensioner, a working family, a student or even a victim of natural disasters; no-one will be spared from the cuts that flowed from this devastating report yesterday.

In my portfolio of climate change and environment, the Commission of Audit has backed in the Government’s decision to get rid of all programs that seek to respond to the threat climate change and to abolish all independent agencies that are set up to provide governments and the community with good, independent scientifically based advice about climate change. Now, no-one knows more about the impact of climate change than communities in Far North Queensland because the Bureau of Meteorology, the CSIRO, NASA and countless other expert scientific agencies have told us that extreme weather events will be, and are already becoming, more frequent and more intense as a result of climate change.

Yet this Commission of Audit set up by Tony Abbott has recommended that the disaster recovery allowance, an income support payment for families and individuals who are not able to work as a result of the devastation of natural disasters, be abolished. This allowance is already, for example, being paid in the Hope Vale area as a result of Cyclone Ita, and this Commission of Audit has said that people, the victims of natural disasters are not deserving of government support. It’s hard to know where the end would be if aged pensioners are going to be attacked, if students are going to have to pay more to get an education to set up their future, or even victims of natural disasters, overwhelmingly here in Far North Queensland, will not be spared the cuts that flow from this Commission of Audit report. Jan?

JAN McLUCAS, SENATOR FOR QUEENSLAND: Thank you. Here in Cairns in Far North Queensland, we will be incredibly hurt by the recommendations of this Commission of Audit. As Anthony as described, cutting tourism funding for promotion of our assets would be devastating. We rely on tourism in this town and not being able to promote our product to the world will really affect our economy. We’re still suffering from the effects of the global financial crisis and any further cut will affect our economy dreadfully.

To add to that, to not be able to respond to climate change, as Mark has indicated, will leave us very vulnerable into the future. And particularly the point that Mark made about natural disaster and relief and recovery arrangements not being able to be used by our community, unfortunately a community that is most reliant on those services, will affect our economy. In my portfolio area of housing and homelessness, we see the recommendations from the Commission of Audit exactly mirroring the view of the current government, and that is to vacate the space, to move out of support for housing programs, and for homelessness programs. That will mean across the country that that responsibility will then rest with states and territories and we know that they are not capable and they’re not able with the income that they have, to be able to deliver these programs. These recommendations, if put into effect by the Government, will mean that the costs to the economy, the costs to vulnerable people, will be very difficult to bear.

JOURNALIST: Do you think UNESCO’s assertion that the Great Barrier Reef be declared a World Heritage area would better affect tourism to this area?

BUTLER: Well, there is no question. As Anthony said, there are 60,000 tourism jobs that are directly dependent on the Great Barrier Reef, about $6 billion in economic turnover, much of it for Far North Queensland, but going right down the Queensland coast. So the health of the reef is obviously, from an environmental point of view, a very important thing for Australia. But from an economic point of view, particularly with tourism jobs, it is critical we do everything possible to maintain the health of the Great Barrier Reef. Now, UNESCO has released a draft report this week about a meeting in June that will consider whether or not to place the reef on the endangered list, and we know, and Anthony and Jan and I are talking to tourism operators later today here in Cairns, that if the Reef were placed on the Endangered List, there would be devastating consequences for the tourism industry, devastating consequences for the attractiveness of this part of Queensland, to Reef tourism in the eyes of people all across the world. So this report is a wake-up call to Campbell Newman and to Greg Hunt to get serious about looking after the health of the Reef.

There are three points that this report makes, very point important points. The first point it makes is that it does not support Tony Abbott handing over all of the environmental powers that the Commonwealth has had for decades, going back to the Franklin Dam campaign, to Campbell Newman. Tony Abbott wants to give Campbell Newman entire power to determine what developments take place that will impact on World Heritage areas, including the Great Barrier Reef. UNESCO has said they’re very concerned about that. UNESCO has also sounded a note of caution about Campbell Newman’s decision to reverse a decade of fantastic reforms around land clearing, particularly here in Queensland, and UNESCO has said that that has the potential to have very serious consequences for the Reef. Now, we are happy that UNESCO is not going to place the Reef this year on the endangered list, but Campbell Newman and Greg Hunt should be under no illusion; we are not out of the woods on this. This is just a stay until next year when UNESCO will again revisit the whether the Reef should be put on the Endangered List. It’s time that Tony Abbott got serious about protecting the Reef and reverses his decision to hand over environmental powers from the Commonwealth to Campbell Newman because Campbell Newman has shown he is just not up to the job in protecting Queensland’s environment.

JOURNALIST: UNESCO also criticised the Government’s decision to approve the dredging at Abbot Point. Would you have approved that, given that they have now criticised that and it could possibly lead to the Reef being put on the endangered list?

BUTLER: You’re right, UNESCO has criticised the Government for approving the dredging and dumping of 3 million cubic metres of dredge spoil in the marine park area and they’ve done that because we’re still in the process of preparing a Strategic Assessment of the reef, the Commonwealth and the state governments, to go to UNESCO. I wasn’t at the point as Environment Minister in the last government of making a decision about Abbot Point, but just before the election I had released a number of reports that had been prepared as part of the Strategic Assessment that were very concerning to me about the dredging and dumping of spoil in the Marine Park area. In particular, there was a scientific report that cast doubt on the existing advice that I had received about how far the dredge spoil would move after it was dumped and the length of time during which the spoil will continue to move around the Reef and cover up grass and coral.

So I put a halt to consideration of Abbot Point. I asked for advice about that report. That advice obviously hasn’t come to me; it has gone to Greg Hunt because of the change of government. I think it’s important that Greg Hunt is open with the community, particularly the community in Queensland, about what advice he received on that very concerning scientific report. Greg Hunt has said there were no alternatives to the Abbot Point decision. It is very clear, and I was discussing with the proponents before the election, that there was an alternative to have a longer jetty, a longer trestle that would not have required dredging of 3 million cubic metres of dredge spoil in the Abbot Point area. Greg Hunt has not told the Queensland community whether he considered that alternative, and if he did, why he rejected it in place of dredging that much spoil and dumping it into the Marine Park area.

JOURNALIST: Sorry, are you saying you don’t have enough information to say whether you’d approve it or not?

BUTLER: That’s right. I put those reports out for submissions. Those submissions ended up being made to Greg Hunt. A number of us in the community, the Parliament, and in the organisations and tourism operators have been asking for Greg Hunt to come clean about what advice he received about that report, and other reports, about the impact that dredging and dumping from Abbot Point would have on the Reef.

JOURNALIST: [Shadow] Minister Albanese, the report is very clear, though, that massive budget cuts are needed to save the Budget. What do you believe should be done to save the budget?

ALBANESE: Well, the report isn’t clear about that. What is clear is that Australia has a AAA credit rating. What you always need to do with budgets, is reflect the government’s priorities. This government’s priority is hitting pensioners, abolishing the universality of Medicare, making education less affordable – at the same time as they look after those who least need support through their expensive, unaffordable paid parental leave scheme. That’s what this Government’s priorities are. That’s why they’re wrong. And if you have a series of cuts, such as the cuts to tourism, that will lower future economic growth and therefore lower future revenues to government. Then you are essentially cutting off your nose to spite your face. You are having a negative impact on the long-term of the budget.

JOURNALIST: Do you support any of the recommendations in the audit?

ALBANESE: Look, I’m sure there are some recommendations that I would support. What I’ve seen so far, though, is a series of privatisation cuts, a series of privatisations of organisations such as Australia Post, which provide services to regional Australia. People in Far North Queensland, indeed wherever they are in regional Australia will know, that if Australia Post is privatised, they will lose. They won’t get the same service that they get today. Just as tourism operators know that if you have a halving of funding for Tourism Australia, then what you will have is less paid jobs created, less income tax paid by those people who work in the tourism sector, and a downward spiral in terms of growth.

That’s the problem with this report. This report is essentially just an ideological playbook from the conservatives. In the tourism sector, they shouldn’t be surprised because we don’t even have a Tourism Minister. The Abbott Government showed their hand on Day One that they don’t understand how important tourism is for the national economy when they failed to appoint anyone to be the Tourism Minister. It’s no wonder when tourism doesn’t have an advocate around the Cabinet table.

JOURNALIST: Do you think any cuts need to be made and if they do, where?

ALBANESE: Governments always need to look at their priorities, but what they need to look at is not cuts for people that can least afford it, not cuts which will hinder Australia’s performance in the long-term. If you cut education, for example, and this report recommends stopping the Gonski reforms, if you stop providing that reform, then what you will have is worse education, less opportunity, less ability for people to lift themselves up and to create economic growth in the future. This is a very short-sighted approach from a mean-spirited government that is out of touch with average Australians.

We have seen in terms of the recommendations, in terms of pensions that they’re going to change – they want to change the asset test to tax the family home, they want to introduce a new tax and they’re calling it a levy. I mean, does anyone actually believe that Tony Abbott doesn’t understand that a tax is a tax, and that is exactly what they are proposing. This is essentially a book of broken promises to be implemented by the Abbott Government over a period of time. I’m sure that when the Budget comes out, they will say, “Look, we only implemented half of the cuts or a third of the cuts.” But what people know from this day on is that these are the cuts that are coming if they get a mandate to do it. They’ve already broken so many promises in such a short period of time. No government in Australia’s history has broken cuts across every single one of the portfolios in the first six months. That’s what they’ve done – walking away from all of the promises that they made.

JOURNALIST: [Shadow] Minister, there was evidence in the ICAC hearing yesterday relating to Joe Tripodi and Eric Roozendaal, relating to allegations of smear campaigns and bribery. What’s your response to that?

ALBANESE: My response is the ICAC is doing its job. They will continue to do their job and they should do it free from political interference.

JOURNALIST: Just regarding the link between business and tourism here in the Far North and obviously our links with Asia, two other audit things that came up in the audit were the axing of the Asian business engagement plan and also the axing of industry support for exporters right in the middle of trying to get our cattle export market off the ground. Can you comment?

ALBANESE: This is extraordinary. Here we have recommendations to cut exports, the abolition of all of the export grants, the-abolition of other support that is there for Australian businesses engaging with Asia in our region. This is a a contractionary narrow-minded approach that they have right across the board, and it’s particularly damaging for regional Australia and particularly damaging here in Far North Queensland.

JOURNALIST: Shouldn’t Labor put forward a clear plan of what should be cut, though, in order for it to be a credible Opposition?

ALBANESE: We certainly will be putting forward our positive plans. We’ve done that. Our plan is to not cut pensions. Our plan is to support the Gonski reforms and support opportunity. We support Medicare being universal so that everyone in Australia gets the health assistance that they need. That’s our plan and it’s a plan for economic growth and job creation. Our plan is to support the tourism and the export sector. The Government’s plan is completely devastating, and it is completely in contradiction of everything that Tony Abbott said prior to his won’t election.

JOURNALIST: So you won’t say what you would cut then, other than, for instance, the paid parental leave?

ALBANESE: Well, we’ve put forward our plans and our views are there for all to see; on education, tourism, on the environment, and on housing. We don’t support this cut-to-the-bone approach, which will lead to lower economic growth. This is a very short-sighted approach that the Government has and it is counter-productive because it will lead to less growth with less jobs.

JOURNALIST: Senator McLucas, just a couple more questions if I can specific to Far North Queensland, and the problems faced in certain areas. One is this idea of a leaner dole forcing those who aren’t in work to move to areas of work. Up in the Cape, obviously, this isn’t necessarily an option. Can you speak about how this would affect our Far North Queensland young people, for instance?

McLUCAS: Well, we know that our unemployment rate particularly for young people is over 25 per cent. If you were to take the proposal to its fruition, that would mean that young people in Cairns are forced to move out of our city. Is that a good answer for the economy of Cairns? I don’t think so. But for areas further afield, particularly in Cape York Peninsula, that would mean the decimation of many of the communities on Cape York.