SUBJECTS: The Food Pantry; Newstart; Pacific Islands Forum; Australia’s exportation of coal; Hong Kong protests; Brendan Nelson
ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Good morning. Today I have been at the Food Pantry in my electorate in the inner west of Sydney. What the Food Pantry does is provide food, some of it free, or fresh fruit and vegetables and bread, but also other food at a discount, that has been donated and given, for essentially the underprivileged in this community of which there is a substantial number. I have the largest number of boarding houses of any area in Sydney located around here. Amongst what is substantial wealth from a changing community, there is a great deal of poverty at the same time. That’s one of the reasons why I visited here again today. I’ve been a regular visitor in the past. One of the issues that are confronting this country is the state of Newstart. At a time where some people are doing very well, others are being left behind. Today I was shown around by young Hayden. He’s a young man trying to make the most of his life. From the age of 15 to 18, he was homeless and lived at Wentworth Park in Glebe. He’s someone who now has a Housing Commission house and is doing Work for the Dole here at the Food Pantry. But the truth is, he’s struggling to get by on a day to day basis. The level of Newstart simply isn’t enough, at $40 a day, to provide the essentials of life and to enable him to be able to be in a position to gain employment, which is what he wants to do to get proper training and to get employment. He also has been unable to get into a TAFE course. And we know that the cuts to TAFE have had a devastating impact on young people’s opportunities to get a job and indeed older workers to get retraining, if they’ve been under circumstances where they’ve found themselves unemployed and need to have that retraining to get a new job in a new profession.
So, I say to Scott Morrison that this is an example of a government that is arrogant in its third term. That won a victory on May 18th and has essentially conducted a victory lap around the first three weeks of Parliament and ever since. That they are out of touch. They’re out of touch with people on Newstart trying to survive on $40 a day. And they’re out of touch with many working families who have jobs but, wage stagnation is meaning that they’re simply not able to keep up with the costs of living, with the rising power prices due to the Government’s failure to have any energy policy, with rising costs of living particularly around a city like Sydney and other cities that have a higher cost of living, a higher cost of accommodation. So, Labor has called for an increase in the Newstart allowance. We think this is not a matter of, as Scott Morrison calls it, unfunded empathy. This is a matter of common sense. Not only would it be good for the individuals concerned, it would be good for the economy. Because the Reserve Bank of Australia and the Business Council of Australia, the Australian Industry Group, all of every economist around the country as well as the ACTU, ACOSS and welfare organisations are all saying that this would be good for the economy. Because if you are unemployed and on $40 a day, if that’s increased, then you don’t save it. Because you’ve already got to your rainy day. What you do is you spend it. That creates economic activity and that increases employment. Happy to take questions.
JOURNALIST: Are you concerned that the Prime Minister could walk away from the Pacific Islands Forum without agreeing to a communiqué
on climate change?
ALBANESE: Well, the Prime Minister is out of touch on so many issues. One of the issues he is out of touch on is climate change. This is a guy who just a couple of years ago was standing with the then Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, and Peter Dutton. And Peter Dutton was making jokes about our Pacific neighbours going underwater. They thought that was a great laugh because they didn’t notice the boom microphone which Scott Morrison pointed out to them. The fact is, that people in the Pacific Islands in particular are very aware of the consequences of climate change for their existence in some cases, like Tuvalu, where the conference is being held. The fact is that Scott Morrison needs to be a part of the global solution and in particular, needs to relate to the Pacific Islands. It’s no good going to a conference and reallocating $500 million of foreign aid with no new money and pretending that you’re making a big difference. Scott Morrison does not have a climate change policy. We do not have an energy policy in this country. Not only do Australians know that, our Pacific Island neighbours know that as well.
JOURNALIST: Mr Albanese could you live on $40 a day?
ALBANESE: No I couldn’t. And I know what it’s like to grow up in a household that is struggling to get by from day to day I grew up not too far from here with a mother, just two of us in the household, on a pension and from time to time we really struggled. And today, the fact that there’s been no real increase in Newstart for such a long period of time, it’s reached a point whereby the Government does need to act. Scott Morrison was asked by Labor that very question in the Parliament during the last session. He didn’t answer it. He responded with a rather contemptuous statement that this was unfunded empathy. Well it’s not. The way that I was raised was to have compassion for others who are less well-off. That was part of my upbringing and it is part of, I think, Australians’ concept of a fair go. And it’s not too much to ask that this be considered in a reasonable way given that so many in the community are calling for this to happen. The only person who seems to think that everything’s okay is Scott Morrison.
JOURNALIST: Just on Tuvalu, do you support some on the island saying we should cut our export of coal?
ALBANESE: Look, our export of coal will remain an important part of Australia’s economy. The fact is the global economy is transitioning. But coal will be a part of the energy mix for a period of time into the future. And so, in terms of the impact as well, to suggest that Australia which has high quality coal compared with what it would be replaced with is not necessarily a productive move forward.
JOURNALIST: Why do you think that these Pacific Island nations are more prepared to call Australia out on coal than they are on China?
ALBANESE: Well, I think that’s a matter for them. I’m not up to the position of being a spokesperson for Pacific Island nations. What I know is, and as I attended a couple of UN Framework Convention on Climate Change conferences a considerable period of time ago, more than a decade ago in Montreal and Nairobi, and what I know is that the Pacific Island states have been very consistent in calling out everyone in the global community, because they understand that they are literally at the front line of the impact of climate change.
JOURNALIST: The New Zealand Deputy PM raised the fact that some Pacific Islands need to remember that they are receiving coal-powered Chinese loans amid criticism of Australia’s contribution to slowing climate change. Do you think that is a valid point?
ALBANESE: Well, I’m not going to comment on what every country has said. What I know is that we need to act on climate change. We should be, in terms of doing our bit as good global citizens, we need to act as a nation state to do our bit. But we also need to be part of a global response and that response must include developing countries and countries like China need to do their bit as well.
ALBANESE: Do the growing reports of depression and suicide amongst people associated with low Newstart rate and the Robodebt concern you?
ALBANESE: Look, there’s a huge concern about mental health issues and people being under pressure because of their economic position that they’ve been forced to put in. If people don’t know where their next meal is going to come from, if they don’t know how they’re going to be able to pay their rent and they’re at risk of homelessness, then what will happen is that will have an impact on their mental as well as their physical health. That has an impact of course in their capacity then to get out of that position and to gain employment. It’s hard to have the confidence that you need to have a successful job interview if you are in a position whereby you’re not sure if you’re going to be able to eat on the next day literally.
So this is a common sense position and it’s one which a nation as wealthy as Australia should not have people put in that position, which is why Labor supports an increase in the Newstart. We’re trying to provide space for the Government to do the right thing here. That’s one of the reasons why we’re not playing a game of putting figures out there. We want a response from the Government because we can’t afford to wait for a change of government. The next election is three years away. So this is firmly in Scott Morrison’s court and I say that a country as wealthy as Australia should not be in this position of having this debate whereby virtually all of business, unions and civil society are as one on this issue.
It’s about time that Scott Morrison got on board and did the right thing and what he would find is that that would have not just a positive impact on the individuals but a positive impact on the economy.
JOURNALIST: Why do you think the Prime Minister is refusing to budge on increasing Newstart?
ALBANESE: I think this is a Prime Minister that’s completely out of touch. I think he just doesn’t get it. He is so full of himself after the May victory that he is responding to every issue with ‘she’ll be right, mate’ running around in a baseball cap pretending everything’s okay. The fact is that in terms of social justice issues and issues of poverty and alleviating poverty he’s ignoring the fact that $40 a day isn’t enough to live on.
But it goes to his general approach. On the economy he’s complacent as well. Just today we’ve seen the Australian stock market, this morning, fall by some two percent. We have economic growth that was downgraded last week by the Reserve Bank, the forecast from two and three quarters to two and a half percent, so it’s below trend. We have wage stagnation that isn’t keeping up with the cost of living. We have productivity growth that’s gone backwards for four quarters in a row. We have consumer demand that’s falling, including the lowest retail trade figures since the 1990s. We have across the board negative economic figures. The Reserve Bank have reduced interest rates to one per cent, one third of what they were during the Global Financial Crisis. They’re saying that monetary policy can’t do all the heavy lifting and we have a Prime Minister and a Treasurer who when questioned about these issues in Parliament and the first question I asked of the Prime Minister on day one of the 46th Parliament was, “which of wages, economic growth, productivity, consumer demand is going the best for the Government?” He ignored it all and pretended that it was all okay. It’s not okay on the economy. It’s not okay on people who are falling behind. It’s not okay on the failure to act on climate change.
This is a Government that thinks that May 18 was the end of it all and they’ll just put their feet up for three years without a plan for their third term in office. What is the reason for this Government continuing to exist? It’s beyond me. Beside Scott Morrison swanning around and doing victory laps as the Prime Minister. Full marks to him for winning the election but you should win an election with a purpose. There’s no purpose to this Government at the moment.
JOURNALIST: With heavy losses on the stock exchange, what specific concerns do you have about the economy?
ALBANESE: I have huge concerns about the economy. I have concerns in that there is no real plan for economic growth. There’s no bring forward infrastructure investment. The Government uses big figures but they’re off in the never-never. There’s no plan for skills and for actually training people. They’ve been complacent about that.The massive cuts to TAFE, for example, have had an impact because you can’t just flick the switch overnight and produce trained workers. So they are more and more relying upon importing labour rather than training Australians for jobs.
We have an increased level of poverty as a result of the level of Newstart. We have, in terms of the low consumer demand which is there, we have an increase in mortgage stress where increasingly numbers of Australians have negative equity in their homes, and we have a real pressure on people’s living standards. And the Prime Minister is complacent about it all. The Treasurer’s complacent about it all. They dismiss the HILDA report of last week, which is an economic analysis of impact on living standards. This is a Government that is simply out of touch and they need to, essentially, get their act together and have a plan of something other than begins with “This is a test for Labor”. That’s a sign of failure.
What a government in its third term should be doing is saying this is in the national interest. This is why we’re doing it in a positive sense. This is a Government that ran a campaign based upon negative messaging and it has continued it. This is an opposition in exile sitting on the Government benches and it’s about time they governed because they are in their third term and Australians elect a Government to do just that – to govern in the national interest. At the moment they’re not doing that. Last one.
JOURNALIST: Turning to Hong Kong. Do you think the Morrison Government is doing enough to voice its concerns about the situation in Hong Kong?
ALBANESE: Look, diplomacy occurs on two levels. One is making public statements and I certainly am very concerned about what is going on in Hong Kong and that the Government of the People’s Republic of China need to exercise restraint, need to recognise that people have a legitimate right to protest peacefully. I state that, the Government should state that as well. As well, there should be ‘quieter diplomacy’, if you like, can often be quite effective on an international stage. And I would hope that the Government is engaging in that through our Foreign Affairs officials. Australia does that very well. And certainly I’m sure that the appropriate officials are sending those messages.
Thanks very much.
I want to, on behalf of Labor, thank Brendan Nelson for his service. He has been a quite extraordinary leader at the Australian War Memorial. He has done an incredible job at lifting its profile up amongst Australians and indeed also international visitors. It is a sacred place for Australians. It’s one which we should all respect and it’s one which Brendan Nelson has brought his considerable capacity, enthusiasm and diligence in that job and I pay tribute to him. Whoever fills his shoes will have a daunting task because I can’t imagine that anyone could bring the same level of capacity, respect, enthusiasm and effectiveness to the job, and I pay tribute to Brendan Nelson.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.