SUBJECTS: Morrison Government’s $3.78 billion infrastructure package, floundering economy under Morrison and Frydenberg; Cory Bernardi.
ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Thanks very much for joining us. When I first became the Leader of the Labor Party, I stated there was a need to bring forward infrastructure investment. Today, what we see is a Government that has argued against that from day one, and is now capitulating and agreeing that there is a need to bring forward some investment due to the softening that is there in the economy. So, what we see today, though, is an announcement of $3.78 billion, counting state funds. But of that, of course, much of it is off in the never-never, still. What we also see is that that figure is less than the $5 billion underspend on infrastructure that we’ve seen since this Government came to office. That is the difference between what they’ve actually invested in dollars, creating jobs, creating projects and what they themselves have announced on Budget nights in each of their Budgets. What we want to see from this Government is actually delivery on the ground. Not like where I was in South Australia yesterday at Marion Road, where we had two million dollars for a planning study announced prior to the 2016 election. We saw the entire term pass to 2019 before we had another announcement. We still haven’t seen the planning study, let alone actual shovels in the ground and actual infrastructure work. We see a Government that has increased infrastructure investment with today’s announcement, but still doesn’t have an economic plan. No plan to deal with wages. No plan to deal with consumer demand. No plan to deal with productivity. No plan to deal with what we see is the lowest retail spending figures since the 1990s. What we want from this Government is a comprehensive economic plan to deal with the challenges which are there. And I note also that part of the commentary about this is about its delivery, it’s about skills shortages. Well, we announced in the first statement that we made, in terms of vision statements, we announced Jobs and Skills Australia. Precisely why this Government needs to get on with ensuring that we invest not just in infrastructure and capital, but we also invest in people and their skills so that the economy can expand. Jim?
JIM CHALMERS, SHADOW TREASURER: Thanks very much, Anthony. Today is an admission that the economy is much weaker than what Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg have been telling us. This is an admission that the economy has deteriorated since the election, but it’s not a comprehensive plan to turn things around. It’s an admission that the Morrison Government has got the economy badly wrong. But it’s not a comprehensive plan to boost an economy which has deteriorated on the Liberals’ watch. For months now, Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg have been saying that their policy settings are bang-on and that the fundamentals of the Australian economy are very strong. And with this announcement today, they are conceding, in a humiliating fashion, that both of those statements were wrong. Whatever the Government’s been doing in policy terms to now has not been working. Whatever the Morrison Government has been doing to date has been a recipe for the slowest economic growth in 10 years, weak retail sector, our weakest business investment since the early 90s, stagnant wages, almost 2 million Australians looking for work or more work, declining living standards, declining productivity. The list goes on and on and on. Today is more a response to political pressure than it is a response to the slowing economy. For months now, Labor under Antony’s leadership, the Reserve Bank, international organisations, economists and the business community have been crying out for action on this floundering economy. The Government has been refusing to act. And even today, they are refusing to act sufficiently to deal with the big economic challenges which have emerged on their watch and which they need to take responsibility for. Most of what’s being proposed today still won’t come in for the next couple of years. And the economy needs a boost right now. The economy needs a comprehensive plan to turnaround our weakening economy, deteriorating growth and stagnant wages. And what we’re seeing today is not that. The Prime Minister, in his press conference today, as always, is obsessed with the Labor Party. He wants to talk about the Labor Party to distract from his own failures on the economy. What we’re seeing now is very different to what we saw 10 years ago. What we are calling for, as is business, the Reserve Bank, economists and other experts is responsible and proportionate and measured stimulus so that the workers and businesses of this country get the assistance that they need and deserve. So that we can all work together to turn around an economy which has deteriorated under the leadership of Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg.
ALBANESE: Thanks very much. Happy to take questions.
JOURNALIST: On infrastructure, the Prime Minister describes his economic approach as responsible and sensible when compared to the “panic” and “waste” of the former Labor Government. How do you respond to this criticism?
ALBANESE: Have a look at what he’s actually said today and compare that with what he was saying weeks ago, whereas any infrastructure investment which we’ve been calling for was unnecessary. He was saying that he had the settings right. Today he has put his hand up and said he got the settings wrong. Just like yesterday, he put his hand up and said he got Robodebt wrong after saying that there was no problem with more than 200,000 Australians receiving debt letters for money that they didn’t owe. So, this is a Government that says that everything’s all hunky-dory. They’ve been on a victory lap since May 18. What they haven’t been doing is governing properly. And today, again, we saw in the Prime Minister’s announcement, him acting like an Opposition in exile on the Government benches, talking about the Labor Party rather than talking about what is actually required for the economy. What I want to hear from the Prime Minister is a plan for wages, is a plan for productivity, is a plan for consumer demand, and is a plan for nation building. I’m not seeing any of that because they’re too obsessed and too arrogant to concede that they are getting the fundamentals wrong of how they’re managing the economy.
JOURNALIST: A lot of Australians do like Scott Morrison’s approach and likes that he plays it on the safe side. Do you think that what you are proposing is a bit rapid?
ALBANESE: Not at all. We have called for measured and responsible stimulus. The Prime Minister talks about projects and makes announcements during the election campaign. For example, I’ve been up in Queensland, projects that won’t begin until 2026. Now, when people hear the announcements from the Government, they don’t expect that it’s completely off in the never-never. On the Princes Highway, myself and Michael McCormack put out a joint statement as the Minister and Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, calling upon action on the south coast. What we saw in the actual budget, though, when you look at the detail, is that hardly any of that money was flying in the next four years. Now, some of that apparently will be brought forward as part of that package. That’s a good thing. The problem for the Prime Minister is the difference between his rhetoric beforehand and his rhetoric after today can’t be reconciled because he said any bring forward of infrastructure investment wasn’t necessary.
CHALMERS: I think that if you’re one of the two million Australians who are looking for work or for more work, you wouldn’t consider his approach to be responsible. If you’re part of a small business in the retail sector, staring at the worst retail conditions we’ve had in this country for three decades, you wouldn’t consider the Prime Minister’s actions to be responsible. The Prime Minister’s behaviour to date has been characterised by complacency and by his complete refusal to understand what’s actually happening in the real economy in Australia. The economy has deteriorated while Morrison and Frydenberg have denied and dithered and delayed. And so if you’re part of the economy, which relies on consumption, which relies on business investment, which relies on all of the things that matter most to good growth in this economy and the distribution of opportunity in our society, then you’ve been left hanging by a Prime Minister who has spent all of this time pretending there’s nothing wrong with the economy and has been forced into this humiliating change today.
JOURNALIST: There are a lot of local councils and also state governments that will be happy with this $3.8 billion, getting money for local projects that they can get immediately. Are you saying that is not a good move economically?
CHALMERS: Well, we’ve made it clear for some time now, for almost every day of Anthony’s leadership, we’ve made it clear that we want to see more investment in infrastructure and we want to see that investment occur sooner. So, of course, local governments and state governments will do what they can to get the most they can from the Federal Government to invest in infrastructure. We are the infrastructure Party. Anthony has been the Infrastructure Minister and the Infrastructure Shadow Minister. We want to see more investment and we want to see it earlier. We understand that people have been crying out for that investment. Our beef is not with local governments. Our beef is not with state governments of either persuasion. Our beef is with the Federal Government, which has spent six months ignoring our calls for extra and earlier infrastructure investment while the economy has been running on fumes, largely, and has only been dragged kicking and screaming now to this announcement today to respond to political pressure and not because they understand what’s actually going on in the economy.
ALBANESE: And you don’t have to go to Labor Governments. Go to the New South Wales Berejiklian Government and ask them whether there’s been sufficient investment, including after today, in the Western Metro of which there is zero dollars from the Federal Government. And ask them about the infrastructure regarding the rail line through Badgery’s Creek Airport as well. There are a range of projects right here in Sydney that are deserving of support and bring-forward at a time when the benefit of that investment is that it doesn’t just disappear. It adds to productivity. It produces a return. It’s not dead money. That’s the beauty of infrastructure investment. And that’s why we’ve called for it. But this Government has cobbled together a series of projects. But there’s a whole range of projects as well that merit support of the Commonwealth that are not receiving them.
JOURNALIST: On another matter. Now that Cory Bernardi is handing his seat back to the Liberals, are you worried about how strong Morrison’s position in the Senate will be?
ALBANESE: I don’t see it as making a difference. I had Cory Bernardi in the ‘others’ column for every vote. And look, it’s a fact. I’ve said continuously that the Morrison Government have a majority in the House of Representatives and we have the most Conservative-friendly Senate since we’ve seen WorkChoices introduced, which led to the demise of the Howard Government, which is why they’re doing ‘WorkChoices Lite’ and they’re calling it the Ensuring Integrity Bill. The fact is that the Coalition are pretty close to a majority on most things. That’s something that we’ve said repeatedly. We are trying to be constructive and we’re prepared to engage with the Crossbenchers on issues. And we’re doing so. And we call upon those Crossbenchers… I mean, I’d rather, frankly, have someone who doesn’t pretend they’re not a Liberal than someone who pretends to be an Independent and just votes with them. You may as well be more honest and at least this will be more fair dinkum.
JOURNALIST: Bernardi has been no friend to the Labor Party, are you happy to see the back of him?
ALBANESE: It’s a matter for him. He’s retired, so I don’t wish him any ill will. I think he’s someone who genuinely holds his views. It’s just unfortunate that most of his views are wrong. Thanks very much.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.