Jan 22, 2013

Transcript of Interview with Chris Smith – 2GB

SUBJECTS: Souths; Southern Sydney Freight Line; Northern Sydney Freight Corridor Upgrade; High Speed Rail; unemployment benefits; mining tax

CHRIS SMITH: Minister, good morning.  Happy New Year to you.

ANTHONY ALBANESE: G’day Chris.  Good to talk to you.

CHRIS SMITH: And hopefully the Bunnies have a good year for 2013 too.

ANTHONY ALBANESE: It’s going to be a cracker year.  We’ve bought well I think and it’s fantastic that Beau Champion’s come back.

CHRIS SMITH: Yes, a real son of the Club.

Okay, the Southern Sydney Freight Line.  It looks impressive, we’ve seen the piccies.  Okay, it’s over budget, three years late, what isn’t?  But how will it make a difference to freight up and down our coast?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Look this is just a great project.  It’s taken, along with other work we’re doing on the route, seven hours off the trip from Brisbane to Melbourne.  What that means simply is that putting freight on the rail becomes much more competitive, much more attractive.  It takes trucks off the road and puts freight on the rail which is good for our economy.

Secondly, in terms of what it does for Sydney, by separating the passenger and the freight lines it also makes significant improvement for the CityRail network as well.

And together with the Northern Sydney Freight Line where construction has already commenced – that is something where the Federal Government is committing $840 million – you’ll see a similar separation of freight and passenger rail around Strathfield and up through the northern corridor.

Previously, what use to happen – I mean it’s amazing that up until yesterday freight trains essentially couldn’t operate to the Port of Botany, the main Sydney port, for eight hours a day during the morning peaks and afternoon peaks because passenger trains would quite rightly get priority.

CHRIS SMITH: But incredibly unproductive – that system.

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Absolutely.  To just say we’re not going to move freight in the morning between seven and 11am and we’re not going to move freight in the afternoon from three to seven is quite extraordinary and that’s why it was an extremely complex project, it was expensive.

It’s important to note that that’s not just a cost, it’s an investment because the Australian Rail Track Corporation charge their customers and what we’re seeing is companies like Woolworths moving their dry goods off heavy vehicles onto rail for those long journeys between Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.  That’s got to be a good thing for the economy, it’s good for the environment and it’s good for road safety if we have heavy vehicles off the road.

CHRIS SMITH: So the archaic situation where around the busiest hubs on the rail network, the passenger rail transport is not competing with the freight rail transport has got to be a great thing.

Well, therefore, if we’re now sort of entering a new era in terms of train travel and train freight movement, maybe it’s about time we looked even more closely at the very fast train between Brisbane and Melbourne?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: I agree, and we’ll have a report out in coming months.  I expect that there’ll be a very high price tag on it.  But I think there’s no doubt that at some time in the future it’s got to be seriously looked at.  We’ll put the report out so the community can have a debate about it.  But if you look at other parts of the world it’s more challenging here because we don’t have the density of the population of Europe, let alone China or Japan.

But nonetheless, I think it is certainly worthy of a good look, a community debate because if you can get from say, Sydney to Melbourne in a competitive time frame of around about three hours – CBD to CBD – then certainly it’s my experience, and others would’ve experienced it as well, a more convenient way to travel.  You’re not waiting around at airports, you’re not sitting in cabs, you’re not doing all of the things that air travel involves.  It can be very convenient, and if you look at routes like Paris to London, the Eurostar, it’s really transformed the way that business is done.

And it could also, of course, for those regional cities in between – your Newcastles, your Port Macquaries, Canberra – overcome that sort of tyranny of distance, and not having to have everything in the big capital cities would be good for business and good for people’s lifestyles as well.

CHRIS SMITH: Okay.  A number of your colleagues including yourself are talking about increases to unemployment benefits.  I’ve commented on this a number of times.  Surely we can do better than suggest a simple addition to the amount of money we pay per fortnight to someone who is unemployed, as opposed to the smarter regime or smarter system that operates in many countries around the world where you give additional money, so up the unemployment rate at the very beginning, but have a sliding scale whereby you entice people on unemployment over a longer period of time to get a job.  Can’t we do a sliding scale of unemployment benefits, or are you only looking at increasing the money in people’s pockets?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Look, I think all of those issues need to be considered, and I said yesterday when I was asked, that they’ll be considered in the Budget context by the Minister, the appropriate minister, which isn’t an infrastructure issue.

But the sort of issues that you raise, I think, are worthy of a community debate, and I think it’s good that you are raising them.  Unemployment benefits are meant to be temporary.  The priority is getting people into work.  That’s really what can make a difference to people’s lives, and we need to tackle issues of intergenerational unemployment.

I grew up in a public housing estate, as you know Chris, and there was a lot of long-term unemployment there.  The best thing we can do, not just for the individual but for the county, is make sure that we actually train people, give them opportunities and allow them to participate fully, for themselves, for their families.  But also for the economy, we’re going to need people to work in the high-value smart area, we need to compete in the Asian century, and we need to do that through the quality of our workforce.

CHRIS SMITH: Okay.  Finally, I want to get to what I deem as convenient secrecy.  The Opposition and the Greens are asking your colleagues how much has been raised by the Mineral Resources Rent Tax in the six months since it was introduced.  Now we know the answer is zip, but why can’t we be told?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well we got told in terms of the Mid-Year Economic forecast.  The normal way in which we have budgets is we have taxation revenues and expenditures released at budget time and then mid-year.  That’s the normal process; we don’t run a running commentary on a day-to-day basis of individuals’ or companies’ tax payments whatever the tax is.

CHRIS SMITH: But surely given the fact that this is so new, this is a new regime, this has a severe impact on what occurs with budgetary plans for the federal Government and how healthy the economy is, this is different.  This deserves to be transparent, doesn’t it?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: What it deserves is to be treated in an appropriate way in which the tax office engages with individuals and companies.  And there’s nothing different here, nothing different at all.

CHRIS SMITH: I wonder whether you’d be saying this if it was, you know, pulling in the revenue.

ANTHONY ALBANESE: We’d be operating exactly the same way that every Government has operated, Chris.

The tax office, Treasury, we take their advice.  What they don’t do is do running amounts on how much profit 2GB has made at the end of December or the end of January.

CHRIS SMITH: Yeah, but 2GB’s profit doesn’t have a bearing on the budget of the country.

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well it does, actually.  Because you pay taxes.

CHRIS SMITH: From what we know and what we’re not being told now in reference to the Mineral Resources Rent Tax is it’s a dot – it’s a dead set dog isn’t it?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: No, it’s a tax that’s based upon profitability.  So when commodity prices are higher the tax revenue will be higher.  And it’s no secret that commodity prices have fallen at the end of last year.  It’s no secret that there’s a high Australian dollar that’s placed pressure on a number of our corporate interests that compete globally.  That’s not a secret at all.

CHRIS SMITH: And all the estimates were wrong.

ANTHONY ALBANESE: And we were transparent and they were updated in the Mid-Year Economic forecast for all to see.

CHRIS SMITH: Yeah.  Okay.  We’ll continue this argument at the footy.  Thank you very much for your time this morning.  Good luck for 2013.

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Good to talk to you Chris.