Transcript of Interview with Peter Van Onselen, Paul Kelly and David Crowe – Sky News (Australian Agenda)
Issues: Parliamentary behaviour; Tony Abbott’s relentless negativity; spreading the benefits of the Boom; Enterprise Migration Agreements; infrastructure policies; public-private partnerships; Sydney’s road and rail infrastructure; Great Barrier Reef; Labor’s historic shipping reforms; a second Sydney airport
PETER VAN ONSELEN: We are joined now by the Leader of the House in the Federal Parliament, Anthony Albanese. Thanks for your company.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Good to be with you Peter.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Let me go straight to the run, Abbott, run antics and we’ve got overlay of it and they’ll no doubt play during the course of this but you were there when this unfolded; can you just – I mean it’s not your job to explain what’s going on with them but why did three of them make a dash for the door, as opposed to one of them? Isn’t the theory here that there should be a pairing and as long as one gets out of the parliament and there’s the footage now, then they’ve done that? Why three?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: It’s beyond me and if you actually wanted to pair what you needed to do is get one person to stand up and calmly walk across and sit on the other side of the Chamber. That’s how you pair someone.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: But you understand why they don’t want to vote with Craig Thomson from a political perspective. My issue is more with just the optics of a leader running around like that.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well they were happy to take Mary Jo Fisher’s vote in the Senate, including on the Carbon Price. They were happy, of course, to take Mal Colston’s vote after the 98 election to privatise Telstra.
You know, it really is just nonsense. What this has shown is how absurd this whole question of whether he should vote or not and whether he should be paired, and all that sort of stuff, is.
People are elected to Parliament. They’re entitled to vote.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Tony Abbott, very quickly in a press conference after this happened drew the Government into this as being part of a conspiracy with Craig Thomson to do this. Now you made the point that you knew nothing of it. You knew nothing at all of it before and you’d had no discussion with any Labor MP or with Craig Thomson or anyone about the prospect of him voting with the Coalition?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Absolutely. Look, if there was a conspiracy here, Joe Hockey had to be part of it because what happened was that I was there to move a piece of legislation on communications. At nine o’clock Joe Hockey came in and moved a suspension of Standing Orders and I shut it down. I didn’t know Joe Hockey was going to move a suspension of Standing Orders, therefore I didn’t know I was going to shut it down. I was in the Chamber the whole time and Craig Thomson came in and did what the other independents historically have: voted against gag motions.
I think Tony Abbott was trying to hide his embarrassment. I mean Tony Abbott really did look like a bit of a nut job really. There were three of them running around in a crazy, immature fashion. It was the Three Stooges on steroids.
PAUL KELLY: Minister, what’s your view about the debate we have and the claims we see at the moment that there’s been a decline in politics, a very sharp decline in parliamentary standards? Now you’ve been around for quite some time. You’re the Leader of the House; what’s your – what’s your judgement of those comments?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: I think they’re fair comments Paul. I think we’ve had a situation whereby Question Time historically has been a time when oppositions have attempted to hold governments to account. We’ve now had 60 attempted suspensions of Standing Orders in the 43rd Parliament, and we’re only about halfway through.
The Opposition has made a position whereby they will attack the Government’s very legitimacy and attack the parliamentary process. They don’t make any serious attempts to engage in policy debate.
Joe Hockey’s motion itself was a product of the fact that they weren’t even paying attention on Budget night, and then two weeks after the Budget had been put before the Parliament they decided that they’d object to the issue of the debt cap being included as part of the Budget papers. It shows a lack of attention.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: But why continue to gag the debate, even if you think they’ve had a fair crack at him, even if you think that they’re pulling a stunt. The optics of it afterwards are one of the Government stifling the opportunity for the Opposition to have its say, aren’t they?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: No, because what we had on Wednesday was a motion to suspend Standing Orders and then we had another motion to suspend Standing Orders. They’re not interested in the policy framework of the Parliament.
We’ve had 337 pieces of legislation passed. I should think that if they were paying attention it’s highly likely they would have not only defeated some bills by engaging with the crossbenches and in the policy debate, but they certainly would have been able to get some amendments carried. They haven’t even done that.
PAUL KELLY: Well now you’ve led the attack on Tony Abbott. You’ve said a lot of ferocious things about Tony Abbott. How far does this go? Do you think that he’s unfit to be Opposition leader?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: I certainly think he’s unfit to be Prime Minister. I don’t think he has the temperament to be the Prime Minister of the nation and I think what Wednesday demonstrated was just that.
This frantic response was quite disproportionate, and it was a product of his own making because he’s trying to make the case, this absurd case, that somehow a member of parliament doesn’t have a right to represent their electorate on the floor of the Parliament. He knows that’s really a bit silly and he’s engaged in such a negative, destructive campaign that Colin Barnett, I note, in the last couple of days, the Premier of Western Australia, has said just that: he’s been good as an Opposition leader but he’s got to actually say what he stands for.
PAUL KELLY: So do you think the Labor Party can get out of jail by this attack on Tony Abbott?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: I certainly think it is the case that we need to present our positive vision – what we’ve actually achieved in seeing Australia through the Global Financial Crisis, the work we’re doing to support living standards, the reform agenda that we have in education and health. We’ve got a good story to tell and we’ve got to continue to tell it. At the same time pointing out that being a wrecker, like Tony Abbott is, is not an alternative vision.
He’s got a $70 billion black hole. He’s got all sorts of problems with policies that simply don’t add up and I think that when people actually start to focus, we’re now halfway through the term, as we lead up to the next election, people will focus on the policy differences.
We have a clear policy approach of economic growth but with the purpose of delivering for a broader section of society the benefits from the boom. Tony Abbott has essentially not much besides opposition.
DAVID CROWE: But in terms of major policy debate, one of the big policy issues of the past week has been the enterprise migration agreement and Roy Hill decision. Now are you happy with the Government’s handling of that policy debate?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: What matters David is what’s in place, and what’s in place is good policy. We put that in place in the last budget so we’ve had a long lead up to this. Gary Gray led a committee that included the union movement in developing this framework of how we deal with the reality that we have half a trillion dollars in investment coming down the pipeline. We don’t have enough skilled workers to deliver that by ourselves.
So putting in place a policy framework that delivers jobs for Australians, delivers training opportunities – particularly aimed at sections such as mature age workers, Indigenous workers – at the same time as making sure that that investment can occur by giving those guarantees. In the Roy Hill case the 1,700 jobs means that investment will occur.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: But Minister then why, if that was the case, why did the Prime Minister tell union leaders that she was furious with the Minister’s decision when she already had given it the green light?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well I wasn’t at that meeting so I can’t comment on comments that people supposedly make in meetings that are private.
What I do know is that this is a good outcome. It’s one certainly that I support. I’m aware in terms of infrastructure issues that we do have constraints and we do need to deal with them and I think Australians will certainly get that.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: But how will the public get it if you can’t convince your own backbench? You’ve got people like Doug Cameron coming out so strongly in their concerns about this. How will you sell it to a sceptical public, it has to be said, right at a time when you’ve got your own MPs and union leaders like Paul Howes coming out and making such sort of critical commentary about it?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Look we had a really good debate in the Caucus this week, whereby speakers stood up and spoke about the issues. It was very constructive and there was unanimous agreement for establishing a process.
I think one of the things that happened with Roy Hill was that there wasn’t enough groundwork made in terms of the agreement. The important thing now is that that debate has been had in a much more focused way, and I think what matters is that that will be extremely positive and we will benefit from the fact that we’ve had that intense debate in the Caucus, and therefore an intense debate also out there in the community.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: So do you reject this idea that the Government should put the politics ahead of the policy here in terms of – because there is a fight with billionaires such as Clive Palmer and Gina Rinehart, that the politics of that mean that the Government shouldn’t be seen to be in a sense, you know, jumping into bed with them in terms of the policy of supporting their business structures with things like foreign workers?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: I think you should always put good policy first. If you put good policy first, the politics will look after itself.
This absurdity that there’s a contradiction – I mean, I support the agreement, I support the mining industry, I support investment. But I also support Gina Rinehart and the other big miners paying their fair share of tax. It’s as simple as that, and I think the Prime Minister in her address to the Minerals Council on Wednesday night really nailed it. She reminded them upfront that these resources were Australia’s resources, owned by all of us and that we had a responsibility as a government to ensure that all Australians share in the benefits.
DAVID CROWE: The politics has got to the point where there are four or five unions in WA that are now taking aim at Gary Gray and trying to get him booted out of parliament because of his stance on enterprise migration agreements. Now what’s your response to the unions seeking personal revenge in a sense over a policy dispute?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well Gary Gray should be supported. Gary Gray’s a good minister. Gary Gray is a good contributor. From time to time, there’ll be issues. We’re a vibrant party.
PAUL KELLY: You’re not trying to excuse this campaign though, are you?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: No, I’m saying that from time to time, there’ll be argy-bargy within the Labor Party. Thank goodness for that. If there’s no noise in the Labor Party, it’s a Labor Party that doesn’t exist.
PAUL KELLY: Do you condemn this union campaign against Gary Gray?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: I condemn any campaign by any groups against any individual on a policy issue. I think it’s very important that people are able to put their policy viewpoints out there without fear or favour. Let’s engage in the policy debate. Let’s not engage in an acrimonious personal debate within the Party.
There’s nothing wrong with policy debates within the Party at all. Indeed it’s something that I encourage. If people have strong views, they have a right to put them forward and the Party’s stronger for it.
DAVID CROWE: Is the core problem here that there is a communication breakdown between ministers, certainly on this issue, perhaps also with the unions in terms of their involvement in this policy over the last year? Is it a sign of a dysfunctional government in a sense and the legacy of some of those leadership problems?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Not at all. What it’s a sign of is that this is a complex difficult issue. Now I would prefer, as would I think the unions and Gary Gray and everyone else, that all of these jobs go to Australians first. That’s the preference: that Australians benefit from the mining boom. That’s your starting point. But then you’ve got to go through, okay, what’s possible? What are the benefits in this?
And one of the great things about the EMAs and the process is that – and the Gina Rinehart and Roy Hill is a good example of it. This isn’t a project that can start construction tomorrow. This is about getting the certainty so that it can attract the investment and the project can go ahead.
Now in order to have that certainty, you need to have that guarantee that the skilled workers will be made available, preferably Australian absolutely. Each and every job would be great. But if not, there’s the fall-back of a guarantee of foreign skilled labour. Now that’s important in terms of the project going ahead, but that’s not something that is a simple argument. It’s also of course not simple to argue that because you’ve had job losses in some regional town in Victoria or NSW that those people will automatically pack up and move to the Pilbara.
PAUL KELLY: But just on this point, Minister, you’ve talked a lot of this morning about policy and the need for a good policy debate, but the Government has also done something else. The Government has gone out of its way in its rhetoric to target mining leaders, such as Gina Rinehart, Clive Palmer, Andrew Forrest, to really focus on them and single them out for personal attack. Don’t you think there are risks in doing that?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Paul, I don’t know if you’ve noticed but I think it’s a bit rich, if you’ll excuse the term, to raise personal attacks against Clive Palmer. I’ve seen Clive Palmer’s comments. I mean this guy is the most over-the-top business leader I’ve ever seen.
PAUL KELLY: You’re saying that he deserves it.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Absolutely. He’s engaged in…
PAUL KELLY: What about Gina Rinehart and Andrew Forrest, do they deserve it too?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: He’s engaged in a political debate and you know they’ve funded ads against the Government. There’ve been all sorts of misleading claims. It is absolutely legitimate when these people are saying ‘we can’t afford to pay any more tax’ to actually say well hang on a tick. The average punter in my electorate is struggling on $55,000 a year paying their fair share of tax, struggling to put their kids through school. It’s fair enough to say, hang on, what about these people.
They should pay their fair share.
PAUL KELLY: So do you endorse the attacks on these three mining leaders?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: I think the comments, if you’re referring to them, of Wayne Swan have been entirely appropriate.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Do you really think so though?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Absolutely.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Wouldn’t it be better for the Government just to rise above it, take them on on the issues, like you just did 30 seconds ago, rather than shoot back with personal attacks?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: No, what you call personal attacks is really just saying these people should pay their fair share of tax. That’s all I’ve seen.
I’ve seen a lot of pretty over-the-top statements from Clive Palmer, in particular, that I’d classify as personal. You know, he’s out there saying he’s going to run against Wayne Swan and knock him off. Well we’ll see if the LNP likes that. Tony Abbott didn’t seem to like that and seemed to distance himself completely from Mr Palmer. So I think that says it all.
Here you have someone who has spent a lot of money flying senior LNP figures around in their jets. They’ve engaged in these huge donations. They’ve engaged in the sort of rhetoric that we saw from Clive Palmer on the night of the Queensland election. It was really quite breathtaking.
So they can expect people to just say, ‘oh well fair enough’.
What is important is the issue and the issue is pretty simple: it’s fair share, a fair go, nothing more, nothing less. Let’s spread the benefits of the boom. I mean I get on very well with Twiggy Forrest, I must say, but in terms of spreading the benefits of the boom it’s not just about any individual. The whole country needs to benefit, and they’re the policies we’re putting in place – the big skills agenda that was the centrepiece of last year’s budget connected with the EMA announcement. How do you use this boom to make sure that we spread employment opportunities, spread educational opportunities, maximise the benefit for the whole nation.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Well, in terms of taking advantage of the boom, one of the things that we often hear from state governments is that they don’t have the revenue streams to be able to put the infrastructure in place to take full advantage of it in places like northern Western Australia. Now this is often talked about as one of the reasons why people don’t want to move there and you have a fly in fly out workforce apart from anything else because of that lack of infrastructure. You’re the Infrastructure Minister; how do you respond to those claims?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Some of it’s right, but I think it’s the responsibility of the state governments to have put in place the proper planning mechanisms to deliver that infrastructure.
In general the great failure of infrastructure development in this country has been a failure to break the nexus between the political cycle and the infrastructure investment cycle. We’re too often just focused on the next three or four years.
There was an article in the Oz a week ago that was similarly saying all the projects that were promised as part of the Infrastructure Australia process haven’t been completed yet. Well of course they haven’t. Infrastructure takes time.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: What at a planning level do states need to do to make it easier to get the Federal money for infrastructure, I guess, is the question.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: One of the things that we have done is establish the Regional Infrastructure Fund as part of the MRRT, as part of the mining tax. That will go back into making sure that we have proper infrastructure in areas such as the Pilbara and in Queensland. Already we’re seeing some investments coming from that, even before the tax has come in. We’ve put those mechanisms there.
With regard to dealing with the long term, I think the Infrastructure Australia process has been one of the great successes of this Government. In the Budget we funded the last of the projects that were on the original priority list in 2009: the Goodwood to Torrens freight project in South Australia.
That means every single project that was on that list has funding attached to it and is going ahead. That’s a really positive thing. It’s about getting that long-term planning right and it shows how seriously we’ve taken the Infrastructure Australia process.
DAVID CROWE: One of the challenges is the lack of money in Canberra to pour into these infrastructure projects. What’s the next thing that you can do get private sector investment to get these things going? You’ve done some things but what can you do next?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: I think that’s critical. Very soon I’ll be receiving the report of the subcommittee we established through Infrastructure Australia, chaired by Jim Murphy from Treasury, about mobilising private sector financing for infrastructure. But already we’ve had a number of initiatives.
In last year’s budget of course we made a number of policy changes that will make private sector investment more attractive, including changing the arrangements for write-offs so that they can be carry over regardless of ownership. One thing that’s occurred is that investment from Super funds is far more likely into ‘brown field’ infrastructure than new ‘green field’ projects. That mechanism was designed to encourage that investment, and I think that we could see it with the potential sale of Sydney Port, for example. That then enables some money to be freed up for further investment.
The other thing we did in this year’s Budget was to create a private sector vehicle to essentially go to market on the M5 East and the F3 to M2 in Sydney, to encourage that private sector investment. The response we’ve had is very positive and Infrastructure Australia is working with Infrastructure NSW.
One final thing that we’ve done is the Moorebank project where there’s been some misreporting suggesting that this is some public sector over private sector proposal. It’s nothing of the sort. What we’re doing there is something that’s been called for for a long time. How does the Commonwealth use its landholdings to mobilise private capital and we’re doing that by moving the Defence Department off the Moorebank site. There will be a government business enterprise established so that they will go to the market to have it privately designed, built and operated.
This will be a vital project for Sydney, taking 3,300 trucks off the road each and every day, and because we’ve structured it so that it will be open access that will really encourage private sector capital into that site.
DAVID CROEW: Just quickly, some of the infrastructure that’s going ahead includes ports in Queensland near the Great Barrier Reef and we’ve seen UNESCO come out and warn about the scale of development there. Do you think that’s a sign that some of that infrastructure won’t go ahead as quickly as previously planned because of those UNESCO concerns?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: I think we always need to get the balance right, and we always need to make sure that environmental considerations aren’t just discarded as an add-on. They are absolutely vital.
One of the reasons why we think the revitalisation of Australian shipping is so important is that you haven’t had Aussie flagged ships hitting the Reef. One disaster on the Reef will have catastrophic implications for our economy because of what would occur. So we need to be vigilant.
We’ve done practical measures such as introducing down in the southern part of the Reef monitoring – all from Townsville. So we’ve extended the monitoring that occurs. We want to make sure we get that environmental best practice. We can do that and still make sure we get good economic outcomes.
DAVID CROWE: You got some shipping legislation through the lower house in the last week. Does that raise costs?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: No.
DAVID CROWE: For business? If not, why not?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: No, not at all because it’s not a protectionist barrier. What we’ve done is lower costs by having a zero rate of tax for Australian flag vessels, a zero rate of tax for Australian seafarers. We’ve halved the period in terms of depreciation. We’ve made a number of other changes to the Royalty Withholding Tax.
What we’re about is levelling the playing field so that Australian ships can compete with their overseas competitors.
DAVID CROWE: I saw some concerns up in Queensland from sugar suppliers that they were going to have to pay more to export, so are you guaranteeing that they will not be paying more for export?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Look, there were some real false comments made. One of which was that somehow the costs around the coast would be more because you’d have to pay Australian wages. Well, you’ve got to pay Australian wages now under the Fair Work Act, and it is the case that there’ll still be a role for foreign ships around our coast.
But we need to do something about making sure that the Australian shipping sector still exists. It’s at a tipping point. It’s more than halved in the last decade and unless we do something the implications for an island continent that has the fourth largest shipping task in the world – 99 per cent of our trade goes on ships – is dire indeed. We need to make sure that we have an industry.
This process was established with the longest consultation period possible. Four years we have engaged with industry on this, and it’s supported overwhelmingly by industry as well as by the unions.
PAUL KELLY: If we just move to Sydney Airport, your views are well known. You think we need the new airport. Have you lost this battle?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Not at all. The important thing about the report that was jointly commissioned by the Federal Government and the State Government and contained the head of the Business Council of Australia and other senior people in business – no politicians – is the consequences for jobs, economic activity and Sydney’s position as a global city if we don’t do something about a second airport. They are outlined for all to see.
PAUL KELLY: How can you persuade the NSW Premier of this?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: By encouraging him to look at the facts and we’ll continue to do so. There are senior people in the Liberal Party at the Federal level, including Joe Hockey and others, who have argued effectively for a second airport as well. It is a necessity; it’s not an option.
PAUL KELLY: What happens to Sydney if we don’t get it?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: We lose potentially billions of dollars in terms of the state’s GDP, but also the national economy. We lose tens of thousands of jobs and we simply lose our position as a global city.
Sydney Airport is constrained by where it is, by the size of the site, by the land transport constraints around it. We need a second airport. We need to act sooner rather than later. Everyone in the business community, and everyone who uses Sydney Airport, knows that’s the case.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: You don’t have to convince me of that. You’ve got to make sure you’ve got 20 extra minutes to sit in a cabinet while you wait to get to the airport if you go there in the morning, but how do you convince the premier this side of the next election? He seems firmly committed, Barry O’Farrell that is, to not move in on a second airport because he promised that he wouldn’t, I think to the Lithgow Advertiser, ahead of the last election.
Now do you get realistic about this and do you look to try to get him on board to have it as a policy for the second term, for example make it bipartisan between state Labor and the state Liberal Party, so that is a non-issue at the next state election. At least then, within the timeframe required, they could actually get this second airport built if they made that sort of commitment to do it after the next state election.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well I’ve done everything possible to make it bipartisan, including on the day that we received the report. I released it publicly on 2 March. One of the things I did on that very day was write to the Premier suggesting that Infrastructure Australia and Infrastructure NSW get together to progress the report. I haven’t heard back from the Premier it must be said.
But we know that the constraints are there. I think the pressure will be unrelenting.
DAVID CROWE: You can’t just sit back and wait for the pressure to do its work on the Premier of NSW…
ANTHONY ALBANESE: I don’t think I’m sitting back on this issue.
DAVID CROWE: Well can you do some further work? For instance if it’s an economic cost to NSW and to Sydney from not having a second airport, can you get further work done to quantify that cost and to bring it home to the Premier?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well it’s all there in the report. The report talks about $35 billion in lost economic activity in 50 years’ time. The report talks about the number of jobs that would be lost to Sydney. The business community – I’ve had a lot of discussions – they’re all out there: Qantas, Virgin, the tourism sector, the hotel sector, the Sydney Chamber of Commerce, the Business Council of Australia. They’re all out there.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: But he’s not budging. So is there anything you can do constitutionally as a Federal government to make it happen or do you simply need the state government?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: I’m continuing to work, and in the budget we allocated support for a scoping study into Wilton as a site.
One of the things that’s happening during this process is there’s a whole lot of groups out there saying we actually want a second airport because we want the jobs and the economic activity that comes with it.
Wilton’s a site that could be of great benefit to the Illawarra in terms of job creation and we need to engage. I
Infrastructure is always hard because there’s always some people who say ‘no, I don’t want the noise’ or ‘I don’t want the activity’.
We’ve got to actually argue the economic case and one of the things that I’ve done is argue the economic case.
The only person of any political background on the committee that produced this report was Warwick Smith. I very consciously appointed no one anywhere near the Labor Party in terms of former politicians or what have you, so that no one could question the report. It is 3,200 pages. It’s comprehensive and it is absolutely clear. And there are people within Mr O’Farrell’s government who have spoken to me who very clearly know that they need to act as well and know that his position is untenable.
I don’t know why he’s put himself in a position with such a huge majority of this being a totemic issue for him being seen to not do anything with that majority that he was given at the last election.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: All right, well, we’ll let you go. You’re lucky though, you live in Sydney and don’t have to go to the airport and wait in a queue to get there.
Anthony Albanese, Leader of the House, we appreciate you joining us on Australian Agenda. Thanks for your company.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Good to be with you.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.