Oct 25, 2007

Transcript of Lateline Debate between Anthony Albanese & Senator Helen Coonan

Transcript of Lateline, ABC TV

Debate between Anthony Albanese and Senator Helen Coonan

24 October 2007

Coonan, Albanese discuss inflation figures, Labor poll lead

Reporter: Leigh Sales

LEIGH SALES: If politics is a numbers game, the numbers haven’t been going John Howard’s way this week.

Yesterday, vulnerable government ministers and backbenchers were digesting the latest Newspoll, which shows the Rudd Opposition on track for a landslide.

Today there were inflation figures to dissect as we saw at the top of the program, giving Treasurer Peter Costello some anxiety over the prospect of an interest rate rise during the election campaign. But for Labor it’s not all plain sailing, with the nagging suspicion that the opinion polls are reflecting soft support for the ALP that could slide away when it comes to the crunch.

In battling the Prime Minister, Labor’s nose is up against the best politician of his generation, with plenty of election cash still in reserve. To discuss all that and much more, we’ve been joined tonight by Communications Minister Senator Helen Coonan and Labor strategist and frontbencher Anthony Albanese. Thanks to both of you for coming in.

We will start with the news of the day – the inflation figures.

Helen Coonan, given the Government’s terrible standing in the opinion polls, I guess with this expectation of an imminent interest rate rise, the question is what more can go wrong for your side?

HELEN COONAN, COMMUNICATIONS MINISTER: Well, look, I think nothing is inevitable and the really important thing about this figure is that it’s certainly at the high end of the band, but I think what we have to do is to think about what we can do about this. And of course we have a plan to grow the economy. We have a plan to increase participation to get working women back to work, to grow about 65,000 more jobs.

So this is really what I think we need to do about it. We need to make sure that we have a plan going forward. That’s what we are offering the Australian people. We have a plan to grow the economy, to keep it strong and to ensure that we increase productivity.

LEIGH SALES: If we can look shorter-term, though, how is the Government going to cope in the middle of an election campaign with an interest rate rise, which most of the experts seem to say is all but a certainty?

HELEN COONAN: I think what voters will need to do, of course, is look at the risk to the economy going forward if they were to shift from at least a proven team that’s presided over the growth of this economy to an inexperienced team that really hasn’t got a plan for the future, a plan to keep the economy strong, to grow jobs.

The important thing that this government has been able to do, of course, is to have strong economy, a strongly growing economy and to keep inflation in check of course with not the pressure on wages.

We know that the Labor Party are going to be vulnerable to the unions because 70 per cent of their frontbench will be ex-union officials and will be beholden to the unions, and we know they’re going to start to interfere with industrial relations. We know they’re going to wind back workplace relations. That’s going to really make inflation take off when you get wages pressure.

So the important thing I think for voters is to vote for the tried and true team rather than one that’s inexperienced, that doesn’t know what they’re going to do with the economy and certainly are going to put pressure and inflation on wages.

LEIGH SALES: Anthony Albanese?

ANTHONY ALBANESE, LABOR FRONTBENCHER: Well, of course the Government needs to do more than just say it has a plan. They’ve been there for 11.5 years and the Reserve Bank have been warning since 1999 on 20 separate occasions about the capacity constraints in the economy.

Namely two things – infrastructure, the Business Council of Australia speak about a $90 billion infrastructure deficit and of course skills shortages which will hit – expected to hit over 200,000 by the year 2016.

Now, the Government has had 11.5 years to address these issues. They haven’t. That’s producing capacity constraints on our productivity growth. That’s producing pressures and the Government’s ignored the Reserve Bank warnings. And what we’re left with is a government saying it’s got a plan when Australians know they don’t have a plan for the future.

Helen spoke about the team. Australians know that everyone except for Tony Abbott in the inner circle abandoned the Prime Minister and actually wanted him to step down from the leadership just two months ago. So they don’t buy this idea about the team. We know the Prime Minister and the Treasurer are at war with each other and that war will continue if they’re re-elected on 24th November.

LEIGH SALES: But let’s be honest here, your side must be secretly thrilled that this has come up in the middle of an election campaign – this prospect of an election rate rise.

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Not at all. Because our side know that working families, unlike what the Prime Minister says, when he said working families have never been better off, they know that they’re suffering from pressures, particularly on fundamentals of grocery prices, petrol prices, childcare, health costs.

They know that they’re suffering and I certainly know from constituents in my electorate, they simply can’t afford a sixth rate rise – which is what it would be – since the last election, when the Prime Minister made a clear and unequivocal commitment to keep interest rates at record lows.

HELEN COONAN: I dispute that of course and I actually went and I’ve looked back – I must have looked at about a dozen press conferences made by the Prime Minister at about that time. And what he talked about of course was that interest rates would be low compared to the Labor Party. That’s exactly –

ANTHONY ALBANESE: It was on the podium. Every time he appeared.

HELEN COONAN: That’s what he has said today and what he stands by based on experience is that interest rates have all – and will be lower under the Coalition Government than under Labor. We only have to look to experience where Labor couldn’t manage the economy, where it really got into serious trouble.

Mortgage rates then were 17 per cent. People should not forget –

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Which is 5 per cent lower than the 22 per cent interest rates when John Howard was Treasurer.

HELEN COONAN: Mortgage rates were 17 per cent and for small businesses, the bill rate I think was something like 20 or 22 per cent. So we really, I think the Labor Party guilds the lily when it – when it talks about broken promises on interest rates.

LEIGH SALES: All right. Well, let’s talk specifically if there are going to be interest rate rises as to how we are going to deal with them.

The Coalition has pledged to give people income tax cuts. Is that responsible economic management to be pumping that money into the economy when the trends are towards higher inflation and interest rate rises?

HELEN COONAN: Well, what we’ve said, of course, is that our plan to deal with it are of course these paid for but also we’ve got a plan to grow the economy and to increase productivity.

At the same time of course we’ve got the flexibilities of the new Workplace Relations and, together with flexibility in the workplace, low unemployment but increased productivity, the potential to grow another 65,000 jobs. That, to me, seems to be the kind of plan.

LEIGH SALES: That could be undermined, though, by your income tax cuts.

HELEN COONAN: Well, look, they over paid for these cuts and we have got this productivity plan.

But the Labor Party of course, when they talk about skills and jobs that’s not going to be immediate. That is not going to have any immediate effect at all whereas we have got at least a concrete plan that is costed and ready to go in our tax plan to grow the economy and to grow another 65,000 jobs.

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well, of course, there’s no detail there at all. The difference between the two plans is that Labor has a plan for tax cuts but we also have the plan for investment in education. We will put $2.3 billion of that into education through our education tax offset.

LEIGH SALES: But if we are talking about curbing inflation, your tax cuts could be just as problematic as the Coalitions’.

HELEN COONAN: That’s really going to make it take off.

ANTHONY ALBANESE: And we also… What? The education tax off-set is going to make inflation take off? That is just absurd.

HELEN COONAN: It’s not going to deliver an outcome that you need within a reasonable time frame.

You have no plan at all to take grow the economy and take it forward.

ANTHONY ALBANESE: You have to have something other than saying you’re going to grow the economy. I am the infrastructure shadow Minister. I have no-one to shadow because the Government doesn’t think that infrastructure is important enough to have someone in the Government in charge of coordinating it.

We’ve a plan through Infrastructure Australia to develop a strategy to involve the private sector to make sure we get that coordinated plan on infrastructure, to address the issues that the Reserve Bank have been calling for, the Business Council of Australia have been calling for, organisations such as Infrastructure Partnerships Australia have been calling for.

We have plans on education right across the board. The trades training schools, in each and every high school, a $2.5 billion investment there.

The Government just says – Helen just says "we have a plan for productivity" without outlining what it is. The truth is they haven’t addressed those two key issues. They’ve had 11.5 years to do it and just like the other future issues of climate change, water – the thing that this election really comes down to is a Labor Party led by Kevin Rudd, interest in long-term plans for the future and a government just interested in short-term political fixes.

The problem isn’t just that this is occurring during this election campaign, the problem is that’s all its done since 2004.

LEIGH SALES: Okay. Minister, can I talk to you about the infrastructure issue? I’m wondering whether or not it would have been better for the Coalition rather than announcing those income tax cuts to put that money towards a massive national infrastructure plan to deal with issues such as climate change, hospitals, education and all of the things that people have been talking about, that they only have limited ability to deal with as individuals?

HELEN COONAN: Well, I mean, when you look at what we have already done in terms of a massive spend on climate change, and more to come, as against… I listened very carefully to what Mr Rudd said about climate change during the debate and I defy anyone to say what Labor’s plan is to actually reach its emissions targets. I mean, we at least have said that we’re going to have a trading scheme. We’ve said how we’re going…

ANTHONY ALBANESE: After opposing it year after year after year.

HELEN COONAN: Do you mind if I finish? We’ve also recognised that this needs to be a balanced and sensible plan that will also recognise that people are going to be hurt by some of the measures that we need to take. So, therefore, we will have a fund to help low income earners and so on.

There’s nothing like that from the Labor Party. They’ve talked and talked and talked. They’ve got cliche after cliche, they have reviews and plans. They have no concrete action. Nothing at all on climate change.

Let me just come to another area that I’m particularly passionate about, which is really big infrastructure issues which is broadband. The Labor Party – this is their biggest spend in the election – $4.7 billion. Do you know what? They have no idea who will build it, when it will be built, how it will be paid for, what it will cost, where it will reach to and it won’t be finished until 2013.

Now, on the contrary, our plan is fully costed, rolling out now, will be finished by 2009 and will be delivering all the productivity benefits of an important new national piece of infrastructure, years before Labor gets its act together and even works out how to pay for it.

LEIGH SALES: All right, now you raised climate change you wanted to respond to. Can I pick you up on the climate change issue and say that Paul Kelly wrote in The Australian today about climate change and the Kyoto protocol and pointed out that John Howard is right to say that that is flawed because China and India are not a part of it.

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well, they are a part of it, of course.

LEIGH SALES: Kevin Rudd says he will ratify Kyoto. But is that simply indulgent symbolism when really what needs to be done is for him to do more and to tackle the really difficult questions surrounding climate change?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well, I have a great deal of respect for Paul Kelly but he got it wrong. Because the Kyoto protocol does involve the developing world through the clean development mechanism. It provides a market based incentive for investment in renewable and clean technology in China and in India, and that is growing by the tune of… a year ago, it was up above $130 billion of investment.

LEIGH SALES: So Kyoto is enough? Is that what you are saying?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: No, not at all. But it’s an essential precondition because climate change is a global phenomenon, a global challenge, you have to be part of the global solution. That solution, except for Australia, the United States and Kazakhstan, is the Kyoto protocol. So that is step one.

Second step is a national emissions trading scheme. It should have been up and running by now. The Sydney Futures Exchange did work on it way back in 1999.

Peter Costello took a proposition to the Cabinet in 2004, and it was rejected. Now, after 11 years of inaction and denial by climate change sceptics who dominate the Government, now they say they’re going to do something about emissions trading.

We need a significant increase in the mandatory renewable energy target. We need to make sure we encourage households to do their bit.

Labor has a plan through the household renovations plan on solar green energy and water. We have a comprehensive plan on climate change. The Government doesn’t because for 11.5 years they’ve been saying the world is flat, climate change is not real, Al Gore is just about entertainment.

HELEN COONAN: This is just a mantra.

ANTHONY ALBANESE: The only thing they’ve come up with is in the eve of an election campaign is, of course, nuclear power. And even that now they’re ducking from because they know that their proposal for 25 nuclear reactors to be imposed on coastlines all around Australia stinks out there with the electorate.

LEIGH SALES: Helen Coonan, John Howard accepted on Aboriginal affairs that symbolism was important. I am wondering if he is about to do that on climate change and ratify the Kyoto protocol.

HELEN COONAN: Well, look, I think the Government’s position on Kyoto has been made abundantly clear – that we are going to be meeting the Kyoto target anyway.

LEIGH SALES: But we won’t be ratifying it.

HELEN COONAN: We’ve moved on.

ANTHONY ALBANESE: They said that about emissions trading as well. They said they wouldn’t go down that. They said it was a new tax.

HELEN COONAN: Is it all right if I answer the question, Anthony? And the important thing, I think, is that we look to the future, we look at where we go from Kyoto. We are in a post-Kyoto world now and we have got a plan to actually address climate change. We’ve spent billions on it. We’re getting to a point where we are now putting the detail together for the emissions trading scheme. That is an important plan in how to take it forward.

But we’ve always said it should be managed carefully and people need to be brought along with it rather than dropping it out of the sky with a whole lot of mantra and cliches, instead of a sensible plan that is going to take the whole community with us.

LEIGH SALES: If I can close by discussing the Newspoll that came out this week. Obviously, it is looking fairly good for Labor, Anthony Albanese. But is there a possibility, maybe, that you’re peaking too soon?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Look, we face a real challenge. We have to win 16 seats.

LEIGH SALES: Come on, does anyone believe that? You’re so many points ahead.

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Absolutely, because they know that the only poll that counts is on 24th November.

It’s a big challenge. The Government has given resources to sitting members like never before. They delayed the election campaign so they could spend a million dollars on advertising each and every day and sitting members have resources to defend their seats, if you like. We have formed government twice from Opposition since the Second World War, so it’s a real challenge for it.

LEIGH SALES: Helen Coonan, do you think the Government can claw back from here?

HELEN COONAN: I think there is time for people to really take stock of the fact that we know today, for instance, that the Labor Party are talking about reviewing the GST, that they’re going to have wall-to-wall Labor governments. We know that Belinda Neal, who is an experienced politician, she was a former senator, she knew what she was doing and she said that Wayne Swan had given a commitment to review the GST. We know that with wall to wall Labor Governments and 70 per cent of the frontbench being former union officials.

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Which isn’t true. You can keep saying it but it’s not true.

HELEN COONAN: That people need to really take stock of the fact do they want every collision affecting their lives to be made through the prism of the union movement, they are beholden to the unions and beholden to the states? We know that Kevin Rudd is a weak leader. He certainly can’t stand up to the states. He certainly can’t stand up to the unions and we know today from the fellow that was the former member for Hinkler that it would be a bad step for Australia to go back to a union-dominated Government. I do hope the voters of Australia will take stock.

LEIGH SALES: We are out of time I am afraid, so you will have to take this row outside.

ANTHONY ALBANESE: All they have left is a scare campaign.

LEIGH SALES: Thanks for coming in.

HELEN COONAN: Thanks, Leigh.