Subjects: Fuel excise deal; citizenship laws; domestic violence; The Killing Season
EPSTEIN: Petrol indexation simply means that the tax, the excise on petrol, goes up twice a year, linked to something like inflation – it depends on how the government wants to express it. They’ve already done that by regulation which means they have made that decision on their own. They wanted to introduce legislation. The Labor Party was staunchly opposed to this last year. With the new Greens Leader there is some muttering that perhaps the Greens could have agreed to this with the Government. Now, today, the Federal Opposition under Bill Shorten have agreed to make a deal with the Federal Government to back that which they once opposed. Anthony Albanese speaks on infrastructure for Bill Shorten’s Shadow Cabinet. I spoke to him earlier and asked why the party had backed down.
ALBANESE: Well, there’ve been two major changes. The first is that the government has doubled the deficit since they attempted to bring in this measure last year and the second change is that they brought it in by regulation that needs to be either confirmed by the Parliament by August, if not, then the money that has been collected for motorists would have to be paid back, not to those motorists but to the big oil companies if that wasn’t approved by the Parliament. So under those circumstances, we made a decision that we wanted to ensure that this made a difference in terms of local roads funding for people in our suburbs and our regions and, therefore, that the first two years of this collection would go to Roads to Recovery at a time when employment needs to be stimulated and local Roads to Recovery funding will do just that.
EPSTEIN: But that was the same proposal as last year. You didn’t like that idea then, is that enough of a reason to be for that now?
ALBANESE: No, that wasn’t a proposal last year. This is a new proposition that was endorsed by the Caucus today and is on top of any –
EPSTEIN: Sorry, forgive me for interrupting but my understanding of the excise increase as soon as it was announced from the Abbott Government is that that money would go to extra roads, which means construction employment – the very thing you are touting now as a reason. So if that was a good enough reason then, why not now?
ALBANESE: No it doesn’t. What the government had done is say that they would hypothecate the money for spending on roads but without allocating any additional money for road investment.
EPSTEIN: But that’s just splitting hairs, isn’t it?
ALBANESE: No, it’s not. No, it’s not. The government in terms of its infrastructure spend is far greater than the money that is collected from this fuel excise and therefore there was no additional money. What we have secured as a result of the position that the Caucus put today is an additional $1.1 billion into local roads funding. Local roads funding is particularly important because it is labour intensive and the projects themselves are determined by the local communities. We know that there is a $15 billion shortfall in terms of road maintenance; that 75 per cent of our roads are looked after by local government and this will provide money particularly for outer suburban communities and regional communities – each and every one right around the nation as a result of what we have secured today.
EPSTEIN: Can I just ask if you agree with Bill Shorten’s words last year, and this is June, 2014, after the Budget that; “we think”, and this in reference to fuel excise, “it’s a tax on ordinary Australians. Labor will oppose this because we think it is the right thing to do. We’ll oppose this and other unfair tax increases that were not told to us before the election.” Is that still your position, that it’s a tax that you’ll oppose?
ALBANESE: Well, we are supporting the legislation on the basis that we have reached agreement for the additional funding to go into local roads infrastructure.
EPSTEIN: Is it still a new tax or not?
ALBANESE: Of course it’s a tax. It’s a tax that is collected by people who drive their car. That’s a fact. But it’s also a fact that that money has been collected and that money would be refunded to the big oil companies, not to the people that have paid that tax if this wasn’t approved because of the way that the government has introduced this already, through regulation rather than through legislation. So therefore this was a difficult decision.
EPSTEIN: Is it also because the Greens beat you to the punch on pensions? The Shadow Cabinet was clearly divided on that. You wanted to make sure you got to this agreement with the Government before the new Greens Leader did?
ALBANESE: Not at all.
EPSTEIN: That wasn’t a factor in that conversation at all?
ALBANESE: The Greens can discuss for themselves why, unusually one would have thought, that on this occasion they were against increased taxes on fuel, but then again they were also against the Emissions Trading Scheme in 2009 that would still be in place if they had just walked across the chamber and voted with Labor and the Liberals who actually supported a price on carbon then.
EPSTEIN: It must have been a factor in your discussions. You must have been worried that Richard Di Natale could steal more ground off you if he’d reversed his party’s position on this and signed up to an agreement with the Government. It’s got to be a factor in your conversations.
ALBANESE: Well he hasn’t done it. That’s the fact of the matter. He hasn’t done, he’s maintained the Greens rather unusual position of opposing an increase in taxation on fuel. It’s up to him to explain what the Greens Party’s political positon is. What we did is assess where we were at as the alternative government confronted with having to make a decision by August and this week of course was the last sitting week before August. So we had to make that decision. It is far better and we make no apologies even though it was a difficult decision for saying that we would rather funding go to local roads in suburbs and regions rather than back to the oil companies.
EPSTEIN: Anthony Albanese is with me. He is of course the Federal Opposition spokesman on infrastructure. Labor’s agreed with the government on the reintroduction of the fuel excise indexation. It means $23 billion go into the coffers of whoever’s in government over the next decade. Just two quick other issues if I can, Anthony Albanese. I know it’s not your portfolio and I know the Opposition hasn’t been briefed on citizenship. However, are you broadly happy with what the Government’s decided to do with dual nationals? They’ve taken the decision away from our Minister and made it effectively automatic based on membership or conviction. Is that something that the Labor Party can live with?
ALBANESE: We’ll wait and see the legislation that will be introduced tomorrow and be briefed on it. When it comes to national security, what’s important isn’t that people talk on the basis of hypotheticals; it’s that they talk on the basis of effectively ensuring the safety of Australians. For that, there is support from everyone across the Parliament and every one of your listeners would support that proposition. So we’ll wait and see the legislation, we’ll be briefed on it, and then we’ll respond to the facts. It’s not a matter of who can come out with the hardest rhetoric, it’s a matter of examining any proposition that’s put forward and Labor will certainly support any proposition that is designed to keep people safe.
EPSTEIN: Do you think the Government’s done enough to engage with the Muslim community in this country?
ALBANESE: I think they can always do much more.
EPSTEIN: Would you be critical of what they have done so far?
ALBANESE: From time to time there have been statements that have been unfortunate, but what is important is that we engage with the community. Our multiculturalism is our great strength. We need to make sure that we cherish that, that the community engage themselves. We have to always remember that those people who are engaged in the dreadful activity that’s going on in Iraq and Syria at the moment through the Islamic State or Daesh or whatever they like to call themselves, are primarily targeting other Muslims. Other Muslims are the victims of these extremists – people who happen to disagree with them. And it’s important to remember that and it’s important also to engage with those communities because those communities have made an enormous contribution to this nation just as others who’ve come here. With the exception of the first Australians, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, we’re all either migrants or descendants of migrants.
EPSTEIN: Look, just a final comparison question which is I suppose outside the day to day business of politics. We get a lot of feedback saying that domestic violence is a bigger problem, a bigger threat than terrorism and that both sides of politics should spend more time focussing on domestic violence and less time focussing on terrorism. Do you agree with that sentiment or sympathise with it?
ALBANESE: I agree we need to focus on both.
EPSTEIN: Not more on one at the expense of another?
ALBANESE: I agree that we need to focus on both and the fact that so many women and children are victims as a result of domestic violence is certainly worthy of much greater public conversation than occurs at the moment. The fact that there is increased focus on it is a good thing through courageous people like Rosie Batty, I think have really highlighted the need for much greater public discourse. I’m a White Ribbon Day Ambassador. I think the work that men can do in raising awareness of these issues with other men is particularly important. When you look at the figures, it’s pretty clear that all of us know people who must be, by sheer statistics, engaged in this criminal activity and it’s up to all of us to just say that domestic violence is unacceptable.
EPSTEIN: Are you going to be watching the final episode of The Killing Season tonight?
ALBANESE: I think I probably will be. I think most people around Parliament House here I’m sure will be.
EPSTEIN: Is it bad for you guys? You come out well, I should say. You managed to remain above the fray while in power. Do you think that the Labor Party comes out well?
ALBANESE: It’s a historical piece. It is what it is and you can’t pretend what occurred didn’t occur. But what we can do is learn from it. I think we have done just that. We’re more united than we’ve ever been. As I said on the program, and I say now, is that the events of June 2010 were very unfortunate in that we damaged two Labor Prime Ministers in one evening.
EPSTEIN: Thanks so much for your time.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.