SUBJECTS: IMF downgrades Australia’s growth forecast; The economy is floundering on the Liberals’ watch; underemployment; RBA interest rate cuts; drought; climate change; energy; Barnaby Joyce; NSW Deputy Coroner’s report on pill testing; Defence engagement in the Middle East; globalism; Scott Morrison’s speech to the Lowy Institute.
ANNELISE NIELSEN: Plenty happening here in Parliament in the sitting week, and joining us live to discuss all the latest movements is Leader of the Opposition Anthony Albanese. Thank you for your time.
ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Good to be here.
NIELSEN: Top story this morning has been this IMF global forecast, and there’s some bad news for Australia. But these are global trends impacting the Australian economy. What should the Government really be doing differently but they’re not doing now?
ALBANESE: There are global trends there. The Government should be responding. But it’s important to point out that Australia’s performance in the downgrade is 0.4 from 2.1 to 1.7. Countries like the UK, with Brexit, like Greece – advanced countries across the globe – the downgrade is on average around about 0.1. So, it’s four times worse than the rest of the industrialised world, is performing. And this is a time where we’ve had a number of advantages; we’ve had the Australian dollar be low which has boosted company profits; we had the benefit from iron ore prices due to what had occurred in South America; and still we’re performing very badly. We have a Government that is complacent. We have circumstances whereby interest rates have been decreased by three times since the election. Monetary policy can’t do all the heavy lifting, the Government has to bring forward economic stimulus.
NIELSEN: When it comes to that call for economic stimulus the Government’s saying that there’s a lot of good things in the economy. They’re looking set to hit a surplus, unemployment’s kicking around 5 per cent, which is low, even if that’s not quite where the Reserve Bank wants it to be. Are you fear-mongering?
ALBANESE: Underemployment is at record levels. People are saying they want more hours. So, people are being counted because they’re doing a bit of casual work, but they want more work. We have productivity going backwards; we have interest rates at 0.75 per cent – under one per cent – and the Reserve Bank minutes showed that they’re looking at another decrease very soon. We have consumption that is through the floor; we have household debt at record levels; we have wages that aren’t increasing; we have energy prices putting pressure on households so that people literally are having to take a cold shower because they can’t afford the heat. We have circumstances whereby the Government is just in drift pretending everything’s okay. When we were at the height of the global financial crisis, I’ll never forget Ken Henry saying we needed to: ‘go early, go hard, go households’. What this Government is doing is going slowly, going soft, and going nowhere when it comes to the economy.
NIELSEN: I think some of Ken Henry’s observations have been put into context especially since the Banking Royal Commission. But as you say, global trends really impacting the economy. But you say there are a lot of bad markers for how it’s performing. In that context, do you concede that it would have been a disaster if we had franking credits and negative gearing hitting the economy at this point?
ALBANESE: Well it wouldn’t have been hitting the economy at this point, of course.
NIELSEN: If you had come in to government?
ALBANESE: No, there were time frames in terms of what would occur and for example, negative gearing was grandfathered, so it wouldn’t have had any impact on existing investments which were there. And what it would have done was it would have still applied for new housing; would have provided an incentive for new housing, that was part of the debate that was there. But we weren’t successful. The Government is in office and the Government is in a state of drift. It’s quite clear that they don’t have a plan for the economy; they don’t have a plan for energy; they don’t have a plan going forward. It’s almost like they’re an opposition in exile, sitting on the Government benches still talking about ‘Labor, Labor, Labor’, and every day in question time we hear it. They’re refusing to answer questions; they’re refusing to be accountable and they think that everything’s just fine. Well out there in electorates, whether they be in cities but particularly in regional communities, people are doing it tough and this Government is in a state of drift. They don’t even have a national drought strategy. And, yes, say we asked about the comments of Fiona Simpson the head of the NFF, the Government would say: ‘oh, no, she thinks it’s all okay’. She went on to do interviews yesterday that clearly indicated that the National Farmers Federation don’t think that enough is being done.
NIELSEN: The drought issue has become increasingly febrile. But do you think it’s constructive, the debate, when you’ve got very dramatic comments coming out of, especially Joel Fitzgibbon, this morning saying we need a ‘war cabinet’. Is that helping farmers in the region or is that just heightening their anxiety?
ALBANESE: What Joel Fitzgibbon was pointing towards was for there a need to be a whole of government response. Given the Government keeps talking about the Opposition, why don’t they sit down and cooperate? What’s wrong with proposing that the Government, the Opposition and the whole of the Parliament cooperate? Come up with – be able to consider for example, the drought coordinators report that remains a secret. The thing that has characterised this Government is a series of reviews, and then they don’t respond to the review’s recommendations before they set up another one. And it is a state of drift, whether it be economic policy; social policy; or environmental policy. Joel Fitzgibbon is, I think, very frustrated that this Government is in denial when it comes to their failure to come up with drought strategies. And of course we also had the context here of them having a drought envoy in Barnaby Joyce, who was given extra staff, extra resources, and he said that he texted a few ideas to the Prime Minister.
NIELSEN: He has rebutted that. He was putting that on Facebook; you remember the video of all his letters that he’s written? He says that just because there’s not one report doesn’t mean that he wasn’t reporting.
ALBANESE: Where is it? He was the Drought Envoy, where is the tabling of the reports in the Parliament, where are they? Or to you even, even if they just dropped it out.
NIELSEN: I’d love that, leak it to me, fantastic.
ALBANESE: Drop it out there on Sky and they can put it out online and people can have access to it. We don’t have access to a word of Barnaby Joyce; let alone a report.
NIELSEN: I will put it Barnaby’s point that he says he has filed a number of different reports in different ways. But, if I could ask you about the pill testing in particular that’s just come out, that New South Wales Premier might be ignoring a report that hasn’t come out yet? The Deputy Coroner, some of it has leaked, they have recommended that pill testing could actually help save lives. Now you’re an inner city Melbourne representative
NIELSEN: Sorry, inner city Sydney Representative – plenty of festivals happening on your turf – do you think that this is an adequate response from the State Government?
ALBANESE: I think it’s reasonable that the Premier say that she should wait for the report to be received, and she should be able to read it.
NIELSEN: But she has pre-empted it this morning, still saying that she is not going to support …
ALBANESE: She should read it, and see what’s in it, and listen to the advice. I obviously haven’t seen the report, either, but people should listen to experts on these matters. It is important that State Governments respond to this, and I’m sure the Premier will read the report and I hope that she responds in a constructive way.
NIELSEN: But on the idea of pill testing; why should we be facilitating people to take drugs when they’re illegal?
ALBANESE: This is a difficult issue to deal with. That’s what State Governments are grappling with. We need to listen to experts; we need to make sure that we don’t encourage people to take drugs, to take drugs which are illegal. But we also need to acknowledge the fact that people are losing their lives, young people. Too many lives have been lost, and we need to listen to health experts and in this case this is the report of – I think it’s the Deputy Coroner of New South Wales – and the Premier should examine that before she pre-empts it.
NIELSEN: We’ve had comments from the former Chief of Army this morning, Peter Leahy, who said Australia should be withdrawing troops from the Middle East and focusing on the Pacific. Where it would benefit us more strategically, and the Middle East is becoming increasingly complicated for Australia; do you support that idea?
ALBANESE: I think that we should listen to defence experts in terms of these matters. We’ve played an important role in the Middle East and Australia has an interest in there being a peaceful resolution of conflicts which are there in the Middle East, because they have an impact. We have an interconnected world. But the Pacific and the Indian Ocean and the area to our north in Asia should be our priority our region. But we also have an interest in there being peaceful resolution of conflict, because as we’ve seen when there is conflict we’re impacted by it and we’ve seen that with the conflict in the Middle East. Which has led to the rise of Islamic State and the rise of terrorist influence around the world, and that has had an impact on our safety here in Australia. So I think Australia has played a vital role in the Middle East and I’ve been supportive of that. It’s a bipartisan commitment that we have.
NIELSEN: So, you’ve been quite hands-off in that respect. But there has been this push from Labor that you’re not going to be as bipartisan on foreign policy issues, especially with China. Do you think that it is unhelpful for Australia’s position overseas to have our Opposition not being in lockstep with the Government?
ALBANESE: It’s the Government that’s changed decades of bipartisanship. It’s the Prime Minister who went to the Lowy Institute and gave a speech about ‘negative globalism’, without naming the voluntary international organisations where Australia as a middle ranking power has participated in.
NIELSEN: Isn’t that his prerogative as the Prime Minister?
ALBANESE: He has changed Australia’s position that has been bipartisan throughout the Howard era, throughout the whole period.
NIELSEN: When Howard set it as Prime Minister.
ALBANESE: Since the Second World War, Australia has support for multilateral engagement. We have participated in multilateral defence initiatives; we’ve participated in various international organisations in the UN; we’ve participated for example, under the Rudd Government, we promoted our support for the G20. And, indeed, the Keating Government played an important role in the creation of APEC and organisations in our region. We have been great supporters of multilateralism. What we saw, in the Lowy Institute speech from the Prime Minister, was a break with that. An appeal; like many conservative governments around the world have in recent times. And we see its impact on Brexit; we see its impact on the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement; we’ve seen a growth in isolationist policies, or nationalist policies. It’s the Prime Minister who in that speech changed what is decades of bipartisan commitment.
NIELSEN: Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, thank you for your time.
ALBANESE: Thanks for having me on the program.