Appearance on Sky New's Lunchtime Agenda - 25 February 2015

DAVID LIPSON: Well let’s bring in Alex Hawke and Stephen Jones to hear their reactions. I might start with you Stephen Jones, a reaction to Scott Morrison’s address there - I think we can all agree on making the system when it comes to welfare more efficient. But would Labor accept any winding back of welfare payments whatsoever?

STEPHEN JONES, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR HEALTH: We will work with the Government in ensuring that we can simplify things where that is appropriate.

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There are two things that Scott Morrison missed the opportunity of doing in his Press Club speech today. The first is to accept the McClure recommendation that no payments will be reduced, that no one will be worse off; that is certainly a recommendation that we support. Along the same line he had the opportunity to say that effectively Kevin Andrews was right and Tony Abbott was wrong and we are not going to knock people off welfare who lose their job when they are between the ages of 20 and 30. We think that that is an opportunity, he should have taken the opportunity to reject that.

JOURNALIST: The McClure report also recommends tightening up what is now known as the disability support payment, only for people who don’t have the capacity to work for five years rather than two years which it is currently. Is that a recommendation that Labor supports?

JONES: The broad principle that we support is that people who are on the DSP should be receiving it because they meet the disability thresholds associated with that payment. We will look at all the details, I mean the Government hasn’t accepted it yet so you wouldn’t expect that we would. The other thing I have to say about that is that it is always better that people have access to work, so working with people who are on the DSP to ensure that they can work in part or in full to get into the workplace is always our preference.

JOURNALIST: Alex Hawke a response to some of those points, when will we hear from the Government in terms of how much of the report it will accept?

ALEX HAWKE MP: The Government is looking at it now and from a first look it’s a very sensible report that we can administratively do things better to ensure that the welfare system is more efficient and delivers its services in a cheaper and better way for people who are receiving welfare and also for the administration of government. I take Stephen up on that point – the Minister didn’t say that that was off the table at all, he said in fact that that measure was before the Senate in terms of young people and the dole. I have to say with $150 billion of welfare being spent, it is the number one item the Commonwealth spends money on by far. It is well above health, education and defence – in fact in some cases two, three, four times what we spend on those vital areas. We do need to look at those reforms to ensure that we get welfare down, welfare isn’t good for people at the end of the day and there are a lot of people on welfare who do want to get off and get into work. They want to be doing more work and can do more work, so the disability support pension is a good example. There’s been a big blow out in the disability support pension in recent years, in the UK for example the conservative government took the approach there to independently identify and help people get off the DSP. Not people who genuinely need the payment, but people who weren’t appropriately in it. And we know that there are people in Australia who aren’t appropriately in it.

JONES: When you look at welfare reform you don’t look at that in isolation from everything else the Government is doing. I guess we are a little bit cynical because one of the first decisions you made was to give tax cuts to people at the top end of the superannuation pile, people with $2 million in their superannuation accounts and tax increases for people with low superannuation accounts. This is another example of wrong priorities and if you want to look at superannuation and savings – there is over $45 billion dollars in tax concessions in that area. The point is that you can’t look in welfare in isolation form other decisions of the Government…

HAWKE: In retirement savings if people can fund their whole entire retirement themselves it doesn’t cost the Government a thing….

JONES: That is absolutely right, I agree with that…

HAWKE: We do want to incentivise superannuation and you do want to [inaudible]…

JOURNALIST: The minister has said that any changes will be incremental; in the medium to long term is when he is seeking to address this. Is the Government moving fast enough in your view when it comes to reform? Because it has backed away from a number of areas of reform, has it run out of political capital and can’t push these areas through fast enough?

HAWKE: Not at all, I think it is a sensible recommendation the report makes that this be applied to future recipients. That is people who are in the system currently remain and all of these new arrangements would be developed in a sustainable fashion hopefully with the support of the Opposition and the Senate at a minimum and we then could implement them for future recipients. That is a sensible way to proceed; there is a compact that did exist, people planned for their retirements and made decisions in their lives based on what was available throughout the course of their lives. What the Intergenerational Report will probably show and what it has shown previously is that this is an unsustainable model for the future and we need to set up a new compact. That is why things like raising the pension age to 70 in 2035 is a good decision and Labor opposing that is a foolish decision. Because we cannot afford that in 2035 and Stephen knows that and Labor Party knew that when they were lifting the age in which you could claim the pension age.

JOURNALIST: More generally though on reform you for example late last year were pushing for penalty rates to be cut and the Government’s now effectively ruled that out. Are you disappointed that they have done that at this point?

HAWKE: Well the Government hasn’t ruled out anything yet. There is a review on this year in relation to industrial relations and penalty rates are part of the terms of reference. I’ve obviously taken a position on penalty rates in relation to small business and the private business sector, not public sector workers - that it is not of interest to me or anyone in the Coalition. We are talking about the ability of a small business to open on a Sunday or a public holiday and address those issues like youth unemployment that are really becoming a bugbear for us in Australia now. And yes I remain committed to seeing the ability of a business to open on a public holiday or on a Sunday being made easier so that they can add those extra workers and add those extra shifts. But that is a conversation that the Government will have over the next year, it is not something we will do any action on before taking it to the Australian people. I think you’ll see that in action this year in the conversation we have with business and with the community.

JOURNALIST: That sounds pretty reasonable Stephen?

JONES: I think what Alex has just said there is an admission that anything that Tony Abbott or Joe Hockey rule in or out this week will have no bearing on the long term Liberal party policy because they probably won’t be in their jobs at the end of the year. Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey might have ruled them out but there is still an enormous push within the Liberal Party, within the Coalition backbench, to do things like scrap penalty rates [inaudible]…

HAWKE: The Government has announced this review; they haven’t ruled anything out at all…

JONES: But the current Prime Minister has already knocked that off and said that we are not going to do it and…

HAWKE: No the Prime Minister has said that without the consent of the Australian people we won’t be going ahead with that sort of thing, so that’s…

JOURNALIST: Eric Abetz did go further as well; he said that the system as it works at the moment under Fair Work has worked for a long time and…

HAWKE: Let’s be clear what is happening at the moment, Fair Work has been recognising that this [inaudible] – they made decisions recently that penalty rates are too high in certain awards or certain sectors and they have actually decided to lower the rates, the penalty rates…

JONES: So why does the Parliament need to take over the role if…

HAWKE: Well we are arguing about nothing, you are agreeing with…

JOURNALIST: Let’s look at Gillian Triggs, the President of the Human Rights Commission. The Government has effectively or rather has declared that they no longer have confidence in her. We have heard from Malcolm Turnbull on this and on the marathon committee hearings that went all through the day. This is what Malcolm Turnbull thought:

[Excerpt of Malcolm Turnbull saying that the focus on Gillian Triggs missed the main point of focusing on children in detention].

JOURNALIST: He is right, isn’t he? We are missing the main point which is that children who are in detention – Alex Hawke whether you think it was partisan or not, and I think I probably know what you think - it’s a significant issue and one that we should be looking at as a nation.

HAWKE: There are two issues here, I am completely compassionate towards the children as I think all Australians are and that is a serious issue. The second issue is the ability of the Human Rights Commission to function in its current role with its commissioner having taken what many members of the Government and independent commentators view as very biased decisions including the timing of this inquiry. This was shamelessly timed after we formed government and have deliberately pursued a policy that is meant that there are…

JOURNALIST: Just on that, although the investigation was announced after you took government and after we started to see the number of children in detention come down substantially, it was 2,000 before the election we are now getting down to below 200 now – it was retrospective, it was critical of Labor as well. So how can it have been so partisan when it did look at the final months of Labor when things were the worst I suppose you could say and was critical of Labor?

HAWKE: Well it would have to be critical of Labor because all of the people arrived under Labor except for the very tail end of the boat policy so it would have to be. But timing is a valid decision in politics, when you do something is just as politically charged – before an election or after an election. Even the Reserve Bank now lowers or moves interest rates in an election period because they don’t want to be seen in any way as interfering in the election process, they are just doing their job day in day out. Now if you look at Gillian Triggs evidence before the estimates prior to this that is when the Attorney-General advised that he lost confidence in her because of her contradictory evidence on this. But my own confidence in her was lost long before that about the Basikbasik matter. Her decision to award $350,000 dollars of taxpayer’s money, to say that we should be compensating a person who bashed to death his wife, this Australian citizen, and her unborn child when four immigration ministers, two Labor ministers and two Liberal ministers, knew we had to keep this person in immigration detention and…

JONES: I want to come in on this issue. What you have seen in the last week is evidence of a Prime Minister with a glass jaw. Here we have an independent body that does a very detailed report which is as you say is very harsh on the record of both Labor and Liberal Governments…

JOURNALIST: Only the final two months of the Labor Government though.

JONES: The findings weren’t glowing of our treatment in this area as well; we’ve said that we are going to look at that and listen. The Prime Minister with a glass jaw takes the opportunity to make an unprecedented and extraordinary attack on an independent body whose job it is is to be critical of governments of all shades when they breach human rights. Now that is what the Human Rights Commission does, the Human Rights Commission is set up as an independent body to oversight the work that is done by parliaments and government and make harsh criticisms when they are warranted. When you have a Prime Minister who says that I will accept the human rights reports that I like and I will reject and try and sack the people who write the reports I don’t like is nothing less than absolutely extraordinary.

JOURNALIST: So leaving aside how we got to this point, is her position tenable? I mean the relationship with the Government has completely broken down, that is clear but…

JONES: I would put it the other way around and I would say that is absolutely untenable for her to step down, absolutely untenable for the Government to put more pressure on her to do so. Because otherwise they are setting a template for any Government when they want to remove an independent statutory office holder. She must stay.

JOURNALIST: Just finally I want to move to an issue that a lot of people would be interested in at home and that is the Government’s move to impose a fee on foreign investors buying residential real estate. It is going to be $5000 for property under a million dollars, $10,000 for property over a million dollars, do you concede Alex that this won’t do much to deter foreign investors who are spending up big in the Australian market already?

HAWKE: No but it is only one of a suite of measures we have got there, and it is designed, I mean these are long overdue measures. The community has been talking to both governments of all persuasions about their concerns in this area for quite some time. The fees are a start in funding the Foreign Investment Board, all the money will go to the Foreign Investment Review Board to enable them do their job better – which is one of the key criticisms of the community, so that they can police their applications more rigorously. Also within the ATO we now have a unit, which is part of the announcement today, which is now going to be rigorously applying the rules as well.  And the Treasurer is taking action where we haven’t seen any action out of the Foreign Investment Board against anybody in any residential purchase or development in a long period of time. So this is long overdue, it is a step in the right direction, I think that Labor will struggle to oppose something like this because it is in line with community expectations and it is a good start on what we need to be doing.

JOURNALIST: Stephen Jones under Labor there was not a single legal case against a foreigner buying residential real estate, should there have been?

JONES: I don’t know, I haven’t gone through as Alex is seeming to suggest that we as members of Parliament go through every single title deed and do research over who has purchased…

HAWKE: Which is part of the Foreign Review Board…         

JONES: …Which is funded by about eight staff by the way.

HAWKE: That is why we’ve got the fees, so we can fund them!

JONES: Let’s get to the basics; do we oppose the idea of ensuring that our law is enforced? Of course not. What we are critical of is the Prime Minister taking a tax payer VIP funded jet from Canberra to Sydney to announce the launch of a discussion paper.

JOURNALIST: As Alex pointed out, the fees are aimed at funding the Foreign Investment Review Board so that they…

JONES: We don’t oppose the idea…

HAWKE: It’s not just the fees there are also the penalties, this is the important concept. There is now also a penalty regime. There are penalties for voluntary admission, so that we are not going to have people review every case. And there are more severe penalties if you are found out, which is just what people want.

JOURNALIST: I’m sorry we are out of time. Thanks so much for joining us. 

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