Transcript - ABC Afternoon Live - 4 December 2019



PATRICIA KARVELAS: I want to bring in my first guest today, the Shadow Assistant Treasurer, Stephen Jones. These figures are out this afternoon, or little earlier today, the Government maintains let's start with this deal on Medevac, or non-deal, that it has not struck this deal with Jacqui Lambie. She’d said there was, but now her office is not really elaborating, they're not commenting. What do you make of all of this?

STEPHEN JONES: It really does beggar belief. If I think the Government and the Prime Minister are just being tricky with words. Clearly a deal has been done. Jacqui Lambie said so in the Senate today. The Government is denying it for whatever reason, but it isclear a deal has been done. Tomorrow morning, presumably we in the House of Representatives are going to be asked to vote on this deal and we're going to be doing it blind. We know on the one hand we’re being asked to scrap a set of laws that were working, that were providing necessary medical treatment to people in need of that treatment. We know that they were working. We're being asked to scrap them but we don't know the basis on which this deal, that has been done with Jacqui Lambie, is going to work and it's actually more alarming not less. If it's true, as Senator Lambie suggests, that the deal has national security implications, that's exactly the sort of thing that Senators and Members should know about before they're being asked to vote on a piece of legislation.

KARVELAS: If the Government has agreed to accept New Zealand's offer to take asylum seekers would that justify the need for secrecy?

JONES: I'm not sure because we don't know the details of the deal. I've got to say this, if the Government has agreed to do, as Labor as being asking it to do for in excess of 12 months now, to accept New Zealand's offer and all of those people on Manus and Nauru resettled then that's a good outcome, but we don't know that. I’d also say, if that happens, then the Medevac laws no longer have any work to do because they sunset the day the last person leaves either Manus or Nauru. You've got to ask yourself, against all this background, if that's the deal that's been done, that's how the laws work, why all the secrecy? Why is the Government being so tricky over this? It just doesn't add up.

KARVELAS: There are reports this afternoon naming a staffer in the office of the Minister Energy and Emissions Reduction Angus Taylor as the person who received these incorrect figures about the City of Sydney’s travel figures. What do you make of this revelation naming a staffer in the Australian?

JONES: There's been a rumour getting around this place for quite some time now that maybe it wasn't Angus Taylor, maybe it was one of his employees that was responsible for doctoring this document. I think it's going to be in the interest of Angus Taylor and democracy at large if he just comes clean. He’s been invited time and time and time and time again. Clearly, he knows the source of the document, clearly knows that the document they put out to the world, to the Daily Telegraph, that was the centre of his letter to Clover Moore, was not true. I think he owes it to himself, I think he owes it to the Australian Parliament, to just come clean. It just looks dodgy.

KARVELAS: Where’s the evidence he knew it wasn’t true?

JONES: He's admitted it. He has come forward and he has apologised. Let me clarify, he has apologised. He knows now that the document wasn’t true. He must also know what the source of the document that he has received has been. Wouldn't it be the easiest thing for Angus Taylor to stand up in Parliament tomorrow and say this is where I got the document from? Then the inquiry, whether it's the police inquiry or other inquiries, can move on to focus on that. What is he covering up? What's he got to hide? 

KARVELAS: The Australian newspaper has named the staffer in his office and also reported that the staffer will remain in the office. Do you think that's acceptable?

JONES: Well again, if it is true that this is the person who doctored the documents…

KARVELAS: I need to be very clear about this, the Australian is not reporting that this person doctored the document but obtained the figures. It is an important distinction to make.

JONES: I understand the distinction you're making. This is all the more reason why Angus Taylor needs to come clean. This is eventually going to come out. There's a police investigation underway at the moment. This is all eventually going to get underway. Angus Taylor can put himself and the Australian people out of all of this agony by just coming clean and saying this is what happened. He should’ve done it weeks and weeks and weeks ago. I think he's dug himself a deeper and deeper hole every day that this drags on. If the Australian’s reporting is true, I think it is in everybody's interest that Angus just comes clean.

KARVELAS: Do you think the staffer should go? Should that the staff will be reprimanded, because sometimes there's a critique of that that the staffer shouldn't be left to take responsibility?

JONES: Two things should happen. Firstly, there's the conversation between Mr Taylor and he staffer, that frankly is a matter for the employment relationship between Mr Taylor and his staffer. But there's a long tradition in this place that you take responsibility for things that go on in your office. If indeed it is true, that the information was somehow concocted in Mr Taylor’s office, then Mr Taylor has misled Parliament, because he's said the opposite in Parliament, on numerous occasions. So if that is true, there are two grounds on which Mr Taylor should resign, the first is that he misled Parliament and continued to mislead Parliament. And the second is that he and his office have been responsible for what amounts to potentially a crime under the New South Wales Crimes Act. All of this is unacceptable for a Minister of the Crown.

KARVELAS: Let's talk about the economy because we've got new figures out today and the latest GDP figures show growth in the September quarter came in at 0.4%, which is slightly below expectations, but year-on-year growth is forecast at 1.7 percent. Is this as bad as you're suggesting, because we're still a significant positive territory, aren't we?

JONES:  It is bad. The economy is growing at the slowest rate since the Global Financial Crisis.

But given global situation, I mean, that's the context I'm asking the question in, are you just talking down the economy? We haven't seen negative figures. This is a positive figure.

JONES: If these figures stood alone you might go, okay maybe there is some broader story here. But the fact is they come the day after we got the trade figures which showed there was continued strong demand for Australia's commodities. The prices for Australian commodities are holding up. So that's the external, that's the global factors. People still want to buy our goods in other parts of the world and they still want to pay a good price for our goods in the other part of the world. That's the global situation. So our problems are home-grown. The problems that we’re facing are not to do with the fact that our trading partners don't want to buy our goods, because clearly they do. Our problems are not because our trading partners don't want to pay a good price for our goods, because clearly they do. Our problem is that we've got sluggish growth. We've got sluggish wages growth. We've got two million people who are either out of work or looking for more work. Most worryingly of all, productivity has gone backwards over this quarter and over the year as a whole, but the drivers of future productivity growth aren't there as well. I'm talking about business investment dropped by nearly one percent over the quarter, one percent over the year. And that is the thing that is going to drive future productivity growth That is the thing that is businesses investing start-ups, in new technology and new equipment, the stuff that's going to drive productivity and growth into the future and it's simply not there. So what we see is not just a bad set of figures for this quarter, but we see the drivers of things that are going to change it down the track simply aren't there. So, once again we call on the Government to get out of the grandstand and start putting in place a plan that is going to get us out of this malaise.

: The IMF is predicting growth next year will rebound to 2.3%. Economists are talking about a soft turning point in the economy. Do you accept that additional stimulus might not be needed?

JONES:  First thing, can I say we hope growth happens. We are not here cheering for the economy to stall or cheering for the economy to go backwards, because that is not in the interest of everyday Australians and workers looking for a job, or looking for a pay rise. We do expect there to be a bit of a kick up over Christmas. That's normally what happens, people go to the shops, they buy their family and friends presents. You normally would expect to see a bit of a pickup over Christmas and if we don't see that growth coming through in the next quarter, there is significant reason for concern. You would expect in the normal course of things for the things to pick up over the Christmas period. I actually think the Reserve Bank is right, I think the Business Council of Australia is right, and I think every economist and every state Premier is right when they say we actually need the Government to play a part. If you actually decompose those figures that were released today, It's Government consumption and Government spending, which is holding up growth in this country. We need a planned trajectory for how it is going to occur over the next 12 months and next two years. So that can give confidence to the business sector, that there's a plan on foot from the Federal Government and from the State Governments, it's worth our while investing in the in new plant and equipment as well. 

There's a huge story that's broken this afternoon that I must ask you about. Rugby Australian and Israel Folau have both issued an apology after a confidential settlement was reached and both parties have apologised for any hurt this incredibly damaging saga has caused. Just a quote from Rugby Australia, “New South Wales Rugby and Israel Folau have today settled their legal dispute following the dismissal of Israel Folau”. Interestingly, they actually reflect on this saying that the social media post “reflected Mr Folau’s genuinely held religious beliefs and Mr Folau did not intend to harm or offend any person when he uploaded the social media post”. What do you make of that concession from Rugby Australia?

JONES: I think it was on your program when I said I think the sacking of Israel Folau was regrettable. I think the whole handling of the affair was regrettable. I think his tweets were regrettable. I fundamentally disagree with everything he said in those tweets, in his public and private comments on this matter as well. But I do believe in freedom of religion and freedom of religious expression. I'm glad that has been settled out of court because I think both our courts and our Parliaments are sometimes the very worst places to be dealing with these complex issues of freedom of speech and freedom of religious expression and how the rights of one person, on the one hand, who has genuinely held religious beliefs clash up against another person's right not to be discriminated against, not be to be subject against hate speech and not to have the gender or their sexual identity subject to these sort of hurtful comments. I think the best place for these debates to be occurring and these problems and conflicts to be sorted is in the private sphere and not in the Parliament, because as we've seen through the attempt of this Government to clumsily introduce a Freedom of Religion Bill, all of the levers that we pull here are very, very blunt and they end up pleasing nobody. I'd really like this event, the settling of the Folau dispute, together with the obvious failure of the initial draft of the Government's religious freedom bill, to be a moment where we step back and say maybe we should be doing this another way. Let's use the Christmas period is a period of reflection where we can say, maybe the path we're going down here is wrong. In Australia it's not so bad, we do have plenty of religious freedom, people aren't hung, they're not crucified either figuratively or literally in this country for their religious beliefs. We actually have a fair deal of religious freedom here. Let's get the debate a lot more civil than it has been over the last 12 months.

KARVELAS: Just for some clarity, do you think the Government should withdraw its bill and not legislate on this religious question? 

JONES: Well, I genuinely do for this reason, if this was easy to do it would have been done decades ago, it would have been done in the 1970s and 1980s when we moved a whole raft of anti-discrimination legislation. We would have done it then if it was easy, but there are conflicts. There are obvious conflicts that come up. Conflicts between various rights, equally legitimate, and our ways of dealing with them are awkward, they're not subtle. I think it would be far better if we could use this as an opportunity to say introducing more laws into this area is not the answer, improving the discourse, improving the way that we deal with each other between faiths and between different rights groups is something that we should do within the civil sphere and not in the legal sphere.