04 March 2020


ANNELISE NIELSEN: Welcome back. We’re joined by Stephen Jones, Shadow Assistant Treasurer. Thank you for your time.

STEPHEN JONES: Great to be with you.

NIELSEN: The coronavirus has spread faster than many anticipated. It's been quite catastrophic on a number of supply chains for Australia. You're not quite satisfied with the Government response to it.

JONES: I think the Chief Medical Officer is doing a great job. I think his regular updates have been very, very useful. I think my concern is with the Prime Minister himself. He's come off a very bad Christmas. He's now embroiled in a sports rorts affair, which makes it quite clear to everyone, except the Prime Minister, that he’s been caught out lying to the Parliament, lying to the Australian people, about him his and his offices involvement in this whole scandal. At a time when the Australian people are relying on their leaders, and particularly the Prime Minister, to have a high level of trust, he's falling short. It would actually be better if the Government put the Health Minister and the Chief Medical Officer out in front and providing the daily updates in the briefings instead of the Prime Minister because I think he's peeling trust.

NIELSEN: Well, I think the Government has been putting Greg Hunt and the Chief Medical Officer up on an extremely regular basis to give these updates. I don't know what impact you're expecting the Prime Minister to have on top of that.

JONES: That's exactly my point. I think when Prime Minister, who is standing up and fighting off allegations about misleading Parliament, which is absolutely quite clear that that's what's happened here, it's quite clear that he and his offices have been embroiled in this sports rorts affair, that they have misled Parliament and misled the public. Evidence is mounting.

NIELSEN: You can’t say evidence is mounting and that it’s quite clear. The Government does dispute it and we haven’t actually seen that letter the Audit Office referred to. We don’t actually know about those days, that’s an allegation put forward by Labor

JONES: We know what the Prime Minister has said, we know what the Audit Office has said. We know that on the fourth the Minister, allegedly, signed off a letter approving the grants. We know that six days later an email went to the Prime Minister's office. We know that a day later a different set of grants work came back from the Prime Minister's office and a different set of Grants were approved. So there were six days here between when the minister supposedly signed off in a letter approving the grants and when the grants went to the Sports Commission for final approval. Clearly, the Prime Minister's office was involved in this. The Audit Office put them in it yesterday. It was quite clear from the evidence from the Audit Office before Senate estimates. The point here is the Prime Minister has got to come clean. He’s got to come clean to Parliament and to the Australian people about his involvement. For as long as he refuses to come clean and be honest about this, everything else that he stands up about, just peels credibility. At a time when Australians are needing to rely on their leader, a time that Australians need clear advice from the Prime Minister and need to be able to trust everything the Prime Minister's saying on coronavirus, on the economic response, this guy is coming up short.

NIELSEN: To your original point, you've said that Greg Hunt and the Chief Medical officer should be front and centre in the response because the prime minister is not doing his job. They are front and centre, what is the Prime minister not doing that he should be doing?

JONES: Being truthful. I think what the Prime Minister should be doing is coming clean on all of these legacy issues that are dogging him.

NIELSEN: Do you think average Australians actually care about sports rorts when they're looking at the coronavirus issue though? I think most Australians would be able to separate those two.

JONES: I think what the average Australian wants to be able to do is believe the things that the Prime Minister is telling them, particularly in the middle of a crisis. When it's bleedingly the obvious that the Prime Minister is not telling the truth about one thing, how are they going to have faith in what he's saying about other things that are of critical importance? I agree with you, Australians should be able to trust everything their Prime Minister is saying, it is quite clear they can't. When it comes to his response to the sports rorts affair, it really does undermine the things that he's saying about everything else.

NIELSEN: He hasn't said anything different to the Chief Medical Officer or the Health Minister about coronavirus. Why would any Australian doubt what they're being told about coronavirus?

JONES: Because there is such, there is a growing mistrust about everything that this Prime Minister stands up and says. At a time when we need to have confidence in the Prime Minister and his ability to put in place an appropriate economic response, this guy doesn't have the credibility.

NIELSEN: So if we move on to the interest rate cuts yesterday by The Reserve Bank. They were passed on, in full, by the big four banks for the first time since 2015. That's a pretty strong vote of support from the banks really, isn't it?

JONES: I welcome the fact that the banks have passed on the interest rate cuts, it was an important step. I think the banks, The Reserve Bank Governor himself has made it quite clear that monetary policy has run its course and this is the fourth interest rate cut in nine months. We've actually got interest rates, I think they were at 6% in the middle of the global financial crisis, we’re at 0.5% today. There's not much room for them to move. In fact, there's no room for them to move they’re not having the stimulatory impact that they’re intended to. If you talk to the banks themselves, it's not leading to more consumption and more expenditure, people are basically using that extra headroom through the interest rate cuts to pay down on existing debt. That is a good thing, it's a rational decision for households to be making. It's not leading to more business investment and that's what we need, that's what's going to drag us out of the malaise that we're in and deal with a whole bunch of our long-term productivity problems as well. So we need some efforts, when money is as cheap as it is, we need confidence and we need some measures which are going to lead business to start investing to create jobs, to create the productivity that is going to be needed to get growth and get jobs moving again. It's simply not happening at the moment. So fiscal policy has got to play a role. When I came on to your program last week and said there was a need for stimulus, there is a need for the government to start pulling down on some fiscal levers, Liberals around this place were criticising me and saying I was being alarmist.

NIELSEN: Well, you said an economic stimulus package.

JONES: We're not going to start quibbling about words are we?

NIELSEN: You compared it to the global financial crisis.

JONES: You compared it do the global financial crisis.

NIELSEN: I gave you the opportunity.

JONES: I said Labor responded appropriately during the global financial crisis by introducing a stimulus measure. The Government should respond appropriately to a situation where the economy is tanking where it's been hit by bushfires and coronavirus with no end in sight. The Government needs to be responding appropriately. A fiscal package is needed to deal with that.

NIELSEN: So just to be clear, do you think that this coronavirus issue is as serious for the economy as the global financial crisis?

JONES: I’m not going to make that comparison but what I am going to say is it is now time for the Government to be implementing a fiscal package. Bring forward the tax cuts, bring infrastructure spending, consider the accelerated business tax depreciation arrangements that Labor took to the last election which will stimulate business investment and get the economy moving again. Three fiscal measures. I don't care whether you call them a package, a stimulus measure, they will have that effect.

NIELSEN: What should that stimulus looks like?

JONES: It should look like the Government sending a message to the Australian people that we've got this, but we're not going to rely on monetary policy alone that we know that we're going to have to use the government's balance sheet.

NIELSEN: Not the vibe of it though, What should it actually look like? Bridges…

JONES: I’ve gone through three measures. Let's deal with some of the infrastructure stuff too. What we need to get moving is infrastructure projects that are going to have an immediate impact. So some of the bridges, some of the highways, some of the rail projects very, very important, but you can't get them moving quickly. That's why I'd be looking at some of the smaller scale projects that can be scaled up very quickly for the council sector, local community infrastructure program. Let's go back to a bunch of those sporting clubs that were rejected from the sporting grants program and say are you ready, can you go? Maybe we should be looking at some of those programs as ready to go, shovel ready projects, community infrastructure projects, which can get money going into some of those local communities. There's a bunch of ideas.

NIELSEN: Stephen Jones, thank you for your time
JONES: Great to be with you.