KIERAN GILBERT: The Gillard Government’s performance in the opinion polls improved over the second half of this year from its low of 27 per cent back in April, steadying around the 36 per cent primary vote but not in the last Newspoll of the year. Labor’s vote has slumped to 32 per cent – that’s a four-point drop – trailing the Coalition 54-46 per cent, as I say in this last Newspoll for 2012. Looking back at not just this survey but the whole 12 months, I spoke to Martin O’Shannessy from Newspoll a bit earlier this morning.
MARTIN O’SHANNESSY: I think it’s pretty clear that the personality style attacks that both leaders have leveraged on one another really haven’t helped either, that they’ve only entrenched existing views…
KIERAN GILBERT: Joining me on the program now from our Sydney studio, Liberal frontbencher… the spokesman [Shadow Parliamentary Secretary] for the environment, Senator Simon Birmingham, and here in the Canberra studio, Trade Minister Craig Emerson. Good to see you both.
KIERAN GILBERT: Senator Birmingham, your thoughts on the O’Shannessy assessment there that the personal politics hasn’t helped anyone; it’s just entrenched views of either leader; in fact, you look at… while the Coalition’s number is very strong in this final Newspoll for the year, Tony Abbott’s approval rating has fallen to 28 per cent, although I should mention his disapproval rating has also fallen a bit?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Kieran, I think, when you boil it all down, the Australian people do make their decisions based on the performance of the government of the day, on the alternate vision of the opposition of the day and on the policy issues that we’re debating and the truth is, as I move around the country, Australians want rid of this incompetent and dishonest Government. That’s what I hear day in, day out and, of course, the latest evidence just today is the fact that there’s this huge spike – 30-plus per cent spike, it seems – in electricity disconnections in Victoria. People are feeling the pressure out there. These are the issues people are genuinely responding to. Yes, they’re concerned this Government is spending more than $6 million a month just shuttling asylum seekers from one overcrowded detention centre to another overcrowded detention centre but they’re equally concerned that they’re feeling enormous cost-of-living pressures as a direct result of the Government’s carbon tax and other policy measures. They see through the Prime Minister’s hollow claims to be concerned about electricity prices when they know that 10 per cent of their electricity bills are directly attributable to her broken promise of introducing a carbon tax.
KIERAN GILBERT: Okay, well, as we’ve discussed, on this program a bit earlier today and on many programs, there’s a big question mark as to how potent that issue has continued to be in terms of the electoral impact, that being the carbon tax, but on the asylum seeker issue, Senator Carr, the Foreign Minister… he’s heading to Colombo next week, to Sri Lanka, heading up a high-level delegation to try and deal with this issue at its source. Despite Labor’s tougher policies and, indeed, sending quite a few Sri Lankan asylum seekers back home, we’ve seen a surge in this number. What will Senator Carr be hoping to achieve during next week’s visit?
CRAIG EMERSON: Look, it’s a broader visit than simply talking about asylum seekers but obviously that will be on the agenda. The fact is that, both voluntarily and involuntarily, we have returned 700 Sri Lankan people who have arrived into Australian waters by boat. Now, I think quite a number of those are saying that they just want a better life in Australia – that is, that they’re economic refugees. There is no obligation under the Refugee Convention to accept people who simply want to arrive by boat because they want a better life. On that basis, countries would be accepting tens of millions of people as they move around the world. I will say this for the Sri Lankan authorities: they are actually intercepting vessels and, unlike one or two other countries such as Iran, they do accept returnees, so we will seek to bolster our relationship between the Australian Government and the Sri Lankan authorities to stem that flow. Yes, it’s true, there has been a surge in asylum seekers or unauthorised arrivals from Sri Lanka. I think other parts of the world and coming through Indonesia… that’s abated but we are addressing that flow from Sri Lanka.
KIERAN GILBERT: So you’re confident then, if that can be dealt with through diplomatic and formal channels, that you might be able to stem that type…
CRAIG EMERSON: We have a constructive relationship with the Government and it does define itself by its willingness – in Sri Lanka – to intercept vessels that are leaving. The civil war is over and they do accept returnees. I’ll give you an example. Those who arrive from Iran… the Government of Iran doesn’t accept Iranian returnees, so that’s a difficulty for no matter who is in government but Senator Carr will have this high on the agenda.
KIERAN GILBERT: Senator Birmingham, your colleague Scott Morrison has argued vigorously for the Government to engage with the Sri Lankan authorities. They’re doing that. You’d welcome it?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Of course I welcome it and I wish Foreign Minister Carr every success but what we have here is a Government that is like a dog chasing its tail – it is forever playing catch-up in these policy areas – and we’re seeing now the type of engagement with Sri Lankan authorities that should have been occurring not weeks or months ago but years ago should have been a consistent part of the relationship. Craig just acknowledged the fact that in many ways the Sri Lankan authorities have been far more responsive, far more responsible, in this area by turning boats around themselves; by, of course, accepting back asylum seekers into their country. These are important things the Sri Lankan Government has done to try to minimise the flow of people out of their country. We should, of course, have had far more consistent policies right throughout the period of this Government rather than the enormous inconsistencies that have seen them being against offshore processing and then for offshore processing; against, of course, a form of temporary protection visas, now claiming some type of bridging visa but not going for a proper temporary protection visa. This Government really should have been engaged with Sri Lanka from day one and had far more effective policies.
KIERAN GILBERT: Minister, I want to ask you about this… the surplus. It’s been such a big focus throughout the year… big doubts as to whether or not it’s going to be achieved and more doubts expressed in today’s Financial Review… Bernie Fraser, a former Governor of the RBA [Reserve Bank of Australia], Bob Gregory, another former Reserve Bank board member, says ‘he’s not going to make it – everybody sort of knows that and presumably he sort of knows that too, I guess,’ Professor Gregory of the ANU [Australian National University] says, obviously referring to Wayne Swan. When is the Government going to concede this because you look at the commodity prices… they have fallen off a cliff as we saw in last week’s figures, GDP [gross domestic product] figures. It is going to have to take an enormous turnaround to make that surplus.
CRAIG EMERSON: Well, commodity prices have fallen – that’s true – but I think there will be a recovery more generally in China with the new leadership. Let’s see how the fiscal cliff debate and deliberations go in the United States, so…
KIERAN GILBERT: So you think it’s still possible? You… it’s realistic?
CRAIG EMERSON: Well, I stand by the figures that have been released officially, which is in the Mid-Year Fiscal and Economic Outlook. Obviously, because they are economic variables, some will go up, some will go down. There are signs of a rebound in consumer confidence – I think the highest in 19 months. That augurs well for future consumption spending…
KIERAN GILBERT: So you think it’s still realistic to suggest that the Government can achieve a surplus?
CRAIG EMERSON: … and that’s why we stand by the MYEFO figures which indicate a surplus.
KIERAN GILBERT: But we’ve had numbers since then – the GDP figures, of… for the quarter…
CRAIG EMERSON: Well, of course there’s going to be GDP figures by definition every March and…
KIERAN GILBERT: Yeah, I know, but as an economist, you think it’s still realistic?
CRAIG EMERSON: Well, I think that we are growing at 3.1 per cent – that’s what the figures released the other day said. The leading indicators are quite positive. We will continue to make the right decisions for Australia and bear in mind the decisions that we’ve already made, Kieran, have led to the Reserve Bank again cutting interest rates. They were 6¾ per cent when we came to office. They’re 3 per cent now, saving an average mortgage holder $5000 a year or $100 a week. That’s actually good news.
KIERAN GILBERT: Yesterday, Senator Birmingham, Christopher Pyne on this program said that the Coalition wouldn’t have been in deficit over the last five years. He’s faced some criticism from Treasurer Swan for making that assertion… says that he’s delusional in suggesting that and Joe Hockey subsequently said that a deficit would have been likely given the revenue write-downs – $160 billion since the global financial crisis. What’s your view? Would the Coalition have been able to sustain a surplus over the last five or so years?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, I can tell you very clearly what we would not have done, Kieran, and that is we would not have handed down the four biggest deficits in Australian history like the Labor Government did – the four biggest deficits, a cumulative total of some $172 billion in deficit that they racked up just in four years – and we just heard from Craig then, really running away as fast as he can in a polite sense from the idea of a surplus this year…
CRAIG EMERSON: I wasn’t running away at all, Simon. Why don’t you actually answer the question? I did. I answered the question. How about you answer the question that Kieran put to you?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: … and, Craig, I am answering the question very clearly. Of course budgets will go up and down with revenue forecasts. Of course there are impacts there from the economy on what happens with the budget but what is very clear is this Government has wasted tens of billions of dollars on ‘Pink Batts’; on school halls; on, of course, their asylum seeker policy debacle, so we have seen enormous wasteful spending that has not at all been necessary in terms of the Australian economy. It’s certainly not been productive spending for the Australian economy and now we’re seeing a Government that is sliding another budget into deficit that will only add further to the $20 million a day interest bill that Australians have to pay.
KIERAN GILBERT: But does it… But, Senator Birmingham, let me ask you… I want to ask you… but do you think this is something that Bob Gregory, who I referred to earlier, former Reserve Bank Board member, who is frustrated, I think like a lot of observers of this debate, about the focus on the deficit… Bernie Fraser again quoted on this issue that we shouldn’t be fixated on it and both sides of politics are to blame here for the Government making the promise in the first place and the Howard Government as well making such a big deal of the short-term surplus when obviously sometimes, as you say, budgets go up and down given the variables internationally and locally, Senator Birmingham. Do you think we give too much focus to this notion of deficit or surplus, that it’s too short-termist or whatever the phrase is; we need to be looking at the longer term?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, I think the reason we’ve come into this really focused debate on deficit or surplus is because of the extent of wasteful spending that we’ve seen and that is why, of course, there’s such a drive and a determination from our side of politics to present a more responsible approach to spending taxpayers’ money because that’s what it is in the end – it’s either the money of today’s taxpayers or the money of future taxpayers having to pay off the debt – and Australia has gone from a circumstance of having money in the bank to having more than $150 billion in net debt under this Government. That is because of too much wasteful spending.
KIERAN GILBERT: Senator Birmingham, there are some positive points and, more broadly, you’d have to concede that the Australian economy… the fundamentals are… remain, at the end of 2012, the envy of the world.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, Australia, thankfully, is in a far better position than many other countries of the world. A whole range of factors go into that, not least, of course, being our relationship with China, not least, of course, being the fact that at least when this Government was elected we had money in the bank unlike the situation today that of course has made the ability to respond better than it will be in the future. If we face another serious downturn, there are no savings to fall back on but, Craig, you should really answer this question: it wasn’t that long ago that your Prime Minister said the surplus would be delivered come hell or high water – do you stand by that statement?
CRAIG EMERSON: Well, we stand by what I’ve said and that is the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: But not what the Prime Minister said?
CRAIG EMERSON: The Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook has produced estimates for a surplus. We stand by those estimates.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: That’s not what the Prime Minister said, though, Craig.
CRAIG EMERSON: Well, I’ll ask you a question now. My turn – why would Tony Abbott think it’s a good idea, in an economic downturn, in the deepest global recession since the Great Depression, to cut spending? Why would you do that? That is crazy economic policy.
KIERAN GILBERT: Okay, well, it’s… Senator Birmingham… he’s got 20 seconds.
CRAIG EMERSON: That is crazy economic policy.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: It’s not about cutting spending, Craig. It’s about smart spending and your Government’s wasteful spending.
CRAIG EMERSON: Oh really? That’s what you’ve been talking about for the last five minutes?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: It’s about smart spending rather than your Government’s wasteful spending.
KIERAN GILBERT: Well, we’ve got to go. Senator Birmingham and Craig Emerson, the Minister for Trade, appreciate it, gents. Thanks for that.
CRAIG EMERSON: Happy Christmas, Simon, and you too, Kieran.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Cheers. All the best. You too.