KIERAN GILBERT: … let’s go to our panel this morning, the Minister for Home Affairs, Justice and Customs, Jason Clare, and Liberal frontbencher, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Water [Murray-Darling Basin], Environment, Senator Simon Birmingham. Gentlemen, good to see you.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Morning, Kieran.
KIERAN GILBERT: Senator Birmingham, there isn’t bipartisan support of the Gonski [Review of Funding for Schooling] school funding. There is on DisabilityCare, so the fact that these savings in the longer term will be outlined tonight… you’d welcome that?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Kieran, look, if Wayne Swan can outline savings, I’ll welcome it any time but, let’s be honest here, Wayne Swan couldn’t deliver what he promised last year in the last 12 months so how is anybody going to believe it when he says he’s got a ten-year plan as to how he’s going to do things? This is just a case of a Treasurer who is fixated with cheap tricks and trying to catch out the Opposition rather than doing what’s actually in the national good. Wayne Swan promised to deliver a surplus this year. He promised it on 500-plus occasions and, of course, he has failed and failed miserably and will simply add to the four biggest deficits on record Australia’s ever had, creating a decade of debt that this Government will have set up. That’s the legacy of Wayne Swan. It’s not about ten years of future funding. It’s ten years of debt that he’s left this country.
KIERAN GILBERT: When you say that it’s cheap tricks, it’s also what the Coalition’s been calling for, though, isn’t it… that Mr Abbott has said he’ll back the Medicare levy to fund DisabilityCare if there is a viable funding stream for the rest of the model?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Kieran, of course we’ve been calling for it to be funded and to make sure that that funding is clear but let’s also say: when you look out to ten years on this spectrum, if the Government’s saying ‘we’re going to show how in ten years’ time we’re paying for DisabilityCare and school funding’, what about universities and higher education, what about defence spending, what about all of the other areas of government, hospitals and the like, pensions, aged care, all of those other factors, so the Government can easily say ‘well, we’re going to fund these things in ten years’ time’… how are they going to make the books balance? We’ve seen this Government can never manage to make the books balance and never will.
KIERAN GILBERT: Jason Clare, there is one area which you’re familiar with, of course, in border protection where the costs have grown so quickly… blown out in the last couple of years with the enormous number of arrivals, asylum seeker arrivals. Is this, in large part, one of the big problems in terms of the budget bottom line the blowout in border protection?
JASON CLARE: Well, this is a tough area. I’ve talked about this before. It’s very frustrating this area, a really difficult area of public policy. It requires both of the major parties to work together. I think the Liberal Party is starting to realise how hard this is because you’ve seen Tony Abbott start talking about reducing the boats rather than stop the boats, so he realises now how hard this is. My view on this has always been the same. The government of the day, whether it’s Labor or Liberal, should be given the power that we think we need to stop people getting on boats and risking their life at sea. That’s what we’ve been consistently denied by the Liberal Party and by the Greens party. That’s what’s needed if you’re going to reduce the risk of people getting on boats and dying in the middle of the ocean.
KIERAN GILBERT: And that’s the very human reality of it, that border protection, asylum seeker issues are a human problem but it’s also a budget problem and Treasury, I suppose… this is emblematic of their failure to forecast numbers across the budget. They have not gone anywhere near forecasting the right number of asylum seekers. It’s been dwarfed by the number of arrivals. I think they said 5000 over the last year. There’ve been 20,000 this year alone.
JASON CLARE: And, Kieran, the point I’d make is you would need to invest a lot less, you would need fewer resources, if the politicians of this country would work together. While ever we’re fighting, there’ll be people getting onto boats and there’ll be people dying. If we’re going to fix this, it requires the Labor Party and the Liberal Party and maybe even the Greens party to work together on this but, while we fight, people will die.
KIERAN GILBERT: Senator Birmingham, this is going to be, according to all the polls, the challenge for your side of politics and your colleague Scott Morrison to deal with in September and beyond. What do you say to that argument there from Jason Clare?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Kieran, let’s firstly understand: we had a fix, we had the problem under control when the Labor Government came to power. They undid all of the things that the Howard Government had put in place temporary protection visas, offshore processing, turning boats back where possible. We’ve got a very clear plan…
JASON CLARE: When? When is it possible?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: … and we’ve been very consistent about wanting to make sure… we’ve been very clear…
JASON CLARE: When is it possible? [unclear] the Liberal Party’s policy says turn back boats where it’s safe to do so. When is it safe to do so? The Navy says it’s never safe to turn back a boat.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Jason, you know, there are circumstances where it’s been done and Sri Lanka obviously is doing it close to their shore and making sure they turn people around at source…
JASON CLARE: When is it safe to do so, Simon?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: … and obviously that is the first priority…
JASON CLARE: When is it safe to turn back a boat?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: If you can turn them back closer to source…
JASON CLARE: When? When is it safe to do that?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: … that is obviously the preferable thing to do. That’s why, with Sri Lanka, with Indonesia and others to do so, the simple fact here…
JASON CLARE: The bottom line, Kieran, is it’s never safe to do that.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Jason, I haven’t interrupted you… and the simple fact here, Kieran, is the budget has blown out, as you’ve highlighted, on this area. It’s the Government’s mess of their own making because they were the ones that unscrambled the fix that was there in the first place. We will put that fix back in place. We don’t pretend it will be easy but we are determined to fix this problem, as we are the entire budgetary mess this Government’s leaving.
KIERAN GILBERT: Well, it’s also a very potent political issue, as you well know, as you both well know. Tony Windsor this morning… the independent Member for New England… has basically conceded, I think this is for the first time, that Labor will lose the election. He doesn’t believe Wayne Swan will be the Treasurer, come September 15. Let’s have a losten to what Tony Windsor had to say this morning.
TONY WINDSOR: Well, my guess is he won’t be Treasurer after September but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t set a platform for whoever the government happens to be for the next period of time. You can bet your bottom dollar…
KIERAN GILBERT: So, Tony Windsor there saying, as I previewed, he does not think he’ll be Treasurer, come September, but he’s setting a platform for the future. I suppose the unusual thing here, though, Jason Clare, is that this is a ten-year road map when budgets are four years. Do you understand there’s some scepticism or cynicism about this, given the inability of Wayne Swan to deliver on what he promised last year?
JASON CLARE: Well, I’ll make the point I made before: this is a big investment in DisabilityCare, a big investment in education. You can’t do this for one, two, three or four years. You’ve got to do it over a decade and the decade beyond that. When you put a big investment into the budget, you’ve got to make what they call a structural saving, so you’ve got to show where the money goes in…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: So, why don’t we have a decade of investment in aged care, Jason something else that’s really important or a decade of investment in mental health or a decade of investment in universities?
JASON CLARE: Well, why don’t we have an investment in infrastructure?
KIERAN GILBERT: Let’s hear Jason out. I’ll come back.
JASON CLARE: These are all big things which will ramp up over the next decade so it makes sense to say how you’re going to fund it. That’s what the budget will do. More broadly, on the point of what Tony Windsor is talking about, people are going to have a choice, come September, between Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott, between investing in education, DisabilityCare, roads and rail or the Liberal Party which will cut education, cut health, cut the pension and increase income tax. If you earn less than $80,000 a year, then your income tax will go up if Tony Abbott becomes the Prime Minister of Australia.
KIERAN GILBERT: Senator Birmingham, I suppose the question I want to ask you this morning and, no doubt, Joe Hockey will be asked this a bit later as well is, given you will face, in all likelihood, the challenge of making the cuts… Joe Hockey, in all likelihood, will be on the Treasury benches, that… wouldn’t he welcome the hard yards being done, to some extent, by Wayne Swan tonight, some of those difficult cuts that have already been flagged?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Kieran, we’ll believe it when we see it. Based on Wayne Swan’s track record of promising and then failing to deliver, this budget’s likely to be about as believable as the fairy tale stories I read my two-year-old at night. The fact is we’ve already outlined, in areas like cutting the Schoolkids Bonus, a willingness to do what is difficult. We’ve said, as Jason was just trying to highlight, that, when we get rid of the carbon tax, we’ll get rid of the carbon tax compensation. Now, we will have more to say about income tax cuts, that we hope will be achievable and that we will try to implement, in the election campaign but the simple fact here is that this Government has created the biggest deficits in this country’s history. They promised a surplus this year. They’ve failed to deliver. They’re setting us up now for a decade of debt. Nobody’s going to believe it tonight when Wayne Swan says he’ll deliver a surplus in three or four years’ time, let alone what it is he might be promising to do in ten years’ time.
KIERAN GILBERT: That’s the challenge, isn’t it to make it believable when, whether it’s… depending on who you believe… it’s obviously contestable space in politics, whether or not the Government’s acted… gone too far in terms of spending or not, you know… or got the balance right throughout the global financial crisis… the issue is, here, believability, with revenues down… isn’t that the issue for Wayne Swan?
JASON CLARE: Kieran, don’t listen to Simon or myself. Listen to what John Howard said last night [Friday]. He made a major speech where he said that the Australian economy is going extremely well compared to the rest of the world, that unemployment’s low… he also made the point that debt is low in Australia which blows out of the water this Liberal argument that’s been going around for a number of years. John Howard, senior Australian statesman, former Prime Minister, has made the point that the Australian economy is strong, that unemployment’s low and that debt is low. One of the by-products…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: [unclear] higher.
JASON CLARE: One of the by-products of having a strong economy when the rest of the world has been in so much trouble is a high dollar. That’s meant that companies are making smaller profits. It’s meant smaller amounts of company tax. It means we’ve got to prioritise.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: But you could…
JASON CLARE: Just one more point, Simon, and then I’ll let you go but… you could have a surplus tonight if you’re prepared to rip $17 billion more out of the budget. That means cutting the pension by a third. We weren’t prepared to do that because the focus is on jobs and supporting Australian people.
KIERAN GILBERT: Those points about what John Howard said last night [Friday] are true. I’ve got a copy of those comments. He says ‘when the current Prime Minister and the Treasurer and others tell you that the Australian economy is doing better than most, they are right … our debt to GDP [gross domestic product] ratio, the amount of money we owe to the strength of our economy, is still a lot better than most other countries.’ This is like something that’d come out of the mouths of a minister.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Kieran, it’s better than most other countries because this country started with zero debt. That’s the truthful position here. This Government started with zero net debt, with money in the bank, and they’ve turned it around into hundreds of billions of dollars of debt. Will the debt ceiling tonight need to pushed up above $300 billion? I expect it will, based on the Government’s track record and on the likelihood of deficits this year, next year, the year after, so this Government has turned around a very good position and put us in a difficult position. Now, we’re very lucky in Australia to be able to have the resources wealth that we’ve got and to be in the position, as John Howard has highlighted… but the challenge tonight for Wayne Swan is to deliver something believable and, on his track record, nobody will.
KIERAN GILBERT: Let’s cross to the Treasurer now…