KIERAN GILBERT: It was meant to be the most secure building ever to be built in Canberra and it’s not off to a great start – the new ASIO [Australian Security Intelligence Organisation] headquarters has been, well, the victim of a cyber hit… the reports last night on the ABC suggesting that Chinese hackers are behind this cyber attack which has seen the planning, security and communications blueprints for the ASIO headquarters stolen.
KIERAN GILBERT: … I’m joined by Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs Senator Matt Thistlethwaite and the Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for the Murray-Darling and the Environment, Senator Simon Birmingham. Gentlemen, good to see you both.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Morning, Kieran.
KIERAN GILBERT: I want to start with this ASIO breach. It is a real concern… the Government not giving a lot of detail at this stage but, if the Chinese are behind it, why are we entering closer ties in terms of strategic relationships as signed off by the Prime Minister last month?
MATT THISTLETHWAITE: Well, we don’t comment on security issues such as this and there’s a good reason for that, Kieran. We don’t want to compromise the security of our intelligence offices and that’s not something that’s peculiar to Australia, either. It’s something that most developed nations just don’t, simply, comment on but the Australian public can have every confidence that we have a secure intelligence system. We’ve invested an extra $18 billion, since we came to government, on national security; we’ve developed a National Security Strategy… that was announced by the Prime Minister in January this year, so the Australian public can have every confidence that we have a safe and secure system and that we’re working in their interests.
KIERAN GILBERT: This is something which, generally, is a bipartisan position. When the Coalition’s in government, it doesn’t deal with national security matters publicly or intelligence matters. Senator Brandis this morning says that the Coalition has sought an urgent briefing from the Director-General of ASIO. Beyond that, though, do you expect the Government to go further than what Senator Thistlethwaite has said this morning?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Kieran, obviously these are matters that are highly sensitive and governments of the day have to treat them in a sensitive fashion. They are dealt with usually behind closed doors and usually in a manner that does involve briefings to the opposition and that’s quite appropriate to make sure that we are comfortable the Government is doing everything it can to address it. I am concerned, though, Kieran, that we see on the front page of The Australian today Labor MP Anthony Byrne, the Chair of the joint parliamentary committee on intelligence [Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security], highlighting the issues with budget cuts across our security services… across security services like Customs that the Opposition for many years has been highlighting has concerns and we’re now seeing some of those things come home to roost. Those chickens are coming home to roost where the failure to properly invest and support a range of intelligence and security and protective services is not helping Australia in ensuring that we can have as robust a system of security and support as possible.
KIERAN GILBERT: We’ll just pause our chat with Senator Birmingham and Senator Thistlethwaite for the moment. We’re going to cross live to Sydney Airport and the Foreign minister, Bob Carr, joins us.
KIERAN GILBERT: I want to ask you both, quickly, for your thoughts on this, well, bipartisan agreement to lift the electoral funding for the administrative costs of both parties. It doesn’t look great.
MATT THISTLETHWAITE: Well, Kieran, this is something that Labor’s been working on since it came to government and it’s aimed at improving transparency and accountability. What we’re doing is reducing the threshold for which donations need to be disclosed, from about $12,000 to $5,000, increasing the frequency of disclosure from annually to six-monthly…
KIERAN GILBERT: Both major parties cop $10 million or thereabouts each year?
MATT THISTLETHWAITE: Well, because there’s associated administrative costs that come with these new reforms.
KIERAN GILBERT: 10 mil? $10 million a year?
MATT THISTLETHWAITE: Well, you find, when you reduce the disclosure threshold, you get less donations from the community; there are extra administrative costs and that means that, if political parties are going to be able to campaign, to put their message, their policies to the community… they receive public funding already…
KIERAN GILBERT: Do you concede that this looks like the two major parties conspiring to clean up a bit more taxpayer funds?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Kieran, look, I don’t think these are areas that the public like to see debated, in a sense, or like to, necessarily, see governments going down the path of but, in the end, democracy doesn’t come cheap. We have a wonderful democracy in Australia. You were just talking to Minister Carr about Syria and the terrible situation in countries like that. The challenge we have in a country like Australia is how we have a transparent and accountable and functioning democracy. That’s what, happily, we do have. There come with that the cost of how you fund elections, how you fund administration of elections, how you fund the transparency of political parties and their accountability and that’s what this is all about.
KIERAN GILBERT: I want to move on to the Coalition’s paid parental leave scheme. The Treasurer this morning says Treasury has analysis… shows that the cost of the levy, the 1½ per cent levy that will fund Tony Abbott’s paid parental leave scheme, will hit banks and mortgage lenders by $4 billion over the next four years and that that will flow through to higher interest rates for consumers, for mortgage holders. What is the Coalition’s response to that?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, I think we need to be very careful with these types of Treasury claims because it depends entirely on what it is that Wayne Swan has asked them to assume and to put into such analysis. The simple truth is there will be company tax cuts under the Coalition – we’ve made that clear; we’ll outline exactly the rate and extent of those – so there won’t be increased costs of the type and nature being talked about here passed on to businesses. There’s no reason why there should be any type of increased costs for businesses under a government that’s getting rid of the carbon tax, getting rid of the mining tax, pursuing company tax cuts. In the end, the paid parental leave scheme, yes, will be funded. We will outline the timeline and how it will be funded properly but we should look at this as a benefit to working women and we should look at it as something that also is of great help to small businesses because most of these big companies in question already provide very generous paid parental leave schemes…
KIERAN GILBERT: But not all in the party room… not all of your party are convinced, are they, and they’ll probably raise it today, a few of them, their concerns, in the party room? It’s not popular, is it?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Oh, many issues get raised in our party room every time we sit. That’s the beauty of the Liberal and National party room. We’re very…
KIERAN GILBERT: But it’s probably the… or without doubt the least popular policy that you’ve got and very few of your colleagues support it.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Oh, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that at all, Kieran. I think that it has very strong support and especially from those who understand that, for small businesses and for working women, it is a real plus.
KIERAN GILBERT: Okay. I, yeah, don’t expect you to go as far as that… probably not a wise move to say it publicly but I want to ask you about this, in terms of the hit on interest rates and consumers. As Senator Birmingham says, part of the policy is to reduce the company tax parallel to the levy, commensurate with the levy, so it’ll be basically written off by that reduction in company tax.
MATT THISTLETHWAITE: Well, that hasn’t been announced yet. We haven’t seen the details of that but what we do know is they’ve announced the paid parental leave scheme. That will increase company tax by 1.5 per cent. Companies have said ‘we’ll pass that on’. We expect that. That’s going to hit consumers in their hip pocket. That means they’re going to be worse off but this is a classic highlight of the difference between a Labor reform and a Coalition reform. When we introduced the carbon price, we introduced compensation for people to help them meet the additional costs. No compensation associated with this additional costs and it will hit low income earners more because they will pay more through the increases that’ll be passed on, so it’s a lose-lose for low income workers and families in this country on this and it’s another example of more division in the Coalition. We’ve got division on the Baby Bonus now with Barnaby Joyce saying that he’s opposed to what’s being proposed, we’ve got division on the private health insurance rebate and now we’ve got more division on this.
KIERAN GILBERT: Okay and, just finally, your thoughts?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Only two quick points here. It’s a desperate scare campaign and there won’t be increased costs passed through at all because there will be the complementary tax cuts but the other point is the idea of the Labor Party talking about division… every time the Parliament sits, you guys have a leadership spill, mate. You guys have a leadership spill every time the Parliament sits, so you can hardly be the ones to talk about division. We debate policy in the Liberal Party; you guys debate leadership.
KIERAN GILBERT: You can’t blame him for trying, though. I mean, pointing to some division on your side. It is a refreshing change…
MATT THISTLETHWAITE: There’s plenty of it at the moment in your party. There’s plenty of it…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: We debate policy. That’s the difference.
KIERAN GILBERT: … thank you both for your time, appreciate it. Senator Birmingham and Senator Thistlethwaite, appreciate your time this morning.