KIERAN GILBERT: This is AM Agenda.  Thanks for your company.  With me now Parliamentary Secretary for Environment, Senator Simon Birmingham, and the Shadow Financial Services Minister, Bernie Ripoll.  Gentlemen, good morning.  Senator Birmingham, first to you.  Barnaby Joyce on the front page of The Australian, this story about a rural reconstruction and development bank.  He supports a government bail-out essentially of seven billion dollars for distressed farm loans.  What do you make of this idea?  It seems to run really in contradiction of what everything the Government's been saying recently.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, good morning, Kieran.  We are, of course, very much aware of the pain that a lot of rural Australia is under at present and the hardship a lot of farming families face.  The years of drought, the problems with live cattle exports, particularly because of some of the policies of the previous government, the escalating costs around supply of many products due to the impacts of the carbon tax and rising electricity prices more generally.  Huge costs, big problems in rural Australia and we're very sympathetic to wanting to do something about that. Now, we will of course look at all policy options and give them proper consideration when they're put forward by farming industry groups and by their representative organisations.  Barnaby is rightly working through these issues with communities across the country.  Of course we have to be conscious that just in agriculture, as in any other industry sector, you don't want to reward any bad industry practices.  That you don't want to have a situation where you're propping up unsustainable businesses.  So you've got to be very careful about policy responses.  We'll give them all a good hearing and make sure we do the right thing to keep our farmers on the land, growing food for all Australians. 

KIERAN GILBERT: What about the notion of a rural reconstruction bank?  Does that grab you?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, that's just one policy option and obviously Barnaby is taking soundings right around the country, but particularly in those drought affected areas of Queensland and parts of New South Wales.  He'll be working through those, as are many members of the Government.  I've travelled through some of those regions with my water responsibilities.  I'm very conscious of the pain that's there as well. We'll come up with the right policy formulations to give long-term sound footings to our farming communities.  That starts with driving costs down.  The best thing Labor and others could do is help us get rid of the carbon tax, ease some of those cost pressures on those farming communities.  Ultimately their business is much the same as any other business.  If you can get the red tape burden down, if you can get the tax burden down, if you can get the costs down…


SIMON BIRMINGHAM: …that's the best way to make them more competitive.

KIERAN GILBERT: Bernie Ripoll, that all sounds pretty reasonable, doesn't it, Simon Birmingham's approach to that idea?  He's not ruling it out, but says that they've got to listen to what – some of the pain that is being experienced in the rural and regional areas with the ongoing drought conditions in many parts of Australia.  

BERNIE RIPOLL: Well, I think we'll see a lot of listening and very little action.  But I think, Kieran, you were right when you said it run – it's running contrary to what the Government is saying.  In fact, it's running contrary to everything they're doing.  Let's hope that Barnaby Joyce is more successful with this than he has been with SPC Ardmona workers.  He said he'd be helping them and we've seen nothing of the sort. But this runs typically to what this Government is about.  Barnaby Joyce is having a thought bubble.  He's going out on a listening tour.  We won't see much action unfortunately.  But just like before the election, they said they'd do one thing and they're actually doing another.  They said they wouldn't touch education, there'd be no cuts.  Of course, we're seeing cuts there.  Whether it's health, whether it's school kids' bonus, whether it's across a whole range of areas, auto industry.  I mean, this is a government that's prepared to say anything before an election, do completely different things afterwards.  And when it comes to actually helping people, whether it's farmers, whether it's small business, they've actually taken money away. So if it's small business people, which are a lot of farmers, there's about five billion dollars' worth of direct assistance that was there in place when Labor was in government that's now been ripped away.  Whether it's tax loss carry-back, things that could really help small business and farmers, all taken away.  These are the things that were already in place.

KIERAN GILBERT: Okay.  Well, I – Senator Birmingham, I – I'll just get back to you on this point, because I can't see how a government or a treasurer [and 004:22]  Mr Hockey, so strongly opposed to a twenty-five million dollar bail-out for SPC  would look at a seven billion dollar bail-out for another sector.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: And, Kieran, as I said, we won't be pursuing policies that prop up unsustainable businesses and we won't be pursuing policies that reward bad business practices, whatever type of business anybody is in.  So we can be very clear about that.  That is a very clear message from the Prime Minister, the Treasurer, shared across the entire government. But we understand there are circumstances in rural Australia, be it from the drought, be it from the impact of Labor's policies around live cattle export, be it the rising cost base they face because of the carbon tax and other factors, that mean we've got to have a look at how we make sure we keep what is a fundamental of our economy in agriculture as strong as possible for the long-term future.


SIMON BIRMINGHAM: This Government has a deep and abiding commitment to rural Australia and we won't be stepping away from that.  

KIERAN GILBERT: Bernie Ripoll, you said this is a government that isn't what it said it would be.  But Tony Abbott issued a statement last night, the Prime Minister, on social media pointing out in one very significant policy area, border protection, there hasn't been a boat arrival in six weeks.  So, certainly on that front at least, they can say they are delivering on every bit of the promise that they made prior to the election.

BERNIE RIPOLL: Well, look, it's certainly good news, but it's good news in lag, because what's happened  is before the election we put in place the PNG solution, which meant that any boat arrivals would directly go to Papua New Guinea.  We also removed Iranian visa arrangements and that has had a massive impact.  And we saw the boats, not only slowing before the election, but now actually stopping.  It's actually the policies that Labor put in place that are now coming to reward all Australians, in the sense of what's been taking place. So if I was Tony Abbott, I wouldn't be crowing too loudly about the successes today.  They've been in government for more than four months and what we're seeing in just the last month is actually the outcome, the success, of what was put in place more than six months ago.  That's what's actually transpired.  I know the Government wants to take credit for all the good things.  They want to take credit for the things that are happening now, but it's not all their doing. Instead, what we're seeing from the Government is a whole range of policies they're putting in place, and particularly the Commission of Audit, which is a commission of cuts.  And we're going to see a stripping away of funding right across a whole heap of departments.

KIERAN GILBERT: All right.  Let's…

BERNIE RIPOLL: And particularly the things that Simon Birmingham was talking about.

KIERAN GILBERT: I don't want to get off this issue.  I do want to get Senator Birmingham on this as well.  The suggestion by Tony Abbott that – well, countering the argument from Labor that this Government isn't what it said it would be.   Is this – is there a – is this a concession that that argument has been working – has been resonating?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: No, Kieran.  One year – one week from the start of the parliamentary year and the Prime Minister has issued a message on social media outlining the fact that we are very much getting on with the things we said we would do.  We said we would implement policies to stop the boats and if it makes Bernie and the Labor Party feel better about themselves to believe that they're responsible for what's happening, well, good luck to them.  But the truth is, people smugglers know there's a government in place now that has the courage of its convictions to see the policies through, to make sure that do stop the boats. That's why they're working.  That's why we've seen now a six-week period with no arrivals.  A very dramatic turn-around.  We're pursuing our commitments to repeal the carbon tax.  We're pursuing our commitments to unwind a billion dollars' worth of red tape and regulatory burden on Australian industry.  We're pursuing our commitment to get the budget and the deficit back in order. We made a range of commitments.  We're getting on with the job, because we know that Australia can't afford a government that simply stands still after Labor left more than two-hundred thousand additional unemployed in this country, cumulative deficits of a hundred-and-twenty-three billion dollars.  We know we've got to turn things around.  The task is hard.  It won't be easy and it's not made any easier by the fact that Mr Shorten and Bernie and others in the Labor Party continue to block in the Senate the things which the Australian people supported and voted for at the last election.

KIERAN GILBERT: All right.  Bernie Ripoll, the Opposition leader's back at work this week after – well, he was at work, but across the other side of the planet in the UK last week and in Paris as well.  But I want to ask you, does he need to lead the charge for Labor in changing – reshaping – your relationship with the union movement?  A Fairfax-ReachTEL poll today shows more than fifty-two per cent of those surveyed think you do need to distance yourselves from the union movement as a party.  Do you accept that?

BERNIE RIPOLL: Well, Kieran, I think what's really clear out of this is, where there is corruption, where there is bad behaviour, it should be dealt with by the proper authorities.   All of us support that.  None of us support any bad behaviour or any corruption anywhere.  That is not a matter for the Labor Party itself.  In government, we already put in place some of the toughest rules around transparency and regulation for unions and union officials, because we're serious… 

KIERAN GILBERT: But what about your structural issues?  What about the party's structural issues?

BERNIE RIPOLL: Well, Kieran…

KIERAN GILBERT: Surely you need to have a look at those.

BERNIE RIPOLL: Well, Kieran, we've been doing exactly that and we've been doing that progressively.  In fact, we're now more democratic as a party than any other party, I would say, in Australia.  We have got proper democratic rules in place and particularly when it comes to now selecting the leader of the party.  You'll find the Liberal Party doesn't do that.  It's still done internally within just a small clique of people. We've been working very hard to make sure that we continue to modernise, to democratize, to involve the community, to involve branch members, and we're quite proud of that.  Now, the things that are happening are within certain elements, a very small section of people in some unions, ought to be just what it is.  Where there is bad behaviour and corruption, police and the authorities ought to do their job and get on with…


BERNIE RIPOLL: …charging those people and dealing with the allegations.  This is not so much a matter for the Labor Party itself.  We are the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party.  We don't support – in fact, we condemn the behaviour that's been going on.

KIERAN GILBERT: Okay.  Senator Birmingham, only about thirty seconds left, but you'd admit that that is a minority, isn't it?  The vast majority of those in this field are doing their best by workers, aren't they?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, the vast majority of all Australians are law-abiding, but we have tough laws to make sure we bring them into line.  In the union movement case, we see that there are people flouting the laws, especially in the construction sector.  It's all very well for the Labor Party to say they can see the difference between right and wrong, but what are they going to do about it? And the first big test for them is will they support the restoration of the Australian Building and Construction Commission, which changed the culture on work – on building sites around Australia. Which brought in productivity dividends of around six billion dollars per annum. 


SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Real benefits there to actually put that back in place.  Labor should get on board…


SIMON BIRMINGHAM: …support that.  That would show they're real about what they're saying.

KIERAN GILBERT: Senator Birmingham, Bernie Ripoll, appreciate your time, gents.  Have a good day.  A quick break on AM Agenda.  


KIERAN GILBERT: We'll be right back.  Stay with us.