KIERAN GILBERT: With me this morning, the Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Matt Thistlethwaite, and the parliamentary secretary for the Environment, Senator Simon Birmingham. Senator Birmingham, first to you… you know, as a person from Adelaide, the importance of the car industry and today’s a sad day, isn’t it, because it basically marks, or yesterday did, the imminent end of manufacturing, automotive manufacturing, in this country?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Kieran, any day when a job is lost or a business closes is a sad day for the owners of that business, for the investors, for the workers, the employees, the families affected, the communities affected and obviously this has significant implications for the people in Victoria in particular around the Toyota plant and their employees and families, components suppliers spread across Australia but especially in Victoria and South Australia and we’re acutely aware of those impacts and we will work on the right type of response that deals with assisting those workers, working with the affected communities and, overall, strengthening the Australian economy.
KIERAN GILBERT: Has the Government put ideology, though, ahead of people’s jobs?
No. No, we are committed to building a stronger economy for all businesses in Australia and for all jobs in Australia and that really is about making sure that every business is as competitive as it possibly can be, within Australia and on the world stage, so…
KIERAN GILBERT: And cutting some that aren’t loose?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Kieran, over the last four years, Toyota has received around half a billion dollars, around $492 million in Government assistance. In that time, the number of cars they’ve made has reduced, the number of people they’ve employed has reduced. The idea of assistance as a way of protecting jobs has been shown not to work. The reality is the job numbers have gone down, Mitsubishi went out in 2008, Ford went out or announced its closure early last year, Holden late last year… clearly the fundamentals are wrong. We’re focused on turning those fundamentals around, making the economy more competitive, making it better for businesses to have the right environment with the lowest possible taxes, the lightest touch of regulation, make all businesses competitive, not just prop up one or two big guys.
KIERAN GILBERT: And one of the things, Matt Thistlethwaite, that all the automotive manufacturers have said is the issue of economies of scale. They’re just not sufficient enough in this country to make things worthwhile for the automotive sector. That’s the reality, isn’t it – that they were just never going to be competitive on their own two feet and didn’t the Government at some point have to draw a line here?
MATT THISTLETHWAITE: No, I don’t accept that, Kieran. This is a terribly sad day for manufacturing in this country and the Australian economy and the sad element of it is this Government, the Abbott Government, have stood by and allowed this to occur. The fact is they don’t have an industry policy; they don’t have a plan for jobs in this country. This was avoidable. Holden and Toyota were crying out for some form of vision, assistance and co-investment into growth in the Australian automotive market. It could have been handled better. They don’t have a plan…
KIERAN GILBERT: Wouldn’t that have been a band-aid; just a band-aid, a short-term fix for something that was going to be inevitable?
MATT THISTLETHWAITE: No, I don’t accept that. Australia has a record of manufacturing cars in this country and we could have continued to do so with the right policy settings in place, with a vision for jobs and growth in this country. We need a Prime Minister that’s willing to fight for jobs and we’re not getting that from Tony Abbott and that’s the sad things about this whole announcement. Yesterday, when this announcement was being made by Toyota, there was a special Cabinet meeting occurring into establishing a Royal Commission, a political diversion in this country. They’re more interested in saving their own bacon than they are of saving Australian workers’ jobs.
KIERAN GILBERT: Senator Birmingham, your response to that?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, the Labor Party’s more interested in attributing blame than they are in how to make the Australian economy more competitive. If they think this was avoidable, was the Ford announcement avoidable in May last year? Was the Mitsubishi closure avoidable in 2008… all of which happened when your party was in government, Matt. Ultimately, you can sit here now and sort of say ‘oh, all this was avoidable and could have been stopped’. The rot set in under your watch. Australia’s economy and manufacturing industry become uncompetitive under your watch.
KIERAN GILBERT: I want to ask about the Royal Commission announced by the Prime Minister yesterday. The minister Eric Abetz said it was a two-edged sword, or words to that effect, suggesting that companies will be caught out too if they’re found to be paying kickbacks or bribes.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Absolutely. Anybody who’s been engaged in corrupt behaviour, in terms of whether it’s the building sector or other related activities across the scope of this Royal Commission, could, of course, be called to give evidence, could be forced to give evidence and could face the consequences of doing so if they’ve been involved in…
KIERAN GILBERT: What’s the point of looking back decades, though? I can understand, you know, recent years but why look back 15, 20 years? What’s the point?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Kieran, the Royal Commission will choose how far it goes back and what it looks at in that context but the important point here… and it’s really twofold… the first one stems from the conversation we were just having. It’s about how you make the Australian economy and industry more competitive, how you make sure that we have productivity running as strongly as we possibly can in this country and, to do that, you’ve got to make sure that we don’t have these types of corrupt behaviours, the type of kickbacks and other things that Fairfax Media and others have been exposing day in, day out for the past couple of months that just make it harder for business to get on and do the job and be competitive on the world stage. The second point is, of course, about fairness to workers and the fairness to workers is that good workers shouldn’t be paying money into unions for dodgy union officials to spend at will for their own benefit rather than the workers’ benefit.
MATT THISTLETHWAITE: … if these allegations are true, Kieran, what the Australian public want is swift justice. They want arrests and prosecutions. You’re not going to get that from this political diversion. This could cost up to $100 million and take two years and result in not one arrest or one prosecution. What Labor is saying is the money could be better spent by establishing a special task force, the AFP working with the Crime Commission, putting on additional investigators to go into these places where these allegations are taking place and investigate and make arrests. That’s the way you get swift justice.
KIERAN GILBERT: But doesn’t it make Labor… it makes Labor look equivocal on this issue by saying ‘okay, we want something a bit different, a bit watered down, not a full Royal Commission’.
MATT THISTLETHWAITE: Not at all, Kieran. Remember that Labor established strike force [Joint Agency Task Force] POLARIS on our wharves and into aviation industry.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: And abolished the Building and Construction Commission.
MATT THISTLETHWAITE: We established a special task force, put on 49 investigators… what did they do? They went to the heart of the matter, they made arrests… something like 70 arrests were made… 2½ tonnes of drugs were seized. That’s the way you get results. That’s a better investment for the Australian Government to be making rather than a political diversion to save this Government’s bacon.
KIERAN GILBERT: The one issue I’ll ask you about… we’ve only got a minute left but, on that immediacy point, a police investigation would be able to have prosecutions a lot quicker, wouldn’t it?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: But you use a Royal Commission because you have a systemic problem, a problem that goes back… as you rightly said in your questioning, Kieran, goes back decades. The police have not been able to crack this nut open… a problem that is so ingrained in the way the union movement behaves, especially in the construction sector where Labor took all the safeguards out when they were in office, that you need to make sure you have the right approach to look across how you get the right policy and policing and enforcement responses. That’s what a Royal Commission will do.
KIERAN GILBERT: Okay. Gents, we’re out of time. Senator Birmingham, Matt Thistlethwaite, good to see you.