LYNDAL CURTIS: … joining me now is today's political panel, Labor Senator Louise Pratt from Perth and, from Adelaide, Liberal Senator and Parliamentary Secretary to the Environment minister, Simon Birmingham. Welcome to you both.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good afternoon, Lyndal and Louise.
LYNDAL CURTIS: We will start with the exposure draft legislation for the carbon tax repeal and, Simon, you have some portfolio responsibilities in the Environment space. If I could ask you, the consultation paper released with the draft legislation says the Government will not extend the carbon tax beyond 2013-14 even if the Parliament does not pass the repeal bills until after the 1st of July, 2014. You can only accomplish that, can't you, if there's an element, or a potential element, of retrospectivity in the legislation?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Lyndal, obviously that's why we're having a consultation period so people can see sensibly about all of the implications of the draft legislation and make sure that we get it absolutely right for its introduction first thing when the Parliament resumes but the real test is not on whether or not we manage to get it passed before the 1st of July, 2014. The test is on Bill Shorten and the Labor Party to ensure that it is passed before then because we've fought for a number of years on a very clear platform of getting rid of the carbon tax. We said it would be our first priority upon coming to government. It will be the first priority of the new Parliament. It should be passed. We can deliver a $550-a-year saving on average to households by getting rid of the carbon tax and passing this legislation and the only people standing in the way of that happening, and happening quickly and efficiently, are currently Bill Shorten and the Labor Party.
LYNDAL CURTIS: But your consultation paper, and at least some elements of the draft legislation I've had a chance to have a look at, do leave open the prospect, don't they, that it may well not be passed by the time you want it to be passed?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, there's always a chance that the Labor Party will continue down their foolish path of trying to inflict this tax on the economy and on households around Australia but we're hopeful that the new Labor leadership will see common sense, will be pragmatic about it. After all, they claimed to campaign against a carbon tax in the 2010 election and then they claimed to campaign against a carbon tax again in this 2013 election. If they're serious that Australia shouldn't have a carbon tax, then they should support our repeal legislation and deliver the savings that households deserve and the boost to competitiveness that Australian industry and business will get from axing this carbon tax.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Simon, the Prime Minister indicated he did want the Senate to vote on this legislation before Parliament rises for Christmas but you're only scheduling three weeks of Senate sittings and one week of Budget Estimates. That's really not enough time, is it, for the Senate to go through its very usual processes on a major piece of legislation?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Lyndal, it should be enough time because this issue has been very thoroughly debated in the public arena, in the Parliament, through Senate committees for a very long period of time already. We would fully expect there to be the opportunity for a Senate committee but it need not be a long Senate committee. It can be referred to a Senate committee while the legislation’s still in the House of Representatives. There's a good opportunity to give it some air, to make sure that it's thoroughly looked at. We're having this consultation period upfront but it really will just be obstruction in the first order by the Labor Party and the Greens if they don’t let this come to a vote this year. We should see it come to a vote and we should see the Labor Party and Bill Shorten accept the will of the electorate, support this repeal legislation, get rid of the carbon tax, deliver a $550-a-year saving on average to households and a real boost to competitiveness for Australian industry and businesses.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Simon, you've mentioned a couple of times the figures that both the Prime Minister and the Environment minister have used, saying if the carbon tax is repealed power prices will fall for an average household of $550 a year. Given that there are other factors that contribute to electricity prices rising, can you really say that power prices will actually fall and, if they don't fall by $550 a year, who do people go and see to get their money?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, we are arming the ACCC [Australian Competition and Consumer Commission] with the powers to make sure that the cost reductions from the axing of the carbon tax do flow through to households and businesses. We're not just giving them the powers – there's additional funding to the ACCC to make sure they do that job properly – and, indeed, as the Prime Minister flagged in his press conference, this is not the first time the ACCC have had to look at these types of things where, when the GST [goods and services tax] was introduced, you saw the GST applied but also a whole raft of wholesale sale taxes abolished. Some prices were expected to go up a little, some to go down a little. In the electricity price market, of course there are other factors at play, in terms of other costs that are factored in on an annual basis, so they need to be considered but that is no excuse for the costs of the carbon tax not to be completely eliminated from the electricity market and, indeed, through other parts of the economy, be it gas prices, water prices et cetera that were significantly affected by the carbon tax, to also see cost reductions taken into account. Yes, they’ll have to be netted out against ‘business as usual’ but this will still deliver an average $550 saving to households across Australia. That's a big boost to households. We're delivering our promise that households get to keep their pension increases and their tax cuts but without a carbon tax in place.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Louise, it is the case, isn't it, because it was the whole point of the scheme, that electricity prices went up, that it did cost people some more on their electricity bills?
LOUISE PRATT: Yes but Labor has said that we're happy to eliminate the carbon price but we need to leave the architecture in place. This is a long-term problem for the Australian economy…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Which includes a carbon price, Louise. It includes a carbon price being left in place. You're not getting rid of it altogether.
LOUISE PRATT: Yes, we need to leave a carbon price in place…
LYNDAL CURTIS: I might move on now to the ‘Parliament school’ that was run today and will be run tomorrow in Canberra for new MPs. Simon, I don't know if you heard it but Anna Burke gave some advice to the new MPs on Parliamentary entitlements, that if what they were going to… that… to be mindful of how something might look on the front page of the newspapers if they claim something that maybe they shouldn't have. That's a pretty common sense test, isn't it? Do most politicians have that in the forefront of their mind when they put in their claims for Parliamentary entitlements?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, I think most politicians have in the forefront of their minds doing the right thing and making sure that what they claim is within those rules of entitlements. There are always bits of grey zones there. You've had instances, indeed, of people voluntarily paying sums back on both sides of politics for a long period of time because, when in doubt, you should give the taxpayer the benefit of the doubt and make sure that you do either not claim or repay if you have something brought to your attention or recall something that perhaps could be in doubt.
LYNDAL CURTIS: And some of those claims don't appear to have passed the ‘front page of the newspaper’ test, do they?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, there’ll always be public debate, as Anna Burke acknowledged, around the test of Parliamentary entitlements. What's proper is that every MP, new MPs, the rest of us, do the right thing, that we get on with our jobs and the new MPs are learning very quickly that there's a lot of work, there's a lot of time, there's a lot of imposition on private lives and family lives. That's fine – we’re all volunteers for this, we all sign up to do the job. You’ll get a lot of scrutiny around entitlements so use them carefully.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Simon, the Labor front bench is now in place. The portfolios will be allocated on Friday. Does the real contest begin between Government and Opposition once you know who you're up against?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Oh, look, our real challenge is just to get on with the job of governing. That's what Tony Abbott has been focused on since the Ministry was sworn in. That's why today's release of the carbon tax legislation is so very important to get that repeal happening, to ensure that we honour our promise that it would be the first order of business for the new Parliament. That's our focus. Labor can have their internal fights and squabbles and disputes. They may play games with the carbon tax but we hope and plead that they don't and that they put Australia's interests first rather than what might be their own internal political disputes. For us, though, it's about returning Australia to the sound, calm government that people so desperately wanted after six years of chaos.
LYNDAL CURTIS: And you will have your first Budget Estimates in the second week that Parliament is back. Will that still be more about finding the problems you think Labor had rather than scrutiny of what you've done, because you haven't been in that long?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, we want to make sure that all of the proper accountability processes of the Government take place and Budget Estimates in the Senate are a very important part of that. Just because the Parliament's going back a little later due to the return of the writs and waiting ’til after the election appropriately, we didn't want to see that Budget scrutiny missed out upon, so that will be a chance for the Government to be scrutinised and I'm sure that the new Opposition will still have plenty of questions and we'll treat them with the respect that we think the Parliamentary process deserves.
LYNDAL CURTIS: … we'll have to leave it but, Louise Pratt and Simon Birmingham, thank you very much for your time today.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Pleasure, Lyndal.
LOUISE PRATT: Thanks for having us.