LYNDAL CURTIS: Hello and welcome to Capital Hill.  In the midst of a bitter political debate, we’re seeing some areas of commonality between the Opposition and the Government. One of those is the need for welfare reform, but just how to accomplish the task? The other area of agreement is on the need for the body set up by Labor to prioritise infrastructure, but the Opposition wants to give it more work to do, and in New South Wales electricity prices are rising, by a staggering 18 per cent. Just how much harder does that make the Federal Government’s bid to introduce a carbon tax? To discuss these issues, I’ve been joined today by Labor’s Mark Dreyfus in Melbourne and the Coalition’s Simon Birmingham in Adelaide. Welcome to you both.
MARK DREYFUS: Good to be with you, Lyndal.
MARK DREYFUS: Hello, Simon.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Simon, would Tony Abbott take any issue with anything the Prime Minister said last night on the question of welfare reform?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Lyndal, it is probably a little hard to take issue with what the Prime Minister said because there’s so little substance in what the Prime Minister said. This is becoming a bit of trend of this Government where they fly a kite, put it out there, but then we have to wait and wait and wait for the detail. It’s like they’re happy to debate the theory, build up expectations, and then you get this great disappointment when the detail comes along.
LYNDAL CURTIS: But the broad themes…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Now, two weeks ago Tony Abbott…
LYNDAL CURTIS:   The broad themes you’d be in agreement with, wouldn’t you?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, look, absolutely. Getting people back to work, reducing the welfare drain in Australia, ensuring that we have maximum participation, and that’s all about not just, of course, the impact on taxpayers but also ensuring all of those benefits of having people participating flow through the economy and for those individuals concerned, that you give them the hope and opportunity that every Australian should have through being actively involved in the workforce wherever they’re able to do so, but the contrast is stark. Two weeks ago Tony Abbott released policy detail, outlined policies as to how we would reform the Disability Support Pension so that we actually could encourage people there back to work where they’re able to do so, to increase labour force mobility, to strengthen Work for the Dole for longer term unemployed people – real policy. Last night the Prime Minister flew a kite, indicated she supports reform but failed to outline where Labor would go in the reform. That’s the contrast between the two sides at present.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Simon, the Greens have already said today that it’s [sic] worried that both major parties are erring on the side of being punitive in this. How do you make sure the policies actually help people and aren’t seen to unfairly discriminate against people who cannot work?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, I think Australians do value the society we live in and a society that has a real, decent safety net for people who need it and so that it’s there when they need it but what no Australian wants to see are people either (a) abusing that safety net or (b) people who can’t find a way off it even though they might like to have one, and so it’s a case of making sure you have that balance. The safety net is there. It’s fair and reasonable, but the measures that Tony Abbott’s outlined and we support ensure that if you’re on the safety net for too long, if you’ve been on the dole for too long, you actually have some obligation – a mutual obligation to taxpayers, to the rest of society – to engage yourself back in the workforce, and Work for the Dole activity’s the type of things that provide at least a start in that and get you back out there working after six months on the dole and the same thing applies in the area of Disability Support Pensions. We’re going to see around 800,000 Australians receiving the Disability Support Pension this year. That’s a vast number and there are many people who can still do some work, who with some help can be steered back into the workforce. Now, obviously there are issues that have to be worked through there but it’s about being compassionate but sensibly compassionate so that you don’t just park people on a welfare recipient basis for the rest of their lives. You actually give them the helping hand up to get off of welfare and participate fully in the economy and in Australian society generally.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Simon, the Opposition Leader has also agreed with the Government on the need for Infrastructure Australia. It’s a body Kevin Rudd set up but you’re promising to keep, yet you want it to do a cost-benefit analysis for each project worth over $100 million. That’s going to be most of them, isn’t it, and won’t that slow down the process of getting infrastructure programs started?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Lyndal, it certainly need not slow down the process but what we want is to make sure the process is thorough and rigorous. Taxpayers do only have a finite amount of money they can spend on infrastructure projects. We need to make sure every dollar is spent wisely. Now, if I can give Kevin Rudd a little bit of credit, he actually had a good idea in saying we should have an expert body, run by people with real business experience, with real knowledge of what the Australian economy needs to grow productivity and that body should help to set the priorities for infrastructure spending in Australia. He had the idea. Labor just didn’t follow through. The NBN was never overseen by Infrastructure Australia. We had grand announcements during the election campaign of building new rail links that were nowhere near the priority of the New South Wales Government in their infrastructure analyses, nor indeed of Infrastructure Australia in theirs. We’re saying let’s actually take the idea and do it properly and actually give them the power to act on it.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Mark, is there any problem with having a body like Infrastructure Australia take a closer look, given the amounts of taxpayers’ money that is vested in getting these projects up and running?
MARK DREYFUS: I thought for a moment there we had an outbreak of yet more bipartisan agreement. We did get a little bit. Infrastructure Australia, a body set up by the Labor Government, has done excellent work, Lyndal, on doing a national audit to determine what is needed in the infrastructure sense, developing a national priority list…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: You haven’t listened to its work, Mark!
MARK DREYFUS: … developing a national priority list and developing some excellent guidelines for public-private partnerships. Of course there’s a need to do cost-benefit analyses on all large projects and of course cost-benefit analyses take place on all large projects and I don’t think we should be overloading Infrastructure Australia, which has already got a great deal on its plate, and needs to look at the very largest of large programs and work out national priorities and I think we’d want to be pretty careful about loading onto a body that’s been doing great work, that’s provided real assistance in developing national priorities a whole lot of other work that’s actually already being done inside the Government and inside state governments in relation to infrastructure projects. 
LYNDAL CURTIS: If we could move onto…
LYNDAL CURTIS: Sorry, Simon. You…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Sorry. If I could just say very, very quickly, I think taxpayers think projects over $100 million are big projects that deserve scrutiny and I think people like Sir Rod Eddington and the others involved in Infrastructure Australia deserve to be listened to, not just to be tasked with writing a lot of reports that are ignored by this Government.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Simon, the [New South Wales] regulator has blamed for a third of the increase [in electricity prices] the Government’s renewable energy schemes, the Renewable Energy Target which you’ve signed up to, and the regulator also says that a single price on carbon emissions would be cheaper than all the various ‘stand alone’ energy schemes in the country. Does he have a message for you as well as the Government?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, I think the first thing about the price rises that are talked about, they demonstrate the reason why we shouldn’t be looking to put additional cost of living pressures on Australians, so that’s the first key point to make, that there are already cost of living pressures that are there, pressures coming through on electricity as well and we shouldn’t be putting additional ones on which the carbon tax would do. Now, secondly, it highlights that indeed Australia is already taking substantial action to reform our electricity generation sector. The 20 per cent Renewable Energy Target, supported by both sides of politics, indeed all sides of politics including the Greens on this one, is driving change in our electricity sector, and indeed is having an impact and so when the Government compares, in terms of what carbon pricing activities or equivalent activities may or may not be happening overseas, they always seem to forget there are already activities like the Renewable Energy Target having a flow through effect in Australia as well, so we acknowledge that that’s there…
LYNDAL CURTIS: But cheaper with a single carbon price scheme?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, the good thing about the Renewable Energy Target is it guarantees you get change and innovation in the renewable energy sector. There’s no guarantees with a carbon tax that you get any more solar generation, any more wind generation, any more geothermal. The Renewable Energy Target does guarantee you get those outcomes. That’s why it drives the innovation necessary to get results in the climate change space which stands in stark contrast to the carbon tax which just puts an extra price on things for all Australians and adds to that already existing cost of living pressure that’s there.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Gentlemen, that’s where we’ll have to leave it today. Thank you very much for joining Capital Hill.
MARK DREYFUS: Thank you, Lyndal.
MARK DREYFUS: See you later, Simon.
LYNDAL CURTIS: And thank you , too, for joining Capital Hill…