Interview on ABC 891 Adelaide, Breakfast with Ali Clarke and David Bevan
Topics: GST distribution; Murray-Darling Basin Plan; Cashless welfare card

David Bevan: A big ABC Radio Adelaide welcome to Simon Birmingham, Federal Education Minister. Good morning to you.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning everybody.

David Bevan: And to Mark Butler, shadow minister for climate change. Good morning to you.

Mark Butler: Good morning.

David Bevan: And Rebekha Sharkie, NXT Member for Mayo. Good morning to you.

Rebekha Sharkie: Good morning.

Ali Clarke: Actually, Rebekha, can we clear something up? It’s come courtesy of a texter. Why is the NXT Party still called NXT when Mr Xenophon is no longer in federal politics?

Rebekha Sharkie: We want to call it SA Best federally, but because we’ve had a series of by-elections, the AEC hasn’t let us change the name. But I believe in the coming weeks that we’ll be allowed to change the name the federally to SA Best. Because there is a bit of confusion for people and we all call ourselves SA Best when we’re chatting with each other. So that will be the new name federally and state.

David Bevan: What, when you’re chatting with each other? So, when you’re chatting with Nick Xenophon, you say: excuse me SA Best leader?

Rebekha Sharkie: No, not at all. I say how are you going person who is working 20 hours a day?

David Bevan: What happens when you expand your party interstate though? Are you going to call it New South Wales Best or Victoria Best?

Rebekha Sharkie: Our focus is on South Australia.

David Bevan: I guess you haven’t got any plans to move interstate as well?

Rebekha Sharkie: Not that I’m aware of. Most certainly not.

David Bevan: Alright. Slowly, slowly. There we are.

Ali Clarke: Let’s move to an issue also interesting people across different state lines.

David Bevan: Simon Birmingham, the GST, does Scott Morrison, your treasurer, want to change the GST carve up?

Simon Birmingham: No. Scott Morrison has asked the Productivity Commission to undertake a review in response to requests from- particularly WA, but indeed broader than that in terms of concerns about whether or not the GST distribution formula is working as effectively as possible. Now that’s a thoroughly independent process the Productivity Commission is undertaking. It’s a report to Government, they asked for an extension on their reporting time, they were granted that. What they say is not Government policy, it is simply a report to Government and the Government will consider it thereafter. But I note that the WA Labor Government – indeed WA Federal Labor members and senators – have equally called for this type of analysis to be undertaken.

David Bevan: Then why did Scott Morrison say in January that the Commission’s draft report quote: demonstrated the system is broken and needs a real fix?

Simon Birmingham: Scott was commenting on the draft report. Let’s see their final report which will come…

David Bevan: That suggests he thinks we do need to change the carve up.

Simon Birmingham: And of course what we do is something that can be discussed, might be discussed, depending on what the Productivity Commission says in their final report. But I can assure you that South Australian federal Liberal MPs will look out for South Australia’s interests, but what we are determined to do here is make sure that this is a proper process, not something where, like the Labor Party appears to be doing. You say one thing to people in WA and a different thing to people in South Australia.

David Bevan: Thank you to Tom Koutsantonis, South Australian Treasurer, who sent us a text and we do appreciate the questions, but it’s not a bad one by the way. He says: then why have Liberal backbenchers felt the need to speak up on the GST, if there’s no secret plan to remove the GST?

Simon Birmingham: That’s because it’s a scaremongering of the Labor Party.

Mark Butler: Oh, Simon.

Ali Clarke: Mark Butler?

Mark Butler: Let’s suspend our cynicism for a while about the timing of this story with all of the Liberal backbenchers coming out this morning and saying that they’d oppose their own government’s plans to change the GST arrangements, but really what you get from this story is a clear indication that even the federal Liberal Party backbenchers have come out of the woodwork and reached the same conclusion as that which Jay Weatherill and federal Labor have been saying now for months and that is: we have something to be concerned about. And it reinforces why the Government’s got to come clean. The Federal Government’s got to come clean about this. There’s a very clear suspicion in South Australia and in Tasmania, that this Government, again, is hiding its real intentions around the GST during the Tasmanian and South Australian elections.

Federal Labor’s been very clear, including Bill Shorten and Chris Bowen while in Perth, that we will oppose any change to the arrangements around the distribution of the GST which ensure that Australians are entitled to receive the same level of basic health, education, public transport and policing services no matter which state they live in. We’ve come to another arrangement about WA, which is transitioning out of the mining boom, which is entirely disconnected from the GST arrangements. And Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison on the other hand, go over to WA and try to be all things to then, while then hiding their real plans during the South Australian and Tasmanian election to the rest of Australia.

David Bevan: Isn’t this a reminder though, of how poorly South Australia continues to perform as an economy and has for the last 20, 30 years? That there are two things which point this out; this stark reality and that is our receipt of the GST and our number of federal MPs. We need to get more money from the other states because we just don’t have an economy that raises enough, and we get fewer and fewer MPs because our population as a proportion is declining.

Mark Butler: Ours is a diverse Commonwealth, always has been. Different states have different strengths. They have different…

David Bevan: Well, what’s ours then?

Mark Butler: … population sizes, they have different connections to global markets. I mean let’s remember that Western Australia I think for the first nine decades of the Commonwealth’s history was a net recipient of horizontal fiscal equalisation – that formula that they’re effectively talking about. Now, that all changed during the mining boom and they discovered those extraordinary iron ore resources, but that’s just a fact of life living in a diverse continent with very different natural resources and other advantages.

Simon Birmingham: But it’s a fair point you make, David, that in the time of Jay Weatherill’s leadership, South Australia has gone from getting around $1.27 back for every dollar of GST paid to getting around $1.44 back for every dollar of GST paid; some $6.3 billion this year. And of course, what’s remarkable is that in all that time, with all that growth in GST revenue flowing into Jay Weatherill’s coffers, he still managed to cut funding to schools in SA. So, god knows where the money actually goes half the time.

Mark Butler: Says the man who cut $17 billion from schools, Simon.

Rebekha Sharkie: I think the important …

Simon Birmingham: No, it’s – federal school funding is growing at record levels, Mark.

Ali Clarke: Rebekha Sharkie?

Rebekha Sharkie: The important thing here is that we need to see the report and we need to see it before the election because this is really about transparency. And what we don’t want to see for South Australia is that because we will have those reduced numbers, and when we’re going to be going down to 10 federal members, as David said, we don’t want to see that we lose out simply because governments can be formed by either of the major parties without South Australia or Tasmania needing to be considered. So it’s about fairness, but I really think, more than anything, this is about transparency and I can’t see why the report can’t be released before the election.

Ali Clarke: We’re heading …

Simon Birmingham: Because it hasn’t been finished. The Productivity Commission asked a couple of months ago for longer to finish it in terms of the analysis and otherwise. When the draft report was completed, it was publicly released. That’s half of what this debate has been stirred by, but the final report – which I note that Steven Marshall alongside Jay Weatherill have said they’ll oppose any changes to – and of course it does have to go to the state premiers to get agreement around any changes to distribution in any event. But I would hope that everybody will look sensibly at the report when it’s released, including us in the Federal Government. We’ll look at it, but it certainly isn’t our policy to start with. We will form our policy once we see it, once we get it.

David Bevan: Okay, and we apologise to listeners for the world’s worst phone line for Simon Birmingham, the Education Minister. But before we leave this topic, Simon Birmingham, can you give our listeners an assurance that you will join with Lucy Gichuhi, Tony Pasin, Nicolle Flint and Rowan Ramsey, in fighting any reduction in the GST to South Australia?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I’ll fight to make sure SA gets its fair share and that that means getting extra support for South Australia because of the way in which horizontal fiscal equalisation should work …

David Bevan: Fair share could mean anything to anybody. That’s open to interpretation. So let’s just get down to numbers. Are you going to commit yourself to the same fight as your other Liberal colleagues to make sure that South Australia does not get a reduction in GST revenue?

Simon Birmingham: Well David, I’m determined to make sure that SA gets the support to have the equivalent standard at schools and hospitals as any other state in the Commonwealth. That’s what this is about.

Ali Clarke: It is 8.45, you’re listening to ABC Radio Adelaide. We’re in the middle of Super Wednesday with Simon Birmingham, Mark Butler and Rebekha Sharkie. Mark Butler, with New South Wales and Victoria threatening to walk away from the deal over the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, was this historic agreement that was launched with much fanfare just been a waste of time and money?

Mark Butler: Well no it hasn’t been a waste of time and money. It’s delivered some important outcomes for the river and for communities that have operations along the river. But it is under pressure. There’s no question about that. There have been very serious allegations of water theft upstream. There’s a lack of federal support for the royal commission that Jay Weatherill has announced. There’s uncertainty over whether or not the additional 450 gigalitres is going to be able to be delivered to the river – a very important part of the plan that South Australia was able to achieve during the negotiations.

And now there’s this question about whether the amount of water recovered from the Northern Basin – so that part of the system in Queensland and North West New South Wales – should be reduced by 70 gigalitres. And the Wentworth Group of Scientists – a very highly respected group of scientists who’ve been advocating for good policy on the Murray-Darling Basin for years now – has said that that part of the review, or that review by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, should not proceed.

So, we’ve indicated in the Senate that we don’t support that review outcome, a reduction of 70 gigalitres, and we think that they should have another look at the way in which the northern part of the Basin operates within the plan. But broadly speaking, I think there is pressure on the plan and we need to continue to advocate the national interest in making sure that the very hard work that was done in achieving this plan some years ago is not wasted, because people who are always opposed to putting water back into the river to ensure that it’s long-term environmental health are able to latch on to one particular concern or another and scuttle the whole thing.

Ali Clarke: Well, Education Minister Simon Birmingham?

Simon Birmingham: I would implore the Labor Party to reconsider their position on this. To not scuttle the Murray-Darling Basin Plan out of fear of being wedged by the Greens. But to recognise that the thing that has delivered the Basin Plan, the thing that saw it come into effect in 2012, was bipartisanship. The Greens stood against the Basin Plan back in 2012. The Labor Party, of course, enjoyed the support of the Coalition at the time to make sure that it came into effect. And this is a very grave threat to the plan, if these new changes are disallowed. They’re not changes that the Government has developed. The independent Murray-Darling Basin Authority has developed them, following a review that was commenced, as part of the initial Basin Plan, when Labor were in government. Now, what we can’t afford to have is a situation where the Senate starts picking and choosing which bits of the independent authority’s advice it accepts.

We ought to accept the independent Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s advice about the Basin plan. Because otherwise, if we don’t, that’s when you really do run the risk of upstream states walking away from it, and the potential then that South Australia will be left stranded like a shag on a rock with no additional water flowing through the system, because we’d lose that federal cooperation and the bipartisanship that has held the plan together up ‘till now.

David Bevan: Rebekha Sharkie, the NX Team: is it going to side with Labor and the Greens to disallow this, and is that the high stakes game you’re playing here that Simon Birmingham says: look, if you don’t cooperate on this front, people will start to walk away in New South Wales and Victoria.

Rebekha Sharkie: Well, the risk is that New South Wales and Victoria will walk away, but that’s something that I think that we will hear from them for some time yet. With every single measure in this plan. I think what we need here is cool heads…

David Bevan: So, do you think they’re just crying wolf? Whenever they don’t get what they want, they say: we’re going to walk away.

Rebekha Sharkie: I think that the governments of New South Wales and Victoria are using this as a political weapon to get what they want for their states. I think we need cool heads, I think that we need to have greater transparency, and we need to restore faith in the plan. We do have a national plan, but as Mark Butler said, there’s allegations of theft, there’s concern from those of us that live at the very end of the river that not enough is being done around those allegations of theft. We believe that we will support the Greens’ disallowance, but what that will do is buy some time to get this right.

There are 36 projects planned to the tune of millions and millions of taxpayer dollars that is supposed to be restoring water back into the river. We don’t know about those projects, we’ve done an order of production of documents for them so that we can find out the cost and the true merit of those projects. At the moment, we’re relying on scientists at the Wentworth Group outside of this whole process to make those evaluations, and that is the sort of information that should be provided to all of us in the Parliament.

Simon Birmingham: Knocking out bits of the plan and rejecting the advice and the recommendations on the plan from the independent Murray-Darling Basin Authority doesn’t buy time. What it buys is the real risk that the upstream states tear the plan up, and that’s the last thing that any of us would want to see. I know that Mark Butler and I, Penny Wong, many of us from South Australia who have been in the Parliament for a decade now have had to work very closely, very long and hard to get this plan into place. And the last thing I want to see is it destroyed now, on the eve of the South Australian election, just because Labor might be scared of being wedged by the Greens and Xenophon. The Greens before, just as I’ve stood up to upstream national party interests and others who might have sought to block the plan before, and we ought to stand up to all of those extreme elements again, and back the plan and back the independent authority.

Ali Clarke: Well, very quickly, Rebekha Sharkie, just because we are heading up to the news; how much more research and time do you want to buy with regards to the decision over the welfare card, which quarantines a certain amount of money from the recipients, before the NXT Team will actually get out of the way of further expansion of the program?

Rebekha Sharkie: So what we’ve said in relation to the welfare card is we feel the current two trial sites should continue for another 12 months. The challenge is the evidence that was put before us, the work done by ORIMA, is very shaky at best. We’re seeing mixed…

Ali Clarke: How is it shaky?

Rebekha Sharkie: Well, because they didn’t do any baseline data to begin with. So we don’t know whether it’s actually working. We don’t know whether it is reducing alcohol consumption, we don’t know if it is reducing crime. We don’t have any of that information.

David Bevan: But just as a matter of principle; do you have a problem with saying to recipients of this welfare: listen, we’ve taken money off somebody else, okay, it’s called a tax, we’ve taken their money and we’re going to give it to you, but we’re going to give it to you in a way that makes sure you can’t spend it on alcohol or gambling. Now, what’s wrong with that?

Rebekha Sharkie: Well, what needs to happen is we need to ensure that any time these changes in public policy such as this, which is quite significant – and that’s why we want to continue it on for 12 months to make sure that we get it right – that there aren’t unintended consequences, that we don’t have increase in prostitution, that we don’t have people going to pensioners who aren’t in a community, who aren’t subject to the welfare card, and taking their funding, that there isn’t an increase in people hocking goods of theirs and other people’s goods at pawn stores. So, these are all of the things that we need to ensure are right and that the wraparound services are right in the community.

Simon Birmingham: But let’s understand how hollow the Nick Xenophon Team is when it comes to tackling problem gambling on this, because this is about saying welfare recipients should not be spending their welfare on gambling, or on drugs, or on alcohol. The money should be going to support kids being clothed properly, fed properly, educated properly, housed properly, families being supported. And I find it remarkable that the Xenophon Team is standing in the way, it seems, of blocking welfare money being spent on gambling, after all of these years of posturing over gambling from Nick Xenophon.

Ali Clarke: Okay, well, we will have to leave it there.

Rebekha Sharkie: That’s incorrect.

Ali Clarke: Make your point really quickly please, Rebekha.

Rebekha Sharkie: Sure.

Ali Clarke: Very quickly.

Rebekha Sharkie: Gambling, we don’t know whether there has been improvements or not, but what we have seen is that 50 per cent of the people on this card are saying their life’s worse. This is the kind of thing we need to make sure we get right.

Ali Clarke: Simon Birmingham, Education Minister; Mark Butler, Shadow Minister for Climate Change; and Rebekha Sharkie from NXT. Thank you very much for your time.