Interview on Sky News Live, AM Agenda with Kieran Gilbert
Topics: Polls, Company tax, ACCC to review electricity prices, Audit Commision’s report
Simon Birmingham: Well, good morning, Kieran. Look, last week you were asking me about polls that improved. Now you’re asking me about different polls. Frankly, for the Government the focus has to be on policy, not polls. And that’s absolutely where we are in terms of the achievements we had last week in childcare reform, the work we’re going to undertake this week in terms of competitiveness for company tax, they’re the important things.
Kieran Gilbert: And on that front when it comes to company tax, I’ll get to that in a moment, particularly in relation to Pauline Hanson’s position on that because it looks like it could be precarious this week. But just on the poll itself – were you surprised at the fact that some recent wins like the childcare announcement, under your portfolio, and the Snowy Hydro plan, generally well critiqued, that hasn’t shown up necessarily in this Ipsos survey.
Simon Birmingham: Well I was pleased over the weekend with the number of Australians who engaged with me when it came to childcare reforms, wanted to know how it would impact them, were appreciative when they understood the benefits that were likely to flow through. And frankly they’re the things that we will all keep on getting out there selling, explaining. And we’ll do the same in terms of how it is we’re working to make Australia a more competitive place in which to invest, which flows through business activity and jobs.
Kieran Gilbert: Okay. So, while it’s not showing up in the polls, do you feel that there is a better sentiment in the electorate as you’re out and about?
Simon Birmingham: People are unquestionably in a circumstance where in some parts of the country they’re doing quite well, in other parts they’re doing it tough. And they want to know, absolutely, what the Government is doing to help them enjoy greater job security, or job prospects in the future, and what we’re doing to help them with their cost of living. And on those fronts we need to keep working to sell those stories. And on cost of living we have good stories to tell in terms of the work we’re doing in energy market and electricity reform, in terms of extra support for hard-working families in paying their childcare bills, in terms of job creation. We of course have created more than 500,000 jobs since we were elected.
Kieran Gilbert: But in terms of sentiment towards the Government – towards the Turnbull Government – do you feel that that’s improving at all?
Simon Birmingham: Look I’ll let commentators run those sorts of assessments. I find, on the ground, that people want to talk to us about the issues, the things that impact on them, and that’s certainly where our policy focus is.
Kieran Gilbert: The policy focus, in a big way this week, is on the company tax cuts. What’s the situation with Pauline Hanson? A suggestion that she might not support this, even though she’s been indicating to this point that she would, because of a dispute between cane growers and a business in North Queensland.
Simon Birmingham: Well, I see the reports that relate to an issue up in Queensland and the sugar industry. Now, the Government’s well aware of those reports. We’ve certainly discussed those issues previously. First and foremost, this is an issue that should be sorted and settled between the different commercial parties. But it’s also disappointing, though, that the Queensland Government, when presented with potential solutions, hasn’t followed through on its responsibility.
Now, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Agriculture’s been very clear. If these matters can’t be resolved satisfactorily then there are steps that the Government could take. We’ve kept that door open for a long time because of critical interest in key seats. But it won’t stop us from continuing to work and progress in relation to our company tax reforms. Because it’s those types of reforms…
Kieran Gilbert: Are you confident of getting her and the One Nation team on board?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I’m hopeful that they will see the benefits that will absolutely accrue from increased investment in Australia. Let’s understand – this is a global competition for investment around the world. And Australia is a competitor in that race to attract investor dollars. And unfortunately because of our company tax rates we’ve been falling behind other countries like New Zealand or the UK, potentially the United States now, under the reforms that Trump has announced. These are changes that are happening around the world and if Australia doesn’t act that means investment goes elsewhere. That means jobs go elsewhere.
Kieran Gilbert: So if you don’t get the full package through, the sense is now that you will keep that on the books – that it will remain your plan into the future, into the next election and beyond?
Simon Birmingham: We’re absolutely determined to make Australia as competitive a place as it possibly can be and to stimulate investment activity here, which will create jobs. That’s what this policy is all about. We’re not deviating from this policy.
Kieran Gilbert: Even if you only get part of it through?
Simon Birmingham: Kieran, we don’t want to talk in hypotheticals. We want to see a policy implemented and that’s exactly what we’ll work to do, first and foremost, this week with the type of effort we’ve shown in terms of getting through childcare reforms. That may have taken two years to get through the parliament, but we have now got it done. Similarly, of course, with the types of industrial relations reforms that we got through last year. Defeated multiple times in the previous parliament, but the Turnbull Government’s now got them done. We’re demonstrating that we can get things through this Senate, we can work with them and that’s exactly the approach we’re taking…
Kieran Gilbert: There are a few other issues. The Prime Minister’s commissioned the ACCC – the consumer watchdog – to look at electricity retailers. Is it the Government’s sense that they’ve been duding consumers?
Simon Birmingham: Well there’s certainly been a mounting level of evidence from the Finkel report, from other analysis of the electricity market, that there are issues in the retail sector. And that’s why this action’s being taken. And importantly it’s being taken by the ACCC, who have the powers to compel information and evidence. So this is not just a run of the mill inquiry. This is a serious analysis looking deep into retail energy markets.
Kieran Gilbert: Why over such a long time? Why over such a long period? Is that really necessary?
Simon Birmingham: Well, we’re asking the inquiry to provide preliminary findings within six months. So that’s a fairly short period of time really, for this body of work. Yes, final findings by the middle of next year, to make sure we have a full and thorough analysis. But we expect to have information before the end of this year to give us a steer in terms of these retail market activities that all the states and territories have asked us to look at as well.
Kieran Gilbert: And in terms of the consumer? What can they look forward to as an outcome here? Because while the Government obviously feels that retailers might not necessarily have been dealing with businesses and consumers as effectively as they could be, what’s your hope in terms of an outcome here for consumers?
Simon Birmingham: Well, our ambition is right across the energy supply chain to make sure that we achieve greater affordability and greater reliability, and address Australia’s emissions reduction targets. Now, affordability we’re working on in terms of market reforms for generation at present. So that’s live activity and live reforms happening right now. Reliability, of course we’re looking at in terms of investments such as in the Snowy Hydro Scheme that you mentioned earlier. And this new work in terms of the retail sector will really add to both of those but particularly to the affordability equation in hopefully identifying if there is price-gouging, if there is gold-plating, how it is we get to the bottom of it, how we change those market rules to make sure that retailers are behaving in a way that gives the best possible price to the consumer.
Kieran Gilbert: And Minister, finally, Tony Shepherd’s latest iteration of the Audit Commission analysis on the Budget – what do you make of that? Because obviously the Government’s trying to make incremental improvements to the Budget. But his warning is much more grave than that: that you need to cut back on welfare and quite substantially.
Simon Birmingham: Once again, we’ve seen more than $20 billion worth of different savings initiatives passed through the Senate since the last election, so we are making real inroads. But it’s a big task and it’s a serious task, and it’s a task made so much harder because the Labor Party will not engage in it seriously. They don’t show any sense of willingness to come to the table and talk about where levels of Government spending can be reduced. They seem to be happy to talk about increased levels of taxation. But all that will do is cripple job growth and investment activity. Whereas of course what we know needs to happen is you’ve got to stimulate the economy with that investment activity, which can hopefully grow revenue then in the future, while at the same time constraining your level of spending. The important thing about our childcare reforms last week, for example, is they were fully funded, fully paid for by savings.
Kieran Gilbert: Would you agree with the outcomes of this?
Simon Birmingham: And of course they will boost workforce productivity, which is a good economic driver.
Kieran Gilbert: Do you agree with the recommendations and the quite dire warning from Mr Shepherd in relation to this latest iteration of that report from him?
Simon Birmingham: We absolutely accept that Budget repair is a serious problem and a serious task. That’s why we’ve been working so hard to get more than $20 billion worth of savings through. We won’t relent on it. We call on Bill Shorten and the Labor Party to drop their high tax mantra, come to the table and talk about ways we can get greater repair happening.
Kieran Gilbert: Minister, appreciate your time as always.