ASHLEIGH GILLON: Joining me this afternoon on our panel of politicians, the Labor MP Amanda Rishworth and the Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham. Good afternoon to both of you.
Amanda, keeping the details of this deal with the Greens [to secure passage of the Government’s Minerals Resource Rent Tax legislation] did seem all very ‘cloak and dagger’. We only learned what the details were a couple of hours ago and the legislation passed in the early hours of this morning. Why did it need to be secret? Couldn’t the Government really have waited until today so that the Coalition, the Independents, everyone knew what they were voting on?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: Well, look, we’ve been going through the process of MYEFO [Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook] looking at adjustments, looking at how we adjust the budget for the mid-year fiscal review and as part of that we were considering… the executive was considering different measures and this was one of those that was being considered so as we go through the budget we look at a range of different things. We wanted to consult with the stakeholders before it was publicly announced. We believe that this is the right thing to do, the right measure. It is a delay of a year for the phasing out of withholding tax and we thought we needed to speak to the stakeholders first and then released it as quickly as possible.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: Still, though, politically, doesn’t it just play straight into the Coalition’s argument that the Greens are too powerful, too close to Julia Gillard, that Bob Brown is the co-Prime Minister?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: Well, look, Tony Abbott can do his spinning all he likes. The truth of the matter is that we are putting through a very big Labor reform. We are increasing superannuation, we are reducing company tax and giving small business tax breaks. Now, Tony Abbott’s just been out posing with his ‘no’s, his negativity, all that sort of thing, so it’s not surprising today we hear his continual spin on this. However, we believe that this reform is fairly important, it was debated in the Parliament and it was important to get through the House because it is a very, very important reform for our future.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: Does that defence wash with you, Simon Birmingham, that the stakeholders needed to be consulted? Is that fair enough?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Ashleigh, look, I think there are two things here. Firstly, what we see is the secrecy was absolutely utterly unnecessary. Clearly, this either could have been announced last night, although why of course the Government had to ram this through at 3 o’clock in the morning is just utterly ridiculous and anyone’s guess as to why they had to insist on doing it then rather than doing the sensible thing – announce the details of the deal this morning and then actually of course proceed to the final debate and the final vote today. That would have been the sensible way to do it. Instead, the Prime Minister did a closed door deal with the Greens. Amanda, all of the Labor Caucus, the Independents all voted without knowing what the final deal was and just put this tax through without knowing the final details, but the second point is that Amanda has really blown the whistle on the fact that this alleged savings measure or this alleged revenue measure to make up for the shortfall in the mining tax actually is something they were going to do anyway – it was actually part of the MYEFO considerations. Amanda’s blown the whistle on that and made it clear that of course, in fact, the Greens didn’t get what they wanted. The Greens wanted to get the revenue shortfall [through a Government deal with Andrew Wilkie] covered. Well, apparently this was going to be part of covering the budget black hole revenue shortfall and now the question for Labor is where are they going to cover that budget black hole from instead?
ASHLEIGH GILLON: We’re all going to have to wait, I think, until the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook is released, probably some time next week, until we can answer those questions or we are going to go around this loop of speculation otherwise. I do want to ask you, though, Simon Birmingham, we keep hearing that there’s growing support within the Coalition for Tony Abbott to keep this mining tax in place if he does become Prime Minister. Of course, at the moment he’s said that he would repeal this mining tax along with the carbon tax. Would you like to see Tony Abbott change his stance on this and do you acknowledge that there is a growing number of your colleagues who would like to see him reverse that decision considering that this tax is now something that has the support of the majority of Australians in all of the recent polls?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Ashleigh, I don’t see that there’s growing support at all. What I see is that the Coalition universally recognises that this, along with the carbon tax, is a bad tax. They are both bad taxes. They are taxes that somehow this Government is implementing that worsen the budget position, with all of the spending measures associated with them – both the carbon tax and the mining tax – the budget somehow ends up $10 billion worse off, not better off. It’s just a ridiculous proposition these are good taxes, well structured taxes, effective taxes. They are inefficient, they are bad, they are damaging to the economy and we absolutely stand committed to getting rid of them and running a more efficient government instead.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: Yet still you’re going to keep the superannuation increases so then the Coalition’s going to have this problem of how do you make up that revenue shortfall?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, even with the superannuation increases, this mining tax still actually runs at a deficit because of all of the other policy measures and because it fails to generate the levels of revenue the Government first forecast, so in fact we are committed, as we did at the last election, to outlining detailed budget savings to demonstrate how we get the budget back in the black and…
AMANDA RISHWORTH: You haven’t done that yet, Simon You haven’t actually done that. You’ve got a $70 billion…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Amanda, we did it at the last election; we will do it at the next election.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: Again, it’s all speculation because the Coalition’s promised to give us all the details before the next election…
AMANDA RISHWORTH: We haven’t seen them yet, though.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: You will, as you did before.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: … which is two years away. I’ll let you respond to some of those criticisms, Amanda, and also the criticism we’re hearing from, still, some of the big mining companies – Xstrata, for example – warning that Australia’s reputation as a stable investment opportunity is being put at risk by this mining tax plus the carbon tax both being introduced in the middle of the year at the same time, calling it something of a ‘double whammy’.
AMANDA RISHWORTH: Well, we don’t expect people with vested interests into welcoming to have to pay more tax. I mean,
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Vested interests? They’re actually taxpayers who will pay more tax.
AMANDA RISHWORTH: They actually… of course, the company doesn’t want to pay more tax…
ASHLEIGH GILLON: We’re seeing that the states are furious over these concessions the Government has agreed to with the Independents. You would have heard me discussing with Tony Windsor a little earlier, the WA Premier, Colin Barnett, saying this move threatens the very fabric of cooperation in our federation. Simon Birmingham, what does the Coalition make of that particular deal? Do you think that review of GST [Goods and Services Tax revenue] distribution should be taking into account royalties increases? Because the Coalition has been saying in the past that that leaves the Government wide open, you’ve been critical of that angle but now also seem to be critical of the Government’s move to fix that up.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Ah, well, look, Ashleigh, I think you need to actually go back to core principles on this and the core principle is that when it comes to minerals in our land and whose they are, the Government loves to say they’re the Australian people’s; they’re Australia’s minerals and resources. The truth is, under our system of government they’re the states’ – each of the states’. Now, Amanda supports the State Government in South Australia – a Labor Government there. It’s just signed up to a 40-year deal locking in royalties for the new Olympic Dam mine. 40 years they’ve locked it away. Clearly they think, though, it is a good deal. That’s for them to do to ensure the people of SA get a good, fair return from royalties. It’s the same thing, of course, for Colin Barnett and Barry O’Farrell and everybody else at a state level to do. They’re the ones who should have been pursuing fair outcomes for taxpayers, for Australians, for people in each state, for minerals – not, of course, the Australian Government diving in there and saying ‘we’re going to grab our share just because we need to somehow get more money in the kitty for our outrageous promises and spending’.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: So, Simon Birmingham, you’re saying that you think it’s fair enough for the states to continue to increase their mining royalties, despite this mining tax already being implemented so that the mining companies are already paying more tax?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, I think it is a matter entirely for the states. What we should not have – what we should not have – is this mining tax. The states should be the ones setting the royalty rates for their states and that’s how it should work; it’s how it’s worked ever since Federation. This is the first time that the Commonwealth Government has suddenly come in and said ‘actually, the minerals are part of the Federal Government’s share as well and where’s our cut?’ Well, the Government’s cut comes through income taxes, company taxes, GST etc – they’re the things the Federal Government should get its money from, not by ripping into mining industries.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: Amanda Rishworth, what happened to that idea of cooperative federalism? It didn’t last long, did it?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: Well, look, Julia Gillard responded to Colin Barnett’s call for a review a the GST – a review to ensure that states were getting properly their fair share and we are doing just that, so I think it is very odd of the State Premiers to be coming out and saying that they don’t want to move to a more efficient way of taxation and don’t want to actually participate in this review and move outside of this review, so I think the Prime Minister and the Government’s been very responsive to the calls of Premier Barnett and I hope that that process will continue. It seems to be the State Premiers deciding not to cooperate where the Federal Government is moving to move to a more efficient way. Just because we’ve been doing it like that for a hundred years means that we shouldn’t change and actually look at a more efficient way to tax big profits of our minerals is probably interesting and not a reformist way to…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Adding a new tax on top of all of the other ones isn’t more efficient, Amanda. It’s just a new tax.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: Alright, well, I think we’ve heard both your points on this issue. I just want to move on to a couple of other things before we get going to Question Time. Simon Birmingham, we understand that Tony Abbott was confronted in your party room meeting yesterday; he was accused of not consulting enough with his colleagues. Some of your colleagues are concerned that he’s being too negative, that this ‘Mr No’ tag is sticking. Tony Abbott was asked about his handling of party room issues and consultation earlier at a news conference. Here’s what he had to say.
TONY ABBOTT: … we have very robust discussions in the Coalition party room. A lot of people say a lot of things. Sometimes they disagree with the leadership group. That’s their right but the spirit is always good. It’s always constructive. It’s always cooperative and it was again yesterday.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: Simon Birmingham, there also is the criticism that the National Party is having too much influence on Mr Abbott’s policy direction. How big is the group of Coalition MPs that’s growing more and more unhappy with Mr Abbott’s leadership style?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, Ashleigh, earlier this year or last year, I think it was [October 2010], Doug Cameron described the Labor Caucus as lobotomised zombies. The Coalition party room is far from that. We’ve always had full and frank discussions in our party room about all of the issues of the day. That’s why Liberal and National MPs come to this place – to actually talk about issues and to talk to the leadership about them. There was nothing unusual about yesterday’s party room meeting. We had full and frank discussions as we always do. There is no great conspiracy for people to jump hold of here but I think you can’t look at this issue without seeing that on the Labor side you have these issues of uranium mining, of, of course… uranium mining which is going… which Julia Gillard flip flopped the policy on recently, of the ‘Malaysian solution’…
AMANDA RISHWORTH: Come on, Simon. I mean…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: … and today in the Senate we’ll actually see…
ASHLEIGH GILLON: Alright, we’ll let Amanda respond to that.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: … today in the Senate we’ll see the Labor Party vote against uranium going to India.
AMANDA RISHWORTH: Let’s be clear about this. We are… There is a number of issues that we are debating in a full and frank way at our National Conference but this really shows that there are deep divides within the Liberal Party…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: The ‘Malaysian solution’?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: The ‘Malaysian solution’, Amanda? You remember that?
ASHLEIGH GILLON: Simon Birmingham, yesterday Mr Abbott told your party room meeting that Julia Gillard had been stalking world leaders for a photo opportunity. This is, of course, in response to the boost we saw in the Newspoll yesterday for Julia Gillard and her personal popularity rating. Was that fair enough or was it a bit hypocritical considering that, as we all know, Mr Abbott’s a pretty big fan of photo opportunities himself?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Oh, I think it’s a turn of phrase, Ashleigh. I wouldn’t dwell too much on the exact choice of words, but we’ve obviously seen an amazing rush of events from CHOGM [Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth], the East Asia Summit [in Bali], APEC [Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum Leaders’ Meeting in Honolulu, Hawaii], the G20 [G20 (Group of Twenty Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors) Leaders Summit in Cannes, France], the Queen’s visit, Obama’s visit, Princess Mary’s visit – there has been no shortage of events lately. The Prime Minister, though, clearly has been wanting to maximise the opportunity from these to get away from domestic issues, to get away from talking about the carbon tax and to look like she’s dealing with other things and…
ASHLEIGH GILLON: How much of a saving grace has these visits been for the Prime Minister?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: Well, I think Tony Abbott’s comments really show that he is absolutely obsessed with his own political interests and I think what we’ve seen is the Prime Minister developing and boosting our standing in a whole lot of areas including trade, including our security relationship with the United States and I think this has been important diplomatic work. We have seen Tony Abbott not be here for the [Senate] vote on the carbon price and then scurried off to have a picture with David Cameron, so while we’ll get on…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: So you’re now going to jump in and criticise international engagement, are you, Amanda?
ASHLEIGH GILLON: Okay, we’ve been as hypocritical as each other so we’ve got to leave it there because we need to get to Question Time. We can look forward to more debate on this in the House of Representatives and the Senate this afternoon. Thank you both for your time on the program…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Thanks, Ashleigh. Thanks, Amanda.