LAURA JAYES: Today, more proof that the political debate is as fierce as ever. Daily, the Opposition Leader and the Prime Minister trade barbs that are as much about personality as they are about policy.
TONY ABBOTT: As the leader of a party, you can be the chieftain of a tribe but as the Prime Minister of the country, you have to be a leader for the whole nation and this is something that the Prime Minister just doesn’t get. This is a Prime Minister who has not grown into the role. If anything, she has shrunk in office and this is a tragedy for Australia.
LAURA JAYES: Julia Gillard will be in Darwin this afternoon. She’ll hold her own media conference and will no doubt have something to say about that comment. Now, two men who I’m sure have plenty to say right now join me for today’s panel and that is Labor MP Graham Perrett in our Brisbane studio and the Shadow Parliamentary Secretary Simon Birmingham in Adelaide. Thanks for joining me, gentlemen.
GRAHAM PERRETT: G’day, Laura, Simon.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: G’day, Laura and Graham.
LAURA JAYES: Now, I’m going to start with the whole Craig Thomson affair and this is where we seem to find ourselves every day…
GRAHAM PERRETT: … I still believe in that presumption of innocence and I look forward to Craig explaining himself in Parliament and hopefully blasting away this odour of mendacity that’s been permeating the halls of Canberra for too long.
LAURA JAYES: Simon Birmingham, that’s true, isn’t it, that Craig Thomson is entitled to the presumption of innocence? He’ll give his explanation in Parliament next week – I’m sure it will be a very full chamber. What happens after that? Will the Opposition back off here when it comes to Craig Thomson and the whole affair?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Laura, we think there is a genuine case to be answered here. Let’s understand there was a report that was several years in the making that is a comprehensive analysis and, frankly, is a damning indictment on Mr Thomson. It’s a damning indictment on the Labor Party for pre-selecting him as a candidate again and it’s a damning indictment on Julia Gillard for defending him for as long as she has, as vocally as she has and as strongly as she has and now for continuing to rely upon his vote in the Parliament to support her Government. It’s an indictment on the Labor Party, of course, for covering up with Mr Thomson in the payment of his legal bills, keeping that secret and we have John Faulkner today – a very respected elder statesman of the Labor Party – making it clear that this secret payment of legal bills is unacceptable and calling for all of those details to be disclosed. There’s a litany of failure here.
LAURA JAYES: Speaking at the ACTU [Australian Council of Trade Unions] Congress, he said this wasn’t a major issue in the union movement; it was down to a few officials. I might just get his comment and show you what he had to say.
BILL SHORTEN: The implication that because some officials are party to completely inappropriate conduct with union members’ money… I do not believe, and I’ve said constantly since the release of the Fair Work Act [report], I will not let the smear be transferred across all unionists because we know that isn’t true.
LAURA JAYES: Now, Simon Birmingham, this just looks like – and there’s no evidence to the contrary – that this is just a few union officials in one branch. There’s no suggestion here that this is endemic across the union movement, is there?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Laura, again we have this interesting division within the Labor Government and a division, it seems, between the Prime Minister on the one hand and Mr Shorten on the other hand because the Prime Minister fronted up to the same ACTU congress a couple of days ago and she went in there and pivoted entirely her previous position on Mr Thomson and said, and I quote, ‘that disgusts me and I know that it disgusts you, too’ in talking about the activities of the HSU [Health Services Union] and, of course, the scar it is inflicting across the nation’s union movement, so a couple of days ago Julia Gillard was attacking, indeed, this type of behaviour. Now it seems as if Bill Shorten is trying to sweep it all under the carpet again. I suspect this is, of course, all Mr Shorten out there auditioning for the top job and trying to make sure that, if it all comes to crisis point under Julia Gillard’s leadership, he has the union movement firmly behind him as he probably always has had.
GRAHAM PERRETT: … I know a lot more about the union movement than Simon and I see people who turn up to do the right thing by workers, the right thing by union members, for good reasons, so to smear all union members or all people in the Labor Party with what is yet to be proved in this case…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, it’s not union members that are concerned here, Graham, it’s the unions themselves.
LAURA JAYES: But, Graham, I think the point is here, how can you ensure and what proof is there that this hasn’t happened in other unions?
GRAHAM PERRETT: Well, the auditing process is the key one. Obviously, the auditors in the HSU… and I don’t know the intricacies of the HSU, they’re not in Queensland so I’m not familiar with them but obviously there seems to be some audit processes that have fallen over. In any society, any organisation, you need checks and balances, checks and balances that go through and make sure all people are doing the right thing because occasionally people are given money, they’ll do the wrong thing and if people are given the wrong leadership they’ll also follow and do the wrong thing and that seems to be something that exists in one union, according to the Fair Work report, and we should rip it out, root and branch and make sure we have a clean union for all.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, that Fair Work report was an inquiry into only one union, Graham, so let’s not say it was an inquiry across the union movement that just found one union at fault. It was an inquiry specific to the HSU, it found endemic failings in terms of the HSU and failings that went over a period of years, not just one or two isolated incidents and these are members’ money. These are hard working Australians.
GRAHAM PERRETT: … I know the Opposition does what it has to do and, you know, certainly all this focus on Craig Thomson and Peter Slipper… if there’s any suggestion that it’s because the Coalition believe in propriety… I mean, it’s all about trying to grab power – that’s their job. They’re the Opposition. We’ve seen Tony Abbott. He’s a boxer who’s been upset with the points decision that came at the last election and has been complaining about it ever since. That’s his job, I suppose… that’s what he’s paid to do but our job is to get out there and sell our message positively.
LAURA JAYES: Simon Birmingham, on the other side, is Tony Abbott too negative? In trying to be an effective opposition, is he making the mistake of perhaps talking down the economy?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Oh, not at all, Laura. I think we are trying to fight on the issues and that’s why Tony Abbott is relentlessly talking about matters of the carbon tax, about debt and deficit and the management of the nation’s economy, about Government waste and mismanagement and of failure in terms of spending… these are the types of things you would expect any decent Opposition and any decent Opposition Leader to be focused on and these are the issues that concern day-to-day Australians. Now, I think Graham has highlighted…
LAURA JAYES: But, Simon Birmingham, we have seen comments, from Dr Ken Henry this week as well, saying Australians actually don’t know how bad it could have been so it was difficult for Labor to be able to sell its stimulus package. Do you give them any credit for that?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, look, we supported some parts of the stimulus package. We supported some of the initial stimulus that we thought was also necessary given the global downturn, but do I give them credit for ‘Pink Batts’ or school halls waste? Absolutely not! This was a terrible waste of taxpayers’ money and, unfortunately, future generations are going to be paying that debt back and we have a situation now where the Government is trying … now to actually increase its debt ceiling by another $50 billion whilst trying to tell Australians they don’t actually need that $50 billion increase in the nation’s credit card. It just doesn’t make sense.
LAURA JAYES: Simon Birmingham, Joe Hockey, though, promised a surplus in the first year of a Coalition Government and a surplus four years after that. Are you overselling it a bit, overcooking it?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: No, well, we’ve been committed for a long period of time, since before the last election, to returning the budget to surplus and of course we should be striving to do that and deliver that in our first year, in our first budget that we hand down, because we want to bring this debt back down and the only way you bring debt down is, of course, to actually run surpluses to pay off that debt, to make sure we get Australia back into a more financially sustainable position. Labor have run the four biggest deficits in Australia’s history, consecutively – the four biggest deficits…
LAURA JAYES: Graham, we’ll just a quick response from you before we go to a break.
GRAHAM PERRETT: I thought Simon was going to give us a big tick for that fiscal consolidation but he quickly veered onto the negative so good on you, Simon.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I’ll believe it when I see it, Graham. I’ll believe it when I see it.
GRAHAM PERRETT: I was there on budget night. I saw it – saw the announcement.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: And we’ll have a look in 12 months’ time.
LAURA JAYES: … comments from a prominent businessman yesterday seem to have reverberated around the nation, especially in some corporate sectors. Comments from BHP Billiton chairman Jac Nasser.
JAC NASSER: It is the right of governments to set the tax regime but I cannot overstate how the level of uncertainty about Australia’s tax system is generating negative investor reaction and sentiment. People just don’t know where it’s going.
LAURA JAYES: Graham Perrett, first to you. These comments from Jac Nasser… surely this is something that the Prime Minister will take note of – the fact that our tax system… and flagging changes in the tax system is something that is harming investor and consumer confidence? What do you have to say to that?
GRAHAM PERRETT: Well, it is in the context of, you know, the $455 billion pipeline of investment in Australia, so let’s just get the landscape right first and, while it would have been great to deliver the one per cent company tax [rate cut], obviously, you know, as we mentioned earlier, it’s a very bipartisan [partisan] Parliament at the moment and there’s no way that Tony Abbott would support anything good initiated by the Labor Party and that’s what we would have had to have seen. The Greens’ Adam Bandt wasn’t going to support the company tax rate [cut] so there’s no way we could get it through the Parliament without the support of Tony Abbott and so we’ve had to retreat from that cut, so it would have been great to deliver that, I do admit, but we’ll go around the side.
LAURA JAYES: Simon Birmingham, that’s fair enough, isn’t it? The cut in the company tax rate from 30 per cent to 29 per cent … wasn’t going to be supported at all by the Opposition so that’s why it had to be shelved?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: But the Government didn’t even try, Laura. They did not even try to legislate for that change so, you know, again we have…
GRAHAM PERRETT: Did you change your mind, Simon?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, you’re the ones in government. You’re the ones in partnership with the Greens, in partnership with the crossbenchers. You’re the ones who are meant to have the numbers in the Parliament, Graham, but it’s not just the company tax cut Mr Nasser is highlighting. It’s not just the company tax cut. Let’s look at two other examples really quickly. Firstly, when it comes to the mining tax, Ken Henry recommended total reform of the nation’s royalties regime but, of course, all Wayne Swan did was propose a new mining tax. Julia Gillard went to the last election promising no carbon tax at all, but now we have a carbon tax in place, so there’s a lot of uncertainty there for investors and it’s little doubt [wonder] that companies like BHP Billiton are questioning whether in fact that pipeline of investment that Graham spoke of is actually going to be delivered in full.
LAURA JAYES: Simon Birmingham, I’ll just pick up on something that Graham Perrett said. He said it is tough times out there for some families. Wouldn’t you agree with that and who’s to blame for, I guess, ramping up this whole class warfare argument – Tony Abbott saying in his budget reply speech that this is pitting the battlers against the billionaires?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Oh, well, that’s very much been the rhetoric of… Wayne Swan in particular has been on about, for several months now and we saw him going out with deliberate attacks on billionaires, as such. Julia Gillard lowered that threshold and decided to pick on an entire section of Sydney in singling out the North Shore for attacks and this type of class rhetoric just has no place in modern Australia. The key point that Jac Nasser was making is that we should, as a country, be striving to grow the pie for the benefit of everybody. We should want all Australians to enjoy greater wealth and greater opportunity, not just slicing and dicing an ever diminishing pie, under this Government it seems, to try to redistribute the wealth. We want more wealth, not to redistribute it to certain segments that the Labor Party thinks might just help them to hang on to a few key electorates.
LAURA JAYES: Graham Perrett, I’ll just let you respond to that quickly. This class warfare… can it be blamed on Julia Gillard for calling Tony Abbott a North Shore boy?
GRAHAM PERRETT: Oh, look, I’m never in favour of attacking any particular area in Australia unless it’s [rugby league] State of Origin night, of course – then it’s all of New South Wales is evil – but, look, Wayne Swan’s been talking about this for a long time and I think his book Postcodes [Postcode: the Splintering of a Nation] has talked about this, that it’s the pockets of disadvantage in Australia is really what we’re talking about and I’d rather talk about that positive agenda of ‘what can we do to lift people out of those pockets of disadvantage and make sure that we all share in the opportunities that Australia has to offer?’ rather than focus on the few that might have done very well, although… yeah, I might leave it at that.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I hope your Leader and Deputy are listening, Graham, because your tone there is something they could both take a lesson from.
LAURA JAYES: Simon Birmingham and Graham Perrett, we will have to leave it there for today. Thanks so much for joining us on Lunchtime Agenda