Transcript: Doorstop interview

31 January 2012

Subjects: Tony Abbott’s Press Club Speech, Opposition’s fiscal position, IR disputes

BILL SHORTEN: Thought I might start off with a couple of comments and then go for questions if people are happy.

It’s a new year and we were promised that we would see a new Tony Abbot this year, but unfortunately we have just seen a rehash at the National Press Club address of the same negativity, government bashing and no new ideas. It was Ground Hog Day for Dr No.

And the reason why I say that is I listened carefully to Mr Abbott’s speech, and it was a disappointing speech and I felt and a missed opportunity. I say that for three reasons.

First of all Mr Abbott’s clearly continuing the coalition tendency to back vested interest against the rest of us. Tony Abbott announces yet again that they will hand back billions of dollars to the world’s richest mining companies rather than share some of the proceeds of the minerals boom with small business, with retirees, with people on low incomes. We see that he will back the large carbon polluters against a lot of middle and lower income people who are looking forward to the tax cuts.

In fact, Mr Abbott clearly broke his promise which he gave last year. I would remind people of what he said on Lateline last year on the 30th November, 2011, which is not that long ago. He said: “but there will be an income tax cut without a carbon tax.”  He also said on Triple M, going for the hard interviews, on 13 July 2011: “think it’s possible to find the savings needed to pay for significant tax cuts without a carbon tax”.

But today he ‘s walked away from that commitment.  He admitted that tax cuts in their first term could only be in prospect.  He said by the close of the next Coalition government’s first term, more tax cuts will be in prospect. So he’s offering a tax cut to mining companies, he’s offering a tax cut to carbon polluters, but if you’re on 30 or 40 or 50 thousand dollars a year, you will lose the tax cuts that only Labor is delivering.

But yet again, while he’s backed vested interest, there’ll be literally thousands of disappointed carers, and people with profound and severe disabilities. When asked about the commitment to a National Disability Insurance Scheme, Mr Abbott said, well possibly, we’ll look at it, it all depends, once we get into surplus, maybe, perhaps, whenever, and I think that’s a crushing blow to people with disabilities.

Mr Abbott did say that he supports the idea of doing more for disabled people. Well we all support an ideal, the question is are you committed to put your money where your mouth is? Only the Labour Government has put the National Disability Scheme on the agenda, only the Labour Government’s committed to building up the Scheme and the life of the Government and this term of Government.

Furthermore, he’s talked about jobs but, yet he did not, and again, did not support the money which we’re providing to support the car industry. There’s 46,000 real full time jobs. Mr Abbott said he supported full time well paying jobs but failed to specify where those jobs had come from. Here’s a tip, Tony Abbott: if you want to support secure full time well paid jobs, get behind our car industry instead of making vague unspecified promises.

Also it was clear that not only is he backing the few against the many, but he was clearly very negative in his tone. Not that it’s necessarily worth a Google word search, but no less than 44 times in a 30 minute speech did he individually attack the Government.  That’s at a rate of an attack on the Government every 45 seconds which must be a world land speed record of negativity, even for Mr Abbott.

The other thing which he keeps doing, which is more serious than that, is he keeps telling Australians that we shouldn’t be confident about our future. He keeps talking us down, he said that we’ve got all these crises.

There is no question, that what is happening in Europe has consequences in Australia. But why can’t Mr Abbott ever be balanced.  Why can’t he have a streak of positives, as well as the large streak of negativity. Why doesn’t he ever own up and say that unemployment is 5.2 per cent in Australia, which is well below the OECD average, well below the average unemployment rate in the Eurozone.

When he talks about fiscal debt why doesn’t he own up and say that Australia, under a Labor Government, despite the Global Financial Crisis Mark 1, and indeed even in the emerging teeth of Global Financial Crisis 2, we are engaging in the fastest fiscal consolidation, he points back to the Howard Years and says they were able to raise money and have a surplus. Well in those days they had a mining boom without the challenges of the high dollar which we’re currently experiencing.

Anyone can manage an economy when times are going well. The real challenge is how you measure up when the times are tough.

We have lower interest rates than we did in previous times of financial crisis. We have created 750,000 new jobs in the same time period as the rest of the advanced world has shed 30 million jobs. We have Commonwealth net debt well below our competitor nations in the first world. It’s going to top out at somewhere around eight per cent which most visitors from overseas think is a remarkable accomplishment.

So not only is he, does this speech reflect last year’s policies of backing in the few against the many, the vested interests against the ordinary Australians, not only was the speech a relentless diatribe of negativity, not only was he talking down the Australian economy and confidence - when in fact Australia should be looking towards the future with a degree of optimism - but he didn’t deal with the issues which Australians are dealing with everyday. The speech was remarkable for what it didn’t include as much as for what it did include.

We know that the big issues for Australia are in the future. We know that the big issues are that Australians are living longer than ever before. But there was no support for our superannuation system. We know that the rise of our Asian economies provide us with literally millions of middle class customers in the future.  There was no talk about engagement with Asia. We know that we need to be sustainable but Mr Abbott simply says let’s plant some more trees. Not having a whole economy-wide plan to deal with the need to improve sustainability.

We know that the resources boom cannot continue forever but where was the discussion about the skills and the training and the infrastructure to future-proof our economy to secure Australia’s future beyond the mining boom. We know that these are the issues which Australians are working through right now as we’re doing in this conference.

In addition I think that the speech highlighted the fault upon which Mr Abbott’s found himself is this: he has a $70 billion black hole. He knows that the only way he can switch gears from being negative to positive is to be able to explain what he will do in the future with positive ideas. But before he can get to positive he’s got to deal with his own economic black hole.

He talked about iron laws of economics. I’ll tell you an iron law of politics – you’ve got to be able to pay for your promises and you can’t pay for your promises simply by offering up a menu of negativity. Happy to take questions.


JOURNALIST: Mr Shorten you’ve given an economic (inaudible).


BILL SHORTEN: Well if you’re referring to the polls – polls go up and polls go down.  But Paul the truth is that any Australian who goes overseas, any Australian who goes overseas and comes back, and you get off an aeroplane at an airport in Australia - how many Australians say my goodness this country is far worse than the places we’ve just left.

The truth of the matter is that whilst we’re going to have a tough 12 months, which we are, whilst we do watch some of the concerns about debt in Europe with great anxiety...but we know, and any traveller who goes overseas, they know it, it’s a core belief, they know this country is doing better.

There’s no question that we’ve got a task of work ahead of us this year and I’ve outlined some of the issues.  For us the challenges are jobs. For us the challenges are that the kids get a good education. For us the challenge is to make sure that over a million people with severe and profound disabilities and their careers get a fair deal. These are the future issues. Australians don’t want negativity.

JOURNALIST: Minister is Julia Gillard’s leadership tenable given the polls and last year’s debacle in her office relating to the Australia Day protest.

BILL SHORTEN: Well everyone knows that I’m a very strong supporter of our Prime Minister. I think she’s a very strong leader and in tough times you need strong leaders.

In terms of the last couple of days we’ve had two news polls which say, or we’ve had two polls including the Galaxy poll, which showed that our primary vote had gone up. Needless to say that fact was a footnote in the article and there was lots of discussion about leadership.

I support Julia Gillard. She’s a strong leader and we’ll keep doing what’s in the best interests of Australia and not get distracted by day to day polls.

JOURNALIST: When you offered your critique at the start about Tony Abbott’s speech - I understand your points - but isn’t the fact that Tony Abbott doesn’t feel that he has to come out and talk about  policy and issues, isn’t that just an indication of the political reality that the Coalition is feeling pretty chuffed, in a good position, and it’s the Government that is  in strife.

BILL SHORTEN: Well Matthew your question’s revealing. If he doesn’t feel that he doesn’t have to come out with positive policies at this stage perhaps the Gallery need to ask him about his positive policies.

JOURNALIST:  I know and I thought it was a good question. The point I’m making here is we need to have a debate in Australia about the future. We need to stop talking this country down. I do not pretend that if you’re someone in manufacturing feeling the impact of the high dollar, and you’ve just lost your job; the talk about relatively low unemployment compared to the rest of the world, relatively low government debt compared to the rest of the world - that is cold consolation.

We are the party who are talking, we are the government who are talking about jobs in the manufacturing industry. You can measure what we say. We are the party who are going to introduce tax cuts. You can measure us by what we say.

At some point if people really believe that the Abbott government is a heartbeat away from being the government then surely there deserves to be some greater scrutiny about their black hole, about their negativity, about their inability, the fact that they’ve just announced today that they may look at disability insurance if and when at some unspecified point. They’ve just put off tax cuts which we intend to implement. I thought it was very disappointing and negative speech. It was billed as being the new positive Tony Abbott headland speech but I thought it was much more of a Groundhog Day, rear vision mirror saying we’re the B Team refugees from the Howard government and we’d like to have another crack even though we’ve got nothing new to say.

JOURNALIST: <Inaudible>  accept that he’ll never be prime minister again.

BILL SHORTEN: I saw the comments by Minister Crean.  Minister Crean, well I’m not going to comment about any of my colleagues in terms of what they will or won’t do. I don’t think that’s helpful. Minister Crean I think occupies an unusual place in the Australian government. He’s been around a very long time. He himself has been a leader.  I suspect that some people have more flexibility about what they say. I’m brand new into Cabinet. I’m not going to fuel that debate any further.

JOURNALIST: <Inaudible> apparently there’s a move from the Right away from Julia Gillard though?

BILL SHORTEN: I’m in the Right. So no.

JOURNALIST: Just wondering if you can comment on Tony’s indigenous pitch today saying that he’d spend a week in remote communities here and there if he was elected prime minister. Also that he was concerned that the constitutional recognition has tagged for an election. What are your thoughts about his pitch today?

BILL SHORTEN: Listen I thought that was a generous offer to offer to spend a week in an indigenous community. When someone says something which you think is a good idea I’m not going to bag him for that.  I thought if that’s what he wants to do honestly that’s impressive. I think you’ll find a lot of members of parliament do quite a range of community work which they won’t always advertise and I think that’s to Tony Abbott’s credit.

JOURNALIST: On the disability insurance scheme, Tony Abbott is saying that a Coalition government wouldn’t introduce one until there was a strong surplus. How different is that from the Labor Government’s position on this?

BILL SHORTEN: Well some of you know I’m very committed to developing a national disability insurance scheme. When I became Parliamentary Secretary, I was appalled at the second class lives which people with disability and their carers are living.

What I do know is that having a disability, or being a carer for someone with a profound disability in Australia means you generally lack both political power, because you’re busy, and you lack money.

The concept of a national disability insurance scheme is a Labor concept – we asked the Productivity Commission to work through how much it would cost. They then made the invaluable contribution of saying it’s expensive, but instead of it being viewed as a bottomless well that you just put money in and you never touch the bottom, they said it was possible to fund it.

This government has sensibly proposed scoping studies. I have no doubt that you will see our Prime Minister, senior Minister Macklin and the rest of us fleshing out much more detail about an NDIS – a National Disability Insurance Scheme. There is a clear policy difference between us and the Opposition – we want to set one up, we are going to do it, we’re going to make sure it’s costed and we will find a way, once we have all the numbers, to do it. Of that, you can have no doubt.

JOURNALIST: Can you put a specific timeframe on when it might be introduced?

BILL SHORTEN: Well again Mr Abbott showed what he didn’t know about the National Disability Insurance Scheme when he said it’s $6 billion and we’ve got to get back in surplus.

If he’d read the Productivity Commission report, and to be fair he may well have – it was a long report and he might have missed this table. The Productivity Commission proposed setting up a series of layers – so this figure of $6 billion, as posited by the Productivity Commission, is a figure which arrives in 2018.

This idea that this nation is too poor and it’s too hard to find a solution is a copout, and I think there’ll be a lot of people with disabilities and their carers who’ll be contacting the Libs, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a policy backflip from the Liberals in the course of the next 12 months. Because when they get out back to their electorates after saying how wonderful Mr Abbott’s negativity is, there’ll be a lot of people with disability and carers saying hang on, the Labor side, they’re saying they’ve got a plan, they’ve got stages – they’re going to do it. The Liberal side are saying well maybe we’ll have a look at it depending on whatever else.

People with disability have had enough weasel words for decades. I thought this was an area of bipartisanship. Mr Abbott has moved away from the area of bipartisanship and I think that backflip frankly is as remarkable as his backflip from the direct quotes I read to you from Lateline and Triple M last year, when Mr Abbott said there would be tax cuts without a carbon price and now he’s said not only will there not be a price on carbon, we’re not going to guarantee the tax cuts.

JOURNALIST: Tony Abbott described the Fair Work investigation into Craig Thomson as an institutional go slow –can you guarantee that the Government hasn’t played a part in this investigation?

BILL SHORTEN: There he goes again, Mr Abbott, maligning public servants. Never seen a public servant he wouldn’t malign. It’s an independent agency, we’re waiting for the outcome of the investigation but in the meantime, I wouldn’t start... I think Mr Abbott’s being foolish with his words to start saying that there’s inappropriate behaviour by Fair Work Australia. They’ve got a process. I’m going to back our public servants against cheap shots from the opposition gallery.

JOURNALIST: He did say, for example with the Fitzgerald enquiry in Queensland didn’t go three years, neither did the Cole Royal Commission. How long does it take to investigate this?

BILL SHORTEN: Listen, I wasn’t involved in the Fitzgerald enquiry and I haven’t been involved in this enquiry – but in terms of the Cole inquiry, there was a lot of money spent on that, I think you’ll find that Fair Work Australia will do its job and Mr Abbott should take a leaf out of our book. Let’s just let the independent bodies do their job.

JOURNALIST: Do you concede that three years is quite a long time for an investigation?

BILL SHORTEN: I do not concede that I should start criticising independent agencies.

JOURNALIST: Minister...(inaudible)...tomorrow...(inaudible)... are you concerned about the prospects of that strike...(inaudible)

BILL SHORTEN: Which particular dispute or negotiation are you referring to as you’d be aware though the commission, Fair Work Australia ratifies around 15,000 agreements on average each quarter, there’s two and a half million Australians covered by agreements. How many people are involved in this strike... (inaudible)... and where is it...

JOURNALIST: ...(inaudible)... Port Kembla, involving BHP...(inaudible)...

BILL SHORTEN: So is it coal or steel? I find your questions interesting and I agree with your thoughts on Industrial Relations, I’m happy to take those questions off line, but I will make the general point that...(inaudible)... industrial disputation is at a remarkably low level, you will find that industrial disputation numbers now are lower than nine out 11 years of the Howard government. Again – good news doesn’t sell newspapers – but that is a fact.

And another fact is that even if you take out some of the public sector negotiations in Australia, state public sector negotiations in Australia, state public sector negotiations, state Liberal governments, and they’re not very good at negotiating, some of them. Ah, and took out Qantas, I think you will find that even the spikes in the system, industrial disputation is at a historically low average. So – I’m always interested in every dispute – it’s always better to try and negotiate than have an argument... what are the Liberals saying – just outlaw all strikes altogether? I’d be happy for you to ask the Liberals their view on strike action, if it’s ever permitted.

JOURNALIST:  Well, you’re the Minister – we’re asking you about it.

BILL SHORTEN: Well, it’s allowed under the system.

JOURNALIST: ...(inaudible)... isn’t it the case...(inaudible)...situation ongoing handouts...(inaudible)...priorities...inaudible...

BILL SHORTEN: The Commonwealth of Australia is large, our economy is large, we’re $1.3 trillion. Did you know that for the four years of the Labor Government we have been lower taxing than the last five years of the Howard government? I love the conservative myth-making, that somehow Mr Abbott said that it was in the Liberal DNA that they were a lower taxing government, well I don’t know there was a baby substitution at birth somewhere with the Liberals, because if you look at the Howard years and look at taxation as a proportion of GDP, it is higher than we’ve ever got to – so always remember about the conservatives when they get into power – they say they’re not tickling you up but look out for your pocket, because they’ve probably got their hand in it taking more tax out than us.

So in terms of, well, if we didn’t have the car industry support that therefore fund the disability scheme. The Libs have got the worst of all worlds, they’re not going to support the car industry and they’re not going to support the disability insurance scheme.

JOURNALIST: Minister what do you say to comments made by Tony Abbott in relation to dentistry and Medicare?

BILL SHORTEN: Oh well, he says that Medicare’s a good idea and that’s hardly hold the presses stuff is it? That again was a Labor idea. In terms of the dentist thing he said, well maybe depending on the Budget, well the first thing they should do in a Budget if they want to start talking about it is work out their own costings.

JOURNALIST: He said it was an aspiration that they wanted to follow through if possible.

BILL SHORTEN: Again, these people love the top end of town, if you’ve got all your own dental care, if you can afford all your own services in disability, if you don’t need the tax cuts because you earn over $80,000, if you aren’t a person working in the car industry, but if you are a large mining company, if you are a large carbon polluter well, you can work out which side these guys fall on, they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity to stand up for the little guy.

JOURNALIST: ...(inaudible)...

BILL SHORTEN: There’s a range of Government Ministers working on it... great and I’ve covered a range of other portfolios, I have no doubt that this Government and this Prime Minister, and Minister Macklin and myself and others are very committed to the establishment of a new NDIS.

The precise day of the week of the month which we establish it, and in what form will be worked on by a lot of people. But Tony Abbott has made disability an election issue by saying that he won’t do it until the Budget’s in surplus and under their numbers they’ll never get to surplus, til they specify their accounting. The trick if you want to be positive, and switch from the negative, is that you’ve got to explain your own financial shortcomings. We are committed to an NDIS. I don’t think anyone doubts that.

JOURNALIST: There’s really only a difference there between you and Tony Abbott that it’s your policy to go ahead even if there’s not a ...(inaudible)...

BILL SHORTEN: Well first of all, what you’re doing is that you’re inviting me to jump to the 10th (inaudible) in that question when there’s a least nine before it – which we do intend to jump. One is getting into surplus, second is to see what the various groups working on the insurance commission would look like. We’ve got plenty of detail, one thing I’m not going to do is start putting conditions around ...(inaudible)...

It was our idea – we’re committed to it, the Liberals have dropped the pretence of bipartisanship, they’re saying it is not a priority. We will find a way to fund this, but we will still keep our other promises.

Thanks very much



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