27 October 2023


SUBJECTS: State Ministers meeting on potential ban of engineered stone; Prime Minister’s trip to the U.S; potential interest rate rise; inflation; cost of living; interesting gifts

DEBORAH KNIGHT, HOST: And as always, we're joined by the Minister for the NDIS, Bill Shorten and the Shadow Treasurer, Angus Taylor, for our weekly wrap of politics. Fellas, hello to you.


KNIGHT: I'll get into the US visit in just a moment, but just on the engineered stone benchtops. We've got the work health and safety ministers meeting right now looking at a potential ban on engineered stone. Bill, the unions are pushing very hard for a blanket ban. The CFMEU members led strike action on New South Wales parliament, a protest action yesterday. What are your thoughts? Should a blanket ban be brought in?

SHORTEN: I know that the Ministers are meeting right now to discuss the Safe Work Australia report into silicosis, which they commissioned earlier this year. Yes, I absolutely both personally and I know the government doesn't believe, that people should not be contracting terminal illnesses because they've turned up to work. That's why we asked Safe Work Australia, who's the national health and safety regulator to prepare a report. I think the next stage is, let's get facts on the table. I know the Commonwealth's asking the meeting to publicly release the report, when further decisions, including potential ban, are made.

KNIGHT: And how do you do it, though? If you've got some states wanting to bring in a ban, others don't want to. It's tricky Angus, when not everyone is on the same page.

ANGUS TAYLOR, SHADOW TREASURER: Yeah, well that's right. But can I just say upfront everyone has a right to a healthy and safe work environment, and that has to be a priority and silicosis of course, it's an awful disease. And that's why when we were in government took a leadership role and established the National Dust Disease Taskforce, which was focused on dealing with this, my view is similar to Bill's, let's let the process play out today. But worker safety has to be an absolute priority.

KNIGHT: And I'll bring you any news from that meeting as we get it. Now this US visit by the Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, been honoured at the official state dinner, which is a rare celebration of the alliance. But there's also been some pointed comments from the US president, Joe Biden, warning Australia not to trust everything that China tells us. And that's ahead of the visit from the PM to Beijing next week. Bill, we are piggy in the middle really here between these two superpowers. Can we manage both these relationships effectively?

SHORTEN: Yeah, we can. We have no choice. So, I think saying piggy in the middle sort of denies our ability to have some agency. I think it's been great that the Prime Minister has had this state visit to the United States, they’re our most important security ally. We share many common values. But I also think it's great that he's going to China, like, the world's a complicated place. And – [inaudible]

KNIGHT: Oh, have we lost Bill? Have we got you? Oh, sorry. We just lost you there for a moment.

SHORTEN: Oh, no, I'm sorry. The world's a complicated place. It's not enough, I think, for you to say it's too hard to sort out China and America. We've just got to pursue our national interests. I think the pictures of the state visits show a very successful visit which is important. But I'm sure also that being able to engage with China is crucial. We've just got to have to walk and chew gum at the same time.

KNIGHT: And Angus, do you think this trip was worth it? Because at the end of the day, we still haven't got a guarantee about AUKUS. And a lot of our listeners have been asking, apart from nice dinners and nice pictures, what do we get out of it?

TAYLOR: Well, it's important for the Prime Minister to engage internationally, and it is appropriate to do that whenever it's possible to do it. And so, we do support that. I mean, obviously, part of the objective of the trip was to build on past achievements, which, you know, these things should be as bipartisan as possible, AUKUS I think it is, of course, we need to build on that also to deal with Microsoft, which was which was built on the $10 billion Red Spy cyber investment that we made when we were in government. I mean, it's good to see building on past work, and we want to see more of that. And the Prime Minister needs to walk and chew gum as Bill rightly said. Our concern with this trip is that he keeps taking his eye off the domestic issues. And the number one domestic issue, of course, is the cost-of-living crisis, which has reared its ugly head again this week in the inflation data. And we need a Prime Minister that treats that as an absolute top priority.

KNIGHT: And, Bill, we know ordinary Australians are really struggling and we're looking down the barrel of another interest rate rise. All the major banks are now betting on a Melbourne Cup Day interest rate rise. We've had the inflation figures, inflation down slightly but not enough, and Michelle Bullock saying she's concerned the RBA Governor, about inflation. Are you doing enough to help out Australians struggling with the cost of living?

SHORTEN: Yeah, let's just address this question that somehow because the Prime Minister's talking to President Joe Biden, that nothing else is happening. That isn't fair. You've got to talk; you've got to do these visits. In terms of outcomes. He's been pressing the case to keep progressing AUKUS. So, I think that's good there. And we've got the Treasurer and the rest of the government working away. Like I have to say, when the Prime Minister goes overseas, the rest of us don't go down to the beach, there’s a fair bit going on in terms of inflation, though. There's no doubt that the petrol prices, which have spiked in the September quarter, have added real pressure. You know, the public servants who sort of watch the economy and measure what's happening, they say that the, you know, petrol prices probably rose by more than 7% in September. Anyone who's filling up their petrol tank knows that. And so that is putting pressure. And you know, the petrol price is being driven by factors - [inaudible] - $1 billion of relief in the last two budgets to help battling Australians cope with some of the pressures. So, we want to do it in a way which isn't stimulatory or inflationary. I would like to perhaps call out a bit more – [inaudible]

KNIGHT: Bill, we've got a sketchy phone line from you. It keeps cutting in and out. We're sort of missing a few words here. We might just try and get you on a better phone line. But Angus, as we do that, isn't it a bit disingenuous for the opposition to be blaming the government when a lot of the conditions for inflation were set up when you were in power? All of the spending, all of the stimulus packages during Covid have fuelled a lot of the current inflation.

TAYLOR: Well, when you're in government, you deal with the hand you have, as we did right through Covid. And my problem with all of this is that this hasn't been the government's priority. They've been distracted. They've been focused on other things, to the point where we had the Treasurer this week in denial. Now, if you take what Bill just said, which is probably what the Treasurer said, that it was all about fuel, we know fuel prices are through the roof, but let me tell you, when you take fuel out of the numbers, you've still got inflation well above expectations, much higher than it used to be. And Australians know they're paying more for their insurance. They're paying more for their council rates. They're paying more for their furniture, for their groceries.

KNIGHT: But fuel is a big driver. And can you really blame the government for the conflict in the Middle East driving higher fuel prices?

TAYLOR: That's not what caused those numbers we got this week. The point is, it was much broader than that. We have inflation happening across the board. Just ask anyone about the electricity bills they're receiving now, their insurance premiums they're paying at the moment, what they're paying for their groceries. It's much broader. We saw that in the numbers. We've seen a number of, many economists saying, hey, it's a lot more than just fuel at work here. And we have a government that's been asleep on the job, been focused on its referendum. We have a Prime Minister who doesn't like talking about the cost-of-living issues, whether he's overseas or at home, and a Treasurer who tells Australians that they're better off, and even the ABC has called him out for being misleading on this. Australians are worse off and he needs to get with the app, get his eye on the ball. And right now, we've got a government and a Treasurer that don't have their eye on the ball.

KNIGHT: Bill, we've got you back on a better phone line.

SHORTEN: Yeah. Listen, I heard Angus talking points. The reality is petrol has spiked. And if Angus thinks that petrol is not a big element in people's budgets –

TAYLOR: That's not what I just - 

SHORTEN: - he's just fortunate.

TAYLOR: Don't verbal me, mate. No, no, that's not what I said.

SHORTEN: Sorry, Angus. I didn't mean to interrupt you with an answer. You said earlier on it's not just - you said it's not just inflation caused by petrol. Well, petrol is a giant issue at the moment. And as Deb pointed out, we don't control that. In terms of the other issues. I do think that we've got to have a conversation about Woolworths and Coles. I get worried that some of the big corporations are taking profits at a time when prices are going up. And so, I do worry that there's some behaviour occurring, which is exploiting the general circumstance of inflation to improve the bottom line of some big corporations and banks.

KNIGHT: So, what will you do to swoop on that, or can the government just -

SHORTEN: I think we need to start having that conversation I mean, I'm the NDIS Minister, but I get sick of some service providers just upping prices all the time. What I'm going to do in my NDIS area is we are going to clamp down on that, because I think that some people are having a lend of the system at the moment and saying, oh, it's all inflation, but they're actually stimulating it by inappropriate price increases. In terms of the other issues, we have put $23 billion of relief through our ten-point plan to help ease cost of living pressures in cheaper medicine, cheaper childcare. We've got to do it in a way which doesn't trigger inflation. But also, this argument that somehow because if there's one nightly news story about the Prime Minister being in America, that's what the news covers. But that doesn't mean that the rest of the government isn't working incredibly hard to try and do the very best we can for everyday Aussies.

KNIGHT: All right, I'll –

TAYLOR: Bill, the Prime Minister spent months talking about his Voice. As soon as that's done, he cancels a week of Parliament so he can go over to the US. And we need him to go to the US. Traditionally, Prime Ministers did that and we still had Parliament. Look, honestly, he hasn't had his eye on the ball. He is distracted and you've got a Treasurer who is in denial about the pain that Australians are feeling across everything, including fuel.

SHORTEN: Angus, you'd be more credible on your point, if the opposition hadn't asked 93 questions on The Voice and bugger all about cost of living.

KNIGHT: All right, all right. We're going to agree to disagree. I want to end on something a bit lighter, as we do every Friday. The visit to the US had the traditional exchange of gifts between the leaders. And there was a lot of them, in fact, including an antique writing desk from the Bidens, designed by an American furniture company with gold engraving on the side. And President Biden also gave our PM a custom-made turntable, a nod to DJ Albo. But I want to know from you two, what are the most memorable gifts you've ever received? And by memorable, they can be good or dodgy. Bill?

SHORTEN: One of the nicest gifts I got was from Yunupingu, who's now passed where he gave me a totem, the totem of a big crocodile skin, which was the totem of his Gumatj clan of the Yolngu people. That was fantastic. I have to say, though, that no one's ever given me a nice writing desk. What I do have, though, is drawers and drawers of t-shirts from various causes that people give you. I have the ugliest t-shirt collection in the world.

KNIGHT: They're good to wear to the gym or on the pollie pedal.

SHORTEN: Yeah, they have a purpose, but I realise that my 10 second skill is my collection of really ugly campaign and worthy cause t-shirts.

KNIGHT: There you go. You've probably got a few Yes vote shirts in there.

SHORTEN: Oh yeah, got a few of them too, don’t worry.

KNIGHT: Angus, what about you?

TAYLOR: Well, I've got a few No shirts that I'm hoping to be souvenir items in a decade or two. But I did get this year, I did get a great present from one of the sponsors of the State of Origin, with a Blues jersey personalised, which was very nice, so I can pretend that I might have actually been a good football player for one time.

KNIGHT: Live in hope, live in hope - or live vicariously through…

SHORTEN: And that means no one else can take it too. So that's good.

KNIGHT: That is true. That is true. Fellas, always good to talk.

SHORTEN: All right. Lovely. Have a great afternoon. Bye!

KNIGHT: Angus Taylor and Bill Shorten for our weekly dose of Question Time.