Sky AM Agenda - 16 December 2013

On Sky AM Agenda, I joined host Kieran Gilbert and Liberal Senator Mitch Fifield to discuss the Coalition's excuses for blowing out the budget, and whether Liberal Party MPs will be given the freedom to vote their conscience on same-sex marriage.




SUBJECT/S: Budget Update, DisabilityCare, Same-Sex Marriage

KIERAN GILBERT: First though to Andrew Leigh. The Budget apparently worse than first thought, according to the Government, and we could be heading towards ten years of deficits unless some drastic action is taken.

ANDREW LEIGH: These are some big decisions that the Government has taken, aren’t they Kieran? The $9 billion to the reserve bank, the $17 billion of revenue you lose when you get rid of the mining tax and the carbon price. The impact of those on the budget is going to be very, very significant.

GILBERT: But Tony Abbott says this is the last economic statement of the Labor era, isn’t that a fair enough assessment given we’re only 100 days since the election?

LEIGH: I think that’s a great try on and given where Mr Abbott’s coming from you can understand why he is giving it a good old shake. Unfortunately, Peter Costello’s…

GILBERT: But only three months in how can it not be Labor’s legacy that we’re talking about here?

LEIGH: Well because unfortunately for Mr Abbott we’re playing by Peter Costello’s rules. Those rules say that there is a Charter of Budget Honesty and a Pre-Election Fiscal Outlook brought down during the election campaign, that lays out exactly the state of the books at the time that the election takes place. And the reason that Peter Costello put those rules into place was very simple, it’s to avoid exactly this kind of trick. The kind of attempt to find spiders in the cupboard that Mr Abbott’s been going on with and Mr Hockey as well. Frankly, this is a MYEFO and much as Joe Hockey would like to think that it’s a ‘Your EFO’ or ‘Wayne’s EFO’ or ‘Someone else’s EFO,’ this is a statement of the decisions he’s made.

GILBERT: I’m told we’ve got the assistant social services minister, Mitch Fifield with us now. Senator Fifield, good to see you and let me ask you first of all about this suggestion. Well, first of all Tony Abbott’s saying that this is Labor’s last economic statement of its era, but he’s refusing to commit to returning the budget back to surplus within four years. Is that on, or is it off? That commitment to have the budget back in surplus by 2016-17.

MITCH FIFIELD: Well Kieran, our objective is to get the budget back into surplus as soon as we can. Our objective is to pay off as much debt as we possibly can, as soon as we can. The real issue here is whether the Australian Labor Party are going to recognise that there has been a change of government, and if the Australian Labor Party are going to stand in the way of each and every measure proposed to get the budget back into a sustainable position. So far we have seen the Labor Party announce that they will oppose even the savings measures that they themselves announced before the election. This is truly perverse stuff Kieran, but our objective is we want to get the budget back into surplus as soon as we can.

GILBERT: Well, so is that another target that’s gone by the wayside Senator Fifield?

FIFIELD: Well Kieran the targets of the Labor Party, and we saw many of them during their term of office, budget after budget not one of them was met. I lost count of how many targets the previous government set for when they would get the budget back into surplus. They were forever moving, they were forever changing – so you’ll forgive me if I’m not going to cop lectures from the Australian Labor Party when it comes to budget targets, but what we know at the moment is that on Labor’s own numbers from the PEFO, from the numbers from Treasury and Finance at that time, the budget was looking to be 30 billion dollars in deficit, we know that Labor were forecasting net government debt in excess of 200 million dollars. Now we will find out tomorrow with the MYEFO whether those numbers have gotten worse, and I think Tony Abbott is quite right to say that the MYEFO will in effect be the last budget statement on behalf of the previous government, but it will be the first truthful one.

GILBERT: Minister, can I ask you as the minister responsible for the National Disability Insurance Scheme, is the NDIS safe from cuts despite the worsening budget forecast?

FIFIELD: Kieran we have made clear, and I’ll state it again to you that we will honour the announced spending on the NDIS. We are, even as I speak now, in the process of honouring and delivering the bilateral agreements that have been reached between the Commonwealth and the other jurisdictions. Tony Abbott is very personally committed to seeing the NDIS delivered and that’s what we’re going to do.

GILBERT: And on time, on schedule, as promised?

FIFIELD: Kieran we are honouring, and it’s our intention to do so, the bilateral agreements with the other jurisdictions and they lay out the time frame.

[Break for Prime Minister’s press conference.]

GILBERT: With me this morning, Andrew Leigh and Mitch Fifield. Much smaller discussion than what we’ve normally got, of course because of the Prime Minister’s news conference, but he says tomorrow they’ll be starting to outline the fiscal problem and start to fix it. The economic ramifications of decisions made by Labor will remain. As an economist, isn’t that a fair enough argument? Decisions made in government are obviously going to have ramifications for years into the future. It can’t be fixed overnight.

LEIGH: Well, the budget was set down before the election. The Pre-election Fiscal Outlook is the baseline that Mr Abbott’s inheriting. I mean, let’s face it, Mr Abbott said this would be…

GILBERT: But it’s got worse. It’s $17 billion worse already.

LEIGH: Indeed, Mr Abbot has worsened it through a number of decisions including $9 billion to the Reserve Bank.

GILBERT: So you’re saying as soon as the election’s done, Labor’s legacy is over. There are no ramifications into the new government.

LEIGH: None beyond the four years of estimates that were set out in the Pre-election Fiscal Outlook. I mean for a government that said there would be no surprises and no excuses, there’s more surprises than a haunted house and more excuses than a three year-old with his hand in the cookie jar. This is really strange stuff. Mr Abbott ought to be behaving like a grown up. He said this would be a government in which the adults would be in charge, but instead he seems to be suggesting that everyone else is to blame. He can’t get the budget under control, so he has to strike a deal with the Greens for unlimited debt. He’s breaking promises on the National Broadband Network, on Medicare Locals, turning the National Disability Insurance Scheme launch sites into mere trial sites – which I think is deeply concerning. What was a budget emergency has turned into unlimited debt under Joe Hockey’s watch.

GILBERT: I want to bring in Mitch Fifield now. We heard a lot from the Prime Minister on the economic issue, I want to ask you about something he was also asked about on same sex marriage Senator Fifield. Given the comments made by Malcolm Turnbull yesterday – he thinks that there is a reasonable prospect there could be a conscience vote for the Liberal Party this parliamentary term on same sex marriage. What’s your view on it? What do you think the overall mood of the party room is on this issue?

FIFIELD: Well, if a Bill comes before the Parliament, our party room will consider it and I think we need to distinguish between the issue of conscience votes and free votes. In a sense, every vote in the Parliament for a Liberal is a conscience vote. Unlike the Labor Party, we don’t have automatic expulsion if you don’t vote according to the party line so every vote for a Liberal is in effect a conscience vote. There’s the issue of free votes. Now a free vote arises where the Party doesn’t have a stated position, and for there to be a free vote in relation to a same sex marriage bill, our party room would need to declare that there was not a Liberal Party position, so if a bill comes to the Parliament, it will come to our party room and our party room will consider that at that stage.

GILBERT: And obviously, do you have a view one way or the other on whether it will or not? We’ve only got about 30 seconds left, but just quickly.

FIFIELD: Look I honestly don’t know. Our party has had a clear position over a long period of time to support the status quo when it comes to the Marriage Act. This matter, if it arises, will be considered by our party room.

GILBERT: Senator Fifield and Andrew Leigh, apologies for the shorter discussion but, as I say, the Prime Minister intervened.

LEIGH: No worries Kieran.

GILBERT: Have a good day. That’s all for our chat on this edition of the program this morning.


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