BREAKING POLITICS - Monday, 24 February 2014

Breaking Politics host, Chris Hammer, invited me and regular sparring partner Liberal MP Andrew Laming into the Fairfax Media studio to discuss this morning's news.  Today's agenda includes worrying reports that the Abbott Government may weaken legislation requiring companies to report on the gender of employees and progress of workplace gender equality measures.




SUBJECT/S: Manus Island; Cambodia and the Refugee Resettlement Agreement; G20 growth target and multinational profit shifting; Qantas future and jobs; Company gender reporting.

CHRIS HAMMER: One week after an Iranian asylum seeker died on Manus Island the story is still front page news. That's largely because of Saturday, Border Protection Minister Scott Morrison that he had been misinformed and in turn had misinformed the public about what had happened last Monday night on Manus Island. Well, to discuss that and other issues, I'm joined by Andrew Leigh, the Labor Member for Fraser in the ACT and also Assistant Shadow Treasurer and Andrew Laming, the Liberal Member for Bowman in Brisbane.

Andrew Laming, to you first, it now seems highly likely that the Iranian asylum seeker died within the detention centre on Manus Island. Doesn't that make his death wholly the responsibility of the Australian Government?

ANDREW LAMING: If that information's correct it's extremely alarming. Everyone would regret this occurrence from last week. Look, Scott Morrison's a star minister. He's provided information as soon as he reliably could. They'll try and work out why he was potentially given incorrect information. Everyone will want absolute safety for those that are detained on Manus. I'm confident that that centre can achieve that and continue to be an important part of our border protection.

HAMMER: So, you'd concede that it is the Australian Government's responsibility, the death in a sense -

LAMING: We'll be a key player in getting to the bottom of that matter. And we are obviously responsible because we hire the contractors who run that camp.

HAMMER: And the matter that the Minister was misinformed initially, that's also the responsibility of the Australian Government, isn't it, because it sets up he mechanisms and management of the detention centre?

LAMING: I'm sure the ministry will be getting to the bottom of those, what actually happened.

HAMMER: Andrew Leigh, Labor cannot be too critical because it was the Labor Government that set up this arrangement with Papua New Guinea, reopened the Manus camp, hired the contractors etc.

ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER: Manus Island is fundamental to the Refugee Resettlement Agreement, which saw asylum seeker boat inflows drop 90 per cent prior to the election. But I'm concerned that the Australian people in Scott Morrison aren't getting a minister who's willing to front up. We've gone through his Sergeant Schultz routines of being unwilling to speak about on-water matters, to now this kind of Get Smart routine, where he's bumbled over the extent to which his policy has caused incursions into Indonesian waters and gotten fundamental facts wrong over this asylum seeker tragedy.

HAMMER: If he's misinformed, you're not claiming that he deliberately missed informed the Australian public are you?

LEIGH: I'm not but there are many issues on which Scott Morrison has underperformed. Don't just take it from me, take it from Liberal Party elder John Fahey who expressed his deep concerns to the Fairfax Press. The performance of Scott Morrison and this Government has been subpar and we need an independent investigation that will report back as quickly as it's able to do so.

HAMMER: Well, The Greens are calling for his resignation. Is that something Labor supports. I'd like to see the results of an independent investigation. I certainly don't think though that any reasonable observer of Australian politics would be ranking Scott Morrison's performance as among the best we've seen from ministers of the crown over the last couple of decades.

HAMMER: Well, what's the test? When are ministers required to resign?

LEIGH: I certainly think people are raising reasonable concerns about Scott Morrison's performance: being unwilling to answer questions in parliament about how naval vessels are being used, is, I believe, inappropriate. I think it's inappropriate he's pursued a policy that's caused half a dozen incursions into Indonesian territorial waters and I'm troubled that he made claims which later turned out to be false about the circumstances of the death of this Iranian asylum seeker.

HAMMER: Okay. Andrew Laming, both sides of politics are committed to off-shore processing of asylum seekers. It's now reported the Government has approached Cambodia as a possible site for off-shore processing. Do we need to be doing deals with countries like Cambodia that have a rather ineffective history on human rights, rule of law, etc.?

LAMING: Australia needs to be working with all its near neighbours. I don't know about an approach. There's been reports about a discussion of foreign ministers. Potentially Cambodia has actually said they're ready to start assisting in the process and the more partners that are involved the better. You need to remember that there are minority groups from those parts of southern and central Asia, which are only a couple of borders away from each other. So, the Rohingya minority for instance are already located in parts of Indochina and they may be an important part of the puzzle. These are just early discussion and I'm glad that they're being had.

HAMMER: But if we can't guarantee that the safety and security of asylum seekers in PNG and Nauru, how could we do in Cambodia?

LAMING: Well in every nation we know that we're doing absolutely everything they can to guarantee that safety. The word guarantee is thrown around a lot and we know that different countries do things in different ways. I think what's important is that they're doing everything possible, everything within their power to resettle these populations. Otherwise, we have the ridiculous alternative where there's nowhere safe for anyone to go.

HAMMER: Andrew Leigh, Labor was happy to do a deal with Malaysia, so it'll have no problem doing a deal with Cambodia?

LEIGH: The Refugee Resettlement Agreement was always designed to encompass a regional solution to what is a global problem. Seventeen million refugees and 42 million internally displaced people in the world means that we need to work with other countries. We won't be responding to every thought bubble that gets floated in the paper without quotes from the Government, but certainly we will scrutinise any proposal that comes up and we'll be taking human rights concerns into consideration as we do so.

HAMMER: If we can change subjects, the G20 meeting in Sydney over the weekend. Andrew Laming, this growth target. Isn't this merely a motherhood statement? You'd be surprised if finance ministers were saying 'oh, we don't want growth'. What's the point of it?

LAMING: Well to talk about two per cent extra growth over five years, which obviously is just under half a per cent per year, it's good that our major trading partners are committed to building respective economies and the trillion dollar dividends that could potentially flow. So, they're on the same page. Don't forget, this was a Coalition election commitment to get our economy going again. I'm pretty glad that the other G20 nations hold a similar view. That's a big tick for Joe Hockey.

HAMMER: But since when as any government said 'we don't want growth'?

LAMING: Well it makes you wonder how you achieve targets apart from supportive policy to make it happen. It simply means that, I think, we’re dealing with like-minded economies around the G20 table. That’s good news.

HAMMER: And Andrew Leigh you must congratulate the Treasurer for pushing the issue of clamping down on international tax avoidance.

LEIGH: I’d certainly congratulate him for dealing with the issue Chris, but I’m concerned that he hasn’t come forward with a full suite of proposals. Labor took a $4 billion dollar package to last year’s G20 on multinational profit shifting. Joe Hockey has come back this year with a $3 1/4 billion package. He’s decided not to pursue three-quarters of a billion dollars of crackdown on multinational profit shifting and he’s decided not to pursue the transparency measures which would have seen the biggest 200 companies report the tax that they’d paid as a way of prompting them to do the right thing.

HAMMER: But isn’t some movement better than none?

LEIGH: Some is good but if he’s going to make this a signature issue let's see him implementing the entire reform package. It’s a bit like the growth target: great aspirations but we’d like to see the Government actually walking the talk.

HAMMER: Okay, the economy locally in Australia, Qantas’s results are out later this week. There are reports that it considering job cuts between 1000 and 3000. Andrew Laming, does Qantas deserve government support or is the age of entitlement over?

LAMING: Well I’d like to see some of the restrictions around ownership and board directorships reviewed. I think there’s a national conversation about that at the moment which is important. Many of Qantas’ competitors are saying that not being the national airline is some form of disadvantage. So what do we want? We want a thriving aircraft sector in this country where airlines can compete globally. We know it's one of the toughest sectors in the world and so sustainability, if it's not founded upon direct transfers by government is probably the important target.

HAMMER: Well what are the limits here? What are the sorts of things that government can consider, assistance it can consider giving to Qantas and support you'd have to rule out straight right away?

LAMING: There’s nothing we’ve ruled in our ruled out but there a conversation around the restrictions around current legislation of Qantas. But we do know that the other major competitors for Qantas do have significant advantages in their own hubs. So effectively being an outlying-based airline like Qantas we’re always going to be disadvantage over the large hubs operating out of Asia. If they’re also getting favourable government treatment in their own airports then that’s a real challenge for us. Qantas operates in that space with great difficulty and we’re going to have to consider that fine balance very carefully.

HAMMER: Andrew Leigh, if the government does extent some type of assistance to Qantas must is also extend it to virgin and other competitors of Qantas?

LEIGH: Let's see what type of proposal comes out of the Government. Andrew has summed up, I think very nicely the strategic dilemma the government faces. But the Opposition aren’t going to be responding to every thought bubble that Joe Hockey throws out to tables of multinational investors. We’re concerned about jobs at Qantas and were concerned about jobs across the board. I mean this is a Government that came to office with a target to generate a million jobs but since then we’ve seen 63,000 full time jobs go, some small growth in part time jobs but still they’re down 7000 jobs. So their million job target is now a one million and seven thousand job target. It's receding rather than getting closer.

HAMMER: Okay, well what should be on that table what assistance should an Australian Government be extending to a big iconic company like Qantas?

LEIGH: It’s a matter for the Government and I will leave it to the Government to put concrete proposals forward and we will respond to those. But this is just one part of the economy the Government ought to be focused on. At the moment it’s looking at making some savage cuts to spending which will hit those who have the highest what we call in economics ‘propensity to consume’. So if you cut back the SchoolKids Bonus then that’s less money that goes straight into consumption, into boosting the economy. And if you cut back on long term investments such as great schools, training centres, the National Broadband Network, then ultimately you sap the economy’s long term potential. So the talk about jobs and growth is great but the action seems to be in exactly the wrong direction.

HAMMER: Okay, well one area where the Government is trying to boost economic growth is by cutting red tape. It seems that it's going to relax gender reporting requirements. At the moment companies with a hundred or more employees need to report on the gender balance of their employees. The government is thinking about increasing that to a thousand employees. That’s a good move isn’t it? It's cutting red tape. It’s going to encourage investment and employment?

LEIGH: This is not a serious piece of red tape Chris. This is a requirement which allows us to make sure that firms are making the most productive use of both genders in the economy. We know that in corporate Australia, at the board level, women are badly under-represented but that has improved over recent years quite markedly, largely because of public reporting. To instead say let’s throw the cloak of secrecy back over the representation of women in large Australian firms, is I think, taking us back to the 1950s, rather than the  mark of a progressive Australia. Perhaps that's what you get when you have a Government without a dedicated minister for women.

HAMMER: Andrew Laming, why make this move? It's hardly a massive administrative burden for a company that employs more than a 100 people.

LAMING: Companies with a hundred employees that I know would differ. These are significant burdens of reporting. They are very rigorously enforced. A number of companies are very disappointed that this burden remains on them to this day, particularly when they're doing the right thing any way. True, they might not have anything to fear, but many of them operate in a space where the number of females working in the technically component of their firm is almost impossible to compare reasonably with other firms next door. Many would just say, look if you want to know what we're doing with female employees, you can always ask, but the mandatory reporting I think is the problem. So, we have a decision to be made by regulation by April of this year and I'm glad that we're having this discussion. The best thing you can do is have paid parental leave for young women. I think that's the best move that the Abbott Government has made. This extra reporting and red tape I don't see any great benefit in.

LEIGH: Let's be honest, we've got a paid parental leave scheme. It's a flat rate paid parental leave scheme that gives the same to everyone. I'm unpersuaded Andrew that if we move to a system which gave five times as much to the most affluent as to the worst paid workers, that we'd get a big productivity gain. Certainly someone like Saul Eslake says the same.

LAMING: Sure. And I would say that most high income earning women already have their income replacement through their corporations and public service. This legislation is about looking after mostly low to middle income earning women, who at the moment in the private sector have nothing. So the legislation picks up that sector.

HAMMER: Okay, gentlemen, I think that debate is one we are going to cover again before this year is out. In the meantime, Andrew Leigh and Andrew Laming, thanks so much for joining us.

LEIGH: Thanks Chris. Thanks Andrew.

LAMING: Thank you.


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