Fighting Ebola and balancing the budget - Breaking Politics

Whether it is balancing the budget or dealing with international crises like Ebola, governing is about priorities. On this week's Breaking Politics, I joined Chris Hammer and Andrew Laming to talk about how the government continues to pursue the wrong ones.





SUBJECT/S: Dams; Australian involvement in Iraq; Ebola; Mathias Cormann’s inappropriate remarks

CHRIS HAMMER: We're joined now by Labor's Andrew Leigh and the Liberals’ Andrew Laming – good morning gentlemen. Andrew Laming – to you first, does Australia need more dams?

ANDREW LAMING, MEMBER FOR BOWMAN: It certainly does need more dams and that's the evidence from the last few years of significant weather events. Certainly in Queensland they'd be looking at flood mitigation arrangements and the use of dams, and if you look at Tasmania it's a similar story. As Barnaby Joyce said, water is money and water in a dam is a bank.

HAMMER: So the purpose of the dams is to make existing irrigation schemes more drought resistant? Or is it to open up new areas, do you think?

LAMING: Well both of those. Typically dams smooth out water availability in the context of an unstable climate.

HAMMER: Andrew Leigh, does Labor support more and better dams?

ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER: I'm a little concerned, Chris. This report seems to be overplaying what can be achieved. It suggests that we can achieve – with a single policy – flood mitigation, drought proofing and providing power. But of course, if you want to use a dam to prevent floods, then it needs to be empty. If you want to use it to protect from drought, then it needs to be full. If you want to use it for power, it has to be constantly flowing. Barnaby Joyce, as usual, is claiming an awful lot from what his policy can achieve. 

HAMMER: There's elements in there like the third stage of the Ord river scheme – does that make sense?

LEIGH: I'd certainly want to have a look at the cost benefit studies on this and make sure that it stacks up. When you’re using scarce taxpayer money, you want to make sure that it's getting good return for all of us. 

HAMMER: Andrew Laming, is it the best use of money? You can build big dams and have wasteful water policies. Maybe the money is better spent on on-farm improvements?

LAMING: This report more broadly looks at maximising profits for farms. Keeping the family farm is the cornerstone of the industry so we need to be making sure the infrastructure is there to support them. You raise a fair question that's been considered by many people in the development of this Green Paper anyway. I guess you need all three and dams are part of that.

HAMMER: Andrew Leigh, many of the projects will go over the horizon, but there’s something like six that are nominated ready to go; five of them in Tasmania. The Tasmanian economy has been the slowest in Australia for many years – does spurring on agriculture and irrigated agriculture in Tasmania where there is plenty of water make sense?

LEIGH: Certainly I'd like to see the Tassie economy performing better. I'm troubled by the impact some of the decisions in the latest budget have on Tasmania. It's probably the state that hardest hit by the Coalition's unfair budget. But you want to make sure that any investment you're making has a good societal payoff.

HAMMER: Ok, can we move on now. Andrew Laming, Mathias Cormann has described Bill Shorten as a ‘girlie man’. Is this appropriate language?

LAMING: It is appropriate language. It's completely OK in my eyes to have, on occasion, controversial language to make a very, very good point which he was making about the Opposition Leader. Without colour in Australian politics, it's a pretty dull place. I can see you can pick apart the nouns and verbs and try and find some form of offence and I'm not saying we shouldn't be mindful of that. This is a term that has been used before in American politics. Mathias Cormann is not a frequent offender in this respect. As a person who has used colourful language in the past I strongly support those very occasional comments purely to make a point.

HAMMER: Andrew Leigh?

LEIGH: There's colour and then there's crazy colour. This is a Government which has an Attorney General who wants to defend the rights of bigots. A Prime Minister who wants to bring back Knights and Dames. And now a Finance Minister who's a bad Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonator. This mob makes the Addams Family look like the Brady Bunch.

HAMMER: Ok Andrew Laming, the term itself – “girlie man” – is seen as derogatory to women. Feminists are upset. Is that the right sort of language we should have in our public discourse? A point has been made, if it was a similarly racist statement people would be outraged.

LAMING: You're looking at a literal and figurative interpretation here. Literally I think you're quite right to pick the words apart but in a figurative sense this has been used for someone who is not making strong decisions and has been used in that context. I concur words can have more than one context but I defend the Finance Minister firstly because he doesn't do it frequently, and secondly, because I'm a strong supporter of colour in politics. 

HAMMER: Ok, I'll quote Mathias' comment to you, "no amount of confected outrage from Bill Shorten, Labor and the Greens can detract from the fact that he is too weak to repair the budget mess Labor left behind." He's sort of setting up budget austerity as a kind of test of political virility but what happens if the economy slows down and the Government needs to abandon its budget projections and stimulate the economy? He's painted himself into a corner, hasn't he?

LAMING: No, he hasn't because that actually hasn't yet occurred although there are threats on the horizon. You'd expect a responsible government to be making those changes if necessary, in which case a decision may not be such a weak decision next year, it may be this year. The forecasts, for now, can work out how best to position the Australian economy and right now it's making the tough decisions that were not forthcoming from Bill Shorten.

HAMMER: Andrew Leigh, is it sensible to have achieving a surplus as a kind of test of political virility?

LEIGH: I think it's the form of language that's used and certainly I've been contacted by people in my electorate, women who were offended by the statement that the Finance Minister made. I think that sort of language is 19th century language. Sure, you might find it in an old book of Fred Daly quips, but let's not pretend that it's got a place in modern politics. But then again, maybe it's what you can expect from a government that has one out of twenty members of Cabinet being a woman and a government which brought down a budget celebrated by Joe Hockey and Mathias Cormann by chomping on cigars while taking away unemployment benefits from 20-somethings for six months.

HAMMER: Do you think the Government is going to achieve its Budget projections?

LEIGH: I think this Government needs to take the harsh cuts back to the drawing board. After a generation of rising inequality, Australia doesn't need a budget which takes from the most vulnerable to give to the most affluent and that's what so many measures in this budget do. The higher education cuts, the pension cuts, the GP tax, all of those things will hurt the most vulnerable.

HAMMER: Andrew Laming, apart from the cuts in the Budget that the Government is having trouble getting through the Senate, there is a softening in the global economy and that's hurt the domestic economy. Are the Government's Budget projections in some sort of downturn?

LAMING: I don't see that occurring yet. I see a Government absolutely focused on getting the budget through. They were aware at the start of the year that strong decisions had to be made. We had a fiscal problem, not necessarily a tax collection problem. So, by definition, payments were always going to be at the centre of those changes. What you're now seeing is that we're down to the final few elements that need to be put through the Senate, I'm optimistic that that's going to occur. Of course there will be some to-ing and fro-ing, but that's to be expected in any Australian political context.

HAMMER: Would you agree with that analysis, Andrew Leigh?

LEIGH: I think the world economy does certainly have challenges on the horizon. The situation in Europe continues to disappoint, the jobless growth we're seeing in the United States is a concern. The forecasts need to be, as always, taken with a grain of salt. But the Government also has to think about fairness, it needs to think about bringing down a budget for all Australians. It needs to take that simple moral act of Cabinet Ministers putting themselves in the shoes of the most vulnerable and saying ‘how would I feel if it were me who were having my pension cut?’ And ‘how would I feel to be a poor single Mum having one tenth of my income taken away by this Government?’

HAMMER: But if the softening world economy means that the Government can't meet its revenue projections, you can't blame the Government for that, can you?

LEIGH: Certainly projections are always going to be out by some degree and the forecasters do the best job they can. My concern has been the politicisation of these forecasts and that's why Chris Bowen has said that a Shorten Government would put forecasting entirely in the hands of the Parliamentary Budget Office and also hand the intergenerational report over the Parliamentary Budget Office so it doesn't become politicised either.

HAMMER: Andrew Laming, you're saying that the Government is sticking by its budget strategy, but in the budget it was projecting Defence pay increases of something like 3.9% per year. But now the Government is offering 1.5% a year, less than inflation. Is that an appropriate level of remuneration for our defence forces?

LAMING: All of these negotiations are part of a Remuneration Tribunal process which is completely independent. The Government isn't interfering with that process at all, and it's still being considered at the moment. So you have not one but a whole range of public service departments having the...

HAMMER: The Government is making its case before the tribunal though and its saying 1.5 per cent is all it can afford.

LAMING: And that's in the context of a whole range of other departments having that same debate. Keep in mind that Australia has probably one of the best remunerated defence forces in the world and deployment allowances and taxable treatments of those payments are still very, very favourable. So we're now just in a context of an independent authority making a decision on indexation and it's not just Defence, it is occurring right across the Commonwealth.

HAMMER: So real wage cuts are appropriate?

LAMING: Well, this is to be decided by the Tribunal. Keep in mind we just have quarterly updates on CPI and they're running at about 0.5% per quarter. At the moment the debate is around 1.5% which, you're correct, is right below CPI.

HAMMER: The Reserve Bank's target is between 2 per cent and 3 per cent so 1.5 per cent is always going to be below that target isn't it?

LAMING: That's right, but this is a debate occurring not just in Defence, right across the Commonwealth public service. And of course Labor left us with this situation in which they'd taken $16 billion out of Defence but where we have all of these wage agreements expiring at exactly the same time.

HAMMER: Andrew Leigh, what do you think about this as a pay level for defence force personnel and I guess across the wider public service.

LEIGH: I'm pretty troubled by it, Chris. Certainly the Government didn't say before the election to defence force personnel that it would cut their real wages and take away their Christmas allowances. This is a Government which is pursuing policies that they themselves said, when they were in opposition, were outrageous. Stuart Robert, the Junior Defence Minister, was outraged at the notion of a pay offer below inflation. Yet that's what this Government is serving up. And the budget numbers pretty clearly reveal that what the Government is intending to do is to have defence force personnel effectively paying the additional costs of deployment into Iraq. Not only putting bodies on the line but also giving up some of their pay packet to pay for this deployment. 

HAMMER: Just finally to the issue of Ebola, the Government over the weekend was flagging that it is waiting to respond should Ebola spread to the Pacific and the countries in our region. You wouldn't be very happy about that would you, Andrew Leigh?

LEIGH: I'm deeply concerned by a Government that thinks it can wait until Ebola reaches Asia before acting. The World Health Organisation has said we've got a two-month period in which to act and that was at the beginning of October. The US Centre for Disease Control has projections of up to 1.4 million people dying worldwide from Ebola if we don't act quickly and contain the spread of the virus. We've got the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, with their medical personnel in West Africa, but we have the Australian Government saying it's impossible to put procedures in place to look after Australian health workers there. I just think it's a short-sighted approach and ultimately one which risks a broader spread of Ebola.

HAMMER: Well the Government is saying that it's acting on the best medical advice it can get from the experts here, the problem is that they can't guarantee the safety of Australian health workers and particularly their evacuation. Do you think the Government is not telling the truth here? That that's not the advice they're getting?

LEIGH: The Government needs to heed the advice of the Australian Medical Association and needs to work with other countries to set up protocols in case Australian health workers were to contract the virus. We've got a Government which has been negotiating with Baghdad over the deployment of commandos, meanwhile those commandos were pre-deployed into the United Arab Emirates. We could be doing something similar with our health workers, having them there ready to go while we work out these protocols. Whether that arrangement is with other countries, whether it is hospital arrangements, it ought to be possible for Australia to take more significant action than we have, and to provide more resources than we have. We've provided fewer resources than a single philanthropist, Mark Zuckerberg.

HAMMER: Ok Andrew Laming, if Ebola were to spread to Australia or to our region, wouldn't that be damning of the Government's policies so far?

LAMING: Professor Collignon from made the ANU made the point today that the spread is almost entirely restricted to people having close contact through bodily fluids. So these are people working directly in the area as opposed to travelling home. Mindful of that, this is an international response, Australia has a role but Europe has the overwhelming coordination of this effort. Rather than breaking this down by nationality and asking what is Australia doing. Ultimately what we don't need is donor division on the ground with NGOs doing every manner of activity. As a former World Bank worker myself, we need a coordinated environment there. I don't mind if Australians are in the teams but those teams have to be directly coordinated through agencies in Europe who have the experience and the knowledge of working in that part of the world.

HAMMER: Ok gentlemen, thanks for your time this morning.



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