I spoke this morning on SKY AM Agenda with host Kieran Gilbert and the Liberal's Mitch Fifield about news that Coalition MPs are urging a sharp cut in the renewable energy target (RET). Here's the transcript:
SKY – AM AGENDA
MONDAY, 30 JUNE 2014
SUBJECT/S: Renewable Energy Target and Coalition backbench revolt; McClure welfare review; Aged Care reforms
KIERAN GILBERT: Joining me now on the program is the Assistant Social Services Minister, Mitch Fifield and the Shadow Assistant Treasurer, Andrew Leigh. Gentlemen, good morning to you both.
Mitch Fifield, first to you, 25 of your colleagues - backbench, members of your government are speaking out against the renewal energy target, saying it should be scaled back, that aluminium should be excluded from it. This is much more than a ginger group, as Graham Richardson has pointed out there. This is half your backbench in the lower house of the parliament.
FIFIELD: Well Kieran, it's a great thing that colleagues in the party room take a great and serious interest in policy. I think it's well known that there is a report on the RET that is coming to Government. We'll receive that. We'll consider its recommendations but I think it's a good thing when colleagues seek to make a contribution to public policy debate.
GILBERT: But if you look at what they're arguing, basically a direct contradiction of what your colleague Greg Hunt has supported as recently as a couple of days ago, saying that this is an important and working part of the response to climate change, that being the Renewable Energy Target as it stands right now.
FIFIELD: I don't think those colleagues are at all at odds with the Greg Hunt. They've simply made a suggestion in relation to altering it. So, I don't think there's a contradiction there at all. As I say, it's a good thing colleagues are taking an interest. We are not a Stalinist operation like the ALP - [where] as soon as anyone expresses a view they're stomped on. It's a sign our party room is very healthy.
GILBERT: Okay. Andrew Leigh, what do you say in response to that because it's certainly a healthy discussion they're having.
SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER, ANDREW LEIGH: I certainly welcome conversations within the Liberal Party Kieran, but it does trouble me that in an environment in which we know the renewable energy target is reducing power bills; in which millions of Australians now live or work under roofs with solar panels, that people want to get rid of the renewable energy target. Let's face it, it's already being reviewed by a climate sceptic and we have a Prime Minister who believes that climate change is 'absolute crap' despite the fact that we've got climate records being broken across the board - hottest summer on record, hottest winter on record, hottest year on record. How much more evidence of climate change do these people want, and how much more evidence that our policies are working that they want, than the fact that we've just had the biggest one-year drop in emissions in a quarter of a century?
GILBERT: But this is not saying that the policy should be scrapped; it should be reined in when it applies to the aluminium industry which these MPs argue is adversely affecting that industry. What do you say to that specific economic argument that they're making?
LEIGH: Well a basic principle of economics Kieran is that taxes and charges should apply across the board. The more you try and carve out exemptions for particular sectors the more you increase the impact on other sectors. Scaling back the RET would drive up power prices. We know that already. This is a very strange call being made by the next generation of Liberal Party leaders.
GILBERT: Senator Fifield, I want to turn our attention now to this interim report released by the Government yesterday on the welfare system. This is your area of responsibility as well and it comes to those disabilities. I want you to respond to the concerns of those who are currently on the Disability Support Pension or DSP. What do you say to those who are uncertain this morning about whether they are going to remain. This is going to obviously create a great deal of concern for many Australians and many disabled Australians. What do you say to them?
FIFIELD: Well Kieran, the background to Mr McClure's is that we want to look at what the impediments to people who want to work, getting into employment. We want to make sure that there is a good safety net there, that there is income support there for people who aren't working. But, we also want to do what we possibly can to help people who've got their hands up who say 'I want to work' to get into work. No one should see the work of Mr McClure as a precursor to anything punitive by the Government. It is a discussion paper. It's an interim report. We're going to have a period of consultation. Mr McClure will be leading discussion groups in each capital city. We encourage people to make submission to the work of Mr McClure. But Kieran what this exercise is about is doing whatever we can to help people into work. And I know for the Minister for Disabilities that there are thousands of Australians with disability who want to work and if I can quote a prominent disability activist who says that one of the great impediments to more Australians with disability working is the 'soft bigotry of low expectations'. We don't have low expectations of our people with a disability. We know that they have a contribution to make and we want to do whatever we can to help people with disability into work.
GILBERT: One of the things that the McClure report suggests is streamlining the number of payments from 20 plus 50 various different supplements down to four core payments. What do you say to the suggestion that the reason there are so many payments is because you can't have a one-size fits all, for not just disability. but welfare generally?
FIFIELD: Well, obviously do you need a system that's tailored and that has the flexibility to meet individual circumstances but if you pull out the Australian Government Guide to Payments Kieran, which I know Andrew would know well, it's 44 pages long and that's meant to be the summary. It's very complex. We can do better. We can simplify it. McClure has put forward a proposition about how to do that. But Kieran, I think that the starting point has to be do we really think that our system of income support in Australia today is the best that it can be, that's it's not possible to improve it? Do we really think that as a nation we're doing all we can to get people into work. I don't think we are. I think we can do better. Something that disappoints me is the scaremongering that we're seeing from Jenny Macklin. We supported Jenny Macklin when she sought to change the impairment tables for the DSP. You probably don't even know that the impairment tables were changed. Why? Because we supported her. I hope that Jenny Macklin can rise above partisanship and work with us to seek to make our system of support better so that we can see more people into work.
GILBERT: Andrew Leigh, is it time for reform when you've got 20 different sorts of payments plus 50 various supplements? It does seem to be a little out of control in terms of the number of payments that the welfare system operates.
LEIGH: Kieran, the basic picture here is that Australia has not seen a larger increase in disability support recipients than the rise in population. What I worry about when I hear the Coalition talking about this and Mitch just quoted 'the soft bigotry of low expectations', which is a George W Bush quote, is that they want to take us down the US road towards smaller government and cutbacks. And every time you see the Government doing a report, whether it's Commission of Audit, whether it's the federalism review, whether it's into disability, it's like reading a Stephen King novel. It might be entertaining in parts but you know things are going to end badly. Fundamentally this is not a government that wants to improve support for people with disabilities; people who are only getting around $20,000, who have to pass very rigorous tests to show that they are not able to work. They have to search for work for 18 months to be eligible. This is a hard payment to get onto Kieran and not a generous payment once you get it. Let's put ourselves into the shoes of people with disabilities. Let's think about what it is like for them, to be opening the front page of the paper today and see this talk of their payments being cut back, because I don't think anybody believes that when the Coalition says 'simplification' that means more generous payments. I think everyone recognises it means cuts to the vulnerable while they're giving $50,000 to millionaire families to have a
GILBERT: Senator Fifield, before we move on from the welfare review. I want to take you back to that. The definition of a permanent disability. How would the Government go about defining that? I know yesterday, the Minister concerned, Kevin Andrews, said that mental illness can be episodic. But it also can be permanent. How do you go about trying to draw the line on who should be qualified for more payments over others? It's pretty tough.
FIFIELD: The McClure report really didn't have a definitive on how to define eligibility for particular payments. But you're right. We need to take the approach of looking at what someone's capacity is. So the changes to DSP impairment tables that occurred under the previous government moved from a medical or diagnostic approach to more of a functional approach. That's got to be the approach - looking at what someone's capacity is. Stella Young, a well-known disability activist, she has a permanent disability and she works. A lot of people with permanent disabilities do work, can work and want to work. But obviously there are also people whose disability is such that they will never be in a position where they can work. So someone with a very severe intellectual disability impairment for instance, may be in a position where they don't have a capacity to work. What we should do, in any system, is focus on someone's capacity is.
GILBERT: Andrew Leigh, that all seems to make sense. I guess that's in line with what Labor did under Jenny Macklin as Minister?
LEIGH: That's right Kieran. And Mitch is right to acknowledge that that was a bipartisan change, that there was an agreement between major political parties to look at functionality and what people are able to do. But what troubles me here is the cutbacks on some of the most vulnerable in Australian society, at the same time as the Government is prioritising giveaways to some of the most affluent. So, I mentioned before, the parental leave scheme - $50,000 for millionaires - but there's also changes the Government has put in place on superannuation which will benefit people on multimillion-dollar incomes putting more than $150,000 into superannuation. And you've got changes being made in tax policy which will see $1.1 billion given back to multinationals in profit-shifting. You've got to see what the Government is doing in a whole package: cuts at the bottom, increased giveaways at the top. After a generation of rising inequality, Australia needs this like a hole in the head.
GILBERT: Senator Fifield, there are a number of changes coming into force on another area of your responsibility, on aged care as of July 1, tomorrow. Can you talk us through exactly what the Government is implementing in that sector.
FIFIELD: The most important change is the Myagedcare website, where aged care providers will have to publish their products and their prices. They'll be a lot more information for consumers. It will be easier for them to consider and compare the offering of different service providers, But also coming into effect is the elimination of the distinction between high care and low care, that will mean greater choice for individuals, also, in terms of how they pay. Individuals will now be able to pay a bond or daily fee or a combination of the two. There's also new means testing arrangements coming into place and there will be a fee estimator on the website where people will be able to put in their assets, their income and get a good indication of the payments they're likely to be liable for. So, more information and more choice.
GILBERT: That all seems to be common sense there, Andrew Leigh, from the Government?
LEIGH: It's terrific, yes. And when I did a forum in my electorate with Mark Butler announcing his movements in the aged care area, there really was a recognition that this was long overdue. So, Mark Butler's package of getting more information to people I think is vital, because you make decisions about aged care sometimes at crisis points, where often mum or dad has had a fall and you're considering your options, and better streamlining those options is great. The Butler-Fifield package I think is a good one.
GILBERT: A bit of bipartisanship there to finish. Senator Fifield, thank you. I appreciate it. And Andrew Leigh, thank you there in Canberra.
FIFIELD: Thanks Kieran.
LEIGH: Thanks Kieran. Thanks Mitch.