MONDAY, 23 MARCH 2015
SUBJECT/S: Government’s lack of budget strategy; Lee Kuan Yew; Homelessness funding; Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER: Today the Parliament will be honouring Malcolm Fraser, a prime minister whose record on multiculturalism and on issues like apartheid is certainly to be admired. He was somebody who helped thousands of Vietnamese refugees settle in Australia and when other countries were fragile on questions of race, he took a very clear stance on the moral issue of apartheid. We'll also be now just a few days away from the next budget coming down. Extraordinarily, Australia is still talking about the unfairness of the last budget. We've got Tony Abbott, who when debt was one-seventh of national income, thought it was appropriate to drive debt trucks around, now thinks it's ok when debt is heading to half of national income. To my mind, that would require a debt aircraft carrier rather than a debt truck. This is a government which has lost the confidence of the Australian people because rather than being focused on the long-term future of 24 million Australians, it is obsessed by the short-term political prospects of 20 Cabinet ministers. Happy to take questions.
JOURNALIST: Are you happy that the government has given certainty to the homelessness sector after it says Labor refused to provide that certainty?
LEIGH: I'm not going to give any medal to Scott Morrison for belatedly restoring funding to a small number of agencies. We know that the homelessness sector is hurting, they're having to lay people off. As the co-chair of the Parliamentary Friends of Housing and Homelessness, I've heard firsthand about the damage that the $44 million cut – which won't be restored – has done to that sector.
JOURNALIST: There's two years of certainty which the sector hasn't had before – is that a good thing?
LEIGH: Let's be very clear: housing and homeless are sectors that have been hurt, not helped, under this government. People who are assisting some of the most vulnerable in Australia are having their funding ripped away and having to stand down long-serving staff.
JOURNALIST: How should Lee Kuan Yew be remembered? Was he a dictator or was he a great reformer?
LEIGH: He was somebody who certainly came to power in less-than-democratic terms, and somebody whose clamp-down on civil liberties in Singapore meant that many Singaporeans weren't able to express their political freedoms. But under his watch, Singapore moved from a developing to a developed country in the space of a generation. The boost in living standards that represents, the children that don't go to bed hungry at night, is something to be admired.
JOURNALIST: There's some criticism in this morning's papers, suggesting that the strategy Labor and Bill Shorten is running is far too small target; he hardly does any interviews. Why do you think Bill Shorten is keeping low?
LEIGH: Bill Shorten is out in the press regularly, available for your questions. Certainly on Friday, from memory, he was giving a doorstop and a number of radio interviews and that's just the most recent workday. We're announcing new policies too. We've put in place – in the first half of this parliamentary term – a Labor plan for fair taxation of multinationals. I'm not aware of any opposition having done that in the first half of a parliamentary term; grounded in OECD work and costed by the Parliamentary Budget Office.
JOURNALIST: Is it true that the less that we see of him, the more the public like of him?
LEIGH: Bill Shorten is a likable man who is accessible and available to the community. The job of Opposition Leader is a busy one and Bill is out there visiting many communities. I think I've got this figure right: in the last Queensland Election he visited over 30 of the Queensland seats. In the New South Wales election certainly you've seen plenty more of Bill Shorten in Western Sydney than you're ever going to see of Tony Abbott, who at the Liberal Party campaign launch looked a little bit like the embarrassing uncle at a wedding that you've just got to invite along and have at one of the tables.
JOURNALIST: Tony Burke yesterday seemed to suggest that Labor would be willing to work with the government on a 10-year economic plan to try and fix the budget. The government is saying that that's simply rhetoric and talk from you guys.
LEIGH: We're very serious about budget savings and very concerned that the government has blown out debt by $80 billion since coming to office. This government has made decisions to say no to additional revenue sources, and they've been unwilling to do things like look at superannuation tax concessions – which now exceed the total value of the pension. So we need a little bit more governing for all Australians, and a willingness from the government to recognise that if there needs to be budget pain, it ought to be fairly shared. After a generation of rising inequality, you can't force the most vulnerable to do all the heavy lifting.
JOURNALIST: So you do accept there's a need for some budget pain?
LEIGH: Certainly there's a need to continue making responsible savings. There's a need not to be making arbitrary tax cuts, such as the government did when they got rid of reasonable revenue measures that Labor put in place to fairly tax multinationals. They give $1 billion back to multinationals, while at the same time stripping money out of the homelessness sector. That's not the egalitarian Australia that I know and love.
JOURNALIST: What conditions would you like to see attached to Australia signing up to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank?
LEIGH: I think it's important that we get governance arrangements right, that we make sure the governance arrangements are equal to or better than the other multilateral banks, and that issues around social, environmental and labour standards are addressed. But let's be clear: Labor has been urging the government to sign up for nearly six months now. This belated announcement that the government is willing to participate in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank puts us at the back of the queue, behind nearly a dozen developed countries.
No more questions? Thanks everyone.
MEDIA CONTACT: JENNIFER RAYNER 0428 214 856