Sky AM Agenda Video and Transcript - 6th May 2013

I chatted with Kieran Gilbert and Senator Mitch Fifield about the Coalition's divided stance on Paid Parental Leave, and about my research on inequality in Australia.


Andrew Leigh MP
Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister
Member for Fraser
30 April 2013

TOPICS:                                Paid Parental Leave, government revenue and spending, inequality.

Kieran Gilbert:                   This is AM Agenda, thanks for your company this Monday morning. With me now, Liberal frontbencher Senator Mitch Fifield joining me from Melbourne and here in the Canberra studio Labor MP Andrew Leigh. You’ve heard the discussion with Christopher Pyne this morning Andrew Leigh. It’s healthy for parties to have internal debates about the merits or otherwise of policies, but from the front bench, it’s a very clear message isn’t it?

Andrew Leigh: Well Kieran, I’m very different ideologically from Alex Hawke, but I do appreciate that fact that he enjoys a good intellectual argument. And what he’s been saying here over paid parental leave, this is isn’t just an inequitable scheme, as Labor has been arguing – someone on $200 000 gets $100 000 of government support – but it’s also an illiberal scheme. And Alex is concerned that it represents a slide into illiberalism from the Coalition. It’s a Coles and Woolies tax funding a scheme which is much more European-style. I think even Christopher Pyne –

Kieran Gilbert:                   Most of the OECD does have more generous paid parental schemes. As an economist, don’t you think that it is a productivity measure to get women back in, to provide the encouragement to get women back in the workforce?

Andrew Leigh: I think you should always look internationally, Kieran, but the thing that marks out the Australian social safety net is that traditionally it has been much more targeted to those most in need. This is the opposite. This is a scheme that is most generous to someone on a six or seven figure income.

Kieran Gilbert:                   But doesn’t it make sense as a productivity measure to encourage those women back into the workforce? You don’t see the merits of that?

Andrew Leigh: I don’t think there’s going to be any tangible productivity lift compared to Labor’s paid parental leave, which is a much more equitable scheme, and I think a much more economically liberal scheme. I mean, if Tony Abbott is concerned about gender equity, he might think about the fact that his raising of superannuation taxes on low income earners will disproportionately impact low income women. He might think about the fact that his IR policy will take away penalty rates disproportionately from women. These are the kinds of gender issues that matter.

Kieran Gilbert:                   To be honest we don’t know what the workplace policy is, so that’s a bit presumptuous. Let me go to Senator Fifield and ask you about this, because Alex Hawke, I get the sense hasn’t done this – well he’s written this piece on his own, but it reflects a broader sentiment within the Coalition.

Mitch Fifield:                      Kieran, Alex is a good guy, he’s a friend of mine and he’s a thoughtful contributor to public policy debate. He’s put forward the view that the PPL should be reviewed. That’s not a view that I share. We have a good paid parental leave scheme policy, we will take it to the next election, and should we be fortunate to form government we will legislate it in the parliament and if I’m manager of government business it will be my job to see that that gets through. And that will be a good thing for women in Australia. It’s 26 weeks at your own salary up to a maximum of $150 000 and as anyone who has had kids knows, it is when you have kids that you can least afford to lose that money so this will be important for Australian families, and I’m a strong supporter of Tony Abbott’s policy.

Kieran Gilbert:                   But is this a battle over where the Liberal Party is headed, the presumption that you will win in September, and the economic dries are trying to pre-empt or preclude a big tax and spend policy like this?

Mitch Fifield:                      I don’t think so Kieran. I think it reflects the fact that we, unlike the Labor Party, have a vigorous party room that is used to having debates, that is used to having discussions. We don’t shy away from individual members in our party room having views and expressing them. Alex doesn’t have shadow executive responsibilities so he is perfectly at liberty to put his views. There’re not ones that I share, I think that we have policy that we should take to the next election which will make a real difference to many families when they have kids.

Kieran Gilbert:                   Just finally Senator Fifield, you heard what Christopher Pyne had to say: reminding colleagues that there are only 131 days left until the election. I suppose it was a pretty clear warning to them to pull their heads in. He didn’t say it in those words, but discipline has been strong to this point, do your colleagues need to avoid complacency or hubris?

Mitch Fifield:                      The Australian Labor Party can win this election. Australian federal elections are always competitive and every member of the party room is very much aware of that. But that’s not at odds with colleagues having views and expressing them, but it’s incumbent upon all of us to recognise that this election could go either way, Kieran.

Kieran Gilbert:                   Ok, let’s move on. The Financial Review reporting today, Andrew Leigh, that Treasury is now working on the basis that economic growth this financial year and next is at 2.75 per cent, that’s down a quarter of a per cent on the mid-year budget update. Does that make sense to you, given where the broader parameters are at?

Andrew Leigh: It struck me as an odd story actually, to be honest Kieran. I find that, as we know, economic growth is one of those parameters that you want to estimate based on everything, all the available data. We’ve got a number of data releases coming out this week, we’ve got an RBA decision. I’d actually be pretty surprised if that forecast has been locked down at this stage. But you know, the fact that Australia is talking about growth somewhere around 3 per cent would to many countries in the world be an extraordinary luxury. We’ve grown 13 per cent since 2007. Europe has shrunk, the US has enjoyed only a couple of percentage points of growth.

Kieran Gilbert:                   But things are looking a bit more sluggish now and there is a sense that the outlook is not as good as it has been. Do you think that the RBA is being too cautious? Because many economists do: Ross Garnaut, Bob Gregory, John Hewson.

Andrew Leigh: The RBA makes its own decisions and I don’t think there’s an advantage in me putting my oar in in that, but we’ve got a cash rate now sitting at 3 per cent, and that’s –

Kieran Gilbert:                   But there’s room to move, isn’t there? A lot of room to move.

Andrew Leigh: Well there’s certainly, and again compared to other countries who’ve hit that lower bound and then need to engage in more unconventional practices like quantitative easing, that’s an advantage. Yes, the high dollar has posed challenges for some sectors of the economy. The Prime Minister talked about that from the revenue standpoint last week. But let’s look around the world and let’s realise that most economic policy makers would love to have the set of numbers that Australia has today.

Kieran Gilbert:                   So despite the criticism that the Coalition has had on government spending, of course it’s a very contestable space whether the government has spent too much or enough to keep jobs and growth going. What’s your view then though when you look at the broader picture as Andrew Leigh put it there. Global growth has been sluggish, we’re doing very well compared to other nations, aren’t we?

Mitch Fifield:                      Look Kieran, this government presents themselves as hapless victims of circumstances beyond their control. The budget is just something that happens to them in complete isolation, apparently. The problem here is that every budget that this government has delivered has been predicated on everything going right, predicated on the most optimistic revenue forecasts, predicated on the most optimistic growth forecasts, and predicated on the most unrealistic assumption of all, and that is that the Australian Labor Party could exercise some self-discipline and restraint when it comes to spending. So Kieran, Labor will point to, they will grab on to reduced growth forecasts like a lifeline as another excuse as to why their budget is in such an appalling situation. But we’ve got to keep coming back to the fact that government has about $70 billion more in revenue than in the last year of the Howard government. Revenue, even this financial year, will be $25 billion up on the previous financial year, but the big problem is that despite the fact there are growth in revenues, spending is growing by even more. Spending $100 billion a year more than in the last year of the Howard government. That’s the problem. We don’t have a growth problem, we don’t have a spending problem – sorry, we don’t have a revenue problem, it’s a spending problem.

Kieran Gilbert:                   We will have this debate, no doubt, many times over the next couple of weeks in the lead up to May the 14th and after Wayne Swan’s sixth budget. I do want to look now to some analysis you’ve done, Andrew Leigh. You’ve got an upcoming book called Battlers and Billionaires, as a follow up from your research at university as a professor of economics. Looking at wage levels – who’s in the top 1 per cent, the top .1 per cent – and looking at inequity in the wake of the global financial crisis, what have you found?

Andrew Leigh: Well Kieran, the big story of the last generation is rising incomes at the very top, and incomes at the top outpacing the middle. The top 1 per cent share has doubled over the last generation. The top .1 per cent share has tripled. In order to get into those groups, $210 000 takes you into the top 1 per cent, nearly $700 000 in the top .1 per cent. And so it’s important, I think, to engage in a national discussion around how much inequality Australia wants and whether too much inequality is threatening to strain our social fabric.

Kieran Gilbert:                   Do you think that this is a short term phenomenon after the global financial crisis, which has exacerbated this, or do you see any sign that things were becoming more equitable?

Andrew Leigh: We actually saw a small drop in the top incomes as a result of the financial crisis, Kieran, and now we’re seeing a rise again in the post-GFC years, getting nearly up to the point where top incomes were. But it’s a picture you see around the world. It’s a challenge -

Kieran Gilbert:                   You go to a Scandinavian sort of system where people cap, where companies cap executives?

Andrew Leigh: I don’t think that would make a lot of sense in an Australian context, then you have the loss of talent as well. Really what Battlers and Billionaires is seeking to do is to spark a debate, much more in the spirit of my old job as a professor than my new job as a policy maker. I do think a national conversation about the gap between rich and poor is important. I know Mitch will have views on that and they’ll be different from mine, but what I’m keen to do is just to have more of a conversation about these matters.

Kieran Gilbert:                   You’ve heard what Andrew Leigh has had to say, Senator Fifield, any thoughts on that this morning?

Mitch Fifield:                      Well it’s good to be part of the Andrew Leigh book club this morning. Andrew makes observations about the gap between rich and poor. As important – if not more important – is the absolute level of income that people have rather than the relative gaps between the incomes that individual people have. We want to see the economy grow, we want to see incomes grow for everyone. We don’t want to be in a situation where you’re looking at someone a bit above you earns, that’s always the definition of a wealthy man, someone who earns more than you do. What we want to do is make sure that everyone is earning more.

Andrew Leigh: I certainly agree with that point, Kieran. I guess the ideal though is growth with equity, rather than having to choose between growth and equality. And in certainly in Australia we’re fortunate that incomes have grown at the bottom as well as at the top. That’s not something they see, for example, in the United States, where once you adjust for inflation where incomes in the bottom 10 per cent have barely budged in four decades. So we’ve done well in Australia. I guess what I’m flagging up is a concern that the great Australian tradition of egalitarianism might be under threat.

Kieran Gilbert:                   Senator Fifield, thanks for being with us on AM Agenda and the Andrew Leigh book club, I appreciate it. And Andrew thank you for your time as well.

Andrew Leigh: Thanks Kieran.

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