Sky News - AM Agenda

This morning I was a guest of AM Agenda on Sky News. I joined Liberal Senator Mitch Fifield and television host Laura Jayes to discuss the morning's headlines with subjects including disaster relief, climate change, a commonwealth commission of audit and asylum seekers.


Sky News AM Agenda with Laura Jayes


LAURA JAYES: Let's go to our panel now and the Assistant Minister for Social Services, Mitch Fifield, and the new Shadow Assistant Treasurer, Andrew Leigh, congratulations to you. First Mitch Fifield, looking at this situation, can you tell us what kind of payments are available for bushfire victims; what kind of assistance they can expect from the government here?

MITCH FIFIELD: Sure. Well, the Australian Government Disaster Relief payments are in operation and that's a thousand dollars to eligible adults and $400 for eligible kids. That's being made available to people whose homes have been destroyed, whose homes have been damaged or who have sustained an injury. In parallel with that are joint commonwealth/state disaster arrangements which make provision for food, clothing, [and] accommodation. People who have queries, who want to know what's available should get in contact with the Commonwealth Department of Human Services who are acting as the lead Commonwealth agency on the ground in those areas.

JAYES: I understand that the eligibility payments have been changed when it comes to federal assistance [for] from those who've had their home destroyed or severely damaged. To those who have been cut off or their electricity has been cut off from their homes, they're no longer available, eligible for these payments. Is that correct?

FIFIELD: There's a range of categories which can be activated for any emergency. The decision that the government has taken is to initially provide assistance to those who have been directly and immediately affected by way of [their] home being damaged or destroyed. As the situation develops the Government will continue to assess the situation.

JAYES: Andrew Leigh, this is a change from Labor policy. These payments still going to the most effected.

ANDREW LEIGH: They are going to the most affected Laura. But I would urge the Government on this case, be a little more generous to open up that payment category to people who've been unable to access their home in the previous 24 hours. The trauma that comes from being cut off from your home, I know that for many of these Blue Mountains residents, whether they're living in evacuation centres at the moment and the challenges you face with kids. I think that's an appropriate use of taxpayer funds. So, I hope that the government does change that decision there because I'm a little concerned by the reports I read in the paper today about challenges for families accessing payments.

JAYES: Okay, we'll move on to some political policy areas and one thing that has been bubbling away is the Carbon Tax issued. This will be considered by Shadow Cabinet today, no doubt. You've also accused Greg Hunt of playing politics with climate change. What do you mean by that?

LEIGH: Well, at the moment what we've seen from the Coalition is a bill to repeal the carbon price but not a bill to put anything in its place. So, what they want to do is they want to scrap the measure that's already working to reduce at lower cost than we anticipated and replace it with, well, we don't really know. I mean as Malcolm Turnbull pointed out a couple of years ago the chief virtue of Direct Action is its ability to be easily dismantled if one decides to that climate change isn't real. But after the hottest winter on record which followed the hottest summer on record I think it's very clear that climate change is happening. Humans are causing it. We need to deal with it in the cheapest possible way.

JAYES: Do you point to this bushfire situation as an example of climate action in action?

LEIGH: I don't think any particular event can be traced to climate change, but we do know that climate change is going to cause more extreme weather events and more of those extremely hot days. We've seen that in the weather records in Australia just over the past year.

JAYES: Mitch Fifield, the Direct Action plan, this is certainly an area that Labor is trying to shift the debate from Carbon Tax to focus on the Direct Action plan. Do you see weaknesses here for the Government?

FIFIELD: Look, it's only, Greg Hunt outlined before the election, in fact, two elections back, the broad outline of our Direct Action plan and further detail of that will be presented by the Minister. But you're right Labor are trying to deflect to another subject because they don't want to talk about the fact that they introduced a Carbon Tax. They don't want to talk about the fact that the electorate comprehensively repudiated the fact that they introduced a Carbon Tax, despite the fact that former Prime Minister Gillard said that she never would and that Labor never would. What's entirely unclear at the moment is what Labor are going to do when the Carbon Tax repeal legislation hits the parliament.

JAYES: Andrew Leigh, there seems to be a split within the party at the moment. WA Senator Mark Bishop, just the latest, saying that Labor should let this legislation go, go through. Nick Champion was the first after the election to say that Labor should abstain in the Senate and shift the fight to Direct Action. What do you think the party should do?

LEIGH: Well Laura, certainly Mr Abbott has been a weather vane on climate change but I don't think we ought to. Just because the Prime Minister has held every conceivable position on this issue...

JAYES: Do you accept that not everyone's on board?

LEIGH: I think this is a challenging issue as things often are after an election. But our party policy is very clear. Pricing carbon is the most straight forward way, the cheapest way. And if you go to the Direct Action, frankly, what that's doing is to cut taxes on polluters and raises taxes on workers...

JAYES: Should Labor go to the next election then promising to reinstate a ETS?

LEIGH: We've just had an election. I don't think we're about to sit here laying out our policies for the next election but I can tell you is that our policy is very clearly that pricing carbon is the cheapest way of dealing with climate change. Households can't afford Direct Action. It's just too expensive.

FIFIELD: Labor's policy is anything but clear. Andrew's saying it's clear but are they going to support the Carbon Tax repeal legislation. Simple question - ‘yes or no?’ Mark Bishop is someone I've got a great deal of respect for and he has made it clear that Labor should heed the message from the election and that is to support the repeal of the Carbon Tax. Labor can't say their position is clear until they give us an answer on that.

LEIGH: Have you ever said you had respect for him before this very moment now Mitch? Is it just the fact that he...

FIFIELD: Well, actually as fond as I am of you, I have frequently expressed my admiration in the Senate for Mark Bishop. He is a quality Senator.

JAYES: Just the last question on this Andrew Leigh. It hasn't been clear over the last week, you'd have to say. There's been debate publicly and both privately I understand. So, when Shadow Cabinet meet, you do expect a fight over this? There are some within Labor who just want to let the legislation go through and there are some who want to fight it all the way to the election.

LEIGH: We'll have reasonable discussions on this and other things Laura and I've got strong respect for people like Nick and Mark who take an alternative view. But ultimately you ask me my view and that is that pricing carbon is the right reform. It's the reform that Labor has been committed for the 2007, 2010 and 2013 elections. I think we ought to stick with it because it’s the cheapest and most effective strategy.

JAYES: Okay. Andrew Leigh, Mitch Fifield, don't go away. After the break we're going to look at this commission of audit and also the issue of asylum seekers.


JAYES: Welcome back. Andrew Leigh and Mitch Fifield join me on the panel this morning. Mitch Fifield, first to you, the commission of audit. The terms of reference are due to signed off by cabinet tomorrow, as I understand it. There are also reports this will look at structural saves than short term budget saves. Is this the right way to go? And is this a change from what was promised at the election?

FIFIELD: The commission of audit and its terms of reference will be released in the near term. We've always said that the purpose of a commission of audit was to look at how to make government as efficient as possible. How to ensure that taxpayer dollars get the maximum value and that remains the case. The scope and the terms of reference, we'll see when they're released.

JAYES: Andrew Leigh, what will also be signed off on in cabinet is the repeal legislation for the Mining Tax. This is one of Tony Abbott's promises in the first 100 days of government. We've been kind of sidelined by looking at the Carbon Tax and focusing on that but what will Labor do here when it comes to that legislation?

LEIGH: It's a great irony isn't it Laura? You've got the Coalition running a commission of audit where they are trying to find savings by cutting services to the poorest Australians and then you've got them sitting there signing off on mining tax repeal which is going to give huge tax break to some rich mining billionaires. Put those two together, if you didn't get rid of a profit-based mining tax you be able to pay decent wages to childcare workers. You wouldn't have to rip away superannuation...

JAYES: But the Mining Tax under Labor didn't raise as much as was forecast so...

LEIGH: Well, the Commonwealth Treasury has in its forward estimates, I think it's around five billion dollars in mining tax revenue. That's not trivial when you're talking about the sorts of cuts that the Coalition is looking at making to services that affect the most disadvantaged.

JAYES: Mitch Fifield.

FIFIELD: Well, we've got to come back to the fact that the MRRT was a confidence sapping and therefore job destroying tax.

LEIGH: How? It either raises no money or it saps confidence, come on.

FIFIELD: No, you can. It did cause pause for foreign investors in relation to Australia. You do have options when you are a foreign investor as to which country you put your money into. So, it did hit confidence. It did hit the certainty in terms of the policy environment in Australia and that's damaging. And perversely, it also raised, and I think the technical economic term is, 'stuff all money', um, and yet the previous government managed the unique feat of spending money that hadn't actually come in. So, it's not a good tax. We will get rid of it and Labor should support that.

JAYES: Are you confident the Government will be able to achieve a surplus earlier than what Labor has promised, because there are reports this morning that in fact, Deloitte Access Economics has put out a report saying reaching a sustainable surplus will be a herculean task with growth below trend. Is this something to government should be sticking to. Is this just playing politics with it or is it something you can absolute commit to?

FIFIELD: We're not playing politics. We'll do what we always have to do after we form government and that is repay Labor's debts.

JAYES: That's a hell or high water promise?

FIFIELD: Well, we've got to get the budget back under control. We've got to get the budget onto a sustainable footing. Government has to live within its means and that's what we've got to do.

JAYES: Andrew Leigh, this report would suggest that, well, below trend growth until 2015. There's certainly a job ahead for the Government?

LEIGH: It's pretty concerning isn't it Laura? Let's remember why we have a profits based mining tax. We had a tax review done, headed by Ken Henry. Its major recommendation was that the best way of taxing minerals is to make sure that when the world price goes up, Australians actually get a share of that increase in price. If you scrap the mining tax, and go back to the old royalties’ regime, you're basically saying if the iron ore price goes up tenfold, Australians enjoy none of that benefit. I don't think that's fair, and it's certainly not fair when the government is looking at cutting back superannuation to low income Australians.

JAYES: I just want to turn to the asylum seeker issue now, Mitch Fifield. The was concerns raised yesterday by Tony Burke that the way in which we are getting information on the number of boat arrivals and what happens on Manus Island, well it is creating a culture of secrecy and a culture of cover up that could lead to incidents down the track, in ten years or so, where you see more issues like we did see with Cornelia Rau and Vivian Alvarez. Do you see any of those concerns and how can they be alleviated?

FIFIELD: Yeah, look there's no culture of secrecy or hiding of information. There's...

JAYES: Perhaps though it's not timely in the way journalists and the Australian public are getting information. The incident on Manus Island for example, we got an update yesterday late, but it did take a number of days to source clarification as to what actually happened.

FIFIELD: Well, Scott Morrison and the commander of ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’ are doing very comprehensive weekly briefings and where there are other incidents on occasion, where additional information is warranted and needed, then that's provided and that's the case with the Manus Incident of a few days ago so the objective here is to make sure that every tool that the government has at its disposal to beat the people smugglers and to destroy their trade is deployed and the government will be upfront about what's happening, but look we're...

JAYES: And are these policies starting to work? Is that what we're seeing in the reduced number of boat arrivals?

FIFIELD: Well, I'll leave it to Scott Morrison to provide commentary as to the efficacy of the particular measures, but the early signs are promising.

JAYES: Andrew Leigh, are the boats starting to stop and is it due to the new government's policies or the previous Labor government?

LEIGH: Well, we were already seeing a decline in boat arrival numbers before the election Laura, but really under the Coalition only two things have changed. You've seen a removal of the regular updates when boats arrive, a new veil of secrecy has descended over the department, and then you've seen Mr Morrison's insistence that all boat arrivals be referred to as illegals - as though the real problem with Australia is that our public culture wasn't hostile enough to refugees already. But frankly, those measures aren't going to have an impact on boat arrivals. The towing back of the tow back policy after Mr Abbott visited Indonesia I think, has made clear that really what you've got are the settings put in place under our government with the refugee resettlement agreement.

JAYES: Tony Burke claimed yesterday that it was the PNG resettlement plan, in part or mostly that has seen in a decline in the number of boats. Do you agree with him?

LEIGH: I do. It's a very firm message that we're sending to people smugglers. It's a very clear one. Don't get on a boat. Don't risk the lives of yourself and your children because you do you won't be resettled in Australia. Its impact was, I think, to avert drownings at sea and we thought to allow us to take more refugees but the Coalition's cut back.

JAYES: Mitch Fifield, I'll quickly get your response to that.

FIFIELD: It needs to be remembered that it was Labor in government who dismantled offshore processing in the first place and said it was immoral to do and then, in the face of reality, had no option but to start to implement, some, not all, some elements of our policy.

JAYES: But they fixed it though.

FIFIELD: Look, they, Labor didn't fix it because they didn't put in place all the previous elements of our policy which we are setting out doing.

JAYES: Okay, Mitch Fifield, Andrew Leigh, we will have to leave it there.

LEIGH: Thanks Laura. Thanks Mitch.

FIFIELD: Thanks.

JAYES: Thanks for joining me this morning.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.