ABC MELBOURNE BREAKFAST WITH RAF EPSTEIN
THURSDAY, 7 DECEMBER 2023
SUBJECTS: Release of coins with King Charles III’s effigy; Visa arrangements with Pacific nations; High Court decision on detention; State of the economy.
RAF EPSTEIN: It's a busy end of the year for the federal government. We might get onto their political woes, but right now, Andrew Leigh joins us as Assistant Minister for Charities, Competition, Treasury and Employment. Good morning.
ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY ANDREW LEIGH: Good morning, Raf. Great to be with you.
EPSTEIN: Easy question first. What's the coin look like? When's it circulating?
LEIGH: It's got the King on the back and it's out in circulation right now. Three and a half million $1 coins are the first kingly coins to hit cash registers around the country. And they will join some 16 billion coins which have been produced with the Queen's face on them since 1966. It'll be a remarkable moment for many Australians, Raf, people for the first time can turn over in their hands an Australian decimal coin with a king on it. And of course, the Queen was on imperial currency, she was on our pence and shillings. So, it really is quite a seismic change for the country to see a king on the coins. And people notice, too, that while Queen Elizabeth faces to the right, King Charles faces to the left. In a tradition that goes back to the 17th century of monarchs switching direction on the coins when their reign changes.
EPSTEIN: I wondered where that came from, just to get to our identity as a nation in some ways, because I want to ask about Fiji and the idea of an EU and the Pacific, but how come it's okay to have the King on the coins, but the King will not be on our notes?
LEIGH: It was a decision the Reserve Bank made after consultation with the Government. They decided that a different design there was appropriate.
EPSTEIN: That's a government decision, not a bank decision. Government decision.
LEIGH: Ultimately, it was a bank decision made in consultation with the Government. We don't shy away from it. The decision that was made was that while the monarch has often been on the lowest denomination note, that hasn't always been the case, and that it was appropriate in this case to move to a different design.
EPSTEIN: We did have a chat to the Fijian Deputy PM. Those nations have long wanted well, not long, but for a while have wanted visa free travel. The Deputy PM of Fiji is Biman Prasad is here. He is just telling us why he wants visa free travel across the Pacific.
FIJIAN DPM PRASAD: I think a much more deeper and meaningful regional integration is going to be in the best interest of both Australia and New Zealand. And it will not only support that unity, but it also encourage movement of people, businesses, ideas, entrepreneurs.=
EPSTEIN: Andrew Leigh, I know you're not the Immigration Minister, but is visa free travel ever going to happen across the Pacific?
LEIGH: We're really keen to step up engagement with the Pacific. We're introducing a Pacific Engagement Visa which will be a permanent residence visa, which will be open to people from Pacific island countries and Timor Leste, up to 3000 visas each year. We've also got the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility Scheme, the PALM scheme that provides access to Australia's labour markets. And I've got to say it is terrific to have leaders in Fiji talking about the importance of engaging with Australia, something that wouldn't have happened under the former government, who were making jokes about how climate change affected Pacific nations. This is a really important region and it's really important that Australia strengthens our ties.
EPSTEIN: But just again, visa free ever going to happen?
LEIGH: We've got a lot of initiatives I've talked about. I've talked about two of the particular visa arrangements. We understand the shared benefits that come. There's initiatives in sport and churches, partnerships in education. There's a whole lot of trade and economic linkages. There's barely a week that goes by without another ministerial engagement in the Pacific. It’s a marker of how seriously we take the region.
EPSTEIN: Do you think your government stuffed up the politics around those who were held in immigration detention? You might have a legitimate argument about the legalities of your response and the pace of your response, but have you handled the politics well? Because there's a tonne of bad headlines.
LEIGH: Well, the fact is that the High Court brought down a decision less than a month ago now, on 8 November, in which they made it clear that laws that had been enacted by former Coalition governments are unconstitutional. As a result of the Coalition governments writing unconstitutional laws, we're placed in the position of needing to put in place arrangements which kept Australians safe. So, we've got those four layers of protection now: preventive detention, community safety supervision orders, electronic monitoring devices and curfews, and stringent visa conditions.
EPSTEIN: The legislation, it's not rocket science. I appreciate that the reasons weren't published immediately by the High Court, but something that mimicked what we do to those who've been convicted of a terror offence. I think everyone expected it to be legislation that looked like that. It's fair to ask why that legislation wasn't produced more quickly.
LEIGH: As you say, Raf, we didn't have the reasons at the same time as the decision. We had legislation in the Parliament the week after the decision came down. And then, as the reasons were brought down, we brought in further bills in order to strengthen those arrangements. We're working in concert with Australian Border Force and the Australian Federal Police with an additional $255 million in order to ensure that high risk offenders are carefully monitored and the community is safe.
EPSTEIN: The Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus, has attracted a bit of attention. I realise he's had a lot of terrible things going on in his life and I realise you've lost your colleague Peta Murphy to cancer recently. I just wonder if you think he could have handled this better. He was asked if the government needed to apologise about the way things have been handled. Just one moment, Andrew I want to have a listen to him.
ATTORNEY-GENERAL MARK DREYFUS CLIP: I will not be apologising for pursuing the rule of law and I will not be apologising for acting. Do not interrupt. I will not be apologising for acting. I will not be apologising for acting in accordance with a High Court decision. Your question is an absurd one.
EPSTEIN: Could he have handled that better?
LEIGH: The fact is that no Attorney-General worth their salt should be undermining a High Court decision. And yet we've seen from Peter Dutton make repeated attempts to suggest that the Commonwealth Parliament should somehow ignore a decision of the High Court. A good constitutional scholar, a good constitutional politician, understands the appropriate role of the High Court. And sadly, the Liberals have been out there attacking the High Court, attacking the suggestion that the Australian Government needs to abide by a High Court decision. I think Mark Dreyfus's point is entirely right. We, as parliamentarians, need to respect the role of the High Court and the laws we've brought into Parliament do just that. They keep Australians safe. While responding to the decision that the High Court has handed down
EPSTEIN: Just on the economy, you haven't got great growth. I just wonder if you think the last three quarters we've got 0.5% growth, then 0.4% growth, then 0.2% growth, like it's basically tepid. We've got really low unemployment. I appreciate that. We've got inflation coming down. Are we looking at all the wrong numbers because everyone's feeling the pain? The economy is still growing, the unemployment is low. Do we have the right economic indicators?
LEIGH: We're looking at updating economic indicators and certainly the wellbeing budgeting statement that Jim Chalmers has brought down is part of doing that. But if you look at those traditional indicators, we see - as you've said - unemployment at generational lows, 20 consecutive months of unemployment below 4%, 17 of those under our Government. Inflation is coming down well off the peak, which was in the last quarter of the Coalition Government. We've got a labour market now where we've got real wage growth for the second consecutive quarter. Under the former government, low wage growth was a deliberate design feature of their economic architecture.
EPSTEIN: But people don't feel the comparison in the economic record, do they? They just feel the simple economic pain.
LEIGH: Look, I think people understand that there are price pressures being felt all around the world, that the global spike in inflation was largely caused by the war in Ukraine and problems in supply chains following the COVID pandemic. We need to get that under control. And as other countries are working to do, our inflation peak was later and lower than most other countries. And so the trajectory back into the Reserve Bank's target band takes a little longer, but that's forecast to happen in 2025. And we're seeing steady moderation in inflation, which is a good thing. We're also not seeing a wage-price spiral, which some people have been concerned about. It's very clear that wage increases are following prices rather than leading them.
EPSTEIN: Thanks for your time today. I appreciate it.
LEIGH: Thanks so much, Raf.