FRIDAY, 18 FEBRUARY 2022
SUBJECTS: Battlers struggling and billionaires soaring under Scott Morrison; NBN; Fuel prices and cost of living; Labor’s policies for a better Australia; Unemployment, the gig economy and worker protections; Anthony Albanese.
GRAEME GOODINGS, HOST: Well, elections both state and federal in the wind, and the economy and the handling of Covid certainly front and centre. Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury Andrew Leigh has launched a withering attack in Parliament on the government's handling of the economy. He joins me now. Andrew, good morning.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY AND CHARITIES: Morning, Graeme. Great to be back with you.
GOODINGS: Yeah. Look, we've just gone through two years of COVID. Is your attack really warranted?
LEIGH: I do think we need to take economic growth seriously again, Graeme. We've had almost a decade now of lousy economic growth. This has been the slowest decade for growth per person of any decade, going right back to the post war era. And if we don't take productivity seriously, then Australians will keep on finding that prices are rising faster than their wages. Now, last couple of years, we've seen beef prices up 17 per cent. We've seen childcare up around 10 per cent. Now we've seen petrol go over two bucks a litre. And yet many people are earning basically what they earned a couple of years ago. Wage growth has been tepid, unless of course you're a billionaire - billionaires collectively have doubled their wealth since Scott Morrison became prime minister.
GOODINGS: The National Broadband Network has come within your crosshair examination too?
LEIGH: Yeah, the National Broadband Network is really important for enabling productivity, particularly as more of us are working from home. Tony Abbott had this old idea that it was all about getting better YouTube. But in fact, it's a productivity tool. Now I've spoken to a stay-at-home architect who says that his connection’s so bad that he begins to upload a file, walks down to his local cafe to get a coffee, and by the time he gets back home it still hasn't finished uploading. So that means he's spending less time looking after clients and more time sitting around twiddling his thumbs. If more Australians had fibre to the premises, rather than fibre to the box in the streets and then copper slowly going to the home, then we'd be a more productive country.
GOODINGS: I think that is a problem that we're all aware of. It has happened now. It is wrong, and it's an inadequate service. Is it too late to do anything?
LEIGH: No, not at all. I mean, the advice for the National Broadband Network is pretty much what you'd tell away a wayward teen: more fibre, higher standards, and proper accountability when providers fall short. We can get it done. It'll be slower than had we gotten it right in 2013, but we need to roll out more fibre for Australians to be a more productive country.
GOODINGS: You just mentioned it before, you had to go fuel prices. But isn't the government pretty, well, powerless to do anything about that?
LEIGH: Fuel prices are just an indication of the pressures that Australians are under. The fact is that if wages were rising, then high fuel prices wouldn't be as much of a pressure for Australian households. But in a period in which the government's budget forecasts real wages to go backwards, high fuel prices really are a slug to Aussie motorists. And so we've got to think hard about how we get wages going up. Part of that is about reinvesting in education. We know that a better educated community is a more productive community. And yet these declines in school standards that we've seen under the Liberals, the capping of university places, all of that’s a problem, which is why Labor has announced that tens of thousands of additional university places and hundreds of thousands of free TAFE places.
GOODINGS: There are a lot of people listening right now, listening to what you're having to say, and they'll call me as soon as you're off the line. They say look, it's easy for him to take pot shots, he's in opposition. It's a lot different when you're in power.
LEIGH: That’s why we're taking policies to the next election. Obviously, this government doesn't deserve to be re-elected. Its rorts and stuff ups disqualify it from being a government that deserves another term. But we also need our positive agenda, which is around things such as infrastructure investments, improving institutions, and getting individuals up to their best capacity. And ideas too that ought to cross partisan lines. I've worried for a long time, Graeme, that we don't provide the resources for young entrepreneurs born into poor neighbourhoods to start companies. Plenty of our companies are started by kids who grew up in an advantaged circumstances, but not enough opportunities are given to kids in vulnerable areas to connect with mentors and connect with capital. Now, that's a great growth strategy. Just so happens that it’s a pretty good equity strategy too.
GOODINGS: Let's look at the unemployment figures. Historically low numbers, but it's a false dawn really, isn't it?
LEIGH: Yes. I mean, unemployment’s certainly a function of what's happened with the border closures, and it's important to also be looking at the labour force participation rate. We need to make sure that we've got fulfilling jobs, and that people are able not just to find any old job but a job that pays the mortgage and allows them to support a family. That sort of sustainable work has always been at the heart of Labor's mission. We’re keen to give Fair Work the power to ensure that providers in the gig economy create those sorts of sustainable jobs. The gig economy is terrific for consumers, but it hasn't always been as good for workers. We've got to make sure the gig economy works for everyone.
GOODINGS: The polls are looking good for Labor heading into the federal election, but they're not looking so good for Anthony Albanese. Are you going into the election with the right leader?
LEIGH: The leader of the opposition has multiple roles. They're the critic in chief, they're the main coach of the team, and they're also the star player. And those are challenging roles to blend together. I think Anthony is doing it as well as anyone humanly could. He's an extraordinary thinker, somebody who's very engaged with the caucus and somebody who is prosecuting the case that Scott Morrison has failed the country during the worst pandemic we've seen in a century. We're fully behind him. I don't know if you could say the same about the Liberals and Scott Morrison though.
GOODINGS: Dr Andrew Leigh, always good to talk to you. Thanks for your time.
LEIGH: Likewise, Graeme. Take care.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.