SKY NEWS FIRST EDITION
FRIDAY, 25 MARCH 2022
SUBJECTS: Australia and the Pacific; the Federal Budget; Cost of living rising under Scott Morrison; Fuel excise; Vaccines.
PETE STEFANOVIC, HOST: Joining us live now from Canberra is the Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury, Andrew Leigh. Andrew, good morning to you. Before we talk about the budget, what's Labor's response to that deal?
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY AND CHARITIES: Pete, it's ultimately a matter for the Sogavare Government and the people of the Solomon Islands. But Australia's traditionally had a close relationship with the Solomon Islands, going back to the 2003 RAMSI stabilisation mission. And this really does point to what happens when a coalition government takes office, cuts foreign aid to its lowest level, and talks about a ‘Pacific step up’ but fails to deliver. This has got concerning security implications for Australia, and Labor will look to be briefed on what the government’s planning to do.
STEFANOVIC: So we've been sleeping at the wheel here, in your opinion?
LEIGH: Well, this ‘Pacific step up’ just seems to have been talk rather than action. You can't cut foreign aid to its the lowest level in the generation and not expect that to have repercussions. That's why foreign aid cuts don’t just have impacts on poverty. The Morrison Government's decision to cut foreign aid also has its flow on impact on national security.
STEFANOVIC: The High Commissioner overnight has tweeted something in the order of $20 million will be given to the Solomon Islands, plus there has been military assistance when we're talking about the riots at the end of last year that, as I said, helped calm things down. So that's nowhere near enough? Are we going to have to kick in more now?
LEIGH: We should engage with the Solomon Islands from the perspective of our values in working out what is best for them. It's really important that this is seen not as a transactional approach, but seen as reflecting Australia's deep and abiding commitment to the Pacific – a commitment that's been honoured much more in words than deeds, unfortunately, under the Liberals.
STEFANOVIC: How would you feel about China having essentially a Navy base or a military base some 1700 kilometres off the coast of Queensland?
LEIGH: It's clearly concerning. It's clearly got impacts for our national security. So yes, we'll be looking to see what the government does and wanting those briefings immediately.
STEFANOVIC: Okay. On to the budget now. It looks as though the cost of living is going to be the primary focus for the budget, as you know. Josh Frydenberg says he will use increased tax revenue to fund new payments. Among them is a one-off cash payment. Would you support that?
LEIGH: We’ll wait and see what's in the budget, Pete. I'm not going to jump at every bit of budget speculation. But frankly, the pre-budget spin has all the credibility of the Liberals’ ‘Back in Black’ mugs that they had to smash a couple of years ago. This is a government that's presided over the worst decade of income growth since the 1930s. Since they came to office, real wages have grown 1.4 per cent. Not per year – total. Per year it’s about 0.2 per cent. Last year, the budget had real wages going backwards. So that's why Australians are struggling with cost of living, because people's pay packets just aren’t keeping pace with the rising price of petrol, of meat, of so many household essentials that are rising in price faster than people's wages are increasing.
STEFANOVIC: So on that note, with that said, would a one off payment help that or not really?
LEIGH: Again, let's see what the government does. What you need is some structural solutions to grow productivity and increase the wage share. Labor's got that, and that's why I was able to give a speech this week to business people saying there's ten good reasons business people should vote Labor-
STEFANOVIC: What about-
LEIGH: We’ve got a strong-
STEFANOVIC: Sorry, Andrew.
LEIGH: We've got a strong productivity agenda which flows through to wages, through what we do in energy, skills – all of that would make a long term difference. And all that the government is promising is more spin, more rorts, more secret slush funds.
STEFANOVIC: It looks as though there's going to be a shift on fuel excise. But filling up a tank of fuel with savings of say 10 cents a litre is going to be about six bucks. It's hardly going to be lifesaving, is it?
LEIGH: Yes, exactly. What would have been lifesaving is if we'd seen the sort of wage growth under the coalition that we saw under Labor. The McKell Institute estimates that if we'd had wages growing as fast under the Liberals as they grew under the last Labor government, the average worker would be $16,000 a year off. And that would entirely cover the rising cost of petrol and many other essentials-
STEFANOVIC: So would you be against that, the cut to fuel excise?
LEIGH: Well, let's see what they’ve got to offer-
STEFANOVIC: You’re giving me the ‘wait and sees’ again! [laughter]
LEIGH: You're not going to jump in every bit of budget speculation, are you Pete? Honestly, this is a government that is it's very good on spin and very poor on substance. It gave $2000 per household in JobKeeper to firms with rising revenue, and which is responsible for sports rorts, car park rorts and the rest. So we're expecting plenty more of that on Tuesday night.
STEFANOVIC: Okay, just the final one here. We're out of time, Andrew, but it looks as though ATAGI has - just breaking news – ATAGI has signed off on a fourth dose of the COVID vaccine to people aged over 65, to those in Indigenous communities, those who are immunocompromised, those who are in aged care and disability residents. What's your reaction to that?
LEIGH: Labor will always follow the ATAGI advice, and recognise the importance of hewing to the experts there. But I would say, Pete, anytime we talk about vaccines we've got to remember the massive economic cost of having the slowest vaccine rollout in the world this time last year. That's an impact which is still resonating, which is going to be felt in Tuesday night's budget figures. One of Australia’s biggest public policy failures according to Malcolm Turnbull, and I can only agree with the former prime minister.
STEFANOVIC: Thanks for your time, Andrew Leigh. Talk to you soon.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.