PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA
SATURDAY, 12 OCTOBER 2019
SUBJECTS: Government has no plan for the economy; Dutton comments on China.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY: Thanks for coming along today. My name is Andrew Leigh, the Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury.
We've seen over recent few months more and more disappointing economic signs for the Australian economy. We've got wages flagging. We've got productivity in the doldrums. We're seeing retail sales numbers for July and August belie the confidence that the Government had that their Stage 1 tax cuts would be enough to support the economy. In Germany, the United States, Britain and New Zealand, unemployment is around 4 per cent. But it's around 5 per cent in Australia. The Government has been relying on the Reserve Bank to do all the hard work.
Relying on the Reserve Bank to support the economy is like swimming with one arm. It's a whole lot harder and your chances of drowning are twice as large. Instead the Government should be supporting consumer demand by bringing forward infrastructure investment. Federal Labor has been calling for this consistently. And as you've seen the states and territories yesterday saying to Josh Frydenberg that he needs to bring forward much needed infrastructure investment. Labor's also called on the Federal Government to bring forward the budget update. As Jim Chalmers pointed out yesterday, if they delay the budget update until December it will be the longest gap between a budget and a budget update that we've ever seen.
The Australian economy needs a Federal Government that is focused on the big challenges: tackling rising emissions, putting downward pressure on energy prices, ensuring that we have strong consumer spending. But right now we haven't seen growth on a per person basis over the last year. What economic growth is coming, is coming as a result of population growth rather than because the economy is producing more per person. And yet the Federal Government doesn't seem to know what it's doing.
Today we see talk of stimulus, the very sort of talk that we had the Federal Government ruling out just months ago. But they simply don't seem to know what they're Arthur or Martha. If excuses were dollars in the budget, it would be well back into surplus already. The Morrison Government seems intent on blaming absolutely everybody, and taking responsibility for nothing.
Now is the time when Australia ought to be stepping up to the mark. What we need is an ambitious Federal Government willing to take on global leadership around issues such as reform of the World Trade Organisation, and ensuring that global institutions work in Australia's interests. But instead the Morrison Government hasn't taken an active role in areas like multinational tax avoidance, where we're no longer on the key steering committee for the OECD-G20 project.
While Scott Morrison is willing to shake a fist at globalisation, he's not willing to do any of that important work of acting to reform the global institutions in Australia's interests, as you saw from the Hawke, Keating, Rudd and Gillard Governments who actively engaged in bodies like APEC and the G20, shaping them in Australia's interests. From the Morrison government, we're seeing now all sorts of chopping and changing regarding our crucial relationship with China. There's no scenario under which China isn't critical to Australia's future. And yet Australia's bilateral relationship with China is as bad as it's ever been. That's down to the ineptitude of the Morrison Government in managing our sophisticated China relationship. This is a complicated relationship, it needs to be handled with a sense of deftness and care that has been lacking from the Morrison Government. Their attacks on China, the suggestion by a Morrison Government backbencher that China is somehow comparable to Nazi Germany. All of these things are deeply unhelpful, at a time when millions of Australians rely on the China relationship for their prosperity. China is our largest source of overseas students and tourism, the largest market for our exports, the largest country from which we import. It is vital that the China relationship is managed with sophistication and that's not what we've seen from the Morrison Government. Very happy to take questions.
JOURNALIST: You mentioned the ineptitude there of the Morrison Government, would you say that Peter Dutton himself was inept yesterday in his comments?
LEIGH: I certainly don't think we've seen from the Morrison Government the sort of sophistication that's required. From a series of Morrison Government ministers, we haven't had the consistency that this relationship demands. Australia needs to hold true to our values. It's absolutely the case that China isn't a democracy and doesn't maintain the rule of law that is maintained in Australia. But it's also the case that we need to work carefully with China on a range of issues of regional concern. There is a certain set of issues on which we can find common ground and work together in our mutual interest. All of that needs to be recognised. And you see that level of sophistication from successive speeches from Penny Wong and Richard Marles. I don't think you've seen it from the chopping and changing this Government. The attacks on globalisation, the attacks on China itself.
JOURNALIST: What are your thoughts on the partial US-China trade deal that has come out today?
LEIGH: I think it's too early to be sure where this is headed. But certainly now is a time when you'd hope that a middle power like Australia would be stepping up to the plate. It's in no one's interests to have trade wars, but particularly not a country the size of Australia. With an economy that - as the Harvard Atlas of Economic Complexity revealed this week - is relatively undiversified. We rely heavily on the world trading system. We have as big a stake in globalisation as any other middle power. We ought to be doing more to ensure that globalisation works in Australia's interests. It's a role of the Federal Government not to be pandering to populism but instead to be engaging with Australians in a conversation on how migration, trade and foreign investment boost living standards.
JOURNALIST: Andrew, just on the China issue, is Peter Dutton right though to call out what he saw as wrong with the Chinese Communist Party?
LEIGH: Peter Dutton is speaking at a time in which the relationship with China has never been worse. Under the Morrison Government, our bilateral relationship has fallen to a parlous low. We've seen the ineptitude of the Morrison Government in managing this sophisticated relationship. They need to do more to recognise the complexity, to work with the business community and with Australians to ensure that we manage this critical relationship with this sophistication that it deserves.
JOURNALIST: But is he right to call them out as wrong?
LEIGH: Peter Dutton's comments are coming at a time in which the relationship is at an all-time low. The Morrison Government needs to be working to ensure the China relationship is stronger to the benefit of all Australians.
JOURNALIST: So why won't Labor call out China on its actions then?
LEIGH: When Richard Marles was in China recently he spoke about human rights concerns that we have. As I've said before, China doesn't share Australia's democratic norms. But we can have those sorts of differences with a sense of sophistication and a recognition of the benefits that China' s economic growth has brought not only to hundreds of millions of Chinese but also to millions of Australians.
JOURNALIST: But it's not just the human rights issue here, we're talking about espionage, cyber-attacks, intellectual property fraud theft. What do you say to that? So should we just not say anything? Be quiet and let China continue with these attacks?
LEIGH: All of these issues need to be managed with a level head, with cool cooperation, looking to find common ground wherever we can. But I don't think the sorts of attacks on China as comparing it to Nazi Germany are particularly helpful. I think Australia could be doing more to soothe the waters of a China trade war which is deeply damaging not only to China and the United States, but also to Australia's economic interests.
JOURNALIST: Andrew, when is it appropriate then to call out a foreign actor that spy agencies have suspected of being behind cyber-attacks on institutions here in Australia, and on other elements of Australian society. It's not appropriate now, when is it appropriate to call that out?
LEIGH: It's entirely appropriate for Australia to focus on our interests but that needs to be done in the context of the entire relationship. We need to remember that maintaining a good relationship with China is in Australia's economic interests. Under the Morrison Government, the relationship with China has never been worse. Needless lashing out against China is damaging to our relationship. We need a sense of sophistication around this relationship rather than jumping from pillar to post.
JOURNALIST: What exactly did Peter Dutton do wrong?
LEIGH: Labor's view is we need to manage this relationship with a sense of sophistication and complexity. Understanding the benefits to Australia of the economic relationship. Recognising that we will inevitably have differences with China. But we need to recognise all of the complexities of the relationship, not simply engage in bull-in-a-china-shop politics.
JOURNALIST: Do you think (inaudible)?
LEIGH: Australia has invariably had differences with China -
JOURNALIST: But do you think that China has (inaudible)?
LEIGH: I've just spoken to you about our concerns for example about the treatment of the Uighur population. Our concerns about, the way in which China is engaged in the region. There's certainly been actions that we haven't regarded as healthy. But the China relationship is vital to Australia's economic prosperity. Getting that right, getting the complexity of the relationship right is vital. And that certainly has not happened under the six years this Government has been in office. The relationship has gone to its lowest ebb under the Morrison Government. And that is not in the interests of millions of Australians.
JOURNALIST: Just on the statement from the embassy, in response to Peter Dutton they called the - his comments shocking, baseless, a malicious slur, constitutes an outright provocation of the Chinese people, it's ridiculous rhetoric and severely harms the relationship. Do you agree with that statement?
LEIGH: I’ll leave the Chinese embassy to comment themselves. I'll be commenting on behalf of the Labor Party. As Penny Wong ...
JOURNALIST: Were they right in that statement?
LEIGH: ... and Richard Marles have said, this is a vital relationship to Australia. We need to engage at a range of different levels...
JOURNALIST: Was the statement over the top?
LEIGH: ... to ensure that that Australia's prosperity is maintained and the way of doing that is to ensure that we shape the global institutions, not simply sit back, kick sand up in the faces of anybody who seems to walk by. But to recognise the value of having a broad multifaceted approach to this critical relationship. Thank you very much.