ABC RADIO CANBERRA
WEDNESDAY, 3 APRIL 2019
SUBJECTS: The Budget.
ANNA VIDOT: With me now from Parliament House is Andrew Leigh, Labor's Shadow Assistant Treasurer and of course Member for Fenner. Andrew Leigh, welcome.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER: G’day, Anna. Great to be with you.
VIDOT: The Coalition has now matched and it says slightly bettered Labor's low and middle income tax offsets and it says it will deliver a $7 billion surplus next year while also phasing in tax cuts over a decade. That's a pretty attractive proposition for the electorate, isn't it?
LEIGH: Let's go first to the surplus. This is a projected surplus, not a delivered surplus, from a government which promised that the budget would be in surplus in their first year and every year after that. They promised never to use the national credit card and then after six years of doubling net debt, they want a pat on the back for having put the national credit card back in the wallet. The fact is that net debt per person in Australia is now almost $15,000. That is twice as much as when the Coalition came to office. On income tax cuts, we welcome the fact that they backflipped. Last year they voted against similar tax cuts to the ones they are now apparently supporting. These tax cuts don't extend to people earning below $40,000. If we are elected in May, we will have to fix that up. We will certainly always support income tax relief for low and middle income earners. What we won't do is to back the Coalition's strategy of expanding tax loopholes for the top end of town. They’ve never seen a tax loophole for the rich that they won’t defend.
VIDOT: This idea of the rich versus the other end of town is clearly something we're already hearing in the political rhetoric from both sides of politics. Newstart is clearly an area of battleground there. Labor has been very keen to point out the government's change on the electricity, the energy rebate, effectively for people who are on income support measures. Now that will be extended to Newstart. The bigger issue here though is the rate itself. Why has Labor made no promise to change the rate of Newstart if it's so keen to fight this election on fairness?
LEIGH: You’re right that inequality is a big issue and not just for Labor, but for the Australian people. Inequality has risen markedly over the course the last generation and we do need to have a look at income supports for low income Australians. We're doing with Newstart what we did with the pension in 2007, when before the election we promised not a specific dollar increase but a review. After that review came back, it led to the biggest increase in the pension in its 100 year history, moving a million pensioners out of poverty. We're taking the same approach to Newstart. We're not having a review because we intend to cut it. We're having a review because we think it's too low, but you need to look into interactions with other aspects of the social security system and the wage system. So we want to get it right.
VIDOT: You've made a point of releasing a lot of very detailed and complicated tax policy already though, on negative gearing, on franking credits. Why is the Newstart rate something that's too complex to do before you're in government?
LEIGH: You're absolutely right. I mean, we've got more policy out there than any opposition in living memory. The detail around our tax policies, our economic policies, our schools policies, our health policies-
VIDOT: So why not a Newstart policy?
LEIGH: - is second to none. In certain areas - and vocational training is another one of them - we've opted to take an approach of engaging a review in order to look at some of these interactions. We think in certain areas it's appropriate to have a review, but there’ll be no ‘reviewitis’ if we're elected. There's a determination to get on with the policies that we've announced. One of the frustrations I think many voters have had over recent years, Anna, is this sense that governments will say one thing before an election and do another thing afterwards. That's not the kind of government that Bill Shorten will lead if we win in May. Not everyone will love every one of our policies. But you can't argue with Labor that you don't have enormous amounts of policy detail out there and a commitment to deliver from a stable personnel. I mean, Chris Bowen has been Shadow Treasurer right through the last six years. Bill Shorten has been leader. I've been the Shadow Assistant Treasurer over that six year period. That stability of personnel has meant we've been able to engage very deeply with stakeholders and think through policy. Zed Seselja’s just walked into his job after the last leadership change, which he had a pretty heavy hand in. Those three prime ministers, those three treasurers – the revolving door has caused all sorts of uncertainty-
VIDOT: And we certainly will talk about the Coalition and we'll certainly talk to Zed Seselja about all of those issues after five o'clock. One of the other issues Andrew Leigh, of course Labor's Shadow Assistant Treasurer with us on ABC Radio Canberra this afternoon. One of the other issues that's been flagged is the NDIS spending, the slow rollout which has seen $1.6 billion unspent. Regardless of how it got to that point, what would Labor do to get that money moving to where it is needed most and now?
LEIGH: There are big problems with the NDIS. I get concerned constituents raising issues around the inadequacy of the package, challenges around draft plans. Part of this is because there's an arbitrary staffing cap which has been put in place and so that's meant that the National Disability Insurance Agency hasn't had the staff that it needs. The IT system hasn't been as good as it should be. And the consequence is that the NDIS underspend accounts for around a quarter of the projected surplus that Josh Frydenberg announced last night.
VIDOT: What would you do to get it spent though, if you were elected?
LEIGH: Remove the arbitrary staffing cap is certainly one, make sure we invest in the IT systems. I was talking to Linda Burney about this yesterday. She's very concerned about making sure that plans are appropriate, making sure that people aren't wasting time engaging with the agency rather than getting on with their plan. In many cases plans need to be more flexible. They need to take account of the needs of people with disabilities. That's the way the system was set up, as a package of flexible supports rather than a cookie-cutter ‘one size fits all’ approach. Labor designed the NDIS. We want to make sure it's built right.
VIDOT: The Member for Fenner Andrew Leigh, Labor's Shadow Assistant Treasurer, is with us on ABC Radio Canberra this afternoon. Andrew Leigh, the Coalition's decentralisation plan as we've seen in the budget would see another 191 jobs leave Canberra, including the 73 Murray-Darling Basin Authority jobs we already know about. What posture would Labor take on decentralisation including those jobs already slated to move if you were elected?
LEIGH: There’s smart decentralisation and there’s dumb decentralisation. The Whitlam government was committed to smart decentralisation, to the notion that service delivery should be close to the people who receive it. But the idea of moving the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority to Barnaby Joyce's electorate was dumb decentralisation. It didn't pass a benefit-cost test, it was opposed by all of the relevant groups. Not only was it bad for the public servants involved, and indeed the head of the agency ultimately stepped down, but it meant that we will get delays in the approvals of key medicines there. The cuts to the public service have been considerable. It's been literally decimated under the Liberals. You've got consultant spending going through the roof, as they've discovered someone has to do the work so let's get in consultants. Lo and behold, consultants are more expensive. Plus you don't get the institutional knowledge that you get from when the job is done in-house.
VIDOT: But what can public servants expect on these decentralisation announcements already made? And even plans of your own, if you're saying that there are smart ways to decentralise.
LEIGH: We recognise the importance of making sure that services are allocated where they're most needed. We've already announced more jobs for the Department of Human Services to deal with the blowout in wait times and the problems that have been caused in that area. Many of those jobs are in regions near where they'll be serving people - it doesn't make sense to have all the DHS customer officers sitting in Canberra. But what does make sense is to have policy centralisation in Canberra. That's how you break down the silos, it's how you get much better joined up government. Initiatives such as the Evaluator General in Treasury, which we've announced, would aim to get cross cutting high quality evaluation within government. That's best done when you've got the agencies located near proximity to one another. I wrote about this in the Public Service Informant yesterday. So we've got an ambitious agenda for a strong public service. We'd want to work in partnership with the public service, rather than working against it. And Anna, one thing on the public service that I don't think many people have noticed is that there is a ‘decision taken but not announced’ which involves a big cut somewhere in the Budget. We'll know about that in the coming weeks, but my fear is that it's another public service cut looming.
VIDOT: We don't know, but we will no doubt find out in coming weeks what that cut is going to come from. Andrew Leigh, we will also tune in of course to hear Bill Shorten's Budget speech in reply tomorrow night.
LEIGH: You’ve got to do that! It'll be a cracker.
VIDOT: I'll be sitting right here in the very studio. Thank you so much, Andrew Leigh.
LEIGH: Thank you, Anna.
VIDOT: Thank you.
Authorised by Noah Carroll ALP Canberra.