ABC RN: Abbott/Turnbull - Same Policies

21 October 2015


SUBJECT/S: Financial System Inquiry; Constituency Question Time; Treasurer’s stinking start; Abbott-Turnbull policies; Family Tax Benefit backflip; Joe Hockey’s retirement

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Now, a political panel with even more enthusiasm than usual. I'm joined by two of the least-geriatric frontbenchers on either side of the House of Reps. Renewal - it's all about renewal. Alex Hawke is the Assistant Minister to the Treasurer and Jim Chalmers is the Shadow Minister for Financial Services and Superannuation. Good evening to both of you, and congratulations on your promotions.

HAWKE: G'day, we better sound pretty enthusiastic now, hey?

KARVELAS: You are young and free.

HAWKE: Young and free.

KARVELAS: Young and free.

HAWKE: Hopefully not girt by anything, but you know.

KARVELAS: Don't be girt. Let's not be girt in this conversation on any level. To the Murray Inquiry, I'll start with you, Jim Chalmers. Labor's given a lot of it the thumbs up, but are you concerned about the potential superannuation shake-up that's being looked at by the Productivity Commission. Doesn't this issue need to be looked at? Why should workers be forced into a fund that they don't agree to?

JIM CHALMERS, SHADOW MINISTER FOR FINANCIAL SERVICES AND SUPERANNUATION: You're right to say, PK, that we are broadly supportive of the response that the Government put out. It's been a long time coming, and we have done our best to be constructive and bipartisan where we can. But you're right as well to say that the main difference is in superannuation. Not just the stuff that people talked about today from Scott Morrison and Malcolm Turnbull and Kelly O'Dwyer, but more broadly in the super system, there's a really big difference between the way they go about it and the way we go about it. 

When it comes to being able to choose which fund to go with, it's not well recognised in the current conversation that already there is a lot of choice for people. There's only a small amount of awards where people don't get a choice. But fundamentally, we think this is about ensuring - whether it's Fair Work Australia or someone else - that there's a filter between employers and employees so that the funds that are chosen for employees have their best interests at heart. Because I think at the end of the day, when you're talking about super, that should be our priority: the members. And what Fair Work Australia does right now is it ensures that other incentives that businesses might be attracted to don't come into their decision about what kind of funds their members can access.

KARVELAS: Alex Hawke, what's your response to that? Is Labor right to be concerned about the way that you're proceeding on superannuation reform?

HAWKE: No, I think the Financial Systems agenda has a number of measures that's about improving things like choice, competition in the superannuation sector, and choice, I think, is a vital concept that we want to preserve and enhance out of this inquiry. And look, I think Jim is right. This Inquiry is common sense, most of it. The responses from the Government are common sense. And indeed, what we've asked the Productivity Commission to do is to have a look at this to recommend how can you offer a system to employees that will be about choice and remove this default option, which removes I guess any import or self-responsibility from a worker in relation to the very important choice and decision over their lifetime and for their wellbeing. It's something that we're not going to have a view about. We're not going to put an ideological view forward in terms of policy. We've asked the Productivity Commission to come to us and say, well here's a system that could enable better choice for people, and that won't be to the disadvantage of industry super funds necessarily. And that's where I think you could be very comfortable even if you were on the Labor side of politics with this. Because choice is really a good concept for all workers.

KARVELAS: I want to move on from this because I did speak to Kelly O'Dwyer at the beginning of the program and we have really traversed this issue. So, I want to take you to something else. Alex Hawke, the PM announced the trial of "Constituency Question Time" so members can ask about their own electorates, a bit like the House of Commons. Why are you doing this?

HAWKE: Well, the Prime Minister and some of the Government members had a discussion about this. He brought it to the Party Room as an option. And I think it's part of the Prime Minister's style as he's approaching the Government of the twenty-first century and the Parliament of the twenty-first century, and Malcolm talks about this. And to me as a younger member - you've mentioned we're not geriatric -


HAWKE: We've got a 37 and 38 year old here, and that's good for the Parliament.

KARVELAS: Fantastic ages.

HAWKE: Good for the country. But it's also important - Parliament here is very clunky. And I know Jim will agree with me on this. It's old, it's clunky, it isn't a parliament of the twenty-first century. And Government doesn't run, no matter which Government is in, in a twenty-first century fashion. So anything we can do to modernise our arrangements, I think would be welcome. I think the public are over Question Time. People know the questions are fake and the answers are fake a lot of the time. And I think they want Question Time to be more real and be more lively and we want to look at things that will make it more real and more lively.

KARVELAS: Jim Chalmers, will the Opposition make use of this? How do you feel about this change?

CHALMERS: Right now, Patricia, there's the opportunity for Government backbench members to ask Ministers about local issues. There's nothing that prevents that happening right now. The thing I agree with Alex on is we do need to look for ways to modernise the place. My colleagues Tim Watts and Clare O'Neil have written a book and one of the chapters in the book is about all of the various ways we could refresh our democracy, here in Canberra in particular.

The one thing that I thought when Turnbull stood up and made that announcement today is we want to make sure that this doesn't come at the expense of ministers being accountable. As Alex alluded to, a lot of the answers that ministers give right now are fake. There's not a great deal of an attempt made to answer the actual question. I think Scott Morrison is a repeat offender in this case in particular. So, I do think that we need to get more accountability in the Parliament. We want to make sure that any new things that are being proposed by the other side don't get in the way of that.

KARVELAS: Why were you scoffing there, Alex?

HAWKE: He couldn't help but get in a dig at the Treasurer, you know, his opposite number.

CHALMERS: I'm not the only one, Alex. He's had a stinker of a start.

HAWKE: I had to sit through all of Wayne Swan and everybody else, so -

CHALMERS: I hope you learned something.

KARVELAS: Hang on a minute, Alex Hawke, are you suggesting that the new Treasurer is a bit like Wayne Swan?

HAWKE: No, no. What I am saying is I wouldn't target any individual - 

CHALMERS: The new Treasurer is not Wayne Swan's bootlaces.

HAWKE: But you know, to Jim's point about accountability. That's a good point. I think I'll break Party Room solidarity for a minute here, Patricia.


HAWKE: Exclusively on your radio station - 

CHALMERS: This is not for the first time. He looks very comfortable doing this!

HAWKE: Exclusively on your radio station, I'll tell you - I don't think it's been reported anywhere - but one of the important concessions from the backbench is that ministers in this Government in this system would not have the right to refuse an issue that was brought to them, i.e. if they did not like the subject question that a backbencher put forward to them, they wouldn't be able to veto it. So this is actually a real reform, not a - and we've seen some changes to Question Time in the past where some of them haven't been that, you know.

KARVELAS: I have to interject. Is that because ministers were trying to have the veto power to create the full Dorothy Dixer scenario?

HAWKE: I think in any Government, there's a tension between the backbench and the executive. And sometimes, ministers have views about issues and backbenchers have views about issues. But I really think that was an important concession that the Prime Minister has made and the Executive has made. And I think it's a good one. I really do. I think that's what should be the case. If a member has a constituency issue, even if the Minister doesn't want to answer that question, they'll give an answer on that question.

KARVELAS: Alright, there were several questions from Labor on climate policy today. Here's Malcolm Turnbull's answer on the future of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, known as the Green Bank:

TURNBULL: We've not been able to secure any changes to the - or abolition of the - CEFC and of course it is continuing. So, yes it has done some good work. The question is whether it is necessary, or an appropriate use of public money. But it is there, it's well run. It's got a good board, a good Chief Executive.

KARVELAS: Alex Hawke, a pretty awkward response, you'd have to say. Doesn't this highlight the conflicted position the Prime Minister is in. He's trying to say he's continuing with Abbott era policies, when he doesn't really believe in them. This answer demonstrated that, didn't it?

HAWKE: We've had history with the Clean Energy Finance Corporation. This was a deal, you know, between the Labor Party and the Greens when they were in Government. It was $10 billion that we didn't have at the time, and we're still paying for it.

CHALMERS: It's making the Government money, you're not actually paying for it.

HAWKE: I know that Jim, you're not letting me finish. But I was a big sceptic about this whole project. I've got to say that I was pleasantly surprised about the governance of this particular entity and, as Jim says correctly, it's performed well. The Prime Minister made these points today. But the Prime Minister is raising a more important question. It's a question I find is not asked enough in Government. Does Government need to be doing this at all? I still think the case for us to be funding with public, borrowed money - you know, $10 billion is a lot of money - we could get these emissions reductions in other ways and through other system. And I think, that question should be asked around Cabinet tables and should be asked by Government in an era where we've got large debt and large deficit.

KARVELAS: Jim Chalmers, you're asking these questions on a range of issues today - same sex marriage, climate change - you're trying to make a point, I think, by asking these questions in Question Time of the Prime Minister that, you know, he's the same as his predecessor and he's not changing policies. But look at polling, you're not getting any traction at all. Your messages are just sinking, aren't they?

CHALMERS: Well I think it's the least surprising thing in my two decades in politics that there's relief in the Australian community that Tony Abbott's gone. And I think that's a big part of what explains the recent change in the polls. But when it comes to Malcolm Turnbull, I think people get caught up in the change of language and the change of tone - the much friendlier and more accommodating tone from the new Prime Minister compared to the old one. But when you scratch the surface, the policies - whether it's on same sex marriage, whether it's on emissions trading, whether it's on the targets we take to Paris for the climate change talks - all of these things are exactly the same. And I think that people will be very disappointed. He certainly talks a good game, he's a better communicator, but people will be disappointed I think in time when they see that these are largely Tony Abbott's policies. You can't actually point to a skerrick of difference on the issues that you nominated between Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott.

KARVELAS: On family tax benefits, Alex Hawke. Cabinet seems to have abandoned Joe Hockey's 2014 changes to the Family Tax Benefits regime. But the Party Room has discussed new changes. What's now being proposed?

HAWKE: Well, I wouldn't say that we've abandoned the changes. We've accepted the reality that the Senate isn't interested in some of these reductions in expenditure at the moment or some of these things, and given us some direct feedback about their application. What we're proposing now are some much more - sorry, I should say much less - severe measures that would streamline arrangements. And this has been recommendations to Government. 

There are too many payments in the welfare space. And this could even lead to increases in payments for particular categories of people in the family tax and other systems, but reduce the exemptions and reduce all of the different supplements that Governments have come up with over the years. And the supplement system clearly isn't working and are very expensive, and that's why we've blow outs in welfare. So, we're hoping Labor will collaborate with us on this. Because it would be good for Federal Governments going forward if we can streamline the welfare system, so there's less payments, it's less complex and that may enable some increases in payments, but also allow for less of the use of supplements and other measures that blow out the Budget.

KARVELAS:  Jim Chalmers, is this something that you could stomach a bit better than the previous reform?

CHALMERS: I think like a lot of your listeners, Patricia, I get very nervous when the Government talks about streamlining. That usually means money out of the pocket of vulnerable people. And we do need to remember that credible international authorities like the OECD and others say that we have probably the best targeted welfare system in the developed world. So we start from that basis.

If the Government now wants to change this policy that they have been fighting for eighteen months that would really be a humiliating back down. They've all been out there arguing for it. They've all being saying it's absolutely necessary that it be done. And so, if they do back down, that will be humiliating. It will be a huge victory for Jenny Macklin and our side of Parliament, all the people in the community who have resisted these changes, because what really makes people angry is at the same time as they're attacking the most vulnerable people in the community, they've got these other kinds of largesse. They've still got in the superannuation system a situation where 38 per cent of the tax concessions go to the top ten per cent of earners, for example. They could address that instead of going after families on low and middle incomes. So, I think that's what makes people very angry. We'll see what the Government comes out with when they have their announcement. But, very nervous about it, like a lot of your listeners would be.

KARVELAS: I'm just going to ask you for one line each on this before I let you go. Joe Hockey was our Treasurer for a couple of years. He departs from politics tomorrow. I'll start with you, Alex Hawke. How will he be remembered?

HAWKE: I think he'll be remembered as a very significant Treasurer. Someone who led the G20 very successfully in the year he was there. You know, taking our very strong growth agenda to the world. And he'll be remembered, I think, as a very big-hearted man. He was a Liberal, and sometimes people say we're very clinical on the economy, but he was a man with a big heart. And I think he'll be remembered that way.

KARVELAS: Jim Chalmers?

CHALMERS: I don't think - 

KARVELAS: I mean, you guys weren't very polite to him, you weren't very kind to him in his two years as Treasurer.

CHALMERS: I think that flowed in both directions! But I would say, any objective measure would say that he wasn't a success as Treasurer, and he had a very short period in the job. But my view on these things is when people are retiring, you lay down the baseball bats, you wish each other well. I think he's going to give a very good valedictory speech, because he is a considered person. He's got a lovely family that he gets to spend more time with now. And I'm sure whatever he chooses to do next, he's young enough and capable enough that he will make a fist of it.

KARVELAS: Thank you to both of you. You've been mostly kind to each other. Thanks so much.

CHALMERS: Did you want more knuckle, PK?

HAWKE: Yeah, next time.

KARVELAS: Nah, there was enough. I reckon there was enough. Thank you very much. And that was Jim Chalmers, the Shadow Minister for Financial Services and Superannuation, Trade and Investment, and Productivity - a few words there. And Alex Hawke, the Assistant Minister to the Treasurer.