RN Drive with Patricia Karvelas

15 March 2016


SUBJECT/S: Senate; Budget Timing; Election Timing; Superannuation Policy; Marriage Equality Vote; Full Employment

PATRICIA KARVELAS: It's six past six, and it's the first sitting day of the final scheduled week of parliament before the May Budget. But in Canberra at the moment, you can't even be certain about death and taxes, which usually you are able to be, sort of, certain about. There have been rowdy scenes in the Senate over voting reforms and the ABCC Bill. There have also been some surprising moves on superannuation and cigarette taxes. My political panel tonight is Karen Andrews, the Assistant Minister for Science, and Jim Chalmers, the Shadow Minister for Financial Services and Superannuation. Welcome to you both.

KAREN ANDREWS: Hi Patricia, how are you?

KARVELAS: Good. Karen Andrews, I will start with you. Jim, I'm sure is there having a good time - I see he has tweeted.

JIM CHALMERS, SHADOW MINISTER FOR FINANCIAL SERVICES AND SUPERANNUATION: I am, waiting with some anticipation for your first question.

KARVELAS: Alright well good, you're going to have a very good time then. The Government today shut down debate on the ABCC Bill despite Ricky Muir's best efforts. Is it correct that you'll now need to find some extra time for the Senate to sit? Or bring the Budget forward if you want to use the ABCC as a double dissolution trigger. And do you think it needs to be part of the trigger? You've got another one now, but do you need this to be part of the trigger?

ANDREWS: Well, there's a lot of questions in that, Patricia, so let me start to work my way through them. I understand that there will be some extended sittings this week for the Senate. Now that, on its own, is not unusual, particularly when you're in the last week of a sitting period -- it is quite normal for the Senate and the House of Reps to sit late on some days and perhaps for there to be an extra day of sitting at the end of that week. We don't know whether or not that's going to happen at this stage, but there's certainly going to be some extended sitting times for the Senate and that will be for the debate on changes to the Senate, so the Senate reforms. We, as a Government, said that was going to be our priority during this sitting week, that we wanted to debate and pass the Senate reforms that, in our view, are much needed to give voters certainty going forward.

KARVELAS: Do you personally think that's more important, Senate reform, than the ABCC that your Government has been banging on about for years now?

ANDREWS: I do think we need to pass the Senate reforms. I think it's very important that there is certainty for people as they go in to vote for the Senate. I've stood at many polling booths and I'm sure that Jim and many others have stood at polling booths as well, and we've been asked many times about voting preferences for the Senate candidates. So what these reforms will deliver is --

KARVELAS: Yes, I know that. But I asked a different question. I said do you think Senate reform is more important than the ABCC and the building construction industry that you have been talking about as a priority? That's the question.

ANDREWS: Both are imporant. 

KARVELAS: But one's more important than the other because you've given it a priority.

ANDREWS: It's a priority for debate. It's not necessarily that the ABCC is not important, because clearly it is. And the legislation that we are seeking to pass is basically the commitments that we made in the 2010 and the 2013 elections. So we are very committed to making sure that we do pass that legislation. But it is important that we pass the Senate reforms and we will be aiming to do that this week.

KARVELAS: Jim Chalmers, Bill Shorten today ruled out supporting a move to bring the Senate back early to debate the ABCC. Shouldn't Labor relish the chance to voice its Opposition to that legislation in the Parliament given your opposition is quite strident?

CHALMERS: Not quite what Bill said, Patricia. His point is that we shouldn't support bringing the Budget forward to cover up for the sort of chaos and dysfunction that we're seeing on the Government side. It's a very costly thing to bring the Parliament back. We've got this extraordinary situation where the Treasurer of Australia says now that the Budget will be on May 10 but without any real conviction. So we've got the whole economic policy-making machinery in this country hanging off every word as the Government chops and changes what it wants to do when it comes to the timing of the Budget.

KARVELAS: Why does it matter if it's brought forward a week? Why does that bother you?

CHALMERS: Well it's the creation of an extra sitting week which is costly for the Australian taxpayer. But also, it's really the uncertainty that troubles us the most. We've had an extraordinary period of some weeks now where neither the Prime Minister nor the Treasurer has been able to say with any conviction or any certainty when the Commonwealth Budget will be. That is incompetence on an unprecedented scale. And when it comes to the ABCC, it says it all about this Government that they demand that the ABCC be supported through the Senate at the same time as they refuse to list it for debate. Whether it's that or the timing of the Budget, all of that chaos and confusion really does speak volumes about the state that the Government's in now.

KARVELAS: On RN Drive, we're bringing you a political debate in a very big political week. My guests are Jim Chalmers -- you were just hearing him there -- the Shadow Minister for Financial Services and Superannuation, and Karen Andrews, the Assistant Minister for Science. Our number here 0418 226 576. I suppose my question to you, listener, is do you even get what's happening in the Senate anymore? I've got to say I've been watching politics for a long time and my head hurts just watching which order and who's bringing on what debate. It's pretty confusing -- which brings me to this question, and I'll ask you first, if I can, Karen because the Greens have, well, they've said that they'll discuss it now on Thursday but this Bill that also the Senate is trying to put as a priority -- David Leyonhjelm -- to discuss gay marriage in the Senate as well. It's now going to be discussed on Thursday. There's been a procedural motion that's been amended by the Greens to provide for a one hour debate on Thursday morning. There are reports by the Marriage Equality Alliance - the people that have been working on convincing different MPs to change their view -- that Liberals are going to be crossing the floor on the Senate and that there is a majority in the Senate on this issue. Is that the case?

ANDREWS: Well I don't know, quite frankly, how the numbers may well stack up in the Senate. As I understand it, there will be some time allocated on Thursday for a debate -- well, that's the plan at this point in time. Look, the Senate is a bit of its own beast...

KARVELAS: I know, but you know these MPs, they're all in the same party room with you. You can't do the whole they're up there, we're down here. You know -- you're all in the party room together. Are there Liberals, or are you surprised that there are Liberals who want to cross the floor on this?

ANDREWS: When we had the discussion in the Party Room, the media following that was reasonably accurate in terms of the fact that there were people in the Party Room who put very strong views. Now those people have already been out in public, so I can assure you, I'm not breaching any confidences about what happened in the Party Room. So, there are people -- Members of Parliament in the House of Reps and in the Senate -- who would be in favour of there being marriage equality and there are others that have very strong views that there shouldn't be gay marriage and that shouldn't be legislated.

KARVELAS: Sure, that's one thing to think that, but to cross the floor?

ANDREWS: Well it depends on the basis of the vote and whether it will be along party lines on Thursday. Now, I haven't had that discussion, or that discussion hasn't taken place in the Party Room as to what will happen. It may well be that the Senate forms its own views on how to vote. Do I think there would be sufficient numbers for the legislation to pass the Senate? That's impossible to tell at this point in time.

KARVELAS: But it could well be the case. You're not surprised that lots of your MPs are willing to cross the floor?

ANDREWS: There may be. There are many that would be happy to vote in favour and they have been very vocal about their support of it. 

KARVELAS: Jim Chalmers, Labor's been, well, making hay with all of this and attacking the Greens. Senator Penny Wong has put out a statement about this. But at the same time, Labor says they will support the Greens' push about a Thursday marriage equality vote. So you're having it both ways.

CHALMERS: Well we do have the bizarre situation where it looked like -- at some point today -- that the Greens would be opposing their own motion.

KARVELAS: But they're not.

CHALMERS: Well we've now got some time created for a debate on Thursday. It's not clear to me whether it will be voted on at the end of that debate, but no doubt we will find that out in time. Look, I'm a big supporter of marriage equality, Patricia. I think, like a lot of people who support marriage equality, I despair at the sort of political game-playing and excuses that are made around plebiscites and timing of ballots and all of the rest of it. I think we should have got it done already by now. We should have supported my colleague Terri Butler's Bill in the House of Representatives. If we don't sort it out before the election and we are elected to govern Australia, then we'll sort it out in the first hundred days after the election. It's an important thing that we get done and I think a lot of people around the country, as you said before, trying to watch the Senate, their head would hurt trying to catch up with all of the game-playing that goes on. We should keep in mind what the key issue here is and that's marriage equality for people in Australia who deserve it and have waited for too long.

KARVELAS: Jim Chalmers, what's the point of a Senate vote on this, given we know it's not going to pass the lower house under this Government's policy. What is the point? Is this all about politics, about putting pressure on the Government? Is it all about the optics, is that the only point?

CHALMERS: No, it's about the outcome, Patricia, as I just said. I think --

KARVELAS: But it can't change the law. If the Senate passes it, it won't change the law.

CHALMERS: Yeah, if you let me finish Patricia! The rest of my answer was that I think it would be an important statement from the Senate. It would put pressure on colleagues in the House of Representatives, where I sit. And either house passing a motion in support of marriage equality would be a good step forward for the country.

KARVELAS: Okay. On RN Drive, I've got Jim Chalmers there talking, from the Labor Party. And also Karen Andrews, the Assistant Minister for Science. Our number is 0418 226 576. I wonder what your views are -- would a Senate vote on marriage equality, if it does happen, there's a debate, but who knows if they'll get to the vote, put pressure on the lower house? Would it make a difference? 0418 226 576. Karen Andrews, there are reports the Government could increase the excise on cigarettes which is already a Labor policy as Jim Chalmers can talk about in a moment. Here's Liberal MP Ewen Jones explaining why it's an option for you.

EWEN JONES: If you're twenty-five years old or you're single, got a job and you smoke, you have no tax deductions, then you're paying an awful lot of tax. But if you're sixty-five and you're in hospital getting bits and pieces chopped off of you when you go through, you owe the tax payer.

KARVELAS: Are you as the Assistant Minister for Science in favour of taxing tobacco more heavily?

ANDREWS: I think that the Prime Minister made some very interesting remarks in Question Time today and he made it very clear that an increase in the tobacco excise was something that he proposed in his Budget-in-Reply speech in 2009.

CHALMERS: Come on.

ANDREWS: So he was clearly saying it wasn't a new proposal --

KARVELAS: But I have observed that the Government has been mocking Labor wildly for its policies, so what's going on here?

CHALMERS: Nothing gets past you Patricia!

KARVELAS: Well you have, I've heard much mocking from your side of politics -- now are you going to embrace it?

ANDREWS: Well some policies do deserve a bit of mocking, I'd have to say, because they are a little --

CHALMERS: This one?

ANDREWS: I'm not talking about this one. I was quite clear that I said some policies. So let me talk specifically about the tobacco excise. And that is that the Prime Minister went on to say, and I agree with him as well, that in all cases, we should be trying to avoid the payment of any tax by not smoking. It is a health issue. Now what we do to deal with that -- one of the options, certainly, to deter people from smoking, apart from education and giving them assistance to quit smoking, is to make a financial penalty for that. So, I think that what we have to do is look holistically at the problem of smoking and attack it on a number of fronts.

KARVELAS: So was the Health Minister wrong to call Labor's policy a grab for money and a political statement back in November, in that case?

ANDREWS: Well, the Prime Minister also dealt with that in Question Time today and he said that clearly it would be a revenue-raising measure, and it would be.

KARVELAS: Jim Chalmers, is it politically safer for Labor if the Coalition makes this move? Are you hoping they do?

CHALMERS: We think it would be a good outcome for the country, Patricia, to change the way that tobacco excise is paid. We've said that for some months now. It really is quite bizarre that we had the current Treasurer, the former Prime Minister, the current Health Minister as you say, going around the country bagging this proposal from Labor and now we have some indication that it might be adopted. We have said for some months that it should be adopted. But what the effect will be in the Government is that it will open up another front in that civil war that's eating the Government up. You've got Abbott on the record saying that he doesn't support it, and now you've got Turnbull inching towards supporting it. You've got the Health Minister and the Treasurer on the record opposing it. So, I think it will be another interesting time in the Party for the next week or two for the Liberals as they try and work out where they stand on this. They haven't got an agreed position. They're split right down the middle on it. We've got an agreed position. We put it on the table some months ago and we stand by it.

KARVELAS: 0418 226 576 -- I'd love to get your texts and join our conversation. We're having a robust conversation. You know, now and then, I'm interrupting these guys -- I have to, it's part of the job. Scott Morrison has confirmed that superannuation tax concessions will be trimmed in the Budget or beforehand. Karen Andrews, what kind of changes should we be bracing for?

ANDREWS: Well, the Treasurer's made it pretty clear that he'll be making some announcements either in the Budget or in the lead up to.

CHALMERS: That's real clear! He's made it clear that there might be an announcement at some point!

KARVELAS: Are you frustrated, Karen, that you can't debate around a specific proposal but instead, you know, the answer has been -- and I've had many interviews on this program -- that we have to wait for a policy.

ANDREWS: Can I answer that in two parts, Patricia. Firstly, I'm an engineer so I like black and white. That's always good to the way I think. But I also think that we are much better to thoroughly work through what our position is, look at what the intended and the unintended consequence are and then announce the policy. The worst thing that we could be doing at this point in time, particularly in the lead-up to the Budget, because it is only a few weeks away at this stage, is bounce out there, makes some knee-jerk reactions and start a whole range of discussions.

CHALMERS: Two-and-a-half years in!

ANDREWS: That's actually an unfair comment Jim.

CHALMERS: What, you haven't been in Government for two-and-a-half years?


CHALMERS: You haven't been in Government for two-and-a-half years?

ANDREWS: That's not the point. We have been in Government, as you would know.

KARVELAS: That is an uncontestable fact, we're going to have to leave that there. It's true they've been in Government.

ANDREWS: So we'll leave that one alone. But it is sensible to work through a policy, to discuss it, to consult on it and to put together a sensible proposal going forward. Not doing something that has a whole range of consequences such as Labor's negative gearing policy which is clearly ill-advised and ill-thought through. And that's a demonstration of why you should actually thoroughly do your homework and make sure you know what you're talking about it before you open your mouth.

KARVELAS: Jim Chalmers, you're responsible for shaping Labor's superannuation policy which is to increase the contributions tax from 15 per cent to 30 per cent for people earning over $250,000, and also to tax all super earnings over $75,000 at 15 per cent. Realistically, given that framework which I thought I should spell out to people who don't remember, you haven't got much room to reject whatever the Coalition proposes, do you? Ultimately, we might end up landing at a bit of a bipartisan position on superannuation.

CHALMERS: Well, how would you know, Patricia? I mean it's more than two-and-a-half years into the term, six months since Turnbull and Morrison took over and we're no closer to knowing what the Government thinks about superannuation. We've only heard that there'll be a super policy before the Budget, then at the Budget, then before the Budget again. We've had all sorts of things put on the table and then ruled out. No Australian would have a clue what the Government intends to do with super because the Government doesn't have a clue what it intends to do with super. What we need is for the Government to put on the table what they think, we put on the table what we think in April of last year -- which is pretty extraordinary for an Opposition to put their cards on the table so far out from an election -- and the Australian people have the right to evaluate our plans against each other. Right now what we've got is a Government which goes around the country with this sort of desperate and unhinged scare campaign about Labor policies at the same time as they don't have any policies of their own. The sooner they put those policies on the table so people can evaluate them in a calm and considered way the better.

KARVELAS: Karen Andrews, this one is squarely in your Science portfolio. The Prime Minister unveiled some big, impressive names as appointees to the Innovation and Science Australia Board. Was it regrettable to have that shoe-horned into the start of such a hectic week? It didn't really get that much attention.

ANDREWS: I guess from the point of view that I would like to certainly be out there advocating very strongly and getting some airplay on what we're doing in the science and the innovation space, yes, it's disappointing from that point of view. But it's still important to have made the announcement today. I think that it's a big step forward for us, that we have made it very clear that this new body will have a very strategic role in what our innovation, science priorities are and advising government accordingly. So, it is another step forward. We announced the National Innovation and Science Agenda in December of last year, so this is part of the implementation of that agenda.

KARVELAS: Finally, Jim Chalmers, this one to you. Bill Shorten outlined his vision today at the National Press Club. One of the things he said is he has a vision for full employment at the National Press Club today.

CHALMERS: Absolutely.

KARVELAS: Will this be a commitment that Labor takes to the election and is Christopher Pyne right that this is your "I believe the children are our future" Whitney Houston moment?

CHALMERS: Well, doesn't it say it everything about this Government that they ridicule a statement which is so fundamental to the future of this country.

KARVELAS: But is it achievable, full employment?

CHALMERS: Well, full employment means different things to different people. What Bill was saying today is that full employment means making the most of every Australian's capacity, making sure that everybody who wants to work and is able to work has every opportunity to work. And I think that's fundamental to this election. And it says it all that while Bill is talking about full employment, about inclusive growth in this country, the type of growth that people can properly participate in, we've got the Government off doing dodgy deals in the Senate. I think that contrast is what people are starting to notice out there in the community, that we're on about the things that matter, creating jobs, funding health and education, under-writing the future of this country by growing the economy in an inclusive way, while at the same time the Government has got this election speculation, senate gamesmanship and all this other stuff. I think the speech that Bill gave today will be regarded at election time as a very important plank, a very important reason why people will support us and not Malcolm Turnbull when the time comes.

KARVELAS: Well, I want to thank both of you for joining us. We've done it all. Cigs up, gay marriage, science, full employment, crazy Senate procedures that are doing my head in. Thank you to both of you.