Bill's Transcripts

Interview with Marius Benson

ABC NEWSRADIO PROGRAM
24 JANUARY 2011


The Corporate and Government response to the devastating Queensland and Victorian floods will be under discussion today, with the first meeting of the flood response business taskforce. The meeting brings together senior Federal Government Ministers and business leaders, including transport magnate Lindsay Fox, Woolworths head, Michael Luscombe, and Australian Industry Group CEO, Heather Ridout. One of the Government Ministers at the meeting is Assistant Treasurer, Bill Shorten and he's speaking to Marius Benson.

Marius Benson:

Bill Shorten, what are you looking to today's meeting, which brings together business and the Government to look at what can be done for victims of the flood, what are you looking to this meeting to achieve?

Bill Shorten:

The Treasurer is convening a meeting in Brisbane today with 10 of Australia's preeminent business and industry association leaders, attending will also be Andrew Fraser and myself. I think this is a good opportunity to see how the business community can assist in flood recovery and reconstruction. I think it's important that when we look for solutions to help fund and finance recovery that we engage the capacities of the Australian private sector.

Marius Benson:

How important can the private sector contribution be, because the sort of sums people are talking about, total sums from the private sector and charitable donations, they're talking about maybe some tens of millions and the damage some tens of billions, a factor of one thousand, is it just a peripheral role for the private sector?

Bill Shorten:

No, I think that in Australia's economy we should never lose sight of the fact that for every $30 in $100 generated by government, the private sector generates approximately $70 in every $100. So there can't be long-term economic reconstruction and engagement without involving the private sector. This doesn't absolve Government from doing its job in the slightest but Australia works best when we've got the private sector engaged as well as government.

Marius Benson:

Okay, and looking at the Government's role itself, the idea of a flood levy is now being pretty clearly floated by the Prime Minister and others, is that definitely going ahead?

Bill Shorten:

Well the Prime Minister has made it clear that this is probably the worst natural disaster in terms of economic cost that Australia has seen. Three quarters of Queensland has been declared a disaster area. We have many towns in Victoria and other regions of Australia which have been inundated; the cost is going to be huge. There is no question that the Government will have to reprioritise, with spending programs or indeed even some of the decisions to reallocate funding already in government coffers, to assist reconstruction of public assets. But having said that, one of the options the Prime Minister has said, we might have to look at a levy as well.

Marius Benson:

OK. And what about another option that is being floated which is the idea of putting back the determination to return to surplus? Is a delay in returning to surplus one of the options on the table to the Government?

Bill Shorten:

The Government has made it clear that it intends to return the budget to surplus in 2012/2013. That's a very important priority to the Government, as is reconstruction and recovery. I believe the Government will keep its promise in terms of getting the surplus back by 2012/13, but tough decisions are going to have to be made in terms of reconstruction and recovery, including reprioritisation of existing projects and Government money being moved from the column of other projects to the column of rebuilding Australia's public and infrastructure, which has been damaged in these terrible floods.

Marius Benson:

And the opposition says the first thing you should do when you're reprioritising your spending programs is to cut back on spending on the National Broadband Network, is that one of the spending cuts, the tough decisions that might be taken?

Bill Shorten:

Well I hear the Opposition doing what I suppose they're meant to do, which is oppose, but to me what's important here is if you're going to clean up the house after the reconstruction you don't take the wiring out and I think that what this Government is capable to doing is reprioritising, reallocating some programs to others without compromising Australia's general economic growth. And I think that just stopping changes to the internet to me is counterproductive and it would be a rewarding the damage caused by the floods with new problems.

Marius Benson:

And the big supermarkets face a bit of a dilemma according to reports today which is that they have to either sell damaged goods from local producers, to support the local producers, and prices will go up, or bring in cheaper imports, what advice do you have for them as they face that dilemma?

Bill Shorten:

Oh I think that supermarkets will be capable of ensuring that if there is local produce that we try and use local produce. We already import some food and we also use a lot of local food. Sometimes there's a view that consumers want to see their apples and tomatoes looking like something shiny and without bruising, but I think Australians recognise that if the crops have damage, the crops have damage. So I think that how supermarkets run their business is up to them. I'm sure they'll get the balance right.

We do have imported foods in Australian supermarkets but we wouldn't want to see Australian produce which might have a few blemishes knocked off in purchasing orders, merely because there's a perception that we want to see all our food buffed up to a point where it's shiny enough to see your face in it.