NATIONAL PRESS CLUB, CANBERRA
TUESDAY, 15 MARCH 2016
SUBJECT/S: Senate voting reform; Labor’s commitment to tackle climate change; WA Labor; Party unity; Size of government; Marriage equality plebiscite; Possible privatisation of Medicare; Tobacco Excise; Superannuation
JOURNALIST: Thanks very much for that. We have a great many questions from our media table. I might begin - the Senate voting reform is before the Senate today, probably will be all week, the Labor Party is opposing that. Given that you have problems with that, if it does pass and you do win Government, will you repeal or amend it?
SHORTEN: Well, I like one part of your question already, Chris, the assumption we can win the next election. We are going to wait to see what happens in the Senate. Our objection to this Senate voting reform is just because you put a sticky note with the word reform on something, doesn't make it reform. If we had this voting system in 2013, Tony Abbott's 2014 Budget would have passed. There would be $100,000 degrees, there'd be a GP tax, there would be further cuts to the pension, Tony Abbott would still be Prime Minister. Joe Hockey wouldn't be in Washington. I don't know what would happen with the Speaker, though. So we are committed to making sure that we don't entrench Liberal majorities, nor do we want to see the Greens holding the balance of power automatically in times where there is a more progressive vote. This is why we are deeply suspicious of the motivations of this patched together deal. I say to the Greens political party, you may think somehow this is wise for your own interests, but there would be a lot of Green voters who would be disappointed to realise that a vote for the Green political party is now entrenching the very real prospect of a conservative Liberal Government in Australia.
In terms of what we do after the election, we accept that the system, if it gets changed, has been changed, we'll see how it works. We have got a great concern that this system disadvantages people, it's the sort of spread of optional preferential voting and we are concerned that there will be a greater informal vote as a result of this confusing system as well. So we'll certainly review how it works.
There's a long way to go between now and the Senate vote and I I think if we look at some of the chaos in the Senate, it is interesting, isn't it, that the Liberal Party, who talk about the rationale for a double dissolution being the Australian Building and Construction Commission, are not dealing with that issue, and somehow the whole reason to be of the Turnbull Government is to have Senate reform? We wanted more from Malcolm Turnbull than that.
JOURNALIST: Deborah Nesbitt from Thomas Reuters. Mr Shorten, you said that you would never walk away from the political risk of acting on climate change. Does that mean you're prepared to release a lot more detail about your policy, especially on the emissions trading scheme and including some independent modelling of the economic effect that ETS would have, along with any compensation for households or businesses, and the 50 per cent renewable energy policy?
SHORTEN: Australians do have a real choice here on climate change. I think the next three or four years could be some of the most critical years for the planet when it comes to climate change.
Now, Labor has been doing the work that a government should have been doing. Malcolm Turnbull was once the king of climate change, remember those lines, he wouldn't lead a political party that - he didn't say exact - fair dinkum on climate change? Clearly he is now. So, Labor has been out consulting. We have set goals, we have set 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030 as part of our energy mix. Zero net emissions by 2050. Anyone who went to the Paris climate change conference, it was an eye opener, there is no doubt in my mind the rest of the world is going down this path. We are proposing an internationally linked emissions trading scheme. Mark, as I mentioned in my speech, is out there consulting with people about our 2030 targets but there are clear propositions and levers which are a fair dinkum government on climate change can use, the issue of land clearing and the rate of land clearing. With the demise of the Australian automotive manufacturing industry, challenges around standards and vehicles are perhaps politically less contentious. We are committed to making sure we keep consumers with the ability to have some say over their power bills. That's why we think renewable energy is such a strong part of our climate change policy.
Now, when you talk about modelling - 1.3 million Australian households have solar roof panels. How many of them want to give them back? The experience speaks for itself. But I also have to say, on climate change, it's very important that it seems that the Government, even Mr Turnbull's leading to a banal, trivial scare campaign saying Labor wants to bring back a carbon tax. I asked Mr Turnbull, you understand that climate change is an important issue, it doesn't deserve baseless scare fear campaigns which you know not to be true. We need to go down the path of emissions trading scheme, we need to make sure it is internationally linked, we need to make sure that we are investing technology in renewables. In the last couple of years, the world has added 1 million renewable energy jobs. There is one country in the world that has gone backwards in renewable energy jobs, that's us. When was the last time we went backwards? We are not middle of the heap, we are bottom. It takes real policy skill to miss a jobs revolution and not be part of it. So we will stand up on climate change, because - I ask Mr Turnbull to go back to the old Mr Turnbull here. It's not so much the political risk of taking a policy, it's the economic and environmental risk of not taking a policy. That's where we stand.
JOURNALIST: Mr Shorten, Andrew Probyn from the West Australian. I'd like to ask you about one of your favourite subjects, it's not Collingwood, but WA Labor. As we speak, the Labor caucus in WA is debating the leadership. Mark McGowan is expected to emerge as the preferred candidate. If that is the case, as I expect it to be, what do you say Stephen Smith should do? Do you think he should withdraw unequivocally from this race? And, secondly, if I can jump in on another WA Labor thing, overnight the MUA candidate, Chris Brown, has been - has got pre-selection for Fremantle. What will you say to the inevitable Liberal Party campaign that the seat of Curtin, Beazley senior, Dawkins and Lawrence has fallen to the poster child of militant unionism?
SHORTEN: Okay. Thanks for those two questions. First of all, on Mark McGowan and the issues in Western Australia, which came up Sunday morning, broken I think by your paper, that story - oh no, it wasn't. Sorry, that was - that came out really wrong, I'm so sorry. That wasn't where I was going. All right, I'll keep to the point. I said I wasn't inclined to get involved in that issue. But I did say I expected the matter to be settled quickly. Since then, Mark McGowan's Shadow Cabinet unanimously supported him. There was a meeting of the State executive where the whole State executive was very supportive of him. That's a very unusual - WA Labor to get them to agree on something is a development. But they are all behind Mark McGowan. I don't know what's happened in the caucus meeting, but I would say that a betting man would say they're going to be largely quite behind him. I expect this matter to be over now. As I said, I'm not interested in getting involved in WA State politics, but I expect this matter to be over now. I imagine that if it goes the way your question implied, Mr Smith will probably make the sort of comments which you said and I do expect this matter to be over.
In terms of the Fremantle pre-selection, I understand that one of the candidates got 41.5 or 42 per cent of the local vote and the other got the remainder of the vote. I understand that combined with the State branch selection, that's made a clear winner. In terms of the credentials, you said the poster child of the MUA - the person you are talking about has run a small business, he's run three different small businesses in 23 years. His family - he grew up there. I think his first ancestors came there about 1851 or even earlier. He's been very involved in that community. He has also been a stevedore. He hasn't been an official of the MUA except for the last few months. So I'd ask people, when we want to talk about industrial relations in this country, when we also want to talk about diversity of candidates, the Labor Party of Fremantle has picked a small businessman, they picked someone who's lived in the local community, they picked someone who did reasonably well in the local ballot and through the democratic process of the Party pursued it. So I have no doubt that this Government will try to label people for their union background. Trust me, I know that. What I also say is that what we want in this community and what we want in politics, are people from a wide degree of backgrounds, and he has a much more broader background I think than people have given him credit for. What we also want is that we want our political parties who will stand up for working people. The issue here for me is will this fellow, will he stand up for jobs? Yes. Will he stand up for real action on climate change? Yes. Will he stand up to make sure our Medicare system is determined by your Medicare card, not your credit card? Yes. Will he stand up for every school, every child, getting every opportunity? Yes, he will. Will he stand up for a fair taxation system where young people are not locked out of the housing market, yet Government tax subsidies paid by everyone support property speculators ahead of young people trying for their first home? Yes, he will.
JOURNALIST: Mr Shorten, David Crowe from The Australian. I've got a follow-up question on Senate voting reform. Based on your answer to Chris' question it seems you can wait to see if it does get legislated, whether you can live with it. Now I've been rereading the Labor submission from two years ago on Senate voting reform where George Wright, the National Secretary, argued in favour of the optional preferential voting system that you're currently railing against. So can you explain to voters why it was a good reform two years ago, when you called for it, and now it's evil? Is it hypocrisy because you don't actually believe in what you are arguing for, is it inconsistency because you back-flipped or is it disunity because Labor what not come up with a unified position on this?
SHORTEN: Let's go to the last part of your question first. I think it's funny to be questioned about party unity this week in Canberra. Sorry, but have you read, what is it 'The Road to Ruin’, or, ‘Why everyone really hates everyone in the Liberal Party', is that its working title? Unity? The last two and a half years my Party's been united and that's what Australians expect. They expect unity. Yes, we are sceptical of these voting changes, when presented with all of the evidence, and you are talking about a report two years ago, when we see what the Liberals and the Green political party have done together. I'm not a rubber stamp for the right wing of the Liberal Party gaining control of this Parliament. I'm not a rubber stamp for the Green political party doing a deal to squeeze out anyone they see as rivals, I'm not a rubber stamp for the GP co-payment, the GP tax, I'm not a rubber stamp for the $100,000 degrees. We've been a stronger team, I think, than your question implies, David. Now, my team, this Press Club two years ago I spoke. If I had said to you then, and I don't think anyone wrote it, that I was a much better chance to be here as leader than Tony Abbott, I'm not sure people would have written that. If I had said here two years ago, that Chris Bowen is much more likely to be shadow treasurer than Joe Hockey treasurer, I'm not sure anyone would have written that. If I had said two years ago that we are going to be, make our year of ideas and demonstrate that by 2016 we have strong policies, I know people didn't quite buy that then. We are united, though. All I ask from my team is that when we cover the cut and thrust of Australian politics, we are a party capable of learning our lessons. We are a party capable of maintaining unity. As George has said to me, party unity is the green fee you pay to get on to the golf course of politics. For two and half years my entire team has been paying that green fee and what I would say to Australians, when you look at the Liberals, let's cut it as it is about party unity, Mr Turnbull does not lead a united party. Sometimes I think you can see a shadow of the old Malcolm Turnbull, and he looks deeply uncomfortable with some of the positions. I have no antipathy for him. I quite respect him. What I also know is his party's not united. So when it comings to Senate voting reform, we do have a view - and we formed a view - when it comes to party unity even more importantly, we've got the runs on the board for the last two and a half years.
JOURNALIST: Laura Tingle from the 'Financial Review', Mr Shorten. A lot of this speech is about a more assertive role for government and transformative role for government and this is an issue that the Coalition has been pushing - can you define for us whether you think that the size of government should increase, should it stay the same? And can you put that in terms of very boring budget figures like the size of revenue and spending as a proportion of GDP?
SHORTEN: Okay. When it comes to size of Government, for me it's what does a government do? We're not in the business of just increasing the size of government per say. So that's why we've been making choices. We make choices about what we spend scarce taxpayer dollars on. As I said in my speech, this country's spending more money supporting a few people negatively gear their properties, than we are spending on childcare or higher education. It's interesting, if we were to sort of put on the national passport when we travel overseas, are we are a nation who supports higher education? We'd say yeah. Are we a nation that supports childcare? Yeah. I just didn't realise for the Government the most important thing they'd stamp is we are a nation who allows property speculation for some, not the many. So I'm very clear that it's not so much the size of government but it's the role of government and we will make choices about how we reduce spending. We will make choices about how we reduce tax concessions and we will spend the money that we raise on the things that need to be spent on according to us. What I can say is we've outlined $105 billion, maybe north of that, of savings, concession reductions and of course tobacco excise, which I think, although you can never be sure the Liberal Party, some of them like it. So we're costing our policies. It was very telling, I thought, that the Government said recently that of all the changes of the Abbott-Hockey era made, of $80 billion, they'd spent 70 billion, so I don't think we're going to take a lecture from the Government on Government expenditure and GDP. But we will always keep downward pressure in terms of government spending, we'll have more to say about reducing waste. We said and I said in my speech that budget repair that is fair, a budget repair creating a sustainable budget, is a core value, and we won't ever tell you anything which we can't pay for and explain how we're paying for it. I think there was a deeper question which is probably too long for this forum, about the role of government, and we believe in markets. We believe in a market for carbon pollution reduction. We also believe that sometimes government has to step in to help markets function, where there's market failure we think there is a role but we're not ideological, we're just into ideas that make Australia prosperous.
JOURNALIST: Mark Riley, Mr Shorten from the Seven Network. You said in your speech the timing of the election and the budget are out of your hands, but that may not be entirely true. If the Senate numbers aren't there, the Government will find it very difficult, if not impossible, to bring that chamber back early to have the budget a week before May 10 or May 3. Richard Di Natale, the Greens leader, said this morning that he wasn't amenable to bringing the chamber back to expedite the ABCC bill. It's very unlikely that a majority of the cross-benchers are going to essentially expedite their own execution by allowing the chamber to come back, which leaves it in your hands. Would Labor support bringing the Senate back early to bring the budget forward a week?
SHORTEN: No, at this stage, with the information we have to hand, no. Why would Australia have to pay another $5 million because Mr Turnbull's boxed himself into a corner? They should spend the time working on the Budget. Now, also let me make it very clear, Labor will not block supply. We will not block supply. I think the Government owes Australian people an explanation of what's going on. I get the impression that the big thing which is keeping them up at night, the existential crisis of the Turnbull Government is which Saturday to have an election and do they have a Budget on Tuesday, May 10 or Tuesday, May 3? How is it that this great era of new economic leadership. That was a test that Mr Turnbull set for himself - we didn't ask him to set that test. Remember the days of September 14, Tony's gone, Mr Turnbull's in, new economic leadership. How is it that this Government has reduced the nation to an analysis of should it be the 3rd or the 10th? Should there be a double dissolution, should it be on the 2nd or 9th of July? Mr Turnbull should just govern. He should just govern.
JOURNALIST: Can I just get a a clarification on that, you say you won't block supply but it could be that there is one day, May 11, in which to pass supply would you delay it for a day?
SHORTEN: I think Mr Turnbull is the one who's got the answers to these questions. What I promise you is when he tells us what's going on, we'll tell you what we are going to do. But I've just been clear about the principles.
JOURNALIST: Sure, just conversation that you think would take more than a day, the supply bill?
SHORTEN: I can't read what's going on in his head. I'm not sure he can. He changes from morning to night.
JOURNALIST: Well Mark Kenny might be able to.
SHORTEN: I'll rely on the media to tell us.
JOURNALIST: I haven't been billed like that before. Mark Kenny from the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age. You said under us Medicare is not for sale. Can I just use that as a way of getting to exactly the nature of, I guess, the philosophy that you would govern with if you're elected. If you were given advice that its billing and payment system could be done more cheaply and speedily by out sourcing it, would you reject that advice and continue to do it the way it's been done? If that's the case, I mean, doesn't that give the lie to your suggestion that you're concerned about reducing Government spending and doing things efficiently? And if I could append one more in that vein, Kevin Rudd of course famously declared himself an economic conservative in the 2007 came campaign, he said that people described him as that, although records on that are rather thin. But after that, of course, he became something of a spending adventurist. He needed to, of course, for reasons that were global, but how would you describe yourself?
SHORTEN: Thanks for those questions. In terms of Medicare, I don't accept that the IT system's the only criteria which by - and the cost of it's the only criteria when you evaluate the cost of Medicare and the payment system. There's a whole range of issues coming to that. So you've said that if it came forward it was much cheaper, or cheaper to do it one way or the other, I don't accept that government can't run IT systems. We actually let them run the Tax Office. There's a whole range of systems, we let them run national security. So the argument that government can't do something automatically is not an assumption I share. We'll always be looking at cost reductions, and how we improve the efficiency of the system, but there's a lot of reasons why you keep something as important as that information and those payment system in government hands. In terms of Medicare's not for sale, let me give you some other examples because it's not just that that I was implying. I think it is ridiculous that the Government is proposing $650 million worth of cuts to the bulk billing incentive for diagnostic images and pathology testing. This will increase the cost of mammograms up front, it will increase the cost of pap smears, it will increase the cost of tests for chronic conditions like diabetes, 100 per cent of all cancer treatment requires these tests. Why on earth is the Government putting up the price of going to see the doctor and get these tests? 70 per cent of all clinical treatments require these test. So, when I say we're going stand up for Medicare, it's not just the payment system, it's a view of the world which says that universal healthcare is actually efficient. In America they spent 17 per cent per cent roughly of their GDP on the health costs, we spend roughly 10 per cent. If we didn't have Medicare the way it is structured you'd have employers having to pay where employers could ask for it, the medical costs. It's not more efficient not to have universal health care. You asked how I would describe myself - when I ran for Leader of the Opposition I actually wrote down some of the things about who I am. I'm a unionist, I'm Labor, I'm a husband, I'm a father. I believe in the Republic and I believe in marriage equality and I don't think that - I'm an internationalist. I actually was endeared by my mum's sense of justice, which said that not only do woman deserve to be treated equally but merit is a legitimate human condition and that is on the basis on which people should have people should have the opportunity to advance. I also wrote down that I believe in Indigenous recognition. I also wrote down in terms of what I think, I think about which is the anthem I prefer for Australia - it's not God Save the Queen, it's not this sort of fortress Australia mentality where we are girt by sea and should be fearful of our neighbours. It's more we are Australian. And yes I describe myself as the descendant of convicts and the descendant of unsuccessful goldminers, and my dad was a fitter and turner and then became a ships engineer on a seafarer, my mum was a teacher and became a university lecturer. I don't have to pretend to be who I'm not. My Labor Party doesn't have to pretend who it is not. Isn't that one of the great challenges of leadership, it is hard to lead a nation when you have to pretend to be something that you're not. That's who I am Mark.
JOURNALIST: Michelle Grattan.
JOURNALIST: Michelle Grattan from The Conversation, Mr Shorten if the Turnbull Government is re-elected and there is a plebiscite on marriage equality. Does the Labor conscience vote extent to Labor MPs campaigning for the no side of that in the plebiscite?
SHORTEN: I am optimistic that this plebiscite, that with saner heads prevailing in the Liberal party, we will just end up with a vote in Parliament. PwC issued a report, I think it was yesterday, which said that the economic cost of having this plebiscite - it's more like half a billion dollars. Having a plebiscite not with the election, and that's clearly what the Government's going to do, will clearly cost $160 million. How did we get ourselves into such a pickle that we're going to have to have government funded campaigns for the 'no' case as well as the 'yes' case? The Government hasn't even ruled in or ruled out whether or not discrimination law and protections will be in or out for the plebiscite. The Government hasn't even ruled in or ruled out will foreign money be allowed to be of influence in this plebiscite.
Nick Greiner, and I know he's got his disagreements with Mr Turnbull, anyway but he has said that he's changed his view on this. Many Liberals know that having this sort of debate is actually not where this nation needs to go. I said I was appalled. I do not know why people seriously argue - we know why the plebiscite idea was invented - it was invented by Mr Abbott and his supporters to kick the issue down the road. It wasn't invented by people who want marriage equality in this country. But how on earth did we get ourselves to this state of affairs where we've got a Prime Minister who knows better, who's willing to go the low road? What right is it of all us to start judging individuals’ relationships? Part of my view about supporting marriage equality is that it's a personal matter. I don't want to tell kids of gay couples that somehow you have to be subjected to a stigmatising campaign. So I have to say Michelle, whilst I understand the technical nature of your question, I and the Labor party have not given up on one, winning the election, two, within the first 100 days introducing a Bill and we will have a conscious vote there. You know, why waste half a billion dollars of economic effort, $160 million of taxpayer money? The MPs of this Parliament should just do the job that they're paid to do.
JOURNALIST: Thank you Paul Bongiorno, Ten News Mr Shorten. Do you accept Tony Abbott's characterisation of your 12.5 per cent rise in Tobacco Excise as a workers tax and do you welcome indications today that maybe the Government is thinking of copying your workers tax and in that vein this morning Treasurer Morrison in Melbourne confirmed that he's having a look at the incentives and arrangements for superannuation and they will be in the Budget but they've got nothing to do with revenue, everything to do with a better retirement system.
SHORTEN: Well it was inevitable that this Government having boxed itself out of negative gearing, boxed itself out of doing real work on multinational taxation and people paying their fair share, boxed themselves out of reforming the capital gains discount, it was inevitable that they were going to have to take some of Labor's ideas. Now they're good ideas so I can't complain when people imitate us, they say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But when we talk about, you know we heard a burst from Mr Abbott about a workers tax, let me just remind people what that really means.
Poorer people disproportionately feel the burden of tobacco related cancers. Both my parents lives were shortened, I believe, by the fact that they both smoked for decades. So when they call it a workers tax he's actually right about one thing; poorer illness outcomes and mortality tend to affect poorer people more, that's why I support the Tobacco Excise. The Government has to. Although I note that you've had Mr Morrison out bagging it previously, the Health Minister remarkably wasn't enthusiastic about it. I think the Assistant Treasurer Kelly O'Dwyer has had another run in recent days bagging it. I think even as late as today Andrew Laming and Ewen Jones were saying they didn't like it.
If this Government wants to be fair dinkum about Budget repair, about being able to fund schools and hospitals, about having a health system where the burden of cancer doesn’t fall disproportionately on the people, on poorer people, they have to go down the path of the Tobacco Excise. Mr Turnbull in a Budget Reply speech he gave when he was Opposition Leader recommended that to Mr Rudd I think, you should have a Tobacco Excise.
In terms of superannuation, well, we've had to listen for a year, because Chris and I released this policy in April of last year, almost a year ago, and we said that there's unsustainable concessions in the superannuation tax system. For people who already have millions of dollars they don't need a tax concession from all the other taxpayers, they're already comfortable.
So it's inevitable the Government has to look at these things. But what this Government always does is whenever Labor has a good idea they just rear up. They just immediately have this Pavlovian sort of response, they just go the other way and then they find out they've got to sort of crab walk back to our sensible middle of the road policies. So I say to Mr Turnbull and Mr Morrison, you're welcome. You're welcome to look at our Tobacco Excise, you're welcome to look at how we have a sustainable superannuation tax system, although I will take issue with Mr Morrison. He sort of has an ability when he speaks to change feet, when he's putting it in it. He says at $2 trillion - see he can't even get reform right - at $2 trillion he said the superannuation system is good enough. Well tell that to the millions of Australians who have low account balances, tell that to the millions of working women who have even lower account balances. How did we come to have a Treasurer who doesn't know the superannuation system and doesn't respect or be in touch with the lives of working class and middle class people because ask them how much they've got in their super and they'd say not enough. And how on earth did we get a Prime Minister who said he was up for economic leadership, who said that this has never been a more exciting time to be Australian, and he never engages in tax reform debate.
This year is a very exciting year; it'll be an exciting election. We're not the red hot favourite when we go in the ring, we're the underdog. I can promise millions of Australia though, we've got a plan for jobs, we've got a plan for education, we've got a plan for health care, we're fair dinkum about climate change, especially through promoting renewable energy and we believe in a fair tax system. We also believe in the equal treatment of women and we think that when this society is fairer, you get more sustainable, economic growth. Thanks very much.