SALES: The Opposition Leader Bill Shorten joins me from Melbourne. Good to have you on again.
BILL SHORTEN, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: Good evening, Leigh.
SALES: If you become the Prime Minister at the next election, ultimately, your first thank you note will have to be to the Liberal Party, won't it, to say thanks for giving you such a cake walk to the Lodge?
SHORTEN: It will be to the people of Australia if they vote for us. But I mean, the very fact that Parliament is resuming and the Liberal Party's consumed by itself and Mr Turnbull's leadership, yet we have just seen that shocking two-part story about the treatment of older Australians.
The Government's having an urgent meeting, not about that, but about their latest position on marriage equality. I mean, I think any nation which treats old people in the manner in which your 7.30 report has revealed should be ashamed of itself. We need to do a lot better on it. That, to me, is a much bigger issue –
SALES: Sorry to interrupt, can Labor promise to address the holes that were raised in the accreditation system in that story?
SHORTEN: Yes, I believe we can, but it shouldn't necessarily have to wait until the next election. I'm willing to sit down with Mr Turnbull and work through the matters. Clearly there is a challenge around the accreditation, no question, but I also want to put on the table tonight a couple of other points.
One is, there is a general problem with elder abuse in Australia. We are waiting to see more work from the Law Reform Commission. I wrote to Mr Turnbull on 24th of February and said let's talk about that.
When it comes to aged care facilities, no question in my mind, we need to make sure if we have the right number of nurses on duty, are we getting the right training for people, are we charging too much in our TAFE to train people to do this vital work in the future?
$2 billion was cut from aged care since the Liberals have been in. There is plenty to be done there to help make sure we get better standards. I think some of the large companies who are reaping pretty big amounts out of the aged care bonds, large companies found to not be doing the right thing, are not the solution in aged care.
SALES: Let's turn to some of the issues that are likely to come up next week. Same sex marriage, what help are members of your senior leadership team giving to the pro-same sex marriage MPs on the Liberal Party side with their parliamentary tactics?
SHORTEN: There is no formal or informal traffic coming from the leadership of our party to these individual Liberals who want to vote with their conscience. We are trying to give them the room and the space to be able to back their conscience in –
SALES: So let me ask you then, will you give them any assistance to suspend standing orders so a Private Member's Bill could be brought on?
SHORTEN: We think the matter should be voted on. The answer is yes. If we get the chance to vote up marriage equality and have a vote on it in the Parliament, a fair dinkum vote, we are absolutely up for that. But it doesn't have to be me or someone senior in Labor who moves the bill. Let's make it cross-party. Let's just get it done.
I think a lot of Australians are genuinely getting quite peeved off that we are not just voting on it. We go to Parliament every week, we vote on the most amazing minutiae. This is a big issue. We have made 20 amendments to the Marriage Act in previous parliaments, 20 amendments since the Marriage Act was introduced. Why now are we making gay people have to jump through an extra law-making hoop of a plebiscite when we have never asked anyone else to do it when we amended the Marriage Act? It doesn't make sense.
SALES: Well, let me ask you, if it did come to a Private Member's Bill on the floor of the House, how many Labor MPs would you anticipate would vote against same sex marriage?
SHORTEN: First of all, we bind on process matters so all of us will vote to –
SALES: Suspend standing orders?
SHORTEN: If it comes to that, yes.
SALES: What about then for the actual bill?
SHORTEN: We have a conscience vote so we don't bind at all. The Liberal Party say they have a sort of hybrid conscience vote but Mr Turnbull will still force members of his executive –
SALES: But just want to ask about the Labor MPs. You must have a sense of how your numbers would go?
SHORTEN: The vast majority.
SALES: But it is a tight parliament so it is quite key, actually, how many Labor MPs would be likely to vote against it?
SHORTEN: I think a very small number.
SALES: If we can turn to some broader issues. Labor will undoubtedly continue campaigning around its inequality message for the second half of this year. Given a lot of factors outside government control contribute to inequality, are you running the risk of setting expectations too high with voters on issues that you can't really do that much about?
SHORTEN: I think there is a lot that government can do. You are quite right, some factors are outside the control of any government, like global economic circumstances. But it's not beyond our control to restore penalty rates. It's not beyond our control not to increase the Medicare Levy on eight million Australians who earn less than $87,000. It is not beyond our control to reform the negative gearing system, which gives first home owners a level playing field. So there are levers that a conscientious government has which can help ensure all Australians, regardless of their post codes or their parents' wealth, get a fair go in life.
SALES: Well experts agree that one of the drivers of inequality currently is low wages growth. Which of your policies will drive up wages growth?
SHORTEN: Well, if we restored penalty rates, that's a start –
SALES: Well, penalty rates are a small component of a small percentage of workers' rights. What about the broader issue of base salaries across the economy?
SHORTEN: I will come to base salaries but I don't agree with your assumption that penalty rates are a small part of a few people's wages packets. I think something like nearly four million Australians depend upon penalty rates. At the moment, we are seeing the awards which cover 700,000 Australians have penalty rates cut. This is the worst possible time to cut penalty rates –
SALES: And I'm asking about base salaries which affect absolutely everybody so let's come to that. We have limited time, let's come to it.
SHORTEN: Okay but I just don't want this Liberal myth to be perpetrated that somehow penalty rates are an anachronism of the 19th Century. They're not .
The more general question of how we do we get bargaining going again, the Fair Work Act is broken in many parts. Last year alone, agreements – nearly 500 – were terminated. In other words, there is more incentive in the system for employers to cut wages than bargain with employees to improve productivity and create a win-win outcome for employers and employees. That's one way.
Another way we help improve people's take-home pay packets is we don't increase the Medicare Levy on them which is what this government wants to do. They're going to give millionaires a tax cut – in fact, have from the 1st of July this year, but they are proposing to increase the income tax paid, the Medicare Levy, by half a per cent on all Australians.
How does it help someone who earns $60,000 a year to pay an extra half a per cent of tax, when they are spending every cent they've got, including on rapidly out-of-control electricity prices and gas prices? I mean, another way we can help people have more take-home pay and create greater consumer demand is we can actually have a Clean Energy Target, which will finally put certainty into the energy market, allow new investment in energy, which is what is currently stopping – sorry, the lack of new investment in energy is one of the biggest drivers, the biggest driver, on power bills going up.
SALES: When you look at discontent about inequality around the world, voters have tended to flock to people who are outsiders, well outside the establishment. Macron in France, Trump in the United States, Corbyn in the UK, even here Hanson and Xenophon.
Why do you think that when it comes to fixing inequality, voters are going to trust Bill Shorten, the ultimate insider for decades, in the union movement, the Melbourne power scene and Labor politics?
SHORTEN: Well I don't buy your dismissal that somehow being a union rep somehow makes you not fair dinkum –
SALES: The point is that you are an insider.
SHORTEN: Well the point is that I'm from the Labor Party. We have got 130 years, my party, of standing up for the less well off –
SALES: No, no. You are not addressing my point which is voters around the world have gone for outsiders and you are somebody who is inside the system.
SHORTEN: Well, leave aside if Mr Macron is an economist from the inside or Donald Trump is actually a very rich man, what the Labor Party's doing is we are taking our job as an Opposition very seriously.
Australia isn't the same as other countries. For a long time, we have had, in Labor, an argument which says that if you have a strong safety net combined with investment in education and infrastructure, if you have good workplace relations, we can create the productivity which sees good outcomes for business and good outcomes for working people.
I mean, it was the Labor Party in recent years who has pushed the National Disability Insurance Scheme into existence. We're the ones who are arguing to restore people's penalty rates against unilateral cuts. I think we are speaking to the experiences of everyday Australians. For instance, our plan to reform negative gearing will give first home buyers a chance to compete on a level playing field. Home ownership in Australia is the lowest it has been in 60 years and disturbingly, for Australians under 40, home ownership is down to 25 per cent.
My Labor Party, my united Labor Party, has got a plan to look after working and middle-class Australians.
SALES: We are out of time. Look forward to talking to you again in this second half of the parliamentary year.
SHORTEN: Great, cheers.