MONDAY, 9 APRIL 2018
SUBJECT/S: Labor's economic reforms; dividend imputation changes; private health insurance; Adani; Labor's positive agenda for government.
LEIGH SALES, HOST: Bill Shorten, thanks for being with us.
BILL SHORTEN, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: Good evening, Leigh.
SALES: Australians have had a good look at you now as Labor Leader. You have been there for nearly five years - they still don't see you as preferred Prime Minister even though they would currently vote out the Coalition. How worried are you that you are acting as a drag on your party's vote?
SHORTEN: I'm not. What I want to see is Labor present to the next election a positive policy of social and economic ideas. I'm really pleased that I, and my united team, have put forward three of the biggest economic reforms to our tax system in living memory.
I am talking about our reforms to negative gearing. I am talking about our changes to family trusts and, of course, reigning in the imputation rorts which are simply unsustainable going forward.
These are tough changes and I believe that if Labor fights the next election on the quality of ideas and a vision for Australia, we will be very competitive.
SALES: If we can go to the imputation policy that you mentioned, can you promise that no pensioner will be worse off under what you call the 'pensioner guarantee' on that plan?
SHORTEN: I can promise that we will protect pensioners -
SALES: But will no pensioner be worse off?
SHORTEN: I am saying that we will protect pensioners. What I want to clear up here, and your question is a great opportunity to do it, is our reform is as simple as this: when people get income in retirement, their superannuation income, they pay no income tax. But a number of years ago the government introduced a very generous scheme where you can still get a tax refund even if you have paid no income tax.
Now, that was the law then. I just don't think it is sustainable.
I don't think our country should be a country which spends $8 billion on this, and spends less on public school funding in Australia. It is a matter of priorities. A hard decision, but I can again go back to your first question. We will protect pensioners.
SALES: Protecting pensioners is not the same as saying, there is no pensioner who will be worse off.
SHORTEN: I believe we will protect pensioners and if you are receiving a pension now you won't be worse off.
SALES: But your own, sorry, if I can just follow that up –
SHORTEN: Let's go to the heart of my answer.
SALES: Your own policy document on page three points out that any pensioner who sets up a self-managed super fund after March 2018 will not be exempt, so is it accurate the say current pensioners will be exempt but future pensioners will not?
SHORTEN: First of all, the number of pensioners who set up a self-managed superannuation fund is about 20,000 out of 2.5 million. So it is accurate to say we will protect pensioners and when you look at the basket of cost of living measures that we take to the next election to support our pensioners, pensioners will always be better off under Labor.
For example, the energy supplement which currently pensioners received up until last year, this government is trying to take it off new pensioners. We won't. That is a very important supplement which provides hundreds of dollars, which is absolutely needed when we have got a government that has got out-of-control energy prices.
I can also use the example of Medicare and co-payments in our health system. Labor has got a plan to keep the price of health care down, so pensioners will be better off and absolutely people can take that to the bank.
SALES: I will come to private health in a moment. Just on the pensioner issue we were talking about - by your own numbers, 92 per cent of Australians are unaffected by this policy, but when you have got a bit of backlash to your original plan you went to water pretty quickly and scaled it down. Is that how you are going to be as Prime Minister - announcing a policy and then backing down when the heat gets a bit much?
SHORTEN: Leigh, I won’t use your language like 'going to water'. Let's be fair here. This is a big change.
I think most of the political class were surprised that Labor was willing to tackle one of these Howard government tax-funded largesses.
SALES: And my point is that you backed down when you got a bit of heat?
SHORTEN: I think you will find we are still going with it. There is nothing wrong with a big policy, making calibrations, and what we have done is make a good policy even better.
Let's go to the heart of the matter here, Leigh, because there has been a lot of fear put out by the know-nothings and do-nothings in the Turnbull Government. What we have here is a system, the only place in the world where you can pay no income tax and you can because of particular circumstances get an income tax refund. How is that possible that you get a tax refund, an income tax refund when you pay no income tax? It is not sustainable.
I am not blaming anyone for getting it now. If that is the law good luck to them. But if I have to make a choice between child care, health care, schools or aged care funding, I guess I am going to pick the battlers and middle class and working class people.
SALES: You mentioned private health insurance before. If health insurance is a sound product then why do we need the stick of an extra one per cent Medicare levy to force Australians to take it out?
SHORTEN: I think private health insurance is important and certainly despite again what the scaremongers of the out-of-touch government say –
SALES: But can you address my question. If it such a good product - let's stick to what you think, not what the government thinks. If it is such a good product why do people have to be compelled to take it out?
SHORTEN: I will, but this is a great chance. 7.30 is one of the few opportunities to deal with the government's negativity and our positivity.
SALES: As we said at the start of this you could be the Prime Minister in a year’s time, so I am trying to get to the heart of what you would do - not your critique on what they’re currently doing.
SHORTEN: Sure, Leigh. With private health insurance, yes I think it is an important product but I am not satisfied with the way it is being run now. That is why Labor has proposed that we won't allow the big private health insurance companies to increase private health insurance premiums by any greater than 2% for the first two years of a Labor Government.
We have actually got a genuine no-nonsense proposition which will keep the price of private health insurance down, which I think will keep more people using the product. If they get $6 billion worth of taxpayer subsidy, which they do, I don’t want to scrap that. I just want to get a bit more back for the consumers, for the users of health insurance policies.
You and I both know countless stories you hear around the dinner table of people who had exclusions in their policies but didn't discover the fine print until they tried to make a claim on their private health insurance. That is why we are launching a campaign peoplenotprofits.org.au where people who use private health insurance can let us know, it’s a national survey, to let us know how we can improve the product.
We are doing the day job of the government. They should have done this.
SALES: On the Adani coal mine, what do you say to the suggestion that you have one message on Adani for the Queenslanders who seek to benefit from jobs that it would create, and one for the inner-city Greens in Sydney and Melbourne?
SHORTEN: I say that is nonsense, and in the modern digital age everything you say everywhere gets reported and presented everywhere else. But for the sake of clarity, let me say to your viewers tonight: I am a skeptic of the project. I am not a fan of the project. I am happy to tell people my personal opinion and under my government it will receive not one dollar of taxpayer money through the front door, back door or any side windows that the government are thinking of.
But what I won't do is put Australia up for sovereign risk and have taxpayers exposed to billions of dollars in compensation.
SALES: On your point of your opposition on exactly what you would do, the environmentalist and businessman Geoff Cousins met with you in Queensland to discuss Adani and then he came on this program and said that you said, quote, "when we are in government if the evidence is as compelling as we presently believe it to be regarding the approval of the Adani mine, we will revoke the licence as allowed in the Act." Now, that is different to what you are saying here tonight. Is what he says true?
SHORTEN: No, it’s not different at all. Mr Cousins and the ACF are absolutely critical and opposed to the Adani coal mine. I have made it clear that we won't support the mine and there will not be a Commonwealth dollar or taxpayer dollar going into the project.
SALES: But he says you said you would revoke the licence?
SHORTEN: Mr Cousins was certainly – and plenty of people in the environmental movement say just rip up the deal. Rip it up.
SALES: Did you say that?
SHORTEN: Wait a second. Let me answer your question. You have put it a number of times. I am happy to answer it. But first of all, I am not going to expose this country to legal compensation claims by a project that I don't think will go ahead. What sort of leader would I be if I just exposed the Australian taxpayer to billions of dollars of compensation claim and, by the way, this project in my opinion shows little sign of ever materialising.
SALES: Well, are you going to and did you tell Geoff Cousins that you would revoke the licence as allowed in the Act?
SHORTEN: I made it very clear, and I am making it clear again on television tonight, that I don't support sovereign risk, that I won't do anything which is against the law and I don't care how much people shout at me, I will adhere to the law, but what I also say tonight on television is what does Mr Turnbull think about the project? Is he going spend a single dollar of taxpayer money?
He's been suspiciously quiet on this. I think he should do the same as me and rule out wasting taxpayer money. Maybe he won't but we don't know what he thinks, do we? He is the Prime Minister right now.
SALES: On your point that you’ll adhere to the law, every time you come on this show I ask you about the record of law breaking by the CFMEU, something that numerous judges have described as appalling and you always say that you have zero tolerance for it. What would you be doing as Prime Minister to demonstrate your zero-tolerance approach to illegal behaviour by unions?
SHORTEN: Upholding the law, but what I won't do is make the right to join a union difficult. What I won't do is start flattening wages by making it hard for workers to be represented by unions. It is a two-way street.
See, the issue here is where you have got individuals, be it in a union movement or be it in business, I don't write-off the union movement or all of business because of the actions of individuals. When some journalists behave badly, I don't give up on the media.
SALES: So if I can ask you, you mentioned business there. The super union that has been created by the merger of the MUA and CFMEU, what do you say to business owners who were worried about two unions with a record of militancy joining forces?
SHORTEN: I would say that the history of Australia from colonial times onward, from the 19th century, shows that unions and employer associations have regularly merged. When unions are concerned about two employer associations merging, two employer unions merging, I tell them that is the law, that’s permissible.
What I say to people is look at history. And I also say about workplace relations more generally - it is not about the fine print of the IR Act. It is about the way that you treat your employees. Industrial relations is nowhere near as difficult as some of the conservative columnists and their political cheer squad and the Liberal Party make it out to be.
I mean, what we have in Australia is flat wages. Why is it we never hear from the government about flat wages? They have always got a view about a union organiser but they never seem to be as upset about wages' theft, the termination of enterprise agreements forcing workers into wage cuts. They don't want to do anything about penalty rates and the reduction in penalty rates, and they certainly haven't got a view on low wages.
SALES: As I mentioned a couple of times in this interview, you could be the Prime Minister by the end of next year. Malcolm Turnbull set up the those three benchmarks by which he's judged: the polls, economic management and how Cabinet is run. What will be the benchmarks by which the public should judge you?
SHORTEN: Keeping our promises. What I want to be is a government that looks after working and middle class families in this country.
The benchmarks I’m interested in keeping – are our schools are properly funded? Are we reducing the waiting lists in hospitals? Are they getting the support they need? Am I going to reduce the 105,000 person waiting list, many of whom have dementia, on the aged care lists. I am interested in lifting the number of apprenticeships in this country. I want to keep the price of private health insurance down. What I want to do is not increase the taxes on low paid people. I’d like to see wages move. I want to make we stop wages theft in this country and I want to protect our environment. I want to make sure that our First Australians are mentioned not only in our Constitution but we genuinely close the gap. I would like to be judged on whether or not women get an equal go in this country.
I have a vision for this country but it doesn't involve giving $65 billion to the top end of town and looking after the very wealthy and not the less powerful.
SALES: I would like to ask you about the $65 billion but we are out of time unfortunately, good you have your company tonight, Bill Shorten. Thank you.
SHORTEN: Thank you.