PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA
THURSDAY, 1 DECEMBER 2016
SUBJECT/S: Backpacker Tax; ABCC; Parliament House security.
BILL SHORTEN, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: Good afternoon, everybody.
The farce over the backpacker tax must end and it must end now. Originally, backpackers paid no tax and the government, with no consultation to industry, to employers, took it from 0 to 32.5 per cent in the 2015 Budget. And ever since that mistake by the Liberals and Nationals government, it has been mired in controversy and chaos ever since.
Hats off to Joel Fitzgibbon and Anthony Albanese for campaigning on this issue from the outset. We knew it was a mess and we knew the government got it wrong. And then the government rushed in with a 19 per cent tax, no science, no evidence, no consultation, and they said that was it, just as they said they would never move from 32 per cent, they said they would never move from 19. And then they ran around and found that didn't suit industry, that didn't suit a whole lot of people, so then they moved to 15 per cent, but we've still got the chaos over the backpacker tax.
The government hasn't convinced the Senate, they have convinced industry, they haven't convinced agriculture, they haven't convinced hospitality, and now this morning, we had the Prime Minister of Australia out in the media lying and name-calling.
But this morning also, I can report to you, that whilst the Prime Minister has been on a frolic of finger-pointing and blame game, Labor has been working to come up with a solution which will fix the mess, end the mess. So we've come up with a solution.
We are prepared to support a 13 per cent backpacker tax from every dollar earned by backpackers. We think it gets the balance right, and I will get Chris to explain more about that in a moment. There is a solution on the table for Malcolm Turnbull. Our message to Malcolm Turnbull is grow up, swallow your pride, accept a solution. It is not the perfect solution, but it is the best possible solution.
It is as simple as this to Mr Turnbull: Labor has moved, we've put a solution on the table, we’ve listened carefully to what everyone has been saying. It is now time for Mr Turnbull to move and resolve this issue. He and Scott Morrison are dangerously stranded on an important issue.
If the government can't accept Labor's solution, which we put forward in good faith to resolve this on the last sitting day of Parliament, then what happens is the backpacker drought will continue, agriculture and tourism and vital sectors of the Australian economy, will be stranded all because this is a chaotic government who don't know how to negotiate.
I might just hand over to Chris now.
CHRIS BOWEN, SHADOW TREASURER: Thanks very much, Bill.
Well, this is a mess of the government's making but today Labor is stepping in and showing the leadership to bring this mess to an end today. This is a mess which has gone on for 18 months. The government could have and should have fixed this at any time over those last 18 months, but they have shown, as late as this morning, that they are simply not capable of the leadership to do so. So today, Bill Shorten is doing what Malcolm Turnbull should have done, and providing that leadership to the Parliament. Today we are doing what Scott Morrison could have and should have done, and solving this mess.
Just a few hours ago, in a press conference just as arrogant and petulant as the one on Monday, in which he told the Labor Party to go jump, and said he was not interested in a bipartisan solution, Scott Morrison doubled down on 15 per cent. That is not the sort of leadership that Australia's agriculture and horticultural sectors and tourism are looking for. They are looking for a result. So, as Bill said, in the spirit of compromise and the spirit of this Parliament providing the leadership necessary, Labor is prepared to support a backpacker tax of 13 per cent.
I just want to make a couple of very brief points about the lies the government have told, up to and including today, because this is very important. Instead of trying to find a solution, they have been pointing the finger of blame and have been making things up. They said that Labor wants a backpacker tax rate of zero - well, that's always been a lie. 10.5 per cent is not zero. They say as late as today that under our proposal, backpackers would be taxed more lightly than Pacific Islander seasonal workers, ignoring the fact that seasonal workers from the Pacific Islanders scheme do not have their superannuation taxed in the same way as backpacker would. That is just a straight, plain lie. And perhaps, most bizarrely of all, senior ministers claiming that somehow the backpacker tax rate of 32.5 per cent was introduced by Wayne Swan. Well, I have a news flash for the government - Wayne Swan did not bring down the 2015 Budget. Joe Hockey did. The Liberal and National Party did.
So instead of pointing the finger of blame, instead of making things up and lying about the backpacker tax, the government should be working towards getting a resolution.
The final point is this. This 48-hour period shows more than perhaps than any other time that we have a Treasurer who is not up to the job. Can you imagine Paul Keating or even Peter Costello letting this rolling farce continue like it has this week? Well, Scott Morrison is the fatal mixture of arrogance and incompetence. I wouldn't mind a bit of arrogance, but arrogance and incompetence mixed together is terrible for the role of Treasurer of Australia. He is not up to the job. He has shown time and time again he is not up to the job, and he should today be seriously considering his position.
JOURNALIST: This time yesterday, I asked at the doorstop over there whether you would go from 10 per cent, meet them somewhere in between and you said no. What's changed?
SHORTEN: Well, first of all, I said in my opening, do we think this is the perfect solution? No, I don't. But I do think this is the pest possible solution. Like yourself, probably, I was stunned to watch the government just double down on 15 per cent when industry is telling us, and Joel has had plenty of people contacting him saying that’s just too high.
And today watching the government roll out their lies and myths and nonsense, this government needs a way out. Quite frankly, what we are doing is we are giving the government an exit strategy out of a bit of really poor tax policy stupidity. We are giving them an exit strategy. The government just has to meet us halfway. They have to swallow their pride.
In negotiations, there is a time to resolve matters. The last day of Parliament - this is not a time for the government to be playing brinkmanship with our agricultural and tourism sector. We are not going to make common sense the enemy of the perfect. We will do the deal. We will make sure they come up with a solution, but this government is really playing with farmers' livelihoods. They're playing with the livelihoods of the tourism operators. I might get Joel to talk about more of the consequences if the solution isn't picked up today.
JOEL FITZGIBBON, SHADOW MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES AND FORESTRY: Scott Morrison made it very clear during his press conference this morning that he is not capable of leadership and he is not capable of fixing this thing. But another point: throughout the course of this morning I had, I think, five phone calls from peak industry leaders. A couple from Tasmania, one from Mildura, one from Western Australia. All saying, "Look, we're backing you on 10.5, but if you can get 13, please let's just do this."
But the most significant call was one from Stuart Armitage. Stuart Armitage is the chair of the Queensland farmers, an arm of the National Farmers Federation, very, very interestingly. And he said, "Joel, I'm backing you at 10.5, but, mate, if you can't get 10.5, can you go 13?" I thought that was a significant contribution from him. Of course he said I'm happy for you to quote me, as I'm doing now. A significant contribution from a number of significant players in the industry, and from that point, and given Morrison's performance, I thought if they're not prepared to show some leadership, the Labor Party will have to do it for them.
JOURNALIST: Scott Morrison said it'd cost the budget another $60 million. Do you have any way of making that up?
BOWEN: Scott Morrison has supported and argued for 32.5, 19 and 15, and at each point he said that's the right rate and he couldn't go any lower because it couldn't be afforded. So we don't take that comment with much credibility. I mean this the government where the Finance Minister was saying on Sunday on Insiders, that saying 19 was not negotiable because they couldn't afford to go any further, and less than 24 hours later, the Treasurer was releasing a 15 per cent rate. Now as Joel has pointed out, I mean, the difference is comparable to how much Barnaby Joyce is paying to move the AVPMA from Canberra to Armidale in a disgraceful bit of political skulduggery.
What we do is we announce our policies as we go, and what we do is we make sure our bottom line is better than the government's. We've announced, for example, $1.4 billion of improvements to the superannuation package that the government could have taken up, so if you look at our policy announcements in total, our bottom line is better than the government's.
JOURNALIST: And you have argued in your shadow budget for 32.5, and then you went to 10.5, so why can't you go to 15, and why isn't this all this just an exercise in politics?
BOWEN: This is an exercise in leadership to get it done –
JOURNALIST: Why did you go from 32.5 to 10.5?
BOWEN: We didn't propose the 32.5 rate.
JOURNALIST: But you booked it in your budget –
BOWEN: Sometimes, Chris, you and your colleagues criticise us for not being bipartisan enough and not trying to find solutions to work with the government. We said we trust and hope the government has done its homework and consultation. Quite clearly we put too much trust and hope in the government, quite clearly. It’s been quite clear that the government has not engaged in that consultation. What we did - when the government announced 19, we said, well, we are going to take a bit of time to look at this carefully, we're going to refer it to a Senate inquiry. The government was outraged about that, they wanted 19 passed overnight. They said it would end western civilisation if 19 wasn't passed at that time. We said, well, no, we will recommend a Senate inquiry. I would recommend to you the evidence given particularly in Tasmania and in Queensland to that Senate inquiry. And our Tasmanian colleagues would be very quick to tell you just how disastrous a 19 per cent rate would have been for the Tasmanian economy which doesn't need a further body blow.
So that's where we came up with the 10.5 per cent. Now let's be clear, 10.5 per cent is our preferred model. We are not walking away from that. That's what we would prefer to see legislated today. But as Bill said, we're not going let the perfect be the enemy of the good. 13 and the certainty it provides, importantly, so that the Parliament leaves today and farmers and horticulturalists and tourism operators can say, "At last, at last, we have certainty." That's the price to pay -
JOURNALIST: You could do that now on 15.
BOWEN: That's the price to pay. 15 is too high, Chris.
FITZGIBBON: Can I just add to that, for many, many weeks now, the horticultural sector in Tasmania in particular - and Brian Mitchell has been with us today, he has been a great campaigner - have been telling me, "Why don't you just align it with the withholding tax rate they apply to Australian pickers. So Australian pickers may or may not go through the tax free threshold, so we take a withholding tax of 13 and if they go through the tax-free threshold in that year, they don't get it back of course, they pay difference, but if they don't, they get the money back. So they've been telling me very consistently and I think they told the Senate inquiry, it makes sense to them in regulatory terms, red tape terms, to align the backpacker tax to the withholding tax.
JOURNALIST: If a backpacker earns $500 this a week at 13, they'll get $435, at 15 they'll $425. Is that really gonna make a difference to anyone coming out here?
FITZGIBBON: I think everything lower than 32.5 makes a difference. You know before –
JOURNALIST: But that specific example, $10 difference, $435, $425.
FITZGIBBON: No, I will answer your question. Before Joe Hockey announced 32.5, in great fanfare - have a look at his budget speech, claiming credit for this brilliant idea he had which would earn him, he claimed $540 million, they were paying zero, and backpackers were already falling away, already falling away, before his announcement. So anything above zero is a risk, is a risk to further compounding that problem.
So what we've been a about is securing the lowest possible rate we can. We tried 10.5. It's clear it's problematic, we would have difficulty getting it through the Parliament, given the government's recalcitrance, so we're are going to the next rate we think we can win.
JOURNALIST: Mr Shorten, have you formally put this to the Prime Minister before coming out here or is this just more negotiation through the media?
BOWEN: He told us to jump in the lake.
SHORTEN: Ladies and gentlemen, let's just call it as it really is today. The government has failed to convince the Senate on 15 per cent. We think a lower rate is in the best interests of industry, the Australian economy and business. But we are prepared to move. We are prepared to offer a sensible, common sense solution. The government has been yelling and shouting and foot-stamping and making up stories and they've said, "Oh, look at Labor, they're not reasonable." Well, the ball is back in your court, Malcolm. We've moved and if you don't move, then the farming industry and the agricultural industry will be levying 32.5 per cent tax, which is already having disastrous consequences. People want this Parliament to work. We are leading, it is time for the Government to follow and settle this.
JOURNALIST: Why did you wait until the last day of Parliament to come up with this? Isn't this so you could pronounce that it was chaotic?
JOEL FITZGIBBON: We wanted 10.5.
SHORTEN: I've also go the to say, it's not us who is making this place chaotic. Have you had a look at the government this week? I mean, the fact of the matter is, they've had security documents about secret plans to overhaul our whole visa system, they've been leaked. Last Sunday you had Tony Abbott make a job application to come back into the Cabinet. You've got Attorney-General Brandis in witness protection. You've got the Prime Minister yesterday refusing to rule out a reshuffle, a judicial appointment for the incompetent Senator Brandis, or indeed a foreign posting.
So this is a government whose chaos is of its own making. Quite frankly, what we're doing today, is we're putting the interests of Australian farmers, Australian tourism operators, Australia ahead of the ongoing farce of this government. Labor didn't invent the 32.5 per cent rate, we didn't invent all the various positions they've had. But do you know what this country needs today? A bit of leadership. I will take one more question.
JOURNALIST: Mr Shorten, on the ABCC is it here to stay or are going to campaign to scrap it at the next election?
SHORTEN: The case for the ABCC hasn't been made out. There was already a regulator. We will always stand up for workers' rights, Joe, and the fact of the matter is, we didn't support the creation of the ABCC. Now I did say last question, but I just want to -
JOURNALIST: Just on the protesters, Mr Shorten, and the security, what are your thoughts on that? Especially the changes that have been tabled this morning?
SHORTEN: First of all, let's talk about the over the top protests yesterday and this morning. We will not allow protesters to stop this Parliament from functioning. We've got to get the balance right. Labor's approach, in terms of Parliament, is that it should be open to the people of Australia and it should be safe for the people of Australia to visit. We think the current proposals get the balance largely right, but I have to just make a comment about our Liberal counterparts yesterday. They did the wrong thing when they scurried out of the Parliamentary chamber when the protesters were trying to shut down Parliament. What those protesters wanted to do was stop our Parliament functioning, and the Liberals have now given the green light, if you protest enough, they will leave the chamber. That's why we stayed.
In terms of the broader changes, open and safe is our approach. I mean, not only do you, the media, work here and the politicians, we have tens of thousands of schoolkids appropriately visit the home of Australian democracy, the Parliament. We've got to make sure that when they come here their experience is safe and all the other people who work here.
SHORTEN: I did say one last question, I've given you two, why don't we –
ALBANESE: Cheers. I just want to make a comment from discussions I've had from the tourism sector this morning as well, who are very angry that not only have they got the double whammy of the impact of the backpacker tax, but also the passenger movement charge, but they've had leaders of this country make extraordinary statements bagging German backpackers and speaking about rich backpackers coming here.
You know what? People who come here and spend money create jobs. And this government just doesn't get it, and that's one of the incentives for us to shift our position to try and get a solution, to save the government from itself.
SHORTEN: Thanks everybody.