SUBJECTS: Liberal political interference with the ABC; Labor’s call for Senate Inquiry into political interference at the ABC; Stuart Robert expenses affair; TPP; Labor’s bipartisan approach on population policy.
MICHELLE ROWLAND, SHADOW MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: 10 years ago this weekend, Mitch Fifield made a speech in which he talked about privatising the ABC and the need to, essentially, till the soil in order to make that happen, because it would be unpopular with the Australian people. And where are we today: this weekend the Tasmanian Liberals are again debating privatising the ABC, and it is very clear that the Liberal Party does not support public broadcasting in Australia.
It is a sorry state of affairs that we now have a Prime Minister who is openly talking about the possibility of merging the ABC and the SBS. We have a Prime Minister who, as Treasurer in his last budget, cut $83.7 million from the ABC, despite the fact that this government was elected on a platform of no cuts to the ABC. This brings a total in budget cuts to the ABC of $366 million, around 800 staff have been shown the door, and in the last fortnight we have seen extraordinary allegations of political interference at the ABC. And now we have this open question about whether or not this government is looking to merge the ABC and SBS.
The contrast could not be clearer. At Labor's NSW Conference we unanimously passed a resolution to reverse the funding cuts of $83.7 million, to provide stable funding for the ABC and to ensure that it is never privatised. Voters have an opportunity to change the way this government sees the ABC, and that is to vote this government out.
JOURNALIST: This is just the state branch though right? This isn't federal policy so why does it matter?
ROWLAND: It is quite extraordinary to see that not only did the Federal Liberal Council vote this way only a couple of months ago, but now we have the Liberals at a state level in Tasmania talking about the same. It is quite clear that the Liberals do not support the ABC and public broadcasting in Australia. They have a series of Bills in the Parliament right now to meddle with the ABC Act and Charter. The contrast could not be clearer between Labor and the Liberals when it comes to the ABC and public broadcasting.
JOURNALIST: The Prime Minister and the Communications Minister have both said, though, that they have no plans to privatise the ABC, so is this just mischief making?
ROWLAND: Well if it's mischief making by the Tasmanian Liberals, they can answer to the Australian people. The Australian people are seeing a Liberal Party in disarray. And where are their National Party partners in all of this? The Nationals talk a big game when it comes to the importance of the ABC for rural and regional communities but they fail to stand up for the ABC when it really counts.
JOURNALIST: Would you expect people to speak against it during the conference? It kind of sailed through in NSW.
ROWLAND: Well, it remains to be seen whether anyone will actually speak against this. It was an overwhelming vote last time around when this motion came up, but again it just points to the fact that the contrast could not be clearer as between Labor and the Liberals when it comes to the ABC. For us in Labor, the ABC, and public broadcasting itself, is an article of faith. The Liberal Party, if it does choose to go down this path, and we have a Prime Minister and a Minister allegedly saying that they don't support privatisation, well all that shows is the Liberal Party is at war with itself and doesn't even know what it stands for.
JOURNALIST: It has been a pretty messy couple of weeks at the ABC. Do you think some people might be looking at it with some dismay?
ROWLAND: It is quite telling that over the past fortnight we have seen the issues that have been going on. We have seen the independence of the Board allegedly compromised. We have seen a number of allegations that need to be tested, and that is why Labor has been very strong in calling for a full, transparent Senate Inquiry into this matter, because there are some very serious questions to answer, not only in respect of the allegations that have been made about the former Chairman, but also the Board. And in the last couple of days you've even seen some new information about some of the Board proceedings which again throw into question what has actually been going on here. Let’s remember, this all started with allegations of political interference. These allegations need to be fully tested.
JOURNALIST: Just on another issue, Stuart Robert: it seems he's going to pay back some of his huge data bill. Should that be the end of it?
ROWLAND: I think Australians would expect that that would be the course of action, but it certainly doesn't answer the question as to how this arose in the first place. This is quite an extraordinary set of bills, when you compare them to the average of other MPs and Scott Morrison, whilst he has said on one side that he has asked the Special Minister of State to investigate this, it certainly is one where the Australian public are questioning “well, this person is the Assistant Treasurer, he's in charge of some very important matters of public policy, and yet he's accruing these very strange, very large bills in data.” So there are some questions to be answered here about how this came about. And the clarification statement that the Assistant Treasurer issued yesterday really only clarified one thing, and that's that copper is an inferior technology when it comes to broadband access.
JOURNALIST: Do you think it's a matter for all Parliamentarians, though, in the terms of the way that they rack up costs, should they be looking more carefully at getting better value for money?
ROWLAND: There's a legitimate expectation from the Australian public that Members of Parliament will utilise these entitlements, utilise this expenditure, in the most cost-effective manner possible. When you look at the amount of some of these bills it certainly does call into question, well what exactly was this being spent on?
JOURNALIST: Are you concerned that key unions that back the Labor Party might revoke their support over the TPP deal? Is that a battle that you can really afford before the next election?
ROWLAND: It's understandable that many Australians, including in the trade union movement, have significant concerns about the TPP. And as Bill Shorten has said, this is a sub-optimal deal. It's one that Labor will need to fix in government, particularly in relation to labour market testing and ISDS provisions. But it also clear that whilst those benefits may be marginal, they are benefits and they are ones that Labor wants to ensure our exporters realise, and other sectors of our economy such as our education sector realise as well.
So we have a very clear plan here in order to make this happen. We will ensure that we have side letters in place in relation to some of those aspects we don't agree with, such as New Zealand has done. But it is one that we think needs to be passed in order that those benefits for exporters are realised, but as Bill Shorten has made very clear, this is sub-optimal and we would not have done this in government. The reality is we are not in government today, but when we are in government we will fix it.
JOURNALIST: How damaging could it be though, if some key unions withdraw support before the election? They're a huge power base and campaign base too.
ROWLAND: Well again, it's very understandable why unions would hold these concerns and they are concerns that are held by a very large number of Australians right across our community. But it also very clear that we need to realise those benefits. We need to ensure that exporters get those benefits, however marginal they might be, and that we fix this up in government.
JOURNALIST: Labor's called for a population taskforce. The Prime Minister says that's a stunt. Are you going to commit to one if you form government?
ROWLAND: Well, we want this to be done on a bipartisan basis. And I have a background in local government. We're standing here at Schofields Station, which on any weekday will have hundreds and hundreds of cars banked up right down the street without a multi-storey commuter carpark to deal with them. So what we are talking about here is actually reflecting the three words that Bill Shorten made clear in his letter: quality of life. For people in this area, in growth areas like the North West and South West Sydney for example, it's all about quality of life. And people are smart. They understand that there's no magic lever to pull in order to solve a lot of these problems that come with an expanding population.
The reality is over the past decade Australia has been getting bigger, but we need to ensure that not only does infrastructure keep up with it, including public transport, including roads, including access to public transport, but other services such as schools and hospitals and health care. All these things need to be taken into account, and it's very true what Bill Shorten says about there needing to be a multi-faceted approach. On one hand you've got local government which deals with zoning and planning referrals and so forth; you've got a state government which has its own environment plans and its own infrastructure priorities; and at a federal level, of course, you're got the main driver of funds, which is through taxation, but also you've got population policy. And I tell you what: Australians know that you need to have all three levels of government working together.
And the one thing I keep hearing, and I know Bill Shorten has been hearing this as he's been going around Australia, is that people just want us to get on with it. They want a long-term vision for Australia that addresses these issues of quality of life. And it needs to be done in a cohesive manner, which is why I think it is very sensible to take it on the evidence, to look at what the experts are saying and to have this sort of process by which we can take it out of being something that's purely political and make it something that actually works for all Australians.
We know that population is beneficial for Australia but we also know the great challenges that come with it. The beauty of it out here in North West Sydney is, whilst we have such an expanding and growing and harmonious population, it is also a great place to live. People chose to live here. People want to live in Australia because it's the best country in the world. They're not going to stop wanting to come and live in Australia, but we need to have some sort of long-term vision and some sort of plan that can be executed to ensure that quality of life always remains paramount for governments.
JOURNALIST: Michelle, can I ask you a question? Jonathan Lea from Channel 10 down in Canberra. Many people in South West Sydney and North West Sydney might actually advocate for less migration. How willing is the Labor Party to advocate for that if that's what the people are saying, and how serious are you about finding a bipartisan solution to this problem?
ROWLAND: Labor is very serious about this being done on a bipartisan basis, and it is understandable why some people might think that Australia's population is too large. For example, when you come to areas here in North West Sydney and you see the amount of traffic, the amount of congestion that we have and you see even accessing public transport is difficult, so you can appreciate why some people might feel that way about immigration. But it needs to also be tempered against the fact that immigration is necessary for a country like Australia. We are built on migration. Australians have generally a very positive attitude to migration, as has been consistently shown by studies.
The key to all this is demonstrating that Australia's governments, our three levels of government, are willing to work together and come up with a joined-up, cohesive strategy for dealing with population growth. Population growth has many economic benefits but we need to make sure that we manage those challenges that come with it. This is a very sensible proposal that goes to exactly what Australians are asking for.
JOURNALIST: I was going to say the danger here looks as if Labor is playing politics with the issue in knowing that the government is going to make some sort of policy announcement towards the end of the year. Is this just Labor trying to get in front of the game?
ROWLAND: Well to the contrary, Bill Shorten has been going around Australia for the last five years, listening to the concerns of Australians, including in Western Sydney. And it is from that and from the feedback that he has received from Western Sydney MPs, including myself, that he understands that people, quite frankly, don't care who comes up with the solution. And what they know is that we need a cohesive vision and execution of that vision if we are going to keep growing as a nation, if we are going to keep growing economically and if we are going to have a standard of living that is commensurate with this being the greatest country in the world. We need to do this based on the evidence and there are smart people in Australia who have looked at this from all levels of government, from outside government as well, from the business sector, people who have expertise in environmental planning for example: all these people have views on how we can progress. It needs to be based on evidence, it needs to be based on solid data analytics, and we need to take the politics out of this issue if it’s going to progress.