SUBJECTS: US tariffs on steel and aluminium; Newspoll; housing affordability; digital agenda

KIEREN GILBERT: To the broader issue of tariffs, the government is doing its best via Joe Hockey and others to try and get a deal done. But it looks like the President, Mr Trump, is of no mind to provide any such exemption Michelle Rowland?

MICHELLE ROWLAND, SHADOW MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: It is deeply concerning Kieren, because of course, for our manufacturing sector in this area and our exporters, it’s one in which we have a large number of jobs and it is one in which there is great value to Australia. So it is deeply concerning from that perspective. We know in the past, and we know this from the Prime Minister himself, that negotiations directly with the President can often have an impact, as was noted last year. And in this case it is quite disturbing that we see reports now that no exemptions will be considered. But we would urge it is in the national interest and the interest of Australian jobs for the government to do everything it can to advance Australia's position on this matter. And the other issue, of course Kieren…

GILBERT: Go on, sorry. 

ROWLAND: …is if other countries around the world, when they are impacted by this also, what is the risk of them not being able to enable their products to enter the US and then choose instead to dump their products on Australia. So it may well have a severe flow-on effect.

GILBERT: But what more can the Prime Minister do than raise it with the President in Washington. He apparently got an assurance, along with the Finance Minister, in Hamburg at the G20 last year of something that left them confident that they would have an exemption. But then, back in Washington, Mr Trump is giving no indication that that is the case. But from what the Prime Minister has done and the government has done, it's hard to be critical of them isn't it, in terms of their reaction to this?

ROWLAND: I'm not seeking to criticise Kieren. What I'm seeking to note is that this is one in which direct contact with the President seems to have had results in the past. And I think it would be in the national interest, and Labor believes it would be in the national interest, to do everything possible, and I don't think that is a fact lost on anyone in government.

GILBERT: On to a few other issues, the Newspoll shows Bill Shorten's back within two points. Is that encouraging in terms of the preferred Prime Minister, because he has been the weak point of your polling up until now?

ROWLAND: Kieren, I think the thing about Bill Shorten, and something the government continues to fail to appreciate, is that they continue to underestimate him. They throw everything at him in Question Time rather than talking about not only a positive vision for Australia, but how they're going to achieve it. They spend all their time focusing on our leader. If they spent more time focusing on the Australian people then my suggestion is that they would see much better results. But this is going to be a difficult year, Kieren, there's no doubting that from the Opposition's perspective. We are going into an election year and it’s one in which we are fine-tuning, formulating and consulting on a suite of policies to take to the next election. We want to present to the Australian people a set of visions, a set of values, including equality of opportunity in everything from health and education to access to broadband, and they are things which we will be prosecuting right up until the next election day, and that's what we're totally focused on.

GILBERT: Yeah, and obviously some encouraging signs though, in terms of the ratings for the Opposition Leader? Because that, as I say, has been the weak point in terms of Labor's polling, which across the board has had the lead 53/47 by most polls estimation. But the one we've spotted is the approval rating of your leader.

ROWLAND: Well, it's pleasing to see that approval rating gap has subsided. I'll also make the point that, as I go around Australia, people are very disappointed with Malcolm Turnbull. He promised so much and has delivered so little. He promised to be someone of substance and he's someone of slogans. The more that Labor and the more that our leader, Bill Shorten, focuses on what we have to do, I believe that we will be very competitive at the next election. But it's a long road Kieren and there's no shirking that.

GILBERT: Let's look at a couple of other issues. The Grattan Institute report on housing affordability says it concedes, on page 96, the dominant rationale for these reforms, in terms of negative gearing and capital gains tax exemption cuts, that the Grattan Institute report says the dominant rationale for these reforms is their economic and budgetary benefits, rather than housing affordability. That's quite a concession there in terms of this analysis. Do you concede that as well?

ROWLAND: Well, the report also notes that the two big inputs to housing affordability - supply and also what levers are available at a Commonwealth level - of those two, reforming negative gearing and capital gains would have the most immediate impact and it’s what Labor has been focusing on for some time. And look Kieren, we know that Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison got rolled when they took such reforms to their Cabinet. It's been two years since Labor first proposed this. They haven't laid a glove on Labor in terms of the importance of reform in this area. But when you look to the supply side, of course that takes time. It takes a large amount of time. It takes a large amount of coordination between Local Government authorities and also State Governments. But the area in which Grattan notes that there would be an immediate impact is by reforming capital gains tax and negative gearing concessions. 

GILBERT: But in relation to that, they're saying those two measures are more about budgetary impacts, rather than housing affordability. Do you accept that?

ROWLAND: Well, there's no reason why by addressing this issue of capital gains tax and also negative gearing - we will see an impact on the market in terms of housing affordability and on that demand side; but also, as Chris Bowen has eloquently prosecuted for the last two years, it is also an issue of going back to budget repair. Not only this, but also what we have proposed in terms of reform of trusts - these are issues going to a matter that the Coalition seems to have forgotten: their big mantra of budget repair. We are looking at budget repair, we are looking at the impact of budget repair and how, in the absence of that, what that will do to low and middle income earners. But the issue of housing affordability is not one that is going to be solved overnight. As Grattan points out also, this is one that has developed over decades, but it is one in which this government has absolutely no roadmap. All they can suggest to us is get rich parents and get a better paying job. And I think the Australian public will see through that.   

GILBERT: Just finally, in relation to that Chris Bowen speech you touched on. What is the growth agenda from Labor? How do you drive economic growth in all of this? 

ROWLAND: Well, firstly I think you need to look at those loopholes which go to the issue of revenue implications and Chris will be touching on that today. But in terms of growth impacts, you have to ensure, as an utmost priority, that wages growth is one that is addressed. We have had stagnant wages growth in Australia for decades now and this is one that cannot be allowed to continue. On a broad economic perspective, we know that the single biggest driver of productivity in an economy is digitisation and actually having an agenda that delivers on a digital economy. Again this is an area where Malcolm Turnbull talked a very big game. His NBN is a failure. He hasn't delivered anything in terms of digital inclusiveness or a digital agenda. He was supposed to be the "Innovation Prime Minister" and he's come up wanting. 

GILBERT: We're out of time. Michelle Rowland, we'll talk to you soon.