14 April 2014



SUBJECT / S: Tony Abbott’s broken pension promise; Tony Abbott’s unaffordable Paid Parental Leave scheme; Polls; WA Senate Election; Coalition changes to the Racial Discrimination Act

KIERAN GILBERT: This is AM Agenda, thanks for your company. With me now the Parliamentary Secretary for the Environment Senator Simon Birmingham, and also the Shadow Minister for Multiculturalism and Citizenship, Michelle Rowland. Good morning to you both. Simon Birmingham you’ve heard what Michael O’Neil had to say from National Seniors, what do you say in response on behalf of the Government this morning to those concerns expressed by the Seniors organisation?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good morning Kieran. We fully understand that many Australian pensioners have been doing it tough. That’s why we went to the last election with policies that will try to ease their cost of living burdens and why we’re working so hard to implement those. And right at the forefront of that is the commitment to repeal the carbon tax but to leave in place the pension increase that were afforded to pensioners. So Australian pensioners, if the Labor Party allows us to repeal the carbon tax, will be unquestionably be better off. So that is our firm commitment to all Australian pensioners. It’s one we gave at the last election, it’s one we’re working on today. Now of course there are longer term and structural issues around the Budget that have to be addressed, and we were equally clear in the lead up to the last election that we needed to get Budget spending under control, that we needed to deal with the structural challenges in the Budget. And as many people I think today appreciate back when the age pension age was set at 65, people were only expected to live to 55. Now people are expected to live until 85. So you’ve had a real change of course in the demographics and the situation around how the pension system works and we have to look very carefully at these matters for the future. But for those people today on an age pension, they should understand and appreciate that Coalition policies will make them better off, will ease their cost of living pressures and if only the Labor Party would let us implement those policies.

GILBERT: Michelle Rowland, your response to that? The structural changes that Senator Birmingham argues are needed and something Michael O’Neil from the Seniors organisation also concedes that certainly they’re open to a discussion on this?

MICHELLE ROWLAND, SHADOW MINISTER FOR CITIZENSHIP AND MULTICULTURALISM: Kieran, it’s very clear that when Labor was in Government we certainly recognised that Australians were living longer, we wanted them to live better. And that is why we were very focused on the future, on making sure that Australians had a decent superannuation package to retire on. We took all these to the Parliament, they were railed against by the then Opposition but we were very focused on this and we continue to be. But I think it’s also very clear Kieran that for all the spin that the Government will try and put on this, Tony Abbott promised the night before the election and in the days leading up to the election: “no change to the pension.” Now very clearly, that is a promise that is about to be broken and that I think is something that all seniors would feel very concerned about and would feel very betrayed about. This promise was made the night before the election in the marginal seat of Lindsay. So all those good voters in Lindsay went out and said “oh there won’t be any change to the pension, we believe Tony Abbott,” and they are about to cop it. They are about to cop it and it reflects the very twisted priorities of this Government that they are not only reneging on that promise but reneging on it to the detriment of the most vulnerable in our society.

GILBERT: Senator Birmingham, would it be a broken promise if the Government was to make any change to the pension given the commitment made?

BIRMINGHAM: Kieran, I’d invite people to have a look at what is in the Budget on May 13th, not the scare campaign that the Labor Party or anyone else might want to run in between now and May the 13th. Ultimately we will, as we have been very clear about, honour our promises that will ensure the cost of living pressure on Australian pensioners but also that we do rein in the Budget deficits. Of course $123 billion of cumulative Budget deficits racked up under the Labor government that was in place previously. Gross debt approaching some $600 billion if we don’t change the Budget settings.

GILBERT: We could see an announcement on the pension before the.. which comes into effect after the election but still included in this Budget in terms of the forward estimates so that is still very much a possibility, but given what Joe Hockey has said at the weekend it looks like not just a possibility but a likelihood.

BIRMINGHAM: And Kieran, I think I’ve been very clear this morning. Today’s pensioners have nothing to fear. Nothing to fear because our policies are about trying to ease their cost of living pressure, reduce their electricity bills by getting rid of the carbon tax and leaving in place pension increases that they’d previously received. Now as for the longer term structural issues, they of course equally need to be addressed and it’s equally consistent with our election commitments to get the Budget under control. There’s nothing inconsistent about these positions, we were very clear about both these principals going into the election and that’s exactly what we’re seeking to deliver.

GILBERT: Michelle Rowland, and if it is beyond the next election as Senator Birmingham indicates the mid to long term reform, structural reform as he puts it then that’s not a broken promise is it?

ROWLAND: Tony Abbott very clearly said no change to the pension. Now if Senator Birmingham can’t back in that statement then that’s a matter for him and that’s a matter for the Government. But pensioners are today watching what the Government is doing. It’s very clear that they are not going to be able to meet that commitment and we don’t know what that change will be. But Kieran, I will say this; government is indeed about priorities. And Labor made some very difficult decisions when we were in government. The decisions that this government is now facing, does it continue to back in an unaffordable, unwanted, $5.5 billion paid parental leave scheme – a Rolls Royce scheme to pay millionaires for having a baby which clearly seniors are opposed to and I can tell you this from personal experience: I went around my electorate and I still haven’t found seniors who support this, but it is very clear that this is a government of extremely twisted priorities when it comes to managing the Budget which they now own.

GILBERT: Let’s get Senator Birmingham on that because that is not just something that Michelle Rowland’s put but Michael O’Neil from National Seniors has specifically mentioned that issue as well; the generous paid parental scheme. Doesn’t that policy jar the rest of the message from the Treasurer at the moment and the need to rein in spending? If you’re going to rein it in in terms of seniors, why not shelve that generous paid parental leave scheme?

BIRMINGHAM: No Kieran, because it’s a productivity policy and it’s about more people back into the workforce sooner and the only way we’ll be able to pay for age pensions into the future, the only way we’ll be able to pay for all the range of government services that all Australians value into the future is to of course maximise the number of people participating in the workforce and the paid parental leave scheme is about ensuring that working women who take time out of the workforce to have children have the financial support but also the encouragement and the incentive to get back into the workforce as well as, of course, providing a population for the next generation of workers. So this is all about productivity, workplace participation and of course workplace entitlements. It’s not about welfare, it’s about making sure that in the long term we have more workers to pay taxes to pay for these pensions.

ROWLAND: Kieran, just on that point: we already have a paid parental leave scheme in Australia. And I can tell you the number of women in my community whom I know have been able to take time off and go back to work as a result of Labor’s scheme. It’s extremely beneficial for our economy. We already have a paid parental leave scheme that people are taking up and that works. We do not need a government to prioritise a Rolls Royce $5.5 billion unaffordable one.

BIRMINGHAM: Michelle’s just arguing paid parental leave works.

GILBERT: Just breaking news there at the bottom of the screen – Senator Birmingham if I can just finish – breaking news there at the bottom of the screen, just in the sporting world: Bubba Watson has claimed his second green jacket. We’ll have more on that after 9.00 so stay with us for full coverage of that and through Sportsline at 9.30. I want to ask you about the Neilson poll Senator Birmingham. A big drop for the Coalition, particularly in areas outside the capital city, in regional areas. Is this a sign that people haven’t bought the Free Trade Agreements that were signed last week, that they don’t think they’re getting the best deal? Certainly in regional areas things don’t seem like they’ve gone down too well.

BIRMINGHAM: Kieran, I’d rather look at what voters say and do when they get into a ballot box than what pollsters might come up with and just one week ago West Australians went to a state-wide poll to elect a new Senate team. The Liberal Party looks well on track to have three Senators elected there, compared to the Labor Party with just one. I think voters want to see this government get on with our policies and have the freedom to implement them through the Senate. The fact that West Australian voters elected three Liberal Senators compared to one Labor Senator should stand up as a very clear message to Bill Shorten and the entire Labor Party to stop being negative, stop being obstructionist and allow us to get on with our agenda. After all, their vote in that most recent test of the will of voters plummeted to it’s lowest ever level in WA.

GILBERT: Well, that’s a fair point isn’t it Michelle Rowland? We’ve got a pretty good past record to look at in terms of voting intentions and that was less than a fortnight ago.

ROWLAND: I think it would be a folly Kieran, to dismiss anything in terms of what these polls say about Labor and Liberal’s popularity at this stage. Let’s remember that both the Government and the Opposition had significant swings against them at the last poll and the Greens had a significant increase. And look, the reality is that’s reflected in this poll that’s just come out recently. I think it says two things. Firstly, it would also be a folly to view this as not talking about the volatility of the electorate. The electorate is one which is very ready to change its mind. The level of rusted on party voter support has been diminishing and I think it’s actually diminishing at a more rapid rate. Which makes the case for the second point I want to make, which is that people are very ready to turf out governments now in a very short period of time or signal their intention to do so. We can see that in one of the shortest honeymoons in living memory of the Abbott Government. A big majority in but a failure after a couple of months to live up to their promises, and indeed breaking their promises. We’ve seen that in state parliaments and look at this situation of Campbell Newman, even here in New South Wales after a thumping victory a few years ago the polls are now putting Labor ahead and who would have thought that in New South Wales. So I think it would be very foolish to look at anything other than the volatility of the electorate in these polls.

GILBERT: Senator Birmingham, only a minute left but I do want to get your thoughts on this poll which suggests 90 per cent of those surveyed aren’t supportive of the Government’s changes to the Racial Discrimination Act.

BIRMINGHAM: I think firstly it all depends on how you ask a question in that regard, but secondly this again is something we promised to do at the election, that we would repeal this section of the Racial Discrimination Act in its current form. We’ve now gone out with a consultation draft to the Australian people and George Brandis is genuinely taking feedback on that but we see on the front page of the today’s Advertiser, a pretty clear demonstration that the current laws don’t work to the standard that many think or pretend that they do in terms of the outrageous words and behaviour we have of a Sheikh in Adelaide which has certainly preached hate against other ethnic groups in this community.

GILBERT: Okay. Michelle Rowland, 20 seconds left.

ROWLAND: That’s an own goal by the Government on this one. If you think watering down hate speech protections is actually going to get rid of hate speech then I think you’re seriously delusional and by the way, Section 18C is a civil penalty under which action can still be taken. If Simon wanted to do something productive he should speak to his colleagues in the South Australian Parliament and get them to look at the criminal laws which the police have said they don’t have enough grounds to win.

GILBERT: We’ve got to go. Michelle Rowland, Senator Birmingham, as always thanks for your time.