17 February 2014



SUBJECT/S: Polls; Drought relief package; Disturbance on Manus Island; Australia’s relationship with Indonesia; NDIS

KIERAN GILBERT: With us now on the program we’ve got Liberal Senator Mitch Fifield and Labor frontbencher Michelle Rowland. You must be pleased Senator Fifield to see those numbers come back. I know we’re a long way out in terms of the electoral cycle but it’s encouraging to see that your message is being heard.

MITCH FIFIELD: Well Kieran we don’t want to be in the business of being commentators in the polls but I think suffice to say there was a general election not long ago. There was a very strong result for the Coalition, there was a clear mandate for our policies and as Manager of Government Business in the Senate, I think there’s a message here for the Australian Labor Party and that is get out of the way. Let us repeal the carbon tax. Let us repeal the mining tax. That’s what the people voted for.

GILBERT: Well overwhelmingly good news for the Coalition. You heard what John Stirton had to say there at the end about Tony Abbott personally. Is that just the legacy of being around for so long?

FIFIELD: Well Kieran, Tony Abbott has been someone who has never had an eye to the poll, someone who has set out an agenda for the benefit of the Australian people. He’s going to do what’s right and that’s what he’s focused on.

GILBERT: Michelle Rowland, nearly 70 per cent of the people surveyed in this poll, 1400 individuals surveyed. 67 per cent support the idea of a Royal Commission into the unions. Did Bill Shorten get it wrong on this one?

MICHELLE ROWLAND, SHADOW MINISTER FOR CITIZENSHIP AND MULTICULTURALISM, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: I think Bill Shorten’s been very clear and Labor has been very consistent about what we think should be happening in this area if the government wishes to take action. And that is if we have such a problem with corruption then we should refer it to the highest body possible rather than have a royal commission which will take an extended period of time. Also I think we need to look at things like the cost of this, but also in previous royal commissions whether we have actually had prosecutions and results. And I think that Bill Shorten has been very clear about this.

I also think that if Mitch and the Liberal Party want to gloat about these results – be my guest. Be my guest because nothing pleases me more than to see a government in hubris, seeing a government that is arrogant and out of touch. And I’ll tell you what figures really matter, Kieran, and that is the number of jobless people that have been left under this government in barely five months.

GILBERT: What about the Shorten approval though? It’s down 11 points in only a couple of months. You might be encouraged by what he’s saying but it doesn’t seem a lot of people surveyed, a lot of people in the electorate agree with you.

ROWLAND: Bill Shorten has barely been Labor leader for five months. We had a time there when we went through our own processes of selecting the Leader and I think Bill, in a very short period of time, has managed to be someone whom the public has gotten to know. He’s worked very hard on that. He campaigned personally very hard in Griffith – a seat which the pundits actually said Labor was going to lose. He campaigned very hard there and very effectively. I think that as time goes on, as Labor lets the public know and develops our policy and key areas of reform, I think people will come to understand that they can have something better than a Liberal Government which breaks so many promises in less than five months.

GILBERT: Mitch Fifield, to the drought tour the Prime Minister’s conducting at the moment. Obviously we saw those pictures yesterday, remarkable rainfall. The first for many, many months. There was one child who had never seen it before at one of the properties Tony Abbott had visited but pictures are fine but it’s going to be the dollars that count. At the time where you’re trying to save and cut spending, will enough be provided here for what is, I think both sides of politics agree, is a much needed boost to drought assistance.

FIFIELD: Well Kieran, I think you’ve seen and the Australian people have seen that Barnaby Joyce and the Prime Minister don’t carry lightly the issues that are facing Australians on the land. What we need to have is a fair and responsible package. Australians are very generous people and Australians often do have those on the land in their minds when times are tough so Cabinet will look at the issue and they will come forward with a plan that’s fair and that’s also responsible.

GILBERT: And what about the sustainability issue? I know that Tony Abbott among others have referred to this in terms of properties receiving the assistance and farmers receiving assistance about making sure that these are on a sustainable footing into the future. Is that something that the Cabinet is very much conscious of?

FIFIELD: Cabinet wants to do what it can to help Australians on the land. They don’t want welfare, they want support to help them get back on their feet and I think that’s what will frame the discussions of the Cabinet.

GILBERT: And there’s bipartisan support for this isn’t there Michelle Rowland in terms of drought assistance? In fact Bill Shorten’s saying he would have preferred a bit to be done sooner. Doesn’t it make sense for Tony Abbott to go there, take some soundings from people first?

ROWLAND: It’s one thing to do a tour of drought affected areas but I think the reality is that we all know that this is a dire situation. And we had an opportunity in the Parliament last week to actually bring forward some legislation on this matter but we had a ridiculous situation where the government actually ran out of legislation to be debated. We should have brought it on then. I’ll also make the point Kieran that we’ve had cuts to the Farm Finance Scheme already, $40 million worth of cuts in that area. Actions do speak louder than words and I’m sure that the people on the land who are being affected would agree with me.

GILBERT: We’ve got to go to a break but we’ll be back with Michelle Rowland and Senator Mitch Fifield. Stay with us.

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GILBERT: This is AM Agenda. With me this morning Labor frontbencher Michelle Rowland and the Manager of Government Business in the Senate, Liberal Senator Mitch Fifield. Now to the Manus Island disturbance that we’ve seen last night late yesterday, Mitch Fifield. As I read the statement from Scott Morrison earlier in the piece, a number of asylum seekers and transferees have received medical treatment. According to the reports he’s received, PNG police have made some arrests. Is this sort of tension inevitable given the group of people, 1000 plus know what’s in store for them now?

FIFIELD: It’s not entirely clear at this stage what has happened. We do know that there was a disturbance overnight. We do know that there are reports of some transferees having received medical attention. There are some reports of transferees being arrested but the Department of Immigration will confirm what the situation was when they get further detail.

GILBERT: Is this though inevitable collateral damage almost for a policy which is hard line? We heard the PM again reiterate that at the start of the program and that comment on the ABC, he’s been on 2GB again this morning making the same point that if people come here illegally that is what they can expect to be faced with, immigration detention.

IFIELD: We make no apology for being resolute, we make no apology for offshore processing. I just wish that the former government had come around to it sooner. You might recall Kieran they spent three or four years or longer saying offshore processing was essentially immoral. In the end reality hit them in the face and they had to come on board with offshore processing but we don’t apologise for being firm. We don’t apologise for being clear to the people smugglers we’re going to put them out of business.

GILBERT: Michelle Rowland, no successful boat arrival in eight weeks now. It shows that that hard line of deterrents is working, isn’t it?

ROWLAND: The policy agenda that was put in place by Labor in July last year has been the single biggest circuit breaker. I think the statistics have also shown that the biggest decline actually came after Labor implemented this policy. So Labor is as pleased as anyone that the government is continuing to have as a central policy platform, the central part of this which is working is the offshore processing scheme that Labor put in place.

GILBERT: In terms of this Manus Island disturbance though, I’ll put the same question that I put to Senator Fifield, is that sort of thing inevitable given the tough circumstances and also the knowledge that the individuals concerned won’t ever make it to Australia and will be resettled if they’re lucky in PNG?

ROWLAND: One would hope that it’s not inevitable because we as Labor want to see the flow of boats stopped and we are pleased to see this policy is working. And if we have a situation where things like the advertisements, the publicity scheme and offshore processing is actually having a deterrent effect as well as the people smugglers’ business model being broken as a result of that, then Labor wants to see that happen more than anyone. So we are pleased to see that the policy settings are working. One would hope that it’s not an inevitability that these kinds of things occur and as Richard Marles the Opposition spokesperson said this morning; it is not an easy job administering these offshore arrangements.

GILBERT: Marty Natelegawa the Indonesian Foreign Minister, Senator Fifield, he will be raising his concerns about the Australian border protection policies with the US Secretary of State. This shows that while some are pleased, Labor is pleased that the boat arrivals have stopped, certainly the Indonesians aren’t too happy about the way you’re going about it i.e. with the lifeboats and the turnbacks.

FIFIELD: Well we’ve always been upfront with the Indonesian Government about our determination to stop the people smuggling trade. We are putting in place the policies that we said we would. Obviously Indonesia and the United States can discuss whatever issues they like so we’re very comfortable with that but we’re going to continue to pursue the policies that are working.

GILBERT: But if he’s going to take it up with the US Secretary of State this Jakarta focused foreign policy the Prime Minister had wanted isn’t going too well is it right now? That is just one victim of that tough line. The boats might be stopping but the relations with Indonesia, with Jakarta, aren’t going so well.

FIFIELD: I think you’ve got to look at the entirety of the bilateral relationship and I heard Julie Bishop just the other day saying that she talks to the Indonesian Foreign Minister on just about a daily basis so the lines of communication are there, they are open. We are talking to our partners in Indonesia and will continue to pursue the policies that look like they’re being extremely effective.

GILBERT: Michelle, the Prime Minister says he’s thrilled Indonesia and the US can have a candid discussion on Australian immigration policies. He’s certainly not worried about it.

ROWLAND: Kieran, you’ve highlighted the significant difference between the policy implementation under Labor and this government. What a sorry state of affairs it is that we have our nearest neighbour, such an important country in our area, particularly important to our successful policies in this area actually calling on Washington to have to deal with Australia. It is a sorry state of affairs when we have reached such a level when that has to occur. And this kind of low point in the relationship didn’t happen under Labor, did not happen under Labor. And how many times did I sit here on your program and many others and get lectured by members of the then Opposition about how Labor had destroyed the relationship with Indonesia, how the Liberals were going to make it so much better. Well we see the proof here is that we have plumbed, plumbed to such depths that we have Marty Natelegawa calling on John Kerry to assist with relations with Australia.

GILBERT: I don’t want to get caught up in the – I know what Senator Fifield was going to say about the live cattle trade but…

FIFIELD: You took the words out of my mouth.

GILBERT: But I want to move on from there because I think we’ve discussed this issue enough in terms of border protection. I do want to ask about this issue on the spying front because both sides of politics have to accept accountability for because it happened under the Gillard Government. This latest leak from Snowden reported in the New York times that Australia assisted a US law firm representing Indonesia, that Australian intelligence agencies gathered intelligence against this law firm representing Indonesia in a trade dispute with the US. It just seems to go into every facet of the relationship doesn’t it? Even the economic relationship being monitored.

FIFIELD: Well Kieran it’s the practise of all Australian Governments not to comment on intelligence matters and I’m sure Michelle would agree with that. But the Australian Government, regardless of who is in office, the information that it gathers from its intelligence sources is not used to the detriment of  other nations. So we are fortunate in that we do have very vast accountability mechanisms around these agencies and I think the Australian people can have confidence in that. 

GILBERT: Michelle Rowland, finally on that issue – do you accept that from the Government, that explanation?

ROWLAND: Look, I’m not privy to the details of this matter and certainly it is the practice of both government and opposition not to comment on national security matters. I think it’s very important for the Opposition to receive a briefing on this matter which is what’s been requested and my understanding is that has been granted. But I think at the end of this it’s very important to recognise that Australia’s relationship with Indonesia under this government has certainly not been the good relationship that it was under Labor.

GILBERT: And Senator Fifield finally, you’re the Minister responsible for the National Disability Insurance Scheme, four trial sites are being rolled out. Tell me, what’s the latest in terms of the costs. My understanding is that they have fallen away, that things are looking a bit better in terms of the forecast. 

FIFIELD: The first quarter of the trial sites found that average package costs were about 30 per cent higher than was anticipated. In the second quarter they’re down to about 15 per cent above what was anticipated. You’ve got to be careful not to extrapolate to the full scheme rollout, a quarterly result, because some people receive support on a one-off basis. Others on a year in, year out basis. But it’s important still to keep an eye on the sustainability of the scheme earlier up. The other thing that we’ve found is that there were some errors in the bilateral agreements negotiated by the previous government so that it looks like there could be additional costs of about $392 million over the launch phase of the scheme.

GILBERT: But the Coalition is 100 per cent committed to rolling out the NDIS in full? Even despite those cost overruns?

FIFIELD: Absolutely. And those errors in the bilateral, although they apply to the trial sites, those particular things have been factored into the full scheme cost.

GILBERT: We’re almost out of time but just finally, in terms of the early trial sites: is it true that those, the most profoundly disabled are involved in those trial sites therefore the cost inherently will be more?

FIFIELD: There could be some unique factors to do with the characteristics of individuals who are coming into the trial sites initially and that’s part of what we’re going to be doing, is looking at distilling those numbers to find out the reasons why.

GILBERT: Senator Fifield, thanks so much for that.

FIFIELD: Thank you.

GILBERT: And Michelle Rowland as well this morning.

ROWLAND: Thank you.