Minister for Financial Services, Superannuation and Corporate Law
9 June 2009 - 14 September 2010
Interview with Ashleigh Gillon
AM Agenda, Sky News
Thursday, 22 April 2010
SUBJECTS: Home insulation scheme, health and hospitals reform, Newstart payments
Reforming the health system and tackling climate change were two of Kevin Rudd's key promises before the last election. But, despite the agreement struck at COAG on Tuesday, today there are doubts about the roll-out of programs in both areas. With WA and the Senate yet to sign up, progress on health reform isn't guaranteed, and along with the failure of the ETS legislation, it now appears that the remnants of the Government's insulation program will also be scrapped.
Joining me this morning on our panel of politicians, from Sydney, the Minister for Human and Financial Services, Superannuation and Corporate Law, Chris Bowen; and from Brisbane, the Shadow Attorney-General, George Brandis.
Senator, good morning to you. Minister, good morning to you as well.
Minister, I'm going to start with you this morning, can you confirm these reports this morning that the Government is planning to scrap the remnants of the bungled insulation program?
No, I've seen various reports this morning Ashleigh which aren't entirely consistent with each other and we don't comment on Cabinet decisions or whether the Cabinet has made a decision until that decision is announced, and that's a matter for Mr Combet to deal with at the appropriate time, but I'm not able to comment on that speculation this morning.
Well I have tried to get in with Mr Combet and he isn't commenting today, but you are in Cabinet so I'm assuming you were party to these discussions. The details seem to have been leaked, not just to one, but a few newspapers this morning; this is taxpayer money we're talking about, don't voters have a right to know if you've made a decision to stop handing out these grants?
Well, as I say Ashleigh, the reports this morning aren't entirely consistent, some newspapers are reporting one thing, other newspapers are reporting another thing, but Cabinet deliberations are announced by the relevant Minister at an appropriate time, and that's a matter for Mr Combet to deal with. I'm not able to confirm any of the speculation that's in newspapers this morning. Newspapers speculate on things all the time, we don't respond to that speculation and announce Cabinet decisions one way or another in response to that.
Well, according to those reports, this speculation is based on sources from that Cabinet meeting dishing out this information. Does the Government know yet, Chris Bowen, how much it is going to cost to fix and audit the homes that have already had insulation installed?
Well, we've already put out a lot of information about the various costings, and our priority is getting the safety checks done and getting those problems which arose fixed, and that's what Minister Combet continues to be focused on Ashleigh.
Are you clear as to whether there would be any money left over to continue this grant process in June as planned at the end of that audit process?
Well Ashleigh, you can ask the question of me as many times and as many different ways you can think of, but my answer remains the same, Cabinet decisions are announced by the relevant Minister and that's a matter for Mr Combet to announce, and I'm sure he'll do so when he feels the timing is correct.
George Brandis, if this is the decision Cabinet has come up with, would you be surprised or do you think it is the right decision, if one of the reasons the Government decides not to go ahead with this, as reported in the papers this morning, is that there's no guarantee that the safety concerns would be eased if this program was rolled out again in June?
Well Ashleigh, really nothing would surprise me about the Rudd Government. Just when you thought this fiasco couldn't get any worse, it's now evidently got worse again. We've had the original program scrapped, we've had a replacement program announced that went from the first of June, we've now had these reports which Chris has not denied that the replacement program is going to be scrapped before it begins. We've got no guarantees of compensation to the thousands of small business people in the insulation industry who have been ruined as a result of the incompetence of the Government, and we have got no guarantee from the Government that all of the million homes that have been put at risk by the incompetence of this program are going to receive safety inspections. So, you know, as I say, it's typical of the Rudd Government, one bungle after another, and I frankly wouldn't be surprised what they might do tomorrow.
Considering all of those points you just raised Senator, would you hope that this is the outcome, that this program is scrapped?
Well, I hope they fix it. I hope they fix it because they created the problem. They created the problem, they put lives at risk, they put homes at risk, they destroyed an industry, they wasted billions of dollars, so one would hope they would try and do something to fix it.
Okay, well, if we do get confirmation about this story from Minister Combet today, of course viewers, we will bring that to you as soon as we can. Let's turn to the health reforms, Chris Bowen, can you clarify something for me.
There have been mixed reports about this aspect of the reforms: if the WA Premier doesn't sign up to the reforms and agree to hand over a third of WA's GST revenue, will the rest of the States and Territories actually get all of this extra funding that Kevin Rudd has promised, or is the whole deal off?
No, there are two points to make here Ashleigh. Firstly, both the Prime Minister and Premier have said that they believe the deal will be struck, and Colin Barnett has been very positive in his comments, that he thinks these issues can be worked through.
Secondly, the historic reforms announced will be delivered. Ninety percent of the population are covered are by those historic reforms and the agreements of their Premiers, and they'll be delivered, and you can have Intergovernmental Agreements with one state sitting to one side. It happens, not uncommonly, but we're confident that we will strike that deal with Western Australia. Really, Premier Barnett has said that he supports the vast majority of the things the other Premiers agreed to during the week, and he himself has said he believes those other outstanding issues can be dealt with, worked through, and an agreement reached.
But Minister, the reforms won't be delivered in full, will they, unless the Senate passes the legislation needed for these reforms, and that's in doubt as well today?
Well, it's in doubt because of Tony Abbott's position. I mean, Tony Abbott has been negative on health since day one. He has an opportunity here: to right the wrongs and to support this Government's reform agenda. The Liberal Party has found itself on the wrong side of history on this very historic reform.
So, we call on Tony Abbott today, to say he supports the 1,300 new beds, he supports the 20,000 young people getting improved access to mental health support, he supports the 6,000 GP's being trained over the next decade, he supports people not having to wait more than four hours in an emergency room, he supports ninety-five percent of elective surgery being done within the agreed limits.
He has an opportunity to come out today and do the right thing, and actually be magnanimous and get behind this very historic reform and put patients first. The Premiers, including Colin Barnett, have put politics aside and put patients first. This is Tony Abbott's big chance to do the same.
But Chris Bowen, as we stand today, without WA, and without the Senate guaranteeing the smooth passage for this legislation surrounding the reforms, it isn't guaranteed that these reforms will be rolled-out. Correct?
Well, we are very confident about the Western Australian situation, and even in the unlikely event that a deal is not reached by Western Australia these reforms will be delivered. But the Senate is problematic, and there is one person who can fix that and that's Tony Abbott. If he doesn't fix it, well then obviously we will be in negotiations and discussions with the minor parties, but that can all be put aside by Tony Abbott, as the Leader of the Party that can provide a massive majority in the Senate for these reforms to say he'll support them, he'll put politics aside and put the patients first and make up for this appalling record as Health Minister.
The Opposition Leader yesterday was sounding very pessimistic about the likelihood that these reforms would improve health care for patients.
Here's what Tony Abbott had to say yesterday [file footage]:
"If the legislation is a series of measures, we'll consider each one on its merits, but I've got to say its very hard to see the merits of any proposal which makes the bureaucratic muddle surrounding our public hospital system worse and which isn't going to deliver more beds, more doctors, more nurses to patients any time soon".
Senator Brandis, from that it sounds very likely that the Coalition could use its numbers in the Senate to try and block these reforms.
Well, I think Tony has made it as plain as you can be that we will look at the legislation carefully, but can I say generally about this so-called health package, it's just so typical of the Rudd Government. There has been a lot of showmanship, a lot of raised expectations, a lot of talk, lots of photo opportunities and the Prime Minister sitting on people's hospital beds, lots of rhetoric like the rhetoric we just heard from Chris Bowen, but when you come to look at the details nobody can be clear what it actually means.
One thing that we are sure of, this is as plain as can be, is that is does involve huge layers of new bureaucracy, a point made by Dr John Deeble, the architect of Medicare, in a very fierce criticism of the plan yesterday. Now, you know, we will look at this carefully, but we will benchmark it against a number of things.
First of all, does it really achieve the outcomes for patients that Chris Bowen claims it does, or is that all political spin and rhetoric as we very much expect it is.
Secondly, we'll be interested to know who is in control of this. What are the lines of responsibility, what are the lines of authority?
And thirdly, we'll be interested to know whether this is truly a national scheme, and what the allocation of responsibility between the Commonwealth and the States really is. Now, one thing that came out of the COAG meeting earlier in the week is that we went in with a proposal that the Commonwealth would control this funding pool, we came out of it with a proposal that the States would control the funding pool, but we have had no details as to how that would work and how conflicts between them in relation to the allocation of the funding would be resolved.
So, this is a mess. It is policy on the run, it's not what the Prime Minister promised, its underdone, it's a political fix, we'll look at any legislation carefully, but we're certainly not going to sign up to political rhetoric, which is where this is at right now.
So, from that it seems like we could be seeing another stoush in the Senate over health reforms. If that does happen, and Kevin Rudd needs to rely on the all important, crucial cross-bench Senators, well, we know that the Independent Senator Nick Xenophon, he's concerned that the reforms don't put enough money into preventative health; Senator Steve Fielding, the Family First Senator, seems to have some concerns as well.
The Senator joins me on the line now [Interview with Senator Fielding]
Welcome back to AM Agenda, joining me this morning Senator George Brandis and Minister Chris Bowen.
George Brandis, I want to start by asking you about an idea that Tony Abbott has flagged over the last couple of days. He says he is considering this idea that could see people under 30 banned from receiving the dole. Apparently he is considering this plan to strip young people of the dole if they don't move to areas of zero unemployment to find work. If people do move, there is a report this morning suggesting that the Coalition could offer them a relocation assistance grant of $4,000 to help them make that move.
Is this an idea which has made it to Shadow Cabinet or is it just a thought-bubble we are seeing here from Tony Abbott?
Well Ashleigh, what the Coalition believes is that able-bodied people who are able to find work ought to find work and ought-not to depend on the community, and ought-not to depend on the dole. Now, I think that's an elementary proposition that most Australians would agree with, and I think it's fair enough, particularly young people without family responsibilities, if it's necessary to travel to find work, particularly in those areas of the economy where there is over-full employment and where there are labour-shortages. I don't think most people would regard it as unreasonably burdensome to expect people to travel to seek work; people have done that for generations as a matter of fact.
Now in relation to the detail of the Coalition's policy in this regard, that will be announced at the appropriate time. However, can I make one other point: I think we move into very dangerous territory in Australia if the moment any political leader on either side of politics floats an idea, it's immediately pounced on as a 'thought-bubble', to use the expression that you have adopted from the Labor Party, as if somehow it's irresponsible for political leaders to be thinking outside the square and developing new policy.
Well George Brandis, when the Opposition Leader delivers a speech to a mining lunch and mentions this as an idea, it's fair enough to wonder if this is going to become Coalition policy, isn't it?
Well, that's not quite my point Ashleigh. My point is that one of the things that oppositions always ought to be doing is to refresh their thinking and to try out new ideas. Now, I was about to say, a generation ago, the Coalition put on the policy agenda the idea of ‘Work for the Dole'. Now, the Labor Party denounced that from the tree-tops as the most dreadful invasion of the rights of the unemployed you could possibly imagine. It was introduced by the Howard Government. It was enormously popular, one of the most well received policies of the Howard Government and now it has bipartisan support. That's what oppositions should be doing, they should be testing the frontiers of thinking across the range of public policy and that is all I think Tony Abbott was doing.
Well the Government has slammed this latest idea, so have the unions. Here is Paul Howes, the boss of the Australian Workers Union yesterday [file footage]:
"Look, I think that it's very important that we address labour-shortages, particularly here in the West. We have employers in the West screaming out for labour and yet we have a social security system which doesn't always give people the incentives they need to go out and get work".
"This is crass politics at its worst; it's the type of thing that you'd hear from Pauline Hanson. I think it's one of Tony Abbott's 'Sarah Palin' moments. I mean, it is not sensible policy, no-one would actually endorse this as something that would actually resolve the bottlenecks we have at the moment".
Chris Bowen, what do you make of this idea? Do you agree with the principle that people should be prepared to move to take a job if they're unemployed?
Well look, this is clearly policy on the run, and for George Brandis to lecture us about policy on the run as he tried to do a few minutes ago, for a Liberal to do that is like being lectured on how to behave in public by Britney Spears. I mean, Tony Abbott is a serial offender on these sorts of things. He makes up policy as he goes.
This hasn't only just been criticised by the unions, it's also been criticised by peak mining groups, who say this will not do anything, it's a silly idea when it comes to skills-shortages in the mining industry.
Now, we believe in mutual obligation, we introduced mutual obligation. It was Bob Hawke and Paul Keating who introduced mutual obligation when it came to unemployment benefits, who introduced training for people on unemployment benefits and an obligation for training, so George Brandis is rewriting history in a most egregious way …
I listened to you George, you just listen to me, that's the polite thing to do. I listened to you in silence.
We have our policy of learn or earn for young people, and that works very well. Now, if Tony Abbott is serious about this, he'll come out and put some substance behind these thought-bubbles, he'll put some context to these ideas that he's making up on the run and then we can have a proper debate about it. But we don't know where they stand on this, as we don't know where they stand on health.
It's difficult to have a proper debate when all you get is ill-thought out thought bubbles.
But Chris Bowen, back to my original question, do you actually agree with the principle behind this, that people should be willing to move to areas to find work?
Well of course, and people do move to areas to find work, but what you don't do is make up a policy on the run with no recognition of the…
So you agree with that principle, so why shouldn't the Government provide incentives for people to do that?
Well, these are complex issues Ashleigh. Often in locations where there are mining activities then the cost of living is very high, rent is extraordinarily high, and so its not as simple as saying 'Oh well, we'll give you $4,000 to move from the inner-suburbs of Sydney to Kalgoorlie', it doesn't work like that.
If you're going to embrace a policy like that, you need to have a lot of context and a lot of thought put into it, and clearly the opposition haven't done that.
George Brandis, this is about something we are hearing would be targeted at people aged under 30. Could that breach age discrimination laws, that is one of the criticisms I heard about this morning?
Well, lets not get into the detail of an idea that is not policy, but can I just respond to what Chris Bowen had to say. Far from Tony Abbott making up policy on the run, Tony Abbott has actually gone to the trouble of writing a long book, a long and deeply reflective book, in which he canvases a range of policy options across the whole gambit of Australian public policy.
It's what oppositions, and particularly opposition leaders ought to do to change the terms of the debate, and sadly we have a Labor Government that's exemplified by Chris Bowen this morning, who whenever anybody comes up with a new or perhaps radically different idea, whether it be about industrial relations or social policy or economic policy, their instinctive reaction, their Pavlov's dog's reaction is to say no. No, we won't think about it, we won't engage in a constructive public discussion, we'll dismiss it as a thought-bubble, policy on the run, or whatever is the rhetoric [inaudible] of the Rudd Government this morning. We are setting the agenda of this debate, not the Government.
Senator George Brandis, Minister Chris Bowen; we've run out of time for our discussion this morning, thank you so much for your incites.
Thanks Ashleigh, thanks George.
Thank you very much Ashleigh, thank you Chris.