ABC Capital Hill – economy, ASIO, renewable energy targets

Tuesday, 25 February 2020

JANE NORMAN, HOST: I’m joined in the studio now by Assistant Minster Zed Seselja and Labor frontbencher Amanda Rishworth, thank you both for joining me. Now we’ll go back to the ASIO Chief’s comments in just a moment, but I wanted to start with the Budget surplus issue today. Zed Seselja you’re actually the Assistant Minister for Finance, so can you tell us will the Government be delivering its promise of a Budget surplus this year?

ZED SESELJA, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR FINANCE: Look you’ll find out on Budget night, but we’ve obviously had a number of significant challenges for the Budget, they are well known. They are challenges to our economy – things like drought, bushfires, they bring challenges for the economy and for the Budget as we’ve spent in response to the bushfire crisis. And now the coronavirus is affecting trade and a range of other things, tourism, education and the like. So these present serious challenges. This is why being careful with money is very important, it is so we can respond to a number of these challenges. And that’s been our focus over the summer, our focus of course in responding to coronavirus is keeping Australians safe. But of course looking to protect the economic fallout as well so we can protect people’s jobs as well. But it does have a hit, it does have a hit on the budget and what that hit is will be revealed of course in May.

NORMAN: You say it’s why it’s important to be careful about money – isn’t it also about being careful with making such bold declarations like “back in black”? That hadn’t yet been achieved and now may not be achieved?

SESELJA: I don’t think it was an unreasonable declaration at all when you look at how careful we’ve been with our forecasts. In fact the Budget was effectively in balance in the last financial year, so we already balanced the Budget and we’re projecting to bring it into surplus. Those figures were of course projected in MYEFO, there was a change in MYEFO, there will no doubt be updates as we move into the Budget. Because we’ve been careful with money, we are able to respond to the bushfires without raising taxes, which is very important, so we can continue to build confidence. The economy is resilient but it’s taking a lot of hits over the last few months and we’ll look to respond to that both in a budgetary sense and of course in underpinning our economy as well.

NORMAN: Alright Amanda Rishworth, I can imagine that Labor will make certainly make hay with this given it was such a big political issue. But to be fair to the government, no one could have predicted the series of crises that Australia has been hit with just in the last few months.

AMANDA RISHWORTH, SHADOW MINISTER FOR EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION AND DEVELOPMENT: The first thing I’d say is the Government was very premature in crowing about the budget surplus. We know that they promised this before the numbers came in, before the numbers were crunched. But what we also know is the fundamentals of the economy were weak before we had issues such as the summer of bushfires and indeed coronavirus. There were questions already brewing about whether the wafer thin surplus the Government had crowed about before the election was actually going to come to fruition. So it is a broken promise – the Government shouldn’t be using the cover of coronavirus and the bushfires. The fundamentals of the economy were weak before these crises happened.

SESELJA: That’s not true, and if you look at what the Reserve Bank has said before, before many of these crises have played out, they talked about some of the underlying strengths of the economy and these further hits are hitting it. But Labor only a couple of months ago was telling us we should be on a spending spree. Imagine if we had taken that advice and gone on a spending spree, how much more difficult it would’ve been to respond to the bushfires, to respond to these challenges with coronavirus. So your record in both delivering the largest deficits we’ve ever had, but also then encouraging us to blow the surplus before these challenges, it doesn’t put you in very good stead to actually be criticising our response which we’re able to do because we didn’t take your advice.

RISHWORTH: You’ve been the Government for six years, close to seven and haven’t achieved a Budget surplus.

SESELJA: And you have given us free advice which we have chosen to reject.

RISHWORTH: I remember Joe Hockey promising the first year of a coalition government to have a surplus. We haven’t seen that, so I’m not surprised. Wages are flat-lining –

SESELJA: No that’s not true either.

RISHWORTH: – there’s serious structural issues in our economy and to ignore those would be irresponsible.

NORMAN: We know that both sides are completely obsessed with budget surpluses and have been since the days of a Wayne Swan Treasurer, so that’s one issue to put to the side for now. But do you think it would be politically responsible to deliver a Budget surplus in this current economic climate, with the coronavirus, which we don’t even know what economic impact it will have?

RISHWORTH: I’m not the Government, I’m not the one who had posters all around saying “we’re back in the black” and was irresponsible with the promises made to the Australian people.

NORMAN: But circumstances have changed.

RISHWORTH: Let’s be frank, this is a Government who said they were back in the black well before the numbers came in. The numbers hadn’t come in, they weren’t cautious in any way, they used it as a political tool, and now they are breaking that promise. Now they need to be held to account for breaking that promise, for misleading the Australian people. But the key here is – notwithstanding the bushfires, notwithstanding coronavirus, this was not a strong economy here in Australia and they shouldn’t have made that promise in the first place.

NORMAN: Alright Zed Seselja just to finish up on this topic, putting the same question to you, as in Government, would it be responsible to be delivering a surplus given we don’t know the full impact of coronavirus? We still have communities cleaning up from the bushfires, we’ve still got farmers who are suffering years of drought. Would it be a bad look if you still managed to deliver a Budget surplus in these circumstances?

SESELJA: There’s a couple of things. Most important as the PM said during the summer is we respond to these crises, and that’s what we’ve been doing. But of course being responsible with the Budget is absolutely critically important, it’s one of the fundamentals that enables us to respond to crises just like this. So we will continue to have a conservative fiscal policy. The actual external hits you can’t control, you can control whether you’re careful with money, whether you spend it sensibly and whether you target it where it’s needed. We’ll continue to do that.

NORMAN: Let’s finish up on Budget and turn to Neo-Nazis. I was personally surprised by Mike Burgess’s revelation that it’s one of the biggest challenges that security agencies are threatening. Just sticking with this Zed Seselja, do we know much about this? How much of a threat that Neo-Nazis, right-wing extremists are having in Australia?

SESELJA: The extent of the threat is for ASIO and the intelligence agencies, but when the head of ASIO raises it we all have to take it seriously. This isn’t just something that’s come up this year, this has been around for a number of years. Our position as a Government is it doesn’t matter what your evil ideology is, if you want to do harm to the Australian people we will fight hard to stop you. And if we need to we’ll put you in prison if you’re going to try and pursue those ideas. So whether it’s Neo-Nazis, whether it’s Islamist extremists, whatever your evil ideology is, if it involves doing harm to Australians we’re going to continue to crack down. We’ve been tough in terms of strengthening laws, we’ve beefed up ASIO’s resources so they can deal with these things. We’ll continue to do that, whether it’s Neo-Nazis or anything else we’ll do all we can to keep Australians safe.

NORMAN: And largely this has all been happening on a bipartisan basis. Amanda Rishworth do you think we’ve been complacent in terms of this threat? We saw the Christchurch massacre, Brenton Tarrant, he was an Australian who really put a focus on right-wing extremism. Is this something we’ve been caught a bit flat footed on?

RISHWORTH: When it comes to violent extremism we have to look to our national security agencies. I would really commend Mike Burgess for coming out and being so transparent with the Australian people and for clearly identifying the threats we do face. I’d have to agree with Zed here – whether it’s violent extremism in any of its forms, we need to be entirely vigilant. We need to have fit for purpose laws, which Labor has worked with through the security committee. And we have to make sure we stand up against it, because this type of violent extremism fractures our communities. It fractures our nation and there’s just no place for it here.

NORMAN: As politicians how much of a responsibility do you bear to call out this kind of language? I’m not talking about violent extremism, certainly One Nation leader Pauline Hanson has likened Islam to a disease, she has worn a burqa into the Senate which was called out at the time. But I suppose how important is it to show leadership on those issues?

SESELJA: I think it’s always important. I’ve always been a big believer in public life that we have a great responsibility and the responsibility is in our language, is to speak in a way that doesn’t seek to divide Australians or to vilify particular groups in Australia. Yes, if they are people doing evil things, we call them out. But I think we’ve always had a great responsibility and I take that very seriously as does every member of the Government.

NORMAN: And Amanda Rishworth, do you think we have been calling out these kinds of comments in the past?

RISHWORTH: I think we have, but we need to do better. I am firmly of the view that language does matter, what we post on social media matters. We have a really important role and not just to reflect the views of the community, but to lead the community. And being leaders involves being responsible with our language and being responsible in our actions. There’s been times when the Senate has come together and condemned comments by Pauline Hanson, condemned other racist actions, and we need to continue to do that because we do set an example. It’s not just about actions, we do know language can incite people, can send people down an ideological path. But we also need to combat that in our communities. If people feel isolated, as we’ve seen in the past, counter-terrorism work done in grassroots communities is really, really important. We need to make sure programs that are being shown to work continue to be funded.

NORMAN: Just finally before Question Time comes up in about seven minutes, I wanted to ask you about the energy and emissions debate that’s been going on all week. Just on the issue of nuclear energy, Peter Dutton has come out to say it should be considered. He thinks it would lower power prices. The Labor Party is opposed to nuclear energy, but some unions like the AWU have actually come out in support of it. Why aren’t you listening to those unions?

RISHWORTH: Firstly I’m not sure what evidence Peter Dutton is using to say it would bring down power prices, all the evidence out there would suggest that it would increase power prices. We’ve got an abundance of renewable energy and storage options that have not been explored. They bring down power prices, they are good for the environment, they reduce emissions. We need an investment framework that encourages that type of investment. We don’t want to be putting up power prices, which is exactly what reports have said that nuclear energy would do.

NORMAN: So no nuclear energy for you?


NORMAN: Zed Seselja, where do you stand on this? Is this a realistic debate to be having given he likes of Alan Finkel has said the nuclear power debate is really over?

SESELJA: Unless you get some degree of bipartisanship I think it would be extraordinarily difficult to deliver nuclear in this country. But I would say the Labor Party has now come out with their un-costed 2050 zero net emissions plan. It’s not a plan, it’s just a target and if you’re going to put that forward, you’d have to look at everything. But at this stage it looks like they’re only going to look at a $273 a ton carbon price.

RISHWORTH: That’s ridiculous, that’s not true and you know that.

SESELJA: So they’re going to have to look outside the box if they’re going to deliver this.

NORMAN: The 2050 target, the Liberals have not ruled out adopting a 2050 target. The Nationals seem very much opposed to it. Do you think it’s something the Government should be considering?

SESELJA: What we’re absolutely focused on is a 2030 target. We’re delivering on our 2020 target, we’re going to deliver on our 2030 target. Labor’s got a never-never target they can’t articulate how they will actually deliver. We certainly won’t follow that path. I commend the Otis group for doing their best to try and bring some sense into this, but unfortunately I think you met at that restaurant and you just surrendered to –

RISHWORTH: I just need to point out I don’t usually line up with Boris Johnson, Gladys Berejiklian, and the BCA, but the Federal Government is the outlier on this 2050 target.

NORMAN: Alright well we’ll see where this all ends up at the Glasgow Conference. Zed Seselja, Amanda Rishworth, thank you for joining me today.


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