2 February 2015
Transcript - #2015014, 2015

Interview with Rafael Epstein, 774 ABC Melbourne

SUBJECTS: Prime Minister National Press Club address, small business tax cut, Labor’s budget mess, Employee Share Schemes, leadership speculation

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

The Prime Minister was promising to spend the Paid Parental Leave money on childcare in some form, and also promising some sort of goodies for small business already expecting a 1.5 per cent cut. I’m not sure there was too much extra detail on that but we can ask what detail there is from the Minister for Small Business Bruce Billson. Bruce Billson is also a Victorian MP. Thanks for joining us.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Raf, good to speak with you and your listeners.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Did he do enough to get himself out of trouble?

MINISTER BILLSON:

I thought it was a good speech. It was trying to lift the discussion above personalities and running commentary, to talk about the really important issues our nation is facing and what the Government’s plans are. How this is all too serious for us to get sucked into the vortex of character chat here and there.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Would you agree that it is your Party that has helped the media into that chat about leadership and character?

MINISTER BILLSON:

Yeah, no shortage of contributors Raf. So that has fed it somewhat more than is needed and way beyond what is helpful because there are so many important issues that we face as a nation.

I know I wake up every day trying to think what more can I do to improve the opportunities for our citizens and make sure the country is on track for the bright future that is within our reach.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Before we talk about the challenges the country faces, it is pretty clear that his own Party don’t feel like he is listening enough.

There was a fairly damaging question from one journalist listing about 12 or 13 times in the last three years where the Prime Minister has promised to be more consultative and collegiate than ever before and clearly has not delivered. That was a fairly damaging question when he was asked why should we believe him this time.

MINISTER BILLSON:

I missed some of the questioning; I must confess I was chairing a stakeholder roundtable on crowd source equity funding and had read the printed material but I did not get a sense of the atmosphere of the question and answer session.

I know it is a point in positions of leadership when there is never too much consultation that you can be engaged with. I know at times if I have got a great idea and I feel like I am the only one that has it, I would like to consult more so I could persuade more. But we have got to be collegiate, we have got to be consultative.

Today was an example of where I was drawing in some of the best minds and field evidence about a particular policy area and I think that is a good formula for good Government more generally.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Does he listen to you? If you’ve got a problem you don’t have any trouble getting through?

MINISTER BILLSON:

Yes he does.

In fact I was in communications with the Prime Minister last night and again with his office this morning. I find he is absolutely available. Any issue, concern, idea; even if I wake up with an “Ah-ha!” moment, he is very open to that input.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Julie Bishop and Malcolm Turnbull’s answers, especially the Foreign Minister saying “The Prime Minister has my support” and not answering any other question about what might happen in the future, very present tense support.

Do you see that as the right answer? Or was she hedging her bets?

MINISTER BILLSON:

Look, it is the right answer because what else can you say? I have been doing other media interviews today and we ended up spending a few moments on semantics when I was being asked “What do you mean?” and I said I mean precisely what I said. So I think that answer is the right answer.

It does not keep feeding the frenzy that you referred to earlier. It reflects everyone’s state of mind but it also underlines the point that this Australian public want us to get on with good Government. There is important work to be done, that has got to be the focus of our energy.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Sounds dreadfully like everything Labor ministers said…

MINISTER BILLSON:

I would like to think not, because here we have got a Government with a clear plan and so much of that is about trying to repair the damage that we inherited from the previous Labor Government. We want to get on with that.

I have seen examples of Bill Shorten almost gloating about the obstructionist approach he is bringing.

I know for the people that I work very hard for in my community and also the small business community – 519,000 jobs were lost in small business under the Rudd Gillard Rudd Government.

We need to arrest that decline and re-energise enterprise. That is great for the economy, great for job creation and that is what I got elected to do and putting all of my energy in to.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Just a quick detail question – I thought small business were getting 1.5 per cent cut anyway, that has been around since the last Budget – I am not sure the Prime Minister said anything new around that? Or have I got that wrong?

MINISTER BILLSON:

Again, looking at the actual text, he was making the point that at least that amount. I will share with you and your listeners that we are working very hard to improve that, but it depends very much on what we can afford in the Budget context.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

What does that mean? Small businesses are getting more than that in the next Budget? We might get that?

MINISTER BILLSON:

No, no, you will get that when the Budget is released, I am sure you would not want me to pre-announce the Budget – that is in May.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

I’m serious about the motivation, why say that if you can’t even say there is something coming in the Budget?

MINISTER BILLSON:

No, I think the motive absolutely is clear and that is, having outlined what the year is about and the challenges that we face, to then communicate what our priorities are is a very important statement to make.

It also reflects where our effort and energy is going into. That 1.5 per cent cut, we want to go further and we have got to see what we can do.

The employee share ownership scheme commitment that we have made, that is some $200 million of hard-earned and hard-worked for resources to try and re-energise that aspect of a small business economy.

This is on-going work, as it should be for people who mortgage their houses just to have a go themselves and create opportunities for themselves and so many other Australians. That is a priority, that is a focus and that was made clear in the Prime Minister’s speech.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

How much of your trouble comes from the fact that you’re doing things you didn’t talk about before the election? I speak especially of the GP co-payment, which was dismissed as not being considered actually at the start of last year and the university deregulation.

They are significant changes; neither of them were spoken about before the federal election. That’s a big part of the problem isn’t it?

MINISTER BILLSON:

In my area we are doing precisely what we said we would do, and it is more than 15 separate small business initiatives.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

I just asked you about your area, the Medicare co-payment…

MINISTER BILLSON:

On those other areas, it is a reflection of where we are. We were given certain assurances about the budget condition by Labor, again that was wildly inaccurate and that has been presented and communicated in terms of the financial reporting.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

But you were given the clear state of the books in the election campaign because of laws brought in by Peter Costello. You knew the true state of the books before the election.

MINISTER BILLSON:

We had the state of the books as was published at the time under those laws. What we did not have was the precarious financial situation Labor had put the Reserve Bank in, about not having adequate capital resources to be able to manage that in my own area.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

I understand that argument Bruce Billson, I suppose I’m asking do you think it’s part of the problem that you brought in those reforms without mentioning them before the Federal Election or is it something else that has given you political trouble?

MINISTER BILLSON:

I think it is one of a number of things that have made a difficult assignment of getting the nation back on track and repairing our budget more difficult than it needed to be.

The scale of that task is far greater than Labor communicated. $20 billion is not a small sum of money – it is an enormous sum of money.

The expenditure profile, we are simply trying to see that increase at a Boeing 747 rate, not taking off like a jet fighter, almost vertically. These are the challenges of our time.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

… The Prime Minister did make a comment in response to an infrastructure question; this was actually his only reference I think to the Queensland poll, and he appeared to be a little dismissive of the results. He was asked a question about infrastructure and this is what he said:

“I am determined to be an infrastructure Prime Minister. I accept obviously we have had a change in Victoria, who knows where things will ultimately fall in Queensland. We have had a change in Victoria, now surely it is the very mid-summer of madness to pay $1.2 billion not to build a road... I mean really – really and truly… because it’s a classic example of what goes wrong when, in a fit of absent mindedness, people elect Labor Governments.”

I’m sure you’d love to talk about the East-West Link Bruce Billson, but he did appear to be saying there, the Prime Minister, that when we voted in for the Abbott Government we were considering things seriously. When we voted for the Andrews’ Government and the result in Queensland, the voters were being absent minded.

MINISTER BILLSON:

I would have thought there was a simpler and straight forward explanation, and that is when you are spending a thousand, millions of dollars plus to not build something there is not a whole lot of sense in spending that money when you can build something. East-West Link was a crucial infrastructure project.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

I understand that point. Was he accusing the voters of being absent minded?

MINISTER BILLSON:

No I do not think he was. I think he was just saying it is a fit of madness that the Government gets elected and wants to spend over a billion dollars not to do something when there is so much that needs to be done.

Our own city desperately needs that project to carry commuters and commerce. If we are to make the opportunities that are within our reach – as a state and as a nation – we need to make these investments to support our productive capacity.

I think from my point of view, what the great tragedy of the election results was that so much of it focused on what Labor did not want to do. There is not an alternative plan.

Where is the coherent strategy to build our state and to create those opportunities? That for me is the big concern out of those elections where campaigning has now become so effective in inflaming and inciting grievance that the bigger issue about where are we going as a state and as a nation…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

That grievance campaigning might have been something the Coalition indulged in in Opposition?

MINISTER BILLSON:

You could label it that way. I certainly would not because I got a very positive response to our plan about what it is we wanted to do. The abolition of the carbon tax was a sound policy measure, designed to take cost of living pressures out of households and to make small businesses not carry higher input costs than they need to.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Alright, let’s not re-prosecute the last election. Final yes or no question: has anyone rung you canvassing a change in leadership?

MINISTER BILLSON:

No.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Okay, thanks for being so direct. Appreciate your time.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Good to speak with you Raf.