11 March 2015
Transcript - #2015029, 2015

Interview with Rafael Epstein, ABC 774 Drive, Melbourne

SUBJECTS: Indigenous communities, car industry.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Joining me in the Melbourne studio is a part of Tony Abbott’s Federal Cabinet. Bruce Billson is the Small Business Minister and the Member for Dunkley.

Bruce, welcome.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Raf, great to be here. And gee looking well.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

And Mark Dreyfus is looking well; at least I think he is. He is in the Sydney studio. He is the Shadow Attorney General, part of Bill Shorten’s Opposition and the Member for Isaacs. And their two electorates adjoin each other.

Mark, welcome.

MARK DREYFUS:

Good to be with you Raf. Hello Bruce.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Hey Mark, how are you?

MARK DREYFUS:

Very well.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Excellent.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Look let us talk about lifestyle choices. A little bit of background – the WA Government wants to shut down probably dozens if not more than 100 very small communities, Indigenous remote communities. There are about 1300 people in just 174 small communities. So they are very small. They clearly have some costs associated with them.

There has been a cavalcade though of Indigenous leaders unimpressed with the Prime Minister calling it a lifestyle choice. Probably, I guess the most colourful or one of the most colourful is someone the Government often sees eye-to-eye with, that is Noel Pearson from Cape York. Have a listen.

[Audio of Noel Pearson]:

I think it is a very disappointing and hopeless statement by the Prime Minister quite frankly. People living in these remote communities deserve, if the Prime Minister of the nation is going to make comments like this, to be provided with extensive policy precision from the Commonwealth Government as to why their communities should close down and the circumstances in which they should and the reasons for it and what future plans the Government might have for them.

I just think it is very disrespectful to cast fear into these communities through a kind of policy thought bubble.

Bruce Billson I will start with you. I do not think there is anyone in the Indigenous community who is impressed with what the Prime Minister said is there?

MINISTER BILLSON:

Perhaps not, but let us not lose sight of what the conversation was actually about.

The conversation was about the West Australian Government’s decision to discontinue the provision of municipal services in extremely remote and very small communities.

Now to bring that into a context that our listeners might be interested in.

In Langwarrin in my electorate you get hard rubbish collection where you can chuck some junk out on the street – that might not be available in Longwarry for instance.

The point that the Prime Minister was making – if we are to empower Indigenous communities to live the kind of length of life and quality of life you and our listeners have; if we are going to have work and economic opportunities; if we are going to respect the cultural connection to the land but also see that other ambitions of being a fully engaged Australian citizen, fully supported and serviced by all of our programs.

There is a challenge about scale and about the capacity to deliver services. That was the essence of the conversation and that is a real issue. We understand that if you want quality education, many young Indigenous people go to boarding schools for instance to get it.

That was the context of it. Lots of commentary on the words but let us not doubt the Prime Minister’s conviction. He spends a lot of time in Indigenous communities. We have to deal with closing the gap and frankly, capacity to deliver services are part of that conversation.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Mark Dreyfus, the Prime Minister does appear to have a strong personal commitment to Indigenous Australia.

MARK DREYFUS:

That is what makes these comments even more disturbing. They are offensive and he has failed to understand the connection to country which I thought was now completely established in Australian debate – that no one was in any doubt about the importance of connection to country.

We are not talking about making a choice, we are talking about living at home. Home is country for Aboriginal people and this throwaway line from the Prime Minister who has badged himself as the Prime Minister for Indigenous affairs, that is what makes it so disturbing and offensive that he has come out with this.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Bruce Billson – the real problem is, and I think it goes to the heart of what Noel Pearson says, a really simply thing that even Warren Mundine has been calling for, he is the head of the group that advises the Prime Minister on this, he wants an audit. He wants to know when we spend money, what bang do we get for our buck?

He has been pushing for that and pushing for that and pushing for that, yet it does very much appear like the Prime Minister has just got this thought bubble, I better back what the WA Government is saying, insulting them about the land and not actually engaging with what Noel Pearson said – detailed policy.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Yes I think that is a complete misread of what has happened. The Western Australian Government has responsibilities for delivering what you and I and the listeners would recognise as municipal services. That is what the Western Australian Government are on about.

The Commonwealth Government has a broader range of responsibilities about supporting Indigenous people to achieve their full ambition…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Language is important.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Of course and I accept that and in a time when there is frankly not enough plain speaking, the point that the Prime Minister was making is there is a challenge with the delivery of the kind of services we would hope all Australians have access to, where people are living in communities extraordinarily remote from those service centres and the capacity to deliver them.

Wilcannia as I understand it is an example. There is five support staff funded by various levels of government per hundred head of population and so we really do need…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

But the frustration is…

MINISTER BILLSON:

And I accept that. I understand that.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

There is no detailed response is there? There isn’t a detailed response. There is no audit either.

MINISTER BILLSON:

On Indigenous affairs – that is dead wrong, dead wrong.

What we have sought to do is consolidate a whole plethora of Indigenous programs scattered across various levels of government and portfolios. They are now coordinated through the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. So important is it to get this right.

We have got senior officials able to make decisions, not 15 or the little bit of the pie in their area of responsibility, able to work collaboratively with Indigenous communities to bring about action and change because we need to do that.

And that is the focus that we are bringing.

I understand you are keen to have a chat about this but let us not lose sight of what the goal is and that is making sure that Indigenous people can have their connection to country, but also live and aspire to the kind of quality of life and ambitions that the mainstream nation and our citizens aspire to.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Mark Dreyfus, should we test the Prime Minister on his rhetoric or what he has done? Do you think there has been progress?

MARK DREYFUS:

Could I ask that we not lose sight of what has happened here. The Western Australian Government has announced that it is going to close up to 150 remote Indigenous communities and that is after the Abbott Government cut off all federal funding to those communities. That is what is happening here. That is the context for the Prime Minister’s though bubble or throwaway line.

I want to hear from this Government how it is going to support Aboriginal people to stay in their homes, on their country to maintain connection with their land which of course is the very basis of native title.

I want to hear what plan this Government has got for the future of these communities. Is it suggested that they are going to be relocated with federal government assistance? I have not heard that. Is it suggested that they are going to be found homes in regional centres? I have not heard that.

We have got a decision by the Western Australian Government, responding to the Abbott Government’s withdrawal of federal funding. They are going to close 150 communities and we have got a Prime Minister that supports the eviction of thousands of Aboriginal people from their traditional land. Bruce needs to engage with that.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

I want you to engage though with one statistic that the WA Government are pushing a lot. In those really small communities, it costs about $85,000 per person per year to give people very simple sewerage and electricity.

That is a problem isn’t that governments have to engage with?

MARK DREYFUS:

Sure and it is a problem to provide electricity and water and sewerage services to every remote community, everywhere in Australia. It is a problem to provide roads. All services cost money and I do not see that kind of costing being done on remote non-Indigenous communities.

I find the whole of this approach that is being taken here by Tony Abbott and his Government and the Western Australian Government to be wrong-headed and completely contrary to the direction that we have been going in now for several decades which is recognising the connection that Aboriginal people have to their land.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Bruce Billson is champing at the bit to respond. I am going to ask him to pause. I will get to some of your calls in a moment. 1300 222 774 is the phone number. We will get some news headlines and traffic and then we will be back with both frontbenchers.

[News break]

Bruce Billson is with me. He is part of Tony Abbott’s Cabinet. Mark Dreyfus is with us in Sydney. He is part of Bill Shorten’s Shadow Cabinet.

Simon has called from Fitzroy. Hi Simon. Try and keep it brief if you can.

CALLER:

How are you going Raf? I am just amazed at the Liberal’s spin on this within the last 24 hours. They must have a dedicated room to gloss over all this moron’s mistakes.

My attitude as somebody who has moved to Australia and become a citizen in the last eight years in this country – looking at the history, white people rocked up here in 1788 and lifted the country from Aboriginals.

However long it takes, we are going to have to repay that or you are going to have to compensate them. You do not eventually say that is enough now, you have to absorb yourself into our version of Australian society. You do not get to kick these people off land and then tell them right we have tried to reconcile for long enough, now you just have to accept our version.

However long it takes, however much it costs – that is the price of stealing a nation from a bunch of people.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Ok Simon I will take that as a comment. I will give Ashley a go from Inverloch and then I will get a response from both Bruce Billson and Mark Dreyfus.

Hi Ashley.

CALLER:

Hi how are you? I just wanted to ring and say I think the Prime Minister is right, however I think it is unfortunate that he has limited the conversation and discussions to just Indigenous people. I think it is unrealistic to have such tiny communities, regardless of whether you are white, black or yellow frankly.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

If you are outside a municipal centre in WA Ashley you are getting government subsidies, roads – everything.

CALLER:

Yes. In Victoria I read an article, I think it was in the Herald Sun some weeks or months ago, about a woman protesting because she lived in a remote community and she had six children that attended the school and there was only her grandchildren or relatives in the school…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

So Ashley you are saying you sort of want people to be more on their own.

Mark Dreyfus I will start with you. There is actually a fair sentiment there is there not from a lot of people, I do not know how many, saying listen people need to…It might be their home, it might be their intrinsic connection to the land but people need to stand up more on their own.

Do you accept that there is a substantial number of people who think that?

MARK DREYFUS:

It might be some people that think it but we need to recognise the importance, that absolutely vital connection that Aboriginal people have to their traditional country. That is the whole basis of the land rights movement, it is the whole basis of the native title system and this Western Australian Government has been one of the hardest fighting governments against native title claims insisting that Aboriginal people prove their connection to the land, and of course you prove your connection to the land best by being on it.

We do not approach building services providing services in remote and regional Australia by saying it costs us money as a community. We look first at people’s wish to live and need to live in these particular places and provide services.

I very much doubt that if you looked at anywhere in remote Western Australia, remote Queensland, remote South Australia, even dare I say it remoter parts of Victoria that you would find any, whether it be Aboriginal communities or non-Aboriginal communities, that you would find anything other than high levels of subsidy by the rest of the community for providing services like water, power and roads to those communities.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Bruce Billson I am sure you want to respond to that but I still want to know why Warren Mundine is not getting the audit he wants. He has been pushing for it for a long time. Seems to be straight out of the small l liberal playbook, evaluating the bang for the buck.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Yes and that is what has been going on. I have not heard Warren’s direct comments about the audit but that is partly why we have seen a transformation in service delivery to try and ensure we get effective use of tax payer resources, so that we can bring about the change…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Warren Mundine and Noel Pearson do not think they are getting that.

MINISTER BILLSON:

No and I will have to take that one and check it out when I am next in the Kremlin talking with my Cabinet colleagues thank you Raf, but the point is I think it is wrong to try and say there is a single frame of ambition for all Indigenous communities.

Yes, Mark is right – connection to country is very important but that plays out in many different ways. In the Indigenous communities that I have had dealings with, some will visit for cultural occasions and engage and keep those connections whilst they pursue an ambition of running their own business.

They want economic independence, they want not only self-determination in an altruistic sense, they want to be able to shape their own ambitions, pursue their goals, create economic opportunities, quality access to education – this is the range of ambitions that is within the Indigenous community.

If we are to respond appropriately and effectively to that range of ambitions, the idea about our capacity to deliver services to extremely remote communities, where if there is lucky to be a teacher, they will be one, offering not the spread of curriculum, not inciting and exciting young Indigenous people about their future.

I talk with the Supply Nation, they are trying to get Indigenous businesses off the ground. The Indigenous enterprise organisations that are around, trying to make sure that economic opportunities are part of the story of full Indigenous achievement and ambition in our country. That is the broader agenda and I suspect the conversation we are having is but a part of one of those ambitions.

MARK DREYFUS:

I am pleased to have Bruce Billson’s thought bubble on top of the Prime Minister’s thought bubble. Bruce apparently now wants the 150 remote communities moved off their land to visit for ceremony business only.

Now I do not think that is their aspiration…

MINISTER BILLSON:

Nice verballing Mark. Not what I said but I love your work. Never miss a chance to politicise something when there are more important national goals to be addressed here….

MARK DREYFUS:

Bruce it is not a term of abuse to say something is political. This is deeply political.

We have got a Prime Minister that is wanting to shut down what has been the whole progress of the connection to country for four decades, and we have got a Premier of Western Australia in league with him.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Ok let’s move on from that conversation. I’ll try to get to your texts later. It is coming up to 18 minutes to five. 774 ABC Melbourne. I’ll get to some of your calls as well in a moment. 1300 222 774.

Bruce Billson, I do not understand what is going on with car policy in this country.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Yes. I picked that up from yesterday listening to you Raf.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

500 million is now going back in. When you were in Opposition, you tore strips off Julia Gillard’s Government, especially in 2011 saying that Julia Gillard was essentially causing sovereign risk-

That was Sophie Mirabella’s phrase that’s what was what was happening when Julia Gillard reduced the amount of subsidy to the car industry.

You ripped the money away quite firmly, not all of it but a lot of it 12 months ago – more than 12 months ago. You put some of it back yesterday.

You’re actually doing the very thing you accused your opponents of doing isn’t it? Flip flopping around at the whim of a poll.

MINISTER BILLSON:

No. That is not right.

I thought you were going to talk about Julia Gillard in March 2012 when $275 million was provided to Holden and the assurance was that Holden would stay here until 2022.

Now things have changed. And Holden has announced that….

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Yeah. Let’s talk about the Government though.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Yes, but free of context is always a useful conversation Raf. I think not. Context does matter in these things.

So things have changed. What has happened we have had announcements from the vehicle assemblers, of their plans to discontinue assembling motor vehicles in Australia.

The fund that was there, the one you are talking about reached beyond those dates when they themselves through their own decision making, decided to leave.

So you cannot actually make payments through the automotive transformation scheme if there aren’t people making cars.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Sure.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Now what we were doing was saying, given that those announcements had been made there was scope to reduce that budget allocation because people won’t be here beyond 2016-2017 assembling cars.

Now that was supposed to have started earlier, given that announcements had already been made by the assemblers and that the collaboration with component manufacturers and the like, knew that was coming.

We were encouraging component manufacturers to move early and diversify – that is why there is an automotive diversification fund. And what’s happened now is the Senate has said no we want that programme to stay.

Well fine. We are realistic that if the programme’s earlier cessation…..

RAFAEL EPSTEIN

But you haven’t changed policy because of the number of cars coming out of the factory. You’ve changed policy because you are terrified of losing seats in South Australia and Victoria.

MINISTER BILLSON:

No.

What has happened is, we put forward our policy- so if we were terrified, Raf, the terror has already been felt.

The electoral impact has already been received.

And a thoughtful use of scarce taxpayer’s money has been earmarked to go in to other areas of the economy.

Where they themselves, the businesses see a future and are going to continue to invest.

What was proposed was that that fund would discontinue earlier. The car industry said ‘No, no’ we need that to trickle its way through, right until we stay here. That’s important for the component industry.

The Senate has agreed with that outlook.

Therefore we cannot implement an earlier closure. We are letting the programme, as designed, run out to its natural conclusion. That is what has happened.

Takes account of the circumstances we are dealing with.

I heard you yesterday talking about backflip, backflip, backflip, backflip. You got very excited on your backflips. I thought there was a bit of gymnastics going on there.

MARK DREYFUS:

It is a backflip Bruce.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

You’ll get a chance Mark, you’ll get a chance.

MINISTER BILLSON:

If we cannot implement the programme that we have announced and the Senate wishes to block it and Labor wishes to conspire with the cross benchers in doing so.

The sensible thing is to take stock, look at Plan B and get on with it.

That is the message I get, get on with it. And that is exactly what is happening.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

We will see what people make of whether or not it’s a backflip. I definitely do think it’s a policy reversal, but I don’t think you’re alone there. 1300 222 774.

Mark Dreyfus feel free to respond, but again the Coalition isn’t alone in reversing and changing direction on car policy. It was something Labor did when it was in Government as well.

MARK DREYFUS:

Yeah - What we didn’t do was goad Holden into leaving the country.

What we didn’t do is withdraw the funds that this was – this Automotive Transformation Scheme is there to assist the nearly 200 firms in Australia.

You’d think Bruce would care more about this.

The nearly 200 firms in Australia…..

MINISTER BILLSON:

He is nice, isn’t he?

MARK DREYFUS:

…..that make components and are part of the supply chain that rested on there being three car makers.

Bruce doesn’t want to call them that, he wants to call them vehicle assemblers for some reason. Three car making firms in Australia which are all now leaving, they got their parts from nearly 200 small to medium firms across Australia.

We want them to stay in business. As many of them as possible to stay in business.

That’s going to require transformation. It’s going to require them to start making possibly non-automotive things…..

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

But that is easy to say Mark Dreyfus. One thing I do remember is taking money away from things like the green car fund to pay for cyclone damage being repaired up north.

This is what Government’s do, isn’t it? They play with car industry money, because it’s political pressure and they suddenly decide they have got different priorities.

MARK DREYFUS:

What you don’t do, is remove it at the very time it’s most needed. That is to assist in the transformation of an entire industry. Because we’ve got these nearly 200 components firms who are needing to either start making parts that can go into global supply chains for other car makers, or move to making non-automotive things.

And if we don’t assist them in that transformation, you’ve got tens of thousands of workers, particularly in South Australia and Victoria, who are going to be out of a job. That is going to cost our community even more.

This is very well targeted use of Commonwealth funds.

It’s a very well-crafted scheme from our time in Government, and of course we are going to defend it.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Bruce Billson the component manufacturers would have been a lot happier if this announcement had been made 12 months ago wouldn’t they?

MINISTER BILLSON:

Perhaps, but most component manufactures that I speak with, and there are a number in the community that I represent, have seen the trajectory of the car industry coming for some time.

They have been on the pathway of diversification. That’s why there is an automotive diversification fund. Different from the one we are talking amount. The one we are talking about, is one that pays an amount, for output. So for every car produced there is an amount paid.

There is a separate diversification fund. There is a growth fund of $155 million which is targeting the economies mainly in Victoria and in Adelaide.

And on top of that, there are the growth centres and the industry infrastructure programme. Supporting for instance, rim manufacturers who know about alloys, to make prosthesis to support those that make bumper bars to use precision plastics in other areas of the marketplace.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

To get back to the very people you are talking about. Surely they would have interpreted…. Let’s just hear from the Prime Minister, end of 2013. There is no doubt that the strong message from your Government was car subsidies are not going be around for much longer- have a listen to the Prime Minister saying he’d be loathed to consider that sort of cash.

[Audio Prime Minister Tony Abbott]

This Government will be very loath to consider requests for subsidies. We will be very loath to do for businesses that are in trouble, the sorts of things they ought to be doing for themselves. And the sorts of things which private sector commercial arrangements should potentially at least be doing for them.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Bruce Billson that’s a policy reversal. You can’t seriously tell me this is a well-developed ‘simply responding to industry’ policy.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Our policy trajectory was clear.

I mean we can go over this over and over again. I don’t know what world Raf, that you live in that thinks there are no moving parts in this area.

You know last year was a year of celebrated obstruction from Labor and there is much of the Government’s programme that has not been implemented.

Here, the legislative change to have the end of that programme brought forward was blocked in the Senate.

Now we can keep banging our head against the wall and then you will say ‘Oh Bruce isn’t it a bit silly to keep banging your head against the wall?’ I mean, you have got the beauty of being able to play both sides of this argument.

What the Prime Minister was pointing to... And I gave you one example: In 2012 the Gillard Government provided $275 million, a quarter of a billion dollars, to Holden, on the assurance they would stay here until 2022.

Now that clearly has not happened. That approach to policy has not worked. And as we were told by Holden after the election, the decision not to stay in Australia was made long before the election.

And I remembered that day when I said we have gone from football, meat pies, kangaroos and Holden cars to baseball, apple pies, Wile E Coyote's and rebadged Chevy Malibu’s.

Now people knew this was coming. What we are dealing with is the reality of the Senate that we have. That programme will be able to run its natural course.

The attrition is there.

When they stop making cars or assembling them – whatever word Mark’s comfortable with- putting bits together to produce a car.

That is when those payments under the scheme will end.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

1300 222 774. I’ll get to your calls in a moment.

Both gentleman will be leaving us.

Mark Dreyfus, a very quick response to that.

You know the argument: What the current Government did had nothing to do with Holden’s departure.

MARK DREYFUS:

What I know is that this is a government is in such chaos, that it can’t even work out how much this backflip is going to deliver.

Yesterday we had the Minister saying it was $900 million, by mid-morning it was $500 million, then the Treasurer is apparently now saying it’s only $100 million.

They don’t know what they are doing.

I will say one thing. I’m pleased, that at least Bruce seems to be recognising the need to assist the nearly 200 small and medium firms who make automotive components to make the transition. That’s a good thing.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Okay well, I guess if it was easy, it would be simple and we’d all be living in paradise.

Bruce Billson thanks for your time.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Always great to see you Raf. And you are looking well.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

I try. Bruce Billson is the Small Business Minister. Mark Dreyfus is in Sydney, the Shadow Attorney General. Thank you Mark.

MARK DREYFUS:

Thanks Raf. Thanks Bruce.

BRUCE BILLSON:

Travel well Mark, take care.