8 May 2015
Transcript - #2015049, 2015

Interview with Rafael Epstein, ABC Fight Club, 774 ABC

SUBJECTS: Greens leadership, Victorian infrastructure, Budget, superannuation

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Springing off the top rope for Team Abbott is Bruce Billson – Minister for Small Business, Member for Dunkley here in Melbourne, joining us from Canberra.  Hi there Bruce.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Hi Raf, best wishes to you and your listeners and to Stephen.  Is this his inaugural Fight Club?

STEPHEN JONES:

He is supposed to introduce me Bruce.

MINISTER BILLSON:

That is how helpful I am Stephen, you know I am always helpful.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

When he puts the wrestling leotard on Stephen, Bruce gets kind of keen.

Stephen Jones is the Member for Throsby, the Illawarra region, the Shadow Assistant Minister for Health as well. Part of Bill Shorten’s team joining us from one of the more beautiful parts of this glorious country.  Stephen thanks for joining us.

STEPHEN JONES:

Good to be with you both.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Look I want to start Bruce Billson with you the elevation if I can call it that of Richard Di Natale.

I suppose he is just replacing Christine Milne as leader of the Greens. Especially around something like petrol indexation, excise indexation, any feeling or vibe that you might have a more willing partner in the Senate now?

MINISTER BILLSON:

Let us hope so. It was I think the Hawke Government that introduced indexation of fuel excise and when the funding was around not to require indexation the Howard Government removed it and we have sought to reintroduce it to help fund infrastructure construction and road maintenance.  Something that we always thought the Greens would be interested in, the indexation of…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

There is clearly some internal dissention around it.  Have you got any idea if they are more friendly under Richard Di Natale?

MINISTER BILLSON:

Look it is too early to call, I have not seen anything specific that points to a change of heart that would seem to more reflect the Greens’ general policy position but good luck to Richard and best wishes to Christine as well with whatever she does next.  I have only had the pleasure of partnering Richard in a game of cricket where he bowled and I kept and we seem to do alright together and let us hope there is an opportunity to collaborate on policies of national interest.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Okay, Stephen Jones I would like to ask you if you see a change and also a sub-question: Are they a significant threat to the ALP vote because I think they would like to be?  But do you think they would change significantly under Richard di Natale?

STEPHEN JONES:

Look I could not say. We will work that out over the months and year ahead.  Best wishes to Christine Milne, she has been a fierce advocate for her Party in the near 20 years she has been in Parliament and I look forward to having a constructive relationship with Richard.  There will be things we agree on, there will be things we disagree on and we will see how they fall out over the coming months.

In terms of the Greens as a political party they campaign against Labor, they do not campaign against the Government so we are disappointed about that.  They are a left of centre party but they seem to spend all of their time criticizing us and not enough time criticizing the Government.  If I have a criticism of them, that is what it is but we will look to see if we can strike a proper relationship and a productive relationship with Richard in his new role as the leader.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Okay, Bruce Billson, I actually would like to know, Kevin Andrews, your senior Melbourne ministerial colleague – he put out a tweet – I just want to know if you agree with him.  I am sure there is a diversity of views in the Coalition as always.  Kevin Andrews says: ‘Does it really matter who will lead the freedom hating Greens? Their anti-family & community destroying policies remain’.

Has he got a point, anti-family and community destroying?

MINISTER BILLSON:

Well I am not sure what their policy position will be.  I know they have certainly been an East-West Link destroying influence on the Labor Party in fact and it links up with what Stephen was saying that in order to protect inner Melbourne seats from the surge of the Greens you saw Labor abandon a project that is really significant to our state and to our city.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

I am glad you dodged it in some ways because…

MINISTER BILLSON:

Did you like that?  I thought that was quite a deft move actually.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

I am curious about the East-West, let me tell you why. 

West Australia is upset with their upcoming GST redistribution so they are going to get a one off $500 million road grant.  I just want to have a listen to what the WA Premier said in response when the Prime Minister was in the West delivering that half a billion:

Colin Barnett: These road projects are also of immense benefit extending and widening the freeway, getting some level crossings sorted out; extending the Perth freight system that will take heavy vehicles off suburban roads is a really fundamental improvement to the transport system.

Key phrase there Bruce Billson from the WA Premier – ‘level crossings’.  Labor has got some level crossings they would not mind using the East-West funding for.  What is the chance do you think?

MINISTER BILLSON:

The East-West funding is for East-West and you would have seen no doubt with your researchers there that CityLink has just put out another alert telling motorists of delays back to Bolte Bridge and all sorts of congestion in inner Melbourne.  What we have always said to the State Government…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Yes, I am just wondering, level crossings in Perth… not too different to level crossings in Melbourne I imagine?

MINISTER BILLSON:

Well it is a shovel ready project we have got in Melbourne, East-West Link, and we have also made it clear to the State Government that if under their decision to privatise public assets they want to take advantage of the asset privatisation incentive scheme that we are offering which provides more resources for whatever infrastructure projects a State Government might choose – whether it be level crossings – or…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Different pile of money though is it not?

MINISTER BILLSON:

A different process as well and a different set of circumstances.  Western Australia is faced with getting about one in three dollars back from the GST its citizens pay.

That is a real pressure point on the Federation.  The states want to leave the formula that has brought about that outcome largely in place, but recognise there is a need to deal with what is a real pressure on the Federation and the distribution of tax and we have stepped in to try and keep the Federation healthy and target resources into productivity, jobs and growth supporting infrastructure activities. 

Different sets of circumstances but the door is open through another avenue for the State of Victoria.  

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

We will see.  Stephen Jones, I am not sure what the roads are like at your place and I am not sure how much you are across the East-West issue however let me ask you as a political observer perhaps more than a participant – do you think the Federal Government would pull money out or do you think they are likely to eventually fund a Labor Government road project?

STEPHEN JONES:

I think Tony Abbott has got to get over his pig headed approach to funding urban rail.  The problem with his position on Melbourne Metro is he wants to give $3 billion to a project that the people of Victoria have said resoundingly they do not want.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

But they are not going to change the position on rail are they?  So the question is can you give it to another road?

STEPHEN JONES:

Well he needs to get over that Raf. This is a project that Melbourne needs.  He wants to put money into a project that has not even had a cost-benefit analysis process.  We know that the Melbourne Metro project is one that stacks up; it is one that Melbourne needs.  In fact, Tony Abbott has said we will only fund road projects; we are not going to fund these rail projects. 

Every transport planner in the country knows that you have got to do both.  It is not a question of doing one and not the other, you need to have both parts of the network working together and frankly Victoria, the rest of Australia needs the Commonwealth working in partnership, not at odds. 

So $3 billion for a project that Melbourne does not want versus a project that they do want, that they do need- the Commonwealth should come to the party.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

I will get to your calls in a moment.

Bruce Billson I am sure you want to spruce the tantalising glimpse you have given around quicker depreciation for small business.  Let me ask you a Budget question – is this preparation for an early election?  It looks like a very election friendly document, next week’s Budget.

MINISTER BILLSON:

No it is a preparation, not even a preparation, it is a continuation of work that we are doing to not only repair the Budget mess we inherited but actually generate economic growth, economic opportunities, jobs and an improved future for our nation.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Budget emergency seems to have disappeared.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Because we have halved the debt and deficit trajectory we inherited from Labor.  We have made good progress but we have to stay focused on that task and that is why new measures that will be announced on Tuesday have had to be funded from savings within the Budget.

What we have clearly done is we have said families and particularly childcare is a priority.  Jobs is a central focus and small business is crucial to achieving the kind of job opportunity and economic growth that we need and frankly, we have got to recover the 519,000 jobs lost in small business under the previous Labor Rudd-Gillard-Rudd Government.  There is plenty to be done.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Plenty of senior government people airing the idea with me of an early election.  I am not sure it is feasible but is it going to happen?

MINISTER BILLSON:

I do not want to get into your fireside chats Raf.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

They are pretty cosy.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Are they? That is nice and I hope the Autumn weather adds to it.

What is constantly my focus is what we can do to energise enterprise, get the conditions rights, get the incentives in place, encourage small businesses which are huge job generators in our economy to take that next step to invest, to grow, to recruit that extra one or two people – they are our opportunities right across our country, not just in particular regions and that is why it is such a key focus of our work and our Budget preparations.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Stephen Jones, on next week’s Budget, in government Labor was quite keen on means testing, money that comes from government.  We are definitely going to get some sort of means test on the pension. We are definitely going to get some sort of means test on the cost of childcare.  They sound like policies that are very much something Labor could support.

STEPHEN JONES:

Yes look before I get to that, I do have to pull Bruce up on this nonsense that he is pedalling, that the Government has fixed the Budget problem.  They have doubled it.  They have doubled it by giving interest free loans to the Reserve Bank that they did not ask for.  They have doubled it by turning their back on revenue streams that they could otherwise be using for schools, for hospitals, for infrastructure. 

So let us not have this nonsense that last year we had a Budget emergency, we have fixed it, now we can do something different.  They have put nothing in place which deals with those long term issues.  In fact, they have made them worse. 

When it comes to small business, the proof is in the pudding and small business and in fact consumers, investors around the country are voting with their feet.  Confidence has never been worse.  I hope that it turns around.  I sincerely hope that it turns around.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Beyond the politics – assets test for a pension and for childcare, that is straight out of a Labor playbook often.  They are the things you can support are they not?

STEPHEN JONES:

We say we have got to look at retirement incomes as a whole, not just look at the pension side of things but also look at the superannuation side of things which is why we have actually offered up to the Government Raf a proposition around changing the taxation rules for superannuation.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

We probably need both do we not?  We probably need both your proposal and the Government’s.  You have got to tighten the top end on both pension’s and super.

STEPHEN JONES:

In terms of the pension stuff, we are not going to help the Government break their promises.  They went to the last election with a clear set of promises that there would be no changes to pensions.  We think they should be kept honest to that.  If they have got some propositions that they want to take to the next election let them put those propositions to the next election but we are simply not going to sit here and help them break their promises.

We will help them with constructive alternatives and we put the superannuation taxation arrangements up as a $7 billion constructive alternative that we offer them up and we hope that they bring in on Tuesday next week.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Bruce Billson, super changes – if you want you could get your pension asset issue through if you accepted Labor’s super idea, do you agree at least in principle we need to have a go at the top end of both? 

MINISTER BILLSON:

In the spirit of fight club can I just deal with some of the things that Stephen said first and then come to your question?

What we are faced with when we were elected was the Labor Party raided the Reserve Bank to pull special dividends out of it and make the Reserve Bank and its crucial role less secure than it needed to be at a time of global economic insecurity.

In my own area, they did not fund the ACCC properly, they were technically insolvent when we were elected – we have had to put money into those things because as they pursued a fiction of a Budget surplus, they stopped funding key organisations and key institutions that are crucial to our future.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

But you agree the debt and deficit figures have increased not decreased?

MINISTER BILLSON:

The debt and deficit trajectory has halved.

RAFAEL ESPSTEIN:

The trajectory is different.

MINISTER BILLSON:

That is right and that is why I am drawing the point out, is that the pathway that we were hardwired into under Labor of $667 billion of debt has been halved.  There is more work that needs to be done but we do not get a clean slate of documents that shows a Budget position starting from scratch.  We inherit the legacy of the previous government and then have to deal with that as we recalibrate the settings.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

You have made that point. Could you back the idea that if you want to do something on pensions, you need to do something on super as well?  At the top end of both, you need to do both.

MINISTER BILLSON:

You have seen Scott Morrison make the point that if we are going to be more targeted, if we are going to make sure that income support through the pension system goes to those who need it then we cannot at the same time diminish the capacity of people to fund their own retirement.

Labor is talking about a proposition they floated when they were in government and then could not legislate and now they are dreaming up numbers that Stephen is stretching out over 10 years.

STEPHEN JONES:

Are you seriously suggesting that somebody with $2 million in their superannuation account cannot fund their own retirement? Mate I will never have that amount of money in my super account. I have to fund my own retirement.

MINISTER BILLSON:

I will not either Stephen.

STEPHEN JONES:

I think that people out there who are drawing earnings of $75,000 or more from their superannuation can afford to pay the marginal tax rate.  I do not think any Australian would think that that was unreasonable.

MINISTER BILLSON:

And you floated this thought bubble last time.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Bruce Billson and Stephen Jones I need to press pause there.  I will give people a quick traffic check and we will return with people’s calls.

[Traffic report]

Both willing participants today: Stephen Jones from the ALP in the Illawarra and Bruce Billson from Frankston.  He is also part of Tony Abbott’s Cabinet of course.

Les has called from Yarraville. Les what did you want to ask?

CALLER:

A question for Bruce – Bruce I think you are going to be pretty busy over the next few years because you have successfully killed off the car industry, you are about to sink shipbuilding in this country.  All we will ever have left is small businesses because the economy is in so much trouble that we have now got interest rates at 50 year lows.  That is indicative of an economy that is ground to a halt.  The other point is that I have got a couple of old stager Liberal mates – they are suggesting Joe Hockey has got to be the worst Treasurer.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

That is a lot of commentary Les, did you want to tie that down to one question?

CALLER:

Firstly, I think we have got the worst Treasurer since Billy McMahon so that is saying something.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Let me ask Bruce Billson about it, you have had a go at his Treasurer and his colleague twice.  Bruce Billson – worst Treasurer in decades?

MINISTER BILLSON:

I will do respect and courtesy to Les’ questions if I may Raf.

The decisions around the car industry were made when Labor was in office so let us get past this nonsense and fiction that somehow the Abbott Government had the influence over that or could have stopped that decision.  So let us get past that fiction.

In the area of shipbuilding, sadly under the previous Labor Government not one new ship was commissioned in the six years under Labor, not one new ship constructed in our country.  So what we are faced with is having to build up the shipbuilding capacity in our country and provide some greater continuity so there is an ongoing shipbuilding requirement that we can make sure is competitive, world class and can support our Defence needs.

In terms of the work the Joe is doing, Joe is doing an outstanding job after inheriting an absolute Budget mess and Labor thought they were clever hard wiring in, spending commitments that had no funding to support them and creating intergenerational theft to pass on today’s bills on to our kids. 

It is a tough gig and if Les was looking for more nimbleness well we have not had a lot to work with because we have inherited such a difficult Budget position that we are going to fix it like Liberal Coalition governments always do.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Stephen Jones a quick response on the ships especially.

STEPHEN JONES:

Just an injection of fact, Bruce may not be aware of the Australian Government shipbuilding program but there is something called an Air Warfare Destroyer that was being built and in fact the project has just concluded.  They were building them out of Newcastle, in fact they are going to have to close that down because you have made a decision that Australia is not good enough to build our subs or our ships.  And I think that is what Les from Yarraville is getting to.

That is a decision of your Government.  We were building ship on our watch.

MINISTER BILLSON:

You never started a ship. The Air Warfare Destroyer was instigated under the Howard Government.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

I just want to see if we can squeeze in one more call. We are going to get to the bureau in a moment.  Peter what did you want to say?  Keep it brief if you can.

CALLER:

Good day.  Costello in a speech recently stated that the Government should review super as [inaudible] savings into which it can dip its feet so to speak, but I wanted just to float the idea that 20-30 years from now [inaudible] will be doing that but the idea for super for savings for retirement will be obsolete because I think a lot of this money will be just taken by successive governments to pay down debt. 

One last point: If I told you at the time when they were hosting the Olympics that Greece would go bankrupt it sounded silly, now you would say I am silly if I say Greece will not go bankrupt, and this is precisely what the Greek government now…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

So you are saying super is the wrong idea for the future Peter, is that our point?

CALLER:

No I think it is a lovely idea but I think that putting aside left or right, in the end, when governments are faced with raising taxes or just taking money from super to pay down the debt that they subscribe us to, they will opt for the latter option.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

So hands off the super I guess is your point Peter.  I will put that to you Stephen Jones.  You are risking making super obsolete if you start taxing the higher end.

STEPHEN JONES:

Far from it.  We have one of the largest pools of retirement savings in the world because of the foresight of people like Paul Keating in the 1980s.  That is growing at over 9% per year and will continue to grow and Australians will be wealthier and better off in their retirement because of it.

The issue for government is, if we are going to provide tax concessions which are the same as an expenditure in the area of superannuation, should we give the majority of those tax concessions to very wealthy people, who frankly do not need the government’s assistance to fund for their retirement…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

The proposed level is not indexed is it?  So you will hit more and more people over time.

STEPHEN JONES:

Actually the proposition that we are putting is that if you are earning over $300,000 a year then you pay more on your contributions and at the pension stage of your fund, if you are earning over $75,000 a year annually from the investments you have in superannuation then you pay the marginal rate of tax.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

It is not indexed is it?  You do catch more people over time.

STEPHEN JONES:

Yes you will catch more people over time and if it appears that this is not working as it is intended to then of course you look at those indexation rates.  But the general proposition stands and it is right.  If you have got over $2 million in your super account and you are earning $75,000 a year, you should pay the marginal rate of tax.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Ok gentlemen I need to leave it there.  Bruce Billson thank you for your time.  Bruce is the Minister for Small Business and the Member for Dunkley.  Thanks a lot Bruce.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Thanks Raf, thanks listeners, thanks Steve.

STEPHEN JONES:

Good to be with you.

RAFAEL ESPTEIN:

Stephen Jones is the Member for Thorsby, the Illawarra region near Sydney.  The Shadow Assistant Minister for Health.