20 May 2015
Transcript - #2015056, 2015

Interview with Rafael Epstein and Mark Dreyfus QC Shadow Attorney-General, 774 ABC Melbourne

SUBJECTS: Immigration, Budget

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Bruce Billson is the Minister for Small Business and the Member for Dunkley; he takes in parts of Frankston, Bruce, thanks for joining us again.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Hi to you Raf, Mark, and your listeners. 

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

And Mark Dreyfus is the Mark he refers to; he is the Shadow Attorney-General, the Member for Isaacs in the adjoining seat also takes in some Frankston residents, Mark, hello again.

MARK DREYFUS:

Good to be with you Raf, hello Bruce.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Two sides of the fence in Frankston!  Look can we start with actually I suppose the most concerning humanitarian crisis.  I might start with you Bruce Billson, the Rohingya mainly from the minority there, they are on boats – probably thousands of them – they have been turned back by countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.  I just want to play Mark’s colleague Richard Marles who’s in Burma at the moment, he is the Shadow Immigration spokesman and he is actually having a go at Tony Abbott.  The Prime Minister said, well, turning back the boats worked for Australia perhaps it could work in this situation and this is what Richard Marles had to say about that:

Richard Marles: The Prime Minister peddling a line in relation to turning back boats, as if every circumstance were the same, it’s silly.  I mean it’s clearly ignorant.

Clearly ignorant, Bruce Billson, what do you make of that?

MINISTER BILLSON:

I think Richard Marles is on something.  That is absolutely not what the Prime Minister has said.  He has made it clear time and time again that the option of turning back boats, where it is safe to do so is very dependent on the circumstances. 

For Labor to suggest that the Prime Minister is asserting some kind of blanket rule and inspiring other sovereign nations to do something that they need to consider in terms of their own circumstances is completely wrong.

I do not know what Richard is trying to do, obviously make a political point out of a humanitarian challenge that is of concern to the region and that is why resources are being provided to try and assist with the circumstances in those countries.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Is Australia actually providing any resources?  I didn’t know we were.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Yeah, I am just checking, I am pretty sure in terms of humanitarian support there are some resources going in to deal with and to support the movement of the Rohingya people.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

I’m just curious Bruce, I’m interested in the debate, I just wonder if people are on boats – how do we help them if they are on boats?

MINISTER BILLSON:

That is the issue and obviously we have had this discussion many times Raf, in fact, we seem to have it every time we speak that the best way to protect the safety of people is to not have them on boats in the first place.  That raises a whole other question…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

We’ll get into that in a moment.  I just want to give Mark Dreyfus a quick chance to respond.  Mark, I mean, there’s nothing wrong with the Prime Minister saying what works in Australia is there?  I mean it is all part of the conversation, there probably is no one answer.

MARK DREYFUS:

I think Richard and many other Australians have got problems with the Prime Minister saying things like ‘We have to be humane but…’

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Did he say that, is that a direct quote?

MARK DREYFUS:

Yes he said that and then said ‘We have to stop the boats’.  Now there’s not but after ‘We have to be humane’, there’s a full stop after ‘We have to be humane’.  And all Richard is saying is that whatever might be thought to be appropriate policy in Australia, we’re looking at incredibly different circumstances in the Andaman Sea where there are thousands of Rohingya Muslims who are treated as non-citizens by the government of Burma, are fleeing the most unimaginable, harsh persecution and not able to find refuge in Malaysia or Thailand because at the moment they are turning those boats away.  We do need to have regional arrangements; that has been a long standing Labor position.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

I think it’s everybody’s position isn’t it?

MARK DREYFUS:

Well, I want to see, I am really heartened if Bruce is right that the Government is putting humanitarian resources into assisting this situation.  That’s the first I’ve heard of it.  It’s a great thing if that’s so.  I’d like to hear a lot more from the Australian Government about how it’s proposing to work with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, how it’s proposing to work with the governments of Malaysia and Thailand to deal with what is an absolutely, clearly, humanitarian crisis that’s unfolding in our region.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Bruce, do you think… I suppose the criticism that is made of your Government is that Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand feel more free to push boats back from their shore, and they have done this, one of the boats with 300 people got pushed between two countries and then they fear that it sank. Do these countries feel emboldened because whether or not it’s applied in a very different circumstance but because Australia’s made a lot of turning back the boats, and stopping the boats, that gives others permission to do something worse?

MINISTER BILLSON:

It is hard to hop into the mind of those other countries Raf, I understand where you are going with this and the point you are trying to draw out but that is a hard one to get into the mind of. 

The region has particular problems, the region needs to address it, that is why I can confirm that $10.7 million in humanitarian assistance has been provided to the Rakhine state in Burma since 2012 to try and contend with these challenges and why the Bali process and other measures are important. 

ASEAN is having a working group with senior officials, the Thais are proposing that for later this month. They are all steps in the right direction because there is no simple answer and I suspect, well not suspect, I cannot imagine any other arrangement other than these sovereign countries arriving at their own conclusions.  Challenges in the Mediterranean we discussed last time we were on air…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Can I ask you about them finding their own solutions and this is really a principle issue which I would like to put to Mark as well – if we don’t allow people to come by boat and get a visa or if we stop the boats, either way, that doesn’t solve any of the problems. 

There is more and more, I think it’s about 22 million people who are stateless.  Stopping the boats, all that does is shift the risk somewhere else doesn’t it Bruce?

MINISTER BILLSON:

It does put pressure on the effectiveness of the humanitarian processing assessment and asylum infrastructure if I could put it that way. 

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has and will always have a very important role in identifying those most in need of refuge and then working with partnering countries, including Australia who on a per capita basis I think is either the most or the second most generous provider of refuge for those with a genuine fear of persecution.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

But that’s about places.  Look I don’t want to get into the argument about… Can I press you on that point though Bruce Billson?

MINISTER BILLSON:

Only if you let me answer your first point Raf, and that is, you asked me what happens. Well what happens is you then need that sort of capacity to asses those claims in countries before people feel the need to put their fate in the hands of people smugglers, and try to play that as their best strategy. 

If we have got better infrastructure and better capability and we can assess fairly- and I know there is a lot of discussion as you know I used to be Parliamentary Secretary for Immigration and I am not unfamiliar with the challenges that displaced people in particular face accessing the UNHCR in countries where they find themselves. 

I understand all those issues, but if we can get that right then the best avenue for asylum is to engage constructively with those formal processes and we can do that in a way that does not place people’s lives at risk from dangerous sea journeys.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Mark Dreyfus, I’m interested in that response, Bruce is effectively saying we just need to, I mean that is a proposal for a regional solution.  Is he speaking sense?

MARK DREYFUS:

If Bruce speaking as a Cabinet Minister is saying that this Government is going to be engaging with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in relation to Rohingya Muslims, that’s great!

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Not sure I heard UNHCR, I heard ASEAN though.

MARK DREYFUS:

Okay, ASEAN, UNHCR, the countries of our region, because all of those have to be involved, I’m not that heartened to hear that we’ve spent as a country $12 million in Rakhine state since 2012 given what’s happened to the foreign aid budget I’d like to know what’s being spent right now by this Government in Burma.  But your question actually stated the problem correctly Raf, which is just preventing people from coming in a boat does nothing about the underlying problem.  Even if one looks at is as saving lives because people are no longer on leaky boats, that’s not something that assists Rohingya Muslims who are suffering from the most terrible persecution, murder and torture in their home country. 

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

I do want to get onto the Budget but I do want to ask you one brief question Mark.  The Senate inquiry into Nauru, I know the Government believes it is effectively partisan and biased, however I just wonder does the ALP accept responsibility?  A lot of what exists on Nauru was set up by the Labor Government.  I just have not heard anybody from Labor say ‘listen just because we set it up we have to bear some of the responsibility’.  Do you?

MARK DREYFUS:

Labor entered the arrangement with the Government of Nauru in 2013 and Labor entered the arrangement with the Government of Papua New Guinea in 2013, however, we ceased to hold office since September 2013.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

You set those arrangements up. You chose to process people there.

MARK DREYFUS:

Right at the start, that is right we entered into those arrangements and people had started to go.  Since we lost office, some thousands of people have been sent to either Nauru or Manus Island.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

But you set those arrangements up.

MARK DREYFUS:

But we did not administer them and we were not responsible.  This current Government since September 2013…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

So no responsibility?  If Labor says what is going on in Nauru is bad…

MARK DREYFUS:

Raf I am accepting responsibility.  Labor set both of these processes in place which is the arrangement with Papua New Guinea and the arrangement with Nauru.  What we are not responsible for and we cannot be is what has happened since September 2013. 

I am very unhappy and so are all other Labor Members of Parliament and members of the Labor Party and I think many millions of people across Australia, with the way in which the Australian Government, this Government, Bruce’s Government has chosen to work with the Government of Papua New Guinea and the Government of Nauru, because on any view, the conditions are appalling.  That is what we are hearing now very frequently.  On any view, the numbers of children and the length of time they were sent there is not satisfactory.  That is what Gillian Trigg’s report was about. 

And all of this I lay squarely at the feet of this Government who cannot wash its hands as the Prime Minister has tried to do by saying it is the Government of PNG or it is the Government of Nauru.  It is Australia that is responsible.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Bruce Billson I know you want to talk about the $20,000 instant asset write-off but if you can keep a brief response to that.  Mark was saying lots of things about your Government.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Yes it is a bit unfortunate because even Mark would recognise that the incoming Abbott Government knew there were shortcomings in the arrangements that Labor had put in place and that is why we invested more money and improved the support systems, the care and capability to properly provide for the citizens at these centres. 

Mark also knows that we have been working absolutely assiduously to get kids out of detention centres, and I think if my memory serves me correctly there is about 120 which is less than one-tenth what was there under Labor.  It is a bit rich getting that kind of lecture from Mark when we have inherited the circumstance, have taking decisive action to improve conditions, are working day in day out to get kids out of detention centres and have to respect that it is a sovereign country so we are not wiping our hands of it but when it comes to these allegations that are appalling of conduct in those centres that should be rightly dealt with as a law enforcement issue, we cannot ride in with our hat and our sheriff’s badge and take over the law enforcement roles in foreign countries.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

That might be one of the very specific issues we could get into but I want to get into the Budget. First let us get a quick read of the roads with Chris Miller.

[Traffic report]

Mark Dreyfus is with me, he is the Shadow Attorney General.  Bruce Billson is the Minister for Small Business.

Bruce Billson let me try this on you.  The deficit has doubled, the fraction of the economy that is taken in tax is higher than under Labor, there is a higher net debt than under Labor in a few years’ time.  This is not what we were promised.  What happened?

MINISTER BILLSON:

I read Labor’s press release as well Raf…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

No believe me Bruce, they are actually your Budget figures.  Do you want me to go through the net debt for you?

MINISTER BILLSON:

I know them extremely well and I also know they are less than half what was projected if no action was taken.

MARK DREYFUS:

Come on Bruce.

MINISTER BILLSON:

And we were left with the set and forget approach of the previous government.

MARK DREYFUS:

Nonsense.

MINISTER BILLSON:

So yes there is a Budget repair task underway.  I am pleased we are seeing the deficit reduce as a percentage of GDP by half a percent a year over the forward estimates.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

The debt is going up.  Net debt is what counts.  It is going up.

MINISTER BILLSON:

That is right.  It is going up at a much lower rate than it would have been if action had not been taken and if Labor is concerned about these issues they can be more constructive in the Budget repair task that we are dealing with.

The issue around tax is always a fascinating one when you are running big deficits and you are not paying your bills, you are not taking enough tax to actually pay your way.  So as we repair the Budget, we have to recognise that without the resources to deal with bracket creep, with the funding that is required for the NDIS, for the ongoing task of getting things back on track – there is a period of adjustment and a credible pathway back to surplus and to abating those debt concerns which you talk about.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Peter Costello does not think it is credible though does he?

MINISTER BILLSON:

Who does?

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Peter Costello the former Treasurer who thinks it will be at least 15 years before we hit surplus and we would be lucky to get that.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Well that is not forecast we have got and I am pleased that the market economists and even the banking economists are saying they think those projections and forecasts are credible, they are based on realistic assumptions and they take account of variations in circumstances such as where the iron ore price might go, what the revenue trajectory may look like and also what we can actually do to grow jobs in the economy by targeted packages such as the outstanding, widely heralded, everywhere I go applauded as being spectacular, Small Business Package.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

And I will get onto that in a moment. Mark Dreyfus a quick response and I suppose I know you like to quibble with the Government about its projections, however, you changed the indexation or the rate of increase of spending on health and education.  That $80 billion cut as you call it, is Labor going to restore that?  That is your measure that you say the Government cut.  So if you are upset with the Government’s figures, the easy way to respond would be to say well they took away $80 billion, we will give it back over a decade.

MARK DREYFUS:

We will have to look at the state of things when we come to government, but listeners would have noticed that Bruce did not address your question which was, first of all, that this is now the highest taxing government since the last Howard Government Budget, that is 6 years ago, as a proportion the tax takes of our GDP.  It is also the highest spending government since the Howard Government.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Gee you are really helping with that Mark are you not?

MARK DREYFUS:

Just let me finish Bruce.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Set and forget and then just say it was not anything to do with us.

MARK DREYFUS:

There is not set and forget.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Hardwire these things in and then you walk away from them.

MARK DREYFUS:

Stop the nonsense Bruce.  Bruce knows very well the savings measures that we introduced over six years and he also knows that far from there being this nonsensical catchphrase of the debt and deficit disaster about which we heard nothing else for five years, including up to the last Budget, that has been forgotten apparently because we have gone from net debt peaking at about 9% of GDP to 18% under this government.  So they have doubled the deficit and that is on their watch.  It is nothing to do with Labor Government decisions.

And their very first decision, taken almost on coming to government, was to give $8.8 billion to the Reserve Bank that the Reserve Bank did not even ask for, and there has been a succession of decisions taken in order to make the last Labor Government look worse than it actually was, and nonsense spoken by Bruce Billson, by Tony Abbott, by Joe Hockey endlessly, but Australia voters are entitled to ask – what happened?

What happened since the last Budget when we had a debt and deficit disaster to now where we are moving to being the highest taxing government since Howard and the highest spending government and caution has been thrown to the winds.  And I have not even started on the remaining unfairness in this Budget which it is full of.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

I tell you what Bruce I am sensing a response.

MINISTER BILLSON:

I just cannot believe Mark can engage in this nonsense that Labor can hardwire in…

MARK DREYFUS:

We are the responsible economic managers Bruce. You know that.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Are you dreaming too Mark?  It is daytime and wake up. You hard wired in…

..

MARK DREYFUS:

You are proving it daily that you are irresponsible.

MINISTER BILLSON:

You hardwired in expenditure commitments and we have got more that we need to fund such as the NDIS. 

You then gloat about, I think before the election what was it, an Abbott proof fence. 

You were running around bragging about how you had done all these things to hardwire in forward financial commitments and you made no effort, no effort to fund it and now when we are trying to get things back on track, you are about $58.6 billion behind where the Government is on the expenditure measures including those Labor proposed themselves that you are blocking, including the money you say you will restore, but you have got no pathway to fund that. 

Including the statements made by your leader last Thursday night which add another $6.6 billion of unfunded…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Bruce I want to get onto your area and Bill Shorten’s unfunded promises around that.  But I just want to ask you this Bruce Billson.  Your policies have changed drastically.  You tell us that is because of circumstance. 

I want to take you at your word on that because that is often what governments say.

MINISTER BILLSON:

That is a good start.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Is it not then unfair though to say well listen Labor’s policy settings would remain completely unchanged, so we are comparing ourselves to where Labor’s policy settings were at September 2013.  That is an unfair comparison is it not if you have had to change so drastically what you had proposed?

MINISTER BILLSON:

No I think that is not right.  If Labor was planning to change things they would have said something about it in the lead up to the election.

We were working on the numbers that they provided.

MARK DREYFUS:

You were going to return to surplus Bruce in the first year.

MINISTER BILLSON:

The point I keep making is that if Labor pushes a train off on the train tracks to Sydney and then they jump off and someone else needs to take control of the train, it is not too much of a surprise that it ends up in Sydney.

What we are trying to do is change those settings in a fair and sensible way to give the support that is needed to the people that need our support. To be really disciplined, and if we have got new policy measures, we need to fund those from savings within the Budget and through that contain the expenditure growth so we can get it under control over the forward years and then not leave our kids a whole bunch of debt that they will have to pay for.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Can I try and wave a little bipartisan flag here.  I am going to get a brief response from you both.  I suspect that the nation would be better off if we adopted both Labor’s superannuation proposals on the higher end and the Coalition’s pension assets test at the higher end.

Bruce Billson, what chance that the Parliament could and should pass both?

MINISTER BILLSON:

I do not think you will see both because I do not think it is right that you mess with arrangements entered into in good faith by people who have put away for their own retirement and then are treated as a cash cow by Labor to fund a Budget shortfall.

What is smarter is to target income support to those that most need that support and that is what we have done dialling back the availability of the part-pension, saying to people with considerable assets above their house that they should not anticipate the tax payer to preserve their retirement savings so it is a more attractive inheritance for their kids. 

We have said no, no at some point those resources need to be deployed to provide for the standard of living that is being anticipated.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Let me just try and wave the bipartisan flag in front of me and Mark Dreyfus.  Mark, when the pension asset test is proposed by people you often agree with, people like ACOSS, there is clearly crossbench support, it could be a proposal out of Labor’s policy in past years – should you not adopt that and the super proposal?

MARK DREYFUS:

I am hoping that at some point that Government is prepared to actually sit down with us and have a proper discussion.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

About that specific measure?

MARK DREYFUS:

About all of these measures.  I am not going to trade measure for measure across the desk today.  I was very disappointed that the Prime Minister rejected out of hand the carefully thought through proposal that Chris Bowen and Bill Shorten put forward earlier this year which is to tax all of the income over $75,000 earned by a private superannuation fund.  Not to tax the first $75,000 – that concession remains in place – but to tax the dollars over $75,000.  It is likely to touch about 15-20,000 super funds in total.  We think it is an appropriate measure and that is why we have put it forward.  It has been disappointing that it was rejected.

RAFAEL ESPTEIN:

Ok gentlemen.  Thanks for the willing discussion.  I appreciate the time from both of you.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Raf we almost got to small business.  I thought today was my best chance.

RAFAEL ESPTEIN:

To be fair we did a lot of the $20,000 asset write-off.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Can we sing out though?  Can we put a shout out to those enterprising men and women who create job opportunities in our economy?

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

I think you just did.  One day we will go through the economics of it.  I am sure that would be good to do as well.  Bruce Billson is the Minister for Small Business.  Mark Dreyfus is the Shadow Attorney General.  Thanks Mark.

MARK DREYFUS:

Thanks Raf.  Thanks Bruce.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Thanks Mark.  Thanks Raf.