1 July 2015
Transcript - #2015073, 2015

Interview with Rafael Epstein and David Feeney, Fight Club, 774 ABC

SUBJECTS: Greek crisis, Acting role, same sex marriage, turn backs, small business package, superannuation

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Joining me in the studio for fight club, David Feeney stepping into the red dressing gown. He is the Shadow Minister for Justice, the member for Batman and you are the Shadow Assistant… you speak on Defence as well don’t you? What is that title?

DAVID FEENEY:

I do. Shadow Assistant Defence Minister.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

I am glad you have got it, because I do not have it.

DAVID FEENEY:

I was worried there for a split second.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Bruce Billson is the member for the Melbourne Riviera that is Dunkley. He is the Minister for Small Business and because Joe Hockey and Mathias Cormann are on holiday or out of the country he is the Acting Treasurer, welcome.

MINISTER BILLSON:

and not wearing a dressing gown, your red one looks quite fetching.

DAVID FEENEY:

Thank you.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

We will get you a blue one.

MINISTER BILLSON:

No no look I have got other things to do and people might wonder why….

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

So you are it, you are the one man, you are the finger in the dyke, you stand between the Greek crisis and a….

MINISTER BILLSON:

I am a part of a synchronised team that has a very clear economic action strategy we keep each other informed- seamless, focused, delivering results that is what I am about.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Normally the Treasurer being absent at a moment of crisis like this would cause us all angst. The fact that Joe Hockey [inaudible]

MINISTER BILLSON:

In all seriousness I know we have a huge Greek audience that listen. We do, and we are, watching very carefully what is happening in Greece. We are fortunate to some extent to have quite a limited direct exposure, but that does not mean that it is not, you know, reverberations that we are very interested in, strong banking system - tick, reliable, good institutions – tick, and a credible budget strategy to get us back to surplus…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

There is not much to worry about here?

MINISTER BILLSON:

We are focused on monitoring what is happening.

Our advice is that the European community is very activated about this. And they are obviously looking for ways forward but the central issue is you cannot keep borrowing from your creditors if they are not feeling like you are fair dinkum about paying it back so there needs to be a pathway found there.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Do you get to put your face on the bank bills why the Treasurer is away?

MINISTER BILLSON:

No not really, some people say I have a great face for radio - not quiet the most chiselled handsome character running around.

I mean David is a good looking rooster, but I could never suggest I have that face… well they do say politics is showbiz for ugly people and I can’t say too much.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

I want to talk more budget and economic matters, however the breaking news this afternoon that there will be a marriage equality bill.

Bruce Billson I am not sure if you can explain, actually, the timing. If it goes, is introduced to parliament on the eleventh of August and then there is a Liberal party room meeting I believe one week later on the eighteenth. Why the timing like that?

MINISTER BILLSON:

Not sure, I only just heard about it when I came into your studio. I think it is private members business. That has a particular slot in the parliamentary schedule. So this is just a normal course of events and I just picked up from what you were saying when I came in.

My understanding, private members business, there is a particular slot in the sitting schedule each week for private members business. There are other private members businesses as well, so I do not quite know what the scheduling of that will be.

DAVID FEENEY:

Potentially a very positive development.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Potentially. I am interested in both of you giving me your best guesses. So Bruce Billson you are a better guesser then most of us because you sit in the Liberal party room. Free vote yes or no, what do you think?

MINISTER BILLSON:

Look I think it will be an interesting discussion, mainly because, me included, a lot of us went to the election making our position quiet clear.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Was it enough of an issue at the last election?

MINISTER BILLSON:

It was, at community forums, I might add I was the only one who turned up.

It was a bit of a free for all, having a go at the local member. But that is a part of it and I was asked the question and I explained what the party position was going into the election and I think we should see that through. Now if there is not, depends very much of what is in the bill. If the bill (interjection)

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

It is not going to be that surprising is it?

MINISTER BILLSON:

Well I do not know if the bill is discordant with that, that is one issue. There might be some other ideas about [Interjection]

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

You mean it might come into effect after the next election?

MINISTER BILLSON:

Well that could be it that is what I am saying, you are drawing me in on things I am unsure about. I have not seen the bill, because there are a number of varieties floating around.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

A lot of the commentary already for the last few months has been this could make or break for the Liberal party, people making lots of noise, this could be a significant issue for the Prime Minister, is it that divisive?

MINISTER BILLSON:

No I would not have thought so I mean I know both sides of the argument and I respect their views - they hold those views very strongly and therefore it is not the only issue that sees people of good will holding very strong but quite divergent views. So, you know, the party and the team have the wit to work through those issues, on other issues and we respect people’s points of views and no doubt we will have a discussion.

We are a bit different from the Labor party. I mean once the Labor party adopt a position you are sort of handcuffed to it. We are not like that we have always valued free will and free expression but expect our colleagues to actually do the right thing by the other colleagues in sharing their thoughts and being able to discuss through…[Interjection]

DAVID FEENEY:

In the aftermath of that pronouncement you have got to let me say something.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Go for it.

DAVID FEENEY:

I earnestly hope that what was just said is realised, and that is that the Liberal party does have a free vote. But of course on this issue the Labor party resolved to have a conscious vote and I would not be surprised if 80 per cent or more of my colleagues would support a sensible marriage equality bill. I know I will, and the fact that it is proposed to be a cross-party bill and the way that it is should be something which fills our hearts with optimism that this issue will be dealt with in a mature and respectful way and I hope it realises marriage equality [interruption]

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Best guess on free vote for the Liberal party?

MINISTER BILLSON:

I do not have a best guess on which version of the bill you might know but I [Interrupted]

DAVID FEENEY:

No I don’t, but I would imagine given that it has got Liberal, Labor and Independent sponsors we would see a pretty sensible piece of legislation and probably reminiscent of the legislation that has been to us before. So that is that there would be protections in there for religions and people of faith and those things which I think deserve to be in such a bill.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

And the numbers David Feeney? Well, let us say that there is a free vote. House and Senate would pass a bill like that do you think?

DAVID FEENEY:

Well given that there are 50 something Labor MPs in the House and 90 something conservatives, the critical thing here is that the Liberal party get a free vote and enough of them hold marriage equality views- that is going to make or break the legislation – that is just the raw numbers of it….So I would expect 40 plus of my colleagues to support the legislation, that of course gets us about half way to where we need to be. 

In the Senate, absolutely, I would defer to my colleague here on what he sees inside the Liberal party. In the Senate I would think between Labor, the Independents and the Greens we should be optimistic that with enough Liberals it would pass the Senate.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: 

Just so your listeners are clear, the Liberal party normally doesn’t ordinarily have declarations of free votes. The point I was making is that in our political tradition we encourage the colleagues to…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

…{inaudible]…. cross the floor.

MINISTER BILLSON:

..Well there is, and what we ask of our colleagues is that if you are contemplating deviating from the election policy we took and encourage voters to support, you need to have a pretty good reason and the colleagues deserve the respect of that being disclosed to them so that colleagues can have a conversation about what has led an individual to move that way.

Just so you are clear on the processes in the Liberal party that has been part of our traditions for decades.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Bruce Billson I am interested, first of July – it means a lot to people who run a small business. You are clearly happy with it. I think Labor has supported much if not all of your provisions. What else do they want though? One of the small business organisations actually giving an address at the Press Club today, they see this very much as the beginning do they not? Not the end.

MINISTER BILLSON:

I think it reflects my attitude, which is there is always more to do. To be honest with you Raf, my work in this area will be done when Australia is the very best place to start and grow a small business.

Now, we are not, but we are making extraordinarily good progress where we have come from.

We have spoken before about the almost half a million jobs lost in small business under the previous Rudd Gillard Rudd Labor Governments. Now, we are trying to arrest that decline, turn it around and see the engine room of the economy producing jobs and I just got some new figures out.

The good news is under the Abbott Coalition we have seen an increase in the number of jobs in small business by 146,000. So we are getting that right. It is not just about the tax package, that is very important and a lot of those measures start on the first of July. It is about getting that entrepreneurial eco system, if I could use that term right, so that enterprising men and women who want to have a go and are hardworking and create their own economic opportunities and livelihoods for others do so.

So, 1 July, yes the new reduced small business company tax rate. That is the lowest it has been in nearly 50 years. Discount for the unincorporated small business, that is two thirds of small businesses. Fixing the employee share scheme errors that Labor made that even Labor recognises were a mistake. These are just some of the measures…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Shifting that threshold from two million to five million?

MINISTER BILLSON:

I have got plenty of ideas and …

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Likely?

MINISTER BILLSON:

… I will let you in on a bit of a scoop Raf as long as you do not tell everybody.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Yes.

MINISTER BILLSON:

That was one of the issues that we were weighing up as we worked out what would best make a difference to the enterprising spirits and see activity: See ambition and inspiration turn into economic activity.

But I had to work within a funding envelope. New programs need to be more than offset by savings, but I am not out of ideas Raf. There is more to come and we need to keep at it.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

David Feeney do the Government get a tick for small business?

DAVID FEENEY:

Yes this is a package that Labor supported and that is not really a surprise. We of course take the credit for having originally introduced this kind of package only to see…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

That is the instant asset write-off?

DAVID FEENEY:

That is it.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

It was much smaller was it not?

DAVID FEENEY:

So when the legislation came before the Parliament, we did recognise it having done something like it ourselves.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Just to clarify, it was six grand instant asset write-off under Labor is that right?

MINISTER BILLSON:

Six and a half linked to the Mining Tax. It is twenty now…

DAVID FEENEY:

So yes we supported it and as he says the number is now 20,000 thousand dollars. There are obviously issues about the enterprise eco system that the Minister speaks of. That is something…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

So is that around penalty rates? Is that what you mean?

DAVID FEENEY:

No but cute.  I am talking about…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

I am just curious. I do not know what you mean.

DAVID FEENEY:

We need to have things like TAFE, we need to have things like universities, we need to make sure that businesses are able to get into global supply chains as those things take off. We continue to be anxious about the state of industry policy under this Government. The automotive industry is obviously something that has affected Victoria very severely.

Now we have seen job losses at Williamstown as our shipbuilding industry starts to be starved of work. There are big questions that this Government still needs to wrestle up.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Can I put a question to both of you, some of it is around news of the day, some of it is around news a few weeks ago. I still for the life of me do not understand why the two significant parties in this country cannot agree to do some trimming at the top when it comes to super and pensions. There is news today about the Government receiving some Treasury advice on super.

DAVID FEENEY:

Raf the sad truth is I think there is the problem with Labor’s proposal which was to, in super, to trim concessions at the top – we are anxious about the fact that 40 per cent of those concessions are going to only 10 per cent of the population, the top  10 per cent.

We are anxious about what that does to the long term survivability and sustainability of the superannuation system in this country which we take great pride in. We invented it.

The problem is we authored the change and we now see that the Liberals were thinking of doing exactly the same thing.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Asking for advice is different to thinking of doing the same thing.

DAVID FEENEY:

Joe Hockey spoke to it, he issued….in March he put out an issues paper which flagged this as one possible response. He gave us every sign that he was open to the idea. It is just one of those awful instances I think where because it was not their idea it is cursed.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

What about your dreadful politicking on pensions? That is an idea straight out of Labor’s playbook. More money for pensioners at the bottom, trimming those at the top.

DAVID FEENEY:

I hate to see a good, decent soul like yourself succumb to the conservative mantra on this. It breaks my heart, it breaks my heart.

This was a broken promise by the Liberal party. Obviously implemented by them in alliance with the Greens, which ultimately reduces pensions for a lot of vulnerable people.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

We need to get away from, significant issues retirement income, we need to get away from broken promises and political point scoring do we not?

There is nothing more logical. I know neither of the policies are perfect. Not the Government’s on pensions, or yours on super, however, this is clearly a room a space in the Budget where there is a lot of savings that could be made for very justifiable reasons. Yet both sides of politics spend most of the time politicking, talking sense on their own policy and politicking on the opposing.

DAVID FEENEY:

I think there is a lot of agreement across the two parties about the underpinning principles here. The principle is we want to move the superannuation system to the point that it decreases reliance on the pension. We want to make sure that the pension system is increasingly not the first port of call for a retiree. That is why we invented the superannuation system.

We agree on those principles. We then are going to argue about the detail because Labor, unsurprisingly, is always going to be concerned about…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

I still have not heard a bad idea for why the pensions’ idea was bad.

DAVID FEENEY:

Because it strips vulnerable people of part pensions and full pensions. While there was good news for some, there were winners, Labor was anxious about the losers.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Bruce Billson, could we not have both?

MINISTER BILLSON:

It is interesting listening to David and he is having a good crack at it. It was actually Kevin Rudd prior to the 2007 election recognising that in superannuation, too many moving parts arose…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

This is the not one jot not one tittle.

MINISTER BILLSON:

That is right. Not one jot, not one tittle and then there were what, about eleven of twelve changes.

About nine billion taken out of superannuation and people are heartily sick of the superannuation space, a long-term investment designed to provide a retirement savings pool to relieve the need for income support through the pension system sees so many pieces moving.

We have just said settle that down. If people are making choices to provide for their own retirement, terrific but, what have also said is in encouraging that, if you are able to provide for your own retirement it is not worth taxing tax payers in Langwarrin or Frankston to supplement someone’s income when they are in a perfect situation to fund their own retirements.

They are our guiding principles and that is why we have landed where we have. Saying to couples with a million dollars in their own retirement nest egg in addition to their home.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

A little trim.

MINISTER BILLSON:

The accumulation of that reserve of resources supported by tax concessions should now be drawn upon and that is the thinking that is there.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Is it valid, I am interested if you think this is valid. If I say to you ‘listen a lot of what you are say about change in superannuation makes sense, however the superannuation tax concessions are soon going to be equal to the entire cost of the pension system. So those numbers are the same.’ Is that a valid point in your mind or not?

MINISTER BILLSON:

It is an interesting debating point but my initial reaction would be if that is encouraging people to provide for their own retirement that is the point of it.

If it is encouraging people not to be reliant on the tax paid by others to supplement their retirement incomes, that is the point of it. It is an interesting number by number comparison, but I think it kind of misses the policy objectives that it is are designed to support.

DAVID FEENEY:

Those examples are ones that are well chosen, obviously I do not disagree with those examples. But where do we end this rort? The problem is.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Is it a rort?

MINISTER BILLSON:

Labor calls it a rort when it is a concession people are responding to.

DAVID FEENEY:

Why did the Government give tax concessions to superannuation accounts earning, not in terms of their total capital, but earning more than one million dollars a year? For Labor that is an outrage. So at the same time as tax concessions are cut for the lowest income earners, we see those whose accounts are earning more than a million receiving tax concessions. That is where Labor wants to strike.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Labor made that statement when they were in office and then could not legislate it. So it was an idea, a thought bubble that sounded great but they made and banked but did not legislate because people’s retirement savings arrangements may vary. They are vulnerable, they change.

DAVID FEENEY:

It has got to be sustainable. It has got to be fair.

MINISTER BILLSON:

And they could not implement it so it is an interesting conversation.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

There you go I tried to being two sides together there. I am not sure what we achieved.

[Traffic report]

 

David Feeney is with me. Bruce Billson is telling David Feeney about his fantastic scrambled eggs recipe. Bruce Billson is the Acting Treasurer. David Feeney is part of Bill Shorten’s Shadow Cabinet.

David Feeney are turn backs going to be part of Labor’s policy at the next election because it is pretty clear there are senior people who would like turn backs as part of something broader. I know the Labor party sees it as different fundamentally to the Coalition. However, it is going to part of Labor’s platform at the next election is it not?

DAVID FEENEY:

No we do not know that but what we do know is that the ALPs national conference in July is going to have a red hot debate about that very subject. I always like to make the boast that the ALP national conference is the crucible of democracy and the big debates of our time. We will have literally a thousand delegates and alternates in a hall debating these issues.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

And you will have Liberal party people taping that conference to make ads for the election campaign saying Labor will be soft on turn backs.

DAVID FEENEY:

Maybe so but the fact that we have a party full of passionate folk, the fact that we have big debates internally about these issues and that we do that in public is something we take pride in.

I note for the record that the Greens, and their conferencing, remains behind closed doors. No one can see what goes on in their internal operations.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

I have asked Richard Di Natale about that before.

DAVID FEENEY:

Good, well, we are not a secret party – our debates will be out there for all to see. So I don’t know where that story will end Raf….

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

What is your best guess?

DAVID FEENEY:

Well I literally do not know how that debate will go.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Honestly?

DAVID FEENEY:

Honestly do not know.  Which of course I think should make it desperately interesting for all concerned. But it will be a red hot conversation. Both sides of that debate inside the Labor party will be trying to construct a policy that is faithful to our values about being a compassionate international citizen, but making sure that….

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

So you can have a turn back and be compassionate?

DAVID FEENEY:

Both sides of the debate are very keen to make sure that Australia is not doing anything in its policy settings that means people are drowning at sea.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Bruce Billson you were talking about the Cabinet leak actually, which I do not want you to comment on, but the citizenship laws a few weeks back as evidence of a good healthy debate. Is that precisely what is going on in the Labor party when it comes to turn backs you think?

MINISTER BILLSON:

I do not know how the Labor party would characterise their debate. I guess we will wait and see whether they land on a [interruption]

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

But it is good isn’t it, if ideas get discussed in public?

MINISTER BILLSON:

Well I suppose it will and if it crystalizes a position. I think what is difficult for people that watch political debates is Labor is all over the place on this stuff and you will get one spokesperson saying one thing then someone else will come out saying something different. So, I mean, David is right there are mixed views within Labor and perhaps the national conference will crystalize a position.

I think that is what the Australian public want to know, what is Labor’s position, rather than depend on who you talk to.

DAVID FEENEY:

One of the only virtues of being in Opposition is it does mean a political party does take the time to take stock so I make no apologies about that. By the end of July we will have a policy, between now and then we will have a debate.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Look I do not want to get into the details around donation law reform. Donations to political parties. I will note Nick McKenzie the Four Corners journalist did praise, I am not sure if Bruce would call it full praise or not, but did praise Bruce Billson. I do not want to get into the Four Corners story. I do want to ask you both; there are significant issues around disclosure and amounts when it comes to donations. I will start with you Bruce Billson, would you like to see a change and do you think there will be a change? Will we know more and in more detail, do you think, in the future?

MINISTER BILLSON:

I think it will require all political parties to recognise that different policy settings have a different impact on different parties. I mean on the side of politics that I represent we do not have rivers of gold coming to us from the union movement.

DAVID FEENEY:

We do not have rivers of gold coming to us from the top 500 companies.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Well that is not right either, because what you will find is that major companies tend to hedge their bets and….. Labor likes that and that neutralises that argument, but then there are rivers of gold from the union movement and (INTERRUPTED)

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

A lot of ALP federal branches declare at a thousand and not, sort of, eleven or twelve thousand. I know that does not cover all the money they get. Is that a good direction to go in?

MINISTER BILLSON:

Well I think whatever the rules are as long as they are applied consistently. I mean Labor tried to change the rules when they were last in office and then happened to leave this gaping advantage to themselves being they can still get their rivers of gold from the union movement. There was no vote of union members whether they wanted to feed the Labor party election machine, no decision made about placing - which currently happens in my own electorate, a union sponsored agitant running around whipping up a storm in my electorate.

DAVID FEENEY:

They are allowed to lobby on issues aren’t they?

MINISTER BILLSON:

Well but the interesting thing is, of course they can and I welcome that - but to have that masquerading as something other than pure electioneering and campaigning, and if it was done by my side of politics there would be a whole set of different rules applied to it, I mean that is just nonsense. There needs to be a consistent set of rules that does not seek to advantage one side of the argument over the other. That is where I come out on the issue.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

David Feeney?

DAVID FEENEY:

Well, not withstanding some of the hyperbole I think those principles are sound, we think that the transparency levels should be that donations should be declared at a thousand dollars and that is what the Labor party does voluntarily.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Does that include the donations from unions?

DAVID FEENEY:

That includes every single donation, so to be very clear about it.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

That is the Federal Labor party though?

DAVID FEENEY:

And I think our state branches do the same. So that is our in-principle decision. The Liberal party likes to make a point about the fact that trade unions participate in public life and donate to the Labor party, we declare that. And I guess any onus that they want to put on trade unions and their members we say should be shared by shareholders and businesses. Because tell me shareholders are across the donations made to conservative political parties in this country.

MINISTER BILLSON:

Or the Labor party for that matter.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

I am not sure we are going to get resolution but I need to give people the weather.

Bruce Billson thank you very much for coming in, try and get your name on a bank bill before Joe Hockey comes back.

MINISTER BILLSON:

And can I just say for the record, thank you for saying I am Acting Treasurer but I take great pride in being the Minister for Small Business.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

I am sure you do. David Feeney is the member of Bill Shorten’s shadow team. Thanks to the both of you.