Interview Transcript: Radio National Breakfast - 26/5/14

Radio National Breakfast - 26 May 2014

SUBJECTS:Budget negotiations; Newstart; moving for work.

ELLEN FANNING: The Federal Budget will again be the focus of debate when Parliament resumes today in Canberra. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten will introduce a Private Member's Bill which will call on the Government to honour school-funding deals with the States, and Ministers and senior public servants will appear before Senate Estimates where they will be grilled about various spending cuts and tax rises. 

The Government is turning its attention to the difficult task of negotiating its Budget through the Senate, with the Australia Institute calculating the $10 billion in savings are set to be blocked, and that's just the measures that were due to start in July this year.

Greens leader Christine Milne has again lashed out at the Prime Minister, accusing him of lacking the personal skills necessary to negotiate with the minor parties and the crossbenchers.

CHRISTINE MILNE: He thinks because he's got a majority Government, he can just ram everything through. He doesn't show any respect for the fact that the Australian voters didn't give him control of both Houses. He has to be able to compromise and negotiate with the Senate. But it's pretty clear from his personality type that he will crash and crash through, and that is why he will crash.

ELLEN FANNING: In a moment, the Shadow Finance Minister Tony Burke. But first, Government Leader in the Senate Eric Abetz, who has the job of navigating the Budget through that Chamber. He spoke with our political editor, Alison Carabine.

ALISON CARABINE: Minister, thanks for joining Radio National Breakfast.


ALISON CARABINE: Eric Abetz, you're the Leader of the Government in the Senate. How far are you prepared to compromise to get the Budget through Parliament?

MINISTER ABETZ: It is imperative that the Budget gets through the Parliament, and we will be seeking the support from the crossbenchers in that endeavour. Now, how that's going to transpire remains to be seen. But as a Government we believe that there are certain imperatives that do need to be accomplished in this Budget, and I'm sure that the various independents and other groupings in the Senate will also have their list of objectives, and hopefully we can make them dovetail, but on the basis that the Government's agenda is implemented.

ALISON CARABINE: But, Minister, there does seem to some mixed messages coming from the Prime Minister. He says he stands by all the Budget measures, he's not going to surrender the Budget. He also says there will have to be negotiations with the other Senate parties. How much compromise can there be without surrendering the main thrust of these measures?

MINISTER ABETZ: Look, we can play word games as to what surrender means or might not mean. At the end of the day, what we need to do as a Government is to pursue the objectives that we've enunciated in the Budget. Clearly the $1000 million per month that we are borrowing just to pay the interest on the existing borrowings is unsustainable. I think most Australians understand that and, therefore, they'll be looking to the Senate to assist in the task of ensuring that we as a Parliament don't engage in intergenerational theft.

ALISON CARABINE: But could there be some measures that you are just going to have to give up on – the Medicare co-payment and the pension changes, for example? We've got Labor, the Greens, Palmer United all opposed and show no sign of budging, so too a number of the crossbenchers who will take their seats after July 1. What hope do you have of getting those particular measures through the Senate?

MINISTER ABETZ: A number of hypotheticals there, and what we'll do is work purposefully and methodically through each issue with all the various groupings in the Senate in a bid to find the common ground to ensure…

ALISON CARABINE: …but there doesn't appear to be any common ground.

MINISTER ABETZ: Well, look, everybody seeks to posture at the beginning of negotiations that might need to take place, and I'll listen very carefully to all the suggestions that are made. And I am sure that when confronted with the details, and the fact that we are simply borrowing to pay the interest, I think most Senators will acknowledge that that is unsustainable.

ALISON CARABINE: But most Senators, along with the public, believe that the Budget is unfair. The polling, the talkback calls, the public demonstrations, they all point to that, that essentially this is a Budget which is unfair.

MINISTER ABETZ: I am sure that if the question were asked, do you support the borrowing of $1000 million per month just to pay the interest on the existing borrowings, most Australians would say that is unsustainable. If you were to ask the question, is it fair or is it reasonable to engage in intergenerational theft and steal the future from the next generation by giving them a huge burden of debt, I am sure the opinion polls would tell us also that that is economically irresponsible and quite frankly immoral to do that to the next generation [unclear].

ALISON CARABINE: But could it also be argued that it is immoral, for example, to slug pensioners and families with children a $7 co-payment to visit the GP?

MINISTER ABETZ: Well, I don't think a $7 co-payment, with a maximum of 10 might I add, with a maximum of 10.

ALISON CARABINE: That's for concession-card holders.

MINISTER ABETZ: Yes, for pensioners that you just mentioned. In those circumstances, I don’t think such a case can be made out. And what is more immoral is to have a situation where, in the future, the sustainability of our social welfare system is completely and utterly prejudiced because of an ever-growing debt burden. 

And whilst our level of debt is relatively low at the moment, our trajectory is completely unsustainable. And if we don't want to end up like some other countries we can take the remedial action today to protect the future of tomorrow, and that is what we've set our minds to and I think, ultimately, the Australian people will accept that that was the right decision at the right time.

ALISON CARABINE: Christine Milne has been scathing of the Prime Minister's ability to negotiate. She says he doesn't have the skills or the personality to talk to the Senate.  She went as far as to say recently that he is warped. Will the Prime Minister get involved in any of these negotiations, or would you rather he be kept out of the fray?

MINISTER ABETZ: Oh, look, the sort of language that Senator Milne uses does her no credit whatsoever. And when it comes to extreme policy positions, I think everybody accepts that the Greens have the mortgage on that in our Australian Parliament. 

And I just find it somewhat bemusing that she believes that she somehow is the negotiator and the compromiser, when it is always the extreme Green way or nothing at all. So the commentary from Senator Milne is, I must say – I'll be polite and just call it somewhat two-faced.

ALISON CARABINE: But, Minister, the so-called extreme Greens are considering supporting the Government's Paid Parental Leave scheme, also the cuts to family benefits and the re-indexation of petrol excise. That does give you some hope that these measures will survive the Senate. Is it somewhat ironic, then, that the Greens could become the Government's best friend in the Senate?

MINISTER ABETZ: Well, I doubt that the Greens will become the Government's best friend in the Senate, but where there is a matching of policy positions, irrespective from which direction one arrives at them, if there is a meeting of minds, so be it. And as a Government, of course, we will accept the votes of any Senators if there is a meeting of minds, even if it is from a different perspective. 

ALISON CARABINE: Even though you are hypercritical of the Labor-Greens deal in the minority Parliament?

MINISTER ABETZ: Well, Julia Gillard sold her soul and her parliamentary party's platform to do a deal with the Greens and, as a result, she was hopelessly compromised. What we are willing to do is talk on an issue-by-issue basis with anybody in the Senate to see if there can be a degree of commonality, and if we can achieve that then, of course, we will accept their votes.

ALISON CARABINE: Minister, just finally, if we could go to one Budget measure which is in doubt, and that's the changes to Newstart payments for people under 30 – this falls within your Employment portfolio. The Prime Minister late last week was in your home State of Tasmania. He said any young person who couldn't find a job should be prepared to move. Considering youth unemployment in Tassie is 17 per cent, would there [be] any young person left behind if they all took the PM's advice?

MINISTER ABETZ: There are many job opportunities within my home State of Tasmania. For example, fruit-picking, seasonal work, dairy farm jobs. And the sad thing is, in my home State of Tasmania, over 90 per cent of fruit pickers come from overseas.  If people can come from overseas to pick the fruit in Tasmania, one wonders why potentially young unemployed Tasmanians couldn't do the same task.

ALISON CARABINE: And would you, Eric Abetz, take up fruit-picking if you were young and unemployed?

MINISTER ABETZ: Absolutely. When I was a student at university, I did bread deliveries, I did taxi driving, I did farm work on a chicken farm. There is no right to demand from your fellow Australians that just because you don't want to do a bread delivery or a taxi run or a stint as a farmhand that you should, therefore, be able to rely on your fellow Australian to subsidise you.

ALISON CARABINE: Eric Abetz, thanks so much for your time.

MINISTER ABETZ: Thanks a lot.

ELLEN FANNING: Eric Abetz, the Leader of the Government in the Senate and the Minister for Employment, speaking there to our political editor, Alison Carabine.  

About Eric

Eric Abetz has been a Liberal Senator for Tasmania since 1994 and has served in a range of Leadership, Ministerial and Shadow Ministerial roles.

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