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Transcript of press conference: 23 October 2013: Commission of Audit; debt limit

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SUBJECTS: Commission of audit, debt limit.

BURKE: The commission for cuts that was announced yesterday is an extraordinary outsourcing of the responsibilities of Government across to big business. I'm not going to go person by person through the people who are on the commission for cuts. But you have clearly there advocates for increasing the GST, you have advocates for taking away protection in the workplace. What you don't have is the whole view that Treasury is meant to provide and the people who are actually paid to provide this sort advice. I don't know what was in the incoming Government brief to the Government - they've decided to keep that a secret - but whatever it was they decided to outsource the next stage of advice.

And what's important to know is who's not there. We don't have a representative from the small business lobby to be there making any of this consideration. We don't have representatives of the people who actually rely on Government services - the people who use the schools, the people who use the hospitals.

This is an outsourcing of the responsibilities of Government to big business pure and simple. It's a commission for cuts. And this is what we've seen Liberals do before, it's what we predicted the Liberals would do this time, and they're off on it again now.

Last night as well, Joe Hockey redefined what a cut is. Before the election he gave a guarantee - he said there'd be no cuts and it was on the 5th of September on the 7.30 program. Joe Hockey gave a guarantee that there'd be no cuts to health, to education, to medical research or to defence. Last night he redefined what's a cut and said, oh well as long as the total Budget is the same, that's not a cut. So now he says there'll be no cuts to health but there might be cuts to hospitals. There'll be no cuts to education but there might be cuts to schools.

I think it's fair to say that every Australian when they heard no cuts to health would have thought that was a promise that there wouldn't be cuts to frontline services. We now find everything is on the table in the commission for cuts.

Happy to take questions.

QUESTION: Why did Labor make a $5 billion hit on the Reserve Bank [inaudible]?

BURKE: You're well before, well before my time as a, in the Finance portfolio. We can get the exact reasons for that at the time but I'm not going to have that at my fingertips today.

QUESTION: Isn't it, isn't it sort of blatant populism for Labor to attack the Government for increasing the debt ceiling when the Labor Government got advice - it was clear to the Labor Government that the debt level was going to exceed the cap anyway and that the action would need to be taken to lift that debt ceiling?

BURKE: Chris Bowen has already made clear that some movement on the debt ceiling was required and that we've said we'll deal with it responsibly. But Joe Hockey, the person who was constantly campaigning against debt at all, saying if debt's the problem, more debt's not the answer - that's how Joe Hockey campaigned. To then come forward as one of your first actions and say, by the way, we'd like to get permission for debt to go to half a trillion dollars is a Treasurer doing one thing after an election that is the exact opposite of what he did before the election. And we make no apology for holding him to account on the things he said before the election.

QUESTION: Would you vote against the increase to $500 bil? Would you debate whether it should be a different level?

BURKE: We've said we will look at it and we'll look at it responsibly. Now we've also said the responsible thing for the Government to do is to let us know the true state of the economy. I notice in different papers today, there were different figures as to what the actual peak debt that Joe Hockey's predicting is. Bring down MYEFO.

We don't just have at the moment the incoming government brief being kept secret. We now find that the true state of economy - MYEFO - they want to keep secret and they want us to vote on increasing the debt ceiling before they let us know the true state of the economy. We'll be responsible in the decision on the debt ceiling. They should be responsible and stop keeping those numbers secret.

QUESTION: What's your read on the decision to increase the Reserve Bank's reserves by $9 billion?

BURKE: I'd have to leave that for Chris Bowen who deals with the Reserve Bank issues.

QUESTION: Tony Abbott has pretty much ruled out any tax increases as part of this audit. Do you believe him that taxes aren't on the table?

BURKE: Absolutely everything is on the table in this audit, absolutely everything. And area's that we were told were immune before the election, they've got terms of reference that bring them all back into play. This is what the game that we said the Liberals would play and we were told we were being hysterical.

But this is what Liberals do. Campbell Newman did it, Jeff Kennett did it, Peter Costello did it, and now Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey are doing it - which is they do an audit, they choose who's on it and which interests are not represented on it, so that they then have an excuse do a whole lot of things that they did not tell the Australian people they were going to do before the election.

QUESTION: If everything is on the table, would it be reasonable for the commission of audit to be looking at Parliamentary entitlements? Making some savings there?

BURKE: When I say everything's on the table, it's all there, and I presume that every area of Government expenditure is under threat. But in terms of what are the areas where I'm most passionate about defending, it's not going to be the one that you've just nominated there.

QUESTION: Tony Abbott left the door open this morning to some form of reform of the entitlement system but said he hadn't seen a proposal that he thinked (sic) would work to that. Are you working on something? Is Shadow Cabinet, is Shadow Finance Minister, is Labor working on some form of reform?

BURKE: No, they're the Government and when Chris Bowen was Acting Leader he made clear that if they had a proposal, we'd be happy to have a look at it.

QUESTION: What's your view on Tony Abbott's explanation today of Don Randall's trip to Cairns, where he apparently had to fly from Perth to Cairns with his wife to meet face-to-face with the Whip and there's nothing wrong with it yet he repaid it?

BURKE: I hadn't seen that explanation. I think the way these issues unfold is if you're under pressure or you're being asked the court of public opinion makes a very clear view and I presume that will unfold fairly strongly.

QUESTION: Warren Entsch says the trip was completely legitimate but he's not sure if it was legitimate electorate business at the same time. What's your view on that?

BURKE: Well, as I say, these are all comments that I haven't seen. I don't spend much of my life looking into the life of Don Randall. The court of, the court of public opinion will work this one through.

QUESTION: Just on the commission of audit again, do you, do you think there is no case for any cuts, any savings in the Federal Budget? Do you think the exercise is not needed at all?

BURKE: That's what Treasury and Finance are there for. Treasury and Finance are the public servants who are there professionally to look at the whole of Government and all the responsibilities of Government.

What this is about is some people who have been carefully selected, but more significantly the people who have not been selected. A whole lot of interests within Australia have been deliberately excluded from this. And we predicted the path that this would head down - all the areas that Joe Hockey had said would be insulated are not - health expenditure is up for grabs, education is up for grabs, defence is up for grabs, medical research is up for grabs.

QUESTION: So do you think that there is a case for savings, it's just a matter of who should do the searching?

BURKE: We made responsible saves in every one of our Budgets. There is a far cry from that and making, and making a strategic decision that specific interest groups will be cut out and that cuts will then flow. And what we will see will be what we've seen previously from new Liberal Governments.

QUESTION: Mr Burke, are you generally alarmed about the financial environment outlook if the Government is having to [inaudible]?

BURKE: Well what I, it isn't, but the list of things, the differences between what Joe Hockey says before an election and what he says after - I was watching on the TV only a moment ago during his media conference when he said we've got a triple-A credit rating and we're in good shape. That's a very strange sort of Budget emergency.

And the words that we get from Joe Hockey as Treasurer show once again that so much of what he told the Australian people before the election just wasn't true. Now on any of the rationales as to why we should go to half a trillion dollars in debt - release the figures, bring down the actual information, do it transparently, end the culture of secrecy that is so rapidly taking over this Government and give us the information.

QUESTION: But you don't think it's reassuring in the environment if we're seeing this amount of money?

BURKE: Look, it would be reassuring if there were a consistent message. The truth is, we've gone even yesterday from Joe Hockey saying everything was on the table, to Mathias Cormann who about an hour later on Sky News saying, oh no, education and health aren't, to Joe Hockey then a couple of hours later on 7.30 redefining it again. You build confidence through a consistent position and you can run almost any rationale off this mob at the moment.

QUESTION: Mr Burke, as Labor reviews its policies in the wake of the election, should the party take another look at nuclear power as Gary Gray, Mark Bishop and Alex Gallagher have suggested?

BURKE: The argument that I've always seen on nuclear power is that in a nation like Australia the dollar figures actually don't stack up and it actually involves an increase in electricity bills for people. Now if there's evidence that's different to that, it's evidence that I haven't seen.