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Transcript of interview with Kathryn Robinson, Tory Shepherd and Malcolm Farr: Meet the Press: 27 October 2013:cost of Centrelink and Medicare merge; Reserve Bank reserve fund; debt ceiling; second Sydney airport; home insulation deaths; Afghanistan



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KATHRYN ROBINSON: Mr Bowen, reports this morning that this new Centrelink logo was signed off under your watch back in 2010-2011 cost an extraordinary amount - $4. 6 million - at a time when we probably shouldn't have been spending that money. Was it justified?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, I have seen those reports. I read those reports this morning. Now, when I was Minister for Human Services, we brought together Medicare and Centrelink and the Child Support Agency, in a very good reform which provided better customer service and saved the government money. And of course, when you're doing that, there's a whole range of flow-on effects there. Now I saw that logo, apparently it was rolled out sometime after that. I'm not aware of the circumstances of that. Obviously - clearly cost when it comes to marketing should always be kept to a minimum. And you will see, from time to time, governments of all persuasions doing market research and getting new logos, but those costs should always be kept to a minimum. But the key issue here was the very significant, not easy reform, bringing together three big government agencies. But it's all worked very smoothly and there's been much better efficiency and much better service delivery as a result.

KATHRYN ROBINSON: If it did cost $4.6 million, do you think that was justified, though, or is that an exorbitant price tag?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, you’d need to look and see what that actually entailed. Was that the entire roll-out of everything across the new entity? I don't know. I’ve only read that report this morning. Clearly, obviously in my view, marketing costs and logo costs should always be kept to a minimum.

TORY SHEPHERD: Do you know what the logo means?

CHRIS BOWEN: I think it reflects - I imagine, looking at it, I think it reflects the broad range of services that Centrelink provides, and the broad range of people it provides them to, I guess, by reading it in the paper this morning.

TORY SHEPHERD: All that in a squiggle.

MALCOLM FARR: It’s deeply moving.

CHRIS BOWEN: Yes.

MALCOLM FARR: Could we go on to the Reserve Bank's reserve fund? Now, if I can try and simplify it - this is an amount of money, usually expressed as a proportion of its assets, put aside for any contingencies that might come up, particularly with the currency. Now, you’ve criticised Joe Hockey's move to add $8. 8 billion to the Reserve, going essentially from the Budget bottom line to the Reserve Bank. Mr Hockey said - and you’ve used a previous advice from Treasury - Mr Hockey said, "Please release that Treasury advice in full." Can you do that?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, let's make a couple of points here, Malcolm. I would like to say the Treasurer is scoring cheap political points here. He's not. He's scoring expensive political points. $8. 8 billion for him to make a political point. Now, he says, if we’re talking about releasing documents - he says the Governor of the Reserve Bank asked him for $8. 8 billion. My response to that is very simple - release the letter. Release the letter from the Governor of the Reserve Bank, asking for $8. 8 billion. If he can't, then he's got something to hide. Now, I

have FOI'd the letter. I have written, FOIing the letter. I shouldn't have to, but I have. He could release it today. He could pick up the phone to the Governor and say, "Is it alright if I release your letter?" And in my experience, the Governor would be very likely to say, "Yes. Sure. Release it." He can clear this up today. I think what he’s doing is playing political games, trying to load up this year's deficit. Trying to say, "Well look, Labor's deficit is bigger." And then trying to make an artificial reduction in the deficit in future years and maybe even then trying to extract more dividends from the Reserve Bank in future years.

MALCOLM FARR: Okay. But look, he says the Reserve’s at the moment 3.8% of assets. That's really low in the volatile global atmosphere. What could - You know, the current - the Australian dollar might suddenly zoom well past parity. That would be a disaster for us. 3. 8%. Isn't that too low?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, it's low because the Australian dollar re-evaluated very strongly and had an impact on their reserves. They make a lot of money some years and pay a big dividend to government some years. Automatically, with no argument. In other years, in more recent years, they've had a more - a rougher time of it. And so yes, it is appropriate, it can be built up over time, so the Governor, when I was Treasurer, said to me, "We would like to keep the profits." I agreed to that. At no point did Wayne Swan or I receive any advice from the Reserve Bank or the Treasury that it would be appropriate to make a payment to the Reserve Bank. On the contrary, the former Treasurer received explicit advice that that would be a retrograde step.

MALCOLM FARR: But things could change very, very quickly. We have seen from the United States.

CHRIS BOWEN: And governments would respond - and governments would respond appropriately and responsibly. But if Mr Hockey believes there's a case for blowing out this year's deficit by almost $9 billion, and all the debt costs and interest costs that go with that, he can justify that case. Not a lazy press release, as he tried to do yesterday. “Oh, by the way, I’m giving the Reserve Bank $9 billion. Everything I told you about government spending, forget about all that, that was in the old days.” - that's just simply not good enough. He has to justify this. He has come nowhere near - nowhere near justifying this extraordinary step to transfer $9 billion to the Reserve Bank. If he's got nothing to hide, if there really was a request for $9 billion this year, release the letter today.

KATHRYN ROBINSON: Just before we move on, just to put it to bed - in your opinion, did the RBA need that almost $9 billion?

CHRIS BOWEN: I don't think that's been justified, Kath, no. I think there is a case, clearly I agree, for improving the reserve funds over time, by gradually allowing that to build up by keeping their profits. That's the case. But a $9 billion transfer this year, they have gone nowhere justifying that. Nowhere near it.

TORY SHEPHERD: And speaking of large amounts of money, Mr Hockey has effectively given himself a $500 billion line of credit.

CHRIS BOWEN: Very conveniently.

TORY SHEPHERD: It's a smart move though, isn’t it? Because he can blame you for the peak debt and then give himself some room to move?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, no doubt that's what he's planning politically. But this is a Government which campaigned up hill, down dale, every day, every broadcaster in the country - “We’ll pay off the debt.” And one of their first steps is to increase the credit card limit to half a trillion dollars, again with no justification. Now, we had forecast in our economic statements, the pre-election statement and my statement before the election was called, that net debt would hit $370 billion. Now the Treasurer is apparently briefing and leaking out that it might go past $400 billion. Well that's not how you do it. You release the midyear economic forecast so that all the figures are there for all people to see, and for it to be explained how it's going to surpass $400 billion. He hasn't done that. And on top of that, he's asked for half a trillion dollars. And again, I don't believe he's come anywhere near yet justifying that extraordinary increase in the debt limit.

TORY SHEPHERD: Is there any reason not to? I mean, Saul Eslake’s argued that we don't need a limit at all. It’s a self-imposed-

CHRIS BOWEN: The fact of the matter is, we have a debt limit. That's the fact of - that’s the law of the land. And if you're going to have a debt limit, you have to justify it. Particularly a new Government, which was elected on the platform, on the slogan of “We'll pay off the debt.” I believe they have to justify a very significant - a 67% increase in the debt limit - they would have to justify now. Let me make it clear. We, in the Opposition, will be responsible. We're not going to have anything near the situation we've just seen in the United States. We will act in the national interest. But if Mr Hockey's asking for this big increase, he's going to have to do a lot more to justify it. And the first thing he could do is release the mid-year economic forecast - not a couple of days before Christmas, but before the legislation on the debt cap is voted on.

MALCOLM FARR: Tony Abbott yesterday said that the carbon tax was socialism dressed up as environmentalism. Are you a socialist?

CHRIS BOWEN: I don't regard myself as such. And, you know, apparently he says that, but at the same time he introduces this big, generous paid parental leave scheme with a tax on companies which Australia's pensioners and superannuants are going to pay. So, if anybody is into big government intervention, it’s Mr Abbott in that regard.

TORY SHEPHERD: Would you describe that as socialism?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, I would describe it as folly and I’d describe it as retrospective tax - sorry, a double taxation on Australia's part-pensioners. And I think that's something the Labor Party will stand against.

Mr Bowen, if I can continue our discussion on carbon tax that we left before the break, yesterday Tony Abbott urged Bill Shorten to change his stance on the carbon tax. He said he changed his mind on the leaders of the Labor Party during last year, he might be able to change his mind on the carbon tax. Is there any way that you think he would change his mind?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, millions of people voted Labor fully in the knowledge that Labor believed that climate change was real. And we believed in a market mechanism to deal with it. Now, everybody agrees that the carbon tax, the fixed carbon tax, should be terminated. The debate is about what follows it. Now, we see this pretty crazy direct action plan and we'll be providing parliamentary scrutiny to that. We'll have a shadow cabinet and a Caucus process in terms of the way forward. But we're guided by some pretty important fundamental principles. Now, Mr Abbott famously described himself as a weather vane on this issue. His words, not mine. He apologised to Malcolm Turnbull for his multiple changes of position in Opposition, and said “I know I’m a weather vane.” Well, we will be taking a much more consistent approach, which will be based on our beliefs and our values - that we need to act on climate change, that it's economically sensible to have a market-based mechanism to do so.

TORY SHEPHERD: Are there any circumstances you would change your mind on that?

CHRIS BOWEN: That climate change is real and there should be a mechanism to do so? No.

TORY SHEPHERD: The mechanism.

CHRIS BOWEN: No. Well, obviously, we have a policy development process leading up to the next election - we're only just out of the last election - in terms of a whole range of detailed policies right across the board. But what I'm outlining to you are values and markers which will guide that policy development.

MALCOLM FARR: But you're going to have to make a decision soon. I mean, the legislation to dismantle carbon pricing is going to be up as soon as Parliament returns.

CHRIS BOWEN: There will be legislation to dismantle the carbon price, sure. And then we need to see the detail of what follows that. They need to explain much better what direct action means. Maybe Greg Hunt could Wikipedia it or something. They can at least tell us what direct action - how it will work, how it will achieve the targets. There's not a scientist or economist I have seen who believes direct action could achieve the carbon reduction emission targets that have been set out for it. So we will be providing, appropriately for an Opposition, parliamentary scrutiny to that.

TORY SHEPHERD: If we can move on - there’s been a lot of Coalition MPs in the headlines lately over entitlements, over trips for weddings, large libraries, so on and so forth. But has Labor missed the opportunity to really stick the boot in over this?

CHRIS BOWEN: No, I don't believe so, Tory. I believe we have taken a responsible approach of pointing out where we think there are errors, where we think the system could be improved. We’re not - you’re right to say we haven't done what the Liberal Party did, and referred people off to the Australian Federal Police willy-nilly, and done those sorts of things. What we’ve done is pointed out that some of these areas are, in my view, open-and-shut, black-and-white breaches. And it would be much better if people like Tony Abbott and George Brandis acknowledged that. Instead of saying, "I didn't do anything wrong but I will pay the money back anyway." I don’t think that earns them any points. It would be much better if they said, "Yes, look, a wedding is not appropriate or an ironman event is not appropriate." On other occasions, we've said - we’ve actually said, "Well, no, I think Polly Pedal, given it's a political activity and is raising money and it’s community engagement, I

think that is appropriate." So we’ve taken a moderate approach. And we’ve also said - we have also said that they're the Government, they can put forward suggestions to improve the system, and we would look at that sympathetically and in goodwill, because there is a case for improving the system. A very strong case, because the grey areas have been exploited.

MALCOLM FARR: So you're not running dead because some of your blokes could go for a row as well?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, Malcolm, I think - I can assure you, I know that the Liberal Party has been through all our travel claims. All of them. And they have been shopping around to you guys, trying to, you know, trying to get some of us in a similar situation. And by and large, they've failed.

MALCOLM FARR: If I can go to another form of transport - that's airline traffic and Badgerys Creek. I don't know if you saw this tweet from your colleague, Ed Husic, in the Western Sydney seat of Chifley. "I love the courage of my inner-city colleagues telling the West to accept Badgerys." Meaning the Abbott Government wants to put it there. “Here's a challenge - If you think Sydney Airport is filling up, take the challenge and drop the Sydney Airport curfew.” Now, you're the ranking officer in Western Sydney. Is there a split again within the NSW Labor Party for Badgerys and anti-Badgerys? Inner-city - Western Sydney.

CHRIS BOWEN: I don't believe so. I would characterise it this way - Ed is a very strong voice for Western Sydney and he expresses those views very clearly. Now, what we've seen this week is again speculation that apparently Joe Hockey is pushing Badgerys Creek Airport for inclusion in the next Budget. Well, he could have told the people of Western Sydney that before the election. They had a big Western Sydney strategy. He could have told the people of Lindsay, and Chifley, and McMahon, and Greenway, and Parramatta, and Werriwa, and Fowler that he wanted an airport in Western Sydney. He didn't do that. So I think that is entitled to be looked at with some degree of scepticism.

TORY SHEPHERD: What do you think about lifting the curfew?

CHRIS BOWEN: Oh, look, our policy is not to do that. The curfew has been in place for a long time. But Ed is entitled to very strongly put his views and the views of his constituents.

KATHRYN ROBINSON: What does it say about relations within the party? Is everything happy-go-lucky or is there still a bit of toxicity in the Labor Party?

CHRIS BOWEN: You'll always see a contest of policy and ideas, as you should. As you should in a political party. And I must say, having just been through an election defeat, and then elected a new leader under a new system, we have seen a sense of unity in the party - I think it largely engendered by that new system, where people have put aside differences of the past and are all committed to working towards being a strong and effective Opposition and being a strong and effective next Government of Australia, based on good policies. So, a policy contest internally in the Labor Party is not a bad thing, because it means you get a better policy as a result of the contest of ideas.

TORY SHEPHERD: Just back on the past for a second - we heard this morning that Kevin Rudd may have to face up to another inquiry over the home insulation deaths. I mean, that’s

the deaths of four young men. Is that something that is going to stain Labor for the foreseeable future?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, look, this is obviously a very, very difficult issue, and where anybody has died, it is gravely concerning. And Labor, as a party with deep commitment to improving workplace safety, will always have that. I would say we've had eight inquiries into the insulation scheme. We've had coronial inquiries, we've had an Australian National Audit Office inquiry, which as I understand it had access to Cabinet documents. And every recommendation of those inquiries had been adopted and accepted. So we take this matter very seriously. When I see draft terms of reference being leaked out to Sunday newspapers, I do think that does question whether this is more a political process or a process designed to get to better workplace safety. If it's a process designed to get to better workplace safety, then, of course, we would fully support it. But just as we supported and cooperated and adopted the recommendations of eight separate inquiries.

KATHRYN ROBINSON: Mr Bowen, we are almost out of time, but just wanted to get your response to news this morning that an Australian soldier has been wounded in Afghanistan after an Afghan soldier opened fire on coalition forces. Your response to that? And after this incident, and many like it, do you think we should have pulled out earlier?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, clearly, Kath, every Australian's thoughts would be with the soldier and with their family, who have put their lives on the line. And from those reports, luckily it's not a fatal incident. But nevertheless it is a very serious one and our thoughts are with him and with his family, and with all our serving troops in Afghanistan. In relation to withdrawing, I think the timetable for withdrawal is a bipartisan one and an appropriate one. Our task in Afghanistan was, and continues to be, important, but it's also important we have a timetable for withdrawal, which we do have, and to my understanding is bipartisan and supported by both parties.