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Transcript of interview with Leigh Sales: ABC Lateline: 11 September 2009: school stimulus spending; Coalition vote against Private Health Insurance legislation; general stimulus package; the 'legacy wars'; Auditor General's report on printing allowance; use of Twitter in Parliament.



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The Hon. Tony Burke MP

Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry

Tony Burke - interview with Leigh Sales, ABC Lateline

11 September 2009

Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Tony Burke Member for Moncrieff, Steven Ciobo ABC Lateline, Leigh Sales

Subjects: School stimulus spending; Coalition vote against Private Health Insurance legislation; general stimulus package; the ‘legacy wars’; Auditor General’s report on printing allowance; use of Twitter in Parliament.

LEIGH SALES: Well, to discuss the so-called ‘legacy wars’ as well as the other big issues in Canberra this week, I’m joined by the Agriculture Minister Tony Burke and by the Opposition small business spokesman Steve Ciobo. Welcome to both of you.

TONY BURKE: G’day Leigh.

STEVE CIOBO: Good evening Leigh.

LEIGH SALES: Let’s start with the week that was in Parliament. Steve Ciobo, the Opposition focused on Julia Gillard and the school spending program. How can Julia Gillard be expected to know every detail of how state education departments and other education authorities are administering every cent in the stimulus spending?

STEVE CIOBO: Well Leigh, you know it wasn’t that long ago when Julia Gillard was shadow industrial relations minister and she was posing questions like this to Joe Hockey as industrial relations minister, expecting there to be an intimate knowledge of all the details. But the point is more that it’s important that a Minister understands what’s going on in her Department and the administration of the scheme. We’ve had a massive $1.6 billion blow-out in the Government’s scheme. They’ve basically lost control of the spending. We’ve seen now numerous examples of where this money has been very poorly misspent and so what we’re simply doing is highlighting examples as they come up, bringing them up to the Minister’s attention and asking her to be accountable and I think that’s perfectly legitimate.

LEIGH SALES: Tony Burke, the Opposition’s barely been able to lay a glove on Julia Gillard since the Government was elected. Is this the week where she finally took a few body blows?

TONY BURKE: Let’s start. There’s 24,000 projects that are being talked about here with the schools. For the 24,000 projects there have been 49 complaints. So in terms of something of that scale - were there always going to be some issues in different projects? Of course that was going to happen. But I still can’t work out strategically what goes on in the Opposition’s minds in advance of Question Time. They look up and down and decide: OK, where’s the weak link? Go after Julia Gillard? Go after one of the strongest Parliamentary performers?

LEIGH SALES: Who do you think is the weak link? Who should they be going after?

TONY BURKE: I’m not going to give them any advice. I’ll tell you though, if the usual strategy is: we’ll go after and direct all our questions to Kevin. And then, next tier, OK let’s think we can go after Julia. I mean, you’re going after people who are extraordinarily the most competent people, who are going to be able to handle any portfolio.

LEIGH SALES: Tony Burke, isn’t there a problem for your side though that when this stimulus sending is so mammoth, there are going to be examples, undoubtedly, of waste and mismanagement coming out, trickling out week after week after week after week?

TONY BURKE: We’ve always been up-front that there would be issues like this on the way through. But let’s not forget the gravity of what we’re dealing with. We’re dealing with the worst international economic figures that you could have and in that context, we’re making sure that we support 210,000 jobs.

LEIGH SALES: But how are you going to deal with this relentless campaign that the Opposition’s likely to mount week, after week, after week?

TONY BURKE: Well if they want to focus on issues which are being dealt with across 49 complaints at different schools and they want to dedicate themselves to that and to which schools have had trees removed - they can do that. I think the Australian community understands the importance of being the nation among the advanced economies that has the highest growth, the second lowest unemployment, the lowest debt, the lowest deficit. Those sorts of figures make sure that we do have a path to recovery that’s the envy of the rest of the advanced world.

LEIGH SALES: To pick up on that point Steve Ciobo, given that context, does the Opposition look like it’s nit-picking to be focused on such small issues?

STEVE CIOBO: Not at all, Leigh. The reality is that Australians want to see value for money. I mean, Tony can laugh off a $1.6 billion blow-out in the costings and say, “Oh well this is just a minor detail”, but the reality is, it’s not a minor detail. The Australian people, after this Government is finished, will be over $300 billion in debt. That’s the current forecast level of debt. So we make no apologies as an Opposition for making sure that we are watching where this Government is spending - or misspending - taxpayers’ money. Now, Tony can say “Oh well these little things - these little 49 out of 24,000 projects is not a problem.” But actually it is a problem. It is a problem in that we see four classrooms knocked down to be rebuilt by four classrooms. It is a problem when we see a school with one student receiving $250,000 for a new building. I mean, these kinds of problems are not simply things to be brushed away. A $1.6 billion blow-out in a program is not something to be brushed away - in the same way that a $315 billion deficit that will take decades to repay, thanks to this Government’s largesse, is not something to be brushed away either.

LEIGH SALES: Speaking of that deficit, Joe Hockey said this week that the Coalition was committed to reining it in by cutting Government spending if it’s elected. Yet this week the Coalition voted against the Government’s health rebate reforms. If you can’t agree to axe a slow-drip hand-out to the wealthiest people in the country, how are you ever going to come up with broad spending cuts?

STEVE CIOBO: Well hang on Leigh - the Coalition’s position was to completely offset what we were trying to do. And what we were trying to do was to make the Government keep its promise. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that Kevin Rudd, hand on heart, time and time again, said that they wouldn’t touch the private health insurance scheme in this country. Then they expect us to help them break that promise. We were never going to do that. And we did the responsible thing and said to the Government, because we recognise this will have an impact on the Budget, we are going to propose the way to ensure that it is completely offset and do it in a way that’s actually going to benefit people’s health, by of course increasing tobacco excise. So I reject the notion that in any way we did anything irresponsible. We actually did the more responsible policy course of action than what the Government proposed.

LEIGH SALES: Tony Burke?

TONY BURKE: Well, the pathway that the Opposition proposed is to not have economic stimulus. They voted against economic stimulus.

STEVE CIOBO: That’s completely false Tony, and you know it.

TONY BURKE: Well Steve …

STEVE CIOBO: Completely false

TONY BURKE: Well Steve’s an example of somebody who in the Parliament opposed and voted against a stimulus package and yet voted for it in your electorate.

STEVE CIOBO: Why? Why do you say that?

TONY BURKE: Well, you’ve got the single biggest community infrastructure program in the nation in your electorate.

STEVE CIOBO: Right.

TONY BURKE: Now unless you’re going to tell us that you don’t support that stadium being built for the Gold Coast AFL team, then what you’re saying in your electorate doesn’t match at all the national messages that you’re sending through the Parliament.

STEVE CIOBO: Well see Tony… well the problem that Tony’s got is that we never, ever said that we didn’t support a stimulus. Quite to the contrary and this is the problem that Labor has. See, Labor has gone out there with a record level of spending that Australians will have to take decades to repay and what we simply said to the Government was that it was too much money being poorly spent. So what we proposed were a number of alternatives which Labor arrogantly refused to follow. So I reject entirely Tony’s assertion that the Coalition’s position is to simply sit on our hands and do nothing. That’s false and what we’re also saying now Leigh, very importantly, is given Australia is weathering this economic storm much better than anybody predicted, the Government now needs to recalibrate its economic stimulus so that we do not have Australians for decades to come, mired in debt.

LEIGH SALES: Tony Burke, quick right of reply.

TONY BURKE: So you do support the project in your electorate?

STEVE CIOBO: Tony, you know, the LNP, let me tell you Tony, the LNP policy was that there were more important things to spend money on than an AFL stadium.

LEIGH SALES: Ok, let’s…

STEVE CIOBO: So I think Tony what your Government needs to get under control is, it’s great to be Father Christmas, you know Tony you can all revel in running around the countryside and saying - here’s a cheque here, here’s a cheque there. But the Australian people, Tony, are wising up to this Government’s largesse. And pretty soon they’re going to look you in the eye and they’re going to ask you: “Why did you put us in decades worth of debt?”

TONY BURKE: And 210,000 of them would be unemployed, were it not for the stimulus package.

LEIGH SALES: Alright, let’s move onto a new topic. Kevin Rudd opened up a new front in the history wars this week with his speech at the launch of Paul Kelly’s Book, The March of Patriots. Tony Burke, did Kevin Rudd overreach in claiming the Howard Government was ‘indolent’?

TONY BURKE: Well, if you look at the opportunity that they had - you’re absolutely riding the commodity boom, riding the opportunity of the mining boom and the wealth that was bringing into the country and failed to take the opportunity to significantly invest in infrastructure and take the economy forward.

LEIGH SALES: But their reforms included the GST, waterfront reform, the privatisation of Telstra, they deregulated the Labor market. That’s barely ‘indolent’?

TONY BURKE: Well, when you get to the last one - deregulation of the labour market - we voted against WorkChoices. We were very proud to vote against WorkChoices. It was about taking away fairness and we put that to the Australian people and that’s one of the reasons that we’re now in office.

LEIGH SALES: But it was still a reform - they were undertaking fundamental reforms which Kevin Rudd completely overlooked.

TONY BURKE: Well, a reform that takes away people’s pay and takes away people’s job security is not in the path of what we consider to be nation-building reforms.

LEIGH SALES: Steve Ciobo?

STEVE CIOBO: Well, Leigh, you know the great problem that Labor has is that history is actually a pretty good judge. The fact is that the Labor Party voted against most of the major economic reforms that the Howard Government put forward. Major reforms that helped to grow productivity, that helped to get Australia into…turning it into the miracle economy, as was recognised by the economists. I mean, bear in mind, Leigh, that Kevin Rudd was the man, when we introduced the GST, who said this will be remembered as ‘fundamental injustice day’. One of the most significant tax reforms in this country’s history, you know, and Labor tries to whitewash over all of these things. I notice that all Tony wants to talk about is WorkChoices. But the fact is that we have a proud tradition of economic reform in this country. We supported Labor when they were in Government. Unfortunately, basically every step of the way, when Labor was in Opposition, they voted against the major economic reforms that delivered the prosperity that all Australians have enjoyed.

LEIGH SALES: In an article in The Australian today, John Howard acknowledged the reforms of the Hawke-Keating governments. Doesn’t Kevin Rudd look rather small making the argument that the Howard Government did nothing?

TONY BURKE: I’ve got to say, I find this argument a bit funny, that now we’re told the previous government was always willing to acknowledge the good economic reforms that were put in place by Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. I mean, I don’t remember Peter Costello coming to the dispatch box and everyone thinking, “Oh no, here comes another diatribe in praise for the previous government.” Now, they want to claim that that’s how they ran things then. But I’ve got to say there’s not many references that match that sort of rhetoric.

LEIGH SALES: Steve Ciobo, I seem to recall that every time Paul Keating’s name was mentioned, it was coupled with mentions of 17% interest rates and ‘the recession we had to have’.

STEVE CIOBO: Well, Leigh, they didn’t get everything right. They certainly made a lot of mistakes. I’m more than happy to concede that. But the key point is this, Leigh. There were a number of key reforms such as, for example, the floating of the Australian dollar. We supported that when we were in Opposition. And I’d contrast that with Labor’s position - when they were in Opposition and we did, for example, tax reform of a most significant scale, when we brought about profound change with Australia’s tax regime - Labor opposed it. When we had the first series of waterfront reforms - key reforms that lifted Australia from being among the worst countries in the world when it came to container rates on the wharves. And what happened? Labor opposed it. And why did they do it? Because they wanted to look after their union mates down on the wharves. So frankly I think that Tony Burke and his Labor mates need to engage in a little less revisionism and a little bit more staring at the facts and alter their course in the future to make sure that they actually engage in some meaningful economic reform in this Parliament.

LEIGH SALES: OK. Another of the stories in Canberra this week was an Auditor General’s report which criticised the way Parliamentarians were using their printing allowances, noting that it included things like bowls, scorecards, songbooks and a wall chart in the shape of a giraffe for measuring a child’s height. Tony Burke, have you produced anything like that?

TONY BURKE: Ah no, I’m afraid my newsletters haven’t been down that path.

LEIGH SALES: So is that what you use your allowance for? What do you spend it on?

TONY BURKE: Well it goes for the stationery that you use for correspondence, the envelopes you put the letters in, the newsletters you put out to the community, when you’re advertising your mobile office that you’ve got at different community events. It’s the way you keep in touch.

LEIGH SALES: Steve Ciobo, have you printed any of the more gimmicky things?

STEVE CIOBO: Well Leigh I, like Tony, use these things to produce newsletters, use these things to produce notepads, fridge magnets, those types of things. But I’ve got to say, Leigh, I’ve not had a complaint from a constituent in my electorate about the fact that I’m trying to make myself visible and accessible. You know, I tend to find that: take for example, fridge magnets, I’ve got listed on there the emergency contact numbers of all of the local services that people are going to use and featuring prominently of course is the phone number for my office. People say to me it is one of the best ways to get in touch with me because it’s right there, front-of-mind. So I’ve got to say sometimes I find it a little bit curious. Effectively, this ANAO report has said that politicians are guilty of making themselves accessible and are guilty of making themselves known in their communities. I really question whether or not that’s so heinous a crime. Certainly, if someone has done something that is clearly wrong, if someone’s rorted the system, then throw the book at them, But really, to suggest that in some way there’s mass rorting because we’re putting our faces and phone numbers and making ourselves accountable back to our electorate, I really would question just how serious a charge that is.

LEIGH SALES: Can you see how people might see, though, that the figure is a $100,000-a-year allowance and feel like that seems like a lot of money?

STEVE CIOBO: Well, Leigh, bear in mind a couple of things - the first is that before the Howard Government, that was an uncapped printing allowance. There are examples of Parliamentarians spending three, $400,000 on printing. So it was actually the Coalition that put a cap on it. Now, the Government says that we’re going to reduce the cap down from $100,000 to 75. I’m not sure that that makes that much difference. It certainly is a cost saving and I think that’s a good thing. But bear in mind I have nearly 100,000 people in my electorate. So you’re talking less than $1 per person. And when you put it in that context, I’m not actually convinced that it is such an obscene amount of money.

LEIGH SALES: Twitter caused a bit of a flurry in the Federal Parliament this week. Tony Burke, you’re on Twitter. What do you use it for and do you Twitter from the floor of the House?

TONY BURKE: I don’t from the floor of the House, no. I use both Twitter and Facebook - in part, giving people some idea of what I’m doing, what parts of the country I’m in. In my job the parts of the country are pretty vast that I tend to visit. And you often get comments back from people asking questions on issues and it’s just a fairly instant form of short communication.

LEIGH SALES: Steve Ciobo, do you use any of that social media?

STEVE CIOBO: I certainly do, Leigh, and I think I’ve got a responsibility as one of the younger MPs to lead by example, which I try to do.

LEIGH SALES: And are you Twittering in Question Time?

STEVE CIOBO: Ah, oh look I may have once or twice as I’ve been effectively bored to death by, as Malcolm calls Kevin Rudd, the Don Bradman of boredom. I may have been tempted once or twice. But look it’s just a great tool, I actually have people that contact me directly via Twitter, that contact me directly via Facebook from out of my constituency as well as from other interest groups. So, it’s just another way to reach out to people.

LEIGH SALES: We know that Kevin Rudd’s office is obsessed about media management. I’m just wondering if you have to run your Tweets past Kevin Rudd before you put them out?

TONY BURKE: No, it’s the phone in my hand and it goes straight out - and on Facebook too. I should add, I’ve applied to be Joe Hockey’s friend on Facebook and am still waiting to be accepted.

LEIGH SALES: Still waiting for an answer?

TONY BURKE: Still waiting.

LEIGH SALES: In August you Tweeted: “Why has every corner shop run out of chillies?” Now, you’re the Agriculture Minister. You should have been able to get an answer to that.

TONY BURKE: In my electorate I’d been to four shops that night trying to whack together a curry at home. But I ended up finding them - there was an IGA at Beverly Hills.

LEIGH SALES: Well I’m very relieved, you’ll have to Tweet that too. Tony Burke, Steve Ciobo, thank you very much for joining us.

TONY BURKE: Thank you.

ENDS

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