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Transcript of interview with Peter Van Onselen: PVO News Day: 7 June 2016: Australia's future submarines; Defence spending; 2016 Defence White Paper; Labor's plans to make child care more affordable; Newspoll

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SUBJECT/S: Australia’s Future Submarines; Defence spending; 2016 Defence White Paper; Labor’s plans to make child care more affordable; Newspoll

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Senator Stephen Conroy is live from Melbourne. Thanks very much for your company Senator.


ONSELEN: Let me start by asking you, I guess, about these subs. $50 billion dollars is being spent on it. Both sides of politics are sort of broadly in favour of this kind of a spend. Wouldn’t the money be better just going into health and education? At the end of the day if China attacked us we’re goners anyway?

CONROY: Well look I don’t quite take that defeatist approach Peter. The submarines are probably our most lethal asset for deterrence and if you look at what is happening around our region, there’s an arms race on in our very region. Something like 70 per cent of all submarines in the world will be in our region by 2030. So I think Australia needs to continue to do what we’ve always done which is to punch above our weight, to always be able to work interoperably with our alliance partner the US and also our other allies in the region and we’ve also got to pull our weight.

So I’m very comfortable with the spend on the submarines. I’m a little surprised at the actual price tag. There were offers on the table as low as $20 billion dollars but the Government has budgeted $50 billion dollars - that’s part of an overall increase in defence spending to reach two per cent of GDP over the next ten years and Labor is very comfortable to support that target and to support the package of procurement that is inside that envelope.

ONSELEN: And so just on that with that two per cent goal that the Government’s got and you say Labor is happy to support. Are you guys in lockstep on your agreement on the White Paper provision of the timing around the target of two per cent? There is complete bipartisanship on this?

CONROY: Complete bipartisanship. Bill Shorten said before the White Paper came out that if the Government could demonstrate a credible path to two per cent over the next ten years or so then we would get behind it and that White Paper I think builds on the White Papers that Labor did in ’09 and ’13. It’s a consistent message if you looked at the analysis that’s through that, looked at the challenges in our region. Our challenges have only gotten bigger since that 2009 White Paper. We’re very, very much in lockstep with the Government on the two per cent and the timeline.

ONSELEN: So you can categorically say that there would be no change to defence spending under Labor if elected even if you look at the budget and it deteriorates or you find that debt is worse than the Government’s suggestion was both in MYEFO as well as PEFO - this is a lock guarantee agreement of defence spending?

CONROY: That’s right. I think it’s important to give that commitment because there’s long term - when you want to buy these programs of armament you need to plan well in advance - so we’ve given the certainty to the sector, we’ve given the certainty to the companies that ‘this is what we need for Australia to continue to have a cutting edge in our defence in our region.’

ONSELEN: Okay, fair enough. Absolutely no doubting that. Let me just ask you another quick one on another topic that I was discussing yesterday. You’re in the Shadow Cabinet, you would have been privy to this decision making process, I’m amazed that Labor in the childcare space, without means testing, is prepared to increase the rebate from $7,500 to $10,000. It means that people that are incredibly well off are going to get an extra $2,500 grand in their pocket each year per child for childcare services when they just don’t need it. I’m all for it as a means tested thing to help people in need with more child care. I’m really surprised that Labor would go down that path given the fiscal constraints at the moment. What’s the reasoning?

CONROY: Well I think that if you look at the challenges that parents have in supporting their children, making sure there’s adequate child care, if you look at the sort of price rises - 20 per cent in the last three years - so there is real pressure on every single family who is trying to provide support for their kids. I think it’s a fair and reasonable position for us to take. The budget overall, we’re very comfortable with where our numbers will be at. You’ll see that in the not too distant future where our numbers will end up, when it is that we believe our numbers can get back to a balance in a very fair and measured way -

ONSELEN: Just a quick follow up on it because I get what you’re saying for parents in need financially in terms of childcare and I also have no problem and I quite like the parts of the package that are trying to address shortages in childcare because that’s a real issue no matter how wealthy you may be. You know, the actual access and the waiting times and all the rest of it but I just don’t see how a family that has, you know, a family with a law partner or a specialist doctor; they just don’t need the extra $2,500 grand. I’m just surprised that Labor wouldn’t just rule a line under that and say ‘you know what, we’re reserving any increase in the rebate on a means tested basis for the needy’.

CONROY: Well it was certainly one of the issues we discussed, it was one of the issues we kicked around but in the end we came down on the side that we felt the need to try and support everybody in the present circumstances. We think it’s affordable within the

overall budget strategy that we have and so we considered all of those issues, we weighed them up. It’s not like we just decided ‘no, this is not something that we should do’. We thought about that, we looked at it, but in the end we came down on the side of leaving the structure as it was but making the increases. Because you’ll remember Peter that Tony Abbott took his signature policy on paid parental leave to the last election and then he dumped that, breaking that solemn promise. Then they said ‘we’ll in introduce this new package’ and then they’ve delayed it. So we’ve gone three years, three years with nothing from the Turnbull-Abbott Governments in a vital area of family support.

ONSELEN: Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot else in the package that I thought was really interesting and good when it was announced that was just one part that sort of surprised me. Same as frankly I’m surprised by the Government’s excess on negative gearing; not clamping it down, they want it to be a black and white debate between the Labor policy and the Liberals doing nothing. I think that’s just madness as well to be clear.

But let me ask you about this apprenticeship scheme from today that was announced by Bill Shorten. One in ten employees attached in government operations or where government funding is provided need to be apprentices. Is it appropriate, do you think to have a one size fits all like that or is the capacity within this that it averages out like that rather than on individual projects? You’re saying ten per cent of the workforces must be apprentices.

CONROY: Well I think firstly that it’s about time that we put a target - when I move around in the defence circles that I’m in there is often problems with holding employees and the secondary problem is getting trained employees. So I think it’s absolutely fantastic that we’ve got Bill Shorten prepared to commit to get behind the apprentices. I think Australians will respond to this. Near where I live the Williamstown dockyard is about to close down because there’s not enough work because of the complete botched handling of procurement of naval vessels by this Government. So there are people who are going to leave the sector because of this and we don’t have a pipeline of people being trained to come in. I think this is a fantastic initiative and we’ll be working through all of those details but I’m very, very comfortable that this is an appropriate way for the government to write into contracts. I think it’s a first class move.

ONSELEN: Are you as worried about the possible composition of the Senate as the Prime Minister has suggested he is? I mean, we’ve got a one in four vote for minor parties and independents according to yesterday’s Newspoll. The PM was out yesterday warning against this. Is a Labor Government - you’re Deputy Leader in the Senate - is a Labor Government as worried about the crossbenchers and what it might look like to get things done post the election as the PM seems to be?

CONROY: Well I think the calling of a Double D is again another major political miscalculation by Malcolm Turnbull. The change in the voting system will absolutely over time, with half Senate elections, benefit the Government, the Greens and Nick Xenophon. But to actually go to a Double D destroys at least for six years the benefits that the Government was seeking for it. Now we didn’t agree with the new voting system. We believe that it’s ultimately about protecting the big parties. We will benefit ultimately from this system but we don’t believe it’s good for democracy because it will shut out that 24 per cent of people that voted not for the Greens, not for Labor, not for

the Coalition, and they’ll get no voice under the new system when you move to the half Senate process.

But Malcolm Turnbull has brought this on himself. He shouldn’t stand there in front of a camera with a straight face and say ‘this is going to be terrible’. Malcolm, you did it to yourself. Your political genius tactics did it to yourself. We’re going to have a situation where Pauline Hanson is likely to get elected from Queensland. You could see three and up to four Xenophon candidates come in. You could see Derryn Hinch come in from Melbourne. The Sex Party come in from Victoria. You could see the Family First come back in in South Australia despite a deliberate attempt to wipe them out. So Malcolm Turnbull’s political skills are again - like with an eight week campaign - being shown to be pretty thin on the ground -

ONSELEN: Back on your portfolio -

CONROY: Sorry just - Labor has managed to work with a whole variety of individuals in the current Chamber. We’ve had good relations with Family First who have voted with us at times. The Liberal Democrats have voted with us. The PUP Party when it was together voted for us. Ricky Muir has voted for us. Lazarus and Lambie - we’ve been able to work with the Senators. We haven’t spent our time denigrating them. We haven’t had a born to rule mentality which says ‘we’ve been elected you will just listen and do what you’re told’. We’ve actually sat down, listened to the concerns, worked with them. In areas that we’ve had common ground we’ve worked together but there have been plenty of times where we’ve voted against the Greens or against some of the minor party Senators.

ONSELEN: You’re right Senator. You have worked with them effectively at times and the hung Parliament, even though it was portrayed and probably believed to have been frankly by a lot of voters as chaos and all the rest of it, it functioned quite well frankly. Particularly in the context of anyone that knows how systems that rely on proportional representation more in the Lower House require negotiations like New Zealand’s MMP system for example. But having said that, part of that process was with the Greens and there was nothing untoward about that process yet the Labor Party in this campaign seems to be worried about, you know, being seen to be willing to do deals with the Greens post the election. Surely you’d be willing to it’s just a matter of what the terms are?

CONROY: No, let’s be very clear; we will not be entering into an agreement. There will be no ‘sit down, press conference, here’s an agreement that we’ve signed with the Greens’. That will not happen. We will not enter into an agreement with the Greens at all. We’ll be looking to govern in our own right. But part of your analysis that you wrote about yesterday Peter was talking about how ‘the votes for all of these minor parties - isn’t this terrible - the consequences for Labor and Liberal’. Let me be very clear about this. The thing you missed in that analysis is Labor’s vote is going up. It’s the Government that is losing the most votes. Labor’s vote in that poll yesterday is up. We are gaining votes. Many commentators, not you but many commentators are going ‘pox on all the houses, this is terrible’. Labor’s vote is going up under Bill Shorten. Bill Shorten’s polling is going up and so, again, an analysis that says ‘it’s the end of the world as we know it’ - Labor’s vote is going up because Labor is running on a positive agenda and Bill Shorten is putting policies out there that are appealing to a majority of Australians.

ONSELEN: And certainly the Government’s primary vote would be too low you’d think at this particular point in time with their usual preference flows. Just a word of warning Senator we are standing by for a Prime Ministerial media conference. I’ll have to go to that when it happens but I want to get back to your portfolio while we’ve still got some time.

CONROY: No worries.

ONSELEN: The Government likes to use this line that there were no builds in defence, you know, ship builds during the six years that Labor was in power. What’s the answer to that? Is that an accurate point in any way shape or form?

CONROY: What happened was the Government, just before they lost government in ‘07, made some very major - with the support of Labor - some very major announcements about builds. So our shipyards were full. Our shipyards were full. Labor in the lead up to the last election announced that we would build the two supply vessels in Australia and that would have helped fill, wouldn’t have completely solved it, but it would have helped fill what is now referred to as the Valley of Death. The closure of the Williamstown dockyard in Melbourne which is imminent - 1,400 jobs gone. Jobs being lost in South Australia; there have been more than a thousand jobs lost there and there are jobs being lost in Newcastle. There was enough work in 2013 with supply vessels, OPVs, PPBs, Frigates and Submarines for all of Australia’s dockyards to be working at pretty much full capacity.

But the very first decision that was taken by David Johnston and Tony Abbott was to announce that those two supply vessels - and these are big, big pieces of equipment - they would be built not in Australia, in fact, they banned Australian companies from even putting in a bid and said ‘only Spain and only Korea are allowed to bid for these ships’. Now that was a catastrophic decision because it meant that the gap just got bigger. So the simple and lazy analysis that the Government uses ‘oh, it’s our fault because we didn’t do anything’ - the shipyards were full. Those ships could be being built in Australia now and over the next few years if that decision hadn’t been taken in 2013. That would have taken a lot of the heat out of that Valley of Death. You still would have seen some layoffs but it would have made a huge difference to a) the confidence in the sector and b) the actual work for many, many workers and their families.

ONSELEN: Stephen Conroy, appreciate you joining us on Newsday. We’re going to try and squeeze an ad break in.

CONROY: Good to be with you.