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Transcript of doorstop interview: Parliament House: 14 November 2013: Debt limit; retirement of Kevin Rudd

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Subjects: Debt limit, retirement of Kevin Rudd.

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, we were promised a stable Government. We were promised a Government of no excuses, no surprises. We were promised a Government of adults. What we get is quite the opposite.

We see the Treasurer of Australia threatening to shut down the Government because he can’t get his way. We see the Treasurer of Australia beating his chest saying he won’t blink and using emotive language like crown of thorns in order to make a political point. It is simply not good enough the Australian people expect and deserve better.

Now let’s be very, very clear here. This Government was elected to reduce the debt. That’s what they told the Australian people they would do. The Australian people are getting a very different Government than the one they were promised. One of this Government’s first actions is to seek an increase in the debt limit of $200 billion with no budget update, no justification.

The Government’s case for this increase was introduced to the parliament last night- an eleven page document of which five pages are blank. And the only figure in here is $370 billion, the same figure in the projections left by the previous Government. No update, no justification. If Joe Hockey went to a bank and saw a bank manager with a justification for a loan as flimsy as this he would be laughed out of the bank. He has no excuses.

The Labor Party’s position is very clear. We’ve taken a reasonable approach. We are more than happy to vote for a debt limit increase and we have of $100 billion; not a small amount, a very significant amount, one which will see the Government able to meet its commitments. If the Government then wanted to come back and ask for a

higher limit through the parliament then they would be able to do so. They could justify it with the release of their mini-budget which would outline the impact of the decisions they’ve taken since the election. Decisions like the $9 billion transfer to the Reserve Bank, decisions like giving a tax break to Australians with $2 million or more in their superannuation accounts. We’re not prepared to do that.

We see the culture of secrecy which has been the hallmark of this Government, infecting the Treasury portfolio as much if not more than anywhere else. Now the Treasurer has a deep responsibility to act responsibly. He has a choice; he can accept the will of the parliament, he can say ‘I would have liked a bigger debt limit but I’ll take the one the parliament’s given me’ or he doesn’t have to, he can reject the will of the parliament and he as Treasurer must take responsibility for the implications of that.

I have a news flash for Mr Hockey. He’s been sworn in as Treasurer. He now has an obligation for the Australian economy, to the Australian people to stop playing games and start working with the parliament. The parliament is rightly exercising its ability to say ‘hang on Mr Abbott, you promised the Australian people you would reduce the debt.’ To say, ‘hang on a second Mr Abbott you promised the Australian people you would be transparent and open and you haven’t even released the Mid-Year Economic Forecast.’

Yesterday in the parliament the Prime Minister stood there and said ‘we will release a mid-year forecast in December like the Labor Party use to.’ He misled the House. Every single Mid-Year Economic Forecast under the Labor Government was released in October or November. So this is simply game playing from an inexperienced Treasurer; a trainee Treasurer who’s more interested in scoring political points at the expense of stability, at the expense of good Government. We will not facilitate an increase in the debt cap of $200 billion, 67% per cent without the Government providing a much better explanation.

Last night Tony Abbott offered the Leader of the Opposition a secret confidential briefing. We don’t need a secret confidential briefing, we need them to be upfront with all the Australian people. All Mr Abbott’s offer does is show that the Treasury has the figures prepared but they’re not willing to release them to the Australian people. We’re not interested in some sort of secret cabal with the Government on this matter. We’re interested in Mr Abbott and Mr Hockey being upfront with the Australian people revealing the true state of the books, the impact of the decisions they’ve taken since the election and their justification for a very, very big increase in the debt limit.

Happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: Mr Bowen how much of this is more about the ALP forcing the Government to accept that they’re going to have to increase the debt limit somewhere into the future perhaps closer to the next election?

BOWEN: No, it’s about the Labor Party holding the Government to account. It’s about the Labor Party saying to the Government - govern as you said you would. Be

upfront with the Australian people and comply with the basic standards of transparency and accountability in Office.

JOURNALIST: Why do we need a debt limit? I see some economists say it’s purely a new invention?

BOWEN: Well, we have a debt limit. It’s the law of the land. And it’s true that the previous Labor Government introduced the debt limit - that is the case. But when you’ve got a debt limit, you’ve got to justify increases in the debt limit and Mr Hockey has arrogantly failed to do so.

JOURNALIST: If this drags on though, this stand-off drags on, doesn’t it risk undermining confidence in the economy and doesn’t it risk Australia’s reputation?

BOWEN: That is why the Opposition has taken the sensible approach in saying ‘Mr Hockey, you can have an increase in the debt limit, you could have had one last night, you can have one today, we’ll give you an increase in the debt, we don’t want to see this debate drag on.’ Unlike the Liberal Party in Opposition, which voted against debt limit increases, didn’t move amendments suggesting a smaller debt cap, didn’t engage constructively, voted against them, despite the fact that the Prime Minister seems intent on denying the reality that they voted against them. The Hansard doesn’t lie. They voted against debt caps, we are willing to take a constructive approach. I agree with your questions here, this should not drag on. The Treasurer should accept the will of the Parliament and he could do so today.

JOURNALIST: Are you expecting the Treasurer to start implementing deeper budget cuts as he said on radio this morning?

BOWEN: If he wants to implement deeper budget cuts, that’s been his agenda all the way along, he should not use this as an excuse. This is not an excuse; this is not an alibi for him to start making cuts to the budget. He’s already said he’s going to make cuts to the Budget in May. Well, we’ll hold him to account for each individual cut. As I say - news flash Mr Hockey, you’re the Treasurer now, you’re responsible for your decisions, you’ve got to explain your decisions to the Australian people, not play silly games trying to blame other people for them.

JOURNALIST: Mr Bowen, has Kevin Rudd done Bill Shorten and the Labor Party a favour by leaving Parliament?

BOWEN: Oh look, I think Kevin Rudd has made the right decision for him and his family at this time. And I know that he took into account a whole range of circumstances, I know he was reluctant to cause a by-election for example. But he felt this was the right decision at the right time. He’s perfectly entitled to make that decision. I think Australians understand the sacrifices politicians’ families make, as well as politicians. And there comes a time for everybody in public life when it’s time to leave. Hopefully for most of us it’s voluntarily, it’s not always, and in Mr Rudd’s case I’m very glad that he’s been able to do so at the time of his choosing.

JOURNALIST: But what does it mean for Bill Shorten and the Labor Party now?

BOWEN: Well, it means that we have a by-election to fight in the seat of Griffith, we don’t expect that by-election to be easy. And it means, just as it meant before yesterday, that we are all focused on the future, on providing a credible alternative

to the Australian people, which I believe the Australian people are looking for us to do. And that we are focused, not on the past but on the future.

JOURNALIST: That by-election is going to act as kind of a referendum on everything that is going on at the moment, carbon tax, mining tax, debt, anything else that is on the board. Are you looking forward to fighting on those issues?

BOWEN: Oh look, we’re always looking forward to fighting elections because that’s what politicians do. Having said that, the Government, early in its term despite all their mistakes and despite all their broken promises and despite them not being the Government they promised they’d be, the Government early in its term will always get some reflection from that election with the public early in that time, and it’s always tough for oppositions early in its time and it’s a tough by-election.

Kevin Rudd was a very, very popular local member, you’ll see that reflected. It’ll be a tough by-election. We’ll have, no doubt, I don’t know who it will be, but no doubt we’ll pick a very good candidate and we’ll fight very hard for it.

JOURNALIST: Do you think the voters of Griffith are entitled to some righteous anger for having to go back to the polls so soon?

BOWEN: Well I think there is a long standing convention in Australia that former Prime Ministers leave the stage, of course Kevin didn’t do that previously. I think just as Malcolm Fraser, did just as Bob Hawke did, just as Paul Keating did, former Prime Ministers people expect and understand there is, why we all want to see by-elections avoided, there is also I think a broad understanding that former Prime Ministers do have a slightly different dynamic in their decision making.

JOURNALIST: Just on the debt ceiling, why didn’t Labor seek an increase in the debt ceiling when the budget came down?

BOWEN: Well we did increase the debt ceiling as was necessary through the years and we indicated that if re-elected we would increase the debt ceiling by an appropriate amount. That is why I am lending my support to an increase in the debt ceiling, one of the reasons because it’s the responsible thing to do. And we acknowledge the debt ceiling should increase, that’s why we are voting for it.

But we are not going to give them a blank cheque for half a trillion dollars just because they think as a new Government in town that they can arrogantly laud around the parliament and say give us half a trillion dollars and it’s our way or no way. And if you don’t give it to us we will engage in bluff and bluster and attempt to shut down the Government. If they want to do that, we will be holding them to account.

JOURNALIST: What’s the difference between you and the Tea Party?

BOWEN: Well the only person talking about a shutdown here Paul, is Joe Hockey. It’s not the Labor Party, there is a difference here, and in the United States you saw a political party trying to shut down the Government. Here, the only person talking about that is the Government.

JOURNALIST: Mr Bowen, just on the debt ceiling why isn’t it better just to have one significant increase provide a significant buffer, rather than incrementally having to (inaudible)?

BOWEN: Why should the Government not have to justify itself to the Parliament for its decisions? Why should the Government…The only reason they have been able to put forward for this is that they don’t want to come back before the Parliament again. Well I’m sorry, that’s not good enough. You do have to face the Parliament for scrutiny. Imagine, imagine ladies and gentlemen if the previous Government had said ‘Look we don’t really find it convenient to come back before the Parliament so if we could have two or three hundred billion dollars please and take the debt limit up to half a trillion dollars, would that be alright Tony Abbott?’ I think you can imagine the reply he would have given.

JOURNALIST: Just what, you used to be Treasurer; I mean what is your understanding of what happens if there is no agreement by December 12?

BOWEN: Well, Mr Hockey will need to take responsibility. He will need to accept the wishes of the parliament if he is going to be a responsible and mature Treasurer. The implications? Well it is a matter for Mr Hockey. He will have the advice before him, previously despite Liberal Party opposition, the previous Government always managed to have the necessary debt increases, debt limit increases passed in plenty of time, in good time. That is what the previous Government’s tradition was.

This Government, with their “L” plates on have not been able to do that. They have arrogantly lauded it over the Parliament, refused to disclose the true state of the books to the Australian people. If they had released MYEFO, if they said ‘Look here is the decisions we have taken since the budget.’ We could have well looked at that and said well we don’t agree with all those decisions but we agree with the impact they have had and therefore we will cooperate with the debt increase that you say you need. In the absence of that, in the absence of that we will not facilitate it. They can release the figures; they can release the budget update. It is within their, not within their power, it is their obligation.

Thanks very much.