KIERAN GILBERT: Let’s go to our panel now. Joining me from Melbourne, Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs Richard Marles and here in the Canberra studio with me, the Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Materiel, Senator Gary Humphries.
Senator Humphries, first to you. This issue of the flood levy, a clear number backing it. Has Tony Abbott backed the wrong horse on this?
GARY HUMPHRIES: Well I don't think so. We had a poll last week from Essential Polling indicating quite the opposite result, that people weren't in favour of the flood tax and I think that, frankly, it’s too early to say at this stage what people actually think about this idea which hasn't yet even reached parliament.
The fact of life is that this is going to be a tax felt by taxpayers across the country for the next 12 months. It’s going to be an important imposition on people at a time when they're going to be meeting other rises in living costs, other taxes from the government; a mining tax, a carbon tax, other cost of living pressures brought on by the government’s reckless spending.
KIERAN GILBERT: But this poll didn't even look at the areas affected by the floods, so these - as Martin said, it’s only the people who are going to be paying for the floods, so you would imagine when those who receive the funds are going to be taken into consideration, the number would be higher than the majority.
GARY HUMPHRIES: Well look, I mean I don't, in a sense - I don't think we should focus on what people think about the levy at this stage according to this poll. We should look at what the overall affect would be on Australians, in the course of the next 12 months as they start to pay this tax, and that would be a fairly serious burden on people who are already struggling with increased government costs and charges and who’s living standards are probably being shaved all the time by these costs and increases in government spending and these increases in taxes.
I don't think it’s the time to be imposing on the Australian people extra costs and forcing them to pay a tax which the government could afford if it made some hard decisions about the way in which it’s spending the taxpayer’s money at the present time.
KIERAN GILBERT: Let’s bring in Richard Marles in Melbourne. Richard, the rest of the poll shows that the government has a fair bit of work to do after a difficult year. It hasn't really bounced back yet. You've got the good poll result in terms of the levy, but more broadly it doesn't look good at all.
RICHARD MARLES: Well Kieran, you're going to see polls go up and down as you always do and, you know, we're not focused on the polls in terms of the important work that we need to do at what is a very challenging time for Australia and particularly the people who have been affected by the natural disasters recently. But I'll tell you one thing, I do think Australians are going to judge Tony Abbott very harshly for the way in which he has gone about dealing with the issue of recovery in Queensland. I mean here we are trying to raise the money necessary to rebuild Queensland and Tony Abbott is out there solely focused on trying to raise money to rebuild the Liberal Party coffers.
You know, his failure to apologise for that email is tacky. We know that his political strategy is to pick a fight with us whenever and wherever he can. But to do so over a national tragedy is tacky. It demonstrates lack of judgement. And what it shows really clearly is that Tony Abbott’s priority is about his own future and not the future of Australia.
KIERAN GILBERT: Joe Hockey, this morning, Gary Humphries has said it was a mistake that - that email, which at the bottom had a call for donations, you know, for then paying against a flood levy. Joe Hockey says it was a mistake. It was wrong, he regretted it. Why doesn't Tony Abbot say the same thing?
GARY HUMPHRIES: Well because it’s not important in the overall scheme of things. At the moment the Coalition is focused on how to make sure that Australians can look forward, with confidence, to the rebuilding of devastated parts of our country due to these natural disasters. We're looking at ways in which we can make sure that people can look forward to that without having to shoulder a burden on their taxes at the same time, an extra charge to families at a time when they can least afford it. And that’s the important issue that we're projecting at the moment.
The Government’s bringing forward legislation next week - this week in the parliament, to bring this levy into existence. We have to indicate what we think about that. It’s our responsibility as legislators. We don't support it and we're going to oppose it, but I think it’s important to focus on the bigger picture of what’s going on. We certainly have never said that we don't support the effort to rebuild Queensland, to put the money into places where money is needed to rebuild the country, and that’s what the government’s obviously overlooking when it talks about this lack of bipartisanship.
KIERAN GILBERT: Richard Marles, the Coalition is going to [break in transmission]. I'll let you respond, but I also want to ask you about this $1.8 billion in cuts that Tony Abbott’s expected to announce later today. He’s putting it to his Shadow Cabinet today, including deferring water buy backs. Why not do that, given there is so much water in the system right now, just defer it a few years to save a bit of extra money?
RICHARD MARLES: Well if I can just respond? First, I think what is really important for the Australian people at the moment is that they see their leaders demonstrating some dignity and the fact that Tony Abbott is refusing to apologise for that email shows that Tony Abbott absolutely lacks any dignity whatsoever at a time when we need to see some national leadership.
Now in terms of the cuts that the Coalition has talked about, I mean first of all we haven't seen any detail here. We've been expecting that detail since Australia Day, but once again when it comes down to the nitty gritty, the Coalition are incapable of coming up with the specifics of how to run the national budget.
In terms of the issue of the buy back, the water buy backs specifically, I mean this is crazy stuff. We know over the last two years, something which has been in place on this continent forever, that we are a continent with drought and we are a continent with flood and the two things can come one after the other very quickly.
It was the Howard Government which understood that despite those changes, the Murray-Darling Basin was not being used in a sustainable way. They set up the Authority. Malcolm Turnbull knows the need to have a program of water buy backs. The idea that you would scotch that now, because as Joe Hockey says there is some water around, just demonstrates that the Coalition has all the vision of a goldfish. This is ridiculous stuff and we need to be putting in place what we're proposing, which is the flood levy which, when it all boils down to it, amounts for those who would be paying this levy, something in the order of a cup of coffee a week. Now we know that Australians are generous people...
KIERAN GILBERT: Okay. Let’s hear Gary Humphries...
RICHARD MARLES: ...and want to help support the rebuild of Queensland and I think this is the way to do it.
KIERAN GILBERT: Okay. Senator Humphries, your response to the water criticisms specifically.
GARY HUMPHRIES: For the record Kieran we are not talking about not putting money into water buy backs. We're talking about deferring that expenditure until we actually need to spend it. We don't need to buy back any water from farmers in the Murray-Darling Basin for at least the next 12 months, probably not for the next two years. That’s why I was talking about re-ordering priorities to deal with what’s important right now. What’s important now is to spend the money on Queensland and other flood affected places. It’s not important to be taxing people in order to do that, because there are very viable alternatives.
KIERAN GILBERT: Yes, well, okay. Let’s hear Richard Marles' response to that, because that sounds fairly reasonable doesn't it, Richard, that you would defer it - if it’s not needed right now, then not keep... as Senator Humphries says, they're not scrapping their commitment to that reform altogether, it’s just a short-term measure to deal with this short-term crisis.
RICHARD MARLES: Look, we need to be putting in place a program for the Murray-Darling Basin which sees it being used sustainably and the water buy-back program is a part of that. And it goes to the other cutbacks that the Coalition seems to be, you know, running flags up the flag pole. I mean the idea that you would stop the building the education revolution projects in schools when we're talking about projects that are half-way finished, that they're under construction and the Coalition are suggesting that people down tools so that you save money in that way. They are flailing around. They have no detail. They had promised the detail sometime before. This is the same party which, during the election, would have punched a $10 or $11 billion black hole in the federal budget in terms of the cuts that they were talking about then.
We're putting forward a flood levy which, as I say, amounts to those who are paying it, paying something in the order of a cup of coffee...
KIERAN GILBERT: Okay, Richard...
RICHARD MARLES: ...per week to help rebuild Queensland.
KIERAN GILBERT: ...let’s - let’s look at it - one...
RICHARD MARLES: That’s the way we'll be doing it...
KIERAN GILBERT: ...last issue...
RICHARD MARLES: ...and I think Australians can see the sense in that.
KIERAN GILBERT: ...we've only got two minutes to go. Richard, two minutes to go, I just want to touch on one last issue there, the issue of health reforms. As I was saying only a couple of minutes ago, tell me how flexible will the government be on this, to get it across the line, particularly when you've got a couple of Liberal Governments around the place at state level now that you have to deal with?
RICHARD MARLES: Well look, as the Treasurer indicated on health reform, we are very determined to put - proceed on health reform. We need to be looking about - at the way in which our health system is funded in terms of the federal state balance. We need to be looking about ways in which we can sustainably do that into the future. This is a matter that’s going to be talked about at the next COAG meeting. It is a matter for negotiation with the states and we're ready to sit down with them and go through all of it.
KIERAN GILBERT: Senator Humphries, how - we're less than a minute to go, just quickly, how much of a worry is this that, you know, the states and territories might lose that long-term funding because of the fact that a couple of premiers won't agree to sign up.
GARY HUMPHRIES: Well we know already that there’s no important - there’s no promise, so important, that Labor has made, that they can't break it. This was described as a fundamental reform to the health system of Australia last year. It’s now looking like being trashed and it should be.
KIERAN GILBERT: But if the Liberal premiers don't agree to it, how can you hold....
GARY HUMPHRIES: Well, well....
KIERAN GILBERT: ...the government to...
GARY HUMPHRIES: ...I think - I think...
KIERAN GILBERT: ...[indistinct] and all that.
GARY HUMPHRIES: ...I think Labor is very happy to trash a promise that they know isn't going anywhere, isn't going to achieve its desired objective. The whole plan looks like a map of the Cayman Islands. It is ridiculously complex and [break in transmission] and doesn't actually advance reform of the health system at all in Australia. We all know it was a dogs' breakfast to start with. It was cobbled together at [indistinct] very quickly by Kevin Rudd to save his political hide. It isn't going to work and the government probably will dump it because it doesn't believe in it, not because the state premiers don't believe in it.
KIERAN GILBERT: Senator Humphries and Richard Marles in Melbourne, gentlemen appreciate your time. We'll catch up throughout the week. The first sitting week of the year starts tomorrow, of course.
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