THE HON TANYA PLIBERSEK MP
DEPUTY LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION
SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS AND INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT
ABC 702 RICHARD GLOVER
TUESDAY, 13 MAY 2014
SUBJECT/S: THE BUDGET.
RICHARD GLOVER: Rebecca Huntley is social researcher and director of IPSOS Mackay Research. She’s here with me in Sydney alongside Cassandra Wilkinson from the Centre for Independent Studies, welcome to you, too. And in Canberra, Tanya Plibersek’s the Member for Sydney, of course and Deputy Leader of the Australian Labor Party. Tanya, welcome to you as well.
TANYA PLIBERSEK, DEPUTY LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: Hello Richard, and hi Rebecca and Cass.
GLOVER: Now, brave or mad? That’s the question that some people are asking about Tony Abbott. Is he? Yes, it’s true, break some promises about new taxes but arguably does it for the sake of the country’s long-term financial health. How do you think he’ll be seen after tomorrow’s tough Budget? Tanya Plibersek.
PLIBERSEK: Well, I think it’s really clear that the Commission of Audit is the alibi for a budget of broken promises. Tony Abbott said very clearly before the election, no cuts to health, no cuts to education, no cuts to the ABC, no change to pensions, no new taxes, no tax increases. And it looks like every single one of those commitments is going to be broken on Tuesday.
GLOVER: Now, the guy who ran the Commission of Audit for them, he’s on PM tonight saying look, the main promise was to bring the Budget into surplus again and voters, he’s implying, voters will really see that as the main game and concentrate on that rather than anything else.
PLIBERSEK: I think that that’s completely untrue. You think about the way Tony Abbott behaved after Julia Gillard said “we don’t want to have a carbon tax, we do want to have action on climate change, we want to have a carbon pollution reduction scheme but not a carbon tax”, and then Tony Abbott spent three years saying “broken promise, broken promise”, I don’t know that people are going to cop from him that when he says no cuts to health, no cuts to education, no new taxes, no cuts to the pension, no cuts to the ABC and breaks all those promises, that that’s okay.
GLOVER: We are spending more than what’s coming in the door, this would be a problem if you were in government.
PLIBERSEK: Well, I can give you a terrific example of the wrong priorities that this Government’s got, because we suggested, we had legislation prepared for a $700 million revenue take, where we were closing loopholes that multinational companies were using to offshore their profits. Basically, we had ready to go, $700 million of extra revenue that we could get by preventing companies profit shifting off shore, and the Government’s knocked that back. We had proposals that would’ve reduced some of the very generous benefits that very high income earners get on their superannuation, again the Government’s knocked that back. When I was Health Minister, the Government argued against my savings measures to reduce the cost of older, generic medicines, money that we ended up spending on fantastic, new medicines. Of course, you always need to be looking at the money you’re raising and the way that you’re spending it. You need to make sure you get value for money and you need to make sure that when you’re raising revenue that you’re doing it in the fairest possible way. But you see the crazy priorities of this Government when they’re prepared to spend $5.5 billion a year on an over the top paid parental leave scheme at the same time that they’re cutting pensions, cutting health care, cutting education and putting up taxes that they promised they wouldn’t do.
GLOVER: Let’s come to some of those details of those rumoured changes tomorrow. But Cassandra, first to you. Will it be seen as just a series of broken promises as Tanya says?
CASSANDRA WILKINSON: Maybe, I mean, I think Tanya’s got a point, that if you have argued that you have got to stick to the letter not the spirit of your promises, he’s probably going to be hoisted on that petard in the coming days. But I’d say going back to your original premise, bravery is a term that we should reserve for the reformer and this is based on what we see in the rumours and leaks, not a reforming budget. It’s trimming, and it might cut deeply in a couple of areas, but there isn’t really structural change. When you look at the problem in the Budget it’s that the last couple of Governments of both stripes, have put a lot people on Government payments who don’t really need them. A lot of that’s gone to families, but a lot of it’s also gone to top up the superannuation of the wealthy, a lot of it’s gone into payments for growing treatment of the worried well in health. There’s all kinds of money being paid to people who don’t really need it. Now, that’s what this Budget so far, from what we’ve seen doesn’t get to grips with.
GLOVER: But they are going to tackle family benefit parts A and B in different ways though, aren’t they? That’s certainly the rumour.
WILKINSON: Somewhat. And that’d be a good start if they do. But they’re still going to leave people with very large incomes and supers sitting on the pension. And the idea that really poor people are disabled people or people who haven’t had the chance to save because they’ve been carers for disabled children throughout their lives, have got to compete for a bucket of money that’s got a whole lot of wealthy people’s fists in it, seems like that’s the kind of work that needs to be done, and if Abbott wants to be considered brave, then he’s still got a long way to go.
GLOVER: Okay, wealthy people you have to define of course and some people say things that family tax benefits which goes to pretty ordinary families who are trying to make ends meet, that that’s a way of trying to reduce inequality in Australia. A lot of people are worried about the growing gap between the rich and the poor, giving some targeted money to families might be some way of helping that.
WILKINSON: I reckon that those of us who live in Sydney have got a bit of a distorted idea about what doing it tough actually means. When the average income in Australia is really more like fifty grand than the hundred that we’re talking about in terms of the thresholds here, it’s not really a deep, deep cut. And when we’ve still got to find money for the NDIS, for all those people who really do need the help of their neighbours and friends and other tax payers, you’ve got to say, if the first thing you need to do is make sure the disabled are taken care of, then maybe PPL and maybe family payments and maybe a whole lot of other stuff have got to wait.
GLOVER: Rebecca, let me come to you. Because there’s really two competing ideas here, one that Australians care so much about sustainability over time, that they’ll cop any sort of pain if you can convince them it’s necessary for the good of the country and for the good of the economy. The other is the sense that they’re sick of politicians bloody lying to them all the time. Now you talk to average Australians in their homes, which is the sort of dominant feeling of the two?
REBECCA HUNTLEY: There’s definitely tension. I think what we’ve felt in our research up until this is some anxiety about what is really going to be cut and is the burden of this kind of idea of a contribute and build budget, which is what Joe Hockey is calling at, is going to evenly distributed. I think that the Government’s been reasonably clever in their politics of this, talking about you know, the big end of town will have to deal with it, people on high incomes, the issue around the petrol excise. But it really hinges on an ability to tell an interesting story and also to convince people that the debt is as much of a problem as the Government is saying. Now, I think that if they over emphasise that, and people really feel like, basic things like Medicare are being chipped away at, people will start to, you’ll see voters start to rebel. I think the interesting thing about Medicare co-payment, for as long as it’s been floated, there is quite a lot of anxiety in the population about that. That’s because Medicare is so strongly supported, not only as a public policy question, but also almost as a sense of nationalism. Australians think that Medicare is the thing that distinguishes us from other countries. Now, there is an acceptance that the Medicare system, the medical system in general is under a lot of pressure by the ageing society as well as by issues in relation to things like obesity related diseases and all the rest of it, so they might cop that co-payment if they think there’s a basic commitment of the Government to keep Medicare going, that this is about making sure the longevity of Medicare.
GLOVER: Rather than chipping away at Medicare.
GLOVER: So, your advice to Joe, is sell it as saving Medicare, not chipping away?
HUNTLEY: Absolutely. It’s very important. If they think for a moment that this is the beginning of a series of reforms that will move us more into an American style kind of health care system, that will be a real problem.
GLOVER: Can I bring you in here, Tanya Plibersek? Let me play devil’s advocate for a second. Say, at six dollars with suitable safeguards in place for poor people, everyone can afford a couple of cups of coffee to go to the doctor, can’t they?
PLIBERSEK: Well, Richard, the reason that Australians love Medicare, is because they know that it delivers high quality health care for a reasonable price. Not just to individuals but to our national budget. Australians are already contributing to the cost of Medicare through their tax system and what you are in fact asking people to do is not pay six dollars to go to the doctor, you’re asking them to pay the thousands of dollars that they’ve paid through the tax system and then pay a co-contribution. What this will mean is the end of Medicare as we know it, because doctors will lose the incentive to bulk bill. When I was Health Minister, we got GP visits up to 82% of those GP visits were bulk-billed. As soon as you start charging co-payments, what will happen is doctors will start charging any fee they like, the fee that the AMA is suggesting is closer to seventy dollars or over a hundred dollars for a slightly longer consultation and then they’ll ask their patients to get some of that back from the Medicare office. So you’ve lost universality, you’ve lost the reasonable prices that we’re paying through the health system. And the trouble is, you look at the American system, which is what the Government’s taking us to, it actually ends up costing the Budget more as well. Individuals are paying more and it’s costing more, costing the nation more. The way to keep health costs down, this is the last thing I want to about this, the way to keep health costs down is to keep people healthy and out of hospital. Going to see your GP when you need to is part of that. Organisations like Medicare Locals that focus on preventative health, keeping people healthy and out of hospital is another part of that. The Government is doing everything they can to get rid of the things that keep us healthy, like the front of pack labelling that they knocked back, that gives people better information about the food they’re eating.
GLOVER: But if we’re so price sensitive that six dollars is really going to hurt then surely we’re price sensitive enough to make sure that doctors don’t then go to a full payment system.
PLIBERSEK: It hurts the poorest and the sickest people. The people who are sensitive to a six dollar co-payment, or a seven dollar or fifteen dollar as the Commission of Audit suggested, the ones who are most price sensitive are the sickest and poorest and they’re the ones who end up in hospital emergency, they’re the ones who will put off treatment until they are very, very sick. They’ll cost the health system more, and the cost to them as individuals, the cost in sickness and in misery is much greater.
GLOVER: Cassandra Wilkinson, do you agree with that?
WILKINSON: The thing about co-payments is that there’s a whole bunch of them in the system already. There’s co-payments on medication, if you want to see a specialist in any short amount of time, you’ve got to pay out of your own pocket as well and plus in a normal public hospital, the co-payment’s called a car parking price that you pay when you turn up. I think there’s a reason that over the years lots of Labor and Liberal people have said “look, this might not be the perfect way to do it” but there’s got to be some price signals in the health system. Because at the moment, Medicare over services the wealthy, it over services the cities, it’s not providing the service that it needs to to people who are in poorer suburbs and outside the big cities. There’s a whole lot of, and this is what I mean about, let’s not call someone brave if what they’re doing is whacking on a couple of payments without dealing with the major structural problems. Australians are paying twice as much in out of pocket health care costs as the British and the French. We’ve got add-on costs already, but they’re currently happening in a way that’s pretty ad hoc.
GLOVER: Okay, but that’s partly because of what Tanya said, generic medicines and not being tough enough on the suppliers, isn’t it?
WILKINSON: Well I’m absolutely for putting in generics in NSW there was a fight for years and years and one of the biggest problems is that clinical discretion stops you from brining cost down in generic medicine. It stops you from mandating cheaper kinds of things like artificial hips. You have all kinds of costs with the system which are completely indiscriminate and again the Government’s not doing the serious reform needed to bring down the price of healthcare in Australia.
GLOVER: Tanya, Cassandra makes a point about support on Labor ranks in the past. It’s true that Bob Hawke tried to bring in exactly the same thing. It’s hard for you to argue that it’s confronting Labor Party principles, isn’t it?
PLIBERSEK: Yeah, I think about three decades ago, or two decades ago we talked about a dollar or a two dollar co-payment and that was very quickly dispensed with for the very reason that it’s bad policy. People are paying for Medicare through the tax system. There isn’t evidence of over servicing, in fact where doctors are over servicing they are picked up pretty well by the systems that we have in place that see that some doctors are seeing too many patients in a day or too many patients in a week and those doctors are quite often disciplined in a variety of different ways where they’re doing it. I think the fact that you’ve got the head of the Business Council of Australia deciding that we’re seeing the doctor too often doesn’t give me any reassurance that these decisions are being made on the basis of what’s good for our health, not what’s good for the bottom dollar.
GLOVER: I guess his point is that we value something more if we pay something for it, even if it’s only a little bit, we might listen more assiduously to the advice, we might be a bit more cautious about going for no good reason.
PLIBERSEK: I just think the notion that there’s a whole lot of people out there who’ve got nothing better to do with their day than sit in a doctors surgery for an hour waiting to see the doctor, or put their names down to see the doctor in three weeks time because they’ve got nothing better to do, I just think it’s fanciful.
GLOVER: Those magazines are good!
HUNTLEY: I’d have to say Richard, you really want research to back up the idea that six or seven dollars would make people listen to the doctor, more than they would listen to them when they’re not- I think that’s an assumption that people make, I think that you would need to check that thoroughly in terms of research.
GLOVER: And unlikely, you’re implying…
HUNTLEY: Well I think it’s questionable.
GLOVER: Rebecca Huntley, Cassandra Wilkinson and Tanya Plibersek are here. Let’s talk about some of the other things briefly, the sale of the Royal Mint, that seems to be on, together with the sale, maybe, of defence housing etc. How do people feel about privatisation these days, Rebecca? Do they see it as selling off the family silver or what?
HUNTLEY: Not so much, they’ve had years of privatisation of public assets by both sides of politics. But I think that what you do get from voters is a question about are we getting as good a possible deal from this as whatever organisation is going to buy it and I think that you’ve seen voters become more and more scrupulous and critical about that when they’ve seen some of the perhaps uneven deals in public-private partnerships. So, they do ask questions about privatisation, they don’t necessarily dismiss it. I think the interesting thing about the privatisation of Australia Post is, is it going to lead to more expensive, for example, cost of sending packages? Everybody is obsessed with online shopping, if you’ve noticed in your street the Australia post guy who runs from one house to another and so there’ll be questions about that. Is it going to put greater pressure on retail, on smaller business, on internet businesses that are domestic internet businesses?
GLOVER: And Cassandra we seem to be constantly talking about natural monopolies being privatised these days. Sydney Airport is one example, the port in Newcastle was privatised by the NSW government last week. Well, if you’re a coal miner in Newcastle, you don’t have a choice, these are not competitive things, you have got to put your coal through this particular coal port. Because they’re natural monopolies is it sensible to privatise them? Don’t you just end up with price gouging by the new owner?
WILKINSON: Well, two things, one the old saying that only thing worse than a public monopoly is a private monopoly is worth keeping in mind. I think Australia Post is a good example of a service where there’s heaps of competition, most of us don’t use snail mail anyway, and when we do send a package there’s half a dozen great and cheaper providers of packaging. Whereas say, the mint, is something where it’s hard to imagine who else is going to produce your banknotes, but I guess we’ll find out. The general way that governments deal with having a natural monopoly, say a port, is that you have an IPART or similar body does a regulated pricing, which means you wind up paying to regulate the asset that’s run by someone else and you wind up with some quite complex challenges in terms of incentivising the private owner properly to run it efficiently.
GLOVER: Well, look at the electricity system, which we’ve basically encouraged them to gold plate the system at an immense cost to all of us.
WILKINSON: Yeah, so what we should have had which was competitive pricing of electricity and cheaper prices for customers, because the government overregulated as well as partly privatising we wound up with the worse of both worlds, which was too high standards and customers paying too much for things they didn’t need. Which is why in the end these sales are not necessarily good or bad per se, it’s about the rules that are wrapped around them and fundamentally about what the government does with the money that it gets for them. If it take that money and builds new infrastructure that communities need, and that can generate increased economic activity, that’s great. If they spend it on filling recurrent payment holes then we’re all in a lot of trouble.
GLOVER: Does the government need to manufacture our coins, Tanya?
PLIBERSEK: I would have thought that selling off a licence to print money would be pretty popular.
GLOVER: Especially if you allow the new owner to choose the faces on the coins. So, you’d have the Clive Palmer two dollars.
PLIBERSEK: It would be like personalised number plates, but on our ten dollar notes. Look, Richard, I think the thing is that you have to decide on each of the potential privatisations on a case by case basis. There’s some that have been raised that would concern me a great deal. I am opposed to the sale of Medibank Private, I think Medibank Private has played a very important role in keeping competition in the private health insurance market. Snowy Hydro was another one that I think the environmental concerns that come along with something like that are very substantial. There are a range that are obviously poor policy, but there’s a lot of privatisations that have been proposed, we’ll have to look at the details as they come up.
GLOVER: What about the mint? What’s your feeling there? Because that does seem to be on the likely list.
PLIBERSEK: It just seems like an odd thing to do. I don’t understand, really, what the benefit of it could possibly be. It’s like Cassandra was saying, who’s going to provide competition to the mint? How do you keep prices low once you’ve sold it off? How do you guarantee that this is going to save taxpayers any money and not in fact cost them more in the future? I don’t know how you can answer any of those questions confidently.
GLOVER: Someone was saying, the school tours will be a lot more popular once they start giving out the free samples. That’s the main business model. We have on the Monday political forum Rebecca Huntley, a social researcher from IPSOS Mackay, Cassandra Wilkinson from the Centre for Independent Studies and the Deputy Leader of the Labor Party, Tanya Plibersek who also of course is Member for Sydney.
Five to six, just a quick one, no explanations even required if you could whisper one small thing into the ear of the Treasurer, save something from the cuts what would it be, Rebecca?
HUNTLEY: Anything to do with preventative health. So important for public policy, but also a priority for Australians.
GLOVER: And we’ll save money in the end?
HUNTLEY: Yeah. Anything to do with preventative health.
WILKINSON: National Disability Insurance Scheme for sure, absolutely.
GLOVER: Long way coming, don’t delay it.
GLOVER: And Tanya?
PLIBERSEK: Well, I was going to say preventative health.
HUNTLEY: I can imagine Tanya whispering in Joe Hockey’s ear, it’s an odd thing!
GLOVER: No, she’s going to whisper ‘give up the cigars’!
PLIBERSEK: I was going to whisper, just don’t smoke. Look, health and NDIS are both excellent ones and I’d have to say one of the worst broken promises of this Government is the betrayal of Australian school kids with the broken promise on the Gonski education reforms. But it’s going, I’m sad to say, going to be very hard to narrow down our focus to just a few areas. It’s going to be a budget full of atrocities.
GLOVER: Let me just ask finally, and rather more lightly, Mr Hockey has been mocked for taking refuge in a cigar after completing the budget. When you want to reward yourself what do you tend to reach for, Tanya?
PLIBERSEK: Jane Austen.
GLOVER: So, you’d be photographed over the hedge with your Finance Minister both reading Austen?
PLIBERSEK: A well-thumbed copy.
GLOVER: A well-thumbed copy, Mr Darcy and all of that. Why don’t we go to Cassandra, what about you?
WILKINSON: That’s easy, I watch Dr Who with the kids.
GLOVER: Is that right? Totally relaxing.
WILKINSON: Totally relaxing. Takes you a thousand universes away.
GLOVER: A mental Tardis in which to slip with the good Doctor, and Rebecca Huntley?
HUNTLEY: Well, if I could watch Game of Thrones while getting a pedicure. But they only have girly movies at the salon, they don’t have Game of Thrones.
GLOVER: Do they have movies at the salon, do they?
HUNTLEY: Well, they sometimes do.
GLOVER: Is that right?
HUNTLEY: Usually some kind of terrible Sandra Bullock film, but I think they should show Game of Thrones.
GLOVER: So, that is a fresh horror I did not realise. I’ve seen of course the pedicure salons, I’ve walked past them, but I didn’t know there were people consuming Sandra Bullock movies at the same time.
HUNTLEY: It’s quite an extraordinary good business idea if this career I’m in doesn’t work out. Just basically the ability to have a Game of Thrones constantly playing whilst getting your pedicure.
PLIBERSEK: And if someone could be reading you Jane Austen at the same time.
HUNTLEY: There’s an Austen Room. There should be an Austen room at the back, an Austen waxing room.
GLOVER: Get your fingernails done with Austen and toes done with Game of Thrones. Brilliant business ideas every day. We’re out of time but thank you to Rebecca Huntley, Cassandra Wilkinson and Tanya Plibersek. Thank you very much.