SUBJECTS: Budget 2019-20; Khaled Sharrouf; Facebook regulation.

RICHARD GLOVER, PRESENTER: The Monday political forum, Tanya Plibersek is the Deputy Labor leader, Member for Sydney - she joins us from our Canberra studios. Tanya, good afternoon. 

GLOVER: And with me in Sydney, Dr John Hewson, he's the former Liberal leader of course, he's now with the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University. And Sam Mostyn, company director, sustainability adviser and Chair of Carriageworks among other things - welcome to you two, too. 
GLOVER: Thank you for coming; and it's the budget tomorrow night, with Australia back in surplus but lots of competing priorities of course. What are the priorities that, for you, should be front and centre when the Treasurer leaps to his feet tomorrow night? Tanya Plibersek. 
PLIBERSEK: Fix our schools and hospitals, ease pressure on the family budget, make sure that we've got good jobs with decent pay and conditions. I don't think these are, however, the priorities that we will see because, of course, Scott Morrison the now Prime Minister was the author of cuts to hospitals, cuts to education at the same time as he was trying to give an $80 billion tax cut to big business, $17 billion to the big banks. So, I think what we'll see is a short term effort to sweeten the years of cuts, I had one person describe it to me as like a remorseful thief returning to the scene of the crime. We might see a bit of effort at repairing what's gone in the past but I don't know if people are that easily taken in by a bit of last minute spending.
GLOVER: Well, we haven't seen much detail, of course, we've seen a little bit of detail - for instance, if you were on a pension, $75 or $125 for a couple to help the electricity bills, that would be welcome. I'm not saying it's a king's ransom but it would be welcome wouldn't it? 
PLIBERSEK: Yeah, but don't forget that the Liberals actually cut Labor's energy supplement that was worth hundreds of dollars to those same pensioners. So, they cut hundreds of dollars and sling them 75 bucks, I don't know if people's memories are that short; and I'd also notice that this announcement yesterday explicitly excludes people on Newstart so there's this constant discussion about how very low Newstart is and how it's really impacting on people's ability to even get a job. They don't have enough money to catch public transport to the interview and buy themselves a clean shirt for the job interview; and that group's been excluded. It's just mean. 
GLOVER: Okay, you've got to pay them a bit for getting back into surplus. Josh Frydenberg, I'm sure, will make the point on Tuesday night that Labor left us in deficit - they've got us back into surplus it seems. That's good, isn't it? 
PLIBERSEK: We have actually doubled our national debt under the Liberals, they ran a big 'debt and deficit' scare campaign, they talked about the debt and deficit disaster. Gross debt in Australia now has crashed through half a trillion dollars - it is so much bigger than anything we left them in terms of debt, it's just extraordinary. So, I think if there is a small surplus on the back of surging income from iron ore and other commodities, that, of course, is welcome but it comes after years of cuts, it comes after an effort to give tax cuts predominantly to the top end of town, including the big banks; and it comes along with a continued level of very high debt for years to come. 
GLOVER: Not compared to other countries, John though? Our debt levels are not that bad, are they? 
HEWSON: Well it's more the concern, the concern is more I guess the pace at which the debt has gone up; and that's certainly of concern here. I mean, in short term economic terms, the economy is slowing - I think it's slowing a lot more than they've admitted and in those terms, I suppose they will be looking to stimulate in some way or the other - particularly consumer spending. But I think the cost of living is the key immediate issue and just about every key element of that from a household's point of view, at a time where there [is] record household debt - nearly 200 per cent of disposable income and flat wages and house prices falling. I mean, cost of living has become a real challenge, they've been running down savings and running up debt to handle it because housing costs or even school fees, medical costs, medical insurance, child care, electricity and gas prices - they've all gone through the roof compared to their incomes. But I would hope to see something more medium term,  I'd like to see a medium term strategy to deal with some of the structural weaknesses in the economy at a time where the world is slowing down. The risks are greater than I can remember, I think the U.S will probably be in recession in 2020. So, in those terms, I think there are big challenges, big risks offshore - you would - you might run a surplus, you want to put a bit away for a rainy day; and certainly, the point I think Tanya's making is some of that surplus should be going to pay down debt. But I don't think that surplus is sustainable, it's on the back of some better than expected commodity prices, company tax has been working a bit like a resource rent tax but, you know, longer term sense, they're not going to be there. China is slowing, Europe is slowing, U.S is slowing, the world is slowing - and those terms you should be concerned about the medium term prospects. 
GLOVER: Okay, so put some surplus away for the rainy day - no, the rainy day is about tomorrow, yeah? 
HEWSON: Well, their rainy day may be in May, the 11th or 18th, in the sense that that's what they're worried about. It's an election budget more so than most are; and in those terms, I mean, they will try and buy back some support but there's so many issues that have led to the poll standing of the government right now that the budget won't actually reverse much of that. 
GLOVER: Okay, so by emphasising cost of living issues, you're really saying that if you did see some money going back into people's pockets - that would probably be pretty sensible?
HEWSON: Well, they'll take it. And yes - putting some money in to try and stimulate consumer spending in a sustainable sense makes sense. It's got to be done on the fiscal side - we don't have much capacity to lower interest rates anymore and it probably wouldn't make much difference if they did. But, in those terms, it's a short term solution and people are very cynical - they'll take the 125 bucks; 'thanks very much’. And what else are you going to do for me? What are you going to do for my kids moving forward? How can you ensure my wages will go up at some point? Or that we'll keep our jobs? Or that my elder kids will be able to get a house in Sydney or Melbourne or whatever?' These are big issues, they're structural issues and really, to be giving the leaf today when you've let all the big issues slide - you haven't done anything about housing affordability or electricity or gas prices - except put them up, childcare costs, medical insurance costs and other insurance costs. I mean, these are big items for the average family and, you know, they're making families - people have basically been struggling to make ends meet day in, day out. 
GLOVER: Okay, partly because of lack of wages growth. Before we move to Sam, can you as an economist explain this? Because the theory is, if you've got reasonably low unemployment, which we have got at the moment, I know there's arguments about the definition and people being underemployed but nonetheless, historically - it's kind of low. Why isn't that producing wages growth, that's what I was taught in my Samuelson economics textbook? 
HEWSON: Well there are a lot of factors. There has been quite strong growth in some sectors, and some of it's been actually in female employment. In the aged care sector, the healthcare sector, the services industry, the National Disability Scheme - there's been quite a big increase in employment in those sectors, a lot of that has been women and a lot of that has been with 3 or 4 per cent wage increase, about double what you've had on the national average. But there are other parts of the economy, of course, that are suffering from technology and disruption where the job - the mix of jobs, the nature of jobs is changing and, of course, you can't dismiss the fact that we've got about 13 per cent in total underemployment and unemployment - so there's still a lot of flexibility in the labour market compared to your Samuelson model. 
GLOVER: Okay, so it's all the fault of overpaid women - Sam? 
MOSTYN: I wouldn't mind stepping off where John went on the medium term and go to the long term and at the risk of Pollyanna-ish views, my wish would be that - looking through electoral cycles, we would find a government with a Treasurer who was about to stand up and give us three things at least. And the first would be: a long term, strategic budget around an ambitious set of missions for the country that just don't get any airplay during an election - and one of them is a transition to a sustainable energy and climate economy. We've only just recently had the Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank - Guy Debelle, call out, alongside all the other fiscal regulators we've got in the country, that our economy will not be prepared to adjust to both climate hits and massive transition to a low carbon economy; and I suspect there'll be almost nothing in the budget tomorrow that goes to the long term of how you do a proper transition to the economy to a net zero environment that actually creates jobs and does what the public wants which is get us moving towards this new climate economy. The second one  goes to inequality and we've got to have a big commitment to the big systems on which our most vulnerable people rely. Tanya's mentioned a number of them, you know, NDIS - we've heard that that's had some problems with administration, Newstart is just not at the right levels to deal with those that are most vulnerable; but our settlement services and our employment services, as big, heavy-lifting, structural support for the most vulnerable - they're under review at the moment, federal reviews on both of those things, we don't talk about them nearly enough. So, a big commitment to settlement services and employment services. And lastly, and this may seem a bit odd but I think we need to invest in the world's best public service and best public services; and we need to be leading a drive to the most coherent and data-driven transition material to this kind of economy we want to get to. We've got two investigations into our public service and public servants at the moment - David Thodey's leading one of them - and we could, like other parts of the world, reinvest in great public service and find ourselves thinking about those big missions because the private sector actually can't operate without the public system providing the data and the understanding of the economy to know where to put those resources. And so, I think, if we have a good transition to a sustainable, climate economy, deal with inequality properly and structurally and then invest in proper public service - they're long term ambitions. 
GLOVER: And now, what's the problem at the moment with public service, that we sort of deride it and don't take it seriously? 
MOSTYN: It's been - well, I think others have probably got better and closer observations to make but the politicisation of our public servants, the denigration of public service. The Thodey Review is trying to come to grips why we've lost that ability to actually honour the act of public service and policy. In that long term policy needs people who've been around a long time, have seen multiple changes in the economy, in our society and can actually public resources to great work in partnership with private resources.
GLOVER: And you don't throw them all out just because you win or lose an election. 
MOSTYN: You go through election cycles. 
GLOVER: All right, Tanya Plibersek is here, Dr John Hewson and Sam Mostyn on the Monday Political Forum. Now the surviving children of Australia's most notorious convert to Islamic State, Khaled Sharrouf, are being held in a refugee camp in Syria and their grandmother wants them to come back home, for us to bring them back home. President Trump says western countries should take back ISIS brides, the children, even the fighters to stop them returning to the battlefield but both in Britain and Australia, there's a lot of resistance to this idea. What do you think we should do? Tanya Plibersek, Scott Morrison made the point today that he doesn't want to put Australian lives at risk trying to bring back these people from Syria - that's a fair point isn't it?
PLIBERSEK: We'll work very closely with the Government to make sure that we keep Australians safe and I think - I understand, I saw the grandmother of these children being interviewed today and if I were her I'd be beside myself, as anybody would be. It's just child abuse to take kids into a war zone like this, I can't understand any parent making that decision, I can't understand people who have made the decision to travel there themselves and have a family in this extraordinarily dangerous and violent place. But as for any options that might be available to Australia we just haven't been briefed on the full circumstances by the Government of these children and other children who might be in similar circumstances. 
GLOVER: I mean, is it the Prime Minister saying; 'look, the issue is getting them out of the camp' and I suppose most people would go along with him there; you don't want to put Australian lives at risk trying to rescue people from that war torn situation. What if they did manage to get out of the camp and suddenly are knocking on the door saying; 'look, I've got a passport, let me back in'? 
PLIBERSEK: I just don't know and Labor doesn't know, we haven't been briefed in detail about the situation that the children are living in, what their own involvement is over there. So, I don't really want to speculate about these kids but I can make the general point that I wouldn't expect Australians to put their lives at risk to be running rescue missions in these circumstances and I just think it's a tragedy that any of these kids were taken there in the first place or born into this situation. And their parents just - it is beyond me - how anyone could have made these decisions. 
GLOVER: Sam Mostyn, what does the West do? What about the United States which says; 'look, really you've got to take these people back - even the fighters you've got to take back' they say. 
MOSTYN: I mean, I'm with Tanya on this one. I think if the war we've been talking about between ISIS and democratic and compassionate countries like Australia is actually a battle of ideas and ideologies - you don't win that war by banishing children to places where they have no prospect of flourishing or surviving. So, we have got to maintain that compassion and that view about how we would treat those children. There's a moral obligation at the heart of this, we know that there is a criminal justice system that can deal with those that are caught in the middle of this; so if there are parents, mothers in particular, who say that they entered into acts that were criminal in the Australian criminal law and international law - there is a way of handling that. The Australian criminal justice system can deal with that by bringing those parts of the family back but the children are completely blameless, they are born into a situation that we can't even begin to understand and so, I think we've got to exercise care and caution with a very sensitive issue but have some compassion. 
GLOVER: Some people say that the idea that you could bring them back, charge them and successfully prosecute them is a fantasy in that the evidence for crime would be impossible to collect in a war zone. 
MOSTYN: It's been done before, so the famous Captain Dragon case - the Croatian gentleman who was returned to Croatia to face trial there, a significant case here in Australia that relied on evidence that was given by the Croatians and those who were affected by his deeds and we know that many of these criminals that work in the Middle East have actually got records of what they've done on Facebook and other forms of evidence; and gathering that evidence is not beyond the great wit of the criminal justice system here to do that. So, I think putting up those false walls to actually trusting that our system can deal with it whilst we've got families and children at risk who have grandparents back here who are willing and very able to take care of those, those young people who we can help prove in this battle of ideas and ideologies that the Australian notion of what life can be like is the one to back - not the one they've witnessed being born in an ISIS camp or in a camp in such tragic circumstances. 
GLOVER: John Hewson, we should bring them back? Do you go along with that?
HEWSON: Look, it's very difficult, I mean I think that Tanya and Sam have made most of the key points about this but you can't sort of compromise innocence of children, you can't hold them accountable for the actions of their parents. And I know there's an age distribution in this case, and the younger ones - that's particularly true, maybe the older one's not so innocent...
GLOVER: She's 17, the oldest, I think.
HEWSON: Yes, but in a sense they've had a pretty hard life lesson - they know that the ISIS movement didn't amount to much but having said that, it's very difficult to bring them back here. I mean, there are ideas floating around to bring them back and put them on some sort of probation or something. I don't know whether that can work and whether you can police that, so it's a very difficult question. If they've got dual citizenship which I gather some of them have, then they can always go to the other country and we don't have to address that problem but; I mean it is going to be a mix of hard-headedness which is a lot of Australians would just say that: 'they did it, they knew what they were doing - they should wear it.' On the other side, there's this desperate need for compassion that you, you know, relatively innocent children have been caught up by no decision of their own.
GLOVER: I get it, at the moment we've got this sort of 'get out of jail' card, in a way, in a sense that they are in a very dangerous position - you know, you can't just reach in there and pluck them out...
HEWSON: I mean, you won't put lives at risk to get them, that's right. 
GLOVER: That's right, but that could change and they could be - they could get themselves to somewhere like Turkey and then suddenly, the morality of the decision starts to shift, doesn't it. 
HEWSON: Well, it is as Sam said, there is an inherent moral issue here apart from anything else. But, look, it's hard to generalise because I don't - like Tanya - I don't know the specifics of the case in its detail. You'd need to know that to make a judgement. But having said that, if you've got some guiding principles along the lines that we've talked about, I think you're on the way to working towards a solution. 
GLOVER: Sam Mostyn, John Hewson, Tanya Plibersek in for the Monday Political Forum, we'll talk about Facebook in a second. Well the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, has called for globally consistent laws that would help social media giants regulate their content - this in the wake of widespread condemnation of the company's role in disseminating images of the Christchurch massacre. How should we tackle the problems? Should it be self-regulation for these companies? Should it be national laws which we run? Or this attempt that Zuckerberg has recommended of trying to formulate some sort of global rules for them to operate under, Sam? 
MOSTYN: Well, it's the issue of our time, isn't it Richard? And we see it all around us most days. Most obviously with big events like Christchurch and often, I think, those tech companies, whether it's Zuckerberg or any of the other platforms really don't know what we're solving for until we're in the middle of a crisis. I think the irony is that all these social media platforms now have never been more accessible. We can access and we can download, we can do whatever we want on these platforms; and yet it has never been more opaque as to actually who is doing what and who controls anything. So, I think the fact that you've got those who run these platforms kind of calling for regulation when, in fact, they've walked away from their obligations to understand what it means to run these platforms. As the owner of these platforms, they often tell us they're agnostic about what goes out and that's the beauty of these open platforms, but when you see a Christchurch uploaded video or a Tayla Harris photo with trolls going berserk - I'm wearing Tayla Harris on my badge today, to honour her and the fight she had last week. But, when they tell us they're agnostic about that but want regulation, I think they're ducking the problem - they've got to be willing to open up their books and their businesses and tell us what they actually believe they can and cannot control; because regulation never catches up with the reality of technology, the law can't, regulation can't - this is a global phenomenon. So, national governments trying to do it, state governments trying to do it can't work. So, I think most platforms should have an identification regime - I'm on Twitter, I don't have to say who I am on Twitter but on Facebook, I would have to say who I am and have my name and my background validated. On all those other platforms, you could be anyone hiding behind the keyboard and that's part of the problem, that no-one knows who those people are, what they're doing...
GLOVER: Yeah, the anonymity. 
MOSTYN: ...and so, there's, I think that we've got to draw in the owners of these platforms, to draw a line on where they think acceptable content is, who they allow on the platforms and let regulation come when we understand a lot more about - I mean, this problem is emerging before our very eyes and often in the middle of a crisis. 
GLOVER: Tanya, I wonder if he's just talking about global regulation because he knows that global regulation is very hard to achieve and will take decades. 
PLIBERSEK: I actually think that is quite true, I think it is one of the reasons companies are saying; 'let's look for a global regime.' Look how hard it is to get global agreement on tax laws and tax avoidance laws. I think it is important that, as a government, as a national government, as international governments, we look at whether there are areas that we need to tighten up. But, the idea that the companies can't do more - they can actually target an ad to me as I'm walking past the supermarket telling me my favourite brand of breakfast cereal is on special at the supermarket but what they can't actually do better when it comes to getting some of this foul stuff offline? I don't think that's credible. And the third thing I'd say is: I actually think that consumers have such an important role here, there's so much hate speech, we see increasing levels of just - just terrible poisonous stuff online - whether it's about race or religion, whether it's about gender. I mean it really, deeply troubles me that the average first age of viewing pornography in Australia now is 13. What are we teaching our young people about human relationships if that's the case? We need to, as well as government acting, as well as companies acting, we, as consumers, need to say; 'it's time to switch it off.' Sometimes we just need to switch this stuff off. 
GLOVER: Or do as people who did with Tayla Harris, stick up for her. Which was the... 
PLIBERSEK: Or stick up for her. Fight back. 
GLOVER: ...gorgeous part of that. Yeah, just...
PLIBERSEK: Fight back. 
GLOVER: John Hewson, they do seem to be incredibly able to - I mean Facebook's got this quite puritanical attitude to breasts for instance. So, if someone puts up a beautiful breastfeeding picture, their algorithm will remove it in five seconds and yet, at the same time, they're saying; 'oh we haven't got the technology to remove something like the Christchurch live stream.' It's hard to believe as Tanya Plibersek says. 
HEWSON: Well there's a lot of hypocrisy in the position that Zuckerberg's taken, I think, because look they built a business model where they exploited a network which was not regulated anywhere in the world. And their business model was not just to provide you access to a platform but it was actually to marshal data as a result of your behaviour on that platform and then sell it. And progressively, this has been exposed, people are starting to understand the consequences of being part of this and, you know, there's a cry for regulation, whether it's because somebody's being trolled or where somebody's being - you know, the suicide case in the U.K which led to a lot of the parliamentary response. There are layers of attempts to regulate now...
GLOVER: The Russell girl's...
HEWSON: Yes, you know, these, these issues have come to emerge but I think the - they have a basic problem themselves, the developers of those networks had a responsibility to actually put a regulatory structure in place and, as you say, it's their attitude is really quite inconsistent. They can remove a photo of a breast but they can't deal with a Christchurch massacre - that's nonsense. They've got algorithms that are sophisticated enough to do whatever they want. It's just a question of them putting in place a structure. You won't get a global agreement on this very easily. So it's going to be a multifaceted response. 
GLOVER: And then they seem to only - they seem to only react when there's a Christchurch - you mentioned the suicide case in the U.K. There's this girl who had obviously searched the hashtag, you know, 'suicide' or 'worthless' - one of those terrible hashtags which brings up or has brought up on Instagram all these suicidal images. 
HEWSON: Exactly. 
GLOVER: And then, the algorithms deliver her more materials. 
HEWSON: Even more, yeah. 
GLOVER: Even after death, the parents report that her Instagram account was feeding more suicidal material - just as if you looked for a holiday in Greece, it would then serve you more Greek holidays.
MOSTYN: Richard, I was at an event recently where the Australian lead on Facebook who's no longer there, gave a really compelling story about what went wrong with the arrival of Facebook. And he pointed just to the moral, the lack of a moral compass at the very beginning and that it still doesn't exist. So, that differentiation between that holiday and that suicide, it, that, they have not invested in a proper moral code, a true north for what those platforms are meant to do.
GLOVER: It's, it's not hard to work out that - an algorithm that does that is wrong.
HEWSON: It's absurd. 
GLOVER: We're out of time but Tanya Plibersek in Canberra, thank you to you. 
PLIBERSEK: It's a pleasure. 
GLOVER: And Dr John Hewson and Sam Mostyn here with me in Sydney, thank you very much. 
HEWSON: Thank you, Richard. 
MOSTYN: Thank you, Richard.