SUBJECTS: Tax cuts, Industrial relations, Citizenship, Polls.

MICHAEL ROWLAND, PRESENTER: Now, the age-old debate on the benefits of tax cuts is once again front-and-center of Australia’s political debate.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI, PRESENTER: The Government insists that a business rate cut will translate into more jobs and maybe even higher wages but the Federal Opposition is not convinced. Joining us now from Parliament House to start the new Parliamentary year is Deputy Opposition Leader, Tanya Plibersek. Tanya Plibersek, good morning.

PLIBERSEK: Good morning.

TRIOLI: So, the philosophical divide, I guess, between the Government and the opposition appears strongly drawn this year over this issue. If business tax cuts don’t lead to wages growth then what does the opposition say will and can you guarantee that?

PLIBERSEK: Well the Government’s proposition is that if we give $65 billion of big business tax cuts, that will trickle through to wages, and there’s no evidence of that. Australian company profitability has been good in recent years and we haven’t seen that boost in wages, in fact, wages have been flat lining. We’ve seen the lowest growth on record, and I guess Heather Ridout’s comments last night really underline the fact that the big business tax cut has become a divisive issue. People understand that the bulk of these tax cuts flow to overseas shareholders; and at the same time as the Government’s cutting tax for big business, at the same time they’re saying that people earning more than $180,000 a year get a tax cut, they’re actually increasing taxes on ordinary working people who are also facing these flatlining wages. So if you’re say earning $60,000 a year, the Government wants you to pay $300 a year more tax; they’ve already put that in their budget last year. It’s not just the problem with this philosophy that benefits will trickle down; it’s the fact that while they’re putting taxes down for big businesses, for people earning more than $180,000 a year, we’re actually putting taxes up for low and middle-income earners. Now they’re the people who put their hand in their pocket and spend a bit of money to keep other Australians employed, buying goods and services that they’re selling.

TRIOLI: Can I just return you to my question though, which was if that doesn’t work and you argue that’s not a feasible theory, what does lead to wage growth and how can you guarantee it?

PLIBERSEK: Well, an industrial relations environment that doesn’t take people’s penalty rates away, the penalty rates that they get for working on weekends and public holidays and so on.

TRIOLI: Just to jump in there, the horse has bolted on that one, hasn’t it?

PLIBERSEK: No because we’ve said that we will restore weekend penalty rates. We need an industrial relations environment that doesn’t reward employers for refusing to negotiate on new agreements at the workplace. At the moment we have got a system that actually rewards employers for refusing to negotiate because they go back to the existing award arrangements and that means that people are actually wanting to negotiate at a workplace level, do what we always thought Enterprise Agreements were about, which is provide greater productivity for wages increases. That’s not happening anymore, we’ve got an industrial relations system that is really struggling to cope with the modern world and is certainly not delivering decent pay and conditions, it’s not delivering pay increases that’s for sure.

TRIOLI: Well, I wondered if part of the problem is a decline in union membership and authority. If unions represented more people, would workers have more power to demand higher wages?

PLIBERSEK: I think that’s axiomatic, isn’t it?  Yes.

TRIOLI: But you’ve got this problem and the Labor party is connected with the union movement. You’re in lockstep, you support each other philosophically, and yet we have that decline in membership, you have that decline in power so, I’m trying to return you to the point of what it is a Labor government, were you to be in power, what then you would be able to do about restoring that wage growth. If you don’t have the union authority and membership anymore, and the other approach doesn’t work, what have you got?

PLIBERSEK: I think there are issues for the union movement - a lot of the jobs growth in coming years will be in highly feminised industries. We’ll see big growth in caring for children, people with a disability, the ageing population. It’s a very feminised work environment - we need to make sure our union movement reflects that, that it is actually appealing to women workers and workers more generally to join their union. A lot of people take previous wins for granted, so the union movement has some rebuilding to do. I said to you already, that I think we need to look at our industrial relations system and make sure that it’s relevant for the modern world - that it is taking account of the changing types of work people are doing, the changing work environments that people are working in. We’re focusing on all of these things over coming months and years, and I think that’s really what people are interested in hearing about: how is the world of work changing?  What are the jobs of the future? How do we prepare our kids for those jobs? How do we make sure that we invest in an education, TAFE and a university system that means that people are ready for those high-skilled, high-productivity jobs of the future. It’s a broad challenge.

TRIOLI: Does the opposition, just on another matter just before I let you go Tanya Plibersek, does the opposition really want to go into another Parliamentary year with the dual citizenship dogging it yet again. I’m just wondering what your best argument is, at this stage from the opposition’s point of view, for not referring Susan Lamb to the High Court and getting an answer and being done with it.

PLIBERSEK: Well, we are absolutely prepared to refer Susan Lamb to the High Court, we voted to refer Susan Lamb to the High Court at the end of last year. We simply say that we are prepared to refer all of the Labor people, but the government should refer its people in similar circumstances at the same time. We tried that last year, the government voted against referring Susan Lamb to the High Court last year because it would have had to refer its own people in the same circumstances. Bill Shorten’s written again to the Prime Minister and offered to refer all of the Labor people as long as the government is prepared to refer its people in the same circumstances. Now we saw more information over the weekend that Jason Falinski, for example, is a Polish citizen because his parents came here on Polish passports in 1958. I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to that, but the High Court should be able to determine the correct answer in this case. So we’re prepared to subject our people who, we think, have a strong legal case, to the scrutiny of the High Court but the government should do the same at the same time. And I think Australians would just be grateful for this to be over, a bulk referral of anyone about whom there is a question is the only way that we are going to finally resolve this. Otherwise honestly, this could drag on for months, and nobody, nobody wants that to happen.

TRIOLI: Just very quickly, Newspoll figures show that both you and Anthony Albanese are more popular than Bill Shorten, your leader indeed, The Australian has a headline that I saw saying “People are Pining for Plibersek”, a little bit of alliteration there for you as well. How do you prevent such figures, such statistics turning into an explosive leadership issue within your Party, or is that too late, is that already bubbling along?

PLIBERSEK: I think the reason that Labor has been consistently ahead of the government for many months now, almost approaching that magic 30 Newspolls that Malcolm Turnbull set as the benchmark for Tony Abbott.

TRIOLI: That wasn’t my question, Tanya Plibersek - it was about leadership within your party.

PLIBERSEK: The reason that we have consistently been ahead is because we’re actually focusing on what matters to people, we are united; we are focused on the jobs of the future, pay and conditions of people, a decent education system for their children, a healthcare system that doesn’t have people sticking their hands in their own pocket to see their GP. These are the things that matter. Our unity and our focus on the lives of working class and middle-class Australians - not what’s going on in our own Party.

TRIOLI: Okay, we’ll leave it there Tanya Plibersek, thank you.