By Tanya Plibersek

02 November 2020


SUBJECTS: "Upturn: A better normal after COVID-19"; Trillion Dollar Debt Bill; Anti-corruption Commission; Queensland Election; Renewable Energy.
FRAN KELLY HOST: COVID-19 has upended the world causing economic calamity and social dislocation right across the globe. But with Australia's recent success in driving the numbers down to very low levels, thoughts are now starting to turn to what life will be like on the other side of the pandemic. A new book "Upturn: A better normal after COVID-19" brings together more than 30 thinkers to imagine the shape of the society and the economy that Australia now has the opportunity to rebuild. This book is the brainchild of and edited by Labor front bencher Tanya Plibersek. I spoke with her earlier.
KELLY: The crisis has had devastating health and economic impacts, but the central argument of your book is that we must learn from this experience. We've certainly tried a lot of new things during this pandemic, do see a new Australia emerging and if so, what would it look like?
PLIBERSEK: I think during the pandemic we have really surprised ourselves. Australians have done a whole lot of things that we wouldn't have thought possible a year ago. We wouldn't have thought it possible to shift, virtually overnight, to online learning for kids. We wouldn't have thought it would be possible to house rough sleepers and give mortgage holidays and rent relief. We wouldn't have thought it possible to double unemployment benefits. We did all of this and we should be proud of ourselves when you look around the world and see how the pandemic is still raging in many other countries. So I want to take that spirit of being all in it together, being prepared to sacrifice for one another and say, how can we turn that energy into something that is better after the pandemic. A stronger economy that is more inclusive, and a society that is fairer.
KELLY: Well, let's go to that. Let's go to the economic front because the reality check on all this sort of  the 'good vibes' is that we will soon be facing a trillion dollar debt bill. More than that in fact. Doesn't that mean, you know, we're not necessarily going to have a luxury of reshaping society or reshaping the economy as we'd want. Because a trillion dollar debt bill means less money for services, for unis, for schools, for hospitals, for welfare support, in the world we’re used to anyway.
PLIBERSEK: We're headed for a trillion dollars of debt and I think a lot of the decisions the Government has made don't really give us bang for our buck. When we invest in childcare, aged care, education every million dollars we spend creates a number of jobs. Take education for example – we spend a million dollars – that creates 15 jobs – and I think of that as an investment. We know right now there are people living in our community who have been approved for home care – older people – we can keep them in their own homes, out of a nursing home, if we are prepared to pay that home care bill and that's a good investment for us as an economy. It's a terrific thing for that person being looked after at home, but it's also a job creator. So we are incurring this debt right now, what do we get for it? Are we getting those caring jobs for it or are we just running up debt by continuing to give, for example, tax cuts at the high end.
KELLY: So that's right. We'll come to a discussion about how we spend the money, but for every one of those dollars spent on home care and I think most people listening would agree with you, that's good money. That's good spending of money. It might create jobs, but at the same time every dollar we rack up of debt is going to be on the shoulders of future generations.
PLIBERSEK: That's right. And that's why we need to make every dollar count as a job creator and as something that will improve our society in the future. I think our response should be to build things, to make sure that we're investing in infrastructure that makes our cities and our regions better. To make things, to make sure that we're investing in renewable, cheaper, cleaner energy so that we can be a country again that makes things. To care for people – that means those jobs like childcare, like aged-care, like education that make our society better, but also provide work for the people doing them. And we need to make sure that the jobs we're creating are secure jobs, stable jobs with decent pay and conditions - because when people know that they've got a pay cheque next week and next month, that's when they're confident to buy a cup of coffee on the way to work or take their kids out for pizza on a Friday night. So it's the quality of jobs as well. They need to be permanent jobs with decent pay.
KELLY: There are committees looking at employment and there's unions and employers sitting around and having confidential talks about casualisation and the workforce for the future. And this pandemic has exposed, has lifted the lid back on how a lot of people are employed and how they get their pay cheque and when they get their pay cheque. So to some degree we're starting to think about that. But in terms of this spending, there's massive spending we've seen what was the last budget? $213 billion brought the spending up to- is there an argument for having a discussion in this country about maybe creating a pandemic commission at a time like this to oversee the spending? I mean no one elected- of course we elect a government to govern, there’s no doubt about it, but we couldn't necessarily foresee what was about to happen. Most people I think when they elect any government don't necessarily think they're going to be overseeing, you know, so many billions dollars’ worth of spending. Is that a discussion we should be having? Or would no Government be prepared to relinquish that?
PLIBERSEK: I think the proper scrutiny should happen in the Parliament. And that's why I'm so worried about some of the elements of the budget. There's a lot of pots of money that have just been, in this most recent budget, allocated to ministers that don't have clear descriptions about how they'll be used, when they'll be used, the circumstances and so on. It's also frankly why we need an anti-corruption commission at a federal level, because as long as we don't have proper oversight of such enormous amounts of money, there are opportunities for people to behave badly. I think in a proper democracy, with a Parliament that's working, with ministers that answer questions in question time, with Senate estimates that works – you don't need a separate body - you just need democracy to be working well.
KELLY: You express, in the book there's a concern expressed for the future of democracy and previous pandemics have taught us that young voters in particular, young people can lose trust in the political process for decades to come, but haven't we found something different in Australia? Aren't the polls showing us that trust levels are actually higher in our political leaders at the moment and with no community transmissions across the entire country in the last 24 hours, over the weekend,  it illustrates to everyone doesn't it really how our political leaders in our system have done well?
PLIBERSEK: I think we've done amazingly well on the health front, and I think Australians should be very proud of the sacrifices they made. Some have obviously made much greater sacrifices, lives lost, people separated, families separated, jobs lost, businesses closed – but we need to acknowledge that we have done incredibly well by global standards. Particularly, when you look at second and third waves overseas at the moment. How we handle the economy now will really determine a lot for this generation of young Australians. They've often been the first to lose their jobs and they're struggling – with about 1 in 3 now is looking for work or more hours of work, young Australians. There's about 13 Australians competing for every job vacancy. But when you look at entry level jobs, the sort that are suitable for young people coming out of high school, it's more than a hundred competing for every one of those entry level jobs. So the next steps now, making sure that those young Australians aren't locked out of prosperity and certainty, is going to be critical to them for years. People talk about the scarring of youth unemployment, the fact that if you don't get a job within a few years of leaving school you’re unlikely ever to work, or it will take years before you get into the labour market. We need to make sure that doesn't happen to this generation. 
KELLY: You're listening to RN Breakfast. Our guest is the Shadow Education Minister Tanya Plibersek who’s also the editor of Upturn: A Better Normal After Covid-19. Well, Australia hit a pretty important milestone on the weekend – no community transmissions, as we said, why then is the Labor Government in Queensland keeping its border slammed shut to greater Sydney. It’s won the election, hasn't the border closure done its job, as a Sydneysider do you think the border should be open?
PLIBERSEK: I'm looking forward to borders being open not just to Queensland, but I think we miss being able to travel to different parts of Australia to do our jobs properly as parliamentarians – let alone the economic benefit of Australians being able to holiday and do business interstate. Nobody had a rule book for this pandemic and I think when you look at the way we've managed the health crisis, perhaps being overcautious was the better alternative than having second and third outbreaks like we've got in Europe. So I think the best we can say is we look forward to the borders being properly open as soon as possible, and let's hope that soon.
KELLY: And on the weekend Labor had a very strong result in Queensland. Labor returned for a third term. Does that reinforce the notion that crises suit incumbents, which of course won't suit federal Labor? 
PLIBERSEK: No, I don't think so. I think the result in Queensland was a really strong tribute to Annastacia Palaszczuk and her team. They have done well on the health front, they've done well on the economic front, and they also pushed back on the lies that Clive Palmer told in this election, as he told in the federal election. They did that very early and very effectively, and I think that's made a difference too.
KELLY: Is there another lesson here though, the strong result for the Palaszczuk Government in Central and North Queensland where voters absolutely abandoned federal Labor at the last federal poll, Annastacia Palaszczuk seemed to look at that result and then change tack a bit on gas for instance and approved Adani for instance. Is that what Shadow Federal Cabinet’s compromised position on gas is all about?
PLIBERSEK: We were talking last week about some talking points released on gas and I don't know that there's anything that remarkable in them. What it says, what those talking points say, is that Australia has a strong future in renewable energy, that making sure that we invest in renewables is good for jobs, that being anti-renewables as Scott Morrison is, is bad for jobs. And that gas has got a part in that, that both gas and coal will be around for a while. We've got a Government that had 22 different energy policies and there's still no certainty for people who want to make new investments.
KELLY: Joel Fitzgibbon a Labor frontbencher suggests on this program on Friday, the Party's position on gas, that the Shadow Cabinet's position on gas and fossil fuels commits the Party to support and gas projects like the Narrabri Gas Project, does it? 
PLIBERSEK: It commits the Party to support gas projects that have gone through strict environmental approvals, that have got community support, that will make a contribution to availability of gas here in Australia, that are also consistent with achieving zero net emissions by 2050. I don't think there's anything that surprising in that. I think the big surprise is we've got a Government that's been in power for seven years now that still doesn't have an energy policy. 
KELLY: Tanya Plibersek, thank you very much for joining us. 
PLIBERSEK: Thank you Fran.