04 May 2015

DAVID LIPSON:Joining me now the Shadow Assistant Minister for Health, Stephen Jones. Thank you very much time for your time today. Labor has been fighting tooth and nail for almost a year or a week shy of a year the changes to pension indexation. There are reports today that those changes will be abandoned, not quite confirmed by the Finance Minister this morning, but you would be happy to see those reports wouldn't you?


SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR HEALTH, STEPHEN JONES: I think you've nailed it yourself David, after spending a year exploring and exhausting every other opportunity they are now trying to convince Australian pensioners that they are going to do the right thing. They can't even do a back flip properly, you've seen Mathias Cormann saying that they haven't given up on their plan to change the indexation rate. A change that will over the next ten years see pensioners over $80 a week worse off. They are still gripping on to it, their only admission is to say we tried to do too much. We've got leaks in the newspaper today saying that they are going to do something different, pensioners are still in the dark and this plan for last year's Budget isn't yet off the table.

LIPSON: It wasn't popular, that is clear. But it was going to deliver a very big saving for the Government, $23 billion over a decade. How should that money be made up?

JONES: Well, normally oppositions are reluctant to say to a government - here are some policies, we don't mind if you steal them. But we have done exactly that over the last month, we have put up over $20 billion worth of savings proposals. There is $14 billion worth of savings in our superannuation taxation arrangements, which would remove the enormous benefits that go to the high end. Close to 40 per cent of superannuation concessions go to the wealthiest Australians, we say that that is not fair. Reverse the Howard-Costello taxation arrangements which gave these windfalls, that will save you about $14 billion. In addition to that David we point to multinational tax avoidance and say that we can find about $7 billion worth of savings there. So instead of going after the pensioners, the people who have worked their whole life and deserve it the least why don't you go after some of these persons who can afford it and who should be paying their tax to help fix the problems with the Budget?

LIPSON: So you welcome reversing some of the Howard-Costello arrangements on superannuation, what about -

JONES: Well David I'll correct you there. We will welcome that if the Government says that they will do it. But we haven't heard from the Government yet that they will take up those policy arrangements. If they do we will say finally you have done the right thing.

LIPSON: Well okay sure then but what about taper rates when it comes to the Aged Pension? That wouldn't impact on those less wealthy Australians on the full pension, it would only impact on wealthier Australians on the part pension. Should that be looked at?

JONES: Oh look our pensions spokesperson, Jenny Macklin, will have more to say on these arrangements as the details become clear. It would be a bit pre-emptive for us to be commenting on speculation that even the Minister won't confirm.

LIPSON: Yes but even as a concept, let's not even talk about the Government for a moment. As a concept Labor has been so opposed to any adverse changes to the pension, but what about changes if they just affect the wealthiest Australians? Why not look at that?

JONES: Again David we've put up some proposals around superannuation and you've got to look at both the superannuation arrangements and the pension changes together as a package. Because they are a part of the retirements savings and the retirement income strategy, it' s not like you can look at one part of the equation without looking at the other part of the equation. Now I know you want me David to pre-empt and I know you want me to make an announcement on the part of the opposition around taper rates and particular issues around pensions. We will stick good to our promise that we took to the last election - we will not put in place cuts to pension benefits, we will maintain the integrity of the superannuation arrangements. Further announcements around this stuff will be made between now and the next election.

LIPSON: Okay looking at other areas, foreign investment in real estate. Do you support the Government's announcement for gaol time and big fines for foreign investors who break the rules? Why shouldn't they be punished?

JONES: Look I support policing the rules we have in place, and of course I support the statement that Australians and foreign people whoever they are - if they are doing business in this country they should be obeying the laws. I do predict that nobody will ever be jailed under these provisions, I think they are all about the press release but nothing about solving the problems -

LIPSON: So you don't support tougher laws though?

JONES: Of course I support, I've already said that -

LIPSON: No you've said that you support the current laws, but what about toughening up those laws?

JONES: Why is this Government looking at this? Ostensibly because we have a problem with housing affordability. We have a problem with housing affordability because demand is outstripping supply. There may be an issue, there is no hard evidence I've got to say. You pressed Matthias Cormann on this and he wouldn't give you an answer. You pressed him about whether this policy is based on any hard evidence, we are not aware of any. We do know, however, that there are two parts to the equation about foreign investors in Australian residential real estate. Yes there are overseas investors, but there is also an enormous increase in business visas. People come over here, set up businesses and invest, not surprisingly they are going to want to buy a house. So we say that we need evidence-based policies, of course we should police the existing laws but the heart of this problem is a problem with supply. We should be looking at initiatives which increase the supply of affordable housing in this country, particularly around our capital cities.

LIPSON: Just very briefly do you believe that toughening the laws will discourage foreign investment?

JONES: Well there is mixed messaging here. On the one point you've got the Government saying we are open for business but then in the next breath they are saying let's check your passport and we'll have different arrangements for different countries. Look I think the Government needs to send clear messages about foreign investment. We think that it is important, we think that we need to have an environment that is friendly to critical foreign investment in this country. We also need to have policies that get to the real problem - which is housing supply and affordability of housing in our capital cities.

LIPSON: I want to look to the Bali 9 executions this week. There is a suggestion from Jacqui Lambie, for example, that our foreign aid of $600 million a year to Indonesia should be diverted to the Nepal relief effort. What do you think of suggestions that we should cut foreign aid in response to Indonesia's moves?

JONES: Well, who is the victim? That is the question that you have got to ask, calls to cut foreign aid - who is the victim? If the victim is the Government that we have got a beef with at the moment than you've got an easier answer to that question than if you're suggesting we cut funding to programmes which are providing clean water, which are providing disaster relief, which are providing health and hospital care, which are providing investment in non-radical education particularly in regional areas. So I would be very wary of a knee jerk reaction that said in the name of punishing a government that we have a beef with we cut funding to programmes which are designed to help the people. That just rubs a bit with me, let's have a look at what is specifically being proposed but I'm not convinced that the answer is what is being talked about.

LIPSON: We've heard the Finance Minister support Julie Bishop in her call for us to seek to move on because of the relationship with Indonesia, which is so important. What do you make of that?

JONES: Labor has been very careful not to be critical of the approach that the Government has taken to its diplomatic relations with Indonesia. But I've got to say, these comments by the Foreign Minister and the Finance Minister - they do seem to lack a bit of humanity. I mean the bodies haven't even been brought back home, families haven't even buried their sons yet. So frankly telling the country that we should just move on when these things haven't even occurred lacks a bit of humanity. They are words not chosen carefully, if they do reflect what the Government is really thinking than I would ask them to re-think them.

LIPSON: Just briefly, Laurie Oakes suggesting that the Prime Minister is considering a snap poll? What Labor be ready? Would you welcome an early election?

JONES: Labor is ready for an election whenever it occurs. It will be an election fought on a legacy of the Governments broken promises and Labor's commitment to ensure that we have a government which will provide fairness and equity for all Australians. If we take our promises into the next election, we will keep them. We won't be cutting pensions, we wont be attacking Medicare, we won't be introducing $100,000 University degrees. These are the sorts of conversations that Australians want to hear. Whenever the Government decides to call an election and if Tony Abbott is so nervous about his backbench that he thinks that he has to rush to an early election after the Budget, we will be ready to meet that challenge.

LIPSON: Stephen Jones thanks so much for joining us.