11 May 2021


SUBJECT: Budget 2021

Stephen Jones is the Shadow Assistant Treasurer and joins us live now. Good morning Stephen. 

STEPHEN JONES, SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER: Good morning, good to be with you. 

ORITI: Thanks for joining us. Now looking at this so far, you know more jobs, funding for aged care, mental health, COVID hasn’t taken its toll as much as many of us might have been predicting this time last year. We don’t know everything yet, but does this make Labor’s job harder in its budget reply speech when it comes to casting any doubt on how the Morrison Government has managed all of this? 

JONES: A few things here. Obviously, a strong economic recovery is good news for Australians, so we hope its true. But the real test, and the test that matters in households around the country, is are they faring any better? Have they got more hours? Are they getting more pay? Are their pay increases coming through after a decade of pay stagnation? All the talk of economic recovery is great, but unless it makes a difference to circumstances in households around Australia, it is a fairly thin sort of recovery.  I guess the things we’ll be looking for is looking through the smoke and mirrors of budget announcements and looking at the substance and looking the budget numbers. Some examples of why we’re concerned? Big numbers being touted over the last couple of days about infrastructure spends but when you dig into the detail of them it all appears to have been reannouncements of things that they did, and some of them stemming back as far as 2015 in an area close to my electorate. 

ORITI: But you do acknowledge those infrastructure projects will potentially lead to a lot of jobs?

JONES: If they’re delivered, good. We’ve been calling for some specific infrastructure projects to be funded around the country and a pipeline of investment to ensure we don’t have a stop-and-start arrangement. But what this Government has done is serially make a big announcement, then not follow through. Then we dig through the detail and find out that year after year after year they haven’t spent what they’ve promised. 

ORITI: But you’re saying the focus here is people in their homes, how are people going to be faring in Australia. Fair enough.

JONES: 100 percent.

ORITI: But look at what’s happened here. The end of Job Keeper in March, there were predictions that we’d almost see a cliff with people across Australia out of work. I’m pretty sure that Labor was predicting that. That hasn’t really happened here. The employment rate is 5.8% and it continues to drop.  Is it fair to say that a lot of voters might be satisfied with what’s happening at the moment? 

JONES: When more Australians are getting work, that is of course good news. We’re not cheering for misery. We’re cheering for good Government and we want to ensure that what the Government promises to do, it actually delivers, and it’s responding to the challenges. A very good example of where this matters, and where it’s going to have a big impact on the medium term, is the vaccine rollout. Because we all know there’s no sustained economic recovery without a sustained health response and a health recovery and all paths lead to a vaccine rollout. It’s why we are pressing the Government for a clear timeline for the rollout, because only when that happens will our international borders open again. Only when that happens can we start receiving international tourists back to our shores, and can Australians go and take that long awaited overseas holiday. That’s what a sustained recovery looks like. And by the way, all of those big problems that we had before the pandemic, they haven’t gone away either. So we’ve got to turn our minds to addressing those as well.  

ORITI: Okay, I was talking to Mark Butler yesterday on the program. Are you convinced that if you were in Government at the moment, speaking to me as the Assistant Treasurer, you would have those deadlines? You would have that schedule considering all of the uncertainty we’re seeing with the vaccine rollouts around the world? 

JONES: There’s a couple of things we would’ve done differently. We would’ve had more vaccine candidates in the pipeline so if one failed, and we always knew there were going to be problems, with a big rollout like this, it was entirely predictable. There’s been a couple of rollouts for these vaccine candidates. That’s why it was wise to have had many vaccines contracted. We didn’t and therefore we were very vulnerable when problems emerged and two of them fell over. So we’d have done that differently. We’d have also worked with the states from the very get-go. Because they are the ones with the expertise in rolling out the vaccines, instead of having this stop-start process which has delayed us by months. We would’ve worked with states from the very beginning. And yes it is very possible to have a timeline about when we anticipate the vaccine rollout to be completed. Why this matters? It’s entirely likely we’ll be doing this on an annual basis. This is not just a one-off event. It’s entirely likely we’ll be doing this on an annual basis. So we’ve got to get it right. 

ORITI: Indeed. Now look, better than expected employment though, that has given the budget a boost. There’s got to be some credit for the Government here despite the fact we don’t know all the finer details yet, in terms of its navigation through the pandemic with Job Keeper? 

JONES: I think Australians as a whole have done a good job. And I think the Government, when pushed and pushed and pushed, took up Labor policies that we were pushing on the Government. Because at times like this, at times like we’ve been through over the last 12 months, it becomes absolutely critical that the Government steps up and does its job. There’s a big role for fiscal policy. That’s what Labor does. That’s what Labor understands. And we’ve pushed the Government to adopt some of our policies, whether it be Job Keeper, whether it be the investment allowance, or other stimulatory policies. 

ORITI: That might be true. But let’s just look at some of the political trends we’ve seen in recent times. You know, we’ve seen state governments who are rewarded for their handling of COVID in recent times. Would you acknowledge that it’s a challenging task for Labor ahead to convince voters not to return a Morrison Government? 

JONES: There’s always a challenge. I think that the people of Australia are expecting Labor to lay out, and we will do this on Thursday night, what an alternative Government would look like. And a point I want to make, all of those challenges we faced before the pandemic haven’t gone away. Challenges with aged care and the appalling situation, our national crisis in our aged care facilities. The absolute problems we’ve got with the rollout of the National Disability Insurance Scheme. The ten year wages freeze. Households haven’t had a wage increase therefore living standards have been going backwards over the last ten years. And business investment falling off a cliff. All of those problems haven’t gone away. They’ve been added to by the crisis we’re now facing with housing affordability. These are big challenges and we need a government that’s up to dealing with those challenges. We hope the Morrison Government will rise to them tonight. But I’m certain that Anthony Albanese when he gives his budget reply on Thursday night will lay out those critical issues. 

ORITI: Okay Stephen, it’s a pleasure. Thanks very much for joining us. 

JONES: Great to be with you.