ABC Brisbane Drive 06/07/20

06 July 2020

SUBJECTS: Mental Health and politics; Deloitte Access Economics Report; Eden-Monaro By-Election and Anthony Albanese; 2020 Defence Force Update; Mathias Cormann’s retirement. 


SUBJECTS: Mental Health and politics; Deloitte Access Economics Report; Eden-Monaro By-Election and Anthony Albanese; 2020 Defence Force Update; Mathias Cormann’s retirement. 

STEVE AUSTIN, HOST: Let's speak with Jim Chalmers. Jim Chalmers is Labor's Member for Rankin here in Queensland. He's also the Shadow Treasury spokesperson, Jim Chalmers, thanks for your time once again, Jim. 

JIM CHALMERS, SHADOW TREASURER: Steve I'm really pleased you got that pronunciation right, then. It could have gone horribly wrong - 

AUSTIN:  It could have gone horribly wrong. It's one of those moments where the boss says, Steve can I see you for a minute? And your heart sinks and you go, oh what's happened now? What's gone wrong now? You know when the boss closes the office door that something bad has happened, you know?


AUSTIN: Hey listen, a question without notice: what makes Jim Chalmers happy? Like, you're in federal politics right? It's a pretty depressing game, I hear, at different times. What helps you keep your sanity away from politics?

CHALMERS: I've got three little battery chargers at home, Steve. They're five years-old, three years-old, and one-year-old. It's the best description I can think of for them. When the batteries get a bit low you spend a bit of time with those characters and you feel okay again.

AUSTIN: Were you there when they were born?

CHALMERS: Oh yeah, for sure, yes.

AUSTIN: Does that make a difference? I was there when my daughter was born and I had a tear in my eye. It really was a remarkable moment. Someone said to me that it actually makes a difference, if you're actually there at the birth.

CHALMERS: I would assume so. I haven't not been there for one. Really, the three best moments of my life were the three moments that those little tackers were born. It is an emotional time. I think most blokes probably shed a tear when they meet their kids for the first time.

AUSTIN: Yeah. And that's how you keep your sanity in politics? That brings you back from whatever greyness is happening in Canberra or politics?

CHALMERS: That's exactly it. My older kid Leo, he's five, and he has a little bit of a sense that dad's on TV sometimes and dad goes to Canberra for work and all that sort of thing but on the whole, it doesn't make a big difference to him whether there's been an argument at Question Time that day or something like that. He just wants to know you'll read him a couple of books before he falls asleep. I think that is a terrific bit of perspective.

AUSTIN: How often do you get to do that? To read to your kids? 

CHALMERS:  It's pretty good at the moment because there's not as much travel as usual, for obvious reasons.

AUSTIN: A hidden benefit of the Coronavirus - more time with the kids.

CHALMERS: Yeah. He came back from a library with an armful of books the other day. We've been getting through a fair few of those.

AUSTIN: I'm asking you this because the ABC this week is doing a particular focus on mental health and how we cheer up and how we sort of get a bit of sort of balance when things look a little bit bleak. And I recall that a number of politicians state and federal, it’s a bit of a theme in politics, a lot of people in your game, get a bit depressed something like Geoff Gallop, Andrew Robb, Steve Bracks, Scott Ludlam, I think, Andrew Bartlett the former Senator here in Queensland I think they've all commented at some point about the depressing nature of politics, how do you find it?

CHALMERS: I think there's something to that Steve, and we should be careful not to assume this isn't something that happens in all kinds of workplaces and all kinds of industries. And I think there has been a welcome focus on this increasingly, in recent years and I commend the ABC obviously for your part in that too. But there are elements of a political life which are dangerous from a mental health point of view. It's only 20 years last month, when a member of parliament actually took his own life, June 2000 I believe, a guy called Greg Wilton. Things became too much for him and so I think that's a reminder, and the names that you ran through too. We choose this life, it’s a big opportunity for us and on the main it's a great thing, we're not expecting people to play violins for us, but we do need to recognise that there are isolating elements of this job and we need to keep an eye out for each other.

AUSTIN: Yes, it's something that happens to people in all political parties no one's exempt from it by the looks of things.

CHALMERS: There's just something about the nature of it, you're away a lot, it's combative. You need to have good mates around; you need to have a good kind of support network. Sometimes that doesn't happen, and people get extremely down.

AUSTIN: My guest is Jim Chalmers, he's the Labor Member for Rankin, which is the electorate on the south side of Brisbane and he's also the Shadow Treasury spokesperson for the ALP. It's 20 minutes to five. The Deloitte Access Economics Business Outlook report that was released today and spoken about I think in the AM program shows that the Coronavirus has taken a sledgehammer to the Australian economy with no State or Territory left unscathed. Is there anything else that we could be doing about this at a State or Federal level, it seems to me that there aren't many options for policymakers no matter which colour of government is in power.

CHALMERS: There're a few things. First and foremost, the better job we do at getting on top of the virus itself, limiting the spread until a vaccine shows up, and if we can keep on top of things - and there's a flare up in Victoria - but generally Australians have done pretty well following the advice. If we can do that that's better for the economy than getting it wrong.

AUSTIN: For a country with a largely convict heritage we've been awfully obedient to authority. 

CHALMERS: That is true, I think a lot of countries - and again marking a place for some concerning developments down south, a lot countries are looking at Australia and seeing that we've done a pretty good job on that front but the economic consequences are still pretty disastrous really and what that Deloitte Access Economics report said was, first of all, that we shouldn't be too hasty in pulling out the support that's in the economy at the moment. 

AUSTIN: I think there's movement on that by the sounds of it.

CHALMERS: Hopefully. The Reserve Bank, Deloitte Access Economics and a whole bunch of other credible institutions are saying that we need to be careful to not turn the tap off in the last weekend in September because that will cruel the recovery before it even gets going. Deloitte has also said that we need a proper plan for jobs - and that's absent. They also said if you care about the state of the budget then the best way to fix the budget is to fix the economy first. If we get the economy wrong then the budget will be even sicker than it is now for longer.

AUSTIN: Where in the world has got a good economy, though? Name a country in the world that's got a healthy economy.

CHALMERS: Right around the world every economy is taking a hit, but we do have our own challenges here. If you boil it all down, whether it's that report that you just asked me about Steve or more broadly, we don't want this to be a jobless recovery. We don't want some people to gallop ahead while a whole bunch of people are left behind. That's the thing that we're trying to avoid. That's what our policies need to be about.

AUSTIN: My guest is Jim Chalmers, Shadow Treasury spokesperson for the ALP. He's the Member for Rankin here in Queensland. Let me move on. I think it might have been Dennis Atkins on a Queensland news website where he says that the Eden-Monaro by-election was a Seinfeld by-election where almost nothing happened. The two principal parties finished almost exactly where they were after the May 2019 general election. What does it mean to you? What does the result in Eden-Monaro reveal? Anything?

CHALMERS: I was delighted. You need to remember this Steve, and we've spoken about this before, Eden-Monaro has almost always gone with the Government of the day. The Labor Opposition won it despite being in the middle of a national crisis. That's a tribute to our amazing candidate Kristy McBain. It's also a tribute to Anthony Albanese and to all the volunteers, that they could get a result like that despite all of the conditions running the Government's way. 

AUSTIN: It was awfully close. I'm surprised that no one said, hang on, we want to recount.

CHALMERS: They still might, Steve. It is tight but as Anthony said this morning, the bookies pay out whether you win by a nose or by the length of the straight. We are really happy with the outcome because we put up an objectively terrific, community-minded person and people gave her a fair hearing, they got behind her, and I'm really looking forward to working with her in Canberra.

AUSTIN: It also shows that being, I'm trying to get the right phrase, a competent manager at the Prime Ministerial level during the Coronavirus pandemic doesn't necessarily translate when people enter the polling booth.

CHALMERS: I'm not sure that's the conclusion Steve. There was a bit of unhappiness. I went there three times and picked this up on the ground. People were a bit worried about how JobKeeper had been rolled out, they were worried about the response to the bushfires, and they’re really worried they're going to get left behind. There was a message in it for Scott Morrison. He probably should have won the by-election quite easily given where his approval ratings are in the middle of a national crisis, and the fact that the seat normally goes with the Government. There were all of those reasons, but we were able to win it because we had a good candidate, and a good message. And objectively, anyone that looks at the role that Anthony played in this campaign could see that he had a blinder of a campaign. 

AUSTIN: How often was he there? 

CHALMERS: I think he went there 20 or 21 times. He really put his back into it and I think he deserves a big chunk of the credit for what played out. He was on the ground with real people, in real communities talking about the issues that matter to them, and I think people responded really well to it.

AUSTIN: 4:46PM. News at five. Jim Chalmers from the Labor Party. My guest Jim Chalmers is the Labor Member for Rankin here in Queensland. He is the Shadow Treasury spokesperson. Let's move on to the 2020 Defence update released last week at the Defence Force Academy by the Prime Minister. It put the frighters up a few of my listeners. They were quite surprised to hear all of a sudden that Australia had to have such a massive increase in defence spending, including air missile defences and cyber defences. The analysts that I spoke to said this is because the United States appears to be vacating their global role somewhat and China is seemingly becoming more muscular. How do you feel about the amount of the spend and the Government's priorities for the 2020 Defence Force review or update?

CHALMERS: Defence is one of those areas where you do your best to strike a bipartisan tone because you want to be sending the same signal into the regions, whether it's Liberal, National or Labor, about some of these complex challenges that we're dealing with. We do need to recognise that things are more uncertain in our region than they've been for a really long time. China is assertive; there is uncertainty in American politics. We need to recognise that. $270 billion is a hell of a lot of money but a lot of that was already in the budget. We already spend a lot on defence and this was more of an update than a complete change in strategy.

AUSTIN: It was a big lift in spending.

CHALMERS: Not that big a lift in spending. It is a lot of money. I'm not pretending that it isn’t. But the big headline number doesn't capture that most of it was already committed. We already spend a lot on defence. It's $270 billion over the next 10 years and a lot of that was already there. I do understand that people get antsy about spending that much money on defence, but the main thing from our point of view is we want to make sure when you're spending that much money that there are benefits for Australian industry and Australian jobs. The thing that we are critical about when it comes to the frigate build or the submarine build is that there's been big promises made about Australian jobs which we feel aren’t being followed through on.

AUSTIN: Leaving China aside, does Labor have concerns about the United States seeming to vacate their global leadership role somewhat, pulling back after Obama's famous Asia Pacific pivot. Under Donald Trump the United States appears to be pulling back from the whole Asia Pacific region, leaving Australia thinking, well okay we're going to have to step into the breach somewhat. Is that how you see things? That the United States is pulling back from the region somewhat?

CHALMERS: Maybe not that simply. There's an isolationist urge, not just in the US but in a lot of countries. In lots of ways the COVID-19 crisis has shone a light on that and accelerated that. That in and of itself is concerning. I wouldn't use exactly the same description. There are things that the Americans are engaged in in Asia, as they should be. The Chinese are obviously an enormous player, as they should be in the region. Our interest as a middle power is to make sure that people play by the rules and that we keep the channels of trade, commerce and economic development open because that benefits all of our people.

AUSTIN: Its 5:50. Jim Chalmers is my guest. Mathias Cormann is bowing out at the end of the year and your Labor counterpart Senator Penny Wong in the upper house described him as an “old school parliamentarian”. She has nice things to say about him. What does it mean to be an “old school parliamentarian”?

CHALMERS: I think what she means there is that Mathias Cormann was one of those politicians who would robustly prosecute a policy case but had the capacity to build and maintain relationships with people from other parties. The Senate is a bit of a different beast to the House of Representatives where I am. In the Senate there is much more negotiation. Nobody has a majority so there's a premium on those skills. The final verdict on Mathias will be that he was effective as a Senate leader and effective as a negotiator. Not to rain on the parade but for seven years that he has been the Finance Minister he said his reason for being was to pay down Government debt. Instead Government debt has gone through the roof. If you're going to look at his contribution you need to look at the whole contribution. It was nice of Penny to say what she said but we also need to be objective about the full record too.

AUSTIN: Is it true that he was the kind of guy that would debate and attack the idea, not the person in politics.

CHALMERS: He was known for that. He kept the channels of communication open and he had the capacity to deal with Penny, and Katy Gallagher on negotiations, and to deal with the crossbench at the same time as robustly prosecuting a case. I think that's what Penny's reflecting on in her comments on Twitter, and what Anthony and others have reflected on as well.

AUSTIN: So even though you disagree with them you can at least make things work because you argue the idea on the policy merits and don't attack the person or their personality, so to speak?

CHALMERS: He's been the one that's got the attention recently because he's retiring at the end of the year, but there are people on both sides who try and keep those channels of communication open. I think people in the broader community like to know that that's the case.

AUSTIN: Thanks for your time. 

CHALMERS: Thank you Steve.