THE HON JIM CHALMERS
MEMBER FOR RANKIN
ABC BRISBANE DRIVE
MONDAY, 23 MAY 2022
SUBJECTS: 2022 Election, Swearing in of the Albanese Labor Ministry, Wages, Labor’s Economic Plan
STEVE AUSTIN: Well, after being sworn in this morning our new federal Treasurer, Queenslander Jim Chalmers, has had a look through the books, the Treasury costings. So, what did he find? Jim Chalmers, good afternoon, and congratulations to you.
JIM CHALMERS: Very kind of you, Steve. Thanks for having me back on the show.
AUSTIN: What did you find? You met Treasury officials today. I'm intrigued to know how long it went for and what they told you?
CHALMERS: Well, I've had two days of that now, Steve. The Treasury Secretary came out to Logan to my place yesterday. We spent some time together and then today in Canberra. About a 3-hour briefing, I think in the end. It was really about the big challenges in the economy which are the fact that we've got sky-rocketing cost of living. Inflation, in the economic jargon, is incredibly high and rising. That means we've got rising interest rates already on a trajectory for most of the rest of the year most likely.
AUSTIN: So we can expect further interest rate rises throughout the year?
CHALMERS: That's what the Reserve Bank have said. The Reserve Bank is independent, as you know, but they've flagged pretty clearly that there'll be more interest rate rises. They said that before the election. That's because we've got that high inflation. That means real wages are going backwards pretty substantially. The most difficult situation for real wages for more than 20 years. We've got that trillion dollars of debt in the budget with not enough to show for it. So those are really the three sets of challenges: inflation, real wages and debt. So a lot of the discussions I've been having with Treasury yesterday and today are about those issues.
AUSTIN: Budget deficits as far as the eye can see, I read by the commentator Steven Hamilton in today's Australian Financial Review. Is that how you see it?
CHALMERS: Yes, on the current trajectory that we've inherited from the former government there are quite big deficits for the next four years. But in the intergenerational report deficits, as Steven rightly points out, as far as the eye can see. So they're a difficult set of books, and probably the worst set of books that any Treasurer certainly since World War II has inherited as a new Treasurer. That means that we need to get maximum bang for buck out of the budget. The commitments that we've made in the election will be implemented in the most responsible way because we need to try and grow the economy, get real wages moving again and improve the quality of the budget so that we've got something to show for that trillion dollars of debt.
AUSTIN: Just relist for me in point form what your pre-election commitments were, Jim Chalmers?
CHALMERS: The big ones in terms of economic policy; our climate change policy, which is about cleaner and cheaper energy; our childcare policy, which is about making it easier for people to work more and have more hours if they want to; our training policy with TAFE and universities so that we can address these skills shortages. We want to modernise our infrastructure, particularly the NBN. We want to invest in advanced manufacturing so that we can have a future made in Australia. That's our 5-point plan for the economy and that will be implemented. I've said that –
AUSTIN: What about the expensive one of aged care?
CHALMERS: Aged care is a crucial reform obviously. About two and a half billion dollars that we committed in the aftermath of the April budget. So we will implement that. We said that that's an important part of our policy. Those other five policies that I mentioned are to key parts of our economic policy, but investing in the care economy really matters, too. That's why we've got that policy for aged care so that we can make sure people get the care that they need and deserve.
AUSTIN: My guest is Jim Chalmers, Queensland Labor MP re-elected on the weekend and the new Treasurer of Australia, sworn in this morning I think it was, Jim.
CHALMERS: It was.
AUSTIN: Your priority, so there's a list of what you promised pre-election. What do you see as the priority in that list, Jim Chalmers?
CHALMERS: Well, the overarching priority, as I've said, is we want to hand down a budget in October, and so really the work that has already begun in how do we get our ducks in a row for that budget. That means beginning an audit of the waste in the budget so that we can invest that money more effectively in some of those other areas I identified. That's been my main focus yesterday and today – how do we get the ball rolling on an October budget so that we can start to deal with the legacy of waste in the budget which has given us that extraordinarily high debt but just as importantly not given us enough to show for it.
So that's been my focus, the budget situation. The best way to start to fix the budget is to make sure that we're growing the economy the right way. So those challenges around real wages and around inflation are all related.
AUSTIN: Bizarrely because of the Russia-Ukraine conflict Australia is benefitting to a certain extent in terms of our resources. Did Treasury tell you that – that there are some increases in revenue that were not expected that you may be able to use a bit of?
CHALMERS: That's one of the factors in the budget and in the last couple of budget updates from the former government and from my predecessor. A big part of the story was commodity prices because, as your listeners would understand the bigger the price we get paid our commodities the more revenue that goes into the budget from the taxes that are applied to it. So that has been the case for the last few budget updates. Ukraine is part of that story but not the whole story. Our commodities have been performing pretty strongly for some time.
AUSTIN: You've got parliamentary pressure in that much of Australia's revenue or income comes from coal, oil and to a much lesser extent gas – a much lesser extent gas – which are the very things that your new teal independents and Greens want to stop. How are you going to manage that process?
CHALMERS: We've made it pretty clear that there'll be a global appetite for those exports for some time. Nobody's suggesting that they be switched off overnight. Certainly, we're not suggesting that. One of the things that I've come to appreciate, partly as a Queenslander but also being interested in the economy for so long and working in this area, is that doing something meaningful on cleaner and cheaper energy can actually maximise some of our traditional industrial strengths.
If you think about places like Gladstone in Central Queensland and other towns like it, if you look at our climate modelling in our Powering Australia plan, most of the jobs that will be created in areas like hydrogen, battery manufacturing and all the rest of it which will be so important to our economy into the future are actually created in the regions.
So I haven't – I don't think it's been the case for some time now that there's a tradeoff between doing something meaningful on climate change and energy and economic success. I think our economic success relies on getting that transition right. I think that's broadly understood across the Australian community – certainly across the business community. We will work with anyone in the parliament on the crossbench, around Australia, who understands as we do that this is Australia's big economic opportunity to get this right and that's what we intend to do.
AUSTIN: Do you have any other responsibilities other than Treasury in the early stages of the new government?
CHALMERS: I do, Steve. For the time being, if anyone saw the swearing-in this morning of the Ministry, there's only five of us for the time being. That was so that Anthony Albanese, as you said in your introduction, could go with Penny Wong to the Quad meeting with Prime Ministers Kishida and Modi and President Biden. So we share the other portfolios amongst us and I've been working on some Home Affairs issues. I've got temporarily, while Penny's out of the country, got the Foreign Affairs portfolio. But my main focus, of course, is on the Treasury.
AUSTIN: Jim Chalmers is my guest, Labor Treasury spokesperson. I assume you've met with your new Finance Minister. Who cracks the whip internally? You remember Labor Finance Minister Peter Walsh from Western Australia all those years ago?
AUSTIN: He was a famous curmudgeon, but he was really good at keeping Australia's sort of budget in line. That's sort of not really your role now; it's more so the role of your finance spokesperson. I'm wondering whether Katy Gallagher is going to be like Peter Walsh or someone else.
CHALMERS: I think Katy Gallagher will be as effective as Peter Walsh. He was – he has been held up as one of the great Finance Ministers, and I think Katy will be one of the greats, too, but very different methods. There's nobody I work closer with than Katy. She is an absolute gem of a colleague. You know, every team needs a Katy Gallagher, and she will be really successful. We work really closely together. We've probably had four or five conversations today. We're typically talking or messaging seven days a week usually. One of the things I'm really looking forward to in this Treasury role is a great, productive working relationship with Katy. I think ideally, that will be key to the success of the government.
AUSTIN: Anthony Albanese made the point that he fully supports a 5.1 per cent wage increase for low wage earners. When do we – when can Australians expect that to start being argued or debated in the Fair Work Commission?
CHALMERS: So that's begun now at the Fair Work Commission. That began I think last week or so. The important consideration there is whether or not people on minimum incomes, minimum wages, should go backwards while inflation is skyrocketing. In our view – and we make no apology for this – is that they should keep up. In many cases, people on the lowest incomes have been the heroes of the pandemic and we can't deliberately see them go backwards. That's why Anthony Albanese in particular and Tony Burke and others have been so strong about this. That's because at a time when it's already hard enough to make ends meet to get ahead we shouldn't let people who are on the lowest incomes – in many cases the most vulnerable people in our workforce – go backwards during this cost-of-living crisis.
AUSTIN: Finally, Jim Chalmers, I want to play you a call from someone who voted for you. So we've been asking for calls all day this afternoon – all this afternoon – why you voted the way you did. This was a caller, Dina. Have a listen this, Jim Chalmers.
DINA: Jim, is just a beautiful man. It boils down to presence. Like, she saw the guy in her area. So Jim helped me. In that sense presence does matter. Like, Jim helped us on our NBN issues. He was there. He gave some awards to my daughter. Like, he's there.
AUSTIN: He's in the electorate. He's helping the electorate. His people helping his people, so to speak, okay?
DINA: That's it. That's it. And he's a genuinely kind man, I think. So how can we not vote for him?
AUSTIN: Well, you'll be delighted to know that that man will be on this radio station with me at 5 o'clock this afternoon.
DINA: Will he really? Oh, tell him I love him.
AUSTIN: So, there you go, Mr Chalmers. You're – a voter in your electorate loves you.
CHALMERS: Tell Dina I love her back. Thank you for the very kind feedback. It does get to an important issue for me, Steve, and you and I have been talking for years and I think you know this: my community means everything to me. What I told my supporters on election night was I will never consider myself a Treasurer who happens to be from Logan; I will always consider myself a Logan kid who happens to be the Treasurer. My community means so much to me. So to get that kind of feedback just warms my heart. It makes my day.
AUSTIN: Best of luck as the new Treasurer of Australia who has to handle one of the biggest debts that we've ever had.
CHALMERS: Thanks very much, Steve.
AUSTIN: Labor's Jim Chalmers, the new Treasurer of Australia