ABC Brisbane Drive 24/06/20

22 June 2020

SUBJECTS: Energy; University reform; Minerals Council of Australia support for action on emissions; Superannuation Guarantee; JobKeeper; ACCC Mandatory News Media Bargaining Code.

MONDAY, 22 JUNE 2020

SUBJECTS: Energy; University reform; Minerals Council of Australia support for action on emissions; Superannuation Guarantee; JobKeeper; ACCC Mandatory News Media Bargaining Code.

STEVE AUSTIN, ABC BRISBANE: Jim Chalmers is the Shadow Treasury spokesperson and Member for Rankin Jim Chalmers. Thanks for coming on this afternoon.

JIM CHALMERS, SHADOW TREASURER: G'day Steve. Thanks for having me back on.

AUSTIN: I'd like to ask you a question without notice if I may?

CHALMERS: This sounds ominous, Steve!

AUSTIN: Always! If you were Prime Minister today, what immediate changes would you make, Jim Chalmers? So you're Prime Minister for a day, and what immediate changes would you make?

CHALMERS: I think I'd try and get some kind of energy policy certainly. Energy is the big thing that we need to sort out in our economy and so I'd try and fix that.

AUSTIN: Despite the difficulty it's been for both sides over the last decade and a half?

CHALMERS: Not just despite that, but because of that. I've spent a big chunk of today talking to various business groups. I did a big business forum Q&A over lunchtime over Zoom. It's something that everybody raises in the business community, the fact that we haven't got that right. Maybe if we [government?] gave business some certainty, they could invest and we could create more jobs. 

AUSTIN: Okay. Any thoughts on - and forgive me this is also without notice -  any thoughts on this news today that the Minerals Council of Australia basically got on board with the Paris Agreement, on emissions for Australia?

CHALMERS: I thought that was really welcome. Most of the world thinks that we should have a mid-century target for emissions, a bit like what Anthony Albanese announced. The States are into it. Most of the countries we compare ourselves are into it. A lot of the corporate organisations have called for it. I think that was a good development from the Minerals Council. It reflects a consensus really almost right across the economy that we should be doing more to get our energy costs down. That means more renewables where that's possible and that requires us to get some Investment certainty.

AUSTIN: Okay. Jim Chalmers is the Shadow Treasury spokesperson. Jim Chalmers, on Friday the Federal Government announced major changes to funding for university courses, thus forcing the price of humanities and law degrees up, but other courses like agriculture and mathematics - an important one in STEM - down. What's your position on this? How do you see the changes that were announced just on Friday?

CHALMERS: I think one of the reasons why the announcement hasn't gone down really well for the Government is that it reeks of settling scores from student politics or something like that. It hasn't seemed like there's a neat, coherent university strategy. The universities are in all sorts of strife at the moment because their funding's gone down massively because of an absence of international students. They are looking for leadership from the Government and I'm not sure that this announcement that they made on Friday was about that. Some courses will go up substantially in cost and some will go down a bit -

AUSTIN: We've been asking for years, haven't wee, to get more people into maths.  We would assume if we're going to be entrepreneurial, and get into STEM matters, we do need to get more people into maths.

CHALMERS: Yeah, but some of these sorts of incentives have been tried before and haven't nailed it. They haven't worked perfectly to get more people in. People are looking for something that will give them job security when they graduate. They're looking for something that they're interested in.

But I think there's a few much more important principles at stake here. First of all, they've got these caps on numbers. We have always believed that if you get the marks, you should get in; if you're smart enough to get in, then you should do so. But even above that principle, is if we want to be, in the jargon, a more mobile society, if we want people to be able to study hard and work hard and get ahead, then we've got to make sure that we don't put obstacles in front of people, particularly people from backgrounds like mine and my community's. If we want people to participate in uni, then we’ve got to not make it too expensive for them to do that.

AUSTIN: You're a professional economist. Did you do maths and the like at university? Maths and statistics?

CHALMERS: My degrees are in public policy. I did some economics -

AUSTIN: Oh I'm sorry, my apologies.

CHALMERS: No that's alright. I did some economics, but not a heap of maths. That'll -

AUSTIN: Would that have helped?


AUSTIN: Would that have helped?

CHALMERS: I think it's good to get, at least in your early years of uni, a relatively broad introduction to a number of subjects. There was some maths in the economics that I did, but I did a public policy degree and then a PhD.

AUSTIN: It was a bit obscured, and I was alerted to this by an academic from a university. But at about five o'clock on Friday afternoon but the Government released its Job-ready Graduates Discussion Paper. It reveals that the Government is taking around $1,200 net per full time student from university teaching. In other words, they're reducing the amount of money that universities have to actually teach students. Have you seen those figures at all?

CHALMERS: Yeah, I saw a version of those figures. I think my colleague Tanya Plibersek might have pointed out that at the same time as they want students to pay more for some courses, they're paying universities less to teach other courses. There are swings and roundabouts there, but I don't know the detail of it.

AUSTIN: Alright. I'm going to take a further look at that paper down the track. So the Federal Government's overall restructure does seem to be ensuring that universities, as I think The Australian puts it, will be paid less to teach courses such as maths and engineering, even though they've lowered the cost to actually enter those courses. So the universities lose, even though there's an encouragement to get into maths and other subjects?

CHALMERS: Yeah, it sounds like they lose both ways. You want these policies to have some coherence, but most of all you want to make sure that it doesn't limit university access and that's what we're most concerned about.

AUSTIN: What would Labor do differently, then?

CHALMERS: Tanya's obviously working on our policy for the next election, but you can see from what we've said previously that some of the steps that have been taken in the last seven years have been counterproductive. One of the stats that we're most proud of from the last time we were in office is that university attendance by people from poorer backgrounds went up something like 55% over six years. You can see what our priorities are. We want this to be a really mobile society. Part of that is giving more people access to higher education. That'll be Tanya's priority, I'm sure.

AUSTIN: Will you be doing anything about the extraordinarily exorbitant fees that Vice Chancellors are apparently receiving? A million dollars? I mean, it's more than anyone in the country. Universities are regarded as charities, believe it or not, in the Australian system. One of the Vice Chancellors here in Brisbane is getting a million dollars a year, plus.

CHALMERS: Yeah and I understand that they get grief about that from time-to-time. We also need to remember that they are massive organisations, big businesses in lots of ways, big employers. We want to make sure that the salary they get is commensurate with community expectations, but also recognises what a big management task they have.

AUSTIN: Jim Chalmers is the Shadow Treasury spokesperson. Your fellow members of the Labor Party have accused Coalition MPs in lobbying for a delay in raising the Superannuation Guarantee, of trying to force more people to retire in poverty. Government MPs apparently want next year's 12% Superannuation Guarantee to be either delayed or dumped. Isn't it just being a little silly to say that they want people to be in poverty? What they're trying to do is stop financial hardship.

CHALMERS: The problem we've got with these characters, Steve, to put it frankly, is that it's the same ones who are saying, oh it'll be too hard on business to go up by half a percentage point every year for the next five years, who in some cases are the same ones arguing for the JobKeeper support to end early. They can't have it both ways. It's not actually one big leap from 9.5 per cent where it is now to 12 per cent in July. It's a gradual increase. It's been on the books for a long time. It was legislated some time ago. It's been frozen multiple times by the current Government. We think if you're interested in supporting business, then there are better ways to do it. That means maybe not turning off the tap for all of the JobKeeper support in the last week of September. There's another issue here as well, Steve. These Liberals who are arguing for more cuts to super are saying that all of a sudden they're concerned about wages and jobs. Well, the last few times that the Government froze the Superannuation Guarantee increase, we saw even more stagnant wages and even more underemployment and insecure work afterwards. I don't think the argument stacks up.

AUSTIN: When is it supposed to rise?

CHALMERS: It's supposed to go up in July next year by half a per cent, from 9.5 to 10, and then each year by another half a per cent after that. It takes five years to go from 9.5 to 12. It gets to 12 in 2025. It's a gradual, legislated increase that's been there for some time now. We think that if you care about supporting business, there are other ways to go about it. We shouldn't be diminishing people's retirement savings. They've already done enough damage with this early access to super which has been rorted and will have massive implications for people when they retire. The truth is, Steve, if we're honest about it, and we should be, that a lot of these people never really liked super in the first place. They look for opportunities to diminish it and my view is they shouldn't be using this pandemic as an excuse to go after super again.

AUSTIN: But the super rise has to be paid for by employers, and they're looking at a very dark future, Jim Chalmers, or do you think that they're wrong?

CHALMERS: One of the reasons that they're looking at a dark future is because the Government won't support them in the near-term.

AUSTIN: I've interviewed them every day of the last month. They all go hip-hip-hooray for JobKeeper. They're praising the Government.

CHALMERS: The point I'm making is to point out this disconnect in the argument. Some of these Liberals who say that JobKeeper needs to end in September, if not before, because the economy's miraculously snapping back to action, are the same ones who are saying that businesses can't afford a half a percentage point [increase in the Superannuation Guarantee] in 13 months' time. The argument doesn't stack up. They've got to pick which argument they want to stick with. They haven't been real keen on super for a long time, most of them for all of their political careers. They're using this pandemic as an excuse to undermine it and I don't think that's something that the Labor Party will support.

AUSTIN: So the other part of your argument is the argument about JobKeeper ending in September. How long would you, as an alternative Government, keep it going for?

CHALMERS: I think obviously for some industries it's going to need to go on for longer. How much longer remains to be seen, and we need to be flexible and smart.

AUSTIN: You must have some sort of date in mind? The taxpayer player can't support the country forever.

CHALMERS: Of course they can't, Steve. The point I'm making is it needs to reflect the economic conditions. The reason why JobKeeper currently ends on the last weekend in September is because a few months ago Scott Morrison was still clinging to this idea that the economy was going to snap back to life on that timetable. The point I'm making is the support in the economy needs to reflect the conditions in the economy. You need to be flexible about it. You need to have the capacity to target it and to taper it if that's necessary. Just turning the tap off in September has the capacity to create lots of problems. There's a whole bunch of people in industries that haven't yet recovered who will go onto the unemployment queues.

AUSTIN: Wait 'til the end of December, for instance? How about then?

CHALMERS: It depends on the conditions. Let's be smart about how that support is withdrawn. There's no point withdrawing it suddenly, before the economy's ready to recover on its own. Some industries will recover quite quickly but a lot of industries, and particularly a lot of workers, will find it really hard for longer. The Reserve Bank and the Government itself says that unemployment will be higher for longer. I guess I'm just pointing out the disconnect between what Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg said last week when they said that unemployment would be higher for longer, but they're still clamouring to remove the support from the economy ASAP. That doesn't make economic sense.

AUSTIN: 4:50. News at 5. My guest is Labor's Jim Chalmers. Jim Chalmers is the Shadow Treasury spokesperson and Member for Rankin. The former head of the competition watchdog Allan Fels believes the Government might be forced to tax social media giants if they refuse to pay Australian media organisations for ripping off their news content. As you probably know, the ACCC has already got a discussion paper out there looking at the imbalance between media companies, internet giants such as Google, Facebook, and the like. Facebook has said they're not prepared to pay a share of their advertising revenue to prop up news businesses. Allan Fels who currently heads the Public Interest Journalism Initiative said because the Federal Government commissioned an inquiry, it shows that they definitely want the tech giants to cough up and maybe a tax is exactly a way of doing that. Do you have any thoughts on this as you watch the decline of media companies in Australia?

CHALMERS: Obviously Allan Fels is a really serious figure and we pay attention to what he says. There's actually a move on around the world for some of those social media platforms to pay more tax regardless. That's not just something that people have argued for in Australia, but elsewhere -

AUSTIN: To actually pay some tax, yes, no matter where they are.

CHALMERS: In terms of the media landscape here, obviously, there are massive challenges not just related to this COVID crisis, but which have been emerging for some time. Regional outlets have been under all kinds of pressure and many of them are closed or are closing. Clearly the $80 million or so that the Government's pulled out of the ABC hasn't been helpful on this front. But the ACCC recommendation that there be an agreement between traditional sources of news and the social media platforms who host that from time to time, I think that's a good direction. The ACCC said around the summer time if memory serves, that there should be a voluntary arrangement between the platforms and the media companies. More recently they said that's not going to work as a voluntary agreement and it's going to have to be a mandatory code of conduct. The ACCC is consulting on that. I had a good conversation with Rod Sims about that, as has my colleague Michelle Rowland and others. That is the path that we need to go down. There needs to be some kind of arrangement which recognises that social media platforms are sharing the content of traditional media outlets. Media outlets are being hollowed out. We need to work out a way to address that. Hopefully the ACCC process gets us nearer to that. Ideally it wouldn't have taken this long, but let's see if they can make some progress.

AUSTIN: Jim Chalmers, thanks your time.

CHALMERS: Thank you, Steve.