ABC Insiders 02/08/20

02 August 2020

SUBJECTS: Paid pandemic leave; Early access to superannuation; JobKeeper; Victorian outbreak; Aged care; Cheaper and cleaner energy.

SUBJECTS: Paid pandemic leave; Early access to superannuation; JobKeeper; Victorian outbreak; Aged care; Cheaper and cleaner energy.
DAVID SPEERS, HOST: Jim Chalmers, welcome to the program. Let's start with this paid pandemic leave scheme idea. You've been calling for this for a while, but it's a little unclear who you think should pay. Can you just clarify, should it be the Government, or should it be employers who pay for paid pandemic leave?

JIM CHALMERS, SHADOW TREASURER: It should be a combination, David. Already there are schemes in place; some employers are doing the right thing, some sectors are providing some kind of support, and some states as you rightly point out have got payments for people that we desperately need to stay home if they're sick. What we've said is that there should be a Commonwealth component. The Commonwealth should step in. The Government should be using one of these various working groups that they've set up to resolve this issue. Every day of delay here is deadly. We all know that with the substantial amount of workplace transmission, particularly in Victoria but not just in Victoria, that every day the Government sits on their hands will cost lives and will impose even bigger costs on the economy and the budget. It's time for the Government to stop sitting on its hands here and to bring into being a system of paid pandemic leave so that people aren't forced to make that choice between feeding their loved ones or doing the right thing by their co-workers.

SPEERS: Okay. But to be clear here, are you suggesting the Government make a flat rate available to all businesses and then some can top that up if they like? Or are you saying the Government should pick and choose which sectors it's going to apply this to?
CHALMERS: We're saying that the Government should be filling the gaps here. There are something like 3.7 million Australians who don't have access to sick leave, and there's people who had sick leave but they've run out of that entitlement. We've said engage with the stakeholders, engage with the states, the employers and others, and come to a position where the Commonwealth can fill the gaps here. Whatever's necessary here to make sure that people are staying home when they're sick needs to be done by the Government. Christian Porter and Scott Morrison are making all kinds of excuses for delay here. They need to stop delaying, because delay in this space is deadly. 
SPEERS: Okay, even if that means though, businesses then say okay well the Government's going to pay, we won't cover that cost, and the Government ends up paying for all of it? That is necessary right now?
CHALMERS: It's absolutely necessary that we have paid pandemic leave which is comprehensive and right across the economy. It shouldn't be beyond the Government and the various structures that they have trumpeted throughout this crisis for the Government to come to a solution here so the Commonwealth can fill the gaps wherever they exist. The highest priority here is making sure that people stay home when they're sick. We've seen what's happened in Victoria when people haven't done that. We don't want people to have to choose between their families and their co-workers. That means the Government needs to step in. Even if that's costly, the cost of not doing that is much greater in terms of lives lost and impacts on the economy over the short- and medium-term.

SPEERS: Now Melbourne is about to go into stage four lockdown restrictions. Do you think the rate of JobKeeper, and JobSeeker should still come down at the end of next month?

CHALMERS: First of all, our thoughts obviously are with Victorians about to face even greater restrictions. The developments in Victoria have been incredibly confronting in the last couple of weeks. Our thoughts are with all Victorians, including of course yourself David, your family, and your co-workers there. We need to get on top of the spread of this virus. When it comes to JobKeeper we've always said that JobKeeper should be tailored to the economic conditions. That's why we fought so hard for the Government to extend it beyond the hard September snapback. It's why we welcomed the Government's change of heart when they said that that should be extended. Clearly JobKeeper won't be provided forever, but nor should it be withdrawn too quickly. We think that the developments since the announcements were made on JobKeeper a couple of weeks ago do warrant another look at the arrangements that the Government has announced.

SPEERS: Another look; does that indicate you want the current rate to continue for JobKeeper and JobSeeker beyond the end of September?
CHALMERS: In the first instance David let's see how the Government responds to the fact that the decisions they took on JobKeeper were based on some pretty rosy assumptions about restrictions in Victoria actually easing, rather than becoming more restrictive and tighter. Let's see what the Government says. Our position has been consistent all along. We've said JobKeeper should be tailored and responsive to the conditions in the economy. That's why the September snapback wasn't appropriate. The Government should have another look at the tapering and at the rate of JobKeeper to make sure that all of this information that's been - 
SPEERS: Okay I just want to get a clearer answer here if we can. You were calling for a tapering, but now you're saying another look at it? Can I just test one more time, do you think that the rate should stay the same?
CHALMERS: We think the rate should be tapered at some point but clearly the developments in the economy in the last couple of weeks since the budget was updated warrants a reconsideration of that. We'll have the opportunity to speak with Treasury officials during the course of this coming week to see what the implications of that withdrawal of support will be. A lot of economists have expressed concern about it. We'll have the opportunity to talk with Treasury, to see what it means for businesses, to see what it means for Victorian businesses in particular. We'll come up with a position once we know what the Government intends to do.

SPEERS: A lot of people have been dipping into their super under the rules that were put in place back in March. It's pretty popular. The Government now expects four million Australians to access a total of $42 billion. Do you think those super savings should be off limits during this crisis?
CHALMERS: I think the Government's made a bad decision here for the wrong reasons and it's having catastrophic consequences for the retirement incomes of working people. We all know the Government -

SPEERS: Sorry to jump in there. You did vote for this in Parliament though. Labor supported it. 
CHALMERS: They connected this David with legislation to provide additional support via JobSeeker and additional support to small businesses in the community. It was one piece of legislation. We didn't have the capacity to pick and choose amongst that; it was all in one bill. We didn't want to stand in the way of that welcome support going to JobSeeker recipients and small businesses in Australia. We did express our -

SPEERS: You could have moved an amendment.
CHALMERS: We did make some amendments. We did move some amendments which weren't passed by the Parliament.

SPEERS: On this?

CHALMERS: On superannuation, yes, we did. But also, David, you might remember that the last time I was on this program talking with you at the end of March was the day that they announced these arrangements. I said that the Government shouldn't be going down this path. Unfortunately our concerns about this in terms of impact on people's retirements, the fact that it's been frauded, the fact that it's been rorted, the fact that people are withdrawing super that they don't need, and the fact that the Government isn't even checking whether people are in genuine hardship when they access these early access arrangements all shows that it's just the Government using this crisis as an excuse to vandalise a superannuation system that they never believed in in the first place. I think that's a disgrace.

SPEERS: On economic reform, you've been critical of the Government for not producing a jobs plan to date. What would a Labor jobs plan look like right now?

CHALMERS: The point we've made is that the Government did half a budget update, said things are going to get really grim, and then didn't say what they were going to do about it. We think that this crisis is of such a magnitude that we need to break it up into manageable parts. First of all, triage the immediate crisis. That's why we need to get JobKeeper right. Second of all, bolster the recovery. That's why public and social housing is so important. That's why we need to be considering things like local jobs programs in the hardest hit areas. Then we need to be thinking about where the new jobs are going to come from. Where's the growth and where are the opportunities going to come from? In that area we've been incredibly constructive and said that one of the most important things we need to reform is the energy market. Anthony Albanese has written to Scott Morrison and said, let's come together and get some energy policy certainty. That will lead to more investment in cleaner and cheaper energy. That investment will mean more jobs. That wouldn't cost more money of its own. That's an important reform priority that the Government hasn't picked up and run with. We want them to do that. If they do that, we'll engage with them constructively on it. 
SPEERS: What about free childcare as proposed by the ACTU? Is that on your list?
CHALMERS: Clearly the issues in the childcare system which existed even before this crisis are still there; issues of affordability. My colleague Amanda Rishworth and indeed all of us in the Shadow Cabinet will work our way through all of those issues. We'll have a position on that closer to the election. The most pressing priority in childcare, the biggest challenge that we're dealing with, is that the Government threw all of those childcare workers off JobKeeper earlier than they said they would. They've done that in the context of an economy which is weaker now than it was when they took that decision. There are some near-term priorities. As for the longer-term position that we take on childcare, we'll make that known closer to the election.

SPEERS: Alright. You'll look at it. Okay. Aged care. Let's talk about aged care, because we have seen a terrible couple of weeks in Victoria. Who is responsible, ultimately, do you think, for the deaths that have occurred?

CHALMERS: The Prime Minister's responsible for the aged care system. He needs to take responsibility for the horror show in aged care. The Prime Minister shouldn't be allowed to wash his hands of this the way that he's tried to wash his hands of the Ruby Princess debacle which also cost lives. It's time for him to take this challenge more seriously than he has to date, and not just because of what's happened during this crisis but because of the deterioration in aged care for some time. We had a serious crisis at Newmarch House a few months ago which led to 19 deaths. We've had interim recommendations from the Aged Care Royal Commission which have been more-or-less ignored by the Government. All of these issues together are crying out for the Government, and particularly the Prime Minister, to take some ownership of this problem. He shouldn't be pointing the finger; he shouldn't be pretending they’re somebody else's issue to deal with. It's really the pointy end of this crisis and it's time for the Prime Minister take responsibility for what's gone wrong here.
SPEERS: Let me ask you a longer-term, do you see a place for profit-making private operators in aged care?

CHALMERS: I think this will be a really important consideration for the final report of the Aged Care Royal Commission which we'll get in February. 

SPEERS: What about for Labor?
CHALMERS: It's something that we'll look at, but we'll be very cognisant of the recommendations in the final report. The position that we've taken is, first-things-first, Julie Collins my colleague has written to the Prime Minister to try and get some of the crisis arrangements in Victoria applied in the other states where we have concerns. There are issues in the interim report of the royal commission; things like homecare waiting lists, getting people under 65 out of aged care, trying to reduce the reliance on chemical and physical restraints. There's lots that can be done in the near term -

SPEERS: All important, but you are keeping an open mind about whether profit-making private operators should be there at all?
CHALMERS: What we've said, David, is that we'll see what the recommendations of the Royal Commission are, but there are more pressing concerns. Aged care right now is a horror show in many ways. It's time for the Prime Minister to take responsibility for that. There are things that he can be doing now.
SPEERS: Final question, Jim Chalmers. There's has been a debate among some of your colleagues as you would have noted about LEAN, Labor's Environmental Action Network. It turned into a bit of a t-shirt war yesterday on social media. Kristina Keneally posting herself gardening with a LEAN t-shirt. Joel Fitzgibbon responded with his own mining t-shirt. He reckons LEAN are fundamentalists. What t-shirt's in your cupboard, Jim Chalmers?
CHALMERS: Well first of all, I can't rock a t-shirt like Joel or KK can, and I have no interest whatsoever in prolonging the t-shirt war. Most of the old t-shirts in my cupboard have got a Bronco on them. On a broader issue, I think it's good that a range of perspectives are being put here. We do speak to a number of different constituencies in the Labor Party. We're a party of government. I've just spent the bulk of last week driving through the agriculture, mining and tourism communities of Central Queensland and the surrounding areas. 1800 kilometres in three days with Senator Anthony Chisholm. I'm more convinced than ever that there are job opportunities in cleaner and cheaper energy, and that it's possible to grab those jobs and grab those opportunities without abandoning some of our traditional strengths. Indeed, in some cases we can bolster some of our traditional strengths by getting the energy policy mix right. That's my focus as Shadow Treasurer.

SPEERS: Jim Chalmers, we have to leave it there. Thanks for joining us this morning.
CHALMERS: Thank you, David.