Australia Today With Steve Price 1/12/21

01 December 2021

SUBJECTS: Scott Morrison’s part-time parliament; Omicron strain; Vaccines and borders; National Accounts; Australian workers and small businesses paying the price for Scott Morrison’s failures with vaccines and quarantine; Josh Frydenberg’s Budget riddled with rorts and weighed down by waste; Cost of living squeeze; Question Time and Jenkins Review.    





SUBJECTS: Scott Morrison’s part-time parliament; Omicron strain; Vaccines and borders; National Accounts; Australian workers and small businesses paying the price for Scott Morrison’s failures with vaccines and quarantine; Josh Frydenberg’s Budget riddled with rorts and weighed down by waste; Cost of living squeeze; Question Time and Jenkins Review.    


STEVE PRICE, HOST: Mr Jim Chalmers, the Shadow Treasurer, joins us on the line. Morning.

JIM CHALMERS, SHADOW TREASURER: Good morning, Mr Steve Price.

PRICE: Oh yes, we've got to be very polite don't we? What do you make of this? The sitting dates that were announced earlier in the week? Where do you think as a party, you might be starting to fight an election? Do you think he will go in March, Scott Morrison, if he believes that he can win?

CHALMERS: Of course, I mean he'll go whenever he gives himself the best chance. It'll be March or May most likely. We'll be ready for it wherever it is, but the fact that there's only a handful of sitting days in the first half of next year shows that they're not serious about governing, not serious about legislating things like the National Anti-Corruption Commission.

PRICE: As a Queenslander, what do you pick up about the mood of the country about politics currently?

CHALMERS: I think, primarily, there's a lot of uncertainty more broadly about the economy and about how we emerge from this pandemic, and obviously a lot of people are worried about the Omicron strain. In politics, I think they expect better from us, and they expect better from their government and we hope to be a much better government if we get the opportunity.

PRICE: I was talking to a leading businessman yesterday Jim, about the delayed flight of those special visa holders coming into to boost labour shortages. I mean, you must be looking at that regularly and getting advice on it. That's going to be a massive problem, isn't it?

CHALMERS: Yeah, it is a big concern, but you've got to take the health advice first and foremost. Nobody wants people kept out or shut down for longer than is necessary but we've got to take these new strains seriously. Because the virus has been so unpredictable in lots of ways and so damaging in lots of ways, we need to be especially careful. So hopefully, the Government will be monitoring the health advice and do the right thing. We all recognise that we want things to go back to normal as soon as possible but we don't want to be complacent about this virus, particularly when there's a new strain about.

PRICE: Queensland's border has been one of the most closed borders in the country along with WA. We understand the different situation the Northern Territory. Should the national government be able to override Premiers on border closures?

CHALMERS: I'm not proposing that. I think as long as the state governments of either political persuasion are taking some of these really difficult decisions for the right reasons - based on the advice - then I see no reason to change that. I know that not everybody loves these border closures but I think overwhelmingly, certainly in my home state, people support the difficult decisions that Annastacia Palaszczuk has had to take. There's overwhelming public support for them. It's one of the reasons why Queensland so far - touch wood - has done so well throughout the pandemic. Nobody thinks that those decisions are easy. Everybody knows that there's a downside to them, but I think overwhelmingly people are okay with it if it means keeping us safer then we'd otherwise be.

PRICE: That seems the COVID-zero approach though. And obviously the two biggest states - New South Wales and Victoria - have given up on that idea, they don't believe that they can get there. We've had new cases today - 251 in New South Wales, 1179 in Victoria. Shouldn't the whole country realise that we have to live with the pandemic because I presume the economic damage being done to business - big and small - in Queensland is incredibly bad.

CHALMERS: Businesses, particularly in some industries - international tourism, international education, but not just those two - are doing it especially tough. I don't necessarily accept the main point you're making in your question. There is an opening up plan in Queensland and it's not far away, it's only a couple of weeks away. We'll hit 80% vaccination before long and there's a plan to open up. I think everybody realises that there won't be zero cases. We've got to make sure that the hospitals can deal with whatever may come. We've got to make sure that we're on top of this new strain and what it means for vaccines and boosters. All of these things are really important and I think that the state government - and I don't just mean the Queensland Government, but governments of all political persuasions - are just trying to do the best they can to limit the spread of the virus and ideally limit the impact on the economy.

We get the National Accounts today, which are a really important snapshot of what's happened in the economy in the September quarter. Economists expect that our growth in the September quarter will actually be the worst out of any advanced country that's already reported. 27 or 28 countries have reported their growth for the September quarter, and economists expect ours to be the very worst in the world. That's because, in my view, mistakes were made around the initial vaccine rollout, and quarantine, and some of the other federal government responsibilities, and that's put us at the very back of the pack when it comes to the economy. So we can't have that situation. We can't be complacent about the recovery. We want it to be strong, but that means getting everything right and I don't think any objective observer of the Government would think that they've got everything right, whether it's managing the pandemic or managing the economy.

PRICE: That slow growth rate though can also be put down to the fact that we've had long lockdowns, particularly in Victoria and New South Wales, that are the drivers of the economy. You've got a new Premier in New South Wales now, Dominic Perrottet, he seems to be - open up, let it rip, we've got to get back and start to grow the economy again. So isn't that also a factor in those numbers, when we see them at 1130?

CHALMERS: That's the point I'm making, Steve, that the lockdowns were made necessary by the mistakes made on quarantine, which has not worked as effectively as we needed it to because we don't have purpose-built quarantine. I don't think anyone thinks the initial stages of the vaccine rollout were good enough. And the withdrawal of economic support. What that all meant was that the downturn here in Australia in the September quarter is the worst in the world so far. So obviously something is different about us under this Government then elsewhere around the world. Most of the advanced economies grew in the September quarter, we went backwards by quite a substantial margin - the second worst quarterly downturn in the history of the National Accounts, so something's different. The point that I'm making, is those mistakes made at the federal level are a big reason why we had those lockdowns, and the lockdowns are a big reason why we've had this quite extraordinary contraction in the September quarter.

PRICE: The cost of JobKeeper, will we see that in those numbers?

CHALMERS: Not in the numbers today. We should get a bit more of a sense when there's a mid-year budget update in a couple of weeks’ time, but there's a there's a bit of secrecy around the Budget. We asked the other day in the parliament, how many of these funds are setup so Ministers can just dole it out for election purposes? And the Treasurer wouldn't say.

PRICE: I was intrigued by that question, because I didn't quite understand it. What we were getting at?

CHALMERS: What I'm getting at is that this is the most wasteful government since Federation, in the sense that there are so many funds in Josh Frydenberg's Budget which are doled out at the whim of a Minister. And we know from their form that often these decisions are taken based on how marginal a seat is, whether it's held by the Coalition versus held by us. There's been some absolutely outrageous rorting of the Budget. So what we asked was, how many of these funds are just doled out by a Minister and what's their total value? And he wouldn't tell us. And that's because we have got to the situation where there's so much waste and so much rorts in the Budget that they don't want people to know about it. And there'll be more of this as we get towards the election. So there's that in the budget. We've got the September quarter where the economy's had this really big downturn for the reasons that I've run through.

And I think the thing that is really animating people - and you asked me about travelling through Queensland and finding out what people think - the main thing that your listeners care about right now, in my view, is the fact that we've got this big cost of living squeeze. Petrol's going through the roof, rent's going through the roof, at the same time as real wages are going backwards. And I think that's the defining feature of the economy. All this other stuff is important, but the cost of living and the fact that people are going backwards in terms of their real wages - making it harder to provide for their families – I think that's a big issue. The Prime Minister says let's have an election about the economy. If it's an election about the economy, it's an election about the cost of living squeeze that ordinary working families and middle Australia are confronting.

PRICE: I think cost of living and the economy is always the centrepiece of any election, but the Coalition will also try and pivot on national security I presume?

CHALMERS: Yeah and you see that with the blunt instrument, Peter Dutton, sort of trying to politicise and talk up the prospects of war for political reasons. That is really quite incredibly irresponsible to do that. Any responsible Defence Minister in any responsible government would be looking for ways to deescalate tensions in our region, making sure that we can preserve peace and stability. Instead, we've got Peter Dutton rolling around making all these outrageous claims for political reasons, which are contrary to our national interest and make things more difficult than they would otherwise be.

PRICE: I know Question Time's willing. And I know you're as good as any at giving it out and taking it back. Was it really appropriate for Anthony Albanese to call Peter Dutton a boofhead yesterday and tell him to sit down?

CHALMERS: That doesn't capture the whole exchange.

PRICE: Pretty well sums it up.

CHALMERS: I know people have got views about Question Time and for every person who thinks it's too robust, quite a few people think it's not robust enough. There's mixed views about it. I personally think it was okay but I do understand the broader point made by Kate Jenkins in her important report yesterday. We need to look for ways to understand that politics can be robust, it can be willing, but to make parliament - as a workplace - a safer place and a better place for people to work, especially for women.

PRICE: Unfortunate timing where you have an allegation about a Liberal Senator making dog barking noises world Jacqui Lambie was trying to speak. That's not acceptable, is it?

CHALMERS: No, and the Prime Minister has said that this morning as well. I think there is near universal agreement that that wasn't appropriate. Again, that Senator needs to account for himself and his actions. Whether the Prime Minister, or our side, I think everybody agrees that that was not on.

PRICE: Just finally, do you feel within that building - and I've been there plenty of times but I've not worked there - do you think within that building there is too much aggression, allegations of sexual harassment and bullying? Do you get that sense? I'm sure it doesn't happen in your office but do you get that sense that it does?

CHALMERS: I think that the issues that Kate Jenkins raised after talking to so many hundreds of people who've had experiences here in this building, I think we need to take that really seriously. And all of us have got work to do to make the culture and the working conditions here much better. There'll be times - whether it's Question Time or other times - where the contest is fierce, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be an unwelcoming place for people to work.

PRICE: Good to chat to you. Thanks for giving us so much time, Jim.

CHALMERS: Thanks very much Steve, appreciate it.

PRICE: Mr Jim Chalmers there, the Shadow Treasurer.