WESTERN SYDNEY UNFILTERED
TUESDAY, 28 APRIL 2020
SUBJECTS: The impact of Coronavirus on the economy; Labor’s constructive approach; The Global Financial Crisis; Australia’s economic recovery; Australia’s economy before the Coronavirus crisis; Virgin airlines; impact of the crisis on work and family lives.
CHRISTOPHER BROWN AM, WESTERN SYDNEY UNFILTERED: Welcome Jim Chalmers, up there in sunny Queensland. Beautiful one day, pandemic the next. The Shadow Treasurer of Australia, thanks for making your time available my friend. I thought you would like the Setting with the Eels poster behind me, a Queenslander like you, just to remind you that at the end of this current NRL season, we did in fact win after two rounds.
JIM CHALMERS, SHADOW TREASURER: Well we, the Broncos, are undefeated as you would know. What you probably don't know is that my old man goes for Parramatta because of that golden period in the early 80s with Kenny, Sterlo, Cronin, Grothe and all of those amazing players. So my dad's actually an Eels fan which I don't tell too many people but I'm happy to share with you just privately.
BROWN: He's a smart fellow. I'm still living off the semi-final last year. Go the Eels, just gave you a little reminder of what football can be. Well friend, you're currently sitting there as Shadow Treasurer, in the middle of the biggest public health and economic crisis the country's ever seen. You have a unique perspective having been formerly Chief of Staff to Wayne Swan during the GFC. You were in the room with the bankers, the Premiers and others, nominating a way out of that crisis. Having had that historical perspective, fairly, how do you rate the way that some Governments are addressing what we're going through so far?
CHALMERS: I think they've taken some really welcome steps, Chris, and we've said that publicly throughout. We're trying to be as responsible, supportive and constructive as we can be. For example, we were in the cart for those wage subsidies even before the Government was and when they had a change of heart and came to our view on it we were very welcoming of that. Clearly there are some issues that need to be cleaned up in those JobKeeper wage subsidies but it was a very big step in certainly the right direction to try and maintain a link between employers and their workers through what is a diabolically difficult period.
The difference between now and back then, the experience we had 10 or 12 years ago, the experience is very different because at the same time as the Government's got one foot on the brake, it's got another foot on the accelerator. All of these economic challenges are largely a consequence of Government decisions. So to that extent, it's different. In the GFC we accelerated the economy with a remarkably successful set of policies that we should be proud of. Now it’s a different kind of challenge because at the same time as they're closing down the economy effectively, they're trying to keep parts of it up and running.
BROWN: I understand the difficulty of being in Opposition. Your job is to oppose, to constructively criticize, and to suggest alternatives at a time when the community is saying, can't we just all come together? It's got to be a tough political balance, the pitch that right. Therefore, giving you one free kick, going into this the economy wasn't real flash anyway was it? How does that affect our capacity as a nation to respond, to get to the other side of the bridge?
CHALMERS: Clearly we had some big challenges in the economy and some of those have been largely forgotten in the big conversation we're having now about what we do. Wages have been stagnant for a really long time, business investment was going backwards, productivity had flat-lined, annual growth was below average, quarterly growth was slowing. We had a whole range of very difficult challenges in the economy. Underemployment was a big part of that as well. So I do genuinely think that we entered this period from a position of relative weakness rather than strength. That is contested by our political opponents but I think the facts tell the story there.
Where you began that question, though, is really interesting too, Chris. I think people in the community do have expectations that in crisis times we try and find common ground. That's understandable. What we've done, and this is really a credit to Anthony Albanese and my other senior colleagues, is we’ve said look, we'll be as constructive as we can. We haven't held anything up in the Parliament. But constructive doesn't mean being silent. If we think there are gaps in what's being proposed, or if there's not enough urgency in getting money into businesses and into the pockets of workers, then we'll say so as well. I think we have largely struck the right balance, maybe one day or another we leaned too far in one direction or the other, but I think generally we're walking that fine line that you mentioned.
BROWN: There's a great sense of unity. Albo wasn't invited into the National Cabinet, but are there other mechanisms you're going through to maintain some sort of involvement in the inner sanctum of Government?
CHALMERS: Ideally Anthony would have been in the National Cabinet, but he wasn't begging to be in it. I think it would have been a good idea personally, but they didn't go down that path. There’s another opportunity we have each week when half a dozen of their senior people, including the PM, meet with Anthony and half a dozen of the senior people from our side. That has its uses, for example planning the return of Parliament and how Parliament rolls out. In other areas it's not quite as useful. Obviously I can't talk about the conversations themselves, but there is a mechanism I guess, for us to raise things.
BROWN: Feel free to give us all the details! I'm currently getting hay fever from the trees behind you, but feel free to - we're from Western Sydney, we can keep a secret.
CHALMERS: Sure, just between us and your legions of followers, Chris.
BROWN: It is interesting. It's putting up some other challenges for traditional Labor values. On industrial flexibility everyone is talking about big reforms coming out of it, and about the impact on immigration. There's two holy writs for Labor traditionally; maintaining strong industrial protections, and also more open, free borders. Is this going to challenge base-Labor values coming out of it for policy reform on the other side of the bridge?
CHALMERS: I think traditional Labor values will come into it, but I see it more as a positive. Labor has historically been the party of rebuilding, of recovery, of reconstruction. We saw that after the Second World War. We've seen that in difficult times people can rely on Labor to be the rebuilders of the economy. So I think that's where our traditional values come into it. Clearly there's going to be a conversation about migration. There will be an appetite for countries, and not just ours, to pull the drawbridge up. We need to have a really balanced conversation about that and recognize the positives of migration. Certainly in Western Sydney, certainly in the southern suburbs of Brisbane where I'm from, migration's a big part of the story. We need to have a balanced conversation about that.
BROWN: You've put the wall up to stop New South Welshmen and women coming in right now.
CHALMERS: I was asked the other day, Chris, what I thought about the closing of the New South Wales-Queensland border. I said it's about 119 years too late. But more seriously, obviously, there'll be a conversation about migration and industrial relations as well. I don't think the solution to all of this insecure work and precarious work that people have been so troubled by is to make the system more precarious and less secure for people. We'll put those views.
In the broader conversation we should be talking not just about the things that the Coalition wants us to talk about. Business tax and industrial relations, those things will be discussed and we'll engage responsibly with it. But what about energy costs? What about the role of construction, what about the role of research and development, and science in the economy? How do we teach our young people to be good at adapting and adopting technology? That's what the growth conversation needs to be about, not just inside the narrow confines of the last seven years.
BROWN: For a Western Sydney audience, we have that spectre of the infrastructure pipeline to provide confidence and meet the growth. You're from a growth state as well. Will Labor be fully supportive of continuing to roll out the train lines, the airports, the urban amenity improvements? Is that the most obvious way to manage recovery?
CHALMERS: I think it's a big part of it. You know Anthony Albanese as well as I do, and -
BROWN: He loves a major project.
CHALMERS: He loves building stuff. He loves a major project, like the airport and other big projects around the country, clearly. I think it is a big part of it, but again, not the only part of it. It's a good labour-intensive, future-focused, productivity-enhancing game to be involved in, but there are other things that we need to do as well. In that general space, one thing that really troubles me about the economy of Western Sydney, but also more broadly, is I'm really worried about what's happening to residential construction, the smaller stuff. The Master Builders have put out some pretty stunning stats about what they expect to happen over the coming months. So Jason Clare, who is a proud son of the West as you know -
BROWN: The boy from Bankstown.
CHALMERS: The boy from Bankstown, and Anthony Albanese too, they're making that a big priority too. We need to get all parts of the construction industry supported. The big stuff that you mentioned is one part of it but also the housing construction sector too.
BROWN: Jim, you're a Queenslander for your sins as well. The first, next electoral manifestation is going to be the Queensland state election. What's your read of how the pandemic plays out at the polling booth?
CHALMERS: It remains to be seen obviously, but I would have thought that people will pay on results and Annastacia Palaszczuk has done a remarkable job up here, she's got a good Cabinet, and hopefully that's rewarded in October when the best state in the Commonwealth goes to the polls.
BROWN: They're slugging it out for Virgin. Would you keep Virgin In the air? Should the Government let it go under and then buy it cheap? Should Governments be looking at equity stakes rather than bailouts at this stage? Where do you read that one?
CHALMERS: I think in this case, the equity stake -
BROWN: I assume you support it moving to Badgerys Creek?
CHALMERS: I think that an equity injection in the first instance makes a lot of sense because you can make it scalable and you can recoup your investment. Virgin went to the Government something like nine times and asked for different forms of help and didn't receive it. That's disappointing. One of the reasons why Victorians, New South Welshmen and Queenslanders are now in this kind of competition for those Virgin jobs is because there's been an absence of national leadership. I say this not just as a proud Queenslander, but with all of the uncertainty for these 16,000 workers already, I'm not sure that picking up the HQ and putting it in another part of the country is necessarily good for those workers. What we need to see is national leadership, and then the Government step up and step in. The 16,000 workers are the most important bit, but also we need competitive skies, we need airlines going to those regional centres. There are communities around Australia so heavily reliant on tourism that Virgin going under would be a disaster. For all of these reasons, yes, I do think the Government should have stepped in, probably with an equity injection but if they don't want to go down that path then some other kind of support.
BROWN: Just in finishing, you're a young father, a politician, a patriot, a Queenslander, all sorts of things. There's an awful lot of personal transformation happening in this process. For you post-this thing, is it businesses as usual? How do you change? How does Jim Chalmers move on following this? Or is it still pretty much business as usual if you're inside the political bubble?
CHALMERS: No, it's very different Chris. It's funny; I was talking to a mutual friend of ours about this the other day. There are so many ways that our lives have changed. The way we work is obviously very different. In the last few weeks I've seen more of my kids than in a very long time. That's obviously one of the few bright spots in all of this otherwise-diabolical situation. I was talking to Andrew Fraser about how it'd be weird to get to the end of this period and look back and think, oh geez I didn't take full advantage of that time that I had to reset. You notice a lot of people are exercising more, they're walking their dog more, they're doing all of those sorts of things. We want to make sure that we don't go back to what we didn't like about how we lived and worked beforehand. We don't want to think that we wasted this reset in our thinking. You think about that in a personal sense and in your home life, you think about it in terms of how we go about politics, and how we go about economic reform when the Coronavirus wards empty in our hospitals. To just go back to everything as it was before, I think that would mean that we haven't learned all the right lessons.
BROWN: We just lost you there; we might even put a few bucks into the NBN. It's become obvious to all of us living our lives on Zoom.
Mate, thank you for your time. For the punters out there who don't know Jim Chalmers, keep an eye on this fella. He's a class act and he's Shadow Treasurer in a tough time to be in Opposition when Government is everything. I appreciate, I think all of us do, the way in which the Opposition has been party to productive outcomes. We've all got a lot of work to do going forward, mate. But I look forward to getting back on the field for an Eels-Broncos Grand Final.
CHALMERS: That'd be good. It's always nice to talk to you, mate. All the best.
BROWN: Cheers buddy. Bye bye. Thank you.