Canberra Doorstop 17/12/19

December 17, 2019


SUBJECTS: Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook; Religious Freedom Bill; Fires and Climate Change; Scott Morrison’s Holiday; Business Investment.

JIM CHALMERS, SHADOW TREASURER: This Morrison Government has failed on the economy, they've failed on climate change, they've failed to bring people together this year after what was a pretty divisive election. On the economy what we saw in the mid-year Budget update was higher unemployment, slower growth, weaker wages growth and dismal business investment. All of these things are a pretty appalling report card on this Government in its seventh year and in its third term. It was only in May at the election that Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg went all around the country promising to make the economy, ‘even stronger’. Instead the economy got even weaker. It is the defining failure of 2019. This Government hasn't come up with a plan for the economy. The costs and consequences of that are to be seen in the Budget update. Because Morrison and Frydenberg haven't had a plan for the economy ordinary Australians are copping it in the neck when it comes to weak wages growth, higher unemployment and all the other ways that this Morrison Government has let them down the economy.

JOURNALIST: [INAUDIBLE] the Water Ministers are meeting today in Brisbane. Do you think they'll be able to reach an agreement on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan?

CHALMERS: The Morrison Government's made a mess of water policy. You've got farmers who are angry and Australians who are very concerned about the mismanagement of the Basin in particular. Today is an opportunity for the Government to clean up the mess that they've made of water, to come up with a plan for once for how they're going to deal with the issues that farmers have raised and that the broader Australian community has raised. Whether it's water, climate change or the economy, the Government doesn't have a plan. They had a plan to get themselves through an election this year but they haven't had a plan to deal with the big issues which are confronting the country. Water is one of those really important issues.

JOURNALIST: On the religious freedom bill, Ian Thorpe and a whole bunch of other high profile Aussies have come out and slammed it today. Have you seen it?

CHALMERS: Have I seen the comments?

JOURNALIST: Yes, and are you able to comment on it?

CHALMERS: I haven't seen Thorpie's comments, no, but I think like any Australian he's entitled - and it's welcome - that he expresses a view on this legislation. One of the things that the Government didn't do very well and the reason they had to re-draft the thing was that they haven't done a good job of consulting with the community, with all corners of the community. We're consulting on the second draft that was released. We need to respect people's views. We need to find ways to make the system fairer to people, not less fair. That's one of the key issues that we're consulting on. Ian Thorpe's comments are welcome. There are comments being provided from all sides of this debate. That's a good thing. The Government should take everybody's views into account as they finalise the bill.

JOURNALIST: What do you say to people who feel that it's less about protecting religious people's rights and more about legalising hate?

CHALMERS: I've seen those concerns raised. People have got very strong views about this. It's a very tricky policy area. The Government got it wrong the first time. That's why they had to re-draft it. And really our job is to make sure that we consult with people who hold that view and people who hold other views as we come to a final consideration of what we will do with the bill. We think the objectives of the bill are largely sound. What we care about is how they are represented in the draft legislation. People have got strong views on all sides. Those strong views should be respected and taken on board.

JOURNALIST: On a separate matter, Greg Mullins and his coalition of former fire chiefs for climate action have today declared they will go it alone and host a summit after the fire season without the Federal Government. Would Labor support it and Labor attend their summit?

CHALMERS: I haven't been invited the summit but I'm certain that whatever engagement that they would like from Labor we will provide. It is shameful that the Government has not sat down with the fire chiefs. It is shameful in the extreme that Scott Morrison hasn't taken the views of those senior firies on board. What they have said for some time now is that climate change is playing a role in the frequency and the severity of fires. All up and down the eastern seaboard as Australians choke on smoke they can't believe that their Prime Minister won't even listen to these distinguished former firies who have an informed expert opinion to offer. The Prime Minister should have already sat down with these former senior firies and heard their views. He should act on their views as well. Right around Australia Australians are talking about these fires. They're talking about climate change. There's an appetite in the community to listen to the experts and to act on their advice. That appetite is not shared by the Prime Minister and that is a shameful thing.

JOURNALIST: Mr Chalmers, do you have any concerns about the Prime Minister going on leave with his family at this point in the year?

CHALMERS: I don't know where the Prime Minister is. Do you know where he is, Tom? I don't know where the Prime Minister is. Obviously he's entitled to a holiday if that's where he is with his family. Everyone deserves an opportunity to rest and recharge. We make no judgments on that. Clearly he didn't want to be around for yesterday's appalling economic update. If he's on holidays with his family, with his kids, I wish him well. He's entitled to that. It's bizarre that he hasn't issued some kind of release. He may be embarrassed to be leaving the country in the hands of Michael McCormack. I don't know. If he's on holidays, that's fine. He should alert the Australian community if so.

JOURNALIST: Just a final one on the economy. Sounds like you are for the idea being put forward by business today for further incentives to be offered to them. What would Labor do in that area to offer those incentives?

CHALMERS: The business community is at one with Labor, the Reserve Bank and with the expert economists who understand that this floundering economy needs a boost. The idea that they and we have put forward in the past is that there are opportunities in the tax system to incentivise business investment. Business investment is the weakest it's been since the early 1990s recession. Yesterday one of the biggest downgrades in the numbers was business investment. They downgraded business investment. They made unemployment worse. They downgraded economic growth. They downgraded wages growth. But one of the really stark numbers was business investment. Something needs to be done. All through the newspapers today businesses are making a very valid point that the fact that the Government hasn't had a plan to boost the economy is one of the reasons why the economy is floundering. The Government missed an opportunity yesterday to come up with a plan to turn the economy around. They fumbled it again. They've been telling us for months now that the economy will pick up. Instead it has deteriorated. Never forget, this Government's defining promise at the election was that they'd make the economy even stronger but instead, the economy has gotten even weaker on their watch. That's because they've failed to come up with a plan.

JOURNALIST: [INAUDIBLE] What would Labor do?

CHALMERS: Labor took to the election a policy of accelerated depreciation. It was called the Australian Investment Guarantee. Obviously we're reviewing all of our policies including our tax policies. We've put an idea on the table. I've said for some months now that the Government should pick up and run with an idea like that to incentivise businesses to invest. One of the problems that we had when Josh Frydenberg said a couple of months ago that he'd look to maybe do something in May is that has actually been counterproductive. Businesses have been delaying their investment and waiting to see what the tax break might be in May. Butterfingers, the Treasurer, even gets something like this wrong. He's sent a signal to business, don't invest for months now and wait until May in case I can come up with something in the May Budget. That's actually been counterproductive. We've been hearing from business about investment plans which have been put on hold because of the Treasurer's ineptitude and incompetence.

JOURNALIST: On the surplus, the Government is just saying that the surplus is necessary to help prevent future economic shocks. Do you think it is healthy to have that surplus or should the Government be spending that money now?

CHALMERS: We think it's possible to do something responsible, proportionate and measured to boost the economy without jeopardising the surplus. There's still room in the Budget for the Government to do the right thing to support workers, pensioners and the economy without jeopardising the surplus that they've promised. They should have done that yesterday in the mid-year update. They missed that opportunity. That failure to have a plan to deal with the economy means that people, whether it be by their wages or their jobs or the broader economic growth in the country, are suffering because of ineptitude, incompetence and inaction.