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'Australia is suffering from inequality.' ABC Hobart Breakfast Radio Interview, Wednesday 6 September 2017








SUBJECTS: Economic growth model; Inequality; Sustainable population levels; Childcare workers’ wages; AFP at Hobart Airport

LEON COMPTON: Senator Eric Abetz for the Liberal Party of Tasmania. Senator, good morning to you.

ERIC ABETZ, LIBERAL SENATOR FOR TASMANIA: Good morning Leon, and to your listeners. 

COMPTON: And to Lisa Singh, Labor Senator for Tasmania, good morning to you!

LISA SINGH, LABOR SENATOR FOR TASMANIA: Good morning Leon, and to your listeners.

COMPTON: To both of you, it's a parliament day in Canberra. Senator Eric Abetz, what are you up to this morning? What's keeping you busy this morning?

ABETZ: As always happens, there are the preliminary meetings, there's the Senate briefings as to what we might expect in the Senate, then there are radio interviews to do and then there are committee meeting of the various committees of which we're members – be it the Rural and Regional in my case, Public Accounts Committee, etc. So, lots of work and a lot of constituent calls. Just because we're in Canberra doesn't mean that we don't talk to our fellow Tasmanians when they have constituent issues. We can ring them, email them, etc. So it's a normal day's work for me.

COMPTON: Senator Singh, what's been keeping you busy this morning?

SINGH: Sounds quite similar to Eric really! I've had committee meetings since 8am this morning. I think I'm missing one at the moment, but that's OK. Looking at the day's work as far as legislation goes but also a number of other constituent events and meetings that people want to have with you up here as well.

COMPTON: On ‘Mornings’ this morning I wanted to talk with you about this idea of a growth model for prosperity in Australia, and in Tasmania. It's been the dominant model in Australian life now for decades. The idea that, amongst other things, with a growing population you will fuel lots of things that are positive. There are some voices out there at the moment that want to consider that model and change tack. This is Dick Smith and his million dollar advertising campaign at the moment to reduce Australia's immigration rate. Have a listen.

Ad plays

COMPTON: That's just 30 seconds of what is a 60 second ad that's airing nationally at the moment and is funded by Dick Smith. Can I ask both of you to talk with us this morning about whether or not we should be having a debate about the wisdom of the growth model into the future? Senator Singh, let's start with you.

SINGH: I think it's healthy to have a conversation about economic growth and how we achieve that, but I think if we look over the years since WWII or even before, most of our economic growth has been built on migration. While I'm not going to tell Dick Smith how to spend his millions, I think a scare campaign advertisement like that is very unhelpful. If you look at Australia's population growth over the last decade – it's grown on average at around 1.6 per cent – so I don't really know where Dick is coming from. I think that it is important though to discuss these issues, but in a less fearful way would be more helpful, definitely.

ABETZ: Leon, if I could come in here? The economic growth model is something that there have been naysayers about since day one, and we have been able to achieve economic growth on an ongoing basis. That is a good thing because it enhances everybody's standard of living. So economic growth, in general, is a good thing. Now has the economic growth been built on immigration? Yes it has been in times when Australia had a labour shortage. And that is where I think there is something right about Dick Smith's ad, whilst I reject his argument on growth. The simple fact is that if we have more people coming to Australia when we've already got five to six per cent unemployment, when our biggest cities are straining because they are unable to deal with the demands of the population, our infrastructure is creaking...Tasmania thankfully is spared from a lot of that but nevertheless our biggest cities are facing that. So I think there is a kernel of truth and wisdom in what Dick Smith says; that we should be limiting our immigration intake on the basis that yes, we do have an unemployment rate at the moment, and to suggest that the immigration of the post-war era, and indeed myself and my family – we were beneficiaries of that – the hydro-electric commission needed workers and as a result it was a good thing to introduce more people to fill those labour shortages. Nowadays, we don't have a labour shortage. Having said that, of course we should still be taking in a complement of refugees etc. but I think the total intake should be revised down at the current time.

SINGH: But Eric, we've had unprecedented and certainly unwavering economic growth in Australia for 26 years. And I think the Reserve Bank Governor Phillip Lowe's come out today and said that things look like they will continue to go well for Australia in terms of its economic growth. This has all been at a time when migration has continued. But I think it shouldn't really be just about the size of migration; it should be who we have coming, and looking at skilled migration – what are the skills needed to ensure that we have those jobs that are needed to be filled, where there are labour shortages and the like? Rather than this focus on the size of the population. I mean, you know, I- 

COMPTON: But Lisa can I pull you up for a moment, and I think Senator Abetz touched on it – in part this ties into the conversation that's happening globally around growing inequality. People feel like they're economically worse off. We know that inequality is growing. We have people living in more expensive accommodation where they have to travel for longer because infrastructure isn't keeping up. I mean, do you think that this – the issue of the number of people coming here might tie to the inequality debate in Australia?

SINGH: Well, that's a really good point, because Australia is suffering from inequality, some of the highest inequality that we've experienced in some 75 years. And there is a strong connection between lifting people out of poverty and addressing inequality, reducing inequality, and economic growth. And that's why as policy-makers we need to look at investing in our infrastructure, into those areas where we can actually ensure that if our population does grow, as it is at a very small rate at the moment, year on year, that we have the infrastructure to cope with that. And that in turn will help lift people out of inequality. But there is an issue- 

COMPTON: But that wouldn't necessarily help with the laws of supply and demand that are keeping wages growth low at the moment.

SINGH: Well, exactly. 

COMPTON: Is part of the reason that wages growth is low is because there are so many new people coming into the system who are providing…are removing the floor, dropping the floor under wages?

SINGH: Well, no, I don't agree with that. I think yes, we do have stagnated wages growth. We have had a number of people in this country though Leon that have really benefited from our economic growth of now some 26 years. But there has been a group of people in Australia that have not benefited from that. And that's what we need to address as policy-makers: how we ensure that those that are living in poverty are lifted out of that. And that's where I think Labor has a different approach to the current government, who wants to kind of demonise people who seek to go on welfare-

ABETZ: Oh we don't demonise, I reject that completely.

COMPTON: But before we move into the demonisation issue, I just want to talk about this in pure population figures, to avoid the argument that it's racist to talk about the idea of dropping the migration figures. To both of you, can you have a conversation with us about what our migration rate should be, and what our planning should be for dealing with that in Australia?

ABETZ: You should be able to have any discussion without this sort of bullying name-calling that seems to have become fashionable amongst certain people. I think it is a good and reasonable debate to ask the question: what is a sensible, reasonable, sustainable immigration intake for Australia? We should be able to have that discussion without some people starting to throw the rocks of racism, or whatever else.

COMPTON: Okay Senator, you're the person we expect to have an answer to that – what is the appropriate immigration rate for Australia? It’s 200 000 for this year. Roughly what should we be talking about?

ABETZ: Look, I'm not going to put a figure on it I'm sorry Leon, but I am inclined to decreasing the intake. One – because of our infrastructure issues. Two – because of our unemployment issues. I think Australia does have a right to ask the question – who should we take in and on what basis should we take them in? Now economists will tell you that if you grow the population you grow the GDP, and economists love the headline figures. But that's the headline figure. You then divide the GDP per head of population, and in recent times there has in fact been a decrease – it's been diluted – whilst the total GDP has increased because of immigration intake, per person it has in fact been diluted. 

COMPTON: So Senator, is part of the – is part of the issue here that your party particularly is captured by corporations that profit from that overall rise in the GDP figure for the country and so will promote growth at the expense of the fact that it is divided amongst a greater number of people?

ABETZ: The growth that I'm seeking is, in the economic growth, that we enhance our productivity, we ensure that we get our product to world markets, we ensure that our energy prices are kept down, that housing affordability is maintained. And might I add, one of the issues in relation to housing, and especially the pressures in Sydney and Melbourne, amongst the suite of factors, is the immigration intake. And so there are a whole lot of areas where others might claim inequality when you then ask the question well why are house prices going up? One of them is demand because of the immigration intake. And so these are the sort of factors that we do need to consider carefully. We should have a discussion and it’s got nothing to do with racism, it's got everything to do about looking after Australia and her best interests.

COMPTON: Lisa, what do you think?

SINGH: Well I mean, I don't know where the racism comes from when you're talking about population growth. I think that's a furphy. I think we should be able to have a decent conversation about population growth. But I think there is a history, we have to acknowledge, Eric, in this country, we used to have a White Australia policy and that was around not letting in certain migrants into this country, so we do have a history and it has a racist flair to it, so I guess that's where that connotation comes from. But I think we should be able to have this healthy debate.

If you talk about things like lifting people out of inequality, looking at our immigration intake, and size of population and the like, you need to look at those other policy settings that are so important for society to work. Whether it's in sustainable cities sense, or in the regions, housing affordability, the policy settings have to be right and at the moment they're not right – which is why you have all of these investors benefiting greatly from negative gearing whilst those on the lower end of the scale-

ABETZ: Oh Lisa, that is wrong.

SINGH: It is true, Eric! You know it is, and that's why we've put forward changes to this to-

ABETZ: Lisa, when the Labor Party abolished negative gearing, who were the people who that suffered? It was the people that had to rent their houses because those that owned the houses said, ‘If we can't negative gear to get the same return, we've got to jack up the rental’ and that is why your own party having embarked upon that course decided to do a U-turn and I for one congratulated them at the time because the people that suffered were not the landlords but the people renting the premises.

SINGH: We're talking about changing current policy settings to make it fairer for all Australians, and then you can look at what our population should be. No one says that our population should be uncapped. But at the same time, I'm sure you would agree, Eric, that our population shouldn't be zero of immigration intake either.

ABETZ: I said that in my introductory comments on this that I would reduce it, I wouldn't stop it.

SINGH: I don't have a figure, Leon. I don't have a figure for what Australia's ideal population should be or what our immigration intake should be. But I can look at what some of the reports have been of predicting these issues in the past and they've all come out pretty much wrong.

ABETZ: Absolutely!

SINGH: So I think that if we look at the last decade, our population’s been around 1.6 per cent growth. That sounds pretty standard and fair to me, and I think that we shouldn't be jumping at shadows the way Dick Smith is.

COMPTON: I think it'll be interesting to see how this issue plays out and if it's going gain more traction. Dick Smith I see in News Limited media this morning is railing against the ABC not covering the issue, but also see that he's chosen to make it an issue. There's a party called the Sustainable Australia Party who are campaigning to win a seat in the next election in New South Wales as well. It'll be interesting to see what sort of a hearing they get in the public square. It's six to ten. You're on Mornings around Tasmania. Lisa Singh and Eric Abetz, Senators for Tasmania, are our guests this morning for the segment we call 'Senators in Space'.

We had some childcare workers in earlier. Both political persuasions, Labor and Liberal, have presided over an unhappy childcare sector I suppose, in which workers would like to be paid more. Senator Abetz, Senator Singh; do you think we should be talking about trying to lift the wages of people that work in childcare?

Senator Abetz to you first and then Lisa if you'd like to re-join?

ABETZ: I know of nobody that is against a wage rise or wage increase for themselves, and it would be fair to say that childcare workers in general terms are at the lower end of the pay scale. The question is the affordability of childcare within our community, and the contribution made by the mums and dads to have their children minded and then balancing all that out does mitigate against a higher wage rate and therefore the question then becomes, if we pay the workers more – and I think there's an argument that given they're on the lower level of incomes that they might be entitled to more – the question then is who pays for it? And it will either be through higher taxes to our fellow Australians or higher fees to the mums and dads that take their children to childcare, or indeed a mixture of both, and that is the big difficulty with a lot of these debates that whilst you can say people should get a pay increase, the next question then – who pays for it? It will either be the mums and dads or the taxpayers that will have to fund it and that will then have consequences because money is not limitless. So if you pay childcare workers more, what do you pay less?

COMPTON: And so, Lisa, accepting that truth; should we be talking about lifting wages in the childcare sector?

SINGH: Well, I don't think that is the be all and end all answer to this issue. Childcare workers have been underpaid for a very long time. There's been a lot of research into one to seven of a child's life; those early years being the most crucial for their development. That's why anyone who works in childcare today does a lot of study into the profession, and in doing so they are no longer just minding children. They are actually becoming early childhood educators for our children. I think that if you were to ask taxpayers would they want those who are looking after the youngest children in our country to be remunerated accordingly, they would agree that they should be. They shouldn't be on such low wages, and if you look at comparable countries – those in Europe – they certainly are paid accordingly, and I think it's about time that this is fixed. We certainly fixed it when we were in government, and now of course this government has rolled all of that back.

ABETZ: You just acknowledged that childcare workers have been underpaid for decades and of course during that time Labor was in government as well, so to try and shift it onto a Labor/Liberal-

COMPTON: My perception is that it's an issue that's been affecting the sector for a significant period of time.

ABETZ: It has been Leon.

COMPTON: We might move on from that. Lisa Singh you wanted to bring an issue to the table around Australian Federal Police officers at Hobart Airport. Let's be clear, if something happens at Hobart Airport today, just like if something happens at your house, somebody will call the police – on the triple 0 number you would think – and ask them to come help. You wanted to raise that as an issue, Senator?

SINGH: Yes, absolutely. Look, we know at the moment the government's reviewing its security at all of its regional airports in Australia and we've lost, in Hobart, our capital city – the only capital city without the Australian Federal Police – we lost their presence in 2014 because of that dreadful Federal Government budget cut to the AFP. Since that time, myself and Labor and, I think, even Senator Duniam and the Police Association – so many people have been calling for the AFP to be returned. When we have a million visitors coming through the airport, to not have that level of security that we should have like all other capital cities is not acceptable and that's why we are continuing to call on the Prime Minister now, to actually do something about this. It seems to be continuing to fall on deaf ears despite all of these calls. We should have the AFP for our security. We all know what's going on at the major airports with terrorism.

COMPTON: Senator Abetz, you fly through that airport more than most. Should AFP officers be there?

ABETZ: Look, politically it's a great drum to beat, but the simple reality is – for me – that I want the security at our airports to be determined, not by political populism, but by a genuine security assessment. I, in fact, spoke with the Minister – Darren Chester – yesterday briefly about the matter. Security assessments are revised on an ongoing basis and therefore I am happy to rely on the security advice and it's one of the blessings of Hobart Airport that it's been determined thus far that we don't need the Federal Police presence. The only reason Hobart doesn't have a Federal Police presence is that we don't have direct international flights. That is why all the other capital city airports do have Federal Police; it's because of the international flights.

SINGH: I can't see how a family waiting at Hobart Airport is a political issue, Eric.

COMPTON: To both of you, we're out of time-

ABETZ:  It's a security issue.

SINGH: Exactly.

COMPTON: To both of you, we're out of time. Good to talk to you both this morning, we'll let you get back to your political day in Canberra. Thank you for coming in to our Canberra studio this morning.

SINGH: Thanks Leon.

ABETZ: Thanks Leon.