Minister Shorten interview on ABC Afternoon Briefing with Greg Jennett


GREG JENNETT, HOST: Alright, Government Services and NDIS Minister Bill Shorten has been out and about in Sydney today with the Prime Minister a little earlier and he now joins us from a very windy pocket down near the harbour. Bill Shorten, great to have you back on the program. I do want to get to Robodebt and some things in your portfolio area, but it's hard to escape super. We've been discussing the family home finally ruled out, but the budget deficits are never-ending for this government as far as we can see. Is it seriously suggesting that its search for revenue will stop at the $2 billion and go no further? The $2 billion from the super tax cap, of course.

BILL SHORTEN, MINISTER FOR THE NDIS AND GOVERNMENT SERVICES: Well, the Treasurer has made that position, that answer, really clear, as has the Prime Minister. I mean, this is a proposal on superannuation which does not affect 99 and a half percent of the population and it only comes in after the next election. So, plenty of notice, plenty of consultation. What Labor's doing though is we're trying to mop up $1 trillion debt that the previous government left us. It's $1 trillion. We wish they hadn't left us $1trillion debt. We desperately wish that, but they have. And this is a government who, having done the equivalent of economic graffiti on the wall of Australia, don't want anyone to clean up their mess, don't want anyone to clean up their graffiti. This is the problem we've got.

JENNETT: It does sound like a suggestion, Bill, if that is the scale of the problem, $1 trillion, at $2 billion a slice each year as I say, this super tax concession isn't going to seriously eat into that trillion dollars of debt, is it? So, are there other tax concessions?

SHORTEN: No, I've just got to pull you up there. I live in the real world. $2 billion every year is a damn lot of money. That's a lot of taxpayers who go to work every day, who pay some of the tax. So, I think the $2 billion is significant. This is a $2 billion tax giveaway, which has gone to a lucky 79,000 people whom have over $3 million already. I mean, watching the pearl clutching of, you know, the agitated Angus Taylor, that this is the end of the world, why is it that these butlers of the multi-millionaires only ever get upset when it's someone with $100 million in super getting millions of dollars of tax subsidy? I mean, this is ridiculous. The way we're going to improve the budget, though, of course, as we've made clear, is that we're going to do fiscal restraint. I'm working really hard in the NDIS to help make sure that every dollar that the scheme spends gets through to the people who deserve it. But why is it that we ask the people in the wheelchairs and the white canes that they've got to look at what we can do in the budget, yet someone sitting on a yacht with $100 million in super pulling down $10 million a year in earnings wants to only pay one and a half million dollars tax on $10 Million earnings. It's not fair.

JENNETT: No, fair question

SHORTEN: It doesn't affect a lot of people.

JENNETT: Yeah, Fair question. So, all right. Well, on negative gearing investment concessions, it's also prominent at $20 billion on the tax expenditure statement that's come out. Is it still your view that the nation can't keep giving away money to property investors?

SHORTEN: It's a matter of record when I was Leader, I took a certain suite of policies to both 2016 and 2019 election, but we were unsuccessful. We've said that's not what we're going to do. So, you know, the Liberals want to refight the 2019 election for the next decade. We've made clear that isn't our policy. I wish in 2019, though, they had stopped covering up Robodebt. I wish the voters in 2019 had seen a government break the law against 400,000 of its most vulnerable people. I mean, why is it we never hear from Angus Taylor and Peter Dutton about all the people they did over when they were in government? Why is it that we've had to call a Royal Commission, but you see some of $100 million, You know, Angus Taylor and Peter Dutton salute them straight away. How much do you want? Can we shovel some more tax concession to you? You know, give us a break.

JENNETT: Yeah. Alright, I do want to go to Royal Commission in just a moment. Can we get there via the national accounts and the general state of the economy, though it's definitely slowing. That much was confirmed in the last three months of last year. What do you think it says about the rising toll that interest rates are taking on the economy, still taking, by the way, and should this be a wakeup call to the Reserve Bank board?

SHORTEN: The Reserve Bank board makes its own decisions, but I'm on the record as saying that there's a lot of mortgage holders doing it really tough, really tough. And combined with some of the behaviour of, I think the big banks, the big food retailers, who I feel are making bigger profits than they have for a long time, at a time when they're meant to be suffering from inflation, you know, I feel for the people with the mortgages, absolutely. But this government, for the levers that we can control, is putting downward pressure on inflation. We want to unblock the skills crisis, the skills shortage. We want to fix up our energy market. We also want to make sure that families paying for childcare will have downward pressure on their childcare prices. We want to see wages moving modestly. We're doing our bit. But there's no doubt I agree with the thrust of your question. Mortgage holders are just doing it really, really, really tough at the moment.

JENNETT: And a further rise this month since we've now entered into March will only exacerbate that, surely.

SHORTEN: Yeah, well, for a lot of families and other rate rise is a disaster, no question. And I really it is a really tough problem for people who borrowed when rates were low. And now we've seen all these increases, you know, driven, I accept, by the illegal invasion, the criminal invasion of Ukraine by Putin, driven by the shocks to the supply chain of China shutting down during COVID. And of course, looking at - you know, I worry that, you know, as someone who does the shopping in the family, I worry that when you see big retailers making double digit profits, when you see the banks recording $5 billion profits, you know, really they've got to explain how is it if inflation is eating into their, you know, is eating up their operational costs, how is it they're still able to make even more money?

JENNETT: What can be done about that, though? Excessive and therefore inflationary profit taking?

SHORTEN: Well, it's not straightforward, but the first thing we've got to do is call it out. I mean, you know, the opposition, you know, if you say that we don't want to, if we don't want to hand away, you know, millions of dollars in tax concessions to people with 100 million in super, they call it class warfare. If you say that companies - I want companies to make profits, I want them to make good profits, I want the shareholders to get returns - but, you know, they operate within the broader economic ecosystem. And if their prices are moving faster than the causes of inflation, you know, I think they've got some explaining to do. In fact, it doesn't matter what I think. I know that's what the punters think.

JENNETT: Yeah, I'm sure they do. Well, we've held you back long enough, Bill, on Robodebt Royal Commission. So, let's go there now in the time remaining, a lot of hard evidence coming out of the public hearings, most recently from Renee Leon, former Human Services departmental secretary. She took contemporaneous notes around meetings with Stuart Robert in which she warned the Minister that advice of illegality had come forward. And I think I could best summarise his responses as dismissive. What picture is emerging in your mind about consequences that will now flow?

SHORTEN: Well, to be fair, Mr. Robert hasn't given his side of the story, and I must acknowledge that. But I found Renee Leon, Professor Renee Leon, distinguished public servant, over many years, I thought her testimony was in equal parts, brave and explosive. She was very clear with her recollections, with contemporaneous notes written at the time, and she said to the government, You know, you've got a major problem here. You've got the Solicitor General of Australia who has given an opinion. And, you know, according to her recollection, albeit we haven't heard Mr. Robert’s side of the story and I must say that, but according to her recollection, I was just told we're not, you know, the Coalition government were a bit like, channelled - these are my words - channelled their inner Margaret Thatcher and said we're not for turning. The problem is they doubled down as the words that Ms. Leon used in her evidence. The government said, we're going to double down. Well, you know, the dilemma here is that there were 400,000 people who were served unlawful debt notices by the most powerful organisation in Australia. The Commonwealth Government. And the scheme was illegal in its inception. Unlawful. And then after four and a half years, for the whole course of that, with the pain it caused, the government could never hear them. So, this is a Royal Commission the Coalition didn't want, but I thought the evidence in the last couple of days was explosive.

JENNETT: No, I note absolutely what you say about Stuart Robert. He is yet to take the stand and give his testimony. But does a picture emerge to you so far, Bill, that suggests this wasn't a systemic failure, that it was almost completely a political one, where if these accounts from people like Renee Leon are correct, the warnings were given, but it was only a political call to override those.

SHORTEN: We'll have to wait and see what the Royal Commission determines. They've listened to all the evidence. They'll have access to other documents and, you know, in camera interviews and evidence. But there's no doubt that it is on the record as evidence in the Royal Commission that the government didn't release $1million report in 2017, warning of all the faults, that just they just decided they never needed a final version of it. It's clear that there was a range of senior public servants who just didn't feel they could stop what was going on, there were whistle blowers. For Australians who think this issue is perhaps either a partisan issue or, you know, yesterday's story, it stays in the past, unless we know how for four and a half years the Commonwealth of Australia could be broken, I mean, the laws broken, the Parliament couldn't bring the government to account, had to organise independent legal actions, there were court decisions, there were professional academic opinions, there were welfare rights activists, families, people families believe that the people, some of the people who were d these unlawful notices pushed them to the brink of self-harm and worse. How can a government be broken for four and a half years?

JENNETT: Yeah. That's a big question. And I must say some of the evidence in recent days really suggest a ramp up in intensity at the Royal Commission. We will await its findings. Bill Shorten, you've been generous with your time on a busy day. Really appreciate it from windy Sydney. We'll talk soon.