Sky News Television Interview

$20 million No-Interest Loans announcement, domestic violence, deeming rates, stimulus package, Coronavirus, Newstart

KIERAN GILBERT:

The Social Services Minister and Minister for Families, Anne Ruston, joins us. Minister, thanks very much for your time. The Treasurer indicated over the last week that there will be an adjustment to the deeming rates for pensions - that was after the interest rate cut announced by the RBA. What's the government's thinking on this?

MINISTER RUSTON:

Well I think you’ll find the Treasurer indicated that it was under review - which it constantly is. I'm always looking at what the market returns people are getting for their financial investments to make sure the deeming rate is accurate to those returns. I'm currently going through that process at the moment, particularly on the back of the fact that we have seen some quite significant changes in our economic situation over the last couple of months, and I hope to be in a position fairly shortly to make some recommendations about how- for any changes if that is what I recommend that there is a change.

KIERAN GILBERT:

It certainly was the impression that the Treasurer gave that this would be part of any stimulus package from the government. Is that a fair assessment?

MINISTER RUSTON:

Well, deeming rates form a really specific role in our social welfare system in that they are really nothing more than I suppose an averaging out of returns that people are getting when they are receiving deeming when they receive some other payment, so that they don't have to constantly keep providing advice to social security about how much they've earned on their financial assets. I suppose it's a tool that we give people to make their life easier when they're on pension or payment and they're receiving income from their financial assets. So whilst, as a secondary effect, I'm sure that any extra money in the pockets of any Australians is going to provide a stimulus, that's not the underlying reason why we change deeming rates.

KIERAN GILBERT:

Yeah it's more about fairness I guess and totally understandable, particularly in the context of the rates- the interest rate environment we are in at the moment as well. But were you one of the ministers who were asked to bring forward stimulus proposals by the Prime Minister? And I'm wondering as part of that, was Newstart something that you took to the leadership of the government? An increase in Newstart?

MINISTER RUSTON:

Well look, obviously I'm not going to pre-empt any discussions that are currently going on as part of the Cabinet and the ERC process in relation to the stimulus package. But what I would say is that, as the Prime Minister's clearly said, the stimulus package that he is looking … to deliver to the Australian public is around a short term measured and proportionate response to the economic conditions that we are encountering right now. And any long term structural changes to anything that we're doing in this space will be the subject of a separate conversation.

KIERAN GILBERT:

Okay. So that doesn't- it sounds like there won't be any change to Newstart, because that would be a structural shift. Did you recognise the advice from economists? The Business Council of Australia as it is among the groups calling for an increase in Newstart because that sort of change would see every dollar spent. It would be the most ideal stimulus in a way.

MINISTER RUSTON:

Well first and foremost, when I develop policy in the social services area it's about making sure that we have got an appropriately targeted social welfare system and it's about delivering both targeted areas in areas of need. I don't consider financial stimulus or fiscal stimulus when making those decisions but, as I said before, obviously when changes occur and people get more money in the pocket that as a secondary effect of course we're likely to see fiscal stimulus. But the basis and the underlying purpose to social welfare is about making sure that we continue to deliver a comprehensive targeted social welfare system to all Australians when they need it.

KIERAN GILBERT:

Yeah. And that makes sense in terms of the broader welfare plan as a safety net. But the government often talks about, you know, jobs being the best form of welfare. But to give people the chance to get to interviews and so on, to have the wherewithal to get to organise their life to be able to go for a job they need to have a proper safety net. Is Newstart still a decent safety net? It hasn't changed for a couple of decades.

MINISTER RUSTON:

Well Newstart, as all government payments do, changes twice a year. They're indexed, Newstart is indexed to CPI twice a year so it's not correct to say that it hasn't changed.

KIERAN GILBERT:

[Talks over] In real terms though?

MINISTER RUSTON:

Certainly. I mean and that's why they change, to keep up with the current rate of inflation. But as I said, Newstart is supposed to be a safety net, it's supposed to be there to help people when they fall on tough times, when they don't have a job. I mean I'm not suggesting for a minute it'd be easy to leave without a job and that's why we are so focused on job creation. But also in my area I have a responsibility to identify and help people deal with the barriers that they find in getting into work. And we've got some great programs that we're currently rolling out in the Try, Test and Learn area, to make sure that we understand that the individual cohorts that find themselves unemployed. Many of them have very, very diverse and different needs to assist them in getting back into the workforce and that's what I'm really focused on doing.

KIERAN GILBERT:

Reports today that the stimulus package will include wage subsidies. How would that sort of thing work?

MINISTER RUSTON:

Well I mean, I'm obviously not going to pre-empt what is going to be in the stimulus package. I'm very focused on the issues before the social services portfolio area. So I think it's probably best to wait when the stimulus package comes out and see what's in it and then we can have the discussion about the various merits of the components of that package.

KIERAN GILBERT:

Andrew Clennell reports it is going to be up around the $10 billion mark. Is that a modest response? A measured response as the prime minister has said it would be?

MINISTER RUSTON:

Well once again, I'm not going to pre-empt what's going to be in the stimulus package nor the size of it. But the one thing the Prime Minister, the Treasurer, and the Finance Minister have been absolutely clear about is the response will be measured; it will be proportionate to the economic conditions that we're currently facing at the moment; and it will be reasonable; and it will be targeted. Now what the makeup of that package is yet to be determined and obviously it would be inappropriate for me to make any commentary about any of the issues or any of the components of the package prior to them being agreed to.

KIERAN GILBERT:

We've seen some widespread panic buying - the reaction has been quite extraordinary, some bizarre scenes really in a couple of isolated cases. Does the Government need to step up the message about the need for calm in the face of the coronavirus outbreak?

MINISTER RUSTON:

Well I think you're absolutely right. Probably one of the strongest messages that everybody needs to hear is that, please be calm. There is no need for panic, that the Government is prepared and continues to work through all scenarios to make sure that we have the greatest level of preparedness for whatever may come over the coming months in relation to this virus. As we do every time we are faced with a crisis, we make sure that we are as prepared as we can. So I just want to assure the Australian public on the best advice; the best medical advice, the best economic advice we are very, very prepared and people shouldn't panic - that Australia is in a very, very good position to deal with whatever happens here.

KIERAN GILBERT:

And with those contingencies put in place by the medical systems, both at the state and federal level, as the Prime Minister said: we, as a nation have got out well in front of this particular outbreak. So if any country should not be seeing that sort of panic it's Australia.

MINISTER RUSTON:

Yes. And unfortunately sometimes, in social media, because it's the way it permeates and penetrates into people's lives and into households, sometimes can create a level of unsubstantiated or unwarranted panic which we saw. But once again, any time any media outlet can reconfirm the fact that there is no need to panic in Australia. We're well prepared and people should just go about their lives as they would on any other normal day and not to allow this to influence them. Take precautions, be careful, make sure your hygiene actions are all absolutely as good as it can be but just go about your everyday life as if there was no issue.

KIERAN GILBERT:

Would the Government look at relaxing some of the requirements on welfare recipients if the situation does get worse in terms of, you know, interviews and job seeking requirements?

MINISTER RUSTON:

Well, we've already said to anybody who finds themselves impacted by Coronavirus, that they've self-quarantined, that if you are on payment, without the necessity for you to provide all the necessary medical certificates you normally would to get yourself excluded from your mutual obligations. Automatically you will get 14 days, at the end of 14 days we expect you to then get a medical certificate - as much to make sure if somebody is still requiring isolation after 14 days we want them to get medical help and we want them to seek assistance. So already in place for anybody who has had to quarantine, your mutual obligations will be waived automatically for 14 days but you will need to contact your Centrelink office to let them know and alert them to the fact that you are self-quarantining.

KIERAN GILBERT:

The Government's put those travel restrictions in place when it comes to China, Iran, South Korea's. There's greater vetting with travellers from Italy. Does it get to a point, Minister, where soon the numbers are at a point in Australia where travel restrictions are irrelevant? And I guess, what's the tipping point in terms of what that number might be?

MINISTER RUSTON:

Obviously that's a matter that is under constant monitoring by the Government. We'll be taking advice obviously from the Chief Medical Officer about, you know, when is appropriate to take which actions. At the moment we're still very confident that we can contain or prevent the virus from taking any further hold in Australia. So we're continuing with our current plans but obviously it's something that's under daily, if hourly, consideration by the authorities.

KIERAN GILBERT:

Finally, I want to ask you about the issues of family violence in Australia. Today is International Women's Day and I know you're announcing a new measure - $20 million in support for those women leaving domestic violence. Can you explain to our viewers what that is going to involve?

MINISTER RUSTON:

Well, working with Good Shepherd, the Australian Government and the National Australia Bank are working to provide women who find themselves victims of domestic violence, who have to flee their family home and set up a new home, to provide them with no interest loans to enable them to get back on their feet. It might be to pay a bond for rent, it might be to buy some household items. There was a lady I was speaking to the other day said she used her NILs grant, or her No Interest Loan grant to buy a fridge which was something that was extraordinarily important to her because she had young children. It might be to pay outstanding bills or consolidate debt. But what one of the most important things about this package, around the domestic violence package is that they will also, women who have suffered financial abuse and don't have the financial literacy skills, will also have access to financial counsellors so that they can get the skills they need to set up on their own and get on with their lives and support their children.

KIERAN GILBERT:

And what's the fundamental change or changes in your view as we deal with this scourge in this country And reflect on it on International Women's Day? Because the numbers are simply far too high, it's unacceptable in a nation like ours. How do you reflect on how we can make improvements here?

MINISTER RUSTON:

I think it is really timely on International Women's Day to have a think about I mean firstly, all the great achievements of Australian women. But we're still stuck here in today, in 2020 with more than one woman every week being killed at the hands of an intimate partner and that's just completely unacceptable. On Friday I met with Women’s Safety ministers along with the Minister for Women to talk about how we actually can start escalating some of the actions that we are currently taking to try and make sure that we are better protecting women in Australia from domestic violence. But, you know, you're absolutely right, we should be ashamed of ourselves in Australia that we have the kind of domestic violence perpetration that we're seeing. But until we can convince everybody in Australia that they have a role to play in stamping out domestic violence - that's not just the Federal Government or state and territory governments, it's the community, it's individuals and really encourage men particularly as role models to start stepping up to the plate. And if you see something that you think is disrespectful behaviour towards women then actually go and call it out for what it is. Because until we change people's behaviour we're just going to be responding to domestic violence and we have to start preventing it.

KIERAN GILBERT:

Yeah. And that measure today to empower women to leave is also worthwhile, very worthwhile in the face of what is just disgraceful number and situation across this country when it comes to family violence. Minister for Families and Social Services, thank you so much Anne Ruston, we'll talk to you soon. Appreciate it.

MINISTER RUSTON:

Thanks so much Kieran. Take care.