Interview with Peter van Onselen and Simon Benson – Sky News Sunday Agenda – Sunday 1 June 2014





SUBJECT/S: The Abbott Government’s Budget of Broken Promises; media ownership; ABC; SBS; NBN.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: We will talk about some of these issues now about the Labor Party and the policy mix going forward with the Shadow Communications spokesperson Jason Clare. Thanks very much for your company.


VAN ONSELEN: What is your view on the wider position of the Budget? It seems to me – one of our guests later in the program is John Hewson and he was really the last Opposition Leader to take a true manifesto from Opposition into government. Ever since then it has always been a case of Oppositions playing to the negatives of the government. Do you think that the Labor Party, to get back into government in one term, will be bold and take a serious manifestation to the next election?

CLARE: I think you have got to do two things. You have got to make the case that the government deserves to be thrown out and there is a lot to argue in this budget that says this government should be thrown out. They have deceived the people of Australia. They broke a lot of promises in this Budget and it is a bad Budget on its face because it is taking money off poor people and giving it to rich people.

The Sheriff for Nottingham would be happy with this Budget when you see the way in which they are moving things around. But you are right. A Labor Party going into an election also has to make the case for why you should vote for Labor as well. Part of that is saying if you vote Liberal pensioners will get a cut. University students will have to pay high fees. But the other part of the argument is Labor will do the things necessary to build a stronger economy and a fairer country.

VAN ONSELEN: They are not really taking from the poor to give to the rich, they are just taking from everyone. It is a tough Budget but that’s because of Labor’s debt build-up over six years.

CLARE: It is a tough Budget and we have made the case that structural reform does need to happen to the Budget but it’s where you make those reforms. Now, if you look at this Budget, all of the structural reform affects the sick, the poor or people on low incomes. There is no big structural reform in this Budget that’s targeting either Australian companies or people that are on higher incomes.

VAN ONSELEN: How could they do that, though, realistically? Because it is only where there are government handouts that you can make structural adjustments, unless you are going to put up taxes for companies.

CLARE: Two things. They are getting rid of the mining tax so giving money back to mining companies. They are also getting rid of some of the changes we put in place for superannuation, for people that have millions of dollars in superannuation to pay higher taxes when they have got a lot of money in superannuation.

So they’re giving money back to them, effectively, and at the same time taking thousands of dollars off people on low incomes. For you, for all of us, this Budget means we lose a couple hundred dollars. But for pensioners over time, for people on low incomes, they are going to lose thousands of dollars and that’s why I say – that’s why Bill Shorten and the Labor Party says – that’s not fair.

SIMON BENSON: Let’s get back to one of the main arguments that you have made or one of the major cases you made the last week of parliament and the first week of parliament over the Medicare co-payment. It seems to be a defining battleground for you guys. What’s the difference now with a Medicare co-payment than was the case in 1990 when Bob Hawke introduced the Medicare co-payment and indeed Paul Keating in 1991 introducing the PBS co-payment? They identified a structural problem with Medicare 20 years ago but now you are saying no change.

CLARE: The Labor Party stood up to Bob Hawke back in the 90s on this, the most successful Labor Prime Minister we every had. So if we were prepared to stand up to Bob Hawke on it, you can bet that we are prepared to stand up to Tony Abbott on this as well.

The Labor Party created Medicare, we built it up and we are going to defend it and we will defend it because of this: if you put a co-payment into the system, you charge someone $7 to go to the doctor, it will make sick people sicker. More people won’t go to the doctor. This is not just politicians saying this, it is doctors that are saying it. In my local community I have got doctors already saying that the number of people coming into their surgeries is already down because people think this is already in place, and if people don’t go to the doctor when they think they’re sick then there is a risk that they get sicker and they end up in hospital. It costs the system more down the track.

BENSON: Sure. Okay, we have got that on the record. Bob Hawke was wrong. The current Labor Party think that Bob Hawke was wrong.

CLARE: Not on many things but on this he was.

VAN ONSELEN: Would you say it cost him his leadership? I mean, was it as defining as that? Because colleagues of yours privately have said to me that this was a singularly crucial issue that cost Bob Hawke the leadership back then.

CLARE: I don’t know. We can’t go back in history and make those sorts of decisions. What we can say is that Medicare is important. It’s fundamental to the Labor Party and if Tony Abbott wants to try to destroy Medicare he has got to come through me, come through Bill Shorten, he has got to come through Labor if he is going to ram this through the Senate.

VAN ONSELEN: Andrew Leigh must just be a complete pariah in the Labor Caucus. I mean, he wrote a scholarly piece all about the value of the Medicare co-payment post the Bob Hawke decision.

CLARE: When he was at school, Peter. I think Joe Hockey campaigned for free education when he was at school as well. So we all change our mind over time and I think Andrew has as well.

BENSON: What about the family tax payment system, which Labor is yet to arrive at a position on? It has been three weeks since the Budget and there has been various positions put out in the media about where you are on the FTB A and FTB B. It was of course the Rudd and Gillard governments that froze the indexation of the thresholds for those two payments so you obviously recognise there was a structural problem with that family transfer system. Now it looks like you are going to oppose the government on their restructuring of it. Why?

CLARE: Family Tax Benefit B was put in place by the Howard government and when it was put in place it was a payment for single income families whether they were poor or rich. So you could be on a low income or you could be a multi-millionaire and you still got Family Tax Benefit B.

When we came into government in 2008 we means tested it, effectively put a cap on it at 150,000. Now, the government wants to lower that to 100. We said we will have a look at that, we will be sensible about that. But what we don’t want to do is take that money away from families that need it when their children turn seven, or eight, or nine or 10. They say that that payment should go when children turn six. Well, you guys would know, kids don’t get less expensive when they turn seven, or eight or nine.

VAN ONSELEN: Isn’t the point, though, that that way a single income family can be encouraged to become a dual income family? It is sort of ironic to me that the party of social conservatism, particularly with a Prime Minister like Tony Abbott, is prepared for fiscal reasons to say “You know what? Despite what my personal views might be on this, we need to cut it out at six. We need the productivity in the workforce of women, in particular women, getting back into it when their child goes to school”, yet Labor is blocking that.

CLARE: Families don’t need any encouragement to get back into the workforce. Life is expensive and that’s why mum and dad are getting into the workforce. This payment helps to pay the bills. This is not middle class welfare. People that receive this payment don’t call it middle class welfare – they call it food, they call it petrol, they call it rent. It is an important part of their income.

I’m all for making sure that money goes to the people who need it most and that’s what this should be designed to do. There is an inconsistency here though because the government wants to cut into this payment but at the same time give money to families who don’t need it in the form of paid parental leave for people on high incomes. Now, in my book, that’s what middle class welfare is and if we want to get women back into the workforce then you would be better using that money at targeted policies to make child-care cheaper. That’s what will boost participation and productivity in the workforce much more than giving a bucket of money to rich mums who don’t need it when they have children.

BENSON: We will have something on the child-care rebate I suppose sometime later in the year when the Productivity Commission reports. But could we go to your portfolio?

CLARE: Sure.

BENSON: We haven’t heard a lot from you on your portfolio. There has been other things in the way, presumably. But the current media laws, cross-ownership laws, are they still relevant considering the digital age? Do you think that they need reform?

CLARE: The internet has changed a lot but we have got to be careful not to claim that it has changed things fundamentally. The traditional media is still very important and very influential. Most people when they wake up in the morning don’t grab their iPad and read the Washington Post. They are still listening to Sam and Koshie or watching Karl and Lisa or they are opening the telly and reading, Simon, what you have got to say. The sort of things that are on the front page of the Daily Telegraph are the things that lead to questions in interviews like this. They lead to questions that the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition gets in an interview and invariably what’s on TV that night.

The Chief Executive of News Corp, Robert Thomson, last week made the point that News Limited’s papers are still going to be here for decades and decades to come, so your job is safe, and online news is still traditionally run by the traditional media. Most of the – I think it is the top five are all run by News Limited, Sydney Morning Herald and so forth. So things are changing but we shouldn’t overstate it.

BENSON: You seem to be making the point of sort of an ethereal thing that is hard to judge, which is influence rather than reach and scope. So no one can argue that the digital landscape has changed the reach. You are talking here about the influence of particular media.

CLARE: It is both. It is both. So the reach is still significant and so is the influence.

VAN ONSELEN: So would Labor – because the speculation is that Malcolm Turnbull will bring forward legislation at some point probably before the end of the year to change cross-media ownership laws in some way, is Labor open-mined about a change to cross-media ownership laws?

CLARE: Yes, I have said we will take an open mind to this. We will consult with industry. I already have. There will be more consultation with industry and we will consult with the general public about it as well. The Minister has indicated he is going to release a paper or a discussion paper on this. I think that is a good thing. You need a proper debate about it. The point Labor wants to make very clearly though is you can’t deal with media ownership in isolation. Industry also wants the government to look at licence fees for free-to-air television, retransmission fees and how it affects companies like Foxtel and also sport. Sport is pretty controversial when it comes to whether it is on free TV or pay TV.

VAN ONSELEN: Well, the anti-syphoning laws –

CLARE: That’s what I’m talking out.

VAN ONSELEN: – is a crucial issue there.

CLARE: Absolutely.

VAN ONSELEN: The thing that – Labor, I think it was, in government changed it so that within the provision of anti-syphoning free-to-air was allowed to show things on their digital channels beyond their main change.

CLARE: That’s right.

VAN ONSELEN: I mean, is that really fair to a competitor? I mean, disclaimer we are on Foxtel now. But is that really fair to a company like Foxtel, that they can continue to have things that are only allowed on free-to-air but are allowed on multi-channel viewing on free-to-air?

CLARE: Well, when we went from analogue to digital switch-over it meant that everyone in the country had access to all of those channels and so it meant everybody could watch sport for free either on the main channel or on the other channels. Now, the question here is whether some sport might be taken off free-to-air and only be available on Foxtel. For people watching today that’s not a problem because they have got Foxtel but only 30 per cent of the country has.

VAN ONSELEN: But so many sports are on this anti-syphoning list. I can understand major events like Grand Slams, grand finals and so on but there is a lot wider array, hundreds of aspects of sport, in fact, that are quarantined for free-to-air. Well, what is the logic in that?

CLARE: This is the question. If sports are taken off the list then it potentially has an impact on the value of those free to air television networks. Sport is terribly important for TV networks because it is one of the only things people will watch live, that and news. So they will fight for that. That’s why you can’t look at media ownership in isolation to this because it affects the value of those TV networks. What Labor says is you have got to deal with this as a job lot. Before we can make a decision on media ownership reforms we need to understand what the government intends to do on sport.

BENSON: Can we go back in time a little bit, Stephen Conroy’s media reforms? Were you an advocate of the Conroy reforms or were you an advocate of free speech?

CLARE: Those reforms are dead. They died in the Parliament.

BENSON: So they are never coming back under Labor?

CLARE: No, I have no interest in them at all with one exception. There was one reform that was part of that which was the reach rule, the 75 per cent rule, which restricts TV network to having 75 per cent of the market. I understand Malcolm Turnbull is interested in putting that as part of this package. Naturally we have got sympathy for that because it was part of that package as well but in doing that – and I think the National Party and my own Labor colleagues would make this point – we need to make sure that we protect and support local content in any reforms to the reach rule.

BENSON: Sure, but the regulatory part of Senator Conroy’s media reforms, which were the most controversial, they are dead and buried.

CLARE: They are dead not to be resurrected. There is only one package of media reform that is on the table. Media reform is a well-trodden minefield and Malcolm is welcome to it.

BENSON: Is Senator Conroy, though, still trying to influence decisions on this? I heard that he is still trying to get actively involved in media reform.

CLARE: Not to my knowledge. But what I should say is that there are a lot of people in the Labor Caucus who work in this portfolio space, whether it is the NBN or whether it is media policy or Australia Post. We have got people like Ed Husic, Michelle Rowland, Tim Watts. We have got a whole team of people who have worked in this sector before they came into politics who can provide a lot of expert advice to me and I draw on their support.

VAN ONSELEN: Let me ask you about Peppa Pig. Well, the head of the ABC suggested in estimates, I think it was, that Peppa Pig might have to go because of some of the cuts to the ABC. I mean, he is just being mischievous saying that, isn’t he? It is one of their higher rating programs, it is loved by children. The cut or the efficiency drive that he is expected to deal with is about 1 per cent of their Budget. I mean, if they can’t find 1 per cent of fat to cut without cutting Peppa Pig that is ridiculous, isn’t it?

CLARE: I think Paul Keating had a Budget that brought home the bacon but this is the Budget that brings home the porkies. Lots of broken promises in this Budget, including a promise made the night before the election that there will be no cuts to the ABC.

VAN ONSELEN: Sure, but the issue there is that the promise was silly, not the breaking of it in terms of the policy goal of more efficiency at the ABC. It is the promise that never should have been made as opposed to the subsequent decision.

CLARE: It is not just one. You know, this is not a broken promise in isolation. There were a mountain of broken promises, a mountain of promises made and then broken. That’s the problem. Now, Peppa Pig won’t go. Of course it won’t. It is too popular. Everyone other than Piers Akerman loves Peppa Pig.

VAN ONSELEN: But why did he say it then? I mean Mark Scott, by saying that, was being deliberately mischievous, wasn’t he?

CLARE: To be fair to Mark, his answer was the same to every question that was asked about could a different service go. And if you cut deep enough into the ABC and you don’t reinvest the money back into the organisation, then, yes, some services might be affected and that’s the issue here.

I have said that there was a promise made and the promise should be kept. Every organisation, whether it is the ABC or whether it is a major Australian company, can be more efficient but that money should be reinvented in the ABC to provide new services. They have done that in the past, like iView, and I’m sure they could provide extra services now.

BENSON: Do you believe, though, that the ABC should be immune from any cuts at all?

CLARE: What I believe is that Tony Abbott should be true to his word. He said no cuts to education.


CLARE: He is cutting 30 billion out of it. He said no cuts to the ABC.

BENSON: That’s fine, but do you believe the ABC should be immune from any cuts at all? Does the Labor Party believe that the ABC should be immune?

CLARE: Well, we actually increased investment in the ABC. We created ABC3, the children’s network and a whole bunch of other things. Any organisation can be more efficient and I’m sure there are things that are happening in the ABC and SBS where money could be better spent elsewhere. But the point I make is make those efficiencies, drive the organisation to be more effective in the way it does things and then use that money elsewhere.

BENSON: Sure. It was the Paul Keating government that first put efficiency dividends on all parts of government.

CLARE: Yes, and we put efficiency dividends on all parts of government but there is an issue here which is fundamentally important. People trusted Tony Abbott. They might have been suspicious but they decided they wanted to get rid of Labor and they backed this bloke. They said Okay. He has promised to do all these things. He gets into government and then he breaks a whole litany of promises. He needs to be good to his word, otherwise in two year’s time people are going to say “I’m going to throw this bloke out.”

VAN ONSELEN: Does Australia still need SBS? Because where it was originally conceived as a network for ethnic Australia and a multi-cultural Australia was pre the internet age, pre the period where you can get a lot of targeted programs on SBS via the internet now.

CLARE: Just ask the people that use SBS that listen to SBS as radio programs in a multitude of different languages.

VAN ONSELEN: You can do all of that online now. You don’t need a taxpayer-funded network to do that.

CLARE: Some of the services that it provides, some of the information that it provides about what is happening in Australia in a diversity of different languages can’t be provided just as easily over the Net. If you think ethnic communities in Australia are already upset about the changes to the Racial Discrimination Act, just try and get rid of the multitude of different SBS radio services and you will see how angry they will be.

VAN ONSELEN: But you could amalgamate it with the ABC and one of the digital channels for the ABC could cover it. I guess I am just wondering because you have got this taxpayer-funded Goliath, if you like, in the media mix via the ABC. It is no longer just a broadcasting corporation. It has got a virtual newspaper online. The nature of the media dynamic has changed such that the ABC does all these things, yet we also have, as an appendage to that, SBS and we also then have rules limiting the free media, whether it is anti-syphoning or whether it is cross-media ownership laws. It doesn’t feel like a level playing field even though it is not supposed to be a level playing field because it is a taxpayer-funded broadcaster. Something has got to change, doesn’t it?

CLARE: There is a lot in that question. The Minister has initiated and efficiency review into the ABC and SBS. We have got to wait and see what’s in that report, if it gets released. Now, there was speculation in the press yesterday about a merger of some of the back of house operations of ABC and SBS and there might be some value in some of that. The speculation about merging their head offices together was also speculated. A word of caution here, the government has got to be careful here. If they try and merge the two organisations too closely together, what you will end up with is just a bigger ABC and I don’t think my friends in the Liberal Party would really want that.

BENSON: The other elephant in the room I suppose is the NBN because we haven’t heard a lot about that since the election. Is the debate over the NBN over or are you going to go to the next election with a fight on your hands for the NBN to return it to what you wanted to be?

CLARE: We got flogged at the last election but I don’t think many people voted for the Liberal Party because of their NBN policy. Most people want the real NBN, the fibre that takes it all the way to your home or all the way to your business.

We need to see how much the government actually rolls out over the next two years. They promised before the election that everyone would have the NBN, that everyone would get 25 megabits per second by 2016 and then three months later, when Holden announced it was going, they announced that that promise was going too. It is one of the multitude of broken promises they have made. I think, Simon, you need to look at this not in the context of just two years but 20 years. You ask most serious people about this and they will say fibre to the home is the end game. The question is whether you do it in one stage or whether you do it in two. We said do it in one stage. Malcolm Turnbull is saying do it in two stages. What this means, because they are now building fibre to a box in the street and then copper to your home is it is going to take a Labor government to come and finish the job.

BENSON: So what you are saying is that people can expect that Labor will go to the next election with an NBN policy to restore what your visions were for the NBN. Is this just going to be an endless debate until we have finally got something that doesn’t work?

CLARE: Like all big infrastructure projects, they are always controversial until they are built. You will remember the Sydney Olympics. Everybody was complaining about it and they are complaining about Brazil now and then once they are done everybody looks back and thinks “How did we survive without it? What were we complaining about at the time”. The NBN, when it is rolled out completely, people are going to think How has this changed our lives?, just like electricity did over 100 years ago. It was originally designed just to light the house and then through innovation and invention and demand it led to people using it for TV, for air conditioning, for computers, blow drying their hair, everything. That’s the same thing that is going to happen with the NBN.

One of the inventors of the internet, Vint Cerf, said 99 per cent of the uses for the internet haven’t even been created yet. And by giving this infrastructure to the Australian people we are going to see changes to the way we live and to the way we work.

BENSON: But you would have to concede though that Labor failed in its roll-out of the NBN. I mean, it was a spectacular failure in terms of its promises on delivery and costs. Cost were overblown.

CLARE: Well, I think it is the right project. My principal criticism of the roll-out of the NBN is it was too slow. It needs to be sped up and we should build it, not break it.

Before I went into politics I worked for a construction company building the M7. The first time you build a bridge you make mistakes and you do it slower and then every time you do it you get better and quicker at it and changes need to be made of the NBN to improve the construction roll-out.

On costs let me make this simple point, the paid parental leave scheme that we were talking about will cost about $50 billion or more over the next decade, more than the NBN. Now, which one of those, paid parental leave or the NBN, do you think will have a bigger impact on economic growth and productivity in this company? I’ll tell you which one it is. It is the NBN.

VAN ONSELEN: I’m still thinking about which bridge you built first, wanting to make sure I don’t go over it.

CLARE: There are about 40-odd. In fairness, I’m a lawyer, not an engineer so other blokes did that.

BENSON: On an angle bridge, I think.

VAN ONSELEN: Final question before we let you go, border protection. I mean, you had carriage in this policy space as a Minister. Will Labor just concede that you are winning all sorts of political debates in other areas chiefly around the Budget but border protection, I mean that’s one where change of government, boats stopped. Simple as that.

CLARE: This is an area poisoned by politics. We want people to not get on boats and drown in the middle of the ocean. Everything that stops people getting on boats is a good thing because it means people don’t die. The establishment of the processing centre at Manus Island is important in this regard because between the announcement of Manus and the election there was a 90 per cent drop in the number of people who came to Australia by boat. Now, that’s fundamentally a good thing. You can’t stop people risking their lives without Manus because you send a very clear message that if you come to Australia by boat you will be settled somewhere else. Now, it took too long to get there and we were frustrated in the Parliament by politics, by people playing politics around this issue. But if we can stop people getting on a boat that stops people dying that’s a fundamentally good thing.

VAN ONSELEN: Jason Clare, appreciate your company on Australian Agenda. Thanks very much.

CLARE: Thanks Peter. Thanks Simon.

BENSON: Cheers.