Interview with Richard Davies and Johanna Nicholson – ABC News 24 – Weekend Breakfast – Saturday, 17 August 2019

ABC News 24 – Weekend Breakfast

Saturday, 17 AUGUST 2019


SUBJECTS: Pacific Island Leader’s Forum; Climate Change; the Economy; Veterans homelessness.


RICHARD DAVIES: Well it’s time now for our Poli Panel. This week we’re asking what was achieved at the Pacific Leader’s Forum, whether we’re about to head into a recession and if we should be doing more to support veterans.

JOHANNA NICHOLSON: Well joining us to discuss this is Labor MP Jason Clare and Nationals Minister for Veterans and Defence Personnel Darren Chester. Thank you both for your time this morning. Darren Chester I might start with you and on this Pacific Islands Forum. Pacific leaders expressed their desire to focus on climate change and action on climate change ahead of this forum and Australia didn’t agree to an initial declaration that included a focus on phasing out coal at this forum, that’s the result. Pacific Island leaders did express some disappointment at that. Australia has been pushing this Pacific step up this engagement with the islands. Do you think this forum represents a bit of a step back in our relationship and our engagement with our Pacific neighbours?

DARREN CHESTER: Well not at all Jo, and great to be joining you and Jason as well. It’s important to recognise what could come out of the Forum, the commitment from the Australian Government obviously using the Australian taxpayers money is providing 500 million dollars in additional support from 2020 onwards for practical projects in the Pacific Islands things like extra resilience to the infrastructure whether it’s bridges or roads or coastal work that is actually going to improve resilience in those areas. And the government itself and the Prime Minister’s made it very clear we’re on target to achieve our commitment, our international commitments of 26 to 28 per cent reduction of emissions by 2030. So you know as a nation Australians are doing their share to reduce their emissions. At the same time we obviously want to have a strong and warm ongoing relationship with our family in the Pacific and we’ve been able to achieve that. So I think we’ve got a great relationship and we’ve set the framework for going forward in this term of Government.

NICHOLSON: I’m sure Pacific neighbours would welcome that extra funding but they did express that their top priority was action on climate change and Australia is a significant exporter of coal and we didn’t sign that declaration that included a focus on phasing coal out.

CHESTER: Well the point I make Jo is that we’re in a position to provide foreign aid, overseas aid to countries which may not be in as a strong economic position as Australia is. By the virtue of the fact we have a strong economy, now part of our strong economy is our resource industry. If we’re going to have a prosperous strong Australia it’s going to involve some resource exports. We need to have our own reliable baseload security in terms of our own energy mix. And so we’re working to make sure the economy remains strong, at the same time achieving our international commitments in terms of reductions and then being a good citizen in terms of good neighbour and providing support to our neighbours in the Pacific if they need it. So I think it’s about recognising that Australia has to do its share. But keeping in mind that Australia’s contribution to total emissions is less than 2 per cent. We can only do our share we can’t actually do it all ourselves.

DAVIES: Jason Clare is Australia a good neighbour for not acting more on climate change and putting the economy over the environment? 

JASON CLARE: Well I think it’s all about credibility. Our emissions, our carbon pollution is going up, not down. It’s hard to have credibility in this conversation with our Pacific neighbours when that’s a fact. You know this is not just a conversation on morning television for people who live in the Pacific. This determines whether they’re going to have a home or not in the decades to come. And so when you’ve got members of the government cracking jokes about water inundating people’s homes or saying ‘look if you go under that’s okay you can come and pick fruit in Australia’, then that affects our credibility in this debate. Yes we export coal you need coal to make steel. Always have and there’s no alternative to that. But if you want to have real credibility in a debate with our neighbours and we’ve got a special responsibility here, we are the biggest economy in the region, these countries rely upon Australia to act properly. If you want to have the support of the region then you need to demonstrate that you’re taking climate change seriously and if emissions are going up, and it’s not just emissions going up, electricity bills are going up too. So ironically we haven’t cut pollution and we haven’t reduced the cost of electricity. It’s been a massive fail on this Government’s watch.

NICHOLSON: Jason the Prime Minister said his top priority was to look after the Australian economy and to do what’s best for the Australian economy. That’s his job isn’t it?

CLARE: Well he’s not doing a good job at it. The economy is weak at the moment. We’ve got the weakest economic growth at the moment since the global financial crisis 10 years ago. The Reserve Bank had to cut interest rates twice since the election.  It’s now at emergency levels. We’re now seeing problems overseas and the Reserve Bank doesn’t have much further to move there. There’s more people today in Australia that are behind in their mortgage repayments than any time in the last 10 years. Wages are flat and you’ve got problems with as I said electricity bills going up, petrol bills going up, the cost of rent going up. So if he wants to stake his claim on doing a good job with the economy, well the record proves otherwise.

DAVIES: We’ll go into detail about the economy situation a little bit later. But Darren Chester just wanted to ask how difficult are things in the Coalition at the moment regarding climate change and emissions reduction and were you surprised to see Malcolm Turnbull come out and actually defend Scott Morrison’s approach?

CHESTER: Well this issue of energy emissions reductions has proven to be a difficult topic for public debate, for more than the past probably 15 years. It’s no surprise that there’s different viewpoints in the coalition, just as there are different viewpoints in the Labor Party and different viewpoints right around the nation. I think the point is we’ve got to get to the stage where we are committed to medium international targets, which we are, and we’re working to make sure we have the reliability and affordability that people expect, while still meeting those environmental targets. Now I think the government is on the right track in terms of being out to find a middle road where the majority of Australians can agree with the direction we’re trying to take. We need to work with the state government as well in terms of making sure they’re doing their bit in terms of the reliability and affordability. We’ve seen here in Victoria, where the Victorian State Government seems in a hurry to push coal fired power station out of La Trobe Valley and that is going to come with enormous risks to the Victorian and South East Australian economy. We’ve already seen the closure of Hazelwood Power Station which caused massive disruption here in our state. So we need to be working constructively with the states and with the industry itself to ensure the lights can stay on, they remain affordable for business and industry and households. At the same time we are good at meeting environmental targets, our international commitments and I think we’re on the right target there.

NICHOLSON: Darren, Jason mentioned the economy earlier, and this week obviously we had a very rough ride on the markets this week with 60 billion dollars wiped off the Australian share market. Does the government need to change its focus, it’s working towards a surplus, it’s talked about this three stage reshaping of the tax system, does the government need to take into account where the economy’s going a bit more?

CHESTER: Well the government takes into account where the going every day for the week. And look I know Jason’s doing his job, his job is to be the opposition. But come on cheer up a little bit Jason. We’ve had 28 years of economic growth in Australia. We’ve got more than a million jobs created during this term, sorry this period of a coalition government the last six years. I understand that you got to hold the Government to account but look around some of the positives as well. 

CLARE: Well come on give us some good ideas Darren,  give us three ideas to help the economy get stronger? I told you we have got weak economic growth how do we get it above 2 per cent. What are you going to do?

CHESTER: Well I think the massive investment in infrastructure which is going on at the moment needs to be rolled out. We need to find willing partners in the states to speed that up. I’ve found here in Victoria the state governments being too slow to pick up some of the funding the federal government is offering. So we’ve got a hundred billion dollars over 10 years for that. I think the Government’s tax plan in terms of reducing the tax burden on individual households is important and rolling that further into the future and I know that’s our plan beyond 2025, which I think is a good plan as well. And I think working constructively with the small business sector the engine room of growth in our regional areas in particular is important as well. But there is one other point I would make to Jason and to the team. The drought is knocking us around in regional Australia. The drought is actually knocking us around to the point where it’s actually having an impact on our small businesses and our regional towns, as well as our farming families. So to maintain our economic growth in a period where there is extreme drought in large parts of Australia is a pretty good effort and we need to make sure we’re doing more with all our State colleagues to support our farming families during a very difficult time at the moment, recognising the recovery will take several years. So it was a lot of work ahead of us but that’s government. Government always requires a lot of work.

CLARE: I think that’s right. You know this is a dangerous time for us. We’ve seen as you said 60 billion ripped out of the stock exchange over, I think that was just one day this week. You know that’s 60 billion dollars ripped out of people’s superannuation accounts. Most people watching today have got less money in their super than they had a week ago. So the idea that what’s happening overseas or a trade war is not real and it doesn’t have any impact has been proved false. This is a real war with real costs and we do need to do to make sure that we take the necessary action to combat it.

DAVIES: Do you think the government needs to step up with more stimulus instead of keeping to its promise of delivering a budget surplus? Do you think it should actually be spending more?

CLARE: It can do both. We’ve been told that they’re on track for a budget surplus of 7 billion dollars, so there’s the capacity there to do what Darren just suggested which is to bring forward infrastructure investment. Darren said ‘One hundred billion over 10 years’. Now the problem there is most of it’s at the back end. And what the Reserve Bank has been saying for months and months and months is bring that forward. Remember there was another report that came out this week from Infrastructure Australia that said that for all the government’s rhetoric about busting congestion, you know all this infrastructure that they’re building, that congestion is going to be worse in a decade than it is now. So with a weak economy, with dark clouds on the horizon with a trade war getting worse, and with the fact that the Reserve Bank’s saying ‘bring this forward’, and if you don’t you’re going to have a weaker economy and worse congestion – there’s all the reasons in the world for them to bring things forward. Darren came up with some good ideas. More investment in infrastructure, bring forward the tax cuts we called for that but the Government voted against it. Instead you’ve got ratbags in Darren’s party talking about ‘well no instead we should bring back WorkChoices or build nuclear power plants or end superannuation for everybody’. The division of last year is back. Instead what they should be doing is bringing forward that infrastructure spend.

NICHOLSON: We do want to get to our final topic this morning. We had a new report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare this week that showed that more than twelve hundred veterans used homelessness services over a six year period. We happened to have the Veterans Affairs Minister and also the Shadow Minister for Housing and Homelessness, so we thought it was a great chance to discuss this really important topic. Jason I might start with you are we doing enough to support our veterans?

CLARE: No. One in 10 people outside the studio here that slept rough last night is a veteran. The RSL tells us that there’s been a 25 per cent increase in the number of veterans that are seeking their help. So that tells you there’s something seriously wrong here. It’s not just homelessness. Think about this. We had 41 Australians lose their life in Afghanistan.  In that same time period to now something like ten times that number have taken their own life here in Australia. Young blokes who leave the Defence Force are twice as likely to commit suicide as other blokes in society. We’ve got a special obligation here to help them. We train them, we ask them to put their lives at risk for us and they’re taking their own lives here or they’re finding themselves sleeping in the park outside this studio. We need to do a lot more. And you know I say we have failed, I don’t say the government’s failed, this is not a political point. It’s something that both sides of politics need to do more to do to fix.

DAVIES: Darren Chester what can be done to increase support for veterans to ensure that people don’t end up being homeless?

CHESTER: What can I say first of all that anyone listening to us or who’s a veteran or has a friend who thinks he’s at risk of becoming one of those statistics that the Open Arms free counselling service is available on 1800 011 046, that’s 1800 011 046. I just want to take up Jason’s point that yes this is thankfully largely an area where it’s completely bipartisan in terms of the way we are trying to work together to address some of the challenges that Jason pointed to. The Australian people I think can feel confident about one thing, that their money, their taxes are being put towards about 11 billion dollars worth of support services for veterans and their families this financial year. Lots of work going into supporting veterans and their families. But they also need to appreciate that there are some people who upon leaving the Defence Force may be physically or mentally unwell and need additional support. It’s that area where I think Jason and I are on the same page, in terms we need to make sure we’re targeting them to support them at that very precarious point, that transition point where if they don’t have a job to go to or if their home situation is not stable they’re at risk of becoming homeless or in fact self-harming. So there’s more work to be done in that area. But I’ve got to say there has been a lot done already in terms of providing free mental health care for all veterans and their families and additional Veterans payment for those who come forward with mental health issues. But there’s always again there’s always more work to be done in that area. And I think we can do more with ex-service communities in their own communities, where the veterans may relocate to, to make sure we’re providing support for them in their own community rather than having them have to move perhaps to a metropolitan area to access some of the specialist support services they sometimes have to do.

NICHOLSON: All right. Darren Chester, Jason Clare we really appreciate your time this morning. Thank you. 

CLARE: Thank you. Thanks Darren.

CHESTER: All the best guys. Thank you.