Transcript of Interview: Sky News Australian Agenda with Peter Van Onselen



22 June 2014

Peter Van Onselen: Welcome to the program.

Jamie Briggs: Good morning.

Peter Van Onselen: Can I just start by asking you about some of the comments that have come from Sue Boyce, the outgoing Liberal Senator, where she's referred to Tony Abbott as being a sexist. What's your reaction to that?

Jamie Briggs: Ah look, I think this is a debate that was had 18 months ago and really I think people have moved on. It's not very…

Peter Van Onselen: But not the Liberal Senator apparently.

Jamie Briggs: Well, look, Sue's entitled to her view at the end of her time in the Senate but I think the general public are more interested in the bigger issues. They're interested in how we're going to fix the budget, they're interested in that we've stopped the boats for six months now. They're interested that we're building the roads of the 21st century and that we're abolishing unnecessary taxes.

Peter Van Onselen: I think they're probably interested in all those issues perhaps not those reoccurring lines but what about the fact that should we be concerned—let me come at this from another direction. Should any of Sue Boyce's parliamentary colleagues be concerned that a long-term member of the Federal Parliament holds that view about someone within her own party, or is this just some sort of bitterness on her part based around another issue?

Jamie Briggs: Well, I think you'll make your assessment of someone who's leaving the Senate at the end of her time, on what the contribution she made and what may be motivating the comments she's making. But, as I say, I don't think this is any issue which people want to revisit. I think it was an unfortunate time in Australian politics and it was an unfortunate thing for a Prime Minister at that time to do—when she was desperately trying to create distractions from Labor's chaos and its mess and its building up of billions of dollars of government debt.

Simon Benson: Minister, Sue Boyce isn't the only one that's been out sort of freelancing on issues outside their (indistinct). I suppose you might say. The Attorney-General's been freelancing on issues that aren't under his portfolio which have caused you problems. You guys are starting to look far more unified in Opposition than you are in government. Is there a loss of some discipline in the Ministry and in the party room?

Jamie Briggs: Oh no, look, I think at the end of someone's tenure in the Senate, they always as you know do interviews, wide-ranging interviews on their views on a wide range of matters so that's not a surprise. And there is a few people leaving the Senate this coming week for instance, Ron Boswell, who's made a terrific contribution over such a long period of time and we wish him well. We wish all the Senators leaving well. What we are focused on as a government, as a ministry and as a party room, is ensuring that we implement our plan that we took to the election last September. People want consistency, they want to see a government say they're going to do one thing and continue to do that and that's exactly what we're doing. We haven't put in place this budget because we want to be seen as a bunch of populists, that's for sure. We want to be seen as a bunch of people who are committed to building a stronger Australia and that's exactly what this budget's about.

Peter Van Onselen: Minister, one of the people that I think Simon Benson was referring to there was the Attorney-General, George Brandis, he's not an outgoing Senator, he's made some comments about East Jerusalem, about this issue of occupied versus capital o to small o seems to be where we're at now. What is the distinction between capital o Occupied and small o occupied?

Jamie Briggs: Well, the issue in relation to East Jerusalem is that we have not changed our policy one little bit, and Julie Bishop has been very clear about that. She met with a few of the Arab states on Thursday, I think it was last week and made that absolutely crystal clear and there is no change in government policy. I know the Greens are trying to create distractions on this issue but we are committed to a two-state solution, we always have been and we always will be.

Troy Bramston: Jamie Briggs, can I ask you about federal-state relations, we just had New South Wales Premier, Mike Baird on the program, as you know, he's obviously looking for more revenue or more money from the Federal Government to fix the hole in health and education spending that he says that your government has kicked his government in the guts over. So, would you be more willing to give him the opportunity to take some income tax revenue or support his push for increased GST?

Jamie Briggs: Well, Troy, that's why I think we've agreed with Mike Baird to have a federation white paper. COAG agreed to that early part in May. I think it was 8 May when they had their last meeting, and I understand the terms of reference for that paper have been finalised with the states as we speak. That is, I think, a once in a generation opportunity to look at the responsibilities at each level of government.

Of course, we accept that there are pressures on the health system that weren't there some time ago. We do have an ageing population and there are challenges that states face in maintaining the services that people expect. So, that's why one of the important things we're trying to do in the budget is address our issues in relation to health and that is with Medicare and ensuring Medicare is sustainable. We want Medicare to be in place for the long-term (indistinct).

Peter Van Onselen: Can I ask on that? What makes it sustainable by brining in a co-payment which goes directly into a medical research fund. If it goes into debt or if it goes into broader health spending, I can see that point. But if it doesn't do either of those things, how does that contribute to making it more sustainable?

Jamie Briggs: Well, I think, there's a couple of point there. The first is we're trying to say to people, make your decisions on when you seek healthcare appropriately and obviously…

Peter Van Onselen: Around financial spending capacity by putting in the co-payment.

Jamie Briggs: Well, of course, that is no doubt the direction on this and none other than one of Troy's good friends, Andrew Leigh, wrote about this a decade ago. And said that it makes absolute sense—the Labor Party's Shadow Assistant Treasurer who is mooted as one of their few economic thinkers—he wrote about this 10 years ago and made this exact point.

Peter Van Onselen: I asked him about that actually when I interviewed him during the week, the other week, and his point was that he wrote about it from the perspective of being an academic and he thought for economic reasons, there were good arguments behind it. But the issue that he had is that once he had a chance to speak to healthcare professionals, something that I assume that the Health Minister would've done before coming up with co-payments, he realised that the health industry is unified in its concerns around monetizing visiting a GP for preventative healthcare reasons. And when you do see all the people in the healthcare industry, they seem to line up one after the other, I can't find a single one to talk to on any of the programs I do here on Sky News that agrees with the Government on this policy. Is that even remotely a concern for the Government?

Jamie Briggs: Oh, well, no, I think there are, of course, there are when you take on challenging reform you're taking a different track I guess on an issue. It will always take some time for people to work through the issues which relate to it which are related to it I should say. So, of course, Peter Dutton is working daily with the people involved in the health industry to ensure we get this right. But the overall point that Andrew Leigh made, which I note he hasn't backed away from, are that you need for a sustainable Medicare system you need people contributing and you need people to recognise that healthcare is not free. No-one gets free healthcare, we all contribute through one way or another and we must in the future as we get older, to ensure that people who most need the help, are able to access that help.

Peter Van Onselen: Just one last thing, I can well understand the economics behind how a co-payment may well provide more financial certainty within the medical system but that's why it surprised me that taking that view, that the Government and this came out through Senate Estimates, that the Government didn't do any modelling of the - economic modelling I mean of the impact that a co-payment would have, given that it was all about the economics, does that surprise you that your colleague, Peter Dutton, didn't organise for any modelling to be done before going forth with this policy?

Jamie Briggs: Well, look, I'm sure as part of the consideration there has been economic considerations given to all this, of course there is, I mean that's the very essence of what we're trying to do. And at the end of the day, this is reform which has been talked about for a long time, talked about by a range of people and it is reform we think is necessary to make the system stronger and more sustainable and that's why we're pursuing it.

Simon Benson: Minister, you'll be pleased to know I'm going to ask you a question about your portfolio.

Jamie Briggs: That'd be terrific, Simon.

Simon Benson: There's billions earmarked for infrastructure, obviously around $30 billion from memory. Now with the problems in the Senate passing your budget, can you guarantee that none of that infrastructure money will be affected should some measures fail to get passage through the Senate? And I ask that considering a lot of those infrastructure funds are predicated on various measures such as the sale of Medibank and things like that. So, can you guarantee that the infrastructure money will be quarantined from any impact that may be felt by the Budget should measures not get past by the Senate?

Jamie Briggs: Yeah, absolutely. It's $50 billion. It's the biggest spend an Australian Government has ever made into infrastructure and part of that is as you identified the Asset Recycling Fund which when the sale of Medibank Private is concluded the funds from that will go into that. I understand that we don't need additional legislation to sell Medibank Private, I think the enabling legislation was passed some years ago. So, Mathias Cormann's now working through that process. But at the end of the day what we're trying to do is leverage not just more jobs in the coming years with our spend. Working with state governments, and can I say Mike Baird and Duncan Gay are an absolute pleasure to work with on infrastructure. They've got their ducks lined up, they know what they want to do, and they're getting on with delivering it. We want to not only create the jobs with our spend but we want to also leverage private sector investment. And that's why we believe if you look at our $50 billion investment, plus what the states are contributing, and with the private sector involvement through the Asset Recycling Fund and projects like WestConnex, we're going to see $126 billion of economic activity over the next decade which will not only create thousands of jobs, lift our productivity but will ensure we've got the veins of our cities to be more competitive. That's what this Budget was about, contributing to ensure we've got a fiscally sustainable budget but with a growth plan at its heart to ensure that Australia is as competitive as we need to be so we can be as prosperous as we want to be into the future.

Peter Van Onselen: This is Australian Agenda, we're speaking to the Federal Assistant Infrastructure Minister, Jamie Briggs. We need to take a break. When we come back, we've finally got on to infrastructure, we'll stay there. Back in a moment.

Peter Van Onselen: Welcome back. You're watching Australian Agenda where Troy Bramston, Simon Benson and I are speaking to the Assistant Infrastructure Minister, Jamie Briggs, doing this live out of Adelaide. Mr Briggs, can I just start by asking you a quick question about PPL. As I understand it, your colleagues tell me that you used to be a strong critic of Tony Abbott's policy on this but perhaps a little bit like Andrew Leigh on co-payments; you've changed your mind. Why haven't some of the members of the Senate changed their mind? And why are they only being so vocal now as opposed to in the years gone by?

Jamie Briggs: Well, I'm glad we came back on infrastructure, Peter.

Peter Van Onselen: You don't want to talk about the Prime Minister's signature policy?

Jamie Briggs: Well, it's - you identified, I think, I read a very good column by one of Australia's leading columnists on this point that this is a policy we've taken to two elections. It's hardly an unknown commitment. It's had a fair bit of press around it from time to time so people knew that they were voting for us with this policy at the last election. Sure, in the weeks leading up to the Budget, we made a decision or the Prime Minister in fact made a decision that given the budget circumstance, we needed to reduce an element of it but it's a commitment we've had for the best part of four years now. In fact, I think it was June 2010 when we first announced it. So, people are very clear that it's our policy. It is a policy which is seeking to give small business fairness. The reality is that if you work in a big firm, work in the Commonwealth public service for instance, you get access to wage replacement, paid parental leave, but if you work at my sister-in-law's hairdressing business in the southern suburbs of Adelaide, you don't. And what we want to do…

Peter Van Onselen: Is that also a good reason to go to the Commonwealth's or the public service superannuation scheme? Because there they obviously get more by way of super than what the Government have committed to for the private sector.

Jamie Briggs: Well, but again that's a commitment that had been agreed to as part of your negotiations—Commonwealth public sector employees get more superannuation as part of their wage arrangement but everyone in small business gets at least nine per cent superannuation guarantee whereas if it's a paid parental leave entitlement they don't necessarily.

Peter Van Onselen: But they get the minimum wage. So, if you're going to draw an equivalence between what the public servants get a more generous PPL so therefore so should the private sector. Shouldn't that logic extend to the public servants' superannuation also being extended as government policy to the private sector of about 15 per cent?

Jamie Briggs: The point here is if again if you work in a small accounting firm, and you consider whether you want to have children, as a young family, as a family, the offer to go and work at Westpac, who have wage replacement paid parental leave, is very attractive. It makes it very hard for a small accounting firm who can't possibly pay paid parental leave to do that. So, there is a small business unfairness there which this policy seeks to address and gives also obviously the opportunity for more women to stay in the workforce which is what we're looking to do. Increase our productivity.

Troy Bramston: Jamie Briggs, you're doing your best there to sell the Government's PPL policy but I guess it's not going to get through the Senate in its current form, and also the Government's direct action policy, the GP co-payment, a whole bunch of other things are unlikely to get through the Senate. Does that concern you that what we're now some weeks on after the budget, a month actually and a lot of these key government policies that you took to the last election, and were centrepieces of the Government's budget are going to hit a roadblock in the Senate after 1 July? I guess it doesn't impact on your portfolio too much but are you concerned that the Government hasn't sold its policies well enough, and what are you doing about it in terms of those Senate negotiations?

Jamie Briggs: Well, I wouldn't presume the mind of the Senate in the first place. I mean the new Senate hasn't even met yet. The new Senate is meeting obviously with relevant ministers, with the Prime Minister, having those discussions, and I think we need to wait and see what the new Senate's attitudes to some of these policies are and this is not new. I mean this was commonly an issue which the Howard Government faced during their term; an issue which the Rudd Government faced and the Gillard Government and the Rudd Government again faced during Labor's term. The Senate has always had a mind of its own on many issues and the governments have got to work with it. And we'll work with it but we're committed to the directions we put in place in the Budget. They're not easy, they're not necessarily popular but they're the right decisions to build a stronger Australia and we're very committed to them.

Simon Benson: To be fair, did the Senate make-up under John Howard was slightly different than the one you're about to encounter. But surely it's become obviously pretty clear to a lot of people is that you really don't know how to tackle Clive Palmer yet, do you?

Jamie Briggs: Well, I think, Simon, the reality is until the new Senate hits the floor of the Senate and everyone's in Canberra taking part in the negotiations, you can't tell what the outcome of these issues will be. I'm not at all sure that the positions that some of the new Senators have outlined will necessarily be their position in a month's time. When they're in Canberra and we've had the discussions with the relevant ministers they see the direction that the Government's trying to take, I'm very confident people will understand this is the right direction for Australia and that's why we'll continue to argue our case. And to get back to Troy's point about what we're doing about this, we're continuing to argue every day. It is never easy to change long-held entitlement systems. Troy has written about Paul Keating and Bob Hawke's terrific contribution to the Australian economy. It wasn't easy for them in the 1980s to take the decisions that they did but they were the right decisions because we've got a stronger country for it. And it's not easy for us today but they're the right decisions and we'll have a stronger country for it.

Peter Van Onselen: It's amazing how much more respectful of former politicians of the other side, current politicians are once they are former politicians. Jamie Briggs, we're right out of time.