Transcript—612 Sky News Live with Patricia Karvelas

Interview

PFI032/2016

30 October 2016

Topics: New immigration laws, infrastructure spending, housing affordability

Patricia Karvelas: My first guest tonight is the Urban Infrastructure Minister Paul Fletcher. Paul Fletcher, welcome to the program.

Paul Fletcher: Good to be with you Patricia.

Patricia Karvelas: Firstly on this announcement today, asylum seekers who arrive by boat face a lifetime ban from Australia, even if they are found to be genuine refugees. Now these laws are retrospective, they're going to be introduced to Parliament next week. Even those who have returned to their home countries will be unable to return, even as a tourist. This is an extremely hard line; why is it even necessary?

Paul Fletcher: Well this is about sending a very clear message to the criminal gangs which operate people smuggling operations. Now it is- it's been the position for some time. In fact the position was first introduced by Kevin Rudd as Labor Prime Minister in July 2013 and he said as of today asylum seekers who come here by boat without a visa will never be settled in Australia. So that was a position that Labor took to the 2013 election. Of course the Coalition, since we came to power in 2013 has been busy cleaning up the terrible mess we were left by Labor with some 1200 deaths at sea during the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years.

Patricia Karvelas: Okay, but to be clear, you haven't introduced these laws any earlier and yet none of these asylum seekers are in Australia. It seems like a pretty blatant wedge to me. Isn't that what this is, politics? Because these people aren't in Australia, you've said they're not coming to Australia. Why a lifetime ban? Why are these laws necessary now?

Paul Fletcher: Well, as Prime Minister Turnbull and Minister Dutton said today, what we've been working through is a steady process of cleaning up the extraordinary mess we were left by Labor. We've closed 17 detention centres. There are now no children in detention and we're seeing a significant number of people on Nauru for example who are employed or who are operating small businesses. So we've been working through cleaning up the mess that we inherited from Labor. This is about taking a further step to send a very clear message to the criminal people smuggling gangs.

Patricia Karvelas: Were you under the impression that they didn't—they weren't clear on this, because I would have thought it was crystal clear these asylum seekers have been in offshore detention in what seems like an extraordinarily long time now and yet these laws now it seems like there's a political motivation to these laws given we haven't needed them until this point.

Paul Fletcher: Well this is about sending a very, very clear message to the criminal people smuggling gangs. We do need to maintain a strong set of borders. Of course as a consequence of the things we've been able to do, we've also be able to increase the number of places for refugees, people coming from UN High Commission refugee camps and so on, up to 18,750 places. We've been able to provide 12,000 places for victims of the conflict in Syria and Iraq, and these are all things that we can do because we have maintained strong borders. Now we have to work very hard to turn around the mess we inherited from the Labor Party in 2013. Under the return prime minister, Kevin Rudd adopted a position which we have maintained since then and we certainly would expect that Labor will support this legislation which is consistent with the position that Kevin Rudd took to the election.

Patricia Karvelas: Isn't Labor entitled to look very carefully at this move given Labor has had a bipartisan support for your policy and Labor's original policy of these people not coming to Australia and yet you seem to be trying to do something new now by enshrining something in law which is permanent, which affects a group of people in a way which doesn't even let them visit Australia at any point in their future even they're able to start a life somewhere else like in Cambodia and they just want to come on a tourist visa at some point. I mean it seems extremely draconian. Why shouldn't Labor be given the time to consider this properly?

Paul Fletcher: Well we certainly would expect and hope for the support of the Labor Party in this measure which is designed to maintain our strong borders. Now since the Coalition has been in power and there have been no successful boat arrivals, but it is important to maintain a position of vigilance and so we certainly would expect and hope that Labor would support these measures, these amendments to the Migration Act which were announced today by the Prime Minister and the Immigration Minister.

Patricia Karvelas: Just on another issue. Figures confirmed at Senate Estimates- at a Senate Estimates committee hearings last week show that in the 2015–16 financial year the Government invested 5.5 billion on transport infrastructure and that's about, I think it's around 2.5 billion less than the 8 billion you promised in the 2014 Budget. You talk big on infrastructure but you're spending- you're not even spending the money you said you would spend. Why is this happening?

Paul Fletcher: Well, let me just be clear. The Coalition is spending considerably more on infrastructure than was spent under the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government.

Patricia Karvelas: Sure but you're not spending what you said you would spend …

Paul Fletcher: I'll come to that in a second. This is an important point. In the first three budgets of this government, of the Coalition government, compared to the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government, if you look at the amount we're spending, it's more than 40 per cent more than Labor were spending. Now across the country we are spending very substantial amounts—$5.6 billion so that the Pacific Highway will be four lanes from Sydney to the Queensland border by 2020, the commitment of over $7 billion on the Bruce Highway. The Toowoomba Second Range Crossing, the Gateway North upgrade in Brisbane, the Sydney Metro project, $1.7 billion towards that transformational road project.

Patricia Karvelas: Sure, but I'm talking about—you're not spending the money you said you would spend, that's the question.

Paul Fletcher: We are consistently spending large amounts of money. Now of course there are always variations between what is in effectively the forecast, so this is a forecast, or an estimate that was in the 2014 Budget, and we now have the final position as to what we'll spend in 2015–16. These variations occur from time to time. We saw a variation of a similar magnitude in the 2012–13 Budget. But the point I'm making is there is record infrastructure spending under the Turnbull Government, some $50 billion between now and 2019–20. I could point to WestConnex; $16.8 billion of which there's $2 billion of concessional loan money and $1.5 billion of Commonwealth grant money. NorthConnex, with $412 million of Commonwealth grant money. In Victoria you've got the Tullamarine Freeway widening, the M80 Ring Road, and we announced a $1.5 billion Victorian infrastructure package in April this year.

Patricia Karvelas: Okay, but you concede you are spending less than what's in the Budget?

Paul Fletcher: In terms of the particular comparison for that period, yes, but those spending commitments remain, I hasten to add. A significant driver there is that the relevant line item is entitled infrastructure payments to support states. So if a state chooses to delay the commencement of a project by six months, for example, it can slip into a subsequent year. That's happened in relation to a number of elements. One of the other things that's happened here, I might say, is we're getting some significant savings on projects. On the Toowoomba Second Range Crossing, for example, savings of about $150 million are presently expected. On the Bruce Highway, very significant savings. Now coming from a business background, in my view and the Coalition's view, when you need to spend less than the budgeted amount to get the same outcome, that's a good thing.

In the topsy-turvy world of Labor, for some reason that's a bad thing. But we're interested in outcomes. We are spending record amounts on infrastructure; there's an extraordinary range of infrastructure projects all around the country. In Adelaide, for example, the Northern Connector in Perth, we've committed over a billion dollars to Perth Freight Link, all around the country—inland rail, for example, we've committed nearly $900 million to inland rail. So in our big cities, in regional Australia, record amounts of infrastructure spending under the Turnbull Government. This is transformational spending.

Patricia Karvelas: Alright. Just on another issue on housing, John Alexander has backed some comments that have come out of New South Wales about looking at that ACT model for housing where you get rid of stamp duty and look at something called a land tax version instead. Now John Alexander says we need to be having this conversation; is the Government prepared to do more than just talk about supply and pushing it off into the never-never, but actually talking about something tangible? I mean, is John Alexander right that it's worth looking at these kinds of ideas?

Paul Fletcher: Well look Scott Morrison gave an excellent speech this week highlighting some of the issues in terms of housing affordability. He made the point that there's been a drop over the last few years from 71 per cent of Australian households either owning a house outright or in the process of buying it through a mortgage, that's dropped to 67 per cent, and he pointed to the challenge in assembling a deposit. So these are important issues, and he made the point that one of the issues we really need to address is the supply side constraints, getting more property coming into the market, and that doesn't just mean in the outer suburbs, it also means throughout our cities. In New South Wales, for example, we've seen a really good initiative from Planning Minister Rob Stokes which is looking at in- changing the planning rules to increase the number of terrace houses in middle ring suburbs. These are a popular form of housing, but they're undersupplied compared to demand. He made the point actually that even on the present zoning laws, you could have a couple of hundred thousand more terraces in the middle ring suburbs in Sydney. So look, this is an important issue, a very important speech from the Treasurer.

Patricia Karvelas: But does John Alexander have a point? That was my question, that we need to look at those sorts of proposals.

Paul Fletcher: Well look in terms of the question of stamp duty versus land tax, that really is a matter for state governments. Now Premier Baird this week indicated that he didn't have a great appetite from a New South Wales perspective for looking at that sort of transformation, but what I think is terrific is that Treasurer Morrison has kicked off a really good discussion of an important issue, and he's indicated a focus from the Turnbull Government, and particularly in working with state governments to encourage the provision of extra supply of housing so that we can get more supply coming into the market. That's a really important factor.

Patricia Karvelas: Many thanks for your time this evening.

PAUL FLETCHER: Thanks Patricia.