ABC News 24—Press Conference

Interview

PFI001/2017

06 January 2017

Topics: The Coalition's $50 billion infrastructure investment; Parliamentary entitlements; Centrelink debt recovery letters

Paul Fletcher: In 2017 we'll be spending some $9 billion on infrastructure on a whole range of projects: the Toowoomba Second Range Crossing, upgrades to the Bruce Highway in Queensland, 5.6 billion on the Pacific Highway being spent between now and 2020 to upgrade the Pacific Highway to four lanes from Sydney to the Queensland border. In Sydney, there's $1.7 billion of Commonwealth money going into the massive new Sydney Metro project a—transformational rail project. The WestConnex project, an enormous project, and there's $2 billion of Commonwealth concessional loan, $1.5 billion of grant money going into that project.

In Victoria: the Tullamarine Freeway, the M80 Ring Road—Commonwealth money there. Last year we announced $1.5 billion of infrastructure spending for Victoria. In South Australia: the Northern Connector, a massive project. Just a few weeks ago I was at the sod turning with Premier Weatherill for that project. In Western Australia: the Perth to Airport and Forrestfield Rail Link, $490 million of Commonwealth money there; almost $1.2 billion committed to the Perth Freight Link. The Inland Rail, Midland Highway in Tasmania. And of course, in Sydney: Western Sydney Airport, some significant announcements made by the Government just before the end of last year, so there's now an approved airport plan for Western Sydney Airport, giving regulatory approval. And the notice of intention has been issued to Sydney Airport Corporation, which will give them the opportunity to determine whether they're going to take up their right to build the Western Sydney Airport.

So 2017, a year of continued extraordinary infrastructure activity for the Turnbull Government. We've committed to spending $50 billion on infrastructure by the end of the decade. That was a commitment first made by then-Treasurer Hockey in the 2014 Budget. Very disappointingly, last week Anthony Albanese, Opposition Infrastructure Spokesman, tried to mislead the Australian people by taking out of context an answer to a Senate Estimates question on notice which concerned infrastructure spending between the period 2014-15 and 2018-19. Mr Albanese rushed out and said that comes to 34 billion, so the Government has misled the Australian people—quite wrong, quite wrong. He's just ignored two years of spending—2013-14, 2019-20. It's very disappointing that Anthony Albanese would deliberately try to misrepresent and confuse the Australian people when it comes to the record $50 billion infrastructure spend that the Turnbull Government is carrying out by 2019-20.

The Turnbull Government is building infrastructure all around Australia, working with state and territory governments all around Australia to deliver infrastructure, to provide jobs, to improve productivity so that people get to and from work more quickly, so freight can move around more efficiently. We're committed to delivering infrastructure, and that is one of the key priorities for the Turnbull Government in 2017.

Question: That's a very long list. A strong economy would help, and it does help with building those sort of projects. HSBC says Donald Trump will help Australia have a strong economy. Would you agree?

Paul Fletcher: What is important is that we have sound economic management, and certainly the Turnbull Government is committed to sound economic management, to getting the Budget under control, and of course to our very substantial infrastructure program which is a key part of our economic program, creating jobs, creating opportunities. And these enormous infrastructure projects all around the country are generating jobs and creating economic opportunities. Western Sydney Airport is scheduled to be opened by 2026. That will generate thousands of jobs, some 9000 jobs by the early 2030s, but it will also attract economic activity into Western Sydney—an area where the population is expected to increase by a million people over the next 20 years. So the Turnbull Government in infrastructure and in so many areas is committed to and is delivering on strong economic management.

Question: Minister, should Sussan Ley have to pay back the cost of travel to and from the Gold Coast, a trip during which she purchased an investment apartment?

Paul Fletcher: Look, Minister Ley has made a statement on that matter and I would refer you to that statement.

Question: That's money that could have gone towards infrastructure though. Is that money well spent?

Paul Fletcher: Well Minister Ley has made a statement on that matter and I would refer you to that statement.

Question: Is it something you would do?

Paul Fletcher: Well look, again, Minister Ley has made a statement on that matter and I would refer you to that statement.

Question: But it's not really a good look at a time when the Government's cutting back on welfare, pensions, the health budget. What message does it send?

Paul Fletcher: Well look, when it comes to, for example, pensions, the message that we are seeing from the Turnbull Government is that on the one hand it's very important that Australians receive the benefits to which they're entitled. If you're unemployed, if you have a disability, it's important that you're able to receive the benefits to which you're entitled. But it's also very important that where a payment has been made in circumstances where the recipient was not entitled to that benefit, that the Commonwealth is able to recover that money. And as Minister Christian Porter said earlier this week, the program that Centrelink has underway has already recovered some $300 million.

So what this is about is better data matching between the Tax Office system and the Centrelink system so that if discrepancies are identified, a letter is sent to the individual, they're given the opportunity to contact Centrelink to explain the situation. And this is very important. Taxpayers certainly expect that there are social services and support available to people who are entitled to that support, but they also expect that if payments are being made in circumstances where somebody is not entitled to that benefit, that a responsible government will seek to recover that money. The budget challenge we have is a very significant one. The Australian people expect the Turnbull Government to be carefully managing their finances, and that is certainly what we're determined to do.

Question: But not Sussan Ley? They shouldn't get the money back from Sussan Ley?

Paul Fletcher: Minister Ley has made a statement and I would refer you to that statement.

Question: Are you concerned though the debt letters are proving so distressing for some people they're being referred Lifeline?

Paul Fletcher: Well look, can I say Lifeline is an excellent, excellent institution. Lifeline has a significant facility in my electorate which I've had the opportunity to visit on a number of occasions. I've had the chance to speak with counsellors at Lifeline, to witness them doing their work, and I would say to any Australian who's facing challenges, who is troubled by a particular issue in their life whatever the cause might be, calling Lifeline is always a good option. They have skilled, trained counsellors, and it always helps to work through these issues.

Question: Is it time to rethink the Government's strategy though, given the significant reports of people who have received those letters and have been deemed innocent?

Paul Fletcher: Look, the Australian people expect that we have a social services system where people can receive the benefits they're entitled to if you're unemployed, if you have a disability, if you're in other circumstances where there's an entitlement to a benefit. I think the Australian people also expect that the Federal Government will be careful stewards of what is after all taxpayers' money, and will have systems in place so that if money has been paid in circumstances where the recipient was not entitled to receive it, then there is a process to identify that and to recover that.

And so this process that Centrelink has underway at the moment, as Social Services Minister Christian Porter has explained, involves letters being sent to people where the data matching between the Tax Office system and the Centrelink system has identified some potential discrepancies. The recipient of the letter is given a period of time in which to speak to Centrelink, explain what the issue is, and some 70 per cent of the issues are resolved at that stage. But at the same time, where there have been payments that have been received where the recipient does not have an entitlement to that payment, it is important, it is appropriate that we have a process in place to recover those payments, because every dollar that's spent, of course, is a dollar that has to be paid for by taxpayers.

Question: Minister, I have an infrastructure question. WA Labor says the funding scenario for the East West Link set a precedent for them to be able to redirect Commonwealth funding from the Freight Link and Roe 8. What do you say to that?

Paul Fletcher: Look, let's be very clear what the situation is in relation to the Perth Freight Link project—a very important project which will improve connectivity to Fremantle Port. It will enable people in southwest Perth to move around much more efficiently, it will improve safety, it will take traffic off of suburban roads. This is a vitally important project and the Turnbull Government has committed almost $1.2 billion to that project. We've consistently said the funding is for the whole Perth Freight Link project, and it is for that project; it can't simply be reallocated to other projects, as WA Labor seems to be seeking to do.

I'd make this very important point: No money has yet been paid of that almost 1.2 billion that's been committed. And I again repeat that the Federal Government's commitment of almost $1.2 billion to Perth Freight Link is for the whole Perth Freight Link project, and it is specific to that project. It can't just be reallocated; it's for a specific purpose.

Question: Minister, some are saying your threat to withdraw the money is just an attempt to help Colin Barnett. What do you say to that?

Paul Fletcher: What I'm simply explaining is the nature of the arrangement that has been reached between the Commonwealth Government and the Western Australian Government. There is an arrangement in place under which there is almost $1.2 billion committed by the Federal Government which will be paid to support the provision of the Perth Freight Link project. It's for the whole project, and it's specific to that project. Now, that is the nature of the arrangement between the Federal Government and the Western Australian Government, so it's simply stating what the facts are in relation to that financial commitment.

Question: Is it appropriate to refer vulnerable people, such as disabled people, to debt collection agencies?

Paul Fletcher: It is very important that the Australian people have confidence that we have a social services system where those who are in need of, and who are entitled to, benefits because they're, for example, unemployed or have a disability are able to receive those benefits. It's also very important that the Australian people have confidence that where a payment has been made to somebody in circumstances where there was not in fact an entitlement to that payment, that there are processes in place to identify that and to recover those payments, because every dollar that is paid to somebody in those circumstances is a dollar that has to be paid for by taxpayers.

Now, as Social Services Minister Christian Porter has stated, already some $300 million of savings have been achieved through this program which Centrelink is carrying out. And this is, I think, what the Australian people would expect the Turnbull Government to be doing, which is being careful custodians of taxpayers' money and making sure that benefits are available for those who are entitled to them, but at the same time where a payment has been made in circumstances where the recipient is not entitled, there are processes to identify that and to recover it.