Interview with Kieran Gilbert, Sunday Agenda

KIERAN GILBERT, HOST: Let's bring in the Minister for Communications, Michelle Rowland - also a member of the ERC. Thanks so much for your time. A few of the difficult decisions, as Andrew mentioned, out there already. It looks like it is going to be a tough Budget in parts. Although the overall budget bottom line has strengthened.
MICHELLE ROWLAND, MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: There are difficult decisions that need to be made. Let's remember the context that we're dealing with here. We've been saddled with a trillion dollars of Liberal Party debt, we have made substantial savings leading into this Budget, hard decisions being made. But at the same time, we need to plug some $5 billion of gaps where the previous government failed to fund adequately some pretty essential facilities, including in my portfolio in relation to eSafety. So, there are these very difficult decisions that need to be made.
GILBERT: Can we explain that? So, the funding has gone up to June 30 this year for things like the eSafety Commissioner. Isn't that just normal governing that governments fund up until a point and then renew that funding? Isn't it the way it works?
ROWLAND: Well, let's be clear. These are essential services that every Australian would expect to continue, including management of nuclear waste, MyGov, different digital health records, the eSafety Commissioner being another one of them. But after the 30th of June, the funding for that goes off a cliff. So, it comes back to exactly this point, as the Finance Minister has said, we are going to have to hunt for more savings to plug those gaps and it gives you a sense of what we are dealing with here. We have some significant structural challenges. We talked earlier about the NDIS, for example, and the fact that if it's left on its current trajectory, it could blow out to even cost more, if not the same, as Medicare into the future. These are the pressures that we're dealing with here. But let's remember, too, the real pressures here are on Australian families. They're on Australians who are working hard, who want to get into the housing market, who, for no fault of their own, are faced with these external pressures that are adding to inflation. We are having to make difficult decisions, savings decisions. But I can assure all Australians that every dollar that is being spent is being closely scrutinised for how that delivers on our commitments and for the Australian people.
GILBERT: On the NDIS, there's no doubt, obviously, something has to be done, given the trajectory of that growth and some of the waste, some of the rorts involved. But what do you say to those watching this morning who might be a bit worried about, say, the family member or loved one who's on a programme that might be cut?
ROWLAND: This review has been very deliberative. Minister Shorten has gone into this process mindful that the end outcome always needs to be that we stay true to the purpose of the NDIS. But we can't have a situation where people who are rorting the system - providers and unscrupulous people - who may be making money out of this scheme rather than having it going back to the people who need it most. This is about returning to delivering on these services to people who need it most. We need to ensure that it's sustainable going into the future and that we don't have a situation where it becomes so overwhelming and such a structural impediment to the Budget that future governments may choose to cut it altogether. This is about exactly as you said in your opening, doing better with what we have and ensuring that it remains sustainable.
GILBERT: The Sunday Telegraph reporting today that the First Home Buyers support and housing grants from the Federal Government is going to be broadened. How's that happening? It sounds like it's not just couples that will be able to apply.
ROWLAND: This reflects the reality of our understanding of how important this is for people who want to get into the housing market. There are some cohorts of people who've been out of it for some time, including the fastest growing group, which is older women who have found themselves - through circumstances in their lives where marriages may have broken down, where they may have not had sufficient superannuation - living in a situation where they're in poverty and homeless. We are, through these decisions, reflecting what is going on now. We currently have people who are banding together to enable deposits to be raised by ensuring that the existing government schemes that we have are made available to this wider cohort of people and we know they are popular.

GILBERT: Could it drive up prices?

ROWLAND: What we will have is a greater number of people who are eligible. The scheme is there, with a greater number of people who are actually eligible. Having that 15 per cent guaranteed deposit from the government somewhere in the vicinity of a 5 per cent deposit, being able to forego that mortgage insurance, really makes a difference to people wanting to get into the market. Again, what we are doing here with these changes is reflecting the reality, ensuring that more people who need assistance are aware that that assistance is available and able to access it.
GILBERT: But there’s not a risk it could be counterproductive in driving up prices further?
ROWLAND: These schemes have been designed so that they ensure people can actually get into the market and that's precisely what these changes are aiming to do.
GILBERT: On a few areas in your portfolio, you've announced just last week credit cards are going to be banned from use on online gambling. How widespread are we talking about when people are using credit to punt?
ROWLAND: It's some 20% of people who are using credit cards for online wagering. Whilst that seems like a small amount, it's actually that group that is more susceptible to higher losses. The key principle Kieran, is simple. It's that people should not be betting with money they don't have. This is in fact, bringing the online wagering world in line with land-based wagering. We actually can't use credit for poker machines and casinos, for example. This was the subject of a review done by the Parliament a couple of years ago, which was not acted on by the previous government. We have picked that up. We've consulted with the banking industry, with advocates, consumer groups, with the wagering sector, and we have made a decision that we will legislate this before the end of the year.
GILBERT: When does it come into force?
ROWLAND: We will legislate this before the end of the year.
GILBERT: Okay, so starting early next year, I guess. In terms of the ban on stage six Mobile Phone Blackspot programme that's been rolled out to deal with mobile phones. The Auditor-General last week said there is a merit in investigating the way that those grants have been delivered. Have you got anything to worry about in the way the government's handled that?
ROWLAND: What we did during the election campaign is we asked communities what they needed. Through our excellent candidates and our excellent sitting MPs, one of the key bits of feedback in these regional areas was about mobile services. We took to the election a series of commitments to improve mobile black spots in those areas. We funded that in our October Budget. We released publicly available guidelines on which we consulted and we have made those funds available.
GILBERT: We've also opened up largely Labor seats, though, aren't they?
ROWLAND: We made it clear during the election campaign that we would consult with people about what they needed. Our candidates and MPs came back to us. There are a number of areas that had been significantly underserved, including, for example, hard hit areas in the South Coast and the Blue Mountains, which had been completely ignored under the previous government. But we have opened up new rounds of funding as well, under our Regional Connectivity Program and our Mobile Blackspots Program. I encourage, as I have been doing all along, members and also local communities, to get involved.
GILBERT: Are you happy for the Auditor-General to have a look?
ROWLAND: The Auditor-General will do their job. We will do our job as a Government on delivering on our election commitments.
GILBERT: Now, just to loop back to the Budget before we wrap up. As I said, you're on the Expenditure Review Committee. For people watching this morning, explain how that works, because it's basically a subcommittee of the Central Cabinet of the Government, isn't it? And you've been meeting almost daily recently.
ROWLAND: That's correct. There has been a big job here for the ERC, and the Prime Minister is included on that, as well as the Finance Ministers and others. What this does is it scrutinises every piece of expenditure and savings that go into the Budget. In fact, we started this process for the Budget not long after the first Budget was complete. It’s where Ministers present their cases, the policies to be funded and we scrutinise each of those. Looking at the levels of savings that we've been finding and reprioritising, that reflects the important strategic measures that this government seeks to deliver for Australians. I guess the key message here is that Australians should be confident that we have been applying a high level of scrutiny to every decision with the Australian people in mind about how we can improve their quality of life.
GILBERT: There's been a high level of scrutiny on the Prime Minister's attendance at a wedding yesterday. It's caused a bit of a reaction. What are your thoughts on his attendance?
ROWLAND: My understanding is the Prime Minister accepted an invitation prior to the election and he honoured that commitment to attend.
GILBERT: No dramas there? Because it looks like a lot of people have noticed it. Put it that way.
ROWLAND: A lot of people did notice it because obviously it was a very high-profile wedding and I wish them a lifetime of happiness as a couple.
GILBERT: Michelle Rowland, thanks for your time.
ROWLAND: My pleasure.