Subjects: Thank a First Responder Day; Shadow Cabinet meeting in Townsville; Labor’s economic mismanagement hurting Australian families; increasing interest rates; the Prime Minister’s Canberra Voice proposal; Community Health and Hospitals program; disaster recovery funding.
Thank you all for coming today. I really appreciate you coming out to ‘Thank a First Responder Day’ at the new QFES Building and supporting Fortem, which is a fantastic organisation that supports our first responders.
It’s also a great day for me to be able to bring Shadow Cabinet to Townsville, to get them out in the community, meeting with local groups, meeting with local people and talking about all the things that matter to them, and of course Peter Dutton, the Leader of the Opposition, the Leader of the Liberal Party, who’s a frequent flyer to Townsville, back here again, speaking with first responders, listening to community, and also catching up with some people this morning at Otto’s as we sat down and had a coffee and just listened to the concerns of the community.
Angus Taylor is back in Townsville again as well – the Shadow Treasurer – to talk all things on the economy, but also listen to how things are different from the cities to the regions – and I know he’s from a regional place – but to come to Townsville I think is very important. Perin Davey, the Deputy Leader of the National Party, and James Paterson, Senator for Victoria and the Shadow Minister of Home Affairs, joining us here today.
But most importantly for this press conference is this guy; James from Fortem. Now, the reason that they’re so important is because they do something that is remarkable and that is provide a service to our first responders, and I think it’s so important.
When I was in defence, and I went through the highs and lows – I’m very open and honest about my own journey – I’ve got a mental illness and I have post-traumatic stress disorder, and I had the services that were there to support me through my transition, but many of my friends who are first responders – whether they’re in police, they’re in the fire service, they’re in the ambos, the SES or they volunteer – they didn’t have that support, they didn’t have the same as what we had that was supplied through the federal government.
So Fortem has taken up that responsibility to ensure that our first responders get the help that they need and that they deserve, because they’re out there every day – whether it’s a crime committed at night, a natural disaster, whether it’s through floods, fires or cyclones – they’re there. They’re the ones who leave their homes when their places could be damaged to go help the community.
I think it’s so important that we supported Fortem. We supported it through when Peter Dutton was the Minister for Home Affairs, and just recently we were able to pull the Labor Government to the line, which they didn’t do at the start, to support Fortem, to go forth and support these emergency service personnel.
It’s great that we’re doing the ‘Thank a First Responder’ here in Townsville with Fortem because Townsville is the largest city, the furthest away from a capital city, which means what we see here is compounded from how we’re not close geographically to a major centre, or a capital city. So, to have Fortem here, to have their commitment, to have an office here, and have people here to support our first responders, I think will go a long way in helping our community. So James, thank you for coming mate.
Well good afternoon and thank you to Mr Phil Thompson. Thank you to the Honourable Peter Dutton for inviting Fortem Australia to be here today at this press conference.
We’re here today at the Townsville Emergency Services Complex on ‘Thank a First Responder Day’. Now, this is a national day of action that is spearheaded by our organization, Fortem Australia, and we link the community and we link first responders on this day, through expressions of gratitude. We, our organisation, we are a national, not for profit organisation that provides community resilience in times of disaster, and we do this through supporting first responders with their mental health and wellbeing and first responders with their career retention, ensuring that they can stay well at work and we provide this support 365 days per year.
Resilient communities, resilient first responders, this will ensure that Australian communities can recover from catastrophic disaster events. It will ensure that our first responders are at their best when they put their lives on the line for others, and it will also reduce our nation’s dependence on the Australian Defence Force to deploy to domestic disaster regions.
This is a national priority and we are the only organisation that provides these services at scale to communities across the country and with additional support from the commonwealth, from states and territories, we are committed to making sure that communities can be as resilient as possible during times of disaster and in times not of disaster.
This is why we’re here, here in Townsville today to launch our services on the ground to ensure that this region – the brave first responders and their families who work and live in this region – have access to our lifesaving, effective supports.
Thank you very much. I’ll now pass to Mr Dutton for further comment.
Well James, thank you very much mate. Firstly to you and to Fortem. It’s an amazing organisation and you really roll your sleeves up to help our first responders – many with a workload that most Australians just couldn’t understand or really relate to because they’re going into harm’s way, when most people are running the other way and they need the support of organisations like Fortem. So, I want to say thank you very much to you for the work that you do, also to Queensland Fire Emergency Services for hosting us here today and all of the first responders that we met with.
We also made I think a very important note today to recognise the families of those first responders. Quite often they have young families, there’s a lot of anxiety about mum or dad going to work in uniform and all of the stress and pressure and danger that that brings. On this National Day, we should stop and pause and say thank you to somebody wearing a uniform, whether they’re engaged in one of the emergency services or if they’re a volunteer. I think that’s incredibly important.
I want to say thank you to Phil Thompson who I think is a local hero here. He’s served his country in uniform and he has an absolute connection – which is obvious when you go into the community with him – with people who are just everyday people who live here in Townsville. They know him, know his family, they know the work that he’s done for neighbours or for local community groups and he has a very significant respect in the community and he doesn’t take that for granted. He’s worked hard for his local community and I’m pleased that we’re here as a Shadow Cabinet to support Phil and the work here in Townsville. Obviously Susie McDonald, who’s resident here in Townsville as well – her office – and thank you very much to Angus Taylor, to Perin Davey and to James Paterson, and to the other members of the Shadow Cabinet who are here today.
It’s important for Shadow Cabinet to get out, particularly into the regions, but into the suburbs and across the country to listen to Australians, and I can tell you at the moment, that there are many Australians who are hurting very significantly and more day-by-day under this Labor Government.
The Prime Minister and the Treasurer promised that they had a plan. When they went to the election in 2022, they promised to reduce your mortgage rates and we know now that mortgage rates are on the way up again.
The government has had 12 months and they’ve had two budgets to implement the plan, to provide support to families, to reduce power prices by $275, and instead, on the 1st of July, we know that power prices will go up, yet again, by about another 25 per cent, and the Treasurer being out there saying that he doesn’t know what’s going on and this is not his problem. Well, that’s cold comfort for families who are trying to balance their budgets at the moment.
There are families who are struggling to pay their electricity bill or their gas bill, and now they’ve had another increase in their interest rates, in their mortgage repayment, because of decisions that Jim Chalmers and Anthony Albanese have made. I think, frankly, instead of saying he doesn’t know what’s going on, I think the Treasurer should take responsibility and frankly, apologise to the Australian people for presiding over two budgets now that have been inflationary, will keep interest rates for higher for longer and small businesses and families are going to suffer as a result of that.
So, I think there is a lot that the government can do to provide support to families, but instead in their measures in the budget, they have put upward pressure on inflation. In relation to many other comparable countries at the moment – this is a very important point to make – Australia has a higher core inflation rate than many other countries around the world of comparable status.
So, the problem is not coming out of Ukraine, as the Prime Minister wants you to believe. The problem here is coming out of Canberra and you had a Prime Minister who promised to help you and now you’ve got a Prime Minister that is making decisions that are hurting you.
I think for many Australian families and small businesses, the pressure is going to continue to mount because, as we know, we thought the interest rate rises had stopped, but because of the budget they’re now going to go even further, and I really worry for Australian families and the pressure that they’re under at the moment. I’ll ask Angus Taylor to say some further things in relation to the economy and then I’m happy to take some questions.
Well thanks Peter. It’s great to be here in Townsville with my parliamentary colleagues, Phil Thompson, of course, the wonderful member here for this great part of the world. Yesterday was Labor’s interest rate increase. Today we see they’re overseeing an economy that’s shuddering to a halt as inflation continues to rage. An economy shuddering to a halt as inflation continues to rage. This is the worst of all worlds we’re seeing in these national accounts. A growth is for the last quarter, down to 0.2 per cent, it’s negative in terms of GDP per capita. We’re getting worse off in terms of GDP per capita.
But buried in those numbers we see the pain Australians are feeling – rising mortgage payments, rising broader cost of living. We know that there’s rising energy costs, despite the promises that were made by the Labor Government, and of course, we’re seeing that they’re having to work harder to make ends meet – more hours – and they’re having to dig into their savings to make ends meet. This is a tough time for Australians. Meanwhile, we have a government that doesn’t have the plan, or the priorities, to fix these problems.
We see a government that is either not interested or not focused on these things. Today we’ve seen the Treasurer out there focused on banning cheques. Banning cheques. Well, let me tell you Treasurer, Australians are focused on the cost-of-living crisis they’re facing every day. They’re facing a crisis in how they make ends meet and how they live the life they want to live. Hardworking Australians who want to get on with life, who want to make ends meet, who want to get ahead, and you’re talking about banning cheques. This is a government not focused on the issues that Australians care about.
Now, let’s be clear, let’s be clear – it’s Labor’s blend of policy that is leading to these results. Higher interest rates, higher inflation, slowing economy shuddering to a halt, and Australians feeling the pain. Their industrial relations policies, their investment policies, the lack of focus on productivity. We’ve seen a major productivity report come down in the last few months and the Treasurer hasn’t seen fit to meet with the chairman of the Productivity Commission. Meanwhile, in these figures, we see labour productivity in the last 12 months under Labor’s watch has fallen by 4.6 per cent. No wonder the Reserve Bank Governor feels that he’s got no choice but to raise interest rates.
The inflationary pressures in this economy are off the charts because productivity is shot. The Treasurer needs to focus on doing his job, he needs to take responsibility. The Prime Minister needs to start showing an interest in the economy because it’s hurting Australians across the board. We need solutions to these problems, not excuses, and right now all we’re getting from the government is excuses.
Thanks Gus, happy to take any questions.
Opposition Leader, the Opposition is laying blame for the latest RBA rate hike at the feet of the Treasurer. Given the government was in power over the last decade, low productivity is a concern. Is there some blame to be given to the former government?
Well, to be honest, I mean only the ABC could run that line. I think it’s obvious the government’s now had two budgets. They said that they had a plan going into the election that would help families reduce interest rates and mortgage repayments and help you reduce your energy costs. The reality is that Labor has made decisions, and refused to make some decisions, which have driven the interest rate rises that we’ve seen.
We presided over record low interest rates when we were in government, and we set up the economy. Labor has been the beneficiary of that over the course of the opening months of their government. It’s allowed them to get into a surplus position – if that holds – and we’ve seen decisions that the government’s made that as the Reserve Bank Governor and others have pointed out, has made it harder.
This wasn’t a budget that was putting downward pressure on interest rates. There’s not an economist with credibility who’s suggested that the budget, either budget, frankly, but the most recent one in particular, put downward pressure on inflation. Quite the opposite.
I think the sad part is that you’ve got a Treasurer who doesn’t want to accept responsibility. He looks to blame everybody else. He’s blaming workers, blaming families, blaming small businesses, and the fact is that inflation is raging under Labor and the government needs to take responsibility. The Prime Minister spends half his life, three quarters of his life overseas. He needs to make sure that he focuses on the needs domestically. Australian families need their Prime Minister to stand up at the moment and instead they’re being left high and dry with bills that they just can’t afford.
Is there anywhere in the world that has been able to wrangle their inflation at the moment? Can you give us an example?
I’m sure there are different policy prescriptions in different countries. In many other countries, they don’t have the resource boom that we have ongoing. The government never likes to talk about it, but in a city like Townsville, it’s obviously a garrison city, but there’s very significant revenues from mining that come into this city. We know that across our country you’ve got schools and roads and infrastructure being funded by mining activity, and yet the government has all of that revenue and can’t help families. I think there’s a time for the government to step up and take responsibility. That time is now, and you’ve got the Treasurer at the moment who’s refusing to do that.
Sorry, so which country in the world is able to wrangle its inflation rate at the moment?
I mean, you can go through each country, but for example in the G7, our core inflation is higher than every other country except the United Kingdom. So there are countries who are dealing with it.
The war in Ukraine took place before the Prime Minister pledged, on almost 30 occasions, that he would reduce your power bill by $275. Instead, they continue to go up. So there are plenty of other examples around the world where countries are able to deal with inflation and to deal with the economic circumstances prevailing at the time, but here in Australia, which is where our focus is, the government has made decisions in two budgets now that have made it much harder for Australian families and the productivity remains a significant issue – as Angus pointed out – and there’s nothing to address this in the budget and I think you reap what you sow and that’s exactly, sadly, what’s happened here, and I really regret that the Australian people are paying for the mistakes of the Prime Minister.
What policy measures do you think the government can introduce to take pressure off interest rates and inflation?
As you know, in my budget in reply speech, we proposed that in a market where you’ve got 438,000 job vacancies and almost 850,000 people on the unemployment line, that you should further incentivise their ability to work more so that you get a productivity gain, you get an increase in participation and you have more people into a tight labour market.
Instead of that, the government chose a policy which was worth almost $5 billion of putting that money into the economy, which is inflationary and it should be no surprise to people. I mean the Labor Party must be the unluckiest party in the world that every time they get into government, the economy goes south and that every economic indicator deteriorates. Well, it’s not that they’ve got bad luck, it’s that they’re bad managers. They don’t know how to manage money, and when they run out of their own money, they come after yours.
It’s exactly what happened in the Rudd-Gillard years, it’s what happened in the Hawke-Keating years, and history sadly is repeating itself, and the saddest part is that families are paying the price of the Prime Minister’s mistakes.
You mentioned money management, Mr Dutton. Do you think the government’s going too hard on big consulting firms like PwC, and could that endanger jobs and expert advice in the future?
Well again, I think the government has a response here and it needs to be measured and proportionate to the circumstances, but I don’t think they need to go over the top in relation to every firm and try and create that as a distraction from the economic decisions of the government.
The government’s focus at the moment has to be fairly and squarely on providing support to families who are really hurting and struggling at the moment because of decisions the Labor Party’s made. I think if you look at some of the features of those elements in the economy at the moment that are feeding into CPI and inflation, gas is one of those elements and energy prices continue to go up under a government who promised to reduce them.
Do you believe the Fair Work Commission’s judgement on the minimum wage has influenced the RBA?
What I think we’ve got to be careful of is that we don’t have a government that continues to make policy decisions that will keep interest rates higher for longer. The Treasurer promised us that there wouldn’t be any more interest rates before his budget and he thought it was all done, all dusted, but of course now we know, because of the decisions the government’s making, interest rates have gone up again and there’s a prospect of them going up again next month.
At exactly the same time your electricity bill is going up under Labor, your gas bill is going up, you’re making sure that you’ve got enough money just to pay your food bill at the moment, and there are a lot of families who are really struggling, and I think the Prime Minister and the Treasurer need to take responsibility for that.
So, you can have wage increases, but if the government’s providing a wage increase with one hand and ripping that wage increase and much more out of your pocket with the other hand, to pay for your higher mortgage and higher interest rates under Labor, that’s a real problem and that’s been pointed out by the Reserve Bank Governor.
Are you concerned about the Auditor’s officer’s finding that in June 2019, the Health Minister approved 11 projects as part of the $2 billion Community Health and Hospital Program, despite the Australian Government’s Solicitor advising that there was likely no lawful authority for the expenditure?
Well, as I understand, the same program is operated by the current government and as Health Minister – and I know my successors had the same approach – we put more money into health every year, more money into worthy projects. When I was Health Minister, we created the $20 billion Medical Research Future Fund, which is ploughing literally billions of dollars into medical research projects across the country and will do into perpetuity for as long as Labor doesn’t attack the corpus of that fund.
I increased the number of GP training places, we put more money into primary care, more money into tertiary care, hospital agreements, etc. and at the moment, as we know, we want to see more money going into health, but if Labor’s going to shrink the economy, it’s going to make it more difficult.
What have electors told you about their thoughts on the Voice while you’ve been in North Queensland?
I think there’s a lot of skepticism and almost frustration, I’ve got to say. I think people want a respectful debate and people can have a view of yes or no, but I do sense that there’s a rising level of frustration across the country when the Prime Minister won’t give the detail so that people can make an informed judgement about how it is that they will vote.
I think people find it very strange that the Prime Minister’s proposal is to have the vote for the Voice on the Saturday and then the design of the Voice starts on the Monday for six months. People think that the normal process here would be to design the Voice, allow people to examine whether they support it or not, and then go from there and vote on it in an informed way.
The Constitution sets out principles and the Parliament determines the details. Do you feel like you’re obfuscating the issue here? Parliament sets out the details of the Voice.
Well, as you know, you can’t out-legislate the Constitution. So you could have a bill before the Parliament tomorrow that’s supported by Labor and Liberal, the Greens, the teals, the independents – you can’t overturn the Constitution.
The Constitution is the nation’s rulebook, and the way that it was drafted meant that you needed a double majority to make a change to it, and that’s why we’re a stable economy, a stable country. We’re one of the best…I think the best country in the world, and in large part that is because of men and women who have fought for our country, defended us – people like Phil Thompson – and it’s because of the Constitution.
The way that the founding fathers set up the Constitution, you can’t make a change unless you have a majority of states and a majority of Australians, in addition to that, voting in favour and that will tell you that you don’t change it lightly.
The Prime Minister is proposing to put a new chapter into the Constitution and can’t tell you how it will work or operate. There’s no restriction about areas of public policy that the Voice can comment on, and the Indigenous leaders appointed by the Prime Minister have been very clear about the fact that the Voice will not be silenced.
Noel Pearson and others shouting and screaming at people, telling them that they’re wrong to not consider this and come to their own judgement, other people saying that you’re racist because you’re not going to support the Voice, you’ve got elites out there telling people how they should vote, CEOs who are scared and timid because they’re worried about social media campaigns, that’s all counterproductive. Australians are smarter than that. They’re going to make up their own mind on the Voice because they love this country and they want a system of government that’s going to be functional, that’s not going to be bogged down in process and new bureaucratic layers, and I think that’s why the Prime Minister is just trying to get people to vote for the Voice based on the vibe – it’s not going to fly – and the Prime Minister has an opportunity to unite the country, not divide the country, if he supports the Coalition’s proposition to have a constitutional question put to the Australian people to recognise Indigenous Australians in the Constitution, that would be the ’67 unifying moment in 2023.
Instead, he’s going to divide the country. At best this could get up 51/49 or go down 51/49. I think it’s going to be lost and I think the Prime Minister is well and truly on notice that he’s embarking on a path which is dividing our country, not uniting us.
Why didn’t your government make that enshrinement?
Well, we put forward constitutional recognition. It wasn’t supported by Mr Albanese as you recall some years ago. So, we’ve had it as a long standing policy. It needs bipartisan support. I’m happy to sit down with the Prime Minister and work through the wording and that would be the unifying moment.
Our suggestion is that we should listen to Indigenous leaders within the communities at a local and regional level – mums and grandmothers, the elders on the ground – about how we can improve the lives of Indigenous Australians, particularly children and women, and we could do that in legislation. That would be the safer option. It’s available to the Prime Minister today, but he refuses to do that because he’s looking for a political wedge and I think Australians are, frankly, outsmarting the Prime Minister here. People aren’t going to vote on a vibe for something that’s as substantial as the Voice when it’s not explained to them deliberately.
Back on the interest rates, are we heading for a recession?
Well, I hope that we’re not, but I fear that under Labor, it’s always likely. This is the problem, and that’s how history records Labor’s contribution. Labor can never manage money. They don’t pull the right levers – and that’s to put it politely – and I really worry about a lot of small businesses, as we move around the country at the moment, who are seeing a very significant downturn in their turnover and if they see that, and their prices are still rising on the other hand, then they’ll start to put staff off and the government predicts in their budget that 175,000 Australians will lose their jobs because of Labor’s decisions in the budget over the course of the next four years, and it could get much worse, and I really worry about that at the moment. So, let’s hope that that’s not where Labor drives the economy.
Mr Dutton, we’re in a natural disaster-prone area in Townsville. The government’s announcing its first round of funding for the disaster fund. How would a Coalition government approach disasters or what policy ideas do you have there?
Well again, I just commend the work of Perin and others; David Littleproud, Bridget McKenzie and others over a long period of time. There was a significant amount of money that we put into resilience so that we just weren’t continuing to repair the same road that flooded each storm season, and the government is continuing some of that work.
It’s one of those areas where there’s bipartisan support in making sure that money gets into local communities, to local councils, and particularly here in the north of our country, which is more prone to natural disasters, we should be providing support in a tangible way, and so we support many of those decisions.
Have your MPs been misquoting former High Court Justices: Kenneth Hayne and Robert French in the debate on the Voice to Parliament?
No, no, they haven’t, and again, this is some activist journalist or somebody else who’s making this suggestion. The quotes that were there were made directly by the justices involved. Go back to the Hansard and look at the testimony that was provided by the individual witnesses.
There’s an enormous amount of risk in what the Prime Minister is proposing in the Voice. There are now more questions than answers, and it seems that the Prime Minister’s deliberate strategy of not telling the Australian people what the Voice is, or what it’s about, or what it’s likely to give rise to, I think is making a lot of Australians very frustrated and angry with the Prime Minister and he should stop dividing the country and take the initiative that we’ve suggested which is going to unite our country.
Thank you very much. Thank you.