Subjects: Visit to Bundaberg; food production; water supply; nuclear energy; defence procurement; Labor’s history of cutting defence spending; workforce shortages; the Government’s broken promise on a $275 cut to your power bills; weather conditions; Anthony Albanese missing in action.
Well, it’s great to be here at BFVG with Bree Watson, the CEO, and the Leader of the Opposition Peter Dutton.
Peter is here to hear firsthand from our local businesses, from our local farmers, our local growers and others across the region about the matters that are affecting them; and right now that is electricity prices, it’s availability of workforce, it’s the challenges around Paradise Dam. Now in October, we expect to see a budget from Labor and I expect that they will deliver on their commitments.
Now, we committed $600 million to Paradise Dam. That must be in the Budget in October and we’ve heard that firsthand and loud and clear from our local producers. That is water for food, it is not water for hydrogen, it is not cultural water, it is not water for other purposes, it is water for food production, and we need that dam fixed and we need it done as quickly as possible.
I’ll hand over to Peter for some remarks and I’m sure you’ll have questions.
Keith, thank you very much. Look, it’s great to be back in Bundaberg. I want to say thank you very much to Bree and to the growers that we’ve spoken with this morning. This is an incredibly productive food bowl and provides significant income to the region, but to our country as well.
As Keith points out, there are very significant issues here on the ground in relation to a secure water supply and Keith has worked very hard with the growers here and the local community to advocate for the $600 million for Paradise Dam and we committed to that and at the last election, we remain committed to it because it will ensure the continuing lifeblood of this local community. It goes into additional food production and that is good for not only domestic production, but for the export of product as well.
As Keith points out, the issue of energy continues to be a very significant one right around the world. Here in Australia, we’ve started a discussion in relation to nuclear energy because we want to firm up the renewable energies in the network. We want to make sure that people can afford to turn their lights on, they can afford to continue to manufacture here in Australia and to value add to the production lines and supply chains within our own country and particularly in that export model as well is a key underpinning of the Australian success story.
Obviously, there’s a huge issue still around workforce. We put forward a plan in June that the government didn’t take up – not at the Jobs Summit, not since – and I hope that they can take up during the course of their budget in October because that would free up people who wanted to work, who are currently on an Age Pension or a veteran on a pension to be able to do that work. It means that they can work an extra day or two or whatever suits their own situation without being financially penalised, without losing their pension and particularly given that there’s been a slow uptake for people returning back to Australia to work as backpackers etc. but hopefully there are some green shoots there as we heard today.
Look, a couple of points; obviously, this debacle of the last week that the Prime Minister has presided over continues into this week. You had Jim Chalmers out there flying kites, sanctioned obviously by the Prime Minister because Labor just isn’t committed to the stage three tax cuts and the whole idea of the stage three tax cuts is to help people on incomes between $45,000 and $200,000 a year so that 95 per cent of taxpayers will pay no more than 30 cents in the dollar.
Now Labor has reluctantly come out over the course of the weekend to say ‘well look, we’re still considering it, but we aren’t going to make any changes or amendments to it now’ and that’s the sort of uncertainty that kills confidence.
Labor will always make the wrong decisions when it comes to the budget and to the management of the Australian economy, and at the moment, we need certainty because we know the headwinds are significant, particularly in the United Kingdom and the United States. It looks with certainty that they both – and other countries of course – will go into recession over the course of the next 12 months.
The economy that was inherited by Labor is particularly strong because over the course of the last nine years we made decisions in successive budgets to strengthen the economy. We have a 50 year low of unemployment, we have a debt which has gone up because of JobKeeper and the response that we had to provide over the course of COVID, but is still relatively low compared to other OECD countries and we have a Defence Minister out at the moment, who I mean has been comical today. I thought Richard Marles’ comments this morning were nothing short of, frankly, comical, because what he’s saying is that when he was in government, when Labor was last in government, the spending was at the lowest level since 1938 and somehow the problems of Labor not ordering frigates or corvettes or fighter jets or submarines during their whole time in government, that somehow that was the fault of the Coalition government when we were in power.
So, it’s a comical distraction away from the woes of last week over the stage three tax cuts. It just doesn’t make any sense in terms of his own argument, and I tell you when you hear Labor talking about quality spending within defence, read ‘cuts to defence’ and they’re trying to push to the right these project costs beyond the forward estimates into the out years. That’s a tricky move by Jim Chalmers who, don’t forget, only got his doctorate from studying Paul Keating and was the Chief of Staff to Wayne Swan – so if you think he is off to a bad start in life – you are right and if you are relying on him to make economic decisions in the best interests of our country, you will be hoping for a long time.
So, I’m happy to take any questions.
Mr Dutton, just on energy – one of the largest electricity retailers has said today that energy prices next year could soar as much as 35 per cent amid a choppy energy transition and the closure of coal mines. Are you concerned about this and what should the government be doing to ensure energy affordability?
Well look, I think energy is the biggest issue of our time. I think it’s the reality that families today when they open their bills this afternoon or tonight, they’re struggling to know how they pay it today, let alone if it’s 35 per cent higher under Labor by the time the bills come in 12 months time.
One thing I do know is that the Prime Minister went to the last election promising on 97 occasions that they would reduce electricity prices by $275. The Prime Minister has never made mention of that figure since he was elected in May. If you think the Prime Minister has been tricky in relation to tax cuts, he has been even trickier in relation to that solemn promise he gave to reduce electricity prices that he has now walked away from.
So, it is going to be difficult and if coal-fired power stations are closed prematurely, if there is a disruption to the gas supply in this country, what is going to firm up renewables? The battery in South Australia lasts for 75 minutes, you’ve got hydrogen which might be a reality in a decades time, you’ve got some hydro in the scheme, but really at the margins and how do the lights stay on over night time? If the solar panels worked over night time – fantastic, but the fact is that they don’t, so you need to be able to firm up that energy and Labor is putting us on a path to not only have huge increases in electricity bills, and gas bills, but also to make it unreliable. We’ve seen rolling blackouts in California, we’ve seen huge issues in Germany. I think this winter – as people point out – there will be some families who are talking about heating or eating, and I don’t want to see our country go down that path, but that’s the path that Labor is taking us down.
Just in regards to your meeting today with growers – what do you think is the biggest issue facing farmers in our region at the moment?
Well, certainly the water issue is important, particularly for the production of avocados, for example, but other produce including the macadamia nut trees which have obviously been a much bigger feature in Bundaberg and the surrounding area in recent years, than say they were a decade or two ago when cane was predominant and there is uncertainty about that supply.
So farmers naturally get nervous because they want to make capital investment, they want to improve their own production and it’s all the other input costs. Its fertiliser, it’s the labour cost and the uncertainty, particularly post COVID around labour. They’re the main issues that were highlighted with us today and we want to work very closely with them.
I’m here in Bundaberg with Keith Pitt today to work closely with farmers and with the local community to see how we can provide support and how we can make sure that we continue to grow the region so that more young people can be employed and there is more financial activity here in the Bundaberg region.
Was there any talk of solutions today or is that something to come?
Well, we certainly spoke about some of the workforce issues, more difficult issues obviously around the input costs of fertiliser because there are global issues involved in those supply chains and that’s going to continue on for as long as Russia’s illegal invasion into Ukraine remains the case and there are other factors. But the issue around energy; Labor is driving up prices of energy and energy now is such a big input cost. When you start to move water, it is expensive to do because it is heavy and if you’ve got to turn on a pump or you’ve got a gas or electricity need otherwise within your farm, or within your manufacturing business, those input costs are going up all the time and Labor’s plans at the moment are designed to see the costs go up so that people’s consumption goes down. But of course people need power, they need to run power in their businesses so that they can keep the lights on.
Was there any discussion in amongst the growers about this predicted stormy summer and their fears along with that?
It wasn’t raised specifically in the meeting, but I know that Keith has spoken about the prevailing weather conditions. Where I come from, closer to Brisbane, the rain obviously is a very significant issue and there are a lot of people in New South Wales at the moment who we really have great concern for and I’d just repeat my call to them to please listen to and heed the advice of the Premier and of the authorities.
The work that the SES has done, the emergency services otherwise is quite phenomenal and we have had our own share of floods here in Queensland and all sorts of other natural disasters, that’s the nature of the environment here and one thing I do know about farmers here in the region, is that they are incredibly resilient. They go through the highs and lows of markets, production and input costs, labour costs and every other variable including whether and they are pretty strong and resilient, so they will be able to deal with that.
Talking about the defence delays, Richard Marles says the Coalition is to blame for these delays and blowouts, what is your response to him?
Well again, it is just comical. We put more money into defence than Labor ever did. Labor, when they were in government, reduced defence spending to the lowest levels since 1938. We increased spending to over two per cent of GDP and we negotiated the contract with the United States and the United Kingdom to bring AUKUS together which is going to see submarines delivered – best in class – and there was a great deal more than that under the AUKUS deal as well.
Labor didn’t have any problems with boats being built or submarines being built because they never ordered one. They didn’t order any, and therefore yes, we have had catch up over the course of the last nine years because Labor never ordered anything for defence, in fact they stripped money out of defence.
In garrison cities like Townsville and many others around the country, those communities felt it because under Labor money was stripped away from our soldiers. Under the Coalition we put a record amount in, not just to help train them and support them and kit them properly, but also to buy all of the defence material that was required.
So, Labor is trying to create a distraction away from what was a disastrous week last week on stage three tax cuts and they just don’t have a feather to fly with here. The story today in the paper was hastily dropped out, Richard Marles has put together a dodgy press conference this morning. I don’t think any Australians will buy this comical line from Richard Marles today. Everybody knows that Labor ripped money out of defence, the Coalition put money in and you cannot trust Labor when it comes to the defence of this country.
Just following up on defence – did the previous government overspend in this area and do you think Australia is in as strong position as it needs to be to be able to defend itself amidst growing tension in the region?
We live in the most uncertain time since the Second World War, so it does require a more significant spend into defence and we made that very clear when we were in government and we have offered support to the Labor Party now in government to make the necessary expenditure and to keep our country safe.
As we know, in Europe, conflict can arise very quickly and it is unpredictable. We don’t know in Europe whether there will be a broader conflict, the use of nuclear weapons being spoken about at the moment and equally in the South China Sea, or in relation to Taiwan. Obviously there is incredible uncertainty over the coming years. So that’s why AUKUS was negotiated in an historic way and why it will be the underpinning of our national security for the next 50 years.
But it’s important to understand this: when Labor now makes a projection that a program in defence is going to not be delivered on time – so not over the next four years for example – but that it is going to be five or six or 10 years’ time; what it allows them to do is take the money from that program over the next four years of the forward estimates and they can spend that elsewhere. So it’s a cute way of taking money effectively out of defence and delaying the expenditure. So, Mr Marles’ comments don’t bear up to any scrutiny and the laughable way in which he has been out there today, is nothing more than a distraction from Jim Chalmers’ horror week last week and Australians still don’t know whether the Labor Party are committed to their tax cuts or not, and no distraction, no red herring by Mr Marles or anyone else today is going to resolve that issue.
These issues obviously didn’t occur overnight, however, do you take some responsibility for the delays and the cost?
I take responsibility for cleaning up Labor’s mess and yes, it was a mess after the Rudd and Gillard years – maybe we‘ve forgotten about how disastrous that was for our country. Stephen Smith was the defence minister who presided over the lowest level of defence spending since 1938 and Richard Marles has now appointed him to conduct the review on what money should be spent within defence.
So yes, I wish that I had been cutting the ribbons on the delivery of submarines that had been ordered by Labor in 2008 or 2009 or 10 or 11 or 12 or 13, but they weren’t. They didn’t order any offshore patrol vessels, they didn’t order any boats and so over the course of the last nine years – bearing in mind that some of these timeframes can span over a decade – we did make the decisions to acquire that capability and Labor never did. So, there’s a hell of a mess always to clean up from when Labor has been in government and in defence we sought to do that.
There’s almost 100 years worth of collective delays to projects. Is it fair to say we have a capability gap now?
Well again, that is a cute way of characterising an opportunity – as Richard Marles sees it – to push money into the out years. What you have got to concentrate on here is whether Labor is going to spend or commit to spending at least two per cent plus of GDP, or whether it’s going to drop and there is every chance that under Labor it will drop or there’ll be cute sort of accounting applications to see it push out.
But it’s in his interest at the moment to blow these timelines out so that they can get outside the forward estimates period and that’s a cute little childish play, but that’s what they’re doing. So I wouldn’t fall for any of that. The fact is that you don’t get delays if you don’t order things. So to Labor’s credit they never had a delay on the delivery of the frigate because guess what? Because they never ordered one, they never ordered one. When we came into government we made the decision to expend a lot more in defence to get it above two per cent and we will see a lot of that equipment arrive when it’s done, and when it’s here, that will be to the benefit of the Australian Defence Force.
Just on stage three tax cuts, how are they the right policy given the changing economic situation that we are currently in.
Well, they are the right policy because they don’t start until July of 2024, so they’re not inflationary over the course of the next calendar year. As I said, in 2023, the prediction is that the United States and the United Kingdom will go into recession. The Australian economy is strong because of nine years of Coalition management and if Labor pushes the Australian economy into a recession, well that will be a disaster for families and for businesses. But as we saw last week, with their hand fisted approach to the stage three tax cuts, they are very capable of killing confidence and making decisions that will be very detrimental to our economy and do have the potential to push us into recession. So, if they muck it up then Australia could go into recession so let’s be very clear about that.
The beauty of the stage three tax cuts is that it provides assistance to people earning an income between $45,000 and $200,000 and they start at a time when we will need economic stimulus in the economy – post the next 12 months. So, they have been well thought out, they are sustainable and it also provides an opportunity for people who are aspirational, people who have worked hard in their own small businesses, or studied, or got a promotion, who might be earning, 80, 90, $120,000 today, but want to be earning $140,000 or $180,000. Don’t forget they pay tens of thousands of dollars tax now so the tax cuts are just about giving people their own money back and Labor’s distraction today against the backdrop of the last week, I think speaks for itself.
This is a government that still hasn’t sorted this mess out. Some in Labor are talking about delaying the decision to abolish the tax cuts until next May. People can’t live with that uncertainty and the Prime Minister should be out clarifying it, instead of doing puff pieces. He’s been in the media once in the last week and obviously he’s absented himself from making any comment on issues that are incredibly important.
Thanks very much.