Interview with Tom Connell, Hume and McAllister, Sky News
19th August 2022
TOM CONNELL: Jane, Jenny, welcome. Of course, we know the big development that we'll talk about in a moment, but first of all, you get your chance to set the tone for one minute. In your opening opinion, you've got that strict 60 seconds on a topic that is firing up. Jane Hume, you're talking about small businesses?
JANE HUME: I am Tom. In the last couple of weeks, I've been to visit a number of small businesses, everything from pubs and cafes right through to manufacturing and retail, and they are becoming increasingly nervous. It's been a tough couple of years with the help of job keeper and cashflow boost, and obviously courage and ingenuity have got them through, but now they're looking at rising costs and decreasing confidence. One business told me that his power bills have gone up 50% In the last two years alone, and another said the cost of frozen potato chips has gone up 30% Just since January this year. Now my concern is that the government has taken its eye off the ball and its focus away from what is most important, which is addressing the cost of living and rising inflation. The Treasurer is wringing his hands and furrowing his brow and calling for summits and calling for reviews. The Assistant Treasurer is making it worse by actually publicly predicting inflation of 20% and worker strikes. So no wonder businesses are nervous and are taking things into their own hands. They are planning for an economic downturn. It's an economic truism that if a government doesn't make an economic plan for better times, well, then businesses will plan for the worst.
CONNELL: Jenny, we heard Jane talking about a summit. You're talking about a summit today, specifically on low-emission cars or electric vehicles. That's on the agenda today here in Canberra.
JENNY MCALLISTER: Yeah, that's right, Tom. So Australians are paying a lot more at the bowser, but they are getting less out of their tank because Australian vehicles are actually just not as efficient as they could be. There's a really clear reason for this. For nine years, the liberals blocked any sensible attempt to improve the efficiency of the Australian fleet. Instead, they ran bizarre scare campaigns about how electric vehicles were going to end the weekend. The consequence of that is that Australia has the dubious honour of being one of two countries in the OECD, the other being Russia, which doesn't have a fuel efficiency standard for vehicles or doesn't have one under development. You know, there's a real cost for this motorists don't have the choices that they might have. In the UK, if you want to buy an electric vehicle, you've got about 26 to choose from for under $60,000. In Australia, the choice is about eight. The consequence of this is that Australians just are paying more at the bowser than they need to to keep their car on the road. We want to bring a change to this. Today we're kicking off consultation on a national electric vehicle strategy. It'll include the opportunity to consult with industry to consult with consumers on fuel efficiency standards for vehicles. The goal should be having a choice. We want to make sure that low-emissions vehicles are available and convenient, and affordable for as many Australians as possible.
CONNELL: So that's today, the beginning of that conversation. I'm sure it will progress, and we'll be talking about it again. But let's move on to the biggest story of the week. Revelations former Prime Minister Scott Morrison secretly swore himself into five ministerial portfolios. One of them was Home Affairs and the pressure was on yesterday for Mr. Morrison to apologize to the former minister Karen Andrews, amid news he'd already reached out to two other colleagues who happened to be men. We were updated yesterday afternoon that he has phone was Andrew has to say sorry she's accepted that apology but there are remaining questions over the mechanisms that afforded the move. And the Governor General's role as well.
CONNELL: Jane the development yesterday, late afternoon, was Scott Morrison was hammering out post after post on Facebook, liking and commenting on memes on him sort of having every job in Australia. Is he taking this seriously enough?
HUME: Look, I'm not going to comment on the former Prime Minister, Member for Cook’s, social media. I think he can look after that himself. There's no doubt though, that this has been the story of the week, and it's taken up an awful lot of airtime, and it's also taken up an awful lot of hot air that's come out of the opposition because, let's face it Anthony Albanese just got back from holidays, and he walked straight back into his old job of Leader of the Opposition. So much of the pearl-clutching that's gone on this week about this issue has shrieked and has made the current government look like an opposition. They have loved the opportunity to talk about the previous government rather than talking about the issues that are important to Australians today and the expectations that Australians have of their current government. So yes, this has been the story of the week. But I think now it's time to focus back on those important issues of the rising cost of living, rising inflation, and the need for increased productivity in our economy. That’s what this Government has been elected for.
CONNELL: So this is just a minor issue, Jane? Not something to look at?
HUME: Well, I think we've looked at it in great depth, and in fact, it's been referred to the Solicitor General, and there'll be a report next week. But let's face it, this is very much looking in the rearview mirror.
CONNELL: Well, partly, we need to look forward as well. What about your view on this Jenny and the role of the Governor General? Because we've heard a couple of statements, but we don't know, for example, this and we've spoken on this week on the program, the constitutional experts, they want to know did the Governor General at least advise the Prime Minister he should be telling at a minimum, the ministers involved that they didn't realize they were co-ministers? Do we need to find out what role the Governor General performed to know what we need to learn or expect for the future?
MCALLISTER: For me, the real issues here lie with the Prime Minister. Under our system, the Governor General receives advice from the Prime Minister and is required to act on it. And the real problem is that Scott Morrison made a set of decisions that undermine the norms and convictions that support the principles of Responsible Government. Now people might want to describe the response to that as Pearl clutching or as hot air or any number of things. People don't want to go online and create memes about it and make a joke of it. But the truth is that trust in democracy really matters. It's something everyone should take seriously, and it's not something people should take for granted. And when it's sought to be undermined. I think it is worthy of public discussion and an important thing to understand about our past and also our future.
CONNELL: To that same end, isn't it important to know what the Governor General, our democratic political backstop in all this, did? Yes, he takes instructions from the Prime Minister, but he also has a duty to offer advice. This is what experts have said all week. Why would his role not be examined?
MCALLISTER: I think the Governor General has made a public statement about what he was told and what he knew. In the end, though…
CONNELL: But not what advice he gave out.
MCALLISTER: The real focus should be on the Prime Minister. The Governor General has made it very clear…
CONNELL: You can have two focuses, though. You can look into what the Prime Minister did look into...
MCALLISTER: Sorry, Tom, it's difficult I don’t want to interrupt you.
CONNELL: Sorry. Well, no reason. Yes. He had no reason to doubt that the appointments were made public. That's fine. The first time a year later, there were more appointments. He knew by then they weren't being made public. He hasn't said anything further on that.
MCALLISTER: Look, as I said, I think the responsibility to uphold the conventions and norms of the system lies with the Prime Minister. He is yet to credibly explain why he made the decision to keep those appointments a secret. The consequence of course, is that his colleagues apparently didn’t know that he was sworn to their portfolios. The Australian public was in no position to hold Minister Mr Morrison accountable for performance in portfolios. This is a direct undermining of all of the things that make our democracy work. And I think serious scrutiny of his behaviour and the behaviour of the colleagues around him who knew about it is warranted.
HUME: And yet our democracy did work. In fact, it worked well at a time of great crisis. I remember very well March 2020. When the opposition had absolutely no choice but to stand on the sidelines, they were bystanders in the COVID-19 crisis at the worst of the crisis. Their impotence was so profound. All of the focus was on that leadership group. All of the focus was on the Prime Minister that he did what he thought was best at the time. He now says that perhaps some of those things were unnecessary. But in fact, our democracy has worked exceptionally well over the last two years and continues to do so.
CONNELL: Ok, and just quickly, on this Jane, is a Royal Commission needed?
HUME: Do some reforms need to be made? Absolutely. Do reforms...
CONNELL: Including this?
HUME: Well, I think we've had enough scrutiny of all things COVID. In fact, we had a committee running throughout the COVID 19 pandemic, and that was, again, something that Scott Morrison put into place as Prime Minister at the beginning of our responses so that they could be scrutinized along the way. Now, if the government wants to reinvent history to accommodate its own narrative, well, so be it. Good luck. I think that Australians are very glad that they managed to get through this crisis, with their jobs and their lives and livelihoods intact. 40,000 lives were saved, and 800,000 people's jobs saved by JobKeeper. We also maintained our triple-A credit rating and had the lowest unemployment rate in 50 years.
CONNELL: We had multiple inquiries, including coronial inquiries into the pink bats, but the Coalition still needed a Royal Commission into that, but not into COVID the biggest change to our livelihoods in living memory, really?
HUME: Well, that was a specific policy failure, that pink bat's scandal which was done through sheer incompetence, but addressing the COVID 19 pandemic, both the health response and the economic response was, in fact, scrutinized all the way through by the opposition and indeed, by members of the government as well. That's exactly as it should be. As we come out the other side, as I said, with 40,000, lives saved, 800,000 jobs saved by JobKeeper, the lowest unemployment rate in 50 years and maintenance of our triple-A credit rating. I think we can safely say that the response but the health response and the economic response by the former coalition government was exemplary.
CONNELL: With a few 100 billion extra in debt. Look, let's get to the economic news of the week now because new data has revealed the growing gap between wages and inflation wages rose 2.6% over the past year, inflation 6.1%. So real wages, what you see at the bottom there is down three and a half per cent. That's how much, on average right now and annualized rate, workers are going backwards. There's good news with unemployment down to 3.4%, the lowest since the 1970s. Businesses on the flip side of that are struggling to find workers. Here's some of the debate in the week on these economic headwinds.
CONNELL: Jenny, I might start with you on this. Some interesting comments from Tony Burke, the Minister responsible, saying he thinks bargaining and IR is broken in the country because we're not getting the sort of pick up in wages we thought we would. Does this mean Labor's looking at some drastic changes here?
MCALLISTER: Well, the wage results that came through this week show Australian workers going backwards. They also confirmed that under Scott Morrison, wage results were the worst for any prime minister in recent memory. And so, we do have the challenge to deal with. The results, actually, in the last couple of weeks also show that productivity has been very slow in the decade that the liberals were in power. So we've got these twin problems the need to lift productivity and lift wages. That's part of what the Jobs and Skills Summit is about bringing everybody together and putting heads together between businesses, worker representatives, between industry experts and see what we can come up with to start to lift the dial on productivity and also on wages. I think Tony Burke's comments reflect some surprise that we see unemployment as low as it is without a commensurate increase in wages. There's some indication of an uptick in wages. But really the gains that have been made in productivity are not flowing through to workers in those businesses. It's a challenge that's putting pressure on a lot of households.
CONNELL: When we're not really seeing that uptick in wages. Jane, when for the first time in this country, we've got more jobs than workers looking for them, is something about the system broken, do you think?
HUME: I think this is extraordinary. Jim Chalmers went into this election saying that the most important thing to do would be to lift productivity. And yet, after nine years in opposition, I haven't got a single idea on how to do it. Do you think if lifting productivity were easy, then the former government would not have done it? Of course, we would have. Now it seems that we need an enormous talk-fest in order to discuss productivity. This government seemed to continually point to the fire but never comes to its aid with a bucket of water. Why is it that we need now to have a talk first about what the ACTU want? They've already made that very clear, indeed. Why can't we just simply address the problems that are there? We could already if you'd like to employ pensioners back into the workforce with the pension bonus with a doubling of the pension bonus scheme. Now that's a productive contribution that the opposition has already made and offered to the government, and yet they've chosen to ignore it. We could have done that two and a half months ago. We could have done that enough first sitting fortnight, but no, there's recalcitrance. What they want to do is talk, and what they want to do is referred back to, let's face it, union masters of the labor movement to do their bidding rather than the Australian people at the election.
CONNELL: There seems to be a sort of concession within that that you didn't manage to really leave productivity during your time in office, and it's just been too hard. So is that true?
HUME: Productivity has been sluggish the world over, but I can tell you what the answer isn't, and that's to raise taxes, which is exactly what the ACTU wants to do. Their idea of a dividend tax, which essentially would prevent business owners from receiving the benefits of a profitable business, is outrageous. So it's essentially retiree tax 2.0. Yet, that's what they've put forward at this job summit. I think it's terrific that there is an opportunity now for Labor, Jenny right here, Jim Chalmers today, to rule out this ridiculous redistributionist agenda before it even begins because this is nuts stuff. This is a socialist utopia. How about we focus on what the real issues are, which is getting more people into work and filling those vacancies for businesses that are urgent right now we don't need to talk about it. We can just do it.
MCALLISTER: Can I cut in here, Tom, if I may?
CONNELL: Yeah, go for it.
MCALLISTER: Yeah, look, a couple of things. I mean, firstly, there's gonna be business in the room at the Jobs and Skills Summit. There are going to be unions in the room; the one group of people who will not be in the room will be the coalition because Jane’s colleagues in the Liberals have dealt themselves out of this conversation. The second thing is that, of course, we went to the election with plans directly targeting lifting productivity. We are finally dealing with the crisis in the energy system. That's been left unattended for nine years, a key productivity measure. We are increasing the availability and affordability of childcare for families, lifting the capacity or women to enter the workplace. A key productivity measure. We are actually dealing with skills by creating hundreds or 1000s of fee-free TAFE places and additional TAFE places and additional University places to live the skills of Australians and to make sure that we have the skills we need in the contemporary economy. There are a host of other things we are going to need to deal with the government. I see no harm whatsoever in getting the key economic participants in a room together. And the mystery is why the liberals don't want to be part of that.
HUME: Oh Tom, I've got to jump in there because hang on, hang on, you gotta let me jump in here. Because, let's face it, energy prices are going up. In fact this government, this government has crab walked away from its $275 reduction in energy commitments. Increasing affordability in childcare is an important thing to do, but it's a participation measure. It's not a productivity measure, Jenny, and you know that, so don't try and pull the economic wool over anybody's eyes here. In fact, there is nothing new coming to this summit at all. All of these policies are out on the table. If you haven't been speaking to business, and I know you've been speaking to unions for all of this time, you know what's out there. Let's just get the job done without the circus that surrounds it.
CONNELL: If you've got someone who's got really good skills, though, Jane, and they're in the workforce more productive worker, isn't that still a productivity measure if they can actually get affordable childcare?
HUME: I agree that getting more people with skills in the workforce is important, and that's exactly why there was a record number of trainees and apprentices at the time that we left the government. Childcare is a participation measure. It's not a productivity measure. Tom and I know that the government can keep saying that it is, but it isn't. It's a really important issue. I don't discredit that, but don't be fooled. It's not a productivity measure. It's a participation measure.
MCALLISTER: Jane, I think getting skilled people who are presently excluded back in the workforce is a very important economic condition. Even I'm surprised you're not backing it harder.
CONNELL: All right. We'll have to leave it there on that particular note, some agreement and some disagreement within that particular measure. It's popular in our household. Yes, cheaper childcare. Yes, please. Jane and Jenny, we'll talk again next week.