Panel discussion 2CC Canberra Breakfast

06 October 2020


Subjects: Federal Budget ACT infrastructure, Public Service, Launch of bipartisan parliamentary Friends of Pain Management Group.

STEPHEN CENATIEMPO, HOST: It’s time to go to our regular political panel, as we do on a Tuesday. First, the ACT Liberal senator. Assistant Minister for Finance, Charities and Electoral Matters. And Lord Voldemort himself, Zed Seselja, G'Day Zed.
ZED SESELJA, LIBERAL SENATOR: Good morning, Stephen. How are you?
CENATIEMPO: Well I'm afraid of you now.
SESELJA: Well, but I'll get on with my job, which is making sure we have a strong budget tonight, making sure we continue to grow our economy and deliver some great stuff for Canberra, as we saw yesterday with our $155 million dollar infrastructure package. So very, very pleased to be delivering those things.
CENATIEMPO: And with the alternate view, the member for Bean David Smith. G'Day, David.
DAVID SMITH M.P. LABOR MEMBER FOR BEAN: G'Day, Stephen. Look, I always thought it was Peter Dutton who was compared to Voldemort. Definitely not Zed.
SESELJA: Look at how much hair I've got, David.
SMITH: Exactly, you've got much more impressive hair than me
CENATIEMPO: I actually don't know who Lord Voldemort is other than that. I think he's from Harry Potter. Is that right?
SMITH: Yes. Correct.
CENATIEMPO: Moving right along budget tonight. Look, it's going to be a big spending budget and some people are saying a very illiberal budget, Zed. But I think in these unprecedented times and that's a word that's going to get thrown around a lot, the kind of budget we would have expected both sides to throw up.
SESELJA: Well, it is very important budget. And obviously the focus is on jobs, economic recovery, getting people back into work, putting more money into people's pockets, building the infrastructure we need. So those are the really important things we announced yesterday here in Canberra ... some really important infrastructure priorities. We're seeing those around the country. But also, I think, you know, we've always been about lower taxes. We want to put more money into the pockets of hard-working Australians. It will be about jobs. Yes, there will be a very large deficit. We all know why there's a very large deficit. It's because of the massive hit to our economy from this health crisis, one that we've weathered better than most. But that doesn't mean there aren't massive challenges. And my priority, the government's priority, is all about getting people back into the workforce, having a sustainable economy and growing our way out of this very, very challenging crisis.
CENATIEMPO: David, I know we're supposed to wait until seven thirty tonight, but let's face it, for the last 30 years, everything that's ever been on a budget has been leaked well before the day. Is there enough in this for the ACT, in your view?
SMITH: Well, it's interesting, Stephen. Whilst often we get the announcements, it's often necessary to see the detail to work out exactly how they'll play out. And I think it is actually welcome that there's some infrastructure spending coming for the ACT. But it's worth noting, though, that some of that's still a fair time off. I think anyone who would have seen the rain or felt the rain this morning knows that the bridge over Molonglo is going to be is an important commitment. That's quite welcome. But we know that it's not shovel ready. We're probably still 12 months, 18 months away. But look, you know, there are other elements, as I said that we're pretty keen to see what the detail is because we want to make sure that they actually hit the mark. So we'll be listening pretty closely today.
CENATIEMPO: I want to ask both on that.
SESELJA: Sorry, I just want to respond because, I mean, David's right in the sense that obviously things like the bridge in Molonglo, you know, obviously we work with the ACT government and that won't happen immediately. But they're priorities that are happening right now. So, for instance, the Monaro Highway money, that work is happening right now. We've upgraded that from $100 million dollar commitment to $115 million dollars. The Parkway money, which I'm really proud of, which the Canberra Liberals matched yesterday, which would mean $100 million if they came in, will be really, really important so I think in eventually widening it. So, yes, some things don't start straight away. Some things are already happening as part of overall one billion dollars [in] investments announced in Canberra just in the last couple of years.
CENATIEMPO: I want to touch just quickly on those other announcements.
SMITH: Hang on, just quickly on those other announcements. I think the Chief Minister has said that they're still awaiting some detail on that additional spending. So, look, I think it's welcome, but I think we just sort of want to see some more detail.
CENATIEMPO: I want to talk --- and I'm hoping I can get a bipartisan response on this --- and regardless of what flavor of federal government is, you can throw money at infrastructure projects all you like, but the federal government doesn't build anything. It's always state governments that do that. When are we going to get state and territory governments to get rid of all the red and green tape that stands in the way of these projects actually going ahead properly? David, I'll start with you.
SMITH: Well, I think, Stephen, actually what you'll find is it's actually industry that delivers most of those projects. And I think we need to be careful about what projects are we talking about in terms of red tape and green tape. Look, one of the things I'm not sure if you're aware of this, but there was a pretty interesting report just lobbed earlier this week from Professionals Australia, the engineering and science organisation. And one of the one of the findings of this---
CENATIEMPO: Your old mob, David.
SMITH: --- is that we don't we don't actually have enough expertise in terms of engineering across government and that's at both a federal and territory and state level. And that actually informs a lot of this decision making.
SESELJA: Well, look, I mean, I think it's a reasonable point you make, Stephen, that, you know, there are sometimes that it is states and territories along with industry are often delivering and where, you know, we're keen to work with them as partners. I mean, the most famous example of a government blocking a major infrastructure project was the Victorian government with the East West Link, where there was billions on the table and instead they cancelled that. So we're also undertaking a process where we want to make some of these environmental approvals more streamlined. And there's some legislation around that to make sure that we don't have this double up between state and territory approvals and Commonwealth approvals. That's a really important reform. And cutting red tape and green tape is you're absolutely right, is absolutely critical to our economy. Not just for the infrastructure projects the government's announced, but for all of those businesses getting on and doing major projects.
CENATIEMPO: David, I want to touch on you ... the budget's --- particularly what it's going to mean for public service. Professionals. Australia, the union representing engineers, scientists and I.T. professionals, which is kind of follows on from the point you make, wants government to remove its cap on public servant numbers. At some point, we've got to say government's just getting way too big, don't we?
SMITH: It's certainly not getting too big at the moment, Stephen. And what we've actually seen instead is an explosion in contractors, consultants and labour hire providers. Now, the reality is you need a balance of all those elements and what Professionals Australia is saying--- and this is coming from their membership so we're talking about engineers and scientists who are grounded in evidence --- is that if you want actual oversight of many of the contracts for other work and whether it be infrastructure, whether it be materiel development, then you actually need that expertise within government. And unfortunately, what they've observed right across the ground is effectively artificial staffing limits not making that possible.
CENATIEMPO: Zed, what do you think about that? Because, I mean, that is a fair comment that we are seeing the growth in consultants and I guess part-time public servants for lack of a better way of putting it. Are we better off having full time professionals? Or are we just shifting the buck?
SESELJA:  Well we need a good mix of both. I saw some figures out just I think in the last day or so that showed obviously during this crisis that there was that many thousands of jobs, that many of them were contractors because they were responding, I guess, to the need in the ATO and the needs of Services Australia to be getting money out the door, to be helping businesses with getting their taxes. So there always needs to be a mix. I mean, you wouldn't necessarily have wanted all of those people to have been full- time permanent employees if the task is going to be a temporary one. We hope that these crisis levels, of course, won't last. But I've always been a believer that, you know, someone who does a job as a contractor for the public service or someone who is a full-time, long-term employee, both of them provide a very valuable service to Australia. And when it comes to the ACT economy, both of them are getting a wage, with which they then are able to look after their family and spend here in Canberra. So I don't think it's one or the other. And I think having that flexibility has been useful.
CENATIEMPO: Dave I just want to point out one thing. We're not always fighting amongst politicians. You want to highlight the launch of the bipartisan parliamentary Friends of Pain Management Group that's taking place in Yarralumla today.
SMITH: Yeah. Look, thanks. Thanks, Steve. And I should note, my co-convenor of that group, Senator Wendy Askew from Tasmania, … has a long term interest in this area. And look, over three million Australians live with chronic pain. And that's something that has been a particular challenge across this year with some of the challenges of the coronavirus. And so one of the great things is we've got great support from the Governor-General and the Governor-General's wife. And it's an opportunity to get a lot of experts, practitioners, but also people who are dealing with that daily struggle together to see how we can improve their lives.
CENATIEMPO: Zed, thank you for your time this morning, well, Lord Voldemort, I should say, David, we’ll catch up again next week.
SESELJA: Thanks, Stephen.
SMITH: Thanks, Stephen
CENATIEMPO: That's Zed Seselja and David Smith.