Radio Interview - 2CC Canberra - 17 November 2020

By David Smith MP

17 November 2020





SUBJECTS: Robodebt; public sector and politician wages; climate change views in the ALP.

STEPHEN CENATIEMPO, HOST: Time to talk to our regular political panel; from the Labor side of politics, he is the Member for Bean, David Smith joins us. G'Day, David.
CENATIEMPO: And from the other side, Zed Seselja is the ACT Liberal senator. He's also the assistant minister for finance, charities and electoral matters. Zed, good morning.
ZED SESELJA, LIBERAL SENATOR FOR THE ACT: Good morning, Stephen. Morning, David.
CENATIEMPO: Now, I want to start with you Zed, the $1.2 billion settlement over this Robodebt class action. Now, in essence, I don't have a problem with what the government was trying to do with Robodebt and that is to, I guess well streamline was not really the answer, but make sure that welfare recipients were all above board. But how do you get something so wrong?
SESELJA: Well, look, we need to put it into some context, Stephen. Obviously, Services Australia makes around 180 billion dollars in payments each year to the public. And obviously, in this case, there was advice subsequently that the system, which was using an averaging system, which had been used by previous governments as well, that system wasn't capable of being done and so people are being refunded, but it needs to be put into context that we have a huge social safety net, a very, very generous social safety net and I think that's a good thing in a wealthy country like Australia. Obviously, the government has now taken steps to address these issues and in most cases, many of these payments or these payments are being refunded or indeed debts being wiped. So, look, it's important that we get these things right. There's no doubt that we want to make sure that when taxpayers money is being used, it's used wisely. It's only paid to those who are entitled to it. But obviously, when we deal with issues as they arise, we correct them.
CENATIEMPO: David, Zed makes a good point that it is 180 billion dollars and it's a lot of money that is being dealt with on an annual basis. But subsequent governments never seem ... I mean, given that it is almost our single biggest expenditure, why [have] governments (been) reluctant to tighten up around the edges and make sure that we actually get our welfare payments 100 per cent right?
SMITH: Well, Stephen, firstly, let's not be under any illusion about what's happened here. The settlement day yesterday for approximately 400,000 class action members exposed the most costly and the involvement of the most people of any settlement by an Australian government, and it's a small measure of justice for victims who've been treated terribly by this government. I guess the real concern here, Stephen, is where is the responsibility being taken for a program which for some time we know was illegal and when exactly was Stuart Robert or his predecessor told it was illegal and why did they ignore that advice?
SMITH: And why didn't they check it properly about the legality at all before unleashing it on an unsuspecting public?
CENATIEMPO: And, David, these are all good questions. But I'm looking at it more from a fundamental perspective, is that governments of both political flavours, have never really bothered to tighten up our welfare system so that we're not seeing this slipping through the cracks. It is 180 billion dollars. Why ... do we get ourselves into a situation where we have problems like this when no side of politics wants to tighten the rules up?
SMITH: Well, I think they do and the lesson here is do it properly --- and don't make shortcuts which seem to be focused more on bringing money back to the budget rather than being properly legal.
CENATIEMPO: Zed, I want to change topic now. Public sector wage caps have been removed. The public servant pay rises will now be tied to wage growth in the private sector, which is zero. So that's not really going to have much impact. But why is it that politicians are always reluctant to actually dip into their own pockets or tighten their own belts?
SESELJA: Well, a couple of things, I mean, politicians obviously took a wage freeze or federal politicians did, we saw that and that was something that was very appropriate as we saw conditions tighten in the economy. Obviously, politicians’ wages are set by an independent tribunal.  When it comes to public sector wages policy I think that this is a fair balance. What I'm very hopeful for --- and as the economy grows --- we will see wages growth above the two per cent. And, you know, we've seen in the past that, in fact, the CPSU has been arguing that in some cases, public sector wages have been left behind private sector wage growth, well, this will remove that impediment. And where the economy is growing, which we anticipate that will grow very strongly in years to come and we see wages growth following, then Commonwealth public servants will be able to share in that wage growth as well. So, look, I think I think it balances the realities that we need to strike and it does give the incentive ... it certainly gives, I think, the expectation that as the economy grows and as private sector wages grow, that public sector wages won't be left behind here in Canberra and in other places.
CENATIEMPO: David, I'm not one of these people that thinks politicians are paid too much. I think, you know, if you're going to run the country, you should be paid accordingly. But I don't think you'd find anyone in Australia that thinks any of you have earned a pay rise in the last decade or so. What's stopping you from saying to the independent tribunal, guys, we don't deserve this pay rise?
SMITH: Look, Stephen, certainly that is a position that can be put to the independent tribunal and the independent tribunal is still going to be within its remit to come up with a different outcome. But look, on a positive note, though, Stephen, I just wanted to say that I think it is actually good that we're moving away from an arbitrary salary cap on pay. So actually looking at least linking it to some other measure of the economy and I think that's a positive thing. As someone who has been through wage bargaining in the public sector for 10 to 15 years, I think it's been a really hard part of government policy and the amount of productivity that's been chewed up for not delivering pay increases. At least this is a bit of a better approach. But personally, what I'd like to see is if we can actually tie up our politicians and heads of agencies to the outcomes of a remuneration tribunal, why can't we actually do that with the whole of the public sector workforce?
CENATIEMPO: I want to stay with you for a moment, David. The gift that keeps on giving at the moment is Joel Fitzgibbon's resignation from the frontbench and Joel's a regular on this program and somebody that I've had a lot of admiration for a long time. But geez he's really exposed some problems that you guys have got on your side. How does Anthony Albanese maintain ... well how does he not become a lame duck leader, given that there is this sizeable split on the Labor side of the House?
SMITH: Stephen, both you and your listeners know that Joel's not backwards in coming forward but it's worth saying that he's had this retirement from the frontbench planned for a while and he's now using that freedom to have a say and I think that's an appropriate way to handle this circumstance. The reality is there's little difference between the views of members across caucus.  Members across caucus are all determined to keep our focus on jobs, whether that be from the resources sector, whether that comes from investment in renewables and technology and at the same time, you know, we're focused on holding government to account for their failures --- such as Jobmaker, such as the billions of dollars that we've seen go out the door on contractors, on Robodebt. Look, I think there comes a time where you can have some freelancing, but if you're in the shadow cabinet, then it's fair that it works to being resolved. I think now Joel's got the capacity to go out, work hard, as he always does in the seat of Hunter and also has the capacity to provide his views.
CENATIEMPO: Zed, I want to talk ... because this also affects your side of politics. I mean, it's fair to say that Albo, well, Albo literally is the member for the Marrickville latte sippers. So if indeed he does wake up and start to listen to somebody like Joel who's out in the regions and represents Labor's true base, you guys have got to counteract that somehow.
SESELJA: Well, I think the problem there, Stephen, is that he's chosen not to listen to the member for Hunter. He's chosen to listen to Mark Dreyfus and Mark Butler and the inner city left of the Labor Party. I mean, David says that, well, you know, the views across the Labor Party are pretty similar. Well, that's not Mark Dreyfus's view. Mark Dreyfus says that Joel Fitzgibbon only represents a handful of people within the Labor Party. He calls him the idiot for Hunter and if the Labor Party doesn't have a place for people like Joel Fitzgibbon in it, then I think the message to millions of working Australians is that the Labor Party doesn't have a place for people like them and I think that is the fundamental thing about this split. It is that the left of the Labor Party under Anthony Albanese's leadership have completely won this battle and they have said to working Australians, people in regional areas, people who rely on manufacturing jobs, that they don't really care about them and that was the very clear message that has come from Mark Butler, from Mark Dreyfus and ultimately from the leader of the opposition.
CENATIEMPO: Well, gentlemen, this has probably been our most robust discussion since we started this panel. I thank you both for your time. David Smith, Zed Seselja, talk to you next week.
SESELJA: Thanks very much.
SMITH: Thanks, Stephen