Interview on 2CC Afternoon Drive with Leon Delaney

24 August 2020

SUBJECTS: JobKeeper, JobSeeker, Superannuation, video link into parliament, Kristy McBain 

LEON DELANEY, HOST: We've had hail, we've had fire, we've had a pandemic, people have been asking, where's the plague of locusts? Well, we don't have a plague of locusts, but we do have a plague of federal politicians descending upon Canberra whether we want them to come to the ACT or not. Some of them have come from Coronavirus hotspots and have been required to quarantine for the requisite two weeks before turning up in parliament today. Of course, not all the parliamentarians had to actually travel very far. There's just a very small number that actually live here because they represent Canberra. One of them is Dave Smith, Member for Bean. Good afternoon.
DAVID SMITH MP: Good afternoon Leon
DELANEY: And thanks for joining us today. Obviously, a lot of people have been worried about the potential health impacts of having politicians coming from all over Australia, including from COVID-19 hot spots, to gather together in the one place here in the capital. Of course, precautions have been taken. Are you confident those precautions are sufficient?
SMITH: So long as parliamentarians do the right thing over these couple of weeks, they should be sufficient. But there's been some pretty strong guidance for MPs and staff. If they're coming from the hot spot areas or Victoria, then even if they've been in quarantine, they need to stay away from hospitality venues and retail.
DELANEY: So there are some pretty strict rules in place. And I believe in all the public spaces in Parliament House, everybody is required to wear a mask.
SMITH: Yes, that's right, Leon, so it's masks everywhere. I've got my own mask from the markets at Wanniassa.
DELANEY: Well, that's good. You've been supporting local businesses. I'm glad. I'm glad to hear it. Now, speaking of support, the big-ticket item on the agenda for this sitting of parliament has been the JobKeeper and JobSeeker economic support programs. The government, of course, needs to pass the appropriate legislation in order to extend those programs. But the government's plan is to extend those programs at a reduced rate of payment. Now, the opposition says, well, under the present circumstances, perhaps we should continue at the present rate of payment. Is that right?
SMITH: Yes, that's correct, Leon.
DELANEY: So what would you like to see? Do you think you have any opportunity here or any chance of successfully moving an amendment to achieve that?
SMITH: Oh look, I hope so. I think certainly what's happened in Victoria over the last couple of months is probably provided pause for thought that we're nowhere near out of the economic woods. And if you look at the unemployment figures, so it's really critical that we're in a position to support Australians and extend these packages for a longer period of time.
DELANEY: Now, of course, JobKeeper has been very successful despite some of the cracks in the system through which some people have fallen. And obviously, if it continues at a reduced rate, perhaps it won't be providing as much support. But it's better that it does continue rather than not continue at all, isn't it?
SMITH: Well, that's true. And I guess one of our concerns is, is hoping at least the government's open to thinking about the impacts on different parts of the economy. And I think, you know, one of the largest areas as an example is removing JobKeeper from areas like childcare, where it can just end up having a bit of a perverse consequence.
DELANEY: Indeed, it can. Now, of course, JobSeeker, of course, if the legislation goes ahead as anticipated, will be reduced, that supplement payment from $550 down to $250 a fortnight. It's quite a big drop. And then JobSeeker will go back to the old Newstart rate at the beginning of next year unless there's some significant change. Now, I don't anticipate the government will be announcing anything in this session of parliament, but do you anticipate that they might consider actually lifting the base rate of JobSeeker when they come to make their budget announcement in October?
SMITH: Look, I certainly hope so, Leon. But look I think it's too, too hard to be sure what those announcements are going to be like. I mean, hopefully we start to see a bit of a change in the economy. But you'd have to be a bit of an optimist to think it's going to be too much of a sharp change.
DELANEY: Well, we like to be optimistic where we can. But at the same time, I guess it's important to be realistic. And realistically, this is a challenge, an economic challenge and a health challenge that is going to be with us for quite some time. Where do you believe is the right level for the ongoing rate of JobSeeker to be set?
SMITH: Look, Leon, this is something that we'd like to see what, you know, actually comes out of the review by the government. To see the information that come through from the department. But certainly, what I'd like to see is some compelling arguments about why we'd be reducing the rate of JobSeeker at all, at this point in time.
DELANEY: Okay. The other big item of discussion in recent weeks has been the scheduled increase in the superannuation, the compulsory contributions from nine and a half per cent to 10 per cent. Now, it's only a very modest increase, but it's part of a scheduled phase in of the overall increase, up to 12 per cent over time. And there's a lot of people, and many of them are on the Liberal Party backbench saying that that increase ought to be shelved and possibly even abandoned altogether. That hasn't happened yet, but it seems that's an argument that's gathering a lot of momentum. Why is it important that that increase goes ahead as scheduled?
SMITH: I guess there are two elements of this Leon, and firstly, it's effectively a deferred pay increase for Australia, for Australian employees right across, right across the economy, other than the industries where they might already be getting that level of superannuation or higher. So to actually defer it, effectively will be deferring a pretty important component that those Australians are entitled to. I guess, secondly, we've seen a lot of damage to superannuation accounts right across the country by allowing Australians to take money out of their superannuation. And it's important that we actually have sufficient savings for people in their superannuation so they can support themselves in retirement.
DELANEY: Well, that's the idea, of course. But the argument being put forward by business groups is that employers can't afford to pay the additional money and that if they're forced to, it will impact upon future wages growth. Do you accept their argument at all?
SMITH: Look, this isn't something that I would accept, Leon, this is something that has been deferred once before. So it's something that's been a known increase now for a number of years.
DELANEY: What have we learned from the experience of having frozen that rate of contribution?
SMITH: I guess what we have learned is that for too many parts of the economy, at the end results in that people, once they reach retirement age, they don't have sufficient superannuation savings. So there's, you know, and that's still going to be a challenge. And where we can, we want to avoid Australians having to resort from extra support from the social welfare net.
DELANEY: Well, that's the that's the upshot, isn't it? If people don't have enough in their superannuation savings, then that's what's you know, that's what's going to happen. The Prime Minister has for the first time hinted that he's actually reconsidering his position on this. Up until now, he had maintained that the scheduled increase would go ahead. It was an election promise at the 2019 election, that it would go ahead. And he was sticking to that. However, it's been reported today that he said, and I quote, prior to the election, it was certainly my view that those were legislated changes and increases and we had no plans to change any of those. He said COVID-19 has occurred. People's jobs are at risk. That said, it is something the government has to carefully consider. Are we being softened up for that increase not to go ahead?
SMITH: Look, it's what it sounds like Leon, Liberal governments haven't often been friends of compulsory superannuation. But, look, I would hope that the Prime Minister keeps his election commitment.
DELANEY: Now, also today, of course, we've seen quite an historical event, really, parliament sitting for the first time with some members participating by video link. Has that been successful?
SMITH: That's right, Leon, and during Question Time today, we had the first two real digital interactions with a question asked by a member of the opposition and from a member of the government. So thankfully, those two questions worked. We're due to see a number of speakers use the technology a bit later today. So it might be interesting to watch out to see what happens there. But look, you know, as most workplaces across the country have had to adapt, it looks like it shows that maybe we've got the capacity to adapt as well.
DELANEY: Well, one would certainly hope so. I've been arguing for since the beginning of a pandemic that there's no reason, technologically speaking, why we can't have a virtual sitting of the parliament. Obviously, you can't just use your home internet connection and do it over Zoom. You need better security than that. But the technology exists. It's just a matter of putting the infrastructure in place to make it happen. So good to see that we've been making some progress on that. And I'm told that Kristy McBain has been sworn in today as well.
SMITH: She has. Leon, I guess one of the really exciting things for many people across this region is that the first female member for Eden Monaro took her place in the Federal Parliament today and hopefully at some point across the sitting will have the opportunity to make her first speech.
DELANEY: Yeah, well, certainly we'll be looking forward to that. David, thanks very much for your time today.
SMITH: Oh, thanks. Thanks very much, Leon.