Transcript – Radio Interview – ABC Melbourne Drive with Raf Epstein
RAF EPSTEIN. HOST: Anthony Albanese is the Prime Minister of Australia. Prime Minister, thank you for coming in.
ANTHONY ALBANESE, PRIME MINISTER: G’day Raf. Good to be here.
EPSTEIN: It’s great to have you here.
PRIME MINISTER: A beautiful day in Melbourne.
EPSTEIN: It has been. It’s Melbourne, so we’ll give you some bad weather tomorrow. Peter Dutton is very concerned about housing and immigration, we are adding people faster than we’re adding houses.
PRIME MINISTER: Well is he really, though? Or is he just looking for some buttons to press? The immigration numbers, the population numbers that are projected to be there in 2027, were when he in fact was the Minister, the projection of where our population would be in 2022. So this isn’t something that has newly arrived. It’s something that was projected on his watch.
EPSTEIN: What buttons do you think he’s pushing?
PRIME MINISTER: I think that Peter’s looking around for a sense of purpose. I think it was a very good Budget. So he’s out there, I guess, trying to create some issues where they shouldn’t be. Of course, housing has been an issue for some time. But he knows full well that the reason why there is a short term jump in the population numbers – the NOM as it’s called, the Net Overseas Migration it stands for, for short – is because no one was coming here while the pandemic was on. Our borders were closed. So instead of 80,000 or 100,000 students arriving and 100,000 students finishing their degrees and leaving, they’ve been coming but not leaving because they are just commencing and those factors are really very relevant.
EPSTEIN: Some of my texters are drawing a direct link between the really ugly neo-Nazi rally on the weekend. If I can read a text to you, Cam’s got this: Is anyone really surprised that neo-Nazis start barking after Peter Dutton blows his xenophobic, anti-immigration dog whistle? Do you draw any link?
PRIME MINISTER: I think that we always need to be very careful when we raise these issues. I don’t draw a direct link at all. But I do think we’ve got to be careful about raising issues, I know that Peter Dutton certainly has a bit of a history of raising intemperate remarks, that people were frightened of going out in Melbourne at one stage, you might recall, while he was a Minister in the Government.
EPSTEIN: Are you accusing him of dog-whistling?
PRIME MINISTER: No look, it’s up to him to explain what his motivation is. It’s legitimate to have a debate about migration. It’s legitimate to raise issues of population. But do it on the basis of fact. He should certainly say, as I responded to him in Parliament when he asked the questions, and interestingly, he only asked one question last Wednesday and one last Thursday, and they were both on the same thing to me. It’s extraordinary that the Leader of the Opposition had nothing to say about child care, aged care, the economy, debt and deficit, or in our case, the projected surplus, international relations, a whole range of factors that were there in the Budget, except for that.
EPSTEIN: Anthony Albanese is here, the Prime Minister, if you can please throw in your headphones, Prime Minister, we’ll go to a caller or two. Charlie’s in Carlton, what do you want to ask, Charlie?
CALLER: Thanks for taking my call. I was wondering if the Prime Minister would have a way of addressing the million empty properties, and I think it was 15 million empty rooms with maybe some carrots and sticks. Maybe even out-green the Greens?
EPSTEIN: I think it was a million empty homes in the census, is that what you’re referring to?
CALLER: Yeah, and I think quite a few million unused rooms too, spare rooms.
PRIME MINISTER: Yeah look, by and large, there are two factors there. One is that the nature of our homes and who was living in them did change during the pandemic. So households got smaller and it’s envisaged that that will go back to more normal circumstances. People were, I think quite rightly, I guess, concerned about having contact and living close with each other.
EPSTEIN: You’ve got to do more than you’ve done on this though, don’t you?
PRIME MINISTER: Well indeed, state and territory governments have done stuff. The ACT, for example, changed its tax arrangements
EPSTEIN: You mean stamp duty?
PRIME MINISTER: No, its arrangements around houses if they were vacant.
EPSTEIN: Like short term rental and that?
PRIME MINISTER: So they they made some changes. One of the things that we had at the last meeting of the National Cabinet was the discussion between state and territory leaders and myself. We agreed to develop, for the next meeting, a series of renters rights. And these are all issues that have to be looked at.
EPSTEIN: But don’t you need to do more than that? There’s two sorts of people in the country, aren’t there? There’s people who can afford to rent and pay mortgage and people who can’t, and that the number of people who are struggling to pay the rent or the mortgage, that grows. Don’t you need to do more on that?
PRIME MINISTER: Yeah. And we are doing more. We have a housing accord that’s been developed.
EPSTEIN: That’s agreed next year, that’s 12 months away isn’t it?
PRIME MINISTER: No, well the work on that is beginning now. One of the things about housing is you have to agree on today, so you can do something in a short period of time as possible. You can’t agree today and be under construction tomorrow. But we have got the Master Builders, HIA, if you look at the announcement about build-to-rent that we did, the Property Council was saying on the weekend that would result in 250,000 additional dwellings being constructed. So that’s the second thing we’re doing. The third thing we’ve done is in rent assistance, the largest increase in 30 years. The fourth thing we’ve done is extend the Commonwealth State Housing Agreement by $1.6 billion for just the coming year. And then we’ll negotiate out a five year agreement to get that certainty. The next thing we’ve done is put $2 billion extra into community housing to make it available for investment in community housing.
EPSTEIN: Do you really say that you are doing enough because a tonne of people try and provide housing to those who can’t afford housing, they are saying you are not doing enough? Do you really feel you are doing enough?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, you can always do more. But we’re doing an enormous amount, Raf, is the point I’m making. Including, it would help if the Senate got out of the way and passed our Housing Australia Future Fund that’s supported by the homelessness organisations, supported by welfare organisations, National Shelter, as well as the Master Builders as well as the Housing Industry Association, as well as every state and territory.
EPSTEIN: This is the investing in the Future Fund, something the Greens oppose?
PRIME MINISTER: That’s right. That’s right. And it’s for 30,000 homes, 4,000 of which would be reserved for women and children escaping domestic violence, another portion reserved for veterans at risk of homelessness. Another portion, $100 million, would go towards refurbishment of remote housing in remote communities, particularly in the Northern Territory, and Far North Queensland but also Western New South Wales, some of these remote communities. And we need to have a comprehensive plan. We have had announcement after announcement, we’re prepared to put our dollars where our mouth is. One of the first things we did upon coming to government was make over $500 million available from the NHFIC as well for housing. So we are working to try to stimulate private sector investment and try and make more social and affordable housing available. And one thing that could happen and should have happened last week was the passing of the Housing Australia Future Fund.
EPSTEIN: Anthony Albanese is answering some of my questions, some of yours as well. That’s housing, I want to come back to the general idea of those with the least and whether or not they are left behind. But Peter’s got a query in Geelong. Peter, the PM is listening, what do you want to ask?
CALLER: Oh, hi. Thank you for taking my call. First time caller. I’m calling actually just to talk about the proposed 60 day dispensing that Labor is bringing or hoping to bring through. I’m a pharmacist from Geelong, a community pharmacist, and I had happened to catch Senator Tammy Tyrrell’s Facebook post about a transitional payment that could be made to community pharmacy to make up for predicted losses that we’re going to incur as a result of this policy. In that proposal, Raf, I’m not sure if you’re familiar with it. But the Senator commented that if community pharmacy didn’t receive a payment or a transitional payment, then basically the policy is a stinker as she called it. But if the pharmacy in general didn’t receive a payment at all it would show…
EPSTEIN: So you want a payment into the future to cope with the loss of income I’m presuming?
CALLER: So I’ve actually forwarded my confidential information to the Prime Minister’s office.
EPSTEIN: So Peter, you can, for the sake of this and everyone listening who don’t understand and don’t need to know the ins and outs, are you saying you want some, you want a little bit extra? Some sort of transitional payment to make sure that you don’t fall over. Is that what you mean?
CALLER: Well ideally, Raf, if you do the work, you should get paid for it.
EPSTEIN: Prime Minister?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, we’re big supporters of community pharmacy, and we acknowledge the work that you’ve done. And that’s one of the reasons why every single dollar of Commonwealth funding that is saved through this measure is going back into community pharmacy. But to be clear about what the measure is, by extending the time in which someone who’s on a permanent drug, essentially, for diabetes or for heart conditions, which they are going to be on for the rest of their life, there’s a whole lot of them. Instead of having to get a script every 30 days, and having to go to the pharmacy, and beforehand, having to go to the doctor, incurring the cost of going to the doctor, incurring the waiting times at the local GP, then going to the pharmacy and paying twice, people will pay once for 60 days.
EPSTEIN: People listening might want to know if you’ve done the modelling. Are you confident, does the Health Department tell you that the community pharmacist won’t go out of business?
PRIME MINISTER: What they say is, look, we acknowledge that there will be pressure on, but that’s one of the reasons why we are also expanding the scope of services that pharmacist can provide. We know that during the pandemic, for reasons beyond my comprehension, it took a long time for pharmacists to be able to give immunisation, to give the vaccine. Now we want to expand that.
EPSTEIN: What they can do?
PRIME MINISTER: To expand the distribution of drugs related to drug addiction, effectively. To expand the activity that pharmacists can engage with. We’ve engaged very constructively with the Pharmacy Guild. They have a role in which some of what is happening has been massively exaggerated. We are phasing this in over two years. So there are pharmacists who have signs up saying immediately this has had this huge impact. It doesn’t commence until September, and it’s phased in with the next lot phasing in in March, and the next lot phasing in in September next year. So we want to work through these areas. I want to see community pharmacists not just survive, but thrive. But they can’t do so on the basis of people who are some of the poorest people queuing up and paying money essentially for the sake of it. That does not make sense. And that’s why we introduced this measure.
EPSTEIN: Anthony Albanese will be sticking around till close to the five o’clock news.
EPSTEIN: Anthony Albanese is in Melbourne, the rest of his Cabinet around the country is breaking their Budget changes. Prime Minister, one thing that did change, even two weeks ago, your Infrastructure Minister was asked if Airport Rail was on hold because it was part of a review of infrastructure projects. Two weeks ago, she was asked specifically in Ballarat, by an ABC reporter, ‘is Airport Rail in the review?’ She said no. So Airport Rail two weeks ago was going ahead. All of a sudden that $5 billion might not be spent on Airport Rail. What changed?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, it’s in the review. What’s changed is our Budget. And that’s when we make announcements, Raf, in the Budget.
EPSTEIN: Why did they go from being on to being a maybe?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, breaking news, we make announcements when they’re in the Budget.
EPSTEIN: I’m asking for the reason why.
PRIME MINISTER: Two weeks ago, that was on because we hadn’t introduced our budget. Two weeks ago, the pharmacy changes hadn’t happened.
EPSTEIN: I’m just asking you to explain why it goes on the review pile. Suburban Rail Loop doesn’t go on the review pile. Why does Airport Rail?
PRIME MINISTER: Because the Suburban Rail Loop was a commitment that we made very specifically as a government and we honour our commitments that we’ve made. We are reviewing across the country. We haven’t taken any money out of the infrastructure budget.
EPSTEIN: Is it going to end up on the road, on the North East Link, that $5 billion?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, I’m not pre-empting the review project by project. One of the things that we had was we found there were 800 projects. And I’m a former Infrastructure Minister. I set up Infrastructure Australia. The National Government should not have 800 projects on the pipeline. Because what they did, and we found this during the Aston by-election, you might recall, there was an issue, three roads, all of them massively underfunded. You can’t promise $50 million for a road that’s going to cost a quarter of a billion, and then say, ‘Oh, why isn’t it built?’ Guess what? Nothing happens.
EPSTEIN: If I’m a betting man, they first spoke about Airport Rail before they built Tullamarine, they first started talking about a rail line in 1965. Is it going to go ahead? Or is it going to go on pause?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, I’m not going to pre-empt project by project, just like I don’t pre-empt what was in the Budget last Tuesday night. If you do that, why have a review?
EPSTEIN: So a more general question maybe, especially for people who may be have always voted Labor. JobSeeker’s going up, I don’t know, $2.80 a day, which is a significant amount of money in budgetary terms. But if you’re trying to live, it isn’t. Rent Assistance, as you said, is going up for the first time in a very long time. But most people on Rent Assistance can’t afford to actually rent in a major city. When’s the Government going to get some courage?
PRIME MINISTER: I think it takes courage to put together a Budget that makes sure that it takes pressure off people who are suffering from cost of living pressures without putting pressure on inflation. That’s courage, saying what we’re doing, why we’re doing it. And the truth is that they are modest measures. We accept that.
EPSTEIN: They are really modest.
PRIME MINISTER: We accept they are modest measures. But the $40 a fortnight increase in JobSeeker comes on top of the increase, that was also around about that much, which occurred during the pandemic as well. In addition to that, at the same time, when it comes in, of course, you’ll have your indexation coming in. Rental Assistance was the largest increase in 30 years. Single Parenting Payment, which was identified by the Women’s Economic Equality Task Force was a significant boost at a cost of a couple of a billion dollars, so that it will apply when the youngest child reaches 14 rather than eight. That’s a transformative measure that we put in place.
EPSTEIN: It is for those who get it.
PRIME MINISTER: Well guess what? The work by Dr Anne Summers, and the work done by the Women’s Economic Equality Task Force, chaired by Sam Mostyn, found that that was the the number one thing that you could do to make a difference. That was their first priority.
EPSTEIN: Put your headphones on again, if you can, please Prime Minister. We’ve got room for Jane in Parkville as well, Jane, what do you want to ask?
PRIME MINISTER: Hi, Jane.
CALLER: Thanks for taking my call. So I’m a single parent. And I’ve sort of gone through all the stages of the kids now and they’re still with me at home, we’re renting. They’re studying full time at uni, working part time, I’m working full time. But just everything has gone up for us too. So the rents have gone up, the bills have gone up, the groceries have gone up, everything has gone up. But we’re just like the working poor. The tax rate, I’m just on a low income, but I’m just doing my best working full time. And, I’m not sure what’s really support for people like me, who are trying to support our kids to get through. But there’s no way that they could move out of home and afford to pay rent or bills or anything like that. And I’m struggling to do it myself.
PRIME MINISTER: How many kids have you got, Jane?
CALLER: I’ve got two.
PRIME MINISTER: Two. Well, good on you for what you’re doing. And I acknowledge that so many people out there are doing it tough. And we’ve introduced, the change for the Single Parenting Payment won’t apply to you, but it will provide really practical assistance for over 50,000 people of around about $176 a fortnight, which will make a significant difference to them. And it’s also about respect as well.
EPSTEIN: You can hear the difficulties in Jane’s life.
PRIME MINISTER: And I accept that. But one of the things that we had to do, and we’ve been upfront about this, is the inflation challenge. Inflation impacts people, it impacts Jane more than it impacts me as a parliamentarian on my salary. And that’s why it is progressive to get inflation under control. And you don’t get inflation under control unless fiscal policy, that is the Budget, is working in partnership with monetary policy.
EPSTEIN: But is it progressive to get rid of progressive tax scales? The Stage Three tax cuts are clearly going to come, you’re not going to change your mind on that. You’ve been very obvious, you’ve said that repeatedly. Can I ask a question about that change, though? Maybe this is the final question. We’re going from people who are on 45 grand to 200 grand, they pay at the moment, this year, they pay different rates of tax depending on how much they earn. From July 1 next year, the person on 45 grand pays the same marginal tax rate as the person on 200 grand. Do you think that is either progressive or fair?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, the 37 per cent scale under Stage Three will disappear. We inherited this, it was legislated though.
EPSTEIN: I guess I’m asking you as the leader of the country for a value judgement. Is it a fair tax scale?
PRIME MINISTER: It was legislated. What what I do think is that in the debate, some of what has been lost is Stage Three does begin to kick in at $45,000.
EPSTEIN: And most of it goes to you and me, not the people on 45 grand.
PRIME MINISTER: Well, in terms of the top rate is increased from $180,000 up to $200,000. That’s a change at the top rate.
EPSTEIN: Is it fair?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, it is stage three, there were three parts of the tax cuts. They were introduced by the Liberal Party when they were in government. We tried to amend them, Raf, we tried to amend them.
EPSTEIN: Are you going to try to amend them this time?
PRIME MINISTER: We tried to amend them, and we were not successful in amending them. And so one of the things we’ve said is our priority will always be to help low and middle income taxpayers.
EPSTEIN: I’ll try one more time. Is it fair? 45 grand and 200 grand paying the same amount of tax?
PRIME MINISTER: Would I have designed it that way, would the Labor Party have? Well we moved amendments at the time which reflected our views. But we weren’t successful. They were legislated. It wasn’t just the Coalition by the way. It was Jacqui Lambie and others in minority parties who voted for it and made it so that our amendments weren’t successful in the Senate.
EPSTEIN: Thanks for coming in. I appreciate your time. Thanks for answering calls as well.
PRIME MINISTER: Thanks very much.