Interview with Alison Carabine on ABC Radio National

  • Leader of the Government in the Senate
  • Minister for Employment
  • Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service
  • Senator for Tasmania

SUBJECTS: New Senate; new employment programmes.

JAMES CARLETON: From today the political landscape changes in Canberra with the new Senate installed and the Government forced to negotiate its legislative agenda with the eight crossbench senators who hold the balance of power.

The first major test will be the vote on repealing the carbon tax. Then there’s the $25 billion in Budget measures that remain deadlocked. July 1 is also the day, today, a new range of employment measures are introduced, including Tony Abbott’s Work for the Dole scheme. Eric Abetz is the Leader of the Government in the Senate and Minister for Employment. He’s in our Parliament House studio, where he is speaking with political editor Alison Carabine.

ALISON CARABINE: Eric Abetz, thanks for coming in.

MINISTER ABETZ: Good morning.

ALISON CARABINE: Minister, we’ll get to some of those employment changes in a moment, but first to the Senate. Tony Abbott has said that he will neither hector nor lecture the new crossbench. How long will that softly-softly approach last if you don’t get your way?

MINISTER ABETZ: We will be living with these independent Senators for six years, all things being equal, and therefore it makes very good sense to adopt the Prime Minister’s approach. which is not to hector or lecture them but to treat them with the respect that they deserve; treat each case on its merit and each senator as an individual or, should they wish to be in a party grouping, then that party grouping. That’s been my approach thus far and I intend to continue taking that approach.

ALISON CARABINE: And, Minister, do you anticipate ongoing and regular discussions with the crossbenchers?

MINISTER ABETZ: Yes I do anticipate that there will be ongoing discussions with the crossbenchers. It makes good sense for that to occur. And given that they do have the balance within the Senate, we as a Government will need to bring across six from the other side of the Chamber or from the crossbenches to ensure that our legislative agenda is passed. And so that will be part of our approach.

ALISON CARABINE:  And considering those negotiations will be ongoing, is that method of governing really going to be much different from the Labor-Greens alliance, which you were so critical of in the last Parliament?

MINISTER ABETZ: Well, I think the fundamental difference is that in the Lower House, where the Government is formed, the Government has a clear majority, has a clear mandate and is able to pursue its legislative agenda. Now, the Senate is a house of review and it stands to reason that the differing points of view within the community are given expression there and that is what we have in this Senate and we will work through the issues in a methodical, purposeful manner and I trust that the crossbenchers will see that our agenda is about rebuilding Australia and setting her on a right course.

ALISON CARABINE: So I guess what you are saying is you won’t be held hostage by this motley crew of crossbenchers in the red chamber?

MINISTER ABETZ: Well, I wouldn’t describe them as a motley crew; they’re all God’s children as far as I’m concerned. But we will be working with them on the issues, case-by-case.

ALISON CARABINE: And I guess the big, pressing legislative priority for the Government once the carbon repeal is dealt with, will be dealing with the Budget. Is there any room at all for compromise from the Government on measures such as the Medicare co-payment, for example?

MINISTER ABETZ: Well, the Government, very clearly, does want the carbon tax repealed. Today as we speak, the carbon tax is going up yet again courtesy of the Labor-Green legislation which will put even extra pressure on cost of living, destroy more jobs on the way through. Then the mining tax, and then the Budget measures, and we will see how they play out. As the Prime Minister said, we’re not going to hector or lecture them but we will be strongly advocating the reasons why we have put these Budget measures in place and we’ll see how it plays out.

ALISON CARABINE: But there is no point in negotiation and discussion if there is no wriggle-room from the Government. And we’re talking about around $25 billion worth of Budget measures deadlocked in the Senate.

MINISTER ABETZ: Well, let’s wait and see if anything does get deadlocked in the Senate. We, as a Government, will be putting forward our agenda and we will then have discussions with the crossbenchers. But at the end of the day we are a practical government that wants to ensure the very best for the Australian people. But where the cards fall, that remains to be determined.

ALISON CARABINE:  Would the Government be in so much trouble in the Senate if it had better spelled out, before the Budget, the need for action? Your colleague Malcolm Turnbull, he was saying yesterday that the Government should have done a much better job in explaining the need for belt-tightening?

MINISTER ABETZ: Hindsight is always a wonderful thing, but when you tell your fellow Australians that we are borrowing one thousand million dollars per month just to pay the interest bills on the existing borrowings, people do sit up and listen and say yes, firm action is required and it’s irresponsible, it’s inter-generational theft, to continue down that budgetary track.

ALISON CARABINE: People might be sitting up and listening, but they don’t like what they are hearing. The size of the Government’s challenge might just be underscored by today’s Newspoll. Labor now ahead 10 points, two-party preferred, 55 to 45 per cent. So six weeks on from the Budget, you’re not making any headway at all, selling the measures to the public.

MINISTER ABETZ: I think that you are right that people never like to hear a message of belt-tightening. But when it is explained to them I believe that the common sense of the Australian people and the sense of decency, that it is simply economically irresponsible and morally wrong to steal the inheritance from the next generation and leave them with a legacy of debt so we can maintain our lifestyle today…That is something that most Australians would not accept as a fair cop, and that is what the Labor legacy of deficit and debt is, and we are dealing with that issue. It’s a tough issue. People don’t like it, but I think, in the end, they will accept that it is necessary for the sake of future generations.

ALISON CARABINE: Minister, the key player that you will have to deal with in the Senate – and he’s not even a Senator – is Clive Palmer and his PUP party. Clive Palmer has been asked to front an arbitration hearing to answer claims that more than $2 million was allegedly siphoned from a Chinese company and used to bankroll Palmer United’s political advertising. Could it be that the Chinese Government has inadvertently helped Clive Palmer’s election to Parliament?

MINISTER ABETZ: Let’s wait and see how that court process unravels, and it’ll be for the courts to determine these matters. Mr Palmer is involved in those proceedings. I’m not, nor is the Government, and we will await and see the outcome of the court.

ALISON CARABINE: Do you think he has some explaining to do?

MINISTER ABETZ: Clearly one side has taken legal action. But whether that is a well-founded legal action or not is not something I’m prepared to comment on.

ALISON CARABINE: Minister, if we can switch to employment. The Government’s revamped Work for the Dole scheme starts today. How many 18 to 30-year-olds will be required to work for their dole, and how many will end up getting proper jobs at the end of the scheme?

MINISTER ABETZ: Work for the Dole has been a very effective programme in getting people job-ready. I launched many Work for the Dole programmes under the Howard Government. And the common theme was that, at the beginning there’d be 20 long faces; six months later at the graduation there were smiling faces – people saying ‘why is it that Work for the Dole only goes for six months?’ What unemployment does is it prejudices people’s physical health, mental health, self-esteem, social interaction. Now they are all bad for the individual, for the family with which they live, and the community. That is why government has a responsibility to try to get as many people as possible into work-like activity, for their own good and for society’s good.

ALISON CARABINE: And how many will get into work, not just work-like activity? How many jobs will these kids going into Work for the Dole end up going into?

MINISTER ABETZ: We will need to wait and see how many people actually do get employment afterwards. But having people gainfully employed, having a reason to get up of a morning, doing something useful for the community, actually does help those individuals’ physical health, mental health, their self-esteem, their social interaction. So it actually does the individuals a lot of good, besides making them more job-ready.

ALISON CARABINE: But the end objective must be finding permanent employment. And you mentioned the original Work for the Dole scheme during the Howard Government. Only about one in three went on to find work within three months of completing the scheme. What will be different about the second model, this new model? Will there be more training, for example?

MINISTER ABETZ: We’ll, isn’t it a great thing that one in three of the Work for the Dole participants were able to find a job quicker than they otherwise would have. And so from that perspective it was a great success. We hope to be able to emulate that in this new Work for the Dole. But let’s not underestimate the importance of restoring the economy by getting rid of the carbon tax, getting rid of the mining tax, getting the Budget back into shape, so that we have the jobs in the marketplace ready for these people to take up.

ALISON CARABINE: Minister, you have a lot on your plate. Thanks so much for joining RN Breakfast.


JAMES CARLETON: And that’s the Leader of the Government in the Senate, the Minister for Employment, Eric Abetz.

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