Interview with Leon Compton on 936 ABC Radio Hobart

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

SUBJECTS: Job applications; Senate negotiations; Medicare co-payment; Cadbury.

LEON COMPTON: The Government, the Federal Government’s been criticised in the months since the Budget was delivered on many of the policies around its treatment of the unemployed and a range of issues, I suppose, in relation to the Budget. Negotiations are underway at the moment to get elements of the Budget through the Upper House, crossbenchers being lobbied, a very interesting time. Let’s talk about what that looks like with the Liberal Senator for Tasmania, Minister for Workplace Relations, Eric Abetz. Senator, good morning to you.

MINISTER ABETZ: Good morning, Leon.

LEON COMPTON: What convinced you to abandon the 40-applications-a-month requirement for job seekers?

MINISTER ABETZ: There’s an assumption in your question, Leon. We haven’t abandoned anything. What we said was, in relation to our new request for tender for the job service providers, that we would put out a draft request for tender and engage in community consultation. That consultation ended on Monday, 25 August, and we are now taking into account that feedback.

LEON COMPTON: With respect, Senator, I looked at a transcript of an interview you did with Steve Price on commercial radio in Sydney yesterday, and you seem to suggest that you would be moving towards reducing the number of job applications that you would be asking job seekers to make each month.

MINISTER ABETZ: And Leon, look, that’s your interpretation of what I said. Can I say I said similar things on Lateline, on 7.30, on Alan Jones, on John Laws, on programmes and conferences all around Australia during this period of community consultation and the two things that have come through very clearly – and that is what I said on Steve Price’s programme – one is that the Australian community does believe that if you are unfortunate enough to be unemployed, then your full-time job ought to be job seeking.

The other community feedback has been that forcing people to do 40 job applications when their heart isn’t in it, or when it’s just sort of tick and flick and not a proper job application, will serve no useful purpose and it could be a real burden for small business.

So all those factors are being taken into account and, as I said, they are legitimate concerns and a Government such as ours puts out these drafts to get community consultation happening, to hear what the community views are, and there are two schools of thought and we will need to make a decision in this area, which we will do relatively shortly.

LEON COMPTON: Given the feedback you’ve received on the six months of no unemployment benefits for young people on the dole, in most cases, what is your view now about that policy?

MINISTER ABETZ: The issue in relation to periods off the dole, that is in my colleague’s area, Kevin Andrews, the Minister for Social Services, and that will be for him to make a determination in that area. But, overwhelmingly, the community feedback has been, especially for school leavers, that going from school to welfare is not a good thing for the individual and the concept of earn or learn is something that has huge community support.

LEON COMPTON: I suppose I am asking you as an apex politician in Federal Parliament from Tasmania, as somebody who must have travelled around the part of the country with the highest youth unemployment rate, what have you learnt about that policy? Have you had any thoughts about modifying it in the interests of equity?

MINISTER ABETZ: Look, Leon, each one of us has thoughts. I will keep my thoughts for Cabinet and other discussions and not sort of broadcast them. What I’m doing is concentrating on my portfolio area and Minister Andrews will have the issue to deal with, as will Cabinet, ultimately, but we have been assiduously listening to the community in relation to these matters.

LEON COMPTON: Senator, you’re also responsible for doing much of the wrangling, in terms of getting the Budget passed through the Upper House. There are questions this morning about Jacqui Lambie’s relationship with her party at the moment. Are you still dealing with the Palmer United Party in the Senate as a block, or are you dealing with Jacqui Lambie separately?

MINISTER ABETZ: As I’ve always said, I’m happy to deal with Senators on an individual basis or on a grouping basis. It is completely up to them and we are still dealing with Palmer United as a group of three and often with Ricky Muir, the Australian Motoring Enthusiast, as part of the group of four. But at the end of the day it is completely up to each individual of those Senators to determine how they want to be briefed.

I must say, from my personal perspective, being able to brief four in one job lot, of course, is a lot easier than having to talk to four separately. But, at the end of the day, I will do what is necessary to ensure that we can get our economy back on track and, as a result, deal with the social problem of unemployment and ensure that we have sufficient funds for our hospitals, roads and education, and that is why we’re so determined to get the economy back into shape to fix the Budget. It’s the social dividend that will ultimately flow from it, and I think everybody agrees, Leon, that borrowing $1 billion a month to pay the interest on existing loans is simply unsustainable and if we don’t fix it today it will be so much more difficult in one, two, three, six years’ time and it will be a great disservice to the next generation of Australians.

LEON COMPTON: And yet on the other hand, Senator, people would argue, given that you want to make that point, that charging pensioners $7 to go the doctor, and they’re not using that money to prop up Medicare, but rather diverting it somewhere else, works against the strength of that argument, in terms of urgency.

MINISTER ABETZ: Well ultimately, no, because where is that $7 going to be, as you claim, diverted to a medical research fund which will benefit every single Australian and, who knows, possibly if the research is of international significance, it can be of benefit to everybody in the world. So once again, what we’re saying is – while we’re trying to save money, we are also building for the future, and that’s why we’re into roads and the infrastructure for the 21st century and into the medical research for the future. Because while you’re saving, you’ve still got to keep spending, but in areas that are going to provide future dividends, and I think everybody would be delighted, pensioners included, if they knew that the $7 co-contribution that they were paying was going to help look after the ailments from which their grandchildren might suffer.

LEON COMPTON: Okay. But in your travels around Tasmania are pensioners delighted to be paying $7 in future to go to the doctor, paying $7 extra for their prescriptions, paying $7 for their blood work that might be done, and other pathology?

MINISTER ABETZ: Leon, nobody’s ever delighted in having to pay a higher price, but I think most people recognised that after the six years of profligacy, of waste, of borrowing, that we do have to tighten our belts. And might I add, in relation to the co-contribution, Labor’s greatest Prime Minster ever, Bob Hawke, was in favour of it, Labor’s current Shadow Assistant Treasurer, Dr Andrew Leigh, has written, while he was in Opposition, that a co-contribution was a very important social policy to put a price signal on medical services, so we know that this is actually Labor Party thinking.

They know it’s good policy, they know it’s responsible policy, but for cheap politics, they aren’t willing to admit it, and we are about building a stronger future for Australia, even if it does mean that we have to make a few unpopular decisions. Bob Hawke knew it, Dr Leigh knows it, and I think in the heart of hearts, a lot of Australians do recognise is it tough medicine, if I can use that term. Yes it is, but it will be building for the future.

LEON COMPTON: On ABC local radio around Tasmania, Liberal Senator for Tasmania, Eric Abetz, is our guest. Senator, where is the $16 million for Cadbury that was promised in the lead up to last year’s federal election? How far away is it?

MINISTER ABETZ: The $16 million that was promised in – during the federal election for Cadbury’s is still there. It’s in the Budget and what we do as a Government is go through due diligence and we need to ensure that that which Cadbury puts to us will be a very good use of Australian taxpayers’ money. And, as a result, if it takes 12, 18, 24 months to get it absolutely right to protect taxpayers’ dollars, that is what we’ll do.  The Labor Party, regrettably, when they were in government, they would make the money available and then try to sort of reverse-engineer everything to make the money look good.

LEON COMPTON: That – with respect, Senator, that is exactly the allegation that is being used against you and in Senate Estimates, it seems that the Parliament had – the bureaucracy had no business case whatsoever until as recently as August to justify handing $16 million to Cadbury, a company which posted a 46 per cent increase in its profits in the same year.

MINISTER ABETZ: That is because when we made that promise, Leon, I think everybody realises we were not in government. We did not have the opportunity to put these matters through the Department. But we will ensure – we will ensure – that the money is responsibly used by Cadbury’s and it’s – you know, if I might say, at the time when we announced it, the Labor member for Franklin, Julie Collins, described it, and I quote, “a great project” that gets our support.

LEON COMPTON: Can we agree that there was no business case for it at the time and there hasn’t been until recently?

MINISTER ABETZ: The proposition that was put to us was that the tourism aspect of Cadbury’s redevelopment would not be viable without government support. We accepted that at face value and we are now going through with Cadbury to determine that that’s the case. And, look, if the case doesn’t stack up, then, of course, we need to reconsider because just because we promised it, it was all done in good faith but we will, at the end of the day, protect taxpayers’ dollars.

Having said all that, I have every confidence, Leon, that the project will go ahead, that it will be good and, if I might say, it’s going to be a real boost if it all comes together, which I hope it will, to our tourism infrastructure, and being so close to MONA, it’s going to be a real compare and contrast, if you like. Mum and Dad can go to MONA in the morning, promising the kids that they will go to Cadbury’s in the afternoon.

LEON COMPTON: With respect, Senator, I don’t dispute that it might be a great tourist asset. The question is do you think pensioners who are being charged to go to the doctor might wonder if a company that’s posted a significant profit should be getting $16 million?

MINISTER ABETZ: See, once again, this $16 million will be a huge investment in attracting more tourists to Tasmania, making Tasmania more viable. And if I might say, this is part of an overall Cadbury upgrade, which hopefully will see our dairy herd increased by 6000 head of dairy cattle, an extra 200 factory workers, an extra 20,000 tonnes of chocolate – now, that’s a lot of chocolate – 20,000 tonnes of chocolate being exported into South-East Asia. That is going to create jobs. That’s going to create wealth for our State and they’re the sort of things that we want to invest in for the future to provide a real future for our dairy farmers, for our factory workers and for the tourism sector.

LEON COMPTON: Okay. Senator, before we leave you this morning, just to confirm, when you’re dealing with Palmer United Party at the moment, they’re all in the same room: Glenn Lazarus; Dio Wang; Jacqui Lambie; and potentially Ricky Muir as well, from the Motoring Enthusiasts. They’re in the same room. They’re part of the same party. They walk to the beat of the same drum. That’s what you’re telling us this morning?

MINISTER ABETZ: [inaudible]…The Senate has only sat for 14 days and then this week is the third week of the new Senate sitting and the Palmer United are united, as I understand it, in their voting in the Senate so far. I don’t detect any change.

LEON COMPTON:  Good to talk to you this morning.

MINISTER ABETZ: Thanks a lot, Leon.

LEON COMPTON: Liberal Senator for Tasmania and Employment Minister, Eric Abetz, on your local ABC.

For more information

Media mailbox: