Transcript: ABC 774 Drive interview with Rafael Epstein

7 March 2016

The Hon Alan Tudge MP

Minister for Human Services
Topics: 
Economic policy, Niki Savva book, Same sex marriage plebiscite
E&OE

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Alan Tudge has very gamely offered to front up an answer questions. He is the Minister for Human Services. He is also the Liberal Member for the seat of Aston, here in Melbourne. Alan Tudge, good afternoon.

MINISTER TUDGE:

G'day Raf.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Do you recognise that criticism? Is that what was going on?

MINISTER TUDGE:

I had certainly heard of some of these criticisms inside the Abbott Government. But they weren't things that I saw or had experience of myself. I was one of Tony Abbott's parliamentary secretaries and I had a very good working relationship with Peta Credlin and with the Prime Minister.

As far as I was concerned, it was a government which was doing its best. It wasn't a perfect government, but it did accomplish a lot of very important things including getting economic growth going again, signing free trade agreements, stopping the boats, starting the infrastructure build, etc.

I think that's a pretty good record. I think at the end of the day actually the main thing which was Tony Abbott's undoing was his personal popularity. Obviously the polls were sagging. He personally wasn't popular and consequently my colleagues selected Malcolm Turnbull to take over.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

From memory, you voted for the Prime Minister. I just want to check you are saying that it is not dysfunction in government that caused enough people in your party room to change their minds; it was the polls, mainly?

MINISTER TUDGE:

I can't speak for each of my colleagues.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

No, but your guess is better than most of ours.

MINISTER TUDGE:

At the time... I am on the public record as saying that I supported Tony Abbott in the leadership ballot, although I am now a Minister in the Turnbull Government and I will work my hardest for the success of the Turnbull Government.

In some respects though Raf, this is all ancient history. There is a saying in politics that a week is a long time in politics and this is six, 12, 24 months ago now and I know that when I am out in the community, as I was over the weekend, speaking to local constituents of mine, they weren't thinking about what was occurring two years ago. They were very much thinking about what is occurring today and how we fix those problems.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

But the Government is distracted. The Government was distracted by this when it was going on and the Government is distracted by the release of the book.

MINISTER TUDGE:

We can't govern the timing of the release of this book. That is purely up to the publishers. I would have liked for the book to have been released after the election rather than beforehand, but there are many people who are writing books about the Abbott Government.

And no doubt they are all rushing to be the first ones out there to make as many sales as possible and obviously you talking about this book helps Niki Savva with the sale of it. I haven't picked up a copy of the book yet, I will at some stage. But I haven't read it.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

I am not talking about it to aid her sales, but I am talking about it because it does seem to many independent people that the sorts of things you were voted in on — namely, the big one, fixing the budget deficit — you don't have answers for that yet and we are three or four months away from a budget.

This stopped you developing proper policies around that central question and the division that flowed from Tony Abbott being replaced is also stopping you coming up with the answers to the biggest issues, like the budget.

MINISTER TUDGE:

Just on the budget for example, we have made dramatic changes already to the budget trajectory and we shouldn't understate this because when we came to office, the overall growth rate of expenditure was about 3.7 per cent per annum, ongoing.

That is well above the pace of the overall economy which means that over time, it starts to gobble up the entire economy. We have managed to drop that growth rate down to below two per cent now.

Which means that if we have sustained... (inaudible) ...this is our overall budgetary strategy, if you can restrain expenditure growth and at the same time, grow your economy rapidly, then you very quickly get your budget back into balance. That is exactly what we are trying to do.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

You can't rely — that is the problem, isn't it Alan Tudge? You can't rely on the growth rate to get the budget back into balance. You cut $80 billion, you are spending an extra $70 billion, you're two and a half years into a term and you haven't achieved the significant thing you said you would do.

I am not saying that this is right or wrong, but the major reason — other than Labor's dysfunction — was you were going to fix the budget and get that trajectory fixed and you haven't. Tony Abbott stopped you getting there and the division caused by his replacement is still stopping you from producing clear policies and we are three or four months from an election.

MINISTER TUDGE:

I think that policy is clear. If you look at the growth rate though now, of the economy, and the national accounts came out last week, and it was showing a three per cent growth rate for the economy…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

…which is great.

MINISTER TUDGE:

That's extraordinary. That is the fastest growing economy amongst the G7. Well above the OECD average and in large part that is due to some of the policies we have put in place over the last couple of years. I think that is very, very important.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

But you haven't seriously addressed the budget problem.

MINISTER TUDGE:

Well at the same time, we have made a big dent in terms of the budget problem. We are being held up, by the way, not because of anything going on in Tony Abbott's office. But by the Senate, the Greens and the Labor Party who are still blocking tens of billions of dollars of budget savings that we are trying to get through the Senate.

We have had discussions about this in the past, that the Labor Party, they legislated for a lot of the expenditure, so the only way we can constrain the expenditure is to unwind that legislation which then means it has to get through the Senate.

Even when we had mandates for certain things, it was still very difficult for the Senators to allow us to implement that mandate.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

1300 222 774 is the phone number. I'd like to know what you think about what you've read, about whatever is going on inside the Government. You might want to mention the growth rate. The Government would much rather we be talking about that.

Alan Tudge is Minister for Human Services. Alan Tudge, I would say, or I would argue, another sign of the dysfunction caused by the division — the Attorney General and the Prime Minister can't even agree their lines on when the same sex plebiscite will be.

When the Attorney General said it would be by the end of the year, he was contradicted within hours by the Prime Minister. When the Prime Minister says ‘as soon as possible', that is very different to, ‘before the end of the year'.

I am not arguing about the policy around same sex marriage, but if you can't get your lines right on that, does that not show that you are distracted and in disarray?

MINISTER TUDGE:

I don't think it does. I think it was a little untidy, but our policy is actually quite clear: that if we get re-elected, we will have…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

The Attorney General…

MINISTER TUDGE:

…our policy is clear though. If we get re-elected at this election, there will be a plebiscite on same sex marriage. That is our very firm commitment and we will do that as soon as possible. If the election is not until September/October, then it is going to be very difficult to have a plebiscite this year.

If the election is earlier, perhaps there is time, but that decision hasn't been made, hasn't been considered by the Cabinet or by our party room and Malcolm Turnbull has made clear though that he would like to hold it as quickly as possible, but it needs to go through the proper process.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

You don't see it as a problem? The Attorney General, one of his key responsibilities surely, would be having an understanding about when that plebiscite is. The Prime Minister didn't even want to answer questions about George Brandis's comments today.

MINISTER TUDGE:

George Brandis is absolutely across the detail in terms of what the issues are, how we need to frame the question, the concerns which people have about ensuring that religious institutions are in some respects, protected.

As I said, it was a little untidy yesterday, but it has been cleared up and the policy intent of ours, our policy position is absolutely clear. We win the election — a plebiscite subsequently.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Would you rather Tony Abbott doesn't speak up so often as he did in the last two weeks?

MINISTER TUDGE:

Tony Abbott is an ex-Prime Minister and ex-Prime Ministers — I won't be giving them any advice. We've got an election coming up. I think all of us need to be buckling down and being as disciplined as possible, leading up to that election.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Just to clarify what they said about the growth rate, are you saying that you can rely on growth to get the budget out of a hole or do you think you need to do something radical with either tax or spending?

MINISTER TUDGE:

No, I am saying you need to do both: increase the growth rate of the economy and keep expenditure growth under control. It is the simple math, Raf.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Do you need to do something about tax as well?

MINISTER TUDGE:

It is the simple maths that if your economy is growing say at three per cent and your expenditure is only growing at say 1.5 per cent, then by definition your expenditure as a percentage of GDP begins to shrink and your revenues then catch up and you'll be back into surplus because your revenues tend to match your economic growth.

We don't want to increase net taxes on people. Let me make that very clear. We are having a tax reform discussion, but not with the objectives of increasing net taxes. We think net taxes are already too high. We want to put more money back into people's pockets.

There may be opportunities to change the tax mix in order to encourage further economic growth and incentives for investment.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Do you want me to send you a copy of Niki Savva's book?

MINISTER TUDGE:

[Laughs] I am sure I will be able to join the very long queues in my electorate, who will be lining up to get a copy of that book today.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

I am not so sure! Thank you for your time.

MINISTER TUDGE:

Thanks so much Raf.

[ENDS]