Transcript: Sky News, Interview with Patricia Karvelas

16 October 2016

The Hon Alan Tudge MP

Minister for Human Services
Topics: 
ACOSS poverty report, Changes to the pension assets test letter, Donald Trump, Labor Mediscare campaign in ACT, Registered Trade Organisations Bill
E&OE

PATRICIA KARVELAS:
My first guest tonight is Human Services Minister Alan Tudge, who is already in Canberra, ready for the week. Welcome to the program.

ALAN TUDGE:
G'day Patricia.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:
So there are nearly 700,000 pensioners who will effectively have to wait until close to Christmas to find out if they face cuts to their pensions because of these new asset tests on their investments.

Why are you taking so long to inform them? It means they can't plan, or have no certainty.

ALAN TUDGE:
Patricia these were decisions which were made by the Parliaments over 12 months ago. They were announced, from memory, about 18 months ago, and they've been aired extensively in the nation's newspapers, including the new thresholds, the assets tests and the like.

So it won't come as a surprise to most people that there are going to be some changes come the first of January. What Centrelink is doing though, right now, is sending out a letter to people who might be affected and just informing them with a bit of detail as to what the new thresholds are, pointing them to the new calculator, which is on the website should they want to go and have a look at that, or indeed encourage them to go into one of the Centrelink centres to find out further details.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:
Sure, but in terms of specifics, they literally have to wait on the cusp of Christmas to find out how individually they'll be affected.

ALAN TUDGE:
They always have to wait until the last minute in any case because the pension has a number of tests, which include an income test as well as assets' tests.

And they can change fortnight to fortnight so if you're right on the cusp, you may not actually know until that very fortnight in terms of what your net assets are at that particular time or, indeed, if you have earned any income in the previous weeks.

So pensioners tend to be very good, actually, at updating their fortnightly income if they've got any, or updating on their assets, but they should have a pretty good idea already about what it is going to be, and certainly they'll find out very shortly from Centrelink itself.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:
Well let's go to the latest ACOSS Poverty Report. It says there are 700,000 Australian children living in poverty. Should you revisit your cuts given there are that many children who are living in deep disadvantage in Australia?

ALAN TUDGE:
I haven't read the full report, but I've read the news stories in relation to it, and it certainly appears that most of those children that are referenced in the report are growing up in single parent households, perhaps where nobody is working in that household.

I think that the most important thing that we can actually do overall, in terms of alleviating poverty, is to create more jobs and encourage more people to take those jobs. That's the most important point.

We've got a pretty good record of job creation, and we're obviously going through a welfare reform process as well, which will try to provide some assistance to individuals who may be likely to be on long-term welfare. And that includes our Try, Test and Learn Fund - a $96 million fund - which will be targeted at those vulnerable groups.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:
But Minister, even CEDA has said, and ACOSS has been quoting this today, that low welfare means that it is a barrier to work for some of these people. So actually, these welfare payments themselves, the Newstart payment - and there have been calls to increase it.

Even the BCA is behind it - big businesses behind this say that the welfare payments themselves are disabling people's ability to work. Isn't that something you need to look at too when you talk about a holistic approach?

ALAN TUDGE:
Certainly PK that the Newstart payment alone is very difficult to live on if that is all you have got. Of course, if you've got children, which is what we're talking about here, you'd also receive probably a parenting payment, you'd also receive Family Tax Benefits.

You're likely to get rent assistance as well. Living just on Newstart, which is what most of the public debate is about, only a very small proportion of Australians just live on the Newstart payment alone which, I admit, if you're just living on that, it's pretty tough.

But nearly all Australians on Newstart also get some other benefits. I think, from memory, about 75 per cent of Newstart recipients get at least two other benefits. Typically that will include rent assistance, might include some other supplements. So you've got to look at it holistically, the exact amount of money which people are getting. Now…

PATRICIA KARVELAS:
So are ACOSS wrong then when they're saying that 700,000 children are living in poverty? Because these people are getting the whole suite that you're describing, yet ACOSS says they're living in poverty.

ALAN TUDGE:
… But I'm also cautious about using that definition of poverty. Now the definition which they're using for that report is anybody who has less than 50 per cent of the median income in Australia.

So, if you like, it's a sense of relative inequality, rather than a measure of absolute poverty. Now most people, when they hear that 700,000 people are living in, or children are living in poverty, would assume that there's 700,000 children going hungry, going without clothes, going without shelter.

I don't think that's the case and, indeed, even the examples which are used in the newspaper articles don't give that indication. What that measure is simply saying is that there's a degree of wealth inequality, and there are 700,000 children who live in a household which earn less than 50 per cent of the median income, which I think is a very different measure to what we might ordinarily accept.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:
[Talks over] Okay, do you accept that your budget cuts have contributed to that story? That have made that story worse for these families?

ALAN TUDGE:
I do not. And our overall objective, Patricia, is to grow the economy and get people out of welfare, into work. Because at the end of the day, the best poverty antidote that there is, is getting people employed.

And in fact, it is a poison on people if you're on long term welfare. We see this in pockets around the country, and we're absolutely determined to try and minimise that, both through growing the economy, creating more opportunities, but also simplifying our payments and from our Trial, Test and Learn Fund.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:
[Talks over] But according to CEDA, your welfare payments are making it impossible for them to get into these jobs anyway, so it's circular, it's dysfunctional, and it's causing heartache and miserable lives for so many children.

Surely you need to revisit your entire approach rather than describe this, you know, this utopian situation where all these single parents will be taking these jobs. It's just not happening.

ALAN TUDGE:
Well I disagree with that assessment which you've just made. If you look across at New Zealand -- and we have modelled, and are modelling, a lot of our reforms on what New Zealand has done - they have gone through this social investment approach and had an initial target on single parents.

They have had a lot of success in getting single parents off welfare and on to a better pathway. From memory, when I was speaking to the Finance Minister over there, I think they've now got 40 per cent fewer single parents under the age of 22 than what they had five or six years ago when they embarked on this program.

So it appears to be having success in New Zealand, which is using a highly targeted approach to assist single parents to get off welfare and into work where it is available. It is the best antidote to poverty.

It is the best antidote to being poor, is taking that job - whatever job is available - take that first one. Get some skills under your belt and then go for the next one. And we've got to have the opportunities there. We've also got to have the structure there as well.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:
Yeah I don't think there's any dispute that it's the best way. It's about getting access to those jobs in the first place. Let's move on to another topic. I wonder what your parliamentary goals are this week. Do you think you'll get the ABCC through the Lower House, the Registered Organisations Bill as well?

ALAN TUDGE:
Well the Registered Trade Organisations Bill will be introduced into the Lower House and we're quietly optimistic that it will go through the Parliaments. Now we've just had the CFA Bill as you'd know go through the Parliaments last week and that was a very significant bill in terms of protecting Emergency Service volunteers from union militancy.

This bill is also critically important, the Registered Trade Organisations Bill and the ABCC Bill, because yes they deal with union unlawfulness and union corruption but almost more importantly it creates greater productivity which means you actually get more infrastructure, you get cheaper buildings and they're great for the entire community.  It also gives great surety to union members that if they're paying union dues that their money is not going to be ripped off.

That's what these bills are about and we hope that all parliamentarians will support it.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:
Am I right to read between the lines, you've got One Nation onside now for the Registered Organisations Bill to secure its passage through the Upper House. Is that what you're suggesting?

ALAN TUDGE:
I'm just suggesting that we're optimistic about getting it through both the Lower House and the Upper House. I'm not going to foreshadow before they declare themselves which way they're going to vote, but One Nation did support the CFA Bill which did deal with union militancy as it applied to Emergency Services' volunteers in Victoria.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:
Just on another big issue that's really dominated on Friday - it was wall-to-wall - the Attorney-General's stoush with the chief law bureaucrat of the country; who should quit? I mean, because the situation looks like the relationship is completely untenable. I've never seen anything like it.

ALAN TUDGE:
To be honest, Patricia, I know it got wall-to-wall coverage on Sky and some other media outlets on Friday but I was out in my electorate on Saturday morning and it didn't get raised once with me.

I think it's very much an insider issue and doesn't directly affect every day Australian citizens. They were still much more concerned about the congestion on the roads, the cost of living pressures, the scourge of ice and crime.

The Attorney-General has made extensive comments in relation to this issue; the issue is also being addressed by one of the Senate Committees and I'll leave further comment to the Attorney-General in relation to it.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:
Okay on the ACT election, Labor with, I think, the support of the Greens has effectively won, many years in opposition for your side of politics but you held a press conference warning about a text message during that campaign.

Are you prepared to say now that you think the campaign has been won by Labor on dodgy grounds or do you concede that that election's been won fair and square?

ALAN TUDGE:
What I was saying on Friday was that my Department had sent a warning to ACT Labor because they were misusing the Medicare brand, just as Federal Labor was misusing the Medicare brand during the federal election and led a very misleading, deceptive campaign.

Now I don't think ACT Labor's campaign was nearly as egregious as the Federal Labor one but nevertheless they were also spreading mistruths about Medicare. I'm disappointed obviously with the ACT election results, I would have loved to have seen the Coalition get up, but unfortunately they didn't and we're going to have to wait until the next election to see them come in.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:
[Talks over] Do you concede that the Medicare mistruths, as you describe them, didn't really have much of an impact on the election given lots of other issues were more dominant?

ALAN TUDGE:
I just don't know, I haven't been close enough to the ACT election. While I spend a lot of time in Canberra, I'm not as engaged in ACT politics as I am in federal politics or in my own state of Victoria.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:
That's diplomatically answered. Just finally on Donald Trump because he is, really, the only story of the moment to be honest; we talk about all these other things but it's the biggest story in town. Your colleague Josh Frydenberg, who I know you're close to, has suggested that he's a drop kick, do you think he's a drop kick too?

ALAN TUDGE:
I have my own personal views about Donald Trump…

PATRICIA KARVELAS:
Feel free to share them.

ALAN TUDGE:
… about some of his policies and certainly about some of the things which he has said which I would not say and I don't think that they were right for someone of his stature to say; in fact, not right for anybody to say.

However we have a strong alliance with the United States, the United States people will determine who they want to be their president and regardless of who they elect, we will work very closely with them.

Our alliance will still be strong and they will always be our number one national security partner so I think that's the most important element of…

PATRICIA KARVELAS:
Tanya Plibersek…

ALAN TUDGE:
… the key alliance is going to be strong regardless.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:
[Talks over] Tanya Plibersek said this morning on Sky that she thinks he's a security risk. Do you agree?

ALAN TUDGE:
I would not say what Tanya Plibersek said.  As I said, I have my own views about his personal comments, and about some of his policies, but at the end of the day it's up to the American people who they want to choose and I don't think it's helpful for a Government Minister in Australia to be providing comment about his policies.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:
Okay well very diplomatically answered. Have a great parliamentary week. Thanks for coming on, Alan.

ALAN TUDGE:
Thanks PK.

PATRICIA KARVELAS:
And that's Alan Tudge there, the Human Services Minister, answering questions on what were the big stories of this week and today welfare reform but also on this week's bills. He reckons Registered Organisations could get through the Senate. Sounds like a deal with One Nation has been struck.

[ENDS]