Transcript: ABC 774 Melbourne, Interview with Raf Epstein and Member for Gellibrand Tim Watts MP

24 May 2017

The Hon Alan Tudge MP

Minister for Human Services
E&OE

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:             
Joining us today from Canberra, Alan Tudge. He is, of course, the Liberal member for the seat of Aston here in Melbourne and he is Minister for Human Services in Malcolm Turnbull's cabinet.

Alan, good afternoon.

ALAN TUDGE:   
G'day Raf.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:             
Tim Watts is with us as well. He is the Labor member for the seat of Gellibrand.

Good afternoon, Tim.

TIM WATTS:      
Pleasure to be with you, Raf.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:             
Let's start with you Alan Tudge. I do want to talk about Manchester, but first the commentary it has generated.

Quadrant Online editor Roger Franklin has suggested it would be a good idea to have a bomb in an ABC studio. I am interested, Alan in- if he deserves as much commentary and condemnation as Yassmin Abdel-Magied?

ALAN TUDGE:
I condemn what he said. I condemn anyone who promotes violence and he was getting pretty close to that in his article. But we also should just keep it in perspective as well. It was one online piece.

Perhaps several thousand people read it. Maybe more have read it now. And I just want to ensure that what we are focused on and what we are talking about are the real serious issues including what has just occurred in Manchester, the 22 people dead, the 59 injured, understanding that, understanding the implications for Australia.

That is the main thing we need to be focused on.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:             
I'll get on to those implications in a moment. Tim Watts, the Quadrant article, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, are they the same? Is one worse than the other?

TIM WATTS:      
Look Raf, I just find this utterly depressing. You know if it was one article you could just write it off, but sadly this is representative of what conservative intellectual thought has descended to, these constant obsessions and vendettas against these bogeyman in Australian society, the ABC, women, Muslims.

I mean it is just like kitty litter. Any time one of these things come up and they can't help themselves. You know Quadrant is supposed to be the pantheon of conservative intellectual thought. It is supposed to be where the big ideas are debated and discussed.

This is the institution of Donald Horne, of Robert Manne, and that would be- Donald Horne, would be rolling in his grave looking at what it has descended to at the moment.

So I mean if find it just utterly depressing. We can all condemn the comments but it is a sad indictment of where conservative political thought is today.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:             
Okay, let's talk about Manchester, Alan Tudge. Now I know it is not your portfolio, but I wonder do you think when we go to the footy or a concert in a year or two, are things going to be different? Are we going to face greater security?

ALAN TUDGE:   
Listen I hope not, Raf, and our message is that we need to continue going about our business in the ordinary way. Of course we have got to be alert but we cannot give in to the terrorists and if we change the way that we live and that we act we would be giving in to the terrorists.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:             
You would be human to think twice, wouldn't you, about a crowd?

ALAN TUDGE:   
I absolutely know there are many people do think exactly that and we know in the last year and a half, two years there has been 12 major plots which have been disrupted including, as you probably know, one which was in the CBD of Melbourne in Christmas last year.

So these are real. These are serious threats. Having said that, our threat level has not changed; it remains at probable, whereas in the United Kingdom, it has just been raised from highly likely to critical. And critical basically means that a further attack is expected imminently.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:             
Well quoting the word, it could be imminent. I think that is the technical phrase.

ALAN TUDGE:   
That is right. So we are still at the probable level which was not increased. Going back, we increased it I think from memory in September 2014, and it has changed since then. We have had several terrorist attacks since then.

We have had 12 which have been thwarted and of course dozens and dozens of people arrested including one just earlier this week. The threat is real but we also just have to get on with life so that we do not give into these terrorists and don't give them the victory they actually want.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:             
Tim Watts, do we need to do things differently in any way? I don't know, community relations, security, to try to meet the threat?

TIM WATTS:      
Well, look I agree with what Alan said. It is clearly a serious threat, it is a real threat and we need to do everything that is reasonably possible to minimise that threat. The reality is of course that we cannot always eliminate- we cannot eliminate the threat altogether.

It is just not possible. And I certainly won't be changing my behaviour in response to this. It won't stop me from going to the footy on the weekend.

It won't stop me from going to a music concert because those things that bring us together as a society, as a community in a liberal western democracy are the things that give us joy, give us meaning, give us purpose in life.

So I won't be stopping doing them in response but it is a serious threat and we do need to do everything that we can in response to it.

ALAN TUDGE:   
The thing in Australia is, we have got probably the best security agencies or among the best in the absolute world...

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:
Yeah, no, they do well.

ALAN TUDGE:   
...and they do exceptionally well. As Tim said, there are no guarantees here but we have got amongst the best in the world and Australians should be assured about that including the fact that we have stopped some of the potential threats in the last couple of years.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:             
1300 222 774 is the phone number. Lots going on in Parliament, a call or two first. Danny's in Rosebud. What did you want to say Danny?

CALLER DANNY:               
Look I haven't heard all of this discussion but I find this discussion so empty it is breathtaking. You have not released what the actual problem is and that is worldwide, they reckon, about 15 per cent of people who believe in Islam will condone this.

So the question; what is the Islamic community doing? And what are we doing in question Islam and bringing them to account and making sure that these people don't [indistinct]...

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:             
Danny, I'm happy to let them answer...

CALLER DANNY:               
...going to happen next week, next month, next year and it is going to continue.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:             
Okay Danny, I want to get to a question. I want to know if you have got a problem with the religion in its entirety or is it there is just- you want people who are part of the faith to do more?

CALLER DANNY:               
Absolutely realise the problem. I don't believe it is a religion. It is an ideology. It is not a religion by any measure.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:             
Okay, let me put that to our politicians. Alan Tudge, I will start with you as a representative of the Government. It’s not a religion, Islam?

ALAN TUDGE:   
For many people it is a religion. In some countries, of course, it is a complete way of life and it's the rule of law that they operate under is Sharia law which is Islamic law. We do not have that system in Australia and frankly it is incompatible with Australia's democracy.

I think most Australian Muslims go about their business like anybody else. There are however extremists amongst their ranks and we need to be serious about that. We need to call it out and we need to also call out where some of the underlying ideology which underpins some of that extremism.

And I think that is what our task is to continue to do as well as to focus on the real immediate threats which, of course, we are focused on a daily basis.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:             
Tim Watts, is it a religion?

TIM WATTS:      
I think it certainly is a religion. I think it is pretty outrageous to tar billions of people around the world with the same brush on the basis of the religion that they identify with.

I mean, I can tell you, you come to my electorate, come down to Friday prayers at the new Port Mosque, come down to Friday prayers at the Sunshine Mosque, have a conversation with the people there.

They will talk to you about the footy on the weekend. They will talk to you about being worried about the future of Medicare. They will talk to you about their job security. The same things that everyone in Melbourne is talking about.

This idea that you can define people's views by their religion, I mean, it is a nonsense. Imagine if we had done that during the troubles in Ireland, you know, we said all Catholics are this way because of the actions of a perverted minority of criminals. I mean it is really extremely unfair on a large number of Australians if we are taring them with that brush.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:             
Okay. Sixteen minutes to five. David is in Ringwood. What do you want to say, David?

CALLER DAVID: 
Hi. I just want to put a question to both of these politicians. I can't understand why both of these parties, Liberal and Labor, would support spending a billion dollars of our money on a useless mine in North Queensland with Adani to prop up a few jobs which are going to disappear within the next five years when coal goes off the scene and we move to renewable energies.

Why are they wasting our money and putting at risk to Great Barrier Reef?

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:             
Okay, let's see...

CALLER DAVID: 
[Indistinct] voting for either of these parties.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:             
Let's stick with the money issue. Tim Watts, I might start with you because your Labor colleagues in Queensland are in power.

They are accused effectively of backtracking of handshake deal. Yes, we will give you a royalty holiday or a discount for a few years and backtracking on that. So is the Queensland Government partly to blame for Adani's uncertainty?

TIM WATTS:      
I'm a member of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party, Raf. I represent Melbourne's west in the Federal Parliament so I am not going to reflect on the behaviours of the Queensland Government.

What I can tell you is that what I am accountable for. The Federal Parliamentary Labor Party does not support spending a billion dollars on the Adani mine. We have said that not a cent of Commonwealth money should be spent on this mine.

I mean if you give me a billion dollars to spend on job growth in Northern Australia, in Regional Australia where it is important that we invest in jobs growth because there is very high unemployment in these areas and people are entitled to want their government to be promoting jobs there.

You give me a billion dollars to spend in that region I can find many more sustainable, many longer term projects that will create more jobs than the Adani coal mine.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:             
Alan Tudge, I do want a response but a bit of clarity there is an infrastructure fund - I don't think any money has come out of it yet but your resources- one of your Ministers, Matt Canavan, has spoken about maybe a billion dollars as a rail line to get the coal from the mine to the port.

You can hear from David, Alan Tudge, that he doesn't want you to spend any money on that mine.

ALAN TUDGE:   
Yes and the money is not being spent on the mine. In fact no decision has been made. It potentially could support a concessional loan to develop a rail line which will be a multipurpose and multi-use rail line.

I would say this in relation to Adani. It's been through the strictest environmental approvals on the planet. It would support thousands of jobs and it would also switch on the lights for a hundred million Indians who presently don't have electricity.

That is what is at stake here and that is what needs to be kept in mind when we are talking about Adani. I would also point out whether Adani goes ahead or not makes no difference to our climate change targets. We will hit them regardless of that decision.

TIM WATTS:      
I have got to say, Raf, I keep hearing this idea that this about power in India. I will believe this Government cares about the third world when they stop their foreign aid cuts.

Another 300 million cut from foreign aid in this budget on top of 11 billion cuts since they were elected.

I mean they are spending more money sending more money overseas through their multinational corporate tax cuts than they are through the aid program.

ALAN TUDGE:   
It is a good pivot, Tim, I mean the Labor Party is desperately split on the Adani mine. In Northern Queensland of course most of the Labor Party…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:             
They might be split in Queensland. I am not sure they are split in the Federal Parliament, are they?

ALAN TUDGE:   
Well they are split across the board. They are split -absolutely they are - across the board. Now the Queensland Government supports it.

Many people in the Labor caucus here in Canberra support it and it is going to create jobs and support Indians switch electricity on.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:             
Tim Watts, are you federally split on this?

TIM WATTS:      
No, we are very clear. Every man and woman in the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party, we are all opposed to the spending of Commonwealth funding on the Adani coal mine. United.

RACHEL DAVID:
Let's get a quick traffic check with Chris Miller. Back with Tim Watts and Alan Tudge in a moment.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:             
There was some nice bipartisanship in Parliament today. The Prime Minister's taken to when there are significant announcements around Indigenous affairs, using Indigenous languages, Malcolm Turnbull began his address on the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum in the Ngunnawal language.

MALCOLM TURNBULL: 
Mr Speaker, Yanggu gulanyin ngalawiri, dhunayi, Ngunawal dhawra. Wanggarralijinyin mariny bulan bugarabang.

I acknowledge we are on the lands of the Ngunnawal and Ngambbri people and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:             
Alan Tudge, it is the 50th anniversary of the referendum, 25th anniversary of the Mabo High Court decision, 20 years since the Bringing Them Home Stolen Generations report. Important day?

ALAN TUDGE:   
It is a very important day and I think there was a nice ceremony this morning and there were some very good speeches from each of the Prime Minister and leader of the Opposition.

And really it is reflecting upon the history of Australia, how far we have come. It is, I think, reflecting upon the progress which we have made and also there is some reflection upon how much work we have still got to do.

The '67 referendum of course was vitally important for Australia. It had 90 per cent support across the country and for the first time after that point Aboriginal people were counted in the census and, for many people, rights improved for them.

They got access to things which they previously could not get access to. So it is an important milestone. Now, we have got more work to do. Everybody knows that, particularly on the practical side and also in terms of constitutional recognition.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:             
And Alan Tudge, do the other- I can't believe I am actually asking whether Islam's a religion, of course it is.

But are the stolen generations real? Because there are also some conservative commentators who think that is a fiction.

ALAN TUDGE:   
Raf, as you probably know I have worked in the Indigenous space for a fair while, even before coming in to Parliament, and certainly I met many people who would talk about their experiences of having been removed as a child or they would talk about their parents experience of having been removed as a child.

For them I think it is absolutely real and I have no reason to doubt otherwise. And the Bringing Them Home report documented that; it is 20 years almost to the day that that was laid out. We had the national apology of course as a result.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:             
Yes.

ALAN TUDGE:   
To be honest in my view the most important, the most pressing issue going forward is still very much on the practical side. Education results aren't good enough.

We have not got the Aboriginal people into work yet and of course some communities are still desperately unsafe with rates of violence and alcoholism off the charts. They still remain the most important focal points for me.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:             
Tim Watts, does today- Look, it is wonderful when we agree on these issues; does it take us forward?

TIM WATTS:      
Well today was a celebration of the '67 and the Mabo landmarks, but to be meaningful it needs to be more than a celebration, it needs to be a call to action. As Alan was saying, we have made progress on the front of equality for the First Australians in our society, but we are on a very long road and there is a very long way to go.

So while it was moving in the Parliament- in fact, I found it particularly moving sitting behind Linda Burney who had said earlier in the day that until she was 10 years old she was not even counted in Australia, she was invisible in our society.

So clearly it is progress where she can come from being invisible to civil society in Australia to being a representative in our Parliament, a Shadow Minister in our Parliament and that is something we should celebrate.

However, it should be a spur to further action for us to redress, as Alan was saying, the educational gap, the health gap, the crime and justice gaps between First Australians and the broader community.

ALAN TUDGE:   
The amazing thing is, Raf, is that the '67 referendum was 50 years ago – it is not long ago …

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:             
No.

ALAN TUDGE:   
…and when we have got people in the Parliament today, as Tim was saying, who were not counted when they were 10 years old and now they are in the Parliament today.

I think for many people, many Aboriginal people it is real memory that they are still thinking about and certainly when you speak to older people, they reflect upon it very much. Many reflect to me also, by the way, that sometimes the social conditions have actually deteriorated since that time …

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:             
Sure.

ALAN TUDGE:   
…because of welfare reasons, because of alcoholism and other problems going on and they are some of the issues we have got to address still.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:             
Can we try to address the proposal from the Government: in two years' time, an additional Medicare levy for everybody. I do not know who wants to take this first, but it is not great when we end up having a partisan fight over the NDIS.

I will start with you, Tim Watts. When you first proposed an increase in the Medicare levy in government, you wanted it applying to everyone. Is it inconsistent to then say; well next time it only applies to those on a higher income?

TIM WATTS:      
No, not at all; we are in a different world today. I mean, I should say that I find it pretty unedifying that we are in a very partisan, very base dispute over what I think is the greatest achievement of the Parliament over the last 10 years - the NDIS.

I agree with the Prime Minister when he says that the way that the Parliament treats disabled people in our community is a measure of our character as a nation.

But we have a difference of view between the Opposition and the Government here. We have said clearly that this was funded when we were in government, when Julia Gillard introduced this it was outlined in the Budget papers going forward.

The Government now wants to introduce new measures to fund it and we are saying that we do not think that increasing the taxes for average Australians - in personal income taxes for average Australians is something we can cop, when at the same time we are taking off the deficit levy on high income earners, a $20 billion cost to the Budget for 2 per cent of Australian income earners; giving a $170,000 tax cut to Ian Narev, the CEO of the Commonwealth Bank.

In that context, increasing the taxes of middle Australians is just not on.

I should also say that no one is clamouring to ask the Government how they are going to fund their $65 billion corporate tax giveaway to multinationals and the big banks in Australia. We are not having an equivalent conversation around that and all I can ask is why the Government isn't as obsessed about funding that giveaway compared to the really important work of the NDIS?

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:             
Alan Tudge?

ALAN TUDGE:   
Raf, the important thing is there is bipartisan support for the NDIS. That is the most important thing. I think that everybody in the Parliament wants to see it up and running and it will profoundly change the lives of hundreds of thousands of people once it is up and running.

The frustrating thing is that I think that Bill Shorten's playing politics in relation to how it is going to be funded because only three years ago, himself, he was actually advocating for an across the board Medicare levy increase, was advocating for that.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:            
Can I just ask you this, Alan? Labor's point is that it is different now; the marginal tax rates are different now, that is why their view on the levy is different now.

ALAN TUDGE:   
Well the marginal tax rates are very similar to what they used to be. At the end of the day- we know today as well - because it has been leaked out in the media - that three-quarters of the Shadow Cabinet also support our position of an across the board Medicare levy increase.

Bill Shorten did in the past; he came out and called for it…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:             
It wouldn't be the first Opposition to make a decision on their own, Alan Tudge.

ALAN TUDGE:   
No. But it is important to hear because we have put up a sensible proposal which Labor luminaries say is sensible, the Australian public believes is sensible, three-quarters of the Shadow Cabinet believe it's sensible.

And I think that Bill Shorten himself did say it was sensible in the past and is just playing politics today.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:             
Can I just check, Alan Tudge, is that Medicare levy proposal - I know it is two years away - does that come before the Senate any time soon? Or do you just wait until after the next election, assuming you win?

ALAN TUDGE:   
That is a good question. From memory it is actually being brought into the Parliament next week…

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:             
So you would want to have the fight, yeah, the argument.

ALAN TUDGE:   
But I would just have to check on that, I am not 100 per cent sure in terms of what the schedule is. But it does kick in in two years' time, and why? Because that is when the funding gap emerges. So the levy is just a bridge to the gap only.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:             
Okay. I am going to end this way. I'm going to hit you both for six.

Tim Watts, something nice about the Prime Minister that he has said this week?

TIM WATTS:      
Oh I think it was meaningful that he spoke in the Parliament in the Ngunnawal language. I represent a very diverse community in Melbourne's west and I try and make a point of saying at least a few sentences in the languages of different ethnic groups in my community because it shows a goodwill, a willingness to meet people at their level and reach out to them. So I think that was entirely laudable.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:             
Alan Tudge, something nice about the Opposition leader?

ALAN TUDGE:   
I think today he gave a good speech on the Indigenous referendum from 50 years ago. He did that well along with the Prime Minister.

And, you know, I should point out to your listeners that - what is it - 80 or 90 per cent of all pieces of legislation go through the Parliament with bipartisan support.

We just happen to focus on the ones where there is a divide, I suppose quite naturally; and most of the topics which you raise, even on this program, Raf, tend to be where there's a clash, rather than on the 90 per cent or 80 per cent which go through with bipartisan support.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:             
Okay. Thanks for your time gentlemen.

TIM WATTS:      
Pleasure.

ALAN TUDGE:   
Thanks very much, Raf.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:             
Alan Tudge, one of Malcolm Turnbull's ministers, and Tim Watts, ALP member for the seat of Gellibrand.