EMMA ALBERICI: Joining us now to discuss budget negotiations is Opposition Spokesman on Finance and Manager of Opposition Business, Tony Burke. He's in our Parliament House studio. Thanks very much for joining us.


ALBERICI: Before we get to Qantas, I wanted to first touch on the financial advice reforms introduced by the Coalition.

Do you now accept assurances from the Finance Minister that his new regulations will not allow financial advisers to do anything but act in a client's best interests and will certainly forbid them from accepting commissions?

BURKE: Don't believe it for a minute. What they've done from what we can see is: they've managed to, in the one hit, both reduce consumer protection and increase red tape. And they've done that through the exact sort of deal that Tony Abbott said his Government would never be a part of.

I mean, you had the spectacle in the chamber in the Senate today not simply of the Finance Minister reporting on what had been agreed, but actually having to read into the Hansard word for word the letter that he'd sent to Clive Palmer, while Clive Palmer left the House of Reps to come into the Senate, sit there, watch the Finance Minister do exactly what he'd been told to do and then, once that was done, Clive Palmer gets up and leaves.

To have a situation where it's not a negotiation with the crossbench but a situation where members of the crossbench can be complete puppeteers of Government ministers is just an extraordinary departure from everything Tony Abbott said would be his style of government before he became Prime Minister.

ALBERICI: That aside, Clive Palmer's amendment that financial advisers provide clients with written details about how they're being paid and a signed promise to work in their best interests: I mean, what more can a government do conceivably to protect people's money?

BURKE: Well, there was a catch-all provision. There was a complete catch-all provision that they had to act in the best interests of the client.

The Government has gotten rid of that and they've gotten rid of it for a reason. And the entire pathway from when they were in Opposition, to when Arthur Sinodinos began the consultation in Government, to what Minister Cormann's doing now, their entire pathway has been to reduce consumer protection.

Today they've simply found a way of cutting an agreement or following the pathway that Clive Palmer has said to do. But make no mistake: if they didn't want to change the level of consumer protection then they wouldn't have needed to change the regulations at all.

ALBERICI: Well, they say it's a matter of cutting down on red tape. And I mean, John Williams, the Nationals Senator who is, of course, one of the biggest champions of small investors, has come out and said while the Labor Party's engaging in some pretty good politics, you're wrong?

BURKE: Well, I don't think it's any surprise that a member of the Coalition is supporting what the Coalition's doing when it comes to the day of the vote.

The fact is, though, when you say about reducing red tape: how can they be reducing red tape when at the same time they're increasing paperwork? Now, on what they announced today we haven't seen the actual regulations. We've only got what Mathias Cormann was forced to read out at the behest of the Palmer United Party.

But what we know from that is it does involve more paperwork and their entire pathway has been to reduce consumer protection.

ALBERICI: Clive Palmer said today that he had done mum-and-dad investors a favour because if he'd voted with the Labor Party, "there still wouldn't be any protection out there for people in the community. They'd still be losing their money"?

BURKE: Yeah, I saw that. I have no idea what he meant by that. Absolutely no idea. The pathway that they've gone down is without a doubt a reduction in consumer protection. And the rules that they wanted to get rid of were rules that were put in place by Labor after Storm Financial and after people had lost their money.

So I will leave it for Clive to explain what he meant by that. I can't understand that one.

ALBERICI: Why didn't Labor lift financial, lift the standards of financial advice by requiring financial planners to be better qualified? At the moment, you only need to do an eight-day course before giving people advice about their life savings?

BURKE: Well, in the wake of Storm Financial there was a need to come up with a strong response and to do it quickly. That was the FoFA or financial advice reforms that we've been dealing with here. Arguments about increasing qualifications and issues like that are always valid arguments. I wasn't involved in the policy area at the time. But I...

ALBERICI: They're pretty fundamental, aren't they, in terms of lifting the overall standard of advice?

BURKE: Oh, they may well be. But what we were dealing with today was not: should we do additional positive moves, it's whether we should move backwards. And what's happened is the Government regulations will be saved and we will see a reduction in consumer protection.

ALBERICI: The Treasurer, Joe Hockey, has today launched an attack on ASIC over its handling of the Commonwealth Bank financial planning unit which fleeced investors of hundreds of millions of dollars, including his own mother-in-law who was caught up in that. Do we need a royal commission to get to the bottom of that scandal?

BURKE: Well, we certainly need an appropriate response and we certainly need to make sure that we're improving consumer protection, not reducing it. And our principal objection with the Government at the moment is, for all the rhetoric and for all the bluster, all we see is them in fact reducing consumer protection.

ALBERICI: A poll today found that nearly half of Australians have little or no trust in financial planners and nearly three quarters want a royal commission into the Commonwealth Bank's handling of that financial planning affair. What does Labor say about a royal commission?

BURKE: Well, as I say, our priority is that we get improved consumer protection. The exact methods that we go down on that: it's for the Government to come up with a response and proposal on that.

ALBERICI: Turning to another item on the Government's legislative agenda this week, the Qantas Sale Act. You've criticised Tony Abbott's negotiating skills but on this one he seems to have been prepared to agree on a compromise deal with you?

BURKE: Well, not exactly a compromise as such. This has been our position since 2009. When we first brought out the Aviation White Paper back then, the response from Tony Abbott, who had just become Opposition Leader, was to say no changes to the Qantas Sale Act at all.

In Opposition now we've continued the same position. We've flagged our amendments. We weren't able to move them in the House of Representatives because the debate was gagged but we've been very public that we wanted to remove the 25 and 35 per cent. We wanted the rest of the Qantas Sale Act to remain intact so: maintenance in Australia, catering in Australia, two thirds of the board Australian citizens; all of those principles we wanted to keep.

We were happy to see the 25 and 35 restrictions lifted. The Government's now said they will agree to those amendments. Well, sorry: it's been reported in Fairfax that they've said that. I'm yet to see anything official from the Government.

ALBERICI: And you haven't heard anything official?


ALBERICI: It's not exactly what Qantas wanted themselves. They were looking for significantly more access to foreign capital. Will the new limits at 49 per cent, do you think, be enough to help turn the airline's fortunes around? We already saw just in the last month 5,000 more jobs are to go as part of their $2 billion cost-cutting program?

BURKE: My understanding is that they're nowhere near the 49 limit at the moment and so in terms of: is there an immediate argument that there would be a problem for Qantas with the position we've taken? I can't see how that case can be made.

From the perspective of the Labor Party and the perspective, I think, of most Australians, there is a view that we should have a national carrier in Qantas that's able to call Australia home and always will. And that's why we've made sure that we keep the majority Australian ownership rules in place.

ALBERICI: Now, the Senate's voted to continue sitting until the Government's current round of bills are through. How long do you expect that to take?

BURKE: Well, the way the Government's negotiating, I have no idea and I suspect they have no idea how long we'll be here.

But I do remember when we first came to office very strong statements being made by Joe Hockey, Tony Abbott as well and even the new Speaker, saying that if Parliament was going to sit on a Friday there had to be a question time, there had to be an MPI debate, there had to be a full proper day of Parliament.

And if we're going to be here on consecutive days because they haven't managed to manage business in the Senate properly, then there's an expectation that we will be having question time each day and it won't be part-time Parliament, it will actually be proper days in Parliament.

ALBERICI: There's a perception that Clive Palmer in some respects has usurped the role of the Opposition in this Parliament. What do you say to that?

BURKE: I think he's becoming, what we saw today was, the puppeteer of the Government.

The Opposition: we've got our role and we've been keeping our role. What has happened is the Government flagged these two weeks in July right at the beginning of the year or at the end of last year that we'd be sitting now. But from what I can work out they never started negotiating with anyone until a week or two ago.

And so what's happened now: they've got to a crunch point in their agenda. They've been appalling at dealing with negotiation anywhere and they're walking around now basically with a blank chequebook, saying, "If anyone will agree to get any of this through, we'll do whatever you want." And Clive Palmer was the person who managed to be the puppeteer of the Government today.

But the Government itself isn't doing anything that you could say is governing or managing the economy. We've got chaos in the Parliament, we've got a budget in disarray and we've got anyone but the ministers actually determining where legislation ends up.

ALBERICI: You've got to say, though, Clive Palmer's been pretty effective?

BURKE: Well, I mean, what we ended up with today, if you want to class it as effective, is a reduction in consumer protection. So I'll leave it for others to classify how you want on that.

ALBERICI: Tony Burke, we're out of time. Thank you very much.

BURKE: See you again.


Tony Burke