TUESDAY,  8 MAY 2018

LAURA JAYES (HOST): Joining me now live is the Manager of Opposition Business and Labor’s spokesperson for the Environment, Tony Burke. Thanks so much for your time, what just went on in the house? That was a big giant stunt on budget day wasn’t it?

TONY BURKE: It’s a resolution to have a debate about debt, particularly in the context of what Peter Costello said overnight. We’ve gone from the Government saying debt and deficit emergency disaster, now debt passes half a trillion dollars and it’s apparently no longer a problem. In the timing of it yes, this was a moment where normally they move immediately that we can’t be heard and we don’t get to speak. We thought it was a fair bet at the moment that a fair few Ministers would be tied up briefing journalists  and they’d let the debate happen so they didn’t have to drag everyone out. That has happened so at least we’re getting the chance to make our point.

JAYES: Alright, talking about debt and deficit, everyone can share the blame here can’t they? The Howard and Costello years, the Julia Gillard, Rudd governments, this current Government - when you talk about the structural deficit, successive governments have built things in.

BURKE: Different things have been built in, that’s true, in different ways; some on expenditure, some on tax concessions that were not sustainable, and every government of the day needs to do work. It’s often forgotten in this debate that we did have a global financial crisis, and part of a whole lot of the extra expenditure that came in when we were there, was to make sure that Australia didn’t go into recession. And that was the right judgement call. You can’t, this far on, still be claiming ‘;oh it’s the global financial crisis that’s the problem’,  this Government has taken debt to half a trillion dollars and they can’t now pretend that it was an emergency back when it was smaller, but now it’s not a problem at all.

JAYES : Well let’s talk about what we do know about this budget, because we do know a fair bit which is quite surprising this year- the threshold will be lifted from $87,000 to $90,000, and that’s about $135 a year in savings, we’re also looking at the low income tax offset. That means a saving for middle income earners earning up to $90,000 a year, perhaps even a little bit higher, will get about $500 in tax relief a year – is that good? Can you do better?

BURKE: Well, obviously I’m not going to announce now and we’ll wait until we’ve had a look at the full budget. If you’re one of the low income earners who has lost their penalty rates, you’ve taken a $77 a week hit, that’s what you’ve seen this Government vote in favour of, $10 a week doesn’t exactly doesn’t offset that. So people will look at the full impact on their household budgets and also they’ll look that this is what you’re providing for me, how does that compare with what the Government is wanting to hand back to banks?

JAYES: What’s the philosophy you want to provide in terms of income tax cuts? If $10 a week isn’t enough, do you have some kind of goal of how much you would like it to be? What can be afforded? Is there a range in which you’re looking?

BURKE: A whole lot of those questions will be ones where, for that level of detail, you’d have to go to others and I think it would be Budget Reply and other times when we’d be making those sorts of announcements.

JAYES: Ok, well Peter Costello again talked about the forgotten people last night – he made the point that high-income earners do carry a big burden in paying a lion’s share of the tax in this country; do they deserve anything in this budget?

BURKE: I have to say if I was to start with who are the people who are being forgotten in Australia’s economy, I wouldn’t start with people earning $200,000 a year. Yes, they are paying a higher percentage of tax, but they are not facing a lot of the hardships that other people are facing. Budgets are about priorities, and for Peter Costello to cast someone on his own income as one of the forgotten people, I don’t think anyone’s forgotten Peter.

JAYES: Who are Labor’s priorities in this Budget Reply, going into an election year?

BURKE: Working and middle class Australians have been the whole way through.

JAYES: That’s the Government’s priority as well.

BURKE: Well, I don’t think when their major expenditure is to the big end of town, both in terms of what they did with the only people who got the tax cut with the deficit levy were the people on the highest incomes, and then going through to what they’ve got happening with company taxes $80 billion hit to the budget, these are extraordinary numbers, and when extra money comes in, debt and deficit forgotten, these are not a set of priorities that make sense to people.

JAYES: We have a number of people in your front bench, including Chris Bowen, Bill Shorten & Andrew Leigh, part of your finance team, in the past, advocate for company tax cuts when they can be paid for, when the economy is looking good. Well the economy is looking up – do you have a benchmark about when you might be able to relook at these tax cuts?

BURKE: Can I explain why dealing with the debt matters in this context? Because, in terms of what are your priorities, and whether that should be one of them or not? The reason we were able to avoid recession, in terms of the expenditure that we put in place during the Global Financial Crisis, was because we had a good set of books. There were also a series of reforms that were made in the Hawke/Keating era, that were important, but having a good set of books were important too. I don’t expect that there is going to be a global downturn of that magnitude anytime soon, but if it were to happen, and debt was where it’s at now, Australia would be thoroughly unprepared to be able to keep people in work the way we did during the global financial crisis.  That sort of planning and those sorts of priorities appear to have gone missing in this budget.

JAYES: Ok, let me ask you about the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, because 605GL of environmental water will now come from environmental and infrastructure projects. Some people say that these are really only “on paper savings”, and will do nothing to boost the natural flows. Now you are the original architect of this Murray-Darling Basin Plan, were there flaws in the original design and what do you say about those “on-paper savings” only?

BURKE: The on-paper concept may or may not turn out to be true, and the Plan allows for that to be properly and effectively audited at  different milestones. What we’re dealing with now – the Plan all the way through said that up to 650GL, if they could a way of achieving the same environmental outcome by using less water, then that would be allowed to happen. So this entire amendment isn’t something new that the Government has come up with, it was an integral concept in the Plan from the beginning.  The best example I could give is probably something like Hattah Lakes. Where you’ve got a lake not immediately adjacent to the river and you can get the water there in two different ways, either you can pipe the water directly there, in which case you can do that with still large volumes but not massive, or you can do it through an overbank flow, which requires absolutely massive volumes. Now, what these sorts of projects are things like if we say ok, we pipe the water there, we can still look after these lakes, but do it in a way that doesn’t require as much environmental water to deliver the same outcome.

JAYES: We’ve been fighting about the Murray-Darling Basin for 50 years haven’t we? So there are always imperfect solutions, but what I’m concerned about are the allegations of corruption and water theft. Now it said, and you’ve agreed to this plan, that there will be a comprehensive response to those allegations, what does that actually mean? What have you agreed to?

BURKE: There are a few things that have happened since we last had a vote on this earlier in the year. New South Wales has walked a fair degree of the path, and there’s legislation that’s out now that is much stronger. There are environmental watering events now where they are not allowing it to be pumped back into dams, but importantly, even if people say ‘oh yeah well do they trust New South Wales or not’, -  there is now going to be  Northern Basin Commissioner. So there will be a separate authority charged with overseeing this, and making sure that if there is a rort, if there is something that the state authorities aren’t properly policing and enforcing, then you have some independent oversight to make sure that we’re not relying on the media to be the only ones to report this and disclose what should have been dealt with originally.

JAYES: You carry a very heavy load sometimes. Now it is D-Day for Katy Gallagher in the High Court tomorrow, I know you don’t want to pre-empt what that outcome might be, but you could be seeing hostile referrals from the Government if Katy Gallagher is deemed to be ineligible by the High Court, what do you say to that?

BURKE: Well there is a series of cases across the Parliament and as you know I tried to have all of them on both sides referred last year, and it came on for a vote seconds after Barnaby Joyce came back into the Parliament and that meant that the High Court referral never happened. Now, the people on the Government side in that referral have taken no steps, so the Katy Gallagher case won’t affect them, they already have a problem. On the Labor side, the argument has been whether or not people took reasonable steps, and the High Court has had a way of deciding this that has been in place for 20 to 30 years if they change that tomorrow, then obviously we’ll have to respond.

JAYES : So just quickly on the Katy Gallagher case, whatever the decision might be by the High Court sitting is a court of disputed returns, similar cases that might be affected by the precedent set are who? Susan Lamb, Josh Wilson, any others?

BURKE: There’s a collection of people but I won’t go through them by name, but what I will say is if you have been relying on the reasonable steps test, then the only reason there will be a problem tomorrow is if the High Court changes the interpretation of the law from what’s previously been settled. They might do that, they are the High Court – if they do that obviously we’ll have to respond. All of our processes and everything that we have done has been based on how the High Court has been interpreting reasonable steps for a long time, and if that changes we will have to respond.

JAYES : And it’s how lawyers actually interpret that High Court interpretation, as those decisions as well the Sykes v Cleary Case, but we’ll be here all day. Tony Burke it is a busy day, thanks so much for your time and we’ll speak to you again on Newsday.

BURKE: Thank you


Tony Burke