SUBJECTS: By-elections, One Nation, company tax, debt, immigration, Great Barrier Reef
GRAHAM RICHARDSON (HOST): Tony Burke, welcome to the program.
RICHARDSON: I reckon you would have your tail up at the moment, last Saturday's results would have been very pleasing to your good self?
BURKE: To get four out of the four that were the big contests, really happy. I was handing out in Braddon, and there were two things that were really interesting, you could tell on the day that the sense was that it was breaking a little bit our way, at the booth that I was at, but it was tight. The other thing though that I think we’ve all got to take a lesson from, I have never seen so many people refuse to take a how-to-vote from anyone in my life. That was going on at Braddon as well, so while it was a great outcome, the public is not as engaged as we need them to be.
RICHARDSON: No they’re not. 
BURKE:  You can’t take anything for granted out of the results, but certainly I’d rather be in our position than the Liberal’s position off the back of last weekend. 
RICHARDSON: I thought the amazing thing to me, is still looking at One Nation's performance in Queensland. There is no question that they got a pretty good vote but it cannibalised the Liberals and did the Labor Party very little harm at all. In fact, it gave a pathway if you like for some disgruntled Liberal voters to vote Labor. Otherwise, it whacked all those votes off the top line of the Liberals in their first preference.
BURKE: I reckon there were some really big lessons to learn, in dealing with One Nation from what happened in Longman. Let’s not forget when Pauline Hanson first appeared, she took a Labor seat, when she won the seat of Oxley, and originally she was viewed as much a threat to Labor seats as to Liberal seats. What happened then, was Labor ran the political argument explaining to Labor voters why she, and her policies of One Nation, were bad for Labor voters. John Howard ultimately did something similar, and he put One Nation last as well. What Malcolm Turnbull has done, is adopt the weirdest strategy I have ever seen. He’s taken a political opponent and decided that the way to deal with One Nation is to hug One Nation. That’s why Labor voters didn’t desert to One Nation, as we had made clear to Labor voters exactly what the consequences of voting for One Nation are, and what One Nation ultimately do in Canberra, which can be very different to what they say in Queensland. The Liberals never made a case. They preferenced One Nation, they’ve tried to be as similar to One Nation as they can ever since Pauline Hanson reappeared in the Parliament, and if they said to people there’s no difference between voting Liberal and voting One Nation, a whole lot of people took that advice, and their primary vote collapsed. 
RICHARDSON: And of course your line, as in the plural you, the Labor Party's line about better hospitals and schools and not bigger banks. That really is devastating. Yet it would appear and I think you should be counting your lucky stars right now, that the government are going to stick with that policy of giving 17 billion to the banks.
BURKE: Well the problem they’ve got is, Malcolm Turnbull in his political career has passionately stood for three things; the Republic, action on climate change, and the company tax cut as the centrepiece of his economic policy. He’s abandoned doing anything on the Republic, he’s abandoned action on climate change, if he abandons this there is nothing left of the man. It’s the only point he’s got to his economic plan, it’s a one-point plan that he’s got for the economy. The public know exactly what it means; if you give that much money away from the budget you are guaranteeing the cuts to schools, the cuts to hospitals, that’s what it means. The public are wise to it, but for Turnbull, the policy should go, but when it goes he’ll have to go with it, and either the Liberals make that decision now, and they don’t seem willing to, or that will be the decision that the Australian people face in May next year. 
RICHARDSON: Well, there doesn't seem to be any movement to oust Turnbull, despite those results, if I was a Liberal, I would look at the Longman result, I would not stop shivering for a month but there is no - there is just no contender, noone willing to take up the line and have a go. His leadership seems assured.
BURKE: I think the noises that we’ve seen of late about the company tax within the Liberal party, they’re talking about the policy but the policy is so completely tied up with the leader and the treasurer, I think they all know if the policy goes the PM goes as well. Lets not forget, last time they got rid of Turnbull, all the talk initially wasn’t about getting rid of Turnbull it was about getting rid of his policy on climate change, and the two ended up converging. So I don’t doubt for a minute there’s a long period of instability ahead for the Liberal party. I don’t know where it will land but I think its reasonable to guess that the company tax cuts and Turnbull will land in the same place; either both will go or we’ll be fighting both at the Federal election.
RICHARDSON: I think from your point of view, it will be delightful to be fighting that at the next general election. It means certain defeat for them. On another front, Ben Fordham every week does a reminder of where we are with debt. And debt is now something like $550 billion or something. It's north of 500 billion. It was $250 billion left to them by the last Labor Government which is not anything to be proud of. But it has more than doubled in five years for a Labor Government who had six.
BURKE: That’s right, and you’ve got to remember with the debt, they haven’t had a global financial crisis. So they’ve managed to take debt to half a trillion dollars without there being an international downturn. We had to deal with the global financial crisis, and we made a judgement call that the most important thing was to keep people in work. As we made those decisions it did have an impact on debt, and the judgement call was made and I have to say I stand by it 100%. If you allow there to be mass unemployment, the outcome for people’s lives, particularly working people’s and working families lives, the outcome is horrific. And if you can keep people in work, that is the right thing for government to do during a downturn. What this mob have done, without any downturn, is managed to double, more than double, take debt to half a trillion dollars, the highest level its been in the history of the nation, and it’s still going up. Now, you know, you don’t hear them boasting about debt and deficit anymore and the reasons really simple, no government in the history of the nation has a worse record on debt and deficit than this government. 
RICHARDSON: It is quite extraordinary, yet it seems to be off the public agenda. Nobody seems to mention it. The other very big issue that came out of super Saturday, I must say, it comes to me wherever I go in the street, anywhere, is this question of immigration. Now, for Labor, it's particularly difficult because there is so much ethnic support for Labor. But there is a feeling out there in the mob, remember I've said the mob will work you out. The mob thinks there is too much. What are you going to do about that?
BURKE: Our immigration program always needs to be tailored to the needs of the nation. That’s why when you’ve got big skills shortages you need to increase the number of workers coming in, because sometimes you need those jobs to be filled to be able to create a whole lot of other jobs for Australians. When you have periods where unemployment is higher, then the need for permanent migration is lower. But what this Government has done with immigration, I don’t think anyone should be fooled by the numbers they released a couple of weeks ago, where they said, “oh look, under this government immigration is going down.” What they’ve done is two things, one - they’ve slowed down processing. So they haven’t increased the rejection rate, the same number of people end up being approved, they’ll just be approved a year or two later than otherwise would have happened. So those numbers that were released a couple of weeks ago are a bit of a blip. The other thing that happens is what they don’t bring in permanent migration, goes off the charts in terms of temporary migration. And its temporary migration where you tend to get the most rorts, and where you tend to get the highest levels of exploitation of workers, like some of the sorts of things where you get 7/11 sort of examples. Where people with temporary rights to be able to work end up having an employer who can take terrible advantage of them, which is bad for them, and bad for workers rights generally. 
RICHARDSON: It's going to be a thorny issue. It is not going to go away. It is going to be there well and truly at the next federal election. It seems to me that Turnbull may make a gesture in that respect. He may decide to cut the numbers?

BURKE: He might, and they’ve already claimed to have cut them, but if all you do is change the permanent intake and the temporary intake increases, you know if I’m caught in a traffic jam on Parramatta road, I can’t tell which cars have people on temporary visas and which cars have people on permanent visas. The congestion problems and the problems with infrastructure investment that we have can’t be side-stepped, and none of this deals with it. You can deal with the sorts of pressures that people are facing, particularly in the major cities, if you’re investing properly in your roads and your public transport, and if you’re providing training, because the whole reason we have skills shortages is because we’re not training enough people here. Every time you cut the numbers of places in TAFE, every time you cut the number of places in universities, you increase the reliance on immigration as the only way those positions can be filled. The issues are directly linked. And what this government has done is wanted to say they can cut funding for roads, cut funding for public transport, cut funding for training and think there are no consequences. 
RICHARDSON: There are always consequences. There’s just time for one more issue. I am a bit confused about this body which is called the Great Barrier Reef Foundation. Which appears to be the recipient of large chunks of Government money. I find this whole thing a bit weird. Explain it to me.
BURKE: OK. You and I have both previously been Environment Ministers responsible for the Great Barrier Reef, and the main agency there is the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), and they’re in charge of managing the Reef. Normally, when governments have wanted to give money to care for the Reef, they pay through the GBRMPA in a significant way. What has emerged in the last couple of days, largely through questioning from Kristina Keneally, Anthony Chisholm and some of our other Senators, has been that the Government, instead of going through its own agencies –GBRMPA, CSIRO, a series of agencies like that. They went and found a small foundation that employs 10 or so full-time people. They went to that foundation, and its run, the people who run it, the Board, the supporters, are the same people who run the banks and major mining and energy companies. They said to them - even though you’ve only ever managed a few million dollars at a time in this foundation, we’re going to give half a billion dollars to you. With no tender, no application process, you’re just going to be in charge of that, and then all the Government agencies that have been in charge of this work for years, will have to come to you and the banks will be in charge of whether the scientists and the Marine Park Authority can get any money. Now, this is red hot, we found out yesterday that the Prime Minister was personally there when the Foundation was told they were going to get the money. The Foundation never applied for the money, there was no application, there was no tender. The whole thing was done in secret. This would be the most expensive front-page Malcolm Turnbull has ever had. This is a half billion dollar donation to a series of business mates that have no experience in managing those sorts of programs in the Reef. 
RICHARDSON: That's the thing. I look at this foundation, they have got no experience whatsoever in managing the reef. You don't put mining executives in charge of managing the reef. The conflict of interest is just too obvious. This is a major scandal. I hope that you don't let go of this. I hope you hang on because this is a shocker. I have seen very few examples in all the 50 odd years I have been involved in this, I have not seen anything like this ever
BURKE: I’ve been taking a step back while the Senate Inquiry starts to get through the details that have been emerging, you will find that Labor will be increasing pressure on this absolutely and very strongly. Because every time Kristina Keneally or Anthony Chisholm have asked a question, the situation for the Government has gotten worse. A whole lot of the executives of this organisation are currently refusing to even appear, and we now find out as of yesterday, the witness who really we need to hear from, the person who really needs to answer questions, is going to be none other than the Prime Minister himself. His fingerprints are all over this. 
RICHARDSON: Yeah, this is a scandal of epic proportions. So, I am sure we will hear more of it. I have to leave it there. I wish I could pursue this a bit further with you. They keep telling me time is up. Thank you very much for your time there in Adelaide. We will see you back in Sydney soon.


Tony Burke