26 October 2016
Transcript - #2016065, 2016

Interview with Raf Epstein and Mark Dreyfus, 774 Fight Club

SUBJECTS: Paid parental leave; Joe Hockey; Justin Gleeson; housing affordability; negative gearing

RAF EPSTEIN:

Joining us in our Sydney studios, she is, of course, the Member for Higgins here in Melbourne, she's also the Minister for Revenue and Financial Services, Kelly O'Dwyer, welcome to fight club.

KELLY O'DWYER:

Great to be with you Raf.

RAF EPSTEIN:

And joining me in the Melbourne studio is Mark Dreyfus, he is the Member for Isaacs in Melbourne's south-east. He is, of course, Shadow Attorney General and part of Bill Shorten's opposition. Mark welcome.

MARK DREYFUS:

Good to be with you Raf, afternoon Kelly.

KELLY O'DWYER:

Good afternoon.

RAF EPSTEIN:

Kelly can we start with paid parental leave and maybe an understanding of what might happen when before we get into the policy merits. Nick Xenophon has said he doesn't want any change at the beginning of next year. Do you know if that means he's still considering whether or not he'll support your changes but it definitely won't happen for the next nine months, is that the correct way to understand what he said?

KELLY O'DWYER:

Well look Raf, as you can probably can understand I don't speak on behalf of Nick Xenophon or his political party –

RAF EPSTEIN:

Well what's the Government's best guess I suppose.

KELLY O'DWYER:

Certainly we're negotiating with Nick and other crossbench senators to try and get these reforms through. We understand it's really, really important to have a safety net for families, to have a paid parental leave scheme that families can utilise. And we believe it's really important that they get access to 18 weeks of the minimum wage as a safety net for those families. But I suppose the change that we're making here is that there are number of already fairly generous schemes that are offered by employers or offered by Government and we don't think it's appropriate for people to be able to have access to both schemes if indeed they're receiving more than the 18 weeks minimum.

RAF EPSTEIN:

It was designed to be part of, not to be the only maternity leave or paternity leave you could access. Shouldn't that be part of the Government's consideration?

KELLY O'DWYER:

Well the Government has to the make the scheme sustainable so that all families will be able to actually benefit from this policy going forward. And the majority of parents remain completely unaffected by this particular change, but it will affect a small number of parents, around about four percent of parents, who won't be able to access the taxpayer funded scheme.

RAF EPSTEIN:

It's 18,000 mothers a year according to Labor.

KELLY O'DWYER:

Well my understanding is it's slightly less than that figure, but it will impact a number of people who won't be able to get access to both schemes. And just to give you an example, I mean we're talking about a parent who might be earning around about $140,000 annually. Under Labor's scheme be able to receive a combined Government and employer paid parental leave payment, which would mean they get around about $44,000, which is a lot more than another parent who is working at minimum wage and it's more than, in fact, they would earn in an entire year I would say.

RAF EPSTEIN:

Mark Dreyfus?

MARK DREYFUS:

The way this scheme was meant to work was that if you could negotiate on top of the Government's minimum that was a very good thing. The World Health Organisation says six months paid parental leave is what's desirable. This Government's heading in the other direction, it's Malcolm Turnbull implementing Tony Abbott's cuts again and all of those thousands of mums out there who thought that they, who are now pregnant who are going to give birth in the next few months, they thought that they were going to be able to have certain arrangements and they've just now found out that they're not going to be able to do that –

RAF EPSTEIN:

Well we don't know, we're not quite sure.

MARK DREYFUS:

Well it's thousands of women who are going to be forced to choose between returning to work or staying home.

RAF EPSTEIN:

Well we don't know what the Senate will ultimately do, but just Mark Dreyfus, on the Government's, I suppose the Government's essential argument is it would be great to give this to all parents but we can't afford to, so you're just going to get the minimum. And that means we can share it around to those who need it the most.

MARK DREYFUS:

I don't accept that, that we cannot afford this. We are one of the richest countries in the world, we're the second last country in the world to introduce paid parental leave and the second last developed country in the world, only the United States now lacks among the developed countries of the world a paid parental leave scheme. What is this Government doing going in the opposite direction, reducing the paid parental leave that is available? The way this scheme was meant to operate, and I'm very proud that it was introduced by Labor, it started on 1 January 2012, some half a million families have benefited from it. This Government is actually taking away the incentive for people to negotiate arrangements on top of that minimum that is provided to everyone who earns under $150,000 a year and it's shameful the way in which it's come back as a shock to very many women who are already pregnant.

KELLY O'DWYER:

Well can I just say as somebody who is, in fact, pregnant right now and who will be having their second child –

MARK DREYFUS:

And who is not eligible.

KELLY O'DWYER:

No, I'm not eligible for this scheme, that's absolutely correct, but I think, firstly let's just acknowledge –

MARK DREYFUS:

No shock to you Kelly.

KELLY O'DWYER:

No, no, well Mark, I listened very politely to you. Let me say this – it's a parental leave scheme so it's not just for women, there are a number of men who have primary care responsibilities for children, in my circumstances, that's my husband. And so I think we just need to firstly understand that there are very different arrangements that people put in place. I also think it's very important to understand that under Labor's scheme as they designed it, there are a whole heap of people who actually missed out, people who had casual employment, who are part-time teachers who now, under our scheme, will be able to get access to that minimum 18 weeks. And we think that that's really important that those people actually get the advantage of being able to take paid parental leave, but the following point I'd make is that people have children not because the Government is handing them money. People have children because it is a joy to have children and it's not because of a Government payout or handout but we do need to have a minimum safety net in place for families that really need it.

RAF EPSTEIN:

Kelly, can I just ask you, I know that Joe Hockey is no longer part of the Government, and to be honest I don't begrudge any ambassador or diplomat what every other member of DFAT gets, however, it's a bad look for the Government isn't it if Joe Hockey gets his $360,000 wage, we pay for a cleaner, which I also think is completely reasonable, but he's charging the taxpayer, I think it's $2,500 for babysitting, at the same time as you're trying to cut people's paid parental leave. That makes it very difficult to make your argument doesn't it?

KELLY O'DWYER:

Well I don't think they're actually related but the point I would make in relation to this is my understanding is that these are longstanding arrangements that have been in place that all ambassadors get the ability to actually have these particular workplace entitlements and there's nothing new in what it is that Joe Hockey –

RAF EPSTEIN:

You don't think these two issues are related?

KELLY O'DWYER:

Well no, they're entirely separate issues. We're actually looking at how we can enhance the paid parental leave scheme for those people who are casually employed, who are part-time teachers, to be able to give them the ability to take advantage of the 18 weeks minimum leave. But we're also being responsible as a Government, as we need to be to make it sustainable.

RAF EPSTEIN:

Let me just read some of the texts, you're welcome to join the conversation, ask a question 1300 222 774. Pete in Melbourne saying we were a rich country until the Labor/Greens coalition spent everything we had and ran up a huge bill on the credit card, that's from Pete. And Kerry is saying oh, but Joe Hockey can get taxpayers to pay for his childcare!!! I will get to your calls 1300 222 774. Mark Dreyfus I'll start with you, when it comes to the Government and its public servants, I know the Solicitor-General isn't an everyday public servant, but Justin Gleeson SC stood aside. Would it not be the case that if you had not spoken to him during the caretaker period, he would've been on more solid ground? He's having an argument with the Attorney-General, wasn't his cause weakened by having that conversation – you rang him during the caretaker period. Didn't it make it harder for him to fight that battle?

MARK DREYFUS:

I'm not in the list. I rarely speak to senior Australian public servants, I hope that other members of parliament do the same. It's a nonsense to suggest that the caretaker period has anything to do with this. The only thing the caretaker period requires is that Ministers not make irrevocable major decisions. It doesn't say anything at all about communications between public servants and indeed it's quite common during the caretaker period for public servants to brief the opposition –

RAF EPSTEIN:

But you handed the Government another arrow to throw.

MARK DREYFUS:

No, only the Government is making up this nonsense. It's a ridiculous suggestion. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the Solicitor-General speaking to me about two factual matters. One, was he consulted to which the answer was no, and the reason I enquired was that Senator Brandis had tabled in the Parliament what is now clear was a lie that he had consulted with Mr Gleeson. And the second question I asked, did he support the making of this legal services direction and he said no. Now both of those things we now know, I didn't know at the time, but we now know he'd already written the Attorney-General about because his letter has been produced in the Senate committee in which he told the Attorney-General loud and clear, you didn't consult me and you should revoke this legal services direction.

RAF EPSTEIN:

Kelly O'Dwyer I just want to ask you a question about that. I know not everyone is across all of the issues here, but isn't it the case that the Attorney-General, when he said he'd consulted with the Solicitor-General, he gave the impression pretty willingly that the Solicitor-General agreed with what he was doing and the Solicitor-General's position was actually the complete opposite of that. So my question to you is, the Attorney-General, he really did guild the lily didn't he?

KELLY O'DWYER:

Well the Attorney-General simply said that he had consulted and raised the issue in a meeting, which I understand is supported by documents that had been tendered in the Senate. Now, to your earlier point, your question of Mark earlier around didn't Mark Dreyfus as the Shadow Attorney-General put the Solicitor-General in a really invidious position during the caretaker period, I think the answer to that is yes, he did. The Solicitor-General –

MARK DREYFUS:

Keep on with the talking points Kelly.

KELLY O'DWYER:

Well he was in a completely untenable position the moment he revealed he had been having secret dealings with the Labor Party during an election campaign and had not provided any advice to the Government on that. I think anybody who has ever briefed a lawyer needs to know that they can actually trust their lawyer and the Government is no different.

RAF EPSTEIN:

Look I want to return to that conversation, many people calling wanting to talk about paid parental leave. There's a few areas to go over with the Solicitor-General yet, however Nicole's in Heathmont, what did you want to raise, Nicole?

LISTENER:

I'm actually 22 weeks pregnant at the moment and I get 10 weeks of paid maternity leave. I go on maternity leave at the start of January, about 15 January, if everything goes well. And now I'm suddenly confronted with this crossbench stuff. The plan that I had made for next year is up in the air.

RAF EPSTEIN:

So you're eligible for the minimum from the Government and from your employer and you're not sure if that will remain.

LISTENER:

That's right, and I've had different friends who have gotten into debates about whether it's there, whether it's double dipping and all that kind of jazz, and at the moment I don't even have the mental energy to even contemplate that argument but I just feel like if you're going to suddenly change the arrangements, that it's really not fair to do it for women who are currently pregnant.

RAF EPSTEIN:

Let's just put that to Kelly O'Dwyer. Kelly there was a sudden change announced potentially for 1 January.

KELLY O'DWYER:

Well first can I say to Nicole, congratulations. It is very full on being pregnant and working and doing all the things that you do and it's a very exciting time as well. But this isn't a sudden change. This is actually the Government's policy that was announced in December 2015 in the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook. So this has been the policy since December 2015. The question has come about will the legislation actually get through the Parliament in the next little while. We still don't know the answer to that because we are negotiating with crossbench Senators. So unfortunately I can't give you clarity around that right now.

RAF EPSTEIN:

It could happen on 1 January.

KELLY O'DWYER:

That may well be but I don't know the circumstances of Nicole other than what she's just outlined now but it could well be that if she's on the minimum wage now, that the Government would in fact be topping her up to 18 weeks.

RAF EPSTEIN:

Nicole, what do you make of that response?

LISTENER:

Well the issue that I have is that, when I made the decision about trying to have a baby, you make the decision knowing that you've got certain things in place. When that particular legislation attempted to get through whenever you said in 2015, it didn't get through and it's been on the website, on the Centrelink website, that that was a possibility and then when it went to the election and it was put on the shelf, it's all come off the website. So when you ring Centrelink they don't tell you that that's not the case. They tell you yes, you can get access to this so you make plans around that based on what's on the website, based on what Centrelink's telling you, based on the information that you have from your employer, and you know, I just can't fathom how someone can make a decision like that. You know, I've got 12 weeks to go.

RAF EPSTEIN:

Look Nicole, good luck, I want to give Kelly a 10 second chance to respond and Mark as well. Kelly, it's not a good place to be in if you're pregnant is it?

KELLY O'DWYER:

Look I do feel for Nicole because it's also an anxious time for a whole variety of other reasons as well and I do understand people put in place arrangements. All I would say again is that the Government hasn't actually made a new announcement here, this is an announcement that's previously been made, it's trying to make the system fair for everybody and all I can say to Nicole is good luck and I hope that everything goes very well for your delivery in January.

RAF EPSTEIN:

10 seconds, Mark Dreyfus.

MARK DREYFUS:

Nicole it's great that you're having a baby and I'm really sorry the Government is putting you under this stress and uncertainty, which is unnecessary at the very least and Kelly should be paying attention to this. The Government should put this off for at least a year so that we don't catch women mid-pregnancy as Nicole has been caught. It's wrong.

RAF EPSTEIN:

Let's get some traffic, we'll return to the conversation in a moment. Mark Dreyfus, a shadow minster is with us, Kelly O'Dwyer, the Minister for Revenue and Financial Services is with us in Sydney. Sue's in Northcote, what did you want to say Sue?

LISTENER:

Yeah, look, I worked on the paid parental leave system for about the last 25 years when it was when we had to try to get it introduced and I think this argument about double-dipping is really offensive because most workers negotiated these conditions into their agreement and that was, sort of, we worked hard and at that time a lot of workers took lesser pay increases to get these paid maternity leave provisions. And now the Government are taking them off, it's just like superannuation. It's their super, the worker's super that they negotiated into their enterprise agreement.

RAF EPSTEIN:

Thank you, Sue. Kelly O'Dwyer, quick response. I want to return to the Solicitor-General.

KELLY O'DWYER:

With the greatest of respect to Sue, I'd just say that is not right. We are not taking anything off anybody, in terms of what you agreed with your employer you actually get to have honoured. And in terms of your superannuation, I completely agree, it is your super and again, you get to keep it. The government is not taking it from you. For those with more than $1.6 million in their retirement phase, we are going to apply a 15% tax on earnings, not on the capital, not on the amount. But it's above $1.6 million, which is a very small number of people.

RAF EPSTEIN:

Kelly O'Dwyer, just on the Solicitor-General. Is it not a significant issue? The Attorney-General spoke to the Government's lawyer about the idea, the concept, the guideline. They had a conversation about something. He didn't talk to the Solicitor-General, Justin Gleeson, who resigned, about a law passing a regulation, to regulate that conduct. That's misleading isn't it?

KELLY O'DWYER:

Well look, I think all these matters have been detailed in the Senate committee hearing. There's been a lot of correspondence on it. The Attorney-General has spoken at length about these matters. I think that the truth is, we've got to a situation now where the Solicitor-General has resigned. It's been his decision to resign. I think it's quite appropriate that he made that decision because at the end of the day, you have got to be able to trust your lawyer and certainly it is very, very unusual for a Solicitor-General to have secret meetings with the opposition during an election campaign.

RAF EPSTEIN:

Just quickly, Mark Dreyfus.

MARK DREYFUS:

There was no secret meeting. This is a phone call and so Kelly was repeating one of the lies that the Liberal Government has been telling about this. But what's really staggering, is the revelation on Brisbane radio by Andrew Laming, Liberal Member for Bowman, that they won't be needing the legal services direction that George Brandis made, this is the new law that he made, because Justin Gleeson has gone. And that revelation tells us that this was a new law introduced by a disgraceful, dishonest and incompetent Attorney-General simply because he didn't like the criticism and opinions of one man, Justin Gleeson. And Kelly's got some explaining to do, as does the rest of the government. Is Andrew Laming right that the legal services direction not needed anymore because Justin Gleeson is gone? It's one shameful disgraceful piece of conduct after another from this Attorney-General.

RAF EPSTEIN:

Kelly O'Dwyer, the accusation is that change was directed at one man.

KELLY O'DWYER:

Well that's simply not correct.

MARK DREYFUS:

So Laming is wrong.

KELLY O'DWYER:

And Mark Dreyfus knows that's not correct. The Law Offices Act in 1964 actually says that advice needs to be provided to the Attorney-General on matters referred by the Attorney-General. There is nothing new in all of this, this is fairly well established as he well knows.

RAF EPSTEIN:

In the last few minutes we have, housing affordability, Kelly O'Dwyer, was spoken about by the Treasurer Scott Morrison this week. We can't actually do much about it, can we? We can do Labor's thing, negative gearing, house prices might come off a couple of percent. We could do your thing and somehow free up supply. Governments can't actually have a big impact on house prices, can they?

KELLY O'DWYER:

I think this has been a big challenge across many governments, across many, many years and I think it's fair to say it's a very complex issue. Governments have to work together, Federal and State, in order to actually help to try and make this problem less, particularly for young people, who are trying desperately to get into the housing market and secure what is their dream and what is the aspiration of all Australians to own their own home. Now, we don't pretend that there is one silver bullet on this issue, we're going to have to work hard with our state counterparts to actually make a difference on this and I welcome working with the opposition on these issues –

RAF EPSTEIN:

It's not handballing it to the State Governments, talking about planning and supply?

KELLY O'DWYER:

Well no, that's one element that you can't deny has a very significant impact on house prices. We know here, I'm up in Sydney at the moment, that there has been a very significant land release program that has been put into place by their current Treasurer, Gladys Berejiklian. That obviously means that there is more supply on the market, which means it does bring down the price and the cost of housing.

RAF EPSTEIN:

Mark Dreyfus? Not really much you can do.

MARK DREYFUS:

Well this is a Government that likes to talk to State Governments about what it thinks they can do about housing affordability, but is refusing to do one of the things available to the Commonwealth Government which is to reform negative gearing. The Government has just point blank refused to do something about. That is something that would help first home owners or first home buyers.

RAF EPSTEIN:

It wouldn't have a massive impact.

MARK DREYFUS:

It would have an impact and why the Government should be turning its back on something that would have an impact is beyond us. We put forward a very coherent policy to reform negative gearing and the capital gains tax discount that goes with it and this government is refusing to even countenance any change, it would rather do something about helping people into their fifth or sixth homes than helping people get into their first.

RAF EPSTEIN:

I will leave it there. Kelly O'Dwyer, Mark Dreyfus, thank you for your time.

KELLY O'DWYER:

Lovely, thank you very much Raf. See you Mark.

MARK DREYFUS:

Thanks Kelly.