Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham

Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment

Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham

Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment

Topics: Holden; the Federal Government's commitment to repeal the carbon tax; Newspoll

Transcript: AM Agenda, Sky News - Interview with Kieran Gilbert
10 December 2013

KIERAN GILBERT: With me now, Liberal frontbencher Senator Simon Birmingham and the shadow Employment minister, Brendan O'Connor. Gentlemen, good morning, welcome. Now, this Devereux testimony to the Productivity Commission ... we weren't able to film it live unfortunately but, via our reporter inside that hearing, I've got some quotes here. Devereux has said... this is the head of Holden in Australia [GM Holden Ltd]... no decision on the future has been made and he wouldn't speculate how long until a decision is made... 'our general philosophy is to build where we sell... we have been trying to make the case to continue in this country'. Now, this seems to fly in the face of what we've been hearing from people withinside the Government, who believe Detroit has already called it a day.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Kieran, this is welcome insofar as it gives some level of commitment from Holden. I'm very pleased to hear Mr Devereux say publicly that no decision has been made. I would hope that he would confirm publicly that Holden will at least wait until the conclusion of the Productivity Commission process and that then we can have a fully informed discussion between the Government and Holden about the pathway forward, what may or may not be able to be achieved. Let's be very clear: nobody in the Government wants to see Holden close; nobody in the Government wants to see jobs lost in South Australia or Victoria but obviously we're not in the business of writing blank cheques to private companies to simply keep them going on an unsustainable footing forever, so we need to work through this sensibly...

KIERAN GILBERT: But you're saying he needs to wait til after the Productivity Commission inquiry but the Prime Minister on Friday said no more dollars. He's already pre-empted it himself.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, the Productivity Commission inquiry isn't just about a quantum of dollars. It's about how those dollars are delivered, how the industry is structured, what other aspects of assistance might exist beyond financial for industry in the future. There's a range of factors that I would expect the Productivity Commission will assess and ultimately, if Holden want to deal in good faith with the Government, the best thing Mr Devereux could do is to say very clearly that they won't be making a decision until after that inquiry reports in just a few months' time and that that will then give the opportunity to have a fully informed discussion about the best way to support Holden into the future.

KIERAN GILBERT: You would welcome these comments from Mike Devereux this morning? They're encouraging?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well, they're equivocal because the Government is equivocal at best... at best, Kieran. I mean, we've had senior ministers backgrounding against the Government providing support to Holden. We've had, of course, the Prime Minister, who said he was going to deal with these matters in a, you know, methodical way, a calm way, pre-empt the findings of the Productivity Commission report by saying there'll be no more investment by this Government into Holden. That's an awful message to send...

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: That's misleading, Brendan. There's significant investment...

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: ... when you have, of course, Holden considering whether, in fact, they're going to stay in this country or not. I mean, let's just think about what this means for so many auto workers in South Australia and in my own home state of Victoria and, of course, all the multiplying effects that has on employment beyond that sector. It's huge and when you have a Government that is so, as I say, at best equivocal on this industry and, at worst, you have senior ministers backgrounding against this industry's support from the Government, no wonder you have Holden being very, very equivocal on whether it's going to stay in this country. What a terrible way to start, as a Government, in terms of supporting an important sector!

KIERAN GILBERT: Well, let's hear Senator Birmingham's response to those direct claims, because they're the claims that have been made as well by Penny Wong this morning and others - that this is a Government that has basically hung up, hung this company out to dry.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: And, Kieran, let's be very clear and it seems to be forgotten by the Opposition and many others in this debate: there is significant investment available by this Government to support the automotive industry going forward - a billion dollars in the Automotive Transformation Scheme between now and 2015-16; a further $1 billion, beyond that, for investment in the industry. These are significant sums of money to support, ultimately, two manufacturers left in Australia with Ford's demise - Toyota and Holden - so there is a significant sum of money. The Productivity Commission inquiry is looking at how best...

KIERAN GILBERT: It's significant but not enough. They've said... you're 500 million short of what Labor was and that, clearly, does not look like it's going to be enough.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Kieran, let's see what Holden ultimately does and says. Let's see what the Productivity Commission report actually does and says...

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well, this is the danger, isn't it? We shouldn't be waiting for Holden to make a decision. We should be doing everything we possibly can, Kieran...

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: So, you're a blank-cheque approach, are you, Brendan?

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: ... to ensure that Holden actually... well, what we clearly understand from this Government is they have no cheque whatsoever to support hundreds of thousands of workers in this country...

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: There's a couple of billion dollars there. You seem to be missing that fact.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: They've removed $500 million from the investment that was going to be provided by Labor...

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: And you chopped and changed 1.4 billion...

KIERAN GILBERT: But Labor also had the FBT [fringe benefits tax] tax concessions, removal of the Green Car [Innovation] Fund... there's been a lot of inconsistency...

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: But, in net terms, always been a big investor but what you have had, though, and, I mean, let's just remember what we've just heard in the last week - our Prime Minister, after making a decision on GrainCorp, or having his Treasurer make a decision there where he's going to support a local company, in this case basically say there is no more dollars for Holden... that's what he said... at the same time, commissioning the PC inquiry. What's the point of having a Productivity Commission inquiry into the industry and into Holden...

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: It's about how the dollars are spent as well as how much there are, Brendan. You know that.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: ... if, indeed, there is no investment by the Government and let's remember about investment: the co-investment that occurs between a government and the private sector in this sector delivers nine-fold a return by the taxpayer... for the taxpayer's dollar.

KIERAN GILBERT: Okay, but is there a view within the Government that we need to now cut our losses and turn to industries that will prove competitive?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: There's a view within the Government that we want to grow jobs for the future in this country, Kieran. Now, that doesn't mean throwing aside jobs we currently have but, absolutely, it means, across the board, making the economy more competitive. That's why we've axed the fringe benefits tax... the $1.8 billion tax Labor was going to apply that was going to directly hit the car industry. It's why we want to axe the carbon tax. You can see today a mine closure, more job losses, directly related to the impact of the carbon tax. If Labor would just get out of our way and allow us to actually make the economy more competitive, reduce some of these costs and regulatory pressures on business, it would help. Instead...

KIERAN GILBERT: As an Adelaide person, though... as an Adelaide person and as a frontbench member of this Government, can you reassure the workers at Elizabeth that you are doing your best to keep Holden in this country?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Absolutely and emphatically, Kieran. We want to see Holden and Toyota and automotive component suppliers stay manufacturing in this country. That's why we're creating a more competitive economy. That's why we want to reduce the business costs and it's why we're doing the Productivity Commission report to find the best way to tailor and target assistance to the industry in future. There's this great whitewashing of history happening from the Labor Party, at present, who seem to forget the fact that Ford closed under their watch. They were the ones that have seen the most recent demise of an automotive manufacturer in this country. Ford's closure announcement happened under their watch and that's because we saw chopping and changing of...

KIERAN GILBERT: Okay, let's get Brendan O'Connor on that - Ford and Mitsubishi, as well... both under Labor.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Well, let's... we know how difficult it is in this sector but here you have Holden reaching out to the Government and you have a Prime Minister saying there are no more dollars. That's effectively what was said last week by the Prime Minister. You've had this Government claim it's going to create one million jobs in five years. Well, they better start explaining to the Australian people where that's going to happen because everywhere you look - whether it's Qantas, whether it's Holden - there are major pressures and, indeed, there are people... there are those major iconic companies asking for the support and engagement of this Government and you have some ministers saying, like Simon, publicly, 'oh, we want to support Holden' but you have at the same time, behind the scenes, senior ministers of this Government saying 'do not put one extra dollar into the auto sector' and that is sending a terrible message, in terms of... to here and to Detroit and I think, because of that, no wonder the best you're going to get out of Mr Devereux today, from Holden, is saying 'we haven't yet made a decision'. Well, this Government's got to stump up, start doing what it said it would do before the election, as opposed to what it's doing now.

KIERAN GILBERT: Because there are billions in subsidies... we talk about support for the automotive industry but it's been pointed out by Tim Colebatch of The Age  and others this morning that there are billions in subsidies for the mining sector through the diesel fuel rebate... there's Government support elsewhere and a lot, lot more than you're talking about when it comes to the automotive industry which I suppose reflects automotive industries around the world. They all are subsidised.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: And there are billions in subsidies for the Australian automotive industry going forward. That fact should not be lost from this debate - a billion dollars on the table over the next few years, a billion dollars on the table beyond that, the Productivity Commission report to inform how those investments can most effectively preserve and protect jobs and hopefully grow jobs in the future but, equally, our Government comes to office with the philosophy that you don't just pick winners... in fact, preferably you don't pick winners across industry or the economy at all. You make the entire economy more effective...

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Like Direct Action and carbon policy.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: ... and more efficient by actually making sure, in terms of jobs...

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Where's the market there in carbon policy, Direct Action? Picking winners, picking winners.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: There's a very strong market in the approach and you'll see and we'll have that debate another day, Brendan

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Planting trees? Is that it? Planting trees and picking winners?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: We'll happily have that debate, happily have that debate... you know, your carbon policies...

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Honestly. Yeah, market-based... Labor supports a market-based approach and you actually support picking winners in the economy like some Soviet-style five-year plan.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: ... simply transferred billions of dollars in subsidies to others. If you really want to go down that path, have a look at the billions of dollars you were giving out in subsidies...

KIERAN GILBERT: Let's not get caught up in that. I do want to finish, if I can... just one last question and we've only got a minute and a half left... the Newspoll... not much of a honeymoon... what's going on with those numbers?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Kieran, we're not at all fussed by polls because we know that we've got a tough job to do and it won't be easy to turn Australia around, especially while we have an Opposition like the Labor Party that is as obstinate and obstructionist as they are being...

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: You can speak. You've got to give him ten out of ten for cheek. The most negative Opposition Leader in history, of course, is Tony Abbott.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Have a look at the Senate last night. Have a look at the Senate last night. We saw another six to eight speakers instantly added to the carbon tax repeal speeches list last night from the Labor Party just so they could pad it out, an admission that the Shadow Cabinet... you can tell us this: is the Shadow Cabinet tactic to filibuster the carbon tax debate? Is that...

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: In answer... he doesn't want to answer your question, Kieran, clearly. ...

KIERAN GILBERT: Only 20 seconds left but I'd say that there'd be a rethink on the prospects of a double dissolution, wouldn't there, now?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Kieran, if we could even get a vote in the Senate then we might have a trigger. Labor are the ones running away from even having a vote in the Senate - can't get a trigger without a vote.

KIERAN GILBERT: Senator Birmingham and Brendan O'Connor, thanks gents. Have a good day.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Thanks, Kieran, cheers.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR: Thank you.

Simon Birmingham

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