Interview with Deborah Knight, 2GB

Royal Commission into Robodebt; Modern Manufacturing Initiative; Jobs and Skills Summit; Enterprise Bargaining Agreements.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: And with us as they are every Friday, the Minister for Industry and Science, Ed Husic, and the shadow Treasurer, Angus Taylor. We’ll get into the week’s politics in just a tick, but it is International Dog Day today and, Angus, I notice you’ve become a new dad. You’ve got a pair of new corgi puppies.

ANGUS TAYLOR: Yeah, as the kids get older, you replace them with pets, so we’ve got two beautiful new corgi puppies. We had a competition to name them, and we’ve finally named them so it’s very exciting.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: Oh, what did you come up with? What are they called?

ANGUS TAYLOR: Violet and Frankie. Frank Sinatra for the blue-eyed corgi, which is a very unusual corgi and Violet because it’s a family name.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: Very good. Frankie and Violet. Well, I’ve got to come up with a name for the little puppy that’s coming our way in the next school holidays in another couple of weeks. So, I might have to put it out to tender like you, because we can’t agree at home, but nonetheless happy International Dog Day to all the pooches out there.

Now, let’s get into the business end of things. The Federal Government this week announced the royal commission into the Robodebt scheme and, Ed, the previous Government had already settled the class action and did refund affected people. Why is the royal commission needed?

ED HUSIC, MINISTER FOR INDUSTRY AND SCIENCE: I think 400,000 Australians who had unlawful debts raised against them that want this type of commission to get the answers to find out what happened and know why the Government kept doing it when they found out it was unlawful. It was a pretty shameful chapter in that period of time. Ministers and bureaucrats should have questions put to them and answer them, and I think it’s something that people would want to get to the bottom of so that we don’t see a repeat of this ever again.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: I’m curious about the time frame, though, because it will be looking into the scheme from 2015, when it was rolled out, but why not extend the inquiry back to 2011 because that’s when the Labor Government introduced the data-matching between Centrelink and the Tax Office? If you want to ensure that none of these wrongs occur, surely you should look at when it first began?

ED HUSIC: My understanding was that the automation particularly that led to and the way it was shaped up that led to those unlawful debts being issued out at the rate that they were, came after that period of time and obviously you want to make sure that people are getting the amounts they’re entitled to, but we heard the horror stories of people, what they were being lumbered with which just didn’t turn out to be right, and where they couldn’t find a way to be able to challenge the decisions that were being made in a timely way. And again, when we kept saying that this was an issue, we had at that point in time a Government that was trying to downplay - suggest things were fixed when they weren’t - and I think there’s a lot that should be basically made a lot more transparent, shown for what happened, and give an assurance that we’ve taken the steps that we’ll see this not occur again.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: I’ve had a text from John saying that Labor seems to have forgotten it was Labor who set up Robodebt and he says, “I would have trusted they would accept responsibility” –

ED HUSIC: That’s not true.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: Well, the automation of the system began under your government.

ED HUSIC: No, the data-matching system versus the way in which the automation went off the rails, they are two different points in time.


ANGUS TAYLOR: Well, that can be tested. I mean, if you set your terms of reference, that could be clarified, but you’ve set the terms of reference so that it doesn’t include that time period. Maybe you could ask Albo how his neck is feeling, because if you’re always looking backwards, you’re going to get a sore neck. It must be very sore by now because he seems to be looking backwards every day. Australians want to focus on the issues that they’re facing right now, and to have a clearly politically motivated lawyers’ picnic over an issue which has already been dealt with by the Commonwealth Ombudsman, a settlement of class action, parliamentary committees, 10 public hearings, six reports – it is time to look forward and that’s what we want to see.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: Isn’t this different – I mean, how is this different from what the Coalition did when you came back into power in 2013, though, because Tony Abbott immediately announced two royal commissions into the pink batts scandal and into trade unions. There was a fair bit of rear-view mirror action from the Coalition when you got into power as well.

ANGUS TAYLOR: Well, and I think you should be looking forward. I mean, I think that’s the reality –

DEBORAH KNIGHT: But your Government did the same.

ANGUS TAYLOR: Well, you know, the truth is I think new Governments should look forward and if that is taken as a criticism of what happened in 2013, I’m happy to accept it. I think that what Australians are facing now coming out of the pandemic, the set of pressures we didn’t have in 2013, 2014, but are very real, very, hugely important, and the one thing I’m seeing with this new Government is that they don’t want to deal with them.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: Well, another review that’s recently been conducted by your government, Ed, is into the Morrison Government’s Modern Manufacturing Initiative, so grants given to Aussie companies in a variety of industries – Defence, food and beverage, even space. Now, the review found that the previous Government’s decisions were backed up by independent advice, so no pork-barrelling, anything untoward. Do you think that this review was needed?

ED HUSIC: Yes, I do think so because it’s really important to bear in mind these points. This was a $1.5 billion manufacturing grants program. It was kicked off in 2020. Eighty-five per cent of the money went out the door in the weeks leading into the election, and it was money that was supposed to help rebuild manufacturing and grow jobs through the pandemic. It wasn’t there to prop up the jobs of Scott Morrison and the Liberal Party. And we had case after case of seeing grant programs that had not been managed properly. We saw it all – sports rorts, regional road rorts, commuter car parks – and I think respecting the way in which taxpayer dollars are used and the way they should be applied does demand that you examine them more.

And the other thing is, and I’ll end on this point: a lot of those mechanisms that you referred to in your question, Deb, came as a result of the focus that we were putting on as an Opposition. I mean, I’d found out that Scott Morrison was going to be the decision-maker not Christian Porter or Angus Taylor when he was Industry Minister. We were going over to Scott Morrison. Given the rorts, given the weird way in which decision-making was being done, it was clear that the pressure and the focus we put on them had resulted in them having to put these mechanisms in place. And it totally justified us being able to discover those mechanisms, one, and, two, make sure that taxpayer dollars are being used in the way they’re intended.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: Angus, you can understand the scepticism given that the timing of the grant winners was iffy just before and during the election campaign?

ANGUS TAYLOR: Well, while Ed was out there saying every day we needed to get the money out on the door, and we did. But –

DEBORAH KNIGHT: But you’ve got to do it in the correct manner, surely?

ANGUS TAYLOR: Yeah, and we did. Every grant met the guidelines. They were all independently assessed, and every project was a good one and deserved this funding, and Ed now has agreed with that. Now, I made that point from the start and these manufacturers have been sitting waiting on a Labor Government that claims it’s pro-manufacturing, it’s finally decided, yes, everything was kosher and right and it was. So, get on with it. Look forward not backwards.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: Ed, that’s a fair cop because while this review was being conducted, it did stall a lot of manufacturing initiatives and a lot of companies have been left confused.

ED HUSIC: I just come back to this point, Deb. This program came out of the first wave of the lockdowns back in October 2020. Hardly any money went out the door then. We went through 2021 with further lockdowns and the pressure on manufacturers. Money was hardly made available. And the only time – the only jobs that this grant program seemed to back in were the jobs of the Liberal Party at a Federal or State level –

ANGUS TAYLOR: You delayed it again. You delayed it again.

ED HUSIC: Angus, 85 per cent of this $1.5 billion program went out right before the federal election and in some cases was attempted to prop up State Liberal jurisdictions. For example, Angus went out and announced early March a program – I think it was just over $100 million worth of value – to the State Liberal Government in South Australia. Now, if you were fair dinkum about supporting manufacturing, you would have had this money out the door through 2021 to help those manufacturers when they were being squeezed through the economic impact of the pandemic. That didn’t happen. The only jobs you were interested in protecting, frankly, were your own.

ANGUS TAYLOR: That’s just wrong, Ed, and there were many manufacturing investments that were made through that time period and let’s be clear: every grant met the guidelines. Every one was independently assessed. Every one was a good one and deserved this funding, and you’ve finally come to that conclusion. Meanwhile, manufacturers have been sitting around waiting for the money.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: Well, jobs will be the big focus this time next week with the Jobs and Skills Summit getting underway. The ACTU is calling for the return of collective bargaining. Ed, will the Federal Government support that?

ED HUSIC: I think we’re working through, leading into the Jobs Summit, a number of things. One is we recognise that longer term, the big thing that will be important to the country is that the businesses have people with the skills that can get the work done - that workers who have got those skills get paid better and that they’ve got more secure long-term work.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: So, is collective bargaining the way to do that?

ED HUSIC: And so there may be a number of ways in which we fix the bargaining system; we want to hear all the options. And anything that will help boost wages and get them moving, that absolutely belongs at the summit and if there are ideas on what we can do to bring laws up to date with those challenges we’ve got in workplaces, that should be on the table. So, we want to make sure that we’ve got those policies that work, that deliver, and deliver both for business and for workers.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: And, Angus, you’ve been very critical of that; business groups have as well. But if you see a problem with what’s going to be raised at the Jobs Summit, then surely representatives from the Liberal Party should be there?

ANGUS TAYLOR: Well, we’ll comment on it. I mean, at the end of the day, we –

DEBORAH KNIGHT: Yeah, you can comment on it, but why not front up? I mean, David Littleproud will be there from the Nationals. Why won’t you guys?

ANGUS TAYLOR: And I’ve said this before, Deb, on this program: when you receive an invite after it’s been given to –

DEBORAH KNIGHT: Yeah, but okay –

ANGUS TAYLOR: – that’s not good faith.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: I know it’s not good faith but suck it up and move on. Turn up.

ANGUS TAYLOR: Well, we will be observing it, but the test is simple. This is the real test. We’ve got global and domestic pressures already hitting households and small business budgets. Will this summit ease those pressures? We need a clear plan for pensioners and veterans to be able to work more without losing their pensions. It can’t be a union talkfest. It’s got to lead to concrete action. That’s the test. And what we want here is the outcome and we’ll back sensible outcomes, no doubt about that, but we want to see sensible outcomes, not just a yak fest.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: You’re still not going to be there?

ANGUS TAYLOR: Well, I haven’t been invited, but –

DEBORAH KNIGHT: But members of the Liberal Party have, and your leader has, and you’ve got David Littleproud of the Nationals going but no-one from the Liberals?

ANGUS TAYLOR: You know, you can get caught up in the process. The question here is the outcome. And I said what the outcomes are that are needed and let’s see if that’s what comes out.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: All right. Now, next week on the radio station I will be playing a road trip song every week. So, I want to hear from both of you, what are your favourite road trip songs, and maybe if you’ve got one that drives the family nuts in the car every time you put it on. Ed, what’s your favourite road trip song?

ED HUSIC: Well, I’m doubling down. I said Billy Joel was my favourite. It was also an indication of how old I was – It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: Oh, you love this one, do you?

[It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me by Billy Joel plays.]

DEBORAH KNIGHT: I can see you doing the drums on the steering wheel and elbow out the window, kicking back to that one, Ed. How about you, Angus?

ANGUS TAYLOR: That’s a good pick, Ed. I like that one too, but I’m going to go for [indistinct], which is MMMBop by Hanson.


ANGUS TAYLOR: Also, Oklahoma, and I tell you what, it’s a cultural phenomenon this song. One-hit wonders but it was a great hit.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: Wow, I would not have picked Angus Taylor choosing this.

[MMMBop by Hanson plays.]

DEBORAH KNIGHT: Do you do a bit of chair dancing to that one when you’re in the car with that one, Angus?

ANGUS TAYLOR: Yeah, a bit of air guitar when you’re in the passenger seat at least.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: Fantastic. I’ll take that image with me of both of you rocking on to those tunes. Have a great weekend. Thanks for joining us. We’ll chat again next week.

ED HUSIC: Thank you.

DEBORAH KNIGHT: Angus Taylor and Ed Husic for “Friday Question Time” here on Afternoons With Deborah Knight.