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Interview with Melinda James, ABC Radio Illawarra

26 March 2020

Melinda James

Subject: Centrelink payments, access to the MyGov website, National Cabinet decisions, and support for energy customers affected by the coronavirus.


MELINDA JAMES: I'm joined now by the Member for Hume and the Minister for Energy Angus Taylor. Angus Taylor, thanks so much for talking to us this morning.

ANGUS TAYLOR: Thanks for having me.

MELINDA JAMES: Look, let's talk about some of the changes to Centrelink possibly, very- one of the most important things I suppose given the urgency people are feeling. What are the changes and what does it mean for people who have been queueing in their thousands outside Centrelink offices over the past few days?

ANGUS TAYLOR: Well, obviously, there were some problems with the site and they've been addressed for the moment. As far as we can tell, everything is working extremely well. I actually got on this morning onto my myGov account - it's working absolutely fine. Now, it's very important people understand they don't need to queue up, they can go online - not everyone can do that - but if they can possibly do that, it is a better way to do it. We've increased the capacity of the system substantially. The demands on the system are like never before, but they have been increased substantially in the last 48 hours. People can also ring in - there's a hotline which applies to this and many other things relating to the virus - on 1800 020 080. I'll say that again - 1800 020 080. They can ring in but if they can possibly avoid a queue, it is a good thing to do for the obvious reason that being in a queue you're around other people. We want to minimise those numbers. We understand there have been problems, but as I say, it's working well this morning and it is important people get registered. One of the reasons why you don't need to be there in person is you can just have your 100-point plan ID with you and the system can be done remotely. That is very important for people to understand. I should also emphasise that overnight those changes have come into place - you went through them in quite a lot of detail. The one thing I would clarify in what you said is that the elective surgery changes come in on 1 April. 


ANGUS TAYLOR: So there will be people, perhaps people listening, who have scheduled elective surgery between now and 1 April, that continues to 1 April through private hospitals. But from the 1 April, we're freeing up that capacity for obviously dealing with the virus.

MELINDA JAMES: Alright - thank you very much for clarifying that. Look, the front page of The Australian Financial Review we're hearing, Phil Coorey at least is reporting that there have been days of increasing tensions within the National Cabinet. Principally this is between the Federal Government and the state premiers, largely New South Wales and Victoria primarily, but also the ACT Chief Minister. We're hearing that the south eastern states are poised to break ranks - is how Phil Coorey puts it - that they are keen to move to stage three shut down measures. We are currently at stage two. They want things to move harder and faster in their states. Is that an accurate representation of what happened in the National Cabinet meeting yesterday?

ANGUS TAYLOR: The National Cabinet has to be robust and it has to work through tough issues, but the point I'd make is that we're not putting anything in place that we think can't be sustained for over six months.

MELINDA JAMES: When you say ‘we’ though, that seems to be what? The New South Wales and the Commonwealth Government?

ANGUS TAYLOR: What I'm talking about is the Federal Government's perspective. So you know, our position is that it is very important that we think things through so that they can be in place for six months or more. It is also important that all the details are worked through before announcements are made and these are very, very important principles. We're working at a furious pace here and the number of initiatives going into place is stretching the community - there's no question about that. I mean you went through the list of changes that came in at midnight.

MELINDA JAMES: Well every person can attest to that.

ANGUS TAYLOR: Yeah, exactly right. So this is, you know, we have to work these things through. It's important there be robust discussion about how to put these things into place but it is equally important that they don't go into place until we've actually got the detail pinned down, and that has to happen at a rapid pace. The point I would make is what's in place now is not the end of it. Of course there's going to be continuing changes that are going to be necessary to deal with the situation. The National Cabinet is a change, it's a new forum which is working extremely well under enormously difficult circumstances. I think the fact that we're getting such agreement at such a pace across all the jurisdictions is like nothing I've seen, certainly in my lifetime. I'm told that back when the Spanish Flu happened in 1919, this was the number one issue - the tension between states and federal government. We're managing it, I think, extremely well, and we'll continue to, but there needs a robust debate.

MELINDA JAMES: Do you concede though that certain parts of the country should, in the interests of protecting the health of their citizens, react in different ways and at a different pace given where the virus is at?

ANGUS TAYLOR: Sure. And look, what we're trying to do, what the Federal Government is trying to do in the frameworks we're creating and what's happening in the National Cabinet is there is of course allowance for some flexibilities on individual states. You know, Tasmania and Western Australia, you can fully understand the approach they're taking to their borders because they're such discrete states. They're quite separate from the rest of Australia so that-

MELINDA JAMES: But in the case of the New South Wales where the rate of infection is climbing-

ANGUS TAYLOR: Is higher. 

MELINDA JAMES: Yes, but not only higher, is increasing at a greater rate as well compared to other states. But New South Wales and the Premier and the Government in New South Wales have the right and the power to go it alone and we keep hearing that that is what they are looking at.

ANGUS TAYLOR: Look, right now, I think the important thing for us is to get clear messages out to everybody about what is going into place, and-

MELINDA JAMES: Have the messages been clear so far?

ANGUS TAYLOR: People - just let me finish that - people need to understand that the robust debates are happening and must happen to get to the point where we can make an announcement. There is some flexibility for states to recognise their own circumstances. And that's absolutely as it should be, as you rightly point out. But look, spending our time talking about potential, speculating on potential differences of opinion right now, I think our focus has to be on: ‘this is what's going into place’ - you've announced those changes, it's a long list, bedding those down as fast as we possibly can and recognising there'll be more, and recognising there will be differences by state. That's necessary.

MELINDA JAMES: Would it be wise, though, would it be wise because recognising that there will be more, would it be better to be clearer about that from the Government's perspective so people know what to prepare for? Given that we all have a feeling that this stage 3 is coming but we don't know what that looks like and we have no idea when. Maybe people could plan a little better.

ANGUS TAYLOR: The truth is there is no point announcing something until it is well worked through, it is fully understood, and we know we can explain it to people. And we're working at a pace which is unprecedented, and certainly in my experience. So that's the principle we've got to apply. The worst thing we can do, and we've seen this in other jurisdictions, is have announcements that are made that are not thought through, where the unintended consequences aren't recognised ahead of time. 

MELINDA JAMES: But stage 3 is coming, it's just being planned at the moment?

ANGUS TAYLOR: There's no point announcing something when you haven't got an announcement. That's my point. We can speculate about this all day. The important point now is to bed down what we've agreed on. They're important changes. Look, these are far-reaching and I know how consequential these are. I mean, not being able to hold weddings and funerals, I mean, in a normal sense - obviously that can be held with much smaller numbers - these are extraordinary changes which we could never have contemplated only a few weeks ago. We have to bed these things down. I have been talking to local businesses, beauty salons, hairdressers, cafes, restaurants, and the changes here, taking them through, and dealing with the issues. In my portfolio, on the energy side, we need to make sure that hardship policies recognise and are extended to dealing with businesses and individuals who have been impacted by the virus. The companies are putting those things into place at a rapid rate. We're making sure they are. These are all the consequences of the changes that have been made. We must bed these down as fast as we possibly can, and continue to keep an eye on what needs to happen next but doing it in a way where it's clear, it can be explained to the community, can be bedded down as quickly as possible, and we save lives, and we keep the economy going, because let's face it, at the end of this, we have a massive job. We don't want to make it bigger than it needs to be, and that balance needs to be maintained at all times - but of course, health comes first.

MELINDA JAMES: Alright, thank you so much for your time. 

ANGUS TAYLOR: Thank you.