Doorstop interview, Devonport, Tasmania

Source: Australian Treasurer

GAVIN PEARCE:

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome this morning to Mead Con. I’m here with Tim Mead and Vonette Mead and also Ellsie, their daughter who is a third year apprentice here at Mead Con. Also, this morning it is my pleasure to welcome our Federal Treasurer, the Honourable Josh Frydenberg. He’s here for a very good reason and that is as we springboard from what has been a terrible economic crisis, particularly here on the North West Coat. We’ve seen an outbreak at Burnie Hospital, our North West Hospital, and now we’ve turned the corner. We’re beginning to see some very positive numbers coming out of the business space. I point you to the Deloitte’s outlook for the December quarter which put the North West Coast of Tasmania at the highest business confidence out of anywhere in the nation. That confidence comes at a cost. It’s not something that falls out of the sky, it’s something that was strategically planned and the orchestrator of that plan was, of course, our Treasurer through the Government. Tim, you run a great business here. You’ve been in business since the early 2000’s, it’s a great family business. We recognise as a Government that family businesses like yours are the backbone, the engine room of the economy. Tim, tell us about your business and thanks for having us here today.

TIM MEAD:

Thanks, Gav and thanks Josh for coming down to see us. Look, I’ll be honest it wasn’t that rosy this time last year, certainly towards March and April when our seventy staff – the work dropped off, the businesses closed up and we couldn’t have the people on the sites. It was tough. Thankfully, we were able to get JobKeeper and we were able to hold on to that staff through that period. As the year progressed on, certainly by the time we got to the middle and the latter part of the year, the tenders started to come out. It was a lot rosier and we were able to pick up work and get those people back out onto the jobs and retain our staff. That was the big thing for us, to retain our staff, have a bit of acceptance of the good people we have around us and go on and do some building, which is what we like to do. Good outcome from our point of view.

JOSH FRYDENBERG:

Firstly, it is a great pleasure to be here with my great friend and Parliamentary colleague, Gav Pearce, the Member for Braddon. He does an outstanding job on behalf of his constituents and what an electorate he’s got. He’s got salmon, he’s got crayfish, he’s got more than 10 per cent of Australia’s milk supply. He’s even got gin distilleries and vodka makers and whisky makers as well, across the great electorate of Braddon. There are around 10,000 small and medium-sized businesses in this electorate and it is a great pleasure to be here at Mead Con with Tim and his family, who are employing seventy Tasmanians here. As Tim just said, it was a really tough time last year. But JobKeeper came to the rescue where the vast majority of their staff were on JobKeeper. Now Mead Con is a graduate of JobKeeper, no longer requiring that income support. In fact, it’s going from strength to strength. It’s so pleasing to hear that there are fourteen apprentices, like Ellsie here, as well as they’ve taken on four new apprentices this year, with the benefit of the Government’s 50 per cent wage subsidy for apprentices. This is a real strength across the country, where the jobs are coming back, particularly in the construction industry. Mead Con is involved in residential and commercial construction. We have seen across Tasmania residential construction jump by 9.8 per cent in the December quarter. We’ve seen house prices up across Tasmania, 11 per cent up year on year. Today the nation got some positive data on housing prices with their biggest increase since 2012. That is quite amazing to think that it has been that many years since we’ve seen such a strong performance. In fact, it’s the early 2000’s – 2003 – that we’ve seen such a strong performance. 

Across the economy of Tasmania, we are seeing the jobs coming back. There were 35,000 people in Tasmania who either lost their jobs or saw their working hours reduced to zero at the start of this crisis. Now, the unemployment rate has fallen in Tasmania to 5.9 per cent, the lowest across the country. In fact, Tasmania had the highest unemployment rate at 8.2 per cent last year. It has been a remarkable turnaround here in Tasmania and the Morrison Government’s direct economic support, which has totalled more than $2 billion, has made its way across the state. That’s the JobKeeper program, the cash flow boost, the HomeBuilder program, we’ve seen more than 2,500 applications here in Tasmania for the HomeBuilder program, and of course, the income tax cuts are still flowing through, as well as other business investment incentives. So, the economic outlook here in Tasmania is very bright. It’s very pleasing to see the unemployment rate come down. We’ve still got a long way to go. We know it’s going to be a bumpy road ahead, but with the Morrison Government’s and the Gutwein Government’s support for the people of Tasmania, we’re very optimistic and hopeful for the future. 

QUESTION:

With the JobSeeker announcement you made last week, there’s been a lot of criticism of it; $50 a fortnight, a lot of people are saying it’s not enough. Is that open to further review or do we have to wait? Will there be something in the next Budget? Did you expect that sort of reaction?

JOSH FRYDENBERG:

The $50 a fortnight increase is going to cost the Budget $9 billion. This is the single largest increase to the base rate since 1986. You will now see the JobSeeker rate at about 41 per cent of the minimum wage. That’s back to where it was in the 2000’s. What we’ve always got to do with the JobSeeker payment is get the balance right, provide that support that is needed to those who are out of work, but also ensure incentives are there for those people to move into the workforce where the jobs are becoming available. We’re now starting to see those jobs becoming available. That’s a significant announcement that we made with the JobSeeker payment. The best thing we can do for the people on JobSeeker is to see them get back into work, and that’s why we’ve got the JobMaker hiring credit, that’s why we’ve got the tax cuts, that’s why we’ve got the HomeBuilder program, as well as a number of other incentives to help people back into work.

QUESTION:

In Tasmania, there’s seventeen job applicants for every job. So is this going to support the other sixteen?

JOSH FRYDENBERG:

The key focus here in Tasmania is the unemployment rate has come down to 5.9 per cent, so it’s trending in the right direction here in Tasmania and our other support programs will help people get back into work. Our focus is on creating jobs and that’s what we’ve seen. Around 94 per cent of the 1.3 million Australians who either lost their jobs or saw their working hours reduced to zero at the start of this crisis are now back at work. That’s a very good sign. Are there any other questions?

QUESTION:

Do you think the cabinet minister accused of historical rape should be stood aside? 

JOSH FRYDENBERG:

Well the Prime Minister’s laid out a process which has seen this matter referred to the police. Here in Australia we adhere to the rule of law and fundamental to the rule of law is the presumption of innocence. Every Australian deserves that right. So, yes, there have been very serious matters raised across the Parliament in recent weeks. This has been the subject of much commentary and attention. But the focus has to be now on process. We have seen a letter from the head of the Australian Federal Police and that letter, to the Prime Minister and subsequently made available to the Parliament, again re-emphasises the need for these matters to be in the hands of authorities, they are the best people to be dealing with such matters.

QUESTION:

Is their position tenable? 

JOSH FRYDENBERG:

Well again, the process is now being laid out. Everybody, including that cabinet minister that you referred to, is entitled to the presumption of innocence.

QUESTION:

I know you’ve said with the JobKeeper payment that you wouldn’t ask companies to pay back, if they’ve been making a profit, but then you see businesses like Harvey Norman that have made a huge profit. Why can’t you ask them for some of that money back? 

JOSH FRYDENBERG:

Well firstly, we welcome any decisions by companies to repay their JobKeeper payments. But the laws were set out when we passed that piece of legislation for the JobKeeper payment. Businesses received JobKeeper on the understanding of the law as it was. You are asking me to retrospectively change the law, which is not what I am going to do, because businesses made decisions to receive JobKeeper and then as a result to keep staff on, which has helped retain hundreds of thousands of jobs across the community. The RBA, the Reserve Bank of Australia, has said around 700,000 Australians have kept their jobs as a result of the JobKeeper payment. It has been a remarkable program. The Australian Audit Office has done a comprehensive audit of the work of the ATO in responding to COVID and it has said it has been an effective manager of the risks with the rollout of those programs. So JobKeeper has helped save jobs. That is what it was intended to do. You remember, back at the time when the crisis first hit, there was fear across our community, there were tens and indeed hundreds of thousands of our fellow Australians lining up outside Centrelink offices and JobKeeper was that lifeline to those businesses and to their staff and so it has done a remarkable job. At its peak it was supporting more than 3.6 million Australians. We have now seen well over two million Australians graduate off JobKeeper.

QUESTION:

Would you consider a permanent increase to the Bass Strait subsidy? Originally it was enough so that cars could come for free. It hasn’t kept up with rising costs.

JOSH FRYDENBERG:

Oh look, I am not going into those matters. We have made a significant number of announcements here in Tasmania. In terms of Bass Strait traffic, you are going to see a loss more of it, I assume, in the period ahead. Our focus is obviously supporting the Tasmanian economy to get through this crisis. We will always continue to look for other areas of support and it is good to be here in Tasmania.

QUESTION:

Just back on the historical sex allegations, given that the woman who made these allegations has passed way, can you clearly explain to us, what is the process now for investigating these claims?

JOSH FRYDENBERG:

Well again, the Federal Police are in possession of those materials and I will leave it to them to make any further comment on those matters. But as you know, we in Australia adhere to the rule of law, and the rule of law means that there is a presumption…

QUESTION:

Do you think there should be an independent investigation into these claims?

JOSH FRYDENBERG:

Well, the process is now with the Federal Police and they’re the appropriate authorities.

QUESTION:

What about the Federal Labor MP who’s also been accused of historical rape, should the Labor leader take action against them?

JOSH FRYDENBERG:

Well again, I have only seen the statement from Sarah Henderson which was made public yesterday. It referred to a person on the other side of politics, it didn’t refer to their specific name, those matters too have been referred to the police. I think it’s really important here that we understand that people are entitled to the presumption of innocence. It doesn’t matter what political party they come from, it doesn’t matter what business that they work for, it doesn’t matter what their background, their race, their religion, their ethnicity, they are entitled to the presumption of innocence. This is Australia, after all. Everybody jumping on here and making these issues the subject of, as you say, further inquiry, leave that to the police. Leave that to the police where they are the most appropriate authorities to handle it.

QUESTION:

Allegations have been made against politicians on both sides. You must be concerned by this?

JOSH FRYDENBERG:

Well, we have been very concerned about the allegations and, of course, the stories that have come to light over recent weeks. It is very concerning. As parliamentarians, Gavin and I have a responsibility to the nation to ensure with all our colleagues, that we are a model workplace. This is after all, the Parliament of Australia that we’re talking about. So these are very serious matters that we have been dealing with and we take them very seriously. But the focus has to be on process, and the process is now with the police, you’ve seen that laid out by the Chief Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police.

QUESTION:

Ask you one more on Facebook, the deal that was done last week, we don’t know the details of it, when is that going to be revealed or will it not be revealed and is there a risk that it could happen again?

JOSH FRYDENBERG:

Well, it’s very clear, about that process, there is now law that has passed the Parliament, world leading legislation, that will see the digital giants pay the Australian media businesses for generating original content. It has been the subject of a lot of international attention. In the case of both Facebook and Google, they have proceeded to enter into good faith negotiations with Australian news media businesses. It was very pleasing to see Google announce progress and deals out of those discussions with Channel 7, with Channel 9, with News Limited, with the Guardian and with some of the smaller players as well. Facebook have announced a letter of intent with Channel 7 and I understand that more negotiations are underway. This is a really important area of reform, it’s been based on the hard work of the ACCC over a number of years, substantial consultation and negotiation with the stakeholders. It’s fair to say Google and Facebook never wanted this legislation to start with, but the fact that it has passed the law, means they’re now entering into these negotiations and agreements and that’s a positive development. 

QUESTION:

Still waiting for a [inaudible]?

JOSH FRYDENBERG:

Again, we’ve set a threshold in the legislation for the business to which the code applies, there’s also a designation process by the Treasurer, based on the commercial deals that are put in place but also the unequal bargaining position. My message, to both Mark and Sundar, at Facebook and Google, was to go out and seek these commercial agreements and to enter into these good faith negotiations, they both committed to paying for Australian media content, and that’s a really good outcome. Because our focus all along, has been about sustaining public interest journalism in this country. Thank you.