SUBJECTS: Coalition’s Our Plan, Real Solutions for all Australians campaign; school kids bonus; Gonski; Newstart allowance
David Speers: Welcome to the program. While most of us might be back at work hoping to cling on to that summer holiday feel for as long as we can, for our nation's politicians it is straight back to work because this is a busy election year ahead and the Coalition aren't wasting any time at all. Tony Abbott on Sunday will begin a mini campaign for a week travelling around the country selling what – a document that is called “Our plan, Real Solutions for all Australians”. Today, as you can see there, the Opposition Leader and the Director of the Liberal Party, Brian Loughnane, also the Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey by his side held a phone hook-up with about 165 Coalition MPs and preselected candidates basically giving them a bit of a rev’ up for the election year ahead, talking about his mini campaign that he is about to embark on and about the need to be positive, particularly at the start of this election year, for an Opposition Leader who is often seen as being too negative. He says that his positive plan is all about having a strong economy first and foremost and he will be out selling that next week. To tell us a bit more about it and how the Coalition is starting this election year, the Manager of Opposition Business and the Shadow Education Minister, Christopher Pyne joins me. Thanks for your time.
Hon Christopher Pyne MP: Pleasure David.
Speers: What was Tony Abbott's message to the MPs and candidates today?
Pyne: Well essentially we are in the third year of a three year parliamentary cycle. The first year was to ruthlessly hold the Government to account, which I think most people agree we did. Last year was about preparing our policies for the election year. And now we are straight out of the blocks, on this Sunday, talking about policy, talking about our plan, our solutions for Australia's problems, in cost of living, job security, border protection and economic management and the message from today was this is the year that counts. We need to get our positive plan and policies out into the electorate so as candidates, and of course I'm a candidate for the lower house seat, as members of the Shadow Cabinet, everyone's job is to make every post a winning post this year so the public knows that they are choosing between an Opposition with real solutions for the future and a Government with simply spin and character assassination.
Speers: Well, spin and character assassination that is a line of attack against the Government. You did also spend a fair bit of last year, while you said there that you spent the year developing policy, you did spend a lot of time attacking the Government on the carbon tax, the mining tax and various other things, asylum seekers…
Pyne: There are lots to attack them on David…
Speers: Well fair enough but is this a problem now for the Coalition trying to flick from – flick the switch from negative to positive?
Pyne: Well we never wanted to stop holding the Government to account, because it is a very bad Government led by an unworthy Prime Minister, but that doesn't mean that the public aren't aching to hear in 2013 what a Coalition Government will look like, what it will do, the kinds of solutions it has to the nation's problems and let's remind people that we already have dozens of larger and smaller policies that we have announced, larger ones like a 15,000 strong green corp, the largest maternity leave plan that Australia has ever seen, abolishing the carbon tax, abolishing the mining tax, bringing back Temporary Protection Visas and this campaign from Sunday onwards will bring together all of the policies we have already announced in an easy package so that people can see them…
Speers: So it won't be anything particularly new in this document?
Pyne: We are not planning on announcing new policy in the next week but we are planning on reminding people of what is already out there, this is the foundation of our positive plan for the future…
Speers: So it is a bit like the book Tony Abbott released a year ago around this time?
Pyne: Well we have a number of policies that we have already put in place. It is important to remind people about them. Most people have forgotten that we are promising a Green corp, that we’re promising direct action on climate change, in the cost upwards of $3 billion to implement, we want to remind people about what we promised in my own portfolio, a responsibility for principal autonomy, reforming teacher quality, a robust curriculum, addressing the inequities for children with disabilities. Next week will give us the chance to bring that together and build on that as a foundation for the rest of the election year so by Election Day people are under no illusions that they have a choice with a Coalition with a positive plan and a Labor Party that just wants to denigrate Tony Abbott.
Speers: So at this stage, there won't be any details like how you will pay for any of these policies?
Pyne: Well, we will have details in this document from Sunday…
Speers: Including how they will be paid for?
Pyne: Well if we have already announced how they will be paid for, it will be in the document. Of course we can't really say exactly how much things will cost or not cost until we see the Budget in May and the Government is in the same position. We don't have their army of bureaucrats that can flip the switch and find out what it will cost because we don’t know what the basics are until the Budget is handed down in May.
Speers: Getting back to Tony Abbott though and his need to be positive, do you see this politically as a real challenge for the Opposition Leader to shift perceptions?
Pyne: Well no, I don't think that the perception of Tony Abbott is a particularly worrisome one for the Opposition. I mean are the job of the Leader of the Opposition…
Speers: Why aren't you worried about it because if you look at the polls…
Pyne: Well I’m a very optimistic person, sunny side up kind of person David…
Speers: You must look at the polls, all politicians do. It’s clear there is a negative perception of Tony Abbott.
Pyne: Well, Leaders of the Opposition have to show why the Government should be changed. You don't change the Government by simply saying that this is what we believe in, and we are not going to talk about the Government. A leader of the opposition is not doing their job unless they say to the Australian public these are the reasons you need to change the Government. And the reasons are very simple, it is trust and it is competence.
Speers: But does he need to leave that attacking role to others, such as yourself?
Pyne: Everybody in the Shadow Cabinet, every member of the parliamentary party should be outlining why the Government needs to be changed.
Speers: Will there be less of that from Tony Abbott himself?
Pyne: I think you've seen over the last year he has been doing less and less of that kind of role. That has fallen to people like Julie Bishop and sometimes myself and Joe Hockey and many others. Scott Morrison, Greg Hunt and so on. We are a team and we are a very competent team. The difference between us and Labor is that you can't trust or believe anything they promised this year, let's not forget they promised 2600 trade training centres; delivered 200. They promised 360 child care centres and delivered 70, not to mention the carbon tax, the surplus and not challenging Kevin Rudd…
Speers: Let's look at your portfolio then education. The school kids bonus this week is starting to flow out to families, $410 per primary school student, $820 for high school students, is it still the Coalition's plan to scrap that school kid’s bonus?
Pyne: Well the school kid’s bonus has nothing whatsoever to do with education David. It's like 1984 this Government. They call it the school kid’s bonus. It is just a cash splash for some families if you have children who are at school. It is not needing to be spent on anything to do with education…
Speers: You don't think these families have costs at this time of year that…
Pyne: Well we all do. I have costs this time of the year I have four children who are of school age. I'm sure you have costs as well that you need to meet. But that is not on to my point which is that this is not a school kid’s bonus. It is not for education costs. It is a cash splash. And the cynicism, the brutal cynicism of this Government is that they are advertising a payment that is an automatic payment into the bank accounts of families.
Speers: So you think it will be frittered away on other things?
Pyne: I just think the education tax rebate was a better policy because you had to present receipts that you had spent on education in order to be able to access it. Now, how we…
Speers: It's a bit of bookwork for families, isn't it?
Pyne: I don't think there is much bookwork when you are getting money back from the Government and from the Australian taxpayer in effect.
Speers: So is that what you will do, you will go back to a system where you get the same money but you just have to provide receipts to show that you have spent it on school shoes and bags?
Pyne: Well we’ll announce all of our policies on education…
Speers: I'm just asking about the school kid’s bonus, which people are looking at now, will it stay or go?
Pyne: I can tell you that we don't support the school kid’s bonus as it is at the moment. We did support the education tax rebate and in fact at the last election we wanted to expand that to things like support for children with learning difficulties and school fees. But by the next election, you will in good time have all of our policies on the education and I'm very excited about the prospect of announcing it.
Speers: So that won’t be in the plan next week. So we will wait to see what you do on the school kid’s bonus. The other one is the school funding reforms that the Government is clearly wanting to make a big part of its election plans this year. State Education Ministers are meeting fairly soon to try and reach some sort of position agreement on this and the Government is hoping to have an agreement between the States and the Commonwealth by the first COAG meeting of the year. If they do reach agreement, and it is an “if” still at this stage, will that change your thinking? Will you support it?
Pyne: Well, let's see what they all come up with. I mean, the truth is the Government is in a cleft stick. It can't possibly meet its promise that no school will be worse off under this Gonski model and yet they have promised to introduce the Gonski plan. Now they haven't got the money to do it. Nobody will believe it if they come up with billions and billions and billions of dollars every year to try to cover it. The States know they haven't got it. So the reason why we are now in almost February and they have had it since December 2011, is because they don't know how to respond. They have got themselves in a terrible bind.
Speers: But here’s the question, if the States, and most of them are Liberal agree to this, what will you do?
Pyne: That's a big “if” because the States are being asked to come up with 70% of $6.5 billion a year, money that we all know they haven't got. So that is a very big “if”. The Government has no specifics on the table. The Prime Minister keeps making these fatuous speeches at the National Press Club or at schools, she never goes out into the public any more, where she puts nothing on the table and then expects people to stand up and applaud. The truth is there are no details on the table about the Government's response to Gonski. We will give a detailed response to the Gonski report. There is much in it that I support. There is lots of it that I don't support. But ours will be affordable, it will be achievable and it will be believable.
Speers: Even if there was an agreement, let me ask you this, do you think it is possible that it could be put in place for next year for 2014?
Pyne: Well I've made an offer to the Government; I've said if you bring in a Bill to delay a new funding model for two years and keep the SES funding model going as it is now, we will support it because we think the school system needs certainty. Principals and governing councils, school systems are desperate for certainty. They are not being given it by this Government. We will facilitate a Bill to expand the SES funding model or extend it for another two years and that will give everybody the time they need to get this right because the Government clearly has not got it right.
Speers: Final question and it is not to do with your portfolio, the Newstart allowance though, there will be a big political debate, certainly within Labor it is at the moment, what do you think about it? Should there be an increase?
Pyne: The Government has managed to botch yet another issue on their own because they are incompetent. On the one hand they are saying they want to increase, or some ministers are leaking that they want to increase the Newstart allowance at the same time they are cutting the Single Parents Benefit for some single parents. They are taking with one hand and giving with the other, they are robbing Peter to pay Paul…
Speers: But what do you think?
Pyne: Well this is a matter for the Government to clear up. We need to know exactly what the Government is going to do. Are they going to increase the Newstart allowance. Will they solve it…
Speers: Christopher Pyne that’s is sitting on the fence though. Surely you can tell me what you think?
Pyne: Well I'm not the Government…
Speers: You have got views on every other thing you have spoken about here today. You could say you're not the Government on so many things, including school funding…
Pyne: I have views on things that I'm responsible for, like education.
Speers: It’s pretty clear there are people doing it tough on $35 a day, do you think it should be increased?
Pyne: Look, nobody is suggesting that the Newstart allowance is an adequate means on which to live, it is an income supplement it is designed to help people get back into the workforce. I think Jenny Macklin really stood on a landmine dramatically earlier in the year when she said she wanted to go out and live on it, well she should have a go at it, I’d love to see that, but I'm not going to get into the trap you're trying to lay for me so early in the year.
Speers: You will sit on the fence for this one for now. Christopher Pyne we will have to leave it there. Thank you so much for joining us. Look forward to talking to you throughout this interesting election year.