SUBJECTS: ASIO, Mal Brough, tax transparency, MYEFO, arts cuts
THE HON MARK DREYFUS QC MP
SHADOW MINISTER FOR THE ARTS
MEMBER FOR ISAACS
TO THE POINT
THURSDAY, 17 DECEMBER 2015
SUBJECTS: ASIO, Mal Brough, tax transparency, MYEFO, arts cuts
KRISTINA KENEALLY: Welcome to the program.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: What do you think about the ASIO situation? I mean, at the end of the day there’s a war going on between the head of ASIO and backbench Liberal MPs on the front page of the national broadsheet. You’ve got the Foreign Minister jumping to the defence of the head of ASIO, which means that she’s implicitly attacking her own Liberal MPs.
MARK DREYFUS: I think that these Liberal Party members ought to be ashamed of themselves for dragging the Director-General of ASIO, Duncan Lewis, a distinguished Australian public servant, into their own political spat. Duncan Lewis has done nothing wrong here. What’s happened here is that Malcolm Turnbull has failed to rein in his own backbenchers.
KRISTINA KENEALLY: Mark Dreyfus, given that, though, shouldn’t Malcolm Turnbull be taking a stronger lead in these discussions with the backbench? Should it really be left to the Director-General of ASIO to be having these conversations?
MARK DREYFUS: I’d repeat, there’s nothing wrong with the Director-General of ASIO talking to members of the Australian Parliament. He’s the public face of ASIO and the message he’s been giving is the same message that the previous Director-General of ASIO gave which is that the, really the strongest defence that Australia has against terrorism is the Muslim community and I say again it’s disgraceful to see these Liberal backbenchers revealing conversations they’ve had with the head of ASIO for political reasons, putting their own political objectives ahead of national security and the safety of Australians. It’s no way to behave and I’d say that Duncan Lewis has behaved commendably in taking the trouble to ring these Liberal Party members and explain to them what the imperatives of security are.
KRISTINA KENEALLY: Look, I don’t disagree with that. That’s not the point I was making. I just find – I can’t recall and maybe you can recall – where the Director-General of ASIO has had to take up that type of role, really remonstrate with MPs about how they should behave in the name of national security. Maybe you can fill me in on your experience where that’s happened before. But I would also say, shouldn’t it be on incumbent on the Prime Minister of the nation to make clear to his own backbench how their actions are impacting on the Government’s attempts or efforts to keep Australians safe?
MARK DREYFUS: Absolutely. It’s a matter for the Prime Minister. I don’t fault Mr Turnbull’s language here. We have seen a change in language from the Prime Minister. We have seen a change in tone, in the way in which the head of the Australian Government is talking about the Muslim community, and that avoidance of divisive language is incredibly important. But equally, I don’t fault Duncan Lewis for a moment for picking up the phone to speak to these Liberal backbenchers. We’ve only had their version of what the conversation was about. But I know Duncan Lewis very well, I have briefings from him frequently and I can say that his concern is security. In no sense has Duncan Lewis engaged here in politics. His concern is security and it’s disgraceful for these Liberals to be using the fact of a phone call to play political games instead of doing what they should be doing, which is caring about the security of our country.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Mark Dreyfus, you were at the forefront of prosecuting the case against Mal Brough during the last sitting fortnight. What can or will the Opposition do over the summer before Parliament returns in February to keep the pressure on?
MARK DREYFUS: Well certainly when I’m asked, Peter, I’ll be saying he should have gone already. He should never have been appointed in the first place because of what was already known about his involvement with the Ashby affair. And now that he is being investigated by the Australian Federal Police, who have executed a search warrant on his home, at the very least he should stand aside. And we will continue to say that. I and all my colleagues will continue to say that and of course if anything further comes to light over the summer we’ll make sure that’s drawn to public attention. But again, this was a failure of judgment by Mr Turnbull. He should never have appointed Mr Brough in the first place and he should now go.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: And it’s a long time away but is it your expectation that Labor will continue to press hard on this when Parliament returns in February?
MARK DREYFUS: Of course. He shouldn’t have been appointed. He should stand aside, and in times past it would have been unthinkable for him to continue in this high office, the Minister responsible for government integrity, when he is the subject of a very public investigation by the Australian Federal Police including the executing of a search warrant on his home.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: And what are the expectations in relation to where the police investigation goes? I mean I know you’re probably as in the dark on that as the rest of us but timeline-wise, is there any hope or view that we could have more developments on that side of it ahead of the return of Parliament?
MARK DREYFUS: That’s very much a question you’d have to direct to the Australian Federal Police.
KRISTINA KENEALLY: Mark Dreyfus, can I take you to a report out today by the ATO on corporate tax avoidance or non-payment or payment rates, however you want to term it. This is a result of laws that Labor brought in to force this kind of disclosure. What do you think the public is going to think though when they see out of some 1500 companies, some of the largest foreign and domestic companies in Australia, that nearly 600 of them have paid no tax or not what people might determine to be their fair share of tax in 13/14.
MARK DREYFUS: Those are incredibly concerning statistics that we’ve seen today. It’s of course incredibly concerning that that level of large corporations in Australia are paying no tax. Regrettably they seem to be – among them very many of them foreign or multinational corporations, very many of them from the finance sector, and they now have some explaining to do. But this is the very purpose of having transparency in tax affairs. It’s regrettable that the Greens party sided with the Government to reduce the level of transparency that Labor says should occur but if we’re going to have a debate about tax, which is what the Prime Minister says he wants, this must be very much part of it. And if ever there was an impetus for the Government to take up Labor’s proposals for taxing multinational corporations to ensure that they do pay their fair share of tax, this is it.
KRISTINA KENEALLY: Look I’m not an apologist at all for some of these companies, but there might be some legitimate reasons some of these companies haven’t paid any tax. There might be R&D write-offs, franking credits, you know, and other… prior year losses they might have brought forward. I mean the ATO report only details revenue, taxable income and tax. Is there an argument to be made that more information should be released by the ATO so people can judge these figures within a context?
MARK DREYFUS: Well there’s a tension there between commercial confidentiality and the need for transparency. Certainly though these corporations have some explaining to do because on the face of it, it would seem that very many of Australia’s largest corporations are not paying their fair share of tax and they ought to be paying their fair share of tax. Most Australian taxpayers, the overwhelming majority of PAYG taxpayers – ordinary working people – can’t avoid any tax, have no means of doing so. It seems that large corporations do have that means. You may be right, Kristina, that there are proper explanations such as R&D tax write-offs or the like, but some explaining is called for from many of these corporations.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: There are a lot of critics suggesting that spending according to MYEFO is simply just too high for the current financial year. It’s basically as high as it’s been at any time other than during the GFC. What are Labor’s plans to get spending under control as opposed to the policy announcements I’ve seen on the revenue side.
MARK DREYFUS: We’ve said that of course one has to look at spending commitments but what’s clear to us is that the Government’s priorities are wrong. It’s difficult to do the reviewing of spending from Opposition, it’s a lot easier to do what we’ve done, which is make suggestions as to changes that can be made on the revenue side. But overall, our criticism of this Government remains the same as it has been since the 2014 Budget. We’ve got a Government that is cutting spending in a way that is going to affect the least privileged members of our community, the poorest members of our community the most, and we see a continuation of that in the Budget update—
PETER VAN ONSELEN: —how else do you do it though, Mr Dreyfus? This is one of the problems is that you can’t cut spending to the better-off if they’re not actually receiving enough.
MARK DREYFUS: Well why would you for example introduce a $1000 baby bonus? That’s a new spend that this Government has engaged in which we say is absolutely not called for. There’s a range of new spending initiatives that this Government has taken, and that’s self-evident from the fact that we now have the highest level of Commonwealth Government expenditure since the Howard Government. It’s extraordinary that a Government that in Opposition railed about a debt and deficit disaster has now failed its own measure of economic management. And a Government that in Opposition railed about spending has increased spending consistently to produce those debt and deficit levels that we’re now enduring. In no sense are we seeing economic leadership from Mr Turnbull as our new Prime Minister. It’s very much a continuation of the failed Abbott/Hockey economic policies now under Turnbull/Morrison. And nothing that appeared in the Budget update should give Australians any confidence that this lot know how to manage the economy.
KRISTINA KENEALLY: You’re also the Shadow Arts Minister, can I ask you about the MYEFO, because there were some pretty deep cuts in the arts portfolio. And while it was very small, it was $52 million all up, when we are facing a revenue shortfall, when we are facing a difficult Budget environment, is it appropriate that arts – should we make a choice between arts and people being able to access health and welfare services?
MARK DREYFUS: The cuts are not small to those in the arts community and what needs to be borne in mind is that this is the third round of cuts to the arts, it’s the third time there’ve been cuts to Screen Australia. And we’ve seen really harsh and quite cruel cuts again, in that the Book Council of Australia has now been abolished but the $8 million that was taken from the Australia Council to fund it isn’t going to be returned to the Australia Council. Anyone that thought that Mr Turnbull was going to be a friend of the arts would now have it absolutely clear that they were mistaken, because the arts have again been forced to endure another round of cuts. And I don’t think that choice that you’ve posed there, Kristina, is the right one. I think that the arts are absolutely something which albeit small are an incredibly valuable contribution to Australian life and all Commonwealth governments, I thought, understood that. This Government appears not to. Because if there’s one thing that’s clear about Government administration it’s that continuity and predictability is important, the arts community has received the reverse. It’s received massive disruption and complete unpredictability from this Liberal Government over the last two years and four months.
KRISTINA KENEALLY: Mark Dreyfus, thanks so much for joining us on To the Point.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Thanks for your company.
MARK DREYFUS: Good to be with you and I wish you a safe and happy Christmas.