Television Interview, ABC Afternoon Briefing

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The Hon Matt Thistlethwaite MP

Assistant Minister for Defence

Assistant Minister for Veterans’ Affairs

Assistant Minister for the Republic

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Ben Leeson on 0404 648 275

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20 February 2023

SUBJECTS: Darwin visit; Defence Strategic Review; Port of Darwin; Superannuation; Safeguard Mechanism; $5 note; Voice to Parliament; Republic. 

GREG JENNETT, HOST: Time to bring our political panel in this Monday. And joining us, we have Assistant Minister for Defence Matt Thistlethwaite, who also has responsibilities for the Republic that might be relevant today. Welcome, Matt. And Shadow Environment Minister Jonathan Duniam is in Hobart. Welcome to you too. Why don't we go first to you, Matt, since you're off base up in the north in Darwin, commemorating an anniversary of the Darwin bombings, also in your portfolio area, we're going to have the Strategic Review coming soon. Are you getting questions there and will there be answers in the Review about the Port of Darwin ownership arrangements?

MATT THISTLETHWAITE, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: Yeah, that's right, Greg. I'm in Darwin at the moment for the commemoration of the 81st anniversary of the bombing of Darwin. I attended a beautiful ceremony at Adelaide River this morning and I'm meeting with Defence Force personnel at Larrakeyah and other bases over the next couple of days. Obviously, the Defence Strategic Review has been handed to the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister and the Government's in the process of working on the response to that. In terms of the Port of Darwin issue, as you're aware, the Prime Minister announced a review of that decision to lease it last year and that review is ongoing. It involves a number of agencies across government, including Prime Minister and Cabinet and many other agencies. Some of that information is classified, so it's not appropriate for me to discuss it publicly. But once that review is conducted, the findings will be handed down and we'll get on with the job of ensuring that we're securing Australia's assets in the north.

JENNETT: Well, Jonno, I know this is purely hypothetical because we don't know the contents of that review, but do you have a disposition on Port of Darwin? If the Albanese government decided to go there in a way that the Coalition did not and seek to nationalise it in some way, would you guys put up any resistance to that?

JONATHON DUNIAM, SENATOR FOR TASMANIA: Well, I think, as Matt said, it's imprudent to sort of pre-empt the findings of review. These are complex matters, particularly when it comes to something as important as our national security. So I'd want to, before making any inclination on behalf of the Coalition known, want to see the details of that. And I'm sure there will be briefings once that information is available. Obviously, national security is central to making sure that we have a strong and thriving country into the future. And I would be hopeful that whatever findings come out of this review, we do the right thing to lock in a very secure future for this nation and our defences.

JENNETT: Well, yeah, we can't really ask you too much more about that fairly, to either of you, because we don't actually know the contents of that and, as you say, Matt, is classified. Anyway, when we do find out, superannuation, though, here's something that I think I can entice both of you into. Matt, to you. First of all, we've got Jim Chalmers pretty clearly laying out what he wants to do. But the question is, why does the insertion of a purpose clause in legislation change anything? Or, for that matter, settle what's called the super wars in this country? Policy can still wax and wane according to the flavour of the government of the day on this issue, can't it?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Greg, we made a commitment before the last election that we would review the purpose of superannuation. We're delivering on that commitment and the Treasurer has released a discussion paper today. We want to know Australians' views about what they believe the purpose of superannuation should be. We all know, I think, that superannuation, the compulsory system, was put in place by the Keating government to ensure that Australians retired with dignity and had enough in their nest egg to hopefully avoid being on the age pension. That's important for the broader Australian population when we face an ageing population and the cost of funding the age pension. But also, I think it's important, Greg, because we've seen policies in the last government, when they were in office, whereby they allowed people to raid their superannuation nest eggs. And a lot of it was warranted, but a lot of it wasn't. We saw figures coming out of people spending that money that they garnered from their superannuation on gambling, on alcohol and other unnecessary services and goods. And we don't think that if the purpose of superannuation is to ensure that people have some dignity in retirement, that they have a nest egg that they can rely on, then perhaps that will try and avoid those situations in the future where we do unnecessarily allow people to raid their nest eggs.

JENNETT: Well, I will take it over to Jonno Duniam in just a moment, but just a quick follow up on that one, Matt. Is it a locked box in any and all circumstances? I mean, imagine the most dire scenario, God forbid, where this country was at war or something, and if it were life or death for the survival of the people, there have to be circumstances, wouldn't there, where even a Labor government would be prepared to unlock some of that money?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, there are already circumstances in the legislation that allow people in hardship, if someone does have a hardship because of particularly an illness or other circumstances, they can apply to trustees to access that superannuation. I can't envisage that changing. Certainly in emergency circumstances, it's debatable whether the circumstances that existed during the last period were emergencies when the facts illustrated that people were spending it on non necessary items.

JENNETT: Yeah, well, you can defend that if you wish. I'm sure you'll want to, Jonno, but what is objectionable about stating upfront in a piece of legislation the purpose of super when, let's be honest, most of us have probably taken that for granted anyway. Do you agree that it is to save for a dignified retirement?

DUNIAM: Look, I think everyone understands the foundational purpose of superannuation. I'm not sure much to the first question you asked, Matt, before that what the Treasurer has outlined is going to do is going to make much of a difference to that. But I do have to take issue with this idea that there was some cavalier approach to how people were able to utilise their money, their superannuation. We were going through a pandemic, people were up against the wall financially. And one of the responses, which I think was a very good one, was enabling people to access a small portion of the funds that they've been able to accumulate in their superannuation funds. And to suggest somehow that there was this great swathe of people out there gambling it away, I think is offensive to those who needed it. It was a quick response at a time when people needed it. What's more, though, I think the idea of, to quote you, Greg, this becoming perhaps a locked box, except in the most extreme of circumstances, is something that most Australians would probably take some issue with them. And we took to the last election a policy to allow people to access a portion of their funds to, as a first home buyer, get into the housing market to help get them over the starting line. To tackle this issue of housing affordability, the money would go straight back in upon the sale of their house, thereby increasing their superannuation balance. But they're the sorts of things we need to be looking at and thinking about, not just locking it down. And the other thing that's unclear out of this review, are there going to be more taxes on our super? Aren't there sneaking suspicion there will be?

JENNETT: Well, I've certainly seen those suggestions, Matt, since Jonno throws it over to you effectively, is this part of a process to take away some of the concessions around contributions and earnings that have long been enjoyed by all Australian workers?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, the process, Greg, is exactly as the Treasurer has outlined, and that is, it's a discussion with the Australian people about legislating the purpose for which superannuation was instilled in our system, and a system whereby it's compulsory for Australians to put away some of their money. I certainly recognise that there are emergency circumstances and the pandemic was one of those where people should be given access to their superannuation. But the problem with that legislation at the time was there were no checks and balances put in place. So you didn't have to demonstrate that you'd lost your job and an income, you didn't have to demonstrate that you were facing hardship, paying your mortgage or your rent. And therefore some people, and it's only some, I admit it's not the majority, but some people access their superannuation in circumstances where those factors weren't present. And now those people, and a lot of them would be low income workers, have lost that nest egg. And it takes, as you know, decades to build that back up. And we want to make sure that we avoid those circumstances in the future.

JENNETT: And just because you were around at the time, Jonno, do you have any regrets about the administrative side of the way in which that super was unlocked at the time? Obviously, it was policy on the run in many ways in the phase of the pandemic that we were then in. But do you accept, to Matt's point, that you could have better regulated or had better transparency over who was getting money for what purpose?

DUNIAM: Like with JobKeeper and the expanded JobSeeker, it was effectively an instrument that could be described as one size fits all, because we needed to act urgently to ensure that there were people able to meet the costs that they were being faced with. And so be it with that release of super provision, be it with JobKeeper, be it with the expanded JobSeeker, qe needed to make sure that people had access to them. Now, one size fits all does mean some people will get more perhaps than they need, but at the end of the day, we needed to act urgently to ensure the economy and, importantly, households and businesses can continue to operate.

JENNETT: All right, Matt, since you're in Northern Territory, where gas is a cornerstone of the economy there and could even become a bigger part, should the Beetaloo Basin and other fields be explored or further developed in this country? The safeguard mechanism we heard from Chris Bowen, Matt, this was right a little earlier. He's obviously neck deep in negotiations with the Greens, but no new coal or gas is surely, would you agree, a red line that the Albanese government can't cross to meet the Greens on?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, we developed this policy in the lead up to the election and it doesn't contain conditions like that. We sought a mandate for it and we're elected on that basis and we're seeking to implement that policy. And the crux of the policy, Greg, is of course, that we've got the 200 biggest polluting companies and organisations in the country that need to reduce their emissions over time according to a steady reduction along with that baseline if we're going to meet our commitments of reducing emissions by 2030 and by 2050. And that's the policy that we took to the election. That's what we're seeking to implement. And we just say to the Greens don't blow this opportunity as they did in the past with the carbon pollution reduction scheme that saw us waste a decade of inaction on climate change and emissions reduction. We've got an opportunity here to ensure the biggest polluters reduce their emissions over time and we should take that opportunity.

JENNETT: And if they did, if this all fell through, Jonno Duniam, you could be in a spectacle where you are sitting alongside the Greens in the Senate, voting down at the Safeguard Mechanism and prolonging the climate wars. Is that something you're comfortable doing?

DUNIAM: Well, let me tell you something. I don't think that the failure of what Labor are putting forward here will necessarily prolong the climate wars. The other issue we have to balance here, which is why the coalition has taken the position it has of opposing what's been put forward, is that this will drive up the cost of living. This will drive up the cost of power, this will drive up the cost of concrete. This will drive up the cost of so many inputs to everyone's lives and how the cost of running a business. So the idea that this is the only opportunity to deal with it, climate change that is with no regard for cost of living, I think is something that is completely out of touch with what ordinary Australians want their parliamentarians to be doing in Canberra. And I reckon it's a good chance for the Government to rethink what they're doing.

JENNETT: You don't actually have any suggestions in this area, do you? Your side hasn't actually got a mechanism that would take us to the targets that you now agree with?

DUNIAM: Well, would you believe that the Safeguard Mechanism was something we set up in 2016, but the way we were doing it was not to tax businesses into submission, it was actually to work with them to incentivise investment and innovation. What Labor are doing is going to chuck this tax on excess emissions. If businesses can't meet their obligations to reduce emissions by the targets that are set down in legislation and regulation, that will be costs passed on to households and businesses. Bad news for Australians.

JENNETT: Okay, now, Matt, this one's got your name written all over it. The $5 note we discovered through an FOI process run initially by a group called Right to Know that there was a pretty robust exchange before we learnt that King Charles was being punted from the next $5 note. And as you read through those emails between Philip Lowe and Jim Chalmers, you get the impression that the Albanese Government was calling the shots on this one. Do you put your hand up and own that, Matt?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, the Government was consulted by the Reserve Bank about the decision and that's highly appropriate for the Reserve Bank to do that, to consult as many Australians, including the Government, as widely as possible. I support the decision that was ultimately reached to replace the monarch with something that reflects Australian heritage, history and culture. Greg, the Monarch was put on our notes and coins when we were a truly British nation. We're no longer British. We are Australian. And it is time that we start to look to the future as an independent, mature nation that makes its own decisions. And I think that this is a great decision that is supported by the Australian people that will take us a further step down that path to our maturity and independence.

JENNETT: All right, Jonno, I reckon Matt's telling us there that that's a firm yes, we'll earn this one, which is technically a decision taken by the Independent Reserve Bank, as Jim Chalmers was keen to tell us on the day it was announced. But where do you stand on all of this? Is there anything wrong with the Government giving some direction to the RBA as it goes through its deliberations?

DUNIAM: Well, look, there's nothing wrong with that level of interaction, but I think what does need to happen is there needs to be transparency around it. We hear all the time about the need to make sure people understand the truth of a situation. And if we'd have not seen this FOI, we would have just believed the RBA made this decision and told Government, perhaps after a conversation. But who knows what was said in that conversation? But as we know, and the response from Government to the RBA wasn't, look, we're comfortable with First Nations imagery and cultural representation or The Monarch. It was very specifically about what the RBA have now gone ahead with. So it's not transparent and the Treasurer should have been upfront on that. But, look, it is what it is. I just hope it doesn't interfere with the debate for a Republic when it occurs down the track.

JENNETT: Well, that will be, in large measure, in the hands of Matt Thistlethwaite. So you got the King off the note. Matt, next stop the Republic referendum. Yeah?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Well, Greg, as you know, the Voice is the priority for the Government this year. And hopefully, if that is successful, I think that the next natural progression for Australia if the Voice is successful and we finally recognise First Nations in our constitution, the next natural step for us to take is to begin a discussion with the Australian people about having one of our own as our head of state in the future. And I look forward to that discussion with Australians.

JENNETT: And, Jonno, I think Matt's told us before yeah, that is the order of progression. You got to get through one before you get to the next. You can wait that long.

DUNIAM: I reckon I can. Australians have been very patient, but I know where I stand on the second issue. I'm waiting for the details on the first.

JENNETT: Okay. Which means we got plenty of time to reconvene as a panel or in future engagements with others. Jonno Duniam and Matt Thistlethwiate, great to catch up with both of you from distant locales today. Talk again soon.



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