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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15 May 2023

SUBJECTS: PFAS contamination; PFAS class action; Cost of living; Federal Budget; Polls; Migration; Infrastructure investment.

GREG JENNETT, HOST: Let's bring in our political panel today, both coming from their respective home cities. From Sydney, Assistant Defence Minister Matt Thistlethwaite and from Adelaide, the Member for Sturt, James Stevens. In fact, I think you may be in Melbourne, Matt. I have mislocated you! We will get to Budget matters in a minute, having been remiss of me to clear up where you are something I think you've been closely associated with, this PFAS firefighting foam, with a settlement of a class action, 130-odd million dollars. Are we nearing the end of the road on these settlements? This is not the first?

MATT THISTLETHWAITE, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: It's not the first. This action involves seven bases throughout the country. Residents, about 6000 residents, who live around those bases, and they've been involved in a class action against the Commonwealth but specifically the Department of Defence. A settlement has not yet been reached, it's an in principle agreement and I need to clarify that. It will need to go back to the litigants to get their approval and importantly the court will have to approve it as well, but it represents the Defence department and the government taking action to try and support communities that are affected by PFAS contamination and so far, about $375 million has been spent across the country in remediating land and cleaning up waterways contaminated by PFAS.

JENNETT: Does it represent the sum, I know it is the sum total to now, but I guess you'd keep some of your powder dry on these things. But are there unfinished pieces of work that have not even been quantified yet?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: There's 28 bases that are subject to PFAS contamination throughout the country. Defence continues to take a proactive approach and try to work with those communities. So, there will be more work to do. The government before the last election announced a review of land zoning, land use around defence sites. That's something we're looking to do in the coming months. So, there is more work to do, and there will be more work around those defence bases, working with communities.

JENNETT: Let's bring James in. You've got at least one affected community caught up in today's action, let alone the other work that Matt is foreshadowing. This is the Edinburgh air base and surrounding areas, so is it clear to you what today's decision means for that community?

JAMES STEVENS, MEMBER FOR STURT: I think the Commonwealth should be a model litigant and no doubt they’re acting on advice that this is a fair and just offer being put forward, so I certainly welcome it. Clearly, people who have been affected from PFAS in the past and into the future needs support of those responsible and where the Commonwealth has been involved in this, we should be doing the right thing, so I certainly join with Matt in welcoming the decision and I hope it is the right and just amount of compensation to help people who have been affected to get on with their lives.

JENNETT: The last one on this, Matt, this particular matter, you've talked about changes to land use in some of these areas. Is it likely to equate to residential buildings, for instance? They would no longer be able to go ahead? Or are we talking more about aviation purposes?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: We know that residents that live around affected bases have, in some cases, had a diminution in the valuation of the property and this is what this class action was mainly about. But it looks to things such as perhaps you can rezone land around bases to create, for instance, around a RAAF base a centre of excellence where industry can come in so if you can rezone the land you get the land owners an uplift in their value and they can sell into the market. So, they’re all the things I think we should be exploring to try and get not only a benefit to the Department of Defence but also for landowners as well.

JENNETT: Why don't we move onto the budget, and we will let you kick off on this one, James, the working poor. Define exactly who they are, since they feature so prominently in the Coalition's rejection or rebuttal may be a better word, of last week's budget?

STEVENS: The people who are working hard and going backwards because their mortgage repayments are going up, their power bills are going up, their real wages are going down, they are finding it more difficult to make the family budget, the household budget, make ends meet and they are making very difficult decisions and sacrifices because the government are not focused on the challenges that they are facing.

JENNETT: It could be almost everyone, though, couldn't it, James?

STEVENS: There's a particular category of people, and they will be watching this program and self-identifying, Greg by saying that's us, we are finding it difficult. Dual income families, working hard, nothing has changed as to what they are doing in their life except all of their costs are going up. Their incomes are not rising to meet the pressure and it means their standard of living is going backward and these other people ignored in last week's budget.

JENNETT: I wonder if the polls, Matt, don't have a lot of them yet but we have a Newspoll on the deck today, whether it suggests that perhaps the budget arguably was to be targeted - that is, to James's point, a lot of people in the lower to middle and, rightly or wrongly, who don't feel there was much in it for them. We are talking especially about families with jobs, maybe two jobs in the household. Have they been missed somewhat in the budget?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: I don't think so. I reject the notion that there's not much in this budget for working families. I think there is quite a bit. The first and most important thing is to get wages moving again. That's how you ensure that people can keep pace with cost of living pressures and under this government, you've seen a 5.1% increase in the minimum wage that was supported by the government, as in contrast to previous governments who have opposed minimum wage increases, the Liberal-National Party is. And were starting to see projections in the government budget about real wages growing which is important and you couple the support that the government has provided in the budget so caps on electricity prices. If you are a renter, an increase in rental allowance. A single parent, increasing the single-parent payment. Cheaper medicines, cheaper childcare begins on the 1 July. All of these policies are aimed at supporting middle to low income families and workers and pensioners in Australia to get them through this difficult period and hopefully, if the predictions are right, the economy starts growing again towards next year and we started to come out of this cost of living impasse.

JENNETT: James, do you have a complaint that some of the targeting, especially around confession cardholders -- concession cardholders which would apply to Medicare bulk billing providers, JobSeeker speaks for itself as to other support payments, you say they were too targeted?

STEVENS: Not necessarily, I think that the general challenge is that inflation is running rampant -- were too targeted. The concept that real wages will grow again relies on wage increases ballooning, which will feed inflation, so we're not seeing any evidence of that and across the key elements the household budget, the Commonwealth budget does nothing to provide people with assistance around extreme inflation in groceries and the like because...

JENNETT: It would have exacerbated the problem if they had?

STEVENS: The government are now bragging about, and Matt has indicated that they have these dramatic wage increases they are arguing for instead of increasing wages to catch up to inflation we want to see inflation reducing so that we can have productivity based wage growth. This we want to return to from the past and that's not the plan that has been outlined in the budget whatsoever.

JENNETT: Are you surprised, Matt, by an apparent ambivalence, not that we want to place too much faith in the results of one poll, but people seem sort of lukewarm, I suppose, about what they think it would do either for them or more broadly about inflation. It's a little wishy-washy in its reception. Did that surprise you?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: I'm not too worried about what is in polls, what I take a lot of stock in is the feedback I get in my community, and I was out and about on Friday again in Kingsford Smith and over the weekend and the feedback I was getting from people was that the budget was a good one, it was well targeted and provided support for Australians that needed it most. I think the general view is it won't be inflationary and certainly, the predictions from the RBA and from treasury are that it won't be. And that inflation has peaked, hopefully. And you're going to see wages increase again in the support for people who need it most and that's the important thing about the budget, it's targeted, it should not be inflationary, and it will support people through this difficult period.

JENNETT: And if those inflation forecasts are realised it would suggest, James, a lot of the pressure will dissipate over the course of the next 18 months or so. Can I ask you, then, about immigration James? Are you entirely comfortable with the tone, not necessarily the factual basis, around the numbers? We can argue about net overseas migration if we want. But the of the debate that surrounds current levels of aggression, is it potentially socially disruptive, if not explosive, but the tone?

STEVENS: I don't think so. I think we support sustainable migration and if the migration numbers are going to be as they are projected, where is the commencement investment in the sort of infrastructure that is required to make sure that those doesn't he pressure on the challenges we are already facing, particularly in the housing sector. The government booked a huge change, it tended to predictions around revenue. The government has not spent the revenue on providing the services and support that mean that all of the problems particularly in housing are going to only be exacerbated with those numbers and I don't think there's anything wrong with that tone. I think most Australians are very open and engaging and welcoming of a good, strong migration program, as long as it is matched by the kind of investment that ensures that it doesn't put an enormous burden on cost of living pressures for existing Australians.

JENNETT: Let's not have a full-blown discussion around housing. The Housing Australia Future Fund and the like. At least on I suppose the political tone that is being sent through this debate, it has not always ended well in the past for this country, in the recent past?

ASSISTANT MINISTER: We don't want to be pitting one Australian against another. We had a couple of years where there was no migration into Australia. It came on the back of a government that did not really invest in vocational training, so we developed massive skills shortages in our economy. And employers were not able to get skilled labour. It's been pushing up the price of workers and has involved constraints, so migration has started again, and we believe what is projected in the budget is sustainable and I reject the notion that we are not investing in infrastructure. High-speed rail is something that has been a passion of the Prime Minister for many years, and we are getting are going once again.

JENNETT: Getting the planning for it going, anyway.

ASSISTANT MINISTER: Getting the planning going but it's important, probably the most important thing, preserving the corridor is one of the most important things for a project like that. In my city, we are building a second airport and credit to the previous government for that investment that was supported by Labor in opposition, and it will be delivered in 2026. New rail lines, new metro lines being built in Sydney, and in Melbourne there is new rail projects planned. I reject the notion we're not investing in infrastructure. It's important we partner the states. We will get it right with the infrastructure growth.

JENNETT: We will wrap it up there, James. I saw you chortling about high-speed rail but save that for next time…

STEVENS: I shall.

JENNETT: Next time we bring you both together. James Stevens, thank you for joining us, and Matt Thistlethwaite, sorry for your incorrect location, you are actually part of the post budget road trip. Thank you so much.


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