TONY BURKE, ACTING LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: Thanks for coming out again today. I just want to begin by acknowledging the extraordinary hardship that people are going through in South Australia at the moment. Fires blazing, extraordinary heat, and extraordinary bravery as well from those who have become directly involved in fighting those fires. As Bill Shorten has already announced, I've signed a letter on Bill's behalf to the Prime Minister offering the Opposition's support for any additional measures that may be made available to help people at this time.
It's an issue which no one wants to end up being weighed down in politics. I certainly hope the Government, when they receive that letter later today, receive it with the goodwill in which it's intended, which is a clear offer from the Opposition of bipartisan support for any appropriate additional assistance that the Government is able to provide. I've put a call in to Jay Weatherill as well today and, understandably, Jay is flat out at the moment but also just offering the Premier any support that we can offer as an Opposition, to do that as well.
Today in day three of what is becoming GST week, it has been clear that we are dealing with an orchestrated campaign from the Liberal National Government here in Canberra. There is no doubt whatsoever, when you get the third person coming out flying a kite about changes for the GST, that this is not a few rogue members of Parliament acting alone. This is an orchestrated campaign that the Prime Minister and the Cabinet would be fully aware of. There's no doubt about that at all. Don't forget who joined that campaign today, it was Dean Smith in an op ed. A year ago in an op ed, it was Dean Smith who said we should have a GP tax and Tony Abbott a few weeks later said in response ‘it wasn’t being considered, it wasn’t under consideration, it wasn't something the Government was planning to do.’
You go three months after that in the Budget there is a GP tax. What we are seeing today is the same Dean Smith being sent out on behalf of the same Liberal National Government to fly the new broken promise, to fly another kite. And just as the “no cuts to health” promise was broken thoroughly when they introduced the GP tax, in the same way, in the exact same way, the “no changes to GST” promise from Tony Abbott is on the firing line right now. No one should believe for a minute when the Prime Minister says, "We are not planning to change anything" that his word means anything more than it did a year ago or the night before the election campaign. We are seeing an orchestrated campaign from the Liberal National Government about changing the GST and in almost every breath, those changes include extending the Goods and Services Tax to food, introducing a tax on fresh food, introducing a tax which turns every butcher, every fruit and veggie shop into a tax collector for Tony Abbott. That is what is happening now in an orchestrated campaign. Be in no doubt, this is not backbenchers acting alone. We have had three people come out with three different changes to the GST, all in the same week and we are only up to day three of this week.
JOURNALIST: Mr Burke, Senator Smith, his main argument essentially is, before there is reform to the base level rate, there should be distribution reform. A couple of Labor WA Parliamentarians have also said that the amount of GST that WA gets back is very poor. Are you suggesting that there should be no change to the distribution of the GST, that that's also something that you won't consider?
BURKE: Two things on that. First of all Dean Smith's article goes to two issues. The first half of the article is on the issue you just raised. The second half of the article is on changing the base, and that goes directly to including food. But Tony Abbott's promise the night before the election covered the lot. It was just “no changes to the GST”. That's the guarantee Tony Abbott gave. Up until this week, from Tony Abbott's election promise the night before the election, the GST bit was the only bit left standing. No cuts to health, no cuts to education, no changes to pensions, no cuts to the ABC and SBS, they have all been broken. No changes to the GST was the only set of words that were possibly still true and there is no doubt that this Government is contemplating changes to the GST, they are contemplating breaking the final part of that notorious election eve promise.
JOURNALIST: Ian McDonald's also called for the changes to fresh food. He's never done the Prime Minister any favours. Why would they call for him to go out there and campaign?
BURKE: This is why I referred to the other three as part of the orchestrated campaign because of the issue that you’ve raised just there. The argument Senator McDonald raised was that they have a mandate because of an election in 1998. There will be people voting at the next election when 1998 was the year of their birth. If the Liberal Party is going to be so arrogant as to think they can claim election mandates for people before they started school, and that every previous mandate somehow still lives because they are the Liberal National Party, that's a level of arrogance that is both breath-taking and unsurprising.
JOURNALIST: Mr Bourke, the Australian Human Rights Commission has made some controversial rulings when it comes to what constitutes arbitrary detention including while you were Immigration Minister. Do you have faith in Professor Triggs and do you accept you were involved in arbitrary detention as a Minister?
BURKE: In every decision, every interaction that I've had with Professor Triggs, I saw someone act with complete probity who was principled and fearless. I think that was the appropriate way for her to be in that role. The specifics of what you raise, including my time as Minister for immigration, I have been very confident and was very careful the whole way through of making sure that I was acting according to law, I’m confident that I did. As you'd be aware, I did have significant concerns about the detention environment while I was there, and while it wasn't publicised until after I'd stopped being Minister, there was lot of work in particular on unaccompanied minors and getting them out of detention into safe places in the community that formed a very large part of my time as Immigration Minister, which lasted for roughly, I think, about three months.
JOURNALIST: Australians should have confidence in it?
BURKE: From everything that I've seen. From everything that I've seen. I don't in any way criticise Professor Trigs.
JOURNALIST: Does Labor support in any way a class of short-term mobility visa to address skills shortages?
BURKE: I think there's still some questions the Government needs to answer on the new visa classes. Can I say what an extraordinary response to rising unemployment. We've got a Queensland Premier who's boasting they're the lead State, he says economically; well they're the lead State on unemployment, they're nearly at seven per cent. The response from the Federal Government to rising unemployment is to not have to check, potentially, whether or not Australians can do a job before you bring in people from oversees. Labour market testing has been absolutely critical to Labor's perspective on this and the Government does need to make clear if they're proposing to abolish labour market testing. To get beyond the jargon of labour market testing, it's simply to check whether there are Australians available to do the job first, at a time of rising unemployment, I just find it astonishing if that's being abandoned.
JOURNALIST: How much more money should the Government be giving to bushfire-affected victims in South Australia?
BURKE: We're happy for the principles of this to be worked through Government to Government. We've simply offered full bipartisan support on the principle of additional assistance being provided. Exactly what's needed will change as the problems in South Australia develop and I think at any single point in time you've got to be careful of saying, ‘this will be the entire package of what's required.’ The nature of what's been happening in South Australia is such that Government to Government conversations and continuing in that way, I really do think, is both the most sensible way forward but also the most decent way forward.
JOURNALIST: Are you encouraged by the Canadian Foreign Minister's comments about their national and possibly getting a deal to have him deported to Canada? Does that bode well for Peter Greste?
BURKE: I'm not familiar with the Canadian situation so I won't respond specifically on that. Simply to say that Peter Greste has been in prison for doing his job and everything that can be done at the Australian end to help get him back to Australia and have him released and have a situation where he can do his job again is a good thing for the Australian Government to be doing.
JOURNALIST: Mr Burke, I just wanted to clarify your party's position on the issue of the $1,000 online overseas GST exemption which is different, obviously, to the other GST-related issues. Do you think it is a good idea to try and reduce that threshold or do you think it should stay where it is?
BURKE: When we were in Government, as you'd be aware, there was a Productivity Commission review that went into this, and the reasons we didn't go down that path at the time were retained in the report of the Productivity Commission. I have referred to them in previous media conferences. The issue now is Tony Abbott made a commitment – “no changes to the GST” - and we're watching whether or not that will be the only phrase from his election eve commitment that survives or whether we end up finding that every single word he gave the night before the election is a lie.
JOURNALIST: Is that the kind of change that Labor would change back if Labor won Government?
BURKE: I don't have anything to add to what I’ve just said.
JOURNALIST: Bruce Billson says he's concerned about the country motorists maybe not getting the benefit of the falling oil price. Is that a concern you share, that maybe rural people are getting a dud deal at the bowser?
BURKE: It's a frequent cause for complaint and I remember in my time as Agriculture Minister, I spent lot more time out there than I did here. Petrol prices in the bush have for a long time been a real grievance and a real concern, but the specifics of what Bruce Billson's referring to I'm not in a position to add to today.
JOURNALIST: Mr Burke, doctors say they'll campaign for parliamentarians to overturn the changes to Medicare rebates. Is that something the Opposition will contemplate supporting?
BURKE: The position's been previously articulated by both Bill Shorten and Catherine King. We haven't departed from that. We will defend Medicare and the pathway that the Government's going down is a pathway designed to wreck Medicare, just as they are wanting to shift to a US-style education system, to shift to a US-style health system. I had to go to the doctor when I was in America last year. In the waiting room there was an ATM. An ATM there in the waiting room. We do not want Australia to go down the path where you decide whether or not you can go to the doctor based on your credit card not on your Medicare card. That's a path that the Government wants to go down and it’s what we oppose. I don't have anything to add to the specifics of what Bill and Catherine have said previously. Thank you.