TONY BURKE, ACTING OPPOSITION LEADER: I want to start by acknowledging the election to the leadership of the New South Wales Labor Party of Luke Foley. Luke and I go back to when we were both teenagers. He will be formidable, absolutely formidable. He is principled, passionate and relentless. He will provide great leadership for the Labor Party in New South Wales. He is passionate about the exact issues that that election will be fought about, in particular the continued cuts to health and education and a similar story to many of the issues that we have been talking about in this building over the last 12 months. Liberal governments do what Liberal governments do in each state and here in Canberra. They never make health and education priorities and Luke Foley will be the perfect person to be able to take New South Wales Labor forward on that.
We have also seen in the papers today the next stage of the Prime Minister flagging where he is heading on tax. I have read two articles today from Liberal Party members, Dan Tehan and Josh Frydenberg. Be in no doubt: this is not Members of Parliament acting alone. The leadership of the Liberal Party would have known exactly that these articles were coming. This is Tony Abbott preparing the way for changes to the GST. 33 times Tony Abbott has said there would not be new or increased taxes, but you look at what is being flagged today and there is no doubt this Government is paving the way for changes to the GST. They aren't ruling out changes to the rate, they aren't ruling out extension into food, they aren't ruling out extension into education. It doesn't matter - and the public know it doesn't matter - that Tony Abbott said there would be no new or increased taxes. He has his people out there at the moment advocating for changes to the GST and we know that they will hit people who can least afford it. Worst of all, they are contemplating applying it to people every time they go and buy food, every time they go to the grocery store, every time they reach out for the fundamentals and essentials of life, that is where this Government is wanting to open the way for new taxes.
Happy to take any questions.
JOURNALIST: Do you think Australia has a defined strategy in Iraq?
BURKE: The strategy which the Opposition has been supporting, we have been consistently briefed on, when we have requested it, by the Government and the work that is happening to defeat and to work against, whether you call it ISIS or Daesh, is important. It is there with bipartisan support.
JOURNALIST: There are reports that the Iraqi PM raised the prospect of a wider military assistance from Australia. Would the Opposition support any extra?
BURKE: I have seen the same reports that you have seen. As you would appreciate, we haven't been briefed by the Government on that and we would withhold any formal view until we have had such briefings.
JOURNALIST: Do you think Australians should be preparing themselves for a larger military engagement in the area?
BURKE: I am not going to be flagging something like that off the back of a report that I haven't seen verified and we haven't been formally briefed on.
JOURNALIST: Tony Abbott is saying we are determined to deepen our cooperation with the Government, he’s talking about doing what Australia reasonably can. There’s a message there straight from the Prime Minister?
BURKE: As I say, detailed briefings, we expect that we will get at some point from the Government and I am not going to, off the back of those sorts of reports or those sorts of generalities, be committing us to a further position.
JOURNALIST: Do you have a problem with an extra $5 million in food aid?
BURKE: We support the additional $5 million in aid. Let's not forget though it’s only seven months ago that the country aid for Iraq had been reduced by this Government to zero. I think this is just symbolic of the chaos in how the Government has dealt with this. Seven months ago they were saying zero was a good enough figure. Now they are boasting they have got it to $22 million with the $5 million included. The truth is, when it comes to aid this Government has a different position depending on the day of the week. Everybody knew seven months ago, after they reduced it to zero in the Budget, that was not appropriate for the gravity of the issues we were dealing with there. We do also hope though they are able to look at some of the other issues in the region that still need support as a result of Iraq, including the extraordinary burden that has been carried by countries such as Lebanon, such as Turkey and Jordan as a result of the conflict in Iraq.
JOURNALIST: There have been questions raised about the fact that he didn't take any Australian media into Baghdad with him, what we have seen is actually shot and released by the PMO. Do you have a problem with that?
BURKE: My view is this Government, from the moment they came in, have adopted a culture of secrecy and I don't think it’s helpful, I don’t think it’s smart and I don't think it’s fair to the Australian people. Whenever there has been issues of this nature, we have maintained a position that a culture of secrecy is not in the national interest.
JOURNALIST: Staying on international affairs. There was a proposal just before we ended up at the UNSC from Jordan suggesting that Israel should withdraw from the occupied territories within two years. We opposed that along with the United States. I am just wondering what the Labor Party's position is on that decision?
BURKE: Terribly disappointing that we have still not been able to get a consensus position on the United Nations Security Council. A consensus position is something that we keep hoping we will get that opportunity, it has fallen over again. Until we can find a consensus position, we’re not going to get to a secure and just two-state outcome for Israel and Palestine, which is what’s required. I think rather than second guessing the individual words of that on behalf of the Labor Party, the most important thing to note is the opportunity that was lost when consensus was not achieved.
JOURNALIST: That signals a change in our policy doesn't it? In this area, the Government flagged it would abstain on this issue and they outright voted against it, surely that is a policy shift?
BURKE: The specifics of that resolution were different to the General Assembly resolution that I think they might have referred to on that, so I’ll just leave it at that. The specifics of this resolution I think when you look at it on the Security Council, the greatest opportunity that was lost was the opportunity for consensus.
JOURNALIST: Just back on Iraq. Given your statement previously on their secrecy, are you concerned that the Government is not outlining to the people of Australia what their plan is in Iraq and how many troops we could see going in?
BURKE: On the specifics of any change in military strategy or anything like that, that is something where we would seek to undertake detailed briefings if the Government was seriously proposing that and at this point we haven't received an indication of that from the Government. On all of this the principle remains completely true that it is in the Government's interests, the national interest and only fair to the Australian people that there not be a culture of secrecy and that the Australian people be given clear outlines and access to information about the Government's intentions.
JOURNALIST: On the GST, would any broadening or increase in the GST be able to be adequately addressed with targeted compensation for low income earners and pensioners? You mentioned the concern for the impact, would there be able to be adequate targeted assistance in that event?
BURKE: In every model that I've seen, you increase the GST, you increase the number of products it applies to, you hit poorer people hardest, you hit middle and lower income families the hardest; that’s what happens every time without exception. Every time we have seen this Government make these sorts of decisions, as we saw in the Budget, that’s who they target, they target lower and middle income families. They have done it every time, they have done it consistently and every time the Prime Minister says he’s going to reboot things, he doesn’t change that fundamental principle that the people he will target will be those who can afford it least. It doesn't surprise me that they are now opening up a full frontal assault on wanting to hurt families with the GST. It doesn't surprise me that they are heading down that path. It is a complete betrayal of what they flagged during the election campaign.
JOURNALIST: Do you see any alternative for substantial budget improvement for the states and territories that are having revenue issues?
BURKE: Well this was the trap that the Abbott Government tried to set in the Budget. The $80 billion cut to schools and hospitals, we flagged at the time they were doing that try and force the states into a position where the states would support increased revenue from the GST. At the time the Government denied it. The Government denied it at the time. Now we’re watching it play out its course. Of course, in this first media conference in January I’m not about to outline our taxation policies or make a whole lot of new election announcements for an election, when we’re still in the first half of the term. You wouldn’t expect that. But be in no doubt, the strategy, the calculated strategy that this Government put down in the Budget is now playing out.
If anyone thought on Budget night that that was the end of the Government hurting lower and middle-income Australians, just look at what they’ve done on the GST today.
JOURNALIST: [inaudible] that only Premiers and the states can have the GST changed?
BURKE: No that’s not true, that's without a legislative change. If a vote goes through both houses of Parliament then it changes. Tony Abbott has been in this Parliament long enough to know that it's capable of changing its laws.
JOURNALIST: Is it reasonable if you are looking at a change or shift in the overall tax mix to keep the GST on the table, isn't it unreasonable to remove that as an option?
BURKE: Our position has for a very long time, probably since we were founded, been that we don't support taxation going down a regressive pathway. That's a regressive pathway.
JOURNALIST: Mr Hockey has asked the Grants Commission to have a look at the GST distribution and the impact of mining royalties, the volatility of mining royalties can have on that. Do you think there is an issue there particularly in light of WA’s concerns?
BURKE: I've never seen a way of varying that that didn't have a very significant impact on States like Tasmania and South Australia, which have been doing it particularly tough under this Government.
JOURNALIST: Can I ask you about disaster relief payments? Do you think successive Governments have ignored funding more mitigation of disaster relief in favour of immediate assistance?
BURKE: When disaster hits there is immediate assistance you have to provide, you simply have to provide. The burden of that has been increasing over time. The question, I think, often isn't so much the balance between the two, but whether you are then, after the immediate crisis, doing enough to mitigate the next occasion. Whether you are rebuilding an identical bridge or building something that will handle the next flood more effectively, those sorts of issues. So the fact that it's being reviewed at the moment, we will see what comes out of it. When I was Agriculture Minister, for example, we made some shifts in drought policies, you were dealing with preparation not only with the immediate crisis. It's complex to do and you can't forsake the victims in the immediate crisis in doing so.
JOURNALIST: Only three per cent of funding goes towards mitigation, surely there is scope for that to improve?
BURKE: I think the way to look at it isn't in the percentage terms because you can fix the percentages by reducing the immediate help and I don't think anyone is suggesting that should occur. I don’t think the percentage is the argument. The question is are we doing enough for mitigation?
Thanks for your time.