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Politics with Michelle Grattan: Albanese flags new progress in China relationship ‘in coming weeks’

Politics with Michelle Grattan: Albanese flags new progress in China relationship ‘in coming weeks’

In this, our last podcast for 2022, we talk with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Opposition Leader Peter Dutton. We spoke to each of them on the day the parliament was back to pass the energy package.

Albanese, who met Chinese President Xi Jinping during the recent summit season, reveals he anticipates a further positive development in China’s relationship with Australia within weeks.

Asked whether he expects some relaxation of China’s trade restrictions on Australia any time soon, he says: “I’m hopeful that any of the barriers to normal economic activity are removed and that we have stronger economic relations.

"China is our major economic partner and I think in coming weeks you will see further measures and activities which indicate a much-improved relationship, which is in the interests of both of our countries, but importantly as well is in the interests of peace and security in the region.”

Pressed on whether he’s indicating a likely loosening of restrictions on our exports, Albanese says: “I’m hoping that there’ll be further indications of an improvement in the relationship […] and we’ll see how that plays out over the next coming weeks.”

On the 2023 referendum for the Voice to Parliament, Albanese is “absolutely confident” its passage would make Closing the Gap more attainable.

“That is the objective. […] We know that where Indigenous Australians feel a sense of ownership over decisions, where they’re consulted about programs that have a direct impact on them, then you get better outcomes. And we see that in practical ways through the rangers’ program, through justice reinvestment programs.

"We have tried doing things from Canberra or from state capitals, seeking to make decisions on behalf of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The successful programs have been ones that have directly consulted them and had their input.”

Carrying the referendum would also improve “the way that Australia is perceived internationally”.

In the Albanese interview we also canvass:

  • Julian Assange
  • energy policy
  • COVID changes
  • the 2023 budget
  • Labor’s challenge in “heartland” seats.

Peter Dutton: Coalition won’t be ‘small target’ at next election

Dutton’s main task since the election has been holding together an opposition demoralised by defeat. But as he oversees policy development for the 2025 election will be adopt a “small target” strategy, as Albanese did?

“At the next election we will have a very significant offering of policy, which will distinguish us quite markedly from the Labor Party,” Dutton says.

“I’ve been in the parliament for 21 years. I have a good sense of balance and proportion, and there does need to be a balance of risk-taking. There needs to be an element of the government getting it wrong. There needs to be an opportunity for us to get the policies right.

"And I want to bring that experience to bear in the next election campaign. And I believe that, as a result of that, we won’t be small target, but we’re not going to be silly about policies. I mean, you went from one extreme under Bill Shorten in 2019 to the other under Anthony Albanese in 2022. So we have a balance to strike and I’ll be making those judgment calls as we get closer to the next election.”

The Liberals are always saying they need more women candidates but what are they actually going to do about getting them?

Dutton says (in an unspoken comparison with his predecessor): “I don’t have a problem with women and I’m not perceived to. I have a very significant track record and I’m happy to be compared against the prime minister or anybody else.”

Pushed on quotas, he says: “The Liberal Party doesn’t have a culture of imposing quotas. I want to see more women. I’ve made that very clear to the state presidents, I have made it very clear to preselection bodies. But in the Liberal Party our branch members have the say as to who they want as their local candidate. And generally that is somebody who has worked very hard on campaigns in the local electorate over a long period of time.”

In the Dutton interview we also canvass:

  • cost of living
  • the Liberal Party’s stance on the Voice
  • Josh Frydenberg’s future
  • Scott Morrison
  • participation in the NSW state election.

PM Official transcript:


SUBJECTS: Priorities and plan for 2023; Energy Price Relief plan; relationship with business; Australia’s relationship with China; trade; Julian Assange; Voice to Parliament; 2023 Budget; Brittany Higgins; 2022 Federal election.

MICHELLE GRATTAN, HOST: Anthony Albanese, thanks for being with us today. Could we start with your priorities for 2023, just the main three or four priorities?

ANTHONY ALBANESE, PRIME MINISTER: A big priority will be implementing the reforms that were put in place. So, Cheaper Child Care comes in on July 1, the National Reconstruction Fund will be established, creating Jobs and Skills Australia, the legislation has been passed for Cheaper Medicines. So, all of those measures, getting the implementation part of that right. But secondly, in the second half of the year, of course, we’ll have the referendum on constitutional change to recognise a Voice to our National Parliament for Indigenous people.

GRATTAN: Now, the energy legislation is passing Parliament today. But wouldn’t it have been simpler, less complicated, to just have imposed a super profits tax? Yes, that would have involved a broken promise, but people would have probably accepted that in the extraordinary circumstances we’re in?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, it would have been simpler. And certainly, all matters were considered. But we think we’ve got the balance right here. A temporary price cap of $12 for gas and $125 for coal will ensure that the worst impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and these global price spikes that we’re seeing impacting households and businesses can be alleviated. And that combined with support for households who are most in need, I think, presents a package that received the support of state and territory governments and will receive the support of the Parliament today.

GRATTAN: Now, the energy policy and your changes to industrial relations have strained the relationship with business in these early days of the Government. Are you concerned about that?

PRIME MINISTER: We have good relations with the business community. And I note that while the industrial relations changes were being debated in the Parliament, I attended the Australian Industry Group, I had an hour of questions after I addressed their dinner function at their national conference. And I received one question about the industrial relations legislation and eight questions about other matters. I also addressed the Australian Chamber of Commerce, in the Great Hall here in Parliament House, literally the night before the industrial relations changes, were going through the Parliament. So, I’m very confident that we’ll continue to have a constructive relationship. I met with APPEA yesterday, the major energy companies, we had constructive dialogue. Constructive dialogue doesn’t mean you always agree. It does mean, though, that the door is always open and you’re prepared to listen and prepared to act where you can reach agreement. And that is what my Government will be characterised by going forward.

GRATTAN: Now, you’ve obviously had a successful debut as Prime Minister on the international stage. Notably, this time has seen a thaw in the relationship with China, which is also part of China’s wider international policy as well. Do you expect that we will see some relaxation of China’s trade restrictions on Australia anytime soon?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I’m hopeful that any of the barriers to normal economic activity are removed and that we have stronger economic relations. China’s our major economic partner. And I think in coming weeks, you will see further measures and activities which indicate a much improved relationship, which is in the interests of both of our countries, but importantly as well, is in the interests of peace and security in the region.

GRATTAN: So, are you indicating there you think something might happen on trade in the next few weeks?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I’m hoping that there’ll be further indications of an improvement in the relationship.

GRATTAN: On the trade field?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we’ll see how that plays out over the next coming weeks.

GRATTAN: You made some strong comments recently on the question of Julian Assange saying it was really time to draw a line under this. Are there any signs of progress? Or were you just stating a position of principle?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I have raised the issue with the US Administration and raised the issue on behalf of Australia. They are consistent, my comments that I made as Prime Minister in the Parliament, are consistent with the comments I made as the Leader of the Labor Party from Opposition. I do not see what constructive purpose is served from the ongoing incarceration of Julian Assange. I do believe that enough is enough and that this issue should be brought to a close. And I’ll continue to argue constructively through diplomatic means to achieve that objective.

GRATTAN: But are you hopeful?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I am certainly cognisant of how complex and difficult these issues are. So, I don’t want to do anything other than continue to act diplomatically, to put the view on behalf of Australia to our friends in the United States, that many Australians care about this issue. And certainly, my argument is, it is difficult to see, no matter what views people have about Julian Assange, and I certainly am not arguing the merits of his activity. What I say, though, is that at a time when Chelsea Manning, of course, is able to participate freely in US society. Now, the Assange saga has gone on for a long period of time. And it is time it be brought to a close.

GRATTAN: Now, you mentioned the Voice referendum, of course, as one of the big things for next year. Are you confident that if the Voice is passed, it will in fact make closing the gap more attainable? And in what way do you think it will do that?

PRIME MINISTER: I am absolutely confident that is the objective. The Voice is about recognising if we’re going to make a practical difference going forward, we know that where Indigenous Australians feel a sense of ownership over decisions, where they’re consulted about programs that have a direct impact on them, then you get better outcomes. And we see that in practical ways, through the rangers program, through justice reinvestment programs, through wherever Indigenous people are actually involved in the decision making you get better practical outcomes. We are now 122 years old as a Federation. We have tried doing things from Canberra or from state capitals, seeking to make decisions on behalf of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The successful programs have been ones that have directly consulted them and had their input. And that is what the objective is here is to make a difference, as well as, of course, to make a difference for all Australians, to be able to be proud of the fact that we share this continent with the oldest continuous culture on earth. And the third improvement will, of course, be the way that Australia is perceived internationally will be much more positive if this referendum is successful as just a step on the path to reconciliation.

GRATTAN: We have, of course, had elected bodies before going right back to Gough Whitlam’s time. How will this one be different in its effectiveness?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, this body will encourage that direct consultation where matters affect Indigenous people, be it their education, health, housing, incarceration rates and justice issues. All of these issues are ones that we need to make progress on. And I’m very confident, as well, that the right recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in our national birth certificate, our Constitution, will be an important step in showing respect for First Nations people, but also in lifting up the whole nation. I think it is an opportunity for a moment of national unity which we should seize. The Indigenous people have made a very gracious offer, really. This is not a big ask. This is a gracious offer of a hand outstretched which should be met by non-Indigenous Australians. And we should walk forward together in the journey of Reconciliation. That’s what’s on the table. That’s what can be seized with a referendum being successful in the second half of next year.

GRATTAN: When will you announce the precise date? Or don’t you know that yet?

PRIME MINISTER: We’ll continue to consult on those issues. I also want to see as broad as possible support. I want to see that broad support politically. We already have support from the major business organisations, from the trade union movement, from organisations, be they the National Basketball Association, the Australian Football League, NRL, Cricket Australia, major sporting organisations. We have support from major cultural organisations as well. And I want to see as broad possible support. I deliberately am being inclusive. I’m not trying to be prescriptive for those who say, ‘We want every bit of detail’. It’s not my proposal. It’s not the Government’s proposal. It needs to be the Australian people’s proposal which is then adopted, which is why we are prepared to consult continually, even with those who say that they’ve made a decision, like the National Party. My door is open for consultation and for trying to get as broad support as possible.

GRATTAN: Now, the Government won’t be funding the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigns. But will you be travelling the country campaign-style to sell the ‘yes’ case in the weeks immediately before the vote?

PRIME MINISTER: I certainly will be campaigning very strongly for a ‘yes’ vote. I think it is important at the moment for Australia. And I already, of course, recommit in speeches that I give at the beginning when I do the Acknowledgement of Country. I consistently will reaffirm the view of the importance of recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in our Constitution with a Voice to Parliament.

GRATTAN: Now, before we get to the Voice vote, of course, we come to the Budget. And Budget preparation has already begun with the Expenditure Review Committee meeting. What are your early priorities for this Budget? Will it be addressing cost of living pressures? And how much will inflation fighting be at the centre of this Budget?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we need to do both. We need to look at the macroeconomic measures, including the inflationary pressure that has arisen out of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This is a global phenomenon that we’re dealing with. The higher energy prices leading to higher inflation rates. Inflation can be seen as a tax on the poor. It impacts those people who can least afford to pay higher prices. And that is why it’s an equity issue as well. So, the issues are linked. So, we have been very careful, for example, in how we have framed the Energy Price Relief, to do it in a way which is providing that cost of living benefit for people and at the same time doing it in a way which is non-inflationary. So, we could have gone down the road of cash payments. That’s something that former Government undoubtedly would have done. But we chose not to do that. Because by reducing people’s power bills, rather than paying cash and the bills staying the same, you have a deflationary impact compared with the other option.

GRATTAN: Do you think we could see this Budget in balance or nearly in balance?

PRIME MINISTER: I think that wasn’t the indication at the time that we brought down the Budget in October.

GRATTAN: But there is a lot of talk about it since.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we inherited a trillion dollars of debt. We inherited a Budget with red ink as far as the eye could see. And we did that in a context of a Government that we replaced, that didn’t have a plan for fiscal policy. We know that the Budget that was introduced earlier this year in March had a whole lot of payments which assisted to add to inflationary pressures. That all ran out, of course, as soon as people had voted after the election. So, we will have a responsible Budget that will be framed to put that downward pressure on inflation. But we have inherited structural problems with the Budget. There’s no question about that. And that is something which, over a period of time, we need to be mindful of as we frame not just this Budget, but the ones beyond.

GRATTAN: So, in that context, do you agree that at some point, this term or next term, there will have to be tax reform?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we are examining the Budget in a careful way. There are, of course, some tax changes envisaged for the Budget that come in 2024. They kick in at a modest amount, contrary to some of the commentary of $45,000. But, of course, we haven’t changed our position on those measures.

GRATTAN: But you might?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we haven’t changed our position on those matters. What we have set about doing is making sure that we’ve restrained Budget spending. We got rid of some of the waste and rorts that were in the Budget. We’ll continue to search for savings. But we’ll also be responsible. I think one of the best things that we did in the Budget in October for the economy, certainly not necessarily for politics, but for the economy, was to put back 99 per cent of the revenue gains over the two years went to the Budget bottom line. That compares with what occurred under the former Government, where they spent a large portion of any revenue gains that were coming in. We will frame the Budget. There’s a considerable time to do it. We’ve been prioritising, of course, the immediate energy crisis resulting from the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

GRATTAN: Now, a year ago, of course, we had another wave of COVID. This Christmas, COVID is still killing quite a lot of people each week. Yet, under changes the Government has just announced, people will need a doctor’s referral for a PCR test. What do you say to critics who believe that we’re treating COVID too casually these days?

PRIME MINISTER: If you look at the measures that were actually put in place by the Government, they are about targeting support for the most vulnerable in the community, additional support for PPL, additional support for those in aged care, targeting that support on the basis of health advice. And what we are moving towards, as well as making sure that those people who do need assistance, we agreed just last week to extend, for example, the support for people working in areas like disability care and aged care to continue to provide that additional support for them should they contract COVID. We know that COVID remains very much a real issue. And I was reminded of that, obviously, last week, when I contracted COVID for the second time. We will continue to act on the basis of best advice. But we couldn’t continue to have, forever, a situation where people shut down our economic activities. That was occurring. People do want to go and participate in work, but also participate in activities, like going to the football and going to concerts. And people are engaging. People do need to take advice, of course, and they should do so.

GRATTAN: On another related but different front, the Government’s also under criticism for cutting back the number of psychology consultations under Medicare. What’s your response to that?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we’re making sure that people who need this support can get it. And we’re continuing to do that. We want to make sure that those who most need support, because there was evidence there as well that what was happening is that some people were getting additional consultations while others couldn’t get access to any at all. We need to deal with these issues in a way that ensures that those people who most need support, I realise that this is a difficult issue. All of these issues are difficult. But we continue to take advice. And we continue to make sure that support is available. We, in recent times, have extended considerable additional support, running into the billions of dollars, to deal with these ongoing issues.

GRATTAN: Now, I know that you’ve declined to comment on various recent developments in relation to Brittany Higgins. But is it not a legitimate question for taxpayers to want to know how much of their money has been agreed to be given to Ms Higgins in a settlement this week?

PRIME MINISTER: I have no intention of commenting on those matters. I was not involved in any of those deliberations. They were legal matters dealt with appropriately under the law. And the issue was settled. But I wasn’t a party to any of those decisions.

GRATTAN: Recently the post-mortem on Labor’s election performance was released. And while, of course, that performance was very positive in its outcome, and indeed its conduct, there were some red flags raised. And one of those was that the Labor vote in heartland seats, especially in Melbourne, but also to some extent in Sydney, was in danger of eroding. Are you concerned about that? And what’s your strategy for dealing with it?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we want to get more votes across the board. That is our intention, whether they be in seats that historically have been held by the Labor Party, or whether it be in the changed political environment where we’ve seen us hold a seat like Higgins that we have never held that area since Federation. So, we achieved our objective, which was to have a majority Labor Government. I’ll be working each and every day in the lead-up to the 2025 election to make sure that we secure a majority going forward.

GRATTAN: The bells are ringing, so can I just ask you, in one line, what are you doing for Christmas?

PRIME MINISTER: I will be at Bill Crews’ Exodus Foundation at Ashfield. I go every year to help. It’s a wonderful day. Helping to feed literally a couple of thousand people who are homeless, some of whom might just have nowhere to go in terms of family. And I find it incredibly rewarding. And I think Bill Crews does a wonderful job. And I’m very much looking forward to that.

GRATTAN: All the best to you, and not forgetting Toto.

PRIME MINISTER: Thank you very much, Michelle. Toto will, for sure, get a very nice present. But I think Toto is a bit spoiled every day.

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