06 March 2023

Monte Irvine, Host: I've been joined on the phone now by New South Wales Labor Senator Tim Ayres. Senator, good morning.

Tim Ayres, Assistant Minister for Trade and Assistant Minister for Manufacturing: Good day, Monte. Good morning to your listeners.

Irvine: You're down in Canberra. It's back to sitting again, is it, this week?

Ayres: We are back to it this week. It's going to be a big week of sitting. First piece of legislation up this week is the Paid Parental Leave legislation for improvements to parental leave to support more mums and dads, you know, being able to stay in work while looking after little ones. It's an important piece of legislation. It's going to make a big difference. Like a lot of these things, it'll make a big difference in family’s lives, but it's an important productivity measure too, to keep people connected with work and, in particular, to support women in their careers. It's a very significant event and I'm delighted to be part of making sure that proceeds on its way through the Senate.

Irvine: Good timing with that, it's New South Wales Women's Week this week.

Ayres: It's International Women's Day on Wednesday, I think. And it is important to celebrate International Women's Day to consider that we've made a lot of progress as a country, but there is still a long way to go. There's still a persistent, very significant gender wages gap, still a significant gap in women's retirement earnings. And, of course, there is still a terrible toll in our community of violence against women and children. And it is very important that we're reminded of this. And, of course, around the world there are still enormous inequities. So, at a domestic level and an international level, International Women’s Day is very important.

Irvine: Something that is putting pressure, of course, on all families and most likely most mothers and wives out there, they're the ones who do the family budget, is the cost of living. Bit of a concern tomorrow at the RBA meeting again, possibility of a 10th interest rate hike. Has the government been in contact with the RBA and said, look, maybe it's time to look at something different?

Ayres: Well, the Reserve Bank, of course, is independent of government and so you'll notice that the Treasurer and other ministers haven't been picking up the phone to the Reserve Bank and diminishing that independence. But I make two observations. One is, it is vitally important that we deal with inflation. Mortgage interest rates are a very significant cost on families. Inflation is a very significant cost on family as well. It's very important that this be tackled effectively. Runaway inflation is a very, very bad development indeed and we need to make sure that we don't get into that position.

Now, there is, I think, some evidence to say that inflation has not continued to rise. Inflation is still high, but there has been a comprehensive effort to deal with it. It is mostly the result of two things. One is Russia's illegal invasion of Ukraine and the impact that’s had on global energy prices, but also a failure to deal with some of the productivity measures and productivity reforms over the course of the last decade. Our capacity to absorb these shocks is more limited. So that's the first point.

Second point is the government has been very focused on making sure that we are pulling our weight, putting downward pressure on inflation. That's why the budget in last October had the shape that it had: no excessive spending, not putting any additional upward pressure on inflation. So that that causes more pressure on the Reserve Bank to put interest rates up even further. So, we see our job as a government as playing our role in terms of fiscal policy, to ensure that we are putting downward pressure on inflation and at the same time supporting families dealing with the cost of living.

Irvine: Just moving on to something else that's really been in the news lately is the superannuation and the tax on, you know, superannuations. People are putting huge amounts of money in their superannuation, over $3 million in some cases. Having a look in the NewsPoll, generally speaking, most Australians are supportive of it.

Ayres: Well, I think most people see through the hyper-partisan nonsense about this. You know, this is a very modest reform. It only affects those Australians who have more than $3 million in their superannuation account. And what it does is shift their concessional tax rates from a very, very generous set of arrangements to a slightly lower, but still generous set of tax arrangements. It affects less than half a percent of Australian superannuation account holders. While I don't pay too much attention to polls, what this poll demonstrates is that overwhelmingly, despite Peter Dutton and Angus Taylor and others being dishonest about this set of arrangements, hyper-partisan about it, most Australians see that this is a pretty reasonable measure. And I think one of the reasons for that is the average superannuation account has got about $160,000 in it. People know that people who've got more than $3 million in their super, and good luck to them, they've done very well, don't need the support of the rest of Australian taxpayers for what are still going to be quite generous tax concession arrangements.

Irvine: Yeah, absolutely. You've mentioned there the partisan attacks that this has gotten from the Opposition. It does seem like this is one of the first times the Opposition has really come out fighting and it hasn't been effective.

Ayres: Well, the problem here for Peter Dutton and for the National Party is people – Australians are sick of this kind of politics. You'll have noticed, and your listeners will have noticed, that we did Opposition – we focused on our role in Opposition over the last three years very carefully. We weren't Opposition for Opposition's sake. We didn't say no to every proposal that the government brought forward, particularly during the COVID period. That became very important to getting the country through. We acted in the national interest. We passed and voted for legislation that we wouldn't have designed ourselves had we been in government, because we could see that our responsibility was to act in the national interest. Where it was important to criticise the government, where they got it wrong, we did that.

Peter Dutton and the Liberal Party are taking the approach now, just saying no to everything that the government brings forward. Now, that means hyper-partisanship on superannuation and distortions and dishonesty and mistruths about the impact of the scheme. But in other areas, like in my portfolio area, the National Reconstruction Fund, $15 billion, most of it will end up being invested in new manufacturing capacity in the regions and in the outer suburbs. And Peter Dutton and the National Party are saying no. They are refusing to vote for this legislation. So, we've got the old Tony Abbott style of opposition going on here. Sort of crude photocopy of the old Tony Abbott opposition, where you sort of say no to everything and you try and play a wrecking role. Well, I think Australian voters are seeing through that kind of behaviour.

Irvine: The next, well, I suppose battle lines, if you want, that are being drawn up, is the government announced that they're wanting to phase out live sheep exports from Australia. Now, interestingly enough, in 2017, there was 2 million live sheep exports, live sheep exported out of the country in 2017. In the last year, 2021, there was only 575,000 sheep exported. Talks have started with the Farmers’ Federation on phasing out live export altogether. Barnaby Joyce has come out last week saying, this is ridiculous, it's going to impact the farmers. Why is the government looking at doing this?

Ayres: Well, it was an election commitment that the Labor Party made. We said ahead of the election that this is what we would do. And one of the things, of course, that you'll notice about Anthony Albanese and the Labor Party is that we follow through on the commitments that we've made. We've got a mandate to introduce this reform. I think in your opening question, you're right, there's certainly been a decline in live sheep exports, but I don't want to diminish the effect that this will have on some farming communities, particularly in Western Australia. Particularly in Western Australia. And that's why Murray Watt and the government, so Murray Watt’s the Agriculture Minister, have announced a proper, effective period of consultation with the industry to work through the impact of these changes. The changes will proceed. There is a mandate for this set of reforms to finish up live exports. There is a very strong case for those reforms and there's a very strong level of support in the community for those reforms. But I don't want to diminish the impact that this will have on some farming communities.

I would say, as the Assistant Minister for Manufacturing, what I want to see as part of the response to this is more onshore processing of Australian meat products, more exports of boxed meat, which will mean more jobs in country towns and more jobs in the outer suburbs. So, we're going to set about implementing our election commitment. We'll do it in a way that is the most consultative, designed to have the least impact and support communities through this transition. But also, I want to see more jobs in meat processing, more good jobs in meat processing and more exports. We're fighting hard to get more access for Australian beef and lamb to overseas markets, for goat meat, too. And we see this in the same light. We've got to lift our capacity to export and lift our capacity to process and manufacture Australian food products on shore.

Irvine: It should be pointed out as well that this is on live sheep exports by sea. It doesn't include live cattle exports and it does not include live sheep exports by air. Where is the main part, like the main live sheep exporting? Where is it going to?

Ayres: Well, there's a lot of live sheep exports going to both countries in our region and to the Middle East, not solely, but that is where the overwhelming exports are going to. And so, there's issues to work through here and issues to work through in those markets. But we're a government that does what it says it was going to do and this is an election mandate and we're going to work through it in the most careful way we can.

Irvine: Fantastic. Now, Senator, one last thing. You got six points, you got three right over the weekend for the tips.

Ayres: Well, yeah, I'm half right. Can probably be pretty applied to most of the things that I approach. I was very, very pleased with the Rabbitoh's performance and your new team, Monte, stepping up, blooding the nose of the Roosters. It's a good thing for rugby league seeing the Dolphins come through and pretty exciting. Pretty exciting football on the weekend.

Irvine: Absolutely. So many games came down to one point, too. There was a number of those. There's only, I think, two big blowouts, really. The rest of it was fairly tight. So, it was good. And good to see an upset first round. I'm going to say I'm pretty happy with that. You are sitting on number six. The best we got was the North Tamworth Bears coach, men's coach, Paul Boyce, he got 14. He nearly got the perfect round.

Ayres: Terrific.

Irvine: So, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it. We'll talk to you next Monday.

Ayres: Catch you next week, Monte. Thanks. Bye.