KIERAN GILBERT: With me to discuss this, and the other issues of the day, the Trade Minister Steve Ciobo in Brisbane. First of all, Steve Ciobo, the Prime Minister and Treasurer sitting down, the two of them, obviously... The rift that's there, didn't preclude that happening, the inner circle, Morrison's back in.
STEVEN CIOBO: Let me just pull you straight up with talk of the rift. There is no rift. What we have is a very good relationship between the Prime Minister and the Treasurer. They've been working exceptionally well together. We're very focused on the tasks that lay ahead of us. This is a difficult time, Kieran. We've got to balance as much as we can the competing demands of community expectations in terms of what Government will provide, as well as where we sit with respect to our debt and deficit profiles. These aren't straightforward times, but look, the relationship between the Prime Minister and the Treasurer, as is evidenced, frankly, by these reports on the weekend, is a strong one and it continues to be very functional, very effective, and enables them to govern in Australia's national interest.
KIERAN GILBERT: On this specific issue of funding for the states, the hospital funding, as I mentioned in my introduction, my advice is that the Government won't be offering the full amount that the states want in restoring it back to the Labor levels out at 2020 even. What is the Government considering and how will you get them across the line? Because surely you want a deal done on this very sensitive issue just months out from the election?
STEVEN CIOBO: Australians want to know that when it comes to health and education that these services - which in many respects, I believe, highlight the differences between Australia and other countries - they want to know that there's going to be adequate funding. The Coalition is focused on this. Unlike the Labor Party though, the Coalition isn't just going to make announcements and then not fund them. That's what Labor did. They were all about the headline, with none of the ballast in terms of actually how they'd go about finding the money to pay for it, other than try to make the country have more debt. The Coalition's focused on this. Ultimately, what the proposal is, or what the suggestion is, the offer that's made to the state premiers, we'll see it COAG. What is clear though, Kieran, is that there is opportunity for there to be reform of Australia's fiscal policy with respect to, for example, areas such as taxation. We do need to see the state governments start to take more responsibility for being masters of their own destiny when it comes to health and education. The tax mix is a way to look at that. Frankly, it's not good enough for state premiers just to continue what has become an old approach, of just saying, “we want more money, we want more money”, trying to pretend that in some way they're heroes.
KIERAN GILBERT: Is this what we're seeing today? Is this the report suggesting that there's going to be a deal four years back to where Labor had it? Is that more of the claims that you're talking about here?
STEVEN CIOBO: Look, premiers do what premiers do. Their approach frankly, for a number of them, hasn't changed over a long period of time. All I'm saying is that from a Federal Government perspective, we've got to be realistic about the debt and deficit situation. We require state premiers, as well as the Commonwealth, to do heavy lifting. It isn't good enough for state premiers just to continuously run back to the Commonwealth and say, “we need more money, give us more money”. You know what, the problem is that, we have at a federal level, so much pressure on the Budget, which the Coalition is doing its very best to try to get under control, and we want to make sure that we do it in a way that's appropriate and responsible, when it comes to investment in health and education, but also mindful of the state governments doing some of the heavy lifting, too.
KIERAN GILBERT: In terms of the reform though, as the Prime Minister's promised economic leadership and reform, this is one of the key areas, isn't it? To get this funding stream on a firmer, more sustainable footing for the states. In that context, is income tax something the Government is looking at? Do you like the idea of that in terms of giving a portion of income tax to the states, because it's more reliable than the GST is, to fund those big items like education and health?
STEVEN CIOBO: Look, I certainly agree with you that this is an area where Australians want to see reform. Frankly, I think Aussies are sick to death, as I said, of state premiers running to the Federal Government saying, “give us more money, give us more money”. I mean, Australians know the state of the fiscal Budget. They understand the debt and deficit pressures that we have. They do want to see reform here. In the fullness of time, the discussion will be had between state premiers and the Prime Minister. I'm not going to pre-empt those discussions. Suffice to say, there are of course media reports around that are being suggestions about income tax coming in to play, and I'd simply reinforce the principle, that when it comes to state premiers, that they need to do some of the heavy lifting. It's not good enough to just rely on the Federal Government to do all the hard work that's required, especially when the Federal Government has such a significant mountain of debt and deficit that we’ve got to deal with.
KIERAN GILBERT: You confident in seeing that this week - some efforts by the states to do what you're saying, because that would give the Government a good starting point to get a deal done this week, if the states are serious about finding savings, wherever they might be. Example, Daniel Andrews in Victoria, talking about savings in preventative health, things like that.
STEVEN CIOBO: Sure. Well, I do think that Australians will mark down premiers who are willing to make the effort required to bring about reform. I do believe that Australians will reward a federal government and state governments that can work constructively, proactively together in Australia's national interest. I'm hopeful that we'll achieve reform.
KIERAN GILBERT: I want to ask you about the Building and Construction Commission, and this chance of a deal. What are the prospects here, and what is the Government willing to give up in order to get the legislation through and avoid the double dissolution?
STEVEN CIOBO: Well, our position has been clear, it has been consistently so for some time now, Kieran. We want the ABCC, that is the Australian Building Construction Commission, back on the job. Frankly, we need a tough cop on the beat; we've seen the kinds of militant and extreme behaviour from, for example, the CFMEU, too many times. Clearly, Labor is unwilling to do anything in this regard, so it falls on the Coalition to implement the reforms required. Our position is clear, it's consistent. Ultimately, to answer your question very directly, that's a decision for the Senate crossbench. Labor clearly aren't going to do anything, they're just going to sit on their hands. It ultimately comes down to what the Senate crossbench is willing to do, and whether or not they put their own selfish agenda to one side and actually make decisions in Australia's national interest.
KIERAN GILBERT: So the Government is open to amendments of the bill? Initially, it seemed from the Prime Minister, in that news conference on March 15, that he was asked specifically, would you consider amendments to the bill, and he gave no indication that he would. He said, “The time has come to pass the bills”.
STEVEN CIOBO: Well, without getting too much into the sausage making, Kieran, of the Federal Parliament, the fact is that when it comes to passing legislation like this, if the Federal Government's faced with eight different cross benches all throwing forward their own suggestions and amendments, it obviously gets very messy. What we've made clear is that we will not entertain any proposed amendments unless they are brought forward already with the support of six of the eight crossbench senators. That's going to be a mandatory first step for us to realistically look at it. The second thing is that it can't water down the very effective work of the Australian Building and Construction Commission, it's got to enhance its function, because we know when it was last in place, there a big productivity boost for the construction sector, and ultimately, it was important for Australia's national economic interest.
KIERAN GILBERT: So the Prime Minister hasn't softened his message since that news conference where he came out all guns blazing, warning of a double dissolution if they don't relent, exceed to this legislation.
STEVEN CIOBO: What they get with the Federal Coalition Government, what they get with Prime Minister Turnbull is clear and consistent. Our approach on this has not changed, we're looking for some – we're trying to provide national economic leadership. We're looking for the Senate crossbench to step up to the plate, because the Labor Party have abandoned the field.
KIERAN GILBERT: Mr Ciobo, thanks for your time, and as always, appreciate it.
STEVEN CIOBO: Thank you.
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