Radio interview with Dugald Saunders ABC Western Plains

Release Date: 
2 May 2014

Topics: Indigenous Employment, Racial Discrimination Act, Commission of Audit

DUGALD SAUNDERS: I’m sure you’ve heard that the Commission of Audit was released yesterday, and with less than two weeks until B Day, that’s Budget Day, there’s growing interest how much influence that audit will have on the Government’s final decisions. Also high on the news agenda is the news about changes to racial discrimination laws put forward by the Abbott Government. Lots to talk about on those fronts and plenty more with Parliamentary Secretary Alan Tudge. He’s in town today to open an employment forum with the Clontarf Academy and he’s joining us. Good morning Alan.

ALAN TUDGE: Good morning Dugald, good to be on your programme.

DUGALD SAUNDERS: What’s the plan today for this employment forum?

ALAN TUDGE: The employment forum is at the local zoo here. It’s managed and run by the Clontarf Academy. In essence, it provides opportunity to look at what job options there are around here in Dubbo and further afield. We’re great supporters of the Clontarf Academy, they do great work in terms of keeping the kids at school, raising their aspirations, giving them pathways out of school into work, and that’s what we want to encourage.

DUGALD SAUNDERS: Certainly we’ve talked a lot about the Clontarf Academy and the success it’s had in our region. Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest was employed by the Government to review the nation’s indigenous jobs regime. He’s come back with an interim report with some interesting things, a recommendation of an overhaul of entire systems, a suggestion of a ban on welfare for early school leavers unless they commit to training for a guaranteed, a real job. What are your thoughts on that?

ALAN TUDGE: Well we haven’t received Twiggy Forrest’s final report. It’s going to be coming to us over the next couple of weeks. It’s going to be a broad-ranging report. It’s going to cover some welfare rules; it’s going to cover what corporate Australia can do, it will cover what communities themselves can do. But the essential message is that we must do better in relation to indigenous employment because of all the Closing the Gap indicators, the only one that is going backwards is arguably the most important one and that is employment. The proportion of non-Aboriginal people in work is higher, but the proportion of Aboriginal people in work has declined over the last five years. We must change that trajectory because as you know Dugald, if you have a basic education and a job then everything else tends to take care of itself, and that’s going to be our goal.

DUGALD SAUNDERS: What federally are you working towards, because we know the State Government has got opportunity hubs that are now working in parts of the New South Wales region. What federally can you do?

ALAN TUDGE: From the federal perspective we have control of a few of the elements. We have employment programmes. We can work better with business, with larger companies, ensuring they are looking more favourably at indigenous people when they are thinking about recruitment. We also have control of the welfare system, and sometimes the welfare system can be a disincentive for people to take jobs, and we want to make sure that every single measure is encouraging people to take jobs wherever those jobs might be rather than encouraging people to stay on welfare.

Housing is an important part of the equation as well because sometimes housing can actually be an impediment for people to take a job. I’ll give you an example of that. If you’re in a public house, if you take a job you might go over the income threshold of being eligible for that public housing so you lose your house. I’ve met many people who say “I didn’t take that job because I was worried about losing my house”. So it’s a very practical thing we might be able to look at and be able to just slightly tweak the arrangements so somebody will take the job when it is available because that is what we want to encourage. If you’ve got a job then everything tends to take care of itself; your physical health is better, your mental health is better, you can look after your kids and housing so much easier as well.

DUGALD SAUNDERS: Let’s talk about (inaudible) in news today. You’ve been speaking out in defence of the Government’s changes to the Racial Discrimination Act, in particular to the section that refers to offensive behaviour. What are your concerns about the current act?

ALAN TUDGE: Well I should point out that we’ve put forwards some draft changes. Our starting position, though, Dugald is that racism and bigotry is unacceptable in any circumstances at any time. The question we have, though, is what sort of language is quite properly illegal, against the law to say that type of language and you get the courts involved should you say it; versus what kind of language is still nevertheless unacceptable, but the  appropriate response is just to point out that it is unacceptable, and that’s the best way to deal with it. What’s the right balance there? We’re concerned that the balance in the present Act is not right because it means someone can be personally offended in a subjective way by some of your speech and that can be deemed against the law and you can be dragged in front of the courts as a result of that. Now we think there should be a higher threshold for when it is illegal to say certain things because at the end of the day freedom of speech is also an important principle in our country and in our democracy.

DUGALD SAUNDERS: But how do you then go that step further and say what should be illegal and what should just be offensive. Do you have to think of every possible phrase?

ALAN TUDGE: Well, we’re going through this process in terms of working out what’s the right terminology in the law to capture speech that is quite rightly against the law to say. Now, certainly if you’re inciting violence, if you’re inciting racial hatred, we don’t want that. It should be against the law. We want to stamp that out completely. But sometimes there might be language that an individual might take offence to, but others might not find offensive. And we want to ensure that we’ve still got robust freedom of speech, while protecting people from racial vilification.

DUGALD SAUNDERS: As you’re well aware this has created a fair bit of interest around the whole community. I know that Coalition Governments in both New South Wales and Victoria have lodged formal submissions opposing the changes. Can you see that there is potential for quite serious backlash on this Bill?

ALAN TUDGE: We’re working very carefully through this; we’re not making any rash decisions. What occurred a month ago was that some draft proposals were put out. And they were deliberately put out as drafts so that we can have a public discussion about it, so that we can have this discussion about where is the right balance between language that is unacceptable and should be against the law versus language that is unacceptable but where the best response is just to call it out as being unacceptable. That’s the discussion we have to have. That’s the discussion we’ve initiated by putting out some draft proposals. We’re going to consider all these submissions and then put another revised set of proposals forward to the Parliament for further debate in the Parliament.

DUGALD SAUNDERS: We’re talking this morning to Alan Tudge, Parliamentary Secretary in Dubbo today. Let’s talk about the budget. The Commission of Audit came out yesterday, weighs about five kilos we believe, must be quite difficult to get through and make any sense of?

ALAN TUDGE: Yes it’s a very big report; it’s a bracing report; there’s over a thousand pages and 64 detailed recommendations. I should point out though Dugald at the outset that this is a report to the Government, they are not government decisions as such. We asked for this report to be commissioned, it has been delivered to us, some of the recommendations we may take on, some of the recommendation we might consider for the future, and some of the recommendations might simply not be practical or feasible to do. But we’re going to methodically work through them.

What the report does highlight though Dugald, is that we cannot continue on the current trajectory. We’re already paying $10 billion in interest on our debt this year and every year, and that will continue to increase with the current trajectory. If we do not change, our debt levels will go up to $667 billion, which is $25,000 of debt for every single man, woman and child in this country. So we simply cannot continue to borrow money and spend beyond our means, we have to get the budget under control, and we’re going to take that responsibility as a government to bring the budget under control. And unfortunately that means every Australian will have to contribute in some way towards achieving that.

DUGALD SAUNDERS: And when you say every Australian it doesn’t look like any group is going to be happy when the budget comes out. There are big ticket items, health, education, affected in the budget?

ALAN TUDGE: Well, let’s just wait and see what’s announced in the budget. No decisions have been made yet, we’re carefully considering the recommendations in this Commission of Audit report, but some tough decisions will have to be made. Unfortunately we inherited an absolute financial mess, Dugald. You recall that at the end of the Howard Government we didn’t have to have this kind of discussion because we had a $20 billion surplus. We had money in the bank. We didn’t need to have these kinds of discussions. But when you have massive budget deficits as far as the eye can see; when you’ve got the debt levels projected to increase to $667 billion; when you’re paying $10 billion on interest alone each year – that’s ten public hospitals that could be built for that money – then you have to make some tough decisions. We didn’t create the mess but we have got the responsibility of trying to fix it.

DUGALD SAUNDERS: There have been some suggestions that, leading up to the budget, there have been some leaks about the harshness of the report maybe that’s designed to, when the budget is delivered, soften the blow a bit. How do you respond to that?

ALAN TUDGE: No decisions have been made yet. All of the decisions will be announced in the budget in, what is it, one and a half week’s time now Dugald, and this is going to be a tough budget. We’ve certainly been talking about the financial situation we’re in, and I think the Australian public understands we can’t continue to spend beyond our means. They know with their own household finances you can’t just continue putting everything on your credit card and not be paying it back.

DUGALD SAUNDERS: I appreciate your time this morning. You’ll probably be asked a lot more about these issues today on your travels. Thanks so much for popping in and talking to us.

ALAN TUDGE: Thanks very much Dugald.