Radio Interview, ABC National
KARVELAS: A plan to scale back access to pensions for wealthy Australians appears to be gaining support. The Social Services Minister, Scott Morrison, says he will seriously consider the proposal which was put forward by the Australian Council of Social Services. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten is also open to backing the idea, while crossbench Senator Nick Xenophon has welcomed the proposed changes. Mitch Fifield is the Assistant Minister for Social Services and the Manager of Government Business in the Senate, and he joins me now. Welcome to the program.
FIFIELD: Good to be here Patricia.
KARVELAS: Is the Government once and for all stepping away from the idea of pegging age pension increases to inflation, rather than wage rises? Because this has been the big sticking point.
FIFIELD: Well Patricia, Scott Morrison has made it clear that our propositions from the last Budget remain on the table, and that all the propositions remain on the table until they’re substituted with another proposition. Now, we’ve made it clear that we’re open for business, that we’re open to discussion. That if colleagues of good will have an alternative view, an alternative policy that they want us to look at, then we’re very happy to do that. But you can’t take a proposition off the table until you’ve got another one to replace it.
KARVELAS: Okay, so what you’re basically saying to me, can I read between the lines here, is that if this alternative proposal is backed, then you’re willing to withdraw the original contentious one?
FIFIELD: Well we have an objective to make sure that the pension remains fair and that it’s sustainable. You would have heard Scott say that, at the moment, the pension as a percentage of GDP is about 2.9%. It’s forecast on a no policy change basis to go 3.6%. If we get the change that we have on the table through, it will come down to about 2.7% of GDP. So we’ve got a framework that we want to work in – we’ve got a fiscal framework. And as I say, if we’ve got another way of achieving the same objective, then we’re happy to look at it.
KARVELAS: On RN Drive my guest is Mitch Fifield, who’s the Assistant Minister for Social Services. If you’d like to text us on the pension reform proposal that’s been presented today, the number is 0418 226 576. That’s 0418 226 576, or you can tweet us @RNDrive.
This idea was floated but then never made its way into the Budget last year. Do you regret that? Because clearly, it’s a proposal that has the potential to deal with the fairness problem – the fairness perception problem even if you want to call it that. It already has some support among Senators. So if this had been the proposal in last year’s Budget, it would have dealt with some of these problems much earlier.
FIFIELD: I guess part of the nature of the Budget process is that, by necessity, it’s a closed process. It’s done in confidence, and that reduces your capacity to negotiate and talk to external stakeholders. And I think if there’s been a lesson – and there’ve no doubt been a few – from the last Budget, one of them is that if you consider significant measures separate to the Budget, as a government you give yourself a better opportunity to till the soil, to make the case for change. And also, to talk to stakeholder groups and carry them along with you.
KARVELAS: So it’s called the Coalition of ideas, right?
FIFIELD: It’s the Coalition of ideas, and I think that’s pretty close to being the Coalition of the willing. Willing to look at good ideas, willing to look at reform. And sadly, Bill Shorten at the moment doesn’t seem to be willing to be part of a group of Australians who are interested in public policy. Who want to move things forward. I hope he changes his mind.
KARVELAS: Well to be fair, he’s said that he’s open to this, but he’s reserving his judgment until he sees a firm proposal. How will you convince him? Because rather than just playing the politics, which is, you know, ‘you’re bad, you’re not part of this Coalition of the ideas,’ surely you want to get Labor onside to get some of these reforms through? To deal with this Budget crisis that you once described it as?
FIFIELD: Look, it would be great to have Labor onside. But regretfully, one of the best predictors of future behaviour is past behaviour. And thus far, Labor haven’t shown themselves willing to engage. I hope they do engage. But if the Labor Party don’t engage, then there are crossbench Senators who are happy to sit down and happy to talk. And you mentioned Patricia, how are we going to progress this? Well we shouldn’t underestimate the charm that Scott Morrison has.
KARVELAS: Tell me more about this charm! You think he’s the guy for the job?
KARVELAS: What are you saying about his predecessor Kevin Andrews? He is actually the first one who floated the part-pension/wealthy Australians idea. And it was the Prime Minister’s office that didn’t want to advance it. So it’s actually been on the table before.
FIFIELD: Look Kevin Andrews is certainly someone possessed of charm as well. But I guess I’m making a slightly tongue-in-cheek point Patricia, that Scott Morrison is something who is very willing to engage, who has a very open mind. And he wants to sit down and he wants to talk. And he’s doing that already with ACOSS and with Senator Xenophon. He’s had significant discussions already with the other crossbench Senators. So it’s a case of watch this space.
KARVELAS: On RN Drive my guest is Mitch Fifield, the Assistant Minister for Social Services. Our number is 0418 226 576. I want to get your personal view, if I can, what do you think is a better proposal? The changing the indexation of the pension, which of course affects the long-term growth of the payment, and there is an adequacy issue around that. Which I know you’ve heard from all the stakeholders so I don’t even have to bother putting it to you, you’ve heard it so many times by now. Or this, which actually looks at reducing the pensions that really wealthy Australians are getting. Do you think it’s unfair that really wealthy Australians are still getting part pensions?
FIFIELD: Oh Patricia, if only Ministers were entitled to personal views. My view is the same as Scott Morrison’s. And this is what you’d expect me to say, but this is the position of the Government. We put a policy forward at the last Budget in relation to indexation that we though was fair and reasonable. Obviously that has a challenging future ahead in terms of passage through the Senate. So we are open to alternatives. Views I have, I’ll express internally.
KARVELAS: Scott Morrison says any changes will not take effect in this current term of Government. Is this because you want to take it to an election, you want to get a mandate for whatever proposal you ever get through? I wonder, because there’s also these negotiations with Senators like Nick Xenophon. How does it work?
Well we indicated before the last election that we wouldn’t be making changes to the pension in this term of Parliament. So what we look to do in the future, we’ve got to be consistent with that commitment. We will talk to the crossbenchers and we will see what we can come up with. When that gets legislated, if we reach agreement, we’ll have to wait and see.
KARVELAS: Let’s go to the NDIS now, which is really firmly in your patch – you’re in charge of that Scheme.
FIFIELD: It’s me.
KARVELAS: It’s you. You are the NDIS – the walking NDIS. Where’s the housing paper on housing support? I believe the Agency was meant to release it fifteen months ago, and there’s been nothing.
FIFIELD: There’s been work going internally on in relation to what the role of the NDIS should be for housing and accommodation. As you know, historically, responsibility for housing and accommodation, including for people with disabilities, has been a state and territory issue. That will continue to be the case. I’m not going to see the NDIS become, if you like, a ninth public housing authority. The NDIS is not going to be the builder, or the owner, of accommodation. But where I think there is a strategic role for the NDIS is to look to partner with other organisations who may have a housing proposition, who may have some land, who may have some capital, but the maths don’t quite add up. I think there’s a role there for the NDIS. Also, for the Agency to trial some innovative housing models. But the states’ ongoing and historic responsibility for public housing and social housing will continue. What I’m determined to make sure is that we don’t create a situation where we allow the states to abrogate what should be for them ongoing responsibilities. Now you mentioned …
KARVELAS: I want to ask you also, you are negotiating for a full NDIS rollout. Western Australia still hasn’t signed up for that rollout. Are you talking to them? Is that moving? Where is that going?
FIFIELD: We’re certainly talking to Western Australia at the moment.
KARVELAS: What’s holding it up?
FIFIELD: Well at the moment we have two trial sites happening in the West – one which the NDIS Agency is running, another which the Western Australian state government is running. The Western Australian Government said, ‘we want to have a comparative trial, we want to look at the results of the NDIS trial and the WA Government’s own trial.’ So they’re underway, there will be an evaluation of the two, and that will be one of the inputs for Western Australia as to whether they sign up to the NDIS in the same way as the other states. Now, Western Australia is absolutely committed to the concept of the NDIS. What Western Australia is looking at is, if they join the same way that other jurisdictions have, or if the NDIS is delivered in a slightly different way in Western Australia. For instance, it might be that the Western Australian disability services commission in effect acts as the agent for the NDIS in the West. So they’re the range of options that WA is looking at. We’re still talking to them, but the NDIS is a joint venture of all governments, and for it to be established in a jurisdiction, it has to happen by way of bilateral agreement. We can’t impose it on a jurisdiction. So we’re still talking to Western Australia.
KARVELAS: As you know, it’s autism awareness day. I’d like to get your comment on this really horrific case that has emerged from the ACT today, where a primary school student with autism was put in a cage-like kind of space at school. How do we get to a point where something like this could possibly happen? I just couldn’t believe that this could possibly still happen.
FIFIELD: It’s appalling, what we’ve heard from the ACT. Regrettably, we do hear of instances around Australia in schools from time to time where there are inappropriate restrictive practices used. Joy Burch, who is the ACT minister, Minister for Disability as well, has instituted an inquiry into this. She, like me, is appalled by what we have heard today.
But this is something that we need to look at not just in schools, but also as we look to the rollout of the NDIS nationwide. At the moment, the safeguards arrangements for people with disability are essentially state-based. With the NDIS nationwide, we will need a national safeguards regime in place. We currently have a discussion paper out for public comment that will go to things such as the complaints process for people, how providers are accredited….
KARVELAS: If we do have a national process, do you think that it could be more rigorous, and could protect against instances like this?
FIFIELD: Well the NDIS safeguards will apply to services funded by the NDIS. State governments are responsible for their schools and what happens within them. But I would hope that there would be some things that state governments could learn from the exercise that we’ll be going through nationally to set up safeguards for the NDIS.
KARVELAS: Mitch Fifield, thank you for coming in and joining me on RN Drive in our studio, it’s been a pleasure to have you.
FIFIELD: Great to be here. Thanks Patricia.