Sky News Afternoon Agenda - 17/12/2021

17 December 2021


SUBJECTS: Political pane with Liberal Senator Eric Abetz; Devonport tragedy; MYEFO; Cost of living/wage growth; Debt and deficit; Omicron; Booster rollout.

DANICA DE GIORGIO, HOST: Time now to bring in our political panel. Joining me live is Liberal Senator Eric Abetz and Labor MP Alicia Payne. Good afternoon to you both. Thank you so much for joining me. Senator Abetz, I want to start with you and this awful tragedy at Devonport in your home state there in Tasmania. How is the community coping?

ERIC ABETZ, LIBERAL SENATOR FOR TASMANIA: Look, Tasmanians are a resilient people as are, particularly, the people of Devonport and surrounds where this unfortunate event occurred. Your heart goes out to the mums and dads, for those that have undoubtedly some wrapped Christmas presents for those children still under the Christmas tree in the lounge room. The anguish they going through is just unthinkable. Then you've got the first responders, the nurses and of course, let's not forget, the people who helped set up this day of activities that included the jumping castle. They must be feeling absolutely gutted and devastated. So as a state in Tasmania, but I'm sure as a nation, that the messages my office has been getting indicates that the nation as a whole is getting behind this community from the Hillcrest Primary School in Devonport. And people's prayers and thoughts are with the individual families that have suffered loss and injury, but also with all the others involved. And it's always good when we see our nation rallying together in providing support to a small community, and the Hillcrest Primary School community is a good close knit community. They'll support each other, but they will be so heartened by the support offered by Australians from all around our great country.

DE GIORGIO: Absolutely. It's absolutely, it's devastating. And Alicia, really it can only be described as a tragedy beyond words.

ALICIA PAYNE, MEMBER FOR CANBERRA: Absolutely, it is beyond words. And just, my heart as well, just goes out to those families whose lives will never be the same again. And I won't try and put their loss into words. But that community, those teachers, I'm sure the whole of Australia is standing with them at the moment. And also just want to really wish those children who remain in a critical condition a full and swift recovery. I just really hope they're going to be okay. And that those families and everyone in the community are getting the support they need now and into the long months and years that will follow. And just yeah, really thinking of everyone there in Devonport at the moment.

DE GIORGIO: Absolutely. Our thoughts are certainly with the community. I want to move on now to the rest of the day's news. Let's start with MYEFO, the update shows that there's been a $7 billion budget improvement. Alicia, is that cause for optimism?
PAYNE: Well, look, this budget does nothing for working Australians who are facing declining real wages, skyrocketing costs of living. Rent, petrol, all these things are going up, but real wages are going backwards. We've still got 1.7 million Australians out of work or looking for work. It's good to see that unemployment has gone down, but it really doesn't tell the full story. And I think that when you talk to people in the community, the government's patting itself on the back about the economy, but it's not people's experience at the moment. We saw throughout the pandemic, what it means for people when they don't have secure, well paid jobs. And that is what a Labor Government will be focusing on.
DE GIORGIO: We saw also net debt, it's still tipped to peak in 2025, at about $914 billion. Eric Abetz will we ever be able to claw back that debt?
ABETZ: Look, the good news from my MYEFO, and it's a pity that Labor continues on with this relentless negativity. Surely the starting point for my Labor friend should have been this is welcome news that there is an improvement in the budget situation. And look when you have, remind yourself of all the predictions of negativity from Labor, as to budget blowouts, the unemployment rate in double figures, etc. And now we've got it where it is today. We are in a lot better space, than virtually every other comparable country with its economic outlook. Be it the US, be it the UK and European countries. We are a stand-out. The economic management has been there. It's been tough. Labor was calling for a lot more expenditure and the deficit, and sorry debt, that you were referring to earlier is a huge figure that our children and grandchildren will be paying off, I suspect, for the rest of their lives. That is why any talk of even greater expenditure is just so irresponsible. And that is why we've got to keep a level head during these difficult times, provide the support that the government has. But let's not go overboard with it and create a debt legacy. Which if interest rates go up, will be a huge burden. And might I add, interest rates will, in my opinion, as of necessity, ultimately go up. And that is when the debt burden will really hit. So I think the Treasurer, in particular, has got all the parameters right and the budget position is improving, and that is something that we ought celebrate as we move into the COVID recovery phase in our economy.
DE GIORGIO: Well, we are moving into that phase now and there's certainly hope for the future. Alicia, we've seen the new variant, the Omicron variant, and as we go into the future, how much do variants, I guess, have an impact on our economic recovery?
PAYNE: Well, if I can just respond to what Eric was just saying. I mean, of course, Labor welcomes those budget improvements. But they're a drop in the ocean of the trillion dollars of debt that this government has created. It is the most wasteful government that we have seen since Federation. And a really important point is to look at what have they actually got to show for this expenditure? Not much. You cannot believe what this government says. They have promised, for example, their JobMaker scheme, that promised to deliver around 450,000 jobs, and it's barely delivered 5000. They've talked about wage growth and time and time again their promises have not been met. We really need a government that is going to focus on the issues facing Australian families, secure work, decent wages, and jobs of the future. This is a government that has decimated tertiary education and vocational education. How do they expect people to get these jobs? We've also, at the flip side of unemployment, we've got a skills shortage, but yet they're doing nothing to help Australians be skilled for the jobs of the future.
ABETZ: Everything that has just been said indicates that Labor would be spending billions and billions, hundreds of billion dollars more than we as a government. Yet they continue to criticise our debt level. You can't have it both ways. You cannot criticise the debt level under us, and then out of the other side of your mouth, say, and by the way, we would be spending hundreds of billion dollars more in a whole range of areas. And that is where I believe Josh Frydenberg and the Liberal-National Government have set the balance right. And look, keeping jobs has been our priority. Would we love to grow wages? Under the Howard government we did in circumstances where real wages grew like never before. But that said, in the current environment, we need to do everything about protecting jobs and people's livelihoods. And that's what we're doing, way beyond any expectation of Labor.
DE GIORGIO: Alright, I want to move on because we've seen as well, this week rising COVID case numbers, and we are talking about the economy and this could potentially become a problem. There are also worries that it could surge in other states. Alicia, are you worried this could threaten the national reopening plan?
PAYNE: Well, it is a concern. We obviously are not out of the pandemic yet and we don't know really. We're still coming to terms with what Omicron will mean. It's promising to see that our vaccination, like it seems to respond well to vaccination. And this is a reason why we need the Prime Minister and the government need to ensure that their booster programme is being rolled out effectively and taking the lessons from the initial vaccine rollout. Again, the government can't claim the credit for the economy recovering when it doesn't acknowledge the fact that having 60% of Australia in lockdown could have been prevented if the vaccine rollout had been delivered earlier and in a more effective manner. And also if they'd taken responsibility for purpose built quarantine, a clear federal responsibility and stopped some of these outbreaks from happening. So we can't ...
DE GIORGIO: Sorry. Alicia, I was going to just ask you how much of it though relies on state leaders now holding the line to their re-opening plans?
PAYNE: Well, that's obviously an important part of it. And we have seen state leaders have committed to opening up at this time in accordance with the National re-opening plan around vaccination rates. So as they've got to those, they are opening up. I think we've seen some sensible recommendations, like today in Queensland, the wearing of masks. I do think that that is a sensible recommendation at this time. And here in the ACT, while we haven't made it a rule, we've said, you know, the ACT government has said that people should do that to take responsibility for their own health in some of the riskier situations. And I think these are important things, relatively small inconveniences that we can all take on for the great reward of being able to socialise with people and get out and support businesses and travel to see our families this Christmas, which I know so many people are looking forward to.
DE GIORGIO: Absolutely. Senator Abetz, does the federal government now need to place a greater focus on booster programmes and really ramping up that message?
ABETZ: The federal government has been doing that without doubt. But let's be exceptionally clear, in relation to all the lockdowns and the economic harm that occurred. Why is it that the state of Victoria led the charge in relation to that? It was because of the parameters put in by Daniel Andrews and the huge spread of Coronavirus in Victoria. If this were a national issue, why did it only apply as it did in the state of Victoria, to that extent. The state governments need to take some responsibility, and in particular Victoria, which is such a big part of our national economy. That said, I think Dominic Perrottet is leading the way in relation to encouraging people to be alert, not alarmed. And what we have to do is get back to life as normal as possible, as quickly as possible because the mental health of our fellow Australians and the economic well-being of our fellow Australians, will not be able to be sustained if we continually have lockdowns on the basis of the Coronavirus spread. This is a difficult time, requiring cool heads and not knee jerk reactions. And I think Dominic Perrottet in New South Wales is leading the way in that regard. 
DE GIORGIO: Well, fingers crossed for a prosperous Christmas for every Australian this year. Eric Abetz and Alicia Payne. Thank you so much for joining me this afternoon.