Sky News Afternoon Agenda - 18/02/2022

18 February 2022


SUBJECTS: Political panel with Liberal Senator Eric Abetz; National security; Australia’s relationship with China; Aged care crisis.

DANICA DE GIORGIO, HOST: Now it is time to discuss the day's top stories. Joining me live are Liberal Senator Eric Abetz and Labor MP Alicia Payne MP. Great to see you both. Thank you very much for joining me this afternoon. I want to begin with the issue of national security and the language around China this week. Senator Abetz we'll start with you. How do you feel about some of the rhetoric being used by the Prime Minister regarding Labor and China this week?
ERIC ABETZ, LIBERAL SENATOR FOR TASMANIA: Well, let's be very clear here that the rhetoric used by the Prime Minister was then adopted by the Leader of the Opposition. And therefore his claim that somehow this was a breach of bipartisanship, showed how hollow Mr Albanese is in this area. Look, the issue of national security is fundamentally important to our nation's future. And under the previous Labor Government, they cut defence expenditure to the lowest level back to the 1930s. We have restored it and we are now restoring our military capability. That is a genuine issue for the Australian people to consider come the federal election. Who do you best in trust the national security with? Labor, who was busily cutting away or the Liberals that are now restoring the funding? In relation to language that is used in the heat of question time. I understand it was withdrawn. And often you say things in question time that you shouldn't do. You withdraw it. But it was a cool calculated Mr Albanese who used the same terminology later on, to try to make a point, which just exposed the hollowness of Mr Albanese pleading by partisanship. The reason he wants bipartisanship is because he knows that the Labor Party is lagging in this area. And if he can somehow can convince the media and public there is no difference between the two, then of course, it won't be an election deciding issue. But until Labor step up, and denounce the Paul Keatings of this world who deny any problem in relation to China, the Uighur problem, Hong Kong, Christians, Falun Gong, all suffering. Until Labor is willing to do that there is a real issue at stake.
DE GIORGIO: Alright, Alicia, what's your assessment then on the state of bipartisanship when it does come to China and national security? Are both parties of the same view here?
ALICIA PAYNE, MEMBER FOR CANBERRA: Well, yes, they are. And in fact, yesterday in Parliament, Anthony Albanese tabled a letter from the Prime Minister thanking him for his bipartisanship, on issues of national security, including the AUKUS agreement. This is pure politicking from Scott Morrison and this government, and this is a very desperate government, with no agenda in the dying days of this parliament before an election. And I think it is deeply, deeply concerning that this Prime Minister is willing to play politics with our national security. And I think, the head of ASIO very rarely does media, and he's had to come out twice, to let people know how concerning this behaviour is, and this debate is, and it is driven by the Prime Minister. We are bipartisan on this.

Another thing that happened this weekend in Parliament was that Anthony Albanese moved to have a debate, a rational, sensible discussion in the parliament about these issues, given the Prime Minister seems so concerned about it, and the government shut that down. They didn't want to do that. All they are trying to do is create a scare campaign and it is incredibly dangerous behaviour and the Australian people deserve so much better than this.
DE GIORGIO: Alicia, do you believe that Labor is soft on China?
PAYNE: No, I don't. We've been saying that China's relationship with us has changed in recent times. But we're certainly not going to be using national security as a political scare campaign.
DE GIORGIO: Senator Abetz.
ABETZ: The New South Wales Labor Party dominates the federal Labor Party. You've got Bob Carr and Paul Keating, both luminaries within that division, talking about China not being a threat. And when Mr Albanese was specifically asked about Mr. Keatings assessment, he said 'Ah, this is wise counsel, you should always listen to Paul Keating'. He did not slap him down as our national interest demanded. And sure, on the AUKUS agreement, the Prime Minister wrote thanking him for bipartisanship. But that does not mean that Mr Albanese has been bipartisan in every other area of national security. And sure you can cherry pick one or two items, but I invite the Australian people to have a very close look at the situation with the, indeed the shadow Home Affairs Minister, being unwittingly or deliberately up to her to, to tell us being photographed with the United Front operative in very recent times. Sure there might be photographs from way back. But this happened in very recent times, in her bid for a seat in the House of Representatives. This is just indicative of the fact that they don't have the finger on the pulse. They don't understand the issues and this is a matter of major concern for us. And look, would I love bipartisanship in this area? Of course I would. But we're not getting it.
DE GIORGIO: Alright. It's certainly been an issue that's dominated the headlines this week. I want to move on because I'd like to ask you both about aged care before we finish up. Firstly, Alicia, to you. Labor has been highly critical of what's going on with the COVID situation in Australia's aged care homes. What more would Labor do to mitigate the situation?
PAYNE: Well, thank you, Danica, because this is exactly what we should be talking about at the moment. An actual crisis, not an issue that's been whipped up as a political scare campaign. The Morison government has failed older Australians in aged care and their families time and time again in this pandemic. And I think that, the fact that we just had the last full sitting fortnight of parliament while this is going on, and they did not take that opportunity to even acknowledge the seriousness of this or to do anything to address it. I mean, in recent weeks, we've seen the ADF brought into aged care, which we welcome, though it never should have come to this. But then the rollout is not happening, they promised 1700 people, members of the ADF rolled out to help aged care and we've only seen 179 so far.

So first of all, Labor would never have let it get to this. Labor would be doing something to address the issues raised by the Royal Commission, including the disgracefully low wages of people working in aged care, which is not just. I mean, first and foremost, this is about these people who are doing this incredibly important and professional job, which is important to Australian families. They should be paid and valued properly. But the Royal Commission actually identified that this is part of the problem, that people are not being retained in the sector, because they cannot do these jobs with so little pay and little job security. They're understaffed, we need ratios of staff to residents, we need 24 hour registered nurses in aged care. These are things that have all been recommended by the Royal Commission and previous reports, and the government has done nothing. Nothing to even ensure that residents are getting the nutrition that they need, which is another thing that's been identified. So what is the government doing about these things? The sector was in crisis before COVID. But now it is in an absolute mess, with a quarter of shifts not being filled. I could go on and on. I'll leave it there. But this, you know, there are many things Labor would do, but they are the government and they're doing nothing.
DE GIORGIO: I'll pass it over to Senator Abetz. So what role in this does the minister Richard Colbeck play? There's been calls this week for him to resign, should he?
ABETZ: Absolutely not.
ABETZ: But the important thing here is you invited the Labor spokesman just then to say, 'What would Labor do' and what you got was a torrent of negativity and criticism, no positive as to what Labor would have actually done in ...
PAYNE: I suggested several things that we would do.
ABETZ: .. other than, other than, other than criticising the union movement and Fair Work Australia for not having sufficiently high wages in the sector. It is not the government's role to set wages. We have had an independent umpire since Federation, determining the wages or the minimum wages of our fellow Australians. And if the Labor Party is seriously saying they are now going to get rid of Fair Work Australia, arbitration and conciliation, which has been part and parcel of our industrial landscape since day one, let them say so. But what it is, it is a vote of no confidence by the Labor spokesman in Fair Work Australia, which was established by Labor, and in the union movement, in not being able to get decent and proper wages …
DE GIORGIO: But has the government done enough though, Senator?
ABETZ: ... do a fantastic job. Oh, well, it is not for the government to set wages. It is for Fair Work Australia to make that determination, after hearing both unions and employers.
PAYNE: If I could just jump in there, sorry. I'm aware of that, thanks Eric for explaining the industrial relations system to me, but governments can put a submission into say that these wages are too low. Do you believe that wages in aged care are too low? As the Royal Commission has confirmed. And what are you doing about it?
ABETZ: Without doubt, aged care workers are low paid. But if government starts coming in suggesting wages to the independent umpire, the independent umpire may well feel bullied by government. It is a lot better for the union movement and the employers to put their submissions to the independent umpire ...
PAYNE: Well, aged care is a federal government responsibility.
ABETZ: Yes, but the setting of wages in the health system in aged care, for our defence, for our public servants at the federal level, you know ...
PAYNE: Yes, but you can put a submission in and say that the government will back it and allow it to happen.
ABETZ: It is fair, it is Fair Work Australia that sets the wages. So any criticism is a criticism of that which Labor put in place when they came into government, a new system, but under similar provisions, namely Fair Work Australia. So why Labor thinks this is now an election winning issue to criticise that which itself created, to set wages in the country, is beyond me.
PAYNE: This is not about an election. I'm sorry, if I can just say it is not about an election. It's about over 700 Australians dying on this government's watch. And they're not even acknowledging the seriousness and not doing anything.
ABETZ: Let's be, let's be very clear. And unfortunately, I don't have the figures in front of me. But every death is a loss to a spouse, a family, to friends, acquaintances, and so I don't in any way, shape or form, seek to diminish the tragedy of deaths. But what I would encourage everybody to do is to have a look at the death rates in our aged care facilities over the past five years, and it will tell a story that that which the Labor Party has been trying to blow up in recent times. Is very untidy, very undignified, playing with people's emotions, and the facts and figures don't go back them in.

DE GIORGIO: Well, look, it's certainly a very passionate issue for both. Unfortunately, I do have to interject here. We have run out of time, but it's fair to say we've got a big year ahead. Liberal Senator Eric Abetz. Labour MP Alicia Payne. Always lovely to speak with you on a Friday afternoon. Thank you for joining me.