15 May 2009

Interview with Marius Benson, ABC NewsRadio

SUBJECTS: Budget-in-Reply, debt, tobacco, private health insurance.


Chris Bowen it looks like the Opposition is keen to fight you on one particular issue - which is your means testing of health insurance rebates - that is a broken promise they point out.


Well Mr Turnbull has been banging on about debt and deficits for weeks now, he has been saying that we need a lower deficit and a lower debt.

The only initiative we saw last night from them was one which would not reduce the debt or deficit by one cent, and in fact when you take the speech as a whole it could increase the debt and the deficit. Now Mr Turnbull has proposed a swap, a new tax instead on means testing the private health insurance rebate. Just last month Mr Turnbull said, and I quote: 'The last thing the Australian economy needs now is new taxes, especially blatant tax grabs dressed up as health measures'.

So Mr Turnbull has a lot of explaining to do on this particular initiative that he has put forward last night.


Just on that, is their any merit in the cigarette tax increase?


Well we have said for some time that there is merit in exploring tax rises for health outcomes. We said that on alcopops. Mr Turnbull laughed at us, he derided us, he said that there is no way that could be the case it is a revenue raiser.

Then Mr Turnbull last night said an increase in the cigarette tax could have health results.

Now we will have a good look through the auspices of the Henry Review of all of those aspects, but if Mr Turnbull wants to be taken seriously here, he needs to get behind our alcopops measure, which is very much a health measure, which is very important in one of the great health crises facing the nation. And then people might start to take him seriously about the stunt we saw last night.


Okay, let me ask you about that opposition position on health insurance rebates. They say they will oppose it in the Senate. It is likely that it will be blocked unless you get the support of everyone else -when asked about an early election, the Prime Minister said he didn't want one, he is a conservative like John Howard on that particular issue - that he would not allow the financial stability of the budget to be undermined.

Would that measure, if it was blocked, the health insurance rebate, if it were blocked by the opposition, would that be an issue that would undermined the budget's integrity?


We are focused on getting the budget through, and that will mean that as in the last in the budget and with most major legislative matters, very intense negotiations with the cross benchers in particular, when the Liberal Party takes an opportunistic and obstructive approach. That means we then go into discussions of a very intense nature with the minor parties and is there is often brinkmanship to the last minute, but we have found Senators Xenophon and Fielding and the Greens accommodative to good policy in the past.

So we will just be focused on that, but as the Treasurer said, the last thing the nation needs is an election, we need certainty and the best way you can provide certainty is to pass the budget.


And on that particular issue, is it possible from what you are saying there that the Government might be prepared to negotiate away its means testing of the health insurance rebate?


Well we are committed to the budget, it is a very important measure, it provides a very good platform for a more structurally sound budget going forward.

You know the price of the private health insurance rebate is expected to double over the next ten years or so, and we need to look after the structural situation in the budget and make sure it is on a sound footing.

So we are very committed to it, of course there will be discussions with the minor parties and I have heard senator Xenophon say that he wants to have a senate inquiry and he wants to have a good look at it, and that's the approach he normally takes and he will, I am sure give the matter a lot of thought and we will have a lot of discussions with him and the other senators.


So the health insurance rebate is negotiable?

BOWEN: Well you will always have to talk these things through with the minor parties. We are committed to it, it is a very important part of our budget, we will want to see it go through, but as I say everybody I think knows that after the last twelve months, seeing how this Senate works, there are always discussions; there is a need to keep those discussions going right up until the last minute.


And Malcolm Turnbull says that if you are serious about an early election, if you believe your budget is being blocked, bring it on.


Well it is pretty irresponsible by Mr Turnbull. We just want to get the budget through, the Australian people don't want an election now - they look not only to the Government for leadership, but to the parliament for leadership in the face of this the worst economic crisis in 75 years. They are not looking for more political squabbles, they are just looking for certainty - so lets pass the budget.


Chris Bowen, that you very much.


Great pleasure Marius.