9.36am | February 22, 2022


SUBJECTS: Chinese laser incident; AGL takeover bid; problems with early access to super and financial abuse. 

GREG JENNETT, HOST: Let's discuss some of these issues with our political panel. Liberal Senator Andrew Bragg and a Labor counterpart from the same state of NSW, Jenny McAllister, are both joining us from Sydney today. Welcome both. Let's begin with our lead story on afternoon briefing, and that is this tension, renewed attention, heightened tension with China after the laser attack on a RAAF aircraft. Jenny McAllister, we put this question to Brendan O'Connor earlier, do you think there is any possible linkage between that act of aggression and the debate that your respective parties were involved with around here last week?
SENATOR JENNY MCALLISTER, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR COMMUNITIES AND THE PREVENTION OF FAMILY VIOLENCE: I don't have any briefings or information to make an informed comment about that, but I will make this observation. It matters a great deal that we present, where possible, a bipartisan front in relation to some of the challenges we are having with our very big neighbour. And what has been so disappointing about the debate over the last weeks has been a deliberate attempt to manufacture division between Labor and the Coalition on these questions for political advantage – by the Prime Minister, by the defence minister and by others in their party room. It is not helpful, it is not in our national interest, and it needs to stop in the face of some very significant challenges for us.

JENNETT: Andrew, is it beyond imagining that the Chinese might be opportunistic enough to have sensed internal division politically here in Australia, and then to try to have that played out on the high seas or in the Arafura Sea?
SENATOR ANDREW BRAGG: I have no idea what is in the minds of the Chinese government or the military officials. What I can say is that China is doing what other countries throughout history have done, which is to seek to influence and to gain an advantage in, at the moment, difficult strategic environment. So, we need to ensure that we are prepared to repel any type of incursion into our zones, but also that we are prepared to repel foreign interference.
JENNETT: Sure, but is that blunted, in any sense, by raucous party-political division on the home front? That is, in the broad, the suggestion that is being made by foreign policy and defence and intelligence thinkers.
BRAGG: Look, I think the position that has been enunciated is that the Coalition has a strong record on ensuring that we have the appropriate defence utility, but we have also been prepared to put in place laws like foreign interference and a ban on foreign nations and the like, because we shouldn't just focus on the hard defence component of this, it is also what the nation is doing to protect our country against non- hard defence issues like on interference. I think on all of those grounds, the argument is that we have a strong track record, and I think that is right.
JENNETT: And that's all sits as comfortably with you, as a backbench senator this week, as it did for many fellow liberals last week, does it?
BRAGG: Well, the position that has been enunciated is that we have a strong tradition on national security and defence, and I think that is right, I think every Liberal would agree with that.
JENNETT: If that is all that is, just a debate over resourcing, allocations to major institutions, ASIO, the Defence Force, etc, then there is no downside, there is no cost to Labor in having this debate, is there?
MCALLISTER: What troubles me about the debate is the deliberate attempt to manufacture division on issues which are in fact bipartisan. Andrew mentioned a couple of areas where the government has sought to strengthen our position in relation to our neighbours. Foreign interference, our relationship with the United States and the United Kingdom in terms of the new pact that has been announced. On both of the examples you provided, Labor has offered bipartisan support. So, my question is this:isit in the national interest to pretend that bipartisan support does not exist? Because that is what Mr Morrison and Mr Dutton attempted to do last week. I don't think it is in the national interest. I think when there is bipartisanship we should embrace it, and clearly project that to all of our partners in our region and beyond.
JENNETT: Do you think there is any cost to this? Just finally, we do want to move onto the AGL bid by Mike Cannon-Brookes, but do you think that there is any cost to the nation, if this were to persist as an intense line of argument throughout the campaign that lies ahead?
BRAGG: Well, I think the argument we are putting is factual, that the Coalition has a strong record on national security and defence. And that is important, because China is doing what other great powers throughout history have done, and sought to do, which is to influence abroad through hard and soft power, and we are looking and comparing our strong record on that front. So, the rest is up to the electors to decide.
JENNETT: Let's switch over to domestic policy and energy now. A big corporate play on the deck from Brookfield and Mike Cannon-Brookes. Jenny McAllister, is this all upside for the transition away from fossil fuels, assuming, as we have to for the purposes of this discussion, that that bid is successful, and the takeover goes ahead?
MCALLISTER: I think there is a long way to run in terms of this commercial transaction between two private parties, and Labor does not wish to express a position on that.That is a matter for those parties and for the market. More generally, though, it is of course indicative of the very large change that is taking place globally, in the market – and the only people who seem unable to recognise the significance of this change and to interact with it in a constructive way is the government. When you are faced with a change of this kind, you need to start planning about how you are going to respond to it. Unfortunately this government has stuck its head in the sand, likes to pretend it isn't happening...
JENNETT: But I think they might say...
MCALLISTER: Leaving participants in an uncertain position.
JENNETT: I think they might say they have a plan, but then you have corporates, or a takeover bid as in this case, who want to radically alter the plan, drag it forward by magnitudes of five years, seven years, in some cases. It is going to be hard for any government to keep up with the stability and reliability argument if those timelines are being so jolted, isn't it?
MCALLISTER: The biggest problem faced by the electricity market is that the government has in fact had 22 plans in their period in office, and so market participants have not been able to make plans around a stable investment environment. Now, the government could fix that, but that depends on them fixing the wars that are taking place between moderate liberals and members of the National Liberal Party about Australia's energy future. It seems to me the Coalition government is unable to heal or resolve these deep ideological ruptures within their party room, and it is Australians who are paying the cost in terms of higher energy prices and the lack of a clear future for our energy system.
JENNETT: On that score, we have already had from Scott Morrison and Barnaby Joyce, sounding somewhat alarmed, I think we could describe their remarks, about this bid by Mike Cannon-Brookes. What has to happen here, a policy rethink along the lines of what Jenny is suggesting, or just let the market to its work in this sector?
BRAGG: Well, this is a very unusual market because the market has been distorted by heavy regulation, because the government feels, the government believes there is public interest in having some form of regulation. I think it is a good thing, that there is fresh foreign capital and domestic capital coming into support the energy transition, because the energy transition is going to be very expensive. And we need to send the right signals, especially to foreign capital, that Australia is on the path to net zero and that we want to decarbonise the grid. 
JENNETT: But how to you square that with what Barnaby Joyce has said about the prospect of higher prices by going around and shutting faster than what is currently scheduled?
BRAGG: Well, it needs to be done in a sensible way. But over the long term renewable energy will provide cleaner and cheaper electricity in Australia and our plan is to get to net zero and to decarbonise the grid. So, it needs to be done is a sensible way, but its important that fresh foreign capital is seen as a positive thing because we don’t have enough domestic capital to pay for this energy transition, we are relaying on the private economy to do this. Foreign investors are going to be a big part of this. I am very encouraged by these develops. That is the thing that we wanted to see. 
JENNETT: But you are not endorsing the scenario that says it leads to unreliability and price spikes?
BRAGG: How can you possibly know until you have done analysis, for each of the precincts in each of these stations?
JENNETT: I am only going on the initial readout, the initial first blush reaction that has come from people like Scott Morrison and Barnaby Joyce?
BRAGG: Yeah, but the reality is that you need to get more capital into this market to support the transition. The government itself could never afford to pay for the transition, and that is why foreign capital is going to be so important. This is a largely foreign bid, I understand. I don't want to make any comment on the particular transaction here, but as a matter for the market. We believe in markets.
JENNETT: So full speed ahead. Jenny McAllister, with government commitments such as they are. I mean, we're thinking here about Snowy Hydro 2.0 and other investments that are supposed to underpin this transition, if this bid were to go ahead, does that make it more imperative that all those commitments are seen through, from the public side?
MCALLISTER: Again, not reflecting on the particular bid - which is a matter for the market – it isof course imperative that there is a clear plan for transition, and that is Labor's approach. We intend to invest significantly in transition infrastructure that is going to be necessary to link together all of the new capacity of the market requires. But all of this requires a plan. Andrew Bragg has just given you his view, which is very different to the one expressed by the Prime Minister's and different again to the Deputy Prime Minister Mr Joyce. We have a problem where there is not consistent or a clear view in the Coalition or a commitment to the low carbon transition. It means it's a very unstable environment for market participants and for consumers.
JENNETT: We have debated some of that for the last 10 years and I dare say we might hear a bit more about it in the campaign ahead. Let's switch to something you both keep a close eye on, superannuation policy. Some reporting today that would be alarming if it's fully nailed down, suggestions that after 70, 50,000 women, 70,000 is one of the estimates, might have been coerced into withdrawing early from their super. Due to domestic situations. Andrew Bragg, we know you are a proponent of giving early access, but this would go way beyond your own expectations, wouldn't it?
BRAGG: I want to note the very serious work that's gone on and in trying to stop and reduce domestic violence in Australia and I note Jenny's work in this area, its a very serious situation and I don't think anyone is proposing that superannuation would be the solution to solving domestic violence in Australia, where far too early women are losing their lives. Superannuation is ultimately the money of each person and just like cash or a house or any other asset, it is the people's money.
JENNETT: Had you contemplated withdrawals for those sorts of personal reasons when this was first being advocated?
BRAGG: My position on this is clear that it is the people's money and if people are to access their money for any particular purpose, they should be able to. Obviously not under the urge of coercion and that's a wholly different point. But it's the people's money and the system is completely broken. You have insider trading, funds taking money from workers to pay for trustees and mistakes, it's the most busted system, and will be one of the most broken public policies in Australia. And the fact that the industry is so against people accessing their own money really is an indictment on the industry.
JENNETT: Let's bring it back, Jenny, away from the broader reflections Andrew has made on what ails the industry. But specifically on the plight of up to 70,000 women. This would be a horrible barometer of the state of domestic violence in this country that that became their last resort for funds to live, wouldn't it?
MCALLISTER: Well in fact, the story relates to something slightly different which is the possibility that 70,000 women withdrew their super because they were being coerced by a perpetrator who then took that money and used it for their own purposes. I don't know if the 70,000 figure is correct,but it is an issue, and one, I have raised consistently for the last year or so with the ATO and they can't tell you either. Because nothing about their program had any visibility on whether or not women were being coerced into doing this. We know financial abuse is a problem. 
JENNETT: Is there a policy remedy that springs to mind for you, Jenny McAllister?
MCALLISTER: Women’s interest should be considered before developing a policy, not after it. Had they been considered in this instance, there are some things you could have done.You might have required some check on whether or not the bank account that the super was being paid into was the woman's bank account. You might have required some kind of cooling off period so that a woman was able to come back around and say “actually, I don't want you to pay that super to that man”. But none of these things were thought about because the plight of women experiencing in domestic abuse was simply not on the government's radar at all. And that needs to change. 
JENNETT: A lot of money, Andrew Bragg, went out the door quickly as we dived into this pandemic. On Jenny's point, you satisfy the enough system diligence was built into it in those early days?
BRAGG: I would be an advocate for allowing people to access their super. It's their money.
JENNETT: But not under the circumstances Jenny has just outlined? 
BRAGG: Of course. I'm not talking about coercion but voluntary. Jenny is right, you identify that the super system wasn’t designed very well. It was designed by the unions and a few blokes and frankly, there are so many problems with the scheme. If we started again, we would be addressing these issues. 
JENNETT: We are talking about a particular set of rules that govern the early access regime that came in with a pandemic specifically, aren't we?
BRAGG: Yeah. Those rules were very successful and the data from the tax office shows, and the ABS shows 60% of withdrawals were used to pay down debts and mortgages. People improved their personal balance sheets, with their own money, and that was a positive experience for the majority of people. There and other areas where it's been abused and it's on the margins.
JENNETT: It sounds like a whole line of questioning for you to pursue when you next get the opportunity at Senate hearings, Jenny McAllister. We are going to leave it there and wrap up with both of you. Jenny McAllister, Labor Senator and Liberal Senator Andrew Bragg, both of whom keep an eye on matters to do with superannuation.
MCALLISTER: Thanks Greg.