Transcript – Television Interview – ABC Afternoon Briefing

18 March 2022


TOPICS: Passing of Senator Kimberley Kitching; South Australian Election; Cost of living.

GREG JENNETT, HOST: Now let’s take a look at matters South Australian, and maybe a little national too, through a federal lens. SA Liberal Senator and Minister for Families, Social Services and Women's Safety Anne Ruston is joining us from Sydney, welcome Senator, and an opposite number in Labor Senator Marielle Smith. Marielle is in Adelaide herself today. Welcome to both, we'll start stepping through as you would expect, the South Australian election in just a moment. But look, we can't go past talking point that actually opened our program this afternoon. It does concern the statement from the Labor Party. Marielle Smith, we’ll put the same question to Anne in a moment, but is that the end of the matter as far as you're concerned, the matter being Kimberley Kitching and your three female Senate leaders there?

MARIELLE SMITH, LABOR SENATOR FOR SOUTH AUSTRALIA: Thanks, Greg and I think I'll let that statement speak to itself but there is obviously a broader cultural issue in our Parliament. A cultural issue which needs to be addressed in a bipartisan way across parties. I mean, I've been in the Senate for just three short years and, I've got to say, I have been shocked at some of the cultural issues that exist within that building. I think that needs to change. That's something we all need to be working on. In our Party, we do take that seriously and we have been working on that cultural change.

JENNETT: So, was today's statement, in light of what you just said, helpful to at least try and clear the air?

SMITH: I think I'll leave that statement as it is and I mean, those three Senators have been quite clear in that statement. I'll also just say, Kimberley was a friend of mine. I'm attending her funeral on Monday. These are really difficult things for the people who cared about Kimberley, who worked really closely with her. I don't think you can underestimate the impact of this right across the Labor family and right across the Senate. It is a smaller chamber; we know each other well. It's been a difficult time for a lot of people.

JENNETT: Understood. Anne Ruston, is this a body of work that continues sadly long after Kimberley Kitching passing?

ANNE RUSTON, MINISTER FOR FAMILIES AND SOCIAL SERVICES: Well, I apologize, I'm having a little bit of trouble hearing you Greg and Marielle. I've got quite a lot of static in my ear. But if I can just assume that I've heard the question correctly. You know, the issue that you raised at the start of your program with Andrew Probyn is a really, really serious issue and I think it deserves to be taken seriously. Today I'd have to say the response that we've seen from Mr. Albanese would suggest that he's trying to brush off the issue. And I think that he does need to address the issue because, you know, rightly every single member of the people who work in the Parliament House in Canberra have to be setting the highest standard in terms of what we do, how we behave and what we represent. And so, I think that these sorts of issues need to be taken seriously no matter Party happens to be the one in question at the time.

JENNETT: All right, well let's move on to our primary purpose in bringing both of you together and I hope we do iron out any difficulties you're having Anne in hearing us but let's get back to you Marielle. The conduct of the campaign in the South Australian election, are you entering tomorrow sensing that this is in the bag? The poll suggested might be for Peter Malinauskas.

SMITH: Look, I've been traveling from Ceduna to Modbury right across our state in recent weeks and I will say there does seem to be a mood for change. A mood for change driven by people's concern about the state of the healthcare system, and certainly by South Australians’ concerns about the ramping crisis in our state. But of course, we won't be taking anything for granted. Ultimately, the only way we'll see a Malinauskas Labor government is if, when South Australians go to the polls tomorrow, that they vote Labor. I've been a member of the Labor Party for a very long time, I've experienced my share of heartbreak on election night before. Certainly not taking anything for granted but hopeful that South Australians will give Labor the opportunity to fix the healthcare system in crisis and deliver for South Australians.

JENNETT: It's been a pretty aggressive campaign. I'm just going to stick with you Marielle because I think we are trying to iron out some difficulties with Anne in the Sydney studios, but it's been aggressive really on that health front that you named, the hospital ramping issue, I think in such a way that the Liberals feel they didn't actually respond. It's got shades of the save Medicare campaign of Bill Shorten. It might be effective, but was it always accurate and fair? Did it exaggerate the health and hospital problems that your State has?

SMITH: Greg, I just don't think that's the case at all and most South Australians who have had an experience with the healthcare system will tell you that the facts are that ramping is more than 400% worse under this government than the previous government. That when Labor was in power when someone called an ambulance, 85% of the time that ambulance would arrive on time. In the early weeks of this year, that figure dropped to 33%. We've had South Australians call ambulances, wait for long periods of time, have had South Australians die. This is a really serious problem and when I talk to people right across our State, they are genuinely concerned and worried that when they call an ambulance, will arrive on time for them or for their children? The ambos are really worried about their ability to do their job and to serve the community that they are passionate about. This is a serious problem. And I think for a lot of South Australians, they don't want the squabbling on this. They just want the government to listen to their concerns and act on it. I don't think the Marshall Government has taken those concerns seriously enough, but Peter Malinauskas has and has a real plan to fix this crisis.

JENNETT: So, this mood for change that you say you've detected on the ground. You're talking to us now about what is thoroughly, fairly and squarely a state issue. Does any of it cross over? Because surely enough, we're going to be talking about federal implications on Sunday. Are they bundled into what you're picking up?

SMITH: Look in terms of health care, this is a crisis of the Marshall Government's making, and I don't think we can really extrapolate on the healthcare crisis in South Australia to the federal issues. That’s really Marshall’s responsibility, but cost of living is another big issue in this campaign. It's one of the number one issues raised to me by South Australians.

JENNETT: How do they want that addressed? I mean, we've all got cost of living pressures upon us. To what degree are they looking to the feds to do something about that?

SMITH: Well, the biggest problem we have is that we've got the cost of everything going up except wages, and there are significant levers that Federal Government can pull there. They can address things like the growing casualisation of work, they can invest in skills and education and training, they can take up the opportunities of a renewable energy revolution and the opportunities that presents. Cost of living is a big issue, we can see everything from diesel to housing going up significantly, wages just aren't keeping pace and that's something the Federal Government needs to address.

JENNETT: And we are hearing hints from Josh Frydenberg. Today the ABC is reporting anyway that some sort of one-off cash bonus might be in contemplation with the federal budget. Does that sound attractive, affordable, I know we aren’t hearing any numbers or figures, but would that fit the bill? As far as you know, these costs of living pressures we're talking about.

SMITH: We’ll see, Greg, what happens in the budget, but from my perspective, I actually want to see the hard policy work done to deliver the long-term changes we need to address cost of living and to address those big structural issues in our economy. Those things like the growing casualisation of the workforce, wage stagnation, really, I mean, you can have one off payments, but if you don't address the fact that Australian wages aren't going up, aren't keeping pace with inflation, you're actually not going to deliver meaningful change. You need that sound structural policy work to happen.

JENNETT: Do you think there'd be any voter fatigue, it’s somewhat unusual, not completely unprecedented, but somewhat unusual to have two elections in such close proximity? March for the voters of South Australia, then they have to come out again, it looks like the middle of May. Is there a problem for Labor getting clear air and or money for that matter, running two back-to-back campaigns?

SMITH: I think voters do find it frustrating when there are two elections close to each other. You know, those of us who work in politics and kind of live and breathe it, you know, we’re used to it. We’re up for the challenge but voters do get a bit of fatigue. I think what we'll see is here in South Australia, the health issues not just being discussed politically, they're being discussed around the barbecue. They're being discussed in workplaces. This is resonating right through households in South Australia, and I think for the federal campaign, we'll see it come down to those sorts of issues as well. You know, not the spiky political issues of the day, but the real challenges people are facing their lives like cost of living.

JENNETT: What about defence spending? I know in previous campaigns federally that's been very significant, particularly I think, in the years of Malcolm Turnbull's Prime Ministership. In recent days, we've seen the Prime Minister in Western Australia and making major defence announcements on the east coast as well, is South Australia feeling like it's sliding off the map a little? There's a lot of billions, in fact be tens of billions of dollars’ worth of shipbuilding steel on the slate there, but not much else coming in recent times. Is that an issue in SA?

SMITH: Well Greg, I think the real issue in my State is the uncertainty around future jobs in the submarine industry and in associated industries. So, for years and years, we've had many, many promises from the Liberals, you know, from 25,000 jobs to all sorts of things which never have been delivered. And then with the AUKUS announcement, which I do support for the record, but with that announcement came more uncertainty. You know, at Senate Estimates, we uncovered that there'd be up to 1000 jobs lost. I know there are a lot of submarine workers and also workers for SMEs in projects surrounding the former Future Submarines Program, who are very anxious and very uncertain about what their future looks like. So as a South Australian Senator, I'd like to see many more assurances for our workforce and some answers to the really sort of vague information we have around what this decision means for work in my state.

JENNETT: Yeah, all right. Well look, I'm almost apologizing that you've got to dominate the conversation, Marielle Smith, thank you. As I understand it, Anne can hear us many apologies Anne for the difficulties that you've experienced at the Sydney end there but pretty much going to have to turn it over to you now. The conduct of the Liberal campaign and for that matter, the discipline of the Liberal team under Steven Marshall, these last three years, both lead in the saddlebags for the campaign there?

RUSTON: Well, I think the voters tomorrow have got a really clear choice of the decision that they want to make. I mean, Steven Marshall has steered the ship through a once in a lifetime pandemic. We have you know, now South Australia has the strongest economy and fastest growing economy in Australia. You know, we have got an economy that affords us to be able to make the expenditures on the kinds of things that South Australians rely on. So, I think Steven Marshall has done a great job. Steven Marshall is a very honest man, who will stand by South Australia through thick and thin. You could never accuse him of being somebody who puts spin on things. He's a very straight up and down guy, and I think he's the safest pair of hand to take South Australia forward after tomorrow and I hope the South Australian public thinks that way too.

JENNETT: Understood, Marielle was making the point that she was, you know, picking up this mood for change and, you know, saw some crossover, some federal implications from whatever might be going on there in the event of a Marshall Government loss. Hypothetical, I know, but are you picking up anything that would cause you bother at this stage, cross over, from the state campaign into the looming federal one?

RUSTON: Well, I think, you know, there are very separate issues that the state government and the federal government's deal with. I mean obviously, border security is one of the strongest issues that we deal with federally but also a strong economy, which we have certainly, I believe, managed the economy very, very strongly through COVID federally, as has Steven Marshall in South Australia. But as I said, I think the issues that face South Australia you know, they're very solid issues of economic growth. They're solid issues of more people being in work now in South Australia than there ever have been, you know, they're more people back in work than before.

JENNETT: But they're still feeling the pinch, the cost-of-living pinch again, something we managed to talk to Marielle Smith about. Do they look to the Federal Government, there are plenty of indications that something's coming in the budget, but are expectations running high that the feds should alleviate some of that?

RUSTON: We all have to work on the cost-of-living pressures that every Australian is facing, and many of those cost-of-living pressures are things that are very difficult for us to control. Obviously, the price of oil is having a significant impact at the bowser on everybody across the whole of Australia. But, you know, we as a Federal Government have done things like you know, the lowest energy costs in eight years and you know, Steven Marshall should be commended for getting the price of electricity down in South Australia. He's done a great job after the absolute debacle of the previous government and the price of energy in South Australia being the highest anywhere in the world almost. But also, things like just recently last week, the new childcare measures that came in place. 250,000 Australian families on average $2,260 a year better off, that's money in their pockets, if they've got more than one child in childcare. I think collectively all governments have to look at ways that they can assist the constituency, whether it be in their state or federally with the cost of living so we retain the strong economy that we have today.

JENNETT: Well, I'm pretty certain we'll be raking over whichever way this result falls on Sunday, the Federal implications and it'll allow both of you Marielle, Smith and Anne Ruston to sharpen your campaigns in South Australia accordingly depending on which way it goes of course. Apologies again for the technical interruptions Anne but we're going to thank both of you and say farewell on Afternoon Briefing, best of luck to your respective campaign teams this weekend.