STEPHEN CENATIEMPO, HOST: Now, he joins us on a Wednesday, usually via phone, but, when I first started talking to him, we were in a rat infested terrace house in Muswellbrook. Now we're on the lawns out the front of Parliament House. It's his 26th budget, the Labor Member for Hunter, Joel Fitzgibbon. G'day, Joel.
JOEL FITZGIBBON, MEMBER FOR HUNTER: That's right, Stephen, I've seen them all. The sun is shining here at Parliament House, but it's raining money.
CENATIEMPO: Yeah, absolutely. Now , you were mentioning that in 26 years of Parliament, you've never wandered down here to the lawns to do any of these interviews before.
FITZGIBBON: No, I've never had reason to. Obviously, I've done lots of media over that 25-26 year period, but unless you're the Treasurer, Finance Minister, or their counterparts in opposition, you have no reason to be down here on a Wednesday morning after budget. So it's an interesting and new experience for me.
CENATIEMPO: But it is important to talk this morning, as you say, it is raining money. And very, and I made the point to Anthony Albanese too this morning that it was a very Labor budget. But I guess, in the current environment, the Government really had no choice but to spend big.
FITZGIBBON: Yeah, I think most economists were arguing for more stimulus. It's a hard judgement call because the economy is still growing as a result of last year's stimulus. And you don't really know when to put the brakes on, do you? I know one thing - my yet to be born grandchildren and great grandchildren will not thank us for last night's budget. I mean, the Government doesn't plan to even start retiring debt within the decade. So that's debt we're going to be leaving to our children, our grandchildren and great grandchildren. Having said that, you know, we do need more stimulus, I just hope the Government has the balance right. It disappoints me a little that having spent all that money, there doesn't really seem to be a structured plan to what, you know, the new economy looks like post-budget, I mean, post the virus, but there is certainly plenty of money to go around doing some very good things.
CENATIEMPO: Well, that was one of my concerns, is that we should have used this period, and not necessarily just this budget, but obviously this was going to be the linchpin of it. But even the National Cabinet process, there didn't seem to be a focus on what Australia was going to look like when we came out of this pandemic, and looking at real opportunities for structural reform. And look, that's a criticism of both sides of politics, because nobody seems to want to do structural reform anymore, particularly with say, for instance, tax policy. We haven't had any real structural change in the tax policy for over 20 years.
FITZGIBBON: That is true, and all the assumptions look a bit like a house of cards, don't they? I mean, we're pinning just about everything on the iron ore price and iron ore volumes, for example. Now, the government, you'll recall, seems to have gone to war with China. And they tell us, the economic consequences of that don't matter, you know, we'll just send our stuff somewhere else. Well, we all know that's not true and not possible, particularly with respect to iron ore, and they're sort of heroic assumptions in there. And you know, if things go pear-shaped for us on that front, then you're going to see debt and deficit much larger than that predicted last night.
CENATIEMPO: Although, their forecasts have been fairly, I guess, modest when it comes to iron ore prices, for instance. So it may be that that is cushioned a little bit. But I do want to talk about the situation with China, because there are people out there suggesting that what has turned into a cold war could actually heat up at one stage. As a former Defence Minister, $1.9 billion, they've announced over 10 years in further defence spending. We're at two per cent of GDP, which, you know, is about where we expect defence spending to be. But in the current environment, is that enough?
FITZGIBBON: Well, certainly their actions don't match their rhetoric, do they? I mean, you know, China is a changing place, our region is evolving, and dramatically changing in strategic terms. And we do need to be prepared for that change to continue. But you know, I don't like the language the Government's been using with respect to China, we can have these conversations within the National Security Committee of the Cabinet, for example, but we don't need to be burning loudly in our national newspapers. But if you're going to do it, Stephen, you'd better start showing that you...
CENATIEMPO: ... Got to back it up.
FITZGIBBON: Have a plan to be ready for a contingency and they clearly don't have one. The money they splashed last night, of course, is to just meet their commitment of two per cent of GDP on defence, that's not going to be enough.
CENATIEMPO: Now, you mentioned that you got stuck in some sort of protest early this morning. We're hearing there are protesters on Commonwealth Avenue, and we've got some lunatics dressed as something or other outside the studio at the moment. It's always interesting the morning after budget, isn't it, down here?
FITZGIBBON: Yeah, climate change protesters have been a regular outside Parliament House in recent years. I would have thought they'd made their point. And I think you'll find that the, all the parties, to varying degrees have made commitments to climate change. we've acknowledged it's a problem, a challenge that we need to address. So I don't really know what they're protesting about.
CENATIEMPO: They'll always find something. Now, just quickly before I let you go, the Government seems to be sending mixed messages on the energy and resources sector. Everybody wants to talk up coal, but everybody wants to talk up renewables. What you take out of the budget last night, moving forward about where our place in the world is when it comes to, given the fact that we certainly rely on the things that come out of the ground?
FITZGIBBON: I only saw confusion, Stephen. Scott Morrison just doesn't know where to jump on climate change and energy policies, he's trying to be all things to all people. There's no strategic, look, I've been very supportive of the Government on gas, for example, taking a bipartisan approach, but where's the plan? They talk about this gas-led recovery but, you know, they're driving towards importing gas from Western Australia. This is crazy. We're going to extract it offshore in Western Australia, ship it around to the eastern seaboard, and gasify it again. All that all energy used to do that, and how are we going to be delivering affordable gas to industry and to households, if that's the way we're going to receive it? It's just crazy. We've got lots of gas on the eastern seaboard. We need to be getting it out of the ground, and we need to be building those gas peaking stations, something we heard next nothing about in the Budget last night.
CENATIEMPO: I do want to touch on one last thing. The Nationals have said that they want the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to start investing in nuclear, putting the cart before the horse a little bit there, aren't we?
FITZGIBBON: Well, that's just a stunt, isn't it? I mean, if we removed the prohibition on nuclear tomorrow, it will take at least a decade to get us to the point of even considering an approval. So what does changing the Clean Energy Finance corporation today do for nuclear? It's just another National Party stunt.
CENATIEMPO: Sounds good on a soundbite. Joel, good to talk to you.
FITZGIBBON: Good on you, mate.