DEBORAH KNIGHT, HOST: And it has been a very big week in Canberra. Christmas really, for the political and financial junkies with Budget week. And Energy Minister, Angus Taylor and Member for the Hunter, Joel Fitzgibbon join us now. Fellas, good to talk to you, as always, and Angus, it was a bit like Christmas, the Government brought the biggest gift you could find, splashing the cash, racking up a trillion dollars in debt for future generations to deal with. But I reckon you might have to lend your famous debt and deficit bus to Labor for the next election because this was more like a Labor budget.
ANGUS TAYLOR, MINISTER FOR ENERGY AND EMISSIONS REDUCTION: Well, I don't agree with that, Deb. It's a budget which has lower taxes embedded in it. And, of course, Labor's objecting to some of those tax cuts and will continue to, no doubt. And that's a fundamental Liberal principle, that we want to have lower taxes. But we've also faced a pandemic and economic recovery from the pandemic and establishing essential services as we come out of the pandemic, strengthening those services is absolutely crucial to the economy, to jobs, you know, and it's working, Deb. Look, we've got a higher level of employment now than we had before the pandemic. This is important, we're doing better than almost any other country in the world, and certainly our jobs better than any other developed country. This is the right thing to do under the circumstances and we'll continue to be responsible in how we manage this pandemic situation we've got.
KNIGHT: And Joel, poor old Albo, the Government left you with nothing, they stole your thunder. Anthony Albanese, he turned up with a piece of coal on Christmas day, to continue that analogy. There was nothing bold or brave in that budget reply last night. It was dull.
JOEL FITZGIBBON, MEMBER FOR HUNTER: Well, it rained money on Tuesday night, Deb. Borrowed money, as you've pointed out. And I thought that, you know, I think I've heard Albo be accused of not performing politically. Well, in the pandemic period, I don't think anyone wanted him to go in there and to play politics. I thought he did the important things. He pointed out that we are still on a record debt and deficit. He accepted that further stimulus was required to continue to pull us out of the recession and he pointed out, of course, that there was still some areas which he thought could have been addressed. Access to housing for vulnerable people was amongst them...
KNIGHT: ... But I'm falling asleep with you talking about it. I mean, where was the bold ideas for a party that wants to win government? I mean, you didn't really do much to inspire voters.
FITZGIBBON: Well, it wasn't a campaign launch, Deb...
KNIGHT: ... We're getting into an election period.
FITZGIBBON: It was a budget response delivered by a Government claiming to be delivering a COVID-19 budget. And I don't know that it was the time to be, you know, excessively political, nor the time necessary to lay out Labor's agenda for the next election. But what he did do, of course, Deb...
KNIGHT: ... So he learnt the lessons of Bill Shorten from his budget reply, did he, by delivering too much.
FITZGIBBON: What he did do, Deb, was point out that the most critical thing to our economy right now is vaccination, and quarantine, and how we manage our borders. And they are two things, unquestionably, the Government has done very badly.
KNIGHT: And Angus, why didn't the Government set aside, with all the money that was being spent and splashed about, why didn't the Government set aside money to build more custom, fit for purpose quarantine facilities like Howard Springs because other countries who have rolled out their vaccines, they're already opening up and we do need to rely on the vaccines and the hotel quarantine for the foreseeable future?
TAYLOR: Well, the issue there is not funding, it's actually having State Governments with proposals that make sense.
KNIGHT: Well, the Victorian Government has presented you with one, the Queensland Government has presented you with one.
TAYLOR: Well, they've got to make sense and they've got to work and at the end of the day, we are not going to accept proposals which are not going to keep Australians safe. That's got to be our number one focus. But you talked about Albo's speech, Deb, I mean, you know, there was only two messages I took away from that. One is that he's got a problem with his backbench because so much of it was focused on shoring up his support base with his backbench. And two is that his main focus is on fighting Tories, as he puts it, and we heard a lot of that in that speech. So I agree with you that it lacked any sense of how we need to steer this economy as we come out of the pandemic in very tough times.
KNIGHT: And what about, Joel, Albo channelling his inner conservative copying Ronald Reagan's speech. At least, I guess, he copied a real president, unlike the time he ripped off Michael Douglas's character, Andrew Shepherd, in the American President. There's a lot of, I know imitation is the best form of flattery, but again, it didn't seem to be much of Albo speaking from the heart, borrowing from others.
FITZGIBBON: Well, it seems to me now, Deb, that you have to go back through every speech, back to the Gettysburg Address when you prepare a Budget response to make sure someone didn't say something similar. I reckon that's just a little too harsh. But can I just say on remote quarantine facilities, we've only had one, Deb. This far into the pandemic, we've had one. And can I remind your listeners, or point out that was built by gas company, INPEX, one of our great resource companies here in Australia. They had no longer, they no longer had a use for it and they handed it over to the Commonwealth. Well, thank goodness, and thank you to them because the Government has done absolutely zero.
TAYLOR: Oh well, that's just not right. I mean, Howard Springs is an initiative of the Federal Government, and we have worked with INPEX, we've worked with the private sector all the way through the pandemic. In fact, working with the private sector has been the hallmark of how we've dealt with the pandemic through the biggest program of all, which was Jobkeeper. So, look, you know, that's how we do things. But what we're not going to do is risk the health and safety of Australians. And it's crucial. we've got a very strong economy now, we've got jobs growth back to stronger than it was before the pandemic...
KNIGHT: ... You've got sectors, though, like tourism and hospitality and education who are begging for clarity and begging for a roadmap on when the borders will reopen. And within the budget papers, it was predicated on some pretty shaky forecasts, the fact that the entire country would have everyone, both jabs if they wanted it, by the end of the year, and that the borders would be reopened by mid next year. And as you've said, the goalposts move.
TAYLOR: Well, Deb, you raised the forecasts. I mean, the one thing I'd say about Treasury forecasts over the last 12 months is we've outperformed them every time, every time. As I said, the idea that we would have stronger jobs, more employment now than before the pandemic started is just not something anyone forecasted. So we have outperformed the forecasts, we have outperformed the assumptions. And I have no doubt that as we continue to go down this track, we'll continue to do extremely well. Now, I mean, you raise the whole issue of the vaccinations. And the one thing I'd say about this is it is absolutely crucial that people get out there and get their vaccines. I did it Tuesday last week. I've done it, and it's really important. Everyone over 50 can go and get a vaccine now. There's lots of doctors who have access to the vaccine. Let's go and get it, and that will continue to strengthen our position and mean we'll outperform any assumptions and forecasts that are made.
KNIGHT: Well, that's important advice. I've registered to get mine in the under 49 group as well, so yeah, absolutely. I think that's what we can do as Australians, to definitely get out and get the jab, get the vaccination, but the Government's got to be able to provide it on the Federal and the State level, the supplies and the doses, which is good to see the Moderna deal. That was a very good breakthrough. Look another big blow, though, for the Berejiklian Government in the last day, or so. She lost a second Cabinet Minister with the New South Wales Police investigating allegations of sexual violence against Gareth Ward. He denies any wrongdoing. This is going to make it really hard for the Government to win next weekend's Upper Hunter by-election, which was also triggered by a scandal with Michael Johnsen forced to resign after he was accused of raping a sex worker, which he denies. Angus what's going on with the Liberals in New South Wales? It's scandal after scandal.
TAYLOR: Well, look, they're obviously shocking allegations and they're being taken very seriously, and Gladys has taken strong action. She's made it clear this morning he was sacked from the Ministry and the Parliamentary Party yesterday. And obviously, the voters will have their say in the Upper Hunter, I'm not going to speculate on that. But it is important that she took strong action and dealt with it, since she has done.
KNIGHT: And that's your turf, Joel. Who's going to win the by-election. It's going to make it very hard for the Government to actually hold on to it and it's eating further into the New South Wales Premier's majority.
FITZGIBBON: It's making it very hard on itself, Deb. The voters there are having an election they didn't need to have and didn't want to have. And setting the allegations against Gareth Ward aside for a moment, a pattern has developed here within the New South Wales Government. This is not the first incident, not for Gareth Ward and not for other members of her Cabinet. And it's extraordinary that Gareth Ward after those earlier incidents, was still sitting in the Cabinet. It's extraordinary that people like Michael Johnsen were still in her executive team. There is a pattern of bad judgement here. Sidoti is another example. And no doubt, when people go to the polling booth on Saturday, they'll be reflecting on that poor judgement.
KNIGHT: You think Gladys Berejiklian made a mistake to back him?
FITZGIBBON: I'm just so surprised that the guy remained in her Cabinet after the earlier incidents. Whether they were health related or otherwise, I don't know, but you know, we are under enormous scrutiny, or should be, and we are - should be and are under enormous scrutiny, particularly those who serve in the Cabinet. And you have just got to make good judgement calls about who are the appropriate people to be serving and it appears to me that she's made some bad judgement calls.
KNIGHT: We'll see the results of that by-election next weekend. Now, I wanted to ask you both about this, this push to crack down on politicians and their behaviour, specifically in Question Time. And it's got bipartisan support this, on recommendations, including limiting the use of mobile phones, and whenever I look up and see Question Time, you guys have always got your noses in the phones. I mean, it's not just politicians guilty of that. It's just a society wide thing, really. But also the Dorothy Dixers. I wonder what it is that you're doing on the phones, Angus and Joel? Are you both playing Candy Crush, or are you playing Words with Friends, playing each other perhaps?
TAYLOR: Well, Deb, you know, I might have to start playing Candy Crush, if Joel doesn't have his phone, because he won't be able to send me the latest gossip that he sends me in Question Time...
KNIGHT: ... So that's what you're doing.
TAYLOR: So you know, I think it'd be terrible for us to lose our phones. We wouldn't be able to stay in touch.
KNIGHT: Oh there you are. So it's gossip, it's gossip that's happening is it, Joel?
FITZGIBBON: I'm only human, Deb. I couldn't possibly sit there and listen to the drivel coming out of the mouths of Ministers at the despatch box, my goodness, I'd go to asleep. So I have got to keep myself busy. We can work on the phones, Deb. Generally speaking, that's actually what we are doing. I'm reading my emails, I'm reading newspaper articles, and yes, there's a revelation here, every now and then I'll pop a text over to Angus, either to have a laugh about a poor answer he just gave...
KNIGHT: ... Send him a nice meme of a...
FITZGIBBON: ... Or to give him some, you know, constructive advice about how he might have done it better.
KNIGHT: Or play Candy Crush, which, you know, as you say, you're only human. Well, it is interesting, though, because I mean, we want to lead by example. And we're always saying to younger generations to not spend too much time on our phones. And yet we look up and we see you guys on your phones in Question Time. So it's that sort of monkey see, monkey do.
FITZGIBBON: I do need to say this, Deb. I do need to say this. Question Time is a joke. And reform is long overdue. Dorothy Dixers are a ridiculous waste of time. We've modelled our system on the Westminster system in London, go to the Commons, the House of Commons and watch their Question Time. They actually ask questions and answer questions. And they do it in a civil way, and the quicker we can be more like them, the better off everyone will be.
KNIGHT: And I think it's a good idea to set aside a specific amount of time to take questions from constituents, to actually hear what voters want answers to. Surely that's a good idea, Angus?
TAYLOR: Well, we did. We actually have had that in place. I'm not sure Labor really liked that very much, actually. But look, you know, at the end of the day...
FITZGIBBON: ... Did not.
TAYLOR: You look at the UK, if you look at Westminster, it's pretty damn robust. And Joel knows that. You can't take the politics out of the Parliament. That's part of it. So you can be overly idealistic about this. I'm sure there are things we can do to improve Question Time. But let's not get overly idealistic and think that it's going to be alarming. It won't be, it's actually robust and that's the nature of politics.
KNIGHT: Well, I'll leave you to now go and text each other and rank each other's performance from today. So you can get back to the Gossip. Good on you. We'll talk again tomorrow - not tomorrow, next week, next Friday. There they are, Angus Taylor and Joel Fitzgibbon, our regulars for Friday Question Time here on Afternoons with Deborah Knight.