23 September 2015
Transcript - #2015001, 2015

Joint press conference with Senator the Hon. Mathias Cormann, Minister for Finance, Sydney

SUBJECTS: Treasury portfolio, economy, budget

SCOTT MORRISON:

It's great to be here with my very good friend Mathias Cormann and Finance Minister. This is a very exciting time to be involved in public policy, and Government, as the Prime Minister has said on numerous occasions. Our opportunities in this country are extraordinary. The challenges are great, but we believe the Australian people are up to it. We believe Australian business' are up to the challenges that are ahead. We are going to back them and their ability, people who go to work every day and work as hard as they can, people who invest, people who take those risks with their own ideas and opportunities that they make for themselves. This is who we are backing. Every day we are working for them as an economic team, and as the Prime Minister is, and right across the board, because these opportunities are there to be taken up. They won't wait for us. They won't stay on hold. We have to go out there and seize them. What we need is a direction, a set of policies and a confidence that continues on from what has been built over the last two years since we came to Government to ensure we back those who are making Australia stronger, that is making Australia more prosperous and giving Australians more opportunities for their own future.

What I wanted to stress today is that the transition process as the new Ministry has been sworn in, has been proceeding extremely well. Minister Cormann and I and the other economic Ministers have been working together closely with Treasury and the Reserve Bank and other key agencies, to ensure the most seamless of transitions. Importantly, it is, I think, critical to underpin and reassure people about the processes that will continue in the normal way. The Tax White Paper process, of course, will continue. It's a critical part of our plans to provide real opportunities for Australians who want to work, save, and invest. Working, saving and investing, is what has made this country what it is today and every element of our economic policy has to reward people who want to work, save, and invest. Secondly, the response to the financial systems inquiry is proceeding and is very close to completion and will be soon considered by Cabinet. The response to the Harper Review and competition reforms is also proceeding in an orderly way and there remains some further discussion on those matters. Of course, there are the unlegislated measures which the Finance Minister and I will continue to be pursuing through the Parliament together with our ministerial colleagues and with the strong support of the Prime Minister, engaging in that process with the cross-bench. But here's an offer to the Labor Party - if you want to actually become part of the positive discussion about reforming our economy and ensuring that the savings are in place to make a stronger Australia, the door is open. Chris Bowen and Bill Shorten can put down their swords, if they like, they can get past the combat politics of the past, resign it to the past and engage in the sorts of reforms that are necessary to ensure Australians can work, save and invest in their future. So those unlegislated measures will continue to be pursued through the Parliament. There were quite a number of measures which were introduced during the last sitting and it will be a very busy parliamentary set of sessions between now and the end of the year.

On the budget, which of course, Minister Cormann and I are the key two Ministers, together with the Assistant Treasurer, Kelly O'Dwyer, forming the nucleus of the ERC, of course together with Christian Porter who takes on the role of Minister for Social Services and I know he has a big job having just come out of that portfolio - joining that economic team and driving the continued reforms in the budget process together with the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Truss, and of course the Prime Minister. The ERC process will work as it did in the Howard-Costello period where the Prime Minister has indicated to us that he will be having his strategic involvement in the course of those proceedings and that the agenda and the day to day running of the ERC process will be driven by myself as Treasurer, supported by the Finance Minister.

It is important that we get on with the savings task. Expenditure as a percentage of GDP is over 26%, which is where it was at the height of the GFC. This is not something that we believe is sustainable and there are plenty of people out there who want to raise taxes and have a new idea for a tax every single day of the week. I'm interested in talking to people who have ideas how we can get spending under control because we have a spending problem, not a revenue problem. Growing the economy, achieving the savings, are the key tasks associated with the budget repair job. That job will take as long as it takes and it will get the result that is necessary, but it will get it in a way which ensures the constancy of our economy, the growing strength of our economy and the growing strength of our budget position. Net debt to GDP is some 17.3%. That's the same as it was when Peter Costello started out as Treasurer. We have a similar task to climb this debt mountain. Debt you can form quickly, as the previous Government demonstrated. It's like abseiling. You move very, very fast. But to repay debt, takes a long time. It's like the rappel, it's going up step by step, with very considered and measured responses.

Finally on the tax system, I wanted to say this - tax reform is not an end in itself. Tax reform is not some policy picnic. What it is, what it has to be about, is what is it going to deliver for the Australian people? What is it going to mean to someone who wants to work more? What is it going to mean to someone who wants to save and invest and participate? If it's not delivering that outcome, then the option is not one that will get a good hearing from me and the Finance Minister and the Prime Minister. Tax reform is about achieving something to make our economy able to adapt and be agile, to enable our economy to diversify. So where tax reform contributes to those goals, where it helps people work, save, and invest, where it rewards an economy that is diversifying and adapting, where it's backing people's ability and where there is a clear end to put them and their family in a better off position today than they were before, for the future, for the future, then they are good proposals. And that's why we should do it. But the tax reform agenda should not be driven through some elite process, it should be driven very firmly focused on the outcome we want to see for the Australian people, their families and the economy. So with those comments, I'll ask the Finance Minister to make some opening remarks.

MATHIAS CORMANN:

Thank you, Treasurer. It is great to be here with my very good friend and valued colleague the Treasurer. I look forward to working very closely with him in the months and years ahead to put Australia on the strongest possible economic and fiscal foundation for the future.

We are working together on the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook, which is on track to be delivered in December this year, as planned.

Our mission, of course remains, stronger growth, more jobs, and a sustainable budget position. We want to ensure that Australia is in the best possible position to take advantage of the opportunities coming our way, while also being as resilient as possible in the face of the inevitable global economic challenges that come our way from time to time. As a team, our focus will be on making our economy more competitive, more productive and more innovative.

We will, of course continue the important task of budget repair. We have made significant progress over the past two years, but there is so much more work to be done. Budget repair remains important to give us a solid foundation from which to strengthen growth and create more opportunity for Australians to get ahead. Including, for example, through a more competitive tax system, as the Treasurer indicated, focused on encouraging people to work more, save more and invest more.

Our focus when it comes to budget repair will remain on balancing the budget, reducing the deficit and debt. By getting the unsustainable spending growth trajectory which we inherited from Labor under control, by reducing over time Government expenditure as a share of the economy and by continuing to reduce the size of Government, ensuring that Government services and administration are as efficient, as effective and as responsive to community needs as possible.

Again, it is a great privilege for me to be here, standing side by side with my very good friend and valued colleague, the Treasurer, and I very much look forward to the task ahead.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Morrison, did you mislead Australians when you said that you warned Tony Abbott about forces moving against him?

SCOTT MORRISON:

I think the Prime Minister's made this pretty clear. The Treasurer and the Finance Minister have come along today to talk about the Australian economy. If you want to talk about old politics, that's up to you. How about we deal with the economy first and if there's anyone who wants to go over politics, well, I think the Australian people are more interested in the economy today and their job. So I'll come to that question later when we have dealt with the important things.

JOURNALIST:

Treasurer, can you tell us, will we see the tax White Paper in about six to eight weeks, and has there been a reset on the scope of the paper? For instance, will it look at retirement income policy?

SCOTT MORRISON:

It already was looking at retirement incomes policy. That was already part of its brief and that was actually part of the process that I was involved in, in the negotiation of measures on the pension reforms through the Senate earlier this year. The scope of the White Paper, I think, is already very broad and I think it encompasses all the many issues that you would hope that it would. The Tax White Paper will continue to - and the group that had been set up to drive that, will continue its work. But what I'm making clear about the Tax White Paper process and tax reform more generally, is that its objectives - yes, of course we want simpler, lower and fairer taxes, everybody wants that. I want that. Why do I want that? Because I want a tax system that is going to encourage people and reward people to work, save and invest. To be in jobs, to invest in their future, to save for their future and they have to know that the tax system is working for them in those tasks, not working against them. That's what the focus of the tax reform process will be. In addition, it has to help the country adapt to change. It has to help the country diversify its economy, because that is our future. We all know that there are all sorts of head winds and tailwinds, threats and there are opportunities. Our tax system is critical to helping Australia navigate those. The one thing I have no doubt about, is the ability of Australians to respond to the challenges that are before us.

JOURNALIST:

The timetable?

SCOTT MORRISON:

The timetable we will continue to follow the process that has been established and it will be released when we are in a position to release it.

JOURNALIST:

Is that six weeks?

SCOTT MORRISON:

It will be released when we are in a position to release it.

JOURNALIST:

Will we have a response from the Government?

SCOTT MORRISON:

It's being developed by the Government.

MATHIAS CORMANN:

A green paper is obviously a draft set of proposals which will then be further consulted on and which eventually will be morphed into a tax reform White Paper. The Tax Reform White Paper will be the set of policies the Government would intend to take to the next election. Obviously we are going through an orderly and methodical process. This will be properly considered by Government as it should be. When we are in a position to release the next phase of that process we will.

SCOTT MORRISON:

But there's been no change to the Tax White Paper process at all. It is proceeding, it is proceeding as we intended it to proceed, and the timetables around those issues have always been I think very broad, not fixed, and as a result, we will just continue the work. The transition process has been very strong.

JOURNALIST:

Treasurer, do you think Australians pay too much tax? Also, there's been reports around this morning that you might be considering cutting personal income tax, and if so, how will you do that?

SCOTT MORRISON:

Well, I always believe in lower, simpler, fairer taxes. Name me one Australian you've met who would like to pay higher taxes, who wouldn't like to have lower taxes. But why, why is that important is really the question, not whether someone wants to pay more or less. Australians earn their money, and we want them to be able to keep as much as they possibly can, to put it into the things they believe are important, not what governments think is important. That's an important philosophy, it's an important principle. But the tax White Paper process, our broader tax reform agenda, as we work through the challenges of the various system features that exist, whether it's at income tax level or company tax level, or whether it deals with fringe benefits tax, or capital gains tax, or things that occur at a State level. All of this is part of the mix. The tax reform process feeds into the federation review. The federation review is about modernising the federation and the tax system is a critical part of that, just like housing is, by the way, and how we deal with those issues. That's also on the leaders' agenda and something we'll be involved in. All I have simply said today and as was reported this morning, is that I think taxes should be lower and simpler and fairer. I don't think there's anything remarkable about that and I suspect you'd agree with me. How this is achieved, and the design of the entire system is what matters. You can't just go plucking out this tax and that tax and pretend it's a debate when you talk about one measure. It's the interface between the tax system and the payment system. The tax system and what we are doing in trade. The tax system and what we are doing with innovation and productivity policy. All of these things hang together, I think, to give Australians the confidence in their jobs and in the economy, which we are absolutely committed to.

JOURNALIST:

Your predecessor had a habit of ruling out a number of potential tax changes, capital gains tax, super tax, negative gearing and even GST without agreement with the States, are all those things back on the table now?

SCOTT MORRISON:

I'm not going to get into those games, just like the Prime Minister is not going to get into those games. What I have told you today is that we have a fair dinkum process, which is looking at how we can have a tax system that helps people work, save and invest. If something is going to help people work, save and invest through a change to the tax system, then I'm interested in it. I'm very interested in it. I'm interested in changes that are going to get the outcome. I think people have known about me for some time, that I can be very mission-focused when it comes to the objectives I'm given. Well, the objective I have here is to help people work, save and invest and adapt and change to the challenges of the economy. That's my ruler. When I was in social services and we had to make choices about child care and things like this, people would ask me similar questions, I said what will increase participation of parents in the workforce? That was my ruler and the policy must serve the objective, not the other way around.

JOURNALIST:

Can I put the question another way - is all on the table for tax reform?

SCOTT MORRISON:

You can describe questions as you like and I get to describe the answers I like. I think I have given you a response already.

JOURNALIST:

Is, will it be December?

MATHIAS CORMANN:

As I have indicated in my opening remarks, yes. Contrary to the rumours that were floating around yesterday, the Government is on track to deliver its half-yearly budget update, the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook in December. The reason for the December timetable is that we want to include the economic data out of the third quarter national accounts into the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook and that of course only becomes available early December.

JOURNALIST:

Will you take the tax reform package to the next election?

SCOTT MORRISON:

Of course, where we are up to at the stage of the next election then we'll be putting all of those things to the Australian people. To the extent that matters may have been advanced already through the Parliament, well, that's a timing issue. Obviously the process of tax reform is one that I want to take people with us on. I think one of the challenges we have got over the next few months in particular, is while there's been a lot of discussion about the features of the tax system, I don't think there's been enough discussion about the benefits of the tax system. What I want to focus the public discussion on now is; what are the benefits of making changes to our tax system? People are sitting at home looking at people waxing lyrical about tax reform. I'm sure that's particularly interesting in some quarters but they are saying what's it got to do with me? Why are these people talking about this tax and that tax, what's that got to do with me? That's the discussion we need to have with the Australian people. If we can focus on the benefits of tax reform, then I think there will be a different appetite for it in the community. I'm prepared to go out there and talk about it, as is Mathias, as is the Prime Minister, as is Kelly O'Dwyer and the whole team and talk about why tax reform can make your family stronger from a financial position, and make your family more independent, to make your business stronger. I encourage the Opposition to do the same thing. Let's engage on the outcomes rather than getting involved in the scare campaigns which the Labor Party seems to be locked in, into the politics of yesterday. The Labor Party's got to get out of the politics of yesterday and even get into the politics of today would be a good start, but we are already engaged in the politics of tomorrow.

JOURNALIST:

Treasurer business and community groups put in a huge number of submissions to the review on the basis that superannuation taxes weren't being looked at, on the basis that capital gains tax wasn't going to be looked at. Should they now be putting in more submissions to you? Are you going to give them a chance to - it's a wider scope.

SCOTT MORRISON:

The scope hasn't been changed because all of the things you just talked about have been part of the terms of reference for the tax white paper. I do know there's been a large number of submissions and I remember some of the first calls I made after becoming Treasurer were obviously to officials and the Reserve Bank and so on. I spoke to ACCI and I spoke to ACOSS because I see them as both strong partners in the sort of economic plan that we need. Of course I made contact with other key business groups and others who are involved in all aspects of policy and will continue to do that. I will consult widely. But I know Ian Yates very well from COTA, we have worked very closely together and I'm very familiar with his thoughts on the retirement income system and all of those things. I go back to the simple premise, the answer to your question is simply this - if it's going to help people work, save and invest, if it's going to help Australians adapt to the challenges of the economy going forward, if it's going to make us more agile, more innovative, then I'm interested, the Finance Minister's interested, the Prime Minister's interested. That's what should govern the debate. Not the sort of political game playing that we've seen around this debate for the last while principally driven by those in the Opposition. If they want to run scare campaigns on tax reform, well they can. I'm interested in the conversation about how changes to the tax system can enable Australians.

JOURNALIST:

What are the legislative budget measures that you're most keen to pursue?

SCOTT MORRISON:

The one I'm most focussed on, as the Finance Minister knows - he might comment on some of the other ones in the other areas, the families package as you know has been a key focus of mine other the course of this year. I've had extensive negotiations and discussions with the crossbench which I've been very appreciative of. The family tax benefit measures we've been re-engineering from those which were put up in the first 14/15 budget. There are elements of that which you would have noted that was referred to in the Coalition agreement when the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister concluded that a little while ago. So the family tax benefit and family package arrangements are critical. They not only have, I think, important savings, but those savings are deployed on a very important task. That is to make the cost of child care more affordable for Australian families so Australian families can have the choice where they believe it is necessary and where they have to in many cases and don't have that choice, they can work more. So that's an important package. But there are a large number, I stress, some $50 billion worth of savings measures have already gone through the Parliament and have been supported over the last few years. That is a tribute to the work of the Finance Minister and the former Treasurer. I particularly want to commend the former Treasurer on any number of things but he recently introduced the multinational tax measures. Joe Hockey's work on the G20 was great leadership. He was heavily committed to his responsibilities there. It was a very significant burden to take on when first becoming Treasurer, after we won the last election. He acquitted himself impeccably and the multinational tax measures that were introduced in the Parliament last week demonstrated the output of that process. Now I won't be taking the same involvement, particularly in the short to medium term in these international matters. They will be handled by the Finance Minister and the Assistant Treasurer and Minister for Small Business. Because my job as Treasurer now, I think, is to very much be a home Treasurer, a domestic Treasurer, one very much focused on the challenges in front of us, as it was for the former Treasurer, but those responsibilities in the G20 were significant. They've come to an end in terms of those chair responsibilities and measures flowing and we'll continue to engage but I'll keep very much focused on the home base.

JOURNALIST:

You said in your opening remarks -

SCOTT MORRISON:

Did you want to say something?

MATHIAS CORMANN:

I might just say the most important point there is we actually have made significant progress when it comes to budget repair. The budget now is in a much stronger position than it would have been if we had stayed on Labor's unsustainable spending growth trajectory. Yes, there is more work to be done. The next big priority is the passage of the package that the Treasurer's talked about, which we worked on very closely in his previous role as Minister for Social Services. But of course we call on the Labor Party to come on board with sorting out the very challenging and unsustainable situation that they left behind. Right now under the leadership of Bill Shorten if all of the policies that he has so far enunciated were put in place, the budget position would be about $60 billion worse off over the forward estimates. So whatever complaint the Labor Party has about the current state of the budget, under Labor the budget would be about $60 billion worse off and we would be back on an unsustainable trajectory, borrowing from our children and grandchildren, to fund our recurrent expenditure today.

SCOTT MORRISON:

Time for one or two more then we'll have to go.

JOURNALIST:

Treasurer, you've got new weak economic figures out from China today. Are you increasingly worried about the impact of slowing China's growth on Australia and how do you hope to counter that?

SCOTT MORRISON:

The Chinese position - I will start by saying this, as Treasurer, it's my job to put in place policies that grow the economy, not to commentate on the economy. There are plenty of commentators on the economy and analyst briefings will pile from the floor to the ceiling. Economists and others will offer a lot of commentary on those issues and I don't intend as a practice as a Treasurer to be engaged in that sort of commentary. The position with China is one of fundamental strength at the end of the day. I mean we are in the right position and particularly with the free-trade agreement with China, we are well placed and they're growing at around about 7%. That 7% growth today is worth about 10% a decade ago as the Governor reminded me this morning. He makes a very good point. They're growing off a much higher base now. Their economy is in a far stronger position and more diversified position than it was, and it has become an economic powerhouse through which we have the only free-trade agreement, I understand in the entire G20 of nations. That pitches us well to succeed. So the reaction to these sorts of issues is there will be different sets of numbers from different points in time. The issue is what do we do about it? And how does that change what we do about it? What we need to do is be innovative, what we need to do is seize the opportunity. We can't be passive in our response to what is happening in our part of the world. If we're proactive and if we're out there and that's what we're going to back, because what Bill Shorten is doing in opposing the free-trade agreement with China is he is saying he wants Australia to hide in the corner, to hide in the corner away from the growth opportunities that are going to be there for our kids, for your kids and generations to come. I get the impression Bill Shorten is scared of the future. He's scared of the opportunities that are there and he wants to just basically have us hide in the corner. We don't believe that. We know Australians are bigger than that and we know they have the capability to go out and seize the opportunities and under this team that's exactly what we are going to do.

Thanks very much.