May 10, 2023

DAN COX (CO-HOST): Pat Conroy is the Federal Member for Shortland. He is also the Defence Industry Minister, International Development and the Pacific Minister. Good morning.

PAT CONROY MP: Good morning Dan, how are you?

COX: Well, thank you. We were promised a Budget that tackles the cost of living. Does this really do that?

CONROY: Absolutely, this is a Budget that has firmly targeted cost of living relief and I am really excited about it because we do know that families and pensioners in the Hunter are doing it tough and that’s why this Budget is so important to provide cost of living relief without adding to inflation and our package in fact reduces inflation. Whether you look at the $500 payments to reduce electricity bills or the 76,000 people in Shortland who will benefit from the tripling of the bulk billing incentive or the 43,000 people in Shortland that will benefit from cheaper medicines - halving of the cost of medicines in fact. These are all things that help with cost of living while putting downward pressure on inflation because we know we have to tame that if we are going to get interest rates starting to fall.

COX: Minister, there are a few things I want to talk to, including the pharmacists, but let’s start with the energy bill relief. You’re reducing eligible household bills by up to $500. Everyone’s bills have gone up but the rebate’s not for everyone, shouldn’t it be?

CONROY: Well, this is about getting the balance right between helping as many people as possible and the impact on the Budget so that’s why we made the choice of targeting people on low to medium incomes and fixed incomes but 1.6 million households in NSW, so a very significant share of NSW, will benefit from the $500 rebate and that’s really, really important. On top of that, if I can say, there is general support to put downward pressure on electricity prices by our interventions to cap coal and gas prices so that’s already having an impact on reducing forward price rises and that benefits everyone even if households don’t receive the $500 rebate.

COX: So Minister if I’m a taxpayer that doesn’t get that $500 rebate and I don’t really get much from this Budget – the “middle Australia” as it’s being called. Do I end up paying for it? Do taxpayers who don’t get much from this Budget end up paying for it?

CONROY: Well middle Australia certainly gets significant benefits from this Budget. You just look at the 6,500 families in Shortland who benefit from cheaper child care or the 43,000 people in Shortland who benefit from halving the cost of medicine. That is firmly targeted at middle Australia. In all Budgets you have to make choices, but we think that we have got the balance right between supporting people across the entire spectrum but acknowledging that particular groups are doing it tough and we make no apology for trying to support as many people as possible and we think this Budget does that.

COX: You mentioned the savings people will make when it comes to the changes to prescriptions – getting your prescription filled twice. One prescription gets you 60 days’ worth of medication, but pharmacists are telling you that those changes will cripple their businesses but you’re pushing ahead. Aren’t you nervous this will destroy the local pharmacy – that they will close all around the country because of these changes.

CONROY: This has been a recommendation from the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee for over five years. So this is a change that’s been in the offing for quite some time. I’ve met with pharmacists, and I will continue to meet with pharmacists to hear their concerns and I do understand where they are coming from but this is a really important reform that does a couple of things. 1. 43,000 people in Shortland will benefit from cheaper medicine – halving the cost of their scripts when they go to pick them up from the pharmacy. Secondly, reducing the number of visits to GPs to get a new script filled. So halving the number of times you have to visit a GP which takes more pressure off our really overstretched general practitioners and thirdly –

COX: But Minister, pharmacists say they might not have a door for people to walk through if they have to close because of the loss in revenue.

CONROY: Sorry Dan – if I can finish. The third one is that it’s better clinically. Studies have shown overseas that by shifting to 60 days, people are more likely to stay on their medications. Regarding pharmacies, we’ve been very clear that every dollar the Government has saved from this reform – that’s $1.2 billion – is being put back into community pharmacies. So every dollar that is saved, every dollar that impacts government revenue is going back into pharmacies to support community pharmacies because they play a really important role in our communities and we’re committed to that. On top of that we have reshaped a program that originally went straight to aged care homes that now will go through pharmacies in recognition of the support community pharmacies play to our aged care sector. So we recognise that pharmacies are really important but we’re responding to the expert advice of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee that includes representatives from the pharmaceutical industry on it – I should point that out – and how can we stand up to advice that says this is better for health outcomes, it reduces the cost of getting medicines very significantly and reduces – it relieves pressure on our overstretched doctors. Those triple things are really important, and we stand by this reform.

COX: Minister Pat Conroy joins you on ABC Newcastle Breakfast talking about last night’s Budget – 21 past 7. In terms of housing Minister, a 15% increase in the Commonwealth Rent Assistance that could give up to $31 extra a fortnight for people who are renting. There are some concerns, some criticisms, that this will just mean landlords put the rent up. It will go straight into the pockets of landlords. What do you say to that? How will you stop that from happening?

CONROY: Well, we will certainly be trying to keep as much pressure on what landlords do and there’s a process going through the National Cabinet around increasing renters’ rights, which is really important. This is a really important reform – around 3,200 families in Shortland will benefit from this increase in Rent Assistance. This is complimenting our efforts to get the $10 billion Housing Australia Future Fund through the Senate that will deliver tens of thousands of new social and affordable housing so we know housing is a huge issues and that’s why this Budget has very significant reforms that build on our earlier commitments.

COX: There have been calls to increase JobSeeker for years now. $40 a fortnight is what your Government is willing to give jobseekers. An extra $40 a fortnight that’s not tackling the rising cost of living, that’s just tinkering around the edges, isn’t it?

CONROY: Well I will make the point that that’s on top of the normal indexation of government payments reflecting inflation -

COX: Right so not really an increase at all.

CONROY: No, no this is on top of that. So if you’re on JobSeeker or another payment your payments get increased every six months due to the impact of inflation. So this is then on top of that an additional $40 a fortnight increase in JobSeeker in recognition that it is too low and needs to be increased. I do think we’ve got the balance right between supporting people on these payments –and don’t forget the very significant reforms to the Single Parenting Payment, a really important reform there that will benefit people in our region as well – while having fiscal restraint. It’s really important that we have a Budget that helps Australians but also doesn’t add to interest rate pressures through inflation and starts to pay down the almost trillion dollars of debt we inherited from the last government. We have to get the balance right and we think this Budget does that.

COX: Renewable energy is front of mind for most of the people living in the Hunter. We saw Liddell close recently, we’ve been hearing about the Port of Newcastle’s renewable energy precinct. This Budget doesn’t necessarily show your Government’s commitment to speeding up that process does it?

CONROY: We are getting on with that work, that’s really important. We are actually complimenting that with further initiatives. The $2 billion Hydrogen Headstart program compliments our other announcements, whether it’s the hydrogen hub, the $20 billion for Rewiring the Nation and the hydrogen initiative is something that I think the Hunter will be very competitive for. I’ve always maintained that we’re a great place for a hydrogen industry both to export clean hydrogen, especially to places in North Asia like Japan and Korea but also to fuel green steel and green aluminium. We’ve got a great opportunity just as our region industrialised on cheap energy in the 1950s we can grow manufacturing on cheap, clean renewable energy and grow more jobs as a result and the $2 billion announcement for the Hydrogen Headstart is a really good start.

COX: Pat Conroy, Minister, thank you for taking our questions this morning.

CONROY: Anytime Dan, have a good morning.

COX: You too. Pat Conroy there, the Minister for Defence Industry, International Development and the Pacific and the Federal Member for Shortland.