‘It’s an easy question’: Crabb pounces

The ABC's Insiders program turned tense this morning as host Annabel Crabb refused to allow her guest, Communications Minister Paul Fletcher, to dodge an awkward question.

Mr Fletcher was on the show, first and foremost, to discuss the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission's newly released report into the behaviour and market power of tech giants such as Google and Facebook. And that is how the interview started.

RELATED: ACCC recommends big changes for tech giants

But he grew increasingly evasive as Crabb brought up a report in Nine newspapers this week, which revealed Mr Fletcher had intervened to remove a bipartisan recommendation to increase the Newstart allowance from a parliamentary report just before the election.

Crabb asked him whether that news report was correct. He did not want to answer. Here is the exchange in its full, cringeworthy glory.

Crabb: "Before the election you, as social services minister, intervened personally to have a recommendation that Newstart be increased pulled out of the final report of a bipartisan select committee. Is that correct?"

Fletcher: "Well, the recommendations of that report were agreed by the members of the committee. That's how it always works with a parliamentary committee. It's a report of the committee, of the members. There were Labor and crossbench members. They signed off on those recommendations."

Annabel Crabbe grilling Paul Fletcher on Insiders. Picture: ABC
Annabel Crabbe grilling Paul Fletcher on Insiders. Picture: ABC

Crabb: "I know, but they signed off first on a draft report that did have a recommendation to increase Newstart, and after a direct personal intervention from you, that was removed in the final report?"

Fletcher: "A parliamentary report, including this one, is determined and finalised. Its content and its recommendations are a matter for the committee members, as was the case here. They signed off on the report. Coalition, Labor and crossbench members."

Crabb: "Did you have any contact with any member of the committee asking them to remove that recommendation from their final report?"

Fletcher: "Well, again, the parliamentary committee reports, including this one, are signed off on by committee members. That's what happened here."

Crabb: "It's a pretty easy question. Did you have any contact with anyone on the committee between the draft and final reports?"

Fletcher: "The point is that parliament ..."

Crabb: "No, the point is that it is a fairly straightforward question. You said that and I understand ..."

Mr Fletcher, not quite enjoying himself. Picture: ABC
Mr Fletcher, not quite enjoying himself. Picture: ABC

Fletcher: "It is signed off by the committee members. That is what happened here."

Crabb: "No one is disputing that the final report was signed off by the committee. What I'm asking you is a simple question. Did you have any contact with any member of the committee?"

Fletcher: "Look, I speak to colleagues all the time. But I'm not going to go into the conversations that I have with colleagues. The point I make is, the standard practice is that a committee report is signed off on by committee members, and that is exactly what happened here. The other point I make is that we are completely consistent in our position in relation to Newstart. Our focus when it comes to Newstart, as a government, is on getting people off of Newstart and into the workforce as quickly as possible. We've created 1.3 million new jobs since we came to government. We're having considerable success in getting people off of welfare roles into work. Of course there's more to do. But Newstart is designed to assist people to make the transition into the workforce."

Crabb: "Sure. Look, it's totally clear to me from the way that you're answering the question that you did make a personal intervention, because if you hadn't, you would have said so quite quickly. Is it appropriate for a minister to intervene at the end of a bipartisan committee process?"

Fletcher: "Again, I'm not going to accept your characterisation there."

Crabb: "Well you're welcome to deny it."

Fletcher: "What is absolutely clear in relation to parliamentary committee reports is that they are reports of the parliamentary committee, and this committee resolved, in relation to the recommendations, and that's the report in the form that it was tabled in March of this year."

Crabb: "We're right out of time."

The debate over Newstart regained momentum this week, with several Coalition politicians publicly contradicting their party's official position and calling for the unemployment benefit to be increased.

As it stands, Newstart has not risen in real terms for 25 years. Jobseekers currently receive $555,70 per fortnight, or just under $40 each day.

Activists are lobbying for a $75-per-week increase to the payment.

At its midweek caucus meeting, Labor decided it would push the government to hold a review into the level of Newstart with a view towards raising it - essentially, to adopt the position the opposition itself had taken to the election.

RELATED: Renewed push to raise Newstart allowance

Mr Fletcher's interview covered several other subjects as well. Most interestingly, Crabb asked the communications minister whether Netflix was getting too sweet a deal in Australia.

"Just on Netflix, the company earns hundreds of millions of dollars from Australian subscribers, about five million subscribers. But all of the subscription fees go straight to a company in Amsterdam, so they're paying little tax in Australia," Crabb said.

"But it also has no requirement to show Australian content, and chews up a lot of bandwidth. Is there a way of charging to access the NBN?"

Mr Fletcher said the NBN itself had recently released a discussion paper, which asked retail service providers about possible pricing options, and that was a matter for the NBN's board and management.

"In relation to broader policy settings, the Treasurer has been pretty clear about our government's approach in relation to tax on global businesses, in relation to their Australian activities. There is GST on Netflix" he said.

"Would you like to see Netflix making a bigger contribution to the Australian economy?" Crabb followed up.

"They're getting a pretty good deal, aren't they? They're not paying much tax, they're using a lot of bandwidth and getting the NBN on the same terms as everyone else. Should that change?"

"As part of considering what might be included in a media regulatory framework, clearly one of the questions is obligations on free-to-air TV network and on subscription TV to air Australian content," he said.

"Does it stack up for Netflix not to have such obligations? Those are questions that we'll consider. We'll be interested in the feedback of stakeholders."