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RMIT ABC Fact Check

Cutting through the accusations and acrimony to get to the facts of the second leaders' debate

In the heat of the debate, claims flew which required more context than the leaders provided. (AAP)

The second leaders' debate on the Nine Network last night was full of accusations and acrimony.

Amidst the shouting and over-talking coming from both Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, it was easy for the facts to get lost.

You're probably wondering how close some of the things that were said came to being correct. RMIT ABC Fact Check has you covered.

Any port in a storm

The lease of the Port of Darwin by the NT government has become a controversial issue for the Coalition. (ABC News: Matt Garrick)

One of the night's most heated topics was China — and each party's relationship with it.

When the discussion came to the Northern Territory government's controversial leasing of the Port of Darwin to Chinese interests in 2015, Mr Morrison said:

The Prime Minister made a similar claim in February — which RMIT ABC Fact Check found was not the full story.

While the Foreign Investment Review Board determined in 2015 it had no authority to examine the deal, an expert told Fact Check the parliament could have passed specific legislation if defence and other agencies had expressed serious concerns about a potential risk to national security.

Such a move would have required the government to have a "valid reason" for seeking to override the deal — a reason that would stand up if challenged in the High Court of Australia.

In addition to legislative authority, experts said the Commonwealth has always had very broad powers, particularly the informal power to exert political pressure.

Yet the federal government in 2015 did not, apparently, exert any political pressure over the Northern Territory to try to sway its decision.

Mr Morrison became treasurer a month before the Northern Territory government finalised the deal.

In defence of defence spending

Continuing with the theme of national security, the two leaders found themselves in a fiery debate about defence, with Mr Morrison asking Mr Albanese:

So what happened to defence spending under Labor?

Coalition politicians often claim that Labor cut defence spending to its lowest level since 1938.

Defence spending is commonly expressed as a proportion of gross domestic product, which allows historical and international comparisons. In layman's terms, that's the size of the economy.

Labor's defence spending in 2012-13 is the lowest figure as a proportion of GDP recorded since 1938, but that doesn't tell the full story about Labor's time in office, as Fact Check has previously found.

Firstly, it ignores Labor's spending in 2009-10, where it was higher than at any time under the previous Coalition government led by John Howard, nearly reaching 2 per cent of GDP.

Secondly, GDP figures for previous years are updated by the ABS while the record of defence spending remains static.

This means that the figures bounce around somewhat when new estimates of GDP are released, and perversely, if the economy is estimated to have done worse in a given year, it makes defence spending look better.

Indeed, in a more recent analysis of defence spending, experts contacted by Fact Check took issue with using a single year of spending to characterise the record of an entire government.

Fact Check examined a claim from Shadow Defence Minister Brendan O'Connor on whether average defence spending under the Howard and Rudd-Gillard governments was "similar", between 1.7 per cent and 1.8 per cent of GDP.

That was found to be a fair call, with the average under the Rudd-Gillard government at 1.72 per cent compared to the average under the Howard government at 1.77 per cent.

Mr Morrison also claimed during the debate that the Coalition was "defending our country with record investments in defence".

While there are different methodologies for assessing the level of defence spending, it's pretty clear that as a proportion of GDP, defence spending has been higher in the past.

Fact Check has previously approached the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a non-partisan think tank which is partly funded by the Department of Defence, for guidance in calculating defence spending.

For 2020-21, which is the last complete financial year, ASPI calculates defence spending as a proportion of GDP at 2.04 per cent.

This is outstrips the highest figure in the institute's "cost of defence" database for the Rudd-Gillard government at 1.96 per cent in 2009-10.

But looking back into the history books, it has been much higher. Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which is sourced to the Department of Defence, shows defence spending was around this level when Mr Howard came to government in March 1996, and was higher in the years before, including both Labor and Coalition governments.

Doubling the debt?

As with the campaign, much of the debate was devoted to arguments over economic management. Mr Albanese attacked the Coalition's record on government debt, claiming:

As Fact Check has previously found, the dollar value of government debt had indeed doubled, in nominal terms, under the Coalition over the years to January 2020.

Official monthly data shows that gross debt had grown $280.3 billion to $568.1 billion (103 per cent) since the 2013 election, while net debt — which better reflects the government's capacity to pay its debt — had risen from $174.6 billion to $430.2 billion (146 per cent).

A fairer comparison would, however, also take into account the size of the economy, which accounts for the passage of time and inflation.

Financial year data from the 2022-23 budget, which is produced on a financial year basis, doesn't align neatly with electoral dates or the start of the pandemic.

It shows that between June 2013, three months before the Coalition was elected, and June 2019, seven months before the pandemic, gross debt as a share of GDP grew by 65 per cent, and net debt by 85 per cent.

Flatlining wages?

As the leaders debated how best to address the rising cost of living Mr Albanese criticised the Coalition's track record on wage growth, saying:

It's not the first time Mr Albanese has made such a claim. In June last year a Fact Check investigation found his claim that real wages had been "flatlining" over the previous eight years to be "close to the mark".

So how does the claim stack up over the past ten years?

Fact Check has examined wage growth several times, with the Wage Price Index published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics considered the best measure for wages growth over time.

The WPI can be converted into "real" terms, that is, adjusted to account for inflation, by using the Consumer Price Index, also published by the ABS.

The most recent data available accounting for both the WPI and CPI is for December 2021.

Over the ten years to December 2021 wages grew at an annual average of 0.5 per cent.

Another way to assess Mr Albanese's claim is to consider the change in real wages in individual years. This can give a better sense of volatility in individual years, addressing the question of whether real wages growth has "flatlined".

As the chart below illustrates, wage growth has not been uniform over the past decade. For example, in 2012 real wages grew by 1.2 per cent in real terms whereas, in 2021, they fell by 1.2 per cent.

So does this constitute wages "flatlining"?

As Grattan Institute Budget Policy and Institutional Reform fellow Kate Griffiths previously told Fact Check the term "flatlining" is "a bit subjective and vague".

In a strict sense, flatlining could be considered to mean zero growth. Clearly, this is not the case.

However, as Fact Check previously noted, by recent historical standards average growth has certainly been low.

For example, the annual average pace over the 12 years leading up to December 2012 was 0.9 per cent.

Did Morrison master the issue of apprentices?

Mr Morrison pointed to a surge in apprentice numbers under his government, claiming that there are "more apprentices in trade training today, 220,000 of them, than we have had since records began in 1963".

But as Fact Check has pointed out before, that figure says little about the current situation relative to years past, as it makes no reference to 60 years of population growth.

Mr Morrison's claim falls apart when the numbers are viewed as rates that take population into account, for example, as a share of the employed population or of the working age population (aged 15-64).

In 2021, apprentices made up 1.6 per cent of the employed population compared with a peak of 2.3 per cent in 1982. And they made up 1.3 per cent of the working age population compared with 1.5 per cent in 1974.

It's also worth noting that apprentice numbers have been significantly boosted by temporary pandemic-era wage subsidies since 2020, having previously fallen by 27,000 over the first seven years of the Coalition.

Bulk-billing rates

Spruiking his government's record, Mr Morrison pointed to high bulk billing rates as a measure of success.

"Managing money well means that we can invest in and guarantee the essential services you rely on," Mr Morrison said, before noting there was an "88.8 per cent Medicare bulk billing rate".

While Mr Morrison did not specify whether he was referring to all services covered by Medicare or just GP visits, his comment aligns with the rate of GP services bulk billed — 88.8 per cent — in the 2020-21 financial year

The bulk billing rate for all Medicare services in 2020-21 was 81 per cent.

However, as Fact Check has pointed out previously, these statistics refer to the proportion of services bulk billed, not the number of patients.

In its 2020 Health of the Nation report, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners explained that patients could receive a number of services during a single visit to a GP, with some of these services bulk-billed and others billed privately.

Additionally, experts have previously explained to Fact Check that some groups of people are more likely to be bulk billed, such as concession card holders, visit the GP more often than those who aren't bulk billed. This means that the rate of bulk-billed services does not directly translate to the bulk-billing rate for individuals.

The Health of the Nation Report noted that in 2018-19, 86 per cent of GP services were bulk billed, but only 66 per cent of patients had all their GP services bulk billed.

Issues of integrity

As the debate turned to the question of establishing a federal anti-corruption body, Mr Albanese pointed to the referral process under the Coalition's proposed model claiming:

In a previous investigation, Fact Check considered the Coalition's proposed model for a federal integrity commission in detail after Social Services Minister Anne Ruston claimed that draft legislation for the government's Commonwealth Integrity Commission published in 2020 showed it would have "powers … well in excess of a royal commission".

Fact Check found Senator Ruston's claim was overblown.

Mr Albanese's claim was not entirely clear, as he and Mr Morrison were speaking over each other at the time.

However, the issue of how suspected corruption would be referred to the new body under the government's proposed legislation has been controversial.

As explained in assessing Senator Ruston's claim, the Coalition's proposal would see the CIC split into two divisions.

The "law enforcement integrity division" would have jurisdiction over certain federal law enforcement agencies, such as the federal police, as well as public sector agencies with investigative functions, like the Department of Home Affairs.

The "public sector integrity division" on the other hand would investigate parliamentarians, the public service, higher education providers and other Commonwealth entities.

Which division covers which agencies?

Law enforcement division

Public sector division

  • Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission
  • Australian Federal Police
  • Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre
  • Department of Home Affairs
  • Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment
  • Australian Competition and Consumer Commission
  • Australian Prudential Regulation Authority
  • Australian Securities and Investments Commission
  • Australian Taxation Office
  • Public service departments and agencies
  • Parliamentary departments, statutory agencies
  • Commonwealth companies and Commonwealth corporations
  • Higher education providers and research bodies that receive Commonwealth funding
  • Commonwealth service providers and any subcontractors they engage
  • Parliamentarians and their staff

Source: Attorney-General's Department

Under sections 33 to 36 of the exposure draft, referrals in the public sector division can only be made by certain individuals including the Attorney-General, the responsible minister for the agency investigated, Commonwealth Integrity Office Holders and certain parliamentarians.

Meanwhile, under section 44, investigations in the law enforcement division can be referred by anyone — including members of the public.

Associate professor and deputy director of the Australian Centre for Justice Innovation at Monash University Yee-Fui Ng previously told Fact Check there were significant constraints on the referral process in the public sector division that prevented it from acting on tip-offs from the public or whistleblowers.

"The [public sector division of the] CIC has less powers than equivalent oversight bodies (such as the Ombudsman and Auditor-General) as it cannot conduct own-motion investigations or receive referrals directly from the public," she said.

This issue was also raised by the Grattan InstituteThe Law Council of Australia and the Australian Human Rights Commission in their responses to the exposure draft of the government's legislation.

Principal researchers: Jack Kerr, Matt Martino, Sonam Thomas, David Campbell and Ellen McCutchan

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