Fact checking Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese in the third leaders' debate
The third leaders' debate on the Seven Network on Wednesday night was a much more subdued affair than the fiery, more shouty clash between Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese on Sunday.
But in politics, less shouting doesn't necessarily mean fewer furphies. It only means they are uttered at a lower volume.
And so it was in the third meeting of the two leaders before the election. RMIT ABC Fact Check has rounded up some of the key claims where the leaders got their facts straight, and where they missed the mark.
Courting the female vote
Hoping to score points on economic equality for women, both men took swings at their opponent's records.
"The gender pay gap has fallen from 17.4 per cent under Labor to 13.8 per cent where it is now," Mr Morrison claimed. "It even went down to 13.4 per cent."
Mr Albanese, meanwhile, opted for an international comparison.
"Australia has fallen to 70th in the world for women's economic participation and opportunity," he noted.
Both claims, however, lack some important context.
Figures from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency do indeed show that the pay gap in Australia (the difference in average full time earnings for men and women) is currently 13.8 per cent, was as low as 13.4 per cent in early 2021, and was recorded at 17.4 per cent when Labor left office in 2013.
But those figures hide an increase in the gender pay gap when the Coalition first came to power: Fact Check found in 2018 that the gap had grown to 18.5 per cent by November 2014.
Moreover, experts have previously told Fact Check that the gender pay gap is driven primarily by economic trends, rather than government policy, with a booming economy leading to a larger gap and a stagnating economy causing the gap to narrow.
This is because men are more highly concentrated in industries more susceptible to the highs and lows of the economic cycle, such as mining, and would see their wages grow at a slower rate compared to women's during economic downturns (or faster during booms).
Mr Albanese's claim, meanwhile, appears to refer to a World Economic Forum report which ranks countries based on the women's economic participation and opportunity.
Australia's 2021 ranking, the latest available, aligns with the Opposition Leader's claim.
It's important to note, however, the WEF report focuses on measuring gaps in access to resources and opportunities rather than actual levels of available resources and opportunities in countries.
As one expert told Fact Check in 2018, the WEF report was "useful for rhetorical purposes" but may not be "telling us much about the absolute or objective reality of lives in each country".
Another noted that countries with low levels of absolute achievement could do well in the rankings if the gap between men and women was small.
That said, the experts also acknowledged that gender equality in Australia had regressed.
Argy-bargy over integrity
Issues of integrity in politics entered the debate when the two leaders found themselves in an argument over the government's proposed model for a federal anti-corruption commission.
Mr Morrison argued the government's proposed model for its Commonwealth Integrity Commission released last year had the "powers of a royal commission" including "powers of search, powers compelling witnesses".
In a previous investigation Fact Check found a claim by Social Services Minister Anne Ruston that the Coalition's model boasted powers "well in excess of a royal commission" to be overblown.
While the new body would have some powers comparable to those of a royal commission — including powers to enter and search premises and compel witnesses to testify, as suggested by Mr Morrison — there are other significant differences between the two.
Fact Check found the Royal Commissions Act was relatively brief, leaving scope for commissioners to use their powers broadly. In contrast, the much longer draft bill to establish the CIC imposed many constraints, including how investigations could be initiated and carried out.
In particular, there were significant limitations on the powers in the proposed "public sector division", covering most of the public service, parliamentarians, higher education providers and research bodies.
In this division, the CIC would lack the power to hold public hearings — a function that legal experts told Fact Check increased the effectiveness of royal commissions and contributed to their investigative ability.
There are also limitations in the public sector division on what types of conduct can be investigated, who can be investigated and how much of its work can be reported publicly, in contrast to royal commissions.
Experts told Fact Check that these restrictions undercut the new body's powers in a way that did not apply to royal commissions.
They also pointed out that the CIC would have less ability than a royal commission to exercise the powers it did have, because its proposed annual budget fell well below the cost of many single-issue royal commissions.
Who would be able to refer to the commission?
In response to Mr Morrison's claims about the powers of the proposed CIC, Mr Albanese argued it needed to be "independent of politics" saying that under the government's model "ministers would decide" whether something was referred to the new body.
As explained in Fact Check's assessment of Senator Ruston's claim, the Coalition's proposal would see the CIC split into two divisions.
As mentioned above, the "public sector integrity division" would investigate parliamentarians, the public service, higher education providers and other Commonwealth entities
The "law enforcement integrity division" on the other hand 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.
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.
Help to buy or forced to sell?
In an attack on Mr Albanese, Mr Morrison suggested his opponent "doesn't think through" his policies.
"He has got a housing policy where if you get a wage rise you've got to sell your house," Mr Morrison said.
But that's not quite correct.
Labor's Help to Buy scheme would see the government own as much as a 40 per cent stake in homes bought by qualifying low-to-moderate-income earners, who would need to contribute only 60 per cent of the purchase price.
If elected, Labor would make the scheme available to up to 10,000 home buyers per year whose annual income is less than $90,000 (for singles) and $120,000 (for couples).
According to the policy on Labor's website:
"If the homebuyer's income exceeds the Help to Buy gross annual income threshold for two consecutive years, they will be required to repay the Government's financial contribution in part or whole as their circumstances permit."
Labor's policy does not detail how long buyers would have to repay the government, nor does it stipulate that a house would need to be sold in order to make the repayments.
Additionally, Shadow Finance Minister Richard Marles has explained that the policy is directed at long-term low-to-moderate income earners who otherwise "face a lifetime of renting", rather than those expected to see large increases in income.
Mr Albanese sought to connect action on climate change with lower electricity prices, claiming:
In 2019, Fact Check tested a similar claim from former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, who tweeted that "renewables + storage are cheaper than new coal let alone … nuclear power."
That claim was found to be a fair call.
The verdict was based on a 2018 report released by the national science agency CSIRO and the energy market operator AEMO.
The report was part of the GenCost project, "the result of a collaboration between CSIRO and AEMO, together with stakeholder input, to deliver an annual process of updating electricity generation costs".
The lead author Paul Graham, who is the CSIRO's chief energy economist, said when the report was released:
"Our data confirms that while existing fossil fuel power plants are competitive due to their sunk capital costs, solar and wind generation technologies are currently the lowest-cost ways to generate electricity for Australia, compared to any other new-build technology.
"At a global level, the investment costs of a wide range of low emission generation technologies are projected to continue to fall, and we found new-build renewable generation to be least cost, including when we add the cost of two or six hours of energy storage to wind and solar."
The latest update of the report was released at the end of 2021.
Upon its release, the CSIRO said: "The latest 2021-22 report confirmed past years' findings that solar and wind are cheapest, even when considering their additional integration costs such as storage and transmission."
The project calculates the "levelised cost of energy" (LCOE) for generating new power, for example, building a new coal-fired power plant or a wind farm.
"LCOE converts all costs into annual operating costs (i.e. capital costs are amortised into equivalent annual payments), adds them together and divides them by annual output in energy terms, typically MWhs," the 2018 report said.
It added that LCOE "needs to be extended in light of the greater emphasis on variable renewables in the electricity system and their additional balancing costs which are not captured by LCOE calculations".
Leading experts consulted by Fact Check at the time pointed out that new coal-fired power plants would most likely be required to accept a "risk premium" when obtaining finance, reflecting uncertainty over international and domestic climate and energy policy, future clean-up costs, and higher construction risks.
According to some estimates, interest rates faced by new coal projects as a consequence would be twice those applying to wind or solar projects. Factoring this in makes new coal a less attractive proposition.
Data supplied to Fact Check by the CSIRO in 2019 confirmed that even when incorporating the cost of storage, renewables were cheaper for new power generation than coal when incorporating this risk premium, as well as small scale nuclear.
A graph taken from the most recent report similarly shows solar and wind well underneath all other non-renewables for LCOE in 2021.
The GFC and COVID-19: apples and oranges
Mr Morrison boasted of his government's response to COVID-19, arguing Australia had done well despite "a pandemic where the economic impacts have been 30 times worse than what occurred in the global financial crisis just over a decade ago" .
Fact Check looked at this claim in 2021, finding Mr Morrison was comparing apples and oranges, with experts arguing that his approach was not the normal way of assessing two economic periods.
In fact, they said his claim was confusing, misleading and most likely wrong, while noting that the two recessions were fundamentally different in nature.
Experts also told Fact Check that, although the final numbers were not yet in, they expected that an orthodox comparison would reveal the pandemic downturn of 2020 to be twice the magnitude of the GFC, or possibly similar.
When a record isn't a record
When it came to jobs and skills, Mr Morrison repeated a furphy that his government was "providing record numbers of apprenticeships".
That claim is in the ballpark in nominal terms, but as Fact Check has pointed out previously it says little about the current situation relative to previous years, given population changes.
When Mr Morrison says "record numbers", Fact Check takes him to be repeating his recent, clearer claim that there were "more apprentices in trade training today, 220,000 of them, than we have had since records began in 1963".
Things look very different 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 Coalition's first seven years.
Mr Morrison included Medicare bulk-billing rates in a list of reasons to vote for the Coalition.
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.
At the end of Labor's last full financial year in office, 2012-13, the rate of GP services bulk billed was 82.2 per cent and for all Medicare services was 76.5 per cent.
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.
Doubling the debt
Asked a question about how productivity could be increased, Mr Albanese attacked the government's record on economic management.
"There's nothing productive about doubling the debt before the pandemic that occurred," Mr Albanese said.
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.
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.
Principal researchers: Ellen McCutchan, Sonam Thomas, Matt Martino and Dave Campbell