ABC Radio National Drive - 24 June 2013

On ABC Radio National Drive program, I spoke with host Waleed Aly and Liberal Senator Arthur Sinodinos about party leadership, temporary migration, and asylum seekers. Here's a podcast.

Andrew Leigh MP
Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister
Member for Fraser
24 June 2013

Topics:                         Leadership, 457 visas, immigration.

Waleed Aly:                        So Parliament has resumed for the final sitting week before the election and again, or should we say still, three years after Julia Gillard became Prime Minister and just three months out from an election, we’re talking about whether or not she’ll survive as leader. She was speaking to the media in Canberra today, she said she absolutely still has the support of Labor MPs to remain PM.

Julia Gillard [CLIP]            This issue was settled in March by the Labor Party. This week, what I’ve achieved is better schools for our nation which means a better future for our nation. That’ll be my focus. Now, you may choose to focus on something else but that’s exactly what I’ll be focussed on.

Waleed Aly:                        Mmm, and so it went. The leadership is still the story. She may not want it to be, but it is what’s dominating news coverage and it’s what all of her colleagues are talking about. So to discuss the politics and the policy during this election year, we’re joined once again by the men that we’ve dubbed our shining knights of politics the Parliamentary Secretaries of the Opposition Leader and the Prime Minister respectively, Senator Arthur Sinodinos and Dr Andrew Leigh. Gentlemen, thank you. Welcome.

Arthur Sinodinos:             Thanks mate.

Andrew Leigh:                  Thanks.

Waleed Aly:                        Good to have you with us again. Andrew, I’m going to start with you because I suppose that’s the thing that you have to do today, isn’t it? Why are we still having this conversation about leadership?

Andrew Leigh:                  Well Waleed, I’m just here to answer the questions. You’re the one who’s asking them.

Waleed Aly:                        Well, yes -

Andrew Leigh:                  - so I guess I could naturally throw that back to you.

Waleed Aly:                        Ah come on, let’s be honest about this. If I did not ask you it would be a ridiculously strange omission because so many of your colleagues want to talk about it, and want to talk about it with journalists off the record.

Andrew Leigh:                  I’m sure there are people who are interested in petty gossip. I’ve got to say there’s more petty gossip in this building than any other building I’ve ever worked in. But I’d much rather be having a conversation about health policies, about education policies, about the National Broadband Network. I was out doorknocking in Kaleen in my electorate on the weekend and I’ve got to tell you that inside the so-called beltway the issues that people are talking about are not the stuff of gossip and speculation, but they’re actually ‘how will policies affect my day-to-day life?’…

Waleed Aly:                        No doubt.

Andrew Leigh:                  Which can be the impact of the National Broadband Network policy the Government’s got, or the Coalition alternative.

Waleed Aly:                        No doubt that’s true, but how can you have a policy conversation when you’re not exactly sure who is going to be the Prime Minister the next day, and then what they are going to do with the policies that are on the table.

Andrew Leigh:                  Kevin Rudd said there were no circumstances in which he could see himself returning to the leadership.

Waleed Aly:                        He said he believed -

Andrew Leigh                    - I take him at his word.

Waleed Aly:                        Ok, so I’m going to take it from you right now, if all of this is just petty gossip you can guarantee me on air, right now, that nothing is going to happen that even approximates a leadership challenge between now and the end of the week.

Andrew Leigh:                  Yes. Julia Gillard is going to lead us to the next election.

Waleed Aly:                        Is that the same thing as saying there is absolutely nothing to this, and there will definitely not be a challenge of any description?

Andrew Leigh:                  That’s certainly my understanding from talking to colleagues.

Waleed Aly:                        Ok. What does this look like from the other side of politics, Arthur Sinodinos? I mean, broadening this about a bit, you’ve seen some leadership in your time on your side of politics as well, this is the sort of thing political parties do, although this time it seems particularly self-wounding this close to an election.

Arthur Sinodinos:             What I find interesting about this, Waleed, is that it’s gone on for so long. As you say, the older you get, you probably see more leadership contests than, you know, than eating hot pies, but I’ve never seen a process in which a party wants to put itself through so much agony for so long and in the end, for what? I mean, I don’t see any philosophical or ideological issues at stake here to say that this is a great fight for the soul of the Labor Party. I mean, maybe Rudd has some different ideas about the role of the unions in running the Labor Party perhaps, or whatever, but I can’t see that there are any differences between the two protagonists. So apart from that personal angst around who is the Prime Minister, it’s hard to see why we have to go through this. In the Liberal Party, to be honest, it would have been settled a while ago and basically it would have been settled on the numbers on the polls; that’s the cold, hard reality. It’s all about arithmetic and I can’t see why they’ve put themselves through all this agony. From our point of view as an opposition it’s a funny situation because we are quite happy to go on policy because there’s all sorts of stuff we can attack the Government on and we can talk about our own stuff but everybody keeps getting derailed by this leadership stuff.

Waleed Aly:                        We’ll come to those things in a moment. But, I mean, there was a lot of tortuous conversation around in 2007 when there was a suggestion that Peter Costello should have taken over from John Howard. This just seems a little bit more dramatic, but in essence is it really any different?

Arthur Sinodinos:             Well I think there were a couple of times during 2007 when change was contemplated but was never consummated,  but I’ve never seen anything as drawn out as this. And, as I say, it really is a bit of a distraction from other things. And where I disagree with Andrew is I think the public see what is going on and think there’s too much focus in Canberra by the Government on themselves and not enough on the issues that affect me.

Waleed Aly:                        Well to be fair, Andrew’s trying hard not to talk about it today, so he can hardly be…

Arthur Sinodinos:             And he is and I give him credit for that but the fact of the matter is something is going on because the journalists are not making this up.

Andrew Leigh:                  I think Arthur has nailed it in saying the big differences are not within parties; they’re between them. And the differences, much as we get on well, the ideological differences that separate Arthur and I are the much more interesting question here. Historians to come will probably look at the role of fast-paced media technology in affecting the stability of leadership in the modern age. I think there’s a reason why parties have more leaders in the years since 2000 than they did in say, the 1950s and 1960s. But that doesn’t change the core role of people like Arthur and me which is to talk about ideas and values, to have a good contest about the kind of Australia we want to be living in.

Waleed Aly:                        And it doesn’t also change the role of your colleagues who are keeping this stability, or this instability, alive; Kevin Rudd among them. And the fact that he will not answer the question unequivocally when it is put to him about what his intentions are, and he says things like, ‘I will do anything it takes to stop Tony Abbott becoming the next Prime Minister’, and that causes an invitation to interpret this to suggest that he’s undermining Julia Gillard, and he would know that. Do you have a message to him as your colleague?

Andrew Leigh:                  Mr Rudd has in fact been unequivocal and he has been parsed and diced with the skill of those old Kremlinologists who used to look at the words coming out of -

Waleed Aly:                        - Well you’re not giving him much of a compliment if you think he doesn’t understand the consequences of his inexactitude.

Andrew Leigh:                  I’m actually reading the same comments as you, Waleed, and I take them pretty unambiguously.

Waleed Aly:                        Ok. We’ll see how just unambiguous it is. Let’s go to some policy issues, the 457 visa legislation. This is the Government’s so-called crack down. Now Arthur Sinodinos, I’ll start with you, the legislation that’s been introduced into the Parliament really just gives the Government the ability to monitor and enforce compliance with the law, because at the moment they don’t have that. What exactly is wrong with that as an idea?

Arthur Sinodinas:             I think what’s wrong with this is the context. I mean, we’ve had something like a record number of 457 visas issues under this Government, the program’s been going for years and years including five or six years under this Government and all of a sudden, close to an election, people start worrying about Aussie jobs being taken away. The coincidence is just too much. I mean, I think that Minister O’Connor has been caught out contriving to create a scandal and an issue by concocting some numbers around how many of these visas are allegedly being misused. I saw the report on the ABC the other night on the 7:30 Report about what might be happening in the IT sector. My view of that has always been, and that was always about one company that was the focus of the report, and then the implication is what? That you generalise from that and say that the whole program is being rorted? I mean, that one of the -

Waleed Aly:                        - Isn’t that the implication just that rorting does happen and therefor it makes sense that there’s some sort of mechanism in place for policing it?

Arthur Sinodinos:             But my point is they’ve been monitoring this program for years and what? They’ve only just realised now that there’s possibly a little bit of rorting going on? I’ve no doubt that any program might involve an element of rorting but certainly nothing along the lines of what O’Connor tried to concoct in his own office to suggest that this was such a wide-spread problem. Essentially what’s been done here is that they’ve been stung by the success of the Coalition in raising the whole issue around asylum seekers and they’ve looked for a way to get back into that debate and they think this is the way to do it. That’s the bottom line of this and it’s not very edifying stuff, and the Minister is just basically doing whatever it takes to try and make an issue out of it.

Waleed Aly:                        Andrew Leigh?

Andrew Leigh:                  I think Arthur is being overly harsh in suggesting this is pure politics, Waleed. The Migration Council did a survey of 457 visa holders and they asked them whether employers had been meeting their obligations and whether they were getting equal working conditions with Australians. Five per cent said their employers weren’t meeting their obligations, 7 per cent said they weren’t getting equal working conditions with Australians, and from a pool of about 190,000 primary and secondary 457 visa holders that gives you something in the order of 10,000 457 visa holders who themselves said their employers weren’t meeting appropriate obligations or weren’t getting appropriate working conditions with Australians. So you want to keep that figure in perspective; yes, it’s five, seven per cent. But on the other hand it’s 10,000 people whose employers don’t seem to be meeting the rules of the program. And you’ve got to have these rules properly enforced otherwise I think you erode public confidence in the migration system.

Waleed Ally:                       That does raise the question that Arthur Sinodinos has asked, which is why you would move on this now? You’ve had six years in government, three years since the last election. If it’s a serious issue, if it’s significant enough to make the song and dance about it that we’re seeing in trying to push legislation into Parliament in the last session before the election, why leave it so late?

Andrew Leigh:                  Well the Migration Council report that I’m referring to has just recently come down and so this is a matter of fine tuning the program to make sure that it’s got appropriate enforcement mechanisms. Arthur and I are two extremely strong supporters of migration, but we would both share the view that without good enforcement of migration rules, you risk eroding public confidence within the entire system. So that’s what this is aimed at doing. The Migration Council themselves recommended that in the case where 457 workers weren’t being properly treated, that there ought to be some look at enforcement by employer peak bodies, the ACTU and the government. So I regard this as flowing out of that. You know, I was marching on the weekend with the Walk Together folks recognising the great benefits that Australia has gotten from migration in the post-World War II era. I was very proud to be part of that march and I don’t see any inconsistency between that and trying to get proper enforcement to make sure that 457 visa holders are looked after.

Waleed Aly:                        The question of the rhetoric that surrounds it and Arthur this brings me to a really interesting point with respect to the Coalition I know when you lost the election in 2007, you were one of the wise-heads that came out of that to explain that and one of the points you made was that the Coalition’s rhetorical position had not been inclusive of all the diversity here in Australia and at times had been divisive. Do you think that the rhetoric -

Arthur Sinodinos:             - Did I say that in 2007, did I?

Waleed Aly:                        I think you did!

Andrew Leigh:                  How these words come back to haunt you!

Waleed Aly:                        Feel free to dispute it but if you don’t dispute it, do you think the Coalition’s rhetorical settings, particularly on an issue such as asylum seekers, have really changed at all?

Arthur Sinodinos:             This is a real paradox. People just say this is an issue of wedge politics but in fact it goes to a point Andrew was making in the context of 457s, if it looks like you can’t control your borders, and we can have a big debate about numbers involved and all the rest of it, it does undermine support for the migration program. So, if the greater good is to have a strong and hopefully rising immigration program you want to deal with the issues that otherwise give people reservations about having a large program. And that, I think this is a really important point, my point about divisiveness versus inclusiveness is at every stage you should try, the best way to get people onside and earn their loyalty is to make them feel included, and so, you know, the idea of simply dividing the Australian population whether it’s class, gender, one race against another is equally abhorrent.

Andrew Leigh:                  I certainly share that view.

Waleed Aly:                        Mmm, it’s just interesting because the allegations are of different, but perhaps of equal dog whistle, aren’t they?

Andrew Leigh:                  Arthur is right to suggest that you want to be very careful accusing anyone of racism in these debates and also to maintain a strong tenure of respect. The language around ‘illegals’ that some members of Arthur’s party have used has been unfortunate. I’m fairly sure he doesn’t use that language, and I think that’s an important marker. It’s not illegal to seek asylum in another country, and we want to be very measured and balanced in everything we say about migration.

Waleed Aly:                        Well it seems that either of you can see the dog whistle on the other side politics and in your hearts of hearts; can you recognise it within your own?

Andrew Leigh:                  There are two pitches of dog whistles you think, Waleed? We’re uniquely attuned to the wrong pitch?

Waleed Aly:                        Yes, well they seem a semi-tone apart and it’s awful to listen to.

Arthur Sinodinos:             No, no, no, my point is that we have to be careful to maintain the overall support for the immigration program. I don’t think the way to do that is to deal with the issues that potentially can undermine it. So it’s not about dog whistling, it’s about dealing with issues that can deal with the greater good that you’re seeking to encourage.

Waleed Aly:                        Sure, sure, but you don’t call asylum seekers ‘illegal’ when they’re not.

Arthur Sinodinos:             Look, look, that to be honest, that debate rose in the context where, it’s not illegal to seek asylum, but the question was it was illegal to land, you know, without papers and authority and everything else. You can get into all sorts of semantics about this, so I just call them asylum seekers or boat people or the rest of it and people know what you’re talking about and we just go from there.

Waleed Aly:                        Yes, I wonder if they know what you’re talking about when you say “illegals” as your boss does, though?

Arthur Sinodinos:             He’s, I think, tried to clarify the context in which that happened

Waleed Aly:                        Ok, we’ll await further clarification. Gentlemen, it’s been wonderful to have you putting on your armour again and going in to fight for us, well joust, I’m not going to say fight because it’s been a little more dignified than that.

Arthur Sinodinos:             I think on the same side today!

Waleed Aly:                        Yeah! It’s good. Lovely to hear two erudite men..

Arthur Sinodinos:             Against the interviewer!

Andrew Leigh:                  Exactly. Exactly.

Waleed Aly:                        Well I just got a text: “lovely to hear two erudite men discussing policy. Well done Waleed and team.” It’s nothing to do with me. You’re the knights in shining armour, so thank you. Thank you so much for your contributions, we’ll have to do it again soon.

Arthur Sinodinos:             Thanks.

Andrew Leigh:                  Thanks Waleed.

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