Capital Hill - The Three Andrews

On 9 October 2013, I joined host Andrew Greene and Liberal MP Andrew Laming on ABC24's Capital Hill program. Topics included the importance of supporting jobs (including public sector jobs) and Coalition MPs using entitlements to attend weddings and participate in triathlons.

Here's the full transcript:

ANDREW GREENE: Joining me to discuss the day is Labor MP Andrew Leigh who's here in Canberra, and Liberal MP Andrew Laming in Brisbane. It's going to be a bit confusing but welcome to you both.

ANDREW LEIGH: Thanks Andrew.


GREENE: Before becoming Prime Minister, Tony Abbott declared there was a budget emergency though he has been reluctant to use the phrase since. The Grattan Institute's John Daley today told the National Press Club there's no emergency but it is plenty to be worried about.

JOHN DALEY: But there’s no flashing, blue lights. The Australian government budget is not in cardiac arrest on the operating table needing a triple by-pass to keep it alive. We don't have that kind of emergency but Australian government budgets are unfit, overweight and smoking and now they have high blood pressure and chest pains and most worryingly, I'd suggest, the patient has gone into denial and is eating more cheese.

GREENE: Well, firstly to you, Andrew Leigh in Canberra, we have seen an IMF report released overnight that again is warning of a slow-down in growth, rising unemployment. The current government is dealing with the legacy of Labor, isn't it?

LEIGH: The figures we've seen out of the IMF are broadly are in line with the Treasury updates before the election so I don't think there's anything to be surprised about in this. Clearly, risks in Europe with the banking system, risks in the US caused by the extreme wing of the Republicans pushing the country to the shutdown now and potentially even to a default on October 17th. I'm not sure Mr Abbott would be as congenial towards the Tea Party now as he was last year. But certainly it is not a time to be cutting jobs and Mr Abbott's pledge to cut 12,000 public service jobs is, I think, badly timed. David Johnston's suggestion that the Government might break its pledge to exempt defence is even more concerning.

GREENE: Andrew Laming in Brisbane, is the Coalition settled on whether we do have an emergency or not?

LAMING: Well, I think you heard it very clearly, Andrew, the economy effectively has chest pains, shortness of breath. To me, whether the house is smoking or fully alight, I guess the definition of emergency depends on how closely you are responsible for paying it off. So certainly I'm glad this government is utterly committed to doing that. The IMF's downgrade, shaving 0.1 or 0.2% off global forecasts, mostly reflects a reweighting of developing economies and they've taken between one and two per cent off some predictions there. They're very obviously concerned about the state of Europe one to five years before we can see any glimmers of hope there and what's happening in the US as Andrew Leigh said. For Australia, we have to be investing. I'd rather be building the roads of the 21st century than expanding or public service. You really are seeing in this Liberal Government a focus on front-line services.

GREENE: That's the point isn't it, Andrew Laming, you'd much prefer to be in Australia right now than anywhere else, Europe or the United States as you mentioned?

LAMING: And the IMF is effectively agreeing. In 2007 we had a large budget surplus, very, very strong and well regulated banks and we were able to negotiate what turned out to be a very deep ‘V’ recession worldwide with minimal recession here in Australia. Of course Australia did very well but when you look at the way we spent that money, it wasn't on economic infrastructure, in too many cases it was giving checks to people or paying for flat screens which certainly helped the South Koreans escape the GFC more so than Australia.

GREENE: Andrew Leigh, your response?

LEIGH: Well, Andrew Laming makes a lot of important points but he did say there was a mild recession in Australia. That's not correct. Australia didn't experience any recession, something that wouldn't have been the case if we'd insisted on keeping the budget on surplus all the way through. We did the economically responsible thing which was to take on modest levels of debt to support jobs. Now I see Mr Hockey, after railing against debt and deficits for years, is now looking at how he can put infrastructure spending off budget. He criticised Labor when we constructed the national broadband network in such a way that it wouldn't be on budget because it earned a return. Now the Coalition's NBN plan has a similar accounting treatment and they're looking at doing the same for roads. I think it's perfectly reasonable to invest in the infrastructure of the 21st century. Labor doubled the road budget when we were in office but it is passing strange that Mr Hockey has shifted from driving debt trucks around the country to now saying he'd like to have more debt for Australia.

GREENE: Andrew Laming, is now a time to consider borrowing for stimulus or for infrastructure?

LAMING:  Well, when we look at the US's action, what Ben Bernanke has done has been [to] continue very strategically and innovatively stimulus measures innovatively stimulus measures in the US which has been far more severely affected than Australia has. These are decisions obviously for the Treasurer himself but certainly Australia continues to spend and continues to have earnings, the question is what do you spend this money on and what can you do to stimulate your economy with the everyday expenditures of government? The simple point that's come out of today is we can't afford to go into even more debt without carefully targeted economic infrastructure, roads of the 21st century is the best example of that.

LEIGH: Andrew is right about that and I agree with his priorities but you would question why the Coalition wants to get rid of the profits-based mining tax, a measure whose benefits would go disproportionately towards magnates like Clive Palmer and wedding host Gina Rinehart and you would question why you would put in place a paid parental leave scheme which gives $75,000 to millionaires to have a child when we know the savings rates of millionaires are amongst the highest in the country. So, if you want money to flow into the country I agree with Andrew, it needs to be infrastructure. So build fibre to the home NBN, invest in urban rail and don't cut urban public transport. They’re ways of making sure we get a strong economy.

GREENE: Andrew Laming, your final response?

LAMING: Look, effectively Tony Abbott's paid parental leave scheme is making sure that low and middle-income earning females are supported through having children. Primarily they are the ones who miss out. We're not talking about the highly-paid public servants. We are not talking about those in corporate Australia, many of whom already have paid parental schemes. This about looking after every woman in Australia and as Tony Abbott said it is a productivity measure and shouldn't be seen as a social welfare measure.

GREENE: Andrew Leigh mentioned Gina Rinehart quite cheekily with the wedding host title, if we can turn to the issue of travel entitlements. Andrew Laming in Brisbane, firstly, you were investigated in the past few years over printing allowances and you were cleared by that process. Do you think it's now time to have a look at the rules and regulations, get some perhaps more scrutiny in the system?

LAMING: Look, I don't for a minute think that we need to completely change the system because the system itself fully, fully releases all expenditure by politicians and you're seeing now evidence that the public, through the media, can scrutinise what politicians have done going back years. So it's important for politicians to be very cautious, to remember that everything they do that's funded by the taxpayer has to be legitimate work-related business and obviously there's a balance sometimes because there can be personal time involved in work-related travel. But we have seen dozens and dozens of politicians on both sides of the fence paying money back. I think every politician knows whenever they travel at public expense that that decision can be expose by a vibrant media on the front page of the newspaper or on shows such as these. And I think that's a great system as it stands.

GREENE: Andrew Leigh, as the member for Fraser in Queensland, perhaps you're not the one to ask about airfares as much but are economy airfares something to consider for MPs travelling short distances?

LEIGH: I’ve made that decision on a personal level, if I'm flying a short-haul flight to Sydney or Melbourne I'll book an economy-class fare and that's, I think, a decision that others can make personally. But I do think that the test that Andrew Laming identifies is absolutely the right one. Is this reasonable in the eyes of the taxpayer? When I look at the refusal of Bronwyn Bishop and Philip Ruddock to repay the costs of travelling up to the wedding of a parliamentary colleague, when I look at Mr Abbott's decision not to repay the cost of privately competing in the Port Macquarie Ironman I do raise an eyebrow. If it's the case that I can do a sporting event just because it's in a marginal electorate, then that means presumably next year I can go up and run the City to Surf in my own personal capacity as long as I pick a hotel to stay the night in that's in a marginal electorate in Sydney. That doesn't seem reasonable.

GREENE: Andrew Laming, are sporting events reasonable things to be claiming travel entitlements for?

LAMING: I'm a strong supporter of senior political leaders being involved in large community events. I’d strongly support politicians competing and participating in events like that. We get to the ridiculous situation where you can sit at the grand final and watch it on entitlement but once you throw a jersey on and participate then you can't. I want to see politicians that do what every-day Australians do, I want to see them at the beach, meeting with the surf club. I want to see them doing events, participating and having a go and you'll find when leaders do that the entire event and entire town is aware of it and has the opportunity to engage those political leaders. I'm a strong supporter of that. The point about travelling economy is interesting. It should be noted discount business airfares are about the same price as the economy tickets that politicians often choose to buy. So the only way to save money for the Commonwealth is to fly on these non-flexible ready deals which are often not taken up by politicians. Just coming out of the business cabin of an aircraft doesn't save much money.

GREENE: Andrew Laming, on that point, in 2011 when you were very critical of then Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd and his overseas travel bill, you suggested and various web specials. Is this something perhaps Julie Bishop could embrace, she could be jumping on Wotif?

LAMING: Certainly I use them and most politicians I suspect do that. I guess, again, it's the public expectation test. Is $7,000 a night reasonable to stay in an overseas hotel or is it 700? Again, it gets the media test and public-interest test to decide those kinds of decisions.

GREENE: So to be clear, politicians should perhaps be looking at online deals?

LAMING: If you're asking me that question, look already in many cases where you’re presented with a global budget then the test for the politician to use the money as well as they can, representing their electorate or nation. So in many cases, in my case in particular as a federal politician, I have a limited pot of travel for family to accompany to Canberra, for instance, and we use that extremely judiciously to maximise the opportunities for my small family to be in Canberra, something I don't enjoy as much as Andrew Leigh who lives in our fine capital. We have a capped amount and use it as well as we can. I make the simple point that where there is a more expeditious way to travel then politicians, I think, are always looking to do that.

GREENE: Before we move on from this topic, we have been asking all MP s have either of you, beginning with Andrew Laming, had a need to update the registry in the past few weeks?

LAMING: No, I haven't but certainly years ago I paid back taxi fares, for instance, in my first year as an MP. I certainly add my name to the list of someone who's paid money back.

LEIGH: I flew to Melbourne last week on an economy fare, was upgraded to business and that's reportable so I reported that upgrade. Just to the broader point though, I think Labor has been very reasonable through this. For example with Mr Abbott's Pollie Pedal event, we haven't said we think that's inappropriate but we have encouraged the Government to look at a broader review of the way in which these entitlements are used. We'd like to see the system tightened up and I'm concerned that there are so many senior members of cabinet that seem to think that it's appropriate, for example, to use parliamentary entitlements to attend weddings or private sporting events. I agree with Andrew Laming, it's great to see parliamentarians competing in sporting events. But I just don't see why the taxpayer needs to foot the bill.

GREENE: Just before we end this evening, we will see the Labor caucus ballot tomorrow, Andrew Leigh, when we move ahead to the front-bench positions. Will you be expecting a call-up?

LEIGH: This is a matter for the caucus. The caucus selects the front bench and that's a decision we'll make collectively. I think that’s a great thing. And one of the things that you notice, if you look through the Labor caucus, you have an absolute wealth of talent. You've got a diversity of experience, people coming in having worked in the public and private sector, having worked as truck drivers and teachers. So we will be spoiled for choice in selecting our front bench in coming days.

GREENE: And on that point we'll have to leave it there. Thank you very much to our guests Andrew Laming in Brisbane, and here in Canberra, Andrew Leigh.

LEIGH: Thanks to the Andrews.

GREENE: That's Capital Hill for now. Good evening.

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