Discussing Labor's renewal - ABC RN Breakfast - 30 October 2013

This morning I spoke with Radio National Breakfast's Political Editor, Alison Carabine, about my contributing essay in the revised and expanded version of Mark Latham's Not Dead Yet: What Future for Labor? The book published by Black Inc. hits bookshops today and sets out areas for continued reform and renewal.  Here's the podcast. The transcript is below.




TOPIC: Labor future

FRAN KELLY: It's nearly two months since the ALP's heavy loss federally and the ideological battle for the future of the party is underway. A new book out today titled Not Dead Yet is a collection of essays by some of Labor's best and brightest thinkers. And that includes the Shadow Assistant Treasurer, Andrew Leigh. The Canberra-based MP makes a strong pitch to his colleagues to reject Tony Abbott's style of negativity when it comes to Opposition. And, in a bid to democratise Labor he also proposes large scale plebiscites to select candidates and other important party positions. Andrew Leigh is in our Parliament House studios and he's speaking with our political editor, Alison Carabine.

ALISON CARIBINE: Andrew Leigh, good morning.

ANDREW LEIGH: Good morning Alison.

CARABINE: There is a certain arrogance that underpins your essay. You open with the bold deceleration that Labor Governments do more, Labor is the party of ideas and reform, but by contrast the Coalition is the defender of the status quo. Considering the election result it would appear that voters embraced the status quo much than they do ideas and reform.

LEIGH: I think Alison that's to confuse electoral success with policy achievement. Fundamentally the broad contours of the Australian story, over the last century or so, are those of a succession of Labor achievements. And whether that's putting in place the Snowy Hydro Scheme, whether it's opening up the economy, whether it's indeed bringing the troops back in World War Two to defend Australia, or the achievements of DisabilityCare and finally solving the Murray Darling Basin mess, those too were Labor reforms. I think that reflects the fact that ours is a party which is founded on the notion that government has an important role to play in improving the country. Conservatives are far more often comfortable just defending the status quo.

CARABINE: You won't achieve much policy success from Opposition. So the question is 'where to from here?'. In your essay, you set out three possible strategies for the party. The first goes to negativity. You say this is the most predictable path for Labor to take. It did work a treat for Tony Abbott. But you're not recommending it for the ALP. Why not?

LEIGH: Alison, if you think of politics as being Coke and Pepsi, then when the other brand pursues a successful strategy you should ape that strategy. But politics isn't like that because I believe that fundamentally Labor plays an ideas-based role. I think for us to pursue a pure strategy of negativity would be to negate our very reason for existing. Our role in Opposition needs to be a role of composing as well as opposing. It needs to be a role of carving out policy space and using that time also to develop the next set of reforms for the next Labor government.

CARABINE: You are of the view that negativity crowds our policy development for the next term of government. The 24/7 media cycle doesn't help either and in this new media landscape. You have identified rather David Attenborough-like, a new sub-species, that is, the back-bencher as rottweiler, can you explain what you mean and also maybe name some names.

LEIGH: [Laugh] I'm not sure I'd go so far as naming names. But I think there is a sense in which backbenchers follow the mould that their leader lays out. So, when Malcolm Turnbull was leader you saw a plethora of Liberal Party backbenchers looking to put creative ideas and opinion pieces into newspapers. When Mr Abbott became leader, with a very focused negative strategy, you saw backbenchers tripping over themselves to come up with a witty put-down of Julia Gillard of Kevin Rudd. I think that it's important that Labor doesn't go down that trajectory. One of the great Labor achievements of course is Medicare but we sometimes forget how quickly the Hawke Government put Medicare in place. They had Medicare up and running 11 months after the 1983 election and that's because they didn't waste time during Opposition. They'd spoken with the interest groups, they worked out precisely how Medicare would work and they hit the ground running when they won office in 1983. I think there's a good lesson in that for today's Labor Opposition.

CARABINE: Your preferred model for Labor Opposition what you describe as 'open Australia' - Labor embracing open markets, free trade, immigration and multiculturalism, support for social liberty and equality. Your agenda borrows heavily from small 'l' liberalism. Do you think Vladimir Lenin got it right when he said the ALP should be renamed the Liberal-Labor Party?

LEIGH: Well even a stopped clock is right twice a day and I think Lenin was right about that. I think ours is definitely a party of markets and multiculturalism. My colleague Chris Bowen has put this extremely articulately in the book that he put out earlier this year. We'll of course always be the party of egalitarianism, the party that tackles inequality and believes in a fair go. But on top of that I think we also have an important role to play, defending the role that markets have, whether that's in the Murray Darling Basin or dealing with climate change. Or indeed, just in raising prosperity across the board.

CARABINE: You also put in your essay the case not just for more open policy making but also open party structures. You've caught the current fever that's going around to democratise the party. You've taken it to a new level. You want not just rank and file ballots for delegates at party conferences and also for all senators. But you also want electorate-wide plebiscites. In what circumstances would they be warranted?

LEIGH: Well I believe that it's important that we look at the extent to which the party structures remain democratic. I think if we've got strong party membership, allowing party members to select candidates and delegates is actually a pretty effective strategy. But where that party membership has dwindled down too far to a point where it just can't be reasonably claimed to be representative, then I think opening things up to a broad plebiscite of the electorate makes sense. There's a sense in which that's a small 'l' liberal reform as well,  a reform in the spirit of openness which I think is in the best of the Labor tradition going back through Gillard, Hawke, Keating.

CARABINE: Andrew Leigh, you also think it's time for Labor MPs to be given the opportunity to cross the floor and not face expulsion from the party. Is that one area where you would concede the Liberals are more advanced in their thinking than Labor?

LEIGH: Well, the Liberals have a sort of funny rule where they try and hold people as tightly as they can but if they lose one then there's no sanctions. I think that's actually not much more advanced than the Labor position which says we will hold our candidates in all circumstances except if it's a conscience vote. What I'm advocating is what the British Labour Party calls 'a three-line whip' in which different votes are categorised as being [either] extremely important - so they're underlined three times; reasonably important - underlined twice; or what is now a conscience vote and then the whip would be underlined once. That allows a little more flexibility in particular votes. There would still be strongly binding votes. There's no question that if you're voting on the budget then that has to be a three-line whip. But it allows an additional gradation to what we have at the moment and moves us from the system of conscience votes which are really just restricted to those with religious overtones. They reflect a divide that was appropriate to a Labor Party of the 1950s but I don't think necessarily of the Labor Party of the 2010s.

CARABINE: Well just finally and briefly, is it easier for you to go out on a limb and make such bold recommendations since you're not a member of a faction. You're one of only three Labor MPs who are non-aligned. Does that help?

LEIGH: I think there's many people who are having these conversations within the Labor Party today. I mentioned Chris Bowen who's in a faction. Jim Chalmers, as well, has made thoughtful contributions. Clare O'Neil has written a terrific piece for The Age recently and I know that Melissa Parke and Lisa Singh have been advocates for change. So there's thoughtful conversations taking place - with an important respect for our traditions and our history, for the valuable role that unions have played in the party and for the recognition that we want to move cautiously - but that this is a good time for having a conversation for what Labor stands for and where we go.

CARABINE: Thanks so much for coming in and having that conversation on Radio National Breakfast. Thank you Andrew Leigh.

LEIGH: Thank you Alison.

FRAN KELLY: Andrew Leigh, shadow assistant treasurer speaking with Alison Carabine, our political editor in Canberra. And the book Not Dead Yet: What Future for Labor? It's released today. It's published by Black Inc. and Andrew Leigh's essay also has a few ideas about what Labor should be thinking about in terms of asylum policy and climate change.

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