Sky AM Agenda - Saturday 9 November 2013

This morning I appeared on Sky TV with host David Lipson. Topics canvassed were cuts to the public service, the asylum seeker stand-off with Indonesia, MP entitlements and the Coalition's plan to repeal racial vilification laws. Here's the full transcript:


David Lipson: Joining me in the Canberra studio by the shadow assistant treasurer Andrew Leigh. Thanks for your time today.

Andrew Leigh: Pleasure David.

Lipson: Let’s start off where we finished with Josh Frydenberg, the public service cuts. You’re a Canberra MP, how significant is the impact be on the Canberra economy. We knew this was going to happen but now it’s being put into practice.

Leigh: Well we knew it was going to happen David but it’s going to be pretty significant. Contrary to what Mr Frydenberg said, growth in public service numbers during Labor’s term in office matched population growth, the number of public servants per head didn’t change since the end of the Howard years. But what we have seen now is savage cuts; we’ve seen the incorporation of AusAID into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade being done in a terribly ham-fisted way. AusAID workers being brought into the DFAT atrium like cattle, made to stand on the ground floor while the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials look down and one of those DFAT officials mimed machine gunning those AusAID workers. Now were learning the new graduates for AusAID who had signed contracts with AusAID, and in many cases turned down other offers, in fact won’t have their jobs in February. So it’s being done in a terribly messy way -

Lipson: - that corralling is not the government’s fault, that seems to be a departmental issue doesn’t it?

Leigh: I think it ultimately does go back to the Minister, I think you need to recognise if you’re going to shut down an agency like AusAID and brutally incorporate them in to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade with no proper change management process, no looking after the employees, that’s really going to hit people hard. We are seeing in CSIRO up to a quarter of the workers whose jobs are in jeopardy. This is the organisation that invented the polymer bank note and wi-fi, and perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that a Government without a science minister wants to slash the CSIRO but it’s deeply disturbing none the less.

Lipson: The reason the Government is doing all this, and as I said they did say they would do this before the election, the reason they are doing it is to draw down the debt, to get the budget back into a decent financial position, because of the huge debt that was left to this Government by Labor.

Leigh: Huge debt is completely wrong David. If you look across the developed world Australia has one of the lowest debt levels. We took on that debt in order to save jobs. If you think we should have no debt, effectively someone who says that is believing we should have had higher unemployment in the crisis. So we have a modest level of debt, but if you want to bring it down you need to do things like keeping in place revenue measures. If you’re going to give a big tax break to millionaires and billionaires though the mining tax, if you’re going to give money back to big polluters by getting rid of the carbon price, if you’re going to insist on maintaining tax breaks for people with $2 million in their superannuation accounts, well then yes you’re going to have to hit middle and lower Australia hard. Public service cuts are just a part of that. They’re taking away the Schools Kids bonus at the start of next year, taking away income support payments - effectively a cut in the unemployment benefits. Inequality is going to rise under this Government and that’s a concern to many Australians.

Lipson: On the asylum seeker stand off on the coats of Java, the Government says the important thing is that the boats are stopped and they are stopping. There have been no arrivals this week, and I think there was none last week or one. Do you agree with the Government the important thing is stopping the boats?

Leigh: I think the Refugee Resettlement Agreement is having an effect as Labor said it would after we put into place. It’s a firm policy but our view was that if we accompanied it with an increase in the humanitarian intake that was overall a decent thing to do. The Coalition is cutting back on the number of asylum seekers and then throwing a veil of secrecy over asylum seekers – as they are in so many other areas of Government. Australians are frankly entitled to know if naval ships are being used to intercept asylum seeker vessels. They would have been told that under Labor. Just put the boot on the other foot, just imagine what Scott Morrison would have said if Labor in office had been refusing to release details of an asylum seeker stand-off on the high seas. These are our tax dollars that go to fund these naval vessels; we have a right to know how they are being used.

Lipson: The Government is reigning in MPs entitlements, or at least just tightening up the system, we don’t have the exact details yet, but do you welcome this move?

Leigh: I certainly do, I think the abuse of entitlements we’ve seen now with a quarter of cabinet having used taxpayer funds to attend weddings is a concern. One of the interesting questions for me will be whether these new rules will for example allow something like what Mr Abbott did of using taxpayer expenses to fly to attend a sporting event and a party-political fundraiser or whether perhaps a trip which just includes a sporting event and a fundraiser is off limits under the new rules. That will be a challenge he will face given that so many of his cabinet members are embroiled in entitlement misuse and that many members of the Liberal party are refusing to pay money back, Phillip Ruddock and Bronwyn Bishop refusing to pay back the costs of attending Peter Slipper’s wedding.

Lipson: Next week on of the first pieces of legislation that will be introduced, not just the carbon tax, but this legislation to repeal the racial discrimination act section that found Andrew Bolt guilty, what’s your view on that?

Leigh: The Prime Minister says this is about free speech but really this is about hate speech. Labor believes that hate speech ought to be banned. This is a provision that isn’t used very often but past cases in which it’s used for example include vilification of Jewish Australians, denying of the Holocaust and the vilification of an Indigenous woman. This is a provision which is I think is important to a tolerant and multicultural Australia. I agree with Colin Rubenstein when he says that this is important in maintaining tolerance and acceptance for Jewish Australians. Mr Abbott doesn’t believe in free speech under all circumstances - he’s a defamation plaintiff in the past. But somehow he thinks it’s okay for him to use the defamation law but for others not to have hate speech laws to use.

Lipson: Andrew Leigh we’re out of time, thanks for your time.

Leigh: Thank you David.

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