Breaking Politics - Transcript - Monday, 10 February

This morning I joined Fairfax Media host Chris Hammer and Brisbane-based Liberal MP Andrew Laming to congratulate Terri Butler on her bi-election win in Griffith against a high profile rival.







MONDAY, 10 February

SUBJECT/S: Terri Butler’s win in Griffith; Building industry corruption; Federal Budget.

CHRIS HAMMER: Tony Abbott's Government has faced its first electoral test on the weekend with the Griffith by-election. It seems Labor has retained the seat, Kevin Rudd's old seat but that there has been a slight swing towards the Coalition. So that's left both sides of politics claiming vindication. We're joined in the studio now by Andrew Laming who has a seat nearby in Brisbane and Andrew Leigh who's from Canberra. Andrew Laming can I start with you? Give us your spill. Why is this a vindication for the Coalition?

ANDREW LAMING: Well it's remarkable that the two results, last year and the by-election are so close. I think what commentators is that we've seen a departing Prime Minister and with him goes a certain personal vote and I think that's simply compensated for what would have been a swing to an opposition during a by-election. It's hard to quantify Kevin Rudd's impact on that seat over the decade or so that he was there. But certainly replacing him was a great challenge for the Labor Party. They've managed to do that. They've managed to hold as close as they could to their vote last year. I think they're the main factors; the departure of an ex-Prime Minister and of course, the typical by-election swing that should run against a government.

HAMMER: So are you saying this is a good result for Labor?

LAMING: Well yes. Actually, I am. I'm saying both parties campaigned very hard. This became the Somme, a World War One battle front. The fact that we got an almost identical front just shows that both parties through everything at it and I think, if you've got a departing Prime Minister, it's usually pretty hard to hold your vote and Labor's almost managed to do that.

HAMMER: Okay, Andrew Leigh, well Andrew Laming has been a bit counter-intuitive here and said it's a good result for Labor. Your turn, is it a good result for the Coalition?

ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER: I think Andrew Laming has been appropriately generous to Terri Butler who won on the weekend, as I think we always ought to do after an election. It leaves Andrew now as the only doctor in the House, the only person with medical qualifications in the House of Representatives. Terri will be a great addition to the team - two young kids and a lawyer in a national law firm - somebody who is keen to work with people of different ideological views, which is I think what you really want in a parliamentarian, somebody who doesn't just come in wanting to knock heads together, but actually build a better country for everyone.

HAMMER: Now, I'm wondering in this spirit of consensus, whether we can agree on this. I'll ask you first Andrew Leigh, given that this by-election has happened so early in the term of the Abbott Government, really before it's budget strategy has been revealed, before it's legislative program has been introduced, that really trying to draw any conclusions from this by-election is sort of an exercise in futility, that by the next election it will be well and truly forgotten.

LEIGH: You can do a lot of spin about why someone got a particular win. Ultimately I think we ought to be praising Terri, recognising other candidates in the race put in a hard effort as well but recognising that the parliament will be a better place for having someone who comes into it with the right ideas and passions. Andrew and I, as it happens, both have young kids and I think that shapes the way you think about politics. There was a lovely piece in The Economist a couple of years ago which said that  politicians with young children think about the world as a little kinder, a little gentler and there's sometimes a little more understanding of mistakes, because parents make plenty of those.

HAMMER: And is it a good think for the Labor Party that Kevin Rudd has now departed the scene?

LEIGH: Mr Rudd made a mammoth contribution to Australian public life. He was appropriate that he got to step down under the terms of his own choosing. I'm sure he'll continue to have an impact whether that's in international organisations or on issues locally that are important to Andrew and me, like Indigenous reconciliation, where he's spoken about this enthusiasm to continue to get involved.

HAMMER: Okay, and Andrew Laming, would you agree that this by-election it can be over-analysed but it doesn't have any real implications for what's going to happen in the future.

LAMING: Yeah sure. We should analyse it as much as we can for about 24 hours. The Coalition Government has a set of objectives that are not quick turnarounds. With the greatest of respect to the Apology, to the 20/20 Summit, nothing in the Coalition's agenda is necessarily going to happen overnight. That means there's not a great deal to show for it come a Griffith by-election. So I think the people of Griffith were faced with early days scenario of the Abbott Government but they were also having to digest I think a lot of scare campaign from Labor, particularly the notion that you won't be able to take your child to see a doctor for a sniffily nose and the tax on health and this sort of thing. So, they did have to wade through a fair bit of that and in the end we've seen a very close result to what we saw last year.

HAMMER: Part of the Government's agenda that will stretch out to the next election it seems is this attack on the union movement through a Royal Commission that we expect to be announced today. Why the need for a Royal Commission? Much of this union corruption has been exposed. Isn't this simply a political exercise?

LAMING: Well, I note Bill Shorten's come in a little bit like a tobacco company arriving at the hospital and saying 'you can only use a tablet, not chemotherapy for the cancer’. This is a major erosive, corrosive effect on our economy. I come from Queensland where massive infrastructure projects are subject to union-negotiated agreements that erode public finance and lead to projects, quite often, not even clearing the cost benefit bar simply because of the cost of building them. We're in the awful situation where we haven't got the infrastructure bang for our buck and a lot of it can be put down to union activities, be it corruption, be it whatever, we must get to the bottom of it and a six-person police unit and a sniffer dog just ain’t going to do it.

HAMMER: Okay, let's separate a couple of issues here. Is the issue with the unions simply that some are marred by corruption or is there a wider argument being prosecuted here that wages and conditions, particularly conditions, are too generous?

LAMING: Well, I think you've given the spectrum and I think the answer will be determined by the terms of reference, potentially somewhere in between.

HAMMER: Okay. Andrew Leigh, Tony Abbott's doing Labor a favour here isn't he because by the time the next election comes around all those unions that aren't tainted by corruption will have a clear Tony Abbott stamp of approval and the connections with the Labor Party won't be a millstone round your neck?

LEIGH: Well Chris, I'm less interested in the politics of this than how we focus on the substantive issues. I find corruption in Australian life, wherever it rears its ugly head morally abhorrent, whether that occurs in corporations or within the union movement or other sectors of Australian life. And then the question is how best you tackle that. And as someone said about Royal Commissions, they're a little bit like the queen in Alice in Wonderland, let's have the verdict first and the trial afterwards. By contrast, what Labor has proposed is an AFP taskforce as we did with the $64 million anti-gangs taskforce which can get straight to work, which can begin prosecutions from day one if the evidence is there. We believe that's the best way of cracking down on it, but we also believe that there's an appropriate role for unions in public life. Building sites are some of the most dangerous workplaces we have in Australia. It's appropriate for people working on building sites to be able to work together to secure better conditions and better pay. Let's face it, wage growth has been running below trend in recent years, so that I think gives the lie to some who've argued that the real problem with Australia is a wages breakout.

HAMMER: But a Royal Commission, the reintroduction of the ABCC they don't preclude workers from teaming together and campaigning for better wages and conditions do they?

LEIGH: I'm just concerned Chris that we don't see a broad scale attack on unions who are, after all, the folks that brought you the weekend and the eight-hour day. It is vital that we recognise that there are hardworking unionists in workplaces across Australia today doing the right and decent thing. And I'm sure that's something which Andrew would agree. The question is how you tackle the instances of corruption and whether that's better done by giving police more resources as Labor has argued or by setting up a Royal Commission which is an expensive, a slow and potentially a less effective way of dealing with the problem that Andrew and I are both concerned about.

HAMMER: Well, Andrew Laming, in these instances of corruption, it takes two to tango. If the unions are extorting money out of corporations, then the corporations are party to this corrupt behaviour. Why not have a Royal Commission into corporate corruption?

LAMING: Well I guess the nidus of the problem is the unions. I agree with Andrew's case that the unions still do some very good things as well. But it's interesting that there's a sudden urgency in Bill Shorten's voice and Paul Howes but we've had six years where we've also could have addressed this and we haven't. So you need to remember that there was a government that simply refused to consider this to be a problem until now. It is some credit but a little too late that they now vocalise this in opposition.

HAMMER: Okay, can we turn to parliament beginning tomorrow. One of the first big tests of the Government and I guess something the Government wants to emphasise is economic management and budget management. Can I ask you Andrew Laming, how much does Joe Hockey have to stick to his tough line. Now his drawn the line in the sand. Can he compromise at all?

LAMING: Well he'd prefer not to and he'd prefer to remind every backbencher, every member of the Government, this is going to be an extremely tough budget. I sense this is where it's going. We're also, on the other hand, proving major projects all across the country, at a commerce level, almost $400 billion worth of new projects. That means new jobs and opportunities that can be flying through over the coming months and years. So, it's about getting the private economy started as Tony Abbott's made so very clearly at the G20 and I guess there's also the invidious job that our Treasurer has to do leading up to his first budget.

HAMMER: Andrew Leigh, the budget does need repairing, does it not? Isn't Joe Hockey on the right course here?

LEIGH: Governments always have to make values choices Chris. The question is whether when you're making savings decisions they fall on those who can most afford to pay or those who can least afford to pay. At the same time as he's taking away the Schools Kids Bonus from low and middle-income families, Mr Hockey and Mr Abbott are putting in place a parental leave scheme that will pay $75,000 to the most affluent families when they have a child and they're giving tax breaks to mining billionaires, some of the richest people on the planet. They're taking away superannuation tax concessions from low wage workers and they're taking away financial protections in the form of best interest financial advice tests which we put in place after the Storm Financial collapse. So I'd like to see the ‘age of entitlement’ rhetoric actually flowing through into policy decisions that look after low and middle income Australia.

HAMMER: Andrew Laming, isn't the Coalition vulnerable to that sort of criticism of double standards cutting perhaps middle class welfare on one hand, generous paid parental leave on another, not giving assistance to car manufacturers, SPC Ardmona on one hand, yet still giving out sizable money to mining companies etc.?

LAMING: Well, obviously we have to have to identify where the money is best spent. I think in every policy proposal you can almost spin it do find a middle-class person who benefits from, call it, middle-class welfare. But in reality the Government's made a series of election commitments and they are well known I think throughout the community and Australians I think, just want a government that keeps its word and delivers on its promises. So, what you will be seeing is very few surprises, rolling out exactly what we said we'd do prior to the election and then obviously coming out before the budget there could be a few more tough calls. That's to be expected.

HAMMER: Okay gentlemen, thanks very much for going round the grounds with us. But before I let you Andrew Laming, I must ask you, Australia Day, hand stand, skolling beer, what was that all about?

LAMING: Well, I admire Bob Hawke and admire Aker Manis and I thought I'd just pull to into one and I guess, when it comes to Australia Day you can celebrate however way you wish and if I can manage to prove that males can multitask, that's another benefit as well.

HAMMER: Do you regret doing it?

LAMING: I loved every second of it and I'll be doing it again next Australia Day.

HAMMER: And what's the response been?

LAMING: Oh it's been fantastic.

HAMMER: So, next Australia Day, you'll do it again?

LAMING: There's something sacrosanct about the backyard Chris, a private party among friends.

HAMMER: Andrew Laming, Andrew Leigh, thank you so much.

LEIGH: Thanks Chris, thanks Andrew.



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