ABC Political Panel - Monday, 13 October

I kicked off the week by joining Phillip Clarke and Senator Zed Seselja on 666 ABC's Political Panel. Here's the transcript:





SUBJECT/S: ACOSS poverty report; national curriculum; national security legislation

PHILIP CLARK: Welcome to our federal political panel. Senator Zed Seselja, ACT Liberal Senator joins me in the studio. Morning Zed.


CLARK: And Andrew Leigh, the Labor member for Fraser and Shadow Assistant Treasurer here in the studio as well. How are you?


CLARK: Just back on that ACOSS report – it’s not good news, is it? It suggests that on the trendline, poverty in Australia is increasing. Something like two-and-a-half million people, 1 in 6 children, are struggling to fulfil basic needs. One third of children in single parent households live below the poverty line, more than 600,000 children in total. We're heading, as ACOSS suggests, in the wrong direction. What are we doing wrong, Senator?

SESELJA: Well look, I'm still getting across these figures, these I think are 2012 figures. But I think it's always concerning if we're seeing Australians who are doing it tough. We want to have a range of policies that will help people to get out of poverty, help people to better themselves, give them the safety need they need. But fundamentally, to encourage people to have productive work if that's possible, and where that's not possible, to get whatever kind of assistance they can. These are challenging areas of policy; this isn't an issue for one government or one side of politics.

CLARK: Of course not, but it seems to suggest things are getting worse not better?

SESELJA: I think it often depends, and without going into all the detail that I haven't pursued yet, it often depends on exactly how you look at the various figures. I think that there's no doubt that many Australians are doing it tough. And we don't want to see that. We want to see people improving their life, we want to see people at least having the basics of life and certainly going well beyond that where it is possible.

CLARK: There seem to be two things here, Andrew Leigh: there's income support – and in that sense I mean the welfare system – and there's also the issue of whether our economy is being resilient and flexible enough to provide jobs for people. After all, for most people, a job is the difference between poverty and being able to meet your bills. Most people are a month away from poverty in that sense.

LEIGH: You're right about that Philip, it's more true in Australia than most developed countries. Unemployment is a reasonable predictor of poverty in most countries but especially so in Australia. We do a better job than many developed countries in ensuring that we don't have a working poor. Over the last generation we've seen a rising gap between battlers and billionaires and this is seen in the data on relative poverty. So just as the gap between the middle and the top distribution has increased, so the gap between the middle and the bottom distribution has increased as well. I'm really concerned about it and particularly in the context in which we've had a budget brought down which is redistributing resources from the most vulnerable to the most affluent. There’s been a whole host of cuts to supports for the vulnerable but then giveaways for those at the top, such as a gold-plated parental leave scheme. This report really comes at an important time for Australia. We’re at a crossroad on inequality, and we have to work out whether we stay true to our egalitarian traditions.

CLARK: No one likes welfare cheats and no doubt there are people rorting the system, Zed. There appear to be some structural issues here which we aren't solving and other commentators have pointed to a situation we don't want to get to that the United States have, where people work but they're poor anyway.

SESELJA: Well yeah, that's right. I think Andrew is correct to say that in terms of the working poor issue, it's not as pronounced as it is in other countries. I think that's a good thing, but that still provides gaps. Can I just respond to one of the things that Andrew said there, he's been talking about giveaways. The Labor party is still arguing that we should be subsidizing car making jobs to the tune of about $300,000 per job. That's a giveaway from the many in the community to a small number who get subsidized. There's all sorts of things that we need to address when it comes to inequality, but I would argue that $300,000 per job for car makers in South Australia, which the Labor Party would still like us seeing subsidising, is a real issue. Those are the issues which we need to address. But fundamentally, what we need to be doing is growing the economy, as you said Philip. More people in work will mean less people in poverty and that's what we're working towards. When you look at things like cutting red tape, when you look at reducing costs of business through things like getting rid of the carbon tax. All of these things contribute to employment in the long run and surely that's what we're working towards.

CLARK: We look at figures like the unemployment rate, but as we discussed with the Australian Bureau of Statistics last week, these figures seem to be less reliable than they used to be. In any event too, the rate really doesn't measure the rate of underemployment or for that matter people who would like to work if they thought they had a remote chance of getting a job. We're just missing a whole lot of people by sitting back and feeling comfortable about the fact that our headline unemployment rate is 6% and is not too bad.

LEIGH: As an economist, this is one of these things that comes up all the time. There's multiple definitions of employment and each one is in one sense arbitrary. Ours says that you're employed if you've got a job even for a small number of hours, and you have to be actively seeking work in order to be in the category of unemployed. But then you can widen the net further, and I think sometimes it's useful to look at the participation rate. We've seen not just a rise in unemployment recently but also a tailing off in the participation rate which is a worry to me.

Just while we're on poverty, Philip, can I give a shout-out to the ANU students taking part in Anti-Poverty Week this week? I spoke to them last night to help them launch their campaign just as they were about to do a sleep out in Union Court at ANU. It was not a great night to do a sleepout, so mad props to the kids who stayed out in the rain last night to profile the issue of poverty.

CLARK: As I say, it's not really a political issue on either side either, because it's an issue which we should all be concerned about in our country. But can we move on, the terror laws which are before the parliament, there are any number of commentators that would suggest that we're throwing the baby out with the bathwater here. That while there’s no doubt that people who wish violence upon us and who preach violence ought to be investigated and stopped, there are laws to do that already. Are we going too far with this current suite of terror laws which will make it, for example, a jailable offence if a journalist simply reports on what's going on relation to security investigations? Both sides of you are supporting this too.

LEIGH: Well, let's be clear about the objective, Philip. We're talking about Special Intelligence Operations which are operations in which ASIO agents are undercover in terrorist cells or gangs. Those people are risking their lives and if their identity is disclosed they could be killed. Journalists are committing an offence if they know there is a risk of disclosing information about one of these operations and if that risk is unjustifiable. That seems to me to be, a reasonable litmus test for the community but certainly Labor has encouraged there to be more discretion in whether these cases are brought forward. It's very clear that these laws address journalists in the very extreme cases where – and I don't believe almost any Australian journalist would do it – where they take a risk that would put an ASIO agent's life at risk.

SESELJA: I think Andrew is right on that point and I think it is good that broadly, we do have a bipartisan approach on some of these things. We always need to look at the margins as to whether we're getting it right, and that's a very legitimate debate to be having. I didn't see all of Anthony Albanese's comments over the weekend but I think what Andrew articulated there is correct. I'm not sure if what Anthony Albanese was saying over the weekend matches up with that 100% or whether he was arguing for some sort of scaling back. I'm not 100% clear on that point but I would agree with what Andrew has just articulated. That is, if we're going to have disclosures which potentially put our intelligence agents’ lives at risk, I think it's reasonable we have laws that would prevent that.

CLARK: That's true, if their lives were at risk. But the way the laws were constructed, that doesn't necessarily have to be a criteria.  In fact, you can be jailed simply for the release of information or for reporting on information. In other words, journalism itself will be a crime. Is that what we want?

SESELJA: These are highly classified operations and I guess the question for us as a society always is, where do we draw the line between freedom of the press, free reporting, freedom of speech and things that necessarily in the national interest need to be kept secret? That's always been a balancing act that we seek to strike and that's at the heart of these laws. 

LEIGH: The Director of Public Prosecutions, Philip, can take into account the public interest. 

CLARK: We know how far that usually gets journalists because we know the history of that and people taking the side of journalists on the side of public interest is a very sad and sorry cause.

LEIGH: This is a piece of law which I would imagine be used very rarely, and which is designed to protect operations in which our agents put their lives at risk in order to go under cover and keep Australia safe. The journalist, in breaching this, needs to know there's a risk and it needs to be unjustifiable that they would take that risk.

CLARK: Can we move on? The ANU says it's going to divest itself of investments in fossil fuels and it's come in for criticism, including from government ministers as well. Can't the ANU do what they like, Zed?

SESELJA: Well they can, but of course if they're investing the money it is in the interests of the broader institution and they need to make sensible decision there. I don't think they should be making ideological decisions with their investments. I guess you would take them seriously in divesting in fossil fuels if they also stopped using fossil fuels. If they believe fossil fuels are so evil, so unethical that they can't invest in them, I guess you would take them seriously if they gave them up entirely.

CLARK: It's not all or nothing here is it? They're simply taking a step down a path which they think is right and inevitable.

SESELJA: These fossil fuels power our economy, they help to give us the standard of living that we have. Are they saying that's a bad thing? Are they saying that all that what happens with fossil fuels is bad? I think it's tokenistic at best, I'd be interested to know what kind of impact it would have on those investments but as I say, if you were fair dinkum about this, if you think fossil fuels are so evil then don't use them.

CLARK: What do you think, Andrew Leigh?

LEIGH: I always find it funny when you have supposedly free marketeers thinking they can get away with telling other people what they should invest in.

SESELJA: I'm not, I'm just critiquing their decisions.

LEIGH: Well, certainly your colleague Jamie Briggs has been pretty clear in saying that he ought to tell people what to invest in. There's been ethical investment funds around for ages in Australia. Stanford has pursued an ethical investment policy which, as I understand it, is the basis for what the ANU has chosen to do. The decision they've made is not just in terms of what they believe is the ethics, but also the long-term sustainability of firms. They've taken the view that in a world in which Australia doesn't have a carbon price, in which we've kicked the can down the road, there's going to be wrenching change as we decouple carbon pollution from economic growth. Not a smooth transition as there would have been under a carbon price, but a hard shock which could well hit the profitability of some of these fossil fuel firms. So, in a world in which the government is putting its head in the sand about the dangers of climate change, there does have a bigger impact on the market value of fossil fuel companies going down the track.

CLARK: Very briefly, is there something wrong with what we're teaching in schools at the moment?

SESELJA: I think that we can always improve it and I think that the review into the National Curriculum has been very well received. I haven't read the two or three hundred pages yet, but the reviews at this stage are positive. I think even the federal opposition has expressed some broad support for the principles, and I think it's important that we get it right. I think concern about the overcrowding of the curriculum is what I hear from a lot of teachers, that's not an ideological thing, that's about whether we're jamming too much in and not doing the basics a little bit better and I think that's a good principle to work from.

CLARK: The trouble is, Andrew Leigh, we don't really know how to teach these things necessarily better anyway, do we? That's the trouble.

LEIGH: The challenge, Philip, is to bring everyone along in that journey. When Labor put in place a National Curriculum in 2008 after having attempted to do so in the late 1980s and been unsuccessful, we brought together thousands of experts to build a National Curriculum in English, Maths, Science and History. We followed a proper process – not just getting two mates to write a report – but engaging everyone in coming together to build a national curriculum for Australia.

CLARK: There's a bit of a journey here. Good to talk to the both of you, Andrew Leigh, Labor member for Fraser and Senator Zed Seselja, ACT Liberal Senator as well. Good to see both of you gentlemen, I hope your week goes well.



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