THURSDAY, 5 SEPTEMBER 2019
Subjects: Climate strikes, the Morrison Government’s inaction on climate change; the economy floundering under a floundering government.
NEIL MITCHELL: On the line is the Labor Member for Fenner, he’s a former assistant shadow treasurer. Some say the smartest man in the Parliament. He’s a professor of economics at the ANU - Dr Andrew Leigh, morning.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY AND CHARITIES: Good morning, Neil. How are you?
MITCHELL: I'm okay. So do you think - you’re the teacher in a sense, is it a smart thing for kids to go on strike?
LEIGH: Well, as you say Neil, I've spent painfully long in education. I barely missed a day of school and then went touniversity for another ten years. But not all learning happens in formal institutions, and I think getting together to campaign for an issue bigger than yourself is pretty important. We often talk about Generation Z as being self-centred, yet they’re anything but. It's an altruistic movement which is focused on dealing with the central challenge that the planet faces right now. And that's why it's gotten support from thousands of scientists, from firms like Atlassian and from many of those who've been carefully watching the climate debate, watching the planet warm and seeing Australia's emissions just going up and up under the Morrison Government.
MITCHELL: But there’s no problem with the kids getting involved in an issue and debating and discussing the issue. But a strike is another step. I mean, do we really support the idea of school children going on strike and learning ‘we're in a position of conflict here, let's remove our labour’?
LEIGH: I think there's something to be learned from collective action, from getting together and campaigning for a big cause. This obviously started with Greta Thunberg’s protest in Sweden in August last year, but there’s been over a million students that have taken time out of school in order to campaign on this issue.
MITCHELL: But is that a good thing? I mean, I see campaigning on issues is terrific. It’s great to see young people embracing a cause, and if you're not a bit radical at that age, you never are. But to go on strike and to have it, if you like, endorsed by people like you and other politicians and teachers?
LEIGH: It’s a strong action, but it's responding to a climate catastrophe-
MITCHELL: But they don’t understand that, most of them, well a lot of them. I've interviewed them - ‘we’re here to all talk about climate change. What's climate change? I don't know.’ They don’t know.
LEIGH: I don't think you ever want to undersell the smarts of young Australians. Certainly those that I met outside Parliament House and in Gungahlin outside my electorate office knew an awful lot about what was going on with climate change. They recognised that the world is already warmed one degree and if we go past the two degree mark we could lose the Arctic sea ice, 10 centimetres of sea level rise, mass extinctions, the loss of the Amazon rainforest. And then we go into these potential feedback loops, which are under unrecoverable. So the risk is absolutely vital to deal with. Climate change is already causing deaths in Australia through more extreme weather events, floods, droughts, bushfires. So this is a catastrophe and I can understand why young people are frustrated by the fact that Australia's emissions keep on rising.
MITCHELL: Do you think they understand what a miniscule part Australia plays in all this?
LEIGH: Australia is a small share of the world's population, but if we take a look global litterbug approach, no one does anything. You know, if you-
MITCHELL: Are you going to convince China to do something?
LEIGH: If you walk down the Bourke Street, you could throw a bit of garbage on the ground and you can say ‘I'm just one of a couple of million people in Melbourne, I'm not really making all the mess in Melbourne’. But if you pick up your garbage, the street’s a little cleaner. That’s the role Australia ought to be playing in climate change, particularly given that we have the Great Barrier Reef, that terrific tourist asset which stands so much at risk if climate change is unchecked.
MITCHELL: So if Australia turns off all the lights tomorrow, does it make any difference?
LEIGH: That’s the great thing about making steady moves towards a decarbonising economy. You don't have to turn off the lights. You can have economic growth at the same time as-
MITCHELL: Yeah, but if we did turn off the lights, would it make any difference?
LEIGH: Australia is one of a number of middle income countries that make a substantial impact-
MITCHELL: Would it make any difference to the climate change if Australia turned off all the lights tomorrow?
MITCHELL: It would. How much?
LEIGH: Well, we’re a couple of per cent of global emissions, and so doing our part makes a difference. But we could say this in terms of our overseas aid program, in terms of our involvement in international military actions. We're a modestly sized country, but that doesn't mean we ought to be free-riding on the efforts of others. We need to step up to the plate on this. We need to show an example of what Australia can do.
MITCHELL: As you say, your background’s academic clearly and a teacher, that means being a teacher too. Do you think the kids are taught both sides of this debate? Because there are two sides to that. The ones I've interviewed certainly had no idea of another side. They weren't getting it.
LEIGH: If you talk about another side, Neil, I mean you you've got-
MITCHELL: Disagreement. There is disagreement.
LEIGH: Well, you’ve got the vast majority of scientists saying that climate change is happening. We've just had the hottest summer on record. We are headed potentially for another record breaking year in terms of global climate temperatures. I'm not sure there's another side to the notion that the planet is warming.
MITCHELL: So you don't accept that there is any other debate about climate change, and whether it's manmade and the rest of it, whether it's cyclical. Do you not accept there’s any other debate other than the embracing the argument that man is destroying the planet?
LEIGH: Look, I think if you go back 10 years, then there was more uncertainty on the science as to the role that carbon emissions are causing. Now I think that debate is largely settled, and now it's pretty much like the round earth versus flat earth debate. So there is a question as to the best way of tackling things, whether or not you want to invest in solar or wind. There's discussions over how we ought to deal with countries which are going to have to face sea level rises regardless in the Pacific and the mass migrations there. But that's I think where the point of debate is. This question as to whether humans are causing climate change, that’s settled science.
MITCHELL: Just when I'm speaking to you, as a former professor of economics, where’s the economy going?
LEIGH: I'm worried that the government is not doing anything about the short and long term challenges. We see-
MITCHELL: That’s the political answer. So what about the academic’s answer? What about the analyst’s answer rather than the political answer?
LEIGH: Sure. So, my academic economist side would be focused on the long term challenges. The fact that productivity has been languishing, and the fact that we've got inequality rising and wages stagnating. I think there's a number of systematic challenges in that around an economy which is too dominated by a number of large firms, and also the need to improve quality of management and to make sure that we've got public and private sector wage growth going. You get that virtuous cycle of spending, then your wage is my income and the economy gets to grow faster through that.
MITCHELL: The Prime Minister told me yesterday he thought it was - well, to be fair, to paraphrase him, unlikely that Australia would go into recession. Do you agree?
LEIGH: I wouldn't want to be opining on this, but we had a survey of 20 top economists published in The Conversation a while back which said there was a one in three chance of a recession in the next two years. So that's the estimate of the best academic economists around. The New York Fed has a recession indicator based on the yield curve. Last I checked it was sitting about one in three over the next 12 months. So these these risks are real, and we need to make sure that we've got the infrastructure pipeline in order to tackle them. I'd love to see the Government bringing forward its budget update, bringing forward some of that infrastructure spending, really taking seriously the challenges we've got in the global economy right now.
MITCHELL: You were the Assistant Shadow Treasurer. What do you have now, what shadow portfolio?
LEIGH: I’m the Shadow Assistant Minister for Charities and the Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury. So still working as part of the economic team with Jim Chalmers.
MITCHELL: Thank you very much for your time, Dr Andrew Leigh.
LEIGH: Absolute pleasure, Neil.
MITCHELL: Good to speak to you, Dr Andrew Leigh, who is also a dedicated runner.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.