ABC RN BREAKFAST
MONDAY, 4 JANUARY 2021
SUBJECT: Labor’s plan for a better recovery; the need to remain open to the world.
CATHY VAN EXTEL, HOST: Andrew Leigh is Labor's Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury. Welcome back to Breakfast.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY AND CHARITIES: G’day, Cathy. Great to be with you.
VAN EXTEL: Now, there’s a six week gap in the parliamentary sitting calendar during September-October This is being interpreted as a possible election window. Is that your expectation?
LEIGH: We’re ready to go to an election anytime the Prime Minister wants to call one, Cathy. I think Australians are hankering for recovery that doesn't just take us back to 2019, but does what that wartime generation did after World War II - builds back better. A recovery that creates a country which is better able to deal with climate change, which is more productive, which has more rapid wage growth, and more egalitarianism and community connectedness. I think what was at the heart of Anthony Albanese’s criticism of the prime minister was that we all want him to be as ambitious for Australia as he is for himself.
VAN EXTEL: Let’s go to some of those criticisms because Anthony Albanese really embarked on a very personal attack. He accused Scott Morrison of lacking empathy, of shifting blame to others and of being fake. Is this the approach Labor intends to take - playing the man?
LEIGH: Anthony Albanese has never had to force anyone to shake his hand. But the basic point is that Australia deserves better than Scott Morrison and his play-by-play approach to politics, which is focused on evening news headlines but not on long term reform. Australia lags the rest of the advanced world on climate change action, despite the fact that we're more affected by dangerous climate change than any other advanced nation. We've just seen over the course of the last year the wealth of Australia's billionaires go up by 52 per cent at a time in which many Australians are wanting work or more hours. So we've got this issue of unfairness which the Prime Minister is unable to deal with, and we've got a huge crisis in education and health care, and yet very little to deal with what is really a human capital disaster unfolding before us.
VAN EXTEL: Andrew Leigh, you're talking to me there about policy. But that's not where the attack came from over the weekend. Anthony Albanese was very, very direct in targeting the Prime Minister. I mean, clearly the Prime Minister is performing very strongly in the polls. Is that really your only way of denting what is strong support behind him at the moment?
LEIGH: Politics and policy are intertwined, Cathy. Good policy is good politics and ultimately, what Anthony Albanese is concerned about and what I'm concerned about is that Australia could be doing so much more. At a time when there's a vacuum in global leadership, Australia could be stepping up to empower organisations like the G20 to act on dealing with dangerous trade restrictions. We could be revamping our immigration system, where the waiting times now are so long they’d make a Soviet commissar blush. We could be doing much more to create a fairer system of workplace relations. You know, we're going to have a really fundamental reworking of employment in Australia. Thinking about how we ensure that flexibility works for workers rather than just employers is a fundamental issue where, as far as I can see, the federal government's missing in action.
VAN EXTEL: Well, one of the key policy issues that Labor took to the last election which proved to be disastrous for you was the franking credits. It's now been dumped. But during the campaign, it was you know branded as a millionaire's welfare. Do you now consider it bad policy, or was it just bad politics?
LEIGH: As Anthony Albanese said, Labor failed to convince the Australian people with that policy. We won't be taking to the next election. But at the heart of the offerings we’ll take will still be the same values-
VAN EXTEL: So you’re not denouncing that policy? You’re just saying you're not taking it to the next election.
LEIGH: We failed to persuade the Australian people that that was a policy worth supporting. We won't be taking changes to franking credits to the next election-
VAN EXTEL: So you don’t think it was bad policy?
LEIGH: It’s neither here nor there what I think about the policy. We won't be taking it to the next election. The fundamental challenge for Australia remains the same, which is that we need to do more about a healthcare crisis that is unfolding, where Australia has been slow to obtain vaccines. We were late in getting the Pfizer vaccine deal. The government’s still only got enough to vaccinate one in five Australians, and doesn't have deals with some of the other key vaccines. We've got an education system in which the test scores of Australian students have been going backwards steadily for the last two decades, and in which the federal government is doing nothing to ensure that Australia's schools perform better. And at a time when we should be encouraging people to go to university, we've got a federal government that's making university courses more expensive. On so many of these metrics, Cathy, the federal government is going in the wrong direction and that's the source of the frustration from Anthony Albanese and the Labor team.
VAN EXTEL: Andrew Leigh, if we are talking about 2021 indeed being an election year, it is going to be tough going for Labor. We are still in the midst of a crisis, a health crisis, and, you know, we've seen already with elections at a state level that voters stick with the government that they know. But in addition to that, Labor has clearly got divisions within caucus over policy and leadership. Is Labor really ready to go to election with Anthony Albanese at the helm?
LEIGH: Cathy, a party of ideas will always have a variety of views within the caucus. And that's one of the reasons that I love being in the Labor Party caucus room. It's that people are concerned about how we can make a difference to the country - about acquiring power for the ability to create a better Australia, not simply for its own sake. And so I've got no issue with the fact that there's a diversity of views. But I do know that there is a passionate sense right across my Labor colleagues that Australia can do much better than the current government.
VAN EXTEL: Let’s go to a policy area in your portfolio. Labor is trying to show a gap between Labor and the coalition around the foreign investment review board new powers. The Treasurer now has the power to review and veto more investments. These powers have just come into effect on January 1, they include powers to force divestment up to 10 years. You’ve written that Australia is behind other developed economies when it comes to encouraging foreign investment. What is it that you're particularly concerned about?
LEIGH: Well it’s a simple fact that if you look across the. OECD, we have a more strict foreign investment screening regime than, say, Britain, Japan, Germany or the United States. Clearly, we need to take national security concerns into account. But my concern is the way in which the federal government has changed the rules doesn't take into account the importance of ensuring that there is consistency and screening thresholds for foreign investors. We know that more investment means more jobs and higher wages. And indeed, one of the centrepieces of the federal government's last budget was a measure to increase total investment. So we need to be really sure that as we tackle those national security concerns, that at the same time we're not scaring off productive foreign investment that wouldn't pose any national security risk.
VAN EXTEL: So it beggars the question then, why did Labor support the government's legislation which extended the powers of the Treasurer and the review board to review and veto investments?
LEIGH: The government has access to a range of information we don’t. We’re willing to allow those reforms to go through. But we're certainly concerned-
VAN EXTEL: So you backed the reforms and you’re now criticising them, aren’t you?
LEIGH: Those reforms went through a Senate inquiry, in which there was a range of concerns raised. I still think that it's important to put in place reforms to bring consistency to the screening thresholds. The Foreign Investment Review Board used to play the role of a gatekeeper. I think it's increasingly evolving to a regulator and probably needs a greater degree of independence. And underlying the whole thing is the notion that if we whip up xenophobia about foreign investment, we will get less foreign investment. That will lead to fewer jobs and thinner pay packets for Australians.
VAN EXTEL: We do know that Australians have been concerned about foreign investment. There have certainly been reports that these laws have effectively frozen investment from China. Do these new laws, do you believe that these new laws are designed with China in mind? Is that specifically the target?
LEIGH: They shouldn't be. We should be doing foreign investment screening-
VAN EXTEL: They shouldn't be, but do you think that that is the case?
LEIGH: You’d have to ask the federal government about that. They’ve put them forward. But I think it's really important that we don't have a hodgepodge of screening thresholds that currently exist, and that foreign investors know where they stand at the outset and that we recognise that foreign investment has created many, many jobs in Australia. You look at the car industry, which created jobs in South Australia and Victoria for many decades - all of that foreign investment. We look at the investment of AstraZeneca in North Sydney, where they're employing hundreds of people - millions of dollars of investment there. So ensuring that we're open to foreign investment ensures we earn higher wages and ensures that Australia is more productive. We saw this in the end of the late 19th century. One of the reasons why we had the highest living standards in the world in that period was our openness to the world.
VAN EXTEL: Andrew Leigh, thank you for your time this morning.
LEIGH: Thanks so much, Cathy.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.