Breaking Politics - Monday 23 June

This morning, in my weekly slot on Fairfax Breaking Politics, the discussion explored the latest Fairfax/Neilson poll, the values underlying the Treasurer's first budget, the idea of a federal ICAC, the angry reaction to the Attorney General's East Jerusalem comments and the Government's inadaquate response to climate change.




MONDAY, 23 JUNE 2014

HOST CHRIS HAMMER: Andrew Laming to you first. A Fairfax news poll out today shows that more than 60 per cent of people still think the budget is unfair. Is it time to revise the budget?

ANDREW LAMING: Look, definitely not and it won’t be revised. We were elected to do the hard and necessary decisions but that didn’t mean it would be popular. A lot of this is long term stuff that Australians will look back on and say they were ensuring shrewd and important moves made at a time in history when they had to be taken – that’s really the essence of the budget.



HAMMER: If I was a cross bench senator and I was reading that poll I might think there’s some political mileage here to be exploited. Will the government have to make concessions getting it through the Senate?

LAMING: Cross bench senators? Political mileage? No such thing! No Chris, we’ll be working to protect the budget because the ideas contained within it are actually creating the trajectory that the Parliamentary Budget Office has confirmed will take us out of this long term debt trajectory. So I think one thing is for sure, that 61 per cent will be getting smaller every month between now and the next election.

HAMMER: Okay. Andrew Leigh, he’s got a point hasn’t he? The trajectory it’s really about the long game it’s not about the short term reaction.

ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER: Well the only way you get the picture that this budget is reducing the deficit Chris is if you compare it to Joe Hockey’s last budget update. But that’s the one that doubled the deficit since coming to office. Let’s do the only fair thing, the Charter of Budget Honesty thing, and compare this budget to the Pre-Election Economic and Fiscal Outlook. On that measure it raises the deficit this year, next year and over the forward estimates. So it’s not just a budget that raises the deficit, not just a budget that breaks promises but also a budget that’s fundamentally unfair. We wonder where Joe Hockey gets his kind of ethical values from. They don’t seem to me to be the Australian value of the fair go. It’s clearly not the golden rule –

HAMMER: So you’re questioning the treasurer’s ethical values?

LEIGH: I don’t understand the moral framework that makes up this budget, Chris –

HAMMER: What exactly are you accusing him of?

LEIGH: I simply don’t see where his ethical compass is set if he thinks it's okay to bring down a budget, which gives $50,000 to millionaires, which raises the superannuation contribution threshold for millionaires allowing them to put more tax-free super in. But then takes one tenth of the income away from the poorest single parents in Australia.

HAMMER: Isn’t that a bit desperate though, to play the man and not the ball? Why not criticise the budget? Why do you need to criticise the moral compass of the Treasurer?

LEIGH: Well, it’s the moral compass of the Government that I think is pointing everywhere but true north. And it seems to lack a sense of compassion. It seems to be a Government which struggles to put itself in the shoes of others; whether that's an inability to put yourself of the shoes of a young gay man that must attend the weddings of others, knowing he can't marry himself, whether that's the inability to think what it's like for a twenty-something in Devonport to lose their job and to get nothing for six months. You need to be able to put yourself in the shoes of others in politics, and I don't any evidence that this Government has done that in framing the budget.

HAMMER: Okay, Andrew Laming, Andrew Leigh has a point there, a great majority of people think the budget is unfair, so they are essentially questioning the morality of the budget aren't they? 

LAMING: Not really Chris. I mean I can't remember when people held up a budget above their heads and said "This is a brilliant document that makes me happy". Budgets are tough decisions, but if Joe Hockey has a moral compass it's not allowing the next generation of Australians to inherit the mess of the last six years. I mean that's perfectly legitimate to try and live within our means, and to pay our way as we go. And we need budgets that are going to, as soon as possible, be balancing the nation's books, not accruing a debt for future generations.

HAMMER: Okay, well Andrew Leigh has questioned the political morality of the Treasurer. But we've seen in this poll that the Coalition's overall vote has recovered somewhat, but the standing of the Prime Minister hasn't. Is that because people think he's broken election promises?

LAMING: Look I can't interpret polls, and we weren't elected to do that. We were elected to –

HAMMER: Has he broken election promises?

LAMMER: No. I think everything that he's said has been delivered in the Budget, though people can find a way if they're a dollar worse off, to try and find a broken promise. That's been the game of the last couple of months. But in reality, these are tough decisions and they are ones that have to be taken. And they will yield dividends over time.

HAMMER: So no cuts to SBS, no cuts to the ABC, no changes to pensions? How can you say that he hasn't broken promises?

LAMING: Well, the pension indexation changes are after the next election, so for this term we are sticking by our word and giving people a chance to judge. And with SBS and the ABC, they are able to continue their offerings, both to listeners and viewers, with an external product that is not a cut. And if an agency can find savings in the back-end, like every agency using public money, they should be doing just that.

HAMMER: Okay. Andrew Leigh?

LEIGH: Well, changing pensions indexation from wages to prices is a clear cut to pensions, and a clear breach of an election promise. You don't just need to listen to a Labor MP on this, or a pollster for that matter - you can listen to conservative Premiers like Campbell Newman and Mike Baird, who are outraged by the cuts to health and education in their states, and the impact that that'll have on service delivery.

We're seeing cuts too, like the cuts to legal aid centres, which are really hitting some of the most vulnerable in our community.

HAMMER: Okay. Andrew Laming, is George Brandis guilty of intellectual arrogance?

LAMING: I don't even know why people would say such a terrible thing about one of our finest Attorney-Generals. Absolutely not. George is a great intellect, great to have him in this building. It's almost impossible to have a conversation with George without learning something. I find him great company and I think it's quite a strange allegation.

HAMMER: Well, isn't something the Australian public learned the other week was that the Government was preoccupied about the semantics of the Middle East as opposed to looking after their own interests. It was rather indulgent, wasn't it?

LAMING: Look, not at all. Preoccupied about the word "occupied" seems a little bit over-the-top. This is a creation of the Greens, we've never changed our terminology for Jerusalem, and I don't see where the concerns are coming from. I certainly don't see any impact in our foreign policy and I think Julie Bishop made a really clear statement to that effect.

HAMMER: Well some of the concerns are coming from your Liberal Party colleagues, the ones in rural seats, they're worried that his statements could endanger exports. If there's been no change to the policy, then why say it, why expose exports to possibly being cut by Arab and Islamic countries?

LAMING: Well, let's go right back to the core of it. I don't see there being any threat to our exports so you'd have to ask the individuals who've actually raised those concerns. 

HAMMER: So you think the ambassadors from those countries came into foreign affairs just because they like the cup of tea?

LAMING: Well I think they got a very, very good response which I hope will satisfy them - that no terminology has changed.

HAMMER: Andrew Leigh, you'd be satisfied, wouldn't you, that the Government has backed away from what could have been a problem, that they've settled matters here, and that's where it should rest?

LEIGH: The Government's created all of this, Chris, and it was Senator Brandis that set the cat among the pigeons by changing a position which has been held by Australian governments going back to the time of John Gorton. There's never a good time to create a fracas in the Middle East, but now is an especially bad time. We've got foreign ministers meeting in Saudi Arabia critiquing the Australian position, ambassadors rightly coming in asking the Government, "What's going on? Why would you shift a position that's been bipartisan for thirty years?", and which accords with the reality on the ground, which is that people in East Jerusalem aren't citizens of Israel, they only enjoy residency status. It is an occupied territory and it seems very strange to me that the Government can't refer to it as such.

HAMMER: Okay. Andrew Leigh, do we need a federal version of ICAC?

LEIGH: I certainly think it's an idea worth exploring Chris. I think you need to move carefully on this to get the structures right; make sure exactly that you've got the appropriate sets of powers. It does concern me, if we go back to the NSW ICAC model, that - the Nick Greiner incident for example, where Greiner was forced to resign and then ultimately determined not to have engaged in wrongdoing. And I think there's lessons that can be learned from that in setting up future ICACs. 

HAMMER: Well David Ipp, the former head of ICAC, says there should be a federal ICAC, and has warned against adopting more sort of watered-down models, as have been adopted by some of the other states, saying that what the Federal Government really needs is something with the rolling powers of a Royal Commission, like ICAC in NSW.

LEIGH: As I said, it's an idea that I think is worth exploring, but we just need to make sure we get the settings absolutely right. 

HAMMER: Andrew Laming, what do you think? Do we need a federal version of ICAC?

LAMING: I'm in general agreement with Andrew on this occasion. We've had a national corruption plan that was never completed by the previous government. I think events have overtaken us with fast movements in this space in NSW. It wouldn't be wise to rule out anything, but then again you need to ask this null hypothesis question, which is, with the multi-agency model we have at the moment, are they able to do their job? And you've seen the ability to set up a Royal Commission on things like union corruption which is happening right now, so, we need to have a very, very good case that something extra needs to be established, and that case is yet to be made.

HAMMER: Okay. Andrew Laming, is the carbon tax working? Because John Hewson says it is, and Greg Hunt says it isn't.

LAMING: Look, in one of these strange situations in public policy, both have got their point and both can claim to be right. But we've made a very, very clear commitment. Fifteen million Australians have voted on this matter, we are introducing the legislation this week, and there's no turning back.

We want Australians to be on average $550 dollars better off. That's a very important antecedent to the debate about the Budget. And we are determined to do that. We are still the leader of the pack in climate policy, we just don't need an economy-wide carbon tax because not enough of our neighbours have one.

HAMMER: Although a majority - for the first time, a majority of people - more people now support the tax than oppose it. There has been quite a swing in public mood since it was actually implemented.

LAMING: There's been a big swing since it was very clear that there was a side of politics that was going to get rid of it, and when you see the back of a tax wandering out the door, then I concede that people become less worried when they know it's going.

HAMMER: Andrew Leigh, what do you think here?

LEIGH: I think –

HAMMER: I mean the Government clearly does have a mandate, it is something they campaigned very strongly on. 

LEIGH: Well in the last election the Government got 53 per cent of the two-party vote, we got 47 per cent. That doesn't give them dictatorial powers to do as they wish, and Labor certainly has a mandate to argue for carbon pricing. We've seen the carbon price reducing emissions, with the biggest fall in a quarter of a century in the latest data, with emissions down 0.8 per cent, having us comfortably on target to meet the 5 per cent emissions reductions targets.

President Obama's first priority was a carbon price, before he was blocked by Congress, and 200 million people in China are covered by the six pilot emissions trading schemes there. So it's a system that's working, in the face of some very, very hot temperatures and extreme weather events, it's brought down electricity emissions 11 per cent since the introduction of the carbon price.

HAMMER: Well the Environment Minister Greg Hunt was on ABC Radio this morning saying the carbon tax has been ineffectual, it's hardly made a dent on carbon emissions. Is he simply wrong?

LEIGH: Yes, the data has shown him to be wrong. Overall emissions down 0.8 per cent. 

Andrew is normally very precise in his words, but he did make one misspeak before, which was to describe this as an "economy-wide carbon price". It's not that. It covers about two-thirds of the economy, and in the sector with the highest level of coverage, in the electricity sector, we've got emissions down 11 per cent. So the carbon price is doing its work and it is producing clean air in the way that a dirty alternative like Direct Action will never do. It simply won't do the job. The time has come to put aside childish things, to focus on appropriate measures that will get least-cost abatement.

HAMMER: Okay, Andrew Leigh, Andrew Laming, thanks for your time.

LEIGH: Thanks Chris, thanks Andrew.




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