Failure can be a Great Teacher - Radio Interview





SUBJECT/S: Senator Dastyari’s resignation;  the lack of women in the Liberal Party; political donations; Australia’s weak GDP growth and decline in living standards since 2013.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Andrew Leigh joins us now. Thanks for your time.


KARVELAS: You've seen that he just stood down. Shouldn't he have done that a few days ago?

LEIGH: Sam wasn't guilty of lying, cheating or stealing. He made an error of judgement. A mistake for which he has now paid the price. I think he's shown his ability to put the team ahead of himself with his statement that he didn't want to be the reason that the Turnbull Government escaped proper scrutiny. And there are plenty of things we need to be scrutinising them over. From the mucking up of the Census to the decline in living standards that were reported today. From their ongoing attempts to cut Medicare to their failure to act on multinational taxation in the G20. We need to be an effective opposition and Sam's statement today recognised the primacy of that role for the Opposition.

KARVELAS: Doesn't really end the matter though does it? He still hasn't answered why he asked the Top Education Group – with links to China – to pay for the travel bill. That was one of the problems with his press conference yesterday. He didn't provide enough answers to the questions.

LEIGH: I don't know the answer to that question but I don't think anyone's suggesting that Sam has broken the law. If you compare it to some of the things we've seen on the other side. We had at the last election the extraordinary spectacle of a Liberal Prime Prime Minister giving about a million dollars of his own money to his political party.

KARVELAS: Sure, but it's his money and he's the Prime Minister.

LEIGH: Indeed, and I don't know about you, but it certainly raised one of my eyebrows. We've had the Liberal Party-

KARVELAS: It's not the same though is it? As a Chinese Communist backed business giving money to a political party MP to pay off a debt. It's not the same.

LEIGH: No one's suggested that Sam's broke the law and I think he's paid a heavy price for what is a mistake here. Patricia, I think it is important in politics as in other areas of life that we don't have a one strike and you’re out rule. That we have an ability for people to make mistakes and move forward. Many of Sam's critics have made mistakes at least as large as the one he's made. One of the main accusations against him was that he'd taken the wrong position on the South China Sea. I'm not sure exactly what it was that he said to those newspapers, but I sit in parliament every day facing people who made the wrong call on the Iraq War in the early 2000s. That's a much bigger foreign policy blunder than anything Sam Dastyari has made in his career.

KARVELAS: He's clearly signalling that he wants a second chance. He's a young man, he's happy to serve in whatever capacity. He hasn't left as a New South Wales Senator, in fact he made it quite clear that he's remaining as a New South Wales Senator. Do you think the public will forgive and forget? That he can perhaps make a comeback?

LEIGH: Of course he should have a second-chance. What are we in Australia if it’s a career-ending decision to make a mistake of this magnitude? I think Sam has paid a heavy price for what he did, but he's somebody who has a unique ability to cut through. People don't want their cookie-cutter politicians, they want politicians who can speak from the heart, who can bring a political conversation to new audiences. Sam's ability to connect, particularly with Gen Y voters, is something that I admire. You just have to look at his viral videos on how to make a halal snack pack to realise that he's-

KARVELAS: I wouldn't mind a viral video that explains why he felt so comfortable to call that business – the education business – and ask them to pay off his debt? Maybe a viral video would give us an answer to that question, because we don't have one.

LEIGH: You're coming back to a question about which I've already said I don't know the answer to. But to speak to Sam's qualities, his ability to engage and to broaden the political conversation is one that Australia needs. If the rule in Australia is that any mistake is a hanging error, than we're going to end up in a much more boring Parliament. Obviously if you've lie, cheat or steal then that's a red line, but no one said that that's the case here.

KARVELAS: Does that mean that you would like to see him make a comeback at some point?

LEIGH: Yes of course, absolutely. I think Sam has a lot to contribute to the public conversation; indeed I’m sure he'll continue doing that. He's held multinationals to account over the course of the last couple of years, through running an important Senate inquiry which has really helped to turbocharge that policy debate. Labor was out there with the wonkish ideas, but Sam also helped put the spotlight onto the issue of multinational tax avoidance. Now I'd love it if Malcolm Turnbull had a bit of the willingness that Sam Dastyari has shown in recent years to stand up to the big end of town.

KARVELAS: So you think with a break perhaps, obviously he's just resigned, this has only happened half an hour ago, people can be rehabilitated?

LEIGH: Patricia, time will tell. But you've got to reflect on the fact that our two longest serving Prime Ministers, Robert Menzies and John Howard, both had early, unsuccessful periods in their careers. I think failure can be a great teacher. There's that great line about Silicon Valley: investors only want to back firms that have had an early failure because of what it can teach. I suspect that's true in politics as in other areas of life. Again, I don't want to suggest that we should excuse an egregious wrongdoing. But in this case, where it's a mistake that involved no illegality, I think it's appropriate to give somebody a second chance and to allow them to learn from their errors and come back as a more effective and a better politician.

KARVELAS: I want to go to a few other issues because this isn't the only issue in town. Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard spoke today at the Press Club. He said something really interesting on women in politics. I’m going to play it to you and I'd like to hear your thoughts.

HOWARD: “Some people may say, ‘what a terrible thing to say’, and it's a not terrible thing to say, it just happens to be the truth, and occasionally you've just got to recognise that and say it."

And that "thing to say" is that he thinks Australia will struggle to have 50/50 representation of women and men in Parliament because women do the caring for children. Now, he's right isn't he? I mean, you look around, that's what's happening. 

LEIGH: Patricia, I thought those views were straight out of the 1950s. The notion that the way in which we've done things in the past has to be the way in which we do things in the future. But great societies evolve and change and allow women the opportunity to combine parenting and being in politics, or indeed to be in politics without having kids. Labor's now got twice the share of women in the House of Reps than the Coalition does. It really strikes you, actually. I don't know if you've been in the House of Reps, I think you've come in to watch question time-

KARVELAS: I have – a sea of men.

LEIGH: You notice it when you look down. You must notice as you look down that there are noticeably fewer women on the Coalition side than the Labor side. Why is that? Labor committed to quotas a couple of decades back and those quotas have steadily ratcheted up the share of women in Parliament. And you know what? All those people back in the early 1990s said, "Oh quotas will just bring in low quality women!" Well, they're not saying that any longer, because the average calibre of women in Labor's Caucus is at least as good as the average calibre of men in the Labor Caucus. 

KARVELAS: He also spoke about political donations, saying placing further restrictions on political donations would lead to a massive increase in public funding, and I actually think that part of this debate has been neglected, or people don't understand that that's the ultimate consequence isn't it? Of banning foreign donations, of really reforming the system. It ultimately means more public money. 

LEIGH: I don't think it has to, Patricia. Our view is that we ought to ban foreign donations. Labor's taken a suite of disclosure and donation reforms to the Australian people. We said that we ought to bring down the disclosure thresholds from $13,000 to $1,000. There's no reason that has to involve an increase in public funding. Just because we don't take foreign donations doesn't mean that we should increase public funding. The public funding is perfectly adequate as it stands. But what John Howard missed is that this is in some sense an arms race between the parties. So, if both parties are unable to access overseas political donations, then that doesn't require that the public step in.

KARVELAS: And just finally on the other part – there are so many stories today-

LEIGH: There are, aren't there?

KARVELAS: Not just about Sam Dastyari, although Sam Dastyari is definitely the biggest story on our watch. Treasurer Scott Morrison is celebrating 25 years of uninterrupted economic growth in Australia, There's no debate about that. That's good news isn't it?

LEIGH: Two things to say on that Patricia. Firstly, GDP growth in Australia is weaker than it was promised to be in 2014 when the Coalition went to the G20 promising an additional 2 per cent of growth. Compared to the forecast back then, we've actually got 2.5 per cent less GDP growth. But then there's the problem that the measure isn't really capturing living standards, because it's not adjusted for terms of trade and it's not divided by the population. When you look at living standards in Australia, they are now 2 per cent lower than when the Coalition won office back in 2013. The typical Australian is worse off now than they were when Tony Abbott won the 2013 election, and that's an indictment on the policies of the Liberal Party Government.

KARVELAS: Thanks for joining me tonight.

LEIGH: Thank you, Patricia.

KARVELAS: That's the Shadow Assistant Treasurer Andrew Leigh joining us tonight and really interesting perspective there. It's only been half an hour since Sam Dastyari stepped down from the Shadow Ministry. He's still in the Parliament, and he's still going to stay as a NSW Senator for Labor, but already Andrew Leigh is saying if he can rehabilitate, if he can learn from these mistakes, he has an enormous potential future. That he should, effectively, come back. He's just gone!


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