ABC AFTERNOON BRIEFING
THURSDAY, 30 MAY 2019
Subjects: The federal election, Labor frontbench, tax cuts.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Andrew Leigh is factionless. He was the assistant treasurer in the shadow Labor party, in the shadow ministry. Because he is factionless, he is not going to be on the frontbench and he joins us now. Andrew, welcome.
ANDREW LEIGH, MEMBER FOR FENNER: Thanks, Patricia. Great to be with you.
KARVELAS: You have made a career choice not to join a faction. Do you regret that a little today?
LEIGH: I have had six years working on the frontbench, Patricia, getting to work on the sorts of ideas that I engaged with when I was an economics professor. That privilege is a great one which is extended to very few people. And I found that not being in a faction has meant that I can move freely through the party. That’s the preference of the people who chose me in the ACT to be the Labor candidate for Fenner. I am not sorry about the decision I made. I understand the factional system, the factions have been around since the 1950s. I even wrote an academic article back in 2000 about the role of factions in the Labor Party. This is just an aspect of modern Labor.
KARVELAS: OK, it is an aspect, but you can reflect on whether it is a good aspect, because you have been on the front line. You now haven’t a spot. Surely you’re frustrated?
LEIGH: Clearly it hasn’t been good for me today, but my frustration and disappointment today is nothing compared to what I experienced on May 18, for the people who were hoping for a Labor Government. It was those people, pensioners who cannot afford to get their teeth fixed, people in substandard schools who don't get enough resources. I chatted with somebody who is a recovering drug user about the inadequacy of job finding programs, and I thought, for her, we needed a Labor Government. So my ambition is so strong for Australia to have a better government than this current rudderless mob.
KARVELAS: OK, but you are an economist. What does it say about Labor's factional system that you have been dumped? Because you have been factionless before and you worked, you were on the front line under previous regime, so what has changed?
LEIGH: We have a terrific line up of shadow ministers and I certainly wouldn’t fault any of them. For the first time now we’ve got Katy Gallagher and Kristina Keneally, a former Chief Minister and a former Premier of New South Wales. They will be among a range of experienced shadow ministers matching up against a hapless frontbench on Scott Morrison's side, which has seen many people flee the coop after the election. I am obviously disappointed not to be on the frontbench, I wouldn’t be honest with you if I didn’t say that. But I am proud of those who are there and I’ll look to work every day to see Labor win the next election and Anthony Albanese become Prime Minister.
KARVELAS: Is it a reflection that Labor doesn’t actually reward merit?
LEIGH: There are many people of merit who are there on the frontbench. That announcement today simply reflected the sheer quality of talent that we have. We could fill the frontbench twice over, three times over, from the current Labor caucus. They would still be better than the best team that Scott Morrison can field. I have loved the opportunity to serve over the last six years, to do that policy work on putting together nearly 20 policies on multinational tax, a dozen policies on cracking down on monopoly power, serving as the first-ever Shadow Minister for Charities and Not-for-Profits and working with that sector on our plan to engage in building a stronger civic community. That policy work I hope will be picked up by others, and I will certainly be engaging with any of my colleagues who are keen to endeavour to build on the policy work in recent years. Of course, we won’t take all those policies to the next election, but we have done an awful lot of work with the stakeholders, with businesses, with the community sector to build valuable policies over the last six years.
KARVELAS: Will you be seeking a return to the frontbench? Is that your ultimate ambition?
LEIGH: I would love to be back on the frontbench, but I would also be happy to serve in any capacity that Anthony Albanese would like me to.
KARVELAS: Well, he has given you a job, hasn’t he? Deputy, you’re the deputy on this economics committee.
LEIGH: Absolutely, and I’ll be looking forward to working with that committee on a whole range of important economic issues. There’s some serious issues around the macroeconomy at the moment. That will certainly be an opportunity to pursue that work too. I am an economist, I love working on economic ideas, and I am very keen to see us deal with some of the serious economic challenges that Australia faces. Just because the coalition got re-elected doesn't mean that we don't have a problem with housing affordability, with sluggish wage growth, with high household debt, with problematic productivity, and with test scores in Australian schools flatlining or going backwards. So all these economic issues will be ones that I’ll be keen to make a contribution to along with a great Labor team. The Labor Party’s Australia's oldest and greatest political party and all of us need to relegate our own ambitions to that great party, and to the people that we seek to help.
KARVELAS: Bill Shorten says Labor lost the election because of opposition from sections of the media and corporate Australia, powerful vested interests. Is he right?
LEIGH: We certainly faced fairly concerted campaigns and if you simply look at the newspaper editorial endorsements, they more strongly favoured the Coalition then Labor. If you looked too at the degree of front page advocacy, I think any fair-minded observer would say there was more tilting towards the Coalition side of the scale. But we also need to reflect ourselves. I know I have spent a lot of time during the campaign in Queensland, in a range of marginal seats in Victoria and New South Wales. I will be keen to be part of the listening and learning effort there, so we do not make the mistakes that we made in the last election next time around. We need to be sure to get it right, not for ourselves but for the millions of voiceless Australians who every day count on having a Labor government. That’s what really matters. I will do well, regardless of what happens. I am blessed to have three beautiful children and an extraordinary wife and the ability to go for a run in the bush first thing in the morning. So I am doing fine, but I want to make sure that we can do more to help some of the most vulnerable people in Australia.
KARVELAS: You also have a great podcast. We could go on-
LEIGH: With guests like you, Patricia!
KARVELAS: Yeah, I know, amazing right. Tell me, what went wrong? You must have diagnosed some of the problems. You know that your colleague Clare O’Neil described the policy agenda was unwieldy. Was that part of the issue, that policies were too many and too contentious?
LEIGH: I think it is always harder to argue for change than to argue for the status quo. Sometimes you can underestimate the extent to which water needs to build up behind the dam wall before the dam finally breaks. You look at US politics and before the great changes of FDR, you had that whole lazy period of the 1920s. Before the great changes of JFK, you have the 1950s. Gough Whitlam only got elected with a great mandate of change after 23 years of do nothing Coalition governments. Perhaps we were asking too much from the Australian people after six years. We put together a very ambitious set of policies. I think they were policies that would have left Australia more equal, with lower climate emissions, with a stronger civil society and asking multinationals to pay their fair share. But clearly that was a lot to communicate in the face of a government who was relentlessly pursuing negative scare campaigns.
KARVELAS: But is it just about communication or is it that the policies themselves left too many losers in the community? Isn’t that part of the problem? I hear a lot about communication, but was it that the policies were actually flawed?
LEIGH: I think the policies in some cases left themselves open to being maligned. So if you take our policy on refundable franking credits, we had excluded the poorest two thirds of retirees but the scare campaign around a ‘retiree tax’ left some of those pensioners feeling they would be affected. In the face of a very targeted and I have to say skilled scare campaign, we didn't do a good enough job in pushing back. We need to think as we go to next election not just about what is the right set of set of policies for Australia, but also to be clear-eyed about this scare campaigns we will face. The atrocious lies around the inheritance taxes, we need to be prepared for those better than we were this time around. But make no mistake, Bill Shorten put together an extraordinary suite of policies. You can also make the error of winning government and not having an agenda. We certainly were never going to do that. Had we had won government, we would have known exactly what we wanted to do. There have been governments in the past that have fallen over the line not knowing what to do when they get back on the blue carpet. We’ve got one of those right now - an empty slogan in a baseball cap isn’t going to take Australia very far.
KARVELAS: Okay. Quick one from you - do you think Labor should endorse the entire tax package and vote it through? Because the Coalition was upfront - we talk about an agenda - on that one, they were crystal clear. Should you vote for the tax package that the Coalition offered at the election?
LEIGH: One of the things I think that Anthony has done terrifically well since he’s taken over as leader is to ensure that we are making those decisions through a consultative process-
KARVELAS: Exactly. So I want to know your view is in that consultative process.
LEIGH: Certainly, my first starting point is that the government needs to stop holding hostage the immediate tax cuts to tax cuts which will not come until after the next election. Why should it be the case that the Parliament has to vote for tax cuts in a few weeks and tax cuts that aren’t due to start for a few years? Let’s separate those. Let’s have a mature, considered debate about tax cuts that come after the next election, but let's not hold up a bipartisan tax cuts. The government should have done this when Parliament was here before the last election. We could have had this passed in April. Labor said we would back those immediate tax cuts straight away. So let's get this simple bit done and not allow the simple bit to be held hostage to be much more complicated and much more expensive package that comes after the next election.
KARVELAS: Andrew Leigh, thanks for your time.
LEIGH: Thank you, Patricia.
Authorised by Noah Carroll ALP Canberra.