Lessons from Queensland - Breaking Politics, 2 February

The first Breaking Politics show of the year was a big one, as Andrew Laming and I thrashed out the lessons parties should be taking from the weekend's remarkable result in Queensland. Here's the transcript:





SUBJECT/S: Abbott Government leadership ructions; Queensland election; Labor’s positive plan for 2015

CHRIS HAMMER: We're joined now in the studio by Andrew Leigh, the Shadow Assistant Treasurer and Member for Fraser here in the ACT, and Andrew Laming, a Queensland federal Liberal MP from the seat of Bowman. Good morning to you both. Andrew Laming, to you first: the Queensland election result, how much do you think that was affected by federal issues and federal politics?

ANDREW LAMING, MEMBER FOR BOWMAN: Well Chris, you'll be surprised to hear me say: very little. The reason was Campbell Newman was such a towering figure, and overwhelmingly this result was all about whether you liked him or not, his tone and his style. Obviously asset sales became a significant issue due to a really big union campaign. So while we may have national thoughts about the relative leaders, Tony Abbott didn't play a big role in Queensland. Certainly he didn't come up during the campaign, and secondly people were firmly focused on Campbell Newman's three years in government.

CHRIS HAMMER: Ok, so in that case the federal government doesn't have to change anything, does it? Because that was just all Queensland?

LAMING: Well there are still important portents from the Queensland election. First of all, we've seen that significant social policy changes or restructures aren't going to be bought easily by the electorate in the name of fixing Labor's debt. There's general agreement, I think, that we need to do that. But in Queensland for the first time we've actually got a Queensland Labor government having to wear the debt of the Labor predecessor just three years earlier. That's historically quite a new thing post-John Howard, to see Labor sorting out Labor debt. It'll be very interesting viewing. 

HAMMER: Given what's happened in Queensland and what happened in Victoria in November – two first-term governments kicked out of office – do you now fear that the federal government could be a one-term government? Is that a real fear?

LAMING: Look, it's not a direct correlation but clearly Australians are not going to hold onto governments simply because they've only had one term. I mean, two very different situations here: the Victorian state government was just plain terrible, whereas Campbell Newman was, if anything, just too ambitious. Australians, and Queenslanders certainly, like governments that are seen but not heard. They don't want governments making massive structural reforms unless they're absolutely convinced of them. Clearly, both at the state and federal level we haven't achieved that. That narrative hasn't been right. I've said this before: on Budget Night last year I had to go and check, as a medical specialist, to see if Medicare was truly unsustainable because no-one had been saying it prior to the budget. That wasn't the right language to get budget changes through. 

HAMMER: Ok, so what has the federal government got wrong and what does it need to get right?

LAMING: Well it firstly needs to be pointed out that we're having this discussion two years out from an election. That's when you want to have the discussion. Not, as Labor did, three months out. Secondly, we obviously have great economic credentials, voters know that and they'll always vote for a Coalition government when the economy is at stake. But ultimately, Coalition governments are voted out when they get their social policy in a muddle. They've got to get their social policy right to stay elected. They're not at the moment. The mistake we have made is to presume that Australians will brook massive social policy changes simply because of a Labor government's failures in a previous term. In Queensland that simply did not wash.

HAMMER: Who would you prefer to take you to the next election – Tony Abbott or someone else? Or do you have an open mind about that?

LAMING: You'll be disappointed when I say, Chris, that we've got a number of people that are extraordinary leaders from the front, and that's a great position that we have that Labor doesn't. But secondly, I haven't spoken to a single one of them. It's my concern purely and simply that we do some basic things in 2015: we have to get the social policy right because that's what keeps Coalition governments in government. We need to ditch the knighthoods and the Imperial Honours system - that simply needs to go. And then finally, on IR, we need a very simple, clear message. We have almost a clear message but we're not going to be touching penalty rates. I don't know how many times Australians have to tell us that before it becomes policy, but we're not going to fiddle around with the penalty rate system every time there's an election coming along. We need to be clearer about that. We can get the economy running without affecting vulnerable groups. We can fix the budget deficit inherited from Labor without unfair cuts. We promised it before the election; we simply have to deliver it after.

HAMMER: Does Tony Abbott have your support as Prime Minister?

LAMING: Absolutely. The leader always has my support… 

HAMMER: No matter who the leader is?

LAMING: …I haven't spoken to anyone else about this topic. I've spoken to no-one else in the Cabinet about it. But I think it's important, I'm a backbencher and I'm concerned about changes I want to see in 2015. I'll be making my mind up on whether those changes are achieved. 

HAMMER: Is it reasonable then for the party to consider the leadership at this point in the electoral cycle, given how bad the polls are for you? Is this the right time to consider these issues?

LAMING: Look, my focus is no. My focus is on getting these structural elements right. I hope we'll hear that at the Press Club. At the moment, as I've said, we've had changes to Medicare which are effectively a tax on GPs, which are not supported by any community group, and I'm glad Sussan Ley is looking at a new way forward. We haven't seen the progress in welfare reform that voters expect of us: mutual obligation, participation requirements, self-reliance. That's why we were voted in, but there’s been virtually no progress except reports in 2014. I've mentioned IR, and I mean ultimately, we've got to look after vulnerable groups like pensioners. Even though the mixed messages suggest that they'll be paid less pension, that's actually what they believe, even though it's simply a change of indexation. So it's about the narrative and convincing the community that the direction we're taking them is the right one to pay off Labor's debt.

HAMMER: How important is this speech to the Press Club today for Tony Abbott's leadership?

LAMING: It's bigger than Ben Hur. 

HAMMER: So his leadership is in the balance, depending on this speech? 

LAMING: I prefer to think of this now as the middle of a three-year term, and this is a Coalition government that, with respect, apart from the Senate-blocked changes from the budget, has achieved extraordinary things in 2014. If you look at the tax changes we've promised, the infrastructure, the roads we've promised, the determination to pay off debt, and obviously stopping the boats; we've done virtually everything we said we'd do. So in 2015 now, we need to convince people that we can support our social institutions, keep them working to do the job they're meant to do, and still continue the trajectory of paying off Labor's debt. It doesn't have to be by 2017 or 2020. I think Australians just want to know we're going to run the budget better, we're going to run the economy better than the other side.    

HAMMER: Ok, let's bring in Andrew Leigh, thank you for waiting so patiently. What lessons does Labor draw from the Queensland election result?

ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER: Chris, I think it's very clear that the Australian public don't support governments that say one thing before the election and do something else after the election. Andrew has spoken about the decisions that the Queensland Government made; I didn't think it was strong leadership when Campbell Newman cut jobs, driving up Queensland's unemployment rate. But that's the playbook that Tony Abbott is following federally, and while Andrew might say that there's no federal implications for this, it's pretty clear that Tony Abbott was front and centre in the minds of Queensland voters. Not only because his 'knightmare' was on the front page of the Courier Mail, but also because this approach of making cuts against what you said you'd do before the election is a Queensland pattern and a federal pattern. Andrew is starting to sound suspiciously like a Labor MP there, saying he doesn't support knighthoods, saying that he doesn't support a GP tax, saying he doesn't support cuts to penalty rates. Well it's one thing for him to say, but that's not the policy of this government and it's not the policy of this Cabinet. My counterpart Josh Frydenberg has been out there this year calling for cuts to penalty rates. That's government policy.

HAMMER: Who do you most fear – who does Labor most fear to face at the next election? Tony Abbott or Julie Bishop or Malcolm Turnbull? Who would be the most difficult to counter?

LEIGH: Chris, politics is a classic team sport. People make a mistake when they think it's just two individuals matching up. I'm perfectly comfortable pitting our team against theirs, because ours stands for those fundamental values of fairness, egalitarianism and keeping our word. Those aren't things that you see from the other side of politics, which has given $1 billion back to multinationals at the same time as cutting the pension, health and education. Tony Abbott is going to the Press Club today ditching what he said was his signature policy: parental leave. Now, I disagree with him on that policy, but the fact is that Tony Abbott's idea of a reset is to break yet another promise.

HAMMER: But come on, you must agree – Labor has been pushing for this policy change so surely you must welcome it?

LEIGH: Chris, political conversation has not been so dumbed down that we can't hold two ideas simultaneously. I disagree with Tony Abbott's unfair parental leave scheme, but he took it to the last election and he promised to millions of Australians that he would implement this scheme. Some of them surely voted for him on that basis. Today, he's breaking what he referred to as his ‘absolute signature promise’.

HAMMER: Andrew Laming, what do you think of this? If Tony Abbott had dropped the Paid Parental Leave scheme back at the time of the budget, it may have looked like a necessary, statesmanlike concession. But doesn't it now simply look like political panic?

LAMING: Look, not at all. It's very important to point out that the difference in this debate between Tony Abbott trying his utmost to get a policy through the Parliament – Australians know that and can see it – is hardly a broken promise. A broken promise, just so that you know, is saying something the night before the 2010 election and then intentionally doing nothing to get it passed, like a carbon tax. So we saw Gillard saying that there'll be no carbon tax, and then immediately the day after starting the process to make it happen through parliament. That's very different. Tony Abbott has done everything he possibly could to get this policy through. I've defended it for a long time as an economic measure, but – considered in the broader package of childcare and supporting young mothers – I'm prepared to brook an extension where we consider a families package that rolls in paid parental leave.      

HAMMER: Andrew Leigh, does Labor now believe that it really is a possibility that this will be a one-term government?

LEIGH: Chris, if you look back in Australian political history you do see federal governments getting more than one term. But in many cases they only squeak over the line: 1984, 1998, 2010 – these were all very close-run elections. A modicum of luck the other way could have seen Kim Beazley's majority of the popular vote translate into a one-term Howard Government, or could have seen us not manage to form a minority government in 2010. I think it's a myth that you're guaranteed at least two terms in Australian politics, and the results out of Victoria and Queensland have shown just that. We need to earn the trust of the Australian people. Bill Shorten has spoken about this as being a year of policy for Labor, where we will lay out very clearly what an alternative Shorten Government would deliver.

HAMMER: How important is that, that you don't simply go with that small target strategy? Because what we've seen in the past is parties winning from opposition on that but then really struggling in government.

LEIGH: It's absolutely vital. And it's more vital for the Labor party than for any other. The story of Australian politics is that the big reforms – whether it's universal superannuation or universal healthcare, or whether it's the key decisions made in World War II – they're all Labor decisions. The Coalition can afford to coast in and do nothing, but that's not who Labor is. We're a party of ideas and reform. We have to be taking a serious reform package to the next election. 

HAMMER: Ok. Andrew Laming: the government also seems to be expanding consultation and communication between the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister's office, the Ministry, the outer Ministry and the backbench – part of that revamp seems to be getting rid of the so-called 'captain's calls'. Have we had too many captain's picks?

LAMING: Not at all. Prime Ministers are utterly entitled to do that… 

HAMMER: So if they're entitled to do it, why are you getting rid of that ability?

LAMING: Look, they're entitled to do it and if they get it wrong, those barnacles begin to accrue. I've previously said that I don't support the Imperial Honours system, I'm now calling for it to be completely scrapped and we go back to what I think was working perfectly fine prior to 2014. Apart from that, I think we've got most of our calls correct, and we simply have to convince people that this is a price worth paying because as they often say: going into debt is going down on the escalator. Coming out of debt is climbing up the fire escape. I'm looking forward to Andrew's party's release of policies to see how they would have dealt with these hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of projected debt. It's a massive challenge; no government overseas has managed to solve a problem as a big as the one we're grappling with. They've simply fallen into debt and stayed there. So it's very, very ambitious of the Australian Coalition to be determined to see us at least back into balanced budgets by 2021.

HAMMER: Just finally, Andrew Laming: how important is it for the government to settle this leadership issue now rather than allow it to linger any longer?

LAMING: Well I've made the observation this is the right time to be talking about what we're doing in 2015 and beyond. It now gives us two budgets to make it clear to the Australian people what we intend to do. I've talked about the deficiencies of 2014, I've been pretty open about that, and I think a party is stronger because people like myself can point those things out publicly, and we have been doing that consistently. I think we've got a chance now to get it right and everyone will be listening closely, particularly to the Press Club speech today.

HAMMER: Ok, Andrew Laming, Andrew Leigh - thanks for your time today.



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