Labor is making sure the omnibus savings bill won't hurt the most vulnerable - Sky To The Point





SUBJECT/S: Shadow Ministry; Omnibus Bill; Botched 2016 Census; Same-sex marriage legislation; Coalition losing votes in the House; Trove – the National Library’s digital archive; The Senate has nothing to do; Turnbull running scared.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: The Shadow Assistant Treasurer, Dr Andrew Leigh, joins us live from Canberra, thanks very much for your company. As of last week, you are now officially the only unpaid member of the Labor Frontbench. Have you thought about putting the cap around? Kristina Keneally thinks that we should start a social media campaign and see if we can do some crowd funding.

ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER: You always were a great one for political trivia, Peter. I suspect that the three of us might be the only ones in Australia who care about this issue.

VAN ONSELEN: I don't know about that.

KRISTINA KENEALLY: I think you undersell yourself Dr Leigh, as we speak, I am setting up the GoFundMe campaign for your frontbench position.

VAN ONSELEN: Genuine question though –

LEIGH: Genuinely Kristina, if you're raising money raise it for homeless people. Don't raise it for someone who has slipped from the top 1 per cent to the top 2 per cent. Nothing to worry about.

VAN ONSELEN: Is that a commitment from you that if you get into Government that you'll donate your ministerial salary ongoing going forward to charity?

LEIGH: (Laughter) Next question, Peter.

VAN ONSELEN: Charity does have to begin at home in fairness. Let's talk about the Omnibus Legislation. I heard directly from Anthony Albanese's mouth two weekends ago that the Labor left are concerned about passing as much of the Omnibus Bill as Chris Bowen for example would like to. How is this divide going to get sorted out?

LEIGH: Peter it's no secret that we're having appropriate conversations with the Government and we'll go through our internal processes of Shadow Cabinet and Caucus before announcing a formal position. But the perspective on which we approach it is one with an eye to boosting economic growth but maintaining egalitarianism.

VAN ONSELEN: But there's a different opinion internally on that isn't there Dr Leigh? I mean, the balance between those two things that you rightly point out, there are disagreements within the Labor Party about it, nothing wrong with that?

LEIGH: I don’t think that's right, Peter. I don't think you'd find a personal Labor Caucus that doesn't say they care both about inequality and growth. Whether you're talking about the two people you mentioned or anyone else in our great party room. I just came from listening to Peter Khalil's first speech, he was talking there about the importance of equality of opportunity and that's grounded in the notion that we need to be an Australia in which we're growing the pie but also maintaining egalitarianism. That hasn't happened for the last couple of decades as you know. The gap between the rich and the rest has grown. It's been a great couple of decades for billionaires, not so good for battlers. We're concerned to make sure as we assess the omnibus savings bill that we have an eye particularly to measures that might hurt the most vulnerable. 

VAN ONSELEN: I can think of a good way to fix that, Dr Andrew Leigh. And that would be an inheritance tax.

LEIGH: Peter, you're like a dog with an old manky bone that has been dug up deep in the backyard. I think this is like the sixth time you've raised this issue with me. 

VAN ONSELEN: It's a good idea that I got from one of your papers. It's a very, very good idea.

LEIGH: Inheritance taxes are dead Peter, get over it.

KENEALLY: Let me ask you this then, because one of the other measures in the omnibus bill that apparently some in the Labor Party have concerns about are the cuts to ARENA. Is it fair to say that there's a consideration across the board about whether Labor actually ever did commit to cutting ARENA? Is there a debate happening within the Labor Party that some of the cuts in this omnibus bill like the ARENA cut really weren't part of Labor's package that they took to the election?

LEIGH: Labor has stood up for good climate policy across the board Kristina, for the renewable energy target, for the clean energy finance corporation, we fought against the Government's attempts to move Australia away from a carbon pricing mechanism that was seeing electricity emissions decrease year on year to a Direct Action approach which sees emissions increase year on year. So we'll go through the Government's proposals here. I think it is really important that we maintain a strong research base in solar and wind. I know in the Australian National University where I worked before I came into Parliament, there's a great research collaboration there not just on Australia-only operations, but one which engages with China and other countries in our region. Part of that is ARENA funded.

KENEALLY: Part of my point is more that if you look at some of these cuts, you might say that Labor might have accepted some of them in the context of doing other things. And those other things aren't being proposed in this Omnibus Bill. So for example, ARENA we might have cut here but we also might have also done other things. Or with the NewStart pension cuts, we might have accepted them but we were also going to cut the Baby Bonus and other areas. It's not accurate to say that this Omnibus Bill represents what Labor took to the election because there's a whole context around it that is not part of Labor's. Labor's policies are not being enacted by this Government.

LEIGH: Look you're certainly right there. Another marker of the importance of going through this Bill carefully is the fact that the numbers in it didn't add up. When we first looked at it, we discovered a $100 million error, so forgive us for taking a little bit of time.

KENEALLY: That's fair enough. I think it was on page 5.

LEIGH: Indeed. You didn't have to read very far.

KENEALLY: I did wonder how that managed to slip through, apparently computational error.

VAN ONSELEN: It was by the Treasury.

KENEALLY: It was Treasury, not the Treasurer’s fault.

LEIGH: Yes it's always someone else's fault with this Government isn't it?


VAN ONSELEN: This is playing politics, Dr Leigh you would –

KENEALLY: Oh come on! How many eyes would have read that Bill? The Treasurer, his office, the Prime Minister and his office, the Cabinet, the Coalition party room –

VAN ONSELEN: You can't expect the Treasurer to sit there with his calculator and add it all up. Someone in his office should have, Dr Leigh, you'd agree with that?

LEIGH: Well Peter, the notion of ministerial responsibility is that Ministers tend to walk into Parliament or give major speeches taking credit for the work of their public servants. But they also need to take blame when something goes wrong. If the Census had had the highest response rate then this Government would be claiming great success for the 2016 Census.

VAN ONSELEN: You all do that. All politicians do exactly what you're describing. I remember during the Rudd/Gillard years, during the Howard years, now during the Turnbull years - 

KENEALLY: I think the point is, somebody needs to take responsibility.

LEIGH: There was plenty of ministerial responsibility taken under us - 

KENEALLY: For introducing a bill to the Parliament that didn't add up. Their big savings bill didn't add up.

VAN ONSELEN: It was embarrassing, don't get me wrong.

KENEALLY: Not as embarrassing as losing three votes in a row.

VAN ONSELEN: That's true. Or as embarrassing as the person who led the charge against unethical conducts in the banks then having to step down because of a donation.

KENEALLY: No no, that didn't go well either.

VAN ONSELEN: All of the above is embarrassing. 

KENEALLY: So we've had a lot of legislation that seems to be demanding marriage equality be voted on by the Parliament. Obviously you welcome this, I know you are a firm believer that the Parliament needs to get on and deal with marriage equality rather than go to a plebiscite. Are you getting any insight as to where the Coalition is at, are they having conversations with Labor? Is this idea of a self-executing plebiscite just completely off the table? Or do you think there is still a possibility there and would Labor accept it?

LEIGH: I think they are at sixes and sevens, Kristina. My hope is that they do come around on this. I thought Michael Kirby made quite a neat conservative argument against a plebiscite. He argued that it's alien to Australia's constitutional traditions in which hot political issues are debated in the Parliament rather than left off to a plebiscite. It's been a century since we had those World War I conscription plebiscites. Then apart from the non-binding vote on the national anthem, we haven't really had anything of this character. I'd be concerned about what it would do to the mental health of young gay and lesbian Australians. Also just the simple fact - as Bill Shorten said in introducing the bill today - that there are octogenarians who would love to attend their kids’ same-sex marriages. Let's get on and not be the only advanced English speaking country without same-sex marriage.

KENEALLY: Can you just hold it right there on that point, we know you have to go to question time but just hold for a minute. We're going to dip in quickly to the Senate. Senator Mitch Fifield is speaking in response to Penny Wong.


VAN ONSELEN: That was the Minister for Government Business in the Senate. And Mitch Fifield responding to Penny Wong who was speaking a little earlier. Kristina we're talking to the Shadow Assistant Treasurer, Dr Andrew Leigh. You're not going to be able to have 31 positions on the frontbench in Government, presumably it’s easy now though because Doug Cameron has announced he is not contesting the next election. That's one down and in on the even 30. Would that be a fair assumption that it'll stay like that?

LEIGH: Peter, the size of the opposition frontbench has varied. Indeed in the last term having just 30 made it a relatively small shadow ministry. That's neither here nor there compared to the fact that we just heard the Government's leader in the Senate effectively saying that the Government has lost control of the House. They couldn't manage their agenda in the House. As Kristina has said, they lost three votes last time Parliament sat. It was pretty lacklustre stuff by the Government in the House, just being unable to do their numbers there. Again, Mitch Fifield…

KENEALLY: Can I ask you a question on that? You were quick off the mark on Twitter as those votes were going on in the Parliament to give the historical perspective that it had been more than 57 years. You even had the newspaper clipping from the last time it happened. You tweeted those. 

VAN ONSELEN: He clearly knew this was going to happen.

KENEALLY: Did you have that all at the ready to go or were you rapidly researching at that point?

LEIGH: I was rapidly researching, Kristina. Using a tremendous National Library service called Trove which archives old newspapers. One of the tragedies of the Government's cuts is they want to destroy Trove, a great archive not just for political history tragics like us, but for genealogical researchers who want to go back and learn about what great-grandpa did.

VAN ONSELEN: Is there a segue the Dr Leigh would not find a way to get back in and make a partisan point?

KENEALLY: I've just got say, if this were the Olympics, that is like a ten out of ten on pivot, right there. I mean my god, the Olympics of pivot.

LEIGH: Trove is fantastic. I'd recommend it to all of your viewers.

KENEALLY: Excellent. I might recommend it to some of us here at Sky News as well.

VAN ONSELEN: Well, the other good site is elections...UWA's site, where it goes through - you would know about this one Dr Leigh? They've got every single state and territory election right throughout time. It's all been compiled there -

KENEALLY: You're a professor there?

VAN ONSELEN: As fate would have it, yes. But it's not a free advertisement. It's not like I get any money for the more hits that they get on the site. But it's actually a really useful site for going back and looking at past election results, and all the rest of it. Much better than the AEC's site.

LEIGH: Its only downside Peter, is that it’s not downloadable in machine-readable format.

VAN ONSELEN: There you go. So you're obviously an avid reader of it.

KENEALLY: Oh my goodness -

LEIGH: Have we reached peak nerd yet?

KENEALLY: I think we have and we can see the viewers falling away very quickly.

VAN ONSELEN: We've gotta move on. We've gotta move on. Let's get back to a few issues though. You're interested as a party and as an opposition in trying to meet the government halfway on superannuation reforms in the aftermath of the election. Why not meet them halfway on the plebiscite as well?

LEIGH: Because we don't think it’s the right thing to do, Peter. We're genuinely worried about the mental health of young gay and lesbian Australians and you need a –

VAN ONSELEN: On, that - I have to jump in though - I have expressed those same concerns as I 'm sure you know, Dr Leigh. But surely their mental health will be more jeopardised by three years of waiting, because the Coalition aren't going to give into a free vote? And it would be by a three-month campaign ahead of a very prompt plebiscite. It's the lesser of evils, I know, but that is the binary choice. 

LEIGH: You look at what might tip somebody over the edge and it's the eruption of hate speech which could potentially occur in the atmosphere of a plebiscite. We've seen now that the Prime Minister before the election apparently promised taxpayer funding for the "No" case. There are people of goodwill who don't support same-sex marriage. But the loudest voices against same-sex marriage are potentially going to be the haters. I don't want that to happen and I believe that if the plebiscite is voted down it wouldn’t take very long before the next motion was to hit the floor of the House. The numbers are there now in both the House and the Senate to pass marriage equality.

KENEALLY: So let me ask very briefly in the time we have left. Is there any reasonable prospect of this legislation that's getting introduced - Bill Shorten today - we see others indicating willingness to introduce legislation to House to legislate marriage equality - is there any reasonable prospect of that getting debated ahead of a plebiscite?

LEIGH: A reasonable government would give it a reasonable prospect. Malcolm Turnbull argued against the plebiscite last year - for what I thought were very good reasons. Making the case that it's not the way we in Australia typically sort these things out. Let's just get marriage equality done. It's a straightforward issue. It enjoys the support of the Parliament and Australians. We were once in the position where Australia could have been a leader, but now we're a laggard. When we narrowed marriage to just be between a man and a woman, we didn't have a plebiscite back then for that, so why would we have a plebiscite now that the Parliament's changed its mind a decade on?

VAN ONSELEN: Just on the issue - before we let you go, I know you've got to get to question time - just on the issue though that Mitch Fifield stood up and talked about. He makes a fair point doesn't he? When he says OK, there's no government agenda in the Senate for one very simple reason. You guys are playing games in the lower house, holding up legislation, and of course the proroguing of parliament - as Kristina Keneally well knows - does take all legislation off the books, and that is a requirement for a double dissolution election anyway. There's nothing untoward is there about the government running out of business in the Senate so early on when the Opposition is doing a good job holding up legislation from the House?

LEIGH: Peter, here's what's happening. Every time Parliament sits, Malcolm Turnbull has to have a party room meeting. And he wants as few of those party room meetings as possible, so he's scheduled a surprisingly light program of parliamentary sittings for the remainder of this year. If Malcolm Turnbull wants more parliamentary sittings days, then he could easily schedule them himself. That's a matter for the government. So really, this is a case of Liberals in the Senate blaming Liberals in the House for their inability to control things. Monday morning is private member's business. So surprise, surprise, the House has spent this morning talking about private member's business. If they'd like more legislation, they need more sittings days. But they're running scared from that because Malcolm Turnbull's running scared from the Abbott forces that he knows will challenge him, every time his party room gets together. 

KENEALLY: Alright Dr Andrew Leigh, we're going to let you get to question time. Thanks so much for joining us.

VAN ONSELEN: Thanks for your company. 

LEIGH: Terrific to chat with you both.



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