Richard Fidler was kind enough to have me on his 'Conversations' program for a good chat about the role of ideas in politics and how economic thinking can benefit public policy-making. You can listen in to the whole interview at the Radio National website (while you're there, subscribe to the podcast for lots more interesting interviews and ideas!)
The Canberra Times is reporting that up to 250 jobs from the Australian Bureau of Statistics will be moved out of Canberra and sent to Geelong as part of a Victorian Coalition election promise. I joined 666 ABC Canberra to explain why pork-barrelling with public servants is bad news for effective national policymaking. Here's the transcript:
666 ABC CANBERRA
TUESDAY, 11 NOVEMBER 2014
SUBJECT/S: Tony Abbott’s pork-barrelling with public service jobs
PHILIP CLARK: The Government has announced plans that up to 250 public service jobs, this time from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, are to be shifted from Canberra to Geelong. The jobs are going from the Australian Bureau of Statistics which has most of its workforce based in the ACT, and a number of staff there have already been made redundant. There's a new so-called ABS Centre of Excellence for survey functions to be established in Geelong and opened in 2016, and 250 jobs are going to be moved out of Canberra to there to staff it. Andrew Leigh is the Federal Labor Member for Fraser and Shadow Assistant Treasurer, and he's on the line this morning. Andrew Leigh, good morning.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER: Good morning Philip.
CLARK: Isn't Canberra supposed to be the centre for national bureaucracy?
LEIGH: Well absolutely. The thing that I find really shocking about this decision, Philip, is that it's just so nakedly political. It seems that Tony Abbott has looked over at Denis Napthine and said: 'you're behind in the polls, so here – let me give you 250 Canberra public service jobs to see if that will help out'. The crass arrogance of using public servants as pork-barrelling pawns is terrible for a great national institution. You go around the world and people are in admiration of the Australian Bureau of Statistics. They have led the world in terms of national income accounting, and on a range of metrics they are an excellent outfit. So then to be gutting the organisation, to be taking 250 jobs and just plonking them down the day before the caretaker period starts in Victoria, I find that shocking.
CLARK: Look, there's been a lot of criticisms of cuts to the bureau anyway; it's a vital national resource. After all, if we can't accurately measure what's going on in the economy, we can't make sensible economic decisions. The Australian Bureau of Statistics is far more than counting heads; it's about making sure we've got the information on which to base critical decisions. But does it matter if it's disaggregated in that sense? I mean, we're all connected these days anyway by network systems, so does it matter if the bureau is disaggregated?
LEIGH: This comes down to one of those great 'death of distance' questions, Philip. One of the things that strikes me when talking to people in, say, the technology industry is that they talk about how even the IT sector and Silicon Valley is becoming more concentrated, rather than less. There's a great virtue in proximity – you rub shoulders with people and that serendipity leads to better ideas and to a better functioning system. So good organisations are housing themselves under a single roof, increasingly. If you were a corporation, you wouldn't be willy-nilly taking 250 people and just plonking them on the other side of the country, and the same holds true with the public service.
We're in the final countdown now to the G20 Leaders Summit in Brisbane, so I joined Breaking Politics to talk about what the Abbott Government needs to deliver from this. Here's the transcript:
FAIRFAX BREAKING POLITICS
MONDAY, 10 NOVEMBER 2014
SUBJECT/S: G20 growth target; Multinational profit shifting; China FTA; Renewable energy
CALLUM DENNESS: Joining us now outside his Electoral Office is Andrew Leigh, the Labor member for Fraser in the ACT. Good morning.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER: Callum, how are you?
DENNESS: Good thanks. Now the G20 is due to kick off this weekend. The Government is promoting this growth target of 2 per cent over the next five years that it hopes the G20 will adopt. Is this an ambitious target? Is it a useful target?
LEIGH: Well I'm certainly all for improving the rate of economic growth in Australia, I wish the Government all the best in that target which is 2 per cent over 5 years, or 0.4 per cent a year. Where I'm troubled though is the sense that the government is missing some of the key issues and running in the wrong direction on others. We know that one of the ways of ensuring that we have sustained economic growth is to tackle climate change with an effective strategy, not to push it off to an expensive strategy like Direct Action. We also know that you can't cut your way to growth and that investing in health and education is absolutely vital for laying the foundations for prosperity. For the Government to suggest that somehow $80 billion worth of cuts to health and education will improve growth has it exactly backwards.
DENNESS: Another of their suggestions for boosting growth is cutting access to the dole. Does this have any economic merit?
LEIGH: So these guys are from the old 'trickle down' school of economics, the idea that the only way of making the poor richer is to first make the rich richer. There's no economic logic in that. We know that people who are on benefits tend to spend all of their incomes while those at the top of the distribution can save about a quarter of their incomes. The latest budget transfers so many billions of dollars from the most vulnerable to the most affluent. In the process it is taking away from consumer spending, which is why consumer confidence is in the doldrums. And ultimately, it's going to have a detrimental impact on growth. We need to get people into jobs, we need to tackle youth unemployment. We need smart, evidence-based approaches for doing that, not old fashioned ideology.
The interim report of the Harper Competition Review had many interesting things to say about what Australia's future competition policy should look like. But one recommendation that isn't on the right track is the suggestion that the Health Minister should give away the power to oversee private health insurance premium prices. Shadow Minister for Health Catherine King and I explain why in this op-ed which was originally published on the Croakey health blog.
Minister should retain veto power over health insurance premiums, Croakey, 7 November
One of the hardest things to do in politics is to stand up for the many against the few. Where the gain is diffuse, but the cost is concentrated, policymakers have to be strong to get the right outcome.
That, in a nutshell, is why it took decades before governments grasped the nettle on tariff cuts and competition policy. In both cases, it took Labor Governments to recognise that consumer interest needs to be put first.
Which brings us to the case of private health insurance. Today, 55 percent of Australians have health insurance. To contain costs and ensure fairness, Labor means-tested the private health insurance rebate, leading Tony Abbott to predict in 2011 that ‘1.6 million people will drop out of private health insurance’. He was wrong. More Australians now have health insurance than ever before.
But we need to keep downward pressure on health insurance costs. With just five health insurers holding 83 per cent of the market, private health is a relatively concentrated market. While some people change insurers each year, inertia and a fear of waiting periods tend to keep people with the same private health provider. For a single person with the most basic level of cover, the average premium is around $1746 a year – a considerable amount for middle-income households.
The Australian Financial Review has just published some pretty explosive evidence of multinational profit shifting by major Australian and international firms. I joined Waleed Aly on Radio National's Drive program to talk about what the government should be doing to tackle this.
RADIO NATIONAL DRIVE
THURSDAY, 6 NOVEMBER 2014
SUBJECT/S: multinational profit shifting
WALEED ALY: Andrew Leigh joins me now, the Shadow Assistant Treasurer. He's been arguing that we've got some problems here and that the government is going the wrong way about trying to deal with them. Thank you very much for joining us, Andrew.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER: Pleasure, Waleed.
ALY: Let's talk about this scenario, and let me be radical about this and ask a threshold question: is this actually a problem? Because we can try to close tax loopholes but won't that just ultimately drive people or companies to other countries where they can use those loopholes, and then we don't even get the benefit of their employment?
LEIGH: Waleed, I think it's a constant race between lawyers for multinational firms looking to find loopholes and countries looking to close those loopholes. We need to be vigilant as a country to make sure that we're closing those loopholes. I don't think that making sure that people pay their fair share of tax means that they'll ship all their jobs overseas. In fact, that ought to be a free market notion: that everyone pays the same rate of tax. Every time one firm pays less tax, effectively other firms and individuals have to make up the difference in order to support the social services we value.
ALY: The problem we have here is the cracks which exist in laws between states, ultimately. If we had one global tax regime this would be impossible, you simply couldn't do this.
LEIGH: That's right. As a result, what you have is firms wanting to book revenue in low-tax jurisdictions and deductions in high-tax jurisdictions. The tax authorities are seeking to stop them doing that.
ALY: Right. But that needs international cooperation. The G20, I suppose, will take a look at this next week, it's certainly on the agenda. But is there anything Australia can actually do? Because unless everyone is one the same page – it's a bit like the climate change problem – unless everyone cooperates, anything you do ends up being futile.
LEIGH: No, that's not right. We can certainly move to close loopholes in our own tax laws, and that's one of the big things that Wayne Swan and David Bradbury did last year when they put together the biggest ever package of multinational profit shifting reforms. It was so recognised around the world that it won David Bradbury an award for being one of the 50 best tax reformers in 2013. When the Coalition came to office, I'd expected that they'd take that package and build on it. But instead, they took that package and chipped away at it. They gave $1.1 billion of tax breaks back to multinationals by deciding not to proceed with measures, for example, to curtail the use of offshore banking units or to stop multinationals engaging in debt shifting.
The evidence continues to mount up that Australia's Charities and Not-for-profits Commission is doing great work. Surely it's time for the Abbott Government and Kevin Andrews to start paying attention?
USA WANTS A CHARITIES COMMISSION. WHY DOESN'T MR ABBOTT?
The Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission has proven to be so successful that charity regulators from across the USA are now looking to replicate it. This is further proof that the Abbott Government has got in wrong in moving to scrap the commission.
One of the commission’s senior executives was recently invited to the United States to tell the National Association of State Charity Officials more about how the regulator’s work is increasing transparency and cutting red tape for not-for-profits.
In particular, the US group is looking at replicating Australia’s national Charities Register to increase accountability and protect donors against scams.
It is also considering the Charity Passport initiative, which allows not-for-profits to report once to the charities commission and then have this information shared with other government agencies.
With new data out showing ACT property prices have started to tumble, it's feeling a bit like 1996 all over again for many Canberra homeowners.
ABBOTT'S CUTS ALREADY HURTING CANBERRA HOMEOWNERS
New property data shows Tony Abbott’s cuts to Canberra are starting to bite, with house prices falling 2.3 per cent in October.
While property prices rose in other capitals, an RP Data report shows the price of Canberra homes fell below the national median.
Joe Hockey joked about driving property prices down before the 2013 election, saying:
“There is a golden rule for real estate in Canberra – you buy Liberal and you sell Labor.”
– Press conference, 31 May 2013
While we all support affordable housing, this is best achieved through smart policies that manage supply, not through massive job losses and collapsing consumer confidence.
While I was in Hobart with my colleague Lisa Singh, I heard firsthand from lots of Tasmanians about the negative impact changes to the GST distribution would have in their state. So I held a press conference calling on Tasmania's Liberal representatives to stand up for their state and fight Tony Abbott on this; here's the transcript.
TUESDAY, 4 NOVEMBER 2014
HOBART, PARLIAMENT HOUSE
SUBJECT/S: GST distribution; Tony Abbott’s unfair budget; ADF pay deal; polls
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER: Thanks everyone for coming along. We've been down here today speaking with local community groups about their concerns around Tony Abbott's unfair cuts to Tasmania. Tony Abbott was in Tasmania recently to speak to the Tasmanian Liberals. He says he wants a mature and sensible debate about tax, but he didn't talk to them about his GST plans and how they will adversely affect Tasmania. The simple fact is that the GST is not a magic pudding. If Tony Abbott wants to give more GST to one state, that means other states will get less or the base of the rate of the GST will have to go up. So Tony Abbott needs to be clear with Tasmanians that not only are his $80 billion of health and education cuts hurting this state, but if he wants to give more GST money to one state then that's going to mean less for others. There's a lot of noise being made by certain Liberal members from Western Australia, but by contrast we see the Tasmanian Liberals being completely silent in Canberra, like little lambs cowering in the corner. Will Hodgman is doing nothing to stand up to Tony Abbott on the issue of the GST.
I wanted to make one other quick comment too, and then happy to take questions.
On the Government's ADF pay deal, the Government has overseen a pay deal for ADF personnel that will see them getting a real pay cut. This is, in my view, the biggest scandal since the Fine Cotton Affair. Men and women in the defence forces put themselves on the line and they shouldn't have to fight the Abbott Government for a fair deal on pay. They deserve a real pay increase. Stuart Robert, the junior Defence Minister, said while he was in opposition that a real pay cut would have been outrageous. We should apply the same standard to the real pay cut that the Abbott Government is now putting on the table.
I might hand over now to my colleagues to say a couple of words and then happy to take questions.
The Abbott Government's first budget is a disaster for communities around Australia, but Tasmanians will feel the impact more than most. I joined my colleague Senator Lisa Singh in Hobart to hear firsthand from community groups about how Tasmanians will be affected by changes to income support, pensions and healthcare spending, and plan for how we'll keep fighting the government on these.
TACKLING INEQUALITY IN TASMANIA
Community groups and grassroots activists have come together to talk about tackling inequality in the wake of the most unfair budget in Australian history.
Shadow Assistant Treasurer Andrew Leigh and Senator for Tasmania Lisa Singh today met with representatives of Anglicare, the Grandparents Advisory Council and other local groups to hear about how Tasmanians will be affected by cuts to income support and pensions, as well as new taxes like the $7 GP fee and higher fuel excise.
“The Abbott Government’s first budget chipped away at the very pillars that support the Australian fair go,” said Dr Leigh, who last year authored a book titled Battlers and Billionaires: The Story of Inequality in Australia.
"Over the past generation Australia has seen a rise in inequality, with a widening gap between those on high incomes and those struggling to make their pay last from week to week," he said.
"Tony Abbott's first budget will make us a more divided society, because his cuts hurt those on low incomes, while his giveaways help those at the top.
With plenty of speculation around about the Abbott Government's plans on the GST, I joined Capital Hill to talk about the implications of changing any one state's share of the pie. Here's the transcript:
ABC CAPITAL HILL
MONDAY, 3 NOVEMBER 2014
SUBJECT/S: GST distribution; interest rates
LYNDAL CURTIS: Joining me now is the Shadow Assistant Treasurer and Member for Fraser, Andrew Leigh. Andrew Leigh, welcome to Capital Hill. Do you believe Western Australia has a real problem?
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER: Well Lyndal, certainly all states and territories are struggling after the $80 billion cut to health and education that Tony Abbott delivered in his last budget. That has made it harder for the states and territories – whether they be governed by Labor or Liberal governments – to make ends meet.
CURTIS: But Western Australia had a problem even before that; it's been complaining about this for some time.
LEIGH: There's a strong case being made by the Western Australian members of parliament. But the problem is that Tony Abbott wants to have it both ways. He wants to send smoke signals out in the west that he's open to giving them a greater share of the GST, but then to say to people in the east that they won't lose out. But Lyndal, the GST is not a magic pudding. If one state gets a larger amount, then it is either because another state has got a smaller amount, or because they've raised the rate or the base.