Protecting pensions and making marriage equal - Fairfax Breaking Politics

E&OE TRANSCRIPT

ONLINE INTERVIEW

FAIRFAX BREAKING POLITICS

MONDAY, 27 APRIL 2015

SUBJECT/S: Scott McIntyre; pension assets test; marriage equality.

CALLUM DENNESS: Joining me now is Labor member for Fraser in the ACT and Shadow Assistant Treasurer, Andrew Leigh. Good morning.

ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER: Good morning, Callum.

DENNESS: Now we saw SBS presenter Scott McIntyre sacked over the weekend for tweets that were labelled by Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull as offensive, inappropriate and despicable. Do you think it's fair that someone has lost their jobs for airing an opinion that was controversial?

LEIGH: Ultimately this will come down to the employment contract that the particular journalist has with SBS, but I do think that the tweets were offensive and were wrong.

DENNESS: No irony here that some of the people most outraged by these tweets were some of the same people that were involved in the 18C debate?

LEIGH: I think it is important to remember, on the issue of free speech, that the rubber hits the road when you're talking about opinions with which you disagree or find distasteful. That's separate from the question as to what a particular employment relationship was, but I do think we want to make sure that we've got space in the broad Australian public debate for a wide range of views.

DENNESS: OK, let's move on now. There's a report today based on research from the Centre for Independent Studies that says including the family home in the pension test could be politically popular if it was sold right. They’re making a proposal that would see the Government facilitate a system of reverse mortgages – do you think this is a sound idea?

LEIGH: We certainly worked while we were in Government to make sure that Australians who wanted to access reverse mortgage could do so. Indeed, one of the Labor announcements that the Government scrapped when winning office was a plan which would have allowed retirees to take a portion of their home equity and put it in an account where it wasn't subject to the pension assets test. That would have encouraged downsizing. At the moment, some pensioners are averse to downsizing because they're concerned that if they convert housing equity into cash they're going to miss out on the pension. I don't think we need to bring the home into the pension assets test but I do think there are a range of sensible ideas in this space and they include making reverse mortgages more attractive.

DENNESS: On principle, why should the family home be excluded from the pension test when there is this ongoing conversation and debate about how we provide for the retirement incomes that we expect when the country is aging so rapidly?

LEIGH: Well first of all, let's be clear. Australia's pension is – according to Allianz – the most sustainable in the world. It costs about 3 per cent of national income and according to the intergenerational report it will cost about 3 1/2 per cent of national income by mid-century. We believe that the family home shouldn't be subject to the pension assets test because many pensioners have ties to their local community. That sense of community is important not just to social capital, but we also know if people are healthier if they are not uprooted from their environment and made to move out of a suburb where perhaps they've been living for half a century or longer.

DENNESS: OK so you're not moved by the argument that it is becoming unsustainable, but doesn't the exclusion of their family home raise a fundamental fairness question here around the pension?

LEIGH: I've read the report, I find it an interesting contribution to the conversation, but Labor's position on the pension assets test is very clear. We don't support including the family home in the pension assets test,

DENNESS: OK let's move on again. Your frontbench colleague, Tanya Plibersek, has said that she would like the ALP to change its platform at the National Conference so that MPs are compelled to vote for gay marriage, not vote with their conscience. I know you're a supporter of gay marriage, what do you make of Ms Plibersek’s call here?

LEIGH: Last time I voted on this issue was on the ACT Labor Conference in 2011. There was a vote as to whether same-sex marriage should be a binding vote and I supported it in that forum. I didn't have a vote at the last National Conference and won't at the next National Conference. But I do think that the issue raises a broader question as to whether having all votes as either binding or conscience is the right way of whipping in the Labor Party. Chris Bowen, in his book Hearts and Minds, suggested that Australian Labor usefully look to the British Labour approach which is a three-line whip: having votes in the category of absolutely binding, guiding and free votes, and I think there's some merit in that. Conscience votes emerged as a way of holding the Labor Party together in the 1950s at the time when many Catholics were leaving the party. Conscience votes were right for then but I'm not sure that structure is the right one for us going forwards.

DENNESS: Would it open up the possibility of a brawl here over the issue? There is a wing of the Labor Party, the Labor Right, that doesn't support gay marriage. Do you think it's worth having that argument?

LEIGH: I think it's always worth having these sorts of important debates. The same-sex marriage question is a conversation that many Australian families have had. Since the Labor Party's national conference last met, we've seen conservative governments in the UK and New Zealand legislate in favour of same-sex marriage. We've now got a majority of Americans living in states where same-sex marriage is legal and a President who supports it. So the debate has moved on in that sense but in terms of how we manage it within the ALP, I think perhaps the time is also right for thinking about whether the way in which Caucus is whipped is the appropriate one going forward, and whether that binary distinction between binding and conscience votes really is the best we can do.

DENNESS: Would a binding vote progress the issue overall? In other words, would it be more likely to lead to gay marriage being legislated in Australia?

LEIGH: Well you can make both arguments on this. Supporters of a binding vote will say that it will bring more Labor votes to the fold, opponents would say that it would then increase the probability that the Coalition party room would bind in the opposite direction. Ultimately, I'd like to have as broad as possible a conversation about this and think about the whipping system in general.

DENNESS: Which side of the argument do you lean to then? You've outlined us two cases there.

LEIGH: Well I've told you the last time the issue came up at the ACT conference, I supported the binding vote. That was some years ago now and I won't have a vote at the National Conference, although I'll be watching the debate with some interest.

DENNESS: OK, Andrew Leigh, thanks for your time.

LEIGH: Thank you, Callum.

ENDS

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