The numbers Australians are really worried about - Breaking Politics, 3 November

I'm not much of a believer in polls, but I know there's one set of numbers Australians are pretty worried about right now. I joined Fairfax's Breaking Politics program to talk about what they are; here's the transcript.





SUBJECT/S: Ipsos poll; Royal Commission into union corruption; UN climate change report

CALLUM DENNESS: Joining me now is Andrew Leigh and Andrew Laming, good morning to you both.



DENNESS: Andrew Leigh, if I could start with you first: new polling today shows that the Prime Minister remains unpopular and there are key policies that are unloved, yet the government has moved into an election-winning position. That would be pretty worrying for the Opposition, wouldn't it?

LEIGH: Callum, I don't place much store on poll numbers. But I do think there are certain numbers that are worrying Australians. There's the $7 Tony Abbott wants them to pay to go to the doctor, the $6,000 he's taking away from the poorest single parents, and the last-placed ranking we've achieved in the global Green Economy Index for leadership on climate change. They're the kinds of numbers that are of deep concern to me, and which resonate whenever I'm out on street corners talking to my electors. 

DENNESS: If that resonates so much, why is there this apparent government recovery in the polls? 

LEIGH: Polls will fluctuate all over the place, we know this from all the serious research work on opinion polling. But the reforms that the government is trying to put in place, the so-called reforms, are consistently hitting the most vulnerable in the community. So we see vulnerable Australians being thrown onto the streets with no income support if they're in their 20s and they lose their jobs. We see single parents having one dollar in every 10 of their incomes taken away. We see a government which, while the rest of the world is acting on climate change and putting a price on carbon pollution, while 1,000 firms and countries such as China and Coca-Cola are signing a declaration supporting carbon pricing, the Abbott Government is putting its head in the sand and hoping that the problem will go away. 

DENNESS: But do you think there's a signal in these numbers that the arguments the Opposition is making aren't resonating with the public?

LEIGH: Certainly in all of the conversations I've had with my constituents, the same issue of fairness comes up again and again. It's not just a Labor value, it's an Australian value. And my constituents are deeply concerned that whenever they're faced with a choice, the Abbott Government backs the big end of town. So they give tax breaks away to multinationals to shift billions of dollars offshore, but at the same time they slug millions of low-wage workers earning under $37,000 with higher superannuation taxes. That's fundamentally un-Australian. 

DENNESS: Andrew Laming, does it concern you that there's three outstanding policy areas – that's the Paid Parental Leave scheme, university fee deregulation and this idea of addressing the GST – which would seem to be deeply unpopular in the electorate?

LAMING: Well with the exception of the GST, Callum, I'm absolutely stunned that there's such high support for those two measures, which are far-reaching and ambitious.

DENNESS: High support? I think the polls show the opposite. 

LAMING: I think the level of support is very impressive. I'd be worried if it was four per cent support, but at four out of ten, that is extremely strong support for very significant reforms. In answer to Andrew's very articulate answer, there's just as many vulnerable and low income workers who are happy to get rid of the carbon tax. They regard some of these other issues as Labor confections. The reality is that power prices have come down in Queensland, public transport fees have come down by five per cent, so clearly the vulnerable and those on low incomes are responding to that in equal measure. 

DENNESS: You said there was high support in the polls for these policies I mentioned, but 52 per cent of respondents opposed any move to increase the GST, nearly two-thirds are opposed to university fee deregulation, and 54 per cent oppose the Paid Parental Leave scheme. That doesn't look like strong support; that looks like the opposite.

LAMING: No, that's strong support as I read it, because –and I said with the exception of the GST, where we've made no decisions about that except welcoming a debate about the federation – with the other two issues, that is, to me, very high support. Keeping in mind that only a small fraction of Australians are attending university at the moment, so to get three out of 10 is actually very high. As I've said, these are ambitious reforms and I don't expect Australians to fully appreciate the complexity of them, but we're definitely heading in the right direction. As you've said yourself, Callum, the overall view that Tony Abbott is equally a preferred Prime Minister, in the context of a year of reforms, and even though it's only one poll so we don't over-analyse it, this is an enormous worry to the roving complaints desk of Bill Shorten. He should be miles ahead, but he's not.

DENNESS: Do you think people who oppose these policies don't understand them?

LAMING: Look, self-evidently a lot of people don't fully understand the ramifications of something like deregulating education. I can understand that, the detail is enormously complex. To really understand what the tertiary education sector will look like in 10 years is hard even for professors in the field. But the general sense that they have is more scholarships, more contestability, universities charging on quality and responding to the market self-evidently has worked in every other field and will in tertiary education as well.

DENNESS: Don't you think people understand, fundamentally, that it will mean more expensive degrees? 

LAMING: It will also involve, equally so, the potential for cheaper degrees. Universities will have to respond to the market and these are all predictions and modelling, Callum. In reality, you'll be paying for what you get, not paying for more than what you get. That's one guarantee from deregulation. 

DENNESS: And whose fault is it if the electorate doesn't understand these reforms?

LAMING: You're drawing a long bow. I'm not saying the electorate doesn't understand it. I'm saying that in these complex areas, where you're mapping out directions, it is hard for every one of us to fully understand where we'll be in a few years' time. So I'm not misunderstanding or underestimating the electorate, I'm saying that these reforms are very, very complex and it's hard for people who have never had anybody go to university to fully understand the implications. The reality is that those who never go are actually going to start paying less. But I would understand that many people wouldn't see that just yet.

DENNESS: Ok, let's move on. Andrew Leigh, over the weekend you called for Julie Bishop to apologise for her prosecution of claims against Julia Gillard. Over the weekend George Brandis has also said that the Royal Commission's findings were very damning towards Ms Gillard. What's your response?

LEIGH: Well Callum, let me quickly respond to something Andrew said before, and then move on to this. He said that Queensland power prices were down, they're not. They're up. But in terms of the response to the Royal Commission, I find it pretty extraordinary that after alleging that Julia Gillard had committed criminal acts, a Royal Commission selected by the Abbott Government has now found no evidence that Ms Gillard committed criminal acts or knew about criminality. So the decent and gracious thing to do under those circumstances would be for Julie Bishop to apologise. If she doesn't, it very clearly indicates that this once-great Liberal Party is no longer the decent party of Robert Menzies, but has become the slur-and-smear party of Richard Nixon. Because there is, frankly, little more serious you can allege someone has done than to say that they have committed crimes. And when a Royal Commission find no evidence of that, you must apologise.

DENNESS: Andrew Laming, did the Coalition over-egg this, do you think?

LAMING: Definitely not. There were questions to answer, remembering that this was an inquiry into union corruption, not into Julia Gillard. I think what was important was for the facts to bubble to the surface, and they've done that. There hasn't been conclusive findings but beyond that, I would hardly think that Julie Bishop did anything more than ask that we have a full exposure of the general issues, and that's what has occurred.

LEIGH: I wish that was the case. But Julie Bishop alleged criminality in November 2012. It occurred after Julia Gillard's misogyny speech, and may well have been some form of reaction to the way in which that speech struck a chord in the community. Having made those serious allegations, Ms Bishop must withdraw and I'm sure Andrew Laming would do precisely that if he were in that same situation. 

DENNESS: Andrew Laming, what's your response?

LAMING: Obviously we all had questions, and certainly while Labor was in government there was a sense that we couldn't get to the bottom of this issue. It was obviously a long time ago, that's been noted, and this wasn't a Royal Commission into Julia Gillard, let's remember that. Just in finality here, I think there were a lot of questions, they have now been fully ventilated, but I absolutely trust that Julie Bishop's attack was around the events of the time and not picking out individuals like the then-Prime Minister.

DENNESS: So having alleged that Julia Gillard committed a criminal act and now seeing the Royal Commission say categorically that there's no evidence any criminal act was committed – what do you think should happen now? Should that just be left there, those allegations which have now, it would seem, been answered?

LAMING: My reading of Julie Bishop's criticisms were around the events themselves, and I don't think she directly alleged criminality, although she may have said there were questions remaining unanswered and that they needed to be fully explored.

DENNESS: Ok, let's move on. Andrew Laming, a new IPCC report has found that the window to address climate change is rapidly closing and fossil fuel use needs to be completely eliminated by 2100. Is Australia doing enough?

LAMING: Well, both major political parties are aiming for the same degree of carbon abatement over 2000 levels. I just think that continually those rates will be increasing; we've seen the EU increase their renewable energy targets just last week. So these reports are really there to soften up international negotiations and push up higher targets. This is another report from the IPCC, we've seen plenty of them before, and I think it's time just to see that Direct Action delivers what it promises. I'm confident that it will, and anyone who says that Direct Action isn't a market mechanism clearly doesn't understand Direct Action.

DENNESS: Another element of this report, or another finding rather, was that the world needs to reach a target of 80 per cent renewables by 2050. So why is the government acting to stop the renewable energy industry in Australia?

LAMING: Far from that, we're not doing that at all. We've got a renewable energy target that was one of the first and best in the world, and that's not under threat. It's being reviewed...

DENNESS: Well, it's being wound back and all indications are that...

LAMING: I'm tired of seeing lists of countries who are exploring or piloting or considering something as being ahead of Australia. We are seriously meeting our targets, there is no reason why Direct Action – as a market measure – can't do that, and we need to start looking at what our trading competitors are doing. I say this over and over again: take our largest 20 commodity exports, the areas where we are most exposed and most sensitive, and look at what the major competitors globally are doing in those spaces. It's not China, it's the nations that are competing against us for our jobs and they are doing nothing like what Australia is doing. 

DENNESS: But surely the uncertainty around what's going to happen to the Renewable Energy Target would be counterproductive to reaching that 80 per cent renewables target that the IPCC identifies as being absolutely critical to address climate change?

LAMING: Well they identified that target last week, so I don't think there's any uncertainty there. It's about all of the member nations moving in a general direction under agreement. There's no point one or two nations going out on their own, a la  Kevin Rudd. It's as simple as that. It's got to be an international agreement; no-one is doing 80 per cent at the moment so it's ridiculous to say that there's any uncertainty in the industry. Of course we have a 20 per cent target now, we're exceeding that due to a contraction in our energy use. You can't use this to soften up the debate. You've got to be steely-eyed in this approach and look at what our competitors are doing. Look at what they're doing in the countries that are directly taking our mining jobs. Let's move together with them, which we already are, with the leading nations worldwide. I'm sick of seeing China in that list when it gives out free permits. 

DENNESS: Andrew Leigh, your response?

LEIGH: Well Callum, this new UN report will be another blow for the tin-hat faction in the Liberal Party which rejects any notion that humans are causing dangerous climate change. They still think it's a great conspiracy being dreamed up by NASA, the CSIRO and the world's top scientists. But climate change is serious, and Australia, with the highest emissions per head of any developed nation, needs to act. In Joe Hockey's language we need to be a lifter rather than a leaner. The global Green Economy Index now has us in last place for global leadership because Australia is unique in being the only country in the world to have scrapped a carbon price. That matters because a carbon price is the most effective and efficient way of reducing our emissions. The independent modelling from RepuTex suggests that Direct Action will only get us about a fifth of the way to the so-called bipartisan target. So the Coalition is walking away from the science, and they're walking away from the least cost way of achieving abatement. Instead, they've got Direct Action – a pay-the-polluters scheme which requires raising money from households. As Milton Friedman said: 'to spend is to tax', so when you're paying polluters and you're taxing households, effectively that's a carbon tax. It's just a really inefficient one because it's only going to get us a fifth of the way there. This is off the back of the fact that in January this year we had the biggest fall in Australia's carbon emissions in 24 years under a carbon price. Australia's carbon price was working and that's why not just China, with hundreds of millions of people under emissions trading schemes – but around 40 nations around the globe are pricing carbon, and companies such as Shell, Dow Chemicals and Coca-Cola are signing on to a declaration calling on countries to put in place carbon pricing schemes. The time for childish things has passed. We need to act seriously on climate change with the most effective mechanism for getting to the goal. 

DENNESS: Ok, Andrew Leigh, Andrew Laming – thank you for your time.        



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