Out and About in Fraser

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Whitlam Without the Dismissal

Last night, I gave the guest lecture at Werriwa FEC's 35th anniversary dinner to remember the Dismissal. My theme was 'Whitlam Without the Dismissal' - taking a guess at how Australia might have looked if Kerr hadn't acted. Counterfactual history isn't new - one of my favourites is Mark Lawson's Idlewild (which imagines a US in which Marilyn and JFK survived). And there was even an Australian book titled What If? that was published a few years ago.

I'm not sure that I'll get a chance to turn my speech notes into a transcript, so let me give you the short version. Whitlam survives until 1983, carrying out major economic reforms, a vast arts renaissance, and a treaty with Indigenous Australians. The Peacock government rules from 1983-93, and is socially liberal but economically inept. The Beazley government takes over from 1993 and continues economic reform, while deftly defusing the Hanson phenomenon. (I resisted the temptation to go past the Beazley government.)

Under this theory, Australia stays in sync with the US and UK political cycles: left-wing in the 1980s, and right-wing from the mid-1990s. That said, luck still plays a major part in my story - it's just that instead of Bertie Miliner's heart attack and Vince Gair's love of prawns, it's the global recessions of the early-1980s and early-1990s that cause power to change in Australia.
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Behind Bars

My AFR opinion piece today is on incarceration rates.


Too Many in the Lock-Up, Australian Financial Review, 9 November 2010

I spent the morning behind bars last week: a relatively unusual experience for a sitting politician. Opened in 2008, Canberra’s new jail is one of a dozen or so correctional facilities that have opened across Australia in the past decade.

Building prisons is a growth industry because the number of inmates continues to grow. As James Eyers pointed out in this newspaper recently, the growth in Australia’s prison population has been driven not by a rise in crime, but by law changes such as tougher bail conditions and mandatory non-parole periods.

As a result, Australia has 175 prisoners per 100,000 adults, up from 112 prisoners per 100,000 adults in 1990. For Indigenous Australians, the rate is up from 1758 to 2310 prisoners per 100,000 Indigenous adults. Put another way, one in 43 Indigenous Australians are presently behind bars. Among young Indigenous men, the share is 1 in 15.

As with many things – good and bad – the United States suggests what the future might hold for us. In a recent analysis, sociologists Bruce Western (Harvard) and Becky Pettit (University of Washington) point out that US jails currently hold over 2 million people, or 762 prisoners for every 100,000 adults. 

For some, the rate is substantially higher. Among men aged 20-34 who did not complete high school, the US imprisonment rate is a jaw-dropping 12 percent for whites and 37 percent for blacks.

And that’s just the proportion behind bars on any given day. By the time black high school dropouts reach their mid-30s, Western and Pettit estimate that 69 percent will have been imprisoned. In other words, if you’re a black man who doesn’t finish high school, the odds are two in three that you’ll see the inside of a prison cell. Overall, African-American incarceration rates are higher than for Indigenous Australians.

As Western and Pettit point out, one of the things that a high incarceration rate does is to make other statistics look good. For example, official employment surveys exclude the prison population. Among young black dropouts, the effect of adding prisoners back in is to reduce the employment rate for this group from 40 percent to 25 percent. The same is likely to be true of other measures, such as income inequality and ill health. Because numbers often drive policy, this kind of invisible disadvantage can readily be missed in public debates.

Another feature of persistently high incarceration rates is its intergenerational impact. In the US today, 2 percent of white children have a parent in jail. Among African-American children, the figure is 11 percent. In the US, around 1.2 million black children have a parent behind bars. While I was unable to find comparable statistics for Australia, anecdotal evidence suggests that a substantial proportion of Australian prisoners have children outside. Whatever your view on the impact of jail on those locked up, mass imprisonment of parents should be a concern to anyone who cares about breaking the intergenerational poverty cycle.

For the US, tight fiscal circumstances can have two possible impacts on prisons: less spending per inmate, or fewer inmates. So far, states seem inclined towards the former (a New York Times report last year revealed that Alabama budgets $1.75 per prisoner per day for food). However, it is possible that as the US downturn continues, it may prompt a broader rethink of the nation’s prison policy.

In the Australian case, the total cost of prisons is nearly $3 billion per year, or about $100,000 per prisoner. Yet the real cost of incarceration comes afterwards, with ex-prisoners more likely to commit further crimes and less likely to find a job. While prison is a place of rehabilitation for some, others are scarred by the experience. Sexual violence in prison probably isn’t as common as in the 1990s (when NSW magistrate David Heilpern estimated that one-quarter of young male prisoners were raped), but the rate is likely higher than in the outside world. And the median sentence length in Australia is 3 years, which means released prisoners often find that the only friends who haven’t deserted them are the ones they made inside.

Getting prison policy right isn’t easy, but if there’s one country that can show the way, it should be Australia: the nation that showed the world that if they’re given a chance, convicts can do just as well as anyone.

Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser.
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Wild Rivers Inquiry

One of the House of Representatives Committees I am on is the Economics Committee.  The Economics Committee will be examining Indigenous economic development in Queensland including issues surrounding Queensland’s Wild Rivers Act 2005.


“In addition to examining the broader question of Indigenous economic development, this inquiry will examine the impact that the proposed Wild Rivers (Environmental Management) Bill 2010 would have, if passed,” said the Chair of the Committee, Craig Thomson (Member for Dobell, NSW). 

The Queensland Wild Rivers Act 2005 aims to ‘preserve the natural values of rivers that have all, or almost all, of their natural values intact’, but not undermine sustainable Indigenous economic development in the Cape York region or other parts of Queensland.

So far, 10 areas have been declared Wild Rivers.  They are:























Wenlock Basin (2010) Archer River (2009)
Stewart River (2009) Lockhart River (2009)
Fraser River (2007) Gregory River (2007)
Hinchinbrook River (2007) Morning Inlet (2007)
Settlement River (2007) Staaten River (2007)

The Terms of Reference for the inquiry, referred by the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Ms Jenny Macklin, are:

The Committee should examine the scope for increasing sustainable Indigenous economic development in Queensland and including in the Cape York region having regard to the aspirations of Indigenous people and the social and cultural context surrounding their participation in the economy. 

The Committee will consider:

1)     existing environmental regulation, legislation in relation to mining and other relevant legislation including the Wild Rivers Act (Qld) 2005 and the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999;

2)     the impact which legislation in the form of the Wild Rivers (Environmental Management) Bill 2010 would have, if passed; and

3)     options for facilitating economic development for the benefit of Indigenous people and the protection of the environmental values of undisturbed river systems.

The full Terms of Reference can be found on the Committee’s webpage at: http://www.aph.gov.au/economics

The federal parliamentary committee is keen to hear from Indigenous communities, industry, mining, peak associations, academia, government departments and individuals.  The committee will accept submissions, preferably by email, until Friday, 26 November 2010.  The Committee has been asked to report by March 2011.

Further details about the inquiry, including how to make a submission, can be obtained from the committee’s website at www.aph.gov.au/economics or by contacting the committee secretariat on (02) 6277 4209 or emailing economics.reps@aph.gov.au
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Politzer People's Choice Voting (closes Nov 19)

The 'Politzer' prize is for photographs taken by politicians of places in their electorate. A photo of mine - taken at Floriade - has made the shortlist. If you'd like to check out the finalists (and vote for the people's choice awards), go to this website.
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YouTube Channel

I've now set up an Andrew Leigh YouTube channel (in the 21st century, anyone can be a media mogul). It includes my first speech, as well as recent appearances on Lateline, ABC24, and Sky.



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Australian Researcher in International Virus Research

A University of Canberra Professor has been awarded approximately half a million dollars to continue vital medical research.


Minister for Mental Health and Ageing Mark Butler, and Member for Fraser Dr Andrew Leigh today announced that Professor Suresh Mahalingam will receive a National Health and Medical Research Council - European Union grant of $494,022 over three years from the National Health and Medical Research Council.

“The grant, funded by the Gillard Government, will allow Professor Mahalingam to contribute to the international effort to tackle the Chikungunya virus (CHIKV),” Mr Butler said.

“Although not well known in Australia, CHIKV is a mosquito borne virus that causes fever, rashes, intense headaches and severe joint inflammation.  Recovery in adults takes around one to two and a half months with joint pain known to last up to two years.”

Dr Andrew Leigh said:  “This research is part of an international project which will focus on co-ordinating research efforts to enhance monitoring and surveillance of CHIKV, diagnosis, treatment and prevention. 

“Findings will contribute to the broader fight against viruses, the most dangerous and easily transmitted infectious agent.”

The NHMRC – EU scheme supports Australian participation in leading international collaborative research under the EU Seventh Framework Program. The Australian grant will support the health research project co-funded by the European Commission, and carried out within Australian and European research institutions.
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Talking Water

The Murray Darling Basin Authority's ACT consultation session on Nov 11 has apparently been moved to a slightly larger room. It'll now be in the Manning Clarke Theatre, Building 26(a), Union Court, Australian National University. The session runs from 9am to noon. Registration details here.
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What I'm Reading

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ABC24 with Scott Ryan

Last Wednesday, I appeared on ABC24 in a segment with Liberal Senator Scott Ryan, moderated by Chris Uhlmann. Transcript below.




ABC News 24
27 October 2010, 4.30pm


CHRIS UHLMANN

Well Andrew Leigh, to you first, during Question Time today the big topic for the Opposition was the cost of living and there's a compelling logic, isn't there, that if you put a carbon tax on top of electricity prices then electricity prices will rise?

ANDREW LEIGH

Well Chris, that's not right at all. What's going on here is that because electricity generators don't have certainty as to what's going on with a carbon price, they're not making the investments to the necessary infrastructure. We need investments in electricity generation in order to make sure that electricity prices don't rise – and the only way we get that is by tackling climate change.

SCOTT RYAN

Well Chris, what Andrew neglects to point out is that the uncertainty is one created by this government. Just before the election, there was no carbon tax. Now, after the election, there is apparently going to be a carbon tax. The Prime Minister has previously alluded to 40% increases in domestic power bills over the last three years. That hasn't seen a reduction in electricity use. There's a legitimate argument here – as a highly inelastic good, electricity use is not that sensitive to price rises. The uncertainty is created by the government breaking its own promise to not have a carbon tax.

CHRIS UHLMANN

Isn't there a number of things involved here too, Andrew Leigh? Underinvestment is one problem that the Prime Minister keeps pointing out, but we're also moving to higher cost sources of power. That's going to make electricity prices rise with things like renewables. The cost of connecting those sources to the grid is going to push up electricity prices as well, and the cost of incentive schemes that we're using to get things like solar power. They're all adding, aren't they, to the rise in price in electricity?

ANDREW LEIGH

But Chris, the key here is that we had a bipartisan consensus around getting a price on carbon and that bipartisan consensus was smashed by Tony Abbott. That was how he won the leadership – he smashed the bipartisan consensus on climate change. Now, what that's meant is that electricity generators aren't willing to invest in the clean energy sources, because they don't know whether there's going to be a price on carbon. And they're not willing to make investments in, say, 'dirtier' energy sources, because again, they don't know whether there's going to be a price on carbon. In that environment, you get massive underinvestment and that drives the prices up. We have to deal with climate change – like many other mature nations have done. In the UK, there was a bipartisan consensus that saw a deal on climate change and that's the sort of deal we need to see here. Level-headed people sitting down and sensibly realising that a price on carbon is the only serious way of dealing with climate change.

CHRIS UHLMANN

Scott Ryan, isn't there a point in all of that? There's essentially a capital strike while people wait to see what the future is going to look like, and the longer that goes, the more there is a risk to the price of electricity and the infrastructure.

SCOTT RYAN

Well I make the point Chris, again, the uncertainty is one caused by this government. To go to what Andrew said earlier, blocking the ETS just ensured that the 12% increase we've seen in electricity prices isn't going to be even greater than that because the ETS was going to force electricity prices up by more than 20% – by 30%-plus for small businesses. So the uncertainty has been one that's been created by this government, because it said, "No carbon tax" and now it's saying, "There will be a carbon tax." Importantly, it talks about a price on carbon as if that's a euphemism. You are not going to reduce the price of electricity by putting a tax on it to make it more expensive.

ANDREW LEIGH

But we need some certainty, Scott. Unless we get certainty in this debate – unless we have an approach which provides certainty going into the future – we don't get these big investments. You don't build a power station unless you know what's going to happen in the future.

SCOTT RYAN

Julia Gillard could provide certainty right now by going back to what she said only days before polling day, which was, "There will not be a carbon tax." That's the certainty that could be provided. Julia Gillard has backflipped – that's where the uncertainty is coming from.

ANDREW LEIGH

Well what Labor has always said is that we ought to use market mechanisms to deal with the challenge of climate change. The thing is, we've now got a Coalition which has walked away from market mechanisms for dealing with climate change, just as it's walking away from market-based mechanisms in a whole range of other areas.

SCOTT RYAN

The Coalition would not put an additional tax on Australian households and small businesses that would only see Australian businesses become less competitive, because Australia alone cannot fix this problem.

ANDREW LEIGH

I think Australians know that it's important to deal with climate change and it's important to do that in the lowest-cost way. If we don't deal with climate change now, the cost only goes up. We have to tackle climate change and a market-based mechanism is the right way of doing it.

CHRIS UHLMANN

Well Andrew, just to pick up on one of the things that you said, too, and it's a theme that the Prime Minister has been hammering for a while – the death of bipartisanship. In the way that she describes it, did bipartisanship like that ever exist? I do vividly recall the Labor Party was opposed to the GST. Now that's a big part of the economic reform of the past 25 years, and Labor opposed it vigorously.

ANDREW LEIGH

Well Chris, I wouldn't rate the GST as major economic reform. What Labor did during the GST campaign – and I was working in this building at the time – was to ask some reasonable questions about the impact of putting up grocery prices on low-income households. That ultimately managed to help secure a deal in which food was exempted from the GST. But Labor was also part of sticking with the Coalition over trade liberalisation. That's been a bipartisan policy all the way through the Hawke, Keating, and then the Howard Government as well. What we've now seen is a Coalition that's walking away from things that have been fundamental to the Australian economic fabric for a generation – walking away from the idea of a floating exchange rate. We have the Shadow Treasurer, Joe Hockey, saying that somehow we shouldn't have an independent Reserve Bank setting interest rates, but instead that we ought to have interest rates set by Parliament again. This is really taking us back to the 60s and 70s.

SCOTT RYAN

Andrew is fundamentally misrepresenting both the past and the present in that. First, the ALP were not subject in any way – or had a role in any way – with the deal to exempt food from the GST, because the ALP refused to respect the mandate of the people. Quite frankly, I'm surprised that you don't think that abolishing nearly a dozen other taxes is a substantial economic reform. On the issue of whether there has been bipartisanship, in the 80s, the Coalition supported the reduction in tariffs, the various industry plans and the financial sector reform. As soon as Labor went to opposition, despite privatising everything that it could get its hands on, it opposed the privatisation of Telstra – even though it had plans to do so to parts of it in at the 1996 election. It opposed tax reform, despite it being voted on by the people, and it opposed the independence of the very Reserve Bank you're talking about now and threatened to take Peter Costello to the High Court.

ANDREW LEIGH

No, listen, this isn't right. Labor was the party that floated the dollar. Labor has always stood by the independence of the Reserve Bank.

SCOTT RYAN

(inaudible) … in 1996 – opposed it and attacked it in the House of Representatives and the Senate.

ANDREW LEIGH

Well let's focus on what we're saying today, which is the rise of what the Prime Minister has, I think, rightly referred to as 'economic Hansonism'. It was Joe Hockey being willing to say the Parliament ought to have a role in setting interest rates. This is very dangerous territory, it takes them back to the 1980s.

SCOTT RYAN

Joe Hockey hasn't said that at all. What Joe Hockey's speech was all about was about trying to inject competition into our financial services sector. Competition is something that Labor doesn't like, because it's outlawing it in telecommunications – I realise that. What Joe Hockey has outlined is a program and a plan to try and look at our financial sector, look at the impact of the last few years and say, 'how can we inject more competition into it?' That's what he said.

CHRIS UHLMANN

At the very least though, Scott, it's been a little untidy in the last week or so, it hasn't been entirely clear what Joe Hockey was on about really until he made that speech yesterday.

SCOTT RYAN

I read the speech earlier this week. I thought it was quite clear and comprehensive. The idea that we have debates in the Shadow Cabinet – I think that's a great idea. Otherwise we all become the 'lobotomised zombies' that Doug Cameron refers to the Labor Party as.

ANDREW LEIGH

Well I certainly don't think that's right. What you've seen here has been Malcolm Turnbull not willing to back in Joe Hockey. This morning, we saw Tony Abbott not willing to back in Joe Hockey's nine point plan. Really, you have Joe Hockey out there on his own, saying some stuff which would really take Australia back to the bad old days for Australian households. Ken Henry, last week, referred to his recollection of the mid-1980s, when young families couldn't get a loan because of the credit squeeze. That kind of credit squeeze is what we're going to get if we have Parliament regulating interest rates.

SCOTT RYAN

No one's proposing that except your coalition partners, The Greens.

CHRIS UHLMANN

Aren't Ken Henry and the ACCC also worried about a lack of competition in the banks?

ANDREW LEIGH

Well there's been a long-term reform agenda going on the Basel Accords. This is being run through the G20. Joe Hockey's late to the party on this one. This is a reform agenda which has been going on internationally. You'd think the Shadow Treasurer would actually know what was going on rather than just picking up on a few talking points.

SCOTT RYAN

Graeme Samuel has outlined that he would like powers to investigate the issue of price signalling because he is concerned about the level of competition in the financial services sector. Labor has refused to take up that recommendation and the Coalition has committed to looking at action on that front.

ANDREW LEIGH

There's a long-term reform agenda around this issue. It's going through the Basel process. It has been going on for many years. To pretend that suddenly competition in the banking industry is an issue which Joe Hockey has thought up is just…

SCOTT RYAN

Australian banks and the issue around price signals has got nothing to do with international accords or the capital requirements.

CHRIS UHLMANN

Alright gentlemen, we'll move on, because there's something that you might be able to get bipartisan agreement on, at least here. John Howard's in town today pushing his book 'Lazarus Rising'. In the speech that he gave today, he talked about the noble art, really, of politics – an idea that goes all the way back to Aristotle – and said that it was a matter of some pain to him about the way that politicians were being portrayed now and the lack of respect really that there is for politicians in some areas. Now you, Andrew Leigh, also have a book out – and this is not a book sale – but you talk in 'Disconnected' about the decline in trust and what you find is driving it across a whole range of areas in Australia.

ANDREW LEIGH

Well Chris, I think there are a number of factors driving it. One is technology – the rise in use of cars, the rise in use of ATMs, increased watching of television – all those things sap a bit of time from community activities. So people aren't joining political parties, but it's also true that they're not joining organisations like Lions, Scouts, the unions, they're not going to church. So it's, sort of, all of a piece, this big collapse in social capital. I'd like to be a part of trying to rebuild that, because I do think that it's important that that sort of compact that citizens and politicians have – the faith that people have in their elected leaders.

CHRIS UHLMANN

Scott Ryan, are you concerned that there has been a loss of trust in institutions, in politics, and in the church?

SCOTT RYAN

It does concern me. I think, particularly over the last fifteen to twenty years, we've had massive technological change, we've had massive social change. My generation has grown up in a very different social environment with 'working families' with child care much more relied upon than extended family than, I think, the previous generation. But I think one thing that's important here is that, when it comes to politicians, the increasing lack of faith that people have in politicians has, I think, been a reflection partly of politicians promising to do things they can't. When a politician promises to fix fuel prices or grocery prices but those aren't fixed, then I think that actually diminishes trust in all of us.

CHRIS UHLMANN

So how do you repair it, Andrew?

ANDREW LEIGH

Well I have suggested in the book a few things. The most controversial, as the Prime Minister mentioned when she launched it yesterday, was that people should contact two politicians – one politician to say something they like, and one politician that they said they didn't like. I don't know about Scott, but I would certainly welcome more contact from voters. I really enjoy being out there doing mobile offices, being in contact with people and talking to them about their daily problems. I've spent a lot of time in academia, but that conversation over the kitchen table is really important to understanding the issues and challenges that people are facing.

CHRIS UHLMANN

Scott Ryan, do you find that people say that they don't like politicians, but when they meet you, if they get to know you, they say, 'oh but not you – I quite like you'?

SCOTT RYAN

I'm a bit more humble than that. Maybe they'll tell the next person they see. But I think one of the challenges is the distance from our home bases. This place in itself, this building in Canberra, is actually a little bit surreal. I think we all enjoy the opportunity to get back out there with our community – wherever that may be – and actually talk to people about the problems that concern them, rather than what concerns us up here.

CHRIS UHLMANN

Well Scott Ryan, Andrew Leigh, we'll have to leave it there. Thank you.

Thanks to Scott for an enjoyable conversation, and for taking the trouble to transcribe it.http://www.youtube.com/v/w5mQ_KQdbyE?fs=1&hl=en_US
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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | Andrew.Leigh.MP@aph.gov.au | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.