2CC AFTERNOONS WITH LEON DELANEY
THURSDAY, 25 MAY 2023
SUBJECTS: Additional Assistant Minister responsibilities, Australian Centre for Evaluation, John Gorton Drive Bridge project.
LEON DELANEY (HOST): It's eight past five now on 2CC, it's Canberra Live. If you want me to talk to a Federal politician how about we welcome to the program our own local representative for the seat of Fenner here in the northern part of Canberra.
Dr Andrew Leigh, good afternoon.
ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR COMPETITION, CHARITIES AND TREASURY ANDREW LEIGH: Good afternoon, Leon. And unlike some of your listeners, I will never tell you how to run your show!
DELANEY: Oh well, look, I don't know. Look, feel free to try but I won't pay any attention whatsoever.
LEIGH: Oh I know. I know the limits of my expertise.
DELANEY: Lydia Thorpe was the suggestion as a regular guest on the program as a segment. It would certainly provide some fireworks but I'm not sure they're the kind of fireworks I really want to have on my program. I know you're not in the Senate but I'm pretty sure you would have witnessed either video or audio of the extraordinary interaction between Lydia Thorpe and fellow Senator Malarndirri McCarthy. It was just hideous, wasn't it?
LEIGH: One of the striking things, Leon, about the Parliament is how little you see of the other chamber. We've been just completely immersed in the House. The Prime Minister spoke on The Voice debate today, we've had industrial relations legislation going through, we’ve had question time. So believe it or not I haven't seen the footage.
I can certainly imagine what it would be since I know Malarndirri very well and admire her greatly. But I'm out of the loop as to what's happening just a couple of hundred metres away. I see my House Coalition colleagues far more than I see my Senate Labor colleagues and I'm sad about that.
DELANEY: All right, so you haven't heard anything on the grapevine about the exchange?
LEIGH: Nothing at all, no. I confess I've been completely caught up in House business today. A lot going on in the House, a big agenda over this side of the Parliament. I understand there's another chamber, they've got red carpets and apart from that I don't know very much about it.
DELANEY: No, but when you get a chance just have a look at it. It was quite extraordinary.
LEIGH: I'll put the popcorn in the microwave when I get home.
DELANEY: Yeah. Not light entertainment I don't think, but anyway, there you go.
Meanwhile plenty going on. You've been given additional responsibilities this week. You still get to keep all the titles you already have, Assistant Minister for Competition, Charities and Treasury, you're now also in addition to that Assistant Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations. You need a bigger business card.
LEIGH: Well, I got into politics, Leon, to make a difference. We spent nine years languishing in Opposition where it's pretty hard to make a difference. Now we're in government I'm keen to do what I can to help build more jobs and better paid jobs. I was a labour economist when I was at the Australian National University when I was a professor there, so it's an area I've got a long-time passion for.
And we have this amazing opportunity right now with full employment in Australia to really continue to deliver for some of the most vulnerable, for people who haven't worked in a long time. So, the work that Julian Hill is doing around employment services and Tony Burke's passion for reform makes this a pretty exciting space to be working in right now.
DELANEY: Okay. So, what does it mean to be an Assistant Minister, particularly in this context? Because there is a Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations. Is this now the case that you do all the work and somebody else takes the credit? Is that how it works?
LEIGH: Well never with Tony. I've known Tony since 1991. One of his great traits is that he's very good at sharing credit where it's due. But he's also one of the busiest people in the Parliament. He's the leader of the House, he's responsible for the arts portfolio as well, so he certainly needed a helping hand and as a good friend and a great admirer of his I'm happy to provide what little expertise I can offer.
DELANEY: Okay, so what is the nature of the role then, what do you actually do?
LEIGH: So I'll be working in areas around evaluation, around employment services, ensuring that we're pursuing a strong agenda there to make sure that the program's designed to get Australians into work are actually working. I think there's been a lot of announcements under the former government but not a lot of measurement as to what's really successful. And there's some successful programs that are cut out of the Commonwealth funding loop all together. So, we know the system needs reform.
Julian Hill's leading a major inquiry now which is going around the country garnering the evidence, and then that's going to feed into reform work from the government. Because we know that an Australia in which everyone who wants to work has a job, is not only a fairer Australia but also a more affluent and more productive nation.
DELANEY: Okay. At the same time as this appointment was announced it was announced that a couple of your colleagues were also given additional responsibilities. Patrick Gorman and Senator Anthony Chisholm also being appointed as assistant ministers. Obviously, there's plenty of work to go around, but just very quickly what's involved in those two appointments?
LEIGH: Well Anthony Chisholm will continue to do the important work he's been doing around regional education and infrastructure. Patrick Gorman will be helping out Katy Gallagher on the public service. He's also the Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister and now he'll be assisting Katy Gallagher, who again is extraordinarily busy with her responsibilities for finance, for public service, women and also then managing government business in the Senate.
DELANEY: Okay, fair enough. Now, on to other matters. Another press release came from your office today relating to the Australian Centre for Evaluation to measure what works. Now we've spoken about this before, haven't we?
DELANEY: This evaluation. So, what's new?
LEIGH: Well, we've got a new name for the new unit and we're starting to carve out much more clearly what it's going to do, Leon. We spoke about evaluation before in the context of employment programs. The importance there where you're dealing with finding jobs for people who have been long‑term jobless, in making sure that every government dollar is serving the taxpayers' interest and looking after the most disadvantaged in a way you'd expect an affluent country like Australia to do.
We can see all kinds of opportunities for better evaluation right across the government. This unit will work collaboratively. It will be willing to work on evaluating our overseas aid programs, as it will with evaluating a domestic education program.
It will have a broad remit. It will then engage with academics and other outside experts, so we've got the very best minds making sure we're building a better feedback loop.
DELANEY: Yeah, I remember we spoke about the $10 million that was provided in the budget for this particular activity, and I think I made some flippant remarks at the time about spending more money to examine whether or not we're spending the money we're already spending in an efficient and effective way. It does seem to be a bit of a loop, doesn't it?
LEIGH: Well under the former government they were putting out contracts for consultants to do evaluation tenders to the tune of more than $100 million a year. So, it's not like the Commonwealth's not already paying for evaluation. It's just that under the former government a lot of that evaluation wasn't very rigorous. There was a lot of glossy PowerPoints, a lot of glossy reports, not a lot of hard-hitting analysis in the interests of the taxpayer. So, this is really part of bringing some of that work in‑house, building up an evaluation capacity right across the public service and ensuring that Australians are getting value for money.
When a government pays for a consulting report which it already knows what the answer is going to be, that's not good value for money at all. That's just pouring money down the drain. We want to do better for Australian taxpayers on the front of evaluation.
DELANEY: So now it's got an official name, the Australian Centre for Evaluation, it's got an official acronym, ACE.
LEIGH: Do you think it is?
DELANEY: A lot of ‑ well, you know, a lot of thought's gone into this, hasn't it?
LEIGH: We're keen to have it do what it says on the tin. So Australian Centre for Evaluation, simple, straightforward name. And it also signals, Leon, a couple of other things.
First of all, that we're open to working with States and Territories. Second, we're open to working with non‑government entities. So, this really is aiming at being a powerhouse of evaluation.
Australia's been behind the curve when it comes to evaluation globally. The US, UK, Sweden have all done a much better job in measuring what works in their jurisdictions. We've got catching up to do, but the good news is that as we catch up, we save taxpayers money because we're able to move money out of ineffective programs and we have governments serving people better because we're able to scale up the programs that are really working best.
DELANEY: So, the ACE will now be a unit that is set up inside the Australian Treasury, so it'll be a unit of Treasury. When's it up and running?
LEIGH: The funding starts to flow from 1 July but the planning's already being done. I've had a whole range of meetings with the team, who I've got to say are really excited by it. You know, as you'll know, Leon, we are blessed to have some extraordinarily capable public servants. They've been engaging with domestic experts but also with international experts. They're looking around the globe as to what is best practice when you set up an evaluation unit, the heart of government.
They're keen not just to do evaluation PowerPoints but actually to do proper evaluations, to be tossing the coin in some rigorous randomised trials, to be rolling their sleeves up, working with agencies to help them find out what's working and what's not.
We do a great job of this in medicine. You know, you can't get a new drug on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme unless it's gone through a rigorous randomised trial. So we're bringing in some of that philosophy that transformed medicine 70 years ago and taking some of that to government.
DELANEY: Have you tapped David Smith on the shoulder and quietly whispered in his ear that the John Gorton Drive Bridge Project was initiated by the Morrison Government?
LEIGH: Well, the Morrison Government was great at announcing things, weren't they? They loved a ribbon cutting, they loved a press conference. The trouble was, Leon, they weren't very good at funding things. So what Dave Smith was announcing was that the Albanese Government's budget actually contained the money for the bridge. He was telling the truth to his constituents that while this project might have been talked about by the other side of politics, the contracts weren't signed until we got into office. The money was in our budget.
Anyway, Scott Morrison's sitting there on the back bench at the moment. He hasn't contributed very much to the actual contracted funding of that bridge and that's a clear Labor achievement and one of which David is proud as a fabulous local member.
DELANEY: Well according to the article I was reading the bridge was actually apparently included in the 2020 October 6 budget.
LEIGH: Oh yeah, it was talked about up hill and down dale by the Morrison Government. They loved talking about infrastructure. You know, they'd put on the hard hat, and they'd cut the ribbon and they'd talk about press releases. But when it comes down to putting money in the budget, having the contract, that takes a Labor Government. And it's only when we got into office, we put the money and the bridge in our budget. It's only under a Labor Government that those contracts got signed.
DELANEY: Okay. No, that October 2020 budget was the ACT budget. There we go, that's the misunderstanding there. But apparently ‑‑
LEIGH: Yeah, the ACT Government were ready, it's just they didn't have a Commonwealth partner who was ready to do it.
DELANEY: But the 2020 to 2021 Federal budget under the Morrison Government did include mentions, as you say, in a joint media release. So, well, they were thinking about it. Be fair.
LEIGH: Oh, they certainly were. They did some great thinking, didn't they? They also did some great cosplay as well. But the contracts were signed in February 2023 and the money was in the Albanese Government's budget, not in the Morrison Government's budget.
DELANEY: All right, so David Smith is off the hook after all.
LEIGH: Oh, Dave's a great local member, doing terrific work. I was out in Stirling with him this morning talking about energy efficiency. He's out and about in the community, deeply engaged. You know, the people of Bean are lucky to have such a terrific local member.
DELANEY: All right, Andrew, thanks very much for having a chat today and I guess congratulations on the expanded responsibilities, but before you go, I've got one more question for you. I was chatting yesterday with Peter Martin, the noted economist, and he asked an interest question. He said, "Andrew Leigh's a really smart guy, he was a great professor of economics. Why is he only an Assistant Minister? Why is he not a proper Minister?"
LEIGH: Oh look, you step up to the jobs that you're offered, Leon, and I'm happy to have this opportunity to serve. I'm enjoying working with Jim Chalmers and Tony Burke and, you know, right across the whole government. And it's amazing in politics, Leon, what you can get done if you don't mind who gets the credit. So, the opportunity to serve, to put ideas in the mix, you know, if 15‑year‑old Andrew could look at me now and see the opportunities I have to represent the people of Canberra, to serve as an Assistant Minister, he'd be pretty excited, and 50‑year‑old Andrew's pretty excited too.
DELANEY: Nothing to do with not belonging to any particular faction?
LEIGH: Oh, factional things are what they are, Leon. You know, you deal with these things as they come at you.
DELANEY: Because that was my answer to Peter, was that you've made the terrible mistake of not belonging to a faction.
LEIGH: Oh, yes. You know, you can make all these sort of analyses, but the fact is that for each of us who are in Parliament there's probably another 100 people who are capable of serving in our roles. So, no one who has the privilege to serve their neighbours in the Federal Parliament should feel bad about it. It's an extraordinary job, it's always a privilege, never a right. And the chance not just to be a local member but to be an Assistant Minister, well, that's a great bonus as well.
DELANEY: Yeah, I just interpreted the factional thing as being proof once again or evidence at least that, you know, it does come down to it's not what you know it's who you know.
LEIGH: The people who I know are decent great Labor people. The fact is you could form two, three, four, five cabinets out of the Labor Party caucus room. I look over my shoulder at people on the back bench in the assistant ministry and I see easily how you'd form far more capable cabinets than we had under the Morrison, Turnbull or Abbott Governments.
DELANEY: Andrew, you're ever the diplomat. Maybe you've got a future in the diplomatic service after politics.
LEIGH: Definitely not, I can rule that one out for you, Leon.
DELANEY: Thanks very much for your time today.
LEIGH: Always a pleasure, thank you.
DELANEY: Dr Andrew Leigh, the Assistant Minister for Competition, Charities and Treasury and now also Employment and Workplace Relations. On 2CC it's Canberra Live.