2CC CANBERRA DRIVE
THURSDAY, 14 SEPTEMBER 2023
SUBJECTS: Voice to Parliament, tax concessions for small businesses, extending DGR status for charities, passing of the Housing Australia Future Fund, Qantas High Court Ruling, Qatar Airways decision.
LEON DELANEY (HOST): Today is the final sitting day for the Federal Parliament before the referendum. Joining me now the Federal Member for Fenner, not to mention Assistant Minister for Competition, Charities and Treasury and Assistant Minister for Employment, Dr. Andrew Leigh. Good afternoon.
ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR COMPETITION, CHARITIES, TREASURY AND EMPLOYMENT ANDREW LEIGH: Good afternoon, Leon. Great to be with you.
DELANEY: Thanks for joining us today. So, what is the Government's Plan B when the referendum fails?
LEIGH: I don't think we ought to count out the Australian people on this one, Leon. I’m confident that Australians will support the notion of a Voice to Parliament, which is simply about recognising 65,000 years of First Nations history and setting up a committee to consult with First Nations People about decisions affecting them. It's no more complicated than that and it's a response to the generous offer made by Indigenous people at Uluru in 2017. Now, this just takes us one further step along the reconciliation journey, a journey epitomised by Michael Long walking into Canberra today, his second ‘Long Walk’, this time in support of the Yes vote.
DELANEY: So, you're not reading the opinion polls, then?
LEIGH: I don't take much notice of opinion polls. Haven't on this, haven't on previous issues, Leon. In fact, it goes back to my time when I was an ANU professor writing papers about the poor predictive power of polls. The fact is that Australians are a gracious people and understand the important part of our national fabric that are First Nations people. And that’s all we’re doing with this referendum, ecognizing and listening.
DELANEY: Okay, well, that’s one way of putting it. But of course, pretty much everybody agrees that there should be some formal recognition incorporated into the Constitution. Where people start to disagree, though, is the form that it takes and whether or not there is a need to establish an advisory body in the Constitution and, of course, the terms under which that advisory body might or might not operate. Which, of course, I think a lot of people are still very unclear on that particular fact. So, there’s a strong likelihood that people will vote no because they don’t agree with this particular model or this particular approach, even though they might support recognition and reconciliation. Do you see that possibility?
LEIGH: Leon, this is the proposal that's on the table. I don't think people should imagine that we're going to be turning around in a couple of years' time and having another vote. I know Peter Dutton would like us to be having these rolling, continuous votes on possible referendum proposals, but if you look back at what happened after the Republic referendum’s defeat, we haven't seen another proposition like that come forward in two decades. So, the fact is, this is the moment in our history to recognise First Nations people, to acknowledge that outstretched hand which came from First Nations people gathered together at Uluru. We have consultative committees on a whole range of issues in the National Parliament.
DELANEY: Yeah, but they're not in the Constitution, are they?
LEIGH: And that is what First Nations people asked for in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. So, why not take that generous offer, set up a consultative committee? It won’t have a veto right. It won’t be a third chamber. It will simply be a committee of First Nations people offering better advice so the policies can be better. And ultimately that saves taxpayers’ money because it's in no one's interest to have First Nations programs that aren't working on the ground because we didn't consult properly.
DELANEY: But you could do exactly that without putting it into the Constitution, couldn't you?
LEIGH: This will be an important consultative body, the most important consultative body for First Nations people. We will get better consultation as a result and better policies will flow through.
DELANEY: Are you disappointed that the nature of the debate has devolved as far as it has into name calling and vitriol and divisiveness?
LEIGH: Look, when former AFL player Michael Long walked into Canberra this morning, he said that he wanted a campaign that was dominated by love. That's what's animated his career, his work in public life, looking to unite Australians. So, fundamentally, that is what this campaign needs to be about. It will take us a step further on our reconciliation journey. It won't be the endpoint. Just as the 1967 Yes vote wasn't the endpoint, each of these are milestones on Australia's reconciliation journey.
DELANEY: If the referendum fails, just how big a setback is that for the cause of reconciliation?
LEIGH: Look, I'm working as hard as I can to make sure it succeeds Leon. I'm a congenital optimist, as you know, from our many, many conversations. And I look to extraordinary First Nations people like Linda Burney, a woman who was raised by surrogate parents who were born in the 1800s. A woman of remarkable strength and character who has put her professional energies into campaigning for a Yes vote. And when you’ve got people like that working alongside you, it energises you. You just want to work with Linda in order to get this done.
DELANEY: I agree, Linda's a very impressive person, but then, so is Jacinta Price and she's got an entirely different way of looking at this.
LEIGH: Look, First Nations people aren't entirely unified on this, but the vast majority of Australian's First Nations people will be voting Yes and want to see a First Nations Voice in the Constitution. That is reflected, too, in the fact that this is a proposition which flowed from First Nations people. This didn't come out of the Federal Parliament, this came out of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
DELANEY: Okay, final week of sitting before the referendum. And of course, there's been a lot of business over the last two weeks, including the introduction of something called the Treasury Laws Amendment Bill. What does that do?
LEIGH: We're putting in place tax concessions for small businesses that'll ensure that they're able to write off expenditure, particularly expenditure on cyber risk. And I know for many Canberra small businesses the issue of cyber risk really is a significant one. We're also entrenching in law the deductible gift recipient status of 28 community foundations, including Hands Across Canberra, which many people will know as an organisation that serves our local community well. So giving those community foundations the opportunity to raise tax deductible money means that they're able to do more good in their local communities and we end up with a more connected society.
DELANEY: Also, the Housing Australia Future Fund has now passed, I believe.
LEIGH: It has indeed. So, that'll mean 30,000 social and affordable homes, a minimum of which will be 1,200 here in the ACT. It's part of a plan we've got working with states and territories to build a further 1.2 million homes right across the country. Everyone who's serious about the housing debate, Leon, recognises that it's about supply, so we're working with states and territories in order to boost supply. The Housing Australia Future Fund is a great way of achieving that. It was terrific to have crossbenchers supporting us on that. It was very strange to see the Liberal Party voting against a measure which will boost housing supply in Australia.
DELANEY: Well, I think it's easy to agree that supply is the fundamental underpinning challenge here in the housing affordability debate. But why so little ambition? Obviously, the Housing Australia Future Fund is a good thing, but it's only a very small thing and will only provide a very small quantum of the new housing that's actually required, won't it?
LEIGH: Well, here in the ACT, a jurisdiction with around 400,000 people, to have another 1,200 homes is pretty significant. But that sits alongside the other things we're doing. The Social Housing Accelerator, the National Housing Accord, increasing Commonwealth Rent Assistance by 15 per cent, the largest increase in more than 30 years, and an extension of the National Housing and Homelessness Agreement in order to boost homelessness funding. We understand that there's a lot to do in this space. Housing affordability is a huge challenge for Australians, a big topic that I find myself talking with about constituents. We're on the job on a range of fronts, looking to improve the situation.
DELANEY: Yeah, cost of living and cost of housing are the two big ones facing the majority of Australians at this present time. But one of the big stories of the week, of course, was the Qantas debacle. Now, they've lost their High Court appeal over what the Court has now confirmed was the illegal sacking of almost 2000 ground staff. But of course, that's far from the only controversy that's been surrounding Qantas recently. And a lot of people have suggested that the government has handled the decision to deny Qatar Airlines the opportunity to bring more flights into Australia poorly.
LEIGH: Well, airlines periodically make requests for additional flights and governments sometimes approve them, sometimes we don't. Australian airlines would like to fly into more other gateway cities. There's an ongoing to and fro between countries on these international air services agreements. But the fact is that there are in any given week, about 1800 flights which are coming into Australia. So, when you're talking about an additional 44 flights, you're not talking about a trivial amount, but you're also talking about a number which is relatively small in the overall scheme of things. So, we're working on an Aviation White Paper which will look at aviation competition. We've got a competition task force within Treasury, and one of the issues it'll be looking at is aviation competition, making sure we've got a better deal for Australians.
DELANEY: Okay. There was some confusion about what the motivation was behind that decision, and there was speculation as to whether it might have been a move designed to punish Qatar for the strip search incident or it might have been a move to protect Qantas, or was it possibly both.
LEIGH: It was a decision made by the Transport Minister in the national interest. If you want to know precisely the reason for that, you'd need to ask her. What I know is that we’ve got a Transport Minister who’s strongly committed to airline competition, who's been very critical of the way in which Qantas has cancelled one in eight Sydney to Canberra flights, leaving many Canberrans in the lurch when they feel as though they're not able to rely on a Sydney-Canberra flight. She's also been critical of other ways in which Qantas has behaved, including the sackings you referred to earlier, which the High Court has found to have been illegal.
DELANEY: Indeed. Andrew, thanks very much for chatting today.
LEIGH: Thanks so much, Leon.
DELANEY: Thank you. Andrew Leigh, our local member for the seat of Fenner and Assistant Minister for Competition, Charities and Treasury, and for Employment.