Transcript - 'Breaking Politics' with Tim Lester

Andrew Leigh MP
Member for Fraser
1 July 2013

TOPICS:                                New ministry list, Coalition cuts, Boat turn-backs, new inequality book

Tim Lester:                          Now another of our regulars on Monday on Breaking Politics, Andrew Leigh, the Labor MP here in the ACT in the electorate of Fraser. Welcome in, nice to have you in.

Andrew Leigh:                  Thanks Tim.

Tim Lester:                          Andrew, your response to the announcement of the ministry this morning. What do you think of the front bench?

Andrew Leigh:                  Kevin Rudd’s got a team around him which he feels confident with, and which will lead us strongly to the next election. It’s a team that’ll be campaigning on the big reforms of these last two terms, and talking about the importance of continuing to invest in the future. It’s also a team that can talk about the risks of a Tony Abbott-led Opposition. And we know that the British conservatives with their savage austerity have sent that economy back into recession. We know that the Coalition’s wacky ‘turn back the boats’ policy is a policy that could easily lead to conflict with Indonesia. So there’s real risks with Tony Abbott, and there’s strength of renewal and also continuity in the Labor front bench.

Tim Lester:                          And Andrew Leigh is not on the front bench. And yet some would say, you know, talented, strong background in economics, has done everything right, he should be there. Take us through your own situation.

Andrew Leigh:                  I told the Prime Minister I was willing to serve, but in the circumstances of last week, in having supported the incumbent, I felt it was ethically the right thing to do to offer my resignation. The Prime Minister has accepted that and has asked me to help advising him on issues in international economics, which I’m very happy to do and which I think are important to Australia as our economy rebalances, and commodity prices come off.

Tim Lester:                          Doesn’t that make you a case in point that division lives on within Labor? That if Labor were perfectly calm about what had happened last week, the fact that the way you voted would have been looked beyond, and your talents would have been rewarded?

Andrew Leigh:                  I don’t agree with that at all. I think that the Prime Minister has chosen the team that he feels most comfortable with, and the great thing about the Labor caucus is there’s such a depth of talent. So you look at people like Melissa Parke being promoted to a minister, she’s just going to charge into that international aid portfolio, understanding the constituent groups, understanding international development, and she’s really going to make a great contribution there.

Tim Lester:                          To be blunt, how long do you need to spend in the sin bin, Andrew Leigh? Because –

Andrew Leigh:                  - I don’t think that’s the right –

Tim Lester:                          - Because would an election win for Labor recorrect things and allow you to come back again, or are you sin binned longer term?

Andrew Leigh:                  I don’t think that’s the right way to regard it, Tim. I regard myself as a strong advocate for Labor. I will be happily campaigning on the economic issues that I worked on when I was a professor of economics at ANU, and which have been so central to what the government has done. Saving jobs in the global downturn, and now making sure we invest in skills because that’s what’s really important with an economy in transition.

Tim Lester:                          Kelly O’Dwyer says to us, look you want the real measure of Labor ministry, have a look at the fact Stephen Smith is still in Defence a few days after he told us he would be leaving the parliament and would not be contesting the election in what, weeks, certainly within a couple of months. Should we really have people who are so committed to leaving politics in such a short time serving on the front bench?

Andrew Leigh:                  It’s a ridiculous proposition that once you’ve announced you’re going to retire at the next election, you immediately have to stop doing anything in politics. There are people who have announced their retirement as members who are continuing to serve their electorates, and I think similarly a minister who has announced their retirement can easily continue to work in that portfolio. Stephen’s a passionate and hardworking Defence minister – he’s done amazing things to change the culture not just within Defence, but for women within every male-dominated organisation and he will go out with his head held high.

Tim Lester:                          12 point turnaround for Labor two party preferred in this morning’s opinion polls. Describe the feeling inside the party now that you can look at those kinds of numbers – competitive numbers in an opinion poll.

Andrew Leigh:                  Australians recognise the real risks that an Abbott government poses. And Kevin Rudd is emphasising for many voters the great Labor reforms, the Labor legacy, but also the things still to be done, the investments still to be made, and the importance of bringing something like the National Plan for School Improvement, so that every school gets more resources. Because if you want an Australia that’s ready for economic change, you want an Australia that provides a bedrock of fairness, then you’ve got to have a better school funding model than what we’ve got now.

Tim Lester:                          Ok, but the mood inside Labor at those numbers? You guys must be, to quote a term, ‘pumped’ to see that kind of a turnaround in a week on Newspoll’s numbers.

Andrew Leigh:                  Tim I’ve never paid much attention to polls, whether they’re up or down. But certainly what I see among my colleagues is a sense of unity and conviction, a sense of pride in the reforms that have been done, and a sense that it is so important that we go to the next election being clear with Australians that the choice is not one that involves personalities, but one that involves parties. And that Mr Abbott and his team lack an education policy, they lack a health policy, they have a massive costings gap which means they either have to raise taxes or cut services, and they’ve got to stop hiding behind smokescreens like a commission of cuts that they’re promising.

Tim Lester:                          Has the Prime Minister gone too far with his comments on Indonesia? Or do you share his view of the risks from an Abbott government to Indonesia being as sharp as Prime Minister Rudd suggested a few days ago?

Andrew Leigh:                  I certainly share the Prime Minister’s views on this Tim. I think he has emphasised that if you are pursuing a policy as Mr Abbott is, that is straight out rejected by Australia’s huge neighbour to our north, then you are headed to a collision course. The Indonesians could not be clearer that turning back the boats is a policy that they will not accept, and yet Mr Abbott can’t buy that, he can’t change his policy to work in with our nearest neighbour, the largest Muslim country in the world, nearly 300 million people, a country we need to be strengthening our relationship with.

Tim Lester:                          But Mr Rudd used the word ‘conflict’. Now, ‘conflict’ rings alarm bells that other language simply doesn’t, does it? I mean, that is quite an alarming description of what could happen.

Andrew Leigh:                  Well if Mr Abbott wants to avoid conflict with Indonesia, there’s a very easy way.

Tim Lester:                          Is conflict the right word?

Andrew Leigh:                  I think it is, yes.

Tim Lester:                          It’s that serious?

Andrew Leigh:                  Well Mr Abbott wants to take boats and tow them back to Indonesian waters. What happens then if Indonesian naval vessels start to tow the boat back out towards us? That’s a real potential conflict on the high seas and I just don’t think Mr Abbott has thought it through, to say nothing for the risks to asylum seekers and to naval personnel of this policy. You’ve got [Admiral] Chris Barrie saying this is an unworkable policy. Mr Abbott needs to rethink it for the sake of asylum seekers, for the sake of our naval personnel, and for the sake of our diplomatic relations.

Tim Lester:                          Now to close, we’re pretty much out of time, you’ve written a book – you might pick it up and show us.

Andrew Leigh:                  Battlers and Billionaires: The Story of Inequality in Australia.

Tim Lester:                          I’m sure it’s a fascinating tale, but can I just ask you – how does a guy like you get the time to write a book, when you’re doing the job you’re doing?

Andrew Leigh:                  I feel one of the core roles parliamentarians can play is on advancing public debate. At the beginning of this electoral term, I brought out a book on social capital called Disconnected, which looked at the change in Australian community life over recent decades. Battlers and Billionaires looks at inequality - at the gap between rich and poor - and how that has changed. And it’s an issue on which I’d like to see a stronger national conversation. Wayne Swan kicked off a bit of that conversation, and I’m looking to put some data, some numbers, and most importantly some stories behind it.

Tim Lester:                          Not letting the grass grow under your feet. Andrew Leigh thanks for coming in to talk to us.

Andrew Leigh:                  Thanks Tim.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.