Battlers & Billionaires with Jonathan Green

Andrew Leigh MP
Member for Fraser
1 July 2013

Topics:                         Ministerial changes, ‘Battlers and Billionaires’.

Jonathan Green:              Still on politics, and one of the losers from the events of last week in Canberra is Dr Andrew Leigh; without doubt one of the sharpest minds in the parliament, but left out of the new expanded Rudd ministry. He was the Parliamentary Secretary to the former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, but that job now goes to Ed Husic. So what does the future hold for this former professor of economics. He joins us now, Dr Leigh, good evening.

Andrew Leigh:                  Good evening Jonathan.

Jonathan Green:              Did you resign, or were you pushed?

Andrew Leigh:                  Well, I thought in the circumstances of last week, after supporting the incumbent Prime Minister, that I should tell Kevin Rudd that while I was willing to continue to serve, I was also willing to tender my resignation if he wanted it. And he accepted the resignation and said that he wanted me to continue to offer advice to him on international economic issues, which I’m very happy to do.

Jonathan Green:              Tony Burke did the same thing, but kept the ministry.

Andrew Leigh:                  Look these things are never straightforward, Prime Ministers always have more good people than they have slots for, and when I look around the Labor caucus room I can see why Mr Rudd felt himself spoiled for choice. There’s lots of very talented people and I think that Ed Husic will do a terrific job in his new role, as well as being a great advocate for broadband.

Jonathan Green:              Will you work harder, Andrew Leigh, at factional plays from this point forward?

Andrew Leigh:                  I don’t think it’s about the internal factional issues, I think it’s just different Prime Ministers have different teams they want to assemble around them. My own view was that genuinely I wanted to give Mr Rudd the flexibility to forge the team around him that he thought was best able to help win the next election. There’s so much at stake at the next election. This isn’t about personalities, this is about maintaining the reforms of the last two terms and making sure that a Labor government can do more in the next term.

Jonathan Green:              The ministry, though, is batting down reasonably deep. Take for example Jacinta Collins: anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-same sex marriage, with the strong backing of the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees' Association, and now looking after mental health. That’s an interesting call.

Andrew Leigh:                  I think that that’s an unfair characterisation of Jacinta Collins’ views, to be frank. I’ve never seen her being ‘anti-gay’, as you’ve described it. She has a different view from me on same sex marriage, but frankly, so do many people in the community and that’s a debate on which the community is split. It’s a debate on which we recognise it’s important that people can hold different views.

Jonathan Green:              Let’s look to your immediate future – work advising the PM around economics, international economics in particularly. Can you walk us through what you’ll be doing there?

Andrew Leigh:                  The Prime Minister has recognised that with the economy in transition, it’s important for us to be mapping out where the jobs of the future will be coming from. The Australia in the Asian Century white paper, I think, did that very effectively, in talking about the new role Australian firms will play in providing financial services, architectural services, education services to countries in our region. But that also involves a set of reforms, it’s really vital that we have the human capital that allows us to step up and play a role in Asia. It’s important too that we have an eye to what’s happening with commodity prices and the Australian dollar, because that effects the sort of industry restructuring in which we engage in over the coming decades.

Jonathan Green:              Other international matters of course at top of mind this week with the PM off to Jakarta. Expectations of that visit?

Andrew Leigh:                  I think the relationship with Indonesia is an enormously important one. As a child I lived in Indonesia for 3 years, 1 in Jakarta and 2 in Banda Aceh. I really had a sense growing up that Australians weren’t focused enough on this extraordinarily interesting and diverse country – the largest Muslim country in the world, nearly 300 million people – lying just a short distance to our north. So a better and deeper engagement with Indonesia is absolutely vital. You see that with Kevin Rudd picking up work that he had in train as Prime Minister and as Foreign Minister, and it’s in contrast, to be frank, with Mr Abbott in attempting to engage in conflict with Indonesia through his wacky ‘turn the boats back’ policy that the Indonesian government has flat out rejected.

Jonathan Green:              So you’d stand by the Rudd line that that’s courting conflict?

Andrew Leigh:                  I think that it’s a deeply destructive policy that the Opposition are engaged in. It is really dangerous for asylum seekers, because boats may sink. It’s dangerous for our naval personnel, because their lives are put at risk. You’ve heard Admiral Chris Barry speaking about the problems of boat turn backs. And it’s appalling diplomacy, to snub this huge and important country in Indonesia, a country whose relationship we need to be strengthening, not jeopardising.

Jonathan Green:              The polls already, Andrew Leigh, showing a bit of a turnaround in ALP fortunes, with the new Rudd Prime Ministership. As a Gillard supporter, does that surprise you?

Andrew Leigh:                  I pay little attention to polls, whether they’re going up or whether they’re going down.

Jonathan Green:              Don’t tell me that there’s only one that matters.

Andrew Leigh:                  It’s true, but I’ll refrain from saying it. My view is simply that good policy is good politics – that if you want to have the privilege of being re-elected by the Australian people, you need to make sure you’re putting in place important reforms. I think, when I got around my own electorate for example, there’re lots of people who tell me they’d like to get the National Broadband Network sooner. I’m yet to meet anyone who says they don’t want to get the National Broadband Network. So that’s a reform that we’re putting in place, because we recognise that superfast broadband is like the highway network of the 21st century. Reforms like that are the things we have to be focusing on as a government, and which you’ve seen Kevin Rudd talking about over the past few days.

Jonathan Green:              Despite the toughness of last week, there must be a bit of a spring in the step for your colleagues in caucus.

Andrew Leigh:                  I think that there’s a real sense of unity and purpose. It’s really vital that we preserve the reforms of the past two Labor terms, but also that we are able to continue those into a third term. You look at these school reforms, for example, replacing a broken down, worn out school funding system – which has the very strange feature that when state conservative governments cut funding, the federal funding mechanically falls – with something that’s up to date, that recognises need and increase funding for all schools. That’s a vital economic reform, a social reform, and of course education reform that we’ll be looking for a mandate to pursue in the next term.

Jonathan Green:              Now Andrew Leigh, you may have lost touch with the Cabinet room, but you have gained a book. You have a new book out today, Battlers and Billionaires: the story of inequality in Australia, tell us briefly in closing the thesis there?

Andrew Leigh:                  So the story behind Battlers and Billionaires is the story of Australian inequality over the past two and a quarter centuries. Inequality was quite low in the late 18th century, rose quite significantly to the 1920s gilded age, and then fell from the ‘20s to the ‘70s. Over the past generation we’ve seen significant increases in inequality, with the top 1 per cent gaining an additional $400 billion, compared to where they would have been if we’d had the equality levels of the last 1970s. I think inequality is a problem because it strains the social fabric, because we know the simple fact that a dollar brings more happiness to a pauper than to a millionaire. So I want to prompt more of a discussion about inequality, and whether the economic inequality we have is getting out of step with Australia’s natural egalitarian spirit. We’re a nation that sits in the front seat of taxis, that doesn’t like tipping, calls one another ‘mate’, and has had central bank managers called ‘Nugget’ and ‘Nobby’. That egalitarian spirit still burns strong, and yet the economic reality of stratospheric increases in CEO pay seems to be at odds with where I believe many Australians would like our nation to go.

Jonathan Green:              Is that an interests that’s best pursued inside or outside of the parliament? What does your future hold there?

Andrew Leigh:                  My own view, Jonathan, is that I’d really like to combine the both. One of my role models is the professor turned politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who managed to produced books right over his Senate career after stepping down as a professor at Harvard. This is the second book I’ve written in the parliamentary term – the last one was Disconnected, looking at our community life. And I really feel like the role of a parliamentarian is not to simply help enact laws, but also to speak to deeper discussions about the kind of nation we are and the kind we’d like to be in the future.

Jonathan Green:              Might be a couple of other parliamentarians with books on hold, after the events of the past few days. But congratulations on yours.

Andrew Leigh;                  Thank you Jonathan.

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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.