Breaking Politics - 23 September 2013

On Fairfax TV today I joined host Tim Lester to talk about some of the issues of the day - the future of the NBN, new secrecy surrounding asylum seeker arrivals, reports of the heavy hand of the Abbott Government against consumer boycotts and the Labor leadership contest. The video is here. Here's the transcript:
TIM LESTER: Fairfax Newspapers have reported that the whole board of the National Broadband Network has offered its resignation to new Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull. What does that mean for the future of NBN and other issues related to the broadband network? Our Monday regular is Andrew Leigh - he's in the studio to discuss this and other stories that are around this morning. Andrew, thank you for your time.

ANDREW LEIGH: Pleasure Tim.

LESTER: How ominous is it that the board of the NBN would say en mass to a new minister; "we'll fall on our swords"?

LEIGH: Well it does speak to their confidence in the Coalition's NBN policy, doesn't it Tim? I mean the Coalition's NBN policy is dramatically inferior to Labor's NBN because it offers fibre to the cabinet down the street, rather than fibre to the home. That means you get about 25 megabits a second. Maybe a bit better than what some people have now, but certainly not the transformative technology you have when you get a hundred, a thousand megabits a second down the fibre cable to your home. That's when a video conference starts to look like the high definition TV picture that we see in the evening. That, for example, would make a big difference to Breaking Politics, which would then begin to not worry about whether people were on-site or off-site. But as your viewers would well know, they can easily tell when someone's using Skype on the current clunky connections, and it's not going to be much better under Malcolm Turnbull's NBN.

LESTER: What do you read, though, into the fact that the board would do this with the new Minister? Is this simply a, perhaps a matter of normal order, that they would say to a new minister "well, if you want us gone, we'll go"?

LEIGH: You know, I think it is an honourable course of action that they're pursuing, but it's a course of action they would not take in the circumstances that the Coalition had adopted Labor's NBN policy. A fibre to the Home policy which is, as best I can tell from my door-knocking, supported by everyone I spoke to in the ACT. Can't say that about any other policy frankly Tim. There's a lot of divergence on policies across the spectrum, but no one I spoke to said “the real problem with the NBN is they're bringing the fibre cable to my home, rather than stopping at the cabinet down the street".

LESTER: So does Malcolm Turnbull have to accept these resignations and put in a board that backs what he is doing, or might he say "no, press on with my plan"?

LEIGH: It's a decision for him, but I hope that he will use their wisdom and experience. I think the firings of departmental heads last week by Mr Abbott were a mistake, not just because of the fear that it spread through the public service, but also because Mr Abbott himself loses the stability of keeping on all the departmental secretaries as Labor did when we came to office in 2007.

LESTER: Would Ziggy Switkowski make a good new point person for what the Coalition plans to do with the NBN?

LEIGH: I think it's up to Mr Turnbull who he chooses. What I would urge him to do, though, is to re-think a policy that is going to build a digital divide through Australia. It's going to see my own electorate sliced up into patches of fibre to the home and, if you want the fibre to the home, you have to pay for it. That'll mean that houses on one side of the street have a value maybe 5000 dollars higher than houses on the other side of the street. People are understandably frustrated at not being able to get what is increasingly being regarded as a standard public service.

LESTER: Another of the Coalition's early changes, it looks like, will be an effort to reduce, if you like, the coverage of the arrival of asylum boats, by saying that they'll do weekly briefings on what's going on and not announce when asylum boats arrive. How practical is that?

LEIGH: Well, it's pretty striking isn't it, Tim? We've gone from "stop the boats" to "buy the boats" to "hide the boats". I think this is ultimately a media management strategy. It was flagged by Scott Morrison during the election. What it's meant is that when what we estimate is the eighth asylum seeker boat, arrived since the election yesterday, its arrival was heralded by locals on Christmas Island. But if he's going to make this work, he has to gag everyone. He has to gag the administrator of Christmas Island, Jon Stanhope and the residents of Christmas Island, who were the ones who got the news out today.

LESTER: Is it practical?

LEIGH: I don't think it's practical at all Tim and I think it speaks, really, to the Coalition's desire to bring secrecy back to government. Remember after we won office, in the wake of the Cornelia Rau affair, we had to bring in Andrew Metcalfe to do a review of the culture of secrecy the Coalition had built within the Department of Immigration. They are also looking at getting rid of the independent review of ASIO assessments for asylum seekers, again taking us back to the bad old days of excessive secrecy. In other spaces, they are looking at bringing back gag clauses for charities. It's a worrying trend right across government.

LESTER: But they are also looking, according to one article in The Australian newspaper this morning at allowing some action against some groups that try and carry out boycotts on products on environmental grounds like GetUp! or others who might try and lead those boycotts. What do you think of that action?

LEIGH: It's extraordinary, isn't it Tim, the notion that you would prevent consumers from getting together to say that they believe for ethical reasons certain products should not be purchased. This is what we saw during the Apartheid era where consumers got together and urged a boycott of South African products. We've seen in recently when there were concerns raised over Sherrin, the football manufacturer; consumers getting together to encourage better standards. Sherrin responded. The idea that we can't together with our fellow people and talk about environmental or other ethical issues as they affect product purchases is frankly is extraordinarily heavy handed.

LESTER: Okay. The last question before we close, the Labor leadership debates that Anthony Albanese, one of the candidates is talking as about possibly having in the last few weeks of the process. How do have you have genuine, full-on political debates, without at least some animosity and some invective, if you like, coming in to play, that there's so far, the two leadership contenders have been tip toeing around. It's almost a contradiction in terms.

LEIGH: Oh, I don't know. At our best I think we have managed to do Breaking Politics in that spirit! I certainly remember discussions with Fiona Nash, recently elevated, which were very congenial.

LESTER: Without arm wrestling from the party leadership though?

LEIGH: But I think, is that the thing you have with these two contenders is, Bill and Anthony are genuinely two people who like one another, who have worked constructively in the past and have a great deal to offer the Labor Party. We just can't go wrong in this leadership contest because they are people of such high calibre with a suite of great ideas to bring to the parliament. Anthony, with his experience in managing the parliament and his extraordinary personal story of growing up in very disadvantaged circumstances. Bill, with what his done with DisabilityCare, with bringing Better Schools together and with his ideas about building a ‘good society’. This is a great contest and one which is invigorating the Labor Party branch membership.

LESTER: Andrew Leigh, we're very grateful for you coming in and I should say you've got a new sparring partner each Monday, Andrew Laming, Liberal MP from Queensland who I believe you know.

LEIGH: Indeed. Andrew went through the Harvard Kennedy School the year before me. Because we have somewhat similar names, we're both Andrew L's, I was frequently mistaken for him when I was there in the early 2000s. We disagree on almost every policy issue but we've remained good friends even after entering parliament. So, I'm looking forward to jousting with him when parliament is in session.

LESTER: We appreciate your time today. Thanks 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.