Breaking Politics - 8 October

This morning I spoke with Fairfax Media's Tim Lester for Breaking Politics, exploring news of the day. I was asked about on-going revelations Coalition MPs, including Prime Minister Tony Abbott, have repaid  tax payer funded outings, the impact of the US Congress budget impasse and about the rights of West Papuans to express their concerns.  Here's the full transcript:

TIM LESTER: When is it legitimate for an MP to claim his or her travel expenses on the taxpayer? Going to weddings for example. There are some numerous and now some notorious cases out there. To help us fathom this issues and others, our regular for Monday, joining us this week on a Tuesday because of holidays is Andrew Leigh, the MP for Fraser, Labor MP. Thank you for coming in Andrew.


LESTER: Tony Abbott attended weddings several years ago. Now, one of them was Peter Slipper's several years ago now. He claimed the costs. The taxpayers paid for him. He's now paid it back seven years later when the issue surfaces as contentious. Has he done the right thing or the wrong thing?

LEIGH: Mr Abbott's seems to have a fairly expansive view of entitlements and you're beginning to see a bit of a pattern here. Like the Howard Government which had seven ministers resign early on as a result of various scandals including travel expenses scandals. There are now four Coalition cabinet ministers, including the Prime Minister who are under investigation here. I guess what worries me is that if they're taking that sort of approach to these cases that we know about, what approach do they take to public expenses more broadly? That plays into a broader question over schemes such as paid parental leave which I think demonstrate an even more cavalier approach to the public finances.

LESTER: So, the various cases of weddings that we've seen here where these MPs have gone along and claimed on the taxpayer, they should not have done that?

LEIGH: I certainly don't believe so. I mean it's great to see Coalition MPs going to weddings. They’re so excited by them, you wonder how they can be against same-sex marriage. But this strikes me as an entirely personal matter and I'm surprised they've claimed for it.

LESTER: So, let me check that you're confident about your own circumstances, you wouldn't have comparable claims for private events..?

LEIGH: Certainly nothing that I am aware of Tim.

LESTER: So, how common is the practice of MPs claiming expenses from what are pretty clearly private events.

LEIGH: Well, everyone applies the rules themselves. You simply call up and book a flight and it's a matter of members of parliament making sure that they're exercising due concern when they're doing it and that they are not, for example, claiming something that's really substantively of a private nature or attempting to make a private expense look like a public expense.

LESTER: So, do you believe these cases that we're seeing are rare or normal?

LEIGH: I certainly hope they're rare. I'm pleased to see they've been paid back. But let's be clear about why we're here Tim. Mr Abbott has spent the last few years calling in the Australian Federal Police whenever there's any suggestion that someone has misused their entitlements. It's him who has suggested that this ought to be escalated to a criminal matter in other cases, and now he shouldn't be surprised when the chickens come home to roost.

LESTER: Peter Slipper has fallen from the speaker of the House of Representatives to political ruin, not even in the house of reps anymore based on a claim of a little more than $900. I know there might be some legal technical differences here. But where's the moral difference between what Peter Slipper did and what's been done now and numerous other cases?

LEIGH: Well, that's a matter for the Australian Federal Police as to where they choose to investigate and where they don't.

LESTER: [Is there] A moral difference?

LEIGH: As a parliamentarian, I'm pretty careful with what I do with my entitlements and I can understand Peter Slipper being somewhat surprised to see that Mr Abbott has now been able to repay travel expenses to attend Mr Slipper's wedding, but the same opportunity wasn't given to Mr Slipper. They're different circumstances. The federal police have treated them differently, but I can understand Mr Slipper's concerns.

LESTER: Can you understand the public scratching their heads and going, you know, there's a double standard here.

LEIGH: I can. I suspect Mr Slipper doesn't attract more public sympathy than the typical member of parliament, but I certainly think that it's important that we're frugal in our travel expenses. For my own part, I try to save money, certainly, by taking economy class short flights where I can. I don't think that I need to be booking business class flights if I'm going to Sydney or Melbourne for example. And that seems to me a reasonable action if you're trying to minimise the cost to the tax-payer.

LESTER: Couple of other issues before we let you go. How dangerous is the US government impasse for the world economy and therefore for us in Australia?

LEIGH: It's a very serious issue Tim. We're going to see an impact on the US government's day-to-day activities, but then there's also the looming debt ceiling issue that's coming up. That's frankly pretty terrifying because the notion of the world's largest economy defaulting on its creditors is almost too large to behold. The US Democrats have been quoting back to their Republican colleagues the words of Ronald Reagan - who spoke about what a disaster it would be if the US defaulted on its debts. But this is something of a pattern: we saw in Australia last year the Coalition saying that Australia should be reluctant to raise its debt ceiling. A position which I now see Mr Hockey has back-flipped on. When Wayne Swan referred to the ‘cranks and crazies’ in the Tea Party, Mr Abbott was quick to slap him down. I'd be surprised if Mr Abbott takes the same view of Tea Party Republicans since they've stopped Barack Obama meeting him at APEC.

LESTER: Should Australians be deeply worried about what's going on in the United States for the sake of Australia, let alone the US?

LEIGH: US debt default is extremely concerning. That's the deadline that's approaching and that has a massive effect on consumer confidence around the world. The difference between this, of course, and what's going on in Europe is that in Europe, you have economic fundamentals. You have extremely high debt loads, unsustainable public finances, where debts as a share of GDP are ten times Australia's and more. But in the US, this is just entirely avoidable. The US Republican House leadership simply needs to allow a vote to take place, and as I understand it, there are the numbers in the House for a budget bill to pass.

LESTER: OK, how feasible is it for the Abbott government, do you think, to quickly negotiate a free-trade deal with Beijing?

LEIGH: I'd like to see a free-trade agreement concluded. We were aware when Labor was in government that one of the key issues was a desire on the Chinese side to see more access to being able to invest in Australia. The problem Mr Abbott has is he went to the last election saying that he would lower the foreign investment review board threshold on Chinese enterprises. That's going in the opposite direction from what the Chinese want. I suspect that's going to be a major sticking point if not entirely a stumbling block in these negotiations.

LESTER: What, the Coalition's difficulty on foreign investment?

LEIGH: That's right, and you understand why the Coalition finds itself in this spot. They have the agrarian socialists in the National Party pushing very strongly against foreign investment. When foreign investment over a 30 year period grew from 5.9 to 6 per cent of Australian farms, Barnaby Joyce said it was an ‘exponential’ increase. So when you've got that sort of scare-mongering around ‘the Chinese buying up our farms’, as they say, it's very hard for the sensible economic wing of the Coalition to pursue policies that are in Australia's national interest - getting more investment into Australia and allowing more trade with other countries.

LESTER: To close, Tony Abbott said yesterday that those who wish to protest the West Papuan cause against Jakarta are not welcome in Australia. They need not bother; they need not carry out those protests. This at a time when a new report has suggested that genocide is going on, and has been going on in West Papua. Is Tony Abbott going too far in ruling out the expression of free speech in this country, or is he right to protect our relationship with Jakarta in this way?

LEIGH: Our relationship with Indonesia is a vital one. But I think we do ourselves a disservice if we try and clamp down on issues of human rights in order to preserve relationships with other countries. If we look back into history we can see examples of South African and East Timorese protesters being able to exercise their rights of free speech in Australia. West Papua is an enormously complex issue. But I think Mr Abbott should be careful in stepping on the rights of others to free speech. He has spoken of that right to him personally in the past and the right to free speech includes the right to protest against your government in your own country and overseas. If Mr Abbott believes in that right to free speech he needs to respect it, even and especially in the case of causes that are unpopular and that he disagrees with.

LESTER: So, you'd say to the West Papuan activists, 'Go for it'?

LEIGH: There's a right to protest in Australia. There's a right to have your voice heard. Australia is a country that ought to welcome a diversity of issues, particularly on complicated foreign policy questions.

LESTER: Andrew Leigh, as always, we're grateful for your time.

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.