Breaking Politics - Fairfax Media - 14 October 2013

This morning I joined Tim Lester for my weekly conversation on Breaking Politics. I welcomed the new Labor leader, Bill Shorten, and discussed foreign investment and concern over the looming prospect of a U.S. Government deficit default.  The full transcript is below and the video here.

HOST TIM LESTER: So, Labor has a new cabinet and with Bill Shorten in the position of Opposition leader, the team can now take its places. We will learn this week, not only who is on the front bench but what roles they will have and one of the names kicking around is Andrew Leigh, the Labor MP in the electorate of Fraser, a regular on Breaking Politics. Welcome back Andrew.


LESTER: Tell us, what are your hopes for a frontbench spot?

LEIGH: Caucus will make that decision, now that we've changed the rules to allow democracy to flow through the party and I think that's a great thing. We're seeing a whole lot of opening up in the Labor Party, opening up of the selection of the leader to the membership which has been so warmly welcomed and now, going back to the system of the caucus choosing the frontbench. We're fortunate to have an array of talent comfortably fill two high-quality frontbenches, so it's going to be a tough decision for us collectively to make today.

LESTER: Now, I gather Chris Bowen is already the nominee for the position of shadow treasurer.


LESTER: But you would naturally fit in an economic portfolio given your academic background in that regard. Do you think that's a chance?

LEIGH: I'll make a contribution to the economic debate wherever I am Tim. I am pretty passionate about this stuff. I got into parliament because I wanted to make a difference on increasing the growth of Australia and reducing the gap between rich and poor and I'll make that contribution whatever part of the Labor team I end up in.

LESTER: Bill Shorten as leader, what qualities do you think he brings to the job?

LEIGH: So Bill's pretty extraordinary at connecting with people across a wide range of walks of life. I've been a kitchen in Civic in the middle of Canberra. We were there to do an event with the chefs and Bill was the first bloke to walk over and shake the hand of the kitchen hand washing the dishes in the corner. It's the kind of guy he is. He's very good at connecting with people, making them feel comfortable and listening to their stories. He's a great speech-maker which I think is really important in terms of building a narrative of what we do because public policy is complex and it's only getting more complex. I think voters get turned off a bit if they feel that what you're doing is just a just cooked up policy designed to solve a political problem rather than telling the story, the long narrative about how we got there. He did that with DisabilityCare. He did that with the increase in superannuation. Storytelling really is a vital part of good policy, whether you are in government or opposition.

LESTER: Tony Abbott has just given a four year lesson in how Opposition works if you attack. He brought his own Opposition together and he brought down two prime ministers and ultimately a government. Does Bill Shorten need to have some of the attack dog, that Tony Abbott had in Opposition, in him.

LEIGH: Good critique's important Tim. But I think that people who say we ought to just ape the tactics of the Coalition are missing what modern politics is about. Politics isn't about Coke and Pepsi, where you see your competitor pursuing a strategy and you do your best to adopt that. Labor's role in Australian politics has always been as the generator of ideas. We need to be the party that is coming up with the next big reforms because we just can't leave that to the conservatives. That's not in their nature. That's not the way they operate. They block, they oppose, they maintain the status quo. We're the ones that build, whether it's university access or better schools. And so, we'll be working on the ideas game. But of course holding the government to account.

LESTER: Tanya Plibersek as deputy, which she do it well?

LEIGH: Tanya would be first rate as deputy. She's somebody who's extraordinarily well respected across the community. She did a tremendous job as health minister and somebody who, I think, is extraordinary in her ability, just to balance so much, to get to so many seats, to contribute to the policy, and, like me, she's got three little kids and I'm greatly impressed at how she was able to manage that with being a cabinet minister.

LESTER: Has Labor done itself a favour going through this process, or has it in fact perhaps undermined Bill Shorten by highlighting the fact that the rank and file actually didn't want him. They wanted Anthony Albanese by a ratio of almost, two-thirds of them wanted Anthony Albanese.

LEIGH: I think that whenever you see these sorts of split voting systems you can expect that certain parts of the electorate will go differently from other parts. That's what you see in this style of voting system whether it's run in New Zealand or Britain. That doesn't make it a bad system. People point to the 52% overall result that Bill Shorten got. But I got to say that looks like a landslide compared to the 50.6% of the Liberal Party party room that Tony Abbott got in 2009.

LESTER: Okay. You're concerned about economics. You're going to be watching them closely. Is this government worried and exercised enough about what's happening abroad in the U.S. with the potential debt default here, what that might become for Australia?

LEIGH: Well, a government shutdown is bad enough but the debt default is terrifying. It will almost certainly send the U.S. into recession. It would have massive negative knock-on effects for Australia. What worries me is that we see from reports today that Finance Minister, Mathias Cormann, in 2011 visited the U.S. to meet with the sorts of people who are looking at sending the U.S. over the edge of this cliff. He met with the extreme wing of the Republican Party, the Tea Party. He met with Grover Norquist. And you saw some of those tactics some of those tactics being used by the Coalition in the last term: the incessant railing about debt and deficits as if it would have been better to lose hundreds of thousands of jobs, the attacks on increasing the debt limit in Australia. Those sorts of Tea Party tactics were pursued by the Liberal Party in the last term of parliament and I think that was a terrible mistake to play footsie with some people who are really causing massive problems now for the world economy.

LESTER: To what extent do you think Matthias Cormann now realises this or do you think he has genuinely adopted those perspectives and they might be reflected in some ways in policy?

LEIGH: Well, we'll see that from Mr Cormann himself. I'd like to see him to repudiate people like Grover Norquist and the extreme Tea Party wing. It's not good enough for Mr Hockey to be standing over in the U.S. assigning blame to Democrats and Republican alike. This is a Republican-caused shutdown. You just have to be clear about those facts and too often the Government seems caught in with its ideological bedfellows in the U.S. Republicans, not enough pursuing the interests of Australians, being critical and assigning blame when it's due and doing our best to avert this debt default.

LESTER: While we're on the topic of Joe Hockey, the question of foreign investment has emerged. What do you make of Mr Hockey's latest comments on where the Government might go on the vexed question of foreign investment limits.

LEIGH: Well we warned the Liberal Party before the election that they were pursuing strategies that would get them into trouble overseas – that turning the boats back would offend Indonesia, that attacking Malaysia's human rights record would damage our relationship with a major ally, and that saying they would lower the foreign investment review threshold on China would make a free-trade agreement impossible. We know see that Mr Hockey's looking like back-flipping on that; increasing the foreign investment review threshold in order to strike a free-trade agreement. That will represent a broken promise from the Coalition who said the opposite beforehand. Barnaby Joyce campaigned very hard to make it more difficult for Chinese investors, not to make it easier as the Chinese would like to see.

LESTER: Andrew Leigh, as always, we're grateful for you coming in to Breaking Politics.

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.