Monday Breaking Politics - Fairfax Media

This morning, I spoke with Tim Lester about some of the stories making news today: surveyed economists rejecting the government's Direct Action policy to limit climate change, the unwelcome prospect of Australia Post delivering Centrelink services and Tony Abbott's uncouth comments in a Washington Post interview. Here's the transcript:



Subjects: Centrelink and Australia Post, Direct Action, Foreign Affairs.

TIM LESTER: Has the Abbott Government found a viable way of saving money by shifting the front office operations of Centrelink to the control of Australia Post. It's likely to cause plenty of discussion in politics this week. Labor MP Andrew Leigh, the member for Fraser here in the ACT, joins us in the Breaking Politics studio to discuss this and a few other issues on a Monday. Andrew, welcome in, appreciate your time.

ANDREW LEIGH: Thank you Tim.

LESTER: Is it a good idea to the front office operations of Centrelink and put them in Australia Post outlets?

LEIGH: Tim, the work that Centrelink does is pretty high level work. It's not simply dispensing payments. It's working through the appropriate payments for someone at a time of crisis in their life. People come into a Centrelink office after having lost a job, after having experienced a family breakdown and some of the clients have mental health issues. It's a time of great vulnerability and that's why Centrelink officers are trained professionals. The notion that they could simply be lining up in an Australia Post office, dodging through the stands of calendars and express post envelopes misses what Australia Post does. It's the kind of thing you would expect from a Government that's just gotten rid of the income support payment, effectively a cut to payment for unemployment benefits to now say now to some of the most vulnerable Australians including those with mental illness, just go the Australia Post Office instead.

LESTER: So you see a real danger in mixing these two?

LEIGH: I think some of the most vulnerable Australians will be hurt by this Tim and I think that, unfortunately, it seems to be so much of a pattern with this Government. Taking away the Schoolkids Bonus, taking away income support payments, giving more money to millionaires to have families, giving big tax cuts to mining billionaires. It's the wrong philosophy for an Australia founded on the 'fair go'.

LESTER: The Government faces criticism this morning in Fairfax Media publications at least that it seems an overwhelming number of economists believe that the direct action plan to reduce carbon emissions will not be nearly as effective as the current plan, the market based plan that the Labor Government put into place. Does this surprise you?

LEIGH: It's not a great surprise Tim. We saw this in a survey of the Australian Conference of Economists a couple of years ago. As Chris Caton said in response to the survey today, any economist who believes the 'command and control' system of Direct Action is going to be a better plan ought to hand in their degree. I notice of the 35 economists, there are only two that support Direct Action. One because he doesn't believe that humans are causing climate change and another because he doesn't believe Australia should do anything about it and therefore thinks that Direct Action is the right plan to achieve that goal.

LESTER: It's kind of like asking a dairy farmer, 'Is cheese a good thing?', isn't it. Economist to comment on whether they like a market scheme as opposed to an essentially a non-market scheme was always going to deliver this kind of an answer, wasn't it?

LEIGH: As much Tim as if you ask scientists the scientific question whether humans are causing climate change. The overwhelming majority will say 'yes'. Economists have been studying ways of efficiently spending taxpayer dollars in order to achieve the best outcome. The problem with Direct Action is it costs more and it does less. Every serious economist will tell you that and it has again been replicated in the survey today. That's why Labor put in place a market based mechanism and it's why we've argued so strongly that Australian households cannot afford 'direct action'. Instead they need a cap on pollution.

LESTER: And yet for all this, there's a great deal of political pressure on Bill Shorten and Labor at the moment to bend to the apparent will of the Australian people at the last election and let direct action come into being, scrap the market system. How is Labor handling the pressure at the moment?

LEIGH: We went to the last election saying that we would get rid of the carbon tax, that fixed price period, go straight to the floating price, straight to the scheme that puts a cap on pollution, something Direct Action doesn't do, and to the scheme that's cheapest for Australian households. I don't think we would well serve our voters to say to the people who elected us, knowing we were campaigning for a cap on pollution, that we no longer believe that Australia ought to cap its emissions and that we now think it's okay to slug households $1300 each for the expensive and ineffective direct action plan.

LESTER: You must be seeing some dissent in Labor ranks on this question, this must put some Labor MPs under a deal of pressure?

LEIGH: After elections you'll always have good robust conversations about where the party is going and it's wise to take a moment to take stock.

LESTER: And this has been a good robust one?

LEIGH: This has been a robust internal conversation. But I think the overwhelming majority of my colleagues back the cap on pollution, back the notion that Labor ought to continue to campaign for dealing with climate change in the most effective way and not behave as Mr Abbott describes himself as a weathervane on climate change, blowing whichever way the political winds will go.

LESTER: Now, Mr Abbott has told The Washington Post that the previous government, the government of which you were part was 'wacko', among other things. There's a number of people saying he shouldn't have said it to a foreign media organisation, certainly not the in the U.S., but at least he's consistent in his language isn't he? He's not telling one story in Australia and another abroad.

LEIGH: Mr Abbott will always be a political strategist first and a statesman second. You can never imagine Robert Menzies going overseas after beating Ben Chifley and saying to an international audience that Ben Chifley's Government was ‘wacko’. Menzies and Chifley had a big battle over nationalising the banks but Menzies and many other conservative leaders have been of the kind that they feel that when we go overseas we need to behave in statesperson-like fashion. Don't forget that Prime Minister Gillard received a standing ovation when she addressed Congress. I used to work for the late Senator Peter Cook and he had a saying: "When we go overseas, we're 'Team Australia'". We carry a sense of national interest with us first and we leave behind the partisan games. I just wish Mr Abbott was able to take Senator Cook's advice.

LESTER: What's the danger though from Tony Abbott doing what he's done? What's the negative effect? America's one of the world's most robust democracies. It knows politics and it knows the game of politics. It's going to recognise what's going on here, isn't it?

LEIGH: We had a scholar from the American Enterprise Institute, Norman Ornstein, saying that he thought U.S. audiences would find this pretty shocking; that in the United States there is a tradition of respect to one's predecessor and a sense that it is important we show a sense of unity for Australia. Let's face it on the objective indicators Australia under Labor did extraordinarily well, whether it's the OECD’s Better Life Index, the UN's Human Development Index, whether it's our robust growth at a time when other economies are shrinking or whether it's our low debt levels relative to the rest of the world - objective indicators suggest Australia is doing very well. So it doesn't help to have the leader of the nation going overseas describing previous governments as 'wacko'.

LESTER: What does it tell about Tony Abbott and his style and his suitability for the job?

LEIGH: Well Mr Abbott has always struggled with the statesman's role. You saw this on those moments before the New Zealand Prime Minister addressed the parliament, in the moments before the U.S. President addressed the parliament, where both Prime Minister Gillard and Mr Abbott had opportunities to make remarks. Prime Minister Gillard made broad statesperson-like remarks. Mr Abbott couldn't help injecting a note of partisan politics, a little partisan dig at the other side. He seems to forget that he has become prime minister now and that actually it is in his interests and very much in Australia's interests for him to try, for once, to rise above the partisan fray.

LESTER: Andrew Leigh, we're grateful for your time on Breaking Politics. Thank you for coming in today.

LEIGH: Thank you 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.