Monday Breaking Politics - 18 November 2013

This morning, in my usual slot with host Tim Lester in the Fairfax Breaking Politics studio, I discussed some of the stories making news today including the stark difference in approach between Tony Abbott and Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron over alleged human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. Here's the full transcript:





Subjects: Sri Lanka and human rights, child care review, shopper dockets, debt ceiling, role of the Speaker of the House of Representatives

TIM LESTER: The approach of two conservative leaders at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Sri Lanka could not have been more marked. Britain's David Cameron visited some disaffected families in one part of the country, also upset the government by calling for a war-crimes enquiry. Australia's Tony Abbott, well he gave the Government a couple of patrol boats to help with asylum seekers and seemed only to praise them. Which leader was right? Well, to discuss that issue and others, we're joined on Mondays in [the] Breaking Politics studio by Andrew Leigh, Labor MP here in Canberra. Andrew, thank you for coming in.

ANDREW LEIGH: A pleasure Tim.

LESTER: Who was right in their approach to Sri Lanka, Britain's David Cameron or our Tony Abbott?

LEIGH: I think when we go overseas Tim, we do a little part of the exercise of telling the rest of the world what Australia is - what we stand for. Through each of our statement and our actions we convey Australian values and to have Mr Abbott in Sri Lanka saying of torture, 'I accept that sometimes in difficult circumstances difficult things happen' was to me pretty troubling.  That attitude seemed to contradict what I would have seen as a long standing principle going right back through Labor and conservative prime ministers of Australia that we would never accept that there are any difficult circumstances in which torture was acceptable. David Cameron conveyed his country's values to the world. Mr Abbott, I think, took a domestic political agenda that was smaller than the big-hearted country he represents.

LESTER: What about those two patrol boats, can we be comfortable they will be well used and will not in fact, become a tool of infringing peoples' human rights?

LEIGH: It certainly something we need to watch. The Sri Lankan navy is said to have behaved less than properly at the end of the civil war. And so I think it's an issue worth bearing in mind, and I do think that David Cameron's call for an international investigation is something that would be beneficial to Sri Lanka itself, allowing it to stand taller on the world stage after a CHOGM in which Canada and India boycotted Sri Lanka.

LESTER: Is it good enough for Scott Morrison, our Immigration Minister to say, 'well we'll work out with Sri Lanka how those patrol boats are used' and wave off questions about Australian oversight on their use?

LEIGH: Tim, I did wonder on the weekend, are there in fact two Scott Morrisons? Was there a different Scott Morrison who went to Malaysia to excoriate them on their human rights record, who held a press conference in Malaysia to say their human rights record wasn't good enough? Is that a different Scott Morrison from the one who's now talking about Sri Lanka? Because I can't see any consistency here, apart from the consistency of supporting the Coalition's political interests.

LESTER: So, the use of those patrol boats needs continuing Australian oversight?

LEIGH: I think the Opposition will be asking appropriate questions about how those patrol boats are to be used. I think it's important for Australians to know that their assistance to other countries is properly used.

LESTER: What strikes you about Tony Abbott joining Canada and rejecting a decision by the summit to push for a green capital fund that would have helped vulnerable island states and poor African countries address climate change?

LEIGH: It doesn't seem in either our economic interests or our strategic interests Tim. I was one of the speakers at the climate rallies around the country yesterday, 60,000 Australians calling for tougher action on climate change. One of the speakers at the Canberra rally where I spoke was a representative of a small Pacific nation that is at risk of inundation from climate change from the sea level rises. Australia is experiencing probably what’s going to be our hottest year on record but for these countries climate change threatens their very existence and they will be raising an eyebrow when they see Australia being unwilling to support them in what they regard as their hour of need.

LESTER: Andrew Leigh, is our system of childcare benefits and rebates, apparently one of the most complicated on earth, in need of a big overhaul?

LEIGH: Tim, many Australians rely on child care in order to stay in the workforce. Certainly, I'm one of those. We have our middle child in childcare at the moment and our youngest will soon be going into childcare. Certainly I expect that many Australian families were concerned when they saw that Mr Abbott intends to review the entire system. No additional money and no guarantees there won't be cuts. Labor's agenda of childcare while we were in office was one of making it more affordable, raising the rebate from 30 to 50 per cent and increasing the quality, recognising that this is early childhood, not babysitting, so we had to increase the qualifications and bring smaller group sizes in those early childhood centres. I worry that much of that is at risk with Mr Abbott's review which might end up given large subsidies to affluent families to use nannies and au pairs at the expense of families in the middle and bottom of the distribution for whom childcare is an essential to get to work.

LESTER: We're not at that stage of course. We're only at the stage of a review. Do you believe the system is strong and healthy enough that it shouldn't be reviewed, that a review is the wrong thing to do?

LEIGH: I think we do have a strong and healthy system and I think that if you're going to initiate reviews, you want to give some assurances to families as to what will come out of that review because I think many Australian families will be concerned about the suggestion by Tony Abbott and Sussan Ley of a root and branch review but a commitment to put no more money in. So the only promise that you absolutely count on from Tony Abbott is that early childhood won't get any more money.

LESTER: Independent Senator Nick Xenophon says there is a need for a moratorium on Coles and Woolworths shopper dockets, the ones that allow us to get us our petrol more cheaply after we've bought groceries. He says that the moratorium should be in while the ACCC concludes an investigation. Is that a good idea?

LEIGH: This is an issue that the ACCC has been looking at for a number of years as to whether it's anti-competitive to have a system of shopper dockets which only work at certain fuel stations. But I'm concerned by the suggestion that parliament might micromanage competition policy down to the level of individual firms. We have the ACCC for a good reason because we need an external watchdog that stands up for consumers and competition. I think it's appropriate they do their review. Labor's time in office was focused on making sure that the ACCC had an Act and the resources necessary to stand up for consumers.

LESTER: On the debt ceiling, do you believe the government will get its way and ultimately get the half-trillion dollar new credit limit that it seeks or do you expect Labor will be successful in frustrating it?

LEIGH: Here's what we got to last week. Joe Hockey came to parliament saying he would like a half trillion dollar loan and provided not a single bit of paper to justify it. Parliament went back to Joe Hockey and said, well without any bits of paper, we'll give you $400 billion. Your debt projected to peak in three years’ time at $370 billion so this gives you a comfortable $30 billion buffer for the point in 2016 when your maximum debt will be reached. Joe Hockey threw a tantrum. I guess we're waiting this week to see what he's going to come back with. But I think he should do the smart thing, recognise that either he puts up the mid-year update and provides some evidence as to how his decisions, the $9 billion handout to the Reserve Bank, the $700 million to multinationals, the $4 billion dollar tax cut to mining companies, what impact those decisions have had on blowing out the debt.

LESTER: To close, Bronwyn Bishop is in the chair in the House of the Representatives and speakers set the tone of the house to a great extent? How's the tone of the House of the Representatives under the new speaker?

LEIGH: We'd been promised Tim that the adults would be in charge, but when the name-calling began on the first full day of parliament, I think people began to wonder whether they could trust that promise. The extent to which the Government has been using parliament as opportunity to sling mud is disturbing to me because ultimately trust in parliamentarians and the institution of parliament is absolutely vital for all of us. I think name-calling in parliament fundamentally diminishes all parliamentarians.

LESTER: Even 'Electricity Bill'? I mean it's as offensive as names go, not nigh in the stakes is it?

LEIGH: We can all come up with nicknames for one another Tim and we can begin to spiral down from there. I don't think that's the right way for parliament to go. I think this is ultimately a debating chamber where the issues of how best to manage our nation are determined and if name-calling rules then I think that that probably ends up with worse decisions being made, less respect for parliament and more people switching off politics...

LESTER: ...And reflects on the Speaker?

LEIGH: I do hope that the Speaker will be cracking down, especially on Standing Order 64 of not allowing name-calling in parliament.

LESTER: Andrew Leigh, grateful as always to have you on Breaking Politics.

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.