Breaking Politics - Monday, 3 March 2014

This morning I joined Fairfax Media host Chris Hammer and Liberal MP Andrew Laming for a wide-ranging discussion including the importance of keeping Qantas in Australian hands, protecting the Great Barrier Reef and concerns about the potential harm of winding back racial vilification laws.



SUBJECT/S: Qantas Sales Act and jobs; ‘Green Army’ and jobs; Great Barrier Reef and tourism jobs; Offshore processing of asylum seekers; Repeal of hate speech laws.

CHRIS HAMMER: Well, the big political story of the day is undoubtedly Qantas with Cabinet meeting to decide on what assistance if any the Government can give it. Joining me to discuss this issue and others in Andrew Laming, the Liberal Member for Bowman in Queensland and Andrew Leigh, Assistant Shadow Treasurer and Labor Member for Fraser in the ACT. Gentlemen, there seems to be a standoff here. You've got the Government saying it doesn't want to give a debt guarantee for Qantas. You've got Labor saying it doesn't want to relax the Qantas Sales Act at least as far as foreign ownership's concerned. Andrew Laming, can you see any way through this impasse?

ANDREW LAMING: Well, these are options that are being considered today by Cabinet. I must admit that I sense that Qantas must be feeling positively manhandled by political commentators at the moment. We've had every imaginable recipe for their survival. But in the end the affairs rest in the hands of the company itself. They've got to find that balance to look after shareholders, staff and customers and I'm just hoping that can be done as seamlessly and painlessly as possible and those options are in the hands of Cabinet effectively.

HAMMER: Is there any qualitative difference between Qantas and the carmakers? With the car markers most Australians weren't buying Fords and Holdens, they were buying imported Hyundais. It's the same with holidays and going overseas. They're just buying tickets on price. Should the Government be intervening to help Qantas?

LAMING: Well, certainly airlines are a more internationalised sector, so that means if we wish to retain some of sense of Australian identity, then we're going to have to look at every competitive advantage for Qantas in an open market, not unfair support. But in the end these are decisions for the company. They have to look after their own affairs and the more we interfere, even if we think it's benign, may just prolong the inevitable. We need the company making long term decisions for their survival.

HAMMER: What's the inevitable?

LAMING: Well, the inevitable is increasing competition. The inevitable is getting rid of the carbon tax here in Australia which costs Qantas $106 million last year. These are things that we can do to improve things immediately for the immediate survival of Qantas as John Borghetti at Virgin pointed out just recently.

HAMMER: Andrew Leigh, Labor has suggested giving Qantas a debt guarantee but that seems to be off the table. Tony Abbott's ruled that out. On the Qantas Sales Act is there room to move there from Labor's point of view?

ANDREW LEIGH: Chris, we're in this strange situation at the moment where Qantas has asked for a debt guarantee and the Government has now said no after having given very clear indications that it would provide such a guarantee with the four-part test laid out with Joe Hockey in December. Qantas hasn't asked for a change to the Qantas Sale Act and yet the Government is pushing that as its number one solution. So, it really does seem to me that when it comes to saving the Flying Kangaroo the Government is flying chicken. It's not doing what the company is asking for and is instead pursuing a route which, if it were successful, would see us lose our national carrier. We would effectively see Qantas become a foreign owned airline.

HAMMER: Are you concerned that if the Government doesn't do anything then Qantas may fail?

LEIGH: I think the Government needs to act to save jobs. Tony Abbott, before the election, said that he would create a million jobs, but we're already seeing jobs being shed; 63,000 fulltime jobs gone. So that five year jobs target is now beginning to recede. I worry that isn't an overall plan for job creation from the Government, just slogans around the carbon tax but without a long term plan for the investments in education and infrastructure that will generate jobs of the future. The sort of floating of thought bubbles, the conflict between the Treasurer and the Prime Minister is, I think, a risk for Qantas.

HAMMER: Can either of you gentlemen, Andrew Leigh first, suggest something that could help Qantas that has bipartisan support, or has the potential to have bipartisan support?

LEIGH: Well, Labor is happy to talk with the Government about a debt guarantee. We're happy to engage with the Government around changes to Qantas Sale Act that don't involve majority foreign ownership, that don't involve shipping jobs overseas. So, we're keen to work with the Government so long as they're keen to save the Flying Kangaroo.

HAMMER: Andrew Laming?

LAMING: Well obviously changes to the Sale Act can be considered but not other forms of support that are unique to Qantas and denied to other players in the industry. That, I think, would the range of possibilities that came up that we would consider.

HAMMER: Okay, can we move on. Andrew Leigh, you mentioned jobs. More details are emerging of Tony Abbott's 'Green Army', up to 15,000 jobs using the term loosely, because they wouldn't be paid as much as the minimum wage. How's it possible for the Government to defend a scheme when people are essentially being paid less than the minimum wage?

LAMING: Well, of course there's a range between not working and being paid income replacement at around $6 an hour or $250 a week, up to the $622 per week minimum wage. Somewhere in that area we have to transition people who don't have any form or any hope of employment into a level where one day they can aspire and hold down a job and that's why the Green Army is such an important segue there, offering wages of between $400-500 to get people a start. Where better to do it than environmental work.

HAMMER: Where do you get the figure of $500 because the reporting has been as low as $300?

LAMING: Yes, that's right. A supervisor can earn as much as $60,000 plus so there are a range of salaries that are being paid. In essence, this is small projects, 9-10 people locally deployed, highly effective and for the first time some form of activity requirement who can't get work in the private sector. I think it's a big positive.

HAMMER: This is work for the dole under a different banner, isn't it?

LAMING: Work for the dole is an obligation to work for your payment whereas this is something far different, although it fits into the spectrum you've just referred to, which is somewhere between having no work and the minimum wage.

HAMMER: Andrew Leigh, it sounds like a good idea doesn't it, to get people out working, get them some skills?

LEIGH: Chris, I think there's too much ideology in industrial relations and in employment services more broadly. I think Paul Howes made that comment very articulately at the National Press Club recently. So, I'm just purely driven by the evidence on this. Show me a program that works and I'll be keen to back it. The thing about the Work for the Dole is the best study that we have, commissioned by Tony Abbott when he was the employment minister, found not only that the program didn't boost employment but actually that it had the opposite effect: because people locked in doing Work for the Dole jobs, they had less time searching for long term employment. Therefore, Work for the Dole was actually harmful. So, if you want a program that is going to decrease exit rates of income support, that's Work for the Dole, it's actually a government program that will do harm. That why I'm so concerned to see a Government driven by ideology and what feels good - rather than evidence and what practically works. Ask Jeff Borland, the man that did the study. It just doesn't work.

HAMMER: Andrew Laming, most of the work in the Green Army is manual work. These are young people. Is that the kind of training we want to equip them for in this 21st century, out digging ditches?

LAMING: Look right now what you're trying to do is get your 360,000 Australians between 17 and 24 in some form of regular routine, meaningful work and an opportunity to train and to work shoulder to shoulder with others. It's often a transitional situation and the evidence that Andrew refers to was at a time when the Howard Government was bringing unemployment down to very low levels where it was getting harder and harder to place people in employment. Where in the other situation. We're touching 6 per cent unemployment and now of course we have to look for new segues to get people from having nothing to do except fill out log books to having a chance at private sector employment.

HAMMER: So, is this simply a construction to lower the unemployment rate?

LAMING: Well it's certainly adds in an additional opportunity for people to earn way more than the dole but less than the minimum wage and be engaged in some form of work other than what they're doing at the moment which is filling in a log book.

HAMMER: So, is this an employment program or is it an environmental taskforce?

LAMING: It's definitely the latter but there's nothing wrong with it being both.

HAMMER: Andrew Leigh?

LEIGH: I think Andrew Laming makes an important point around the potential for programs that were unsuccessful in one environment to work in another environment. But I guess, all I'd say to that is if your best study finds that this is a program that did harm in another environment, then I think the wisest course of action would be to run a small pilot with high quality evaluation and see whether things have changed so much that this new program does good, rather than doing harm.

HAMMER: Andrew Laming, this is badged as an environmental program, although as you say it has employment benefits as well. Yet at the same time the Government has approved the dredging of the Great Barrier Reef around Abbott's Point. There's now newspaper reports of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority did a report into this and said don't do it, it's going to damage the reef. How can you be supporting the environment over here with the Green Army and yet ignoring expert advice on the Barrier Reef on the other hand?

LAMING: Well there’s a range of expert advice, even out of the authority itself. The amount that’s proposed to be dredged is about 1/10th of the original application, which was applauded by the then Labor state government. Sure, this is silt and sand that’s going into a portion of the marine park but it’s well away from the reef. So in all these situations you have to think of the counterfactual. If we don’t expand this location, do we then have a proliferation by the smaller ports that do way more damage? So the proposal to dredge and to dump, as has been put forward, potentially also came from experts in the field and has been rigorously scrutinised. I am very comfortable with that decision because I know that the alternative could be way worse.

HAMMER: Why not use the ‘Green Army’ to put the dredging spoil on land?

LAMING: Well, they have decided that is going to be, environmentally, even worse with the acid sulphates. So the effects are even worse doing it on land, than ocean-based dumping.

HAMMER: Andrew Leigh, does it strike you as strange that the government is supporting a tourism facility for Cadbury’s in Tasmania and yet, is dredging the Great Barrier Reef?

LEIGH: Well, Greg Hunt is a man whose title is ‘Minister for the Environment’ but whose every action seems to fit somebody who’s the ‘Minister Against the Environment’. He is fighting hard against strong action on climate change, one of the great victims of which would be the Great Barrier Reef. He’s approved a dredging proposal, which Minister Butler, his predecessor and now the Labor Shadow Minister, was not willing to approve. We need to be really careful with the Great Barrier Reef, because, even if you’re not concerned about it as an environmental asset, and I suspect no one in Australia would believe that, you still need to think about in terms of the tourism jobs in the future. But of course this is a great environmental icon, and we ought to have policies that protect the Great Barrier Reef for generations to come. Future Generations would look pretty unkindly upon today’s Australians were we to simply say that we could have a short term hit to the prosperity of a small number of Australians at the cost of a great national environmental icon.

HAMMER: Can we just touch on a couple of issues finally before we finish? Anna Burke, the former speaker, has come out and said that she opposes offshore processing of asylum seekers. Andrew Laming, you first. Are you completely comfortable with offshore processing of asylum seekers?

LAMING: One word answer, yes.

HAMMER: Andrew Leigh?

LEIGH: I think that we need policies of compassion and that compassion means stopping drownings at sea. It means taking in an appropriate number of refugees. I'm disturbed by a couple of things in the Government's policies. Firstly, the cutback to the refugee intake from 20,000 to 13,000, which I think is pretty stingy for a country of Australia's level of development, but I'm also concerned that we haven't seen refugees being processed out of the Manus Island camp. This is a Refugee Resettlement Agreement and part of that requires that Papua New Guinea begin to work with Australia in processing refugees. I hope that will be an outcome of Minister Morrison's visit of Papua New Guinea, but the fact that it hasn't happen is one of the key reasons for the tension in that camp, which lead to the tragic death of Reza Berati.

HAMMER: So you're not completely comfortable with offshore processing as it is at the moment?

LEIGH: I think the way in which the current government is handling migration policy means that there are certain risks to asylum seekers and there are risks to the system as a whole. I'm pretty concerned too, by the half dozen incursions into Indonesian territorial waters. People are really asking the question 'how could you be running a policy which now has Indonesia complaining to the US Secretary of State about Australia's policies?' We ought to be having a great relationship with Indonesia. Not one where they're complaining to the US about their mistreatment at our hands.

HAMMER: The reality on this issue is that if the boats stop coming or are stopped form coming, then most people in the electorate are happy with that, and there's not much Labor can do about it.

LEIGH: My main focus Chris, is on the compassionate outcomes. Stopping the drownings at sea and taking in what I believe to be our reasonably share of asylum seekers from around the world. We ought to be driven by compassion because we have to recognise the number of great Australians who've been refugees. Frank Lowy, Majak Daw, Les Murray, Anh Do. There's so many terrific Australians that have come here as refugees. We ought to have compassion in our hearts as we try to stop drownings and take deserving people who are at risk of persecution to Australia.

HAMMER: Andrew Laming, the so-called 'PNG solution' has been presented quite clearly as 'you will not be settled in Australia', but if you're found to be a refugee you will be re-settled in Papua New Guinea. There seems to be a question mark over that now. The Government has said one thing but it isn't delivering on that.

LAMING: In what way?

HAMMER: In that the asylum seekers are being told that they will not be resettled in Papua New Guinea.

LAMING: I'm not sure where those sources are, but I acknowledge that original solution was negotiated by the previous government and as a support act in all of this, the Australian Government is supporting the Papua New Guinea Government as part of a multilateral solution here in the South Pacific and you just want all of those that are held in those camps to be a safe as possible. You want the best quality services and care while they are in detention. But obviously, if there's an agreement that they are re-settled in Papua New Guinea, that’s a matter for the PNG government.

HAMMER: But can you tell us now, what happens to asylum seekers that have been processed on Manus Island that have been found to be genuine refugees? What happens to them?

LAMING: The same that has always happened regardless of where they were processed. Once they're determined to be refugees then there has to be a third country that accepts those refugees. That has been, in the past, brokered with New Zealand and in this case is brokered with Papua New Guinea.

HAMMER: Well, what are the third countries?

LAMING: Well if you're not going to take them here in Australia, you're have to negotiate with other economies obviously, that’s been the push of both governments. You're asking me, 'will they be settled in PNG or Australia?' that's something to be decided once somebody has been deemed to be a refugee.

HAMMER: Okay, just finally Australia's race discrimination commissioner has come out in opposition to repealing section 18C of the Race Discrimination Act. Andrew Leigh, your thoughts on this? It's come down, it seems, to an argument about the possible impact of racial comments against the right to free speech.

LEIGH: Tim Soutphommasane is one of the most thoughtful scholars of race in Australia. Somebody who is really very nuanced in his views on race. The view that he's taken is that hate-speech ought not be allowed in Australia. It's a provision that’s been rarely used but its been used for example to deal with vilification of an Indigenous woman and holocaust denial. I think there's no absolute right to free speech. Our Prime Minister, of course, has availed himself of defamation laws from time to time. I don't see why somebody who has been racially vilified ought not have recourse to the law, but the Prime Minister, when he feels that his good name has been traduced, should have access to the law.

HAMMER: Andrew Laming, what are your thoughts on this? Where should the balance lie?

LAMING: Freedom of speech and racial vilification should never be inconsistent. There's definitely balance, so you're talking about where that pendulum should fall. I think, after the Attorney General George Brandis has talked to a range of stake-holders, he'll be coming up with something, I think to take to Cabinet. Now, my observations are that there is no way we ever want to support or in any way have a system that allows hate speech as you define it to exist. But at the same token you have to weigh up the rights of a commentator to make genuine observations in a situation where there is freedom of speech in a nation that’s cherished it for decades.

HAMMER: But how does the existing law stop me as a commentator making a well-balanced view on one element of the society or not at the moment. Is free speech really being hampered?

LAMING: Well, if you're taken to court and found guilty for instance, then you are. So that's the balance that one is looking for.

HAMMER: Gentlemen we'll leave it there. Thank you very much for your participation.

LEIGH: Thanks Chris, thanks Andrew.

LAMING: Thank you.

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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.