ABC Canberra Drive with Ross Solly Thursday 14 March 2024 - Transcript


SUBJECTS: Proposals to ban TikTok; benefits of four-year terms; John Howard’s belated backflip; case for fixed terms; teen mental health and social media.

ROSS SOLLY, HOST: Andrew Leigh is the member for Fenner and he joins us on the program this afternoon. Andrew Leigh, good to have you on the show.


SOLLY: In a moment, I want to talk to you about four-year terms, because there's a bit of a discussion going on, but just on the TikTok stuff, Andrew Leigh, I'm sure you're across the fact that the US is grappling at the moment about what to do with it, and it looks likely they're going to ban TikTok. Do you think that we need to have a look at this now? Why would we be different to the Americans?

LEIGH: What we've done, Ross, was from April last year, prohibited the use of TikTok on devices issued by Commonwealth departments and agencies. So, that means if you've got a Commonwealth-issued phone or Commonwealth-issued laptop, then you can't use the TikTok app on those devices.

SOLLY: And is that enough? Because the Americans have gone further than that.

LEIGH: Clearly, we'll be looking at what the Americans have done, but we don't have immediate plans to go further than that.

SOLLY: Do you feel it's potentially a security concern? The American's argument is that the Chinese are using TikTok to harvest information. I'm sure if you're doing it from American TikTok users, they'd probably be doing it from Australian users as well. Is there any reason for us to be concerned?

LEIGH: To the extent that there's information harvesting, it's going to be occurring principally through the app itself and so I think by prohibiting the installation of the app on devices, that's taken care of the main security concern. Obviously, we take seriously what our American friends are doing, and we'll carefully look at how they've shifted the position, if indeed they make that full change.

SOLLY: It's certainly an interesting discussion going on at the moment, that's for sure. 20 minutes to six. On the matter of government terms, of course, here we have three-year terms, which is very, very short Andrew Leigh, by comparison with most of the rest of the world. There's a bit of a push going on, Anthony Albanese suggesting four years would be more suitable. John Howard today also coming out in support of four-year terms. Mount a case for me, if you will, on why four-year terms would be better than three-year terms. If indeed, Dr. Andrew Leigh, you support that.

LEIGH: I've always supported four-year terms, Ross. It makes sense to me that we allow governments to have a little bit more considered time to govern. Four years strikes the right balance in terms of accountability and in terms of governments not constantly being in an election cycle. Of course, we took that to the Australian people in a referendum in 1988 and John Howard, as Opposition Leader, opposed it. He had a chance at that stage to back four-year terms. I'm pleased now, 36 years later, that he's changed his mind. It would have been more useful if, when he was Opposition Leader, he'd backed it in. As we know, referendums with bipartisan support tend to succeed. John Howard made a strategic decision back then not to support four-year terms.

SOLLY: Is it time to revisit it, do you think?

LEIGH: I'm certainly a supporter of four-year terms, but we had a painful lesson last year about what happens when you put up constitutional reform without bipartisan support. It really is a question as to whether the Opposition are willing to come on board on this. One of the sticking points back in 1988 was what to do about the Senate. John Howard was pushing for eight-year Senate terms. Labor's position was that was too long and that four-year Senate terms would be appropriate. Of course, here in the ACT, senators go up every time the Senate gets elected, coincident with the House. In some sense, Ross, you can think about the reform that Labor wanted as bringing the ACT Senate model to all other Australian senators.

SOLLY: What is the main argument for three-year terms? I mean, I've heard people say, oh, well, then, if you have a bad government or something like that, you can throw them out a lot sooner. But I don't know that that makes a lot of sense because there's plenty of other ways to throw out a bad government, I would have thought.

LEIGH: It's always a good intellectual exercise to try and ‘steel man’ the alternative argument but I really struggle on this one, Ross. It feels to me as though it's too short to allow considered policy reform, particularly as somebody who's keen on evaluation. We've just set up the Australian Centre for Evaluation, I think it's appropriate that we have governments who have enough time to implement policies, see them evaluated and then be able to go to the Australian people saying, ‘here's our track record, here's what we've done for you’. The risk if the term is too short, is you can say; ‘here's what we've started, here's the reviews we've commenced’ but people don't necessarily see the change they voted for by the next election.

SOLLY: Is it difficult to make major changes in three years? I suppose because you've got to think like half of that last year will probably be down to campaigning and electioneering. So, in reality, Andrew Leigh, it's really only two and a half years, isn't it?

LEIGH: That election mode does kick in before the official campaign period Ross, and having an extra one-third in the length of the term would make a difference. Of course, we'll go to the 2025 election with a range of achievements, the fairer income taxes, the changes on childcare, the changes on electricity bill rebates, and the rest but we would have one-third more achievements if we had four years. I think that would be a reasonable way of assessing governments - whether they'd be left or right.

SOLLY: And what do you feel, Andrew Leigh, about fixed terms? I'm a big supporter of it, but I know Julia Gillard did it and probably got her fingers burnt. But do you think ultimately fixed terms are the way to go? It takes away all of that nonsense that we get with governments being able to call elections early and they fiddle and stuff around with this guessing game. Do you feel fixed terms would be a more sensible way to go?

LEIGH: I think they've worked well for the states and territories Ross, and that's why the formal Labor position is fixed four-year terms for the House and the Senate. That's been in the Labor platform for a number of years now and certainly that's, to me, the most sensible constitutional reform. But you can't do serious constitutional reform in Australia without bipartisan support, and it's not much good when you've got opposition leaders saying 36 years later, ‘oh, I was wrong’. We need the Opposition Leader of the day to clearly back in that reform.

SOLLY: Just on the text line, this is Dan, he says "With apathy, it is not easy to get rid of a bad government. Why not have bipartisan support of removal of negative gearing to help first home buyers?" says Dan. Another texter says "Referendums are expensive if they're going to go for a four-year term, they need to also add in a republic. Although referendums with two issues usually aren't successful". Yeah, and I think, texter, that's the problem. I think we've overcomplicated referendums before and there's always an issue there that opposition parties or those who are opposed can make a bit of hay while the sun shines. Also on the text line, Dan in Belco says "Robodebt - sorry - is a good reason why terms should be three years. You need to be able to get rid of poor governments" says Dan in Belco. Johnny Northside says "Ross, please ask Andrew to ban Facebook as well, none of my good time buddies have anything interesting to say on social media". Well, get off there, Johnny. That's what I would say. "Term duration," says this text "are only half of the question. Fixed terms are key to more democratic elections". Mark from O'Connor says, "Interestingly, Ross, most governments shorten their terms by calling early elections. I also support fixed terms". What do you reckon the mood is, Andrew Leigh, of the rest of the country, when it comes to this? I mean, if you believe what you hear on talkback radio and some of the popular press, people don't like elections. They tend to find them annoying and they come around too often. Surely with something like this, you could carry the country now, couldn't you?

LEIGH: Only with bipartisan support I think, Ross. You look at the referendum proposals that were brought up in 1988. Eminently sensible proposals - fair electoral boundaries, recognising local government in the constitution, trial by jury, four-year terms - and yet a fear campaign saw them all resoundingly defeated. There was a cartoon that Patrick Cook had at the time where he drew a spoof billboard saying "Vote no or giant snakes will eat your children". That was the character of the sort of fear campaigns that were being run at the time, a welter of conspiracy theories. And as last year showed us, that's what happens when you don't have bipartisanship.

SOLLY: Also on the text line, this is from Matt. "Andrew Leigh should also have something insightful to say about social media and mental health, especially given his work with Robert Putnam at Harvard around loneliness, and the CDC even issued an alert on this last month". Andrew Leigh, are you across that?

LEIGH: I am, yes. I'm terribly concerned about the impact of smartphone addiction and social media on mental health, particularly on teens. We've seen this rise in anxiety, depression, self-harm and even suicide among young Australians, coinciding with the timing of the first smartphones and the social media platforms hitting scale. Some of the experiments we've seen is that if you take kids off Facebook in a randomised experiment for a few weeks, their mental health improves. We know that the rollout of Facebook across US university campuses was accompanied by a worsening of the mental health of young Americans. In a recent survey, when asked what they think is the number one cause of the teen mental health epidemic, young Australians said social media. So, there's a lot that points towards this as being a danger. I don't think it's the only driver of the worsening of teen mental health, but I think it is the biggest issue, and wrestling with that isn't just a question for government. It's also about parents working together to make sure that teenagers aren't getting phones too early, that aren't getting on the platforms before they're legally allowed to do so.

SOLLY: Yeah, I worry, though, that the genie is out of the bottle. Dr. Andrew Leigh I heartily concur with everything you've just said, but as a parent who is trying to have these battles and having them relentlessly, it's just some days you just throw your hands in the air.

LEIGH: One perspective, Ross, is that when you have those battles, you're helping all the other parents in Canberra, because there's a dynamic game going on. Teens are looking to what are the norms in their group and feeling left out if they're the last ones to get a device or to get on a particular platform. So, each parent that delays makes it an easier conversation for the rest of us.

SOLLY: Just a text to leave you with from Jenna Fara. This will warm the cockles of your heart, Andrew Leigh. Jenna Fara says "John Howard should go back to the museum he came from. A hypocrite and most divisive Prime Minister ever". I'll leave that out there as a comment Andrew Leigh.

LEIGH: He had a great legacy on guns. Let me finish by saying something good about John Howard. His bravery after Port Arthur and standing up for the gun lobby was something we'll recognise him for.

SOLLY: I will agree with you on that, definitely. And I'll also say this, Andrew Leigh, you may not agree with me, but he had the backbone to take what potentially was a very unpopular issue to the people. I'm talking about the GST, and was prepared to stand up and take it to an election and fight for it. And we don't see a lot of that happening anymore. So, I'll also think that that probably goes in the positive side. You might not agree with it, with the GST or not, but the fact that he was prepared to fight an election on it took a little bit of bravery.

LEIGH: It's certainly important. Point well-made Ross.

SOLLY: Andrew Leigh, good to speak with you. Thank you.

LEIGH: Likewise. 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.