MONDAY, 25 NOVEMBER 2019
SUBJECTS: Innovation + Equality; 2019 election; disconnected communities; China; the need for a more ethnically diverse Parliament.
JEREMY CORDEAUX: I've got Andrew Leigh on the line. He's a politician, he's with the Labor Party. He's the Deputy Chair of the Standing Committee on Economics, which sounds awfully dry but having spoken to him before, I can tell you he's not awfully dry - he's a lot of fun. Andrew, how are you?
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY AND CHARITIES: Terrifically well, Jeremy. The better for chatting with you.
CORDEAUX: Happy Christmas.
LEIGH: And to you. You got big plans for the season?
CORDEAUX: No. I think probably, I think we go on holidays two weeks from today, something like that. No, I'm just going to fall over the line and just go home and play in the garden.
LEIGH: That sounds like the rest of Australia.
CORDEAUX: [laughter] Well, the worst thing is to make plans because the moment you start making plans, they won't happen. Everything will change right there in front of you. It's not it's not worth it.
LEIGH: There is some great economic research that suggests that much of the pleasure of holidays comes not from having them, but from anticipating them. So our family always tries to plan our holidays as far in advance as we can, so we can have that anticipation effect.
CORDEAUX: But Andrew, isn't that about everything in life? Isn't the anticipation, the pre savouring of something, far more interesting than the actual meal?
LEIGH: Everything except chocolate, sex and television, I entirely agree.
CORDEAUX: [laughter] Chocolate, sex and television.
LEIGH: They’re the three that I think don't let you down in the enjoyment.
CORDEAUX: Now is this going to be the title of the next book?
LEIGH: It could be, couldn't it?
CORDEAUX: It could be, it could be. Now is this book, this one called Innovation + Equality, is this your first book? I suspect not.
LEIGH: I've done half a dozen books or so. I was a university professor before I went into politics. So one of the things I find is if I really want to understand a problem, to wrap my head around it, I sort of have to write about it myself. It's a bit of a defect really, because other people can just read about it and understand. I feel I have to write to work out what I think.
CORDEAUX: What took you out of the class room, the lecture hall, the lecture theatre, all those wonderful bright young minds looking to soak up your wisdom - what took you out of that environment into that crazy business in Canberra?
LEIGH: Politics is an extraordinary career - an opportunity to work on a range of issues, to meet a bunch of amazing people, and to have the opportunity to shape the future of your country. Of course, many politicians don't succeed in that, but it seems worth a shot and every day in politics is a real privilege. The chance to represent your friends and neighbours on the national stage is enormously rewarding.
CORDEAUX: Well, tell me how - how was it as an economics professor, when these people before the last election were putting their policy together, you allowed them to come up with this huge $385 billion extra tax bill? Weren’t alarm bells ringing in your head?
LEIGH: We don't need to rehash the last election, do we Jeremy? I'm still in therapy over that one.
CORDEAUX: [laughter] Look it's such a strange business, I can't imagine rational people being attracted to doing it, because you might say ‘well God, I know exactly what to do in the in the best interests of the country and the people, but it's my terrible job to convince you of the way forward being my way forward’.
LEIGH: At its best, you get to work with people on the other side of the Parliament. You get to work with experts from interest groups, and you get to forge policies which really do make a positive difference. And I've seen where those policies are put into place the real impact of that can have on people's lives. That's politics at its best. Obviously in its reality, as Bismarck says, you shouldn't watch laws or sausages being made. There's a lot of compromise that goes along with it, but still that ability to shape the nation for the better, and I've always thought that Australia is a work in progress. It's never perfect. Our job is to make it a little better, and to pass on to the next generation a better Australia than we received from our predecessors.
CORDEAUX: Before we get onto the book tell me, how do you want - if you were running the whole kit and caboodle, the whole show - how would you want Australia to look in say 50 years?
LEIGH: I'd like us to stand taller on the world stage. We're a country that's not in the middle of the world pack in terms of size, but we're near the top. We're a top 20 country, so we should be playing a bigger role on everything from movement of people to trade to dealing with challenges like climate change. I'd like to see us as a republic which has recognised Indigenous Australians in our constitution, to be dealing with climate change, seeing our emissions come down, renewables jobs increase at the same time as we've got strong economic growth. I'd love to see us more connected as a community. I worry a lot that we've become too disconnected, dropping out of groups like Scouts and Guides, Rotary and Lions, at the same time as the gap between rich and poor has widened. So I'd love to see us becoming a country more of ‘we’ than a country of ‘I’, a country that prizes what we can do together. Because really most of the big achievements of human history aren't achievements of a single lone individual - they're achievements of a group, whether you're talking about building a car or winning a war.
CORDEAUX: Well, you were a lawyer for a long time. You were with the Minter Ellison, a fine law firm. If you were giving some advice to the Prime Minister about this Chinese thing, the spy who wants to come in from the cold, and here is our - you know, what a fantastic hypothetical this would make. Here is this country upon whom we depend economically and here we are offending the hell out of them, about to give somebody who is spilling the beans on them sanctuary. I mean, what sort of, what a terrible dilemma for a prime minister to be in. What is the advice you'd give him?
LEIGH: Well, we gave refugee status to Chen Yonglin, a diplomat who defected to Australia in 2005. We of course gave refugee status to Vladimir Petrov when he defected in the 1950s. Other countries around the world have provided asylum seeker status to former diplomats or representatives of other countries who say that they fear for their own lives if they went back home. I think you just need to treat each case on its merits. There's no reason to do any better or worse than to simply apply our laws. If somebody has a well-founded fear of persecution and they're in the country, they deserve that assessment.
CORDEAUX: How do we do business with somebody we don't really want to chum up to too much, if you listen to the rhetoric?
LEIGH: Most countries in our region aren't as full democracies as we are. Really only New Zealand ranks as being as democratic as Australia in the Asia-Pacific region. So, much of what we've done over the last couple of centuries since European settlement is to engage with countries in our region which have different levels of democracy than ourselves. We need to strengthen those economic ties which have enormously benefitted Australia and China and other countries in our region while staying true to our values. It's harder in practice than it sounds from that simple statement, but that's the principle that I think has to guide it, Jeremy.
CORDEAUX: ASIO's former Director General Mike Burgess, he comes out and he says some extraordinary things about China and the ever present or the real present danger that they represent to Australia's democracy and sovereignty. How do we go on trading with somebody who is clearly a problem in this area?
LEIGH: Well we've constantly engaged with countries economically where we've had diplomatic differences. We've encouraged many other countries now in our region to address human rights issues, and indeed they've come to us and said ‘you need to do better on your human rights issues’. They've urged us to do better in terms of our treatment of Indigenous Australians. They've criticised our approach to refugees. Now that's what robust diplomacy is about. At the same time, you need to recognise the value of economic engagement. If somebody took all the goods marked ‘Made in China’ out of your home, you'd probably think you've been robbed. That's been a benefit to Australian households. China's our number one source of overseas students and tourists, and that creates a whole lot of jobs in Australia. So we got to recognise those benefits, and also one of the things I worry gets missed Jeremy is the benefit to our parliament of having more Chinese Australians in the Parliament. We do need a more ethnically diverse parliament, and we should we shouldn't lose sight of that in this conversation around foreign engagement.
CORDEAUX: Yeah, there's going to be a problem for anyone who is Chinese who wants to get into politics, because he's going to have this question mark hanging over his or her head.
LEIGH: Yes, we need to be sensible in this conversation. There’s been some good articles written recently making the obvious point that's often forgotten that not every Australian of Chinese ancestry is in some sense an extension of the Chinese Communist Party. It's obvious when you say it, but people too readily forget it.
CORDEAUX: Now, Innovation + Equality, and the subtitle is ‘How to Create a Future That is More Star Trek than Terminator’. [laughter]
LEIGH: You like it?
CORDEAUX: Yeah I do, I do. Now you've given me all these lovely free advice. Tell me about the book.
LEIGH: The book is tackling the contention that often made, that we have to choose between growth and fairness. People often say ‘well, inequality is just the price of progress and it's been going up for the last 30 years - we've had 30 years of uninterrupted economic growth, so it must be that if we want the tide to rise, then the ocean liners will have to rise more than the tugboats'. But Joshua Gans and I disagree with that. We think it's possible to have sweet spot policies that both make Australia fairer and also boost innovation. We propose things like finding innovators in disadvantaged schools. So there are plenty of new firms set up by students from affluent backgrounds, but precious few set up by students who've grown up in tough circumstances. Creating mentorship programs in poor parts of Australia would make us more innovative and more equal.
CORDEAUX: Did you grow up in difficult circumstances or did you grow up in a fairly privileged way?
LEIGH: I didn't. Economically we were middle class, but both my parents placed huge emphasis on education. So I think of probably the greatest luck that I've had in life, and a lot of success is luck, is in my parents.
CORDEAUX: But the struggle is an important part of it. You can't - I know that there's a great tendency within families and of course within societies to try to make life as easy as possible for people, to do to ameliorate the struggle in some way, but the struggle is part, a very important part of the learning process.
LEIGH: That's right. And as a parent, teaching grit and resilience to my three little boys is one of the hardest things I find. It matters too for innovation. People have said one of the reasons we want to try and identify more innovators from disadvantaged backgrounds is that that experience of struggle places them in a very good position to give them the resilience they'll need to succeed in business. Somebody from a cosseted background might too easily turn to jelly when times get tough. Somebody who's really had to struggle for everything knows what it's like to strike hard times in business.
CORDEAUX: Who's your hero?
LEIGH: I have several, but probably my parents I admire a great deal. In the work I've done on this book, I've acknowledged Tony Atkinson, a bloke who did an extraordinary amount of work on inequality. In Australia, I greatly admire my parliamentary colleague Linda Burney, somebody who was raised by people who'd been born in the 19th century. Linda's an extraordinary role model as well.
CORDEAUX: Well, it's good to talk to you. Who's going to go out and buy this book, Innovation + Equality? As I say, I haven't seen the book myself so I'm flying blind a bit, but is it an academic book or is it a fun book or is it an educative book.? How would you describe it?
LEIGH: It's a fun book written for the general educated reader. A couple of hundred pages, it's easily grabbed on Kindle. Joshua and I have packed it with stories - we've got stories about forceps, about Steve Jobs, stories about successful innovations like the iPhone and unsuccessful innovations like the Segway. It's written to inform what we think is one of the big conversations, about how we get an Australia that has a tonne more entrepreneurs, but where wages start to rise faster on the factory floor than the corner office.
CORDEAUX: Andrew, good to talk to you. Happy Christmas.
LEIGH: Likewise, Jeremy.
CORDEAUX: Thanks for coming on the show. Andrew Leigh The book is called Innovation + Equality - and I'm sure that Dymocks has got it. I'll check - How to create a future that is more Star Trek – we’d all like that, wouldn't we? - More Star Trek than Terminator.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.