Australia needs to engage with the world - Transcript, Weekend Sunrise





SUBJECTS: Populism, Inequality, Trade, Immigration, Foreign Investment. 

ANDREW O’KEEFE: The recent history of world politics has been a triumph of populism. From Trump in the US to the National Front in France, from Duterte in the Philippines to Erdogan in Turkey to Brexit in the UK, voters are moving away from the major parties and giving their vote to angry strongmen and women, rejecting globalisation along the way.

MONIQUE WRIGHT: Some analysts have blamed this on the failure of capitalism to look after the working classes, and others say that populism represents a streak of xenophobia.

O’KEEFE: One man who's been closely watching the trends is Federal MP and Shadow Assistant Treasurer Andrew Leigh, who's just published a volume on the subject called 'Choosing Openness'. Andrew joins us from Canberra. Morning to you, Andrew. 


O’KEEFE: Now, you're a man of many hats. Sure you're a pollie, but you were a professor of economics at ANU in Canberra. So, wearing your political hat first, how would you define populism and where do you find populists?

LEIGH: Populism is the politics of us and them them, the division of the ideas of a pure mass of people are oppressed by a vile elite. It doesn't have to be xenophobic, but it's so often is.

O’KEEFE: And for some people that vile elite is, I understand, is the political class, inner city intellectuals and for other people it is big business, I guess? 

LEIGH: Yes, that’s right. So you do get populism on the left and right, but more often, they are on the right. The rise of people you mentioned, as well as the Brexit vote and neo-Nazis re- entering the German parliament recently, do reflect this sort of hunkering down in the world.

WRIGHT: Why why are we seeing this growth in populism?

LEIGH: One of the factors I think, Monique, is the rise of inequality. We’ve seen a big rise in the gap between the rich and poor, the billionaires doing well, the battlers not so much. Yachts are getting bigger, but at the same time the mortality rate for working class whites in the United States has actually been rising, thanks in part to the opioid epidemic.

O’KEEFE: Right. What is fascinating in demonstrating that that growth in wealth is very uneven -  at the top and in fact in many of the middle classes in the developing world, everybody is doing very well. But there is that group of people right down at the bottom and that sort of blue collar worker, man and woman in the developed world, where it has stagnated, right?

LEIGH: Absolutely and that reflects the fact that while openness raises overall living standards, the benefits are not evenly distributed. So in my view, you need the strong social institutions to sit alongside globalisation.

WRIGHT: One of the things you talk about in the book is also that there is this distrust of politicians, at one of the highest levels it has ever been. You give this instance where after we had four prime ministers in two years in this country that paramedics officially stopped asking patients who was the prime minister of Australia to test their consciousness.

LEIGH: [laughter] That's right and around the world we’re seeing more rapid turnover in leaders. I think it does mean that we need stronger advocacy, but also smarter policies. We need to engage better with the Asian region, but we also need to properly fund our schools. We need to get rid of the tax breaks that are blowing up the housing market, making it hard for first home buyers. We need to invest in public transport, in order to deal with traffic congestion.

O’KEEFE: In terms of the openness of which you speak in the book, part of populism is the desire to assert national greatness by putting up barriers against the outside world, particularly in trade and foreign investment and immigration. You say it’s essential for Australia's prosperity to resist the closed shop mentality. Why exactly?

LEIGH: I think it’s easy to forget that migrants are not just mouths to feed, they are also lives to inspire. New migrants could be people like Frank Lowy, Victor Chang, Dr Karl and Ahn Do. They can add to our collective imagination, they’re more likely to win a Nobel Prize and they are part of a story of Australia’s success. Properly managed, I think migration has been one of the things we have done very well.

O’KEEFE: Foreign investment in Australia concerns many people. You have the agricultural sector, but also the property sector as well?

LEIGH: Absolutely, Andrew, and we have to make sure we manage the security concerns around foreign investment but also recognise that if we say no to foreign investment, then about one ninth of our total investment would fall by the wayside. We would have lower wages and fewer jobs in Australia. We’d build fewer roads and fewer solar farms as a result. So we need the institutions that make globalisation work, not the hodgepodge of screening thresholds we have right now. A clear and consistent approach. Let’s engage with the world  in a proud Australian tradition.

O’KEEFE: It sounds like the mainstream parties have got their work cut out to convince people of all of this Andrew and your book is certainly one of those steps in that direction. Andrew’s book, published by Penguin and the Lowy Institute, is out now called Choosing Openness. For joining us, Andrew.

WRIGHT: You’re a busy guy!

LEIGH: 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.