ABC CANBERRA MORNINGS
WEDNESDAY, 29 JUNE 2022
SUBJECTS: Census; Canberra’s population and political representation; Staffing.
ADAM SHIRLEY, HOST: A day after his self-described Christmas, Assistant Minister Andrew Leigh is with us on Mornings. He is the Member for Fenner, and Assistant Minister for Competition, Charities and Treasury. Dr Leigh, a very good morning to you.
ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR COMPETITION, CHARITIES AND TREASURY ANDREW LEIGH: Good morning to you, Adam. Great to be with you and your listeners.
SHIRLEY: How was Christmas and the unwrapping of all your presents?
LEIGH: It's fascinating to get a bit of a picture of the ACT, to get a sense that we're volunteering at higher rates than the national average. An 18 per cent volunteering rate here in the ACT compared to 14 per cent nationally. It reminded me too what a strong Defence community we have here in the ACT, something maybe we don't talk about very much. Canberrans are five times as likely as the average Australian to be currently serving, and much more likely to be veterans. And that veteran community is a really vital part of Canberra.
SHIRLEY: And what was the thing that really stood out? Was it to a degree that 20,000 extra people that live here compared to last year's population estimate?
LEIGH: That's certainly a real shock. So the estimated resident population was revised up from 432,000 to 454,000. And most of that, Adam, seems to be missing people in their 20s and 30s. The Australian Bureau of Statistics has pretty accurate numbers on births and deaths, but it's interstate migration where it's really quite hard to accurately assess the numbers between censuses. But as Andrew Barr has pointed out, that's got big revenue implications for the ACT, and so I'm keen to work with him and with the Australian Bureau of Statistics to see how we can do a better job.
SHIRLEY: Yeah, just exploring that point. Chief Minister Andrew Barr believes that the underestimation of the ACT’s population could partly explain why our hospitals, our schools, housing prices for example are overcooked and under pressure. How correct do you believe his theory is on that?
LEIGH: I believe it’s very clear that if you underestimate the estimated resident population, then there's less money flowing in GST, and I think Andrew is right that this must be in the millions of dollars. So I'm keen to figure out if it's possible for the Australian Bureau of Statistics, given its current resources, to get a better handle on what's going on with the estimated resident population in the ACT.
SHIRLEY: How are you going to set about doing that, as the Assistant Minister responsible for the ABS?
LEIGH: I've been talking with Andrew and the Bureau of Statistics, we'll settle something in the coming days. It's certainly something that is important for the ACT, and important for me as a territory rep.
SHIRLEY: Yep, being a representative for Fenner for quite some time now, what sort of extra pressure would go on our public resources when the actual population size is estimated by, underneath by tens of thousands?
LEIGH: It's got to be significant, and that's coming on top of the fact that the ACT under the Morrison Government was badly underfunded when it came to infrastructure. The Morrison Government's budget earlier this year gave us a fifth of our fair share of infrastructure spending. When you put that together with the cuts in public service that occurred under the Liberals, it's been a very tough period for the ACT budget.
SHIRLEY: Do you reckon, and do you have a view on whether efficiency dividends as the core public service restraints or lack of staffing for the public service might have contributed to things like the underestimation of the ACT’s population?
LEIGH: I don't think that's got a direct impact on the ABS’s methodology for population, but certainly we need to recognise that that does have an impact. At the last election, the Liberals were promising to raise the efficiency dividend, and I think that probably didn't help Zed Seselja’s chances when he was going to the people of Canberra with a policy of raising the efficiency dividend.
SHIRLEY: Andrew Leigh is our guest. He's the Assistant Minister for Competition, Charities and Treasury, and the Member for Fenner. We're reflecting on some of the key census results, including right here that there are roughly 20,000 more people that live, work, access services than the ABS itself estimated in June last year. What are the consequences for that? How strong do you believe, Dr Leigh, the argument might be that a makeup payment could be an order for the ACT? That federal Treasury could put forward some sort of additional funding?
LEIGH: That hasn't been the practice in the past. It's been to use the estimated resident population numbers. I think the way to go is to try and figure out how we can ensure the ACT’s estimated resident population is closer to the truth in future years.
SHIRLEY: So to account for those people though, that have been living here, using services, contributing as well, but do you think there's any discussion to be had with Jim Chalmers and the Chief Minister Andrew Barr on some sort of extra money?
LEIGH: Look, I don't envisage Andrew Barr pushing for that at this stage. I think his main focus is on ensuring that we get a better estimate of the number of Canberrans. It's a tricky job. We don't check people when they come through the borders - that's a good thing. But the consequence of that, Adam, is that it's not as easy to get a handle on people who are moving in from interstate. You know, it's pretty clear now that Canberra is no longer a ‘hidden secret’. You look across all of the jurisdictions, and we had the biggest population growth of any state or territory in Australia. So you and I have been talking rightly about some of the wonkish aspects of the numbers, and I think that's very important, but it's also important to reflect on the fact that Canberra is doing an awful lot right. People are voting with their feet and moving to Canberra, because this is just such a fabulous place to live. So let's look at the numbers, but let's also pat ourselves on the back for what a remarkable city this is.
SHIRLEY: It also goes to that issue of representation. You're one of the three MPs that represent Canberra - the ACT, I should say. There are currently two Senators for the ACT. But what argument does this population growth and some of the other demographic shifts demonstrate for maybe more MPs and senators to represent this region in the federal parliament?
LEIGH: MPs are done on a clear formula. I had a couple of years there where my electorate had more electors than any other one in Australia, and we really felt that pressure on our electoral staff. When we had the third seat here in the House, I think that's helped the representation of Canberrans in the House of Reps. So that's been terrific.
SHIRLEY: So does that then mean, given the growth though, that there could be more or at least one more seat in the House of Reps and an expansion in the number of senators to account for the diverse views, affiliations, interests of people that live here?
LEIGH: Additional seats in the House aren't anything any of us needs to do directly. That's something the Australian Electoral Commission is constantly keeping an eye on, looking at the formulas. Back of my envelope says we're probably still a ways off that fourth seat, but I'd love it if the AEC came to a different view-
SHIRLEY: Because Tasmania has got obviously a greater representation there. We’re roughly 100,000 people below their population.
LEIGH: That's right. But Tasmania is in the Constitution as a state, and we're in the Constitution by definition as a territory. We’re the original territory, and that's one of the institutional features. I certainly support, Adam, more representation in the Senate. I know though what my colleagues would say. They'd say, ‘the ACT is 1.8 per cent of the Australian population. ACT senators make up 2.6 per cent of the Senate. Why are you asking for more senators?’ That's the argument we'd be pushed back against with.
SHIRLEY: Is the counter argument then look at Tasmania? I know it's a state. But as far as its number of senators and the influence they might have in the Senate, there is a counter argument to be had there.
LEIGH: The challenge, Adam, is that that is also an argument which can be brought by people from any other state in Australia.
SHIRLEY: So you mentioned also the amount of pressure on staff and staffers when you were one of two House of Reps members for this whole region. How do you then read your government looking at reducing the number of staff supporting independent and new senators and MPs, a move that has been described amongst others like David Pocock as potentially restricting his ability to properly look at legislation and then pass it?
LEIGH: Adam, I think it's a question of parity in terms of the workload that we face. So like David Pocock and the other independents, I have entitlement to four electorate office staff. And then on top of that, as an Assistant Minister with responsibility for Treasury, charities and competition, I’m allocated two personal staff. It was the case previously that all the independents got twice that allocation, that they got four personal staff. Now among my responsibilities include the Mint, the ACCC, the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the Australian Charities and Not for Profits Commission. I’m working with Jim Chalmers and Katy Gallagher on budget measures. There's an awful lot that we're getting across with our two additional staff. So I think it is reasonable that independents have an additional staff allocation. I don't think it's reasonable that that staff allocation be four additional people.
SHIRLEY: So what is the reasonable amount? Because you also have the accumulated and, I guess the IP, the knowledge of a major party through decades of being established. Someone like David Pocock does not. Is there a reasonable argument for maybe two additional staff, parliamentary staff, something like that?
LEIGH: I think Anthony Albanese has made the right call here. I think it's an appropriate staffing level. One of the things that many members of parliament do is to draw in their electorate staff when parliament is sitting. If you're a chair of a committee, for example, and you're working on a major committee inquiry, you don't get additional personal staff for that. You bring your electorate staff into there. That's what Dave Smith and Alicia Payne will be doing. They're going to be actively engaged in policy and developing policy for the Labor Party, and they'll be drawing on their electorate office staff. David Pocock will have an additional staffer beyond what Dave and Alicia has, in order to scrutinise legislation.
SHIRLEY: You mentioned Alicia Payne and Dave Smith, but they are also members of the Labor Party, and also have that accumulated knowledge through the decades of that party being established here. An independent or solitary MP or Senator does not. Are you comparing apples with apples in some ways there or not?
LEIGH: Look, absolutely, Adam. The way in which those policies are developed is through the hard work of members and staff. And so I know Dave is going to be working hard on the issues that he's been engaged in around defence and foreign policy. He's got to engage with Norfolk Island. Alicia has been involved in the National Disability Insurance Scheme work and chairing the Indigenous Policy Committee. All of that draws upon their staff resources, and they make challenging decisions about how to allocate their electorate staff so they can support them across the extensive policy and media work that they do-
SHIRLEY: I guess, I'm wondering, the essential question here though, is it right to effectively compare a sole trader as an example versus a company, which is kind of what an independent versus a Labor Party politician would be.
LEIGH: That's why they've been allocated an additional staffer. But I don't think it was ever reasonable to allocate them four additional staffers. We haven't brought the Opposition into this-
LEIGH: But Opposition shadow cabinet members are assigned two staff. So for example, if you are the Shadow Minister for let's say defence, then you've got two personal staff to get across those issues. I think that's a reasonable allocation. I don't think it's reasonable that an independent member would have twice as many personal staff as a shadow cabinet member.
SHIRLEY: Some of the independents who are currently going through their induction of Parliament House have said they really want to meet up with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese when he returns, to try and reach some middle ground. Is the Government open to reaching some sort of modification on the initial ruling, or the proposal for parliamentary staff of four electorate staff and one parliamentary staff member?
LEIGH: No, we've made that decision.
SHIRLEY: Andrew Leigh, it's really interesting to look at what these census results mean to the ACT and representation and the other matters we've discussed today. Thank you for taking time to do so.
LEIGH: Thanks as always, Adam. Take care.
SHIRLEY: Dr Andrew Leigh is the Assistant Minister for Competition, Charities and Treasury, Member for Fenner and he has responsibility for the Australian Bureau of Statistics. And obviously the census, which the Bureau conducts.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.