Groundhog Day in Canberra - Transcript, 2SER Radio





SUBJECT: Liberal Party leadership crisis, policy paralysis, Territory rights.

MICK RAD: Crazy couple of days in politics and we're all trying to work out what's happening and what's coming up next. I thought I would get a person who has been on the ground in Canberra observing it all going around because he is in the opposition and Andrew Leigh is the Federal Member for Fenner he is the Shadow Assistant Treasurer, Shadow Minister for Competition and Productivity, Shadow Minister for Trade in Services - it's a long list, he's also written a book. But the old adage that a week is a long time in politics certainly holds true this week, it's like an episode of Survivor right now with Peter Dutton challenging Malcolm Turnbull for the leadership but Andrew Leigh is on the phone from the city of roundabouts. How are you, Andrew?

ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER: Very well Mick, maybe Hunger Games? They seem to be very interested in fighting among themselves, but not so interested in kind of issues like inequality, wage growth and climate change 

RAD: Or running the country.

LEIGH: Exactly.

RAD: But to be a fly on the wall and some of those Liberal Party rooms at the moment it's really there's a lot of squabbling going on within the Liberal Party at the moment we've seen the challenge yesterday morning of course. And now we hear Dutton's shoring up the numbers for another challenge. What's it been like the last couple of days to be in Canberra? 

LEIGH: Utterly crazy. As you say, the Liberal Party is riven between economic liberals and tinfoil hat conservatives, who don't believe in the science of climate change, who believe that don't believe in sensible economic policy. That divide down the Liberal Party is going to remain regardless of who they choose as leader. It's almost as though they're deciding whether they're a small-L liberal party or a capital-C Conservative Party.

RAD: Indeed and we've seen Malcolm Turnbull rolling over time and time again to appease the conservative arm of the Liberal Party with his policies but still they're not happy with him being leader and they're trying to install Peter Dutton into that role. Will they even be happy with him?

LEIGH: Some of them will, but I think the Australian people will look at Peter Dutton and they'll see a man who was the only frontbencher to walk out of the apology to the Stolen Generations. Somebody who was the father of the GP tax, voted worst Health Minister in 40 years and somebody whose approach to politics is a pretty aggressive, divisive one. I'm not sure that suits the sunny, optimistic nature of most Australians.

RAD: Well that's true and I've been quite surprised that quite a lot of people actually don't really know who Dutton is, especially young people who might be going this Dutton guy has come out of nowhere. What's even done why is he even there? I was talking to my young producer earlier on and he wasn't quite sure who Dutton was. So for some it's actually come out of nowhere which to me is a little bit of a surprise. Now on Twitter today you described how for once you actually agree with arch conservative Eric Abetz. That the real rift in the Liberal Party is over values and not personalities. Do you have concerns that the Liberal Party is going in a really right wing direction and that if Dutton gets in it's really just going to push the party even further in that direction.

LEIGH: I really do. There's a there's an essay written in Harper's Magazine by Richard Hofstadter 1964 called 'The Paranoid Style in American politics’. It's not just an essay that helps explain the rise of Richard Nixon, it also helps explain much of what's going on in modern US politics, and among the extremists in the Liberal Party. It's that notion that there is a vast left-wing conspiracy that is somehow invented climate change and has invented the notion of the global financial crisis. Once you move out of the realm of facts and moderation then you can devolve pretty quickly into the crazy land of Tea Party conspiracy theories. I do worry that too many of those extremists are ascendant in the Liberal Party. That's bad for the country because we don't get sensible long run economic reform. We don't get to tackle some of these big challenges. Our prices continue to rise, emissions continue to rise, and investors who might otherwise invest in gas or solar or wind say ‘well I'll put my money in another country not in Australia’. The Liberal Party isn’t sure whether it's Arthur or Martha.

RAD: Well that's right and we've seen Turnbull trying to get the National Energy Guarantee through, it's been stalling, he's trying to compromise and change but this is almost going to be his downfall in the end it seems and I can't see him being able to get that through his own party.

LEIGH: That's right. Let me take you back nine years to 2009 when Malcolm Turnbull lost the Liberal Party leadership because he was going to back an emissions trading scheme. Then since he's come to the Prime Ministership, he said let's have an Energy Intensity Scheme. We said great, we’ll work with you on that. But he couldn’t get it past his party room. He sent the Chief Scientist Alan Finkel off to create a thing called the Clean Energy Target. We said sure, we’ll work with you on that. He couldn't get through his partyroom. Then we had this thing called the National Energy Guarantee. We said yep, we can work with you on that, so long as it drives down power prices and reduces emissions. But he again couldn't get that through his party room. So Malcolm Turnbull has been blocked at every step of the way by the arch conservatives and now they've got the upper hand regardless of whether or not they're able to install the leader. I mean, Malcolm Turnbull or Peter Dutton or Scott Morrison or Julie Bishop - it will end up being that same divide in the Liberal Party.

RAD: It’s definitely Groundhog Day going on in Canberra. Every day! And of course we found out today that the corporate tax cuts did not get through the Senate and basically they've now dumped their policy, one of the key policies that Turnbull's was carrying. As someone quite involved in finance yourself, what sort of impact would those cuts have had? And if they have passed, I mean are you cheering a bit now because it didn't get through?

LEIGH: They would have busted the budget and they would have meant that we had to take money out of schools and hospitals. This is going to be the case if the Liberals are re-elected. I mean, Mathias Cormann’s out there saying yesterday ‘the moment will come when parliament will have to revisit this proposal’. Malcolm Turnbull was saying earlier this year ‘we'll be committed to it at the next election’. So I think their desire to give a big corporate tax handout to the top end of town remains undiminished. Simply because they haven’t been able to get through the Senate doesn't mean they're going to back off on it.

RAD: It doesn't seem like it. I mean, you just don’t know from day to day. But I think if there's another leader in the next couple of days, everything will roll on its head yet again.

LEIGH: I mean, they’ve taken it out of their costings but realistically they've taken out of their knapsacks.

RAD: Maybe, maybe. What are your thoughts on when an election may be called? I mean, I know there are a few days getting thrown around. It's hard to speculate, but if you were to guess, what would be your thought?

LEIGH: I have absolutely no idea. People are talking about October this year, May next year. There's a real question as to whether if there was a change within the Liberal Party, could Peter Dutton command a majority in the parliament? He's got questions over his eligibility to sit in the Parliament as a result of investments in childcare centres that receive federal government funds. All of that could well lead him to race towards an early election. But we're ready for that. Labor changed our party rules after a period of our own leadership instability. Bill Shorten has been our leader for five years. That's meant we've been able to focus on policy. As a policy nerd, I couldn’t be more delighted than by the opportunity to constantly work on good policy over the course of the last five years -- and to work together rather than to be worried about personalities and bickering.

RAD: Yeah, it’s a good point you make that Labor changed the rules about how to change a leader.  The Liberals haven't followed suit for that. I'm thinking they might start looking at it.

LEIGH: [Laughter] That’s a pretty strong bet. You know, what it's done for us has been valuable. I think it was a sensible change. But fundamentally for the Liberals, this isn't a problem about the captain - this is a problem about the whole team.

RAD: Indeed, indeed. Now you are based in Canberra and understandably there’s been a bit of news lately about the euthanasia bill that basically was blocked by the High Court, I think it was, a long time ago when the ACT tried to legalize euthanasia. You've been involved in looking to debate this again. What have you been involved with there?

LEIGH: So, 21 years ago the Northern Territory had legislated on euthanasia. The Federal Parliament passed a private member's bill moved by Kevin Andrews that said that the Federal Parliament would take away from the territories the right to legislate on euthanasia. Remember, no state or territory had legislated at that stage. We're now in a situation where Victoria has passed its own voluntary assisted dying laws and the ACT and Northern Territory legislatures are much more mature and grown up than they were back in the late 1990s. So Luke Gosling, a member for the Northern Territory, and I have moved a private member's bill saying that we should get rid of that ban on the territories legislating on euthanasia. He has reservations about euthanasia. I support euthanasia with safeguards. But both of us believe that the territory should be able to have this conversation.

RAD: You’re both sort of coming from different sides of the fence, but you both agree that the territory shouldn't be hamstrung by a previous decision on this.

LEIGH: Yes, exactly. It’s about territory rights for us. We believe that the territory should be able to have the conversation. It's a difficult conversation, I don't take anything away from that, but if people in Victoria, Western Australia can have this conversation then there's no reason why people the ACT and Northern Territory shouldn't be able to as well.

RAD: Indeed. We’ll follow that with interest to see what happens. But we're also following a whole bunch of stories going on out of Canberra right now and you are in the thick of it. We really thank you for joining us here on 2SER this afternoon.

LEIGH: Absolute pleasure.

RAD: Enjoy the circus being on the other side of the fence right now. I think it will be interesting to see what happens and thank you for joining us.


Authorised by Noah Carroll ALP Canberra

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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.