SUBJECTS: The Liberal Party hosting fundraisers in the midst of the worst pandemic in a century; charities facing falling donations; stranded Canberrans returning home from the NSW/Victoria border.
LISH FEJER, HOST: In a couple of weeks, parliament will be sitting and already there are MPs and their staff quarantining here in Canberra. But there are preparations being made for three proposed Liberal Party fundraising dinners to make the most of the time with politicians back in town. Ben Morton, who represents the WA seat of Tangney, said the events were not being organised by his office but by the Tangney campaign, which is part of the WA division. A spokeswoman for Ben Morton and the Tangney campaign told The Guardian that the Australian Government advice is that Australians should comply with the relevant advice in the state or territory where they're located, as appropriate. These very small events, said the spokeswoman, will only go ahead if they strictly comply with the relevant COVID safe rules that apply for venues in the ACT. Dr Andrew Leigh is the ALP Member for Fenner and former professor of economics, and joins us this morning. Hello.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY AND CHARITIES: G’day, Lish. G’day, Adam.
FEJER: So, what have they done wrong here? You're taking them to task.
LEIGH: Yes. We've had a lot of parliamentary sitting days cancelled. Now that parliament is finally getting together, all politicians’ focus should be on the main game. And that shouldn't be on raising money for the Liberal Party. It should be on doing the work that our constituents want us to be doing. We need to be very careful and cautious about the spread of coronavirus. I know all politicians are being judicious in terms the number of face to face meetings they take. Our office is still doing phone calls and zoom where that works, just as a safer way of making sure we reduce any chance of the spread of the virus. I just don't think it passes the pub test to have a two and a half thousand dollar fundraiser at the moment.
FEJER: I wonder what listeners think? 0467922666, whether it does pass the pub test. Because if they're doing everything according to current health advice here in the ACT, what's the problem?
LEIGH: Well, it's that the focus that needs to be on the needs of our constituents right now. People are dying of COVID. We have outbreaks in aged care centres. Parliament is coming together to focus scrutiny on the government at a time in which we're spending unprecedented amounts of taxpayer money. All of the focus should be on the central job that we’re sent to Canberra to do, not on raising money for political parties in this way.
ADAM SHIRLEY, HOST: But Dr Leigh, if the attendees, if the MPs themselves follow strict protocols that ACT Health has set down, if they can guarantee that in terms of distancing, the number of people attending, what law, rule, what issue are they breaking?
LEIGH: They’re not breaking the law, Adam. No one’s suggesting that. The point is that this doesn't seem to be an appropriate use of their time right now-
SHIRLEY: That’s down to perception though, isn’t it, Dr Leigh. That is a subjective assessment you’ve made.
LEIGH: It sure is, absolutely. Adam, just to be clear here, we’re not debating in a court of law whether or not the Liberal Party have broken the law and should go to jail. The debate here is whether or not this is an appropriate thing for people like Paul Fletcher and Simon Birmingham and Ben Morton to be doing right now. This is, in my view, not the right focus at the time in which there is a pandemic raging. This is the worst pandemic in a century, the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Our eyes need to be on the main game.
SHIRLEY: Have you attended any Labor Party fundraisers, functions, get togethers out of core Parliament sitting hours since COVID-19 hit?
LEIGH: No, I haven’t.
SHIRLEY: Would you consider it at all in the months ahead?
LEIGH: No, I don’t think it’s appropriate in the current circumstances. I think we really need to be focused on getting through the pandemic. I understand political party coffers are running dry at the moment. I've certainly read those reports in the press. But the big focus needs to be on the fact that unemployment is hitting double digits, that there is a huge challenge on getting our economy on track. I'm worried about the end to JobKeeper, and the way in which the Government is managing the crisis in aged care. And there's certainly challenges around what happened over the Ruby Princess, and questions that the Government needs to answer on that. All of those issues of accountability need to be top of mind for parliamentarians.
SHIRLEY: So do you concur here with Dr Andrew Leigh, who's the Labor Member for Fenner on ABC Canberra Breakfast. Is it fair and just that the WA branch of the Liberal Party is organising fundraising campaigns, and if they comply with social distancing and other ACT health Directorate rules, should they go ahead? 1300 681 666 is the phone number to call. The SMS is 0467922666 here on Breakfast. Lish Fejer and Adam Shirley with you at twenty to nine.
FEJER: And I know a lot of charities are really struggling at the moment, because they have been unable to get donations. Their normal fundraising has not been able to happen due to COVID. So have you been able to get around this as well? We'd love to hear from you. One text says ‘donating? Why are we donating to political parties in Australia? US election spending is obscene. Imagine how many working poor people could be fed with that money’. How much of the Labor Party, for example, goes into the coffers from fundraising?
LEIGH: I’m not sure I understand that question, Lish.
FEJER: If fundraising is a part of parties, and we understand that the donations are down due to COVID, with the Labor Party, are their donations down as well?
LEIGH: As I understand it, but I'm really only going off what I’ve read in the press. My focus as the Shadow Assistant Minister for Charities is actually on those organisations that are right out there assisting people in the pandemic. And for charities, this has been an incredibly tough time. They’s seen a big fall in donations, the JB Were survey suggesting a 7 per cent fall this year, 12 per cent fall next year. An ANU study suggests that two thirds of volunteers have had to cut back, and yet we've seen a huge demand for services - domestic violence services, mental health services, food banks. Charities need our support right now and anyone who’s able to assist in the vital work of charities, who is in the position of still holding onto their job and is able to help out there, I really encourage people to do that.
SHIRLEY: You would know, from nine o'clock this morning - in fact, 20 minutes from now - some Canberrans are being allowed to transit through New South Wales and make their way home. What work did you do behind the scenes to try and assist these constituents getting back to the border?
LEIGH: I was regularly in touch with the ACT Government, as well as putting a bit of public pressure on the New South Wales Government. I’ve been on ABC Sydney a couple of times, and just making sure that the constituents of NSW knew that the decision that was being made by the Berejiklian Government made no sense whatsoever. Finally, they've done the right thing, but it shouldn't have taken the best part of a week to get Canberrans home. You talk to those that those people who've gone down on mercy missions, to be with a dying father in one case. That’s something that all of us would do, and the idea that suddenly the rules were changed on them and they found themselves stuck in Wodonga was just bizarre. So you’ve got that playlist going together - my recommendation be Willie Nelson's On the Road Again, and I'm sure people will enjoy it as they’re finally coming down the highway to Canberra.
SHIRLEY: Interesting to hear Deputy Premier of NSW John Barilaro tell this program a couple days ago, the reports that Victorian MPs were able to pass through in spite of the changes to the permits whilst other citizens weren't. He said if that occurred, then that's a double standard that's not acceptable. Do you agree with John Barilaro on that?
LEIGH: Absolutely. And that's certainly a point that I've made on Sydney radio as well, that it made no sense whatsoever to have one rule for MPs and another rule for those who’d gone on mercy missions. This is a sensible approach that the NSW Government has taken now, but it's come too late for some people. There are people who've gone to Melbourne airport, abandoned their cars there, flown to Sydney and going through the self isolation process there. It's just disappointing when you see the NSW Government not doing the right thing immediately. I know Andrew Barr worked tirelessly to try to get an outcome. But in the end, it took a lot of public pressure before the Berejiklian Government moved.
SHIRLEY: Really appreciate your time. Thank you for it today, Dr Leigh.
LEIGH: Always a pleasure, thanks.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.