Looking for policy consistency? Don't look to the Liberals - RN Drive





SUBJECT/S: Marriage equality; Dyson Heydon; EPBC Act.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: We're joined in our Parliament House studio by Shadow Assistant Treasurer, Dr Andrew Leigh – hi Andrew.


KARVELAS: And the New South Wales Liberal Senator Arthur Sinodinos. Hi Arthur.


KARVELAS: Let's start with you, Arthur Sinodinos: why do frontbenchers need the riot act read to them? What's going wrong?

SINODINOS: Because last week we had a process of discussion in the party room on same-sex marriage which came to a disposition, which later became a decision, about a process for allowing the people to have a vote on this in the next Parliament. So then what happened afterwards is that various frontbenchers were out there, before there'd been a Cabinet discussion, giving their view about the form in which this consultation of the people should occur. What the Prime Minister was indicating, I think, in the party room today was that this is not the appropriate way to go about it and with the Canning by-election coming our way very soon, we need to make sure we are speaking with one voice and restoring Cabinet government so we can get on with focusing on the things that matter most to the people of Australia.

KARVELAS: But I've got to ask, Arthur Sinodinos, is there a position? You don't really have one yet – there’s only a sort of half position.

SINODINOS: The undertaking the Prime Minister gave to the party room was to come back with a process after consulting the Cabinet, and bring it to the party room in the next little while. I think that means, probably, when we're next sitting again.

KARVELAS: Do you find that untidy yourself? Is it difficult to navigate a party line that doesn't exist yet?

SINODINOS: Well I suppose this is where frontbenchers had a bit of a get-out-of-jail card last week is that in the absence of a Cabinet discussion and agreement, and therefore being bound by Cabinet solidarity, they had licence to canvass differing options publicly. But I think it's good now that we have a process to bring this to heel and I imagine that over the next little while frontbenchers and others won't be canvassing options publicly but will wait to discuss this in Cabinet and then in the party room.

KARVELAS: Andrew Leigh, I think Arthur Sinodinos has just put it out there, he's talked about a couple of things including this Canning by-election. What kind of effort and resources will Labor be pouring into Canning, given now it's looking like a big test for the Prime Minister?

LEIGH: Patricia, we'll certainly be campaigning hard in the Canning by-election. But if you look at the historical pattern after a sitting member has tragically passed away, the typical swing against that party is 2.5 per cent. The last time a seat changed hands following the death of a member was 1966, when Labor's Rex Patterson won the seat of Dawson after the Country Party’s George Shaw had passed away. So it’s nearly 50 years since the death of a sitting member has seen a seat change hands. But we'll certainly be making the same argument in Canning that we're making across the country, which is that Australia needs a government that is focused on the issues that really matter to voters: jobs, health and education. What we saw last week was not the fault of particular individuals in the frontbench. It was the fault of a Prime Minister who was trying to enforce upon his frontbench this very odd approach on same-sex marriage. Having said just a few months ago that this was an issue for the Parliament, suddenly he wanted to suggest there ought to be maybe a referendum, maybe a plebiscite – anything in order to avoid having to make a decision on the issue of same-sex marriage.

KARVELAS: Arthur Sinodinos, you're not a frontbencher so you can freelance a bit more: what's your view? Plebiscite or referendum, and what should the timing be?

SINODINOS: I support the plebiscite option. I think that for a matter like this, if it's going to go to the people to begin with – because I was quite comfortable with there being a Parliamentary vote, subject to people being able to have a free vote – I think it should be a plebiscite. It probably should be compulsory to make sure we get a proper, authentic view of the people as a whole on the matter. If that means funding yes and no campaigns, so be it. I think from now on we're probably going to keep most of our opinions on the form of this people's vote or consultation to the party room. But certainly I'd be comfortable with that - it's not a constitutional matter and I think Senator Brandis was right on that.  

KARVELAS: And timing? Should it really happen after the next election? Shouldn't it happen at the same time or before?

SINODINOS: That was the disposition in the party room. I mean, if you're consulting the people, whether you consult them now or later – the fact is they're getting a vote. I think from the vox pops I've seen since, including some of the work that's been done in Canning itself, most people seem to like the idea of being consulted in this way and having a people's vote.

KARVELAS: I think if you look at the polling that's true, Andrew Leigh. So why won't Labor support a plebiscite?

LEIGH: Patricia, I think Arthur's first instinct is absolutely right on this. This ought to be a matter for the Parliament. When Tony Abbott supported the narrowing of the Marriage Act in 2004 to exclude same-sex marriage, he didn't for a minute say that ought to be put to the people. Also, $120 million is a lot of money ­– it's even more money than has been spent on the trade union royal commission so far –

KARVELAS: You could save some money if you did it at the same time as the election.

LEIGH: You certainly could, but that's not an option the Prime Minister seems willing to countenance. So then you're looking at $120 million for an issue which has already been settled in every other advanced, English-speaking country. We needn't get our knickers in a twist about this.

KARVELAS: Sure, but we have our own country and our own decisions to make on these sorts of things.

SINODINOS: That's right, we do things the Australian way.

LEIGH: Indeed. But the Australian way, and Arthur may agree with this, needn't overcomplicate things. We have a responsibility as elected officials to do our best for those who've given us the honour to serve in Parliament. That means making decisions on our conscience about a whole range of things. This model of direct democracy is the idea that you poll the voters on every issue. Well, the Prime Minister doesn't believe in that for pension cuts, or higher education, or –

KARVELAS: But I have to say, if you look at the public polling – and you keep telling us to look at the public polling on marriage equality more broadly – if you look at the polling, the public seems to want to have a vote on marriage equality. Why shouldn't they get it?

LEIGH: It is certainly a popular idea, to have a say. But the fundamental principle in this, Patricia, is that you're talking about $120 million for an issue which has been largely settled in other countries by their parliaments. You look across the ditch to New Zealand, where a Conservative government recognised that marriage, a stabilising institution, ought to be extended to gays and lesbians – remembering that a third of lesbian households already have kids. So the benefits of same-sex marriage have been recognised by British and New Zealand conservatives. We needn't spend $120 million on this. It's an appropriate issue for the Parliament – as Tony Abbott said after the Irish referendum result. He's only moved to this position now because he's facing this problem in the party room.

KARVELAS: On RN Drive, we're having a bit of a debate between the man you were just listening to there: Shadow Assistant Treasurer Dr Andrew Leigh, and the New South Wales Liberal Senator Arthur Sinodinos. Arthur Sinodinos: the Canning by-election, you raised it – what kind of swing would destabilise the Prime Minister? Ten per cent, more?

SINODINOS: That's a great question. What have we got to do to blow our brains out? Look, by-elections are tests for everybody. They're tests for the government of the day, they're tests for the opposition. As Andrew was alluding to before, you can go through average swings for and against at by-elections, whether the incumbent died or not, but these things are very unpredictable. We lost the Ryan by-election in 2001 and it looked like the Government was lost for all money. We came back and won the general election at the end of the year. So to extrapolate from the result in one particular seat in order to say that's a precursor to destruction sometime down the track, it doesn't always follow. You've got to look at each of these on their merits. It's a relatively conservative seat on the outskirts of Perth, but it's had the benefit of a long-serving member with a high personal vote. So of course there is a challenge in navigating this seat in an environment where we've had some headwinds recently. But by the same token the people in that seat are, I think, predisposed to the jobs and growth message we'll be putting to them because they've been hearing it from Don Randall for a long time. We've got a relatively good candidate – provided he is endorsed on the weekend – as SAS officer, a relatively young man who has done three tours in Afghanistan, family bloke, obviously keen to serve his country. I think he'll be a very good candidate, Andrew Hastie, so I think we'll have some good things to say.

KARVELAS: But is Tony Abbott a John Howard? Could Tony Abbott do what John Howard did?

SINODINOS: [Long pause] Look, the thing about John Howard was –

KARVELAS: You hesitated there.

SINODINOS: No, I didn't hesitate. The thing about John Howard or Tony Abbott or any of these leaders is that it's often when they're in an adverse situation that it brings the best out of them. No-one thought, when Tony Abbott became leader of the Liberal Party, he would take Labor to the brink of defeat in 2010. And then he scores a smashing victory in 2013. So never underestimate anybody and that includes John Howard, Tony Abbott and so on.

KARVELAS: Ok but just quickly, if you are smashed in Canning, if it is a huge swing or even you lose the seat, the leadership question will be back on, won't it?

SINODINOS: Look, I think that's a hypothetical question. Let's just wait and see what happens in Canning. I think we'll probably get a swing against us because we've had a few headwinds lately, and in these circumstances it's better to under-promise and over-deliver. So let's just wait and see what happens.

KARVELAS: Alright I want to move on to another issue, because it has been a big issue. Andrew Leigh: will Labor move a motion in the Senate asking the Governor-General to terminate the appointment of Dyson Heydon, and why?

LEIGH: Patricia, I'll leave it to my Senate colleagues to comment on matters there – one of the things that often strikes you about this place is the divide between the houses. But certainly I don't believe Dyson Heydon's commission is tenable any longer, having agreed to speak at an event where funds were to be raised for the Liberal Party. Anyone who received an invitation to that event would have seen very clearly that there was a fee to attend; they would have seen the statement that this money was to be used for electioneering in New South Wales; they would have seen the box that they could tick to say they couldn't attend but they wanted to make a donation to the Liberal Party of New South Wales. Dyson Heydon's commission is that he be neutral and independent. That doesn't extend to helping to raise money for the New South Wales Liberal Party.

KARVELAS: Andrew Leigh, last year you hosted Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs to deliver the Fraser Lecture – that's a Labor organised event, attended by a commissioner who has been attacking the Government on several fronts. What's the difference?

LEIGH: Patricia, there's two main differences. The first is that the Australian Human Rights Commission Act – section 11 of that Act – actually requires that the Human Rights Commissioner engage in public discussion of human rights. In that capacity, Gillian Triggs frequently speaks at universities around the country, as she did at the Fraser Lecture which was a free lecture held at the Australian National University. The second key difference is we weren't raising money for the Labor party. We were promoting ideas through a lecture established by my predecessor, Bob McMullan, and which has been given by Tim Costello in the past.

KARVELAS: The Liberals have pointed out to all sorts of people who've given this Garfield Barwick lecture before, and they've said they were going to make what, $238 dollars or something from it. Not really the best fundraisers I've ever heard of. There are similarities, aren't there Arthur Sinodinos? Do you see it that way?

LEIGH: Hang on Patricia, before Arthur answers. This was not a fundraiser. The Fraser Lecture is not a fundraiser. Dyson Heydon agreed to speak at a fundraiser – that's got to be a difference in your mind.

KARVELAS: Arthur Sinodinos?

SINODINOS: Well look the longer this saga goes on, the more you get these other examples coming out in situations where serving judicial or quasi-judicial officers have done lectures to party political bodies, or events sponsored by political bodies. Whether you argue around fundraising or not, the Fraser Lecture is associated with the Labor party. Gillian Triggs obviously decided to go there and do it to promote human rights. The Neville Wran lecture, a few years ago, when Michael Kirby was on the High Court, he went there and gave, I think it was the first Neville Wran lecture. This was quoted in the Parliament by George Brandis, the Attorney-General. I think the important point here is that the ACTU are contemplating lodging an application for the Commissioner to recuse himself. That process is underway now. What the Prime Minister was alluding to in the Parliament, apart from, I think, attesting to the overall integrity of Dyson Heydon as a senior judicial officer, is that there is now a process going on and it's up to the ACTU to prove to the Commissioner that he is in an untenable position. It's very easy for politicians, Labor or Liberal, to assert whatever they want, including using the Senate in this regard. But the people who are in the frame on this are the ACTU. They have to be able, in the court of public opinion, when they put in their submissions, to argue their case before Justice Heydon. He has to sit in judgement on this. He will be as careful, in looking at this matter, as he can be because he wants to avoid any appearance of giving himself a benefit by the fact that he's sitting in judgement on himself. This is the only way we can have a process to get this resolved. The ACTU is presumably going through the submission now to seek to prove their case; let's see what comes out of that process. All I can say is, if I was Bill Shorten and I was at risk of an adverse finding from the commission, I would do everything in my power to try and close it down. Because he knows that at the end of the day, if Dyson Heydon had made an adverse finding, that would have legal consequences that would flow on from that. Dyson Heydon would only make an adverse finding if he believes the evidence would support such a finding.

KARVELAS: Ok, we're running out of time but I do want to ask another question. Andrew Leigh, I'll start with you on this: today the Government is proposing changes to the Environmental Protection and Conservation Act, essentially those changes will ban green groups from bringing legal action against major developments like the Carmichael Mine. Does Labor support that, Andrew Leigh?

LEIGH: Patricia, we don't actually know what the Government is proposing. The Prime Minister has said that the Government is going to repeal parts of Section 487; the Attorney-General says the whole section will go. Again, this ham-fisted approach to what needs to be a considered area of public policy is characteristic of what's going on with the Government at the moment. The reason that you're reasonably enough asking Arthur Sinodinos what the test will be at the Canning by-election is that we've had the Government stumbling from a budget of broken promises, to the knights and dames episode which precipitated 40 per cent of Tony Abbott's backbench voting for an empty chair, to the stumblings around referendums and plebiscites on the issue of same-sex marriage, and the captain's pick of Dyson Heydon. So again, the Government seems to be making it up as it goes along. Labor will, of course, take a considered approach to changes to the EPBC Act; and act that was passed by the Howard Government 15 years ago, presumably while Arthur Sinodinos was his chief of staff.

KARVELAS: He was John Howard's chief of staff so Arthur Sinodinos, I'll give you the final word. We've got to wrap up but are you trying to wedge Labor on this? Because that's what it sounded like to me when I heard the Treasurer up during Question Time.

SINODINOS: No, I think in fact Labor have expressed support, in the case of projects like the Adani mine or Carmichael mine or whatever. This was more about a situation where well-funded outside groups can potentially come in and get standing in some of these cases involving the environmental assessment of projects. It's to narrow the interests that can have standing in a particular case, but there's more work to come on this. George Brandis has opened the batting and the point he's trying to make is not to have well-resourced outside bodies, perhaps even international bodies, seeking to stop projects which may have major local benefits.

KARVELAS: I want to thank you both for coming in and as usual, being so polite with each other.

LEIGH: It's always a pleasure.

SINODINOS: Thanks Patricia, thanks Andrew.



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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.