ABC WEEKEND BREAKFAST
SUNDAY, 19 NOVEMBER 2017
SUBJECTS: Marriage equality, Northcote by-election, Bennelong by-election, Queensland election, Labor’s calls for a Banking Royal Commission.
HOST: To discuss these and what else is on the political agenda, we're joined by Shadow Assistant Treasurer Andrew Leigh. Welcome.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER: Great to be with you.
HOST: We'll come to the forthcoming election and by-election in a moment. First though, I wanted to ask you about same-sex marriage and of course the poll, which was successful, as far as the yes case is concerned. Do you expect same-sex marriage legislation will pass the parliament by Christmas?
LEIGH: I certainly think it needs to, Andrew. We've got overwhelming support across the community for same-sex marriage, and a survey result which is frankly in line with what the opinion polls have been telling us for years. We need to move on this because many same-sex attracted couples who want to tie the knot as quickly as possible. People who have a grandparent whose health is failing don't want to be mucked around by conservatives putting in place a last ditch effort to hold off same sex marriage. Let's just get this done.
HOST: Do you expect the Dean Smith bill will get up in its current form?
LEIGH: I certainly hope so. It's got the support of the Labor Caucus. We considered that bill and we thought that was an appropriate way of handling same-sex marriage. There's a range of other issues in this space, but let’s not be distracted by those. Let’s get same sex marriage done. Frogs won't fall from the sky. The sun won't stop shining. The grass will still be green and the birds will still sing the day afterwards. We'll make some people happier and no-one's going to be worse off as a result.
HOST: There are concerns within the Government over religious protections. The Attorney-General has signalled that there may well be a need for some compromise as far as the bill is concerned. Are you willing to compromise on that bill?
LEIGH: I do find it odd Andrew that some of the same people who were saying that we need to weaken protections against racial hate speech are now saying we need to change laws in the opposite direction on religious discrimination. We can consider that issue. It's a pretty complicated one but it can be kept separate from same-sex marriage. No-one will be compelled to perform a same-sex wedding, just as churches today are able to choose which marriages they perform – and other religious orders likewise.
HOST: Are you sympathetic to those concerns of religious protections?
LEIGH: I think it's a more complicated debate and we ought to have it separately from the same-sex marriage conversation. We need to ensure we can have a robust conversation about religion, without anyone being vilified.
HOST: There was a clear majority in the vote, but around 40 per cent still voted no. Of those electorates that had a convincing no vote, many have been in Western Sydney, held by the Labor Party. How do you reconcile Labor's support for same-sex marriage and with the majority in those seats that don't share that view?
LEIGH: I certainly respect those who have a different view on marriage equality from myself. I'd say to them this is one of those rare instances in which we can do something in politics that makes one group of people better off without making the other group worse off. My background is as an economics professor. Economics is all about trade offs and so often in politics we're saying we need to take from here in order to give to there. That's not same-sex marriage. Same-sex marriage will make same sex-attracted Australians better off, but it won't threaten heterosexual marriages like my own. My colleagues in Western Sydney have been having that conversation with their constituents. It was an issue for some in the last election, but they are standing up for the values they believe in and the values that the majority of Australians believe in.
HOST: Do you have any concern it could cost you votes come the next election?
LEIGH: No, I don’t.
HOST: Do you feel as though you need to bring those people along with you to convince them?
LEIGH: Absolutely. That's what good politics is about. It’s not simply going out there and coming up with technocratic solutions - it’s about having the conversation, talking about the stories. I've got on the fridge in my office a picture of Emily and Ellie, a young couple who tied the knot in the ACT during the 5-day window in which same-sex marriage was allowed before the High Court struck down the ACT law. They've been waiting now for nearly four years for their marriage to be recognised. I want them to be able to celebrate in December by getting married for good.
HOST: Andrew Leigh, let's talk about the forthcoming elections. I'll start with a by-election from last night in the Melbourne state seat of Northcote, won by the Greens, an historic win at the expense of your party. What do you put that down to?
LEIGH: I'd love it if the Greens took some of the energy that they so devote towards tearing down progressives to focusing on conservatives. So much of the Greens' energy seems to be going into the fights on the left rather than challenging those who are opposed. As a party of government, Labor's often taking on those with very conservative views. But rarely do I see my friends in the Greens joining that fight. Instead their approach is all about trying to replace one progressive with another.
HOST: But clearly their message in Northcote resonated with voters.
LEIGH: Indeed, it did. I wouldn't want to extrapolate that result too far. If you look at for example Anthony Albanese and Tanya Plibersek, they've shown strongly their commitment to progressive Labor values and been able to hold off Green challengers. I expect that will be the case in the next Federal election as well. I wish the Greens could actually focus on the main game – as Labor, a serious party of government, does.
HOST: Let’s turn to the forthcoming by-election in Bennelong, the federal seat in Sydney held by Liberal John Alexander. Your party has chosen to install Kristina Keneally, the former New South Wales Premier as your candidate in that seat. What's your internal polling telling you?
LEIGH: I don't know about the internal polling, but I've got to say, we are so lucky to have Kristina Keneally running as our candidate - somebody with a wealth of policy experience and a connection to voters. I love her smiling approach to politics, that notion that politics doesn't have to be angry and vicious, like too much of the nasty politics we've seen around the globe. If you want an antidote to nasty right wing populism, Kristina Keneally is it. She's somebody who I think is really resonating with voters there, as you'd expect she would. You have somebody who is serious policymaking material. In the past, the electors of Bennelong had a Prime Minister as their local member. I suspect they're looking for somebody who's able to make a big contribution nationally as well as representing them locally.
HOST: You're clearly confident she can pull this off. It is around a 9 per cent swing that she'd need.
LEIGH: She's the underdog, but I'm delighted she's our underdog in the fight. I reckon she'll do a great job for the people of Bennelong if they choose her as their member.
HOST: Moving to the Queensland election six days away. What impact do you think One Nation will have on the election?
LEIGH: They do seem to be resurgent there. The willingness of Tim Nicholls to play footsie with One Nation is concerning. You've got to think this could lead Queensland down a path going back to the Campbell Newman days in which you saw public services being cut, environmental degradation and job losses right across the public sector. That's the wrong future for Queensland. It's a future that Queenslanders rejected four years ago. I'm worried that the One Nation resurgence could well lead to an outcome which will take Queensland backwards rather than forwards.
HOST: As far as Annastacia Palaszczuk, the Premier, is concerned, is there a feeling amongst Queenslanders that perhaps they're confused about her stance on Adani? That's an issue that has hurt the party in the past. On the one hand, the Premier appears to be telling Queenslanders in the north that facilitating the coal mine operations will bring tens of thousands of jobs, whereas in the city she's saying the Government is not offering financial support, obviously because there's a good deal of opposition in the city.
LEIGH: Adani themselves have said in the past that they don't need a Government loan to make the mine viable. Frankly, it’s not at all clear to me why we ought to take a fifth of a federal infrastructure fund and devote it to a single project which could well end up being a piece of monopoly infrastructure for an overseas coal billionaire. Annastacia Palaszczuk has recognised exactly that reality. That's what Federal Labor has been saying. We're singing from the same hymn sheet there.
HOST: But was the State Labor Government right to give the green light to Adani in the first place?
LEIGH: It's a matter for them as to how they do their environmental approvals. On the question of getting a Federal loan, this is something which wouldn't be inappropriate use in my view of Federal taxpayer dollars. That's why Federal Labor has said we would direct the Northern Australia Infrastructure Fund towards tourism infrastructure. That’s job-generating infrastructure that ensures that you get that diversity of economic prosperity in the north.
HOST: Andrew Leigh, just finally I wanted to talk to moves for a banking Royal Commission. Clearly that's the policy you're putting forward to Australians. Have you been reaching out to National Party members? There is movement there, some members of that party wanting a banking Royal Commission at the same time.
LEIGH: We have indeed. Certainly people like Barry O'Sullivan and George Christensen have said in the past they will be willing, under some circumstances, to support a banking Royal Commission. It is what Australians want. They don't want to see the big banks being given a tax cut, which is what Malcolm Turnbull wants. They want to see the accountability that comes through a Royal Commission. The string of scandals is as long as your arm. Australians not only losing their life savings but in some cases ending up with debts. We need a proper overhaul of the banking sector to make sure our banks are fit for purpose. We've got a pretty concentrated banking sector with high rates of return on equity and an environment in which we've seen scandal after scandal. In other countries you've seen significant changes in the banking sector, such as Citigroup slimming down. It is appropriate to ask the question how can we make sure our banks stay strong and scandal-free into the future.
HOST: So do you feel as though you could get enough support on the floor of the parliament from the Nationals and cross benches to get this up?
LEIGH: I know if there were a free vote given to the Liberal and National Parties, if they were able to cast a secret ballot, we'd have a banking Royal Commission tomorrow. Plenty of Liberal and National Party members want it in their heart of hearts. They just can't find a way of doing it. I hope they'll be able to vote with their conscience. They know, as Labor knows, that this is what Australians want.
HOST: Shadow Assistant Treasurer Andrew Leigh, thanks for joining us.
LEIGH: Absolute pleasure.