ABC MELBOURNE MORNINGS
MONDAY, 13 DECEMBER 2021
SUBJECTS: ‘What's the Worst That Could Happen? Existential Risk and Extreme Politics’; Populism and anti-vaccination protests; taxation; climate change; the federal election.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI, HOST: Dr Andrew Leigh is the Shadow Assistant Minister, of course, for Treasury, and the Federal Labor MP for Fenner. He joins us now. Andrew Leigh, good to talk. Good morning.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY AND CHARITIES: Good morning, Virginia. Great to be here.
TRIOLI: It's not an easy sell this, talking about the existential threats to humanity and how we've got a one in six chance of being wiped out. I mean, it's not a nice sunny Monday morning chat, Andrew Leigh.
LEIGH: Disaster movies do surprisingly well. I think The Matrix will rate well when it opens. The Terminator, Waterworld, Blade Runner 2049, Contagion - you know, we're interested in these things as entertainment. What I'm trying to do in this book is to segue that into actually taking steps to make sure that we avert catastrophe. You know, if it's true that we're got a one in six chance of humanity being wiped out in the next century, that means you're 15 times as likely to die from catastrophic risk as you are from a car accident. So we should be taking pretty seriously.
TRIOLI: Okay, well, I'll stay with your parallel there of the disaster movies. If that's the case, is your book a red pill or a blue pill?
LEIGH: Definitely a red pill. We need to wake up and recognise these challenges. And if we do it, the possibilities for humanity are enormous. The sun will burn for at least another billion years, and so that's potentially 30 million generations of humans - more than 100 times the amount of time that humanity has existed on the planet. So just imagine what extraordinary things our descendants could achieve in that time, so long as we make sure we take the sensible safe steps so that the human project isn't wiped out. And so that's what What's the Worst That Could Happen? focuses on.
TRIOLI: So climate change, of course, as an existential risk - as phrased exactly in those terms by former Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd - we know it very well. But you also include in your book nuclear war and that, it's funny - you know, for many of us that might have mentally been something we've put, you know, at the bottom of the pile. But it is still there, and we'll talk about that. Bioterrorism and also what you describe as unaligned artificial intelligence, can we start there?
LEIGH: Absolutely. This is one that I think many people imagined is just in the realms of science fiction. But one way to envisage it is to imagine that once a super-intelligence becomes smarter than humanity, that it will very quickly be self-replicating and be able to accelerate well beyond us, regarding us potentially the way we regard our pets. Will it treat us as well as we treat our pets? Well, we just can't be sure. And so we need to build the guardrails before we build the highway. We need to make sure we're taking sensible steps to ensure that we have what the researchers call ‘aligned’ artificial intelligence. Because if our greatest invention becomes our last and it decides that it wants to, for example, make as many paper clips as possible, then it doesn't need to have malign intents towards humanity. It might simply crunch us up in order to build more paperclips.
TRIOLI: Well, indeed. But I suspect from people that I've interviewed - you know, just in my very amateur way here on this program, Andrew Leigh - that the horse has bolted there, that commerce is well ahead of regulation.
LEIGH: Yes, there is a risk of if we have significant competition between different groups. Right now, computers are way better than us in certain narrow tasks. So Magnus Carlsen just won the World Chess Championship the other day. But if you put the best chess machine up against Magnus Carlsen, then there is 99.3 per cent chance the machine would beat Magnus. So machines are very good in those narrow areas. In other broader areas, they've been slower. And there's divergence across artificial intelligence researchers as to whether it'll be a generation or maybe 100 years before they get ahead of us. But eventually, the machines will outperform humans. And if they do it in a way that is aligned with our goals, that will be a wonderful day. They'll be able to produce all kinds of things at a much lower cost than we have now and allow us to live lives of much greater meaning and pleasure and duration. We just need to get those incentives right, and make sure that we have the systems in place for artificial intelligence safety.
TRIOLI: Do you see any evidence of that? Do you see that there are jurisdictions around the world that are working assiduously and properly on that kind of regulation?
LEIGH: Yes, absolutely. Back in 2018, Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron announced a plan for an international panel on artificial intelligence. The idea is to be modelled on the IPCC for climate change. Donald Trump vetoed that so became a smaller agreement. But there's a range of international efforts that aim to ensure that there's ethically designed artificial intelligence, and that this terrific innovation operates in a way that's safe for humanity. The risk again is if we have groups that are competing with one another which aren't all subscribing to these sensible principles.
TRIOLI: The other one is bioterrorism. And of course, at a time of pandemic when we are already deeply anxious about the biological threat of a developed virus, what's the real, the clear and pleasant present danger from bioterrorism?
LEIGH: We normally think it's great for researchers to be publishing their work. But occasionally, when we've got something like bioterrorism, we probably need to be a little careful about researchers publishing work which is called gain-of-function research, where they take bugs and try and make them badder. There was some public publication of something called horsebox, which is a distant cousin of smallpox, showing that it could be done relatively cheaply and with easily available components. That sort of research, we probably need greater regulations around. We could also do better in terms of having sniffing devices in airports in order to detect bugs. And make sure that we're better monitoring the high security laboratories, these laboratories that hold some of the some of these worst bugs. The last person to die of smallpox actually died from an outbreak from a laboratory. So it's a real possibility.
TRIOLI: Where do you stand on the lab theory when it comes to COVID-19?
LEIGH: I don't think there's a great deal of evidence for it at the moment, but I’m just reading the same sort of evidence that everyone else is.
TRIOLI: Yeah, so there's nothing about that that seems compelling to you?
LEIGH: It's certainly not impossible, but it seems relatively unlikely based on what we know about the genetics of the COVID that came out. The signature of it seems closer to something that would have jumped across from bats or pangolins than something that would have been developed in a lab.
TRIOLI: What's intriguing about what you describe is that, you know, for many of us this might sound obscure or exaggerated or an example of overreach. But this is the disconnect that's really confusing and probably very worrying, is that that's the impression you get being a citizen in a country like Australia and perhaps not hearing any of this from leaders or even from other world leaders. And yet, jump from the public sector to the private sector, and we just know that the true rich people - the real multi billionaires - they've purchased their property in New Zealand and elsewhere. Their bolt holes, their bunkers. They've got their jets that they can get into and fly to those places should that need ever arise, should the existential threatening emergency that you're speaking about ever come about. They live that reality because they have the financial wherewithal to be able to do that. And yet as an international discussion, it's not real. How do we account for the disconnect?
LEIGH: Yeah, that's such an interesting point, isn't it? I hadn't thought about it from that angle. But you're totally right. The notion that the super rich are putting aside their bolt holes and you know, Elon Musk's comment that we need to colonise Mars in case something goes wrong with Earth-
TRIOLI: It's not fanciful. They actually, you know, many of them did retreat to those places in New Zealand for the pandemic, which they’d purchased years ago because they live with that headset, with that framework of what's exactly your question, what's the worst that could happen? Therefore, plan and prepare for it.
LEIGH: Yes, absolutely. And so you don't want to be overly critical of that. But just as we buy home insurance in order to guard against the miniscule risk that our home will burn down, so too we should invest a little in preventing these problems from emerging. So there's a global Biological Weapons Convention. It is currently staffed at the cost which is smaller than the average McDonald's restaurant. So we could do better in terms of providing a little bit of extra resources around reducing these very dangerous outcomes. I’m not saying any of them are likely. But if they eventuate, they’re disastrous.
TRIOLI: You argue in the book that these kinds of catastrophic dangers are made worse you say by the rise of populism and the kind of populist politicians that we've been watching with wide eyes over the last few years - Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro and the like. Couldn't you also argue, though, that that kind of populist politics is a logical reaction to this reality rather than actually something that's driving them?
LEIGH: It’s an interesting question. I'm not sure I'd regard populism as being a response to people's fear about the long term future. But I think it is, in some cases, a response to the lack of good middle class jobs as manufacturing employment has hollowed out in many advanced countries. So dealing with that very real economic reality would help to stem the rise of populism. It's also really important that there's pathways into education, and that education isn't simply seen as being something that is reserved for one particular strata of society. And we need to be very thoughtful about how we have a conversation about change. I think sometimes progressives can be too quick to jump to a sort of ‘big bang, everything has to be changed’ and not talk enough about history, institutions and about the love for the nation.
TRIOLI: So how do you account for say what we're seeing on the streets of major cities still on a weekly basis, every weekend, protests from people who feel left out of the way that we have managed the pandemic? Who don't want to be vaccinated or don't want to be excluded from activities because they're not vaccinated, who have concerns about the pandemic laws and the like? How do we account for that, and how do you draw those people back in? You're a politician, Dr Leigh. You of course want as many people to vote for you as you can possibly get. How do you draw them back to you?
LEIGH: I think you need to be calm and evidence based. I don't think you can fight fire with fire. We need to recognise that there are real concerns, but there's also political entrepreneurs that are seeking to exploit them. And we've seen that with the anti-Semitic elements that have infiltrated some of the anti-lockdown and anti-vaccination protests. Just as populists have used attempted to weaponise race, some populist entrepreneurs are trying to weaponise concerns over COVID vaccination. And again, we just need to be calm and level headed about this, and talk through the evidence, coming back in each case to the fact that right now being vaccinated is the best thing you can do for your health if you want to avoid dying of COVID.
TRIOLI: Well, I thought - and I guess others can be the judge of this, that's what a program like this has tried to do for almost the last two years - but it seems there's no persuading some people. Do you just have to accept that some are lost to that broader sense of community good?
LEIGH: I don't think it’s ever appropriate to give up on people. I've been quite struck this year, actually, at the extent to which vaccine hesitancy has fallen dramatically in Australia. I don't think it's going to go to zero, but it's reduced as people have come to see that the vaccines are safe and most importantly that they're effective.
TRIOLI: As a politician, as I said before, and someone who you know wants to try and get as many votes as you can for your side of politics, are you frustrated that the kind of deep thinking that we're talking about here and that you've reflected in your book isn't really reflected in broader ALP policy?
LEIGH: No, I think we've taken a lot of positive policies already to through Australians, and you'll see more coming out over the coming months-
TRIOLI: My question went to the kind of deep thinking that then drives the kind of policies that might really connect with people in a more profound way.
LEIGH: So I think there is a lot of deep thinking behind what we've taken forward, and you can see that just in the people who occupy Labor's front bench. I don't think anyone would argue that folks of the calibre of Anthony Albanese, Richard Marles, Jim Chalmers, Penny Wong and Tanya Plibersek don't think deeply. These are people who got into politics because they care about the country. All of them are inveterate readers, and very keen to have their ideas tested. So there's plenty of these conversations that take place in public and behind closed doors
TRIOLI: And yet you're probably - correct me if I'm wrong - you're probably the most credentialed economist there on the shadow benches and yet you're an Assistant Minister and not there on the front bench along with the rest of them. Isn't that a waste of their resources?
LEIGH: I think we can all play our parts, wherever we are. And the question is not what title you have, but how can you go about making a difference? So my aim has always been to worry about the issues rather than to worry about my own career.
TRIOLI: [laughter] Nicely answered. Dr Andrew Leigh is with us, Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury and federal Labor MP for Fenner. He's written a book called What's The Worst That Could Happen? Existential Risk and Extreme Politics. And the intersection between the two is fascinating, as he recounts it in the book. I wanted to ask you just a couple of quick questions on the economy, if I can, while I've got you here. As someone who is as I say a highly credentialed economist, can you really say to me today Andrew Leigh that you're comfortable with your party going forward now with a policy that has stepped away from making major changes to negative gearing, when it's an internationally criticised policy and a policy that your own party knew and recognised last time around was something that had to be reformed in this country? Are you personally really comfortable with that?
LEIGH: Virginia, you and I know the economic issues, but there's also a question as to what we want the next election to be about. Elections are fought on particular sets of issues, and we would like the next election to be a conversation around improving our healthcare system, making sure there's good sustainable jobs, ensuring that Australia plays a part in getting more renewables jobs as we decarbonize the economy. They’re the conversations we want to be having, and when we've got a prime minister who is a master of the spin-and-scare campaign, we know that he would like nothing more than the election to be a discussion about tax increases.
TRIOLI: So what you're saying is, are you saying there that yes, you do have a problem with that policy staying in place, but you simply can't serve it up something for the Prime Minister make to make hay with?
LEIGH: No, I'm saying we're not going to take that policy forward because we've made a choice that we want to be fighting this next election around ensuring that we have more TAFE places, more university places, and to ensure that we've got a strong manufacturing base in Australia. Those sorts of issues won't be front and centre of the election campaign if we choose to open up that flank.
TRIOLI: Is it wise for your leader to make the promise that he has, that no jobs will be lost in mining with the gradual and then of course speedier transition of those economies and those jobs to cleaner and sustainable jobs? Is that a wise promise to make? Don't we need to be a little franker with each other that, you know, some jobs are going to go and may not be replaced?
LEIGH: It’s right there in the modelling. I mean, what we know in terms of global coal demand is that it's peaked and is steadily declining, including in many of the countries to which we export our coal. But nothing in Labor's plans accelerates that. The decisions over the amount of thermal coal that’s dug out of the ground in Australia are largely going to be made overseas as countries make their decisions about when to close their coal fired power plants. Many of the Australian coal fired power plants themselves scheduled to close. We're not proposing to accelerate that closure. But what you'd have with a Labor Government is more constructive working with those communities. Let’s take advantage of the fact that if you've got a coal fired power station, you've also got a whole lot of connections into the electricity grid. So that's a natural place to look at putting in place renewables facilities to provide more jobs for the local community.
TRIOLI: No doubt we'll have many chances to talk when an election campaign is actually called. Have you got a prediction for the date, Andrew Leigh?
LEIGH: I'm still guessing March. But who knows with this government. I think the Prime Minister is ready to drive to Yarralumla the moment that he gets any whiff that his chances have improved.
TRIOLI: [laughter] And hopefully someone on the other side of politics will write a book so I can even the ledger and get them on for the chat room as well. Andrew Leigh, a pleasure. Good to talk to you.
LEIGH: Likewise, Virginia. Thank you.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra