Arts and Sports

I spoke in parliament yesterday about the role of community arts organisations, and the importance of local sporting clubs. Both speeches are below.
Arts, 24 February 2011

Amidst the hurly-burly of busy lives, it is sometimes easy to forget the transcendent power of the arts. Great art can inspire us and remind us of what truly matters in our lives. It can take us to new places and evoke strong emotions. The work of Fred Williams and Arthur Boyd, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri and Sidney Nolan can be truly breathtaking. For artists, producing artworks can bring enormous pleasure and fulfilment.

On the north side of Lake Burley Griffin, there are a plethora of hardworking artists and small art galleries. These include Craft ACT, Craft and Design Centre, the Canberra Museum and Gallery, the ANU School of Art Gallery, the Watson Arts Centre, the Chisholm Street Gallery, the Helen Maxwell Gallery, the Canberra Contemporary Art Space, the Australian National Capital Artists, Megalo Print Studio and Gallery, the Strathnairn Homestead Gallery, the Aboriginal Dreamings Gallery, Aarwun Gallery, the Graham Charlton Studio Gallery and the Belconnen Arts Centre. And apparently there is even some good art displayed on the south side of the lake.

I am proud to have in the public gallery today my mother-in-law, Anna Marie Newman. She is here with my father-in-law, Robert Newman. Anna Marie is a talented and prolific artist, and the ‘critters’ she makes bring great joy to and admiration from others. I want to pay tribute to her and to all the artists and craftspeople whose work enriches our lives.

Sports in Canberra, 24 February 2011

Canberra is the sportiest city in Australia. We are not just the national capital, the cultural capital and the research capital but also the sporting capital. At the last Commonwealth Games Anna Flanagan, Alicia Coutts, Ellie Cole and Luke Adams, amongst many others, continued a proud tradition which saw Canberrans at the Games bring home more medals than those of any other Australian city. Admittedly, having the Australian Institute of Sport tucked away in the suburb of Bruce, in my electorate, does provide a little help.

We are all familiar with the dent in the national pride at the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games which led to the opening of the AIS, in 1981. Since that the time the AIS has become a world renowned institute, the envy of the nations of the world for the sporting supremacy which it has helped Australia achieve, so much so that other nations around the world have started to replicate the AIS model, including the United Kingdom, which hopes to overtake us in the medal tally at the 2012 London Games—though, of course, we know the Aussies will prevail in the end. But, as the folks at the AIS remind us, the race for sporting supremacy has no end. It is an ongoing pursuit.

The AIS is not all sports: it is a community, a support network and a family. This shrine of sporting excellence fosters and develops the sporting talents of our young athletes as well as their education. A myriad people—from coaches and training squads, house parents, athletes’ own parents, massage therapists, sport psychologists, sport scientists and administrative staff to chefs—deserve our thanks for their efforts. This professionalism of the sporting talent at the AIS is complemented by the sporting enthusiasm of Canberrans. Whether it is cheering the Raiders, the Capitals, the Brumbies, Canberra United, the Comets, the Canberra Strikers or the Lakers—at the national level—or the Magpies, Ainslie, Eastlake, the Gungahlin Reds, Bel West, Majura Football, Ginninderra Tigers or any of the many other proud local sporting teams, our city loves sports. But we do not just like to watch; we love to strap on the boots and have a go. More Canberrans participate in sports than those of any other state or territory in Australia. Thirty-six per cent of Canberrans participate in sports, with the Australian average being just 27 per cent.

But sport is more than just a game. Our sporting teams are made up of people who are members of our community. For all the negative headlines about sportspeople, there are so many more unwritten stories about the role models, the heroes and the community service.

Sport is a great egalitarian pursuit, a social tool that helps us fight prejudice in our society and understand one another. Late last year, I hosted a gathering of officials from the many sporting teams in my electorate. Among those who attended was John Gunn from Multicultural Youth Services ACT. A few weeks previously, when I visited the MYS to see some of the young refugees in Canberra and the support that MYS was providing them, John told me how sports helped the young kids settle in and how great they were at it. He was astounded not only by their ability but by the happiness it brought, and he just wished there were some way he could get them into the local teams.

At my office, amongst the discussions of successes and challenges faced by the various teams and codes present, John rose to tell the group about the refugees at MYS. Straight afterwards, one of the group, a coach from Gungahlin, piped up: ‘No problem, mate. Send us the names. We’ll give them a pair of boots and a jersey and see how they go.’ He added: ‘After all, North Melbourne just picked Majak Daw as a rookie, the first African migrant to play AFL and someone who came here as a refugee. Who knows, we might have a couple of Majaks here.’

Sport in our nation is not just about the medals or the trophies; it is about much more. Our love affair with sport is about more than the entertainment. We love it because of the opportunities it gives our kids, the contribution sport gives back to the local community and the escape it provides. But we also love it because, on the sporting field, prejudice disappears. All are equal on the field. The team is our team. We all become mates, whether we know the supporter next to us or not. This is why sports give our nation so much pride.
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The Economic Challenge of Climate Change

I spoke in parliament yesterday on climate change, responding to a scare campaign by the opposition about electricity prices.
The Economic Challenge of Climate Change
21 February 2011

The globe is warming. Those opposite may not like to admit it, though they did vote for a private member’s bill to this effect last year, but climate change is real, it is happening and it is caused by humans. When I say this I normally pause, because sometimes you get chuckles or shouts from the other side. They like to flirt with the denialists and they like to suggest that perhaps climate change is not happening, or to take the ostrich approach: ‘If we just put our heads in the sand for long enough, maybe climate change will go away’.

But the evidence accrues year after year. Since the 1940s, every decade has been warmer than the one that preceded it. Following this pattern, the past decade was indeed the warmest on record. And you can just look in your own backyard to see this effect. Only a few weeks ago, Sydney experienced a record-breaking seven days in a row of temperatures over 30 degrees. Never in 150 years of record keeping had Sydney experienced seven days of temperatures where the maximum went over 30 degrees, but it has now happened—evidence of climate change in one of our own cities.

Higher temperatures and climate change mean more extreme weather events—stronger and more frequent droughts, floods and bushfires. Dealing with climate change is a big challenge for Australia. That is why we need to start early, and we need to use the most efficient mechanisms available. Over 80 per cent of Australian energy is generated through coal fired electricity sources. Two-thirds of the world’s population emit less than 7 tonnes of carbon pollution per person. Australians emit 27 tonnes of carbon pollution per person. The challenge is real. Putting it off, or pretending it is not there, is not an option.

Dealing with climate change will require a substantial transformation of our economy, and the longer we leave it the more difficult it will be and the more costly it will be. Scientists tell us that climate change is happening and economists tell us to deal with it now—and they tell us that we need to use market mechanisms.

Climate change is going to fundamentally affect Australia. It will affect our energy supply, our water security, our agriculture and our health. It will affect our coastal communities and it will affect Australian infrastructure. That means we have an obligation to future generations to act on climate change now, and to do so in the most cost-effective manner.

In support of this I would cite the words of Rupert Murdoch—not normally a man who is cited in favour of propositions on this side of the House, I have to say. But Rupert Murdoch put it as follows:

Climate change poses clear, catastrophic threats. We may not agree on the extent, but we certainly can’t afford the risk of inaction.

Think of it, if you are sceptical of the science, as an insurance policy. Even if you are not 100 per cent sure that climate change is happening, surely you would want to begin to think about the most cost-effective strategies to deal with it. Thirty-two countries and 10 US states already have in place emissions trading schemes, so it is a fallacy that Australia would be leading the world and going first. That is not the case at all. We would be moving in lockstep with international experts and with many other developed countries.

Whenever I speak at schools, universities and the Canberra Institute of Technology in my electorate, always comes up. Young people in Australia want us to act quickly on climate change, and they want us to use market mechanisms. Frankly, they are astounded that we in this parliament have not yet begun to act. They are astounded that the wreckers opposite have managed to trash an emissions trading scheme. They want us to move on climate change.

Market mechanisms are the most efficient way of dealing with climate change, and that means that they are the cheapest way and the fairest way. If we put in place a carbon price, we will cut pollution and we will drive investment in clean energy. We will let the market decide which clean energies are the most effective, rather than taking the coalition’s approach, which is picking winners—McEwenism back from the grave.

As a Labor government, we will always support those who need help to meet an increase in their cost of living, especially pensioners and the most vulnerable. That is in our DNA. The coalition sometimes use the ostrich solution to climate change but, when they take their head out of the sand and admit that something is happening, they have a direct action policy, an anti-market policy, which is very ironic given that those opposite claim to be the defenders of the free market.

As the Australian Treasury has said of it:

Direct action measures alone cannot do the job without imposing significant economic and budget costs.

To take a tonne of carbon out of the atmosphere via direct action costs more than to take a tonne of carbon out of the atmosphere via a carbon price. So how do you do it if you want the same level of abatement with direct action? You have to raise additional revenue. You have to raise income taxes. In the end, to get the same level of abatement via direct action, you will need a huge new tax.

Over the decade, the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency estimates that the purchase of international permits to make up for the coalition’s flawed policy would cost $20.4 billion, and that is in order to meet the bipartisan five per cent reduction target. So on top of the $12 billion cost of the coalition’s policy we would need another $20 billion to meet that bipartisan target.

In support of market mechanisms, you can quote a raft of experts. Pretty much any economist you turn to will say, ‘Market mechanisms are the most effective way to go.’ Let me, for example, quote Treasury executive director David Gruen:

Well-designed economy-wide market-based mechanisms for reducing Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions are projected to reduce annual labour productivity growth by around 0.1 percent, even for quite deep cuts in emissions (Australian Government, 2008). Of course, were alternative regulatory, or other non-market-based, mechanisms for reducing greenhouse gas emissions implemented, that would be expected to have much more adverse effects on the economy’s aggregate labour productivity growth.

Insurance Australia Group have made similar points. They have noted:

Early action can be achieved at modest cost—


Delayed action would be expensive.

The Australian Business Roundtable on Climate Change have said that, in comparison to early action, delaying action to 2022 would result in lower real GDP growth by an average of 0.2 per cent per annum through to 2050 and concentrate any disruptive shocks over a shorter period.

The Australian Business Roundtable on Climate Change have also discussed jobs. They say that an additional 3½ million jobs will still be created in the economy under the early action scenario over the period 2013 to 2050, equating to 250,000 more jobs than under the delayed action scenario. The coalition’s delayed action scenario will cost jobs.

Of course, this is what we would expect from the party of ‘no’. The member for Warringah has always brought a negative approach to public life. We remember that in 1999 his campaign against the republic referendum was: ‘Don’t know? Vote no’. In 2009 he came to the leadership, beating the member for Wentworth, who seems to be curiously absent in this debate. The member for Warringah won the leadership with one promise: he would say no to any sensible policy to tackle dangerous climate change.

The opposition have consistently taken the same ‘Don’t know? Vote no’ policy in this chamber. They have become the party of ‘no’ when it comes to sensible reforms, such as means testing the private health insurance rebate and introducing a Minerals Resource Rent Tax, giving Australians a fair share of their minerals. I know that there are thoughtful people in the Liberal Party caucus. There are probably people who could make a constructive contribution to the Multi-Party Committee on Climate Change—if their leader allowed them to participate. But, alas, the party of ‘no’ consistently says, ‘Do not get involved.’

The current Liberal Party is a Liberal Party which I fear would probably have said no to some of the great Hawke-Keating reforms. They probably would have said no to the tariff cuts, to floating the dollar, to Medicare and to expanding universities. They would have said it would cost too much and was too risky. They would have said no to compulsory superannuation. I shudder to think what Australia would be like if the party of ‘no’ had been in power in the past.
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Open Australia

I spoke in Parliament earlier this week against the current populist campaign to curtail foreign investment in Australian agriculture.
Foreign Investment in Agriculture
21 February 2011

An iron law of populism is that, while Australian businesspeople investing abroad are portrayed as job-creating entrepreneurs, foreign investors in our country are depicted as rapacious robber barons. And so it is with the latest campaign against foreign investment. As sometimes happens, the campaign started in the tabloids. Under headlines such as ‘Chinese buying up our farms’, ‘It’s time to stop selling off the farm’, and ‘It’s time to save our farms from foreign investors’, News Ltd tabloids have recently embarked upon a fear campaign against foreign investment in Australian agriculture. With anecdotes taking the place of statistics, foreign investment has been described by the tabloids as ‘a dramatic global land grab’, fed by ‘a looming global food shortage’.

Most ironic about the recent tabloid campaign against foreign ownership in agriculture is the fact that the newspapers responsible are themselves owned by US citizen Rupert Murdoch. Indeed, if a campaign were to be waged against foreign ownership in the media industry, you would expect these newspapers to be among the first to describe it as economic populism. It is funny what happens when the pitchfork is in the other hand.

Now, the opposition appears to have decided to jump on the populist bandwagon. After a few months in which members of the frontbench have questioned the need for a floating exchange rate, an independent Reserve Bank and a migration policy that does not discriminate by religion, it is perhaps no surprise that the opposition is tempted to campaign against foreigners buying our farms—not surprising, but odd all the same. After all, Australia’s agricultural sector has benefited substantially from foreign investment. In 1855, British investors helped kick-start our local sugar production industry when they established CSR, originally Colonial Sugar Refinery. In 1877, American firm Schweppes opened its first Australian factory—as did Kraft and Kellogg’s in the 1920s. Japanese investment in Australia’s beef cattle sector has been important since the 1970s. Today, the largest foreign investors in Australia are still Britain and the United States.

As a resource rich nation, Australia has traditionally looked abroad to fill the investment gap. On one estimate, one in eight workers is employed by a foreign owned firm. If we were to ban all foreign investment tomorrow, wages would fall and unemployment would rise. An Australia without foreign investment would also risk missing out on the latest overseas know-how. From technology adoption to business practices, foreign firms can often help spur innovation by changing the way that things are done.

In moving this motion, the member for Calare expresses concern over the risks to Australia of ‘foreign investment’. Yet he has previously spoken in favour of greater investment in Australian agriculture. On the floor of this parliament, he has repeatedly called for more investment in the forestry sector, more investment in farm productivity, more investment in agricultural research, more investment in new plant varieties, more investment in rural telecommunications and more investment in rural infrastructure. What he seems to fail to realise is that investment is not a magic pudding. Restricting foreign investment in agriculture will result in less investment in agriculture, and that is bad news for people who are employed by a foreign owned firm or who might have otherwise been employed by a foreign owned firm that is deterred from coming here.

Of course, while Australian investors are playing a role in our economy, our agribusinesses are creating jobs in other countries too. In countries like New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Singapore, Australian firms are helping to show local companies a new way of doing business. In the process, Australia’s overseas investors are helping to raise living standards in those countries.

As the mover of the motion presumably knows, Australia has long had restrictions on foreign investment. Formalised by the Whitlam government in 1975, the national interest test applies to a wide range of investment classes across the economy. The Foreign Investment Review Board, or FIRB, must approve foreign investment that exceeds 15 per cent where the firm is worth $231 million or more. In the case of real estate, nonresidents cannot buy existing properties and FIRB must sign off any time a temporary resident wishes to buy property. Importantly, FIRB has had a veto right over any investment by a foreign government, including farms. In addition, banks, media outlets, airports, Qantas and Telstra are subject to special rules. FIRB can reject applications outright or provide an approval subject to particular conditions.

In thinking about how strict our foreign investment review processes should be, it is useful to look at how other developed countries operate. While any such comparison is obviously limited, work by the OECD’s Takeshi Koyama and Stephen Golub suggests that Australia’s foreign investment review regime is at least as stringent as, perhaps more so than, the approach that prevails in the typical developed country. For decades Australia’s economic policymakers have recognised that our nation’s prosperity relies on being enmeshed with the world. Since the time of white settlement, immigration and trade have been a part of Australia’s social fabric. Australia has been engaged with our region and the globe and this engagement has helped to shape our society—a nation in which one-quarter of the population are born overseas and exports make up one-fifth of the economy. Integral to an outward-looking Australia must be an appreciation that well-regulated foreign investment brings significant benefits to Australia.

Lastly, I cannot help mentioning the issue of food security. It is one of those slippery phrases that people seem to invoke when they do not want to say precisely what they mean. Since I have not seen anyone, including the shadow minister for agriculture and food security, being clear about this, let me hazard a guess at two possible explanations. One possibility is that when people say that we need to ensure food security they mean we need to ensure that if Australia were cut off from the rest of the world we would not starve. Given that Australia continued to trade with other countries even during the depths of World War II, this is a bit like worrying about whether Dubbo has a plan to protect against tidal waves. But, in case anyone is wondering, the answer is yes. Australia sells more food to the rest of the world than it buys from the rest of the world. So if we were to be cut off from the rest of the world we would not starve.

The other possibility is that food security means we need to make sure that agricultural prices do not go up and down. It is certainly true that in recent years food prices have been unusually volatile. For example, since 2007 some world food commodity prices have doubled, halved and doubled again. Economists are not sure why, but possible explanations include climate change, increasing meat consumption throughout the world, biofuel subsidies and a reduction in food stockpiles. In some developing countries there is a real concern that changing food prices will push people into starvation. For Australia the effects are more modest, but you can still see them in the data. For example, in 2006 food prices grew about four per cent faster than the prices of other goods. In 2010 the reverse was true: food prices grew about one per cent slower than the prices for other goods.

People sometimes make the mistake of thinking that if we imported no food this volatility in food prices would disappear. That is wrong. Australian food prices also move when world prices change because Australian farmers sell into the world market. So, to insulate ourselves from volatility in world food prices, we not only need to stop importing food; we need to stop exporting food. I do not hear anyone calling for that. My fear is that, for at least some people, food security is merely code for a return to protectionism, which would be a great mistake. By all means, let Australia produce the foodstuffs that suit our land and our skills. But it does entrepreneurs and workers no favours to encourage Australian agriculture to expand into areas that do not suit our geography and our talents.

There are plenty of challenges facing Australian agriculture. But, while Labor are focusing on water reform in the Murray-Darling Basin and addressing climate change, the coalition’s plan is to defer water buybacks and pretend that climate change does not exist. At the same time, the shadow agriculture minister is moving a private member’s motion aimed at reducing investment in Australian agriculture. It might feel good to pander to populism, but let us not pretend that it is helping farmers.
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Development in Africa

I spoke in Parliament on Monday night about the economics and politics of boosting growth in sub-Saharan Africa.
Development in Africa
21 February 2011

The Third World has shrunk. For most of the past century, the development challenge has been how to get the rest of the world up to the living standard of the top one billion. Now that challenge has been reversed. With rapid growth across much of Asia, the future looks increasingly bright for billions of Indians and Chinese. As economist Paul Collier puts it, the challenge now is to raise living standards for ‘the bottom billion’. These are the one billion or so world citizens who live in countries with stagnant growth rates, with living standards at about the level of 14th century Europe. Most of the bottom one billion live in Africa. In the 1970s, both China and India had African per capita development levels. Since then, per capita incomes in India have doubled and those in China have quadrupled, but in sub-Saharan Africa incomes barely rose from 1970 to 2000.

Yet over the decade since 2000, there are hints that things might be changing, with sub-Saharan per capita incomes rising at around three per cent per year. Although this is modest by Asian standards, economist Edward Miguel suggests that things are starting to go right for Africa. Despite the occasional step backwards, Africa has undergone a wave of democratisation. Miguel also points to rising commodity prices, increasing mobile phone usage, and fewer conflicts, notwithstanding the gut-wrenchingly awful violence in Sudan and the Congo.

For Africa, some novel development strategies have been suggested. Miguel proposes rapid conflict prevention support as a means of targeting aid to fragile states at times of drought or falling commodity prices—as a means of insurance against collapsing into war. If left unchecked, dangerous climate change could make some of the driest places on earth—like Chad and Niger—even drier. So, while we should deal with climate change here in Australia by putting a price on carbon, a 2008 Lowy Institute report by Joel Negin and Glenn Denning also suggested that Australian aid agencies can play a vital role in using our agricultural expertise to improve productivity in African farms and assist with adaptation to climate change.

Recognising that resources have more often been a curse than a blessing to Africa, some experts have proposed a natural resource charter available at It has 12 economic principles for governments and societies on how to best manage the opportunities created by natural resources for development.

For Australia, aid to Africa this year amounts to around $201 million. We give because this region is one of the most impoverished in the world. For the most part, our donations are driven by generosity, but it so happens that even a selfish Australia would want to donate. By raising African living standards, we create new markets for our exports and probably also reduce the threat of extremism.

Overseas aid is an area where people have sometimes focused too much on inputs such as aid as a percentage of national income rather than outputs—poverty reduction. As in other areas of the aid portfolio, AusAID are working hard to ensure that the effectiveness of our aid to Africa is maximised. Under Bob McMullan, my predecessor as the member for Fraser, AusAID created the Office of Development Effectiveness to provide what it describes as a ‘health check of the Australian aid program’. ODE has not pulled its punches, with past reports suggesting that Australia might have been overinvesting in technical assistance. Discussing evaluation, ODE has in the past emphasised the importance of carrying out more impact evaluations, asking not only whether the program was properly administered but also whether it helped improve the lives of the poor.

My personal view is that the Australian aid program should carry out more randomised trials—a rigorous evaluation tool that is becoming increasingly common in the developing world. Much as I admire the audacity of big push strategies such as the Millennium Villages project, I think we can learn more when programs can be rigorously evaluated. More recently, the Minister for Foreign Affairs has established an independent panel to undertake a review on the future direction of Australia’s aid program. The expert panel—Sandy Hollway, Stephen Howes, Margaret Reid, Bill Farmer and John Denton—are carefully scrutinising how we can improve the effectiveness of our aid program. This kind of analysis is critical if we are to maintain public support for the Australian aid program. I look forward to their report.
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Labor in the Community

With the release of the ALP National Review, there has been some commentary recently about how the Labor Party can improve its membership base and engagement with the community. I think it's critical that we do better, but we also shouldn't forget the good work that's currently occurring. So I spoke in parliament this week about some of that activity.
Constituency Statements, 22 February 2011
Australian Labor Party

There has been some public discussion recently about the role the Labor Party plays in the local community. This is an important debate, and I am glad we are having it. Australia’s oldest and greatest political party has a long tradition of being enmeshed in the local community. Sports clubs were a feature of party life in the 1930s, as were camps and excursions in the 1940s. In recent years the Labor Party has struggled to retain members. In this we are no different from hundreds of other mass membership organisations. As I documented in a book last year, Australians are less likely to join the Scouts and the RSL, to attend a religious service and to know their friends and their neighbours well.

While we should always aim to improve, we should be proud of what we have achieved. Today I want to speak about some of the community activities of the ACT branch of the ALP and how my own part of the party is working to make itself more engaged and accessible. Local Labor members are involved in community festivals across Canberra. In my own electorate we organised a stall at the recent Canberra Multicultural Festival; at last year’s Fairday, which is an annual event of the AIDS Action Council; and at the Belconnen Community Festival, where I learned the hard way that, when the local strongman offers you a chance for an arm wrestle, discretion is the better part of valour.

This coming weekend ACT Labor members will be at the Canberra Show. We will be there to share the community spirit, offering face painting and balloons, and speaking with ACT residents about how we can work together to build a better city and nation. In the neighbouring electorate of Canberra, I have it on good authority that Labor is an active presence at the Woden and Tuggeranong community festivals.

In our local sub-branches and policy committees people have worked hard to build an environment that encourages new members to actively participate in the discussions. Recognising that moving motions is not always the best way to canvass a complex issue, some have built a ‘general discussion’ component into their meetings. Others have made a habit of holding occasional meetings as a barbecue in a local park and encouraging members to bring along their friends and families. Another successful strategy is to invite regular guest speakers, including community leaders, businesspeople, union leaders and academics. ACT Labor also holds regular social events in Parliament House, including budget night drinks and policy forums. From its origins, Labor has been a regular presence in the community. I pay tribute to the many Labor Party members who continue that tradition in Canberra today.
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Flood Reconstruction

I spoke in Parliament yesterday in favour of the flood reconstruction package.
Flood Reconstruction, 22 Feb 2011

I rise to speak on the Tax Laws Amendment (Temporary Flood Reconstruction Levy) Bill 2011 and the Income Tax Rates Amendment (Temporary Flood Reconstruction Levy) Bill 2011. The recent floods and cyclone had a devastating impact on Queensland and Victoria, with major infrastructure now needing to be rebuilt. In order to fund this rebuilding effort Labor has proposed a $5.6 billion package. Two dollars out of three of this package will be funded by savings measures from the budget while the remainder will be funded by a one-off levy in 2011-12. The levy, as previous speakers have noted, will be progressive, so that flood victims and taxpayers earning less than $50,000 will pay nothing. For most of those who do pay the levy, the cost will be less than a cup of coffee a week.

At the same time we need to recognise that the economic environment is strong. The latest labour force figures show that 62 per cent of the adult population has a job. By contrast the US employment rate has fallen five percentage points translating into millions of lost jobs in that country. Last November when I asked the Reserve Bank governor, Glenn Stevens, about the Australian economy, he replied:

I sit around the table with my counterparts from 40 to 50 countries a number of times a year, and I have not yet found one whom I would want to swap places with.

Yet despite the powerful performance of the Australian economy and the fact that our public debt share is less than one-tenth the average for most developed economies, the Liberal Party seems unable to acknowledge that the fiscal stimulus worked. Perhaps that is because the Liberal Party opposed the second fiscal stimulus package. The modern Liberal Party has become the party of no.

As though that was not enough, the Liberal Party have now decided to oppose a progressive flood levy. Yet again the Liberal Party are the party of ‘no’. While we in the ALP are introducing a modest levy to help rebuild Queensland, Liberals are appalled that we could even consider such an idea. Levies, they tell us, are an unconscionable imposition on the Australian people, except for the ones the Liberals introduced when they were in government.

Let’s go through those levies. There was the superannuation surcharge levy, the gun buyback levy, the stevedoring levy, the milk levy, the sugar levy and the Ansett airline levy—and those levies were imposed by the Howard government against a backdrop of strong budget revenues. The Liberal Party’s opposition to a levy lacks any semblance of principle. Although he was part of a government that enacted six levies, the Leader of the Opposition has opted to oppose the flood levy, dragging out his tired-old ‘big new tax’ line. The Leader of the Liberal Party has argued that circumstances are inappropriate to impose a levy. This despite the fact that, during the election campaign, the Liberal Party itself proposed a company tax levy. Not only would that levy have been effectively imposed on all taxpayers—since company taxes end up being paid by consumers and workers—but it would have been permanent not temporary. In the election campaign it was ‘yes’ to levies but today the Liberals are the party of ‘no’.

What is the Liberal solution to funding the rebuilding of Queensland? It turns out they would rather see us cut spending on unnecessary frivolities—like schools for poor Indonesian children. That is right, those Indonesian kids without education have had it too good for too long. But the Liberals are not hypocrites—they have Aussie kids in their sights as well. They want to cut spending on financial literacy programs for our young people. This of course is from a party whose budget costings were short by a cool $11 billion. Apparently, the Liberals want a nation of young people who understand costings as badly as the Liberal Party front bench. Who knows, maybe it is a party recruitment tool! Even if the Liberals do not manage to cut spending on financial literacy lessons, Aussie kids will not have new places to learn them anyway because the Liberals want to cut spending on building Australian schoolrooms as well. We have no assistance for poor people overseas and uneducated Aussie children. That is the Liberal plan for rebuilding Queensland—stirring stuff!

When we turn to more independent commentators we can find substantial support for this flood levy. CommSec’s Craig James said:

this is the right levy for the times—modest in size, temporary, progressive and applying to those on higher incomes …

… … …

The fact that the Government is cutting spending and applying a new levy on Australian consumers may reduce the need or urgency for the Reserve Bank to lift interest rates over the year.

The ANZ said

this policy change is relatively minor when placed in context of the broader Australian economy. The Government estimates the flood levy will raise $1.8bn, which is equivalent to just 0.12% of nominal GDP.

Christopher Joye, Managing Director of Rismark said:

… if you want the real proof in the pudding of the government’s case, consider this—interest rate futures markets have rallied hard today in response to the package, materially reducing the probability of future rate hikes on the basis that the measures are anti-inflationary.

Let’s move from the levy to what will be done with it. From an economic point of view, what could have a larger pay-off than rebuilding public infrastructure after a flood? From a social point of view, what could be more important than helping communities get back on their feet quickly? From a moral point of view, don’t we have a duty to help our brothers and sisters in Queensland?

The Liberal Party’s stance comes direct from the playbook of the US Republicans, the original party of no. Unlike Democratic senators, who under President Bush opted to negotiate on his top priorities of tax cuts and schools reform, Republicans sought to block President Obama on healthcare, which was of course his signature campaign issue. As former Bush speechwriter David Frum described it:

No negotiations, no compromise, nothing. We were going for all the marbles.

The strategy was pure politics, but even Frum had his misgivings:

Politically, I get the ‘let’s trip up the other side, make them fail’ strategy,’

he told the New York Times.

‘But what’s more important, to win extra seats or to shape the most important piece of social legislation since the 1960s?’

The result of the Republican strategy, of course, is well known. Far from winning all the marbles, the US Republicans got none. The biggest threat to mainstream Republicans today is the Tea Party, who lost their marbles long ago.

Although the Australian Liberal Party may be less right wing than their US counterparts, there are times when the two parties seem to be working from the same playbook. When they were led by the member for Wentworth, the opposition voted against a fiscal stimulus package that saved around 200,000 jobs. The member for Warringah came to the leadership with one promise: he would say no to any sensible policy to tackle climate change. Since the member for Warringah’s ascendancy to the leadership, the blocking game has accelerated. Alongside climate change, the opposition have voted against means testing the private health insurance rebate and have announced that they will oppose the minerals resource rent tax. At every opportunity they criticise the Building the Education Revolution program. This is the ‘party of no’ in action.

Another clue that US Republicans have some close followers Down Under is the fact that the Liberal Party has often sought to cast its position as delay rather than obstruction. In the midst of the US healthcare debate, a key Republican strategy memo argued that the best way to defeat President Obama’s healthcare bill was by putting on the brakes. US Republicans were urged to use the message: ‘Slow down, Mr. President’. If you cannot be the party of no, be the party of later.

In Australia, the Liberal Party has accused the government of moving too quickly on fiscal stimulus, health reform, and an emissions trading scheme. In the short term this may be a cunning political strategy. But delaying would have been absurd in the case of fiscal stimulus, since the very point of that package was timely action. And because the cost of climate change abatement rises over time, the Liberal Party’s decision to block an emissions trading scheme has merely raised the future price tag for businesses and households.

Indeed, it is not even clear whether obstruction serves parties’ long-term political interests. A policy of ‘just say no’ may temporarily fire up the base, but the current chaos in the US Republican Party shows where it leads. Politicians who play obstruction for its own sake merely fuel the rise of radical fringe movements. The more often the Leader of the Opposition reaches for the glib one-liner instead of a sound policy choice, the less likely the Australian people are to believe that he has the skills and temperament to govern the country. And the more the Liberal Party becomes the party of no, the more they will have to deal with the rise of reactionary movements to their right.
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Environment Volunteers

I spoke in parliament yesterday about the important role that environment groups play in Canberra.
Constituency Statements
Fraser Electorate: Environment Volunteers
22 February 2011

I have often spoken about the role that volunteers and voluntary organisations play in bringing the community together, acting as a kind of social glue. People volunteer for many reasons and in many different ways, but I firmly believe that some of the most important voluntary work is done by those groups involved with the local environment. My home of Canberra is blessed with a number of park care, catchment and bushland groups, all of which are active in conserving the natural environment in our bush capital.

I recently held a community forum for members of my electorate who are involved in the conservation and environment sector. Among the groups that attended were Friends of Mount Painter Park Care Group, Mount Rogers Landcare Group, Dunlop Environment Volunteers, the Conservation Council, the Cooleman Ridge Park Care Group, ANUgreen, the Ginninderra Catchment Group, Friends of Aranda Bushland and Friends of Mount Majura. As you can imagine, these organisations and others, like the Molonglo Catchment Group, Friends of Grasslands and Greening Australia Capital Region, are incredibly active organisations.

Working in partnership with the community and government, they are able to deal successfully with a range of areas. Every weekend, whatever the weather, volunteers from these groups are out tackling issues as varied as stormwater quality, invasive flora and fauna, environmental restoration, cultural and heritage conservation and urban and regional planning. While the electorate of Fraser is a largely metropolitan one, it is also a diverse natural environment, from grass flats and wetlands in the valleys, to rugged woodland dominating the hill tops. The diversity of the natural environment is extraordinary.

From environmental organisers like Jean Geue, Waltraud Pix, Anna See, Sarah Hnatiuk, Pamela and Fred Fawke, Bart Meehan and John Sullivan, I have learnt a lot about our local geography. For example, Black Mountain supports a diverse natural ecosystem that hosts an astonishing 59 varieties of orchids. I have also become accustomed to the ongoing battles against rabbits and the purple peril—the noxious weed Paterson’s curse that Landcare groups have to take the fight to when it invades the ACT each spring.

I heard how people from all backgrounds—university students and staff, public servants, tradespeople, retirees—come together to make a difference to the environment that we all share. Volunteering with a park care group is not only an enjoyable opportunity to look after the environment, it is also a great way to learn about nature, get to know likeminded people in your local community. To get involved all that is needed is a pair of strong shoes and a bit of enthusiasm.
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Welcoming the Babies

On Sunday 27 March, I will be hosting ‘Welcoming the Babies’, a community event for parents and carers of children aged 18 months or younger. This will be a chance to meet other parents, find out about community services for new parents, and enjoy a morning out with the whole extended family.

All attendees will receive a Baby Pack including community information and a formal certificate. Register your attendance by phoning 6247 4396, or emailing <AT>

Details, details:
Sunday 27 March
10.30 am to 12.30 pm
Stage 88, Commonwealth Park

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A Line in the Sand

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A Line in the Sand

I spoke in parliament tonight against a private members' motion moved by shadow immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison.
'A Line in the Sand', 21 February 2011

In 1983, I was attending Sutherland Primary School, in the electorate of the member for Cook. One day, a person from the computer company Microbee came and set up a computer in the back of the room. It was the first computer most of us had ever seen. The program was a database of the First Fleet, and each of us took it in turns to search the name records to see if our ancestors were on the ship. In that classroom, every eleven year old child wanted to answer the same question: could I possibly be descended from a boat person?

Nearly three decades later, how is it that some people in Australian politics think they can use the term ‘boat person’ as a form of abuse? When they celebrate Australia Day, do they think that the arrivals of 1788 held valid visas? Why do they applaud the courage of one risky sea journey to reach Australia, but spread fear and loathing about another?

In my own electorate, I have had the privilege to meet some extraordinary migrants. Last year, I attended a prize-giving ceremony for an art competition run as part of Refugee Week. First prize went to a Karen Burmese woman who had woven a traditional crimson tunic. Because she didn’t have a proper loom, the woman had taken the mattress off her bed, and fashioned a loom from her pine bed base. It is hard not to be overwhelmed by the courage and spirit of Australia’s migrants.

The great success of multiculturalism has been the way suburban Australians have – without fuss – welcomed successive waves of new migrants into our neighbourhoods. As a local MP, one of the things I most enjoy is to stand in a school assembly - amidst children from all ancestries in the world – and sing with them those lines from the national anthem: ‘For those who’ve come across the seas / We’ve boundless plains to share’.

Yet today, that consensus threatens to shatter. Senator Cori Bernadi tells us that ‘Islam itself is the problem’. And according to journalist Lenore Taylor, the Member for Cook, Scott Morrison, told Shadow Cabinet last year that the Coalition should capitalise on the electorate's growing concerns about Muslim immigration. Neither of them have been rebuked by the Leader of the Opposition.

In his motion today, the Member for Cook continues his efforts to make political capital out of the Australian refugee program. Yet like the Coalition’s election costings, it is riddled with errors. The motion conflates the Refugee and Special Humanitarian components of the Humanitarian Program which are effectively quarantined from each other in terms of the number of visas granted and the priority accorded to processing them.

The motion erroneously suggests that Australia has rejected women at risk because irregular maritime arrivals have crowded them out, an mistake repeated by the member for Cook in his media release last November. This is not the case. The number of places available for refugees overseas is not affected by the number of Protection Visas granted to onshore applicants (and that includes irregular maritime arrivals).

Australia continues to settle a significant number of refugees from overseas. Indeed, the Labor Government has increased this program since coming to office with an additional 250 places in 2009-10, following an increase of 500 places in 2008-09, bringing the total program to 13,750 for 2010-11.

Beyond this, Australia also works to improve the situation of displaced populations in the region by providing substantial support to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration.

Still, if we overlook the factual errors in the Member for Cook’s motion, it is plain that he is trying to make a simple point. The government should give preference to asylum seekers applying offshore rather than those who apply onshore.

This is simple enough to say, but hardly straightforward to implement. It raises the question: when the Coalition’s proposed ‘cap’ has been filled, what should we do with those people who arrive in Australia with valid visas and apply for protection? What should we do with irregular maritime arrivals found to be refugees? Should they stay in indefinite detention? Perhaps that’s the kind of solution that appeals to people who wish for a return to the ‘grand old days’ of the Howard Government’s migration policy. But whether you look at it from the point of compassion or cost-benefit analysis, indefinite detention for those who come to our shores doesn’t make sense.

We should control our borders – of course we should – but controlling our borders does not require us to add to the suffering of people who merit our compassion. The current refugee program is a reasonable response by the Australian community to a world wide challenge.  Australia needs policies that are based on a humanitarian response, not only because that’s what we committed to as signatories of the 1951 Refugee Convention, but also because it reflects the concerns and interests of the community.

While scrutinising the flaws in this motion, let’s not miss the broader context in which this motion is being moved. In the Sydney Morning Herald last Saturday, commentator Mike Carlton quoted Bruce Baird - the predecessor to the Member for Cook, and a man who served the Liberal Party in the NSW and federal parliaments for 20 years. Indeed, when I lived as a time in Pennant Hills, Mr Baird was my state member of parliament (and even as a member of Young Labor, he earned my grudging respect). Last week, Mr Baird said of the Liberal Party: ‘There's no doubt the party has shifted to the right. It seems like One Nation is calling the tune. They are going for the blue-collar, right-wing vote. Moderate views in the federal party have largely disappeared."

Mr Speaker.

  • As the Prime Minister told the Lowy Institute last year: ‘it would take about 20 years to fill the MCG with asylum seekers at present rates of arrival’. Yet there are those who claim that asylum-seekers are a threat to the Australian way of life. They are on the wrong side of history.

  • There are those who think that Australia’s religious freedoms are too narrow to apply to all religions. They are on the wrong side of history.

  • There are those who tell us that when a rich nation like ours is hit with a flood, our generosity to Indonesia should cease. They are on the wrong side of history.

  • There are those who tell us that when family members lose one another in a tragic accident off Christmas Island, we should deny them the chance to attend the funeral. They are on the wrong side of history.

If you read the history books, you’ll see that these seeds of hatred have been sown before. Brewing up racial discontent has its own special recipe. Start with a cup of rhetoric about how ‘those people’ with their ‘strange customs’ are different from ‘us’. Add a spoon of envy about how those outsiders always seem to get better treatment than ‘ordinary Australians’. And for good measure, why not dash in a suggestion that they could be happier if they just went home where they came from. Then give the pot a good stir, and let it simmer until it’s hot enough to serve up to some unsuspecting racial minority.

Believe it or not, there’s even an academic literature on hatred. Harvard economist Ed Glaeser points out that inciting racial hatred will always be a tempting strategy for political entrepreneurs, but only when the minority group reaches a certain size. Italian-Australians: too big (they might fight back). Luxembourg-Australians: too small (hard to get the base fired up). But Middle-Eastern Australians: just right.

I was asked this morning by a journalist I greatly respect: ‘why are you bringing this up today?’. It’s a good question, so in closing, let me try to answer why I don’t think we should merely let the issue drop.

When Pauline Hanson brought her extremist ideology onto the floor of this parliament in the late-1990s, some people said ‘just ignore it, and it’ll go away’. They meant well, but as the subsequent rise of One Nation showed, they were grievously mistaken.

Sometimes, you just have to draw a line in the sand. Here is mine.

  • If there’s someone attacking a religion, that matters to me – even if it’s not my religion.

  • If there’s someone suggesting that asylum seekers are a threat to our way of life, that matters to me – even if I’m not an asylum seeker

  • If there’s a father who wants to attend the funeral of his child, that matters to me – even if it’s not my child.

I urge the House to oppose the motion.
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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.