National Year of Reading

To encourage more Australians to dive into a book, the federal government supports the National Year of Reading. There will be events in libraries, bookshops and community venues, working to raise reading levels across Australia. I was pleased today to attend the official launch by the Prime Minister, at the National Library.

[caption id="attachment_2214" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="With ACT Reading Ambassador Marion Halligan & Centenary of Canberra Creative Director Robyn Archer"][/caption]

[caption id="attachment_2215" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="With my friend and colleague (& National Reading Ambassador) Dick Adams MP"][/caption]

Also, for dads with 3-5 year-old kids, Dickson Library are holding a reading event this Saturday. Details here.
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Same-Sex Marriage - Supporting Reform

I spoke today in parliament on a motion relating to same-sex marriage. Stephen Jones also tabled a private members' bill today, which will come up for a vote in the coming months.
Same-Sex Marriage - Supporting Reform
13 February 2012

This is the third time I have spoken publicly on same-sex marriage. In August 2011, I reported back to parliament on the views of my constituents for and against same-sex marriage. Within Labor Party forums I have also spoken out in favour of changing our part platform. But this is the first time I have spoken in parliament since the Labor Party changed its national platform. That platform now reads:

'Labor will amend the Marriage Act to ensure equal access to marriage under statute for all adult couples irrespective of sex who have a mutual commitment to a shared life.'

The Labor Party platform also states that on this issue 'any decision reached is not binding on any member of the Party'.

I hope that over the coming months many members on both sides of this place will support a change to the Marriage Act to allow same-sex marriage. Same sex marriage is not about gay versus straight, conservative versus progressive, left versus right. It is about social justice, equality for individuals and the recognition and protection of fundamental political and civil rights. Throughout this great country, people watch Ellen DeGeneres and Erik van der Woodsen, Matt Lucas and John Barrowman, Jodie Foster and Stephen Fry; we listen to Elton John and KD Lang. Equality for same-sex couples is not unfamiliar to everyday Australians.

Ce Ce of Hawker told me:

'I have just heard you "come out" in support of marriage equality and I wanted to express my gratitude. My partner and I registered a civil partnership earlier this year—our society needs more civilisation—I still wait for the day that we might be married. There is something lacking in referring to my civil partner rather than to my wife. Please do not underestimate how much it means.'

Warren and Grant of Aranda have been together for 27 years and believe marriage would be the ultimate legitimation of the equality of their relationship. As they told me:

'Our marriage would not undermine heterosexual marriage—quite the opposite—our desire to be married reflects our deep respect for the institution of marriage.'

Many of the opponents of same-sex marriage are devoutly religious. I respect their faith, but I say to them that it is possible to support marriage equality without undermining marriage, family or religion. Today, two-thirds of marriages in Australia are conducted by civil celebrants—a figure that is steadily rising. And same-sex marriage is supported by many religious leaders, including Lin Hatfield-Dodds, Reverend Bill Crews, Reverend Rowland Croucher, Reverend Matt Glover, Reverend Roger Munson and Father Dave Smith.

I say to my colleagues on the other side of the parliament that there is nothing in same-sex marriage that should offend Liberals and conservatives. Libertarians are among the most prominent advocates of same-sex marriage. As United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron has said:

'Conservatives believe in the ties that bind us; that society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other. So I do not support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I'm a Conservative.'

In 1967, my parents were married in New York. They celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary last Saturday. But if they had been of different races, there are 16 US states that would not have allowed them to get married in February 1967. It was not until June 1967 that the US Supreme Court case of Loving v Virginia outlawed bans on miscegenation. These bans were thought natural—and some argued that they were supported by scripture. That matters today because, in the words of Mildred Loving in 2007:

'... not a day goes by that I don't think of Richard and our love, our right to marry, and how much it meant to me to have that freedom to marry the person precious to me, even if others thought he was the "wrong kind of person" for me to marry. I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry.'

In closing, let me quote the words of former Washington state representative Betty Sue Morris. Washington is shortly to become the seventh US state to permit gay marriage. Ms Morris spoke of a vote she cast against same-sex marriage in 1996. She said that in December 1998 her daughter, Annie, had come home for Christmas and told her she was gay. In the days that followed Ms Morris said she remembered her vote and 'felt like she had denied her something. A wholeness. A freedom.' Former Representative Morris told Frank Bruni of the New York Times:

'Whenever someone opposes this, I always counsel: you never know. You never know when it will be your child or your grandchild. And you will eat your words.'

I hope members of the House will support the legalisation of same-sex marriage.
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Register for Welcoming the Babies

With my annual Welcoming the Babies event less than three weeks away, parents intending to come should register their baby.


Andrew Leigh, Federal Member for Fraser is inviting locals to come along and celebrate the newest members of our community at the second annual Welcoming the Babies event on Sunday 4 March 2012 (10.30am to 12.30pm) at Stage 88 in Commonwealth Park.

“I am proud to be holding my second Welcoming the Babies event and am looking forward to celebrating the day with parents and members of our community,” said Andrew Leigh.

The inaugural Welcoming the Babies held in 2011 had 150 people in attendance, including babies, their parents, and siblings.

Andrew Leigh invites parents to register babies up to 18 months of age, so that they can participate.

“As a father of two young boys I know how daunting it can be trying to get information about what’s out there. By bringing together the various services and organisations in one place we’re hoping to make looking after young ones that little bit easier,” said Andrew Leigh.

“It’s a chance for parents to find out the different things out there for them and it’s also a way for us to celebrate our youngest and cutest residents.

“Last year was a great success and was a fun filled day with face painting, balloons, and entertainment. I’m looking forward to an even bigger Welcoming the Babies this year.

“The event is also a reminder that we need supportive families and a strong community to give children the best opportunity in life,” said Andrew Leigh.

Parents wishing to register their babies should email < at > or call 6247 4396 with the name of their baby and their contact details.

All members of the community are invited to come along and help celebrate Welcoming the Babies.

For more information and background, you can find details on last year’s event on Andrew Leigh’s blog:
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A Selection of Parliamentary Valentines

I only started it an hour ago, but here are a few of my favourite parliamentary Valentines so far.

  • @Jovianshadow Simon Ray: The Senate is red, the House is green, you're the sweetest, I ever seen.

  • @laurie_ms Lauren W: You're a perfectly drafted bill

  • @xx_Alexandra Alex: You can cross my floor any day.

  • @ewing Robert Ewing: My love for you will never be challenged.

  • @John_Hanna John Hanna: You Ring My Bells.

  • @Bubuhelen Helen Tudor: It may be a hung parliament but I'm hung up on you.

  • @gagewrites Benjamin Gage: You're my Light on the Hill.

  • @BronwynHinz Bronwyn Hinz: Meeting you made me a True Believer

  • @bcagney Bradley Cagney: you are the apple of my 'aye'

  • @Drag0nista Drag0nista: You had me at Order!

  • @leoniedoyle Leonie Doyle: Lock the doors

Update, Sunday:

  • @kpgriffin Kevin Griffin: You are the rungs in my ladder of opportunity.

  • @joshgans Joshua Gans: Well may we say God save the Queen because nothing will change how I feel about you.

  • @fairerfields peter mott: You and I make are meant to be that even Tony Abbott would grant me a pair

  • @BartholomewD Di. Human, not dog: You make the party room the party room

  • @SpaceKidette Space Kidette: I heard my maiden speech & then came question time.Come to the party room and be my valentine?

  • @steveandhens Steve C: This is awkward. I expected a mandate.

And there are a few more that aren't quite suitable for a family-oriented blog.

Got more? Tweet them at #AusPolValentines.

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Parliamentary Valentines?

First, there was #HealthPolicyValentines:

  • I promise to cover you, in sickness and in health, 'til death panels do us part.

  • My love for you is like health care cost growth: out of control.

  • You are my statistically significant other

Then, Justin Wolfers created #FedValentines:

  • I'd like to borrow you overnight and then hold you to maturity

  • Roses are red, violets are blue, thank you for Twist and, of course, QE2!

  • The non-traditional stimulus was way better than I thought it would be

But both have reminded me that 14 Feb is a long parliamentary sittings day (the House rises at 10.30pm). So since I won't be taking my wife out for a romantic dinner, perhaps I should be coming up with an apt parliamentary Valentine. Here's a few to start off:

  • If you were a bill, I'd pass you without amendment

  • You'll always be my first preference

  • Our love is always in surplus

  • It's hard to believe I was ever a swinging voter

But I'm sure Twitter can do better. Let's make the hashtag #AusPolValentines
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Politics and Parenthood

My Chronicle column this month is on politics and parenthood.
Politics and Parenthood
The Chronicle, February 2012

Canberra FM recently had parents phone in with their favourite parenting disaster stories. A woman told of the time that she was rushing her two children out of the house to get to swim school. Wanting to assist, her 2 year-old shouted out ‘I’ll get towel’. When swim class finished, the discovery was made that ‘getting the towel’ meant helpfully stuffing the swimming bag with paper towel.

The story illustrates the fact that parenting is both more painful and delightful than you expect. When babies wake half a dozen times a night, you quickly realise why sleep deprivation is such a powerful form of torture. As they snuggle close to your chest on a winter night, the bond is so close that you realise there’s nothing you wouldn’t do for this little person.

For my own part, being a father to two young boys has shaped me as a politician. As an article in the Economist put it: ‘Daily exposure to innocence matters. Parenthood can lead to smugness, but also humility. All parents soon realise how much of child-rearing is improvisation, tempered by exhaustion ... The world looks at once kindlier and more fragile with small children in it, and essentially optimistic.’

Plenty of lessons of child-rearing translate well to modern politics. My staffer Damien Hickman likens the media cycle to the feeding cycle. You may prepare a gourmet feast, but don’t expect it to look like that when it comes out the other end.

As the parenting experts remind us, children can’t always control outcomes. Instead, they have control over three key variables: how much effort they put in, whether they learn from experiences, and how they respond to mistakes. So if you’re giving feedback to children, focus on building resilience, not punishing inadvertent errors. (Not bad advice for dealing with pollies, too.)

To recognise Canberra’s new parents, I’m holding an event called ‘Welcoming the Babies’. It’s a chance to meet other parents, connect with community services, and find out what’s available for new parents.

At last year’s event, around 150 parents and children joined us in Commonwealth Park, grabbed a coffee and a sausage sandwich, and enjoyed the sunshine while chatting to stallholders about playgroups, breastfeeding, maternal health, immunisation, toddler sports and social support. As first-time dad Tito Hasan told me, ‘It’s been great to see kids having fun. My wife and I see the range of things out there for first-time parents. I’m looking forward to coming back next year.’

If you know someone with a young bub, please encourage them to come along to this year’s Welcoming the Babies. All attendees will receive a Baby Pack including a formal certificate. As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child – so let’s help welcome our newest Canberrans.

Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser, and his website is Welcoming the Babies will be held at Stage 88, Commonwealth Park, 10.30am-12.30pm on Sunday 4 March. To register, email Andrew.Leigh.MP<>
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Fairer Healthcare

I spoke today in favour of legislation to means-test the private health insurance rebate.

Fairer Private Health Insurance Incentives Bill 2011
9 Feb 2012

I extend my thanks to you, Deputy Speaker, for taking the chair to permit me to participate in this debate. The Fairer Private Health Insurance Incentives Bill 2011 is about fairness. It is about striking the right balance in how we spend our public dollars. So often in public life we campaign in ‘and’. We speak about all the good things that government can do—and it is true that the potential of government to do good things is great—but ultimately we have to face trade-offs. Governing is really more about questions of 'or' than questions of 'and'. You see that very much with the coalition at the moment, mired in their $70 billion black hole—the equivalent of stopping Medicare for four years or the pension for two years—simply because they have been unable to make the hard choices. But we are making the hard choices, and one of those is to recognise that money that currently goes into subsidising higher income Australians to take up private health insurance could be better spent in the Australian government system, including on important healthcare measures.

Those opposite want you to think that the Government is against private health insurance. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is another part of the opposition's ongoing scare campaign to suggest that the government is against private provision of health, much as the opposition often suggest we are against the private provision of education. It is not true at all. The private health system is an important part of the Australian healthcare system. But with this bill we are recognising that the government need not subsidise the private health care of millionaires. It is not vital to a millionaire that they receive a 30 per cent private health insurance rebate in order for them to take up private health insurance. The first people to take up private health insurance were millionaires. Those millionaires will have that private health insurance when their 30 per cent rebate is not there. That is true even as we move down the income scale. We have strong evidence that the take-up of private health insurance did not increase markedly when the 30 per cent private health insurance rebate was put in. In fact, the policy change that substantially increased the take-up of private health insurance was the Lifetime Health Cover reform. Lifetime Health Cover had a much bigger impact on the take-up of private health insurance than did the 30 per cent rebate.

In putting in place this fair and equitable reform to the health system, Labor are doing as we always do, ensuring that Australia's healthcare system looks after the most disadvantaged in the community. It was us that introduced Medibank under the Whitlam government in 1975 and it was us that rebuilt that system into Medicare under the Hawke government in 1983-84, after the original Medibank had been trashed by the Fraser government. We believe in making sure that all Australians receive high-quality health care. Too often those opposite appear to be taking their cues from their colleagues in the United States, from US Republicans willing to laugh at low-income Americans who do not have health coverage. But that is not the Labor way. We believe that we need to have a healthcare system that recognises that good quality health care is about making sure that that people can participate in society. If you do not have good quality health care, you are unlikely to be able to hold down a job and you are unlikely to be able to participate fully in the social life of the community. So health care is, like education, a critical underpinning of a fair society.

Under this bill, the private health insurance rebate for low- and middle-income earners will remain unchanged. Higher income earners will receive a reduced rebate. As income increases, the private health insurance rebate will progressively fall. This will ensure savings to the government of $2.4 billion over the three years 2012-13 to 2014-15 and it will provide a fairer distribution of the benefits of the healthcare system.

My own electorate of Fraser has incomes above the average for Australia but, even so, the number of people who will not receive the private health insurance rebate is very small. I am informed that the number of singles in my electorate who will no longer receive the private health insurance rebate is 2,220 and the number of couples is 740—a relatively small number in an electorate whose total population is now pushing up towards 200,000.

We do not expect this bill to lead to any substantial change in private health insurance coverage. Modelling from Treasury finds that 99.7 per cent of people will remain in private health insurance, as a result of the fact that we still have incentives such as Lifetime Health Cover and the Medicare levy surcharge. So as a result of this there will be $2.4 billion additional into the budget to be spent on better healthcare initiatives and a minuscule change in private health insurance coverage.

The scare campaign the opposition is running need not be rebutted just by Treasury figures, sound as they are; Professor Elizabeth Savage, a health economist at the University of Technology, Sydney, has done considerable work in this area. Her research shows strong evidence of persistence, so the take-up of private health insurance is likely to endure because those who already have private health insurance will keep it from habit. Professor Savage also finds that means-testing the private health insurance rebate will not increase pressure on the public hospital system—another furphy, another scare campaign, from those opposite.

There are nearly eight million private health insurance policyholders who will not be affected by the changes at all. After these changes, as I have said, 99.7 per cent of people will remain in private health insurance. This allows us to have another $2.4 billion over the next three years. What will that get spent on? You can expect it to be spent on services such as improvements in the hospital system.

From 1 January this year, we are ensuring that every state improves the proportion of emergency department patients seen within four hours. Recent academic research published in the Medical Journal of Australia has shown that that will save lives. We are expanding Medicare Locals to integrate the sectors and make sure that patients get holistic care. We are putting in place local hospital networks, making sure that decisions about hospital management are devolved to the local level. Many of these reforms will save lives. Ultimately, that is what great health care does. The opposition would rather have private health insurance rebates for millionaires than have a healthcare system that saves more lives.

We are delivering mental health reform. We are rolling out additional headspace centres and EPPIC centres. We are also looking at mental health reform across the life cycle. We are committed to putting in place the groundwork for a National Disability Insurance Scheme, a scheme that, when it was first proposed by the Productivity Commission, the opposition said that they supported. But they are now unwilling to support that in the short term. The coalition are walking away from expanding support for people with disabilities, despite the fact that their spokesperson on disability, Senator Fifield, acknowledges that the current system is a patchwork that contains many anomalies for people with disabilities and their carers. The coalition would again prefer to subsidise the private health insurance of millionaires rather than begin putting in place a National Disability Insurance Scheme. Politics is about choices. Ours is national disability insurance ahead of subsidising the private health insurance of millionaires. Theirs puts subsidising the private health insurance of millionaires before better disability care.

We are building a stronger age care sector. We recognise that the age care system is in urgent need of reform and that if we do not do something to improve it the sector will face considerable strain as the baby boomers reach retirement and increasingly look for places in age care homes.

Politics is about values and what you value. What you prioritise in government shows what you value. During the global financial crisis, we chose to save 200,000 jobs and tens of thousands of small businesses. They say that they would not have taken on debt, meaning that they would have cut back on government spending in the face of the global downturn, throwing Australia into deep recession. On taxes, we are delivering pension rises and income tax cuts for working households through our Clean Energy Future package. Under a Tony Abbott government, the only people who would get tax cuts would be big miners and big polluters.

You can see the same in education. We are investing in low-income schools through the low SES national partnership. The Gonski review will ensure a fairer system for providing federal government funding to schools. We recognise that it is important to support need. If there is any rebalancing of schools assistance, they immediately launch a fear campaign. They immediately suggest that what we are doing is creating a schools ‘hit list’. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Since Labor came to office there has been modest growth in the Public Service  - 11,072 additional public servants - a rate of growth slower than the final years of the Howard government. We recognise that a strong Public Service is vital to delivering services such as better health care. But those opposite would make 12,000 public servants redundant, a commitment that the member for North Sydney again made on the Q&A program this week. In that program, the member for North Sydney said that there were 6,500 people working in the Department of Health and Ageing and appeared not to be sure what they did.

I can say two things about that. First of all, there are 5,164 people working in the Department of Health and Ageing, a small increase of about 300 since the Leader of the Opposition was minister for health. As the member for North Sydney could find out if he spoke to, say, the Leader of the Opposition, the Department of Health and Ageing does enormously important work. They are working on things like the private health insurance rebates, preventative health and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. I commend the work of the department of health officials that has gone into preparing this package of reforms. We on this side recognise that the Department of Health and Ageing does valuable work. Those on that side of the House would be happy to cut the department of health.

I will be interested to hear in subsequent contributions if the member for Dickson supports the views of the member for North Sydney that in fact, were the opposition to be elected government, he should preside as minister for health over a department that employed no-one. Does the member for Dickson believe that the Department of Health and Ageing should be scrapped? If so, what portfolio would he then seek to retain?

The contrast in Australian politics could not be clearer. The opposition is always saying yes to special interests and always saying no to tax reform. The contrast can be seen nowhere more clearly than in the area of dental health. Professor Jeff Richardson, from the Centre for Health Economics at Monash University, has found that 17 per cent of the people in the lowest income group have no teeth compared to 0.3 per cent of high income people. This is from an AM interview on 8 December 2011. Yet those in the lowest income categories are receiving much less assistance to get dental care than those in the highest income categories. Those in the highest income categories have 30 per cent of their dental care bill paid for by the Australian taxpayer through the private health insurance rebate. Labor believes that is the wrong way to balance our health system. We believe that we ought to be spending less on the teeth of millionaires and more on the teeth of the most disadvantaged Australians. I commend the bill to the House.
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Living on the Northside

In parliament today, I entreated more parliamentarians (and staff) to live on the northside of Canberra.
Living on the Northside
9 Feb 2012

Over recent months, I’ve been gathering stories from colleagues who enjoy living on the northside of Canberra, in my electorate of Fraser.

Senator Penny Wong says ‘I love the northside because I can walk to Lonsdale roasters, eat at Italian and Sons and see the balloons floating overhead as I drive across the bridge to work.’

The member for Parramatta, Julie Owens, tells me that the Gungahlin area has ‘some of the best bike paths around’. Senator Ursula Stephens tells me ‘I love to start my mornings with a brisk walk on Mt Ainslie.’ The Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon, enjoys using Dickson pool during summer.

The member for Page, Janelle Saffin, says ‘I love living in Watson when I am in Canberra, as it has a nice suburban family friendly feel. I am beside parkland and enjoy the walks and the birds which are prolific and colourful.’

The member for Kingston, Amanda Rishworth, describes Dickson Chinese restaurants as ‘fast, furious and yummy’. The member for Shortland, Jill Hall, heartily agrees. Senator Stephen Conroy found the northside ‘a lovely place to grow up – relaxed and carefree’.

Yet despite all this, too few of those who work in Parliament House live on the trendy northside. Indeed, only 14 members of the Labor caucus live in the Fraser electorate. The members for Canberra (Gai Brodtmann), Eden-Monaro (Mike Kelly) and Lalor (Julia Gillard) have good excuses, but what about the rest of you? Members of parliament and staff, it’s time to move to the fashionable right bank of the Molongolo River.

Update: More here from the Canberra Times, including a few of my favourite spots on the northside (Dickson’s Chinese restaurants, Watson Arts Centre, Mount Ainslie and Mount Majura, Gungahlin bike paths, Dickson and CISAC pools, Italian & Sons, Belconnen skate park).
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Inside Canberra

Along with Gary Humphries, Paul Bongiorno and new editor Michael Keating, I re-launched the journal 'Inside Canberra' last night. In the first issue, I have a short piece on economic growth, which is below. (And yes, my title is shamelessly cribbed from Gene Sperling's splendid book of the same name.)
The Pro-Growth Progressive
Inside Canberra, Vol 65, No 1

Economic growth researchers have something they call ‘the rule of 72’. If you want to know how many years it will take for economic growth to double a country’s standard of living, just take the number 72 and divide it by the growth rate. For example, a country growing at 8 percent a year (think China) will double its income levels every 9 years. A nation growing at 4 percent a year (think Australia in our good years) will double its income levels every 18 years. And a nation growing at 2 percent a year (think Japan in recent years) will double its income levels every 36 years.

So while the difference between 2 percent growth and 4 percent growth may not sound like much now, it’s the difference between doubling our living standards by 2030 versus 2048.

Unlike some on the far left of politics, I firmly believe that growth is good. Higher incomes allow us to enjoy better food, travel and entertainment, spend more time with our families, and be more generous to the most disadvantaged. Far from threatening the planet, rising incomes offer the best hope for dealing with environmental challenges such as climate change.

So what are the policies that should underpin economic growth? In the long-term, it’s about productivity. As Princeton University economist Paul Krugman puts it, productivity isn’t the only thing, but it’s almost the only thing. A society that becomes more efficient every year tends to enjoy rapid economic growth. A nation that fails to innovate typically stagnates.

In the Australian parliament today, you see vastly divergent views on the question of productivity. On the left of politics, we believe that education is fundamental to boosting productivity. That’s why social democratic governments are typically so committed to improving the education system. Like the Clinton and Blair governments before us, the Rudd and Gillard Governments have set about increasing both the quality and quantity of the education system. We’ve encouraged states to raise school leaving ages, built Trades Training Centres, and expanded the number of university places. We’ve also created accountability through the MySchool website, and provided extra resources to low-SES schools.

But on the conservative side of politics, there’s a view that the way to raise productivity is by restricting union rights and making it easier to dismiss workers. This view of the world seems remarkably impervious to facts. Under WorkChoices, productivity growth continued to decline. Indeed, at a recent conference held by the Reserve Bank of Australia, prominent economist Saul Eslake noted in a lengthy discussion of productivity that the Howard Government’s workplace relations reforms didn’t boost productivity.

The other key to growth is ensuring that when a recession strikes, the government supports economic demand. This is what the federal Labor government did in 2008-09, when monetary and fiscal policy together helped save thousands of jobs and small businesses. As a result of this spending (and the revenue downgrades), the government accumulated a modest level of debt, which will peak at less than a tenth of national income.

As with productivity, the Opposition has inveighed against sensible economic policy, making incredible claims about our national debt levels being unsustainable. Yet the alternative to debt would have been to plunge the Australian economy into recession, with all the scarring effect that unemployment has on the jobless. Our fiscal stimulus was timely, targeted and temporary – and the cost is rapidly being paid off.

Good economic management is central to Labor’s vision for Australia. Whether it’s over the economic cycle, or across decades, we’re committed to the economic growth that will see living standards double as quickly as possible.

Andrew Leigh is the Federal Member for Fraser, and a former professor of economics at the Australian National University. His website is
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Peter Veness

I spoke in parliament today on a condolence motion for the late AAP journalist Peter Veness.

Peter Veness
8 February 2012

I first came to know Peter Veness on the doors of Parliament House. For those outside this building, doors are a bit of a strange ritual. You walk out the front of Parliament House to a press pack that asks you questions about any issue of the day. Peter Veness was the man who asked the hardest questions. He would often be on the fringes of the press pack and he would call out at you, not about what was on the front page of the paper necessarily but about what he thought was the most important issue. He had been diagnosed with cancer in 2009 and given a few months to live, and he nearly made it to three years. In that time Pete knew that his life was short and he needed to do what he could to make it count. His questions were punchy, penetrating and straight to the point, as the best journalists are. I remember he said to me after one particularly bruising doors session: 'This place has lost its spontaneity. Doors used to be about the opening of the car doors; now it is about the opening of the parliamentary doors.' All I could reply was: 'Pete, I have to come out here to face your questions. I want to be prepared.'

I talked to Pete about this when I went to see him in the Clare Holland House hospice towards the end of his life. I am not sure how much he understood. He was going in and out of sleep at the time. With him was the little blue teddy bear and the crucifix that he held in his hand. As you do in these circumstances, I just talked and told him about how much he had influenced me in the short time we had known one another. And it was a short innings. Peter Veness passed away aged 27, far too young for anyone to be taken from us. His funeral was a fitting send-off. AAP journalist Adam Gartrell spoke about how Peter embodied the best of the craft of journalism. He told the story of Peter Veness writing a yarn that Peter thought was the best one he had ever written. It was about a farmer doing it tough. The only reason he got the story was by striking up a conversation with a random guy in a pub in the bush. Gartrell said:

'That was pure Pete. He may have written about elections, political spills and scandals, but writing about the plight of the common man was what really made his heart sing.'

We heard from his wife Bec Veness, who with extraordinary strength gently scolded Pete for having failed to prepare some words and said, "He didn't lose. He kicked cancer's arse every day for almost three years,"Warwick Newell told a splendid story of one of his big nights out with Pete. He said, 'I lost Pete after a big night out. He called me a few hours later from a bus in Bankstown in a frenzied and unexplained search for Paul Keating.' All of us erupted into laughter.

That was one of the many sides to Pete Veness.

The service itself finished in the most poignant of ways, with the parliamentary press gallery forming a guard of honour from the door of the church through to the gate at St John’s. It was all the more poignant because on the back of the funeral service program was a picture of Pete and Bec coming out of the same door of the church just a few years earlier, as newlyweds.

One of my favourite obituaries of Pete Veness was that written by Chris Johnson, a Canberra Times journalist, who really got to know Pete because they were in adjacent offices in the press gallery and were both inveterate music lovers. Chris wrote in his obituary that Pete Veness was:

'A larrikins' larrikin by any reckoning. Loud and boisterous, yet with a heart as big as his cheeky grin.'

Chris told the story that Pete, who appeared to me an extremely confident journalist, once confided to him, 'Do you know what a big deal it is for me to be in this gallery? I'd better not stuff it up.' But you never got that sense of fragility from Pete Veness. You got a sense of somebody who had earned his right to be here and who did his job in the best spirit of the press gallery.

Chris disclosed that Peter Veness sometimes wrote music reviews under a pseudonym, the name Sal Caulfield combining Sal Paradise, from On the Road, and Holden Caulfield, from Catcher in the Rye. That of course sent me on a hunt for some of the reviews written by Sal Caulfield. There I found some of the best of Pete Veness's writing. Here he is in the Canberra Times on 8 May 2008 writing under his pseudonym about an album by Cog, Sharing Space:

'Producer Sylvia Massey left plenty of air among the almost apocalyptic electronic twitches that dart around Flynn Gower’s pleading, pounding voice in the verses. The air evaporates when the chorus arrives pushing the listener back with sheer volume and urging the ear forward in anticipation at the same moment.'

It is beautiful writing—another reason, I think, so many of us are so sad that Pete is not here to contribute to the great craft of journalism for many decades yet. As recently as 3 November last year he wrote for AAP the story of the killing in Afghanistan of Captain Bryce Duffy, Corporal Ashley Birt and Lance Corporal Luke Gavin. He wanted to keep on working to the end, and he continued to make a great contribution.

Journalist Peter Martin reminded me that one of the things that some of the tributes to Peter Veness have passed over is how devout he was. At the service, Peter read Psalm 23, 'The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want', and he pointed out to me that Peter Veness was the chair of St John’s Anglican Church council and was studying theology at St Mark’s. Peter Martin suggested that in preparing these brief remarks I should speak to Margaret Campbell, the assistant minister at St John’s. I spoke to Margaret this morning and she said that I should remind the House of what a man of great faith Peter Veness was, that he took great comfort in the promise of eternal life and that he was there in the church every Sunday. Margaret said, 'Peter Veness challenged us, and we will really miss one of our own.'

I too will miss him. Doors will never be the same without him, and this place is a little poorer for his passing.
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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.