Labor Pains

My opinion piece today is on NSW Labor. Full text below.

There have also been some interesting reflections recently by former NSW Premier Bob Carr and Luke Foley MLC.

ALP Must Look to Members, Australian Financial Review, 29 March 2011

In the 2002 Winter Olympics, Australian speed-skater Steven Bradbury won gold after the four leading skaters crashed into one another and fell to the ice. The way Barry O’Farrell won the NSW election bears some similarities to the way Australia got our first Winter Olympics gold medal.

On the fundamentals, NSW Labor was expected to lose. The last state government to be re-elected after 16 years at the helm was the Queensland government in 1986 – the year John Farnham topped the charts and Crocodile Dundee was released. In the 21st century, governments that have been around for 1½ decades have all the popular appeal of a mullet haircut and a denim jacket.

Yet while longevity predicted a Labor loss, what occurred was the political equivalent of hanging, drawing and quartering. The party of McKell, Wran and Carr suffered the worst defeat of our 120-year history.

In my view, this does not reflect any crisis of ideology. Ask any Labor representative what our party stands for, and you’ll hear the same themes: opportunity for every child, open engagement with the world, dignity in work, a voice for invisible Australians.

What the NSW election loss pointed to are the major challenges with our party structures. Labor’s 2010 National Review (also known as the ‘three wise men report’ after its authors Steve Bracks, Bob Carr and John Faulkner) noted that in the past decade, more than 100 ALP branches have closed in NSW. It concluded: ‘The Labor Party now faces a crisis in membership.’

While it is true that our membership share is smaller than ever before, recent trends are merely a continuation of what has occurred for the past sixty years. In the early-1950s, 1.2 percent of Australian adults were members of our party. Today, the share is around 0.3 percent.

People are failing to attend Labor Party meetings for the same reasons that activity is declining in most other political parties, in Rotary and the RSL, in unions and churches. Compared with two decades ago, we are less likely to know our neighbours and have fewer trusted friends.

The decline in social capital is driven by several factors, including long working hours, car commuting and television. Australia needs a renaissance in community life – including in our political parties.

Another way to see the link between Labor Party activism and broader social capital is to look across the country. As I found in my book Disconnected, Canberra outperforms the rest of the nation on many social capital measures. ACT residents are more likely to play sport, to volunteer, and to donate to charity. It is probably not a coincidence that Canberra also has an active Labor Party membership.

Although plenty of the factors that affect ALP membership are outside our control, there is still much that Labor can do to make joining more attractive. The National Review recommended more party democracy, new policy forums, a campaign training academy, and better online engagement.

We should acknowledge that there are two models an organisation can follow: low cost–low power, or high cost–high power. When you look across other groups, those that are cheap to join (AFL clubs, GetUp) tend not to provide their members with much say in how the organisation is run. By contrast, groups that empower and provide generous services (unions, scouts) generally require a substantial commitment of time or money.

For Labor, this means that we could expand the number of positions that are directly elected by the membership and train every member in the latest community organising techniques. Or alternatively we could follow the UK Labour model of allowing under-27s to join for a penny, and stop asking members to attend branch meetings. But we should not do both. It would be a mistake to give more power to our members and ask less of them in return. This tension will lie at the heart of party reform debates leading up to our National Conference in December.

For NSW Labor, the challenge will be to recover the passion and energy that Kristina Keneally embodied, but which her government was seen to lack. As for Mr O’Farrell, let’s wish him luck and hope that he is able to govern in the spirit of the moderate wing of the Liberal Party. If the last four years have taught Macquarie Street politicians anything, it should be that ‘crash or crash through’ often ends with a bang.

Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser, and author of Disconnected (UNSW Press, 2010). By coincidence, he was Barry O’Farrell’s Labor opponent in the 1995 election.
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SkyNews AM Agenda

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Canberra's Biggest Baby Shower

Federal Member for Fraser, Andrew Leigh, has declared Canberra’s inaugural Welcoming the Babies to our Community Ceremony a success with 50 babies welcomed on Sunday at Stage 88 in Commonwealth Park.

Andrew Leigh said the day was all about recognising the important job parents do for our local community as well as connecting them up to other parents and the range of government and community organisations.

“It’s been a fun morning with balloon animals galore, kids running around having fun and parents being able to chat about the ups and downs of parenting,” said Andrew Leigh.

“As the father of two young boys it’s good to know that kids waking up at 3am in the morning or throwing food at dinner time is something that happens with most other families.”

Over 150 people helped celebrate Canberra’s biggest baby shower.

First time dad, Tito Hasan, enjoyed the event and is looking forward to coming back next year. “It’s been great to see kids having fun. My wife and I have been able to see the range of things out there for first time parents,” said Tito.

Mother of two boys Aarthi Ayar-Viddle who also enjoyed the celebrations said it was good hearing from Andrew Leigh and Laurie McDonald, Canberra Women’s Chamber of Commerce President, about their experiences as parents.

“Andrew and Laurie are both successful people and it was nice hearing their stories about the joys of parenting. They’ve both had to deal with some of the same issues that I’m finding with my little one and it’s good to know that I’m not alone,” said Aarthi.

More than 10 different stalls, ranging from government to community organisations, were encircled around Stage 88 on Sunday morning.
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American Grace

Bowling Alone author Robert Putnam (for whom I worked when at Harvard, eventually inspiring me to write its Australian version Disconnected) has a new book out on religion. It's called American Grace. He'll be speaking in Canberra on 5 April and Sydney on 14 April. Click the links for more details.
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Chatting about Big Ideas at Harrison School

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Big Ideas

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Revenge of the Nerds: Improving Australia’s Education System

Here's the speech that I gave last night to kick off my community meeting in Gungahlin.

Revenge of the Nerds: Improving Australia’s Education System
Gungahlin Lakes Club, 16 March 2011

In a book titled Outliers: The Story of Success, writer Malcolm Gladwell discusses the way that extraordinarily successful people came to get where they are. Gladwell’s aim is to dig deeper than the legend of brilliance, and discover what lies underneath. His most interesting story concerns Bill Gates. Now, you probably think you know the story of Gates: smart geek drops out of Harvard, starts his own computer company, and becomes a squillionaire. But how many of you know about Gates’ high school experience?

Bill Gates attended high school in Lakeside, a school in Seattle. Each year, the mothers’ club ran a rummage sale, and in 1968, they decided to spend $3000 on a computer terminal. Now $3000 was a lot of money in those days, and the mothers’ club didn’t buy any old computer. They bought one that allowed real-time programming, directly linked to a mainframe.

To get an idea of how extraordinary this was, my father was at the time doing his PhD at Cornell University. The computer he got access to used punch cards, and he had to wait overnight to get his results. Yet as a schoolkid, Bill Gates was using a far better computer than a student at an Ivy League university.

The result was that Gates and his friends got the chance to do more computer programming than almost anyone else in the world. Thanks to a few more lucky breaks, he got access to the computer lab at the University of Washington. And before he left school, he had gotten a part-time job writing code. By the time Gates dropped out of Harvard in his second year, he had been programming virtually non-stop for seven years. He estimates that there were probably no more than 50 young people in the world with that sort of experience.

Yes, Bill Gates is a smart guy. But the moral of the story is that what made him what he is today were the opportunities he was given. If we want more Bill Gateses in Australia, the answer isn’t to dig inside our DNA and sequence the genius gene. It’s to expand opportunities for every child, so every young Australian has the chance to fulfil their potential.

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ABC 24 with Jamie Briggs

LYNDAL CURTIS: Jamie Briggs and Andrew Leigh, welcome to News 24.


JAMIE BRIGGS: Good afternoon.

CURTIS: Jamie, the Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey has called for more money to be spent on welfare reform, talking about increased case management, increased income management. In times when budgets are tight, do you think it’s reasonable to spend money on welfare now in order to potentially save later?

BRIGGS: I think the country has to, Lyndal. We are facing in the next few years some significant labour shortages because we have a resource sector which is performing very strongly. We have a reconstruction effort in Queensland which will suck up a lot more of the labour force as well, and we have an ageing population. So we have to address this challenge. The Howard Government began addressing this challenge in its last three years. Unfortunately there has been steps backwards under the Labor Government because the re-regulation of the workplace will make it harder for these types of workers to re-enter the workforce, and I think what Joe’s saying is we have to have a good hard look at addressing these challenges in the coming years.

CURTIS: Andrew Leigh, is there a prospect for bi-partisanship on this? Because the government wants to take the issue of income management national, is there prospect that the two sides could actually agree?

LEIGH: Lyndal, there’s certainly agreement on this and I’m really pleased to hear that Joe Hockey is picking up on an idea that Labor has been pursuing for the last couple of years, and is now supporting it. We’ve had in place systems of non-discriminatory income management rolled out in the Northern Territory, Perth, the Kimberly, and there’s a trial on foot which will report back in 2014. But what we’ve seen unfortunately from Mr Hockey is what we often see, which is this kind of lazy sense that if you read something in a paper one day, you can give a speech about it the next day and pretend it’s your idea. My former profession of academia we used to call that plagiarism. I’m not quite sure what we call it in politics.

CURTIS: But isn’t it worth taking a look at? Isn’t it worth putting the issues up there to start a conversation?

LEIGH: Yeah, you can certainly start that conversation. I think that’s important. But it doesn’t hurt to say I agree with what the government is doing; I’m interested in the trial which currently on foot, reports back in 2014, and here’s where I think it should go. But we often see this from Mr Hockey; we saw this around banking reform; that sense you could get away with reading stuff in the paper and re-presenting it as your own ideas. The Australian people deserve a little bit more from an opposition than that I think. They deserve new ideas, not re-packaged ideas.

CURTIS: Jamie Briggs.

BRIGGS: That’s just, I mean honestly, one day you have the Labor Party screaming blue murder that all we do is run negative scare campaigns and then the next day when we’re talking about policies, important policies, important areas which actually, if Andrew is in the business of giving credit, it would be fascinating to hear this, he might go back and give credit to John Howard and Peter Costello, because they were the people who started to address this challenge. They say oh well, you know, it’s just sort of our idea somehow and he’s re-packaging. I mean Joe Hockey started the banking debate last year. The Treasurer is now desperately trying to catch up. Joe Hockey has now started this debate, an important debate. The Labor Party can’t have it both ways. They can’t accuse us of just purely running negative campaigns at the same time saying that we’re dreaming up ideas to talk about. The two don’t walk together.

CURTIS: Jamie Briggs is there any hope ever of bi-partisan agreement if both sides are in fundamental agreement in the question of income management, yet you can’t stop sparring?

BRIGGS: It’s important in a democracy to argue about ideas, Lyndal. You can have a similar goal, but you can have a difference in how you get there, and I think over time you’ve seen that the Liberal Party has not only talked about these types of ideas, but they’ve also worked out ways to deliver, and in government we delivered. We delivered low unemployment. We delivered higher wages. We delivered opportunities for people to get off welfare and into work. On the other hand, with the Labor Party, their record has been more patchy in this area.

CURTIS: Andrew Leigh, has the case of welfare reform actually stalled in the last few years, apart from the issue of income management? Ken Henry suggested a lot of things to deal with what’s called the tax and transfer system to try and get people off welfare. But neither party has really taken any of those ideas up.

LEIGH: Well Lyndal I don’t accept that characterisation. I mean the non-discriminatory income management trial, which I guess is the difference between the Howard Government’s system of income management which was racially discriminatory…

CURTIS: Although that started of…

LEIGH: And Labor’s which is not racially discriminatory. There is a trial taking place, there’s a consortium of universities analysing those results and that will report back in 2014. So yes we should have that debate, but it would be useful if Mr Hockey came in at the point at which the discussion is taking place, rather than pretending that he can start something new on the side.

CURTIS: But the question of welfare reform, broader than just income management, addressing the underlying causes that lead to income management and also the barriers to people getting jobs.

LEIGH: I think that’s absolutely an important issue. I was up in Cape York this week, I’m on the economics committee which is looking at the broad issue of indigenous economic development, sitting down in some of these remote communities, one with a population of 20 people, talking about ways of improving an employment base. One of the critical things of course that Labor has done since we came to power in 2007 is fiscal stimulus through the global financial crisis. That made sure that 200,000 people who would otherwise had been unemployed managed to keep their jobs. That is a massive impact on Australia’s unemployment roles and one which unfortunately the Coalition at the time opposed.

CURTIS: Jamie Briggs, are there any areas of welfare reform you think also need to be addressed.

BRIGGS: As I alluded to earlier, you need a mix of measures to address what are a difficult group of people to get back into the workforce for various reasons, and one of those is to ensure you have workplace laws which do not preclude employers, or do not disencourage employers from taking on the more difficult in the labour market, and I think that is an area which the Labor Party has certainly gone backwards in. We’ve just heard Andrew’s comment then the prescription in the Labor Party is to spend money. They claim that’s the best way to create jobs. They only know how to create jobs. Not employers, the Labor Party and the government, which of course everyone knows is bumpkin. It is the employers, it is the businesses, the small business people out there who if you can get government out of the way, we’ll get on with the business of employing people, we’ll be in the business of giving people an opportunity and this is where I think the Labor Party has made a fundamental error, which will be bad for our economy in the long term.

LEIGH: Can I just come to one aspect of what Jamie said? Trying to take some of the politics out of this, I think there are two broad ideological views as to how to tackle this question. The Coalition’s is very much about labour market reform and I was at a conference over the weekend where we were talking about some of these sorts of issues. The Labor Party’s is very much around human capital; improving the quality of our schools; making sure our trade training centres are better; making sure our university system works better. We’re much more about improving employment rates by giving people the skills to get the jobs of the future, that’s our strategy. Not through removing protections that look after workers.

CURTIS: If we could turn now to Julia Gillard’s speech to the Congress, Jamie Briggs, for a self-confessed foreign policy reluctant, do you think Julia Gillard actually hit the right notes?

BRIGGS: Talking of notes Lyndal, I did note that it was nice that she referred to the experience of watching the Americans send a man to the moon. And it was interesting that it was a similar story that Bono recounted, the lead singer of U2, some four or five years ago, when he told his story about his first experiences of Americans, sitting in a school yard watching the Americans send a man to the moon and how wonderful that was and how America could do anything, and it was quite interesting the word plagiarism that Andrew used earlier. But look overall it was a good speech. It was a speech that you would expect an Australian Prime Minister to deliver. We need a close relationship with the United States and I am glad that Julia Gillard in her last 20 years has come around to that view, because at university, and not long after, when she was a member of the socialist alliance, she didn’t think so much about that at the time. And of course, her co-Prime Minister Bob Brown doesn’t like the American alliance at all. So it was very good to see that at least one member of the coalition party in government agrees with the American alliance and paid the due respect it deserves.

CURTIS: Andrew Leigh, it does seem that the question of commitment to the American alliance is not an issue for either major party. Julia Gillard also had some praise for John Howard, is it the speech we could expect from the Prime Minister?

LEIGH: Lyndal, I’m slightly biased on this given I have an alliance of my own; my wife is from the US. I loved the speech, and I thought it did what a great speech should do, which was to tell stories. So it told the story of Sapper Jamie Larcombe who died serving Australia in Afghanistan. It told the story of Kevin Dowdell, an Australian firefighter who was lost on September 11. It talked about the greatest generation and it talked about the Prime Minister’s own experiences as a little girl, watching America land on the moon. In some sense in a world of seven-second media grabs, we can often lose the value of those stories and the way in which weaving together those stories has such a powerful provocative emotional effect on people.

CURTIS: It also was a speech Jamie that used language that might make Australians feel a little uncomfortable. There was a touch of hyperberly. Is that something that you do when speaking to an American audience because it’s the sort of language that Americans are more used to hearing?

BRIGGS: Look that’s an issue you will have to raise with the Prime Minister. I think the importance for an Australian Prime Minister in delivering a speech to that audience is to ensure that the very close and important relationship that we have with the United States - and it is good that Andrew has got a personal connection to the alliance, and I am sure it has strengthened the alliance - the respect that the alliance, our most important alliance, is given in that speech. She is our head of state, sorry she’s our head of government, and in that respect, when in America, I think Australians would expect that she shows the deference to the alliance that she did, and as I said earlier, I think it was a good speech. I did find the coincidence with the story of Bono a little intriguing, but I’m sure both have had that experience.

CURTIS: That’s where we’ll have to leave it. Gentlemen, Andrew Leigh and Jamie Briggs, thank you very much for your time.

LEIGH: Thanks Lyndal.

BRIGGS: Good on you Lyndal.


(Thanks to JB for transcribing the discussion.)
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Territory Rights

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Skynews AM Agenda


Welcome back. Joining me this morning in the Canberra studio is Labor MP Andrew Leigh, good morning Andrew.


Good morning, Kieran.


And we’ve got Senator Mitch Fifield, Liberal frontbencher, joining us from Melbourne. Senator Fifield, first to you. What do you make of the Government’s response in the wake of this Japanese quake? Has it been appropriate as far as the Coalition can tell?


Well, I think it’s important at a time of crisis like this to not nitpick. Our focus should be on making sure that we can render whatever assistance to Japan that we possibly can and that we also focus on Australians who are in Japan. There’s a very important job to keep families in Australia in touch with what’s happening with their loved ones back in Japan. But I think that the time for reviewing the Australian response is after the immediate crisis has passed.


Andrew Leigh, your thoughts on what has been the latest in a long series of disasters over the last few months? It’s been remarkable.


It’s been an awful period, hasn’t it Kieran. I, like many Australians was in touch with a friend of mine who lives in Tokyo, just to check that she was alright. And there’s been those 70 Search and Rescue Officers who have just arrived in Tokyo, and a couple of Sniffer Dog Teams. So Australia is certainly doing what we can to assist in this.


OK. Senator Fifield, let’s look at some domestic politics before we go – obviously most of our focus this morning has been appropriately on the quake. But on the Nielsen Poll back at home – Julia Gillard’s disapproval rating is up, and her approval rating is down. But I suppose a concern for the Coalition is that Tony Abbott’s approval rating is also down. Why do you think that’s the case?


With these polls there’s always a beauty contest element in the preferred leader stakes so I don’t pay too much attention to that. I just focus on the fact that Tony Abbott is doing a great job holding Julia Gillard to account, and I think what the polls essentially reflect today is that the Australian public know that Julia Gillard lied. She put her hand on her heart before the last election, and she solemnly swore that no government she led would introduce a carbon tax. She fibbed, she is now going to introduce one, and the Australian people are not happy.


And the disapproval rate shows it, doesn’t it Andrew Leigh? This has been a clear rebuke of the Prime Minister’s broken promise.


Kieran I don’t agree with that at all. We’ve spoken on the program before about the fact that polls this far out from an election have no predictive power. And I think that it’s important that we try and spend less time on polls and more time on ideas. Two of my favourite journalists, Annabel Crabb and George Megalogenis, have made a promise not to mention a single opinion poll for 2011, and Kieran I’d like to use this chance to encourage you to join them. I think it’s - go cold turkey and dive into the ideas. And you’ll find there’s a rich vein there. This is a big economic reform.


Well let’s move on from the poll – I’ll try to go cold turkey at least for today. But it’s a broken promise, isn’t it? And this reaction we’ve seen through talk-back – it’s right across the board that we’ve seen this reaction. Mitch Fifield and the rest of the Coalition are making a lot of ground on this because it’s a clear, unequivocal, broken promise.


Kieran we’ve been absolutely clear for years now that we want to implement carbon pricing. That means using the magic of the market in order to move us to a clean, green carbon economy. And we’ve recognised…


It’s an artificial market.


…that a clear way of doing that is to set a fixed carbon price for a three to five year period and then move to an Emissions Trading Scheme. And that’s the same scheme that the Coalition took to the 2007 election. It’s the same scheme that British Conservatives have backed. This is mainstream policy and what’s striking about the Coalition is they’re disappearing into a kind of Dada land in which some of them are sceptics, some of them are market-averse. They’re really moving away from what I would regard as fundamental free-market principles.


Senator Fifield, it doesn’t help the argument when you’ve got the likes of Senator Minchin questioning whether or not the world is warming, when Tony Abbott wants the focus on the tax?


Well the Coalition accepts that man makes a contribution to warming, and we have a policy to address that. Colleagues have a range of views – there are a range of views in both political parties. But our policy is that we have a practical plan of action to reduce emissions. The Labor Party’s plan is based on a lie. Labor’s plan will see prices go up for petrol by 6.5 cents a litre. Labor’s plan will see the average household pay $300 more a year for their electricity. Before the election Julia Gillard said ‘no way, no carbon tax.’ She lied. We’ve got a practical plan – that’s what we want to introduce. And I’ve got to say, I’m happy that in defence of Labor’s position Andrew is talking about the Philosophy of Dada. If that’s the best the Labor Party can do in seeking to defend their position, then good luck to them.


Well Mitch what you’ve got is a Party at the moment which is backing away from using the market in order to bring us to a clean, green economy. Carbon pricing is a mainstream approach. It recognises that when you price carbon, you allow businesses and households to make the decisions that move us most efficiently to a cleaner economy.


Andrew Leigh you’ve said that it should be…


It’s an artificial market.


Yes, that’s the point I was going to make. We’re almost out of time, but just quickly, as Senator Fifield says, it’s an artificial market. Why not move to the ETS sooner as well if you believe so firmly in the market rather than have this tax in the first place?


Well Kieran you can do two ways of carbon pricing. You can – the government can set the price and the market sets the quantity, or you set the quantity and the market sets the price. Either way it’s a market mechanism. So let’s be clear about that. What we’re doing is we’re setting the price in the initial period, because that provides certainty for business – certainty of the impact of the scheme. Not the kind of scare-campaign numbers that are coming up but real certainty.


OK, Senator Fifield, just very quickly.


Two questions the Government has to answer are, what will this carbon tax cost, and will it achieve anything. The truth is, it’s a tax on everything that will achieve nothing.


Gentlemen, we will continue this debate no doubt when we speak again in a couple of weeks. Andrew Leigh and Senator Fifield, thanks for that. I’m Kieran Gilbert, thanks for your company.


[Thanks to Mitch for transcribing.]
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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.