Opening of 'Snakes Alive' exhibition

[caption id="attachment_2114" align="alignleft" width="210" caption="Holding a snake at the 'Snakes Alive' exhibition"][/caption]

Today I opened the 'Snakes Alive' exhibition, an annual display of snakes and other reptiles and amphibians put on the the ACT Herpetological Association. As part of the opening event, they put a snake in my arms which was perhaps one of the more unusual experiences I've had since becoming a parliamentarian.

It's a fun event with lots of hands-on activities and hosted by the Australian National Botanic Gardens. My boys came along with me today and were fascinated by the snakes and loved being told about the different species, what they ate, and where they live.

My media release for the event is below.

Opening of ‘Snakes Alive’ exhibition

Member for Fraser Andrew Leigh today opened the ‘Snakes Alive’ exhibition, an event conducted by the ACT Herpetological Association with the support of the Australian National Botanic Gardens.

“The ‘Snakes Alive’ display shows snakes, along with other reptiles and amphibians, as part of Australia’s delicate ecological balance,” said Andrew Leigh. Dr Leigh handled a python as a part of the opening event.

“ ‘Snakes Alive’ provides an opportunity to safely handle suitable pythons, lizards and turtles to practically experience some of their characteristics. It’s a hands-on event suitable for all the family.

“Visitors can also observe snakes, lizards and frogs being fed, and have the animals’ requirements explained to them.

“My two young boys came out to see the display with me today and are very excited about being able to see some snakes. I encourage all Canberrans to bring their families along to this unique exhibition.”

The event is nationally recognised as the leading such display in Australia.  This year marks the 20th Anniversary of ‘Snakes Alive’ display by the ACT Herpetological Association.

The ACT Herpetological Association provides an important role in the ACT by informing the Environment and Sustainable Development Directorate about local endangered species of reptiles and amphibians.
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Welcoming the Babies 2012

On 4 March, I’m 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.

Date: Sunday, 4 March 2012

Time: 10:30 AM – 12:30 PM

Location: Stage 88, Commonwealth Park (Google maps)

Registration: Register your attendance by phoning 6247 4396, or emailing
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US Republicans Downunder

My opinion piece in today's Canberra Times looks at the local impact of the Coalition's promised 12,000 public service job cuts.
Abbott Plans to Cut APS Heavily, Canberra Times, 20 January 2012

If US politics is the greatest show on earth, then the Republican Primaries must surely be Comedy Central. And no candidate is more radical than libertarian Ron Paul, who believes that there should be no income tax, no foreign aid, and no unemployment benefits. Among Ron Paul’s promises is a plan to abolish five government departments, getting rid of 10 percent of US public servants.

If you think this sounds radical, you may be interested to know that Tony Abbott’s promises are only a little less extreme. In the last election, the Coalition committed to getting rid of 12,000 public servants – around 7 percent of the Australian public service.

Some in the Coalition have claimed that they will exclude front-line services from the cuts. If so, the impact is likely to fall hardest on Canberra. And with the Coalition $70 billion behind in their budget costings, 12,000 may be just the beginning. As Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey told ABC News Breakfast last year: ‘If you want to start with cuts we have said we will cut 12,000 public servants out of Canberra. That is the starting point.’

As many Canberrans will remember, this is what happened in 1996, when the Howard Government won office. Despite promising only modest cuts to public service job numbers before the election, the Howard Government slashed tens of thousands of public service jobs in 1996 and 1997.

The impact of Howard’s public service cuts stands out clearly in the statistics. Comparing economic indicators in the ACT with the rest of Australia over those two years, I estimate that the impact of Howard’s public service job cuts on the ACT was to:

  • Slash $25,000 from the price of the average Canberra home (in an era when house prices were much lower than they are today);

  • Increase the ACT unemployment rate by 1 percentage point; and

  • Increase personal bankruptcies in the ACT by around 100 per year.

Canberra’s home owners, workers and small businesses cannot afford a repeat of 1996-1997.

In a Groundhog Day moment, the Coalition is again assuring voters that cuts will only occur through ‘natural attrition’. Yet when pressed on the ABC’s Lateline program, Joe Hockey admitted that he was contemplating disbanding the entire the Department of Climate Change. It strains credulity to think that entire departments can be abolished without anyone being fired. (And because 3/5ths of the public service are women, a majority of those who lose their jobs are likely to be female.)

Faced with the facts about what the Coalition’s 12,000 job cuts will do to Canberra, the Coalition often resorts to scaremongering about the efficiency dividend, a policy that has been in place since 1987-88. What it fails to recognise is that since Labor came to office, the number of federal public servants has increased modestly every year, from 155,417 in 2007 to 166,495 in 2011. Even when the efficiency dividend was increased to 3.25 percent in 2008-09, the size of the federal public service continued to increase. As the population grows and the electorate demands more from government, this is as it should be.

Comparing the efficiency dividend to 12,000 job cuts is like comparing a scalpel to a chainsaw. An easy way to see this is to look at the Coalition’s own costings from the 2010 election, which estimated the ‘savings’ from 12,000 job cuts at $3.8 billion, compared with less than $1 billion from its proposal to boost the efficiency dividend.

When they’re not in the nation’s capital, Coalition representatives are proud to talk about their plans to cut 12,000 Canberra public service jobs. That’s because deep down, they regard government as the problem, not the solution.

But in my experience, that’s not how most Australians think about public servants. When floods and fires hit, we’re proud of employees in public service agencies like Medicare and Centrelink who help people back on their feet. When Australians get into trouble abroad, we look to consular officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to help out. One of the reasons that Australia avoided the Global Financial Crisis was the rapid fiscal stimulus put in place by Treasury and the Australian Taxation Office.

Unlike US Republicans, most Australians are fundamentally optimistic about the ability of government to create opportunities and provide much-needed services. In his attacks on hard-working public servants, Tony Abbott misreads the national mood. Australia deserves better than Tony Abbott and his commitment to 7/10ths of Ron Paul.

Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser.
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Forgotten Australians @ the NMA

My article in the Chronicle this month is about the 'Forgotten Australians' exhibition at the National Museum of Australia.
Australians No Longer Forgotten, The Chronicle, 17 January 2012

Hugh McGowan was born to a single mother in Scotland. Lacking any support, she gave him up to a boys’ home in Glasgow. One day the children were asked if they wanted to go to Australia. Twelve year-old Hugh initially agreed, but then changed his mind and told the ‘cottage father’ he didn’t want to go. He still remembers the reply: ‘Too bad, you’re going’.

Hugh is one of half a million ‘forgotten Australians’, who were raised in institutional homes. I met him at the National Museum of Australia’s exhibition, Inside: Life in Children’s Homes and Institutions, where he showed me through the gallery and told me his story. Hugh told me that there was a lack of warmth – tough physical labour, corporal punishment, and sometimes even sexual abuse. And at the harshest of times, Hugh said, there was never a father to gently put his arms around you.

If you don’t gasp a few times when going through the exhibition, you’re not looking hard enough. A video depicts young children at Bindoon in Western Australia doing dangerous jobs like blacksmithing and tiling. A hand-drawn map of the layout of Bentleigh Children Home in Victoria shows red crosses where terrified children would hide to avoid abuse. An official sign from another home tells visitors that they are not to hold the babies.

Institutions were sometimes run by well-meaning people, but even then vital parts of childhood could be lost. Ryszard Szablicki said that some time after he left the Melbourne orphanage where he grew up: ‘I heard … people standing singing around a cake that had candles stuck in it. I didn’t even know what was going on.’ As another boy said of the institutions, only ‘intermittent humanity was provided’.

In 2009, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd offered a national apology to the forgotten Australians. Mr Rudd admitted, ‘whatever I might say today, the truth is, I cannot give you back your childhood. … But what I can do with you is celebrate the spirit that has lived within you over the decades.’ He promised that the Australian government would help trace lost families, provide counselling, and hold this exhibition at the National Museum of Australia.

So if you have a spare hour this summer, head down to the National Museum of Australia, and help ensure that the ‘Forgotten Australians’ become ‘the Remembered Australians’.

Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser, and his website is The National Museum of Australia’s exhibition Inside: Life in Children’s Homes and Institutions runs until 26 February.
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Sky News AM Agenda - 19 January

This year, my usual spot on the Sky News AM Agenda has moved to alternate Thursdays and my sparring partner is now Victorian Liberal backbencher Kelly O'Dwyer. Today we talked about the financial situation in Europe (compared with the strong performance of the Australian economy), and the manufacturing sector.
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Mobile Complexity

In today's Canberra Times, Ross Peake writes up my criticism of Australian mobile phone carriers for offering needlessly complex plans. A snippet:
A Federal Labor MP is gobsmacked that Australian mobile phone companies get away with offering plans that are very difficult to understand and compare.

Andrew Leigh is turning his frustration into a campaign, based on his experience with simpler plans offered in the United States.

He says the complexity of phone plans has a particularly hard impact on people with low levels of financial literacy. ''Complexity hurts the poor, new migrants and the elderly - in this sense unnecessary complexity operates like a regressive* tax,'' he said. Mr Leigh, who represents the northern half of Canberra, concedes that the Federal Government has little role to play unravelling the complexity of plans and caps. ''You can't legislate simplicity,'' he said.

* The article accidentally quoted me as saying 'progressive'. But of course a tax that hurts the poor is a regressive one.
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Advice to PhD Students

On 29 Nov, I spoke to PhD students at the ANU Crawford School. In case you'd like to watch it, the video has now been posted on the ANU website.

And here's my list of 10 suggested topics for economics PhD students.
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Great Teachers Have Lasting Effects

In the NYT, Nick Kristof writes up an important new paper on the impact of great teachers.
Having a good fourth-grade teacher makes a student 1.25 percent more likely to go to college, the research suggests, and 1.25 percent less likely to get pregnant as a teenager. Each of the students will go on as an adult to earn, on average, $25,000 more over a lifetime — or about $700,000 in gains for an average size class — all attributable to that ace teacher back in the fourth grade. That’s right: A great teacher is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to each year’s students, just in the extra income they will earn. ...

Conversely, a very poor teacher has the same effect as a pupil missing 40 percent of the school year. We don’t allow that kind of truancy, so it’s not clear why we should put up with such poor teaching. In fact, the study shows that parents should pay a bad teacher $100,000 to retire (assuming the replacement is of average quality) because a weak teacher holds children back so much.

Here's the academic abstract:
The Long-Term Impacts of Teachers: Teacher Value-Added and Student Outcomes in Adulthood
Raj Chetty, John N. Friedman, Jonah E. Rockoff

Are teachers’ impacts on students’ test scores (“value-added”) a good measure of their quality? This question has sparked debate largely because of disagreement about (1) whether value-added (VA) provides unbiased estimates of teachers’ impacts on student achievement and (2) whether high-VA teachers improve students’ long-term outcomes. We address these two issues by analyzing school district data from grades 3-8 for 2.5 million children linked to tax records on parent characteristics and adult outcomes. We find no evidence of bias in VA estimates using previously unobserved parent characteristics and a quasi-experimental research design based on changes in teaching staff. Students assigned to high-VA teachers are more likely to attend college, attend higher- ranked colleges, earn higher salaries, live in higher SES neighborhoods, and save more for retirement. They are also less likely to have children as teenagers. Teachers have large impacts in all grades from 4 to 8. On average, a one standard deviation improvement in teacher VA in a single grade raises earnings by about 1% at age 28. Replacing a teacher whose VA is in the bottom 5% with an average teacher would increase students’ lifetime income by more than $250,000 for the average classroom in our sample. We conclude that good teachers create substantial economic value and that test score impacts are helpful in identifying such teachers.
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Peter Veness

Last night, 27 year-old AAP journalist Peter Veness lost his battle with cancer. He had been diagnosed in 2009, and given just a few months to live. His survival for nearly three years is testament to his extraordinary inner strength.

As a new backbencher, I came to know Peter through his razor-sharp questions at the doors of Parliament House. Peter’s questions were always the most nerve-wracking part of a doorstop interview, because you knew that he couldn't be distracted from his focus on the important issue of the moment. He was no fan of the sideshow aspects of modern politics, and his eyes were invariably on the long game.

I sometimes wondered whether Peter acted like this because he knew his own clock was running out – and whether the rest of us would do well to act in the same way.

Australia has lost a fine scribe. Peter will be sorely missed by his many friends, and particularly by his widow Rebecca, his parents Cheryl and David, and his siblings Tim and Lara.
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Sky News AM Agenda - 11 January

David Lipson hosted Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham and me on the Sky News AM Agenda program this morning. Topics included multiculturalism, manufacturing and the benefits of foreign investment.

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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.