Oct 28, 2011

Interview transcript – Sky News Australian Agenda program

Anthony Albanese discusses Global Economy; Labor leadership; Infrastructure spending in NSW; Refugees.

Peter van Onselen:

Let me go straight to that issue of what’s happening out of Europe.  It is significant and it does have significant impact obviously on the Australian budget as well.  You’re committed to returning the budget to surplus in 2012-13 but it is a political commitment isn’t it, one that you may need to change if the global economy changes?

Anthony Albanese:

We are committed to getting there Peter, and we have done some pretty hard yards during the election campaign. For example we made no commitments that weren’t fully offset.  During the last budget we showed a great deal of discipline.  We think we are well positioned to get there, notwithstanding the fact that we’re not immune from what goes on in the globe. I think what it highlights is how well Australia came through the first global financial crisis, and the fact that we got it right.

Peter van Onselen:

But this is the irony, isn’t it.  We did come through the first global financial crisis well, essentially that’s why Wayne Swan was made world treasurer of the year. But then on the back of that, despite those realities, there are political implications if you don’t get the budget back to surplus.  So it’s a commitment that you have to stick to even though circumstances may make it hard to do.

Anthony Albanese:

Look, we’re engaged in the fastest fiscal consolidation in 40 years, and that has been because at the time that we put the economic stimulus plan in place, a plan that has meant that we have created 750,000 new jobs since we came to office, we have made sure that we had that discipline there of that return to surplus. We had a peaking of course of the stimulus and then it was designed so that it came down in the later years. What we know is that the European events are indeed extremely concerning, that’s why the treasurer is just back of course from another visit to Europe for the IMF. The fact that Australia is doing so well is in part Wayne Swan’s award, as an award for him personally, but it’s also an award for the Australian people and our resilience and the fact that we have not just rolled over into a corner and said this is too hard, we have got stuck in.  Whether it be the government, business that kept on people, or indeed people out there who refuse to be bowed by the pressure that was on from the headlines that they were reading.

Simon Benson:

Good morning minister.  I wanted to ask you directly about the Labor leadership.  I acknowledge you are from the left faction but many of your NSW colleagues from the right are angry about the Malaysia decision last week, the decision to dump that process. Even the party officials concede that members of the NSW right are softening in their support for the Prime Minister. Considering their numbers in the caucus doesn’t that pose a threat to the stability of her leadership?

Anthony Albanese:

Well I am an old-fashioned bloke, Simon, as you know, I’m loyal to the leader.  I continue to be so. I reckon that I would know too if people were ringing around, and that simply isn’t happening. What we’ve got to do is put our head down, our bum up, and move forward. That is what the caucus is focused on.  This is a government that’s just got through the most significant reform in terms of carbon pricing through the Lower House, and that will go through the Senate and be in place by 1 July 2012. We have got the range of other reforms across the board, whether it be the health reforms, education and skills.  We are dealing across the board with these big issues.  And that’s what I see my ministerial colleagues focused on. I know the media want to always bring it back to personality questions but that I don’t think is the focus of either the ministers or indeed the backbench.

Simon Benson:

You say you are loyal to the leader, and I accept that, and you were loyal to the leader last year, in fact you were doing the numbers for Kevin Rudd. Do you concede now that possibly you made a mistake; things haven’t got demonstrably better under her leadership.  Would you consider supporting Kevin Rudd again?

Anthony Albanese:

No, caucus made a decision and I respect that decision. It’s no secret what my position was, just as my position was to be loyal to Kim Beazley in the challenge before that. I think really if we think our problems – and there are issues there, there is no doubt about that – will be solved by personalities we’re wrong. What we’ve got to do is continue to knuckle down.  We’ve got a good story to tell, not the least of which arises from the discussion we’ve just had about how strong our economy is going.

Simon Benson:

But you say that you have got a good story to tell, Paul Keating on the weekend said that Labor no longer has a story to tell. In fact, he says that you are no longer talking to the aspirational classes, people on higher incomes.  Do you agree with his assessment?

Anthony Albanese:

No, I don’t. I’m a big fan of Paul but I don’t agree with that particular assessment. Where he’s right, of course, is any consideration of where we are at in the polls has to acknowledge that we need to have told our story better. There is no question about that. But we have got a good story to tell. A strong economy not as an end in itself, but to deliver greater opportunity for all Australians.

Peter van Onselen:

So how do you improve the telling of that story though, because I saw the Paul Keating remarks in The Australian yesterday, and he said the failure of the Rudd and Gillard administrations is the lack of an overarching story, the lack of a compelling story. You acknowledge that the salesmanship, if you like, of the government hasn’t been first rate. How do you improve that?  Because when I hear government ministers continue to spruik the government it doesn’t sound that different to the way they have been spruiking themselves for the last number of years. Something has got to change, doesn’t it?

Anthony Albanese:

Well we have to be pretty consistent about our narrative, I think, which is a strong economy in order to create opportunity for future prosperity. We need to do that. And we need to do it in a pretty consistent way. One of the things that we’re dealing with is the 24 hour media cycle of which this program is a part. The classic is last Tuesday night – the Tuesday night when parliament was sitting – I did Lateline, the carbon bills hadn’t passed the parliament yet, they were due for vote on the Wednesday morning.  I went on there to talk about them but they had already moved on to the next issue. We need to be pretty disciplined, I think, about staying on issues rather than saying, tick that issue’s done, let’s move on to the next issue. For example the national broadband network, wherever I go in the country, including I was with the Prime Minister in the Illawarra on Tuesday, that is a great story to tell. It’s about jobs, it’s about overcoming the tyranny of distance between regions and cities, it’s about providing opportunity in terms of income-based opportunity as well, access to education and health facilities.  This is an exciting project for Australia. We need to be honing in on that. It is natural, I think one of Labor’s weaknesses is we try to do perhaps too much because we are so committed to making changes in a positive way. We need to work out how to keep doing that but concentrate on some of the issues a bit more.

Peter van Onselen:

One of the other things that Paul Keating mentioned was he had a concern with the  alliance with the Greens. He doesn’t like it being put that way as an alliance, but that is what it is. The Prime Minister meets with Bob Brown every week during sitting weeks, every fortnight outside of them. You have been someone who has fought the Greens in your own backyard electorally for many years now, are you worried that the optics of that relationship between the government and the Greens makes it hard for you to in a sense sell some of the policies you have just been talking to us about?

Anthony Albanese:

I think it’s the case except for one term of the Howard Government that governments have always had to negotiate with minor parties.  It was the Democrats of course for a long time.

Peter van Onselen:

But there is a difference with negotiation versus an alliance, and I think that’s really what Keating was getting at.

Anthony Albanese:

We certainly don’t, if you look at a whole range of issues there are major differences between us and the Greens, over whether it be the substance of issues or indeed some of the details of the MRRT for example.

Peter van Onselen:

But doesn’t that reinforce the point, though?  I agree with that, there are enormous differences, but you wouldn’t know it if you’re only a casual observer of politics whenever you see the Opposition able to run the line that the government has an alliance with the Greens. Now, that is a far more powerful narrative for them as opposed to the reality that you’re talking about, which is that you do have differences.

Anthony Albanese:

We saw some differences this week with regard to the Ombudsman where the Greens, I think, showed once again that they are just another political party. I mean this was extraordinary that they were out there in such a self-righteous way given the role that they had played in the downfall of the Ombudsman. I mean, here is a guy who is responsible for probity issues and lining up questions with a Greens Party Senator in order to secure extra funding for the office. It was quite simply an untenable situation for the Greens to have involved themselves in. But did they respond by stepping back a little bit and perhaps acknowledging that they had acted inappropriately?  No, they got on the front foot.  And I think that the more there is exposure of some of the details of the Greens, not just their policies but their actions, I think it undermines their position.

Peter van Onselen:

I think that’s a good point, but what about this then.  The Opposition tried to get the Senate to force an explanation on Sarah Hanson-Young, not dissimilar to the explanation that was required of Eric Abetz after the Godwin Grech saga.  Now the government sided with the Greens in preventing that being forced upon her, why did you do that?  I mean, I think your call for greater scrutiny should have seen the Opposition and the government come together as one on that to take the Greens on.

Anthony Albanese:

That could well have been a procedural issue in the Senate; I leave that to the Senate tacticians to do that. Quite often those procedural issues are just stunts rather than issues of substance. I know that the Senate has a lot of business to get on with and I think people know what’s occurred with regard to the Ombudsman and Senator Hanson-Young, they’ll make their judgment.

Simon Benson:

I would like to go to your own portfolio of infrastructure. The Treasurer recently threatened to withhold infrastructure spending to NSW over Premier O’Farrell’s decision to lift mining royalties. Which projects in NSW will be affected by that?

Anthony Albanese:

Well, that was a statement with regard to no specific projects.  It was just a statement of fact that if government revenues are less then government spending will be less. That was just a commonsense approach. The Premier of NSW has to get, I think, more co-operative with the federal government. He has to acknowledge that he is no longer an opposition leader and I think needs to act like the premier of a major state.

Simon Benson:

He has tried to cooperate with you over the North-West Rail Link. Isn’t it time for you to concede that you got it wrong in terms of your funding for the Epping to Parramatta railway and just hand over the $2 billion to the NSW Government so they can get on with building what they pretty much have a mandate for?

Anthony Albanese:

You know Simon that $2 billion won’t build the North-West Rail Link.

Simon Benson:

It will help.

Anthony Albanese:

We have received – no, you can’t actually build a major infrastructure project without knowing where all the funding is coming from. That’s one of the reasons why we agreed with the NSW government on the Paramatta-Epping rail link; that was fully funded. The NSW Government has chosen to abandon that project by withdrawing their $520 million component of that; 520 from them, 2.1 from the Commonwealth would have seen that project completed. They have also abandoned the western express line, so you’ve had two rail projects abandoned by the O’Farrell Government. That’s their decision to make. What our view is is that we stick to our commitments.  We made a commitment in terms of the election there for specific projects. This isn’t untied grants.  And let me tell you, Simon, if I were to agree that specific funding for specific infrastructure projects became untied then the whole system would collapse because every single state premier and territory leader would all want to take that money and put it to their specific projects.

Simon Benson:

But Premier O’Farrell before he was elected gave you every indication that they would not accept the Epping to Paramatta rail link and they wanted to do the north-west. So you had fair warning about where they were going in terms of this policy decision, and you would have to say their mandate was pretty strong during the election and that was one of their key projects. Why will you not concede that that is the major project the NSW Government wants to build and give them the money?

Anthony Albanese:

Premier O’Farrell has got it wrong.  On a number of occasions recently has said that NSW hasn’t got its fair share of infrastructure funding. Of course they have got $12.1 billion of the $36 billion program. We have got major projects being rolled out. Next week on Tuesday I will be up at the Glenugie section of the Pacific Highway opening that section. We’re putting $4.1 billion into the Pacific Highway alone. We’ve got a range of other funding waiting to give to NSW, $840 million for the northern Sydney freight line, we are simply waiting for the State Government to sign off on the memorandum of understanding.  That will be critical. Not just for freight, but also for passenger rail because it will separate the lines. I don’t understand why it is taking so long for the NSW Government to sign the MOU so that we can get on with funding the project.

Simon Benson:

The other project that the O’Farrell Government want to build and previous governments have wanted to build in NSW is the M4 extension. That will require some government funding, federal government funding. Are you the only man that stands in the way of that being built?

Anthony Albanese:

Not at all. The fact is, as you know Simon and you wrote about in your book, that was to be funded by the proceeds of electricity privatisation in NSW by the Iemma Government. It was Barry O’Farrell that stopped electricity privatisation in NSW and stopped that funding being available.

Peter van Onselen:

I want to ask you about productivity if I can. Both sides of politics talk about the importance of lifting productivity to improve Australia’s competitiveness generally. In what ways can you actually do that though?  I would like to get down to specifics of how it can happen as opposed to some sort of ephemeral political goal.

Anthony Albanese:

I think my area is a key to national productivity, and we have done figures that we are going to be releasing today from the Bureau of Infrastructure Transport and Regional Economics.  What that shows is a $2.65 benefit for every dollar spent specifically on our major projects. There are 158 major road projects, about 40 major rail projects.  That shows enormous benefit. Essentially almost a three-to-one benefit to the national economy.  I think that shows the benefit longer term of governments making those investments in nation-building infrastructure. Often it’s a temptation around the table to go for the specific bang for the buck that you get from a more immediate expenditure, but nation-building infrastructure is absolutely vital to our economic future.

Peter van Onselen:

So if this nation-building infrastructure is going to lead to improvements in productivity basically at a return rate of three to one, how many of these projects are hitting completion in the coming six, 12, 18 months so that we will actually be able to, I guess, quantify the productivity gains on the other side of it?

Anthony Albanese:

They are really rolling out very quickly now. The nation building program of the 158 road projects, more than half of them have been completed. We are starting negotiations now with state and territory governments.  I’m talking to the West Australian Government tomorrow about what a future program might look like beyond 2014-15.

Peter van Onselen:

Let’s change tack with the time that we have got left, if we can. I want to focus on asylum seekers.  This is a hot issue, we have now got a situation where we have onshore processing, but in a sense it’s happened because of a stalemate between the government and the Opposition over how to do offshore processing. Now, where are you in this debate?  I realise that you are bound by cabinet solidarity, but at the end of the day back in the days of Carmen Lawrence you were very much there with her on the podium arguing for an end to mandatory detention, and she was very keen in particular on onshore processing.  Are you quietly as a senior figure in the Labor left not too disappointed by the result, even if it’s not the one that the Prime Minister and the immigration minister were aiming for?

Anthony Albanese:

I support decisions that are made and do my best as Leader of the House to get them through the parliament. We did everything possible. No-one could say we just backed off in terms of the implementation of the Malaysia arrangements. That was about a regional framework, and it was about also stopping people getting on boats. I think that anyone who saw the Christmas Island tragedy would agree, and people on the progressive side of this debate have always agreed, that it is preferable to stop people getting on boats because it’s a risk to their lives.

Peter van Onselen:

So would you sincerely say that in your view you have in a sense changed over the last eight to 10 years because of things like the Christmas Island tragedy you now see it as the more compassionate policy to stop them getting on the boats rather than to have a debate about forms of onshore processing which could encourage boats to come here, is that the idea?

Anthony Albanese:

I think one of the things that occurred is that there is an acknowledgment that it’s push and pull factors, and there is no doubt that that’s the case. There is no doubt that when you have expert advice from the Immigration Department that says that the Malaysia arrangements will make a difference, unlike Nauru and some of the other arrangements, then you have got to listen to that advice. I certainly think that it is the case that one of the issues with the onshore arrangements and the change in terms of bridging visas is that there will be the same arrangements for those people as currently occur who arrive just near my electorate, which is what most asylum seekers do, on planes. And that, I hope, changes some of the dynamic of the debate; that people get back to looking at what the real numbers are and get away from some of the hysteria which has characterised some of this debate, particularly from the Opposition.

Simon Benson:

Let’s get down to the raw politics of it. Do you really think the public are going to buy the argument that it’s all Tony Abbott’s fault that this policy has basically failed?

Anthony Albanese:

Look, I think in terms of the public what they want I think is for the boats to stop.  They want these issues to go away. I think that is what they would like. The fact is that if Tony Abbott had voted consistent with his own rhetoric he would support the legislation, which he still is able to at any time in the future to allow for offshore processing. I think that more and more as time goes on this will prove to be symbolic of the fact that Tony Abbott only has one answer to everything, which is to say no, and he only has one policy, which is to get himself elected into the Lodge.

Simon Benson:

Isn’t this political strategy flawed?  You’re trying to set Tony Abbott up as the fall guy for this and the person to blame for a failed policy. But implicit in that is that are you’re admitting that Tony Abbott is in control. I mean, he’s effectively running the country and running policy for you, shouldn’t you just let him?

Anthony Albanese:

No, what we have been trying to do is get good policy in place and get our legislation through. This wasn’t about tactics, this was about trying to get our legislation through the parliament consistent with the advice that we were getting, consistent also with the advice that Tony Abbott was getting, consistent with what both major parties say is their policy. The fact that Tony Abbott wouldn’t vote for that is pretty extraordinary, and I think presents him as the opportunist naysayer that he is.

Peter van Onselen:

Leader of the House and Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Anthony Albanese, we appreciate you joining us on Australian Agenda.

Anthony Albanese:

Good to be with you.