Issues: School shooting in Connecticut; Ashby LNP conspiracy; Government’s economic management; Pacific Highway; Government’s record infrastructure investment
PETER VAN ONSELEN: To discuss some of these issues as well as – unfortunately – some of the grubbier side of politics as well, we are joined by Anthony Albanese. Welcome to the program.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Good to be with you, Peter.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Before we get to domestic issues – policy as well as politicking, obviously the news of recent days is absolute tragedy coming out of America, out of Connecticut, now do you have any faith that gun reform in the United States is something that could be embraced in the light of what’s happened?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well if this heart-breaking tragedy doesn’t cause some momentum to be built around gun reform, then I don’t know what will. I certainly hope that that’s the case. We know that the consequences are there for all to see so tragically, and certainly my heart goes out to all those who’ve been affected by this directly in this small town in the United States. It just defies belief that this has occurred.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: How realistic do you think it is, I mean, I think we all – we do it regularly whenever there is a massacre in the United States. We all call for gun reform. You see Twitter come alive with the number of shooting deaths in the United States each year versus other countries that do have gun reform already in place, a tragedy of this proportion with people so young – do you actually think that more than just rhetoric about the need for it out of the United States will ensue now?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: I hope that that’s the case. This is an extraordinary event and tragedy but, you know, at the same time I read this morning of a father killing his child in the cabin of their vehicle, when his gun went off accidentally, over the last 48 hours in the United States.
These tragedies from guns occur on a day-to-day basis. An event such as this though is so breathtaking, and I think those of us with kids think about how when you send your child off to primary school, you expect them to come home safe.
A school is a safe haven and if this doesn’t create some momentum, it’s hard to think of anything that would.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Now or never.
On to domestic issues, there’s a story today in the Sunday News Limited papers, about Warren Entsch, the Whip for the Opposition in the Lower House, being aware before the media story came out about what was happening with James Ashby and Peter Slipper, does this make the government, you know, guaranteed to go down the path of looking to have an inquiry into all of this?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: This is an extraordinary revelation that Warren Entsch, the Whip for the Coalition, knew about it prior to it being published. This follows the fact that the computer records appear to indicate that the Tony Abbott’s press release was prepared prior to the publication of that article. It goes to the ongoing engagement of Mal Brough, as well as contact between Ashby and Christopher Pyne and other senior members of the Coalition, including Julie Bishop. We really need some transparency here; and every time Tony Abbott says that he had no specific knowledge, he confirms that he and the Coalition were in it up to their neck.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: And the government have made this point in the media, but I guess the next question is: will you look to launch an inquiry here? You’ve got cross-bench support to do just that. You have the capacity to, you’ve gone through some of the evidence that appears to be mounting – the Entsch side of the story, the computer issues in Tony Abbott’s office – will the government push for an inquiry?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: We’re certainly considering that as an option, because this is a very serious finding by a court. This court has found an abuse of process. The judge spoke about a combination, which is really a legal term for a conspiracy, between senior members of the LNP to sit down and try to work out how they could use the court process in order to put political pressure on the Speaker of the House of Representatives in order to change the make-up of the House of Representatives.
So I can’t think of anything more serious than people trying to change a government through abusing the court process, and that’s why the judge found that for him to allow the court processes to continue would have indeed brought the legal system into disrepute.
Now what this has done is certainly bring the political system into disrepute. It has meant that the Coalition have been caught engaging in a conspiracy in order to try to alter the make-up of the House of Representatives.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Well it shows that Mal Brough appears to have – according to the judgement – been caught up in that, but there’s no reference to any member of shadow cabinet; there’s no reference to Tony Abbott; the government, however, has been keen to link the two – an inquiry will sort that out. You say you’re considering it: what does that mean? When will we know?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: It means that what we won’t do is just shoot off at the hip. We’ll consider all of the analysis and get proper advice – the government’s getting proper advice.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: So not until next year?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: We’re getting proper advice about what options are available to the government, and the public, I think, are increasingly demanding a right to know about the involvement of the Coalition. While Justice Rares doesn’t go through each member of the Coalition and their involvement because that’s not his brief in terms of the court case; what he does go through is the evidence that was presented and quite clearly what we had here, for example, was a range of – as the judge calls it – scandalous accusations made that were then withdrawn.
So they’re made through an abuse of the court process, put through the public airing through the newspapers, and then withdrawn because there are no facts to back them up. A range of quotes that were used allegedly in text messages never even appeared, and it’s pretty clear that someone paid for the army of lawyers and public relations agents that were involved in this conspiracy.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: But Minister, an inquiry will sort all of this out, why do you need to wait for legal advice on this? We’ve seen inquiries announced with relative haste before, when the matters demand it, and this time we’ve got government minister after government minister saying how serious this is, including you today on this program, why not just announce the inquiry and then sort out the details later?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Because it needs to be gotten right in terms of not a political process, not a witch hunt, but an administrative process that gets those details right so that the facts can be out there, so that it can be done in a proper way so that we do have some transparency to it.
At the moment, Tony Abbott and others are trying to hide behind “no specific knowledge”. That is the term that is used all the time, and every time “no specific knowledge” is used, he just confirms that he did have knowledge, that he was in it up to his neck and he doesn’t want the Australian people to know what that knowledge was.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: I’m sure a lot of our viewers are thinking when you accuse Tony Abbott of being vague in saying no specific knowledge, they’re thinking about, you know, the terminology that Bob Carr has used in relation to Eddie Obeid, that he had no knowledge of wrongdoing, or, indeed, that the Prime Minister made similar observations in relation to AWU. We’ve had no call for an inquiry in relation to AWU; we’ve obviously got the ongoing …
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Yes we have actually.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: We’ve heard no response to that though, by the government.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Yes, we have. Contrast the difference. The Prime Minister stood up twice before the national Press Gallery and answered every question that they had. The Prime Minister indeed on the last sitting day of Parliament gave Tony Abbott 15 minutes – a free kick away you go, put out whatever you’ve got, whatever evidence you’ve got on the table in Parliament under parliamentary privilege.
Tony Abbott wasn’t even prepared to do that. What we’re talking about with the Prime Minister is transparency about an event that happened almost two decades ago. Contrast this with what we’re talking about today – events right now in this term of Parliament, in order to try to bring down a government.
And you have senior members of the Coalition involved in this. It’s been reported that Tony Abbott was prepared to offer Alex Somlyay, the Member for Fairfax, an overseas posting in order to vacate his seat prior to the last election. This is a favoured son of the LNP. So you have Mal Brough, you have all these senior Coalition members knowing about it, Warren Entsch, the Whip, whose job it is to inform the Leader’s office and to work on a day-to-day basis with the Leader’s office about these issues, and Tony Abbott, you’d have it believe, didn’t know about it?
What we have in common also is that every time they’ve been asked, when Mal Brough was asked, had he had any contact with Ashby, his answer was: Nonsense; and then his answer was: You’re going up a dry gully. Well we know that he not only met with him, he helped to organise his legal support; he helped to organise linkages with people such as Mark McArdle and others in the LNP; he helped to, indeed, offer Ashby and Doane employment prospects in order to advantage them post-this case.
This is all set out in what is the most damning finding that I could possibly imagine any judge of the court handing down.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Yet the government is still pondering its choice in relation to an inquiry, rather than simply saying we need one.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Yes, because we’re a government that acts on the basis of evidence and acts in a considered way.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: What about the Speaker, or the former Speaker I should say, Peter Slipper, should he be reinstated as Speaker? I mean, if – if the government had had its way, rather than Slipper making the resignation himself, presumably Anna Burke still would have been acting Speaker and there still would have been an opportunity for Slipper to come back now. Are you prepared to consider that?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well Peter Slipper made a decision himself to resign as Speaker of the House of Representatives. We have a Speaker in Anna Burke.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: If he’s in a sense, we won’t say cleared, as such, but if he’s had this kind of finding by a judge in relation to the private matter against Ashby, doesn’t that clear the decks for him to perhaps come back as Speaker? Otherwise we’ve got somebody who has stepped down have they – when they shouldn’t have needed to step down, or do you think that there were grounds for him to step down quite apart from this case – with some of the revelations?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well he resigned from the position, and therefore at that point, we moved on and Anna Burke is doing a good job as the Speaker. I think Peter Slipper was a very good Chair of the Parliament, and I haven’t had a discussion with him about what his next plans are, but certainly I think at this point it could be just some relief that this whole shabby exercise is over.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: On The Nation with David Speers, Joel Fitzgibbon, the Whip on your side of the Parliament, made the point that he felt that Labor needed to just be prepared to embrace the fact that the surplus was gone and that it needed to consider not having to have a surplus. Do you accept that?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: No, I don’t. The government’s been determined to return the Budget to surplus. We’ve shown in the past that we can make tough savings decisions. We’ve created space in the Budget, for example, to provide support and rebuild Queensland after the floods.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: So you’re confident that you will still deliver this surplus in May when the Budget’s handed down?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Yes, we’re working hard to make sure that that can happen. I know I’ve been a part of the process, and we’ve recently brought down the mid-year economic forecast, and in that we had a range of measures that went through the Parliament in the last week.
See the interesting thing, Peter, is that while the Opposition were obsessed during the last week about what happened, or might have happened almost two decades ago, in the last sitting week – we got through legislation on the mid-year economic forecast; we got through legislation on the Murray-Darling Basin water plan; we introduced legislation on the National Disability Insurance Scheme; we introduced legislation on the Gonski reforms.
So this is a government, to take up your editorial point, this is a government that’s been getting on with the business of governing. Meanwhile the Opposition have been engaged in all this mess, whether it’s attacking the Prime Minister on a personal basis, or whether it’s their engagement in what’s known as ‘Ashbygate’.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: But there’s also a lot of speculation, you know, about whether the government will achieve its surplus or not. You’ve got members – senior members of your own side saying that it should be prepared to give up on the surplus. You’ve got the latest monthly release of revenue figures showing that, I believe, revenue windfalls are down $1.8 billion in the last month alone – which is more than the surplus.
At the end of the day, when is the point going to come where the government is going to do what we all expect it do – and admit that the surplus is too hard, albeit perhaps for reasons outside of the government’s control? It looks like we are being baby-stepped towards that.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: No, if you look at what we’ve actually done and you look at the mid-year economic forecast which was just weeks ago, you’ll see what the government’s actions have been, rather than speculation about what might happen in terms of global economic forecasts.
Indeed, just this week the OECD brought down a report that once again heralded the Australian economy, indeed spoke about the Australian economy as the Iron Man of the global economy – that shows how strong we are going as an economy. We’re a government’s that’s produced lower unemployment, lower interest rates, lower spending as a proportion of GDP. All of the key economic indicators are very positive.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: And some economists would say, because of the strength of the Australian economy, it can afford to dip into a small deficit, given the nature of what is happening globally. But let me put it to you this way – because we can’t seem to find a minister that’s prepared to do more than slightly soften the rhetoric on whether the surplus is going to be achieved – if you had to walk through a door and your life depended on it, is the government going to deliver a surplus or is it going to fall into a small deficit in May?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well the government’s going to deliver a surplus. That’s our policy. That’s what we’ve been working towards. We’ve shown that we’ve been prepared to make appropriate cuts that don’t affect low and middle income earners, that provide that protection there. We’ve shown also we can make tough decisions without endangering that long-term economic growth – so you’ll notice we’ve continued to invest in infrastructure, because that’s about future growth, and it would be cutting off our nose to spite our face if we went down the road of just cuts for cuts sake.
That’s not what we’re about. What we’re about is strengthening the base of the Australian economy. We’ve done that through good macroeconomic management and also by being very deliberate about the cuts that we’ve made and the changes that we’ve made, all of which of course have been criticised by the Opposition. Look at the Opposition – when they’re overseas, Joe Hockey speaks about getting rid of the age of entitlement, but back at home we have never seen a saving that he was prepared to support.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: In your portfolio area roads is a key factor, now the Australian Automobile Association have expressed concern, I suppose, that I think 10 cents out of every 40 cents of tax per litre goes into roads, the remainder goes elsewhere; there are roads – including the Pacific Highway – which are, you know, death traps, let’s be honest.
How is the government going to sort of look to do something here and get past what has long been an impasse between how to fund upgrades to these roads, such as this one, where you have to deal with state governments?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: We’re getting on with the job of delivering. Just today we’re announcing with the New South Wales Roads Minister Duncan Gay the Frederickton to Eungai contract for the Pacific Highway. That’s a $762 million project. It is the area where Australia’s worst bus crash happened at Clybucca more than 20 years ago. It’ll be funded on a 50-50 basis.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Why 50-50 and not 80-20? Tony Abbott’s been calling for 80 federal 20 state to replicate some of the roll-out of funds that came in the wake of the GFC?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Tony Abbott, of course, was part of a government that couldn’t even contribute 50 per cent to the Pacific Highway in all of their 12 years, and now he dishes out this rhetoric. It was John Howard that established the 50-50 funding basis for the Pacific Highway. What we did during the global financial crisis was put extra funds in the Pacific Highway, so that the section that’s being done – the first bit of the Kempsey bypass – is 100 per cent Commonwealth funded: $613 million.
What Tony Abbott did of course, post-Parliament, was show us his one policy initiative, which was to drive a truck down the Pacific Highway, and he showed yet again the lack of policy detail. Firstly, when he left, he said the former Howard Government committed $500 million to the Tugun Bypass. The reality is their contribution was $120 million, far less than 50 per cent.
He of course then went on to say that he could provide extra funding through the contingency reserve, which is where he said the Parramatta to Epping rail funding was. That’s just not true, and any cursory look at the Budget shows it’s not true. Tony Abbott just talks through his hat. He said the Coffs Harbour Bypass would be funded through his commitment and then Luke Hartsuyker, the local member, had to dissociate himself from it just 30 minutes later.
So Tony Abbott when he tries to do some policy doesn’t do the detail, doesn’t do the homework, because he’s just obsessed with this negative campaign.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: So how did you get a deal – a 50-50 funding deal – on the Pacific Highway with the New South Wales government, because there had been a lot of resistance towards exactly that for some time?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well it’s always been 50-50. They know that’s the case, notwithstanding their rhetoric and a try-on, to try and get extra money. I mean, if you had economic stimulus money that was permanent, then you’d have permanent BER capital funding in the schools; you’d have permanent funding for, say, the flood arrangements that occurred. What we had was additional funding provided during the GFC. That made sense putting money into construction.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: But who approached who to get the 50-50 deal? Because there had been this stand-off for a while.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: We made provision in last year’s Budget of 50-50 and it was agreed last year by the state government to put in 50-50; there was none of this argy bargy, when we found additional money this year, they started to argue that they should only put in 20 per cent.
They’re on the record time after time – the Premier, the Deputy Premier, all these senior Ministers – saying the state government should match federal government money on the Pacific Highway. We’ve asked for nothing more and nothing less than what they said they would do.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: And just finally, Minister, are we going to see more of these type of announcements around the country? And I ask because obviously we’re coming up to an election year, pork-barrelling does happen, but also there is a real need for federal roads in particular to achieve upgrades.
Again the AAA, the Australian Automobile Association, say that I think something like one in six federal roads, they believe are sub-par on where they need to be from a safety standard, are we going to hear more announcements about federal roads and upgrades?
ANTHONY ALBANESE: We’ve doubled the roads budget and if you look at any of the specific roads, the Hume Highway will be finished, the full duplication, in the coming year; the Pacific Highway, we’re getting on with; there’s 1700 people working on the Pacific Highway right now.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: But despite that, Minister, they say that one in six federal roads are problematic, so …
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well you’d expect them to put the case strongly for more funding for roads. You’d expect them to do that. I don’t accept their figure, regarding the amount of money that goes into roads, because what they do is exclude the money that we fund through state governments and through local government through projects such as Roads to Recovery, for example.
So we will continue to fund the major highways; we’ve doubled the roads budget; we’ve also importantly – and we don’t hide from this fact – we have increased the rail budget by more than 10 times. We’ve committed more to urban public transport than all governments combined from federation right through 107 years to 2007, because we need to address those urban congestion issues as well, and part of that has to be rail as well as road.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Anthony Albanese, thanks for joining us. I hope you get a bit of a break over Christmas.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: And you Peter.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Thank you.