SUBJECTS: ‘Right to Know’ campaign; Senate Estimates; press freedom; FOI requests; economy; Labor’s federal election review.
HOST: The Leader of the Labor Party federally, Anthony Albanese, is on the line. Morning to you, Albo.
ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Good morning.
HOST: Albo, while the Federal Government has been shrugging it’s shoulders about issues such as the AFP raids on the Annika Smethurst. You guys have jumped on board with the ‘Right to Know’ campaign. It’s felt this week with the performance of the Government too – the Senate Estimates hearings where you’re trying to get to the bottom of public expenditure and service delivery – that through their own tactics, they’ve inadvertently underscored the very point you’ve been trying to make.
ALBANESE: Oh, look, absolutely. We’ve had extraordinary performances at Senate Estimates whereby basic questions have been taken on notice; or they’ve just been ignored or referred to ministers answering questions in other forums. Anything but just giving a straight answer. Now we have a parliamentary democracy, and in that parliamentary democracy, people are accountable. In particular the Government’s accountable for spending what is, after all, your listeners’ money on various programs, but we’re just not getting answers. Then this week it’s underlined. I think this all started, of course, as a tactic with Scott Morrison over migration matters, just saying that he wouldn’t give answers, they were ‘on-water matters’. Well, this is quite incredible. But, now we have a ‘no-water matter’ called the drought; where we can’t even get access to the Drought Coordinators report, which went to the Government a long time ago now, and which surely should be released along with other basic documents.
HOST: Is it just attitudinal or does something have to be legislated when it comes to things like FOIs and the release of information?
ALBANESE: I think clearly we need to look at the legislation. What seems to be happening now is a bit of a pattern of stamping various documents in confidence and therefore using that as an excuse to not release them. And it is a growing problem. And it’s one which will increasingly, I think, be self-defeating because we know that there’s already a trust problem between politicians and the general public, regardless of party politics. That’s not a partisan comment. It’s a general feeling which you have seen at the last election. More than one in every five Australians vote for a party which couldn’t possibly form government.
HOST: I don’t think anyone listening is going to disagree with the sentiment here. But what does it look like in practice, to take away the Government’s discretion to mark things secret, for example? How do you define that?
ALBANESE: Look, there are some matters that clearly should remain secret. If there is a concern in terms of national security issues. But, something that is, for example a commissioned report by the Government into policy issues, there’s no reason why the public shouldn’t get access to it. I think the default position should be that it’s made available. In part it’s a cultural problem, the Government could fix this through practice, but it would appear that we need something stronger than that, just as we need to look at whistleblower laws and any impingement on media freedom that we’ve seen with the raids on the ABC; the raid on Annika Smethurst from the Herald Sun. And these are issues which I think have led to the Right to Know campaign. And it’s a broad campaign that I support, but I’m not prepared to tick off on everything that’s being put forward. I’m concerned about defamation laws – play an important role in holding the media to account and it’s that balance that we need.
HOST: Albo, I can’t certainly recall a time there’s been a more varied assessment of the state of the Australian economy. You’ve got unemployment at a reasonable point, 5.2 at the moment, you’ve got a current account surplus. So the trade balance is looking good. Interest rates are at a record low. Yet, on the other side, retail confidence is horrific. GDP per capita is down. Lots of commentators suggest the economy is in retreat. What is your assessment of where the Australian economy is at right now? And I guess more importantly, if you were the Government of the day, what would you be doing, if anything, to address it?
ALBANESE: Well, what we’d be doing is bringing forward infrastructure investment for projects that are in the pipeline, which have been announced, but which are off on the never never. And there’s no excuse for that. I think in terms of in South Australia, for example, the progress on the South Road for that full upgrade could be brought forward. The other issue that could be done is through local government, in particular, programs like ‘Roads to Recovery’ and Blackspots’. The other thing that could be done is the Government could actually spend money that they say that they’re spending. There’s $5 billion less investment than what they’ve said they would spend on various Budget nights since they’ve been in office. But the other thing is that the figures that you quote, some of them hide the reality. For example, the unemployment figures hide under employment, which is actually at record levels. Close to 2 million Australians say they want more work than they currently are able to enjoy. And of course, the low interest rates are a sign from the Reserve Bank that they believe there needs to be stimulus in the economy and monetary policy can’t do much more. Interest rates are at 0.75, the cash rate. And that’s why we’ve got to look at fiscal policy, which is what the Reserve Bank – now, the International Monetary Fund, most economists, the Business Council of Australia, IA group, in terms of manufacturers, are all saying the same thing. The Government is very complacent about the economy. And I think that they believe they won the election in May and they’re entitled to a victory lap. And we should all just be clapping as they run round the oval. Well, they need to actually do their job. And their day job is to make sure that Australians are secure in their work and the economy is going well.
HOST: Albo, the review into Labor’s performance at this year’s election is not far off, headed up by Jay Weatherill and Craig Emerson. A couple of weeks ago, I spoke to Mark Butler about the question of your climate policies after Joel Fitzgibbon put forward his own proposal. And Mark’s view was, look, there’s going to be certain policies that are up for grabs and everything’s on the table, but there are certain key principles that are not up for grabs. And he talked about meeting the Paris targets there. I understand you’re going to be giving a series of speeches soon, sort of mapping out the broad sort of philosophical parameters for Labor under your leadership. Is that the kind of thing that you’re going to be teasing out, putting a few markers in the sand about what you stand for?
ALBANESE: Yes, and also talking about what our priorities are. So, the first one is about jobs and the future of work, and that’ll be given in Perth next week. And that’s a very conscious decision that Labor’s first priority is about employment, about jobs, and about good quality jobs – the nature of them as well. So, we’re putting down that those markers. It is a signal of what our priorities would be in government, and what our priorities are in terms of policy development. The review will be an important look at the election campaign. Why we weren’t successful and I await that review, but once we receive that, I think we’ll be in a much stronger position to go forward. And it’s a part of us referring to our first discussion here this morning. It’s about us being transparent, about us being prepared to examine and in a clear way what went wrong; how we can do better in the future.