Subjects: Coalition Government in chaos, Banking Royal Commission, Marriage Equality plebiscite, Omnibus Bill, donation reform, Albanese biography
PETER VAN ONSELEN: As mentioned off the top of the program, our guest is the former Deputy Prime Minister, former Leader of the House and also now the Shadow Infrastructure Spokesperson for the Labor Party, Anthony Albanese. Thanks for your company.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Good to be with you.
VAN ONSELEN: Inevitably, we’ll talk about Sam Dastyari at some stage. We’ll also get a chance to talk about the biography that’s just come out about yourself by Karen Middleton. But let’s start with what happened on Thursday, if we can. This didn’t happen during your period in government, yet Labor was able to pull it pretty quickly on the Government. What about the flip side, though? They looked bad, but some voters might look at this and say, “Oh, it’s all just typical Canberra politicking and gamesmanship.”
ALBANESE: I think it goes to a more serious question than that, and that’s why it just can’t be dismissed. I mean, I was Leader of the House for six years – three years in a minority government. We began with 70 votes on the floor of the House of Representatives and not for one minute, not for one second, were we not in control. They couldn’t survive three days. They lost control of the House. They had a situation whereby it appeared that they dislike each other so much, with their internals, they were racing for the door to get out of there. And if you can’t run the Parliament, you can’t run the country. That is the take out that comes from Thursday night.
VAN ONSELEN: Can I ask you a quick question on this? Partly for the sake of our viewers, give us a sense of what the formal lines of responsibility are between the whips and the Leader of the House. But also, when ministers do this, there’s not much that they can do, is there, if they, if they don’t just do the right thing and not get out of there? Because, obviously, you can’t put ankle monitors on them. You expect them to be there until the adjournment.
ALBANESE: Well, you do expect them to be there and that’s why this hasn’t happened for more than 50 years. I mean, you weren’t alive, Peter, the last time that this happened. But the circumstances here, I think one of the take outs that I have is that when you’re convinced you’re born to rule, as many of those in the Liberal and National parties are, then you think you don’t have to work on it. You think it just comes naturally.
And that, I think, is what reflects the policy focus of this government. It reflects the organisational focus. They’re a lazy government. They don’t have a policy agenda. They don’t have organisational discipline. They think this government business is all easy. I mean they sat back when we were in minority government – and Tony Abbott was a very effective Opposition Leader, but, let’s face it – they acted just as an Opposition.
They opposed everything. They tried to destroy the Parliament. Each and every day, they had suspensions of standing orders, of question time, and they didn’t prepare for government.
So what it looks like to me is that this is an opposition in exile. This is an Opposition sitting on the Government benches. They’ve never transitioned from that Opposition mentality and thinking into government. They didn’t do it under Tony Abbott. And they haven’t done it under Malcolm Turnbull.
PAUL KELLY: Well, in your view, who is really responsible, inside the Government, for what Christopher Pyne conceded was a stuff up?
ALBANESE: Well, there were three people responsible. Firstly, the Whip, Nola Marino, has to accept responsibility. But secondly, Christopher Pyne, as Leader of the House, it’s his job to control the Parliament. That’s why it’s called Leader of the House. It’s a pretty simple title. And he didn’t do it. He didn’t think through. Clearly, there wasn’t the preparation. There weren’t enough warnings – “go out there” – that something like this could happen. We moved a number of procedural resolutions.
We were there until 7:30. So, for two and a half hours, he was behind. And, thirdly, Malcolm Turnbull. At the end of the day, when you’re the leader of the government, you are responsible for what happens in the Parliament. So all three have to accept responsibility. I haven’t seen any mea culpas from any of them. They’ve all spoken in the general. None of them have said, “I stuffed up.” They’ve said, “We stuffed up.” And I think that, that says a lot about their mentality. They have to accept responsibility.
KELLY: Well, I think this is a very good point. As far as I know, no one did accept responsibility. What does this mean in terms of a…
ALBANESE: Well, to be fair, they sent out one of the Ministers on AM, on Friday morning, Michael Keenan, so that – they threw him under the bus. But the people who are really in charge of the Parliament haven’t accepted responsibility.
KELLY: What does this event mean as an omen for the future of this parliament? Do you think the Parliament will run for a full three years or not?
VAN ONSELEN: But do you think…
KELLY: How long will it run?
ALBANESE: Look, it could, it could run for a year. It depends on their internals. If Malcolm Turnbull thinks that he is vulnerable, and quite clearly he is, I mean the open laughter at the Government’s circumstances.
I was around in Canberra Thursday night and again on Friday morning, and you had members of the Coalition being contemptuous of the performance of their own Government on Thursday night on the floor of the House of Representatives. And if Malcolm Turnbull thinks that he’s going to be defeated within his party room, then he will, I think, think about going to the people rather than having what occurred to Tony Abbott happen to him.
VAN ONSELEN: What about the idea, though, that it isn’t instigated by him, but that it’s instigated by Labor with a vote of no confidence? I know that’s not something that was happening on Thursday. It’s not something that the crossbench have suggested they naturally support. But could you imagine trying to do something like that?
ALBANESE: I can certainly imagine the Government being defeated on policy issues on the floor of the House of Representatives.
KELLY: Well, what does that mean? If, for example, the Government is defeated on the floor of the House on a major policy issue, how will Labor respond to that? Will Labor simply respond to that in terms of the merit of the policy? Or might Labor then decide, seeing it’s a substantive issue, might Labor then decide to move a motion of no confidence?
ALBANESE: Well, it could well be, but you would expect that the Coalition do have 75 votes on the floor of the House, so you would expect them to be able to keep confidence. But it’s a matter of whether they can actually govern. I mean, they had 75 votes – or should have had that on Thursday night, and they weren’t able to do so.
And one of the things that strikes me, and I’m not giving away tactics here, it strikes me that when they were in a position of having more votes on the floor of the House of Representatives than Labor, they didn’t use that to try and pursue their policy agenda. They tried to use that just to destroy us and to disrupt and to oppose. Now, Labor’s already indicated, and the Banking Royal Commission is just the first, that we will be pursuing our agenda on the floor of both Houses of Parliament and I think that is problematic for the government.
There were a range of Government Members who were very uncomfortable indeed with voting against a Banking Royal Commission. We know that a number of them think that that is the right thing to do. So there’s a range of issues there. We’ll wait and see how it plays out. But what’s very clear is that one of the reasons why Labor’s been able to do that is the vacuum that’s there. Have you a government without a policy agenda. They had a three word slogan; jobs and growth, but nothing behind it. No strategy, no plan.
KELLY: Well, Labor ran very hard all week on the Royal Commission into the banking system and got a motion up in the Senate, almost got a motion up in the House of Representatives. Will Labor continue, in terms of parliamentary tactics and parliamentary resolutions, when it comes to the Royal Commission?
ALBANESE: We certainly will. We think that this is an issue that has the support of the Australian people. There are so many people who’ve gone into our electorate offices over the years who’ve had issues with financial institutions, who’ve lost their savings, who’ve received bad advice.
There’s a range of issues with regard to the financial and banking sector which is strong in this country, but would be made stronger by the fact that you have a Royal Commission that’s able to examine all of the issues, that’s able to hear evidence, and come up with recommendations over issues like the placement of financial products, over whether it’s the case that institutions are lending to people who can’t possibly pay back the amounts that are given to them.
And isn’t it better to do that as a pre-emptive issue rather than wait until there’s a real crisis and then you have to deal with it? The banking sector and financial sector should welcome a royal commission, in my view, because it’s an opportunity to strengthen the system.
KELLY: Let’s talk about the same sex marriage plebiscite. Is the plebiscite effectively dead in the water?
ALBANESE: Well, we’ll wait and see. But, certainly, Labor’s position there has been very clear. We’ve said that at a time where the Government talks about savings, why you would waste hundreds of millions of dollars on, essentially, an opinion poll that will have no impact.
It will still require, whether it passes or doesn’t pass, will require a vote of the Parliament. Why not just skip the sideshow and have the vote of the Parliament? Because we’re very concerned.
I’m personally very concerned about the idea that we’ll have this public debate where, essentially, people get to vote in judgement on other people’s families. I’m concerned about the impact that that will have, particularly on the issue of children raised. Well, I’ve got news for the viewers. There are now children of same-sex couples. They’re there. And in terms of, won’t be impacted by the vote, but could be impacted by the sort of divisive debate that we’re already seeing from the opposition side.
VAN ONSELEN: Just on that, though, I mean, I have issues with the plebiscite for the same reason, but whether we like it or not, it’s going to a binary choice now. We know that the Government will not allow a free vote, which means three years of nothing happening. Don’t you think there’s more damage done over three years of this not being settled one way or the other versus – I agree – the damage nonetheless that happens in a vote on a plebiscite, but at least it happens earlier, it happens in February?
ALBANESE: Well, I think we’ve seen, Peter, the idea that the Government controls the Parliament is gone. That disappeared on Thursday.
VAN ONSELEN: So would you think that there might be a capacity there to get the numbers to be able to have a free vote in the Lower House, somehow? Almost have a motion before then going for the free vote?
ALBANESE: Well, I think there may well be. A majority of the Parliament, of both Houses, supports marriage equality. They’re the circumstances there right now. And I think that it makes sense to do that. We’ll pursue a bill. We’ll have a bill before the Parliament and we’ll be pursuing that.
KELLY: Now, in relation to fiscal savings, the government has brought forward its Omnibus Bill saying that Labor must commit to the savings that Labor assumed during the course of the election campaign. Now, I know you’ve got concerns about this. Other Labor figures have got concerns as well. What will Labor’s response be?
ALBANESE: Well, we’ll examine it and we’ll have our internal discussions on it. But let me say this; the idea that the Government has a mandate for one section of policy without implementing the whole package is nonsense.
Labor put forward a plan for the election. Take, for example, Newstart. It isn’t just about Newstart payments. We had a plan for training and skills and getting people into employment. The Government doesn’t have that. When it comes to ARENA and renewables, we had a plan of 50% by 2030. We had a plan of support for the renewable energy sector. The Government doesn’t have any plan beyond 2020.
KELLY: OK, so it’s an important point. So, essentially, what you’re saying is, because the Government is only looking at one side, that is Labor savings, not what Labor was going to do in terms of spending – therefore, Labor is not committed, Labor cannot be held accountable for these savings measures?
ALBANESE: Well, it’s not up to the Government to cherry pick what we support. Take for example, when you look at the overall economic position when it comes to inter-generational unemployment, that’s a big issue out there.
Part of the Gonski reforms of supporting education, with funding going to disadvantaged schools, is about that, is about addressing those issues. And we had to provide the fiscal position that – the space, if you like, to ensure we could fund those reforms.
KELLY: Sure, but I mean don’t you think Labor’s going to come under very severe criticism if it starts to cherry pick measures in this bill?
ALBANESE: Well, we have – $80 billion of savings were announced by Bill Shorten at the National Press Club. And I think what commentators such as yourself will begin to examine is what is their strategy for economic growth?
Take two issues – my area of infrastructure. They had no major plans announced during the election campaign. They had – about $800 million was announced for 78 road projects that were small. 76 of them were in Coalition electorates. Zero in Victoria. Not one road project announced during the election campaign for Victoria.
But take also their so-called savings. Take the issue of the savings in terms of payments of the change to the clean energy supplement as it was called. When you actually examine the detail there, the Clean Energy Supplement for those who are most disadvantaged, the poorest in our community – Newstart payments, disability support payments, pension payments were made as compensation, but you and I – we on the panel all benefited from the middle class income tax cuts. Other working poor benefited from the lifting of the income tax-free threshold. Business benefitted from the direct payments that were made as a result of finding compensation as part of the package.
They’re saying, “We won’t take any of that back. You can keep all of that, but for the poorest and most marginalised in our society, we’ll hit that back.” That’s bad enough. Except for the fact that you also had a discount, so the next time that the CPI – the inflation increases – were supposed to be passed on, they weren’t as a result of the fact that it was built in that there’d be an inflationary increase because of the carbon price and therefore you didn’t want double-counting.
So those people will be worse off than if there wasn’t a carbon price at all. It’s an effective real cut in the payments to Newstart, to disability support pensioners, to pensioners. Not just that, but the macroeconomic analysis as well. You had the Reserve Bank, that’s cut interest rates in order to stimulate demand and stimulate the economy – so, using monetary policy to try to boost economic growth. But what you have with regard to this response is, if you cut those people who spend every dollar that they earn…
KELLY: Well, you make a…
ALBANESE: ..that will have a contractionary impact on the economy…
KELLY: OK. You’re making it pretty clear that, as far as you’re concerned, Labor can’t wear all of that.
ALBANESE: Well, I’m putting a position that will be a part of the analysis that we have. Because, when you look at monetary policy, you can’t have the Reserve Bank acting in one way, the bank putting, pocketing some of it which is one of the reasons why you need the Banking Royal Commission.
But also, you need to look at where economic growth is going to come from and the idea that the Government policy, fiscal policy, should work in direct contradiction to monetary policy that the Reserve Bank is trying to implement – I think there’s a need for a bit of serious economic analysis of this as well. Who better than you to do it, Paul?
VAN ONSELEN: All right. We’re going to have to take a break. You can talk about that during the break. We’re talking to Labor’s Anthony Albanese. A reminder – later in the program, not too far from now, we’ll be talking to Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi. We’ll continue the discussion with Mr Albanese when we come back…
VAN ONSELEN: Welcome back. You’re watching Agenda. A reminder – we’ll be speaking to Senator Cory Bernardi very shortly. At the moment, Paul Kelly and I are talking to the former Leader of the House – which has been most relevant to most of our conversation up until now. Anthony Albanese, thanks for your company. Could I ask you about Senator Sam Dastyari? Surely, if people like Stuart Robert and others have stepped down from the frontbench in Government for what has happened in the past, what’s happened around Sam Dastyari means that he needs to step down.
ALBANESE: Well, let’s be clear here. The reason why you know about the issue of the donation is because Sam Dastyari stuck to the rules and declared it. The problem with Stuart Robert was that no one knew anything about it. Stuart Robert was a government minister who travelled to China on a so-called private visit and had meetings, allegedly as a private citizen, even though he was a portfolio minister…
VAN ONSELEN: Sure.
ALBANESE: …within Defence.
VAN ONSELEN: But in fairness, he didn’t stand next to a donor and then contradict party policy about the South China Sea and deliver his lines in a way that sounded like they could have just as easily been in an editorial of, of a state Chinese newspaper. I mean, at the very least, it looks like it is cash for comment.
ALBANESE: Well, Sam Dastyari has made it very clear that he supports Labor policy on the issue of the South China Sea.
KELLY: So we should be grateful that he supports Labor policy, having, having taken, having taken the money and then taken this pro China position on the South China Sea? Surely, he’s compromised.
ALBANESE: Well, let’s be clear here, Paul. There’s – on both the issue of any press conference that he did, by definition, it’s a press conference. It’s there for all to see and, in terms of the donation, it’s declared. It’s there for all to see as well.
VAN ONSELEN: And it looks bad, doesn’t it? I mean, it looks really bad.
ALBANESE: Well, this company has donated a lot more than $1,500 to the Liberal Party. It’s donated to individual Liberals as well as to the Liberal Party machine.
VAN ONSELEN: But Mr Albanese, you know…
ALBANESE: So let’s be very clear about that.
VAN ONSELEN: OK, but you know as well as we do that wherever these donations have gone from this company, it hasn’t, not at least do we know so far for anyone else, other than Senator Dastyari – been exposed that somebody has then taken a position that looks like it’s, in consequence, or at least connected to, possibly, that sort of cash for comment principle.
ALBANESE: Well, it’s not connected. The fact is that…
VAN ONSELEN: What was he thinking? Was he just in the moment, was he? He was surrounded by these people and he thought, “Yeah, you know what? Maybe China is right on the South China Sea.”?
ALBANESE: Well, Sam Dastyari declared the donation and – by definition, the fact that comments are made at a press conference – they were also very transparent and Sam Dastyari has now joined the Labor frontbench.
I think he’s been very effective on issues when it comes to banks and financial institutions and what we’ve seen here is a Government desperate to distract from the fact that everything it has touched since the election has turned to mud, whether it be Kevin Rudd’s candidacy for the UN Secretary General position, whether it be the royal commission into juvenile detention, whether it be the Census, whether it be running the Parliament, everything that it has touched has, has been chaos and has not worked.
KELLY: Well, can I just bring you back…
ALBANESE: And it has been desperate to say, “Look over here, look over here.”
KELLY: Can I just bring you back to the central issue here? Given your vast experience in Australian politics, how concerned are you about the way China is using financial power to try and build up its soft power influence in this country?
I’m not talking about one side of politics or the other. I’m talking about what seems to be a very clear approach and strategy on the part of China to try and, um, build up its influence in this country using money power. How concerned are you about that?
ALBANESE: Well, I’m concerned about the singling out of any one nation, Paul. And let me say this; since I’ve been in Parliament, I’ve seen a range of countries have donations and engagement with people.
In the last term of Parliament, there was someone who went on a trip to one of the former Soviet Republics, came back and asked a question during Question Time, relating to the issues in that country and the conflict that it was having with a neighbouring country, of Julie Bishop. I was concerned about that. I’m concerned, in general, about, about these issues and that’s one of the reasons why, when we were in government, John Faulkner was a very strong advocate of banning of foreign donations.
VAN ONSELEN: Do you support that?
ALBANESE: Yes I do. And we tried to do that as part of – we had a whole range of reforms. Let’s be clear here, Paul. Banning of foreign donations; that the donations that have to be declared to $1,000, making sure that donations have to be declared quicker. We won’t know what happened in the election campaign; the issue of Malcolm Turnbull’s $2 million donation that’s been reported in The Australian, we won’t know whether that’s a fact and the details of it until some time next year. Now, surely we can do better than that.
KELLY: So do you think this whole issue of political donations should now be put on the table and pursued in terms of reform?
ALBANESE: Absolutely, and we’ve tried to do it, Paul. We in Labor have tried to do it. We support increasing transparency when it comes to political donations. That’s been our position for a very long time. We have tried in the Parliament to do that and we’ll continue that’s, that’s still our position. It’s a position that we took to the election. It’s a position we’ve held for a long time.
KELLY: I want to take you back to the question I asked you about China, though, and, in reply to that, you said, well, you don’t want to you didn’t want to single out any particular country. But isn’t the reality, that China has singled itself out, that what we’re seeing, in terms of what we know already in the public record…
ALBANESE: I think, Paul, if you look for sponsored travel to international countries, you will find that China is not at the top of the list.
KELLY: Who’s top of the list?
ALBANESE: Well, I would suggest from my, just anecdotally, it appears to me that Taiwan and Israel are the two places that sponsor more travel for parliamentarians, just anecdotally, than other countries.
KELLY: Well, what do you feel about parliamentary travel – of this sort of sponsored travel for parliamentarians?
ALBANESE: Well, I’ve got to say, I’ve got to say, Paul, I opposed the – I think it was very short sighted that we completely cut off parliamentary travel for people who, who aren’t ministers. I thought that was very short sighted. I, when I was a lot younger, when I was the environment spokesperson, I was able to go to Europe looking at the Emissions Trading Scheme, go to meet with experts when it came to climate change.
I got a lot out of it. And I think quite often – there has been the odd bit of abuse that has occurred and that’s undermined what is a very good position, enabling Parliamentarians to grow. We live in a globalised world. Parliamentarians have to engage in our region and in the world. And, last year, to declare, I went to Hong Kong on a trip. I looked at the way that they were funding infrastructure investment in Hong Kong.
If you want to look at sustainable cities and how they’re dealing with things – I worked very hard in the time that I was there. That is the sort of travel that was very worthwhile. Now, I think there’s an issue that, unless you’re a Government Minister, you can’t do it. I’m going in a fortnight, I’m going to Britain. I’m going to the British Labour Party conference. I’m paying for my own airfare, paying for my own accommodation. Doing all of that. While I’m there, I’m going to be engaging with the City Deals.
I’ve got meetings with people from the Conservative Government, as well as the Labour Party. I’m going to the International Maritime Organisation. You have to do that if you’re going to be an effective Parliamentarian.
VAN ONSELEN: But just back on Sam Dastyari, just to close the circle on this; do you believe that there are any grounds for him to step down from the frontbench?
VAN ONSELEN: Not at all?
VAN ONSELEN: You’re not uncomfortable with the optics, even, at the very least of it?
ALBANESE: No. He, he declared the donation to him, as is proper.
VAN ONSELEN: OK.
ALBANESE: And, and he has conceded, to be fair to him, unlike – to go back to previous discussions – he said he was wrong. He’s accepted responsibility. He’s ‘fessed up. He’s paid the money back, unlike the Government that, even after Thursday’s farce, like no one’s responsible for it. He’s accepted responsibility. Obviously, I wasn’t aware of the circumstances that are there. He’s answered the questions himself.
VAN ONSELEN: We’ve got to talk about your book before we run out of time – not written by yourself, written about you by Karen Middleton. Let me get your views on, I guess, the wider accuracy of the book. Was it authorised? Semi-authorised?
ALBANESE: Well I cooperated with the book.
VAN ONSELEN: Sure.
ALBANESE: But it’s certainly not a hagiography. There’s a whole range of things in there that I disagree with and that was Karen’s right to, to do that.
I must say a lot of the critics were not prepared to do that on the record, so there are unattributed quotes in there. In general, though, it’s not just a political biography. It’s a very personal biography about my journey up to this point in my life and I think it’s a good read but, Karen, I think, is: I wanted someone who I could trust in terms of, she hasn’t tried to write a sensationalist biography for the sake of it, and I think she’s a well respected journalist and I think people will read it in that context.
VAN ONSELEN: Sometimes, these sort of books come out because they are part of the beginning of the end of a political career.
ALBANESE: That could well be the case!
VAN ONSELEN: Sometimes, sometimes, though, they’re part of the end of the beginning with a new chapter. You’ve risen to become Deputy Prime Minister. One thing you haven’t had is the Labor leadership or the Prime Ministership. Is that something that you’ve still got a baton in the knapsack?
ALBANESE: No, I got to the Acting Prime Ministership. I got to be Acting Prime Minister and I got to be Deputy Prime Minister and if you – I think you have read the book. You’re chairing an event at Marrickville Town Hall…
VAN ONSELEN: Yes.
ALBANESE: …on Tuesday night.
VAN ONSELEN: Haven’t got to the ending yet in the book, but I’m almost there.
ALBANESE: Well, the book – but, if you read the beginning anyway, you would recognise that the prospect of me rising to where I was, was very much against the odds and I’m very grateful to be, and honoured to be, a Parliamentarian. Anything else has been an absolute bonus.
VAN ONSELEN: Anthony Albanese, we appreciate you joining us, as you often do, here on Sunday Agenda. Thanks for your company.
ALBANESE: Good to be with you.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.