Subjects: Liberal Party; Robert Menzies; Malcolm Turnbull; marriage equality; infrastructure.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: As promised I am joined now by the Shadow Infrastructure Minister, Anthony Albanese. Thanks very much for your company.
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Good to be with you Peter.
VAN ONSELEN: A bit of chaos on the Liberal Party, is that the fair way to describe it? They are trying to work out whether Menzies was a moderate or a conservative. What do you reckon?
ALBANESE: It’s pretty bizarre that they are debating what happened in the 1940s and 50s when it is a crisis today in the 21st century that they have to deal with right now. So I think these philosophical debates are rather interesting, but that’s all they are. I would have thought that they needed to get is some practical outcomes rather than academic debate across the other side of the world.
VAN ONSELEN: What I find weird about it and I wonder if to think the same on this is labelling someone like Robert Menzies conservative because his views then would be conservative now is as ridiculous as talking about anyone from that time injected into today. I mean even radical lefties in the 50s would look conservative in today’s time.
ALBANESE: It’s absurd. Marx said that he wasn’t a Marxist while he was still alive. Because people and things change so a political philosophy of a particular time, if you try and translate it, whether of the Left or the Right, on to modern times, existing circumstances, then you will run into bother. You end up, I think, largely having an academic debate, but more importantly, getting some quite bad outcomes because you distort what the debate is today. Who knows, the truth is, what Menzies would be like today? He would respond, one would have thought, as someone who was able to change different views over a period of time. He’d do the same thing and the modern economy is very different. What we do know is that Malcolm Turnbull is certainly no progressive. You can’t say that you are progressive if you are not doing something about marriage equality; if you have a report on climate change, the Finkel Report, where you come up with the one recommendation that matters, you’re not prepared to actually engage with your party room on.
VAN ONSELEN: We might get there eventually. It is under consideration. I want to get you on the marriage equality one though – a poll in The Australian: have a plebiscite 46 per cent; have politicians decide only 39 per cent.
ALBANESE: Well, that’s not surprising. If you ask them do you want to decide what your tax rate should be I reckon it would be a bit higher than 46 per cent. If you asked them do you think you should decide what education funding should be, I reckon that might hit 80, 90, 95 maybe. That’s just a fact of life. I mean what a rather cute question to ask, knowing what the answer is. People will always say yes I should decide as a default position. But the truth is that politicians decide the whole range of measures. The other thing is hitting up against reality. There’s not going to be a plebiscite. The Senate is not about to wake up tomorrow and change. Labor won’t change our position. No-one …
VAN ONSELEN: Even though people want one?
ALBANESE: People want a change. Ask them about health funding. See what answer you get. Ask them about media reform and see what answer you get.
VAN ONSELEN: Don’t get me wrong. I editorialised earlier that the question didn’t include that it was a non-binding plebiscite and if it had done that it would have had a different result.
ALBANESE: The truth is there will be a Parliamentary vote. It’s a matter of whether …
VAN ONSELEN: It’s a plebiscite that precedes it or not?
ALBANESE: Well there is a plebiscite. It’s called Newspoll. It’s called a range of polls that indicate there is overwhelming public support. I will say this about marriage equality – there are many people including parliamentarians, senior people on both sides, who used to oppose marriage equality who have changed their mind. There is no-one I know who used to support marriage equality who says now I have changed my mind, I think it’s a bad idea. History is headed one way here. We are falling behind the rest of the world. In Germany of course Angela Merkel just decided. She voted against it, but she decided let’s get on with it, have a vote of the Parliament, have a free vote. And it happened. And guess what? The sun still came up in Germany. Life went on. It didn’t affect any existing relationships. It will be the same thing here. People will wonder what the fuss was about. But what it is doing is defining the inertia of Malcolm Turnbull’s prime ministership. That’s why the smarties in the Coalition, including some of the conservatives, want to get this off the agenda because it’s this absolute hand brake on Malcolm Turnbull showing that he is in charge. He never supported a plebiscite. He doesn’t now. The only reason why a plebiscite was ever put on the agenda was a blocking move by Tony Abbott. We should call it out for what it is, get on with the vote.
VAN ONSELEN: Well I don’t disagree with any of that. Let’s move into a portfolio discussion. Rare moments of bi-partisanship are on display around the country but there was bipartisanship over at state level in Western Australia between the Labor Premier Mark McGowan and the Liberal Opposition Leader Mike Nahan that as a state their share of GST funding which is so low – 34 cents in the dollar – means that they can’t build the kind of infrastructure they would like to support another mining boom and there are all sorts of flow-on negative effects for the national economy. Why won’t Federal Labor commit to fixing that?
ALBANESE: Well what Federal Labor did when we were in government of course was to build infrastructure, was to give substantial support be it the Perth City Link Project, the Gateway WA project …
VAN ONSELEN: So on that can I just ask you, does WA get disproportionately larger sums of infrastructure spending from the Commonwealth, or did it under Labor, than other states, because it would need that presumably to make up for the GST shortfall?
ALBANESE: They did when we were in Government. We had a separate WA infrastructure fund and so projects like …
VAN ONSELEN: Is that still in?
ALBANESE: Well we committed at the last election for projects like Perth METRONET – opposed by the Coalition Government. Now there is some funding flowing through because reality has hit WA. WA needs to get the planning done right for projects and needs to be given support. Across the board I think there is a case for more infrastructure spending. There was a report last week from the Parliamentary Budget Office that showed that as a proportion of GDP – the size of the economy – the proportion spent on infrastructure over the next decade would fall from 0.4 per cent to 0.2 per cent. That is half. That will have a devastating impact on the economy if that is allowed to continue. We know that in the forward estimates infrastructure spending will fall from a predicted $9.2 billion – what it was supposed to be this year – in actuality or in 2016-17, in actuality it ended up being $7.6 billion. But that falls to $4.2 billion in 2020-21.
VAN ONSELEN: Is that because they are trying to make the books look better into the future?
ALBANESE: They are, which is why you had this rhetoric about not being a post box for the states and territories in terms of applications. I was in South Australia yesterday, that isn’t getting its fair share. I will be in Melbourne tomorrow. Victoria is getting under 10 per cent of the national infrastructure budget.
VAN ONSELEN: Do you think so that federal governments might not be inclined to try to make the forward estimates look better, do you think that infrastructure should be quarantined from the books, I mean, a little bit like our businesses do their budgeting?
ALBANESE: Absolutely. I think there is a distinction to be drawn between expenditure on capital investment that produces a return to government and one that basically is a cost, just an expenditure. That’s not to say that is not worthwhile.
VAN ONSELEN: Sure.
ALBANESE: In some areas like education it produces a return but it is much less tangible …
VAN ONSELEN: But it is recurrent expenditure so you need to be able to fund it, essentially.
ALBANESE: The difference between recurrent and capital expenditure is there and the Government before the Budget made some noise about that. But all they have done is to establish this absurd body, the Infrastructure Financing Unit in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet which is looking to fund things that the private sector won’t fund. Now there is not a shortage of capital available in this country for good projects, whether it be from the private sector or whether it be from superannuation funds. Part of my concern with the Government’s rhetoric is what it means in practice is that they will just fund toll roads that produce that return. Now that distorts the market. A rail line mightn’t produce an income in terms of through the fare box if you like, but it produces a return due to opportunity cost when you take into account the improvements of the health system from reducing emissions from less car accidents; the reduced amount that has to be spent on road maintenance. There is a range of things that means that expenditure on public transport is the key to dealing with urban congestion.
Malcolm Turnbull said he’d deal with it before he became Prime Minister – he’d overturn Tony Abbott’s ideological objection. But he hasn’t done it. So I want Malcolm Turnbull to stop taking selfies on trains and trams and buses and start funding trains, trams and buses.
VAN ONSELEN: Anthony Albanese, I always appreciate you joining us on Newsday. Thanks once again.
ALBANESE: Good to be with you.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.