Anthony Albanese points to Labor’s limited capacity to alter legislation in the Senate, as he defends the decision to vote for passing the government’s full tax package. Lukas Coch/AAP

Politics with Michelle Grattan: Anthony Albanese on Labor’s hard times

Anthony Albanese on Labor’s hard times The Conversation, CC BY42.1 MB (download)

Anthony Albanese has a blunt message for critics who are accusing Labor of attacking government measures but then voting for them. They should “examine the world as it is rather than as they would like it to be,” he says.

In the post-election reality the Senate will mostly support the government. This severely limits the opposition’s capacity to alter legislation.

In this podcast episode, Albanese defends Labor’s backing for the government’s $158 billion tax package, supports an increase in Newstart, and strongly argues the need to take the superannuation guarantee to 12%.

He remains confident in his ability to force the expulsion from the party of maverick unionist John Setka, regardless of the outcome of the court action Setka has brought. “That will happen. His values don’t fit the values of the ALP. It’s as simple as that,” he says. But he stays implacably opposed to the government’s Ensuring Integrity legislation to enable tougher action against erring union officials, saying Labor will vote against it.

Despite its problems at the election, Albanese believes Labor can successfully appeal to both working class aspirational voters and its progressive supporters, maintaining they have common interests in an ALP government.

Transcript (edited for clarity)

MICHELLE GRATTAN: Anthony Albanese has taken over the leadership of Labor at a particularly difficult time – after an unexpected election defeat that’s left the party shellshocked and demoralised. He has to drive a major re-evaluation of policy and in the meantime navigate the party’s way through the legislative wedges set up by a confident government. Amid the challenges he needs to keep his troops united. Anthony Albanese joins us today during a busy parliamentary week.

Anthony Albanese, you’ve been a senior minister, you’ve been deputy prime minister, but it’s often said that the job of opposition leader is the toughest in politics. What do you already see as the main challenges?

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Well the main challenge is of course overcoming the significant disappointment that’s there from May 18, when there was an expectation that we’d be sitting on the government benches. So, properly examining why it is that we’re still the opposition and then moving forward in a positive way.

MG: In caucus today you likened the [present] situation to when the Howard government won a Senate majority [at the 2004 election]. Now this government doesn’t have a majority in the upper house, but are you saying that Labor can’t expect to get much support from the non-Green crossbenchers?

AA: Well quite clearly [the government has] an absolute majority in the House of Representatives. And in the Senate what we’ve seen so far is the Centre Alliance senators explicitly say that they want to negotiate with the government, because in their view if the Senate passes amendments and it goes back to the House and the House rejects it, then it won’t become practice – it won’t become law. So that’s the explicit view that they’ve put.

Then you get to the One Nation senators who are obviously closer to the Coalition than they are to Labor. And then you have Jacqui Lambie who I think is a genuine person who’ll make judgments. But on a range of issues won’t vote with Labor either. And then of course there’s Cory Bernardi who’s not really an independent - who has basically folded up his own party and is voting with the government so far 100% of the time.

So given that we have to get four senators to make a positive difference and three senators to block[…]it won’t happen very often, I don’t think. We’ll put out our cases but we can expect that the government will have a working majority in the Senate on most occasions. 

MG: It will probably lose though, or it may well lose depending on Jacqui Lambie, in its effort to repeal the Medevac bill, won’t it?

AA: Well I hope so. But on that case we only need three. It’s clear from Centre Alliance that they’ll vote with Labor but we will need Jacqui Lambie. But that’s an example. Yeah.

The best case scenario for Labor is essentially rely upon Jacqui Lambie in order to block or defeat legislation, which is different of course from a positive initiative where it needs Jacqui Lambie and effectively, it needs One Nation and Centre Alliance because you need four. So Jacqui Lambie plus either the other combinations doesn’t get you there.

MG: You also told caucus the government will often be wedging Labor so you’ll have to choose whether to support a measure when you agree with part of it but can’t amend the part that you disagree with. The tax package was an obvious example. How do you answer those - including in your own party – who will be critical when you attack legislation but then vote for it? 

AA: Well that they have to examine the world as it is rather than as they would like it to be. We’ve been delivered a Senate where there is one Labor senator from Queensland got elected out of six. So five non-Labor senators out of six to put it another way.

Now the consequences of that are that the government is close to a working majority. As a result of that, take the tax package. We went to the election supporting stage one of the tax cuts - they’re the only part that take effect during this term of parliament. It provides for tax relief through offsets for low and middle income earners. So for every nurse, every council worker, every child care worker, every person working in retail or hospitality, up to $1080.

Now today I noticed in Question Time that the Treasurer said that there were something like 32,000 was the figure he used in one electorate alone were receiving the full $1080 dollars. Now the idea that we could say to a nurse: yes we told you we would do this if we’re elected to government but we voted against you getting this money - money that you need, money also that the economy needs you to get and spend to boost consumer demand and to boost economic activity, is quite frankly untenable.

So we were faced with the reality of either voting for what we’re in favour of - Stage 1 and indeed Stage 2 of the tax cuts we said we’d support as well - or being defined by what we were against which is stage 3 of the tax cuts that go to higher income earners but don’t come in until 2024-2025.

MG: Now you have reserved the right to try to repeal those if and when you are in government. But isn’t that unrealistic? AA: Well what we’ve said is we’ll have our own tax policy that will take to the election that will determine prior to the election in 2022. And we reserve the right to certainly do that.

But again that was to make the point that to say to someone we tried to block your $1080 that you’re going to get today because we’re concerned about something that might happen in six years time, in my view would have been an incorrect decision.

And that was reinforced to me by the fact that as of last week some 750,000 more taxpayers have put in their tax return this year than had at the same time last year. What that is, is 750,000 people at least additional who have noticed that they’re eligible for this up to $1080, have gone about organising their affairs so that they put in their tax returns to get this money, because they’re desperate to get it. And that’s the reality that we were confronted with. And it’s a decision that I believe was absolutely the right one to make.

MG: Let’s turn to national security. It’s long been Labor’s position to act in lockstep with the government in this area - after in some cases winning concessions. Now that we’ve seen excesses like the raids on the media do you think the ALP has just taken bipartisanship too far?

AA: Well I’ve said way back in 2014 about some of the national security laws, and it was reported, that we needed to examine the measures on their merits. And I thought that some of the statements I made at the time[…]indeed in an article I was quoted in a breakfast television interview as saying that that we’ve gone too far in supporting the Abbott government’s national security agenda and I expressed my concern that what would happen in particular to journalists is that the rights of the media would be constrained. Now I’ve been consistent about that the whole way through.

I’m very concerned about press freedom. When the raids occurred on Annika Smethurst and the ABC, the Prime Minister dismissed concerns frankly was his first response and quite clearly we need to value freedom of the press as an essential component of our democracy. 

MG: So are you going to give less bipartisan support than we’ve seen over the last half a dozen years?

AA: Well we’ll examine things on their merits.

MG: But you’ll be tougher?

AA: So yes we’ll certainly examine things on their merits and we’re prepared to take stances. On the issue of foreign fighter legislation that we’re dealing with now, we had amendments. We weren’t prepared though - if our amendments aren’t successful — to uphold the joint parliamentary committee’s recommendations, that it was essentially to give the power to a judge rather than to the minister to determine these issues.

If that wasn’t successful we weren’t prepared to vote against that legislation because quite frankly the idea that we would be responsible for someone coming back to Australia who wants to cause Australians harm overrode our concern about giving the minister more power.

MG: But are you prepared to be tougher on other areas?

AA: Yes. Yes we are. We will make judgments based upon the merits of legislation that been put forward. But I have expressed the issue of media freedom I think is something that the legislation does need re-examination. And we need to make sure that journalists and indeed whistleblowers, which is the second part of it, are given the protections that they need to ensure that a functioning democracy can occur.

And I think that the real question behind these issues is, what in the information that was published by journalists [Smethurst, ABC] was not in the national interest? What should have been kept secret? And my view is that all of the information published is in the national interest, particularly plans to eavesdrop on Australian citizens without their knowledge.

MG: So are you saying that you would want a wide review of current national security laws to see whether they need to be modified? And what precisely are you saying about changes that are needed relevant to the media?

AA: Well look I think in terms of national security we live in times that are uncertain. We live in a world where people do want to give us harm. So I’m not talking about opening up the full range of issues, and we need to ensure that the government’s responsibility to keep us safe is an important one.

But it’s the government that’s broken with bipartisanship here. Previously all of the recommendations from the [parliamentary] joint national security committee, the PJCIS, have been adopted. It’s the government that have walked away from that because that model is important because that committee can get in the intelligence services, get the information in camera confidentially if need be, and then act in accordance with their knowledge of that information which is brought forward.

Now I’m concerned that the government has broken with that bipartisanship. I certainly want to be bipartisan on these issues because I don’t want them to be the subject of political wrangling. I want them to be the subject of what do we need to do to keep Australians safe.

When it comes to the media, quite clearly I think that the issues raised by the journalists concerned are in the national interest - that that be public and the fact that we’ve seen such quite draconian action really with these raids is of real concern. And if we need to examine legislation quite frankly we can’t do that from opposition.

MG: No but there is an inquiry now going on into this question of confidentiality following the raids by that very committee you referred to. So will Labor take a robust stance into that inquiry? AA: Oh look we’ve made it very clear that we’re concerned about media freedom and we’ll take action consistent with the views we’ve put forward.

MG: You’ve been very critical of Peter Dutton for having essentially too much power. Isn’t the logic of that criticism that the home affairs portfolio should be broken up to an extent?

AA: Well this was a government decision to form this portfolio but the question is how much of it was driven by what was good governance and how much was driven by Malcolm Turnbull’s desperation to keep Peter Dutton happy? Now that didn’t work out so well for either Peter Dutton or for Malcolm Turnbull.

So what we need is appropriate government arrangements. I was of the view, for example, that having the transport security issues in home affairs has removed some of the expertise which is there relating to the people who actually run airports and run airlines. But I don’t seek to make those issues partisan. I hope that the government considers good outcomes should be what we’re concerned about here.

MG: But Labor does not regard the present structure of home affairs as immutable forever?

AA: No and the truth is that that would be the case for the government as well but it shouldn’t be about the individual, who the individual minister is. It should be about how do we get the best outcomes.

MG: Let’s turn to Newstart. Labor’s now supporting an increase in Newstart. Does it matter that this would reduce the projected surplus? Is it more important than the quantum of the surplus?

AA: Well with respect, that’s not the right question in my view. The question is because governments aren’t just about Newstart and everything else remained static for example which is the assumption behind that question. Should Newstart be increased? The question is, is it too low? Is it keeping people in poverty? Is it restricting people’s capacity to get off Newstart because they don’t have enough money to be able to search for jobs?

MG: So you’re saying yes is the answer to those questions?

AA: The answer is clearly yes. And we asked the Prime Minister in parliament, could he survive on $40 a day. And essentially he didn’t answer the question.

MG: Could you?

AA: No no. Quite clearly it’s too low and it’s too low for the people who are Newstart recipients to survive on it. And that’s what they’re telling us so missing out on meals. They’re missing out on being able to afford to catch transport and to get to job interviews. They’re missing out on being able to dress appropriately to get to job interviews. It’s having an impact on their health.

And what’s more, an important factor here is that an increase in Newstart wouldn’t be a zero sum game. The Newstart recipients spend every cent that they get. That creates economic activity. That creates jobs. That means less people on Newstart as well. So there’s a boost to the economy and that’s why you have everyone from the Reserve Bank to the Business Council of Australia, the trade union movement, John Howard, Barnaby Joyce, the National Party - everyone except for Scott Morrison - saying that we need to do something about this.

MG: Now in another area of incomes, there’s debate now about whether the superannuation guarantee should go up from 9.5% to 12%, be phased up. It’s already legislated but some in the government want that changed - some on their backbench. Lots of young families would in fact prefer any extra money being available to them in the form of a wage rise that they can use now when they need the money rather than being put away in superannuation. Yet your policy is to go to the 12%. What’s your response to those families?

AA: My response is that the whole concept of compulsory superannuation relies upon the first word, “compulsory”.

It’s about a national savings scheme that has served over the long term, served individuals and families, exceptionally well and is the envy of the world. It’s a great reform by the Hawke-Keating government.

And lifting it up to 12% is a practical reform that will make an enormous difference to people’s lives and once you start fiddling around with that concept then you undermine the whole superannuation agenda that’s so important for individuals.

But I’ll make this point too. It’s important for the national interest because of the amount of money that is in funds that could then be used to promote economic activity and growth through investing that in infrastructure projects and other activity.

MG: I want to ask you a couple of questions about Indigenous affairs. On Indigenous recognition, the government and opposition seem to me to be miles apart on the crucial detail. You back a reference to an Indigenous “Voice to parliament” being inserted into the Constitution. Scott Morrison won’t have a bar of that. This referendum is simply not going to fly, is it?

AA: Well I hope that you’re wrong and I believe it is possible that you are. That will be up to the government. But quite clearly you can’t have recognition of First Nations people in our Constitution - that’s so important for the unity of our nation going forward - without taking into account what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people themselves say they want.

MG: And that’s a reference to the Voice in the Constitution. And you support that?

AA: They had that commitment. I do support that. I do support that because they supported it. I’m not seeking to impose it on them. They had a process and came up with the unanimous Statement from the Heart at Uluru and it doesn’t represent a third chamber.

The other thing is is that it’s a reference to it in the Constitution. The outline of how the voice would work is a legislative one and legislated by the parliament that is elected and indigenous people I think have been very modest in what they have put forward.

It’s a practical idea which is pretty simple that they should be consulted - they don’t get a final determination, just consulted about matters that affect First Nations people. And I think that is a very reasonable proposition. I hope that the government can support it over a period of time we have seen, including in the last week, people like Barnaby Joyce changing his position.

MG: Now you’re going to the Garma Festival at the weekend. What will be your message there?

AA: Look I’m going to listen and to pay respect to First Nations people. It’s an important forum as well as a celebration of Indigenous culture.

We are very very privileged to live in the land with the oldest continuous civilisation on the planet and I’m looking forward to engaging while I’m there with whoever wants to have a chat. I’ll be giving a speech there as well reaffirming our support for constitutional recognition and a Voice. And I’ll be proud to be going there as well with Pat Dodson who has played such a critical role in reconciliation, and with Linda Burney and with Malarndirri McCarthy.

I hope Ken Wyatt is going as well, I hope and I think it’s a very good thing that there has been substantial progress.

The truth is you’re right in terms of constitutional recognition can only occur with bipartisanship. And I was given some hope by the fact that when I met with the Prime Minister we agreed that Ken Wyatt and Linda Burney would work together to see if there can be a common position going forward.

MG: Now on the vexed question about coal. Labor’s ambivalence about coal caused it a great deal of grief at the election. The Adani issue in particular. Now we hear that a parliamentary friends group for coal exports has been formed with Liberal backbencher Craig Kelly and your resources spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon as co-chairs. Are you comfortable with this and won’t many of your supporters believe it looks very odd?

AA: Well it’s not surprising that the Member for Hunter with such a very large electorate of coal miners supports the economic interests of the people that he’s elected to represent.

MG: It’s an odd couple though you must admit.

AA: Well I will admit that Craig Kelly is an odd fellow on most issues, but Labor’s view is very clear which is that climate change is real, that we need to act, that we need to transition to a clean energy economy, that we need to be engaged with the global community to take global action through processes like the UNFCCC that will take a proactive role.

The last Labor government of course the first thing that we did was to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. We then tried to have an emissions trading scheme that was comprehensive that would have applied by the way to fugitive emissions and therefore would have had an impact on mining, it would have applied to transport across the board and of course the Greens and the coalition got together to scuttle that not once but twice and had that not happened, I think we might never have seen Prime Minister Abbott but it did.

And then of course what we’ve seen after the change of government in 2013 is a government that doesn’t have an energy policy at all. So renewables will play an increasingly important part. We had a strong policy going to the election on climate change. We’ll have a strong policy again. It will reflect the circumstances that we find ourselves in in 2022.

But Labor’s position is very clear which is that climate change is real. We need to listen to the science and we need to respond.

MG: Now on an internal problem that’s causing you a bit of difficulty. You’re committed to expelling maverick union official John Setka from the ALP. Are you still sure you can actually do this regardless of whether he wins or loses the court action he’s undertaken to try and stop you doing it?

AA: Well he’s been suspended …

MG: But can you get rid of him?

AA: Absolutely. And that will happen. His values don’t fit the values of the ALP. It’s as simple as that.

MG: Are there any amendments that would persuade Labor to support the Government’s legislation that’s aimed at toughening the law against bad behaviour by union officials like Setka?

AA: Well there are laws in place right now.

MG: But now the parliament is considering a law for tougher action.

AA: And we’ll be voting against it because there are laws there right now.

What this what this government is obsessed about is attacking the trade union movement, attacking its very existence. They don’t seem to care about occupational health and safety at work sites, they don’t care about the fact that wages are stagnant, they don’t care about stolen wages and we’ve seen some very significant cases particularly in the hospitality industry with very prominent people involved.

They don’t care about the fact that the wage stagnation is a real constraint on the economy that’s been identified by every economist. They don’t care about the fact that enterprise bargaining system isn’t really working properly in terms of wages being allowed to grow, and they are just obsessed by attacking trade unions. I’d say to the government, what you should be bringing into parliament is legislation that will assist in growing wages and improving living standards. Legislation that treats people the same way whether they’re workers or employers.

This [Ensuring Integrity] legislation doesn’t provide any consistency with the behaviour of corporations or corporate executives with what is proposed for ordinary workers. The majority of people who would be impacted by this legislation aren’t people who are trade union officials - they’re volunteers who give up their time to participate to assist their fellow workers.

MG: Now just finally, you’ve been highly critical of Labor’s failure to appeal to aspirational voters at the election. What is your message now to your two key, but sometimes separate, constituencies - working class aspirationals and progressive voters?

AA: Well that there’s those common interests in having a Labor government. A Labor government’s all about creating opportunity, in lifting people up and making sure that what they want, regardless of whether there are blue collar workers or whether they’re lawyers or tertiary educated people.

To my mind they have a common theme to their life which is they want their kids to have more opportunities and better living standards than they ensured themselves.

They also want to have an environment that’s at least as pristine as the one that they got to enjoy.

So I don’t buy the the argument that there’s these two completely distinct constituencies of Labor. I think that as I go around the country I think that they have much more in common.

People who have an outlook which is one of caring about their community. And when I talk about aspiration as well people want to aspire to better living standards, to better jobs for themselves. But they want something more than that. They want better living standards and a better quality of life for their family, for their neighbours, for their community, and indeed for their country.

MG: Anthony Albanese thank you for talking with us today. And that’s all from this podcast. We’ll have another interview soon. Thank you to my producer Rashna Farrukh. Goodbye for now.

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A List of Ways to Die, Lee Rosevere, from Free Music Archive.

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