Senator John Madigan In Conversation - full transcript

DLP senator John Madigan believes we need to have a ‘public interest test’ when determining levels of foreign investment in Australia. AAP/Alan Porritt

Geoffrey Robinson: John, you’re the first DLP [Democratic Labor Party] senator elected for a long time from Victoria. In your first speech you talked about being elected to parliament as surreal. Three years on, how do you feel about it now, does it still seem surreal to you?

John Madigan: Oh yeah.

Geoffrey Robinson: Still a pretty strange and novel environment overall?

John Madigan: There’s a big disconnect between parliament and a lot of people’s reality.

Geoffrey Robinson: Being a representative of the DLP, do you feel the concerns of the people who voted for you and that provided your support base aren’t really recognised that well in parliament at the moment?

John Madigan: We never sold out our beliefs.

Geoffrey Robinson: So you’re very much seeing yourself as keeping alive that continuing flame of the DLP’s legacy and achievements?

John Madigan: There is a degree of weight of history, I suppose. And there is the challenge of giving people a voice.

Geoffrey Robinson: You’ve mentioned in the past the fact the DLP was a pioneer political force in opposing the “white Australia” policy, something the official Labor Party was an equally dogmatic defender of for a very long time. Coming from that kind of background, how do you think the current government has handled the issue of immigration and do you think an Abbott government would do any better?

John Madigan: I think about the fact that my great-great grandfather was Portuguese and he came to Australia on a boat. When I went to Villawood [immigration detention centre] to have a look for myself I thought they would have locked him up there. I thought about how he would have felt. My grandfather, my mother’s father, was Jewish. Madigan is obviously an Irish/Catholic name. I look at it from the perspective of how would have they felt.

At the end of the day, for want of a better word, we’re all immigrants. Our backgrounds are very diverse and Australia is, for want of a better word, a tapestry of a whole range of people. Unfortunately some people lose sight of that. Putting yourself into somebody else’s shoes, how would you feel in that position? If my family were threatened, I’d sell everything to get whatever I could to get them out and I’d hope somebody would have compassion and empathy for them.

Geoffrey Robinson: Another issue that the DLP was very much a pioneer on was school funding and the argument of the sacrifices Catholic parents were making in particular.

John Madigan: But that sacrifice was not just made by Catholic people. It was made by lots of people from different denominations and is still made today. This isn’t just a sectarian issue. This is an issue that all people, no matter who they are or where they are from, deserve to have that choice and to have equal funding. If you pay tax and everybody does – there’s no delineation between creed and colour in taxation - you deserve to be able to afford your children the education you wish for them.

Geoffrey Robinson: Do you think the current government is heading in the right direction with current school funding, particularly with the Gonski review?

John Madigan: The general thrust of Gonski is probably okay. The problem is that you’re taking money from the universities. You’re just shifting the deck chairs on the Titanic, so to speak. They talk about education and we’re told to be a smarter and more innovative nation. I haven’t got a problem with that. But you can’t rob Peter to pay Paul. There are so many people in our community who are unemployed or underemployed. The dignity of work and a sense of self-worth are a very important.

Education is a very important thing to lift people. We should make all people, no matter what their background, reach their full potential. When I go to schools and take the forge and the anvil, I show the children, and even the adults, how to do something with them. When they make something you see the vale lift. They love to think they’ve made something with their hands. The same can be said for teachers. The brothers who taught me, their greatest joy was to see you reach another milestone.

Geoffrey Robinson: So in terms of what you say about the competing arguments of where to expend on education, do you think the somewhat neglected funding of the trade sector is an issue?

John Madigan: We can’t all be barristers or lawyers. There’s more than one road to Sydney, and I know that for a fact. Just because you may have done a degree – and I have nothing against academia – but horses for causes. If I had wanted to go to Melbourne University, like my sister did, my parents would have afforded me the same opportunities they afforded my sister. My brothers and I didn’t choose that. It wasn’t our cup of tea.

Our parents were 100% supportive of what we wanted to do. We were never forced to do anything we didn’t want to do. That’s probably a gift – that our parents weren’t trying to live our lives through us. Whatever we chose to do our parents were 100% supportive. That’s something that a lot of people aren’t afforded.

In my case, the old tradesmen that helped me when I was in primary school encouraged me. I can’t put a value on that. Even that is just about giving a person encouragement. A lot of people would have thought that for this eight year-old kid hanging around the workshop it would be just a fad. But I went on to drive the brothers and sisters crazy because that’s all I ever talked about. And they supported that.

And I chose that, where I grew up and went to school that wasn’t essentially the norm.

Geoffrey Robinson: Pretty much everyone who is in parliament now was either a lawyer or pretty much worked in a political party for most of their career. Do you think everyone in parliament should have a “real job”?

John Madigan: That’s for them to say. I think that my background has given the opportunity to have empathy for people. In the community there are a lot of people that have a certain perception.

Hate is a bad thing and there’s so much hate out there. Hate consumes. When people hate they make bad decisions. I have no problem with people - I may vehemently disagree with them on certain things – but I was brought up to look for the good in people and I believe everybody will have something to offer a debate.

I’m always astounded by some of these articles and comments on TV shows. They make comments about me or comments about other people and they’ve never met them. Never had a discussion with them. And I have no ill will for people. I want people to have good lives and have every opportunity possible. I want to see a more cohesive, happy community and nation, where we have more empathy for each other. It’s not out of malice or ill will.

Prior to entering the Senate, John Madigan worked as a blacksmith and boilermaker. AAP/Lukas Coch

Geoffrey Robinson: Those sorts of values do perhaps reflect your own religious background and your Catholic commitment. It does seem the DLP was historically seen as being a Catholic-associated party. Do you still see it in that sense?

John Madigan: Jack Kane was not a Catholic and he was a great senator for the DLP in NSW. And Bob Joshua, who was our first federal president, who was the member for Ballarat, was not a Catholic either. And they are two of our greatest representatives. Nobody has ever been, or ever will be asked what their religious allegiances are: all we want are people of good will.

Geoffrey Robinson: In terms of your own position as a Catholic in public life, has it been a difficult time recently considering the controversy surrounding members of the Catholic Church? How do you think the church has been dealing with that and do you think they will be able to deal with it into the future?

John Madigan: The church will prevail. It’s not the church per se: it is individuals that have let the side down. As in everything, nothing man-made is perfect. Christians and Catholics are not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. Nobody has a monopoly on doing the right thing. But we have to strive to do the right thing - we have to weed out this cancer - in the church, in the scouts, wherever it sits. I don’t think it’s a new phenomenon, it’s been happening since time in memoriam.

I’ve had friends who have been molested, I have extended family that have been molested, so I am very aware of it. When I think about some of the things my grandmothers used to say, we were never left with anyone but trusted family members as children. We were never allowed to go into public toilets on our own. So my grandmothers were quite dogged about it. In hindsight I look back and realise that people were well aware of it.

Geoffrey Robinson: One of the most controversial figures associated with the DLP was Bob Santamaria. How do you feel about his contribution to public life?

B.A. Santamaria (left) was a guiding figure of DLP politics without actually being a party member. South Australian Catholics

John Madigan: Bob Santamaria was never a member of the DLP, that’s the first thing. The second thing is that, yes, I was a member of Bob’s Youth Group growing up. He probably was one of the most influential people in Australian politics that wasn’t a politician. He made an enormous contribution. He left an indelible mark on Australia.

It came at an enormous cost to him and his family, but he did what he thought was the right thing to do given the circumstances of the time. People today might be critical of Bob and want to sling off at the DLP. That’s their right and they are entitled to it. But if they do, they should make sure they have the facts right.

Geoffrey Robinson: Some people would say that you were elected on a very small share of the vote and would perhaps question you having a significant role in politics, in terms of the balance of power. How would you respond to that?

John Madigan: I didn’t make the rules, the DLP didn’t make the rules. We didn’t cheat anybody. The cost of our campaign for my election in 2010 was only A$20,000. If you have a look at some of the new minor players, they are spending an incredibly larger proportion of money than that. Our campaign was conducted on just grassroots and our 2.33-2.34% of the vote was a 130% increase on the previous election.

The children, the grandchildren, and the great-grandchildren are returning to the DLP. You’d also be surprised by the people who have come to the DLP that traditionally would not have.

But holding the balance of power is not a right, it’s a privilege. With that privilege comes enormous responsibilities. History does repeat itself, and those who don’t know that are doomed to repeat it. The bottom line is the government is made up in the House of Representatives. The last two weeks of parliament, for me, were just a travesty. Bob Brown used to speak about guillotining legislation and how much of a travesty that was. I can remember him giving a speech about that back when John Howard had the balance of power in the Senate.

It’s a responsibility, it’s not a license to bludgeon. I don’t believe in bludgeoning people. Our members don’t believe that you win hearts and minds by having the whip handle and beat people to death. It doesn’t change anything. One extreme breeds another extreme. If people care to look at history, that’s what happens. If you’re going to ask if I’m going to raise issues yes I am because I’m not going to mislead people. But I’m not going to bludgeon people. I’m going to put up the arguments; I’m going to talk to people. But I don’t believe in shutting people down, even if I vehemently disagree with them.

Geoffrey Robinson: One option for minor parties is to wheel, deal and bargain. Is that the way you would see your role or would you rather see your role as advocating for DLP principles across the board?

John Madigan: My role is to advocate principles and raise issues for people. There are a lot of disengaged people in the community and my attitude is to judge parties on their policies. Horse-trading does not make for good legislation. As I said, the government is made up in the House of Representatives and the Senate must return to being a house of review and scrutiny.

Geoffrey Robinson: Do you think the Senate has functioned as a house of scrutiny while you’ve been in the Senate?

John Madigan: In the last few weeks, some days we only had 20 minutes, other days 12 minutes, to talk about a bill. By the time the Coalition got up and said, “there will be no carbon tax under a government I lead”, that very finite amount of time was gone. You couldn’t get up anything if you wanted to. You couldn’t discuss anything. The Coalition was complicit in the whole thing of it all. I’m sick to death of hearing about the carbon tax – it’s gone through. Whether I like it or not, that went through.

Once we make up our minds, we listen to the argument and we’re happy to listen to a reasoned presentation laid out for people so they can make an informed decision. But you don’t get that. It annoys me immensely when people go out to people and they turn out to a hall or a public gathering and they just tell people what they want to hear. They then do a bit of a burble in parliament, but in the end the machine takes precedence over people’s concerns.

What do these people believe in? I don’t know where some of these people go but when I drive around, I see so many problems, not to be negative, but to be a realist. These people just mislead people. If I tell people I’ll do something I’ll do it. We are in a position of privilege. My mother reminds me all the time: “you are one of 76 people. With that position comes the responsibility for people.”

Geoffrey Robinson: You’ve sometimes referred to the statement by Frank McManus: “the best thing for Australia is a good Labor government, and the worst thing for Australia is a bad Labor government”. Has there been anything good that the ALP has imparted over the last six years - and from the Hawke/Keating government before that - that has been compatible with your view of traditional Labor values?

John Madigan: Every government does good things. Additionally, a good opposition makes for a good government. We’ve had neither. The current state of the ALP upsets me because I don’t want to see the ALP decimated and I lament the fact that the Greens sit there all pious, when they are the architects for a lot of the stuff the ALP has been caned for. They don’t have the guts to stand up to the plate and take the flack – and that’s cowardly.

The other thing is we hear these vitriolic attacks on Windsor, Wilkie, Oakeshott – I’ve had a tiny bit to do with Wilkie, there’s plenty of things we wouldn’t agree on. But at the end of the day, in a democracy, everybody is entitled to his or her point of view. I passionately believe in the right of people to hold an opinion and I will go to the wire to protect that right. If somebody has the guts to say what they think, I can cope with that. I can’t cope with people who lack a backbone, manipulating people from the shadows.

On the Greens, if you have a look at DLP policy documents we were on about the environment before anybody else. There are things I voted with them on. But I don’t know that they are always driven by the same motivations as me. I worry about people that use an issue: when people use people or their concerns. I don’t look at where the votes are, I look to whether it’s right or it’s wrong.

Geoffrey Robinson: Today in the papers, the ALP and the Liberals have done a deal to preference against Adam Bandt in the seat of Melbourne. Coming from a small party yourself, what do you think about the two big parties doing this? Is it business as usual?

John Madigan: It’s ironic that the Liberals put him there, and now they’ve done a horse trade to get him out. They’ve done a backflip, whereas we would never preference Adam Bandt. The Liberals put him there, and now they’ve done this big backflip. It’s not consistent. Even if people disagree with somebody, if you are consistent, at least they can understand the thought process. People can know what they’re getting. We’re buying Tip-Top and you’re getting ham, cheese and tomato. People can say, at least he’s consistent.

“It’s ironic that the Liberals put him [Adam Bandt] there, and now they’ve done a horse trade to get him out”. Victorian Greens

Geoffrey Robinson: You are very concerned about increasing levels of foreign ownership in Australia. If there is an issue where Australia needs funds for investment, and they are coming from overseas at the moment, what are your views about alternative forms of investment in terms of building up the country?

John Madigan: Foreign investment has been a part of the Australian way of life since the First Fleet arrived, so it’s nothing new. What I question is whether people play by the rules. If we say we have a Foreign Investment Board, they have to weigh things up in the national interest. I don’t believe in short-term pain for long-term gain. Sometimes I think the argument becomes a bit simplistic, there are a lot of things to weigh up.

But what concerns me greatly is when it’s just an open slather approach. I believe we need to have a public interest test. We need to have a mature discussion as to what do we want for Australia and Australians. I want them to have a home; I want us to find the best and smartest ways to do things. But I don’t want to see our creeks, our waterways, our beaches destroyed. There has to be a balance and we’ve got to weigh things up and say: “what is the cost to our nation and its people?” In terms of our identity, what do we want, what do we value most as Australians?

Geoffrey Robinson: And how do you see foreign investment undermining that?

John Madigan: When you have people that control big swathes of infrastructure and property, there comes responsibility. The names may change, the characters may change but human nature does not change. As a historical example, the SEC [State Electricity Commission]. I was staunchly opposed to the privatisation of power, gas, public transport.

People were promised things were going to be better. Better service, better economic outcomes. The trams, for instance. If you went from Grattan St to where the Old Ansett Building was, there may have been seven tram stops. Today there’s probably only three or four. We were told we were going to get a better level of service. But it’s costing more, there’s less service – less stops. They aren’t providing the same level of service that the MMTB [Melbourne and Metropolitan Tramways Board] did.

Geoffrey Robinson: So the promise made by politicians at the time was broken and that’s something that concerns you?

John Madigan: This is what I feared was going to happen. The public were told how bad it was and so subsidies were paid by the taxpayer for a public service. They are still paying those subsidies. But one thing was that we had more tram stops, we had conductors, there were people that had a job that and were there to direct the public. What has been the gain socially, economically and environmentally to our community? Have they improved the tram system? Not from where I’m sitting they haven’t. Is there a higher level of service? No, there isn’t. Are the trams cleaner than they were? No, they aren’t. Is the maintenance of the trams up to standard? No, it’s not. It’s a failure. I could go on.

Prior to the formation of the SEC in the 1920s and early 1930s, Sir John Monash, a great Australian and a visionary, had all these things of a dependant power generation. And we’ve returned to this thing that we turned away from, because it didn’t offer a standard tariff.

If you go to Yallourn, foundations were poured for the next generation, a power station. We had the Herman Research Laboratory in Richmond that did ground breaking work and were looking to the future as to how to generate power cleaner, more efficiently, and for less coal. They were talking about getting fair dinkum about the environment. They were doing practical things about the environment. What have they done recently? They’ve replaced a couple of generators in Latrobe valley turbines, only like for like. Now we’ve got the poor bastards who are down outside Yallourn at the moment, who are vilified by members of parliament from both sides, who don’t have a clue what’s going on. They sit up in their offices caning people, but they don’t go down and talk to them.

I visited those blokes down in Yallourn the other day – the DLP fought some pretty fierce battles there in Gippsland with the power industry many years ago. Something people don’t realise is there are blokes who are in the CFMEU [Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union], which would have been the old FEDFA [Federated Engine Drivers and Firemens’ Association of Australasia], before the super unions, which was a super stuff up, who were on holidays prior to this lock out. The company locked out the men who had been trying to negotiate their APA for eight or nine months. You don’t hear about that in the paper.

Senator Madigan, along with parliamentary colleagues Nick Xenophon, Christine Milne and Bob Katter have united against foreign ownership recently. AAP/Lukas Coch

Geoffrey Robinson: Some people are saying you need to bring back more of a role for arbitration, forcing employers to actually negotiate in good faith, rather than lock people out.

John Madigan: Reputable employers need to hold the disreputable, bullying employers to account. Reputable unionists need to hold the disreputable unionist to account. If you break the law, they should be in court. We keep legislating more and more laws.

We have a voluminous amount of laws already. The shelves in the parliamentary library would burn for 20 years, there’s that much crap in there. But they keep making more laws. Enforce the years you’ve got! As I said the names may change, the characters may change, but human nature doesn’t change. You may need to give the laws a bit of a tweak every now and then, because times change, and language changes. But on the whole, there is nothing new. You can’t have one set of rules for one group of people and another set of rules for another. There has to be a quality in the law.

But more and more people are being done over. It comes back to reputable companies and disreputable companies. If people want to come into Australia with foreign investment, they play by the rules or they get the hell out. Instead of crying sovereign risk when you try to hold somebody to account, when you don’t play by the rules your investment is at risk. If you play outside the rules, we will come down on you like a tonne of bricks, that’s the way most countries act around the world. But we roll over to people too often and people walk over our government, but worst of all over people. And I don’t accept that.

Geoffrey Robinson: A concern of yours is the level of abortion in Australia and an issue that is sometimes seen as related to that is IVF and reproductive technologies. What’s your view about the use and fairly massive expansion of those technologies in recent years?

John Madigan: I’ve got friends who have used IVF and it’s not something I’d do. It’s not something that I, John Madigan, support. But they’ve made a personal choice and I don’t think they’re the devil incarnate or anything like that.

What I can’t reconcile is on one hand paying people to conceive a child, but on the other hand we’re spending money to kill children. You’re making life and you’re taking life. I can’t reconcile that. One of my best mates turned to me one day and said: “you know Mary’s adopted. If I met Mary’s mum I’d thank her. Her birth mother. She gave Mary a chance. I’ve got Mary because of her generosity.” It’s a pretty potent argument.

Geoffrey Robinson: Some critics of IVF say this is a process that involves the destruction of embryos and the artificial creation of life. Is that a position you would take?

John Madigan: That is a concern for me too. I was an embryo, you were an embryo, that’s the beginning of life. I would never be involved with anything, complicit in my silence in choosing who lives and who dies. I want everybody to have an opportunity without malice or ill will. I want everybody to have a fair go and a chance at life. It could be the next Prime Minister of Australia. It could be a great ethicist or a great journalist. Could be a Nobel Prize winner. I don’t know that and I don’t believe anybody else knows that. I don’t want to extinguish anybody’s right to life.