• Corrected transcript
Thank you to Tassie Times for being the beacon of quality journalism that you continue to be in this state. I am sure we would be much the poorer without Tasmanian Times and Lindsay Tuffin. So thank you. I was going to acknowledge the presence of Deputy Lord Mayor and Greens mayoral candidate Helen Burnett but as I sat there and saw everyone coming in I realised I think we have every candidate for every position in the Hobart City Council, there are some from Clarence City council, some from Glenorchy City Council, and Bill Harvey the vice mayoral candidate, so please excuse me if I don’t go beyond that in acknowledging everyone other than to say I think about seven out of 10 of the people who are here are council candidates.
I’ve also got to add that I feel like a bit of a fraud, a public speaking fraud in that I am in the presence of Richard Flanagan and Peter Hay who are beautiful public speakers and I can’t hope to get anywhere close to the way they speak. And I feel like an analyst fraud because of Dr Kevin Bonham here. If anyone should be teasing out what’s going right and wrong in politics in Australia at the moment I think Dr Bonham would probably do a much better job than I. So I think what I’ll bring to this forum tonight is probably a more practical set of observations as a participant, a practitioner, in what are momentous political times in this country, and in this state – and I’ll have some views to share about state politics as well in due course.
Dealing with the question of whether or not politics has failed us is obviously deeply subjective. At the federal level for instance, a passionate Gillard supporter might be quite happy with the current situation, while a passionate Abbot supporter might be horrified about what’s going on in Canberra. Moreover the issue is obviously quite complex because there are different understandings of the meaning of the word politics; there are different levels of governance to focus on: national, state and local, and different objective measures of the effectiveness of that governance. But for the need of somewhere to start, I will start by saying that at the federal level at least, where I’m obviously active and most familiar, I feel that politics is working much better than critics are prepared to give it credit for. For a start, the parliament in Canberra is genuinely representative.
The 150 members of the House of Representatives were fairly elected and the fact no one party or coalition of parties has an outright majority is in fact neither here nor there. In fact there was no great collapse in the vote of either of the major parties generally at the election – I think the only remarkable thing about what happened on August 21 last year was simply the closeness of the result. That was really the only remarkable thing. That so many people regard the hung parliament as being somehow illegitimate reflects I think their unfamiliarity with such a situation, or more often their continuing unhappiness with the fact that the Coalition didn’t win. And I am quite sure that many people who are complaining about the hung parliament right now would not be complaining if the Coalition had formed government and we’d have a whole new group of people complaining about how the hung parliament isn’t working.
I suggest also that the Federal Parliament has proven to be remarkably stable. You would recall that many pundits said it wouldn’t last three months, but we’re in our 14th month now. And there’s only been a single incident that I can recall that brought a nervous hush to the chamber, and that was when Robert Oakeshott (seemed inevitable didn’t it) miscalculated during a division which had the effect of signalling the parliament had lost confidence in the Speaker. To his credit, Tony Abbott immediately rose to move a motion of confidence in the Speaker which remarkably was seconded by the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and carried straight along with a unanimous vote. This put the whole earth back on its axis and back to work we went. So for all the grand manoeuvring and scheming and forces at work to bring down the government, bizarrely the only point in time when the wheels came perilously close to falling off, was a slight miscalculation by one crossbencher on a procedural vote which effectively sent the signal that the parliament had lost confidence in the Speaker. This would of course have been a terrible situation if someone hadn’t moved a motion of confidence, as Tony Abbott to his credit did.
The Federal Parliament is also remarkably productive. In its first year, almost 200 pieces of legislation, that’s Bills and Motions, have been passed, not one government bill has been defeated, nor a single amendment to government legislation carried without the support of the government. This by the way is a much greater workload than the first year, in fact it is almost double the workload, of the first year of the Howard Government back in 1996. Through all of this, the Green, Adam Bandt, and independents Rob Oakeshott, Tony Windsor and myself have obviously provided just certainty of supply and certainty of confidence to the government. But beyond that straightforward certainty of supply and certainty of confidence, I think the four of us, sometimes aided and abetted by the West Australian National, Tony Crook, independent Bob Katter, and even the Coalition, have also helped to make this a much richer Parliament than usual.
For instance, we’ve sometimes stopped bad policy. You will recall there was much discussion about the sale of the Australian Stock Exchange to the Singaporeans and the Treasurer, Wayne Swan, spoke in great detail about all of the reasons why the sale didn’t go ahead. The reality was, he knew that almost all, in fact I think all, the crossbenchers were opposed to it, and the government simply did not have the numbers. It was that simple, but it was much better explained in more elaborate ways by the Treasurer. At other times, I believe the crossbenchers in the hung parliament have improved policy. For example the fact that the inner-regional zone for claimants of youth allowance, the only reason that has been abolished, thereby making it actually fairer for students in inner-regional areas, of which Hobart is, in fact the whole of the electorate is, the only reason that occurred was because the cross benchers put the weights on the government and said “if you don’t make that change we’ll support the opposition” and the government, concerned about having a major political loss on the floor, buckled and agreed to the change.
The crossbenchers have also been fortunate to have the opportunity to realise our own initiatives. For instance my Private Member’s Bill giving greater protection to journalists and their sources, was just the 18th Private Member’s Bill to become law since Federation. And since the 18th my colleague Rob Oakeshott has got the 19th up. So that’s remarkable isn’t it? There have been only 19 Private Member’s Bills become laws of the land since 1901 and two of them occurred in the last 13 months as a direct result of this hung parliament. Evidence I am sure of how this is a richer parliament than what happens normally where one party or a coalition of parties has a monopoly on power. The only reason the tax forum occurred this week was because the conduct of such a forum was a condition of support by Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor. That is the only reason that forum occurred yesterday and the day before. I attended and can I add, it was not a ‘talk fest’, it actually ended up being a very good worthwhile exercise. So full marks to, in particular, Rob Oakeshott who drove it.
Moreover the move to put a price on carbon is probably the best example of the way in which a power sharing parliament allows for unexpected initiatives to bubble up. In my opinion Julia Gillard was genuine before the election when she said there would be no carbon tax under a government she leads. But of course no one expected the remarkable result of last year’s federal election and I do believe that she felt her hand had genuinely been forced – a move which I’m tickled pink about, because as I’m sure you are all aware I’ve long been a strong advocate of putting a price on carbon. I would add that the senior political leaders who continue to call Julia Gillard a liar over this, know that her hand was forced, know that she made that comment before the election in good faith, and I would actually accuse those who call Julia Gillard a liar, I would accuse them of knowingly trying to mislead people. Of course there is no shortage of people in Australia, and I think most of them vote for the Coalition, who think the crossbenchers have too much power and would single out my poker machine reforms as evidence of a disproportionate amount of power being in the hands of one Member of Parliament.
But the reality is ladies and gentlemen, that many of the critics of the crossbenchers are just people still mad as hell that we decided to support Julia Gillard and not Tony Abbott. In other words if we had all helped to install Tony in the lodge the same people would be very happy with the hung parliament while again I’d say a whole new group of this time Labor Party supporters would be beating us up. And as far as poker machine reform goes, I’d suggest that the progress of this initiative should be seen as a triumph for democracy, not a failure. Because the reform has overall public support and not one party has a clear political majority to stop it in response to the power of vested interests. I should quickly add of course that the crossbenchers certainly don’t get everything our way, the most disappointing example for me being my ill-fated live animal export Bill, which would have banned the export of Australian livestock in three years time and in the interim put in place appropriate safeguards. As you know it was voted down by both the Government and the Coalition in a staggering triumph of vested interests over morality. What I can say tonight is that I believe I have now given the Labor Caucus more than enough time to address this issue and I will be giving formal notice next week, which is a sitting week, that I will be giving formal notice of a new private members bill that will legislate the safeguards that must be put in place before Australian livestock can be processed overseas. And my list will specifically include stunning, and I think that will be a very, very difficult private members bill for the government to deal with because it will have very strong support among the Labor backbenchers, so I hold out some hope that while I failed last time I can at least succeed this time.
The Coalition also gets into the act in some positive way for example they moved a motion to establish a committee to look into Australia’s mandatory detention arrangement and that was in fact supported by the Green, Adam Bandt, and myself, and that is why we currently do have a parliamentary inquiry into Australia’s mandatory detention arrangements—moved by the Coalition on the right, supported by Bandt and Wilkie on the left and cornered the Government nicely in the centre. But that’s the richness of it. And it’s a richness which I will make a comment on later, which we have not seen in the Tasmanian Parliament where there is the possibility of such remarkable outcomes.
So has politics at least on the federal level failed us? On balance ladies and gentlemen I don’t think so. I think last year’s federal election was conducted to a high standard of probity, in fact a highest standard as you would see in any country in the world. The country then ran smoothly for the 17 days it was without a formal government, there was no violence, there was no bloodshed, the country ran smoothly, the bureaucracy did its job, the caretaker provisions worked effectively and I think that is something we should be very, very proud of because there are very few countries in the world where you can have a 17 day hiatus like that and everything runs so safely and smoothly. And at the end of it, a stable productive government was formed which has gone about its business including a dizzying array of reforms including a price on carbon, putting a mining tax in place, poker machine and probably aged care reform, the establishment of a genuinely nation changing national disability insurance scheme, the list goes on.
I tell you what, if this government can pull off half of its reform agenda it will go down in history as one of the great reformist governments and I will be proud to say I was a member of a great reformist parliament. Now none of that is to say things are going along swimmingly all the time in Canberra. Obviously it isn’t. While I probably tend to see everything as normal in Canberra, because I know of nothing else, so obviously every time I see something for the first time I assume its normal. It is only when I look around at the looks on the faces of my parliamentary colleagues that I realise things are far from normal. Even I can see though that the environment in Canberra at the moment is absolutely toxic. Attacks are personal, and just about everything coming from the opposition is destructively negative. There is no sense of goodwill about the House, nor much interest in cooperation in any form. Tony Abbott in particular has proven to be remarkably capable of tapping into some of the most worrying fault lines in the community. One result being the disgusting letters and emails that crucial members of parliament are receiving, myself included obviously. Some of which are warranting Australian Federal Police intervention.
People who have been there before tell me they have never seen it so toxic, and they have never heard of such a disgusting stream of emails, letters, telephone threats and so on. There had to be something very nasty whipped up within the Australian community and it is quite unfamiliar to people in the parliament. I think what the Opposition have done in this regard is a complete and utter betrayal of the whole idea of power sharing in parliament which should be, and needs to be, cooperative in nature if the public interest is to be properly served. Instead we have this confrontational dynamic which jars with the power sharing and which is fundamentally at odds with what the public needs right now. We need people to just settle it down. I have to be pretty careful saying this, we need Kevin Rudd and his Bex and a little lie down. But I’m not advocating that Kevin Rudd return.
What does seem to be going on at the moment is serving the Coalition’s political self interest, although bizarrely not Tony Abbott’s personal popularity. And I think its, I am sure you’d agree it’s a remarkable situation where an opposition has polling numbers at dizzying heights and yet the leader of the Opposition is so relatively unpopular. Of course one of the problems we have got in Canberra at the moment is Julia Gillard’s baggage. I do think there are many Australians who are still uncomfortable, myself included, who are still uncomfortable with the way she came to power. It’s not the way we do things in this country. And I certainly would not want to see a repeat of that.
There is that perception I have already referred to in some circles that Julia Gillard lied about the carbon tax, a perception which I do not share, I do believe she said what she said before the election in good faith. There are also the inevitable problems with big programs being rolled out very quickly, necessarily I would add because of the need to get the stimulus spending into the economy, and much of the publicity and problems obviously with the home insulation program and the Building the Education Revolution program, particularly on the mainland. You know Julia Gillard is carrying a fair bit of baggage and it is making it very hard for her to get any clear air. Again I think this helps to explain why the Coalition is travelling so well. Although I would add though, much of the unique current circumstances I do think will pass at the next election, or [with] a change in political leadership, because so much at the moment is to do with personalities. For example, if Malcolm Turnbull was to replace Tony Abbott as the Opposition Leader, that would be a genuine game changer in Canberra, and it would, I think, significantly influence many of the crossbenchers.
In other words ladies and gentlemen I think we are living at the moment in Canberra in unique circumstances which will almost certainly disappear come the next election, if only because any sort of cultural change that you might think is being started at the moment in Canberra, it needs more time than a single term of three years for that cultural change really to mature.
Before I leave Canberra I just want to say though there are some very, very well rehearsed, some issues that I seen in Canberra which I am sure are very familiar to you and I do think they ultimately do need to be addressed.
For a start the length of the Parliamentary term. Three years is essentially too short if only because a disproportionate part of the three year Parliamentary term is taken up with campaigning and in this remarkable Parliament, Tony Abbott has been in campaign mode from the day after the Gillard Government was formed. I do think in Canberra we should move to a four year terms and I do think in Canberra we should move to fixed dates which is what Tasmania has supposedly moved to take away the opportunity for incumbent Governments to be mischievous with the way they time the elections.
I do think also in Canberra there is much work still be done on the perennial issue of political donation, because let’s face it, no-one hands over a large sum of money to a political party or to a politician without also holding some hope of a political favour at some point in the future. To suggest that a wealthy individual or a large company hands over many tens of thousands of dollars just as an act of generosity would be kidding ourselves. I think it is little different to a paper bag of cash being handed over in a developing country and I would like to see significant reform of the whole political donations arrangements.
And then there is the dreadful state of political parties. And I’ve got to warn you here: no-one’s going to get out of this without me throwing a rock at them. I do think that none of the political parties are genuinely democratic, including the Greens which should be the exemplar of grassroots democracy. I think the Democrats when they were ascendant did stay true to their democratic model better than most and I do acknowledge that in the Greens some parts of the Greens are much better than others. Something I observed personally when I was a member of the Greens, when I was originally in the Greens in New South Wales, which was true to its grassroots democratic principles to the point of almost being unworkable. I then moved to Tasmania where I thought too often decisions were made by the senior officials or activists in the party and sometimes the grassroots members weren’t being heard enough and weren’t being consulted enough.
There has arisen in this country a political ruling class populated by graduates, who become political staffers and party apparatchiks some of whom then go on to become Members of Parliament. The ALP is obviously the most striking example of this but I would add no party is free of fault anymore. I do think that is a problem and I see it in Canberra where you have a political ruling class now within the chamber and I think it would be a richer Parliament if the people had gone out and got a job and done other things as well before they then became Members of Parliament. Now if they had a job where they actually had to read a balance sheet, where they had to hire someone, where they had to fire someone, where they had to build something, where they had to tear something down, they would have understood better how to run an organisation and I think we would have a richer Parliament. That’s not to say we can’t have people who go to uni then staff a Member of Parliament and be very good at it but I think as a general rule I’d like to see a different approach.
I do think in Canberra, and I’ve seen this, there is an alarming lack of authenticity and passion in many of our political leaders today, the likes of Bob Hawke, Bob Menzies, Gough Whitlam, Mal Fraser, Paul Keating and even John Howard. People like that, personalities like that don’t seem to be coming up through the party structures much anymore. You know, it is no accident that Bob Katter is so remarkably popular in his electorate. He’s authentic – they’re all like that up there. He’s authentic, and that’s what people want. People don’t even need to agree with you all the time but they do want to know who you are and they want to know your stance on something. We’re missing that bit these days and no wonder the Labor Party in particular is in dire straights. I think it is true that the Labor Party in some ways has lost its way philosophically, not to mention losing a whole lot of members to boot.
All of which I’ve been describing might help to explain this apparent rise of the independents. But I’m actually going to hose down that notion. I think the idea about the rise of the independents is actually being overcooked. In this Parliament, you know I’m actually the only new independent? It’s true – the other three, Bob Katter, Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor, they were already in the last Parliament and the other two crossbenchers are actually party members. So I think it’s overcooking things to say there has been a rise in independents in this Parliament. There’s one extra independent.
Our profile at the moment is much more to do with the position we find ourselves in than us having carved out some new position somehow. Having said that, I do hope the high profile independents currently have does inspire more competent independents to have a go because I think there is no doubt that a lot of Australians have had a gutful with the downsides of party politics and are looking for something fresh. One of the reasons why I hope this Parliament works is because I want people at the end of this Parliament to say independents are valuable Members of Parliament we should support competent independents when we find their names on the ballot paper. I want to be one of the building blocks for the rise of independents sometime in the future.
Now, can I change tack and talk about state politics where I do think politics is failing us much more widely: here at the state level. Frankly, I think the parliament is a complete dog’s breakfast. There is a self-evident lack of quality. Frankly, there is no more than a handful of Members of Parliament, in both houses, who could be called competent. It is too small. Again, it is self-evident that 35 or so Members in the House of Assembly are needed if we are to give that house or allow that house to have the critical mass and depth it needs.
If we could only have a bigger House of Assembly by moving to a unicameral Parliament, i.e. a single House of Parliament, then I think there should be a mature public discussion about that. As we look for innovative and affordable ways to improve Governance in this state, I don’t think anything should be off the table including the abolition of the Legislative Council.
And perhaps some sort of model like the New Zealand mixed member proportional representation model, the MMP, which combines single-member electorates and multi-member electorates to have representatives from both of those sources elected in the same chamber. Perhaps that provides a good case study for us to look at and to say: is some sort of innovative solution like that the way to go? One of the criticisms, of course, of having an extra ten members of the assembly, added to the people in the upper house is just too many politicians. So we’ve got to look for innovative ways through that and I think we all need to be mature enough, and the government needs to be competent enough to lead a public discussion about that and not be frightened at anything in particular on the table.
There is a chronic lack of leadership in this state, a chronic lack of leadership. I do believe that Lara Giddings is a good human being. I do believe David Bartlett is a good human being. But neither are the sort of dynamic, inspiring leaders that we need right now. There is a real shortfall of confidence and enthusiasm in this state. We need the sort of leadership figures to come through that pick us up and drag us along for the ride, that inspire us. We’d best not go through all of the Members of the assembly and council one by one but I think it would be fair to say that there are precious few inspiring leadership figures amongst the whole lot of them; there are a small number but there aren’t a lot of them. I think in a healthy functioning democracy just about the whole lot of them should be that inspiring figure that can pick this state up, change it in the way it needs to be changed for the future and take us into that future in a confident and prosperous and sustainable way.
But I don’t see that down there at the moment. I see some very ordinary people who when confronted with a problem or, for example, a need to save money from the health budget, do they look to deeply restructure it so we have sustainable savings into the future or do they just simply say okay we’ll get rid of 3000 elective procedures this year, you know, that’ll save so many million dollars. But that’s what they’ve done: simplistic cuts, instead of really well considered restructuring and initiative we’re not seeing coming from these people.
One of the problems in this state is a lack of an effective opposition and look I’m sorry I know there is a lot of Greens here in the audience tonight and I tell you I’m still the same person I was in the Greens a couple of years ago. I was at the moderate end of the party, politically about centre, and that’s still exactly the same place that I am. But we have got to be able to criticise and look critically at ourselves and the way we do business. I do feel personally, I know there will be a range of views in this room, that the Greens made an error of judgement by going into the Cabinet at this point in time. And one of the downsides of that decision is that there are issues over which the Greens used to be all over like a rash which you don’t hear squeak from now and I think that is a terrible, terrible shame. The Greens could be in the Cabinet in the future but I think it was the wrong time to do it now. And sure I’m biased because the way I approached supporting a Government is fundamentally different. All I have done for the Government is I have said I will support your Budget and I won’t support a reckless no confidence motion and everything else after that is up for grabs and negotiation. And I think particularly when you are in the early days of these sorts of processes; I think that is the safer, the more conservative way, just to edge forward. And it does affect the ability of the Greens to respond to things. You know Cassy O’Connor is the Minister responsible for poker machines and she wrote an opinion piece in the Mercury some months ago criticising me for not going far enough and fast enough on poker machines. She’s the minister! She can throw them out of the state next week. Case in point.
And there is an absence of an alternative Government. Not only do we need an Opposition, we need an alternative Government. And the Liberal Party is weak and uninspiring and it is not an alternative Government in Tasmania at this point in time. So if we don’t have an effective Opposition, if we don’t have an alternative Government, we don’t have inspiring leadership, we have incompetent financial management. No wonder we’re in this mess we are at the moment. It’s entirely understandable.
And I think there are some lost opportunities too. I described how Adam Bandt and myself voted with the Opposition to get an inquiry up into mandatory detention. Now we haven’t seen as much as that sort of cooperation in Canberra as I’d have liked to see, but we have seen a little bit, but we’ve seen next to none here. The Liberal Party and the Greens need to learn to work together and to talk together and where their interests overlap to get good initiatives up in the public interest and stop this sometime immature refusal to talk to each other. There is good in all political parties, there are good people in all political parties, there is nothing wrong with cooperating with your political adversary when your interests overlap. Particularly when it’s in the public interest.
Now I better wind it up. I’m going to recklessly talk about local government. Oh dear. I recklessly talked about local government once before and I got eaten alive afterwards. I’m sorry I think there are too many councils and I think opinion polls are suggesting that the public think there are too many councils. And I think that too many councils does create inefficiencies and does mean that some communities are served by councils which are small and under funded and you can’t get a fair and equitable level of services in those regions. I do think we need less councils. Ideally, they should be done of a voluntary basis. But we should be prepared, I learnt my lesson last time, we should be prepared to talk about all the options. Because if we are confident of our position then we are confident to talk about all of the alternatives including the alternative we don’t agree with. And if there is a compelling case for forced amalgamations, then that should be teased out. But if in fact it is a compelling case against forced amalgamations, then that should be teased out and the argument should be won on its merits in the community.
But whatever we do, we should be moving forward on this on because the status quo in my opinion is unsustainable, particularly as the cost of doing services is going up and up and up. And I think as we get less councils we might get more candidates. You know I notice at the moment, for alderman, alderwomen positions, I have counted, I hope this right, 146 positions and 283 candidates across the state, it’s actually a lot more candidates if you include mayoral and et cetera, but for the actual basic positions, there are only really two candidates per position and I remember reading in the paper the other day, it might have been the Tasman Council was six candidates for something like five positions, I think something like that, not good, we need more choice and people need to be more inspired to run and have a go because then I think we’ll get more candidates and we’ll get better quality councils and better outcomes.
Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for your patience, In closing I’d like to acknowledge tonight that I have sometimes been somewhat critical of people in Parliament and parties and I have not hesitated to throw a few stones around the room. Please understand the last thing I’m saying is that I’m any better than any of those people I have passed judgement on. In fact in some ways, I’m the worst offender of the lot. Because my support base cuts right across the political spectrum and every time I open my mouth or make a decision I disappoint someone. And I’m deeply sorry for that I just hope that if I have this job for three years, people will think on balance think I’m still OK even though I have disappointed them on one particular policy or another. I also acknowledge that I have made many bad decisions in my first 13 months but at the end of the day independents like me are by definition solo sailers without the gross error checks hopefully built into party structures. We independents just hope that you forgive us every now and then, including for the excesses borne of the need to capitalise on the fleeting power of one.
And as far as that question, which is the exactly the reason we are all here tonight, about whether politics is failing us, I reckon the answer is, sometimes yes. But to the logical next question, is the situation irreversible, I reckon the answer is only if we let it.
• Watch the Simon de Little video HERE
• ... and the Q&A session: HERE
First published: 2011-10-07 03:29 PM