SCOTT BEVAN: Time now for our daily ‘pollies panel’. Political correspondent Gillian Bradford is joined by Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham and Labor MP Andrew Leigh.
GILLIAN BRADFORD: Simon, three of Joe Hockey’s Nine Point Plan [the Coalition’s Nine Point Plan to Stand up to the Banks] pop up in this Government package so, with that in mind… from that starting point, is this something the Opposition is going to look to support?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Gillian, as Joe Hockey has said already, it’s not all bad but it’s nowhere near enough and what we think is that there’s an awful lot of spin attached to this package that is just about, of course, political posturing for the Government rather than about the type of comprehensive ‘root and branch’ approach to making our banking sector more competitive that is necessary, and the Government’s addiction to good headlines and spin were shown just today at the Senate banking inquiry where the NAB Chief Executive told the committee, under oath in sworn testimony, that in fact he never heard from Wayne Swan subsequent to the last RBA interest rate rise, so what we have is the Treasurer out there on the one hand, after the RBA put up interest rates, saying that he was out there talking individually to each of the banks warning them not to follow the Commonwealth Bank’s lead of jacking up rates above the official cash rate, and yet the NAB CEO says he never heard from Wayne Swan. Now we have Wayne Swan releasing a new package of reforms. That’s welcome to a limited extent where it actually goes in the right direction, but out of this package we have a couple of very issue-specific task forces, we have a new advertising campaign, it lacks the root and branch, ‘son of Wallis’ investigation into the banking sector and how we really deliver a truly competitive sector into the future that Joe Hockey and the Opposition have been calling for for several months now.
GILLIAN BRADFORD: And so, Simon, is the rub on this, though, that it’s better for the Government to negotiate with you on this package than it is with the Independents, and this question’s for both of you, because do you really want to be dealing with the Independents and the Greens when they’re pushing to go much harder, much further? It almost seems as if the common ground is really between the two major parties here.
ANDREW LEIGH: Well, we’re a Government, Gillian, that’s been negotiating right across the board since we came into office. Julia Gillard is the best negotiator in the country, I think, and her schedule is jam packed with meetings with people across the political spectrum, not just Parliamentarians but also people in the community group and so we’ll continue doing that and I’m sure the Government would be delighted to have support from any party which is willing to come on board and support a substantive banking plan, not just thought bubbles but well considered, well articulated arguments which have been worked through with the regulators, things like a crackdown on anti-competitive price signalling by the banks which has been called for by the ACCC and for which legislation will be introduced into Parliament in the first sittings of 2011.
GILLIAN BRADFORD: Simon?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: ’The best negotiator in the country’. No hyperbole there, Andrew, but look, ‘moving forward’ from that if I can, what we actually have here, of course, is a Government that… you want to talk about bringing forward legislation? That’s one of the key things in this package, Andrew. You’re bringing forward something you’d already announced. You’re announcing a couple of piecemeal task forces. You’re announcing an advertising campaign to allow building societies to change their names to banks and to facilitate those sorts of things. You hold out this $7000 example. You and Wayne Swan hold it out as a key example of the type of exit fees that will be eliminated. But of course you know full well that that example comes from one of the smaller banks, from one of those very people for whom you’re trying to encourage competition and encourage them to get more competitive and that that bank clearly will have to restructure the way it offers packages in response to this. When you boil it all down, there are two things that need to occur. One, of course, is the type of systematic approach to banking reform Joe Hockey has been on about, and the other is for the Government to recognise and acknowledge that it currently is pulling its levers in opposite directions, that fiscal policy is such in this country that it is actually forcing the Reserve Bank to put interest rates up and increase pressures on Australian home buyers higher and faster than would otherwise be necessary and that is the reality of it and the Reserve Bank Governor has said it before, I’m sure he’ll say it again that until you get the fiscal stimulus back under control in Australia, you’re going to see higher interest rates than would otherwise be the case.
GILLIAN BRADFORD: Simon, I know you’d just probably be glad… you’re glad this isn’t happening to you while you’re in government. Do you have any empathy for the embarrassment Kevin Rudd may be feeling over this week’s [WikiLeaks] revelation and more still to come?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, look, there are obviously concerns firstly where some of the leaks, and I do say ‘some’ because there aren’t too many thus far, have gone into areas that do have an impact potentially on national security. There are, of course, others that are simply embarrassing and, well, that’s the fate of public life sometimes that when you say things in private, they may often find their way into the public domain and you have to wear the embarrassment that comes with it but, for the Government, the main embarrassment is the fact that they are all over the shop on this and the divisions between Kevin Rudd as Foreign Minister and Julia Gillard as Prime Minister and Robert McClelland as Attorney-General are plain for all to see in this. Julia Gillard was being policeman, prosecutor, judge and jury from day one in terms of convicting Mr Assange of crimes for which he’s never been charged. Kevin Rudd, however, has been a defender of Mr Assange. Now, the Government needs to take a clear, systematic and uniform approach to this and the Government needs to be responsible in accepting that Mr Assange is an Australian citizen, he deserves the relevant protections of Australia in that regard, but of course he should be subjected to the laws of Australia and the laws of the other countries in which he’s been and in which his organisation operates but, in the end, it’s the Government’s embarrassment, not so much of what’s been revealed but the fact that they haven’t been able to have a singular consistent response to the WikiLeaks scandal and to what Mr Assange is doing and is accused of having done.
GILLIAN BRADFORD: And Simon, very briefly to you, you’re heading off on a listening tour of the Murray-Darling Basin again tomorrow. I remember it was nearly four years ago now that your then Prime Minister, John Howard, was in this building telling us how urgent reform of that was, there was no such things as Queensland’s water. Is the time for listening not over on the Murray-Darling? Don’t we need action now? Don’t we need the Coalition’s cooperation to actually push through reform on this issue?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Gillian, you’re right. The reform process on Murray-Darling was one started by the Coalition and it’s one that I want to see concluded and completed successfully, but we will only conclude it and complete it if we can bring people with us, if we can bring communities with us. You’re never going to make everyone happy, and I’ve said that right up and down the length of the system, but you need to get out there and talk to people. It’s something sadly this Government hasn’t done. Penny Wong was rarely seen in the communities that we’ll be visiting in New South Wales this week, nor those that I’ve visited previously in Queensland or in Victoria, and Tony Burke really has been the missing man of Murray-Darling reform since the time that the Guide to the [proposed] Basin Plan was released by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. Now, the Basin reform agenda really has been plunged into crisis through the response to the Guide, through the resignation of Michael Taylor last week. I want to see it put back on track, but I want to get out there with my colleagues Warren Truss, Barnaby Joyce and Fiona Nash, listen to those communities and work out what we can take back to Canberra to make sure that this reform process is put back on track, because it is too important to let it go wrong, both for the health of the river and indeed for the security of those river communities into the future.
GILLIAN BRADFORD: Now, Andrew, I know that you’re in furious disagreement there on Simon’s comments on the Minister but I’m afraid we are out of time today, gentlemen, thank you both very much.
ANDREW LEIGH: Thank you.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Thank you.