KIERAN GILBERT: With me now on the program, Labor MP Andrew Leigh and Liberal frontbencher Simon Birmingham. Gentlemen, good morning to both of you.
ANDREW LEIGH: Morning, Kieran.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Morning, Kieran.
KIERAN GILBERT: Andrew, I’ll start where I started with the Minister [Chris Evans, Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills Science and Research] on the Bob Carr question. This should have been a good week for the Prime Minister, showing her authority – her reasserted authority – over the Caucus and yet now these question marks as to what she wanted, what she did and how this all fell over – this ‘Bob Carr for Canberra’ push.
KIERAN GILBERT: … a lot of it comes down to, I think, frustration within the Caucus that just when the Prime Minister had a good couple of days and had that emphatic win on Monday, that Bob Carr, you would think would be a good addition for the Senate – a former Premier – and then senior ministers express resistance, the whole thing falls over.
ANDREW LEIGH: There’s always going to be chatter around, Kieran, but the matter of who’s on the front bench is a decision for the Prime Minister and she’ll make that when she’s ready.
KIERAN GILBERT: Is it really or is it one for caucusing with your Cabinet colleagues and then you change your mind?
ANDREW LEIGH: It is absolutely a matter for the Prime Minister and you would, of course, expect that the Prime Minister would speak to colleagues in making that decision. In terms of who goes into the Senate, that’s a matter for the New South Wales branch of the party. I am sure that we are going to get a high quality candidate entering the Senate from New South Wales – I’m very confident of that.
KIERAN GILBERT: Well, there are a couple of good candidates, Senator Birmingham, already lining up – Warren Mundine, also Michael Fullilove from the Lowy Institute expected to put his hat in the ring today.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, it’ll be nice if we get a new Labor Senator who is not a former trade union official or party hack so we’ll see who comes, in that regard, but for Andrew to claim that the front bench and the Cabinet is a matter for the Prime Minister appears to not, of course, be the case. The Prime Minister apparently did have, despite the denial she issued originally, two or three conversations with Bob Carr about him potentially coming to Canberra. He was all ready to get on a plane until other frontbenchers said ‘hang on, no, you promised the job to me’ and so the Prime Minister obviously doesn’t get the say, the Prime Minister doesn’t get to choose who she wants, she is obviously under the influence of others in this regard, so you, know, with apologies to Billy Joel, when it comes to this Prime Minister it’s always a matter of trust and yesterday she was issuing denial after denial until, of course, Bob Carr said ‘well, actually there were conversations’ and now we sort of learn that, from those conversations, the Prime Minister apparently had the support of Penny Wong and Wayne Swan but then Stephen Smith said ‘hang on, no way, you promised the job to me and you’ve got to give it to me’. Now, you know, this is not a Government where the Prime Minister’s in control. This is a Government where the Prime Minister is under the thumb of other people always doing the dealing on her behalf.
KIERAN GILBERT: Is it appropriate for the Prime Minister to yesterday have said that The Australian story – front page of The Australian – was completely untrue? ‘Completely untrue’ is unequivocal. There were certainly elements to it with truth to them like the fact that Sam Dastyari from the ALP [Australian Labor Party] had approached Mr Carr and that the whole thing was being discussed.
ANDREW LEIGH: Oh, Kieran, let’s get on to actually talking about issues. There’s going to be plenty of gossip and chatter around. We’re a big country, there’s hundreds of federal politicians – on any day of the week, one of them is going to be speaking about another…
KIERAN GILBERT: But the Prime Minister’s authority and character has been an issue that she needs to respond to because that’s … there is a big question mark over that, rightly or wrongly, within the electorate about the Prime Minister, her judgement, her authority. You don’t agree with that?
ANDREW LEIGH: Not at all. The Prime Minister has just resoundingly won a leadership ballot and is focused on issues that are going to be important to building a better Australia. She’s focused on jobs, health, education. What I think is the real thing is that…
KIERAN GILBERT: But you’ve got to put the team together and she wanted Bob Carr.
ANDREW LEIGH: There are always conversations about individuals going on but let’s not let them crowd out the bigger national conversation. I’m sure Simon wouldn’t want that either. I’m sure Simon is interested in issues and in talking about the future.
KIERAN GILBERT: well, there is always speculation around front bench reshuffles. You know that, from the Coalition, don’t you?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Of course there are, Kieran. The problem, Andrew, that you and the Government have is that people won’t trust the Prime Minister on jobs, health or education or anything else if, indeed, she comes across in an untrustworthy way. Now, we’ve got a Prime Minister who most people out there in the community have concerns of trust about when it comes to a broken carbon tax promise. Last week we had Kevin Rudd, of course, saying that the Australian people recognise the Prime Minister cannot be trusted and now this week we’ve had Bob Carr demonstrating that the Prime Minister’s word cannot be trusted. Of course it was misleading for her to say the reports in The Australian were completely untrue. The only parts that were really untrue were matters of timing and nuance. The essence of the story – that Bob Carr had been approached to come to Canberra, had been offered the Foreign Affairs job and was basically ready to get on a plane and come here – all turned out to be true, but the Prime Minister couldn’t bring herself to be upfront and honest with the Australian people.
KIERAN GILBERT: Do you think that the Prime Minister should clarify a few of these points to clear it up so that you can move on?
ANDREW LEIGH: I think the Prime Minister has had private conversations. I’m not party to those and, unlike Simon, I’m not going to suggest that I have been. What we have is a strong frontbench team, we will have a good Senator coming forward from New South Wales shortly and we’re getting on with the job of governing. I entirely reject Simon’s suggestion on trust. I think fundamentally the Australian people know that Julia Gillard is a tough leader who has been strongly re-endorsed by her Caucus and is focused not on constant carping negativity like the Leader of the Opposition but is actually focused on the optimistic process of building a better country.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Bob Carr appears to…
ANDREW LEIGH: Australians are better than this narkiness, this constant attacks that we see from Mr Abbott every day.
KIERAN GILBERT: Okay, one… you wanted to make one final point?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Very quickly, Bob Carr had no problem saying he was spoken to, Sam Dastyari was happy to say he’d spoken to Bob Carr, Stephen Smith’s been happy to confirm that he actually wanted the Foreign Affairs job. The only person who won’t actually be upfront with the Australian people on this is Julia Gillard.
KIERAN GILBERT: Alright, let’s take a break. We’ll be right back on AM Agenda
KIERAN GILBERT: This is AM Agenda. Thank you for your company this morning. With me, Liberal frontbencher Senator Simon Birmingham and Labor MP Andrew Leigh. Gentlemen, let’s look at some other issues. University placements are up. The Government, as you heard from the Minister for Tertiary Education, sees this as unadulterated good news but there has been weakness… you’re [Andrew Leigh] a former academic yourself… Ian Chubb, from the ANU [Australian National University] or formerly from the ANU, says that there’s a weakness in science enrolments. What do you put that down to and what do you think we can do to turn that around?
ANDREW LEIGH: … I’m delighted to see this uncapping of places – 27 per cent more kids going to university across the country now compared to five years ago.
KIERAN GILBERT: So the Government has uncapped the number of university places so anyone that qualifies can go, Senator Birmingham, and it looks like it’s worked – growth of more than a quarter in terms of the number of placements in universities since 2007 when Labor won.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, of course it’s important to this country and to Australia’s future that we have a highly skilled workforce, Kieran, and I think making sure that we have strong numbers of university graduates is obviously part of that mix. Now, we should never lose sight of issues around quality, and making sure that amongst our universities we do have some that are excelling and that are seen as amongst the absolute best in the world, and so we need to make sure that by having sheer mass of numbers and weight of numbers that we aren’t undermining those issues of quality at all and that’s something to keep a careful eye on and then there are the issues as well, that you raised and cited Professor Chubb on, in terms of maths and sciences and making sure that we’ve got the right blend and mix of skills and that it’s not all a lot of undergrads doing Arts or even Economics degrees, Andrew, but making sure we’re getting into those other fields and certainly that does start very much at the schooling level as well and making sure we’ve got really high standards…
KIERAN GILBERT: So, do you think the Government did the right thing in uncapping the places there, if we’ve seen this dramatic growth over the last few years?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, I think in terms of the policy outcome, it’s good to see more university graduates, so I welcome that. There are issues around funding and the universities are concerned, I know, that the greater numbers have caused stress on facilities and that there’s not enough complementary funding that goes with the facilities and university infrastructure to cope with the numbers that are involved so we need to understand there’s a big picture here around university funding and I know that Brett Mason, our Shadow Minister there, has certainly championed some of those issues in terms of trying to make sure that the concerns of universities that come with higher enrolments and more students are better understood across government.
KIERAN GILBERT: Ian Chubb is the Chief Scientist. We’ve been referring to him. I should mention that he is the Chief Scientist, going to report to the Government on the state of science education and other matters at the end of next… or at the end of this month, now…
KIERAN GILBERT: Let’s look at another policy area which has been difficult for the Government to deliver on – that’s on problem gambling. It looks like Andrew Wilkie has now withdrawn his support for these watered down policy measures, as have the Greens. It looks like it’s going to be scuttled in the Lower House.
ANDREW LEIGH: Well, Kieran, this is a hung parliament and that means that all of us, Andrew Wilkie included, need to work together to put reform through. I know Andrew Wilkie’s very passionately committed to doing something about problem gambling and I would urge him, through this program, to get onboard and support this trial. I’m one of the two MPs for the ACT [Australian Capital Territory]. I really think that getting a bigger evidence base on mandatory pre-commitment is critical.
KIERAN GILBERT: He’s worried that Queanbeyan isn’t also involved and if Queanbeyan – just outside of the ACT – isn’t engaged as well, that would obviously diminish the worth of the research done in the ACT if it’s ten minutes’ drive.
ANDREW LEIGH: I think that misunderstands what we’re doing here with mandatory pre-commitment. What mandatory pre-commitment is about is you putting a hand on your shoulder in a few hours’ time and saying when I hit my limit – whether it’s $100 a week or $10,000 a week – then stop me and tell me I can’t gamble any more and I think we have a lot of research in behavioural economics that when you take people out of that situation they take a deep breath and they don’t go home and blow the rest on online gambling, they don’t drive off to another club. I think you do break the vortex there and I think this is going to boost the evidence base.
KIERAN GILBERT: Okay. Senator Birmingham, your thoughts on that?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Andrew Wilkie is, of course, one of many people – and perhaps this ‘bookends’ the conversation today – who has lost trust in Julia Gillard. He thought he had a deal with Julia Gillard over gambling reform. She didn’t see that deal through. He’s now unhappy with the compromise that’s been put on the table so there’s a real problem for the Government here that in yet another area where the Prime Minister brokered a deal – and this was a deal critical, of course, to her formation of government – the person who she shook hands with and signed the deal with has now said ‘I don’t trust the Prime Minister on this issue because she’s broken her word on this issue’. Now, the policy issues themselves – I have concerns about the approaches. Frankly, I have personal concerns as to why the Commonwealth is in this space at all. This is a true area of State Government responsibility and they’re the people who should be actually looking at these issues and implementing reforms if need be but, you know, that’s perhaps a big picture approach to what is a very difficult issue.
KIERAN GILBERT: Senator Birmingham’s not alone in that concern, is he? And your concerns about problem gambling aren’t going to be dealt with here because you can’t get a deal with the Greens and Andrew Wilkie.
ANDREW LEIGH: Maybe I can answer Simon’s concern with a story. The one that hit me the most was the little girl who said to her father ‘Dad, can we get a pokie machine at home so that Mum and her money can stay here?’ and there’s so many thousands of stories we hear about that which is why we got the Productivity Commission to do a report into problem gambling, to look at a federal role for dealing with this. I think it’s disappointing…
KIERAN GILBERT: But it’s not going to get dealt with, though, is it?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: The Productivity Commission first did a report ten years ago into problem gambling, Andrew, so there’s been a lot of research on this for a long period of time and, absolutely, there are some tragic stories – tragic stories – of problem gamblers and there should be appropriate policy responses but, frankly, the states issue poker machines, they issue the licences, they made it legal, they’re the ones with the responsibility in this space. In the end, the Commonwealth will simply be, frankly, subverting the ‘corporations’ powers to be able to operate in this area. The only reason the trial is happening here in the ACT is because, of course, the Commonwealth can easily legislate in the ACT.
KIERAN GILBERT: Andrew, your response?
ANDREW LEIGH: I’m not as sanguine as Simon about stepping out of this space. I think it really is important that we, as a national government, tackle the scourge of problem gambling but I do want to…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: You want to abolish the states?
ANDREW LEIGH: … address an issue that Simon’s raised a couple of times – it’s the issue of trust in the Prime Minister. It is a constant theme that we see from the Coalition of these personal attacks on the Prime Minister…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: It’s a constant theme that Australians raise with me.
ANDREW LEIGH: The Prime Minister is an extraordinarily strong woman who is terrific job in the current circumstances. We have a hung parliament. We are committed to dealing with problem gambling but we’re facing the most negative Opposition in a generation. We really need to work together on this and I would urge Andrew Wilkie and members of the coalition of goodwill to work with us together to cut problem gambling.
KIERAN GILBERT: Okay, gentlemen, we’re out of time. Thank you for your contribution this morning – Labor MP Andrew Leigh, Liberal frontbencher Senator Simon Birmingham. Thanks, gents.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Thanks… cheers.