LYNDAL CURTIS: It’s the second anniversary of the 2010 federal election. Although Australia then had to wait 17 days and for a 17-minute speech to find out that the Gillard Government had been returned to power. The Government marked the anniversary with reference to its achievements and the appointment of a new High Court judge. The Solicitor-General, Stephen Gageler, will become only the second Commonwealth Solicitor-General to become a High Court judge. The first was Sir Anthony Mason, who Stephen Gageler served as an associate for. The Opposition chose to mark the day calling for the Government to apologise for introducing a carbon tax. Joining me to discuss the day, two Senators – Labor’s Lisa Singh and the Liberals’ Simon Birmingham. Welcome to you both.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good afternoon.
LISA SINGH: You’re welcome.
LYNDAL CURTIS: We’ll start off first with an accusation from the Government that Tony Abbott’s ejection from Parliament yesterday was because he has problems taking orders from a woman, in this case the Deputy Speaker, Anna Burke.
TANYA PLIBERSEK: Well, I think he does find it very difficult that he’s dealing with two women in positions of authority and particularly the Deputy Speaker telling him what to do Went down like a lead balloon.
TONY ABBOTT: I take directions from women every day – my wife, my daughters, my Chief of Staff, other senior members of my office. Look, I am an entirely modern man in this respect.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Lisa, was it really necessary for Government ministers to come out and make this accusation today? Was it necessary to accuse Tony Abbott effectively of having a problem with women?
LISA SINGH: Well, I don’t think it would have been necessary if Tony Abbott’s behaviour towards women wouldn’t be as it has been and I think what has been demonstrated is that he has displayed a different set of behaviour to one gender than to another when we talk about the Speaker’s position so I think it’s interesting to have the debate and the discussion and to hear from Tony Abbott about how he sees his behaviour.
LYNDAL CURTIS: But, as Tony Abbott mentions, he has a woman as Chief of Staff, he’s had women in quite senior roles in his office, as long serving press secretaries. That would tend to indicate he does not have a problem working with women, doesn’t it?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, I don’t know how he works with those women but what we do know is what’s on public display and the differences of behaviour that have been displayed in relation to the Speaker’s position and I think that what we expect from our Parliamentarians, especially from leaders of a political party, is to not show any gender bias in relation to the way they display and conduct themselves in the Parliament but to be gender neutral.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Simon, while you would no doubt say, as Tony Abbott does, that he does not have a problem with women, do you think, though, however upset you get with what’s happening on the Parliamentary floor, you should respect the rulings of the Deputy Speaker in the House of Representatives or the President in the Senate?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Lyndal, firstly, I think what we’re hearing is complete and utter rubbish. I don’t see any sign at all that Tony Abbott or the Coalition generally are behaving any differently to this Speaker than any of the Speakers who have come before Anna Burke and this is just a fallacy that is made up to try to smear Tony Abbott once again with some type of suggestion of sexism. It’s just not true and there is no evidence to support it and nobody is managing to point to a single word or utterance that would actually support this claim but, in terms of the Speaker’s role, it’s there to be respected. Lisa and I, of course, are Senators. We probably perhaps show a little more respect to the presiding officer in our chamber than they do in the House of Reps. They have very robust debates there. It has been the same no matter who’s in government, no matter who is in the chair – male, female, Liberal, Labor. There is nothing new about what’s happening in the House of Reps today.
LYNDAL CURTIS: But should the rulings from the chair be respected?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I think the rulings from the chair are generally respected but, of course, there’ve also been instances where Members have withdrawn a remark and made an aside. That is nothing new. It’s happened countless times before. I’m sure I could produce a list, if given the time and the inclination, as long as my arm of Labor Members under Coalition Speakers who have failed to totally withdraw a comment. That’s nothing new at all there. This is nothing to do with the gender of the person in the Speaker’s chair.
LYNDAL CURTIS: If I could ask you both this question: the latest Newspoll shows that both leaders, both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott, continued to have what’s called a net dissatisfaction rating – their dissatisfaction rating is higher than their satisfaction rating. Do both of them have voter problems?
LYNDAL CURTIS: Simon, why do you think Tony Abbott, as Julia Gillard does, seems to have a voter problem?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, I’d make one observation there, Lyndal, that is that it’s not uncommon at all for opposition leaders to trail in that positive/negative rating because opposition leaders, by the nature of the job, are always on the front foot and are always, in many ways, attacking the Government. It is very unusual for prime ministers to continually have such a negative perception in the community and that is…
LISA SINGH: I think John Howard had one for many, many years.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I think look through the bulk of his time and his numbers certainly looked nothing like Julia Gillard’s numbers in that respect so it is little wonder there are always continuing tensions in the Labor Party as they look at these things and how it reflects on their leader but we recognise that it’s not about the polls; it’s about what you hear in the community, it’s about debating the issues and certainly for two years now we have heard continuously that people are fed up with this Government and what they’re doing.
LYNDAL CURTIS: As I mentioned at the start, the Coalition marked the second anniversary of the 2010 election talking about carbon taxes and the impact on electricity prices. Simon, the Climate Commission reported today on what other countries are doing. It’s undeniable that, while carbon pricing schemes in other countries may not be as broad as Australia’s is, they are being introduced, aren’t they?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, they are in some rare instances like South Korea on the drawing boards to be introduced at more modest rates, at slower paces, applying to less of the economy, some years down the track – nothing like what we see…
LYNDAL CURTIS: There are a number of other countries where carbon pricing schemes exist or will exist.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: There are some, indeed, that already exist like the European Union where it exists at a much lower rate to Australia, at a considerably lower rate – around $9 Australian or thereabouts compared with $23 Australian per tonne – with far greater exemptions for industry in Europe than for Australian industry. What are the two facts to remember in the carbon tax debate really are that Australia’s carbon tax is higher than anywhere else in the world, applying to a greater scope of Australian industry than anywhere else in the world, and, of course, is based on a lie from a Prime Minister who promised never to introduce it.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Simon, you were a supporter of an emissions trading scheme. Do you think that in the future Australia can afford not to have an emissions trading scheme?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I think, in many ways, Lyndal, it depends where global action goes, in terms of actually binding targets towards global agreements, and how far that goes in global reduction and, obviously, we have to look at the mechanisms that will most effectively achieve reductions that Australia’s committed to. Right now, Australia’s got a bipartisan commitment to a 5 per cent reduction by 2020. Under the carbon tax, Australia’s emissions keep going up, from 578 million tonnes to 621 million tonnes by 2020, so it doesn’t even work in achieving the target – we have to spend billions of dollars buying permits offshore. To achieve an actual reduction in emissions in Australia, the most effective way and efficient way is the Coalition’s policy to target abatement.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Is it the cheapest way?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: It is the cheapest way, Lyndal, because you’re not going to go out there and tax – at $23, $27, $29, et cetera per tonne – 100 per cent of emissions, effectively, across targeted sectors of the economy. Instead, you’re going to go out and tender for 5 per cent of abatement. So it is targeting the 5 per cent reduction rather than trying to tax 100 per cent and hope that you will get some reduction, which the Government doesn’t even manage to achieve.
LYNDAL CURTIS: We’ve looked briefly at what’s gone past. If we can look at what’s ahead. Lisa, your Government has still a relatively crowded agenda. You’re trialling the National Disability Insurance Scheme but it’s not yet fully introduced. The Government hasn’t come out with a full response to the Gonski [Review of Funding for Schooling] report. There are some big spending promises ahead for this Government. You’ve got a budget that’s not yet in surplus, although a promise that it will be in the middle of next year. Can you really afford to fund everything that you are committing to?
LISA SINGH: Well, Lyndal, isn’t it a fantastic thing that we’ve got these big reforms on the agenda? The Gonski Review, the aged care reforms, the National Disability Insurance Scheme – these are really important reforms about building our nation, about building our country for the future and of course the Government will respond to the Gonski Review, it will get on with the National Disability Insurance Scheme, because that’s what Labor governments do. We believe in supporting people, in building the nation and the future of our nation through important reforms like these so of course they will be… continue to be those important ticket items for the Government as we go forward into the next year.
LYNDAL CURTIS: But they’ll have to be paid for at some stage, won’t they?
LISA SINGH: Of course they will be.
LYNDAL CURTIS: And, Simon, you’ve got some big spending promises on your own side of politics. Is it a problem for you that the remark from Joe Hockey about a $70 billion black hole keeps coming back?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: No, Lyndal. I mean, that’s just a Labor spin mantra. What we have is a commitment to produce budget costings that get Australia back into surplus. That’s what we produced for the last election. It’s what we’ll produce again at the next election. I think Lisa has demonstrated very clearly the difference between a Labor government and a Liberal government. A Labor government sees all these grand things that go ‘spend, spend, spend.’ A Liberal government will prioritise and say ‘this is what we can afford and we will do it as efficiently and in as targeted way as possible.’
LYNDAL CURTIS: And that’s where we’ll have to leave it. Simon Birmingham and Lisa Singh, thank you very much for your time.
LISA SINGH: Thanks, Lyndal.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Thank you, Lyndal.