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'I've always seen politics as a battle of ideas and you join a political party and you battle out those ideas.' ABC Hobart Breakfast Radio Interview, Wednesday 4 October 2017







SUBJECTS: Las Vegas shooting; Gun law reform; Views within political parties; Politicians attending sports events; Same-sex marriage survey; Naming of new Antarctic research vessel.

LEON COMPTON: We wanted to try and create a place in which there was no political spin. In which, well not nobody could hear you scream but just the idea that we’d invite a couple of prominent Tasmanian politicians from each side of politics to talk about some of the issues of the week and, hopefully, do it without getting in the political trenches and resorting to political lines. Liberal Senator for Tasmania Eric Abetz, Good morning to you.


COMPTON: And Lisa Singh, Labor Senator for Tasmania, good morning to you.

LISA SINGH, LABOR SENATOR FOR TASMANIA: Good morning to you Leon and your listeners.

COMPTON: Can I ask you to talk with each other about what we've seen out of Las Vegas and the United States – another gun tragedy. The worst that they have seen but sits amongst many and looking at it from Tasmania; a place that inspired national change.  What do you think about their politics and the way that it works at the moment? And the prospects of this leading to any sort of change there in the way they manage guns?

SINGH: Leon, I think it is absolutely tragic and as far as the politics goes of it, completely bizarre. The big question is whether President Trump is actually going to stand up to the NRA which, to be honest, I have doubts that he will. If you look at the history in the United States, these massacres have been continuing, the Orlando night club wasn't that long ago and so many people died there; the Sandy Hook School where children and teachers died. There hasn't been any change since Sandy Hook in 2012, so whether there would be change now leaves a lot to be desired. Considering we have a US President who actually engaged very much with the NRA and actually spoke at a NRA event during the campaign. It is absolutely tragic, but there does need to be pressure and focus put on the President to actually address this because guns in that country are just so common place and I think one of the hallmarks of John Howard's time as Prime Minister in this country was the Gun Law Reforms that went through with bipartisan support and it’s for all our betterment.

COMPTON: Let’s plot solutions. You both understand a lot about what it is like to walk the halls of power but then maybe can extrapolate to what it might be like to be a congressman or a Senator; one of the places where change can come. Senator Abetz, what do you think it will take?

ABETZ: First of all prayers and thoughts are with the victims and let’s find out from the authorities exactly about what may have motivated this. But one would imagine, irrespective of what motivated this heinous crime, the simple fact that there was such easy access to so many weapons is something that I would encourage the United States authorities to look at, and ask themselves is this the sort of country that we really want? There is a strong gun culture in the United States, people carry guns for their own protection in the event of occasions such as this so it is a bit of the dog chasing its tail argument – if you could get rid of all the guns, or most of them and let people feel safe in that knowledge, I think that would be very helpful. One would just imagine the mountain of guns if there were ever an amnesty in the United States, you'd be able to see it from outer space one would imagine as there are just so many handguns, machine guns you name it. It is just horrendous. I hope they change the culture. 

SINGH: I can't imagine going into a supermarket and being able to buy a gun. It is just bizarre. 

COMPTON: It used to be like that in Tasmania! When I first visited Tasmania I was seventeen or eighteen and I remember going to a sports store and saying to the guy at the counter, because I couldn't believe that there were the shotguns up on the wall, and I said, ‘What would I need to buy one of those firearms?’ And he just said, ‘A driver’s license.’ In part, not with fifty calibre weapons or machine guns but it used to be like that here.

SINGH: I remember going to Bridges Bros. in Elizabeth Street when it existed and there were guns for sale in there but you always saw that as a fishing/farming shop where guns would be bought for those particular reasons that were needed for farmers, for example. Not this common place way in which the United State you can just buy the guns and then you can guy the bullets and off you go.

COMPTON: Do you both worry about what would happen if the guy responsible for this, the mad man responsible for this, had been identifying himself as a muslim doing it on behalf of ISIS, a democrat as happened at a baseball game with a US Politician was shot, a democrat doing it for his political lens, a republican doing it for their political lens, do you worry about America at the moment and where they find themselves in this debate?

ABETZ: That is why I said earlier Leon, let’s find out what motivated this man – but if it is an ideology that has motivated this man then that is something that is to be absolutely regretted and condemned. Everybody in pursing political views and ideology has to ensure that the way they present themselves never countenances the use of violence in pursuit of those beliefs. That is something that I think is a great responsibility, irrespective of if your more from the left of the politics or more from the right of politics, that is something that I think everybody has to ensure exists in a civil society and that is the condemnation of any violence – be it gun violence or any other.

COMPTON: On Mornings around Tasmania. It sort of ties in to one of the things I want to talk about this morning. Helen Polley was on the front page of ‘The Australian’ this week. She holds a view that is counter to the majority view of her party on an issue that we are discussing at the moment, which is same-sex marriage. I don't want everyone to jump into their trenches about this and that. How hard is it at the moment to hold a view? You are both people that hold views that are perhaps counter to that of the dominant orthodoxy in your party. Is it becoming harder for both of you to hold views, for politicians to hold views that are counter to the majority of their party?

SINGH: Well Leon, I've always seen politics as a battle of ideas and you join a political party and you battle out those ideas. A healthy part of democracy and indeed any political party should be a process, a mechanism, where you can actually put your ideas forward, have debate and discussion about them and come out with obviously a collective voice on that.

COMPTON: That's your view, Senator, but do you think it's becoming harder, I suppose is my question, for you to discuss with each other and do you think we should be a little concerned about that in our major parties?

ABETZ: I think the culture in the Liberal Party has always been different, in as much as we are a party – the Liberal Party – that believes in the right of the individual and therefore floor-crossing and speaking out is different.

COMPTON: I understand that. My question to both of you is do you think it's becoming harder. You've both been in the game a long time; do you think it's becoming harder?

SINGH: No, I don't think it's becoming harder within my party's sense, the Labor Party's sense, because we've got those platforms to have those views aired and discussed. I think what's becoming harder though Leon, is the twenty-four hour news cycle where the media are going out searching and looking for conflict. Looking for that voice that they can find, however small, within a political party to say, "Aha gotcha! There's a dissident or there's someone with a differing view to the main view of that party.’ But of course there are always going to be issues that people are going to have different views about. We're not all robots, that's what makes our democracy interesting, and that's what there should be. And I think the example you raised of Senator Polley having a different view on marriage to say me, or other people, is a case in point, and that's why we allow for a conscience vote in our party on this issue, and I hope the Liberal party will do the same. I haven't heard that they will.

COMPTON: So you don't think it's becoming harder for mainstream political parties to host a spectrum of views within, is what I am hearing you say?

SINGH: No. I think that those mechanisms are there in the Labor Party – I can't speak for the Liberal Party – to have those varying views and to put those views forward. I think some of the issues are becoming harder, like for example human rights issues around refugees, some of the issues facing the globe, the way we look at national security issues. All of those issues are becoming more complex and difficult. That can create a lot more debate and discussion within parties.

ABETZ: I think the culture of the parties, and I don't want to sound partisan in this, but the Labor Party and the Greens have a more collective approach to politics, the Liberal Party from its ideology is more individualistic, and therefore I think the Liberal Party has a greater tolerance for people speaking out and we're a broader church in that regard. But having said that, if you were to have a look at the history of, let’s say Senator Reg Wright, one of the very first senators from this State. He had a record of crossing the floor like you would not believe, and one of my predecessors in the leadership, in Senator Robert Hill, whilst he was a backbencher he crossed the floor many, many times. So if you then reflect and ask how many Liberals cross the floor these days? It's a lot less, so I think the point you make is right to a certain extent.

COMPTON: And I was thinking about Cory Bernardi as well, in recent times felt like he just couldn't fit in the party anymore and chose to leave. I was wondering about that in terms of the rise of independents and whether this would drive more of that in Australian political life.

ABETZ: I think these things will go through ebbs and flows on how the public perceive their political leadership. I remember, what in 1996, Pauline Hanson got elected at the same time as the Howard government got elected. John Howard made some changes, as a result of which Pauline Hanson lost her seat and One Nation's huge rise in Queensland collapsed. Now Pauline Hanson is on the rise again, with a number of other political independents and I think that is indicative of some concern with our two major parties.

COMPTON: One of the news services interestingly had a graphic that popped up on the screen the other day with the Queensland election looming. They had the leader of the Queensland Government Annastacia Palaszczuk, the leader of the opposition, the LNP, Tim Nicholls, they had their personal credibility rating up on the screen, it was in the 20% mark. Pauline Hanson's credibility in the public sphere was higher than both of theirs, which was an interesting poll result to have a look at.

A listener asks this morning, for our politicians, Lisa Singh and Eric Abetz are our guests this morning, can you ask politicians about sporting grand finals, is it fair that tax payers pay, especially when the budget is so red. To both of you, a ticket to the grand final was offered to you; would you fly at tax payer expense to use it, Lisa Singh?

SINGH: Well firstly my team wasn't in the grand final, having said that my team is North Melbourne and I'm very happy about this license for AFL Womens that's happening here in Tassie, that's fantastic for women's sport, just as an aside. I think any kind of tickets for any kind of events, be it grand finals, cricket what have you, needs to be disclosed, and that's the most important thing. If I was to receive a ticket to something I would disclose it on my Senator's Interests so that the public were aware that I received this gratis, and I think that's the important thing for our democracy, that we actually be transparent and accountable for these types of things.

COMPTON: But people are upset about the cost of getting there and the accommodation costs that you might bill to the taxpayer.

SINGH: Well if it's billed to the taxpayer that's a completely different issue, I was talking about getting a ticket. I'm not quite sure about the nature of what the questioner is asking.

COMPTON: It's around Julie Bishop at the moment.

ABETZ: I can understand the public consternation at face value. But people like the Prime Minister, the Leader of Opposition, are public figures, and whether they like it or not, they are public figures twenty-four seven and they are then invited to functions, to assist those – in this case – football clubs, and I have been at AFL games and your names are acknowledged and the compere says at quarter-time, half-time, 'You know where Senator Abetz is sitting, bend his ear over whatever issue you want.’ And, believe it or not, even when I'm watching the cricket at Bellerive – local mayors will come up to you and say, ‘Oh by the way, how's this grant going?’ or somebody else will be asking about some other issue. So, it's not as though we're sitting back, or Julie Bishop is sitting back, just relaxing. This is another situation where our parliamentarians and leaders are on duty, and it’s something that if they didn't go would it be a snub to the AFL or the NRL? So it's a balancing act and I think it’s a question of how often you do it and how you do it, rather than that it shouldn't be allowed at all. Like with all these things it's a question of balance. 

COMPTON: On Mornings around Tasmania it's 'Senators in Space'. I was really interested yesterday to see what the return rate was like from the ABS. The figures of the return rate. I was thinking, ‘Oh, maybe it'll be thirty per cent have got the same sex marriage survey off their kitchen table and sent it back.’ Were either of you surprised by the return rate? What, fifty-seven point five per cent, and it's estimated to be a low figure?

ABETZ: I think the return rate is a good return rate. Keeping in mind that this is the return rate as of last Friday. One assumes that more people would have dealt with it over the weekend and so one can assume that the return rate is substantially higher even as we speak, so I think this is now a credible return rate. Of course, the more the better so if I can put a call to Tasmanians who haven't ticked the 'Yes' or 'No' box – please do so because the more returns the better.

SINGH: Hear, hear Eric. I agree.

COMPTON: Obviously standing on different sides.

ABETZ: Yeah. 

SINGH: Absolutely.

ABETZ: Lisa wants you to tick the 'Yes' box. I want you to tick the 'No' box. But on this I think we're agreed that the more returns the better.

SINGH: That's true. I think the ABS was an indicative result so far. It is really encouraging Leon, that right from the start when the government made it clear that it was going ahead with this – even though Labor regards it as a waste of time and money – we very much encouraged people to enrol to vote and there was a huge increase of people enrolling to vote. It's not a surprise, in a sense, that there has been a high turnout in that way, but it is a high turnout for a survey. So, in that sense yes it is encouraging but I hope that over the next month until November the seventh that as many people as possible get out and participate in this. 

COMPTON: I know we've only got a few minutes left. The time always flies when we're having this chat. One of the issues that you hear is that the vote might come – let's assume that it comes back a resounding yes – would the process of ratifying same-sex marriage off the back of that then caught in a whole host – potentially months, years – of argument of what the provisions around religious freedoms? Do you think that we'll then head into a long and protracted fight about that or do you think it'll just happen

ABETZ: It won't be years but I think it will be weeks, potentially months, and might I add it's not only about religious freedom. It’s parental rights, freedom of speech, conscientious objection – there are a whole host of issues that will need to be considered. And I hope that the parliament deals with those in a very considered manner to ensure that the freedoms that are actually embodied in the UN Human Rights documents; namely freedom of speech, parental rights, freedom of religion are actually protected – keeping in mind that this so-called "right" to same-sex marriage is not a human right, according to documents or indeed the EU Human Rights Court.

COMPTON: It will be really interesting to see what happens to the reputation of politicians if a resounding vote comes back – that's on the assumption that a resounding vote comes back – if then there is a long, dragged out process towards actually ratifying. It'll be interesting to see if that's the consequence of one particular outcome.

SINGH: I hope the government does not do that. There is already a bill that was presented to the Senate by a Liberal Senator – Senator Dean Smith – that has a number of those types of issues that Eric has raised in it that we as Labor were willing to support. 

ABETZ: Only religious.

COMPTON: It could be members of your own party that are voting that are concerned about that as well. Helen Polley included.

SINGH: We're allowing a conscience vote though Leon, and Malcolm Turnbull has not made it clear he will allow his government MPs and Senators to have a conscience vote and I hope he does.

ABETZ: Given a conscience vote, there will be huge discussion I would imagine in both houses dealing with parental rights and all the other rights. And given a conscience vote, we won't be able to guillotine it one would imagine and as a result there will be a lot of discussion. 

COMPTON: It'd be interesting to see how that goes. We've got to get to news. You mentioned Lisa, you wanted to make the point of the North Melbourne Football Club and the opportunities that presents. Senator, you wanted to talk about briefly, and we've got seconds left, about St Virgil's students heading off to Antarctica?

ABETZ: Yes. They won a competition – a group of St Virgil's students – to name the new research vessel, the 'RSV Nuyina', if I've pronounced that correctly, which is the Aboriginal word for 'southern lights aurora'. So it's the continuation of 'Aurora', 'Aurora Australis' and now 'Nuyina'. Congratulations to the St Virgil's boys that came up with that name and won an Australia-wide competition that 800 schools participated in.

COMPTON: We avoided 'Boaty McBoatface'. 

SINGH: Congratulations to them.

COMPTON: Senators to both of you; thanks for coming in this morning.