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Senators in Space, WEDNESDAY, 28 JUNE 2017 - Radio Interview with Senator Eric Abetz, ABC Radio Hobart 'Mornings with Leon Compton'






SUBJECTS: Government leaking to the Opposition; Party factions; Goneski 2.0; Australia Day date; Marriage equality; Tasmanian produce

LEON COMPTON: "We've launched "Senators in Space" this morning, with Senator Eric Abetz, Liberal Senator for Tasmania. Good morning to you, Senator.


COMPTON: And Lisa Singh, Senator for the Labor Party. Senator, Good morning to you.


COMPTON: It's impossible though not to start with some of the issues of the day. Both of your parties have been through their leadership issues, to little credit on either of your houses in years past. And here we have Derryn Hinch this morning out and suggesting that there are Liberals who would rather bring down a leader and go into opposition than have Malcolm Turnbull continue in the job. Senators, have a listen to this: 

            HINCH: 'I actually believe – and I say this quite seriously – that there are senior people in the Abbott camp who are leaking                    directly to Bill Shorten. They want to bring down Malcolm Turnbull, they don't care if they lose the next election. They will start                 again and they will regroup. This is from the Abbott camp, it is so destructive-'

So there we are, 'From the Abbott camp...so destructive.' You'd rather be in opposition than be governing with Malcolm Turnbull at your head. Senator Eric Abetz, let's throw it to you firstly. That's a serious allegation – that members of the party are leaking to the opposition.

ABETZ: Look, it's a serious allegation but for the fact that Senator Derryn Hinch – the "Human Headline" – is trying to make it. What's his evidence for the assertion? None offered whatsoever. A very cheap headline making the assertion and that is what Derryn Hinch has done so successfully over his career. That's why he is called the "Human Headline." But there usually is not much material behind his assertions. Sure it grabs the headlines, but I know of nothing of that nature at all and if Derryn Hinch has got evidence let him come forward with it. 

COMPTON: Malcolm Turnbull is of a different ideological bent to you, Senator. The allegation is that those that share your views – a conservative approach to being in government and to ideology – would rather be in opposition than have Malcolm Turnbull taking the country in the direction that he is.

ABETZ: That is the Derryn Hinch assertion. The simple fact is we are both Liberals – members of the Liberal Party. We fought exceptionally hard to win the last election. It stands to reason that within any political party, in any political grouping, there will be a variety of views and opinions. I used to say, as Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, to the Senate Party Room on a regular basis, I would prefer to be a backbench Senator in government, than Leader of the Opposition in the Senate. And that has always been something that I think has driven all my colleagues in Canberra.

COMPTON: Let's take a step back and look this then from an overview. Lisa Singh, you're very presence in the parliament this time around was something that many of your factional enemies did not want to see. You were given what was described as an "unwinnable seat." So let's talk about the challenges of factional brawling within the major parties and how they serve us. You can talk about this, you can talk about your own party. Senator, how well served are we by this at the moment?

SINGH: Factional brawling doesn't help either political party at all. I think it's on display well and good in the Liberal Party at the moment, and it's not just Derryn Hinch. I think senior journalists such as Phil Coorey have reported today in the Financial Review that it does seem that the internal plague going on within the Liberal Party is a battle more important than governing for all Australians. Yes, the Labor Party does have some history in this and you'd think the Liberal Party would have learnt from that leadership debacle that we went through when we were in government and of course cost us. At the end of it – obviously a very hard-hitting Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott running a scare campaign – it cost us government. So you'd think they would learn. Factional politics is certainly no friend of mine and I certainly haven't benefited from it. Nor have I played that game though. I've chosen  in my political career to actually get on with the things that I think matter for Tasmanians and Australians rather than the internal factional wheeling and dealing.

COMPTON: How hard is it to stay out of a faction?

SINGH: It's easy to stay out of a faction but what is hard is the pressure of what that ends up meaning for you as a candidate or as a member of parliament. Because factional politics on both sides is still a thing, it's still there. It's when factional politics ends up being so focused internally on the party rather than on the beliefs that a faction should be putting forward, whether it's left or right.

COMPTON: Senator?

ABETZ: Interesting at the moment the Greens are going through a similar situation with Senator Lee Rhiannon, so it is a sad reflection on political parties – sadly of all persuasions – that these sort of factional issues occur. But look, at the end of the day the task for the government is to focus on the issues that matter and that is where, if I might say, the state Liberals have got their act together exceptionally well. They stuck with an opposition leader for eight years and they have been a very unified state Liberal government here – serving the state exceptionally well. I think that political parties – Liberal, Labor, not only in Tasmania but all around Australia – could have a look at Will Hodgman and his government and see how well they are going. And the reason is? They're focused on the task. They're unified. I'm sure they have their brawls in cabinet and the party room, but they come out united, working together and I think that is the way any government should be presenting itself to their electorate.

COMPTON: You're on Mornings around Tasmania. Senators Eric Abetz and Lisa Singh are our guests this morning. Let's talk about Gonski 2.0 and the sort of work that goes in to making something like this happen. The government seemed very happy that they managed to negotiate its early passage. And your party Lisa, have said they will oppose it. Jacqui Lambie has voted for it. She's an independent. Objective in some ways – or brings her own biases to it – and has said she supports it. Are you still convinced that we're not better off just agreeing that this is the framework for funding education going forward and moving on to the next big issue facing Australia?

SINGH: I was disappointed in Jacqui's decision to vote with the government on this Gonski 2.0. The real reason for that is that Tasmania loses out from it. Over the next decade Tasmania is going to lose millions of dollars out of this decision of the government to not fully fund Gonski. And that was what we were raising from day one. We were pleased the government finally came back to the table to support a needs-based school funding model, but then to only half-bake it and not actually fund it properly was the real problem because what we've ended up with is that over the next decade an elite school in Melbourne will get more funding than Bowen Road Primary. So how is that fair? And that's the real problem here. If we want a needs-based school funding model to work properly, it's got to be funded properly. We've ended up with it being some $17 billion short. And Jacqui's supported that? That's not good for Tasmania. 

COMPTON: $17 billion short though of money that you never had to put yourself under pressure to find when you were in government and launched this plan. That was promises for funding out on the never-never. It never appeared in the government accounts.

SINGH: That's not true. If we were to have won government we would have funded Gonski, we've made that very clear. 


SINGH: I think the real reason the government hasn't fully funded it, the reason the government's chosen to squib our students of the money that they need for a really decent education in this country, is because they want to give billions of dollars in tax cuts to the big end of town, to big companies.

ABETZ: Come on Lisa, you're now reverting to talking points from Labor Party headquarters.

SINGH: No. I don't like the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, Eric.

ABETZ: The simple fact with Goneski is that, as you said Leon, the money was never there. We are running deficits as we speak. Substantial deficits. And we are now making a further contribution to education. The state education system is largely the responsibility of state governments. Therefore the federal contribution, in the past historically, has been to assist those mums and dads who, out of very tight households budgets, use their after-tax dollars to help pay for their children's education – be it in the catholic or private sectors – in circumstances where they are saving their fellow Australian taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

COMPTON: To stand back from this issue for a moment, it's a big part of the national conversation. A vote has been taken. The umpire, if you like the democratic process has played out, and the decision made, would we not be better in Australia Lisa Singh, if we could move onto the next issue, rather than keep this as the next battleground with the promise of repeal or improvement if government changes hands in Australia.

SINGH: I think as politicians we deal with a number of issues every day. It's not that issues are forgotten and we move onto to the next one. We are dealing with a number of them and it is an ongoing process because, as legislators, we've got to ensure we're standing up for all of the people that we represent. Now education is a major part of that. So much so that our own state Education Minister here, Jeremy Rockliff, has said he's disappointed with the outcome of Gonski 2.0 because he knows that Tasmania's been squibbed of what we should have been receiving –what we had a bipartisan position on back when Labor was in government. We're not going to give up on the education needs of Tasmanians, but of course we're going to look at other issues that are just as important going forward.

Health, of course, for Tassie is a really, really big one in that regard, and our Tasmanian Labor leader Bec White is doing very well in raising the necessary needs of our health system and what a future Tasmanian Labor Government would do in that vein. So there are a number of issues facing Tasmania. Renewable energy is another one, the cost of energy prices, but Labor will always stand up for what is fair, for a fairer and equal society, and that's where the difference is from the Libs.

COMPTON: Gee, I'm feeling the talking points draining the oxygen from our capsule at the moment.

ABETZ: Leon, can I quickly respond by saying we have seen over the last decade substantial increases in education funding. Sadly the results have been heading south, so despite spending a lot more on education the results are going in the opposite direction so money

COMPTON: Simon Birmingham tried to make that point for a while, but then eventually gave up and went back to the needs based funding model.

ABETZ: So money of itself, is not the answer. Now in relation to the Gonski model, the simple fact was that Labor had – and they still have to explain how they're going to raise – this extra $17 billion dollars. That's seventeen thousand million dollars that they say should be spent. We wanted to spend less, the Senate wouldn't allow us. We therefore came to a compromise where people in the Senate said, ‘Look, this is a fair deal,’ and we are still working on other issues within education such as the socio-economic status model which Gonski himself said was a flawed process, so we're rejigging that and with education, like with health, you never finish the process. Reform is a constant process and I believe in evolution rather than revolution in these areas.

COMPTON: Let's talk about a different issue, I mean that's a hard-head policy issue; let's talk about a social issue. How are we going to resolve the issue of Australia Day? January 26, it is clearly on the table at the moment, if we're going to keep it there, can we keep it there?

ABETZ: Of course we can, Leon. Of course we can.

COMPTON: How do we resolve it in a political sense?

SINGH: Well I think we need to start by having a conversation like we right now. I mean I'm really excited by the fact that local government have taken a bit of a lead here and started to raise this as an issue. I mean it's something that obviously comes round as an issue every Australia Day and then it kind of dies off after that. I think we need to continue the conversation about what is the best day to celebrate Australia Day. Is the 26th of January the best day? And I think, well a lot of the feedback I have had, is that it is not the best day, but how we move forward in looking at whether and when that should be changed needs to be an ongoing conversation we should all be having.

ABETZ: Look Leon, when the Local Government Association voted on this, there was about 120 votes cast out of a possible 560 votes and then it was a split vote. So out of about 25 per cent, you had 50 per cent, so it was about 13-15 per cent of local government voting on this issue. Clearly a very small group. The vast majority of them were lobbying MPs in Canberra, seeking road assistance, funding for programs within their particular councils. Doing the things that their ratepayers actually pay them to do. In January-

COMPTON: But Councils have to have lots of Australia Day events. I mean it's the Kingborough council that puts on their extravaganza down on the beach- 

SINGH: And the citizenship ceremonies.

ABETZ: That's right. That's right.

COMPTON: I mean if we could pick a different date, and it was a good early-in-the-year-public-holiday-long-weekend date-

ABETZ: Leon, and the telling point was, when the Local Government Association by a very narrow margin out of a small majority of their attendees voted for a change, they were then given the proposition of another date, January the 1st, which was voted down. And so here we have a situation where people want to trash the current date, but cannot agree on an alternate date, indeed an indigenous councillor- 

SINGH: Well it's an ongoing conversation, Eric, we have to have on it though.

ABETZ: An indigenous councillor joked, Councillor Medcraft, who by the way is a direct descendant of Dolly Dalrymple ­­– a matriarch of the indigenous community in Tasmania – and he said that May the 8th ought become Australia Day, jokingly, because it would be "Mate". And he saw it as a humorous proposition and he fully supports April, sorry January, January the 26th

SINGH: You were about to say April 25th there, I think Eric.

ABETZ: As does Jacinta Price.

COMPTON: So just briefly how do we move forward on this?

ABETZ: Well I don't think there's a need to move forward. January the 26th is absolutely locked in since, what 1935? When the States and colonies finally agreed to it. And January the 26th being locked in as the date rather than the following Monday was in fact an initiative of a former Labor Government which I fully support.

SINGH: Well I personally would like to see Australia Day be the day that Australia becomes a republic. And I think that once that day comes, and I do believe it will come, then we can look at a date that suits all of Australians. Even looking at a date such as the 1st of January, the date of Federation, would sit, I know, better, with a lot of Australians than the current date, which is seen, of course, as a divisive date, especially for indigenous Australians- 

ABETZ: By some, by some.

SINGH: Having Republic Day as Australia Day would be fantastic thing for our country to unite us all.

COMPTON: Could solve that problem and maybe cause a couple of others.

ABETZ: And of course Leon that's a full debate on its own. Why should we change from a system that has worked so exceptionally well, served this nation incredibly well, and we are one of the longest living democracies in the world.

COMPTON: We don't have that debate in the spaceship this morning, Senator, we've got other things to move on to. I asked both of you to bring a subject from home. It was sort of like the desert island disc idea but in space. And so to the subjects that you would want to discuss. We've got four and a half minutes left until news, just briefly, what did you want to put on the table Lisa Singh?

SINGH: Well I wanted to put on the table the issue of Marriage Equality. Because obviously it seems at the moment the Liberal Party again, is incredibly divided on this issue. We've had Christopher Pyne coming out in favour of a free vote, and saying it is going to happen sooner than later. I hope it does. There was a Galaxy poll in May this year that showed that even the majority of coalition voters want a free vote. They want this $170 million plebiscite to be dropped. So I just really want to put to Eric to start to think about Australians really wanting Parliament to get on and have this resolved by having a free vote in our Parliament. That's what we're elected to do, and that's what I want to see happen.

ABETZ: Well we were elected on the policy of a plebiscite and the latest Essential Research Poll, in fact, shows over 60% of Australians supporting the idea of them having a say in a plebiscite. The simple fact is that institution of marriage predates our democracy, our rule of law, our Supreme Court-High Court systems, our constitution. So marriage is the fundamental social institution and I think it's important that the men and women of Australia make that determination.

COMPTON: Eric Abetz, what did you want to bring from home?

ABETZ: I wanted to talk about “Flavours of Tasmania”, which is something I put on a regular basis with the Tasmanian Liberal senate team in Canberra, and we showcase all things Tasmanian, be it from wooden products, to wine, to whiskey, chocolates, Atlantic salmon, oysters, the beers, cheeses, whatever, and it grew from an idea that Barilla Bay Oysters provided to me quite some time ago to have a beer and oyster evening – many years ago now – which was a great success, and it's grown and grown, and now we hire out the full Great Hall in Federal Parliament. I've had Prime Ministers open it, this year it's going to be one of Tasmania's better exports in Dr Brendan Nelson, who is now the director of the war memorial, who used to be a GP here in the Northern Suburbs. He'll be our guest of honour who will be opening it, but it's a great night where we are able to showcase all things Tasmanian to the journalists and also to the ambassadors in Canberra and so we're basically showcasing things Tasmanian to the whole world.

COMPTON: Lisa, do you go along to this?

SINGH: I do go along, and I have to say, Eric, it's a fantastic display of Tasmanian produce. This is something we do get along well with in recognising the- 

 ABETZ: Free beer and wine always makes for good friends.

SINGH: Look this State really cuts above its weight when it comes to the incredible produce that we export and put on and it's all on display in Parliament through the work that Eric does on this annual event and all of Labor get out and support it as well. Because we do, we have that shared unity in supporting our economic growth through the beautiful produce that we make.

ABETZ: But they support it by eating the food. But we welcome them, Leon. We welcome them.

COMPTON: I tell you what is interesting as well, is this, whether – I'll be interested to see when the next event comes up – if you get a lot of questions about salmon, Senator. We don't have time to talk about it now, but it's been really interesting to watch that sort of public conversation around salmon.

ABETZ: The only question we get is, ‘where is it?’ and, ‘why isn't there even more of it?’ and it's going to be on August the 16th.

SINGH: We all love our salmon.

COMPTON: Okay to both of you, we are re-entering, in our Senators in Space. I think this could work for next time. There's a long break now for Parliament, we'd love to have you back in a couple of weeks.

SINGH: We could bring some produce.

COMPTON: I wouldn't be able to eat it. It'd be considered inappropriate at the ABC. You're Mornings around Tasmania. Senator Eric Abetz, thank you for coming in, Senator Lisa Singh, to you too.