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"I'll make my position very clear...all the listeners in Tasmania know where I stand, and I stand for marriage equality." ABC Hobart Breakfast Radio Interview, Wednesday 9 August 2017





SUBJECTS: Marriage equality; Postal plebiscite; Improving literacy standards; Teacher retention; Tasmanian medicinal cannabis industry.

LEON COMPTON: Time to go to a place where there is no political spin. It's the rule we try and stick to on 'Senators in Space', and it will be challenging this morning I think with the issue of same-sex marriage so white-hot in the country. Let's welcome our guests this morning – Lisa Singh, Labor Senator for Tasmania. Lisa, good morning to you.


COMPTON: And Eric Abetz, Labor Senator for-... Liberal Senator for Tasmania. Eric, good morning to you.

ERIC ABETZ, LIBERAL SENATOR FOR TASMANIA: Good morning and I'm glad you corrected that!

COMPTON: I think I've found an issue on same-sex marriage that you can both agree on this morning, which is a good place to start. Are you ready for the area on which you agree on? I think it's possible for both of you that you have no plans to abide by the postal plebiscite result depending upon which way it falls and that is something that you share in common. Eric Abetz, if neither of you will abide by it – depending on what it says – why are we doing it?

ABETZ: There is no doubt in my mind that the Australian Parliament will reflect the view of the Australian people as expressed in a plebiscite, but to try to commit people beforehand when we don't even know what the question is, when we don't know how Tasmanians might vote in comparison to Australia, or let's say Denison might vote in comparison to the rest of Tasmania, to the rest of Australia – I think we've got to keep some leeway there. But look, having said that I have no doubt that the plebiscite result will be reflected in the vote of the Australian parliament.

COMPTON: But not necessarily yours...? If the Tasmanian community votes "yes", you'll still vote "no"?

ABETZ: I have not said that and I will take very seriously that which the Tasmanian public says to us in a ballot. But, at the end of the day, I don't think, for myself, that I would pre-commit myself without knowing what the question is and how my fellow Tasmanians will vote. But I think it's a very fair question that you’re asking Leon, because most commentators have been only asking it of those that will be campaigning for the "No" case and not asking it of those campaigning for the "Yes" case, and I think it is a fundamental question – that if the Australian people vote "no", will Bill Shorten and the Greens drop their campaign? I have no doubt that if the Australian people vote "yes", that we will then have the definition of marriage changed.

COMPTON: If the postal vote's successful, you are absolutely certain – or as certain as you can be – that it will mean a change in the legislation?

ABETZ: That is- look, it's always a very brave person that looks into a crystal ball but I cannot see a circumstance where that would not be reflected in the vote of the parliament.

COMPTON: Lisa Singh, Eric Abetz makes the point that it is an important question to ask of you as well, and so let's ask it. Is it possible that the result will come in one way in Tasmania – if we go to a postal vote – and you will vote another on this?

SINGH: Leon, where do we start? I think your question initially just now to Eric says it all. This is a non-binding plebiscite. A plebiscite that we simply do not need to have. And it is going to be such a waste of taxpayers' dollars. I don't know where Eric sits today. What I've known of you Eric, in the past, is that you haven't been committed to being bound the outcome of the plebiscite, but you seem to be saying something different this morning. 

I mean what is so clear on this is that this – the plebiscite that is – is an attempt or it’s an excuse for those opponents of marriage equality to not have marriage equality. Now we are members of parliament and we are elected to do a job. The plebiscite has already been rejected by the Senate and now the government wants to bring it back on today in the Senate, and I hope it will be rejected again. I've had so many constituents from Tasmanian contacting me – and I am sure they've contacted Eric as well – to say that parliamentarians are elected to govern on behalf of the people and not throw it back to the people when the decision gets too hard, and that seems to be what’s happening here. It is going to divide communities. We know that we could just get on and have this free vote now, and instead we have to go through this ridiculous "ruse", as Michael Kirby has called it, from opponents of same-sex marriage to actually delay having marriage equality. 

COMPTON: Eric Abetz?

ABETZ: Lisa, in relation to non-binding plebiscites, your own leader now wants one in relation to the republic so let's not go down that track in relation-

SINGH: But that requires constitutional change! 

ABETZ: No, no, no-

SINGH: That is a completely different issue!

ABETZ: That plebiscite would not be a constitutional change but as for the emails and messages that you've been getting, I think it would be fair to say to the people of Tasmania that not only have you received messages asking the parliament to vote on it, but you've also received a stack of messages – as I have and which reflect the opinion polls might I add – that people actually want a say on this. That they do want a plebiscite and urging the Senate to support the plebiscite-

SINGH: No I haven't Eric. I haven't had those emails.

ABETZ: What?

SINGH: I haven't had those emails. I've had emails saying a free vote now. That they want us, as politicians, to get on with this.

ABETZ: Lisa please, I cannot believe that your office is so out of touch that you have not received any emails asking you to support a plebiscite! I'm quite open with the fact that I've received emails from both sides of this debate and I seek to answer them to the best of my ability. But to suggest Lisa, that you have not received one representation asking you to support the majority view of the plebiscite-

SINGH: Eric, what I meant was "the majority", "the majority." I meant, "the majority have all been for a free vote" and I'm sure the majority of your emails have been as well because that is the will of the people. That's what they want us to do.

ABETZ: Well why isn't that reflected in the same opinion polls that you rely on to change the law? Those same people are saying they want a plebiscite. Poll after poll is telling us that.

SINGH: No, it's not.

COMPTON: Let's look at how effective the post will be as a way of doing this. I mean let's all think back now to when we were in our teens and our twenties, had moved out of home, were often moving around quite a lot. I don't know about you but I spent significant periods of time not quite sure which electoral roll I was on and changing house quite regularly. For young people today, they've spent a lifetime where companies have sought to push them off bills sent by mail, you pay a penalty now if you want your bill sent by mail, everything happens online. There will be people under 30 who have never posted a letter in their life, and yet they're expected to have a say in this. How worried are you, Eric Abetz, about how disenfranchising this might be in seeking the view of the under 30s on same-sex marriage?

ABETZ: I think most people under 30 have posted a letter and have some idea as to what letterboxes are in the front of their place. So I don't think it's quite that dramatic. But having said that, my view very strongly is that it should be a compulsory ballot and that is why I plead with Labor and the Greens and others in the Senate to actually give a full ballot to the Australian people, and we have said that a postal ballot is a mechanism, but we would prefer the front-up-and-vote type like most people are used to at a federal election.

COMPTON: Do you acknowledge that there will be a real issue in this accurately getting under 30s to have their say?

ABETZ: Oh look, I don't think it's a major issue and I am sure the campaign will be such that people will be alerted to the fact that there's a postal ballot going on.


SINGH: If it's not a major issue, Eric, why can't we get on and have the vote in the Parliament? Why are you so against the Parliament voting on a free vote?

ABETZ: Lisa, I meant in relation to the postal ballot not being a major issue. Of course the issue of changing the definition of marriage which has stood there for millennia, being between a man and a woman, of course that's a substantial change for our society – if we were to make it. But my emphasis was in relation to the postal aspect.

COMPTON: So let's talk about that from your perspective, Lisa Singh. Do you assess my characterising of the situation around the mail and young people, are you concerned that they might not have their views heard as fully as other demographics?

SINGH: Absolutely, I think you raise an interesting point, Leon. The fact that younger generation, my kids, are certainly not used to getting letters in the mail and so forth, anymore. It's all very much online. But also the fact that this is going to cost around – I think the Prime Minister said around $120 million dollars. That amount of money, if it's going to end up down in the gutter because people aren't going to be responding to this postal ballot, old-fashioned style of decision making, shows again the huge waste of money that this is going to be, and what kind of effective outcome it's going to have. Now we will always support marriage equality in any kind of forum, but it is a total waste of time and money when we can just get on and vote for this now in the Parliament.

COMPTON: Lisa Singh, I've got a couple of people criticising me for not pushing you on answering the question that I asked at the start of the interview. Is it possible that Australians will vote no in this postal plebiscite and you will ignore what they wish when it then comes to a vote in the Senate?

SINGH: I hope we don't have the postal plebiscite, Leon. And when the plebiscite motion comes on in the Senate today, I will join with my Labor colleagues in voting it down. So I hope that we don't-

COMPTON: That will lay a path towards a postal plebiscite, it seems, subject to another High Court challenge potentially. If it comes back "no" for changing the definition of marriage, is that the way that you will go?

SINGH: I think that it could potentially come back “no”, because we know that the “No” campaigners, I mean we've already had Tony Abbott out there today, will start campaigning strong and hard with all kinds of hate speech-

ABETZ: Oh cut it out, cut it out, Lisa.

SINGH: And who knows what the outcome out of that will be? It could be incrediblly hurtful, and again I go back to what Michael Kirby has said on this: that people should just get over this and have the vote, but--

COMPTON: Answer the question.

SINGH: I'll make my position very clear, Leon, and I think all the listeners in Tasmania know where I stand, and I stand for marriage equality. And I do so representing the people that elected me; I know that they elected me based on my progressive values and to be part of a modern Australia just like so many other countries have legislated for marriage equality. Including countries like Ireland which have a strong Catholic population. I will be always supporting the right for same-sex marriage couples to marry, and when that vote comes on in the Parliament it will be a very, very good day.

COMPTON: Okay, let's move on to other matters this morning. It's Senators in Space. Lisa Singh, Eric Abetz are our guests this morning, and you're welcome to put something in the capsule as well. Each week we ask them to bring a subject from home that they would like to talk about this morning. We'll do that next.

COMPTON: Education is largely a state issue, although increasingly in recent decades Federal Governments have had an input into syllabus. Senator Eric Abetz you wanted to talk about raising literacy standards in children in Australia and ways we might do that. What did you want to talk about?

ABETZ: Yeah thanks Leon. In recent times I've heard a fantastic speech by a local – Byron Harrison – and he and his wife have written a book Reading through Tears which promotes the return to phonics for our young children so that they can learn to read, and phonics is like saying C-A-T spells cat, and teaching people to read that way. And then more recently I heard a speech by our Tasmanian of the Year, Rosalie Martin, who is doing fantastic work with our prisoners in teaching them literacy, in teaching them how to read, and she similarly is of the view that we do need to return to that basic methodology of teaching reading because the capacity to read is a hugely empowering facility for any individual within our community. And so I would just like the educational powers-that-be to give consideration to the 30 years of research that Byron Harrison has put in and that which Tasmanian of the Year, Rosalie Martin, is suggesting as well with her wonderful charitable work in the prisons – 'Chatter Matters'.

COMPTON: Back to phonics, Lisa Singh, is this an idea that will lift our, fairly stable, NAPLAN results and help children read better?

SINGH: I think consideration of the ideas put forward by experts is always a good idea. If phonics is part of that then I would support listening to those kinds of arguments. I think always going to the experts is a good place to start, but also to recognise that we are living in 2017 and we may not just need to look at the kind of 'back-to-basics' of literacy and numeracy. We might also need to look at the needs of education in a 21st Century world when we're talking about the jobs of tomorrow which we can't even know what they're going to be yet. We need to ensure that our young people are equipped to take up those jobs. Obviously STEM has been a big talk and certainly part of our policy development, as part of that. To ensure that we do have our students able to go forward with the necessary skills – of course literacy and numeracy, but beyond that as well – the skills to understand code and how to deal with the mathematical and scientific writing that will be needed in certain jobs of the future.

ABETZ: But Lisa they'll never get there if they don't have the fundamental capacity of being able to read basic words and have basic literacy. If they want to read their computer screens, if they want to read instructions, indeed even the bus timetable that they might get on their iPhone these days, they still need that fundamental capacity to read and I think we do our children a great disservice by not ensuring that they leave school with that fundamentally important capacity. So when the Byron Harrisons, Gene Harrisons, Rosalie Martins of this world are telling us that something different needs to be done I'm more than willing to listen. 

COMPTON: Senator we might pick up your issue and run with it with Rosalie Martin who is a good source on this. Phil Bayley is a prominent Tasmanian economist and he keeps a close eye on teacher attrition rates, it's one of his statistics of interest. Lisa, should we be worried in Tasmania that our teacher attrition rate – apart from death or retirement – is lower than 2% at the moment? In other words, almost everybody who starts their career as a teacher stays in that field right to the end. It makes it harder to get new young teacher with new ideas into the mix. Should that be a concern

SINGH: Obviously the teaching profession is a very valued one, as it should be, and those that make a career out of teaching are staying in that role a long time. That, I think, is reflective of the value of how they see their position. But, I think what is more concerning Leon, is this casualisation of the teaching workforce and those new teachers wanting to come into the profession are put on casual contracts and every Christmas being taken off the contract and put back on them again in February. That kind of uncertainty and insecurity about their career going forward, I think, is a real issue. The other issue is the fact that those young people or people who want to go to university and start a teaching degree. At the moment our universities are under such pressure with big cuts – $4 billion over the next 5 years of cuts to university funding that this current government has put on the table – what is that going to mean for future students wanting to study a career in teaching? They're some of the real concerns, I think, that we'll face, our University of Tasmania as well and what that will mean for our teaching workforce.

ABETZ: Leon, the fact that we have teachers remaining in the system; one, suggests job satisfaction, which I think is a good thing, and I personally think experienced teachers are able to provide a wealth of experience to the teaching of our children and so the fact that teachers are staying in their chosen profession, I think it could well be a good thing. I personally – if I were let's say confronted with a medical treatment, I would prefer a surgeon with a lot of experience than somebody that is just out of medical school – similar with teachers.

COMPTON: Before we head off today I wanted to give Lisa a chance to put her idea on the table for this morning, and it's about the opportunity for Tasmania to identify another powerhouse opportunity. Lisa?

SINGH: I really think that there is a massive opportunity for Tasmania to become a leader in the cultivation, production and manufacture of medicinal cannabis products. Now, the legislation has passed the Senate nearly two years ago now, the government has been a little bit slow in granting licenses, but there are two major companies in Tassie – one of them is Tasmania Alkaloids that I visited recently up in the North-West, which has gained some of these licences. I think they've got a great track record with their production of opiate crops and they could do so similarly with medicinal cannabis and I'm so pleased that they've applied for those licences. But this is an opportunity for economic growth for our state, particularly in the agricultural field, but also to alleviate suffering for patients. I really hope that Tasmania leads the way.

ABETZ: Look, the state government is right behind this. I indeed just recently was able to open doors for a delegation of business people from the mainland who want to get in to this space within Tasmania. I think it's a good opportunity for Tasmania. I think medicinal cannabis may be being oversold at the moment, but there's no doubt that it does good, and if we can get into that as a state it'll be good for employment, it'll be good for patients, it'll be good all around. So I fully support Lisa.

COMPTON: Well, to both of you, a busy day in the Senate. We'll let you get back to work. Thanks for talking with us on 'Mornings' this morning.

ABETZ: Thanks a lot.

SINGH: Thanks Leon, and thanks Eric.

COMPTON: Thanks Lisa, thanks Eric.