Transcript - ABC Sunday Extra



SUNDAY, 29 JULY 2018

SUBJECTS: Labor’s emphatic by-election results; rejection of Malcolm Turnbull’s trickledown agenda; Labor leadership.

HUGH RIMINTON: Well, Labor did it. It defied the predictions of many and held onto the four seats it had up for grabs in the Super Saturday by-elections. The Liberals picked up none. The government didn't run candidates in Perth and Fremantle, and its hopes of winning back Mayo in South Australia with the high-profile candidate Georgina Downer came to nothing. Rebekha Sharkie has increased her majority in Mayo for the Centre Alliance. And despite a big effort for the Liberal Party and from the Prime Minister personally, Susan Lamb, Labor's MP in Longman, and Justine Keay in Braddon have increased their majorities in holding those seats for Labor. Former Treasurer Wayne Swan is the Labor Party National President; he joins us now. Wayne Swan, I imagine it is a good morning.

WAYNE SWAN, MEMBER FOR LILLEY: It certainly is. They're very encouraging results and great credit to both candidates in Longman and in Braddon, but also to all of our candidates around the country and a really big effort from the Labor Party and the labour movement at a grassroots level. People-power certainly drove our campaigns

RIMINTON: What does it mean for Bill Shorten? 

SWAN: Well I think it's an emphatic rejection of Malcolm Turnbull and a rejection of all of the ludicrous speculation we've seen about leadership in recent times. I mean, Bill Shorten has led the Party for five years. He's put forward a courageous program of policy reform. And there's been an unprecedented degree of unity and purpose in the party. He's been very successful and he's won through again.

RIMINTON: So no question, he'll be leading the Labor Party to the next election?

SWAN: No question.

RIMINTON: Now let's look a little bit into the numbers there. Particularly Longman is really interesting. You're very familiar with this. It's a Queensland seat – very close to where you live.

SWAN: And very close to where I grew up. I move through Longman all of the time.

RIMINTON: So how do you explain what's happening there? The primary vote for the LNP candidate – the primary vote – dropped down to 28 per cent.

SWAN: Well the Labor primary vote has increased by about four or five [percentage points]; it's now got a four in front of it. The Liberal primary vote collapsed by 10 per cent and has now got a two in front of it. And the One Nation vote was the order of 16 or 17 per cent; up from 9 per cent in the last federal election. So you've seen a surge of the One Nation vote – largely at the expense of the Liberal vote – and a very strong surge, if you like, of the Labor vote, which is very, very encouraging. So essentially, this One Nation-Liberal Party alliance that the Prime Minister has blessed has not worked well. And I think, at a variety of levels, people around Australia will be observing – with some revulsion actually, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne – this alliance between One Nation and the Liberals, which didn't work well for them on the day in Longman. 

You don't see this feature in the other by-elections, but essentially, the Liberal Party, with its program of trickledown economics, has shed votes to the Labor Party, because the Labor Party has been putting forward a program based on equality of opportunity and spreading of opportunity. And it's cost them votes, also from the Liberals, but also in leakage to One Nation.

RIMINTON: I noticed that Simon Benson, the national affairs editor for The Australian newspaper – The Australian newspaper not generally seen as the strongest supporter out there in the media for the Labor Party – had this to say this morning: "The message for the Turnbull Government is dire. Queensland has abandoned it."

SWAN: It is a very dire result, there's no question about that. A dire result for the LNP in Queensland and no question that there will be half a dozen, at least, federal LNP members in Queensland looking into a fairly bleak future – including one Peter Dutton, who's spent a lot of time sowing division and trying to be divisive in this by-election, not just in Longman, but right around the country. And essentially, there's going to be some problems in his seat of Dickson.

RIMINTON: So what would you expect the Coalition to do? They're going to be looking at these numbers. They're seeing the same numbers that you're reading, I'm reading, everyone in the country is reading. Do they move to the right to essentially try to neutralise that drift away to One Nation, particularly in Queensland? Or do they move back towards the centre-left in a sense, to try to neutralise the Labor Party?

SWAN: Well they can't do that, because—

RIMINTON: They can't do both.

SWAN: They've put all of their eggs in a program of extreme trickledown economics, if you just look at it. And it's their only economic policy. Their economic policy is to give very significant tax cuts to large multinational corporations, as well as the big banks. To give very significant tax cuts to some of the highest personal income earners in the country, whilst at the same time, presiding over a program of wage suppression through supporting cuts to wages through penalty rates. And, because of their tax policies, implementing significant cuts to health and education. That is their program and there is no way out of there. They're going to have to double down on that program and see if they're going to win the argument. They clearly lost it in Longman.

RIMINTON: And so the fundamental message that Bill Shorten was carrying through these electorates – do voters want bigger hospitals or bigger banks – that'll be the message that you carry to the next federal election?

SWAN: Well, it's one of the messages. You see, essentially, the unease in the electorate about the Liberal Party is that they think inequality is good for us, and that the path ahead is if we give more to those at the top it will magically trickle down and give more to everybody in the middle and below. Well, they didn't buy that argument in Longman in particular. Longman has a lower income level, on average, than other electorates. It's got more people in precarious and insecure work. It's got a very large number of lower-income retirees as well. All of those groups have been smashed by any number of policies put forward by the LNP.

RIMINTON: Of course, we do have to remember that these are by-elections—

SWAN: We do.

RIMINTON: By-elections traditionally swing against governments. Do you still have a sense that there is a great deal of work to do to sustain your chances going forward?

SWAN: Of course there is. Of course there's a lot of work to do. And we can't take this for granted, in terms of the general election. We've got a huge amount of money arraigned against us in the forthcoming campaign. The business community was out there – the Business Council of Australia was out there campaigning in these seats against the Labor Party. So we're under no illusions that the beneficiaries of the unfair policy program of the LNP are going to be doubling down on their efforts to stop the election of a Labor government. 

But I'll just make this point about the swing. The median swing in seats like this, where there has been a by-election caused by an opposition member having to stand down, the median swing in history is 1 per cent. It's not the sort of figure that's been floating around. And we achieved a swing of 4 per cent on the primary vote in this election. So it was an extremely good outcome for us in historical terms.

RIMINTON: I wanted to look at Mayo briefly, if I could. Labor wasn't a factor in this particularly. This was a fight between Georgina Downer and Rebekha Sharkie, the Centre Alliance candidate who held the seat. But the Labor Party primary vote there – we talk about the LNP in Longman at 28 per cent – the Labor Party in Mayo got 6 per cent of the vote.

SWAN: Yes, because all of the Labor people voted for Rebekha Sharkie, to get change. This is a Liberal seat – it's a jewel in the crown. It's in a list of the top ten Liberal seats in history. That's how secure it is for the Liberal Party. So what tends to happen in seats like this is the Labor Party vote migrates to any particular candidate that has a show of knocking off the Liberal incumbent. So I don't think it's any reflection on the the Labor Party, the level of the Labor vote in Mayo. People moved over, tactically, to see if they could stop a Downer getting back. I mean, this result in some ways is more frightening for elements of the LNP and the Liberal Party than the Longman result. If they can't hold a seat like Mayo, they may be in trouble in other core seats around the country.

RIMINTON: So, Georgina Downer, extremely high profile obviously – part of the Downer dynasty, as no one has managed to escape—

SWAN: The aristocracy, I think would be a better way of putting it.

RIMINTON: The primary vote swing against her was 1.5 per cent or something. It's not as if she was disastrous as a candidate. Do you think that you see her in federal Parliament?

SWAN: Well I don't see that necessarily she's disastrous as a candidate, but I think what it is is a rejection of the Liberal Party establishment in South Australia, which I think will be pretty frightening for other areas who may be vulnerable to these sorts of insurgent candidates like Rebekha Sharkie.

RIMINTON: So where do you see, then, the real battlegrounds, as we look forward to an election. We're now pretty certain it's going to be next year – there's very little incentive for the Prime Minister to call one for later on this year. Where do you see it happening? What's your assessment of that?

SWAN: Oh I think it's undoubtedly in Queensland and Western Australia, because that's where the lowest percentages of lower house Labor seats are. There are only eight Labor seats in Queensland out of 30-odd.

RIMINTON: So is there anything at all out of that Queensland result, and even just the feedback that the candidates were getting on the ground, that the party workers were getting on the ground around Longman. Is there any new, nuanced sense – if Queensland is the battleground – of what you need to do, how you might need to finesse a message?

SWAN: I think, given some of the rubbish that's been in the media about our political prospects over the last three months or so, I think this reaffirms the course that Bill Shorten and his frontbench and the parliamentary party have set for Labor over the past few years. And it's a course of, I think, courageous policy that has been put forward to address underlying and long-term challenges in the economy, and which will deliver stronger but fairer growth. And we've taken what some people would see as risky political decisions in that process. And from my point of view, the very satisfying thing to see is that the Labor argument,  which is very much just a centre-left argument, people seem to, and the government is desperate to somehow present us as being over to one extreme. The only extremism going on in Australian politics at the moment is coming out of the LNP. We've got a very solid program for stronger growth with greater equity and fairness in our society. And I think that's producing the kind of result we saw in Longman.

RIMINTON: So if you think you've got the policy settings about where you want them to be, do you feel that the polling indicates that Labor, at the moment, is succeeding despite the lack of personal popularity of perhaps—

SWAN: No I don't. I really think this is just a nonsense argument. The fact is that Bill Shorten – and I don't like quoting polls, but I will for the purpose of this argument, because that's what other people do – he has been in front for a record number of opinion polls. I mean, there is no other Opposition Leader that has been in front in the opinion polls for longer than Bill Shorten. And people keep saying, "oh no, but he's unpopular", as if the fact that the party vote is not reflective of the hard work and dedicated leadership that this man has delivered to the country. 

RIMINTON: It sounds like a ringing endorsement for Bill Shorten going into the next election, as you'd expect from the National President of the Labor Party, Wayne Swan. Thank you very much for getting up for us this morning as we look back through the Super Saturday by-election results.

SWAN: Pleasure.



Authorised by Noah Carroll, ALP, Canberra