Transcript - Politics with Michelle Grattan



SUBJECTS: Labor’s emphatic by-election results; company tax cuts; Labor Party leadership; trust in politics; Labor Party National Conference; Emma Husar

MICHELLE GRATTAN: Wayne Swan, who was Treasurer in the Labor Government, is retiring from Parliament at the end of this term. But he’s not leaving politics. He’s the incoming National President of the ALP, having beaten frontbencher Mark Butler, who was seeking another term. The post is a particularly significant one, with an election coming up. And Wayne Swan has made clear that he’s not going to be publicly silent in his new role.

Wayne Swan, it’s now history that Labor had a good Super Saturday. But I want to focus on one of these by-elections — that in Longman — where the ALP had a good swing and the Liberal National Party vote tanked. Labor made merry with a campaign on the government’s policy of giving the banks a tax cut while squeezing money from hospitals. And the government’s now considering whether to ditch the company tax cuts for big business. But if it does abandon them, then surely your success in the by-election will have deprived you of a very useful issue for the general election.

WAYNE SWAN, MEMBER FOR LILLEY: Well I don’t agree with that. They may well attempt to drop the tax cut for the large foreign multinationals and the big banks. But if they do that, they will have declared that they have no agenda for jobs and growth. They’ve put all of their eggs in the jobs and growth basket, which are supposedly driven by a tax cut to corporate Australia. Now we know that’s not going to happen. It’s a failed economic theory. It’s not plausible or credible. People in Longman and right around the country very much understand that if the government is going to give big, unfunded tax cuts worth something like $80 billion, then the price for that is paid, over time, in money which is not invested in vital health and education services. So this notion of the government offering tax cuts was exposed in Longman as being just a recipe for further cuts to health and education.

GRATTAN: But if they get rid of those company tax cuts, then they have less of a problem, surely?

SWAN: Well, except that the government, when it was elected, was elected on a platform of no cuts to health, no cuts to education and no cuts to pension. I think people are very much onto the trickle down economic agenda of the government, and that’s what was rejected in Longman. The notion that you can drive jobs and growth and greater equity through tax cuts to large multinational corporations and the wealthy, and wage suppression for everybody else, was exposed in Longman. I mean, the median income in Longman and Braddon is $43,000. Now for $43,000, you wouldn’t even qualify for the government’s measly $10 tax cut. So it’s a combination of their policies that’s on the nose, and that was exposed in Longman. Because it wasn’t just a good result, it was a very good result. A strong underlying primary swing to Labor that ripped votes off the Liberals. And of course, their vote was also deflated by the defection to One Nation. It was a very significant result in the history of Australian politics.

GRATTAN: And you do not feel that Labor would be disadvantaged by the government being able to say, “well, we couldn’t deal with the company tax cuts in the Senate, so therefore we’ll have more money in the out years for services like health”?

SWAN: I don’t think that’s believable. The Prime Minister put his leadership on the line in these by-elections, and most particularly stood in Longman and asked people to choose between the Prime Minister and Mr Shorten, and they chose Mr Shorten. And one of the reasons they chose Labor was because they’re fed up with their trickledown agenda. It’s not just what’s going on in tax. You know, if you work in the private sector in Australia, your real wage has grown just 1 per cent. One per cent in five years.  People are really feeling the pressure. Australians are like the frog being boiled slowly in a pot of water. Well, they’ve now woken up and they’re onto the Liberals, they’re onto their trickledown agenda, and they’re ready to give them a belting in the general election.

GRATTAN: Now, you’re a Queenslander. How do you see Labor’s prospects in that state more generally for the election itself. Is Queensland different from down south? Because after all, in Braddon, Labor was pretty line-ball. 

SWAN: I don’t think Labor was line-ball in Braddon. You simply had the vote knocked around a bit by an independent. It came back to Labor. There was a strong swing to Labor. But what’s forgotten here is there was a strong swing to Labor in Braddon and Longman in the last election. And on top of this, that swing in Tasmania has been held, and in Longman, we did extraordinarily well. So I think there are very good results there , but I think that this does send a signal to the LNP in Queensland that there’s a structural problem with their vote. The primary vote for Labor in Longman had a four in front of it. The primary vote for the Liberals in Longman had a two in front of it. People like Peter Dutton, and in neighbouring electorates such as Petrie, and electorates like Forde, they know what this means. This means big trouble, structurally, for the LNP in Queensland.

GRATTAN: Would you predict that Peter Dutton will lose his seat?

SWAN: I wouldn’t predict it, but I’ll tell you what — he’s going to be run pretty hard. Because the thing about the Longman result was that it was a bigger result than what we received in 2007. And you might recall that Peter Dutton in 2007 went right down to the wire. So much so that he attempted to move seats. Well, after seeing this result, he would be getting flashbacks about 2007.

GRATTAN: We talk a lot about the Coalition’s problems with One Nation. But some of its vote comes from Labor too. How do you think it’s best dealt with?

SWAN: Well I think it’s best dealt with the way it was dealt with by Labor in this election. And I don’t think Labor did bleed votes to One Nation. And that is one of the very interesting results that we see in Longman. It was the Liberals that bled their votes to One Nation. Labor held its base, but in addition to that, won votes directly from the Liberals. And I think one of the reasons that’s happening is this very close alliance between the Liberals and One Nation.

GRATTAN: Now Bill Shorten says that people regularly underestimate him, and I think that’s true. Nevertheless, he’d be happier if his personal ratings were higher. Why do you think he doesn’t cut through more? Why aren’t those ratings up there?

SWAN: Because he’s an Opposition Leader. Most Opposition Leaders have low ratings. There aren’t too many Opposition Leaders that have bested sitting Prime Ministers. There’s one or two. And also, there’s been a very, very big effort on the part of the Coalition and its allies to attempt to trash Bill Shorten. I mean, they’ve gone to the lengths of calling Royal Commissions into the Leader of the Opposition. You know, once upon a time these were the sort of things that only happened in banana republics! But these people in the Coalition are out there trashing Bill all of the time. This guy has been tenacious, he’s been incredibly active, he’s been on the ground, his record out there on the ground is not appreciated by most of the people out there covering politics because they fail to cover so much of the work that he does on the ground, particularly in places like Longman, but more broadly, particularly in Queensland.

GRATTAN: As we know, there was some positioning by Anthony Albanese before the election, in case things went bad. Were you disappointed to see that?

SWAN: Well I was certainly disappointed in the press coverage of Labor leadership issues, when I know there was no basis for that. 

GRATTAN: You know there was positioning, though.

SWAN: You say there was positioning, I think—

GRATTAN: You’re pretty astute; I think you’d know.

SWAN: I’m astute enough to know that we see stories like that from time to time, and I was close enough to know that there was no basis for it.

GRATTAN: Now, you’re a former State Secretary in Queensland, you’ve seen campaign techniques evolve through several iterations through your time in politics. The current craze seems to be robocalls. But the feedback from the by-elections seems to be that they annoy voters. Do you think that Labor will cut back on their use in the general elections. 

SWAN: I don’t think you can argue that Labor was extensively using robocalls, actually. I mean, I don’t know the use of robocalls in Longman by the various parties or even, for that matter, by the Labor Party. But I’d just make this point — I don’t believe that robocalls are the be-all and end-all of campaigning. They are utilised by a lot of groups, particularly groups outside of the political system, to achieve their objectives. But I don’t see them as a be-all and end-all of campaigning, and I do acknowledge that robocalling from time to time does have the capacity to annoy people.

GRATTAN: Lack of trust in politicians and political institutions is obviously one of the big issues in modern politics — some would say the biggest. To what extent do you think you, the politicians, are responsible for this problem, and what should you collectively be doing about it?

SWAN: Well, I think there’s an attempt to trash the political system, and sometimes politicians, through their poor behaviour, add to that. But I think the thing that is adding to much greater trust and disillusionment with politicians and democracy is the growing inequity in our society. And that inequity has been vigorously pursued by this government, particularly when it comes to government service delivery. There’s a deliberate attempt by government to run down government service delivery, to starve vital organisations like Centrelink of resources, to make people wait up to six months to get an age pension, as a wage of discrediting the very institution of government. I mean, the Liberal Party in this country has been taken over by Tea Party fanatics who are dedicated to actually trashing government as an institution. And that’s part and parcel of what’s going on. We’ve got a right-wing government seeking to run down the very institutions of government, also seeking to make society more unequal, and what that does produce is disillusionment with the whole system at the grassroots level.

GRATTAN: But surely you’re not calling Malcolm Turnbull a Tea Party fanatic?

SWAN: Well, he’s dancing to the tune of the Tea Party fanatics at every turn. It doesn’t—

GRATTAN: Who are they, exactly?

SWAN: Well, people like Peter Dutton. People like the Institute for Public Affairs, that run the policy agenda for the government they push out into the media all of the time. Look at their policies. I mean, who could think of a more extreme trickle down policy than a quarter-of-a-trillion-dollar tax cut for multinational companies and high-income earners. I mean, it’s breathtaking. It’s bigger than Donald Trump.

GRATTAN: Just going back to this question of trust, though. While obviously the distrust is at a high point now, it didn’t just start with this government.

SWAN: No, of course it didn’t.

GRATTAN: It’s been going on for a long time. 

SWAN: It has. It certainly has, and political parties have contributed to it. They’ve contributed to it through disunity, from time to time, on both sides of politics. And the one lesson that Labor can take out of the last half-a-dozen years is that unity is a sure way through to earning, again, the respect of the electorate.

GRATTAN: Well, on this question of unity, because of Super Saturday, Labor put off its National Conference. It’ll now be in December, making it of course closer to the general election. How will you manage this conference when you’ll be taking over as the new president formally, and what about issues like asylum seekers, border security and so on? How do you stop that becoming an exercise in disunity?

SWAN: Well I think we have to be mature about it. And we will be. There’s no doubt that there are views which are deeply held and policies that will be passionately debated. But I think you’ve seen over the past five years from the Labor Party a degree of unity of purpose that has been very strong. And I think that will shine through what will be very passionate debates at the National Conference.

GRATTAN: So you don’t think the way through will be to negotiate something beforehand? You think that those debates should be held on the floor of the conference?

SWAN: Look, I think all of those things will happen. There’ll be debates on the floor of the conference, there will be negotiation, there will be clashes of view, but at the end of the day, I think there’ll be a mature approach and a united party.

GRATTAN: Your predecessor, Mark Butler, was criticised when he was National President for not doing enough on party reform. What is your position on that?

SWAN: Well, I made it very clear that party reform in the first instance was not my priority. I made it very clear as I moved around the country — which I did extensively — that my priority is winning the battle of ideas. And in winning the battle of ideas we also have to have a strong organisational purpose so we can defeat our political opponents on the ground. And that is the program that I put to the Labor Party membership which emphatically endorsed me as President. So, yes, there are some organisational questions that need to be resolved. There’s been big organisational changes in recent times; we need to bed those down. But overwhelmingly, we have to be a party that has a set of ideas that inspire Australians, and in particular, those that are passionate, to join our party and win the fight.

GRATTAN: So you don’t think excessive factionalism is a problem? Or the fact that the rank and file don’t often get a say in preselections because decisions are made up the chain?

SWAN: There are more votes going on for positions in the Labor Party than I’ve ever seen at any time in my 44 years in the Labor Party. So there’s been a lot of organisational change, it’s not perfect, but our priority at the moment has to be the policy program and the ideas that inspire people. I don’t want to see the Labor Party seen as the party, in public, that is always talking about itself and its own structures. I want it seen by the public as a party which is passionate about the ideas that’ll drive future prosperity and opportunity in Australia.

GRATTAN: One internal distraction at the moment has been the controversy around one of your backbenchers, Emma Husar, who’s now constantly in the media with a range of allegations against her about her behaviour to staff and on other matters. There’s been a long-running investigation by the New South Wales party into this; shouldn’t the national party get involved and say, “let’s wrap this up, come to some conclusions, make a decision about the future of this member who’s in a highly marginal seat”?

SWAN: No, I think the New South Wales process should take its course, and she should be given natural justice through that. That’s what I think. And I don’t think it’s a matter to be debated from go to woe in the public. There needs to be a process gone through of reporting back any conclusions. That should be allowed to take its course, and when it does, the Labor Party will reach a conclusion. But natural justice is important here.

GRATTAN: That’s true, but surely it’s a matter of public interest too, because of taxpayers’ funds being involved?

SWAN: Well of course it is, of course it’s a matter of public interest. But first of all, you have to establish what the facts are. When that is established, we can go from there.

GRATTAN: What do you say to those who say there should be a public inquiry, rather than just a party inquiry?

SWAN: What I say is it’s premature. 

GRATTAN: But it could end in that?

SWAN: All I’m saying is, we’ve got a party process we’ll go through, it will reach its conclusion, then we will take decisions about it, then we will talk about it. I’m not going to pre-empt it. I think some of the speculation that’s around at the moment is appalling. We should go through the process, she’s entitled to natural justice, we’ll get it done, and then we’ll talk about it. 

GRATTAN: Wayne Swan, thank you for talking with us today. We hope to talk to you again around National Conference time. Meanwhile, that’s the end of our podcast for today. Thank you to my producer, Eliza Berlage. We’ll be back again with another interview soon. Goodbye for now.



Authorised by Noah Carroll, ALP, Canberra