ABC Insiders: Queensland Election; Chaos and dysfunction of the Abbott Government

31 January 2015






SUBJECT/S: Queensland Election; Chaos and dysfunction of the Abbott Government; Tony Abbott’s leadership; GP Tax, $100,000 degrees; Australian Republic.


BARRIE CASSIDY: Bill Shorten, good morning, welcome.




CASSIDY: Clearly when you get a result of this kind there are a lot of factors in operation but how do you explain this one?


SHORTEN: Well first of all, let me congratulate Annastacia Palaszczuk because no-one, I think, thought two, three years ago that Labor could come from seven out of 89 seats to be in the very competitive position that we found them last night. There are state issues, as your panel observed; privatisation, asset sales. Regional Queensland was yelling out for attention from the LNP.


I had the opportunity to be there on 11 occasions and regional Queensland certainly felt let down by what they perceived to be a Brisbane Government. But there were federal issues at stake. Tony Abbott wouldn't go to Queensland for a whole month. He wouldn't go for one reason, because if the voters saw even more of him, he and Campbell Newman were afraid the swing would be bigger against the LNP. As it was, him not going proved to be almost as big a mistake as him going.


CASSIDY: How much of it though lies with the Campbell Newman Government given that the cuts to services, the asset sales, even Campbell Newman's style itself were significant factors?


SHORTEN: I think you're absolutely right, they were significant factors and nothing can take away from what Annastacia Palaszczuk and Queensland Labor accomplished. But it is true, as I think your panel were observing just before, that it's the issues that matter to voters. Voters get that there's different levels of Government, state, federal, local.


But issues overlap these days - education, healthcare, jobs and keeping promises. And I think that the whole - all of those issues blurred, I think, people seeing Tony Abbott, Campbell Newman, cuts to schools, cuts to hospitals, cuts to public services and I think that's the nub of the issue. It's the way that both levels of Liberal Government have conducted themselves.


CASSIDY: What do you think Tony Abbott's fate now is?


SHORTEN: Well that's up to the Liberal Party, but if the Liberal Party think that just changing leader is all they need to do; if they think it's the salesman, not what they're selling, then they will have learned nothing from the Victorian, the Queensland elections and the South Australian by-election.


It is what Liberals are trying to sell Australia is the problem. We don't want to see Medicare cut, we don't want to see our pensions cut. Malcolm Turnbull as recently as yesterday was in America saying that their higher education reform was the way to go. We don't want to see $100,000 degrees. It's what they're selling Australia is the problem, not who sells them.


CASSIDY: Okay, you say it's the message, not the messenger but you look at the polls, you look at the anecdotal evident, what people are saying at polling booths, Tony Abbott is a big fact in all of this. If he is removed there goes the problem and life might suddenly become far more difficult for you?


SHORTEN: Well it's not whether or not life is difficult for the Opposition, it's whether or not life’s difficult for Australia. The issue isn't, at the end analysis, just who leads the party in Government, the issue is what they're trying to sell us. Last year they told us there was a Budget crisis which had to justify the cutting of Medicare. Yet it was only 40 days before the Budget that someone came up with the idea of a medical research fund which won't be spent on the recurrent costs of Medicare.


This is a Government who’s out of touch with real Australia. Australians don't want to see schools cut, they don't want to see Medicare cut, they don't want to see the pension rate of increase cut. I mean we can't just simply attribute everything down to Tony Abbott and his captain's pick. Will a new Liberal leader stand up and say, for instance, not buy the submarines in Japan? Will a new Liberal leader stand up for the minimum wage? Will Julie Bishop or Malcolm Turnbull or Scott Morrison or any of the other hopefuls currently doing their campaigning, will they change the direction of the Government or will they just think that a new salesman will change the Government?


CASSIDY: You say it's a matter for them and that's true, but what's your gut feeling? Do you think they will move against Tony Abbott?


SHORTEN: Well I'd be staggered, I have to say. This Government made a hue and cry about Labor changing leaders from Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd and now they're doing the exact same debate in even a quicker time than happened under Labor –


CASSIDY: So you think they might have learnt from your mistakes?


SHORTEN: Possibly, or maybe they haven’t. And the real issue here as I think you panel said, people say the voters are volatile. I don’t think voters are volatile, I just think they've got declining patience with Governments who say one thing before an election and act in a different way after the election. It's the broken promises. It's the arrogance which really frustrates people. People are impatient with Governments who are out of touch with the way they're organising their lives.


CASSIDY: If there is a new leader, and particularly if it's Malcolm Turnbull, there has to be a prospect I suppose, some prospect, of an election this year, perhaps a double dissolution election, would you build that into your planning?


SHORTEN: If Tony Abbott walks the plank that would be a cop out. He broke his promises, that's a cop out, he wouldn't go to Queensland, that's a cop out. One thing about Tony Abbott is I hadn't picked him to be a leader who would cop out, but if he walks the plank and gives up well that will be a cop out and I think there should be an election.


CASSIDY: You think he might resign even before a challenge?


SHORTEN: Well, I only know what your observers know as well. I'm sure that there's a lot of manoeuvrings behind the scenes in the Liberal Party which I'm not privy to. The real issue is what this Government should do, regardless of who they put in charge, is drop the pension cuts, drop the Medicare GP Tax, drop the increases to university fees. That's what they should do. Whether or not they've got the capacity to do it, I don't think they understand it is what they're selling, it is not the sales person.


CASSIDY: And in the meantime are you happy to sit back and just watch it happen? You were described in one newspaper this week as a blank sheet of paper. What do you make of that characterisation and what do you do about it?


SHORTEN: Well it's not right and what we are doing is we’re working on our ideas. What we will do is we will work on our policies. At the end of last year at the National Press Club, I said that 2014 had been marked by the level of fierce resistance on behalf of the Australian people that the Opposition had year demonstrated. This will be the year that we work through our policies. Ever since we lost the last election we've been out there listening, talking to people, talking to experts.


We’ll have a full slate of policies in good time before the next election but in the meantime, this Government is chaotic, it's dysfunctional. I mean, during the election they’ve, we don't know what they're going to do with their GP Tax except we know they want to put it in in some way or another. Now they're tinkering with the minimum wage. This is a Government who’s too extreme for Australia.


CASSIDY: But there's a lot that they don't know about you either and your intentions. The country has a revenue problem. You were saying that in Opposition. What are you going to do about that to address that fundamental problem? What do you do to prevent Australia having a decade or more of Budget deficits?


SHORTEN: Thanks for that question Barrie. When we talk about what does Australia know about the Labor Party that I lead, I can say it very clearly. We do believe in Medicare being a universal safety net and we’re worried this Government wants to wreck that. We don't believe that Australia has a bright future by cutting the rate of increase of the pension.


CASSIDY: The question was about the deficit, what are you going to do about it?


SHORTEN: That right, but what I’m saying is that the strategy you've got to adopt is we've got to have clear policies. We need to make sure that we keep our promises before an election to after an election. It's all about, I believe, being a productive nation, it's all about ensuring growth. Slashing, burning, cutting, sacking public servants, this country can't shrink its way to its future. What we need the do is invest in productive infrastructure. We need to have higher education policies which ensure that we give the best chance in life for our young people. That's the challenge for the future.


CASSIDY: But higher education as well, don't you also need a policy that leads to better universities?


SHORTEN: Quality should be at the centre of what we talk about when we talk about universities.


CASSIDY: So how do you do that without deregulating fees?


SHORTEN: Well let's have a look at the proposed outcome of what this Government's fumbling and wrecking of universities would do. By any analysis the proposals they’ve put forward will see fewer students being able to go to university and those that can having to pay more money. It doesn't help when you have fewer people paying more to go to higher education. We're doing what we should be doing in an Opposition. We're talking to the experts, talking to parents, we’re talking to universities –


CASSIDY: You're not talking to the Government though, you're not engaging in the debate. John Dawkins, who was credited with so much of the reform and education over the years, said you should be negotiating, you should be getting involved to improve the sector?


SHORTEN: Yes, but John Dawkins also in that statement was a withering critic of this Government's so-called reforms and he certainly didn't support what they were doing. Now we will talk to the Government, we always do. The problem is this is a Government, and it goes back to the reason why they did badly in Queensland, and the reason why I think that Australians are turning off the current Government. It doesn't matter who's in charge; Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull, Julie Bishop, Scott Morrison or any of the others, they just have a different view of Australia.


They need to be very clear whoever takes over if there is a change, or indeed Tony Abbott should be clear tomorrow, it's not a family policy to cut $6,000 from families, that none of them will go ahead with a GP Tax. That they will not cut their rate of increase of pensions in the way they've signalled. This is what Australians want to hear and that they won't wreck our universities and make it harder for working class kids to go to university.


CASSIDY: Now you’ve, just finally, revived the Republican debate. A poll out this morning suggests that the country is evenly split on this. There's no real momentum behind the idea of a Republic. Are you just going to leave it there or have you got a plan to get some momentum behind it?


SHORTEN: Well the day before Australia Day I gave a speech where I said I think this nation can have a mature discussion about having an Australian Head of State. I'm firmly of that conviction and we'll continue to debate these issues. But what we need to do is talk to Australians, hear what their concerns are about it and have the answers for that rather than simply rushing out with a solution.


CASSIDY: So have you got answers? Have you got a model in mind?


SHORTEN: Well first of all it's a two stage process. One is we need to talk to Australians about the value of having an Australian Head of State. Once there's consensus about that then I think it's possible to have an intelligent discussion about the nature of the model. But what we can't afford to do, I think, is just wander along on this sort of myopia where the Prime Minister of Australia thinks that it's okay to give Australia's highest honour to Prince Philip. It just shows you how out of touch the current Government are.


CASSIDY: But do you think this issue is important enough though to burn up some political capital over it? There’s a lot to talk about.


SHORTEN: Well I do think that becoming a Republic is an important issue. But beyond that, I also think that if you want to know what our priorities are, proper healthcare, a good education system, making sure that Australians who want to work can find work, having a productive economy which means that we've got a better way of funding our infrastructure than we're currently seeing. These are the issues that matter in Australia, this Government, if it doesn't change direction, has learnt nothing from the Queensland election.


It's not a matter of just changing Tony Abbott, it's a matter of changing the direction that this Government's taken in. You've got a lot of Liberal ministers happy to background against the Prime Minister on Prince Philip, but I don't think any of them can background against the Prime Minister that they opposed the pension cuts, that they oppose making it harder to go to university, that they oppose wrecking the minimum wage. These are the issues that matter and this Government needs to hear the lesson of Queensland loud and clear.


CASSIDY: Thanks for coming this morning, appreciate it.


SHORTEN: Thanks, Barrie.