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Friday Forum -

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New South Wales Supreme Court judge Jeff Shaw has resigned. Justice Shaw's decision was announced
in a statement by the Supreme Court earlier this evening. The former NSW attorney-general said his
health problems were more grave than he had earlier thought. Justice Shaw has been at the centre of
a controversy following a car accident and the suspicious loss of his blood sample which would've
determined the judge's alcohol level. The police handling of the case is currently being
investigated. Well, with the Federal Parliament resuming next week for the first post-election
sitting of the year, we're joined tonight by two new members who will be taking their places as
rookie back benchers in the big house in Canberra. Businessman and former treasurer for the Liberal
Party, Malcolm Turnbull, won the seat of Wentworth after a now legendary struggle with the
incumbent Peter King while Julie Owens who, until recently, represented the Independent Record
Association provided one of the few rays of light for Labor on election night, taking the western
Sydney seat of Parramatta from the Government. Well, this week, along with other new members, they
were introduced first-hand to the totems and taboos of their new workplace. Malcolm Turnbull, Julie
Owens, welcome to 'Lateline" for the first time as new members. Thank you. Well, Orientation Week,
what was it like? Julie? Oh, it was great. I'm still finding being in Parliament House really
special. So, being down there, even for pollie school, was special. There is a lot to learn.
Parliament House is like a large city with its own departments that manage the whole operation of
the building, so there is a lot to learn in terms of how you work in that environment, but also
parliament itself - you know, when the bells rings, how long you've got. what the committees do,
what opportunities you have to speak outside of debates on bills. So, it was a full two days. We
learnt a lot. I'm sure we've still got a lot to learn. Malcolm, what about you? Did it feel like a
new kind of boarding school with bells ringing? Well, not quite a boarding school, but, yes,
certainly it is a new culture and there is a lot to learn, but it is such an enormous privilege to
be elected to represent the people of your community in our parliament. You are both coming into a
very different parliamentary dynamic, certainly from July next year when the Government will have
control of both houses. Julie, how do you see the use of this power? We'll have to wait and see on
that one. It has been 20 years or so since we've seen a government in Australia that has that kind
of absolute power. What we've seen of the Howard Government so far is them operating in
circumstances when they don't have it. I would find the idea of some of those bills that went to
the Senate in the last nine years actually going through without checks and balances to be quite
frightening, but we will see whether or not - we will be looking at ambit claims, I guess, in the
next three years. What about for Labor though? How is it going to hold its discipline without
having any, if you like, legislative potency in the Senate? But Opposition is still an extremely
important function. We are, in many ways, the mirror. We hold up the legislation for scrutiny. We
provide alternatives. We are in an extremely important part of government. Opposition is an
important part of government, just as being a back bencher is an important part of government,
whether you have the ultimate power to pass the legislation or not. It is an extremely valuable
debate process that we have in our house. Malcolm, potentially there is a problem as much as a
bonus, isn't there, in control of both houses? I mean, you certainly could have different
conservative groupings, certainly in the Senate, wanting to use their muscle? Well, that's true,
but I think the real issue, the real question for Julie's colleagues is whether they are prepared
now to finally agree that the Australian people have spoken. John Howard has had three elections.
He has now had four elections which have approved his plan, his proposal to repeal Labor's unfair
dismissal laws and after three election mandates, Labor refused to allow the democratic decision of
the Australian people to be implemented by working with Independents in the Senate to prevent that
repeal going through. Now, that was a denial of democracy, and now, of course, the Government...
Those are the natural processes of the Senate - checks and balances. Well, you see, it's one thing
- you can call it a check and a balance, but the reality is the proposal to repeal Labor's unfair
dismissal laws, which cost us jobs. Everyone in business knows that. I mean, everyone that is
focused on the issue of creating more opportunities for Australians knows that Labor's industrial
relations policy costs us jobs. And John Howard has had a mandate after a mandate after a mandate
to repeal those laws and he has not been able to do it and that has been a denial of democracy. So
the real question I have is whether Labor will accept, on the fourth - after four elections, the
verdict of the Australian people and support the repeal of these laws. Julie Owens? We have a
Senate which was elected by the Australian people and the Senate does its job. The real question is
what's going to happen after July? And after July, the Howard Government isn't going to be able to
say it's all about Labor anymore, like Malcolm is saying here - it's all about Labor wants. It's
not. John Howard will have the power in both houses. It's actually about what they're going to do,
not about Labor. I find it a really interesting strategy, even now, that John Howard has, and
you've just followed it, to try to put the attention back on Labor. Labor is the Opposition. John
Howard is the Government. Let's look at something else the PM is doing at the moment. He is
allowing certainly the beginnings of a debate on abortion to run, not particularly indicating a
preference, but he is allowing the issue to run. What is this all about, Malcolm? Well, it is a
free society. It is an issue that people have strong views about, and a wide variety of views. It
is not a simplistic pro-life versus pro-choice. There is a range of opinions and... Is it worth
re-examining the laws that relate particularly to, say, late-term terminations? Well, of course,
its. If people are concerned about it and want to debate it, as the Prime Minister says, they have
ever right to do so. Is it worth a private members' bill? Well, it's certainly open to that. If
members want to move a private members' bill, they can. You have to remember, as Peter Costello
said - observed - that the laws relating to abortion are basically state laws - state and territory
laws. The Federal Parliament has a limited ability to legislate that area. For instance, what you
could anticipate, though, as a private members' bill which would suggest that Medicare funding not
be allowed for late-term terminations. Would you support something of that order? Well, I would
want to look at it very carefully. I think everyone who reflects on the issue would have very
serious concern about abortions of - terminations of pregnancies in the third trimester or even in
the mid trimester. But numerically they're not significant. No, well, that's right. That's what
we're hearing, in fact, from the AMA as to how much Medicare funding there is for late-term
abortions at all. So, I think there is a shortage of facts on the issue. I would like to see more
facts. I would also like to see more women's voices on this issue. Now, I'm not suggesting that, as
a man, I am precluded from talking about it, but this is an issue that I think we should be hearing
more from women and listening more from women before either side rushes to judgment. Julie Owens,
how do you see this? Private members' bill - they're introduced all the time. There are many, many
of them. Whether they get debating time is really an issue for the Government. So this private
members' bill really won't get any space unless the Government wishes it to have space. But the
whole question of abortion is a really interesting one because the majority of people, on the one
hand, believe in the right to choose, but, on the other hand, they would like to see less
abortions. If we're going to debate abortion, I would really like to see a discussion about how you
increase women's choice to keep a child, how you make it easier for women to decide to have a child
rather than always talking about ... But isn't that what Tony Abbott is talking about? He is
talking about, perhaps, women in fact considering pursuing their pregnancies and adopting out
children if they don't want that addition to their families. Well, adopting out is one option, but
so also is more affordable childcare, more work-friendly workplaces. There are all sorts of reasons
why women, particularly older women - you need to separate young teenagers and older women because
their choices are different. But particularly older women choosing not to have a child is to do
with all sorts of structural issues within our society. If we want to have a discussion about that,
about actually increasing the choice of women so they choose to have the child, that would be a
really interesting debate to have. Okay, but the question I put to Malcolm let me put to you. If we
are to see, say, for instance, and private members' bill that would want to curtail Medicare
funding to late-term abortions, what would be your view on that? I believe that it is a matter
between the doctor and the woman. There are some people, even in my electorate that won't be happy
about that because ... So you wouldn't be voting for that? No, I believe it is a matter between a
doctor and the woman. I mean, you had right-to-lifers targeting you in the Parramatta campaign? I
did, yes, they did. They advertised what a terrible person I was and handed out on the day,
recommending that people voted 1 for Ross Cameron and No. 11 for me. But the voters of Parramatta
were clear about your position? Oh, absolutely. You couldn't have not known about my position.
Okay. Let's move to another issue which may turn out to be just as contentious. The Education
Minister, Brendan Nelson, wants a national inquiry into literacy standards in primary schools with
a view to a much stronger emphasis on the teaching of phonics. Now, the teaching establishment, to
a certain extent, is against this. Who is right, Malcolm Turnbull? Oh, Brendan Nelson is right. I
think we know... That was pretty clear-cut? Well, it is a very clear-cut - this is actually quite a
simple issue. The literacy standards have declined. They have declined because, in many cases -
most cases, I think - children are not being taught to read properly, and you've got to remember
that our alphabet is a phonetic writing system. The letters and the combinations of letters seek to
represent sounds, so any teaching of English, of our written language, to children which is not
based on phonics, is not based on sounds, really is only making it harder for kids to learn to
read. Now, most educators are coming to that landing now, coming to that realisation now and we've
got to do something about it, because nothing disables somebody, nothing reduces a person's
opportunities in life more than depriving them of a high level of literacy. Julie Owens, surely
there is room for bipartisanship on this one because, as Malcolm is suggesting there, some of the
evidence - well, a lot of the evidence is clear-cut. The Australian Council of Educational
Research, for instance, is saying that something like 30% of primary school children now get to
high school and cannot read or write properly. Now, that's pretty compelling. Yes, there is
conflicting evidence, but let's assume that that's right for the moment, then it is a major issue.
It was a major issue in the first term of the Howard Government when it was raised then. It was a
major issue in the second election when John Howard committed to funding literacy programs for
25,000 kids and then reneged on it in the third term and it is still a major issue now. But what I
would say is this: What Malcolm says is right. When a child can't read for a year or a child is
struggling for a year, you can't replace that year, you can't do that year again. The child is
damaged by that - the failure of the system to do the right thing by that child. So an inquiry is
all very well, but if this is a genuine problem and it is known to be a problem, let's fix it.
Let's not talk about it... Well, as you know, it is a question of working with the states because
the states have various approaches to all this. It is a matter of getting, surely, as Brendan
Nelson says, a national... Can I take an observation here? The Labor Party has stood in the way of
improving standards in state schools all around Australia. The Labor Party has resisted efforts to
have compulsory testing, though, of course, they have been introduced and, you know... Well, many
of the state premiers have done that. Yes, but the Labor Party resisted that initially. They have
resisted the publication of test scores, They have resisted accountability generally. The fact is
that the Liberal Party looks at schools and schoolchildren through the eyes of parents. The Labor
Party, sadly, looks at schools and schoolchildren through the eyes of the teachers' union and
that's not the right perspective. Schools and education are about kids. And, as Julie says, it is
about ensuring that they are not disadvantaged by poor standards of teaching. Yes, but isn't it
also true to say that the Government is looking at this in a punitive way, you now, tying certain
amounts of funding to certain things, like running up the flag or whatever. Surely if you're
genuine, you don't take a punitive approach. I don't think it's punitive at all. It is a question
of accountability. If the Government is going to spend federal - governments spend other people's
money. If the Government is going to spend taxpayers' money, other people's money, citizens' money
on schools, it is entitled to ask that those schools adhere to certain standards which are designed
to ensure that the children in those schools are getting the education they deserve. A quick
response? Again, it's nine years of government here. After nine years you can't keep blaming Labor
for the fact that you haven't been able to... No, but, Julie, you were agreeing with some of the
points that Malcolm was making about how critically important it is. Surely, as I said to you,
there is room for bipartisanship on this, so we can get some movement on this. Well, absolutely,
but let's fix it. Let's not talk about it for another three years. Let's actually fix it. You can't
replace... Sorry, Labor will be a lesser voice for the teachers' unions and more a voice on behalf
of the parents? Well, I don't think we have been a voice of the teacher's unions. I think we have
been screaming for increased funding to schools for years and certainly did before the last
election. It was a major part of our platform We want to see funding to schools increase. There was
a report in the last week from the Ministerial Council for Education, Employment Training and Youth
Affairs that showed there is an additional $2 billion needed in public schools to lift literacy and
numeracy standards to a reasonable level. Julie, with all the money in the world, you cannot lift
literacy standards if you're not teaching children how to read. You can't lift literacy standards
with $2 billion if the system of literacy - education - is just not doing its job. That's really
what the debate is about. It's about getting the right outcomes for children. I think there is an
opportunity for bipartisanship here,