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Opposition Leader discusses ALP policy; work bonus for the long-term unemployed; and Senate reform.

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RADIO 2GB, 17 MARCH 1999


RICHARDSON:  It’s a hard grind being in Opposition; a long hard grind, particularly when a Government wins a second term and you’re sitting there wondering when people will start to take notice of you. Will you matter? Usually in the first half of a three year term Oppositions don’t matter, and that usually causes uninformed journalists to write about how the Party is losing direction or not making an impact. And Kim Beazley has had that sort of criticism in recent months. Some critics have said that Labor has lost momentum since the election, that it’s too negative, it doesn’t offer a real alternative to the Coalition. Yesterday, Mr Beazley gave a speech, an overarching speech outlining his vision for the future of Australia. He talked about a national school system, a redoubled national investment in human capital and a fundamental reorientation toward lifelong learning. He said his aim was to achieve a 90 per cent retention rate for year 12 kids. He also talked about an employment bonus for the long-term unemployed who hold a job for at least six months. Bold stuff. And Kim Beazley joins me on the line. Good morning, Kim.


BEAZLEY:  Good to be with you, Graham. 

RICHARDSON:  Always good to talk to you. You’re in Melbourne, I 


BEAZLEY:  I’m in Melbourne, yes. I thought that, given that Bob Carr, of course, is running his own election campaign, pretty well up there in NSW, it wouldn’t be terribly helpful for me to do such a launch in Sydney at this time. So, we chose Melbourne.


RICHARDSON:  Fair enough. Now, what about the criticisms about Labor losing momentum. What do you make of that?


BEAZLEY:  Well, you and I have been around politics for a long time. We know this: that once there’s an election held the public rules a line under politics and a line under the previous term of Government. And the public certainly doesn’t focus on politics for a very long period of time. And, of course, in those circumstances the chance of an Opposition making much headway is pretty low. In fact, what we did yesterday is unusual. I cannot think of any equivalents of an Opposition laying out its vision so extensively in the six months immediately after an election. I mean, John Hewson went with Fightback! but that was a year and a half after the election. And I can’t think of any other equivalent to what we have done.


RICHARDSON:  No, it’s pretty rare, I’ll give you that. Much of it was about education. Obviously, that’s near and dear to your heart.


BEAZLEY:  We’ve got to be the knowledge society, Graham, if we are going to succeed, we’ve got to be the knowledge society. If you actually look at what has been happening to employment in Australia, reasonable though Australian growth figures have been in recent times, that is the last year, they weren’t terribly reasonable the two prior to that, but last year, reasonable though that’s been, the actual dent being made on unemployment is negligible. And the job creation tends to be in the areas which are not knowledge intensive. And, if you look at the patterns of employment in Australia, we are at the lower end of the industrialised world in the knowledge intensive industries. Now, what we know that means for the long-term is bad news. We’ve got to change as a nation. We invent, in this country, two to three per cent of world new knowledge every year. That’s not bad off one per cent of the world’s population. But virtually all of that gets developed somewhere else and even the intellectual property element of it tends to get sold back into Australia. And last year we lost 25,000 people and we had the biggest surge out of the country of good university graduates. Now, we are in a situation where we’ve got a time clock ticking on us. And the time clock is towards being a successful or unsuccessful nation. And these issues get no focus in Australian politics at all. But, I’ve got to tell you, they’re the only issues that matter.


RICHARDSON:  They certainly matter. What about this plan you also announced yesterday for a bonus for the long-term unemployed? I see where Natasha Stott Despoja has stuck right into that today, so has Peter Reith. Are you standing by that one?


BEAZLEY:  Well, they would do, wouldn’t they? A bit jealous, I think, in the case of one. And a bit defensive in the case of the other. Look, the Government has this view about reciprocal obligation. But it’s not the dictionary view of reciprocal obligation. For my mind, reciprocal obligation means both sides work - the citizen who is the beneficiary and the Government. And the objective must be a mutually useful outcome. Now, what we’re about is driving people into the workforce - off welfare, into the workforce. And we don’t do it with the Government’s approach to them, which is to take a waddy. Our view is that you want to do it by encouraging people through getting the maximum benefit from their earnings. So, this work bonus of ours has to be viewed in the context of the tax credit. The tax credit which gives you more money in your pocket when you get into the workforce, then that incentive is out there. But if you’ve been six months unemployed you tend to lose a bit of contact with the workforce. So, what we say is this: as an added incentive to you to get yourself back into the workforce, if you get in and stay in then we’ll give you a bonus. Now, in the United States where they’ve been experimenting pretty intensively with various mechanisms of getting everybody into the workforce again, they’ve done this in a few states and it’s worked very well indeed.


RICHARDSON:  It sounds like an interesting idea. And so too is your reform of the Senate, which, of course, Peter Costello really got stuck into you over last night. He says it’s pretty ironic that the suggestion is coming from you when Labor has been leading all the obstructionism in the Senate.


BEAZLEY:  You read the whole transcript of his press conference, I mean, the news services did him proud last night in giving airplay to about the only coherent 30 seconds he managed to utter in the entirety of that press conference. But they did ask him these sort of questions like: what about 1975? What about your obstruction of Government Budgets when you were in Opposition? What would you do if you were Opposition Leader and a Government Budget came up? Would you guarantee to pass it? And, of course, it sounded like Elmer Fudd confronting Bugs Bunny when he stuttered his way through the answers to those three propositions. Look, you don’t vote for a half Senator. You know, when we come into an election campaign we don’t say, ‘well, vote for the Labor Party Senate team, and by the way, if we lose then our Senators we promise will just vote for the Government from then until the next election. That is an undergraduate debaters view of politics. If there is a problem with the Senate powers you don’t do some sort of work around, and the Liberal Party work-around is to rort the voting system for the Senate, that’s the suggestion they’ve got out there. You go to the nub of the matter. You treat your politics as mature politics. You treat you polity as a mature polity. And you say, ‘OK, there’s a problem with Senate powers. Let’s change them’. In NSW, the Upper House can’t reject a Budget. And I don’t notice the sky falling in around your way.


RICHARDSON:  No, no. It hasn’t yet. Mind you, it’s an interesting issue, because, obviously, both sides have played the Senate obstruction game. Still, Meg Lees made a good point this morning, Kim. She said, ‘what about the privatisation of Telstra? What about the GST?’ There’s only so-called Senate obstructionism that’s in their road.


BEAZLEY:  Well, what we say to that is this: look, you want to go down the road of talking this one through. That’s fine. We can look at what gets incorporated within the meaning of the definition of a Budget, which is no particular problem in NSW who have managed to do that. But the point is, if you’re worried about stability in Government of the country, and it’s like the weather, all the major parties get out there and rail against Senate powers, but, like the weather, they assume they can’t do anything about it. Well, if the Australian people want to do something about it, the Australian people can. I think Meg Lees, I read Meg Lees’ press release, and she seemed to be implying that somehow or other the major parties could get together and deprive the Senate of these powers. The major parties can’t get together and deprive the Senate of these powers. This is in the hands of the Australian people.


RICHARDSON:  There’s got to be a referendum. I understand that.


BEAZLEY:  Absolutely. And you wouldn’t know that, though, from reading Meg’s statement on that. But as far as the situation is now, the Senate powers are there and they permit the rejection of a Budget and what I said in the last election campaign I stick with. I said a vote for the Labor Party is a rolled-gold guarantee of a vote against a GST. If we win we won’t do it, if we lose our Senators will vote against it. And that’s the powers of the Senate. And it's an undergraduate debating point, really, to come out and say, ‘well, if you actually believe that the powers of the Senate should be changed you shouldn’t do that’. I’m not going to get out there and say that Labor Senators are half Senators. They’re not.


RICHARDSON:  No, they’re not, Kim. Look, thanks very much for talking to us this morning and congratulations on yesterday’s speech.


BEAZLEY:  Thanks very much, Graham.