Transcript - ABC News Breakfast - November 2019

09 November 2019



ABC WEEKEND NEWS BREAKFAST with Josh Szeps and Johanna Nicholson


SUBJECTS: NSW Fires, ALP Election Review, Pill Testing

JOSH SZEPS, HOST: It's time for our Polly Panel, where today we're asking what went wrong for Labor at the last election. And the new coroner's report in New South Wales recommending pill testing at music festivals.

JOHANNA NICHOLSON, HOST: To discuss this, we're joined by Labor MP Matt Keogh and Liberal Senator Eric Abetz. Thank you both for joining us this morning. Obviously we'll get to those topics in just a moment. But we've got this emergency situation in New South Wales and Queensland with these terrible fires. Eric Abetz, any comment on these fires?

SENATOR ERIC ABETZ: Look, when you have fires of this nature - we had them in Tasmania earlier this year - this is part and parcel of Australia's climate and heritage. And our heart goes out to the men and women caught in the fires, especially to the family that appears to have lost somebody. And to our firefighters, we salute you. Thank you for what you do in protecting life and property. You are genuine heroes, and most of you volunteer, so a double thankyou to you.

SZEPS: Matt Keogh, do you want to second those thoughts?

MATT KEOGH MP: Absolutely. Our thoughts and prayers go to all of the families affected by these fires. It was tragic to see that there's already been a loss of life. And as Eric said, we are so grateful to the hundreds of Australians that volunteer their time, as well as the professional firefighters and all the emergency services that put themselves in harm's way to protect others. And I know, having had the experience of fires here around Perth as well, it's absolutely tragic to see what is unfolding on our screens and in those people's lives. And we really, as I said, they're in our thoughts and our prayers, and we thank everyone that is helping.

NICHOLSON: Absolutely. Alright, let's get to some of the political news that we've had this week. There's been a big focus on the Labor Party this week, with that election review, and also Anthony Albanese, Labor leader, spoke at the National Press Club yesterday. Speaking about the need to reconnect with the electorate after that election loss that Labor had. Matt Keogh, I might start with you. How are you reconnecting with your electorate?

KEOGH: Well, I will be reconnecting in a very practical sense in just a couple of hours' time at one of my mobile offices. And, quite frankly, being out in touch with one's electorate, as a member of Parliament, is very important, just having those everyday conversations is something that we always need to be doing. But I think when we're having those conversations, it's important that we listen intently and that we have understanding, compassion and empathy for what people are telling us. And I think one of the things - and there were many things - but one of the things that really came through in the review was that too much emphasis was placed on positive polling information and no-one was giving sufficient consideration to where we were getting results that didn't align with that. And that wasn't just about polling, but I think it was also about some of the gut feel some of us were having on the ground around how some of our messaging, some of our policies, were, or critically were not, resonating with the Australian people. And I think there was a bit of confirmation bias heading in one direction, and therefore people direction, and therefore people thought that what we were picking up on the ground mustn't have been reflected in the numbers. And it turned out the numbers were wrong.

NICHOLSON: Did you have that gut feel at the time? And why didn't you speak up before the election?

KEOGH: Look, there were certainly elements of things that were going on in the lead-up to, and during, the election, which struck me as odd. And I suppose in answer to your question, yes, those things were passed up the line. And then the shocking thing that came out of the review, or that was highlighted in the review, is that ultimately at the top there wasn't a properly functioning campaign committee to really take those things into account. But also, as I said, when we had such positive polling numbers sitting there, it was easy to fall into an expectation that said, "Well, these negative things that we're picking up have clearly been baked in already and they're not going to be the thing that makes the difference." And we weren't paying enough attention, I guess, to those gut feels, or to those conversations that we were having on the ground because of that polling and how it was being treated at a national level. And that's a learning for us. And that's why these reviews are actually really important. It's the opportunity to find the things we didn't do well, to make sure that we don't repeat the mistakes of the past. And now we can rule a line, if you like, on the election that has happened and move forward and be facing forward, making sure we don't repeat those mistakes, but that we give due attention to the views of the Australian people.

SZEPS: Senator Abetz, the easy thing to do here would be to make this a partisan boxing match, and for you to get stuck into Labor and give a stump speech about why the Coalition is better. And you can do that if you want to, but I'd be interested in your thoughts, as someone who's been in the Senate for a long time and has a keen sense of what is politically astute, what is wrong here? I mean, when Whitlam won in 1972, the Labor Party had 50% of the primary vote. The current Labor Party has 31% of the primary vote. If you were advising the Labor Party, like, where is the Labor Party strongest?

ABETZ: I think the Labor Party has lost touch with its heritage and its history. It seems to be pursuing the green-left, inner-city vote a lot more than the rural-regional vote of our regional communities. So, that is where I think the Labor Party are in a huge bind. Does Mr Albanese, who wants to keep his seat, continue to promote green-left policies? Or do you say that coalminers do have a role within our economy, that they are right to vote for their jobs? And as a result the Queensland voters were entitled to do what they did, and ensured, along with my fellow Tasmanians, those two states ensured the re-election of the Scott Morrison Government. So, some very fundamental fissures there within the Labor ideology. And whilst Mr Albanese has now, I think, indicated he wants to dump some of Labor's policies, what the Australian people really want to know is, fine, you're going to dump some policies, but what will your policy platform be? And that is where you've got the real friction between the inner-city left, green-left, and the rural-regional communities. People concerned about border protection, about jobs, about welfare being given to those that are most in need. These basic instincts that most Australians tell us in every single poll that they are concerned about jobs and national security.

NICHOLSON: Well, Senator, those concerns were addressed in this review of the Labor election result. Are you now feeling threatened by a Labor Party that learns the lessons from these reviews? Anthony Albanese spoke about jobs, about fairness, infrastructure, climate change, and national security. It sounds like a winning strategy?

ABETZ: Well, isn't it telling that national security is the very last item addressed by Anthony Albanese? It's nearly as though it's an afterthought...

NICHOLSON: To be fair, that's just the last item that I listed. That's not necessarily a list of their policies.

ABETZ: Well, it is, as has been listed in other media as well, in an order that suggests that that is the order in which Mr Albanese delivered those five areas. And, look, my view is that you're only as good as your last election. So, 2022 will be a serious challenge for us, no matter what. And the lesson of history is that, in 1993, the Liberal Party lost the unlosable election. We had a change of leader not once but twice. And all the people in the media told us how foolish we were in going "back to the future" with John Howard as leader. And we won a thumping landslide election victory 1996. That's the lesson of history. If we can do it, I hope Labor can't and won't do it, but one assumes that that is a possibility. And therefore we, as a Government, have to continue to be absolutely united, focused on the things that matter. And that is why I am so pleased with the Prime Minister's leadership, the fact that we got our tax relief through, drought assistance, national security. We're getting on with the job that the Australian people elected us to do. We aren't being distracted by navel-gazing, and I hope that we are delivering as our fellow Australians would expect us to.

SZEPS: Matt Keogh, you've heard the Senator say in a rather disparaging tone that Labor's obsession with the green-left and green policies and ignoring coalminers in Queensland and so on, but, look, we are sitting here on a day when Australians are dying, when Australians are at risk of dying, when Australians are losing their homes as a result of devastating bushfires, which all scientists say are gonna get worse, droughts are gonna get worse. And these kinds of conditions are a reality for people around Australia and a lot of Australians, not just on the left, want something to be done about climate change. Can the Labor Party thread that needle? Promote a climate change policy that does not hurt people who votes it needs in Queensland?

KEOGH: Absolutely. It's imperative we do that. It's imperative that we understand that I think it is the view of most Australians that climate change is real, that it's caused by human activity, and they want to see something done about it. And they want to see something done about it, though, in a way that doesn't leave them feel in some way that their livelihood is threatened. We can do that. Absolutely, we can do that. We need to do that, and, frankly, that is where our policies all direct towards, which is about a sustainable environment and a sustainability economy that makes sure that we have economic growth, that we have jobs protected, that our industries are able to thrive, and that we reduce our carbon emissions. That is doable, and we're seeing it happen around the world. And whilst I think some of the ways in which we presented that argument have allowed the Coalition, the conservative forces of Australia, to weaponise this issue against us, what it has left us with, as a consequence, is a complete lack of any policy action on behalf of the Government. They've been in Government for over six years now and they haven't actually done anything about this. They've got emissions climbing at a time when they say to everyone that they're falling. And they're not really doing anything to ensure that the Paris targets are met. Even worse than that, they're not doing anything to fix energy policy. So, at the same time that they're not really doing anything on climate, they're actually risking the economy, because they're not doing anything to make sure we do have energy security, that we're able to support our manufacturing sector, that even our mining industry has certainty, because of a lack of policy that comes from the Government. If we look at the overall economic circumstances that have been confronted by Australia as a whole, we had the RBA come out and downgrade the economic outlook yet again, the Government's got nothing in terms of a plan to see the economy grow. That's really important when you look at people's pay packets. Every week, fortnight or month, they're putting their hand into their pocket and looking at their wages and saying, "Well, this isn't growing, but the bills that I've got coming in are growing." And what is the Government doing about it? And the reality is the Government is doing nothing about that. And it's a complete indictment on the Government that they're doing nothing about that. And so you ask, can we thread the needle? It's absolutely possible to thread the needle. And it's the Government that it's incumbent upon them to really stand up and deliver for the Australian people right now. Because, after all, they are the ones that won the election.

NICHOLSON: Alright, we do want to get to our second topic, which is the results of this inquest into the deaths of a number of young Australians at music festivals. The New South Wales Deputy Coroner has made a number of recommendations following that inquest, including recommending that pill testing be conducted in New South Wales. We know this was a state-specific inquest, and it's not necessarily a federal issue. But this is an issue that's being tackled across the country, so that's why we wanted to talk about it this morning. Senator Abetz, I might start with you. What did you make of these recommendations, specifically that one that pill testing be conducted?

ABETZ: Look, let's cut through all the verbage. The simple fact is one pill can kill. And if it doesn't kill you, there is a very real likelihood it will do damage to you, mentally, physically, if not both. The simple fact is that these people have gained these pills and drugs illegally, from criminals, who are merchants of death. And why we would spend taxpayers' money in saying to these people, "Yeah, we know what you've done, but we'll just test it to make sure you don't die immediately," is hardly the message that we want to send to the community. These festivals can be

enjoyed without the need for illegal drugs, and they are illegal for a very, very good reason - to protect the community and to ensure that those who are the merchants of death, in selling these drugs, that they can be brought to justice. So, we do ourselves, the community and the young people a great disservice by seeking to normalise drug taking as being an acceptable and appropriate thing to do when you go to festivals. So, on this one, I'm glad to say I'm on the same page as Premier Dan Andrews and, of course, New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian. They both have rejected these calls, quite rightly so, and I would encourage coroners and other people to focus on protecting the whole community - one, from the criminal activity, and, secondly, to protect our young people and send out the message that one pill can kill.

SZEPS: Well, the coroner's job, to be fair, Senator, is to make sure that more people don't die. So, the coroner is doing what they think is necessary to achieve that. Matt, a final right of reply here. Part of the point the coroner makes is pill testing is not just about the testing, but getting young people into a tent where there is a healthcare professional and someone who can actually talk to them about the risks - basically the risks the Senator is articulating there. That you shouldn't take drugs at all, but if you're going to, here is how you do it. Is this a policy that should be pursued?

ABETZ: Absolutely not.

KEOGH: The issue here is the travesty of young people dying from taking illicit drugs. And the coroner's job is to look into how do we stop those people dying? And the coroner has done a pretty extensive inquiry in this case, looked at all the expert evidence, said, "What you're doing right now clearly isn't working, because people are dying. So, what are the additional steps that government should consider?" And they've made this proposal. And, quite frankly, when you have the experts all come together through an inquiry, the coroner has done their job and put up some very strong recommendations. It seems to me that it would be incumbent on a government to give long and lengthy thought about those recommendations and have a pretty good reason as to why it would decide not to follow those recommendations or trial them in circumstances where what's happening now clearly isn't working. We do need to find other strategies to stop people from dying.

SZEPS: Matt Keogh, Senator Eric Abetz, thanks so much for your time.

KEOGH: Thanks a lot.

ABETZ: Great to be with you.