Interview with Peter van Onselen – Sky News NewsDay – Monday, 25 January 2016


SUBJECT/S: Tony Abbott; media reform; Malcolm Turnbull’s Liberals 15 per cent GST

PETER VAN ONSELEN: As promised we are going to shift to domestic politics now and I am joined out of the CBD studio in Sydney by the Shadow Communications Minister Jason Clare. Thanks very much for your company.


VAN ONSELEN: And to you. We’ll get to some of the portfolio issues in the mix, put pretty firmly in the mix last week by Mitch Fifield in a moment, but first your reaction to the news overnight that Tony Abbott is going to continue his service to the Parliament. His statement made clear he’s got a lot of local traffic congestion issues that he wants to get solved in his local electorate.

CLARE: Well it’s not good for Malcolm Turnbull is it, sitting there on the backbench like Banquo’s ghost. It’s just going to haunt this Prime Minister until Tony Abbott either decides to go or decides to make another move. Whatever he says will be a distraction and will be reported by the media. Invariably by staying there in the Parliament he’ll act as a tether on Malcolm Turnbull drawing him away from the centre of Australian politics towards the radical right of the Liberal Party.

The other thing I’d say Peter is even though it is not realistic for Tony Abbott to think that he’d ever be Prime Minister again, I think he still thinks that there’s a chance. I don’t think that it is a surprise that the first photograph of Tony Abbott after he lost the leadership was him standing next to a bust of Winston Churchill. I think he thinks this is the ‘wilderness years’. People like Cory Bernadi have called other people in the Liberal Party “the appeasers” and I think Tony Abbott is hoping that there is a reckoning coming, some great struggle that will force the moderates in the Liberal Party to ask him to come back and lead them again.

VAN ONSELEN: Well we will find out, but let me ask you this though, if you see similarities, by the sounds of it at least implicitly what happened with Kevin Rudd on your side. What about similarities in the contemporary world of politics with Wayne Swan, you’ve got a former Deputy Prime Minister sitting on the backbench not just for this term in Opposition but potentially for a second as well. He said he will go around again. Is he contemplating the same thing, what’s the difference?

CLARE: No, I think there is a big difference between a former Treasurer or former Deputy Prime Minister and a former Prime Minister. We learnt that lesson well. I think Julia Gillard made the right decision in 2013 when she said if she lost the leadership she’d leave Parliament. Tony Abbott should have done that as well. The fact that he didn’t I think is bad news for Malcolm Turnbull. It will be a distraction and he will sit there on the backbench and haunt him until he decides to go.

VAN ONSELEN: I don’t doubt that it will be somewhat of a distraction certainly for a while depending on how the polls go but it is a very different situation isn’t it, to Kevin Rudd. You alluded to that already in terms of saying that you don’t think that you can see him coming back as Prime Minister. Kevin Rudd was still ahead on the two-party vote, his personal numbers were nowhere near as low as Tony Abbott’s were, those were the reasons he was more of a distraction though. There is an argument here that Tony Abbott won’t be as much of a distraction as Kevin Rudd was for the Labor Party over those two years.

CLARE: That’s for the commentators to assess but to date when ever Tony Abbott has made a significant speech overseas or published opinion pieces it has attracted a lot of attention that distracts from the Government’s message, it distracts from Malcolm Turnbull’s message and so in a way it affects the way that the Government operates. Today there is talk in the newspapers about the need for Australia to become a Republic. We should become a Republic, its 246 years now since Captain Cook landed at Botany Bay. It’s time for an Australian to be Head of State but I doubt that Malcolm Turnbull would have the courage to embark upon that debate when he has got a conservative, former Prime Minister and Arch Monarchist in Tony Abbott, still sitting in the Parliament poised to strike, undermine and attack wherever he can.

VAN ONSELEN: Jason Clare you might be right about that but just help me understand, what is the difference between a former Prime Minister still in his fifties deciding to continue his political career versus on your side, two former deputy Prime Ministers who have chosen to continue their political careers, Anthony Albanese and Wayne Swan? That must make life incredibly hard for Bill Shorten. At least Malcolm Turnbull has the kudos of being Prime Minister, Bill Shorten has to put up with two people who have held higher office than him continuing to linger in the Parliament.

CLARE: I guess two points Peter, the key difference here is the difference between Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull. They were warriors against each other at university. They fought against each other on the Republic referendum. Tony Abbott struck him down as Leader of the Opposition, now Malcolm Turnbull has struck him down to become Prime Minister. So there is a lot of bad blood between the two individuals.

VAN ONSELEN: Hang on a second, there is similar history isn’t there, I mean Bill Shorten joined with Wayne Swan against Anthony Albanese in the first challenge Rudd v Gillard, then he switched sides and joined with Anthony Albanese against Wayne Swan in the second challenge, there is a history there too.

CLARE: I am talking about two individuals here who have got a long history and that’s why inevitably Peter it will be a distraction. Can I make one other constructive point here and that is I don’t think Australia invests enough in making use of its former Prime Ministers. You are right to say Tony Abbott is still young and still can make a terrific contribution to Australia. Unlike the United States, which goes out of its way to make sure former Presidents play a role for the public good, we don’t do a good enough job in that respect in Australia and I think it is a worthy debate to have in Australia about how we can use our former Prime Ministers better.

VAN ONSELEN: I totally agree with that. Maybe that’s something that this will elicit further down the track with any luck. Lets move to your portfolio area if we can, Mitch Fifield was extolling your virtues last week here on Newsday, he was talking about how intelligent and rational you were, great to deal with and he’s very hopeful that between you and him you can come up with a bipartisan package on media reform. Do you take the praise as a sign that there is a lot of genuine interest here in reform from the Government?

CLARE: Well they are nice things to say and it is indicative that you don’t need to be spiteful, bitter or personal in politics. You can be constructive and work well with people from different sides of politics. I did that with Malcolm Turnbull when he was the Communications Minister and hope to do that with Mitch as well. That doesn’t mean that we will always agree. We’ve got very strong differences of opinion on the NBN for example. In this area though I think that it is incumbent on both sides to work constructively here and judge the issues on their merits.

VAN ONSELEN: He seemed to be suggesting pretty strongly that his starting point was that the reach rules are antiquated and should change and the two-out-of-three rule is antiquated and should change albeit with the obvious caveat that you need to have certain protections in the legislative mix for what you do going forward particularly for example for regional Australia. Are you essentially on the same page on that?

CLARE: On the reach rule I have said to you before and I have said to other journalists that there is a very strong case to remove the reach rule. It doesn’t make sense in the 21st Century that Channel Nine, Channel Seven or Channel Ten can only broadcast to 75 percent of the country but they can stream to 100 percent of the country and they do now so that looks right for reform. We proposed it in Government and it is the sort of thing that I would expect the Government to bring forward. There is a bit of a blue going on inside the Government between the Liberal Party and the National Party on how to protect local content so we are waiting for that to be resolved so we can see that legislation come forward.

VAN ONSELEN: And the two-out-of-three side of things, I mean that in a sense is another issue here and for a lot of media companies it’s the big issue because of the impact it can have on whether they can take over other sectors within the broader industry. What’s your view on that?

CLARE: I’ve got an open mind and I’ve said that many times. We will wait for the legislation to come forward. I would expect that it would go to a Parliamentary Committee and they would flesh out all the arguments for and against. I told Richo in an interview just before Christmas that I could come up with some very strong arguments to keep the two-out-of-three rule in place but I could also come up with some strong arguments to remove it. So it’s a balance there. In terms of the arguments being put forward to remove that rule, the arguments being put by media companies are the ability to scale up, to create in effect a vertically integrated business where you’ve got newspapers, radio and television. On the other side if diversity is of primary importance – making sure that we’ve got as much diversity of ownership as well as diversity of content – then you might weigh on the side of keeping it.

The important point I’m putting forward here Peter is that we need to take an open mind to the debate and hear all of those arguments, not just from the Government, not just from the media companies but from all the Australian people.

VAN ONSELEN: And just one quick final one, we spoke to Scott Morrison yesterday, you and he have been quite close despite being on opposite sides of the Parliamentary divide, I don’t know if you saw the interview or not but it sounded to me and Paul Kelly has written about it in the Australian today, the strongest indication yet that the Government is planning perhaps substantial change on the GST. Your side is a bit divided on this, Jay Weatherill has been very outspoken. Is there any chance that the Labor Party Federally will open its mind to reform on the GST?

CLARE: I think the Treasurer’s comments yesterday made it very clear that at the next election the Government will propose to increase the GST. If you want the GST increased you can vote Liberal at the next election. If you don’t want the GST increased, if you don’t want to be paying thousands of dollars more in GST then you have the opportunity to vote Labor at the next election.

VAN ONSELEN: What about framing it this way, if you want income tax cuts at the next election you can vote for the Liberals, if you don’t want them you can vote for the Labor Party.

CLARE: I think there was a story in the paper last year that said the average family will pay $8,700 in GST if the Government bumps that up to 15 per cent. This argument that they say we are going to compensate people, I’ve just got to make a point on that, because whilst they are saying they will compensate people for the GST there is legislation in the Parliament right now that would rip hundreds of dollars and in some cases, thousands of dollars off Australian families. At least 20,000 families in my electorate alone will lose a lot of money. So on the one hand they are promising to compensate for the GST, but right now they are ripping money away from Australian families. They are being a bit tricky, they are being a little bit tricky here.

VAN ONSELEN: Nice early sign of the Labor scare campaign that could be coming if they embark on GST reform, we are going to have to leave it there. Jason Clare always appreciate your time on Newsday.

CLARE: Thanks Pete.