SUBJECT/S: Eric Abetz versus the world; Polls; Policy development; Malcolm Turnbull




KRISTINA KENEALLY: Michelle Rowland, thank you for joining us from Canberra.


KENEALLY: We’ll come to the poll in just a moment but coming to Eric Abetz, you read those comments this morning, you represent quite a diverse electorate. You’ve been in politics a while, do you think Senator Abetz makes a valid point?

ROWLAND: Some of his list of grievances I found difficult to stomach. Firstly, if you’re complaining about a lack of diversity of views you can get on this thing called the internet and you can get a wide variety of sources, so if he’s complaining about the Canberra press gallery all saying the same message he’s got alternatives. As someone who spends just as much time these days in my local church as I do mosques as I do temples, I think that what was lacking in Senator Abetz’s comments was a realisation of multiculturalism in this country. We’re all different and I think if he had turned his mind in particular to how some people would have been terribly offended by some things our parliament looked at doing over the course of last year -  and I think for example the proposal to put women wearing head or facial coverings in a separate section of the viewing gallery of parliament - that was considered to be incredibly disrespectful. But I was interested also to know he talks about Muslim MPs, in the plural. I only know one and I don’t think he gets an easy ride from either of you. I think he’s got a couple of grievances there and there are some options for him. It would be nice if he recognised multicultural Australia in all that as well.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: I found the irony oozing from all my pores when he was attacking the idea of being vilified by being a member of a mainstream dominant religious group in this country, yet then raised that Muslim MPs get it easy when there is only one as you point out. But also when he then basically accused one of the nation’s leading interviewers, Leigh Sales, of flirting with the new PM.

ROWLAND: Very strange and I can’t remember an article where I’ve seen someone in the press gallery vilify people for going to church. I haven’t seen that article. So if it exists, I’m happy to read it and revisit my comments but quite frankly I don’t know what he’s talking about.

KENEALLY: We’ve got to go on to the Fairfax IPSOS poll out overnight, not great news for Labor. Quite honestly this shows a complete reversal of last months poll with the Coalition moving ahead on the Two Party Preferred. Is this sending, to quote Andrew Bolt, a chill down the spine of this Opposition?

ROWLAND: Look Kristina, we knew that Tony Abbott wouldn’t see out the year and I’m on the record making comments earlier this year saying his position is untenable. We knew it was coming and we knew that whoever replaced him, particularly considering how unpopular he got towards the end, we knew they would get good results. Bear in mind this is no surprise to us. In listening to some of your comments earlier, I would be very cautious of drawing conclusions on the popularity of an Opposition Leader, in this case Bill Shorten, at any point in time. If I had a dollar for every time a person said Annastacia Palaszczuk would not become Premier, or Daniel Andrews, for that matter. You need to recognise that this is a Prime Minister, again as you commented before, who hasn’t had to make a tough decision yet. Big on words, big on rhetoric but let’s see the delivery. People who support action on climate change: already he’s endorsed Direct Action, and they’re waiting to see what he’ll do. People who thought that he would embrace marriage equality: again, he’s playing it safe because that’s how he got elected to the position in the first place. Let’s see him make some tough policy decisions. And bear in mind this also: one of the great weaknesses when it came to the Abbott Government was his Treasurer, Joe Hockey. Now Scott Morrison’s performance in Parliament last week I think left a lot of people scratching their heads as well thinking, “Is this guy up to the job?” They’ve doubled the deficit, they don’t seem to have a credible plan in place to bring the structural problems of the Budget under control, they seem to be softening the ground to have a GST hike. Let’s see this bloke make a tough decision and let’s see what the people think about him in these polls.

VAN ONSELEN: I have to say though, Michelle, quite genuinely, the way you have just put it then cuts through a lot more than the way Bill Shorten puts it when he is having a crack at the government. He is in a difficult place but I’m not convinced that the voters are still listening to him.

ROWLAND: I wouldn’t write him off, PVO. I think the hardest job is being Opposition Leader and I think he has been someone who has been prosecuting ideas. He’s got a team and he’s said go forth and have your big ideas and as much as I know that this likes to get lampooned, think about all the ones that we’ve done. The action on a plan for addressing issues around mental health, we had announcements around infrastructure, very serious ones around innovation, around big data and big ideas and making sure we have a digital economy that’s supported not only by our tertiary sector but also by a start-up sector. These are all things that we’ve been thinking about over the last two years, consulting with and putting down on paper. We already have released many of those this year, we’ve been getting out into our communities to prosecute them. And I can tell you, as a marginal seat holder, as I go around and listen to people and explore these ideas with them they nod their heads. And I don’t have people rushing up to me in the street, and I say this in all honesty, I don’t have people rushing up to me in the street saying,” Thank God Malcolm Turnbull is Prime Minister”. Maybe in their hearts they’re thinking, “Thank God Abbott’s not there,” but they sure aren’t coming up to me embracing Malcolm Turnbull as a saviour. He’s got a lot of ground to cover and I think that when he starts making the tough decisions that’s when people are going to have a look at this bloke and remember some of the things me and Jason Clare have been saying about the big talk and no follow up. The guy has doubled the cost of the NBN. He said we it was going to be faster, we’d get it sooner, more affordably. He’s failed on all three and that was just him being Communications Minister. Now that he’s Prime Minister, let’s see what he’s going to deliver.

KENEALLY: Bill Shorten did say that 2014 was defined by Labor’s opposition to certain initiatives put forward in the May Budget. He said 2015 would be the year of its vision and its ideas. Is Labor ready with its policy, is it ready to fight an election should Malcolm Turnbull decide to go to the polls before the next Budget?

ROWLAND: Any day. We are ready any day for this. We are prepared, there was talk about Tony Abbott going earlier this year and we were prepared for that. Whenever they want to bring it on we will be ready because we do have a suite of policies that are shovel ready, as you might say. Some of those that I’ve just articulated. And they are things that are important to people. One of those that I didn’t talk about, one that doesn’t often get front page, is medicinal cannabis and I know that people like Stephen Jones and Catherine King are working on that. These are issues that don’t often make it to people’s minds but when you have a lot of people who are affected by chronic disease and terminal illnesses, it is really important and they should know that we are looking out for every cohort in our society and we’ve got policies to back up the things we want to do.

VAN ONSELEN: Should Labor go after Malcolm Turnbull again in Question Time today over the Cayman Islands issue and whether it does or not, what the difference between what he’s done versus the myriad of superfunds that continue to do something similar?

ROWLAND: Firstly, we’ll have to wait and see Question Time in a few minutes just like me, PVO, to know what our line of questioning is going to be there, but I’m sure it will be exciting. The difference is, making a conscious decision to make such an investment versus leaving it to your trustees in your superannuation fund. But the point of all of it is -

VAN ONSELEN:  But he said he left it to his investment planner in New York.

KENEALLY: But this is not like a super fund. You do have to write a cheque to go into them. It’s not simply just like a super fund.

VAN ONSELEN: But help me understand this. I know that you’re a former lawyer yourself, Michelle Rowland. My understanding of this is that it needed to be in that sort of tax location because if he had done it out of the U.S or out of another country that didn’t have the same tax benefits that others seek in the Cayman Islands, he would have been forced to pay tax into that jurisdiction which wouldn’t have meant he paid maximum tax into Australia. And don’t get  me wrong, many people use the Caymans to minimise their tax but he was using it to try and make sure he maximised it in Australia was my understanding.

ROWLAND: That’s what he’s arguing, it’s the most novel argument I’ve heard for why someone goes into the Caymans. I’ve never heard of someone going into the Caymans because they want a tax maximisation strategy. But the point of it is this, Peter; while we’ve got a Prime Minister -

VAN ONSELEN: A politician would be my argument, that’s why he had to do it. He may not have made that choice if he had no political ambitions.

KENEALLY: But back to the point, the questioning, and you asked if we’re going to see these questions in parliament again. I mean, Labor last week, we saw the legislation go through with a taxation shield, basically overturning the disclosure laws that Labor put in place. We’re now talking about multinational tax avoidance. Surely Labor has a point to make here when they’re arguing about the PMs decision to minimise tax and a government -

VAN ONSELEN: In order to maximise it in Australia though.

KENEALLY: As Michelle says, this is a rather novel and late break in argument when this information was first raised last year in Fairfax that wasn’t the response that he gave.

VAN ONSELEN: Let me ask you a simple question which in a sense was a question that Paul Kelly asked Ed Husic on Sunday but didn’t get an answer to. What has Malcolm Turnbull done wrong?

ROWLAND: I think Malcolm Turnbull is someone who is talking one way and acting another. This is a person who is supposedly someone who wants to represent all of us. He’s someone who says that he’s going to be a Prime Minister that listens to people. I’ll tell you what people are telling me. You’ve got a Government in this country that is dead set determined to go after lower and middle income Australia. Going after them on Family Tax Benefit, but not going after those people who are receiving very generous tax breaks for having very high incomes and being able to take account of very generous superannuation contribution tax breaks. You’ve also got a Government and a Prime Minister now who is continuing to prosecute ripping a billion dollars out of paid parental leave, so going after women who want to re-enter the workforce and vilifying them as some sort of double dipper. You’ve got a Prime Minister who as much as he’d like to say he’s not prosecuting the argument, he’s prosecuting getting rid of penalty rates and making people feel like they don’t deserve them. So a Prime Minister who on one hand does a number of things that only someone who makes a conscious decision can do but on the other hand as Prime Minister, goes after lower and middle income Australia. Now, that’s just not on. That’s the kind of behaviour from someone who talks the big game but does the exact opposite.

KENEALLY: Michelle Rowland, we’re going to have to leave it there and let you get to Question Time. Thanks for joining us on To the Point.

ROWLAND: I will. Appreciate it. Thanks so much.