SUBJECTS: John Setka; Australian unions; Labor’s aspirations for all Australians.

PETA CREDLIN: Tonight in Sydney, to get her thoughts on where to now for Labor, as well as the John Setka saga, is Shadow Communications Minister and Federal Member for Greenway, a seat in Sydney's western suburbs. It's Michelle Rowland. Michelle, great to have you on the show. 


CREDLIN: You were one of the first out of the blocks on the issue of John Setka, saying that he should stand down after the comments attributed to him. Lots of other people have come out after you but to go first is pretty brave. Why did you think you needed to go? 

ROWLAND: I stand by those comments Peta, and I think that Anthony Albanese, in his capacity as Labor Leader, has done the right thing in saying that this person is no longer welcome in the Labor Party. Now, as to what this individual's position will continue to be within his union and the union movement, that is a matter for them. And they are, I think, a lot is a lot is still to play out in that area. But I would say three things. Firstly, I think as we were reminded last week at Bob Hawke's memorial, here was a person who led a great Labor movement, a great Labor Government in partnership with Paul Keating over a long period of time and that was done because of the reconciliation between business, unions and a Labor Government. And I think that that is really one of the key planks on which Labor has to look moving forward.

The other issue I think is it's very unfortunate that this one individual has continued to tarnish the brand of unionism generally, and I think irrespective of where you fall in the political spectrum, it is a fact that unions have been involved in some of the most important economic and social reforms in this country. In particular, construction unions involved in everything from workplace health and safety, industrial manslaughter regulations against that, against wage theft, even in the case of James Hardie and getting justice for those victims. The construction unions were very important there. So they have a very important role to play but that role can't be played when you've got this sort of headline appearing day after day.

The third point I'll make is that unions continue to be relevant today and continue to adapt, and it's important to note that you've got unions such as the HSU, for example. Now, I wonder whether five or so years ago anyone would say the HSU would be held up as a model union who turned itself around after many years, having certain individuals bringing that union into disrepute. Now under the leadership of Gerard Hayes, it has a good financial position, it has been focused on its members, it's doing excellent policy development. Union such as that, unions such as the Transport Workers Union and some of the rail and other transport unions – irrespective of a move towards digitisation, you still need to be able to transport freight; you still need to be able to transport people. And they have been looking very closely at issues like the sharing economy, what unions can do and contribute towards that policy development.

So I recognise, and I think the vast majority of Australians recognise, that unions have an important role to play. We need to make sure that we have their voices being heard and that good people are allowed to continue their work because we're going into some very challenging times.

CREDLIN: Yeah, look I'm certainly not anti-union. I think there's a real role that unions play, but I think they have to be in step with the community, they have to be in step with the workers they represent. You talk about the HSU; it's the old Health Services Union. And of course, that's where Craig Thomson was involved in a whole range of corrupt behaviour whilst really modest wage earners working in hospitals and the health sector we're paying for his largesse. So, I think that's where the criticism is. And then the case obviously of John Setka, it's a lot of thuggery; it's militancy that's out of step with most ordinary workers as well. 

In relation to your seat, I mean you're in the middle of Western Sydney. In and around you, you held on, in and around you Labor suffered some really serious swings, and seats like Lindsay fell back to the Coalition. What does Labor need to do now to reconnect with your old working-class, blue-collar base that feels, I think, pretty disenfranchised from where Labor is now, turning its head constantly to the concerns of the inner city voters who probably even end up voting for The Greens and not you anyway? 

ROWLAND: Well, I think we need to go back to the Labor narrative, and there's been a lot of debate about what that narrative is. But I think ultimately what it comes down to, and I'm a product of it, it's that you want your children to have a better life than you had. You want your children to be able to have opportunities that you didn't have. That was the same for my parents, I'm sure it was the same for yours, and it continues to be the same for families throughout West and North West Sydney, which is a growth area, has a lot of people who have migrated and made the decision to be Australians. 

CREDLIN: And you've never been scared of aspiration. If you look at the last campaign, it seemed that there was some in your party that were embarrassed about aspiration. 

ROWLAND: I take your point Peta, and on election night I actually said to my supporters, we were talking about Bob Hawke who'd recently passed away, but I made the point that I only need to look around my family, my husband grew up in a public housing estate in Mount Druitt and went to the local public primary school, the local public secondary school. Thanks to good policies and a lot of luck, and a lot of people who cared for him, got double degrees in economics and law is now partner in a law firm. Couldn't speak English when he started school. That is exactly the Labor story that we need to be fostering, that we want people to succeed, that we want people to do well, whether it be as wage earners, whether it be as entrepreneurs. And I think that that has been the Labor narrative. I think it got lost during this campaign. I think it got lost for a number of reasons.

CREDLIN: How do you get it back? 

ROWLAND: I think listening is a good start, and I think your colleague Laura Jayes made the point there that Labor needs to go away for a little while. Now, I take that on board in a good way actually. That is – go away and have a think, don't rush to solution. Go away, have a think about our policies, because that's the second part of it: having good policies. Look, I think we had some good policies during the campaign. But again, I don't think that they were fully appreciated or came to the fore. 

CREDLIN: But you had some dog policies. I mean, I listened to Chris Bowen today saying you're crazy in an election campaign to put the same policies up to the next campaign that failed the first time and expect a different result. You know, you don't do the same thing twice and expect a different result. But in fact, that's exactly what you did. The policies that you took to the election in 2016, let's say on negative gearing, franking credits, certainly negative gearing, capital gains tax changes. They were the same policies that then were served up in 2019. They weren't adjusted for the downturn, or certainly the fall away, in property prices in our big capital cities. 

ROWLAND: Now, I take your point, but I guess there's two things there Peta. The first is we wanted to ensure that people saw we could pay for our promises. But I think where that actually turned into a negative for us is that we had so many policies that people were saying 'well, how can we afford all of these things' when the answer was well, we've got these policies to be able to afford spending extra where it's needed on hospitals and education and so forth. So I think that's the first part. The second part is, you know, we took negative gearing to the 2016 campaign as you said, but I don't think we lost in 2016 because of negative gearing on its own.

CREDLIN: No, I agree. I agree with that.

ROWLAND: And it also went, as you would be well aware, to a number of by-elections as well where we still had that policy in place. But I think the difference here was that, and let's be brutally frank about, it under Malcolm Turnbull the Liberals really didn't know how to campaign on this issue and turn it into a negative. In 2019 they did. 

CREDLIN: That's true. And I'll have to have you back, because I wanted to get into a whole lot of stuff to do with your portfolio, but I've run out of time. But I find you are full of refreshing common sense and prepared to answer the questions. So thanks for coming on Michelle.

ROWLAND: Pleasure.