Former ambassador Jeff Bleich on the shocks of the Trump presidency

March 1, 2017

Australia got a taste of US President Donald Trump’s approach to diplomacy in a sensational phone call with Malcolm Turnbull, details of which were leaked to the Washington Post. But former US ambassador to Australia during the Obama years, Jeff Bleich, says the reaction in the US was “very helpful” to Australia.

“Because one person after another, myself included, was called on to TV to talk about it,” Bleich says.

“We all said the same thing - which is that Australia is one of our best friends in the world. It’s a critical country. Look at all the things we do together and that Australia has done over the years. And it was actually an opportunity to reinforce the importance of this alliance and the importance of Australia.”

In the wake of Trump’s controversial immigration order, Bleich was one of many who denounced it. But he has no criticism of Turnbull for not joining in on the international condemnation.

“My statement was really about Americans. Americans have a responsibility to stand up for American values and I think we have a vital responsibility to speak out when we think our government is doing the wrong thing.

"For a foreign leader, I think they need to first and foremost advance the interests of their own country and so if the government thinks that by condemning the president’s actions it may interfere with their ability to do other things that are important for Australia’s national interests then I think that’s what a leader is supposed to do.”

Bleich feels vindicated by court decisions to put a stay on Trump’s executive order.

“I think it’s much more likely that the Trump administration will go back to the drafting board and come up with a new ban that they believe will survive constitutional review,” he says.

The former diplomat describes deep divisions in his home country.

“This is a major shock to the system that is going to force all Americans to revisit what we’re all about - what our constitution sets forth for us as our common values.”

Though Democrats can’t afford to be complacent, the seeds to Trump’s undoing may already be at work.

“He’s made some very, very bold promises. He talked about bringing back all sorts of jobs to communities that are feeling left behind.

"If he’s not able to deliver new jobs and he’s not able to avoid dramatically increasing the debt, I think there will be a backlash.”

Music credit: “Micsource”, by Tab & Anitek on the Free Music Archive


Ken Coates on the future of higher education

February 27, 2017

With university graduates finding it harder to find jobs, questions have been raised about the merits of a typical tertiary qualification. Dr Ken Coates, Canada research chair in regional innovation at University Saskatchewan Campus, says by 2050 we’re going to have hundreds of more specialised, boutique institutions.

“We’ll have a smaller number of what we call these ‘multiversities’ - the large scale enterprises that have the 30, 40, 50,000 students offering everything to everybody. I think we’re going to see a much larger shift towards private education,” Coates says.

As it stands, graduates are left with what Coates calls “a huge dose of career paranoia”.

“We have significant challenges in different countries with the unemployment of university graduates. It’s very high in places like Spain and Greece and other countries. We have a larger problem with graduate underemployment. … They get a job, but the job doesn’t require a university degree.

"I think one of the issues is that we have too few good jobs. So it’s actually a function of the fact that we’re losing jobs on the left hand, we’re over-producing people for jobs that no longer exist on the other hand, and you’re creating a growing level of dissatisfaction - sometimes anger.”

One of Coates’ interests has been how the rise of automation and artificial intelligence will affect tertiary education and the career prospects of future generations of students.

“This whole issue of automation, artificial intelligence, digital technology, robotification has a lot of people worried, but not enough. So the estimates are - depending on which economy you’re in - 30 to 50% of the jobs we currently have will disappear somewhere by 2025/2030. That’s not that long down the line.

"That is actually where the global conversation about a guaranteed annual income has really picked up speed. It used to be a kind of marginal, left-wing kind of idea that sort of found a certain amount of currency in places like Scandanavia. Now people are talking about it all over the place.”

Music credit: “Medium Leaker”, by Tab and Anitek on the free music archive


Hugh Saddler on Australia’s energy crisis

February 23, 2017

As politicians debate the causes of South Australia’s power failures, separating fact from rhetoric has become difficult. In this episode of The Conversation’s politics podcast, Michelle Grattan interviews energy expert Hugh Saddler.

Dr Saddler explains the complex mix of factors behind the power failures in South Australia and the stresses on the electricity systems elsewhere, and canvases what can be done to fix the problems.

With the government attempting to reinvigorate enthusiasm for coal, Saddler doesn’t believe the idea of subsidising the development of “clean coal” power stations will fly.

“There’s so many parties who would be involved in that sort of investment saying there’s no way they would invest in such a type of power station.

"One factor is that they have a long life. … That type of power station would take a very long time to build. Then it will have a long life and under that sort of life they would still be operating in 2050 when many countries have said we’ve got to be [at] zero emissions.”

A review into energy security by Australia’s chief scientist Alan Finkel is still underway. But the government has already ruled out establishing an emissions intensity scheme.

“In my opinion an emissions intensity scheme is just one of a number of different mechanisms which probably should be used. … I would suspect the sort of process that might go through is the Finkel report will come down with a whole suite of recommendations,” Saddler says.

Music credit: “Equestrian”, by Anitek on the Free Music Archive


Anthony Albanese on Labor’s approach to infrastructure

February 16, 2017

Labor’s edge over the government in the polls has seen the party stay united. But it has not stopped speculation about whether frontbencher Anthony Albanese would be a better fit as leader of the party.

Albanese dismisses Coalition jibes about him being the alternative leader. He tells Michelle Grattan it’s the government who has internal issues. “The government are I think more divided than I’ve seen a political party for a very long time – and I’ve seen a bit of division,” says the deputy prime minister in the second Rudd government.

As shadow minister for infrastructure and transport, Albanese says there are significant differences between Labor and the government in this portfolio.

“We established Infrastructure Australia to recommend the right projects to the government that would provide the biggest economic boost. We’ve seen the government effectively walk away from that strategy and remove funding from projects that had been approved by Infrastructure Australia, particularly public transport projects.

"Malcolm Turnbull likes riding on trains and taking selfies but he hasn’t funded any new public transport projects,” he says.

After coming under threat from the Greens in his own seat at the last election, Albanese sees weaknesses in his opponents to the left.

“I think they’re struggling with their identity, of whether they’re a protest party and a movement, if you like – which is the view of many in the New South Wales Greens – or whether they’re a parliamentary party.

"For many in the Greens, the protest is the end in itself. It’s a sophisticated view I guess. It says: that is how people are politicised, and how from their perspective of wanting revolutionary, if you like – rather than reformist change – you need that momentum from the bottom and from social movements.

"I’m about making a difference to people’s lives and making lives better. That’s why I’m in politics and that stands in stark contrast to many in the Greens who advocate that sort of view,” he says.

Despite his strong personal advocacy for marriage equality, Albanese maintains that members of the Labor caucus should be able to vote with their conscience on the matter – in contrast to the ALP conference policy of a bound vote from 2019.

“I’ve supported the conscience vote for a considerable period of time on a range of issues where essentially people are in a position whereby they believe that they have to choose between their loyalty to their party and their loyalty to their faith.”

Music credit: “Racketeer”, by Tab & Anitek on the Free Music Archive


Barnaby Joyce on a year at the top

February 15, 2017

Approaching the one-year anniversary of becoming National Party leader, Barnaby Joyce is well aware of the challenge posed by One Nation.

Joyce tells Michelle Grattan he knows “there’s a battle on”, as the Queensland election looms. He agrees regional seats in that state are particularly vulnerable to falling to Pauline Hanson’s party.

“I take every political vote seriously because every person has a right to reflect their wishes in their vote and therefore I’ll be in Queensland this weekend. I was there last week or the week before last - but Australia is a big place. I try to get around as much of it as I possibly can.”

In his first year as leader, Joyce has had to manage his volatile backbencher - and party whip - George Christensen, a delicate task when the Coalition has a majority of just one seat. He remains confident Christensen will remain in the tent. “"I talk to George all the time,” he says.

He holds back from criticising Christensen for attending a fundraiser of the far-right “Q Society” in Melbourne last week.

“Because you attend a forum, does not mean you agree with all their views. It’s a question for George.

"The National Party, more than any other party in this building, believes in the liberty of the individual. All the others might talk about it but we actually believe it.”

Music credit: “Opaque”, by Tab & Anitek on the Free Music Archive


Cory Bernardi on spurning the Liberals

February 7, 2017

A day after moving to the crossbench, senator Cory Bernardi is feeling the heat. The media, former Liberal colleagues and South Australian voters all have a view on what he's done.

"People will say what they're going to say. And I've tried to be consistent. I've been accused of many things in my time in politics but I've looked to be consistent and principled in my approach to policy areas.

"Strangely, many of the people calling me an opportunist are the ones that exploit, you know, a momentary weakness to grasp power or influence, or promotion for themselves," Bernardi says.

A lot of the people who look favourably on his decision: "are disillusioned Liberal Party sympathisers that said 'I couldn't bring myself to vote for the Liberal Party at the last election' or 'I wasn't intending to vote for them but at least now I can give you my vote knowing that our values will be upheld.'"

As interest focuses on whether billionaire businesswoman Gina Rinehart will donate to the Australian Conservatives, Bernardi leaves the door open.

"Gina's a pal and I never ask my pals for money directly. If people want to offer support or resources to what I'm doing then I wait for them to raise it. And there's a reason for that. It's because, you know, friendship is valuable and I'm not prepared to put people in an uncomfortable position if that's not what they want to do."

"It's an enduring friendship. I have great admiration for her [Rinehart]. You know, she's a very private person and I like my private life to remain private too and we're friends," he says.
_Music credit: "Albiero A", by Dlay on the Free Music Archive_


Arthur Sinodinos on the government’s headwinds

February 7, 2017

At the beginning of the parliamentary year, the government is beleaguered on several fronts. But Arthur Sinodinos, one of the Coalition’s most experienced operators and the newly appointed minister for industry, innovation and science, is determined to be optimistic.

“You can’t rule any possibilities out, including the possibility that the government actually goes from strength to strength as we go forward,” Sinodinos says.

“Yes, there are testing headwinds, including the international environment, but we’re going to be very keen to prosecute the case for economic growth, for jobs, for why international trade is a good thing for everybody, not just one country.”

Speaking with Michelle Grattan on the day of senator Cory Bernardi’s exit from the Liberal Party, Sinodinos has a sharp observation for his former colleague.

“What I’d say to senator Bernardi is that if you want to influence the party, you’ve got to be inside the party. You can’t do it from outside.”

Assessing Bernardi’s prospects as a force outside the Liberals, Sinodinos says “we’ll wait and see what happens”. “But he’s got some pretty formidable players out there, like Pauline Hanson, who has a very high profile and a lot of street cred as an outsider.”

“I would expect on most things that he would support Coalition policy. He was actually elected on a Coalition platform and I think if he’s going to keep faith with those voters, he should support Coalition positions.”


Politics podcast: Chris Richardson on the state of the Australian economy

December 14, 2016

Ahead of next week’s mid-year economic and fiscal outlook, the government has been hit with the sobering news that real GDP shrank in the September quarter. Deloitte Access Economics’ Chris Richardson offers some context to the gloomy figures.

“Perhaps a better way to describe it is the numbers have been artificially good for a while and now they’re looking artificially bad. The bottom line is that for four years now, Australia’s economy has been growing just a little bit below trend and that’s partly because the boom in China has peaked. China has slowed and that is throwing some challenges our way.”

Richardson tells Michelle Grattan he sees a lot that is missing from the debate about how to strengthen the economy and the budget.

“If you asked the person in the street - they’re aware that there are challenges but they don’t really know what they are and that worries me because getting good policies requires a good understanding from the electorate,” Richardson says.

Richardson foresees minimal immediate consequences if credit ratings agencies downgrade Australia’s triple A credit rating in the near future.

“In the short term, it is absolutely not a big deal. … Part of the reason why interest rates are very, very low is that investors are very, very scared and they want to put their money in super safe places and lending your money to the Australian government is still a remarkably safe thing to do right now.

"So yes, there would be a minor impact on the borrowing costs of the Australian government. I cannot get excited about that in the near term.”


Nick Xenophon on working the new parliament

December 7, 2016

As the curtain falls on the year, one of the most powerful players in the new parliament looks back on his successes. Nick Xenophon nominates whistleblower protections and procurement law changes negotiated alongside the government’s industrial legislation as major achievements.

“The government has agreed to sweeping changes to whistleblower protections in this country. Compensation for whistleblowers will be built into the registered organisations legislation that will apply to unions and employer organisations but most importantly it will also apply to corporations and to the public sector in the next 18 months and we’ve already begun the process on that.

"The other big achievement, just a few days ago was with the ABCC legislation. The government has agreed to procurement law changes which will mean for the first time we’re more in line with some of our major trading partners,” Xenophon says.

Xenophon tells Michelle Grattan that his team will have hard negotiations with the government “but we like to think that if we reach a consensus, a compromise, we do so in good faith which I think is mutually beneficial to both parties”.

“I think the government can expect more of the same and I think the government is prepared to sit down and talk to us about areas of common ground.”

Reflecting on One Nation, Xenophon describes the relationship between his and Pauline Hanson’s teams as “courteous”.

“Even though I made it clear that I don’t agree with them on their views on immigration, on race, on religion. Attacking Islam is not what we do. We think we are a multicultural society and tolerance is the key and obviously we have very different views on climate change. But where there’s common ground - such as issues on procurement, on Australian jobs, on food labelling, on farmers getting a fair go - obviously where there’s common ground we’ll work together.


Josh Frydenberg on climate change and the 2017 review

November 30, 2016

After ratifying the Paris agreement on climate change, the government is looking ahead to its 2017 review of climate change policy. Energy and Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg tells Michelle Grattan the government will have more to say about the review before Christmas.

“The key is to ensure we’re on track to meet our 2030 targets, which is a 26-28% reduction in our emissions by 2030 on 2005 levels. We did beat our first Kyoto target by 128 million and we’re on track to beat our 2020 target by 78 million tonnes. But clearly the 2030 target is a larger one and a more challenging one,” Frydenberg says.

“We’ve got some good mechanisms in place but we’ll be looking at the overall settings to ensure we meet our Paris commitments.”

With some in the Coalition rattled by the growing popularity of One Nation, Frydenberg says: “The way to deal with it is to listen and to understand people’s concerns as to why they have left some of the major parties and to take action to ensure that they understand the good things that the government is doing.”

Music credit: “Where the river run”, by Ketsa on the Free Music Archive