Tuesday, August 17 2010
Currently held by retiring Finance Minister and erstwhile Farrago editor Lindsay Tanner, the seat of Melbourne has been solid Labor territory for the past 106 years. This election it could fall to the Greens. Rachel Baxendale asked Labor candidate Cath Bowtell and Greens candidate Adam Bandt why they deserve to be elected on August 21.
If bookies’ odds are to be heeded, Greens candidate for the seat of Melbourne Adam Bandt has it in the bag. According to Centrebet at the time of printing, he’s paying $1.60 to ALP candidate Cath Bowtell’s $2.20, and this in a seat that Labor has held since 1904. (In case you’re wondering, Liberal Simon Olsen is paying $29.00.)
Having worked as an industrial lawyer at Julia Gillard’s old firm Slater & Gordon, Bandt would appear to hail from a similar place politically as Labor’s Bowtell. She worked for the Australian Council of Trade Unions for 15 years and was at one stage tipped to take over from Sharan Burrow as ACTU President.
Both candidates admit current MP for Melbourne, federal Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner, will be a hard act to follow.
“He clearly had a big personal following, and if I had a dollar for every time someone told me that they liked Lindsay Tanner—that they liked the Greens but that they were going to vote for Lindsay Tanner because they liked him—I’d be a rich man,” said Bandt.
“I think what his resignation will make people do is to actually look at policy this election, particularly between parties a bit more, rather than it being about personalities,” Bandt said.
As Tanner’s successor as the Labor candidate, Bowtell said she has some work to do.
“Quite clearly I know lots of people, because I’ve lived in the city for a very long time and I’ve been involved in local community organisations in and around North Melbourne, but I have a job to do to introduce myself to people who don’t know me,” Bowtell said.
“I’ve had a really short time to do that, but I’m going to work hard to make sure I meet as many people as I can, I talk to as many people as I can, and I give people the opportunity to hear from me how I can be a progressive voice within a re-elected Gillard Labor government,” she said.
With almost 20,600 full-time students living in the seat of Melbourne, both parties are keenly courting the student vote.
Bowtell recently promised yearly federal funding of $5.1 million to the ailing Victorian College of the Arts as part of a state and federal package.
The Greens, on the other hand, are proposing a $115 a fortnight increase to Youth Allowance and the abolition of HECS fees.
“We have to remember that most current parliamentarians had a free tertiary education,” Bandt said.
“This was within our lifetime. It wasn’t that long ago,” he said.
While Bandt concedes that there has been a dramatic increase in the proportion of Australians receiving a tertiary education since pre-HECS days, he said he doesn’t think that’s an excuse to put “massive debts on the majority of students”.
He also said he believes the Greens could fund costly schemes such as HECS abolition and the Youth Allowance increase without having to make budget cuts in other areas, and points to a larger mining tax as a possible source of revenue.
“The government’s back-down on the mining tax means that, depending on the estimates that you look at, and we’ve asked for some costing on this, anywhere between seven and $12 billion a year is not going to be available to go towards things like universities, and so I don’t think we’re saying you have to rob Peter to pay Paul,” Bandt said.
“We have to look at why it is that over this long period, the super-rich in this country are able to get away without paying their fair share of tax, and instead students have to cop it by paying HECS debts that are starting to get to the size of home loans,” he said.
Bandt said he wasn’t aware of whether or not the Greens had done a costing on abolishing HECS, but that he would find out.
His office did not respond to Farrago’s subsequent enquiries regarding such a costing.
Asked whether the ALP could match the Greens’ proposed Youth Allowance increase, Bowtell said that as the candidate for Melbourne she wasn’t in a position to make commitments on behalf of the Labor Party.
“Clearly there are ongoing budget commitments, but it’s one thing to make a commitment, but if you’re never going to be in the treasury, and you’re never going to have to cash the cheque, you can write as many cheques and you like,” she said.
“The Greens political party can make commitments like that knowing full well that they won’t ever have to cash that cheque,” she said.
“I can’t make a commitment on behalf of the Labor Party to increase the Youth Allowance, but I can say that if you look at our record, it has been to improve eligibility and make sure many more young people have access to financial assistance while they’re studying,” she said.
Aside from education, a number of other issues, such as same-sex marriage, climate change, and asylum seeker and refugee policy, will play a key role in both parties’ campaigns for Melbourne.
At odds with her party, Bowtell has publicly said that she is in favour of equal marriage rights for same-sex couples.
But it’s not an issue on which she’d be prepared to cross the floor.
“If I were the Member for Melbourne, I would be elected as a Labor Party Member for Melbourne, and so people would expect me to participate as a Labor Party member,” she said.
“You actually don’t get change by being a one-off voice and stepping out on your own,” she said.
Unsurprisingly, each candidate blames the other’s party for the Emissions Trading Scheme’s failed passage through the Senate.
“Labor’s ETS was a fragile consensus, built by Senator Wong and Minister Combet, built with community organisations, with environment lobbies and with business,” Bowtell said.
“Had the Greens voted in favour of it, we would have an ETS,” she said.
“It wasn’t perfect, but we wouldn’t be having an argument at this election about whether to have an ETS, we’d be having an argument about what the quality of it was and how to build on it,” she said.
“Labor likes to talk about that because their record on climate change doesn’t stand up,” Bandt said, citing the stimulus package, paid parental leave, and the Fair Work Act as examples of issues upon which the Greens have been prepared to negotiate with Labor in the Senate.
“They weren’t perfect but they passed,” he said.
“When it came to the CPRS, the Labor Party did a deal with the Liberals. Let’s not forget this. Instead of Labor negotiating with the Greens to come up with a package that we could then shop around to try to win those extra two votes, they negotiated with the Liberals,” Bandt said.
“And after negotiating for months with the climate change deniers in the Liberal Party, they came up with a scheme that no major environmental organisation supports, and everyone was asking for it to be opposed,” he said.
“The reason for that is that under that scheme, Australia’s emissions were not going to fall until 2035, and it would have locked in a high pollution future for Australia for the next 20 years,” he said.
“Concretely, we are now the only ones with a policy going into this election that offers action on climate change,” Bandt said.
“We’re willing to negotiate with Labor. So far, they haven’t returned the phone calls,” he said.
Bandt also said he’d like to see the major parties decouple the immigration and population debates.
“I think that the debate at the moment is the wrong way around,” he said.
“Before we can have any sensible discussion about population, we need to have a discussion about infrastructure, and part of the reason why people feel that we’re overcrowded and congested at the moment, is that we have failed to properly invest in infrastructure, particularly in areas like transport, to make the city move more efficiently,” he said.
On immigration, the Greens are calling to lift Australia’s humanitarian intake from the current 12-13,000 to 20,000, in line with the Refugee Council of Australia’s nominated figure.
“The refugee movement would like it to be even higher. It’s a drop in the ocean compared with the total migration intake for the whole of Australia,” Bandt said.
Bandt said he believes both major parties want to use fear and uncertainty to try to win votes on immigration.
“It was a good step for Prime Minister Gillard to put the facts about the numbers of people who are coming here in her speech, but she then went on to say that she understands that people feel anxious. What she then should have said is, “but there’s no need to be.” Instead she went on to fan the flames,” he said.
Asked what she thought Julia Gillard meant when she told the ABC’s Barrie Cassidy that her parents were the “right kinds of immigrants”, and whether she’s concerned about the politicisation of the immigration debate this election, Bowtell said she doesn’t think there’s “a right or wrong type of migrant”.
“I share the distress of a lot of the people in the inner city about the politicisation of the issue of how we deal with people who flee from war and terror,” she said.
“And I think it is a terrible thing that the Coalition has sought to make this an issue in this election, and can I say, it’s not just the Coalition,” she said.
“The Australian Greens political party put an ad on the back page of the Melbourne Times which was seeking electoral advantage out of this issue as well,” Bowtell said.
“I want this issue dealt with calmly and quietly. My discussions with refugee advocacy organisations in this electorate and asylum seeker advocacy organisations in this electorate are that a regional framework needs to be part of how we deal with this, and what they are concerned about and what I am concerned about is that that regional framework is implemented in a way that is consistent with our international obligations and which ensures that people get to safety quickly and are processed in a way which is fair for them, and which provides them with the support they need and with the resettlement opportunities they need,” she said.
Summing up the case for Labor, Bowtell said it’s important to remind people that Labor has been enacting important reforms and doing what people expect of it.
“When people say they’re disappointed in Labor, because we haven’t done enough—and I understand that some people in the inner city do feel that way—it is important to remind them that Labor has been doing the things that people expect of Labor, and some of those things don’t get the headlines, but they are important reforms. Important reforms from a compassionate government and that’s what people want,” she said.
Bandt said he thinks people in Melbourne have the power to shift the national debate this election.
“A vote for Labor will be, de facto, an endorsement of the way they’ve been running things so far. Whereas by voting for the Greens—if one in ten people who voted Labor last time shifts their vote over, we win the seat. That means those values—compassion and sustainability and equality—get catapulted to the national stage,” he said.