VAN ONSELEN: Well Kelvin Thomson, let me ask you about, not so much this issue, but I’m more interested in whether the Labor Party is likely to develop a quality platform in a policy sense between now and the next election. At the moment, it’s easy for your side. You’re picking apart the Budget. There’s all these internal instability issues being created by the conservatives themselves. Will Labor do more than take advantage of that politically between now and the next election? You’ve got more than enough time to do it but will you do it?
THOMSON: Well Peter, let me first observe that if the Liberal Party were to be put on trial for deceiving the National Party, there’d be no shortage of bad character witnesses. All the pensioners and students and universities and state premiers who have also been deceived by the Liberal Party that promised no new taxes, no cuts to health, education, or pensions. In terms of…
VAN ONSELEN: Come on Mr Thomson, you made it clear after the last election that you were going to be a speaking out style backbencher, prepared to not just follow the party line. That was too on party message!
SMITH: And very rehearsed too.
THOMSON: In terms of developing policy alternatives, of course that work has to be done and will be done. And we have a national policy body which is working on alternative policies, which we will take to the next election. And at the moment, it is our job however, to do everything we can to protect and defend the students, the pensioners, the people who are unemployed, the people who will have to pay the Medicare co-payment, and to hold this government to account for having promised one thing before the election and delivering a totally different thing now.
VAN ONSELEN: Alright, we’re going to get to policy with you Tony Smith in a moment. But we’ve got to deal with the elephant in the room that is Malcolm Turnbull, and his stoush now with Alan Jones. I mean, this has been, this is a fight being picked by Alan Jones. It is a fight being picked by, in my opinion, also by Andrew Bolt. Here’s my question for you though. Is Malcolm Turnbull reacting appropriately, in your opinion?
SMITH: I think if someone, if a journalist is very robust—and they’ve got a right to be robust—it’s fair enough for the recipient to be equally robust in return. I mean, if someone serves a tennis ball at you at 100 miles per hour, they shouldn’t be surprised if it comes back at the same speed and hits you on the big toe.
VAN ONSELEN: So you’re comfortable with his reaction? I mean, I editorialised that I’m certainly comfortable with it. I think it’s Alan Jones that’s out of line, and I think it’s doing more damage to his close friend Tony Abbott than anyone, but that’s your view too?
SMITH: Look, my view is the same as the Prime Minister’s. I mean, if it’s a contest between the media and a colleague, I’ll always back a colleague. And Malcolm’s been working very hard; he’s being doing his job extremely well. And if there’s a robust attack made on him, he’s entirely entitled to defend himself. And there shouldn’t be this rule that a journalist can make a very strong attack on a member of Parliament but the response should be calibrated to a lesser level. I mean, he’s entitled to defend himself; he’s done so vigorously. And as he pointed out, if he didn’t do that, there’d be all sorts of other talk and speculation.
VAN ONSELEN: And just quickly, what’s your view on the essence of the criticism that’s coming from both Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones? Is it just fanciful stuff?
SMITH: Well, I mean, absolutely. Malcolm’s doing his job as Communications Minister. He is a hard-working, loyal member of the team, and I think you’d find it very difficult to find anyone in the Party who would fault him on his work and his loyalty and the job he’s being doing.
VAN ONSELEN: Alright, Kelvin Thomson, no free kick on that one. I want to move the issue along and ask you about Labor’s reaction to the co-payment. The Opposition are making an awful lot out of this idea that back in the 1990s, Labor supported this. Your Shadow Assistant Treasurer, Andrew Leigh, wrote about it in support. And indeed, Jenny Macklin was the author of the report recommending it to the then Hawke government. What is the response to those criticisms? They might be old but at the end of the day, they seem pretty strong arguments that once upon a time, at least, Labor was in favour of a co-payment?
THOMSON: Well they’re certainly old. Talk about old news, Peter, they’re 20 years old. Since then, we’ve had the Howard government come and go for over a decade, we didn’t have the co-payment proposal under the Howard government. We’ve had the Labor governments of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, they have come and gone; no suggestion of a co-payment there, no suggestion that Medicare was unsustainable. And indeed we had this Government promising before the election that there would be no new taxes and no cuts to health. So there’s no rationale for a Medicare co-payment…
VAN ONSELEN: Well let me, can I ask something…
THOMSON: …and you can’t seriously dredge up something from 20 years ago and expect that the caravan has not moved on.
VAN ONSELEN: Well let me ask you something then for context from that time. I mean you’ve been around for a while; you’re a student of Labor history. What was the logic behind introducing the co-payment by the Labor Party at the time?
THOMSON: I don’t recall the particular logic behind it.
SMITH: I can help! I can help!
THOMSON: What I do recall is that the Prime Minister that introduced that co-payment only lasted a few months after introducing the co-payment and the co-payment then promptly disappeared.
VAN ONSELEN: Are you making a prediction about Tony Abbott?
THOMSON: Well, what I’m saying is that the co-payment did not find favour and that’s for good reason. Medicare ought to be a system of universal access to health care and if you introduce the co-payment it is only a matter of time before you lose that universality. The co-payment is expressly designed to deter people from using Medicare and I think that would be a pity if that were to occur.
VAN ONSELEN: Okay your quick response to that Tony Smith.
SMITH: I just want to help Kelvin with his history. The Hawke government and health minister at the time, Brian Howe, introduced a co-payment off the back off a health review that had been led by Jenny Macklin – one of Kelvin’s colleagues. And they did so for the same reasons they supported a co-payment on pharmaceutical benefits – for the sustainability of the system. They spelled it out in black and white in their budget papers at the time. And a couple of Kelvin’s colleagues still in the parliament voted for it – Warren Snowden and Laurie Ferguson.
VAN ONSELEN: Alright let’s move on. I want to ask you guys, I’ve got two Victorian members of parliament there so I’ve got ask you about the shemozzle that is the Victorian state parliament. It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about Labor or Liberal it’s a bit of a mess there. Most of that comes back to Geoff Shaw. I described him as a buffoon a little bit earlier in the show. I might have been a little bit kind. What are both of your views on this particular issue, Kelvin Thompson, starting with you?
THOMSON: The Victorian parliament is a shambles. It is in chaos and turmoil and that is because of Geoff Shaw and the Liberal Party is responsible for him. He was the Liberal member for Frankston. Denis Napthine is premier because Geoff Shaw said he didn’t want Ted Baillieu to be premier. The situation there I think is unworkable and untenable and it should be resolved by an election giving the people the opportunity to decide and to do something about a situation that has become unworkable.
VAN ONSELEN: Do you have similar view on the election Tony Smith?
SMITH: Well, I mean I watched with great interest your program the other night – half of which was Denis Napthine’s press conference. And I think he indicated pretty clearly that if he had been able to, he probably e would have tried to seek an early election, but the constitution in Victoria prevents it. Labor introduced a fixed four year term, so it’s very very difficult - if not impossible. And a number of commentators have pointed that out. I think Denis has shown great leadership on this issue. It’s obviously a very difficult circumstance but I think he’s shown leadership in contrast to Daniel Andrews who is spending his life down in Frankston at the moment just worried about politics, not worried about the governance of the state. He ought to get back there next Tuesday and his item ought to be to pass the budget. That’s what he should do. That’s what Victorians want to see happen.
VAN ONSELEN: Well I think he’s planning to do exactly that but we’re going to have to leave it there we’re out of time. Tony Smith and Kelvin Thompson – appreciate your time on PVO News Hour. Thanks very much.