Richard Glover, Host: The Monday political forum: Tim Ayres is the New South Wales Labor Senator, Assistant Minister for Trade and Assistant Minister for Manufacturing and as I say, as I mentioned, basically packing his bags as he speaks to us. Hi, Tim.
Tim Ayres, Assistant Minister for Trade and Assistant Minister for Manufacturing: Hi, Richard, that's exactly right. I am halfway through a big bag-packing operation.
Richard Glover: Yeah, you only need four pairs of undies. You know, like you don't take too many. You know, they have washing machines.
Tim Ayres: You've been dishing out advice all afternoon. Gladwrap, I think you're right about the petrol bowser sign. I was 48 years old when I discovered that was the case.
Richard Glover: Yeah, me too.
Tim Ayres: But I think I'll take my packing advice from somewhere else, if that's all right.
Richard Glover: I'm still wondering whether they put that chemical in the pool that turn blue if you wee. Verity Firth is with us. Pro Vice-Chancellor, Justice and Inclusion at UTS and a former New South Wales Labor MP for Balmain, of course, which is such an interesting seat at this election. Good afternoon.
Verity Firth: Good afternoon, Richard.
Richard Glover: And with us as well, former Federal Liberal MP Trent Zimmerman, who's written an interesting piece in the Guardian today about the reasons he felt things fell apart for his side of politics over the weekend. Trent, good afternoon.
Trent Zimmerman: Good afternoon, Richard, and thank you for the M&Ms.
Richard Glover: Yeah, well, that's right, we were on Saturday night giving appropriately coloured M&Ms, to everybody. Green for the Greens, red for Labor and we had some blue for you, Trent. Now let's start with you. What went right for Labor on Saturday night and what does it tell us about Australian voters and the issues they are focused on? Trent Zimmerman.
Trent Zimmerman: Well, I think it's an interesting shopping basket of issues that voters always consider it on polling day. And I think at this election, it was quite interesting because I do think that there was a strong ‘it's time’ factor. We were seeking a fourth election win, which is not something the Liberal Party has ever achieved in New South Wales. But the interesting thing was on polling day, at the polling booths, I didn't really detect voters coming out with baseball bats. There wasn't really any anger, there wasn't a strong dislike for the Premier.
Richard Glover: And so, you say in the piece, if I can draw you on this a little, that it was quite different to the federal election where people did mention - you don't mention the name, but they did mention a certain name when they were telling you why they weren't voting for you.
Trent Zimmerman: That's certainly true and that wasn't happening with Dom Perrottet. But look, I do think it's time it is an issue, but from my side of politics as a Liberal, I do think that there are some important lessons about what's going wrong with the Liberal brand around the country, and I think the New South Wales Government went a long way to address that. I think the approach that we brought on climate change, for example, responded to the concerns of a lot of voters that were there at the federal election. But I think the overall brand problems which is affecting our vote amongst young people, amongst women, amongst some parts of our multicultural community, are still there. And I think they're largely being set by what's happening in Canberra rather than Macquarie Street.
Richard Glover: You are quite interesting in this Guardian piece about Sky News because they've, of course, been on all week, before and after the election, saying, "oh, the trouble is the Liberals are too woke. You know, they're too into Matt Kean and all his lot, they're too much into climate change and all of that." You say that there's no sight in the election results; in fact, the election results really prove that that view is wrong.
Trent Zimmerman: Correct. I think that the approach that Matt Kean brought with strong support from Gladys and Dom on areas like climate change is the reason that I'm not standing here today talking about the loss of all of our North Shore seats, our Liberal heartland seats. Now, we obviously face a big independent challenge, but the fact that voters weren't coming out with the baseball bats that we saw at the federal election, I think, is due to the fact that people like Matt and Dom, to his credit, and Gladys recognised that we needed to be a centrist government, not a government with the agenda being set by those on TV after dark.
Richard Glover: Okay, and another proof of that is if people were hungry for a more right-wing government, they wouldn't have voted in – in slightly dwindling numbers for One Nation. It wasn't sort of - it wasn't a disaster for One Nation, but it looks like they've only got one seat in the Upper House, for instance.
Trent Zimmerman: So, they've gone backwards in the Upper House. And there were some right-wing commentators that claiming that there'd be this huge transition of Liberal votes to One Nation in protest about the woke agenda of the New South Wales Government. It simply didn't happen.
Richard Glover: Tim Ayres, from Labor's perspective, what do you think happened on Saturday? What was motivating people and what are the kind of lessons for all politicians in it?
Tim Ayres: Well, I'll make maybe three observations. The first is that it was a long-term Liberal government; that it made mistakes along the way. Voters had their say about privatisation about in - one of the areas that I care about, local manufacturing, the offshoring of billions of dollars worth of trains and bus and ferry contracts, which led to disastrous fiscal and quality outcomes. So, I think that's certainly the case. It was a referendum on the performance of the government.
The second thing is, and I'm interested in Trent's analysis, and I have to run back and read The Guardian now, Trent, I didn't pick it up today, but the Liberal Party has moved a long way to the right of politics. I see it in the Senate here every time we're in the chamber. There is the extreme right of politics now represented in increasing numbers in the Liberal Party and Trent and you were talking about the influence of some of the right-wing commentariat. I mean, the problem is that the Liberal backbench are listening very closely to the right-wing commentariat and that urge to go even further right, or as you say, One Nation, didn't perform very well. I'm interested to see that Matt Kean's already conceded that he can't serve as the leader of the Liberal Party. I think that says something about how far right they've gone and how ungovernable the situation would be for him if he tried to take the leadership.
Richard Glover: Yeah, I mean, he says he wants to spend more time with his young family. You think he hasn't got the numbers?
Tim Ayres: Well, I'm not in a position to make – you know, I make an educated guess from time to time, Richard, about votes at Labor Party conferences. I wouldn't dare to presume to make guesses about the Liberal Party backbench. So, just make the observation that they've moved a long way to the right. That's not where voters are.
The third thing I just wanted to say was I was really struck by both Dom Perrottet and Chris Minns talking about the civility of the election contest itself. I think Dom Perrottet called it a 'race to the top' and I think that reflected something that Anthony Albanese did well over the course of the last term of Opposition. The election campaign and the way we're approaching at the federal level, trying to be a government that brings people together, that talks up to people rather than tries to divide them. And I'm encouraged to see that being reflected in the state election and the way that that was conducted.
Richard Glover: Yeah. Now, those two speeches on the night by both them -
Tim Ayres: They were terrific.
Richard Glover: They made you proud to be Australian, really, compared to all the muck from the United States. Before I go to Verity, Trent, just on the subject of Matt Kean, do you think it's right that he has bowed out of the race just because he's too left for a party that's becoming more and more right-wing? That's basically what Tim said.
Trent Zimmerman: Look, no, I don't agree with that. And Matt is one of my closest friends and I've spoken to him over the weekend several times and I think his reasons for not wanting to do it are quite genuine. It's such an exhausting period and like a lot of politicians with a young child, it takes its toll on your family life. But I actually think, and I think you won't be surprised to know, that I've had a little bit of a look at this since the election, that if Matt had put up his hand, I think that he would have had a very good chance of becoming - becoming leader.
Richard Glover: Who's going to become leader?
Trent Zimmerman: I don't know the answer to that.
Richard Glover: Verity -
Trent Zimmerman: We still don't know who all the candidates are in the absence of people like Matt.
Richard Glover: Verity, I want to ask you about Balmain in particular, obviously, but just more generally, what do you think went right for your side of politics?
Verity Firth: I do think that we ran a campaign that really targeted well, what people are worrying about at the moment. I mean cost of living, cost of living, cost of living. We're all feeling it. And the camp - Labor's campaign was very disciplined around offering - the toll cap I think would have been enormous for southwestern and western Sydney voters as well as the various rebates and things. The other thing is millennials, like, there's a whole shifting demographic that is now happening to the electorate that the Libs really haven't yet learnt to speak to. And I would argue that Labor did a better job at that. They looked at rental reforms, at -
Richard Glover: Both sides had a rental policy.
Verity Firth: Yeah, true. But I think that Labor probably has greater, I suppose, legitimacy in that area and it speaks more easily to millennial voters, particularly around areas of the environment and climate change. Though I do take Trent's point of view that this government wasn't the same as Morrison. And government service delivery. There is something about that twelve-year thing. I think it happens to all governments, really. There's something that happens to the actual culture when people start to think that they might lose their seat and they all just start misbehaving and trying to get themselves jobs in New York and doing crazy things.
Richard Glover: Who is she talking about? I don't know.
Trent Zimmerman: That gift that kept on giving.
Verity Firth: And that was a disaster for them. The Hills Shire Council, all of those things that start to happen -
Richard Glover: The missing brother.
Verity Firth: The missing brothers. He wouldn't come back. Those things happen at the end of government. There's a lack of discipline that starts to emerge. Plus, of course, you know, yeah - I think it's a long time for anyone to be in government.
Richard Glover: Okay, you hoped to get Balmain back. You were the former Member, of course, not that you were running this time, but the party hoped to get it back from the Greens who have held it now for a while. You don't look like you've made it.
Verity Firth: It doesn't look like we'll quite get there. But gosh, it was a good campaign by Labor. I thought, they ran a really good, targeted campaign. It was really interesting for us because the Greens have never lost a seat that they have won at a general election and the popular member was retiring and it was our opportunity to win it. The seat is really interesting. It's actually a seat that was once a gentrifying seat but is now a gentrified seat. It's got a lot of wealth in there, but of course, socially progressive politics. The other thing about it that makes it an interesting seat is it's an enormous amount of churn in terms of the vote. So in 2019 the Greens beat Labor by 13 points at the federal election on the same boundaries Labor beat the Greens by 31 points, and at the local level, Labor beats Greens by two points. So, there's a whole lot of people in that electorate who vote both Green and Labor and it really just came down to the wire about what they voted this time.
Richard Glover: Well, we'll see what happens in the end, but, yeah, at the moment, it does seem as if the Greens have kept it. We have Tim Ayres, and I will talk to Tim about China in his upcoming trip in a second. Verity Firth is here. Trent Zimmerman as well.
Some in the clubs and pubs are saying the election result proved that Perrottet's proposed pokie crackdown didn't match the public mood. For instance, one text message sent to a journalist on Saturday night put it this way, obviously, from someone within the tent, "the utter drivel you have written for the last several months has had absolutely no impact on the people of New South Wales whatsoever." How do you read the result? And was Chris Minns right to essentially put the issue of pokies to one side? Did he pick the public mood on this, or does he have to do better? Tim Ayres what do you think?
Tim Ayres: Well, I think that it's a bit of a misreading of Labor and Chris Minns' policy offering on gambling reform, but I think the real thing that came through the election is the depth of community concern about that issue. And I'd say at the federal level, where we don't have responsibility for pubs and clubs, but we do have responsibility for gambling advertising, for example. You know, there's a lot of concern about advertising from overseas and the pernicious impact of advertising on kids, so there is a lot of concern here and Michelle Rowland, the Communications Minister, has ensured there's an inquiry. We've got a committee looking at these issues, coming back and giving a report to government, but there was, certainly was, a theme coming through the election. The level of concern, I think both parties - the fact that both parties had policy offerings in this area means that there will be reform over time.
Richard Glover: It was interesting, Helen Dalton, who's Independent in Murray, who was really subjected to a pretty vicious campaign from the clubs and pubs. Not only did the bullying not work, but she got a swing in her favour, which I think is always good to see when bullying doesn't work. Trent Zimmerman is this something where the Labor Party strategists were right, that, yeah, most people think there should be gambling reform, but they weren't putting it right at the top of their lists?
Trent Zimmerman: Well, it's always hard to tell what people are actually putting on top of their list. But I do think, firstly, that there was support for the reforms that Dom Perrottet was proposing. And I actually think that people were impressed by the fact that he was prepared to take on a vested like - interested like that, and also disappointed that it didn't become a bipartisan issue, which I think it should have. And so, I think he did get credit for that. And I think that within the overall picture of making a judgement about a leader, that he was credited for doing what he did. Now, I hope it isn't dead. And I think -
Richard Glover: But people like Alex Greenwich are still saying they'll put forward an Independent Members bill and all that sort of stuff?
Trent Zimmerman: Well, and also, as of this point in time, we don't know that Labor is going to have a majority in the Lower House. Distinctly possible it won't. So, it is possible -
Richard Glover: More possible it will.
Trent Zimmerman: Well, we can argue about that, but my guess is Labor will end up on 46 seats. Ryde is going to be the crucial one for them to win and I think we'll win that.
Richard Glover: And they need 47. Exactly right. How do you read this, Verity? Because I thought this was a big issue in the election for myself, because gambling sends me nuts and the sort of pain that it delivers to families. I suppose, here on the show, we've talked to people who've lost their partners to suicide because of gambling, so maybe I'm a bit emotionally connected, but everyone said in the end, or some people say in the end, it didn't really determine many votes.
Verity Firth: I think there's a difference between saying that it's not an issue in the community and that people will change their vote on the basis of it. I think what is true is that it is an issue in the community and I think some of the commentary around, “oh, but it's not an issue in south and – you know, southwestern Sydney”, was actually just ridiculous. I think it's an issue across the community and anyone who's anyone knows somebody who's been really badly hit by some terrible gambling addiction in their family. So, I think we should have matched it. I think Labor should have matched it. I mean, the good news is they have committed to a cashless gaming trial so let's just keep the pressure on them.
Richard Glover: I can't still get my head around how that works. Why people, if they make it - if they make it 50 clubs, then why do - people don't – why doesn’t everyone else just go to another club? And then the results of the survey show that it's a disaster because the clubs with it are empty?
Verity Firth: I would have preferred the Perrottet position, I would have preferred it to be a bipartisan position. But the good news is, being a positive person, the good news is it's now on the political agenda and I think we'll be able to get some real reform in this area.
Richard Glover: There you go. Always a positive. Tim Ayres, Verity Firth and Trent Zimmerman are here now.
Now, last week's meeting between the so-called “dear friend”, China's President Xi and Russia's President Putin, makes it clear, according to some scholars, that China is choosing isolation from the West in a way that will be both costly to itself and to countries like Australia, of course, have helped and benefited from China's embrace of the world. Others point to signs of normalisation of relations, particularly with Australia. So, what's your assessment of the state of thaw? And I guess it's another way of asking how significant, Tim, is your own trip to this forum this week? I noticed you're the first Australian Government Minister to go to this particular conference since 2016.
Tim Ayres: Yeah, that's right. I mean, I just make the point on your opening comment that isolation serves no country's interests very well. And it's in the interests of all of the countries in the region to have a rules-based order, stable trading relationships, and cooperation over issues like, in particular, the issue that jumps out at us - climate and energy, which is one of the issues that I'll be addressing at this conference.
We've been taking as a new government a consistent and sustained approach to stabilising the relationship with China, you know, our largest trading partner. The trade impediments that have been put in the way of a set of Australian exports have absolutely damaged those export industries. Haven't been great for Chinese consumers either, but what they've done is damage confidence in Australia and in the region, that the rules-based order and that normal, stable trading relations are being respected. Now, I'm delighted to have the opportunity to engage on behalf of the Australian Government, not just with our hosts from the Chinese Government, the Chinese business community, but with Australian business leaders and political and economic and business leaders from right around the region. This is a very good opportunity. I'm really looking forward to it.
Richard Glover: You can go back a month or so and it looked like the thaw was really on. There was real sign of movement at the station. Since then, there's been the submarine thing. Since then, there's been the meeting in Moscow. Do you think, to the extent that we were having a thaw, do you think things have started to freeze up again?
Tim Ayres: Well, as I said, we're taking a consistent, straightforward approach. I don't believe that the announcements that the Australian Government made in relation to the AUKUS submarines were of any surprise at all to any of the participants in the region, you know, any of the countries in the region. The announcement was made 18 months ago. This is old news and there's been a determined effort by the Australian Government to be transparent and to be engaged, not just broadly, about all of the economic and geopolitical issues that face the Indo-Pacific region and the world. But in particular, 60 meetings in the lead-up to the announcement with countries in the region to make sure that we were being completely transparent about the arrangements that Australia's reached to replace our Collins-class submarines.
Richard Glover: Well, good luck with the trade mission. We need - It's good for them, but as you say, it's good for us, a rules-based order. Tim Ayres is with us, Verity Firth and Trent Zimmerman. What do you make of the state of the “thaw”, if there is indeed a thaw or a refreezing? Trent Zimmerman.
Trent Zimmerman: Well, I do think we saw a bit of a thaw underway last year, and I think that that's because China faces this, I think, balancing act in terms of its intentions. It understands it's got to be able to have a strong economic and trading relationship with the rest of the world if it's to sustain its own economic growth and rise in living standards. But at the same time, that conflicts, I think, at times with its other international foreign policy goals, and they seem to be having difficulty reconciling that. So, I do think that, particularly with some of the actions of the Chinese leadership in relation to Russia, that we're starting to see them swing back again, which is very disappointing.
I think what is consistent is the approach of Australia under this government and the previous that obviously we're going to put the national interests first. We're not going to be afraid to talk about human rights issues, be they in Hong Kong or with the Uyghurs in Western China, and that's as it should be. But at the same time, we want to have a mature relationship with China. We don't want China to be our enemy. We want China engaged in that rules-based order. We want them to peacefully exist in places like the South China Sea. We want to make sure there's not conflict between China and Taiwan out of which no one wins. And I think it's really important that we, but also the global community, continue to approach China with that in mind.
Richard Glover: Verity Firth, how do you rate the state of the state of play and the state of the thaw?
Verity Firth: It's getting a little bit colder, isn't it? I mean, it's interesting as someone turning 50 this year who grew up during the Cold War and grew up during the sort of absolutism of the time where there was really only one opinion you could have, and it was very, very - and watching Xi go to Putin did remind me of that. And that nervousness you get when you have these big powers with nuclear potential meeting each other and not seeming too interested in the rule of law. But I think the way Trent talked about the balancing act that China has in terms of its economic needs and its foreign policy intentions is exactly the same for us, right? Of course, we're going to be part of the AUKUS approach. Of course, we're going to be always a strong ally of the United States. But we are in the Asian region, and we need to make sure that people like Tim Ayres go to this Asia annual conference and actually start to make sure that we can coexist peacefully in this region.
Richard Glover: Well, he's going to give it a shot. Tim, before you go, back to election day and election night, what was the most interesting experience you had on the day, watching the coverage being out and about, whatever. What was it?
Tim Ayres: Well, I have to say it goes back to my initial comment. I thought it was quite startling having the two leaders at the end of the election night speak in the way that they did. It shows that there's a strong spirit in Australia, supported very strongly in the community, to treat our democratic institutions with respect. Now, there are some extremist voices who are playing with the extreme right of politics and some of the derivative American politics that's having an impact on part. I see it across the Senate chamber, on the Liberals’ Senate crossbench - backbench. But I thought that was a really strong assertion of Australian values and Australian democracy. And after a day spent out talking to ordinary voters, it was pretty reassuring to come back and see political leaders talking in the way that they did.
Richard Glover: Yeah, I agree with that. Trent, just quickly.
Trent Zimmerman: I had an uneventful day and I have a plea on your radio station. Please North Sydney Boys P&C, put on a sausage sizzle next time.
Richard Glover: He needs a sustenance. Verity.
Verity Firth: I had the nicest day because you could feel the swing. I know anyone who's handed out for a political party when you're actually winning, it's much more pleasurable than handing out when you're losing. And of course, Labor hasn't won in New South Wales since 2007. It's a long time between drinks.
Richard Glover: And in 2011, you got 20 seats, right?
Verity Firth: Yeah, I know.
Richard Glover: Disaster!
Verity Firth: And handing out in 2011 was not fun.
Richard Glover: Yeah, not fun. Alright.
Tim Ayres: You've got to give, Richard, Chris Minns credit. This is Neville Wran, Bob Carr, both bringing Labor back from Opposition. It's a very substantial achievement.
Richard Glover: And he's done it maybe even with more seats won. Hey, Tim Ayres, thank you. Enjoy your trip to China. Verity Firth and Trent Zimmerman. Thank you so much.