McMILLAN // CHRIS Buckingham was selected to be Labor’s candidate for the federal seat of McMillan in May and has been campaigning ever since. WBBC’s William Kulich caught up with him to discuss the budget, coal seam gas, asylum seekers and Bill Shorten.
WBBC: How have you found the community response to your campaign?
CB: Really positive. What I’m hearing is there’s an appetite for change. I think the campaign is going well because we’re focussing on local issues. The key local issues I’m gathering right across the electorate are concerns about employment stability, jobs for young people, pressure on household income and, I think, increasingly we’ll see the GST as people come to grips with the idea maybe the GST will be increased.
WBBC: Have many people approached you about the GST?
CB: It’s been a subject of much discussion. My sense of it is the GST as an issue for the electorate is only just starting to grasp attention. People are concerned about the impact on household income. I’m concerned about the impact it will have on consumer confidence and indeed cashflow to small business in particular in a regional economy. One of the things we’ve talked about before is this idea that in a region like Gippsland, when you attack for example penalty rates or minimum wage it’s not just those households with a second income that are worrying whether or not they can pay their school fees, it’s also about people making decisions about whether or not they’re going to go out for a meal, whether or not they’re going to buy that dress for the spring carnival, or whether or not they’re going to buy their kids lunch or make it that week. What we see when people in a regional economy lose confidence is actually a decline in spend, and that will impact directly on small business right across the electorate. From an economic perspective we’re all in this together so when we talk about penalty rates or minimum wage or employment stability or increased tax… like the GST, what we’re seeing is a potential negative impact on the economy.
WBBC: Isn’t the GST a non-issue at the moment given all states must agree to a change and Victoria has already indicated it wouldn’t support an increase
CB: What they’ve said is if Turnbull wins an election on that platform they won’t fight it. What that means, with the federal government which is grappling with another fairly ordinary budget, is there is a very real prospect there will be an election going to be called early, in March.
WBBC: Turnbull has already said the election will be in September or October next year though
CB: Yes, he said that, and good luck to him. I will believe it when I see it.
WBBC: You don’t think the government will go to full term?
CB: I think at this stage it would be a 50/50 bet. There’s only one person who can call an election and that’s Malcolm Turnbull, so really we’re speculating on what’s going through Malcolm Turnbull’s mind, however given the current state of the budget and the fact they’re going to have to prep another one in May, it’s not going to get any prettier for them. That they calling for tax reform now suggests to me they would much rather be going into a budget cycle in May where they actually have full control of government and they have a mandate to deliver some of their more extreme, more conservative policies. If they go to an election in March on a platform of increasing the GST then they have the capacity to set a budget in May… which would give them a lot of flexibility. Alternatively they’re going to limp across the line with a hung senate, another directionless budget. I wouldn’t stake my house on it, but I think there’s a real possibility there will be an election in March.
WBBC: How are you basing your campaign around that? If it does go full term, you would have been the preselected candidate for a very long time.
CB: That’s right, and what a privilege it has been so far. My plan is to go full time into campaigning from the end of next week. There’s a couple of reasons for that; one is there is a massive job at hand to win back McMillan, make no bones about that, to be able to stand as the endorsed Labor party candidate in the seat is an enormous privilege and also an opportunity, and having been given this opportunity it is my responsibility to make every chance of actually winning it for Labor and the people of McMillan.
WBBC: It’s a big think, full time campaigning. What will you be doing?
CB: I think it was Russel Howcroft from the Gruen Transfer who said the most successful candidates are the ones who visibly enjoy what they do, and expend a bit of shoe leather. So I’m planning to travel the length and breadth of the electorate over the coming months, meeting with people and organisations impacted by federal government decisions and setting an agenda out for McMillan for the coming years.
WBBC: Do you think you can win at this election, or is this the groundwork for a future election?
CB: I think I can win this election. With the support I have received thus far I have every reason to believe it’s winnable.
COAL SEAM GAS
WBBC: You’ve been attending a few of the anti-coal seam gas and non-conventional gas extraction meetings around the electorate. What are your views on that policy?
CB: My view on the environment is the Gippsland region has given much to the state of Victoria and indeed to the nation in terms of productivity through agriculture, through timber, mining and energy production and indeed water, and they are the region’s core strengths. But what I’m seeing across the community is a growing resistance to allowing the exploitation of our resources willy-nilly. That if a private company wants to come in, or indeed if government wants to profit from, the exploitation of natural resources then due diligence has to be followed through and there has to be a social license.
WBBC: I ask because the rallies you have been attending are run by groups which are entirely against non-conventional gas, they say it is too much of a risk to engage in at all, whereas Federal Labor’s shadow resources minister Gary Gray has said it’s safe if managed correctly. It seems you are out of line with your party’s policy.
CB: From what I’ve seen and heard, across the electorate, people are not convinced about the virtues of onshore unconventional gas. Whether it’s exploring for gas or coal or gold or copper, if companies want to extract resources from our environment they have to have a set of licenses which include both an environmental license, for want of a better description, and a social license. I think that particularly in line with what happened in Morwell last year with the coal mine fire and the way the communities of the Latrobe Valley were affected, we as politicians and community leaders actually have to represent the views of our communities.
WBBC: So would you consider allowing non-conventional gas where, if shown by government scientists to not be a risk to the local environment?
CB: I think, Will, that that remains a hypothetical question.
WBBC: But it’s not a hypothetical party policy.
CB: I think the Labor party’s made it very clear it supports private sector investment in activity that will create employment in regions, and I happily stand by that. However, the price for the employment has to be considered and communities need to be able to have a say.
WBBC: Do you think there is any acceptable price when it comes to non-conventioal gas extraction?
CB: When somebody can demonstrate to me that the community is happy to have exploration take place in its backyard, that that exploration is being done responsibly, and when it comes time for full-scale extraction that water reserves, agricultural practices and natural values are not going to be hopelessly compromised, I will have a more favourable point of view.
WBBC: We’ve talked GST and CSG, what have been the other issues people have raised with you?
CB: I think the way people are being treated on Manus Island and Christmas Island remains a concern for the community. There is I think a growing concern about the lack of transparency about what’s happening (in the detention centres on those islands). The Labor party has committed to ensuring people are strongly discouraged or deterred from taking that dangerous journey from Indonesia through to the Pacific Islands, and I support that, however I have growing concerns about the way the 1,600 or so people in those detention centres are being treated and the lack of transparency. We don’t really know what’s going on, we’re finding out second hand about their (the people in the centres) conditions and how they’re being treated, and I’m not sure that’s a healthy situation in a democracy.
WBBC: Are you concerned that the only prominent opposition voice at the moment to the government’s detention centre policies is the Australian Greens? The Labor party isn’t saying much.
CB: I think one of the challenges we have at the moment is the Labor party is actually charting some really clear differences from a policy point of view on this issue, and indeed many others, but what the community and potentially the media is hearing is the resistance to the government agenda. So for example when it comes to asylum seekers and refugees, the Labor party’s national platform is committed to doubling the intake of refugees, it’s committed to properly funding and resourcing the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) so the queue (for processing of asylum claims), which doesn’t exist, is established and people can be processed in a fair and reasonable way, and I think the debate in the last few days in the caucus around the future of Manus and Christmas islands demonstrates that, while there is a diversity of views within the Labor party, that there’s a very clear difference in moral stance when it comes the compassionate view in terms of what’s been done in the last two years in Tony Abbott’s name.
WBBC: The main opposition voices to this are the Greens’ Richard Di Natale and Sarah Hanson-Young, there are no strong Labor voices against the present policy in public.
CB: Yep, and I think there’s a big contributing factor to this and that is that…
WBBC: … Labor set it up?
CB: Well, in part. Labor has been in government recently and understand the terrible dilemma which goes with deterring refugees and asylum seekers and ensuring people don’t drown at sea. Until you’re in government and have responsibility for those people, and there’s a speech you can find online made by Tony Burke at the Labor National Conference, and that for me was the compelling thing. All respect to the Greens for putting an alternative perspective, however they have not had the privilege or responsibility of being in government and making some really tough decisions, and I think that’s what’s tempering the leadership team in the ALP federally at the moment is that knowledge of how tough it is to watch people drowning.
WBBC: Speaking of the leadership team, do you like Bill Shorten as leader or would you rather someone else led the Labor party?
CB: The thing I have observed and am proud of is the federal Labor team is united behind its leader.
WBBC: But there’s no real way to not be united behind him given the enormous majority which would be needed to unseat him thanks to Kevin Rudd’s changes.
CB: You learn from your mistakes, and I think federal Labor learnt from its mistakes when it was in government by chopping and changing the leadership.
WBBC: Do you believe Bill Shorten is the right leader?
CB: He is the leader.
WBBC: Do you believe he is the right leader?
CB: He is the right leader for the party at this time.
WBBC: During the opposition years or government?
CB: Look, I’m a candidate and I would be mightily annoyed if I successfully won the seat of McMillan for Labor and then someone said ‘you know, Chris, we don’t like the colour of your ties anymore, we’re going to change you.’ I think the Australian electorate, come the election, will make a decision which in part will be informed by who the leader is, but it will also be about how Labor performs as a team and also about how candidates on the ground in their communities respond to their needs. There is a number of different factors at play.
WBBC: Has there been much community concern about Bill? He’s not polling well, have people talked about him locally?
CB: Not so much, and I think this comes back to where the campaign is at at the moment. Yes, people are concerned about federal policies at a national level, but they’re also concerned about how they’re impacted on on a day-to-day basis and actually, quite clearly, Abbott was probably one of the most unpopular prime ministers we’ve had in living memory and that was part of the narrative, but I don’t think leadership on either side at this point in time provokes the same visceral response. I think who’s leading the parties will have less influence on this election that if Abbott were still prime minister.
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