4 August 2013
I talk personal and party politics with the Liberal MP for Higgins Kelly O’Dwyer.
Georgie: How did you get into politics?
O’Dwyer: Well, look, I was always interested in politics. I do not come from a political family. My family were interested in the issues affecting their local community. I grew up in Emerald [in Dandenong] which is quite some way away… grew up there on five acres with the goats, the veggie patch, the whole lot. It was a great, great upbringing. And really, I suppose, for me, a political awakening came when I was in about year 10, during the Keating recession (and) a very tough time economically in Victoria when John Cain was the premier and then we’d moved to Joan Kirner. The fall and collapse of Pyramid and a number of other building societies as well. And I had some real concerns about how small business was being affected by all this, cause my parents had a small business. And I was very concerned as well about what this meant for potential opportunities for jobs. I read a fair bit about it at the time, thought the country was headed in the wrong direction, so I thought when I had the opportunity to get involved in politics in a more formal sense, “I’m going to do that”, because I want to change that. And I did, when I got to university, have the opportunity to get involved. And I got involved, you know, I suppose at the periphery of politics, in terms of campus politics. I joined the Liberal Club, got involved in the campaigns there. The values of the Liberal Party—of reward for effort, giving people opportunity, freedom of choice—all of that really deeply appealed to me.
Georgie: We both know that Higgins, with a margin of 5.4 per cent after the 2010 electoral redistribution is a fairly safe Liberal seat. Given that no one expects you to lose this seat, how much energy are you putting into a campaign, which—in all likelihood—will be very easy for you?
O’Dwyer: I suppose I dispute the contention that there really is anything like a safe seat any more. I actually think that you can’t really take any seat for granted. Now this seat has always been held by the Liberal Party, but I for one certainly do not take it for granted. I came in during a fairly bruising encounter during a by–election campaign which had a strong national focus and I have continued to maintain very strong presence right through the electorate in that I’m always available for mobile office meetings. It’s something that I have continued from day one, not only during the campaign but right the way through. I’ve held more than 16 local community forums, which I think a lot of people would recognise is quite a big thing to pull together. And I see it as a really valuable opportunity to hear back from constituents in the electorate about the issues and concern them and I’ve had themed forums as well … and an example of that is mental health. So not that long ago, we had a mental health forum in Prahran, which packed out the Grattan Gardens community centre, we actually couldn’t fit any more people in there—because it affects everybody. You know. It affects people whether they’re rich or poor and we found that there was a lot of very valuable feedback that I got from that that I was then able to pass on to the shadow minister, who has subsequently come out to Higgins to look at one of the biggest issues that was raised and that was housing. And we’re looking at a number of different housing models that are already pretty active in the seat of Higgins for people with mental health issues. And The Haven Foundation is a good example of that.
So I, you know, I don’t treat this like it’s safe seat. I think you need to be, to be a good local member, you need to be close to the local community and you need to be very accessible and that’s something that I have strived to always do and to be able to communicate very easily and quickly with people.
Georgie: Going back to mental health, I found the results on surveys you did. Now the results of your last survey show mental health as the second lowest care factor for Higgins, just above the environment, in a list of 15 issues. It was very low on the list. Given this fact, how do you reconcile your passion for mental health with this reality?
O’Dwyer: So, I mean it’s in the top 15, that’s the top 15 issues. So we scale it right out. What we publish is the top 15 issues.
Georgie: Out of how many?
O’Dwyer: Oh, well, people, on my survey, they can, fill in by sort of ticking boxes I think up to 20 issues. But then they also have an opportunity to fill in the issues that concern them. And so we also incorporate that into the survey…. So that is actually quite significant that it’s in the top issues. They’re the top 15 issues that people have raised in the electorate that they’re concerned about.
*After the interview, No Fibs double checked the online survey and found only 15 options, alongside an opened-ended question about other problems in Higgins.
Georgie: Are you nervous, if not about your own seat, but about the Liberal Party as a whole given Kevin Rudd’s revival and the concurrent rise in Labor opinion polls?
O’Dwyer: Well, look. I’m not worried about it. I think the fact is, the, the Labor Party has got a record—a record both from when Kevin Rudd was leader, when Julia Gillard has been leader, and now again when Kevin Rudd is going to be leader for a second time. And I think that the community will judge the current government according to its record, as indeed it should. It shouldn’t simply be judged on future promises but it should be judged on its implementation as well. And I think that’s not negative politics; that’s simply a fair appraisal of whether or not they have done the things they have said that they would do and whether they’ve done them well.
Georgie: But do you think there’s now going to be a greater swing against the Liberal Party, in general?
O’Dwyer: No, look, I hope that when people make a decision to vote on election day, that they’re focused on both the local and national issues. I think that people do vote in their local electorate for the person they think will best represent them. I also think that they do, you know, consider the national leaders and the national campaign as well and I think there has been a very sharp contrast between the national leaders. You know, instability on the one had with the Labor Party, very strong stability with the Liberal Party of which I’m a key member of that team. And I think people will make, you know, Australians are very fair, you know, they’ll make a fair judgment on that. So, you know, I’m entirely relaxed that Australians will make their judgment on election, whenever it might be … And that will be a fair reflection.
Georgie: Do you think the Labor revival will impact Higgins? Do you feel challenged by the Labor candidacy?
O’Dwyer: Not particularly, no. I mean I think, as I said to you, I think that people will, people will look at the issues that are important to them. They’ll look at the Labor Party’s record—and Kevin Rudd, as leader, can’t expunge his record [from] when he was first prime minister. He can’t expunge his record on dismantling the border protection measures that were already in place that’s led to now more than 45,000 people arriving unauthorised by boat. He can’t expunge that. He can’t expunge the fact that it was on his watch.
Georgie: You mentioned the issue of boats. Given Indonesia’s clear rejection of the coalition’s policy of turning back boats, do you still support it?
O’Dwyer: Ah well, I supposed I’d take issue with your suggest that it’s been clearly rejected. That’s an interpretation that’s been provided on some of the statements that have been made. I absolutely support the policies that have worked in the past and that we have taken not only to the 2010 election, but we will take to this 2013 election. And it’s a combination of four things. The first is a regional solution through the Bali process. Now this was something that was actually set up by Alexander Downer. It was something set up by the previous Coalition government. And, again, it’s a critical part of how we can try and change what’s occurring right now. The second part is turning back the boats where it’s safe to do so. That’s happened on more than seven occasions—
Georgie: But Indonesia rejects that.
O’Dwyer: Well, no, no. But it clearly has been effective in the past and there is no breach of international laws or obligations in us being able to do that.
O’Dwyer: Can I just give you the third part? The third is Temporary Protection Visas. Again, that’s something that’s been rejected by the current government but we think was very effective and the fourth of course is offshore processing. Now there’s no one silver bullet with all of this. It’s a combination of those four things that I think will lead to a change in the number of people who are prepared to take a very risky journey in order to come here. And the figures and very start and it’s very crude to put it this way but it is very stark when you consider that during the last year of the coalition government we had less than six people – I think it was actually four – who were in detention who had arrived by boat. You had no children in detention. Now we have more than 20,000 people in detention and more than 1,800 children in detention. That’s unacceptable.
Georgie: Leading on from your points of asylum seekers, what is your response to the argument that by many that the decrease in boat arrivals was in line with a global downturn of asylum seekers seeking refugee status, as opposed to Howard’s policy. What is your response to this?
O’Dwyer: Well, actually no, that’s not correct. In 2002, there were more people seeking asylum than today. So, during the time where we put in place our measures, there were more people seeking asylum then currently are seeking asylum today. So what we have seen is the inverse on that, which is that during a time where less people are seeking asylum than in 2002, we have seen a massive increase in the number of people arriving here unauthorised by boat.
Georgie: From where did you get those figures?
O’Dwyer: So these are based on the figures that Scott Morrison has looked at with the UNHCR.
*Figures came from a Liberal Party press release. A Politifact check found O’Dwyer’s claim that there are more asylum seekers today than ten years ago to be “mostly true”. The original UNHCR document is here. An extract from page 8 reads: “The number of asylum-seekers in Australia and New Zealand increased by 36 per cent during 2012 (16,100 claims) compared to the previous year (11,800). In Australia, a total of 15,800 claims were registered, up 37 per cent from 2011. One third of asylum-seekers in Australia originate from Afghanistan or Sri Lanka. However, by comparison, asylum levels in Australia continue to remain below those recorded by many other industrialized and non-industrialized countries..”
Georgie: Going back to the local, during the last election, we saw a seven percent swing in the Greens favour in the seat of Higgins. How concerned are you about the Greens?
O’Dwyer: Well look, I can only concentrate on doing my job and doing my job well. So I don’t worry too much about what other people are doing. But, again, I think Australians are very fair-minded. I think, I think they will judge the Greens according to the policies that they’ve put forward. I think they will certainly—
Georgie: But on a local level—
O’Dwyer: Local and national, I think it will be relevant. I think they will look at the [former] Labor-Greens alliance federally. I think that will be highly relevant when they make a decision as to whether or not they’re going to support a minor party in this upcoming election and I think it’s entirely appropriate that they be judged on their record in that respect as well. But in terms of locally, I concentrate on doing my job to the best on my ability, representing people to the best of my ability. I don’t, I don’t sort of concentrate on what other people are doing in that respect.
Georgie: Moving on to a slightly different position, you came out this year in support of same-sex marriage. What drove this decision, which is at odds with your party’s stance?
O’Dwyer: Yeah, well look, I think on all these sorts of conscience issues, I think people do reflect deeply on them. And I, you know, I think I said in the speech that I delivered to the parliament that you know I had the opportunity to reflect on it, to think on it. You know, I understand, the party took a position to the last federal election that they would support the status quo position on marriage that marriage is between a man and a woman. And that was an election commitment that was made, and it was a very clear commitment that was made. So we needed to honour the commitment that we gave to the electorate at that time. But, going in to the new election, I wanted people to understand where I stood personally on this issue. And so I did give a speech to the parliament to explain that and I’ve been very upfront with the Liberal Party about that. I mean, there is [sic] a cross section of views, as you would image on an issue like that, of conscience. Just as there is a cross-section within the Labor Party as well.
Georgie: On a more personal level, public politics aside, what was the catalyst for your decision to support same-sex marriage?
O’Dwyer: Well, as I said, you know, I’d reflected on it. I mentioned in my speech [that] there are family members of mine who will be affected by it if there is a change and I, you know, I was very clear,though, that there are some people who hold their views very strongly, opposed to same-sex marriage, because they’ve got very strong religious beliefs, and I totally respect that. I mean, anybody who’s wanted a meeting with me on this subject, I have met with. And I have met with a lot of people.
Georgie: A lot of disgruntled people?
O’Dwyer: No, no, no. No, People who, people both for and against it who want to share their experience and personal perspective on it. And, and it’s been, it’s been very useful for me to actually hear those different perspectives. But at the end of the day, I think you have to be true to what it is you believe and I think you need to be honest with the electorate about that, and so, and so I have been. I’ve been very upfront about it.
Georgie: Moving onto the education debate, almost all are private. Do you see this as a problem?
O’Dwyer: So, you’re including both primary and secondary there. So the primary schools in the electorate. You’re talking about the secondary schools I think
Georgie: No I’m talking about all the schools, in general.
O’Dwyer: No, no, no. So half the schools in Higgins would be, you know, you have local state primary schools that aren’t independent or Catholic.
Georgie: My understanding is that there are a far greater proportion of private schools to non-private schools in Higgins.
O’Dwyer: Secondary schools, that’s correct. In terms of secondary schools, every school, secondary school, here in Higgins is a Catholic or independent school with the exception of one, which is Melbourne High… and Melbourne High, as you know, is a selective school. So, so I mean, we do have a lot of Catholic and independent schools.
Georgie: Do you see this as a problem?
O’Dwyer: No, I don’t see it as a problem that we’ve got a diversity of choice between Catholic and independent schools… But I do think there are some parents who would like to option to send their children to a secondary school that is a state school in the local area. And I certainly know that my state colleague Clem Newton-Brown [state Liberal member for Prahran] has been pushing very hard for a secondary school in the local area to offer parents that choice. And you know I certainly support him it that campaign.
Georgie: You mentioned you supported a diversity of choice. There is really no choice if you don’t have the money. So are you pushing for the construction of a state secondary school in Higgins?
O’Dwyer: So as I just said, my state colleague Clem Newton-Brown, because it is a state issue, he has been pushing for that. He has had some studies done on that. I certainly support him in that campaign, very happy to support him in that campaign. I think it’s not quite right to reflect that all of the school options are expensive school options at a secondary level. Certainly, there are some schools that are quite expensive to send your child to require very significant sacrifice on the part of parents in order to do that. Um, but, but, you know, at the other spectrum, I know there are schools with more modest fees, a lot of the Catholic schools have got more modest fees … So, I mean, there is a spectrum of choice I think in the local area.
Georgie: Where is the campaign to get a state secondary school in Stonnington up to?
O’Dwyer: Ah well, you’d have to talk to Clem Newton-Brown who is the state member
Georgie: Ok. I know we’re running out of time, but if we could quickly move on to another hot button issue, climate change. What is your view on anthropogenic or human-induced climate change?
O’Dwyer: Well, I’ve said, I think man makes a contribution to our changing climate so, you know, I accept that climate change is real. There is science that backs that up and we need to, we need to have real politics that impact that. And again. our policy is different to the current Labor Party policy – we think we can meet the same targets to reduce emissions through our direct action fund.
Georgie: Given you supported an Emissions Trading Scheme under Turnbull—
O’Dwyer: —No that was the party policy and as a member of the party, obviously, I supported our party policy. But the part changed its policy in a very clear way on the ETS.
Georgie: So you don’t, or won’t, support a Rudd ETS?
O’Dwyer: No, I support our party policy, which is to actually have a Direct Action fund to reduce climate change emissions. I think that will be effective to meet our targets. That’s what, that’s what our shadow minister has demonstrated through the work he has done.
Georgie: But if you supported an ETS before, why wouldn’t you support the same policy now?
O’Dwyer: Well, no, I think, I think you’re mixing up two things, which is, you know, that was the, that was the party policy position at that time. And that was the position of Malcolm Turnbull. The party changed its policy on that, and it’s as simple as that.