STEPHEN CENATIEMPO, HOST: Joining us as he does on a Wednesday, the Labor Member for Hunter, former Defence Minister, former Agriculture Minister and all-round good bloke, Joel Fitzgibbon. G'day, mate.
JOEL FITZGIBBON, MEMBER FOR HUNTER: G'day, Stephen, nice to see you up on the Hill yesterday. Scott Morrison didn't happen to tell you when he's going to have an election, did he?
CENATIEMPO: Well, I think he told us all, didn't he? By bringing the budget forward, I reckon we're looking at May.
FITZGIBBON: Or it could be a dummy pass.
CENATIEMPO: You reckon?
FITZGIBBON: I'm not sure. Well, he had to produce a parliamentary sitting calendar, to do otherwise would be to tell us something even more. And of course, by setting the budget in March, he's led us all to believe it won't be until May, but I don't think you can bank that. Although, I have to concede that it probably makes May more likely now. I was going to deliver my valedictory speech probably tomorrow, but I've taken a punt, I've kicked it down the road until next year. I reckon we'll be back.
CENATIEMPO: Yeah, I think you're right. And putting my old political campaigning hat on, I look at it, I think the only chance the government has of being reelected is if it tries to frame this election as a referendum on the economy. And in order to do that, they need to hand down another budget.
FITZGIBBON: Well, they could do the same thing just with a budget statement. They don't have to be, constitutionally, in the parliament to do that. So, it's not a barrier to going early. I think if we go into the new year, and he thinks people are feeling pretty happy, he'll go, but I think that's unlikely, I think he's in a bit of a difficult spot at the moment, I'll think he'll want to have more time to try to win people back around.
CENATIEMPO: We've got this new strain of the virus that we've got to contend with now, Omicron, which I thought was one of the bad guys from the transformers, but moving right along, Australia seems to be over the risk averse nature we've had throughout the course of this pandemic. But our politicians on holt, don't seem to be. I mean, all you've got to do is walk around Parliament House to realise that.
FITZGIBBON: Yeah, I think that's right. Parliament House is a bit crazy. We're walking around there with masks and then, you know, I go to a restaurant in Canberra last night, don't have to wear a mask. It's just silly. It's all about image, of course, demonstrating to the rest of the country that you know, we're doing the right thing, when it's the right thing not to wear it too if the health experts say so. but the new virus is concerning. But we are approaching herd immunity and we can't keep locking down, we're going to kill our economy and do harm, psychologically, to so many people. We've got to learn to live with the virus. I don't mind a bit of well-informed caution in the early days of the new variant which is what they've demonstrated with the partial border closures internationally. But we've got to make sure that doesn't turn into panic, and indeed populist panic. People have had a gut full of it.
CENATIEMPO: Absolutely. Now, the other big issue, of course, yesterday, the Jenkins review into sexual harassment and the like in Parliament House was handed down. Some of the numbers that came out of it, I think were a little bit misleading. But even taking that into account, it would appear that it's a much bigger problem than a lot of people might have given it credit for.
FITZGIBBON: Yeah, the numbers shocked me. I was really surprised when I saw those bounce up on my television screen. I suppose in part because I don't see that. You know, obviously, most of these things have been behind closed doors for want of a better term. And it also told us a lot of women aren't reporting the harassment. So, it's unseen and if it's unseen and unreported, we don't know about it. So, something has to be done. Because it's our national parliament, we're expected to show leadership. And someone said to me, well, actually the numbers are only commensurate with the numbers in the corporate world. Well, even if that's true, surely people are right to expect a higher standard of its national leaders. And we have to demonstrate we're capable of showing that leadership and establishing higher standards. So, there should be a high degree of bipartisanship around whatever they come up with to fix this problem.
CENATIEMPO: Well, you're right in the sense that, yeah, we should expect our leaders to lead but again, having said that, in a representative democracy, can we really expect our politicians to be any better than the rest of us? Because you are supposed to be of the rest of us, so to speak.
FITZGIBBON: Well, you know, if we're not prepared to set a higher standard, then we shouldn't be there, quite frankly. I think that's the bottom line.
CENATIEMPO: My concern here is that this is going to be very difficult to address. Now there was 28 recommendations, and the Prime Minister has indicated that the government's happy to adopt all of those. But I think it might have been you that said to me that effectively parliament is 200-odd small businesses operating in a house. It's very hard to... and by its very nature it has to be that doesn't it? Each MP's office has to be somewhat independent.
FITZGIBBON: Yeah, and MPs and Senators have to have control over their own staff. That's very obvious to me. So, some of these ideas are a little bit crazy. And you know, reducing alcohol consumption in the building sounds like a great idea too. But as we know, in some of the more high-profile cases, the alcohol can be consumed outside the building, and people return to the building. So, I'm not sure that's a solution either. I think that the report should sufficiently embarrass MPs collectively, even though obviously, not all MPs are involved or guilty of any harassment. It should cause us all to self-regulate and to lift our game.
CENATIEMPO: There's a couple of things, I've heard some people suggest that we need to look at the sitting hours and create a more normal sort of working environment in Parliament House, make it a nine to five kind of operation so people can go home to their families and the like. But having said that, speaking to a number of your colleagues yesterday, it was a common theme, saying that we don't know where people find time to misbehave.
FITZGIBBON: Yeah, that is a very good point, too. But we can't go home to our families because our family are hundreds of kilometers away. But I do agree that, you know, if the parliament knocked off at five o'clock, we'll all get out of the building, and we wouldn't therefore be drinking in the building. I don't think there would be too many MPs drinking before 5pm. At least, I hope that's not the case. So, dispersing us in that way would be a good idea. You know, Keating introduced much better family sort of oriented hours. But when John Howard came in, I think wanting to demonstrate that his government was going to be hard working, he took it back to 11 o'clock, we were sitting until 11 o'clock Monday and Tuesday nights when I first arrived. That was a disaster, people were sort of partying, I mean, you can't, it's pretty hard to work after 9pm. That was a bad decision. Now we don't sit any later than 8 o'clock, that's Monday and Tuesday nights. But, you know, even that's probably a bit late. I mean, in the parliament at the moment, Stephen, the reality is, we're not doing anything. This government doesn't have a legislative agenda. We're lawmakers, we're there to pass bills but we're not doing much. I mean, he's got two important bills at the moment, the integrity commission and religious freedoms and he's parked them both because he doesn't have the numbers to get them through the Senate.
CENATIEMPO: Yeah, which is an even broader problem with the body politic in Australia I think that we could talk about for hours. Joel, good to talk to you. We'll catch up again next week.
FITZGIBBON: Good on you, Stephen.
CENATIEMPO: Joel Fitzgibbon, the Member for Hunter.