4 MARCH 2013

SUBJECTS: Western Sydney, Federal Election, Labor Party.

LEIGH SALES: One of the Labor MPs who could lose his once-safe seat in the election is the Tertiary Education Minister, Chris Bowen. He holds the electorate of McMahon on a margin of just under eight per cent. He joined me from Rooty Hill a short time ago.

Chris Bowen, you spent a lot of time talking to all sorts of people out there in Western Sydney. What do you think are the three top issues that are going to influence the way people vote in this federal election?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well I'd nominate three issues, Leigh. Firstly, cost of living and there's a stark difference of approach. We've taken steps to help people with cost-of-living pressures like introduce the schoolkids bonus, increase the childcare rebate and Tony Abbott would take back the tax cuts we've introduced, and the pension rises, so that's one issue.

Secondly: infrastructure. Getting people around the big area that is Western Sydney, moving people to get them to work and school, etcetera. And thirdly, I think general government funding for essential services like health and education. And what a Liberal government means for Western Sydney's not a hypothetical question. We have a model here in New South Wales. Many people in Western Sydney voted Liberal for their first time in the last state election and to thank them, the O'Farrell Government here has cut education funding by $1.8 billion, including to TAFE and to our systemic Catholic schools. They've introduced health cuts and also taken radioactive waste from Sydney's North Shore and are proposing to dump it in Western Sydney. That shows what they really think about Western Sydney.

SALES: Alright. Well, let me pick those apart. Your first one talking about cost of living and things like the schoolkids bonus and your final one talking about cutbacks to services. Actually getting rid of things like, say, the schoolkids bonus when we have a deficit that we're trying to turn around to a surplus is called responsible government.

BOWEN: Well, we're making the point that there's a difference of approach here. Tony Abbott would take back the tax cuts that we've introduced, for example – half a million people in Western Sydney would stand to lose from that. He'd take back the pension increases that we've introduced – a quarter of a million people in Western Sydney.

SALES: And I'm making the point that that's responsible when you're trying to rein in a budget deficit.

BOWEN: Well it is true that budgets are about priorities and we're showing our priorities by introducing things like tax cuts, pension increases, increasing the childcare rebate to 50 per cent.

SALES: The other point you made mention of was the ability to get around Western Sydney, so let's have a look at the Prime Minister's announcement today. Julia Gillard says she'll give a billion dollars if the NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell makes some changes to a proposal around a major motorway in Western Sydney. Now, with her announcement, there's no information about where her billion dollars would come from, why that project deserves more funding than other projects around the nation, no actual promise of funds to improve roads in the area; it's all conditional on what Barry O'Farrell does. Aren't the people of Western Sydney smart enough to see through a Claytons announcement like that?

BOWEN: Well let me reject every single one of those premises, Leigh. Firstly, the Prime Minister made it clear that she wants to work constructively with the NSW Government, with Barry O'Farrell. I think that's what the people of Western Sydney want to see. They don't want to see buck passing and bickering. And she also made it clear that the funds would come from the Nation Building 2 Program. So, with respect, she indicated that the project would need to be built cooperatively with the NSW Government and did indicate where the funding would come from.

SALES: But, we're in a situation where we have a Federal Budget deficit. The Government continues to announce programs and spending, so for example the NDIS, the Gonski education reforms, this road plan, where there is not a clear pathway to actually make these things happen. They're conditional on all sorts of factors, yet the Government wants credit for them when they haven't actually occurred yet and says to-to-people, ‘Well vote for us for things that haven't happened and may not happen’.

BOWEN: Well I think people are sensible and know that things that are big and important take time to deliver. Whether it is the NDIS, whether it is a big road project like completing the M4 into the city.

SALES: Multiple polls have shown enormous negative sentiment across Western Sydney towards Labor, potentially costing even people like you – considered to be Labor stars – their seats. Why do you think that the anti-Labor sentiment is so ferocious out there?

BOWEN: Well, Leigh, look, there'll be plenty of polls between now and election day and clearly we have a challenge on our hands, but it's a challenge that we're more than happy to meet by talking about the policy issues, the stark contrast in approaches. There've been issues in NSW ...

SALES: But you're not answering my question. I'm just asking your assessment as someone who spends a lot of time out there, why is there this very, very strong anti-Labor sentiment?

BOWEN: And I was just putting some context to the answer, Leigh. And I do think people have been, to take some examples, disgusted with what they've seen at the ICAC hearings in NSW. And they're right to be disgusted. I think everybody has a right to feel very let down by that.

I think people are concerned to see infrastructure improved in Western Sydney. Now we as a Government have more than doubled the amount of infrastructure spending per head in Sydney as a whole as a Federal Government, but we've got more to do and we've seen a big announcement there today. I think people are concerned about cost of living, and again, we're talking about a starkly different approach between us, who've delivered things like the increase in the childcare rebate, pension increases and tax cuts, and Mr Abbott, who'd take many of those things back.

SALES: Presumably you and all of your colleagues believe that Labor should do whatever is within its power to win the election to prevent an Abbott Coalition government taking control. One thing that is within your power is the leadership of the party and every indicator for quite a while now shows that members of the public, most members of the public don't approve of the job Julia Gillard's doing and her message doesn't seem to get through to them. Do you really think that it's better for Labor to lose the election with Julia Gillard as leader than to try somebody else?

BOWEN: Well, Leigh, let me give you the same answer that I'm sure I've given you before and I've given to every interview for last 12 months: that this issue was settled last February. Kevin Rudd has made his position crystal clear. I'm not sure what he could do to make it clearer. He supports the Prime Minister going through to the election.

SALES: But I'm not even – I didn't raise Kevin Rudd, I'm just saying trying something else. I'm just asking ...

BOWEN: Well, I think everybody – I think all the viewers, with respect, Leigh, would know exactly what you're referring to. And we've all made the positions clear.

SALES: Well actually, I was thinking of plenty of options. I was thinking of plenty of other options. But, I mean, how do you feel about losing your seat because Labor goes to the election with Julia Gillard when you have a prospect of perhaps holding your seat with somebody else?

BOWEN: Well, every politician, every Member of Parliament should go into every election campaign fighting hard for their seat. There's no such thing as a safe seat anymore. And every MP – certainly it's been my experience since I've been a member of Parliament since 2004; I've treated every election campaign with great seriousness, never taken the electors of Western Sydney for granted and I won't be doing it this time. I'll be fighting hard in my local electorate. I'll be pointing out what we've delivered. I'll be pointing out the things that are at risk like the National Broadband Network, which is being delivered in my electorate to places like Pemulwuy and Greystanes, which is very important to people in my electorate. I'll be pointing those things out. Every election campaign should be tightly fought by every MP and this one will be.

SALES: Does having Julia Gillard as leader make your job harder?

BOWEN: Well Julia Gillard is the Prime Minister who it's been made very clear will lead us to the election. That's the view settled in the Caucus last year. Now I'll leave you and others to be the commentators. I'm getting on with the job of a) delivering services and improvements in my portfolio and in my electorate and b) communicating the achievements of the Government and the contrasts and what is at stake in this election.

SALES: Chris Bowen, thank you very much for joining us.

BOWEN: Thank you, Leigh.


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