Federal MP for Warringah Zali Steggall OAM says driving innovation will form a key part of her second term agenda.
In an exclusive interview with the Northern Beaches Advocate at her Manly electorate office (Monday, 11 July), Ms Steggall laid out the agenda for a second term, and her views on how an increased cross-bench voice in the Federal Parliament can influence the national agenda.
“Since the beginning of the year, we really haven’t had much time in Parliament, which is not surprising when there’s an election. With the election, that first month is a bit of limbo time, because you’ve got a couple of weeks counting [votes] and seeing what’s happening.
“Because of the change of government, they [Labor] want to take time to get an assessment of departments and status of things and then recall Parliament. I felt we could have recalled Parliament, gotten everyone sworn in and the process started, then go into that process of review,” said Ms Steggall.
The irony was not lost on her however that despite a delay in recalling Parliament, the new government wasted no time in cutting staff allocations to the Independents.
“People don’t understand the consequences, not to me personally, it’s to the electorate, a very real impact to our community.
“A new MP waiting to understand their allocation to be able to offer jobs is one aspect, but for us the difficulty was essentially post the day of the election, you’re in limbo.
“We have a number of staff with mortgages and families, and people not knowing the status of their employment. From an industrial relations point of view and HR [Human Resources], it’s highly irregular compared to any other workplace.
“Whereas the coalition were fairly effective around it, there was very little discussion and it was just kind of dealt with, now it has been a drawn out and a fairly unsatisfactory process. There’s no procedural fairness around the assessment.
“I’m still trying to have discussions but the impact is there’s going to be redundancies at the parliamentary advisor level, but also a restructure of the electoral office to compensate. We are going to have to reallocate staff dedicated to helping people in a real way around NDIS [National Disability Insurance Scheme], aged care, visas and passports.
“I am a little cynical, it seems to be targeted at urban electorates. There seems to be a double standard being applied between regional electorates, who already get additional staff when it comes to electoral office allocation. I’m still hoping to have a sensible discussion with the Prime Minister to resolve it,” explained Ms Steggall.
The electoral success of Independents on the Northern Beaches is a result of growing public engagement in politics, with the electorate less willing to accept a two-party narrative, according to Ms Steggall.
“It was an interesting election in the sense of how engaged our communities were, Warringah stayed incredibly engaged. That was always the big question post the 2019 election, how much had been the Tony [Abbott] factor and how much was genuinely the electorate engaged on a new style of politics?
“The rest of the results around the Sydney area, and on the peninsula, would say that is a growing trend and that communities want engagement on politics, on issues, and that’s why I think you’re seeing the increase in Independents.
“That means a challenge to the traditional way of politics, which was to come and vote every three years and go away and take care of your life. We found over the course of three years in Warringah the engagement remained really high on forums, policies, feedback, engagement with the office.
“We keep track of all the emails and issues that are raised with us and sentiment on issues. That’s where there is importance of publishing lists of bills on for debate in the following weeks in Parliament. We genuinely get feedback,” said Ms Steggall.
Working from her electorate office at Sydney Road, Manly, Ms Steggall says her approach to dealing with issues and adopting policy positions is informed by feedback from the community.
“Monday mornings we have a big team meeting and I have a constituent liaison team who assist with answering emails and helping people when it comes to NDIS, aged care and visas. We discuss what are the issues that have been raised and what policy solutions or proposals we can try and assist.
“For example, one issue that came up this week, there may be certain countries of origin that are having more trouble getting visa approvals. It’s anecdotal but it does lead to broader questions that could be asked of the department. Is there something that we should be aware of, or that can be questioned?
“Also, you come up with a list of suggestions about what appears to be the roadblocks. We try and be constructive with the department by putting forward our anecdotal observations of where roadblocks appear to be and what could be done to assist people.
“In the end, the previous government were welcoming of our practical feedback and actually made some of the suggested changes. That’s the work we can do that is often under the radar, but very effective for people in a real sense,” explained Ms Steggall.
Having now completed her first term, Ms Steggall said her second term agenda will be heavily influenced by the change in government, but despite some similarities in policy agenda, Ms Steggall will be pushing for more from the Albanese Government.
“The change of government creates different opportunities and challenges. The coalition had really failed to progress on those fronts, which were the key areas that I was elected for. At the moment, the current government is indicating they are going to move on those fronts.
“They are indicating there will be legislation of Net Zero by 2050. I don’t support their interim target but as long as it’s worded in a way that creates a floor, not a ceiling, and creates incentive for bigger gains to be made, that’s something I would look at, but I haven’t seen the legislation yet.
“I’ve participated in a roundtable with the Attorney General Mark Dreyfus, and I’ve had a couple of conversations around the federal anti-corruption commission and key elements that I think need to be in that legislation.
“At the moment, there’s a process of assessment of what their agenda is going to be. In their election campaign, there wasn’t a huge amount of policy that I could really say was Labor’s goal for this term.
“Hopefully in this term there is going to be progress and I see my job to make sure it’s as good progress as it can be, and really push them to be as ambitious and as rigorous with the legislation as possible.
“They’ve just announced on the weekend a willingness to legislate truth in political advertising. I introduced the ‘Stop the Lies’ Bill in the last Parliament. I don’t care whose legislation goes through, as long as we’re doing it.
“I also want to look at the exemptions from the spam act, because political spamming of messages came through as an issue in the campaign from UAP [United Australia Party]. I think there’s a certain appetite in the public to legislate and I’ll be keen to look at that.
“They’ve [Labor] just announced their skills and jobs summit for September. There are some pressing issues we have that I’ll be raising. I’ve met with the Chambers of Commerce and there’s a real workforce shortage, there’s a real problem for our local businesses.
“I’ll press for a quicker administrative process of skilled visas, and a period of an incentive, for example, a pathway to permanent residency through skilled visas for the next three years to get the workforce back.
“On one hand, low unemployment is great, but our local hospitality businesses are crying out for more staff like chefs. If chefs come in on a skilled visa to be a chef in a regional area they have a pathway to permanent residency, but in the city we don’t get it.
“Our local businesses might get a chef in, but then they will go to a regional area because that’s a pathway to residency. We are disadvantaged. It is a bit of a hangover from the pandemic and locked borders. We need to consider a period of time in which we have incentives to bring people in to address the shortfalls,” said Ms Steggall.
While importing skills may provide a stop-gap solution, Ms Steggall believes the longer term solution is to develop an industry policy that will ensure Australia has the skills and capabilities to remain self-sufficient in key sectors.
“We need some level of national priority. The pandemic has taught us there has to be some level of domestic capability across key areas.
“We have very clear areas of workplace shortfall around health and frontline caring. We know in aged care there’s a massive problem. We’re getting shortages and there is going to have to be a clear policy to address it.
“Hospitality is often linked with tourism and international students, and we’ve really taken a hit on those fronts. I don’t think we’ve resumed when it comes to international students, so the business model of the university sector is really up for review.
“I want to focus in this term on innovation and R&D [Research and Development] because I think there’s a lot of appetite for it here in Warringah. We’re a very aspirational electorate, a lot of well-educated people looking for opportunities, looking for innovation.
“That’s a really exciting area, where you find competitive advantage as a nation. We’ve been falling behind, our investment in R&D and innovation is dropping compared to other OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] countries. You stop being a country of discoveries, and that has a knock-on effect.
“A lot of research comes out of the university sector, but there needs to be that next step of it being translated and commercialised. That’s the link that’s more difficult at the moment.
“Where are the big advances going to come in the next ten years? What are our big challenges? The pandemic certainly highlighted our exposure from a health point of view. I don’t know if that’s on the government’s agenda, but it’s certainly something I would be raising to see where the opportunities are.
“There’s a strong bent on sustainability. I think we have a very progressive electorate in that sense. There are a lot of businesses looking at solutions around waste and recycling. We’ve got some really interesting technology companies doing amazing stuff. I am keen to keep progressing that and open up opportunities,” offered Ms Steggall.
Faced with the challenge that she must negotiate with a majority government that does not need to negotiate with her, Ms Steggall is confident she can get traction in this term of Parliament.
“We saw with the last government, a majority of 77 is not home and free from public opinion or influence on issues. So far a number of Ministers, like the Attorney General when it comes to the integrity commission, have been very collaborative in terms of briefings and indications of where they’re at. The proof will be in the pudding.
“The whole staffing dispute has put a very negative spin on things. At the end of the day, with majority government comes a level of arrogance. A third of Australians voted for minor parties or Independents at the last election. Yes, there’s a majority, but there is also a clear message from a number of communities, that they are engaged in politics, they are across the issues, and they are not going to be fobbed off,” said Ms Steggall.
Ms Steggall prefers the term ‘community Independents’ to ‘Teal Independents’, but says she can see the recently elected members joining with their crossbench colleagues to specialise and collaborate on a legislative agenda.
“In the last Parliament, we worked very well together and supported one another without losing our focus on our individuality and electorates. There’s always going to be differences about our electorates.
“I’m open to helping all the other community Independents in any way I can, with my experience, with setup, with office resources. That’s an important part of getting people up and running as quickly as possible.
“I think there will be a little bit of specialising based on area of interest. Obviously, I can’t see myself taking Dr Monique Ryan on in health, I might defer to her and Dr Sophie Scamps for expertise there.
“What I’m curious and excited about in this Parliament is the depth of professional skills on the crossbench. You have a lot of highly skilled professional people. You’ve got people who are going to bring a diversity of viewpoints to issues, and they’re going to bring more skills.
“We’re going to be better for hearing their feedback and their perspectives on issues because they bring more to the table. If I compare that to the parties, whether it’s the government or the opposition, they only have access to what’s in the party room and it’s a closed off discussion, it’s not a public discussion on issues,” said Ms Steggall.
In terms of immediate priorities, Ms Steggall has her eyes on the challenges of climate change and rapidly escalating energy costs.
“In light of all the natural disasters we’re having at the moment, and the repeated flooding and everything else, I think everyone’s got to get real with priorities [for climate targets]. But we’ve also got an energy crisis, there’s a real question around that.
“I have discussed with Chris Bowen [Minister for Climate Change and Energy] the natural gas reservation policy for the east coast. My concern with that is it locks in a reliance on gas.
“The question is timing, especially at the moment you’ve got problems coalescing between Ukraine, bad weather, cold winter, outages from old plants. Keeping old thermal coal power plants that are past their use by date running is incredibly difficult. We need to find solutions and make investment in the transition. Ultimately, the best money we can spend is getting as many people independently powered as possible.
“From my understanding, there’s going to be a focus on offshore wind, down in the Bass Strait there are some big opportunities. The old nuclear conversation comes up again, I’m not anti-nuclear, but I think nuclear is 20 years too late. We did a tour in India and the Minister said, it’s 18 months to get a large scale renewable project up, it’s 18 years to get a nuclear project up,” said Ms Steggall.
Zali Steggall OAM is the re-elected Federal Member for Warringah. She was first elected in 2019, defeating the Liberal incumbent and former Prime Minister Tony Abbott. A former Olympian, she won a bronze medal at the 1998 Nagano Olympic Games in Slalom, an experience she spoke about last year to young aspiring athletes.
Images: Northern Beaches Advocate
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