SUBJECT/S: Bennelong by-election

BARRIE CASSIDY: We’re joined now by the manager of opposition business Tony Burke good morning, welcome.


CASSIDY: In your heart of hearts, surely in all the circumstances, you were expecting a better result than that?

BURKE: Can I start by congratulating John Alexander? I think, obviously, you know, in any by-election, you hope that you'll be able to get there. And you know, for Malcolm Turnbull to be happy, it would have been a very special sort of Armageddon if he'd lost the seat last night, so I can understand the relief that's there. Of course, we would have liked to have had... You always want to get in every swing, an extraordinary result. This was not like any other by-election. You had the incumbent contesting and the normal argument that you can run in the by-election - just send a message and it won't make any difference to what happens in the Parliament. You couldn't send that because obviously, this is the first time we've had a by-election where the outcome would mean that a Government would lose its majority. So I think this by-election when you look at it that way was closer to a general election than you would ordinarily get, and if that is the case, then in a general election, we wouldn't have won Bennelong but we may well have won Government.

CASSIDY: That may explain why you didn't win it, but a swing of 7 or 8 percent would have been, well, certainly that's the indication that you were giving leading up to this that that's where you thought it might land at the very least.

BURKE: I don't think we ever said anything other than I think we'd fall short, and we did. We got a significant swing and in some of the different make-ups, the swing was very, very high. And that will translate in a particular way across the country.

CASSIDY: You can't really translate by-election swings into general election swings. They are always more dramatic in by-elections than they are in general elections?

BURKE: But the two reasons they're normally more dramatic are - one, the incumbent is not a candidate. Well, this time he was. And two - it makes no difference as to whether or not the Government of the day has a majority. Well, this time it did. So that doesn't mean it's identical to a general election, but the two reasons that you normally can say - well, by-elections are different, or here's a standard by-election swing, neither of those issues applied this time.

CASSIDY: Should both parties be looking at this and say that there are messages for them?

BURKE: Oh, you have to. You have to. Absolutely. And one of the things that I found... I heard the comments earlier where you were comparing this to Aston. One of the key differences between this and Aston was John Howard's reaction to Aston being very much - yes, the public is listening to us but we still have to hear the message. Versus the triumphantism from Malcolm Turnbull last night. See, there are two important things that come out of yesterday. One is the result itself. The other is how Malcolm Turnbull handled it. And he received no message at all. The Government members on the panels last night received no message at all. On ABC24, I was listening to Paul Fletcher before this program went to air. Their view is that this is an endorsement that they are already doing everything right. If the Government of the day has a by-election with a swing that is big enough to throw them out of office were it to happen in a general election, and they say to the people - we haven't heard anything from you, the only message we're hearing is that you love us - then they're unlikely to shift where the public is currently at.

CASSIDY: What's the message for Labor?

BURKE: Message for us - there are a few different issues I think that come to us out of this. One is the next election will be hard. It will be hard. But certainly, there are enough people willing to change their votes that with the right work and the right policies, we can get there. One in eight people who voted Liberal in Bennelong only a year ago voted Labor this time. One in eight from the Liberal pile. So people are listening to us. They're willing to have the conversation. But certainly, the policy work that we've continued to do since we came into Opposition, we can't hit the brakes on that yet. We need to keep pushing our own policy agenda through this as well.

CASSIDY: It's another lesson that you when over the top in terms of accusing the Government of China-phobia?

BURKE: Oh, no, no, no. Look at the results. And look booth by booth at the polling booths like Carlingford for example in one of the booths in Eastwood. The more multicultural the booth, the bigger the swing to Labor. And so you look at the booths in Bennelong where...

CASSIDY: But that justifies the political tactic. Why the China-phobia thing? Where was the evidence to put it out there in the first place?

BURKE: The evidence is huge. If I can just finish the first thought, I'll do it briefly. Which is that in the multicultural booths, the swings went into double digits. The rest of the electorate was basically where the national polling has been. So the difference is extraordinary. The China-phobia argument is something where, and the Government seems unaware of this, but there's been a concerted campaign in communities and I know because I've been responsible, it's been part of my job running it, ever since they put forward their changes to citizenship laws. Not much of it is run in the dominant English-language media but in multicultural communities, Chinese communities in particular but not exclusively. The fact that the Government has put forward citizenship changes where you need university level English if you come from Asia but you don't need university level English if you come from the United Kingdom or Canada, has really caused people to say - hang on, last election, a whole lot of people from multicultural communities voted Liberal for the first time. One Nation turns up in the Parliament and the Government policies have shifted. The China-phobia comment hit fertile ground because it was a conclusion that many people had already reached.

CASSIDY: What about the Sam Dastyari factor? Rather than simply step away from being deputy whip, if he had left the Senate right at the go-get, would that have made a difference?

BURKE: It might well have. There’s no doubt that the issue hurt us. No doubt about that, at all. It's also true that the rules effectively in terms of when you're calling for someone's resignation have now changed. This is the first time ever that the demand hasn't simply been that someone leaves the official additional offices they have. But that they leave the Parliament altogether. When we get back, obviously there are issues that we now have to work through. Stuart Robert, he's on the backbench, for a scandal that involved dealing with Chinese donors and his ministerial office. 

There is pressure at the moment on Michaelia Cash over questions regarding respecting the integrity of an AFP raid. We are in a world now, which I kept warning against because I didn't want this to be how we operate. But the Government went along relentlessly where now is not that you've resigned from your official office, it's that you are finished in Parliament, full stop. And I think that the Government may end up regretting that they went to that extreme.

CASSIDY: If you're saying that the handling of the Sam Dastyari case is now a precedent, that will apply to both sides of politics?

BURKE: Well, that's right, and I kept warning about that. I kept warning about that. And Mr Turnbull was sufficiently determined that he wanted to make sure that he was talking about this and nothing else. He when on relentlessly. I think that there would be some pretty nervous people on his own side about where this is going to end up.

CASSIDY: Just finally on the dual citizenship and what these by-elections are telling us about the public's attitude towards that, it seems to be that they're quite sympathetic towards those who get caught up in it. Does that suggest that if you were to take this to a referendum and sort it out, that you might get support for it?

BURKE: It might. Certainly, the public's more sympathetic to some of the cases than I am. And I've got to acknowledge that that's the case. It's also the case, though, I don't see how we could say to the Australian people - oh, we thought it was too hard to deal with
Indigenous recognition or a voice to Parliament, but we're going to sort out the one that makes life difficult for politicians first. I don't see in good faith how you could put that to the Australian people, and while the issue may well have legs to get over the line, to say we're prioritising that over the issues for the first Australians, I think would be abhorrent.

CASSIDY: Thank you for joining us this morning.

BURKE: Merry Christmas, Barrie.

Tony Burke