With the federal election race well under way, Woroni sat down with the federal member for Canberra, Alicia Payne. We discussed Alicia’s approach to cost of living, climate change, and the Coalition’s failed religious discrimination bill.

Woroni: What motivates you to run for re-election as Canberra’s member of Parliament?

Alicia Payne MP: I went into politics mainly driven by the issues of poverty and inequality. That’s what my career before politics was about: finding policy answers to those failures. And largely, that’s what motivates me to be a Labor member of Parliament and represent Canberra.

I grew up in Canberra, and Canberra often is not perceived as a real community with real needs. But it’s such a wonderful, progressive, caring community. Representing Canberra for the last three years has been the greatest honour of my life. It’s been great to listen to the issues that Canberrans care about and then to take those into the Parliament. Issues like social justice, climate change, integrity in the Parliament, and the day-to-day things that are affecting Canberrans. I want to keep doing that and keep fighting for that.

W: What achievement are you most proud of in your time as Canberra’s MP, and what would you hope to deliver in another term as an MP?

A: It’s hard to narrow it down to one. It is standing up on those issues, being a strong voice for climate, a strong voice around social justice and human rights issues within the Parliament and our caucus.

But there is another side to the work of an MP that many people don’t see. That’s the day-to-day help you can give constituents. That work is very rewarding and perhaps where you get the greatest feeling that you’ve really made a real difference. For example, people who’ve had issues with the NDIS or Centrelink or through COVID-19. Many people have issues with getting exemptions to border closures or visa issues, that sort of thing. We had people from Afghanistan after the fall of Kabul who wanted our help. In some cases, we’ve been able to help them.

Those concrete things that you can do for individual people, are some of the achievements that I’m most proud of as a member of Parliament. And the other thing would be my work on the NDIS parliamentary committee and highlighting some of the serious problems with the way the NDIS has been implemented.

W: What do you see as the most pressing issue impacting students, and how will you advocate for students?

A: I think the cost of living as a student is a massive issue. Part of that is housing and affordable rentals, particularly for uni students who moved to a place like Canberra, those costs are huge. I’ve always been an advocate around a decent living allowance for students and helping them to meet those costs.

But I’m really proud that a Labor Government has strong policies around wages and job security too. [We’ve] seen the impact that non-secure work has had on people. And we saw students particularly left out in the government’s response to COVID-19. Those issues are really important. 

Also, universities have been completely decimated under the Morrison Government, both in terms of their funding and the increasing the cost of certain degrees. Those culture wars around the freedom of academics and students to have different views and learn different things.

Labor wants to really back our universities for the incredibly important work that they do. We have also promised an extra 20,000 university places if we get elected.

W: So you just spoke about the housing crisis. How would Labor address the housing crisis, particularly the lack of affordable rentals?

A: We have a housing crisis in this country. It’s harder to buy a home than ever before and rents are skyrocketing.

Part of the solution is supply. That’s why Labor has announced our Housing Australia Future Fund, which will build 30,000 new dwellings, including some set aside for women and children fleeing domestic violence and older women at risk of homelessness.

Part of the puzzle is making more affordable housing. Labor’s Help To Buy policy will help 10,000 Australians each year buy a home. The scheme gives eligible homebuyers an equity contribution of up to 40 per cent of the purchase price of a new home and up to 30 per cent of the purchase price for an existing home. It means Australians can buy a home with a smaller deposit, a smaller mortgage and smaller mortgage repayments. 

I do think the other side of that issue, too, is wages and addressing costs of living more broadly for people. We have also said that we will have more housing policies to announce before the election.

But I think it’s a really important issue for students. I often hear from students, particularly in January when they’re moving here, that it’s just impossible to find some way to afford to rent.

Note: Labor has since released their housing policies, which can be read here

The National Student Safety Survey recently revealed that one in six students has experienced sexual violence at university. What further steps do you think we need to take in combating gender-based violence on university campuses?

A: It was really sad to hear that, and particularly the ANU.

I think the solution begins before students get to university. This is part of the broader national crisis with violence and sexual harassment in Australia. And I think it does begin with teaching children about respect and consent and issues like this from primary school.

It needs to be at school, but it also needs to be taught at home by parents talking to children about these issues. I think it is about that awareness, as if we can have these conversations earlier, hopefully, it will start to address those issues.

But it’s also around having the support for students to feel safe and be safe on campus, ensuring that they have access to people to support them and talk about these things and that campuses are safe with things like lighting and those practical issues as well. So there’s definitely a lot more that needs to be done there.

W: You just said that Labor would be releasing some policies to tackle the housing crisis. But what economic reforms do you think are needed to address the rising cost of living?

A: Wages are really a key part of the puzzle, and it’s not something that the current government talks about at all. We’ve got a detailed policy around it – wages, secure work and also the gender pay gap. 

Let’s not forget that a dollar saved is a dollar earned. That’s why we’ve also got a plan for climate change. We’ll also get the transition to renewables happening. And that will actually bring down the cost of power bills. We’ll also make childcare more affordable, which is a big pressure on many people, and will lead to a productivity boost or more people can pick up more work.

In the longer term, I think there needs to be a discussion on youth allowance or some sort of living allowance for students has to be part of that answer as well. If we want to be able to support students to study, they need to be able to have the time to focus on their study and not be working so much that they can’t actually study. 

W: Climate change is a big issue on the ballot. What distinguishes yourself and Labor from others?

A: So, Labor has a really strong plan to address climate change. Our plan that will get us to 82 per cent renewables by 2030 and net zero by 2050.

This is about working with big polluters to reduce their emissions. It’s about investing $20 billion into upgrading the grid so that it can take increased investment in renewable energy and transition to renewable energy; it’s removing taxes on electric vehicles to make them more affordable; and things like building community batteries all around the country, including three here in Canberra.

But this issue is one where the community, particularly here in Canberra, are so far ahead of our Government, the Liberal government. We cannot afford to waste another three years. We’ve already had a decade of inaction, and the way that we need to get that action is to elect a Labor Government that will get on with it. Embrace the opportunities of the future and start that transition.

Climate action has been a really key focus of my time in Parliament in the last three years. I’ve probably spoken on it more than any other issue. And it’s just something we absolutely need to get done. I mean, we saw another IPCC report recently that is incredibly confronting, and we just need to get on with it.

W: Labor has been criticised for its climate targets lacking ambition. Other than the announcement that Labor will install three batteries across the act, what policies will you push for further emission reductions?

A: That is one very small part of our climate policy. Our climate policy is actually based on the most comprehensive modelling that an opposition has done on any policy ever.

It will create over 600,000 jobs in that transition. So these are all part of it as well. One of the key parts is, as I mentioned before, working with major polluters to reduce their emissions. That’s building on the existing safeguarding mechanism – setting targets to get them to reduce. I would have to say, too, that we’re at a point where it’s a good jobs policy. Australia will actually be left behind in an economic sense if we don’t get on with this as well. With our natural resources, it’s actually a huge opportunity for this country.

Many say our policies aren’t ambitious enough, but we do need to build consensus nationally and have a policy that we can communicate to the whole country. We need to make sure all Australians understand that we can all benefit from this transition and see it for the opportunity that it is.

I know that people in Canberra may like to see some of our policies go further, and I will always advocate for strong action on climate change, but I don’t accept that our targets are not ambitious. They are. We’re talking about getting to 82 percent renewables in less than ten years. It’s a big step, and that’s one that we are willing to do the work to get to.

W: What is your position on the recent religious discrimination bill [nearly] went through?

A: People should be free from discrimination on the basis of their religion. And something like that should have been a unifying moment for the Parliament, but I think it was clear that that wasn’t genuinely what the Prime Minister was trying to do and he set about this in a way that divided people. 

Particularly for the LGBTQ community, who have already been through these kinds of really damaging debates several times, I was really saddened that they had to go through this again with this debate. And I know that people in Canberra did not want it, did not support it, particularly when it became clear that trans kids were not going to be protected from discrimination. 

The Prime Minister had made a commitment that no students should be discriminated against. And essentially squibbed on it at the last minute. When Labor’s amendments to protect trans kids went up in the house, the Australian Christian lobby then withdrew their support for the bill. And so did the Prime Minister, and it wasn’t debated in the Senate. So I think that shows you a lot about where the Prime Minister and the Liberal Government were at with this. 

Labor is committed to address this in government, but we would do it very differently. And we’ve also said that we would protect teachers from discrimination. So gay teachers, in particular, who were not protected by the bill that the government put forward. But I did speak quite strongly against the bill in Parliament.

W: What’s your favourite walk or hike in Canberra?

A: I’d probably go with the Pinnacles walk.

W: What is your favourite pub or restaurant in Canberra?  A: I do like the Italian Place at Braddon. But there are so many great ones.

This article forms part of Woroni’s ongoing election coverage. Interviews with other candidates have been published previously.

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