Continuing in the spirit of Cate Speaks

Neal Smith speaks!

A little bonus for you, faithful readers!

In my review of Independent Neal Smith’s policies, I noted that I didn’t have much to go on, and offered him the opportunity to expand on his policy platform. Well, he’s taken up the opportunity, and given us some real meat to chew on. Here’s the Q&A – enjoy!

1. Let’s start with the elephant in the room. In terms of an online presence, your campaign has been quite restricted. Was this a deliberate decision, and if it is, would you mind elaborating on your reasoning? Are you also conducting a face-to-face campaign?

Not intended at all – this was purely a consequence of having a very small, very part-time team of volunteers, and my not having the required skills to build a campaign. I’ve mentioned to a few friends that if I had a spare $2 million, I’d have found 20 people with the collectively required skills, and offered them $100k each for the first half of the year to build the necessary campaign framework. That way, I could spend my time articulating my stance, and how I’d “do” politics, instead of battling away at social media marketing and multiple IT hurdles. Also, trying to do everything as a one-man band isn’t feasible, which is why you’re getting these replies so late, sorry!

My in-person campaign has suffered similar challenges in terms of planning, advertising etc. What has worked well is that when I talk to people one-on-one, I seem to have about a 99.5% conversion rate on #1 votes, regardless of knowing individuals before we talk! So the messages clearly resonate, which is a real positive.

2. There’s been a lot of talk about the possibility of a hung Parliament, leading to a minority government. Would you support one of the major parties to form government, and if so, have you made up your mind who that would be?

This commentary has been fascinating, hey? FWIW, I’m not sold on whether independent candidates *should* declare such a thing. If voters need that certainty, voting for a major party is probably their best bet. If an independent’s platform is your preferred platform in your electorate, then they’ll drag either major party in their direction. It’s likely that the party they end up choosing is the party that will move the furthest towards the independent’s position. It’s probably better for everyone that the major parties are kept on their toes, even if that adds to our uncertainty.

Because the House of Reps is where the government is formed, this question doesn’t truly apply to me. As a crossbench senator, my role is to make sure whatever legislation gets to the senate is scrutinised in the open, for all Aussies to see. For any Bill, I’ll state my opinions on the legislation as it’s given to us, what my preferred changes are, and the bare minimum that needs to change for me to support it, so you’ll always know why I vote the way I do!

3. If elected, what role do you see yourself playing in Parliament?

Oops, I kind of answered this above, hey? Here’s a touch more:
In Australia, the party that wins enough seats in the House of Representatives (HoR) forms a government. Those MPs that get elected choose the Prime Minister. That Prime Minister chooses a cabinet. That cabinet, hand-picked by the PM, who was hand-picked by the elected MPs, have near-complete control over what Bills are brought before Parliament, and where money is allocated. This party, their PM, and their cabinet, will write bills exactly as they wish, after their conversations behind closed doors, that we can’t see. If that party has a majority of seats in the HoR, they will pass those bills without amendment, no matter what any other MPs think about them.

And then the Bills hit the Senate.The Senate will not be controlled by any one party. Other parties will have ideas about Bills, but these conversations will probably also happen behind closed doors.

At this point in time, it’s clear that most of democracy happens out of the public eye, which to me makes absolutely no sense at all. So my job is to bring those conversations into the Senate chamber, where you all can hear them.

Crossbench senators are the goalkeepers of democracy. If a Bill hurts Australians, we tell you how, and change it. If we can’t change it, we block it. If the two major parties agree on something, we can share an alternate opinion, so at least you know someone has your back.

In terms of my personal role, as opposed to that of a generic crossbench senator: I’m a very progressive candidate. All of my views extend from wanting everyone to have the opportunity to live their best life, as their authentic self. That’s what I’ll fight for.

4. One of your motivations for running in this election is your belief that Australian politics is “broken”, and that the political landscape is “toxic and “shallow”. Would you mind elaborating on that? Do you believe a federal anti-corruption commission is needed?

Certainly 🙂

Broken – most people I speak to vote for the “least worst” option. Many voters have had similar experiences to mine, and they go something like this:

First election – believe what the media says:
LNP save money
ALP save money
Greens are crazy idealists
No-one else matters

Next election – notice some nuance
LNP seem to prioritise a surplus over services
ALP seem to prioritise services over a surplus
Greens policies seem kinda neat, but it’s hard to tell if they’re doable
Other parties exist, but it’s so hard to get real info on them

Next election – guys, the house is on fire
LNP climate and refugee policies are completely unacceptable
ALP climate and refugee policies are completely unacceptable, but slightly better than the LNP. They cry that the Greens are playing “wedge politics”, which makes me sad
The Greens are willing to do what is right, not what is “centrist”. For some reason, this is a bad idea
I’ve spent days researching all the other parties and I’m now very, very tired

Most of my friends are exhausted that we collectively vote quite progressively, but it feels like money just keeps winning. I mean, why isn’t there a sub-part of the AEC website where all candidates can post their policy positions in the one spot? Why is it so hard for us to make informed decisions? And why, when we’ve gone to all this effort, does nothing change? I would call this a broken system.

Toxic and shallow – I went to watch Parliament during budget week, to see if I could do the job. Here’s what I saw:
Senate ‘debates’ were just people with differing opinions making pre-planned speeches with barely any logical reasoning as to why their opinion was reasonable
It was more likely that a senator would insult an opponent then say something meaningful
Facts and figures were cherry-picked to fit a narrative, which as a statistician, I detest.
A great example: a government reduces a pledged expenditure, but the new figure is still higher than ever before. Is that a cut, or a record spend? What a stupid conversation to have. You’re literally just trying to trick people. Grow up.
Senate estimates included some truly shallow or irrelevant questions, or senators not being able (or willing) to get to their core point. I saw a senator ask a witness to calculate percentages on their phone during a committee. What on earth is that?

Sorry, that’s not a short answer, but it’s a lot shorter than the list of things I’d like to say. Long story short, we need politicians like Katie Porter and AOC actually asking tough questions, not to catch people out, but to see how far we can take our country, if we really try.

Federal ICAC – 100% needed. Good on Dr Haines MP for her awesome proposal. By my count, this government has either inappropriately spent or flat-out wasted at least $2 billion since 2016 – and that’s only the obvious stuff. Do you know the worst thing about taxes? How poorly they get spent. That’s the tip of the ICAC’s iceberg.
Simply put, I want the accountability that an ICAC brings. Who doesn’t want to learn from their mistakes? An ICAC can only make our politicians better at representing us. It’s frankly gross that any of them argue against it.

5. You’ve said you stand for “equity of opportunity”. How might that translate into concrete initiatives, especially in terms of the gender pay gap?

To be honest, I’m not the best person to ask, because I don’t have the expertise in the field. But I hope that’s seen as a good answer – I would consult people who know more than me, ask the best questions I can think of, collate all that information and then present a complete, logical argument for what I think should change.

Here are my thoughts, as a current layperson:
My gut says that the gender pay gap has two parts: equal pay for equal work, and the overall pay gap, across industries. The first problem seems so simple to fix, the fact it still exists is a flat-out disgrace. As for women “going in to lower-paid fields”, I have a suspicion that those fields are lower-paid because the roles are considered “feminine”, from a patriarchal perspective. Politicians get the causality wrong, which allows them to blame women for the choices they make.

Until the playing field is more level at the beginning of the journey, nothing you do at the end point (i.e. employment) can change the system that much. We need to know why discrepancies in where men and women are employed exist, and before that, what cultural and educational differences exist across the gender spectrum that lead to different outcomes. And if we have that information already, we need to hold current politicians accountable for not using it wisely, and then change the system to make it fairer.

I think there’s a lot of merit in quotas within certain situations and with caveats, while the kinks in the whole chain are sorted out. I find the argument that “if we enforce quotas, we get a lower-quality workforce” is flawed in two ways:

This argument is only useful if you heed my above point: “to prevent a lower-quality workforce, we’re going to make the whole process more equitable, from the way we raise and educate marginalised/vulnerable/minority populations, to how we hire”. You either fix the whole system properly, or you should be ok with a (theoretically) “lower quality” workforce for the sake of inclusion/fairness/equity.

There is an assumption that the way we hire at the moment is optimised, which it almost certainly isn’t. People in leadership positions will select people like them in similar leadership positions – of course they think they’re the best person for the job! Until we naturally recognise a more diverse set of skills as being beneficial in high-level roles, we’ll keep picking the same people at the top of organisations. A quota will help accelerate the collection of data that shows whether diverse leadership teams yield better results.

Apologies again – brevity is not a strong suit.

6. You’ve said you’d seek “a higher baseline of security for all”. What do you see as the most important ways to achieve this?

Here’s how this works in my mind: Politics isn’t about right now. It’s about the next 50, 100, however many years. As such, you have to start with a vision of a future state you’d like to live in. In my desired future state, I want everyone to have the opportunity to live a fulfilled life, spending time with those they love, and doing what gives them purpose.

Next question: how do we make that happen? Every time I think about the last question, I come back to the same things: everyone should have access to shelter, food, healthcare and education. No questions asked, no exceptions. We won’t get there any time soon, mostly because politicians seem scared to talk about or take action on such things. I’m not sure what the best methods are – again, I’m not the expert – but let’s chat, in the open, about the following questions:

Why do people have to work to eat? If there are dozens of small-scale experiments that all conclude if you give people shelter and food, that stability allows them to find work, why aren’t we doing that?

What would a genuine costing of a universal basic income look like? What are the pros and cons? How much worker exploitation could be avoided with such a safety net?

How much would it cost Australia to have true universal healthcare? What government and private expenses would be avoided? If we take those government savings, and translate any private expenses into some form of additional Medicare rebate, for example, how much more would Aussies have to pay for this true universal healthcare? If we crunch some numbers, we could just, you know, ask people what they think. Why on EARTH are dental, mental health and allied health not funded under Medicare? WHY?

7. Your climate change policy calls for “legislated CO2 targets”. What figure would you like to see in terms of 2030 and 2050 emissions reduction?

Mate, what a question. With the same caveat as always – let’s ask the experts to know for sure – here’s my take, as succinctly as I can make it:

We need to either:
Commit all of our collective energies to keeping global warming to under 1.5 degrees as per the Paris agreement; OR
Openly admit we aren’t going to do that, AND state the damages that are likely to occur from missing the 1.5 degree target.

I want to pick the first option. I hope you do, too.

There are calculations about the total amount of carbon emissions the world can afford before having a worse than 50/50 chance of getting back under 1.5 degrees warming by 2100. (I think we’ve already missed the boat on staying under 1.5 degrees.) There are also calculations on what Australia’s ‘fair share’ of these emissions would be. This should be our limit on emissions. Ever.

From there, we take our emissions for the most recent calendar year (391.89 Mt in 2020) as a starting point, and aim for a linear decrease in emission year-on-year, reaching net zero emissions at the same time we have depleted our carbon budget.
Here’s what the first iteration of such a target would look like:

I have many, many more thoughts about what this looks like in principle, but again, conversations with experts are crucial to any meaningful targets.

One thing I’d like to see in the action space of emissions reduction is an overarching body that coordinates between the five key stakeholders in the renewables transition:
Those who have the best evidence (e.g. climate and renewable researchers)

Those that create physical products (e.g. mining, technology, manufacturing industries)

Those that sell and implement/install the technology (e.g. energy companies, electricians, car dealerships [for EVs])

Those that have the capacity to assist with purchasing (e.g. banks, dealerships, government, large businesses, philanthropists, public)

Those that have the means to use/house/own the renewables (e.g. the public, landowners, electrical grid operators)

This is the defining challenge of our lifetime. We all need to be on the same side here, and I think a transparent overarching mechanism to coordinate all the moving parts is our best way of saving the planet. And if we do it right here, we’ll likely create a booming export market – a win for our economy, and a win for the world!

8. Do you believe a Royal Commission is needed to examine the federal government’s management of the Covid-19 pandemic?

Good question. If a Royal Commission is the best way to consolidate our understanding of the pandemic response, and what it changes going forward, then absolutely. For context, I was finishing a PhD in infectious disease modelling when the pandemic started, so I’m reasonably confident in the next few paragraphs.

Our pandemic response is a really touchy subject for me, for a number of reasons. First, so many people busted their guts to minimise the damage and support one another, and now we’re at over 6 million cases, and 50+ daily deaths. That makes me unbelievably sad. Second, we had so much warning from the rest of the world, as well as the advantage of being an island nation that’s not really on the way to anywhere (unlike Singapore), and we barely made the most of it. Third, the federal government undermined the efforts of everyone who tried to genuinely keep Australians safe, butchered most of the tasks they actually decided to handle, took credit for things they either didn’t do, or did badly, and hung most of the developing world out to dry – especially our Pacific neighbours – in the process.

Remember, our vaccine roll-out was slower than the government had declared, and much faster than any equitable allocation would have been. We stole from the poor to jab the rich, and then did it badly. This is not the fault of any of us – that guilt is the government’s to own.

And finally, during the pandemic, I spent five months having lost three casual jobs, trying to study medicine online, running out of money for the last 4 days of every fortnight due to financial pressures, and the only reason I wasn’t homeless is because of the state government’s rent assistance. It was one of the bleakest times in my life, and I’m one of the lucky ones.

Between all of the above points, we need to have public transparency about how well things could have gone, and how to get improved outcomes when this happens again, which it will.

Once again, thanks for tackling these questions.

The pleasure is all mine! Thanks for helping others make their vote count 🙂

So there you have it. There’s a lot more to Neal Smith than the social media accounts might suggest. I’ll let his words stand for themselves, and only add that these is some of the most passionate and well-articulated policy statements I’ve seen throughout this campaign. Smith understands his personal limitations, but doesn’t let that stop him. His style is consultative, and he doesn’t shy away from the big questions (which is something I wish I could say about more Independents). We need more Independents like this in our Parliament, people who are aware of the responsibility that comes with such a position. Smith is high on my personal ballot, and I wish him well.


  1. Simon

    That might be the best take on the role of an independent in a hung parliament I’ve ever read.

  2. Clare

    Thanks so much to Something for Cate for helping us all digest the massive amount of information and navigate the many platforms, policies, and promises. You’re providing such a valuable community service.

  3. Benjamin Cronshaw

    What a fascinating interview, this was a really great exercise in civics and talking about big issues. I do respect independent candidates putting themselves into the election with articulate and values-based ideas like these (could do worse).

    I liked the timeline of how voters experience elections and learn about the different parties. Elections and research can certainly be tiring (props to Something for Cate for making it easier).

    The point about the gender-wage gap being in certain industries (which might be devalued or overlooked) because of their apparent “feminine” nature is on point. Labor I think has a good emphasis on childcare and aged care, while the tradies obsession from the Government is quite clear (appealing to swinging male voters).

    The talk about environment and the climate is very compelling. To have some honesty politicians should talk about whether they are reaching for 1.5C or, if not, the damages that they believe we can face. This space has been absolutely weaponised and polarised, which makes it continuously frustrating to see the Government call Labor’s safeguard mechanism plan as a “sneaky carbon tax.” I mean, really.

    I do have a great interest with all the independent candidates and resonate with their emphasis on more climate action, integrity and gender-equality. Will hope for a like-minded candidate in the Senate too to take that 6th spot.

  4. Rax

    Solidly impressed with his tales on things, very glad he took the time to speak with you!

  5. LSN

    Thank you for that, and I hope he gets in.

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