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Barrie Cassidy talks to Tony Abbott -

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Barrie Cassidy talks to Tony Abbott

Broadcast: 23/09/2007

Reporter: Barrie Cassidy

Health Minister Tony Abbott discusses the election and the raucous events of the week in
parliament.

Transcript

BARRIE CASSIDY, PRESENTER: Well if this was the last sitting week of Parliament before the
election, then MPs on both sides got a lot off their chests on Thursday.

The House of Representatives was more raucous than it has been for years.

Essentially, it took off when the Opposition implied during Question Time that the Government had
been responsible for backgrounding journalists on Kevin Rudd's medical history:

PETER COSTELLO, FEDERAL TREASURER: The Leader of the Opposition, far from having personal attacks,
has probably had the easiest run from the media of a Leader of the Opposition in a very long period
of time.

This is the last Question Time, it could well be the last Question Time, before the election. And
as far as you're concerned, you would want it to be the last Question Time.

KEVIN RUDD, FEDERAL OPPOSITION LEADER: It takes courage and convention to actually summon forth the
courage and conviction to put your hand up and to challenge this man for the leadership of the
Liberal Party.

JULIA GILLARD, DEPUTY OPPOSITION LEADER: The journalist, Jason Koutsoukis, was invited down to a
meeting in a ministerial suite for the purpose of being supplied with a file with my name on it,
which had been trawled through the Press Gallery as a 'dirt' file.

Whose office was it, Prime Minister? You're so concerned about the reputation of your Government.
Are you going to make enquiries about that?

JOHN HOWARD, AUSTRALIAN PRIME MINISTER: I regard the attempt by the Labor Party to implicate us in
this smear as a piece of, it's a based diversion.

He's too gutless to ask the question himself, Mr Speaker.

I can beat the Leader of the Opposition without resort to smears.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Well, we'll go to our program guest now, Minister for Health and the Government's
Leader in the House, Tony Abbott.

Good morning, welcome.

TONY ABBOTT, FEDERAL MINISTER FOR HEALTH: Morning, Barrie.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Was there anything from either political party to be embarrassed about in terms of
what went on Thursday?

TONY ABBOTT: Well, it was a pretty robust debate, but what came out of it was Kevin Rudd's glass
jaw for all the world to

see. He got his minions to ask questions that were a filthy smear on the Government, and it turned
out to be absolutely

baseless.

BARRIE CASSIDY: But Kevin Rudd was animated, that is true, but you see Peter Costello in that mode
the whole time.

TONY ABBOTT: This was the first occasion where Kevin Rudd was under sustained parliamentary
pressure, and anyone who saw the hyperventilating, quivering state that he was in at different
times during that debate I think would be quite anxious about his capacity to manage Australia in a
crisis.

BARRIE CASSIDY: It would encourage you to have the Parliament sit again before the election,
wouldn't it?

TONY ABBOTT: Well, look, that's in the hands of the Prime Minister. We are scheduled to sit, I
think Monday fortnight,

Monday three weeks. But let's wait and see what happens.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Is that a reflection, in any sense, of how the election campaign is going to be
fought out?

TONY ABBOTT: It'll be a tough campaign, there's no doubt about that, and we will be subjecting the
ALP to rigorous scrutiny, they are untested and untried, and they deserve to be subjected to
scrutiny because the public need to know what the

Government and the alternative government to the country are really like.

BARRIE CASSIDY: But it does seem that you've already decided that this campaign is going to be
about Kevin Rudd, you're

going to have to undermine his credibility and his stature, and to do that, it will have to be a
very personal campaign.

TONY ABBOTT: Well, I don't think it will be a personal campaign, it will be about policies, it will
be about people's character and capacity to govern, nothing else.

It will be about political character, if you like, not about their personal character, and then of
course there's the team. Rudd basically has been presenting himself as a one-man band. I think if
you were to stack up the respective front benchers, the comparison is very much to Labor's
disadvantage.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Well if not personal, negative, because you're talking about the inexperience of
Labor's team, you're going to talk about links with the unions, that sort of thing. Are you okay
with negative?

TONY ABBOTT: Well, I mean, it'll be a tough campaign, Barrie, and inevitably, we will end up saying
things that are critical of the Opposition, just as the Opposition, I am sure, will be relentlessly
critical of the Government.

BARRIE CASSIDY: The Government did say there was no evidence in the end that a smear campaign is
being conducted by the Government. But what about that example that Julia Gillard raised, that an
'Age' journalist has written about this, that he was summoned to a minister's office and offered
what was described as 'hot' material on Julia Gillard, in a folder, marked 'Gillard'.

That's smear, isn't it?

TONY ABBOTT: Well it depends what was in it, and if all it was was material that is already on the
public record, one way or another, but perhaps not much aired about where Gillard really stands on
things, so what? Big deal. You know, I read Kevin

Reynolds or a report of Kevin Reynolds in the paper this morning saying that he had dirt files on
both Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd, and that he was going to expose them at some point in time.
Well, I mean really and truly, that looks like a union leader attempting to blackmail or
threatening to blackmail the leaders of his own party. So if there is any dirt floating around, I
suspect it is much more likely to be Labor dirt on Labor people, rather than anything the Liberal
Party has got.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Well Kevin Reynolds at least went on the record and declared himself. Do you know
who the minister was who offered this material to the journalist?

TONY ABBOTT: You'd better ask Jason Koutsoukis, he's the guy that wrote the story.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Yeah, but my question to you was do you know who it was?

TONY ABBOTT: No, I don't know who it was.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Okay. Now when another minister's Chief of Staff goes to a forum, conducted by his
opponent, and accuses

him of acting like a Nazi prison guard, is that smear?

TONY ABBOTT: It's a tacky thing to say, and the minister in question has repudiated the statements,
and the staffer in question has been told that he has mucked up big time.

BARRIE CASSIDY: With those staffers, and Senator Bill Heffernan is known to do this too, you turn
up at an opponent's door stop or an opponent's forum, and you interject.

Is that a legitimate tactic?

TONY ABBOTT: It's bad form and it shouldn't happen.

BARRIE CASSIDY: And that is a message to Bill Heffernan as well?

TONY ABBOTT: (laughs) I'm stating that it's bad form and it shouldn't happen.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Okay. What about Kevin Rudd's medical condition, is that in any way relevant?

TONY ABBOTT: Look, I think it's his credibility not his heart that's the issue. It's his political
character that is in question, not

his health, and I that was really exposed for the world to see in the Parliament on Thursday.

BARRIE CASSIDY: If you put yourself up, though, for Prime Minister, it's reasonable, isn't it, for
the electorate to know that

you're in good health and that you're capable of doing the job physically?

TONY ABBOTT: Yeah, but that's really an issue for Kevin Rudd, and of course that which he was
claiming was a vicious smear by the Government, he'd sort of let out himself on the 'Sunrise'
program several years ago. So that's really an issue for Kevin Rudd.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Now clearly, the public is none the wiser as to when the election will be called
just yet.

But is part of the reason for the delay essentially because you want to run these free Government
advertisements on television and in the newspapers, well before you start paying for your own?

TONY ABBOTT: Well, look Barrie, the ads that the Government has been running are perfectly
legitimate ads, and it's not unusual for governments to run ads, I noticed that the New South Wales
Government spent $110 million on advertising between the middle of last year and March this year.

So what the Government is doing is perfectly in order, and it's not at all unusual.

BARRIE CASSIDY: And have they got a week or two to run, these advertisements?

TONY ABBOTT: Well, they'll run until such time as they can no longer run because an election has
been called.

BARRIE CASSIDY: What do you do to turn around a 10, 12, 14 point, whatever the deficit is, what do
you do at this very late

stage to shift those votes that I was referring to before, those rusted on votes for Labor?

TONY ABBOTT: You try to highlight your own strengths, and your policies for the future, and you
also try to highlight the problems and the risks in the alternative, you try to point out 70 per
cent of Labor's front bench are former union officials, you point out that there is now $80 billion
worth of state Labor debt, and do you really want wall-to-wall Labor governments, given the record
of state Labor, and the fact that this is such an uninspiring, untried and untested federal Labor
team?

BARRIE CASSIDY: I didn't put a clock on it, but just then I think you spent more time on the
negatives of the Labor side than the strengths on the Government's side.

TONY ABBOTT: The strengths are obvious, because we've been there for 11 years, we have been a good
government, Barrie, not perfect, but a very good government, certainly the best government of
recent times, and I think when the chips are down, and people are actually realising that this is
for keeps, vote for a change of government and you change the country, you put a lot at risk. I
think people will come back to the government.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Well only yesterday, the Labor Party has taken, I guess, a pragmatic decision to
keep the Medicare safety net after all. You would see that as a sensible decision, I imagine?

TONY ABBOTT: Well it wasn't just a backflip; it was a triple somersault with pike. And in the
process, Kevin Rudd has done some pretty serious damage to Julia Gillard who for years has been
calling the safety net a sham, and just last year she said it was 'a sign of division, exclusion
and unfairness'. So yes, they have woken up to the fact that the Government really is the best
friend that Medicare has ever had by endorsing our policy.

But why did it take them so long?

BARRIE CASSIDY: But if you regard an adjustment to Medicare as a triple back somersault with pike,
how would you describe the Coalition accepting the whole basis of Medicare, after first rejecting
it?

TONY ABBOTT: Yeah, well, we've accepted the whole basis of Medicare for a long, long time. We went
into the 1996 election promising to protect and strengthen Medicare, and that's precisely what
we've been doing ever since. Health spending has gone up from 15 per cent to 22 per cent of the
federal Budget, we've made a lot of important structural improvements to Medicare, including that
safety net, loathed by Labor, but now apparently accepted.

We're just in the process of extending Medicare in a significant way to dentistry, so look, we
really have been on our record, the best friend that Medicare has ever had, and Labor hates that,
because they used to think that they owned health policy.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Well they introduced the policy in the first place, I guess that's why they find it
frustrating.

TONY ABBOTT: And we've improved on it, very dramatically improved on it, and Labor's triple
somersault with pike yesterday is a tacit confession that we really have done a very good job in
this area.

BARRIE CASSIDY: But what Kevin Rudd says is that it's because a million people have now factored
this in to their family budgets, and it's then impossible for them to reverse it.

TONY ABBOTT: Yes but this is a fact of life that we recognised, and we addressed, Labor denied for
years, and promised to reject and repeal. Now they've been forced to accept that what we did was
good policy, and this is problem with Kevin Rudd, Barrie, he never seems to have policies of his
own on Medicare, on tax, on water, on indigenous interventions, he follows the Government, and on
industrial policy he follows the ACTU, but he looks a lot more like a follower than a leader.

BARRIE CASSIDY: During the week you bought the Mersey Hospital in Tasmania for $1. At that price,
are you ready to buy more public hospitals around the country?

TONY ABBOTT: (laughs) Well the PM has said that we'll see how this goes, and I've got to say, I
think this is a much better model for running public hospitals than that which is typically used by
the states. It will be a community controlled public hospital, so you won't have a CEO with very
little autonomy reporting to distant directors general, you'll have a CEO who reports directly to a
local board that will include local conditions, so all the people involved in making all the actual
decisions of the hospital will be local people, and I just think you are going to get a hospital
which better serves the community this way, and I would certainly commend the model to the states,
and regardless of who runs hospitals, the question really is, are they well run, and I think that's
recipe for better run hospitals.

BARRIE CASSIDY: There are now two duelling dental schemes out there. It seems the difference though
is that you're plan covers people with chronic illnesses, Labor's is not limited to those people?

TONY ABBOTT: If you look at the fine print of Labor's policy, Labor said it was directed towards
people with chronic illness, basically Labor's policy is to resurrect a scheme dreamt up by Paul
Keating in 1994.

Well a lot has changed since 1994, but not apparently Labor's thinking on dentistry. Our policy is
a much better policy than just handing over money to the states, which has made such a hash of
public dentistry.

BARRIE CASSIDY: But I think from the public's point of view, I guess they would be saying that they
are pleased that the federal parties are now back in the game and taking some responsibility for
dentistry that has been lacking for 11 years?

TONY ABBOTT: Well it hasn't been lacking, we certainly through the private health insurance rebate
have put about $400 million a year into dentistry, and Labor never put any money into dentistry
that way.

And let's not forget Barrie that about 85 per cent of all dentistry in Australia is done privately.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Nicola Roxon, your opposite number, said on Channel 10 this morning that she looks
across the chamber and she sees somebody who is bored and doesn't want to be there, in health.

TONY ABBOTT: That's a smear, you know, I say Nicola is not particularly competent and not
particularly across the issues, but I don't accuse her of not being fair dinkum, and I think that's
the cheapest shot in the book, the one that she's engaging in at the moment.

I mean, do I look like someone who is disengaged, Barrie? I don't think anyone who has watched my
performance could reasonably come to that conclusion.

BARRIE CASSIDY: No, not disengaged in politics, but perhaps in health, that was her accusation. Are
you committed to this portfolio beyond the election?

TONY ABBOTT: Of course I am, yes I am, and what I would like to do Barrie, I would like to have the
responsibility of negotiating the next health care agreements, these come up once in five years,
Kay Patterson negotiated the last lot, that concluded just before I took on this job, and I've got
to say Kay did a very good job with those health care agreements, they were a big improvement on
the previous ones, but certainly, I would very much like to have that opportunity.

BARRIE CASSIDY: But perhaps you should have concluded that before the election?

TONY ABBOTT: The government in power after the election should be the government that negotiates
the agreements, because let's face it, they don't start until the middle of next year.

BARRIE CASSIDY: Thanks for your time this morning.

TONY ABBOTT: Thanks a lot.