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Government continues downward slide in polls -

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Government continues downward slide in polls

Broadcast: 15/05/2007

Reporter: Kerry O'Brien

Despite an almost universally positive response to the budget last week, the Government once again
slid against the Opposition in a news opinion poll this morning. Prime Minister John Howard talks
to the ABC.


KERRY O'BRIEN: Broadband is not the only headache the Government has got in this election year,
despite an almost universally positive response to last week's crucial election Budget. The Prime
Minister woke up this morning to another bad news opinion poll. Not only did the Government get no
bounce up in The Australian's Newspoll, but the reverse happened, Labor actually increased its lead
with a staggering 50 per cent of the primary vote. It covered a two week period that included not
only that good news Budget for Mr Howard but a rash of negative headlines for Kevin Rudd on
industrial relations out of Labor's national conference.

So, with time ticking away, what rabbits does Mr Howard have left to pull out of his hat? And he
joins me now in Sydney.

(to John Howard) Prime Minister, let's get the Newspoll question out of the road first. The thing I
found interesting about today's poll was not so much that you got no big boost out of your Budget,
but that you actually lost ground after a pretty ordinary two weeks for Labor. Can you understand

JOHN HOWARD, PRIME MINISTER: No, I don't pretend to understand all the movements in polls. I didn't
expect a bounce, you don't normally get a bounce out of a Budget and these things move around, but

KERRY O'BRIEN: You wouldn't have expected the drop though.

JOHN HOWARD: Well look I'm, you know, we're going through a bad period with the polls. What is my
response, my response is to go on governing well, not to do stupid things, not to splurge money. We
produced a Budget that was universally seen as economically responsible, but also good for the
present generation of Australians. And by laying aside things for the future, are good for the
future. So, we just have to persevere with good humour. It's a great democratic process. I mean in
the end, the Australian public gets to decide. What I do intend to do is to point out the
consequences more strongly of a Labor victory because there are economic consequences. I think the
Labor Party to date has got away with this proposition that the economy will sail on unmolested if
a Labor Government is elected now...

KERRY O'BRIEN: I think what they're saying is they won't molest it.

JOHN HOWARD: No, no, no, no, well I think they will with their industrial relations policy. I mean,
what will gradually sink through to the public is that a Labor industrial relations policy you saw
it today with the master builders. They want ... a Rudd risk premium is now being built into certain
building contracts because the abolition of the Building and Construction Industry Authority which
came out of the Cole Royal Commission will bring back the days of lawlessness in the major cities
and in relation...

KERRY O'BRIEN: I noticed that Heather Ridout of the Australian Industry Group said that that claim
wasn't true of her members, which include some big constructors and also there was a story...

JOHN HOWARD: The master builders actually, the master builders you know, as their name suggests,
master builders, and they do know a little bit about building. And we all know that there has been
an astonishing fall in the number of industrial disputes in the building and construction industry.
Now, that is a combination of the special authority and the industrial relations reforms. In every
(coughs) excuse me, major builder I've spoken to all over the country in the last six months, has
told me that the improvement has been amazing, and they dread the thought of going back to the old
days. Now these are the...


JOHN HOWARD: I've spoken to them. I mean, I'm not making this up. I've spoken to a dozen of them in
Sydney, Gold Coast, Melbourne, Perth and they've all given me the same story.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Well you say that the message will filter through, but you told your party room
earlier this year that one of the big dangers for a Government facing re-election is when voters
stop listening to you. Obviously if the message is going to filter through, people have got to
listen to you. Do you think that that's what has happened? That people have stopped listening?

JOHN HOWARD: No, I don't because the way in which they responded to the Budget indicates that they
were listening.

KERRY O'BRIEN: But they seem to be saying if you look at that poll today, they're saying they like
the Budget, they don't like the Government.

JOHN HOWARD: Well Kerry, that has sometimes been the case in the past but we could go on all night
analysing the poll. I mean, look the poll is bad for us, I know that, you know that, everybody
watching this program knows that. They also know that people these days make up their minds much
later in the cycle. There are far fewer dyed in the wool voters, politics is less tribalised,
there's a lot more movement, there's a lot more volatility now than used to be the case 34 years
ago, so we've got six, seven months to go...

KERRY O'BRIEN: But going back to 1996 Mr Howard, you would well know, you'd still have good
memories of '96. In '96 people had stopped listening to the Keating Government and the implication,
if that's happening this time, the implications of course if they've stopped listening, is that it
almost doesn't matter how scary you try to make the prospects of a Labor Government sound, or how
much you believe it might be, if the people aren't listening it becomes very hard to round them up
and bring them back to the safety of your bosom, if I can put it like that. Is that the danger you
referred to in your party room?

JOHN HOWARD: Well Kerry, you talk about 1996, I mean the people had a reason to stop listening in
1996. Unemployment was 8.5 per cent. We barely emerged from a deep recession. Interest rates were
much higher than they are now, and to quote the famous words of Wayne Goss, people were on their
verandas with baseball bats waiting for Mr Keating to come around the corner. Now that is...

KERRY O'BRIEN: There obviously aren't baseball bats this time but the bottom line...

JOHN HOWARD: No, no, no, no, no. Well, I think that's quite an important thing if you want me to
play electoral commentator for one more nanosecond.

KERRY O'BRIEN: I thought you didn't do that.

JOHN HOWARD: I think there is a belief that this Government has done a very good job with the
economy, so much so we've been paid the ultimate compliment, Mr Rudd is trying to tell the public
he's no different.

KERRY O'BRIEN: But that still ...

JOHN HOWARD: He runs an advertisement saying...

KERRY O'BRIEN: But that still raises the question: why are you doing so badly in the polls if the
people believe you're a good Government?

JOHN HOWARD: Well ultimately, we'll all find out whether it's not all been a you know, an
interesting exercise by the Australian public's with its innate sense of humour, and we'll find
that out on election day won't we?

KERRY O'BRIEN: We're now five months into this election year with little more than another five
months to go. So far not only have you consistently lagged in the polls, but you've been forced to
play catch up on a number of big policy issues, headline policy issues. How are you going to break
out of that syndrome, that sense of being seen to follow Rudd rather than to lead him?

JOHN HOWARD: Well, I don't think we've followed anybody on economic management, which is still the

KERRY O'BRIEN: What about on education, global warming?

JOHN HOWARD: Well, education we've been talking about literacy and numeracy for almost 10 years.
These things are not new. We've been talking about greater authority for principals in schools for
a long period of time. As Mr Rudd himself reminded me yesterday, we were talking about bullying
some years ago, now...

KERRY O'BRIEN: But you're still talking about it almost as if it's a new reform. In your speech
yesterday, you painted that speech and it was certainly marketed as it was leaked to one of the
papers the morning of your speech as being a big new set of reforms. But in fact much of what was
in that speech was, dare I draw the analogy, mutton dressed up as lamb in policy terms.

JOHN HOWARD: Well, I wouldn't put an explanation of the Government's education agenda which most
levels of education in this country have said of the Budget have been ground-breaking. The
commitment to universities, which took the Labor Party and everybody else completely by surprise,
is quite ground-breaking and will provide a steady stream of revenue to universities years into the

KERRY O'BRIEN: You mentioned WorkChoices, Mr Howard. You were saying until very recently that you
wouldn't budge on WorkChoices other than fine-tuning. Suddenly you do a backflip on individual
contracts for people earning less than $75,000 a year, acknowledging that they may have been
exploited in some instances. Surely that was to take back some of the ground that you'd lost to Mr
Rudd on industrial relations and on WorkChoices?

JOHN HOWARD: Well Kerry, I don't mind acknowledging that we have changed an aspect of WorkChoices,
a frame...

KERRY O'BRIEN: A significant change.

JOHN HOWARD: The framework is still there and what we have done is to provide effectively a
guarantee that if any employee trades away things like penalty rates or overtime loadings, they
must receive fair compensation in return.

KERRY O'BRIEN: But you've been a long time coming to that.

JOHN HOWARD: I've listened to the public on that. Well Kerry, I don't mind you saying that. I don't
mind anybody...

KERRY O'BRIEN: But it's true, isn't it?

JOHN HOWARD: Well, it is true that we have listened to the public, and I'm always prepared...

KERRY O'BRIEN: But it's true until the very recent past.

JOHN HOWARD: I'm always willing to plead guilty to listening to the Australian public, because
after all the public is my master.

KERRY O'BRIEN: But you must have only just heard them in the last few weeks because on April 16 on
Brisbane radio you said, "as far as WorkChoices is concerned, our position hasn't changed one
iota". A month later you find a compelling reason to make a substantial change, so you must have
only just picked that up in the last month.

JOHN HOWARD: Well Kerry, it's not a change that alters the framework. I mean...

KERRY O'BRIEN: Butt it is a significant change.

JOHN HOWARD: Well, but it's a change for the better. I mean what matters is the...

KERRY O'BRIEN: But it's still a change.

JOHN HOWARD: Yeah, yeah but I mean ... yeah ok well, but I mean the viewing public out there is
saying now is this change good for us or bad for us? They're not quite so interested in the nuance
of our exchange. They want to know is it good that the Prime Minister is now going to introduce
legislation that guarantees if people trade away penalty rates for overtime loadings they must get
fair compensation. I think they would all nod their heads and say that's a very good thing, and
thank you for that change.

KERRY O'BRIEN: But you still haven't explained how you've suddenly come to that view where a month
ago you were saying there was no need to change anything one iota. So, you suddenly heard this
message in the last month?

JOHN HOWARD: Look Kerry, the important thing is whether you've heard a message or not.

KERRY O'BRIEN: But did you hear it through your own party polling, your own private polling plus
the public polling or...?

JOHN HOWARD: Kerry, I have multiple ways of trying to understand what the public wants. All parties
do polling, but all sensible politicians listen to what people say. They talk to groups of
employees, they talk to their local ... their own members. So, this idea that it's something that's
just been distilled as your question implies, party polling is quite wrong. The important thing is
the quality and the merit of the change, and you give me an opportunity to say again, I think it is
good that we have strengthened the protection in the WorkChoices legislation because it was never
our intention that it should become the norm for things like penalty rates and overtime loadings to
be traded away without proper compensation. It was always our intention that there be flexibility
in this area, but not that people be left worse off than they might otherwise be and I think it's a
very good reform.

KERRY O'BRIEN: To come back to the broad point about the fact that you've been seen to be chasing
Labor on some of the big hit policy items - another one global warming, you've been seen to drag
your feet on carbon trading and other aspects of global warming. It's true isn't it, the Treasury
was raising and urging you to consider carbon trading three, four years ago?

JOHN HOWARD: The broad point is the quality of the policy, not the inter-party exchange. But let me
come to carbon trading. We're approaching this in a methodical way. Unlike Mr Rudd who's committed
himself to a target and then scrambled around to get a group of people to tell him what that target
means and what it implies, what we are doing - and we've been doing now for almost five months - is
having a task group composed of the most senior bureaucrats in the Federal Government and people
from energy and resource companies to come together and they'll give me a paper at the end of this

KERRY O'BRIEN: Mr Howard, some of those people have been asking you to consider this years ago.

JOHN HOWARD: No, no, no, no, could I please...

KERRY O'BRIEN: It's true, isn't it, that you've resisted...

JOHN HOWARD: No, but I think it's also true that your question was fairly long, so I'll just
finish. It is an important point. I mean, we are doing this thing methodically and we're actually
working out what is the most appropriate emissions trading system for this country before we commit
ourselves to a target. I mean, we will not put the cart before the horse, we will not commit to
targets when we don't know what they imply. And that is the different approach that we have from
that of the Labor Party.

KERRY O'BRIEN: There's something of the sense of the old bull and the young bull in this contest,
is there not between you and Kevin Rudd, except that you've got the additional problem of having to
convince the public that you're going to stick around as Prime Minister for a full three years if
you're elected to another term. Can you make that promise with a straight face this time around?

JOHN HOWARD: I can look you straight in the face and say as I've said before, I'll remain leader of
the Liberal Party for as long as my party wants me to. And it's in the party's best interest.

KERRY O'BRIEN: So, you won't undertake to the public ... you won't undertake to the public to serve
the full term?

JOHN HOWARD: I will say what to the public what I've just said to the public because you know, a
lot of people are watching this interview, and that is my position. And can I tell you Kerry, that
is a perfectly sensible position. It's the truth and it's a position that I think more Australians
understand and accept, and some people think.

KERRY O'BRIEN: And it leaves you to get out of being able to walk away after 12 months into the
next term if that's what your plan is.

JOHN HOWARD: Well, you talk about a get out. I mean, I think the last thing...

KERRY O'BRIEN: Well to retire, to retire.

JOHN HOWARD: Hang on, the last thing even my fiercest critics can accuse me of is walking away from
a fight or walking away from anything.

KERRY O'BRIEN: No, I'm talking about...

JOHN HOWARD: No, well I mean you know, that is a rather pejorative expression...

KERRY O'BRIEN: I'm talking about walking away from the Parliament after a 33 or 34 - by then it
would be - year career.

JOHN HOWARD: Yeah, well I mean yeah I think the fact that I've spent all of that time in public
life and I've had my ups and downs as not somebody who seeks a get out, but somebody who tries to
look after the interests of his party and his Government.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Everything comes to an end though, doesn't it?

JOHN HOWARD: Well, if you're saying as Lord Keynes once famously said, "in the long run, we're all
dead", yes.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Prime Minister thanks for talking with us. No one is going to argue that point.
Thank you.