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Abbott quizzed on immigration policy -

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Broadcast: 26/07/2010

Reporter: Kerry O'Brien

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott answers questions about the Coalition's immigration policy.


KERRY O'BRIEN, PRESENTER: Last week we conducted our first campaign interview with Julia Gillard.
Tonight, it's Tony Abbott's turn, and I spoke with him just a short time ago in our Sydney studio.

Tony Abbott, today's Treasury figures on the economic outlook again project that the budget will
return to surplus three years early in 2012-13. That's the end of government debt that you're
banging on about - the first developed country to be out of the red and back in the black after the
global economic crisis. Now, where does that leave your attack on Labor debt?

TONY ABBOTT, OPPOSITION LEADER: Well there's still an enormous amount of wasteful spending, Kerry,
an enormous amount of wasteful spending and I want to end the waste, as you know, to pay back the
debt, to stop the big new taxes and to stop the boats.

KERRY O'BRIEN: But the budget will be back in the black three years earlier than originally
scheduled and Australia avoided a recession.

TONY ABBOTT: That's if you assume, Kerry, that the Government can avoid more of the spending
blowouts that we've seen so many of, if they can avoid another pink batts disaster, if they can
avoid another school halls rip-off program. If they can do all of that, sure, if their assumptions
are right, sure, this'll happen, but I don't think anyone can be confident, given the record of
this government, that that'll turn out the way they say.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Do you think it's fair to acknowledge, though, that this was a very particular,
unique, I think probably in Australia's history, release of cash spending to prop up the economy in
a global economic crisis, that with the speed at which that money was going to be got out there,
whether it was cash handouts or whether it was money being spent in a hurry, that inevitably some
of it would be wasted.

TONY ABBOTT: I don't think you can ever justify waste, Kerry, and certainly where the pink batts
program was concerned, the Government had literally 20-odd warnings that there were all sorts of
problems coming, and where the school hall program has been concerned, OK, maybe they couldn't have
anticipated everything at the beginning, but they've had plenty of warnings since it started, but
they haven't really adjusted it properly.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Now you, by comparison, paint yourself as a of man great fiscal discipline, as
somebody who can be trusted to run a tight budget ship. Well Peter Costello wrote this about you in
his memoirs: "Tony always saw himself as something of a romantic figure, a Don Quixote ready to
take on lost causes and fight the great principles, never one to be held back by the financial
consequences of decisions, he had grandiose plans for public expenditure." Now, has this leopard
changed his spots?

TONY ABBOTT: Look, I had a very genial encounter with Peter the other day and I was able to tell
him that instead of channelling B.A. Santamaria, I'm now channelling Peter Costello, and I think he
was amused by that, Kerry. Look, look at my record: I was a very effective Employment minister, I
was a very effective Health minister. As Health Minister, I had a $40 billion-plus budget under my
control. It was very effectively managed under my stewardship.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Because Peter Costello continued on that same page of his memoir: "At one point when
we were in government, he, Abbott, asked for funding to pay for telephone and electricity wires to
be put underground through the whole of his Northern Sydney electorate to improve the amenity of
the neighbourhoods. He also wanted the Commonwealth to take over the building of local roads and
bridges in his electorate."

TONY ABBOTT: Well, I'm a local member, as you'd expect, and local members sometimes make ambit
claims. But ...

KERRY O'BRIEN: But not party leaders and not prime ministers?

TONY ABBOTT: Well, look, again, Kerry, once you become a party leader, you have to be absolutely
governed by the national interest. And I've changed, Julia Gillard's changed over the years. The
absolute national interest has gotta be the test of policy.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Now let's talk about immigration, which you've put further on the map in this
campaign at the weekend and where you've been accused of being tricky. Isn't it true that the peak
immigration figure of 300,000 in 2008, the calendar year 2008, the first year of the Rudd
Government, that you've described as unsustainable, was actually achieved under the immigration
policy of the Howard Government?

TONY ABBOTT: But the government that was in charge was the Rudd-Gillard Government, and the
following year, 2009, we had 277,000 people come in, and what I'm proposing is that the immigration
intake has to be sustainable, that's why I've proposed a maximum of 170,000. And I'm being honest
and upfront about this, Kerry. Julia Gillard tried to have a population discussion last week
without being fair dinkum with us. She tried to pretend that you could discuss population without
also discussing immigration. She wouldn't tell us what she wanted to do with immigration, and I
challenge her to specify a figure.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Well, you said last Saturday that immigration in the last year of the Howard
Government was actually 200,000, - was about, I think you said, 200,000.

TONY ABBOTT: In the last seven quarters of the Howard Government.

KERRY O'BRIEN: The last seven quarters was 200,000?

TONY ABBOTT: Well, I think it was about 210,000 in the last seven quarters of the Howard

KERRY O'BRIEN: Well according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, it was actually 244,000 for
the calendar year in 2007 and rising. Correct? And the Howard Government was in office for 11 of
those 12 months.

TONY ABBOTT: I'm not disputing your figures, Kerry, but circumstances have changed. Australia's
cities are choking on their own traffic. We were booming in the Howard years. We have gone through
a global financial crisis. There has been an economic slowdown since then. The public no longer
support immigration the way they did under the Howard Government. We've got to rebuild support for
the immigration program, as happened under John Howard. The Australian Government has gotta be in
charge and the program has got to be in Australia's national interest and the public have gotta
perceive it that way.

KERRY O'BRIEN: But isn't it also true that the immigration figures have already come down sharply
from that peak of 300,000, a peak of 300,000 under Howard policies and will keep falling sharply in
the next couple of years, probably below 150,000, no matter who is running the government?

TONY ABBOTT: Well, I don't know what's gonna happen under Julia Gillard's policy because she hasn't
told us what her policy is. I've told you what my position is. It will come down to under 170,000
in the first term of a Coalition government.

KERRY O'BRIEN: But let's just nail this down, because even if Julia Gillard doesn't change her
policy one iota, and they have already changed the policy with regard to intakes of students coming
in, they've tightened up rorts that first developed under the Howard Government - and again, I'm
sure you'll be honest enough to acknowledge that; they've tightened up rorts so there will be fewer
students coming in, looking and assuming that they will get permanent residency. But even if she
does absolutely nothing more, isn't it true that immigration will continue to come down sharply in
the next two years?

TONY ABBOTT: Well there's a private sector forecast out, but there's no government forecast out,
there are no government figures out and that same private sector forecast says it will be back to
250,000 in 2015 under the policies of the current government.

KERRY O'BRIEN: That's five years from now. But according to Immigration Department, net migration
into Australia for the financial year just ended, is down to be between 230,000 and 250,000 from
that 300,000 figure. According to the BIS Shrapnel report that you've just referred to, net
migration down to 175,000 by June next year, 145,000 the following year. So it seems your new
migration policy is already - is going to happen anyway, no matter who's in government?

TONY ABBOTT: Well if that's the case, why didn't Julia Gillard tell us this last week when she
tried to have a conversation about population, but dishonestly pretended that population had
nothing to do with immigration, even though two-thirds of our population increase is via

KERRY O'BRIEN: But are you prepared to acknowledge that these figures make clear that your policy
will make no difference to the figures coming down over the next two years?

TONY ABBOTT: Well, last time I looked, Kerry, BIS Shrapnel don't set immigration policy. It's the
Government that should set immigration policy. Under any government that I lead, the Government
will clearly be in charge. The numbers'll be set firmly in Australia's national interest, it will
be sustainable and there'll be a maximum of 170,000 in the first term of a Coalition government.

KERRY O'BRIEN: But by far the biggest single fluctuation in immigration to Australia relates to
students coming from overseas to study and skilled workers coming in on temporary work visas for a
few years. The vast bulk of them do not come to stay. They come to either do their course and go
home, or to do their job of work for the three or four years that their visa allows them and they
also go home. Now, isn't that also correct?

TONY ABBOTT: Sure, but they are included, those longer-term entrants, in net overseas migration.
And one of the points that I made, Kerry, in announcing this policy on Saturday is that I don't
want to restrict the numbers that are coming in under the various employer-nominated categories,
because those people can obviously make a contribution from day one, and I want people who can make
a contribution to our country and obviously I want our businesses to have the skills that they

KERRY O'BRIEN: But, so, are you also going to continue to allow students to come in at the same
levels that they're coming in at the moment?

TONY ABBOTT: Well, it's very important that we have a flourishing education export industry, but we
should be selling education, not residency.

KERRY O'BRIEN: But isn't that exactly the reform that this government has already begun to

TONY ABBOTT: OK, but, Kerry, the Government has not told us what its figures will be. Julia Gillard
started a population debate last week, pretended that you could discuss population without
discussing immigration. There was a fundamental dishonesty to the Government's position. I've said,
"Look, by all means, let's discuss population, but you've gotta also be prepared to discuss
immigration." I will tell you what I will do with immigration.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Well, then presumably you will tell us where you're going to make the cuts. If
you're not gonna make them on students, you're not gonna make them on skilled workers coming in on
457 visas, and they make up the bulk of those who have actually boosted the figures as much as
they've gone, and you're not as I understand it going to cut into family reunion and you're not
gonna cut into the refugee intake, where are the cuts gonna come from? By natural attrition?

TONY ABBOTT: We'll have a white paper process. The white paper will report to the Government in
advance of next year's Budget, and we will reveal a specific numbers, category by category, in next
year's Budget. But there will be ...

KERRY O'BRIEN: But is it accurate to say that your intent is not to make cuts in these categories -
no cuts in the 457 visas, skilled workers, no cuts to students, no cuts to family reunions, no cuts
to refugees?

TONY ABBOTT: Look, I just can't specify every last category at this point in time. What I can say
is I want people who are contributors. That's why I am not going to reduce the numbers of
employee-nominated entrants, because they are making an immediate contribution to Australia's
economic welfare. But I also want to ensure that the overall numbers are 170,000 or less, because
it's got to be sustainable for the long run. We can't have cities that are choking on our traffic.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Well will you also acknowledge that the immigration - that the net migration figures
are already trending down very sharply compared to the peak, a peak inherited from the Howard
Government, and that all of the indications are, including from BIS Shrapnel, that that trend will
continue for at least the next two, three years?

TONY ABBOTT: Well, the facts, as we know them, are that in 2008 there were 301,000, in 2009 there
were 277,000, and no official figures have been published beyond that.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Well, we'll leave immigration there for now, because I don't think we're gonna get
any further. But, I did want to make one other point, and that is, would you believe, it's a year,
almost to the day, since you and I discussed your ideas outlined in your book 'Battlelines',
including your comments on workplace reform and WorkChoices. Your turnaround in the past week has
been so remarkable that I'm going to pause to revisit that interview to reflect on what you
believed about WorkChoices and workplace reform just a year ago.

(Beginning of archive footage from the 7.30 Report, 27th July, 2009)

KERRY O'BRIEN: You've also said that workplace relations, workplace reforms are unfinished
business, that the next Coalition government will have to revisit the workplace reforms that gave
it so much political grief, in other words, revisit WorkChoices. So, presumably you would expect
that to be reflected in Coalition policy going into the next election.

TONY ABBOTT, THEN OPPOSITION FRONTBENCHER: Well, I certainly think that small business is more like
a family than an institution, and I think to impose unfair dismissal laws on small business is
gonna hurt employment, not help employment. The other point I make is that one of the drivers of
prosperity in the Howard years was the ability of businesses to manage in ways that maximised the
productivity of their workers, and that in turn meant more employment and it meant higher wages.

KERRY O'BRIEN: So you do want to revisit WorkChoices?

TONY ABBOTT: Well, if we are going to have productive workplaces, we can never ring down the
curtain on workplace reform. And the problem with the Rudd Government's legislation is that it
doesn't just repeal WorkChoices, it doesn't just repeal the Reith-Kernot legislation of 1996, it's
even undone the Keating-Brereton legislation of 1993, which was the start of workplace

KERRY O'BRIEN: But the alternative for you is to be seen to embrace a policy which was emotionally
and very strongly rejected at the last election and possibly the single biggest reason that you
lost that election?

TONY ABBOTT: I think you're right, Kerry, but we took our lumps on polling day and we accepted the
verdict by effectively not opposing the Government's workplace legislation. But things, I suspect,
will be a little different by the time the next polling day comes around. Unemployment will be
substantially increasing and not decreasing and I think a different economic climate engenders a
different response from the electorate. I think people will be readier for reform from us then than
they were at the last election.

(End of archive footage).

KERRY O'BRIEN: Now, at that point neither ...

TONY ABBOTT: You were very genial in that interview, Kerry. Extremely genial.

KERRY O'BRIEN: I enjoyed it. At that point, neither of us knew you were going to be a leader 12
months later going into an election. But isn't it a bit of a stretch that not only are you now
prepared to turn your back on such a passionate policy belief, but you would sit on your hands in
government for three years, implementing a Labor policy, the Fair Work Act, that you fundamentally
believe and made very plain there, is taking the country backwards by decades?

TONY ABBOTT: But, Kerry, there's been a lot of water under the bridge since then, obviously. Not
only is there the verdict of the people at the 2007 election, but ...

KERRY O'BRIEN: No, no, that water was under the bridge before we did that interview.

TONY ABBOTT: But also, Kerry, I've been travelling around the country, I've been talking to a lot
of employers, including small employers, and they don't think Labor's legislation is great, but
what they want above all else is not perfect legislation, but stability. They say they've had too
much change over the last few years. They will live with what they've got. That's what they've said
to me.

KERRY O'BRIEN: And you didn't say to them, "But don't you realise this is gonna take you

TONY ABBOTT: Look, I've had a lot of toing and froing with people. I mean, I like to engage in
debate, as you know, Kerry, I like to talk about ideas. But the message I've been getting is they
want stability and certainty and that's what they'll get from me.

KERRY O'BRIEN: And you are prepared to sit on your hands, as I've said, for three years, with bad
legislation, including unfair dismissal laws. You're not gonna touch them, not by legislation, not
by regulation, for at least three years?

TONY ABBOTT: It's not all bad. And what they said to me was they would rather live with the
existing situation than have to go through another upheaval.

KERRY O'BRIEN: But where is your leadership in this? Where is an inspired leader with the courage
of his convictions to say, "I'm sorry; you're wrong. This will take the country backwards." Or,
given that you've taken this decision only in the past week, so the Opposition - you've been in
Opposition for three years, three years to reflect on this, three years to talk to business large
and small, but it's only in the shadow of the election that you suddenly changed your tune
completely. Now, you're saying this has absolutely nothing to do with private polling telling you
that WorkChoices was gonna be a big problem for you in the campaign and you had to somehow get out
of it.

TONY ABBOTT: But, Kerry, no democratic politician can or should defy the wishes of the electorate.

KERRY O'BRIEN: But this is the wishes of the electorate that you suddenly came to a view about a
week and a half ago.

TONY ABBOTT: But, I am a party leader now. I'm not just a philosopher, I'm not just a pundit. I'm
not just a speculator in a university department. I am a party leader. And party leaders have to
respect what they're hearing from the electorate and also from the people who will be impacted by
any change.

KERRY O'BRIEN: And when I heard your early interviews on this issue and you were essentially saying
never, ever, WorkChoices never, ever, I was immediately taken back to John Howard saying in 1998:
GST - or in '96: GST, never, ever.

TONY ABBOTT: And there wasn't a GST in the first term of the Howard Government.

KERRY O'BRIEN: But there was in the second?

TONY ABBOTT: And he went to the people and sought a mandate for it. Now, I have no plans to do
that, but if there is to be any change, far off into the future, obviously there should be a
mandate for it.

KERRY O'BRIEN: OK. Now, there's another quote from Peter Costello that I couldn't resist asking to
end this interview and that is ...

TONY ABBOTT: Please, let's keep talking, Kerry! I'm enjoying it!

KERRY O'BRIEN: Last quote. "He used to tell me," - that's you. "He used to tell me he was the
political love child of John Howard and Bronwyn Bishop." Now that does conjure up quite an image.

TONY ABBOTT: (Laughs). Yeah, sure. Um, but, look, John Howard is a pretty good political mentor.
Not perfect, but a pretty good political mentor, and ...

KERRY O'BRIEN: And Bronwyn Bishop is still with you, on the frontbench?

TONY ABBOTT: Of course she - yes, and she's doing a terrific job, getting around the countryside
and telling the seniors of our country the good policies that we will put in place, that we will
end the waste, repay the debt, stop the big new taxes and stop the boats. And I tell you what,
Kerry, the seniors of Australia are warming to that message.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Tony Abbott, thanks very much for joining us.

TONY ABBOTT: Thankyou. Search the 7.30 Report