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PMs response on water plan, WorkChoices and E -

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PMs response on water plan, WorkChoices and Education

AM - Friday, 2 February , 2007 08:00:00

Reporter: Chris Uhlmann

TONY EASTLEY: This time last week the Prime Minister announced his ambitious $10 billion water
plan.

So, after seven days, how far down the track is he in getting the States to cede some of their
water rights and for the Commonwealth to get control of the giant Murray-Darling river system?

While John Howard has been talking to the states about water, Labour's Kevin Rudd has been wooing
corporate Australia, announcing he's setting up a big business advisory group.

The Prime Minister, John Howard is this morning at Kirribilli and he's speaking here to our Chief
Political Correspondent, Chris Uhlmann.

CHRIS UHLMANN: Prime Minister, Good morning.

JOHN HOWARD: Good morning.

CHRIS UHLMANN: What do you make of the Labor Party recruiting Sir Rod Eddington to head its
business advisory group?

JOHN HOWARD: Oh I don't have much of a reaction at all. It's part of the colour and movement. It's
the substance of Labor's attitude to things that are of concern to business that matters.

And we've had a brutal reminder on television this morning that Mr Rudd's attempt to soft-sell his
industrial relations policy has come unstuck. Here he was in The Financial Review this morning with
the headline "Rudd softens IR message to woo business" and when that was put to Julia Gillard, the
Deputy Leader and Shadow Minister for Industrial Relations, she said there's been no softening. She
said that if Labor won the election first of all they'd rip up WorkChoices and then they'd get rid
of it.

In other words, the hardline pro-union Labor policy remains. Mr Rudd has been pulled into line by
his left-wing deputy. Mr Rudd has been caught out trying to fake Labor's policy to the business
community but when confronted with the reality, the author of Labor's policy in this area has
reminded business that if Labor wins, you'll have unfair dismissal laws back - a nightmare for
small business - and you'll have a million AWA's at risk.

So can I say, appoint all the advisory committees in the world and it's the perfect right of any
Australian citizen to serve in any capacity he or she wants but let's understand colour and
movement is one thing, substance is another.

CHRIS UHLMANN: When speaking of substance about IR this year, isn't it your industrial relations
policy that needs a little softening?

JOHN HOWARD: I think our industrial relations policy since it's been in operation has seen, what,
the lowest level of industrial disputes on record, the unemployment level has fallen to a 30-year
low and real wages have begun... have continued to rise.

Now I'm not saying all of this is due to WorkChoices, but what I am saying is that we were told by
Labor and the unions when WorkChoices came in, in March of last year that there'd be people thrown
out of work, wages would be driven to the floor and there'd be a wave of industrial disputes.

In other words, the world has not come to an end and WorkChoices is needed to maintain the
productivity momentum of this country.

CHRIS UHLMANN: Alright, Prime Minister, moving to water.

Premier Rann's offering to cede powers to the Commonwealth so long as the body that runs the
Murray-Darling Basin has Reserve Bank-like independence from government. Now what's wrong with
that?

JOHN HOWARD: Well there's a lot wrong with it. The principle thing that's wrong with it is that it
is creating a situation where people elected to discharge responsibilities don't discharge them.

I mean what he's really saying is that you hand over day-to-day decision making, day-to-day
decisions on the expenditure of $10 billion of Commonwealth money, not State money, this is all
Commonwealth money, to a group that is not answerable to anybody.

CHRIS UHLMANN: But you trust the Reserve Bank with monetary policy and that's got the ability to
set interest rates.

JOHN HOWARD: But the Reserve Bank is a special case because it operates in its own right as an
entity in the markets.

You're talking here about appropriating $10 billion of taxpayers' money and then handing it over to
an independent body, a body that is not answerable and not under the control of any government.
Now, if you're going to do that with water, why don't you do it with everything.

CHRIS UHLMANN: Well you do, do it with monetary policy?

JOHN HOWARD: Well it makes a mockery of the whole notion of representative democracy. But look, at
the moment we have on the table a proposal which will bring a long-term solution to a huge problem
and it represents already a very big compromise.

What the Commonwealth is doing is offering to provide $10 billion to fix the two fundamental
problems. The first is the need to prevent seepage and evaporation by piping and lining our
irrigation channels.

And the second is to deal with the problem of over-allocation, all of which has occurred through
State governments. The Commonwealth Government does not allocate water entitlements.

We are prepared not only to deal with that problem, but to provide $3 billion in order to fix it.

CHRIS UHLMANN: Yes, but Mr...

JOHN HOWARD: Now that's our contribution and in return we're asking the states to provide us with
the power to facilitate the proper discharge of that commitment.

CHRIS UHLMANN: And he's in the process of bargaining and he clearly has concerns about the
influence of the National Party and that would not be surprising, given the National Party members
wage pitched battles anytime anyone mentions buying out water allocations.

JOHN HOWARD: It's a bit rich Mr Rann talking about the National Party, he's got a National Party
minister in his own government.

CHRIS UHLMANN: He has some experience then.

JOHN HOWARD: Indeed, she's responsible for water. So it's a little bit rich isn't it, Mr Rann
talking about the National Party.

Look, this is just a smokescreen to avoid making a decision on our offer.

Now I have found Mr Rann in the past somebody with whom I can deal. He's privately complained to me
sometimes quite bitterly about how South Australia is short-changed under the existing arrangements
and I'm offering him something which in many respects is more beneficial to South Australia than
any other State in the Commonwealth.

But I just do want to make it very clear that I am not going to agree to a situation where a
responsibility I have been given by the Australian people through the ballot box I hand over to a
group of people who are in no way accountable to the Australian electorate.

Now Mr Rann may want to do that, he may think so poorly of our profession as to want to do that,
but I'm elected to take responsibility to fix things and at the appropriate time if people don't
like what I'm doing they'll vote me out.

CHRIS UHLMANN: Now Prime Minister, one of the criticisms that has been levelled at your plan - it's
providing $6 billion to irrigators to fix their infrastructure. Now that hardly encourages them to
consider doing something else.

JOHN HOWARD: But why should the principle objective be to encourage people to get out of
irrigation?

CHRIS UHLMANN: If there are over-allocations in the system?

JOHN HOWARD: Well, we will... there are some circumstances where people may decide to leave and I'm
not saying that every single person in irrigation is efficient, but what I am saying is that it's a
council of despair to start with the proposition that we want to get as many people out of farming
and out of irrigation as possible.

What we've got to do is to stop the wastage and the seepage and the evaporation. It's calculated it
up to 30 per cent. And our plan not only will pipe and line the irrigation channels, but it will
also do something about the piping and so forth on farms themselves and it will also tackle this
over-allocation problem.

And we will never fix this issue until we tackle over-allocation and we have a plan to fix that and
we are prepared not only to fix it, but to pay the entire cost of fixing it.

CHRIS UHLMANN: Now, Prime Minister, one of things that perhaps has been lost in all of the talk
about this so far is that all the Premiers who've spoken to date have actually crossed the
threshold question. They've said that they agreed to cede powers. How they do that is another
matter.

The Queensland Premier's been unnaturally quiet, are you optimistic about what he might say?

JOHN HOWARD: I am hopeful that all of the Premiers will see the commonsense of this.

I mean, we are putting up $10 billion. That's an earnest of our commitment and genuine desire to
fix this problem. We are coming to the table and saying, look, we will put up an unprecedentedly
large amount of money, we'll assume responsibility for problems that arose on the watch of the
various states. But in order to make this work, there has to be a single body.

And the Commission we propose to appoint if this plan goes through will obviously include experts,
but in the end, as is sensible with the expenditure of $10 billion of public money, there has to be
some political accountability and that is why Mr Rann's proposal is not one that I will accept.

CHRIS UHLMANN: Prime Minister, BHP apparently has signed an agreement with the South Australian
Government that allows it to get 33 million litres of free water a day from the Great Artesian
Basin. Would that continue under your plan?

JOHN HOWARD: Well, we would obviously respect contractual entitlements, that's a principle on which
we operate.

However, everybody has got to make some contribution. Now, it's far too early in the piece to start
getting specific, but I just make it clear that whether it's an irrigator, a small irrigator or
BHP, if people have rights, those rights will be respected.

And I would also make the point that rights are better-guaranteed if the Commonwealth controls the
function than the states, because the Australian Constitution guarantees that no property right can
be taken away by the Commonwealth without the payment of just terms, by way of compensation. That
does not apply in relation to the activities of any of the state governments.

CHRIS UHLMANN: On the issue of the state's rights, do Australian schools need a nationally
consistent curriculum?

JOHN HOWARD: I think they need curricula that are sufficiently consistent, that the 70,000
Australian children every year who travel from one state to another do not suffer.

That doesn't mean that every classroom in every state should be teaching the same thing at the same
time everyday. It plainly doesn't mean that. It doesn't even mean that you can't have some
variations in method and balance.

But the point that Julie Bishop is getting at and the point I strongly support her on is that we
are a more mobile community now, parents move around a lot more. Australians move around a lot more
and it is very unfair and very disruptive, and very damaging that you still don't have a situation
where a child can go from Western Australia to Queensland without suffering a very significant
disadvantage.

Now this is something that I've heard parents complain about for years. Now that's what Julie
Bishop wants. Now plainly, we need the cooperation of the states and she will be putting this
proposal to the states.

Now I can't for the life of me understand how anybody could object to having a sufficiently common
curricula around the nation to ensure that children who in any given school year go from one state
to another and are not disadvantaged. I mean, it's just commonsense and fairness.

CHRIS UHLMANN: Prime Minister, thankyou.

JOHN HOWARD: Thankyou.

TONY EASTLEY: And the Prime Minister, John Howard speaking there with our Chief Political
Correspondent, Chris Uhlmann.