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RN Breakfast -

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Subjects: Christmas break; Knitting; Bushfires and the environment; State governments; Carbon pricing and electricity; Negotiating and leadership; Question Time; Vision for Australia’s future; Papua New Guinea

HOST: Good morning Prime Minister.

PM: Good morning John.

HOST: Now have you had a chance to have a holiday? Have you had a break?

PM: I have had a break. I had ten days off entirely when Wayne Swan ran the show, he was Acting Prime Minister. Swanny in charge, and I was in Adelaide with my family.

So Tim and I actually produced the Christmas lunch, which was a fairly stressful experience in what was supposed to be a holiday, producing turkey and all the rest of it. It isn’t the sort of thing Tim and I do every day. But we managed to get it done, it was all edible, so it was all good.

HOST: It was all good. Any chance to do any reading, put the feet up, look at something you like which isn’t a brief?

PM: I did have a look at a few books. I’m doing a bit of knitting, all that kind of stuff.

HOST: This knitting business, I don’t know if I buy that. When we look at the hobbies of say, former Labor Prime Ministers, well Kevin, buggered if I know what he did really, or what he gets up to in his spare time.

But we know with Paul it was clocks and classical music, Mahler mainly. With Bob, punting and sport. Gough, books, history. What are your, what do you get off on, hobbies-wise?

PM: Well the knitting, definitely. And if I could just talk it up for a moment, being Prime Minister is a pretty stressful job. A lot of pressure is on your shoulders. You often get in back at home really late at night. And you’ve got to get to bed and you’ve got to get to sleep, you can’t afford to potter around for hours because an early morning in looming.

And so the thing that’s good about the knitting is it takes enough of your attention that your mind can’t be racing a million miles an hour on everything else. But it’s repetitive and consequently soothing, so it helps you transition from full-on work speed to I-need-to-go-to-bed-now, quite quickly.

HOST: So pearl and plain does it?

PM: Pearl and plain. In all sorts of combinations, including the counting of stiches as you go.

HOST: Indeed, I always ended up with more stitches than I began with.

PM: Well if you were trying to increase, that would be okay.

HOST: Yeah sure. Now you were in Coonabarabran yesterday. What did you take out of that?

PM: It’s always a huge experience when you go and visit bushfire regions or anywhere in the country that has had a natural disaster. And as Prime Minister, every summer I’ve spent time visiting Australians who have been hard-hit.

The images, what you see stays with you and yesterday the intensity of that fire was just so obvious. The ground, black, it just looked like moonscape, like the soil had been turned to char all around you.

But also the way in which people face it, so brave, so stoic about it all. And even when they’ve kind of got a tear in the eyes they’re telling you about the loss of their home. The next thing they’ll do is crack a joke or say something about a positive experience that’s come out of it. It’s just amazing that people can be that tough in the face of such a huge loss, to lose your whole home.

The other thing I take out of it is, we have got better, and we continue to get better at dealing with these situations. The emergency warning system, the mobile phone alerts that have come out of the Victorian bushfires are doing a lot of good out there.

HOST: Do you think we’re going to get to a point when it’s going to be very difficult for people to get insurance who are living in areas that are vulnerable to either bushfire or flood?

PM: I think there are always going to be some parts of the country where it’s very hard to get insurance. One of the things that came out of looking at Queensland and the floods there is housing was on flood plains and people can’t get insured if their house is on a flood plain. So, there are always going to be some parts.

For bushfires, I don’t think we’re quite going to get there but I do think people’s focus will continue to go on what can I do to make my property safe.

Now there are some fires where, no matter how well prepared your property is the nature of the fire is that destruction is going to come. But well-prepared properties do make a difference and I think insurance companies will be working with people on that.

HOST: Yes. What’s becoming obvious is that really the whole area needs management. We’ve got to manage the environment now. Now, that means managing fires, that means having a lot of winter burnings, doesn’t it?

PM: I think we’ve got to manage the environment and we’ve got to keep learning and keep getting better. But I think we’ve also got to do something that we find it quite hard to do as modern human beings because we think we can dominate and control everything.

We do need to recognise that there are some things that are inherent, that are going to be there, we will face natural disaster from time to time. We can’t say to ourselves we’ll always be able to control it or defeat it.

Sometimes there are just fire conditions and fire storms that are going to do damage and the best thing is for people to get out of their way. And if we’re making the calibration between do I stay and try and defend my property or do I get out and guarantee that I’m saving my life, then it’s better to get out and guarantee that you’re saving your life.

HOST: One of the issues that came up over the Christmas period - two things really - firstly, whether we should have compulsory voting. My feeling’s always been that the price of our particular democracy is a small one, you’ve got to participate. You’ve got to vote.

Now, then a change to an optional preferential system of voting perhaps. Now I’m not really interested in canvassing that or talking about that, that can be done some other time. But it’s one of those issues that pulls the head for a moment.

Now can I suggest a good issue that could pull the head is the role of states. Is it time to get rid of the states, Prime Minister? Could we get rid of them? Have they outlived their usefulness - I’m talking about state governments. Have they outlived their usefulness?

PM: I’m now waiting for your interview of Premier O’Farrell where you canvas this.

HOST: I’m sure he’ll have an attitude.

PM: I think he would have an attitude. The truth is if you were starting again from a blank page, if you were just there with the map of Australia and a country our size and an economy our size, and said, let’s create a system of government, I don’t think you’d create the one that we’ve got now with three tiers, local, state and federal.

I think you would create a two-tier system, so you would have large regional councils which intersected with the federal government. But I’m also a realist and given history has grown us to where we are now, I don’t think we’re going to be getting rid of the states any time soon.

What we can do is always find ways of working together better, but state governments are going to be there. And what would we do without State of Origin matches and the like? People would all go a bit mad.

HOST: States as symbols, I think that’s fine.

PM: They just don’t need governments?

HOST: Thank you.

PM: Right, well.

HOST: Take an issue, like a national issue, like the Murray Darling River System. Coming to an agreement about that, to try and get more water flowing so there is a river, so there are going to be communities going into the future to use a cliché. It’s impossible to get agreement from the states.

PM: Well we have got change, and we do have a plan for the whole of the Murray Darling, and yes it’s taken us-

HOST: But the New South Wales State Government’s just said well no, we’re only going to allow three per cent to go back in buybacks.

PM: All of that’s a bit of political kind of flibberty-gibberty on the side.

HOST: That’s what I mean. See, just a speed hump. They’re a speed hump, state governments, aren’t they Prime Minister?

PM: There are days when I would sit in my office and say to myself there’d be things that were easier if I wasn’t negotiating with all of these state governments. But we’re not going to wish them away, we’re not going to get them out of the picture.

And there are days when I’ve sat in my office too and had really productive discussions with state governments, we’ve got a lot done. And as the level of government that is there, closer in to service delivery, they’ve been prepared to work with us to really do the right thing for change.

To give Premier O’Farrell one tick, Murray Darling we’ve had to push hard, but to give him a tick, he stepped forward as the first state premier to do the National Disability Insurance Scheme with us. So it’s a good thing.

HOST: It is a good thing. That is a good thing, the National Disability Insurance Scheme. I don’t think anyone would disagree about that.

Moving on, is it possible to assess the success or otherwise of the carbon tax? The much-maligned carbon tax, which sort of slipped in and people seem to be living with it. Is it possible to assess its success or otherwise, Prime Minister, or is it still too early?

PM: I think we can see some things that have happened under carbon pricing. What we can do is wholly discount the fear campaign. So enough evidence is in that if anybody was out there having heard repeatedly that this was going to be the end of the world, and the economy was going to stop, and there were going to be no jobs, and inflation was going to be cantering out of control, all of those things have been disproved.

Jobs have kept growing, our economy has kept growing, inflation is contained, interest rates are low. So the fear campaign is over in terms of the facts. People will keep recycling it because that’s what they do. But no one who deals with the facts could say the fear campaign should keep going.

In terms of businesses reducing their emissions, I think we can see evidence of that too. And I talk to businesses all the time who are there exploring new ideas about how can they cut their electricity use, cut their emissions, because now they’re paying the price.

And in businesses that wouldn’t necessarily spring to your mind as a great example first off, businesses like abattoirs are finding new ways of working, new ways of dealing with the waste, which means that they are going to be beneficiaries under carbon pricing.

So remarkable things are happening out there, there’s no limit to the ability of human beings to innovate, and if you put pressure on a business person and say there’s a price, you can avoid that price if you do something differently, then they’ll get along and they’ll do things differently and they are.

HOST: Well, whisper reaching me is that firstly, businesses are using less electricity. Secondly, that private householders are now more conscious of the use of electricity. I mean we have a rule around our house that if there’s no one in the room, the light’s off at night. Now do you have something like that at the Lodge?

PM: I was schooled in my parents’ home. You would never be allowed to leave a light on in a room that no one was in. And if you were trying to heat an area, then if you left the door open, there would be the traditional ‘you weren’t born in a tent’ shout resonating around the house.

The Lodge can be a little bit different from an ordinary home, there are some security things that go with being Prime Minister that chew their way through a bit of power. But sensible rules help.

Households have had to put up with really big increases in electricity that are nothing to do with pricing carbon.

HOST: Is this the poles and wires business, the gold plating.

PM: That’s right and it has put a lot of pressure on household budgets. But it does mean too that people are being a little bit more rigorous about how they use their power.

HOST: Yes, which is why it’s a bit of a direct action thing, isn’t it. This is the Opposition policy, isn’t it? Direct action, I think the plan is to pay businesses to clean up their act a little bit. Now I would have thought cleaning up the act you would do anyway?

PM: Well the trouble with the so-called direct action plan is it’s really mistitled. It should be called a subsidies-to-polluters plan. And the problem with it is that you are going to take a whole lot of money, and no one has said where it’s coming from, and give it to a whole lot of businesses that are generating carbon pollution.

But then another business opens generating carbon pollution and you don’t do anything about that. Right around the world, economists, rational people who deal in the business community tell you that the cheapest way of getting people to reduce their carbon pollution, of changing the way that businesses do business, is to put a price on it, price signals business people, they act.

HOST: Now, negotiation is your great skill, isn’t it? To anyone who has had any dealings with you they say you are a wonderful negotiator. Where did these skills come from?

It takes the Wisdom of Solomon, doesn’t it? Weighing up, for example, the competing interest and state vested interests say with the Murray Darling that we touched on earlier. Where is your starting point with negotiations like that?

PM: Well thank you for the compliment. I have had to negotiate some complicated things. New health agreement for example-

HOST: Well, getting a government up for a start.

PM: Getting a government up, health agreement with states, making sure that it got done. I’ve had to work my way through some quite complex things.

I think in the age in which we live, the kind of command and control models of leadership aren’t the models that work today. People don’t respond to someone barking commands at them.

People want to be listened to. They want to have their perspective understood. Ultimately someone’s got to make a decision, and that person is me. But I’ve tried to deal with people respectfully and see things through their eyes and understand the pressures and tensions on them.

HOST: It’s interesting you should use the term ‘people barking at each other gets nowhere’. It seems to me, having been a great student of Question Time over the last 12 months, that it is just a barking show.

PM: I think Question Time is a combination of something that’s pivotal to our democracy - that is the ability of parliamentarians to ask executive government questions - combined with some political theatre which has played out differently in different times in Australian politics.

Question Time under Bob Hawke was something different from Paul Keating who was such a master of it. Was something different again from John Howard.

I think in this parliament we’ve seen an element come in that hasn’t been there before, which is that the Opposition right from day one decided that it would run a negative blitzkrieg campaign in the hope of forcing the Government over and creating an election.

So there’s been a level of negativity and bitterness that hasn’t been there in earlier parliaments and I don’t think has stood political debate in good stead.

HOST: Well probably there are parallels with ’75, got pretty bitter then from memory. You’ve nominated two battlegrounds for the 2013 federal election, which is looming, September I think was the agreement you had with the independents, was going to be in September.

PM: Did you want to pick a date John?

HOST: No, lord please no. Now you’ve nominated two battlegrounds - education and family. Now why have you selected those?

PM: We’ve got a lot of governing to do before we go and fight the election. And the big things we’ll be governing for, as well as taking to the election, are about things we need to do to give people an opportunity today. So it’s about making sure people can have the benefits of work and we’ve done a lot to keep our economy strong enough to generate jobs.

It’s also about making sure people get the best of opportunities tomorrow. We live in a time where our region of the world is coming into its own.

I can’t predict everything for you that’s going to happen this century, but one thing that will definitely happen is we will continue to see Asia’s rise. And we’ve got to be ready for it and ready to get the opportunities that flow from it.

That’s why big picture policies like the National Broadband Network and pricing carbon are so important. But the thing that’s pivotal is that our kids are getting an education that not only keeps them up with their peers in the region and the world, but hopefully in front, and the truth is, we’ve in that battleground seen some sliding back in Australian standards.

So a big feature of this year will be a school reform agenda associated with a new funding system so that we can say our kids are getting the best of the best when it comes to education. I’ve said we need to be in the top five schooling systems in the world.

And then there’s an agenda about how families live today. We were joking before about mum and dad yelling at me to turn lights off, maybe that’s the same, mums and dads yelling in the home about kids having every electronic device on and telling them to turn a few of them off. But a lot has changed.

Mums working, going back to work quickly, dads wanting to be really involved in the upbringing or their kids. Mums and dads sandwiched between the kids who are still quite young and the parents who are ageing, and needing to make choices about how you balance it all up.

I want us as a government to always be responding to those modern needs. So something like paid parental leave for dads we brought on this year because dads want to be there when the baby comes. Not there for a while and then gone. They want to be very active parents, and we want to respond to that.

So, understanding that modern world and making sure government’s working with it is a big agenda for us too. And things like the National Disability Insurance Scheme actually fit in with that.

Right around the country so many families are having their lives really put under acute, sometimes unbearable pressure because they have a family member who has a disability.

And it could happen to any of us. The next baby born in the family has cerebral palsy. Someone in your family gets diagnosed with MS or Parkinson’s or one of those really debilitating diseases.

A young person does something perhaps a little bit foolish and has an acquired brain injury for the rest of their lives. If you’re in that situation you want to know Government’s there working with you, and that’s what the NDIS is about.

HOST: Just two things - your negotiating skills could be very useful for President Obama. Do you feel with him, having to negotiate with the NRA at the moment? Is there any advice you could give him?

PM: It’s not for me really to involve myself-

HOST: Basically they’re loony people. How do you deal with loony people?

PM: Well perhaps rather than commenting about American politics, I’d make a more general observation about leadership. Sometimes you can work issues through with people and get to an outcome that everybody owns and is happy with.

Sometimes you just have to stand up to people and call them wrong.

HOST: And secondly - and this is just random and coming from left-field - how is our relationship with PNG at the moment? Is it okay? I’ve noticed Ross Garnaut I think is not allowed to travel up there anymore. Is everything alright?

PM: Everything’s alright in the Government’s relationship with PNG. They had an election last year and there were some issues in the run up to the election that caused us some concern.

But they did have an election that was credible and free and fair, and Prime Minister O’Neill was re-elected. And we have a good relationship with him and a good relationship with his government.

There has been an issue involving BHP and the settlement they came to with the people of PNG about Ok Tedi and the pollution that flowed from that mining development. And some issues around Ross Garnaut’s role in that where Prime Minister O’Neill has obviously taken a particular view.

But generally the relationship between the two governments is a very strong one.

HOST: Prime Minister thank you for your time this morning.

PM: Thank you very much.

HOST: Happy New Year and we’ll watch the year with renewed and extraordinary interest.

PM: Thank you very much, thanks John.