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Transcript of interview: ABC 24 with Lyndal Curtis: 25 June 2012: asylum seekers; carbon pricing; Minerals Resource Rent Tax; 2013 electon; Parliamentary winter recess

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Subjects: Asylum seekers; Carbon pricing; Minerals Resource Rent Tax; 2013 election; Parliamentary winter recess

HOST: Prime Minister, welcome to ABC News 24.

PM: Thank you Lyndal.

HOST: It’s been four and a half years since Labor came to Government. There are people still dying making the dangerous journey from, usually, Indonesia to Australia to seek asylum. Do you have any regrets about junking the policies that operated under John Howard?

PM: Well certainly when you see any loss of life at sea it breaks your heart, and I do want to see us, you know, taking effective action so people don’t risk their lives on these very dangerous journeys and we've seen too much loss of life in this year’s major tragedy, but it’s not the only tragedy that our nation’s been witness to.

So I think on a time like this, people want to see us put the politics aside and act to get something done.

You may recall Lyndal that a while back we spoke to the Opposition about a compromise, about putting together elements of the Government’s policy, the arrangement with Malaysia, with elements of their policy, particularly a detention facility at Nauru.

We put that compromise and it wasn’t accepted by the Opposition.

HOST: But in the end the Opposition disagrees with Malaysia and the changes you have made to the legislation that they say takes the protection for human rights out. So you are not going to get their cooperation on Malaysia, are you?

PM: Well I think people can criticise each other’s policy solutions, but to get something done then we need to work across the Parliament.

And I do want to be very clear, that we are willing to enact that compromise, which contains elements of the Opposition’s policy, and I am willing to keep talking to the Opposition and across the Parliament so that we put the politics to one side and we

work together to address the fact that people are risking their lives in these very dangerous journeys.

HOST: But work together on the policy you have already put forward - Malaysia with Nauru and Manus Island, and nothing different to that?

PM: Well certainly the Government continues to receive advice that the most effective deterrent is the agreement with Malaysia.

But I’m just trying to be very commonsense and straightforward here. We had a compromise on the table, had an element of the Government’s policy, had an element of the Opposition’s policy, we thought if we put the two together everybody could come together and support it.

That is still on the table to be accepted. But I’m also open for further discussions with the Opposition and across the Parliament.

HOST: So you are open to possibly changing the position you have?

PM: Look, I'm open to further discussions Lyndal, I can’t put it to you more directly or simply than that. I’m open to further discussions.

I think it was very regrettable that on the weekend the Leader of the Opposition ruled out any policy changes or shifts by the Opposition. I think that was regrettable.

I think it is a time where people are looking to us to, you know, put the politics to one side, to stop the exchanges about the past, to try and work together across the Parliament to get something done.

HOST: Your Malaysia agreement would see 4000 refugees come to Australia, with 800 asylum seekers going to Malaysia. Isn’t it the case that only a couple of weeks of boat arrivals in the last month would have seen that 800 quota fill up?

PM: The very clear expert advice to us from the same people, indeed centrally the same Departmental Secretary, Mr Metcalfe, who used to advise the Howard Government, as well as this Government, his very clear advice to us was if you enacted the Malaysia arrangement and boats arrived and you sent those people to Malaysia, then that would send a very strong deterrent message up the people smuggling pipeline that if you try and pay a people smuggler to get to Australia, you don’t end up here, you end up in Malaysia.

HOST: But only if you’re under the 800 number.

PM: And his clear advice to us is he thought returning a boat or a few boats would send that message and send it very clearly. That was his advice. So that is why we put forward the Malaysia agreement.

But Lyndal I do want to be clear.

We’ve got advice from not party political experts but senior public servants who advised the Howard Government at the time of the Pacific solution, so-called, that this is an effective deterrent. That Malaysia would be an effective deterrent.

But I’m not sitting here now to engage in advocacy about the Malaysia agreement.

I’m sitting here now because I think people want us to work together across the Parliament to get change in this area. I’m prepared to do that. I’ve been prepared to do that for a long period of time.

That’s why we worked with a spirit of good faith towards a compromise that combined a bit of each other’s policies and put them together as a package.

The Opposition didn’t want to agree to that. That compromise is still well and truly on the table, and I’m open to further discussions.

HOST: Are you prepared at all to look at changing your legislation to put in more human rights protections, or having a look at the issue of Temporary Protection Visas beyond the inquiry?

PM: Well the discussion that we had in the days that the Government was putting forward the compromise I referred to included an expert-led process on Temporary Protection Visas, and whether or not they had any deterrence value, which really is the factual issue, if you like, or policy issue in dispute on Temporary Protection Visas between the Government and the Opposition.

Our view has been they don’t have a deterrence value; indeed there’s some evidence that they may encourage women and children to get on boats to reunite with their male family member who has come to Australia.

But Lyndal, that’s not the purpose of having this conversation now.

The purpose of having this conversation now is to say, you know, I could sit here and Mr Abbott could come on this show in an hour’s time and we could both comprehensively go through the policy arguments in favour of what we’re saying, and at the end of you devoting a couple of hours of your life to that, then we wouldn’t be any further along. I’m trying to say we should get further along.

We should be working across the Parliament. We did put a compromise forward out of a set of earlier discussions.

That is certainly there for the Opposition to agree to, and I’m certainly open to further discussions.

HOST: Are you open to discussions with the Greens at all, or do you see them as not coming anywhere near your policy to be worth talking to?

PM: Well I don’t believe that the Greens are going to agree to a package of offshore processing.

It seems to me to just make the most intuitive sense if you put the, you know, sort of politics of opposition and government to one side and just come back to, you know, people working together, it would seem that it’s easier for people who both agree that there should be offshore processing to come together and design an offshore processing solution here, than people who don’t even agree with offshore processing.

Now I know that is well and truly putting the politics of opposition and government to one side, but I think that’s really what the Australian people are looking to us to do.

HOST: Do you have any questions about the search and rescue process involved at the end of last week? Christine Milne, the Greens Leader, has raised a question about whether asylum seeker boats are treated any differently to private yachts or cruise boats. Do you have any question that that is in fact the case?

PM: No. A life at sea is a life at sea.

And the way in which the Australian authorities respond isn’t based on who that person is or how they got into distress or, you know, any of that. The motivation is to go and save someone’s life.

HOST: We’ve just had the second anniversary of your ascension to the Prime Ministership. This weekend we’ll see the introduction of the carbon tax and the mining tax. Are you absolutely confident that the things you’ve said will happen, will happen after that? That it will not be as bad as the Opposition has portrayed it?

PM: Well there’s no way in the world we’re going to see the end of the coal industry on 1 July. No way in the world. There’s no way in the world we’re going to see Whyalla disappear as a township on 1 July and be wiped off the map.

HOST: But the reality is not much will happen on 1 July, will it, because payments under the tax aren’t due until next June?

PM: Well, this is the problem though, isn’t it, with the reckless fear campaign from the Opposition.

The Leader of the Opposition has used expressions like ‘a permanent depression;’ ‘a wrecking ball through the economy;’ ‘Whyalla wiped off the map;’ ‘an astronomical increase in the cost of living.’

All of this was going to happen according to the Leader of the Opposition the moment carbon pricing came in, in our economy.

And now he’s, you know, trying to furiously backpedal and he’s got these very confused analogies about a cobra and a python and on and on it goes.

It’s all a long way of saying none of those claims to try and induce fear in the Australian community are true, have ever been true, or ever will be true.

They were all just puffed up false claims for political campaigning purposes by the Leader of the Opposition.

HOST: Because your Government’s position, your Government’s position at the next election does rest, doesn’t it, on the success - the perceived success of the carbon tax, doesn’t it? If - there have been people setting a number of deadlines saying the Government’s stocks will improve after the carbon tax has been proposed, after the legislation goes through the Parliament, now maybe after the carbon price begins. If the Government’s stocks don’t improve when the carbon price is a lived experience, what do you do then?

PM: Well firstly Lyndal I think that misunderstands the whole purpose here. The purpose of putting a price on carbon is to reduce carbon pollution, because we know carbon pollution is causing climate change.

The purpose of putting a price on carbon is so our nation can have a clean energy future. The purpose of the Minerals Resource Rent Tax is to take some of that extraordinary wealth that is being generated by this huge resources boom and share it around the nation, so people can feel that they have got a stake in the resources boom too.

That’s what’s driven us to put in place those two arrangements - carbon pricing and the Minerals Resource Rent Tax.

HOST: But if Labor loses the next election the Coalition will get rid of - is promising to get rid of a lot of what you have implemented including the carbon price and the mining tax and your health reforms and possibly whatever you do with the Gonski reforms. They’ll all be gone if you lose the next election, so isn’t it critical for you, for that legacy to be in place, for you to win?

PM: Well, it’s not about me. It’s about our nation’s future.

The purpose of being in government, of being Prime Minister, is to drive the changes that give us a strong economy now, let us share its benefits, but also make all of those big, tough, hard, often controversial decisions that end up shaping a stronger, fairer future for this country.

That’s what’s driving the Government, and that’s what’s driving me. Of course I’m going to fight it out for every fibre of my being for us to win the 2013 election, because I think Labor’s policies and plans will shape a better future for this nation that the kind of negativity we’ve seen from the Opposition.

But I would say this. I am not a believer that if Mr Abbott is ever Prime Minister he will actually take away carbon pricing. I think we’ll see a little fiddle here and a little fudge there, but he won’t take away carbon pricing.

He’s been on the record in the past as supporting carbon pricing, as has his whole political party under the leadership of Prime Minister John Howard.

HOST: Tony Abbott says you’re a bad government that’s lost its way. Are you?

PM: Well look, I’ll leave all of the, you know, politicking and sloganeering and all of that to the Leader of the Opposition. That’s how he conceives his job, being negative.

How I conceive my job is getting things done today that’ll make a difference not only today, but for tomorrow and for the Australian people.

We’ve got some difficult challenges. Dealing with the evil of people smuggling is one of them.

I want to see us working together to get something done, and then of course I want to make sure - I’ve just been to the G20 - want to make sure our economy continues to be the envy of the world, that other leaders continue to look at the Australian economy and just go ‘how on earth have you achieved that, that’s fantastic.’

And I want to make sure that we share the benefits of that strong economy right around our nation while we build for the future.

And big decisions like carbon pricing - they’re not easy, they’re not necessarily popular, but they’re definitely right and I think people, practical Australians, will see as it comes into effect that the fear campaigning has been just that.

HOST: Finally Prime Minister, you’ll have your last caucus meeting before the six-week winter break. You promised at the previous caucus meeting you attended that the caucus meeting tomorrow would be a discussion about the economy and about strategy and about things like the Asian white paper. What message will you be telling your MPs to take out to the electorate for the next six weeks?

PM: Well, I’ll talk to my caucus colleagues first tomorrow. I mean we will talk about the work that we’re doing as a government.

But the message from the Government whether it’s out of tomorrow’s party room meeting or on any other day, is we’re, you know, a Labor Government, and consequently we do Labor things and we bring our Labor values to bear as we do them.

We’ve always conceived our job as, you know, growing and strengthening the economy, because if you grow it and you strengthen it there’s more for people to share.

We’re a fair-go political movement; that’s where we started, and we want to share the benefits of this strong economy now.

And we’ve always been the political party - whether it’s building Medicare or universal superannuation or floating the dollar or reducing tariffs - we’ve always been the political party that’s been prepared to go to the Australian people and say, you know, life changes, our world changes, our region changes, pretending you can stay under the doona at home and nothing changes is never going to work.

Let’s get in there, let’s shape it, let’s work it together, so that we can be sure that the future for our kids and their kids is a better one than we even live today in this great country.

HOST: And the people, the public of Australia are still prepared to listen to you?

PM: I’ll be out there, speaking to the Australian people as I am right now Lyndal, as Prime Minister. You know, I’ll let the political commentators do all of the judgements about, you know, performance and all of those kinds of things.

I don’t let any of that worry me, I just get on with the job.

HOST: Prime Minister, thank you very much for your time.

PM: Thank you.