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Transcript of interview with Alex Sloan: ABC Canberra: 25 January 2013: Australian of the Year award; Australia Day; Nova Peris; natural disasters

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Subjects: Australian of the Year award; Australia Day; Nova Peris; Natural disasters

HOST: Happy Australia Day eve.

PM: Thank you very much, to you too.

HOST: My first question to you, given the announcement of the Australian of the Year, I know, we’re about the same age and I know I have danced in the 80s to Cold Chisel’s Ita. Prime Minister?

PM: Well when you say we’re about the same age, we’re really implying to the audience that we’re quite young.

And I grew up in South Australia where Cold Chisel came from so I remember the incredibly, incredibly, incredibly early days. I don’t want to confirm whether or not I was in licensed venues when perhaps my age wasn’t 100 per cent right.

But I do remember Cold Chisel from a long time ago and I’ve certainly danced to Ita, and any other Cold Chisel song you care to name.

HOST: Ita Buttrose is only the twelfth woman to receive this honour. A deserving recipient?

PM: Absolutely and it’s been a long time since we’ve seen a woman be the Australian of the Year, so it’s nice to see a woman this year.

And Ita is a very deserving recipient. I think her story has come again to Australians because of the TV series Paper Tigers-

HOST: Giants, Paper Giants.

PM: Oh Paper Giants. Sure it wasn’t Paper Tigers? Maybe it should have been Paper Tigers. Paper Tigress.

HOST: You’ve got (inaudible) in your mind there Prime Minister.

PM: Maybe I do. But the story’s come again because of that and it’s incredible that she is here tonight and accepting the award.

But whilst people would cotton on to that part of the story - and women like me who remember very clearly that part of the story - the work she’s doing now for awareness of diseases like Alzheimer’s is absolutely fantastic.

HOST: She’s thrown out a challenge on that and looking of course for funds to back up research into that. What are your thoughts on that?

PM: We’ve been working with Ita - and absolutely in a good dialogue about the things that she wants to see done - and I can understand her analysis about the burden of disease as we age.

So we’re going to keep working with her during the course of this year and I don’t think she’s going to be backwards about coming forwards on what she’s thinking is the right thing to do.

HOST: Paper Giants was in a way history lessons of the many barriers that women faced. You have broken through many glass ceilings - perhaps the ultimate glass ceiling - do you thank the women who went before and the battles they fought, such as Ita?

PM: Oh, certainly. It’s only possible for me to be here in this position because I’m standing on the shoulders of women who have come before. And I’d like to hope that me doing this position will make a difference for the women to come.

HOST: What does Australia Day mean to you? Your mum and dad chose to come here and bring their young family here. Does it have special significance?

PM: For our family it is about our migration story and our choice. If you’re born here you get to experience this country from the very first breathe.

For us, my family chose it and we also made a conscious choice to be Australian citizens. And I remember that discussion in the household. So it is about love of country, about coming here, choosing to be here, and everything that’s meant for our lives and our life stories.

It would be impossible for me to have lived a life like this if we’d stayed in the United Kingdom.

HOST: This is a time, and perhaps a date that does bring around discussion about who do we think we are and what do we value. What are your thoughts on that?

PM: Who I think we are? I think we are a young nation, a nation that is more and more assertive with its sense of self confidence.

We are there knowing that we can tackle any problem. I think we can carry a spirit of quiet optimism with us. We’re not a showy type. We’re not lots of really pompous ceremonies or anything like that. But I think that quiet confidence does get shown day by day.

HOST: It’s a debate that won’t go away, and it’s been raised again this year and that’s the date. It is a date with its routes in white settlement - some say invasion - many Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians want a change. Is it time for a proper discussion about that rather than (inaudible). And I know the ACT Australian of the Year, the wonderful Indigenous leader Dr Tom Calma wants the discussion to be had by younger Australians. What do you think?

PM: I think the day is going to stay the same, frankly, I do. And I think it should. And I think it’s up to us to interpret and re-interpret its meaning.

I did listen very intently to the speech of the now Young Australian of the Year, Akram’s speech where he said the dreaming continues and now we’re all a part of it. I thought that was a very nice way of putting how we can say our national story is coming together from first Australians to the Australians who have joined them.

HOST: But it is a day that has brought about division. I mean, just last year you were smack-bang in the middle of that. You don’t think it should be up for discussion if it is hurtful?

PM: I don’t think - of course people will discuss whatever they want to discuss, and I’m a great respecter of Tom Calma and his views. I don’t agree with changing the date.

But I do agree with on Australia Day looking in a very clear-eyed way about our history and what lessons we should learn from that for the future.

HOST: You’ve now found yourself in another kind of melee around your pick of Nova Peris for the Senate. Is this unfortunate timing?

PM: Absolutely not. I’ve decided that our political party will support a woman who I think is very likely to become the first Indigenous woman in Australian Parliament.

Of course the people of the Northern Territory are going to go to their polling places and cast their vote. But I’m very optimistic that she’ll right that part of our history for us.

HOST: Prime Minister, it’s also a time when all too often our country has faced disaster; fire and floods. Have you got a message to our emergency and volunteer workers?

PM: You are absolutely right. I can count my summers by the natural disasters that as Prime Minister you worry about day by day and then go and visit communities following.

So every summer as Prime Minister there have been floods, bushfires, cyclone, damage, devastation to worry about. And great community spirit to applaud. And I am always amazed by the volunteer efforts and by what communities will do when they come together in times like this.

So I think that there are some very fatigued people around the nation, it’s been going for a long time now, and they’ve been turning up and doing it day after day. So to them, every tribute should flow.

And on their behalf I would say please, in every community around the country, listen to the local warnings and do what you are asked to do and make their jobs just that little bit easier.

HOST: We’re hoping that they get a day off on this Australia Day as well.

PM: Wouldn’t that be nice?

HOST: This award of a person of the year is unique in this country. No other country does this. What do you think that says about us, that we do single out people?

PM: I’ve actually had a little bit of that conversation with Geoffrey Rush today who was telling me about filming overseas and explaining to people that he was the Australian of the Year, and how intrigued they were that we have such a thing, and also that someone from the arts - from film - would be the Australian of the Year.

I think what it says about us is it’s a reflection of a very democratic, classless spirit that we want the ability for any of our number to be the person who is given the accolade of Australian of the Year. We don’t want it to be a birthright, we don’t want it to be an inherited title. We want it to be something that through our own processes we award to each other.

HOST: You said it’s not about cutting down tall poppies. It’s about holding them up.

PM: It certainly is and I think perhaps there was a time in our culture when we were a bit keen to cut down tall poppies, but I actually see it differently today.

I think we’re always going to shun snobbish conduct and I think we’re never going to be an obsequious people. But I think we can celebrate in our own spirit success, and that’s what we are doing right here.

HOST: And Prime Minister, sitting with you is of course our two 2012 recipients, Marita Cheng and Lynne Sawyers, Lynne Sawyers who has fostered over 200 children, who had a happy childhood herself and just decided that other children should have happy childhoods. And Marita who of course, just wants girls to chose engineering. Is it great to see the range of contributions that Australians have made on a day like this?

PM: It certainly is. And I love the videos when they come up, every year I’ve come and done this the videos just show you the incredibly different ways in which people can make a contribution.

And if you sat around your dining room table and said let’s talk about how people contribute to the nation, I would defy people to actually imagine the huge range that we see on display at these ceremonies that we saw tonight, that we saw last year. It’s just incredible.

HOST: Prime Minister, thanks so much for being part of our special outside broadcast. And have you got a message for all Australians on this Australia Day eve? How should they celebrate?

PM: Well on this Australia Day eve I’d say make sure you’re having a good night wherever you are having it, you’re having a safe and enjoyable night, and that you get the opportunity tomorrow to reflect on what a wonderful country live in.

And however you chose to do that, whether that’s going to a local community event or simply spending some time with family and friends, take a moment because we do live in the best country on Earth and we should always remember that on Australia Day.

HOST: Have a great 2013 - a big one for you - an election year.

PM: They’re all big ones and I’ve got a lot of governing and work to do.

HOST: Prime Minister Julia Gillard thank you so much. Happy Australia Day.

PM: Thank you.