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Transcript of interview with Kieran Gilbert: Sky News AM Agenda: 1 September 2009: John Della Bosca and NSW Parliament; RBA's interest rate decision; economic recovery and stimulus package; 'sin tax' and Preventative Health Taskforce Report; Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program; Deputy Prime Minister's visit to India.

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The Hon. Tony Burke MP

Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry

Tony Burke - interview with Kieran Gilbert, Sky News AM Agenda

1 September 2009

Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Tony Burke Sky News AM Agenda, Kieren Gilbert


SUBJECTS: John Della Bosca and NSW Parliament; RBA’s interest rate decision; economic recovery and stimulus package; ‘sin tax’ and Preventative Health Taskforce Report; Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program; Deputy Prime Minister’s visit to India

KIERAN GILBERT: Good morning and welcome to AM Agenda. This might sound like a broken record but it’s not. The NSW Government is again in crisis this morning. The NSW Health Minister John Della Bosca has been forced to resign overnight after being caught-up in a sex scandal.

BARRY O’FARRELL: The very day the community were hoping to an end to the soap opera of the Rees Government, they’ve been dished up another tawdry, tacky episode.

KIERAN GILBERT: Joining us on AM Agenda to discuss this and the other matters of the day, the Rudd Government Cabinet Minister Tony Burke and Liberal frontbencher Tony Abbott. Gentlemen, good morning to you both.

TONY BURKE: Good morning Kieran.

TONY ABBOTT: Good morning.

KIERAN GILBERT: Tony Burke, you were in the NSW Parliament at one point. You must be happy this morning with your choice of career path, the fact that you moved to Federal politics.

TONY BURKE: First of all, John Della Bosca has made a significant contribution over a long period of time and I wouldn’t want that to be lost in the stories of today. I’ve known both Della and Belinda since I was a teenager and I’ve got a high regard for both of them. When I left State Parliament, people were telling me I was mad and that it was a silly shift to be making. These things turn around and when they do they can turn very suddenly. So, hopefully, in the weeks and months ahead the NSW Government’s able to get on the sort of pathway that those in the Government certainly hope to deliver for NSW.

KIERAN GILBERT: You mentioned you’ve known John Della Bosca for some time, and his wife. Were you surprised when you woke up this morning and heard this report?

TONY BURKE: Look, I really don’t want to add to the difficulties that they’ll be going through so I’ve got a high regard for both of them. I’ve known them for a very long time and certainly I’d be much more comfortable leaving it at that.

KIERAN GILBERT: Ok. Well on that front, sure. But in terms of the politics - you’re a member of the Federal Government, the Prime Minister is soaring in the opinion polls and an election is going

to be held before the next NSW election. How embarrassing is this for Labor, I mean you’re a member of a Sydney seat as well. For the Federal Government, how embarrassing is this?

TONY BURKE: There’s no doubt the NSW Government has been going through a very difficult time. There’s no doubt about that at all. At a Federal level our obligation is to get on with the job that we’re elected to do. Opinion polls will come and go. At the moment they’re in our favour but they’ll come and go and there’s no point putting too much stock in those. Ultimately, we’ll be judged when they get there on the quality of the job we’re delivering for the people of Australia so none of this distracts us from our work at all.

KIERAN GILBERT: David Penberthy is writing in The Punch this morning that the Rudd Government will take out an AVO against the NSW Government when it’s campaigning in Sydney ahead of the next Federal Election. You don’t want to be associated with the Labor brand there do you?

TONY BURKE: It’s a colourful way to do it. Every Government gets judged on what they’re delivering and their commitment to delivering for the people that they’re answerable to. We’re answerable to voters right across Australia and it’s our job to make sure that we’re getting on with the day-to-day job for them. I don’t think there’s anyone in the Federal Government who’s going to want to be distracted by anything like this.

KIERAN GILBERT: Ok, John Della Bosca has just entered the NSW Parliament this morning. He was asked a number of questions by journalists as he arrived. Let’s hear a little bit of that exchange now.

JOURNALIST: Your thoughts today?

JOHN DELLA BOSCA: I’ll be making a short statement later in the morning.

JOURNALIST: What are you thinking though? An awful day for you personally?

JOHN DELLA BOSCA: I’m making a short statement later in the morning.

JOURNALIST: Do you want to be a Minister in the future?

JOHN DELLA BOSCA: I’ll be making a short statement later in the morning, not too far away. I’ll be able to answer all your questions or as many as I can later in the morning.

JOURNALIST: Are you leaving Parliament?

JOHN DELLA BOSCA: I’ll answer all your questions later in the morning; I’ll make a short statement then. Thank you, folks.

KIERAN GILBERT: Obviously a very difficult day for John Della Bosca. Tony Abbott, you’ve observed politics for many years, the ups and downs of political careers. Do you feel for John Della Bosca this morning?

TONY ABBOTT: I think it’s hard not to but you know he really should have resigned for incompetence, not for this. He’s been a pretty ordinary Health Minister, he’s been a senior player in a really, really bad State Government and frankly the whole lot of them should resign, led by Nathan Rees. I think we should put this Government out of its misery. The electors should put this Government out of its misery and I’m sure if Tony Burke and Kevin Rudd were being honest, they’d say that the best thing Nathan Rees could do for the Federal Labor Party would be to quietly disappear. So why don’t we have the resignation of Nathan Rees and an election in New South Wales.

KIERAN GILBERT: But the fact is the Liberals have got to wait 18 months, that’s the brutal reality of it. Despite the woes of the NSW Government.

TONY ABBOTT: Well the pity of the current NSW constitution is that it’s almost impossible to get an early election but when you have a Government as incompetent as this that’s precisely what you ought to have. Really, the problem is not so much the regrettable difficulties in Della’s personal life. The problem is that this is a Government that couldn’t run a chook raffle in a pub, that’s the problem. That’s why they need to go. That’s why Della’s resignation really should be followed by the resignation of Nathan Rees and the rest of them.

KIERAN GILBERT: Why isn’t Barry O’Farrell doing better? When you look at the opinion polls Tony Abbott, he’s doing ok but he should have approval ratings of 80-90% given the dramas of the NSW Government.

TONY ABBOTT: I think when a Government is going as monumentally badly as this Government is it kind of rubs off on all politicians. But nevertheless I think that Barry O’Farrell is doing well. I think that if there was an election held tomorrow plainly there would be a landslide against the Government and it’s about time we have that election so that we can get decent Government back in NSW. That’s the real issue here. It’s good Government and that’s what we’re not getting in NSW.

KIERAN GILBERT: So you’re not worried that the Liberals will find another way to lose? They’ve found many ways to lose in the State Parliament.

TONY ABBOTT: I take your point Kieran, but no I think we’ve run out of novel ways to lose.

KIERAN GILBERT: Ok, well let’s move on to some other matters of the day - of national importance. The Reserve Bank is meeting Tony Burke today. Interest rates are expected to remain on-hold, is that what you’re anticipating?

TONY BURKE: It’s not for me to prejudge a decision from the Reserve Bank. We need to remember that the cash rate at the moment of 3% is at a nearly 50-year low. You’re average variable rate is something in the order of 5.78%. So we are at the moment at lows that are breaking all sorts of records and the Reserve Bank, in their own forecasts, have said that won’t continue forever. I certainly won’t be involved in the sorts of claims that were run under the previous governments: that they are capable of keeping interest rates at record lows. Those sorts of claims aren’t responsible, they’re not true and it’s not something you’ll find members of this Government doing.

KIERAN GILBERT: Tony Burke, the Treasurer is certainly trying to play down expectations of the strong recovery at this stage pointing to weaker business data out yesterday for example. What’s the point in that? Is it a message to the RBA? Is it a political message arguing against a wind-back of the stimulus? Why is he clearly playing down expectations of the economy?

TONY BURKE: Well it’s important to be up-front with the Australian people and when you hear us say endlessly that we’re not out of the woods yet, it’s because we’re not. We’re in a situation where around the world, the globe is in recession. We have, internationally, some of the worst sets of numbers we’ve ever seen. Against that, among the OECD nations, Australia has the strongest growth, second lowest unemployment, lowest debt, lowest deficit. We’re at a stronger position internationally but we can’t take it for granted and we need to continue on with the 70% of the stimulus package which is about building the infrastructure for the future. What Wayne Swan’s been doing is making sure that we keep the expectations with the public honest and realistic.

KIERAN GILBERT: Tony Abbott, the RBA is expected by most economists to keep rates on hold for a few months yet, just to get a sense of exactly where the economy is at. Shouldn’t the Coalition have also held its fire a little? Joe Hockey’s come out saying that the Government needs to wind back the stimulus spending given that the recovery is in swing.

TONY ABBOTT: It’s pretty clear that the Government is softening us up for the interest rate rises to come. I accept what Tony says that the Australian economy is in relatively good shape. But the fact is that has much more to do with the good work of John Howard and Peter Costello than it does to any special magic by Wayne Swan and Kevin Rudd. Basically, they’ve only been able to run the stimulus packages because of the good economic management and the tough decisions that were made by their predecessors.

TONY BURKE: Let’s not forget that we were also able to run the stimulus packages because the Liberal Party was unsuccessful in voting them down. There’s more than 200,000 jobs which have been supported, people who would otherwise be on the unemployment queues had the Liberal Party had their way and prevented the stimulus from going ahead.

TONY ABBOTT: Well we certainly said that the stimulus package was too much, too soon and I think that subsequent events are bearing us out. Sure, the Government has avoided some pain now but at the cost of storing up more pain for the future in terms of higher interest rates and higher taxes and this is typical of Kevin Rudd. The easier decisions he takes today, the harder decisions he puts off for three or four years’ time when I presume Julia Gillard will be Prime Minister, depending on the election result and Kevin Rudd will be campaigning to be Secretary General of the United Nations.

KIERAN GILBERT: Tony Burke, why doesn’t the Government consider winding back the stimulus if things are turning up. It was a big, big spend, why not reign it in a bit?

TONY BURKE: Let’s not forget the three stages of the stimulus. Stage One was the cash payments in order to build immediate cash stimulus, in particular with the retail sector. The Second stage was shovel-ready projects through local government and the schools projects.

But the third stage was the long-term infrastructure and that is an absolutely critical driver of productivity. For more than a decade, when we went through a period of boom there was a lack of investment and foresight in trying to improve productivity by unlocking some of those infrastructure bottlenecks. The silliest thing to do would be to say: now that they economy is doing well, let’s forget about long term infrastructure. But that’s exactly the sorts of projects that the Opposition is calling on us to abandon.

KIERAN GILBERT: Ok, we’re going to take a break on AM Agenda. Tony Abbott I’ll get you to respond after the break. But stay with us, Tony Abbott and Tony Burke joining us after the break here on AM Agenda.

KIERAN GILBERT: Welcome back to AM Agenda and welcome back Tony Abbott and Tony Burke. Mr Abbott, before the break I said I’d give you a chance to respond on the stimulus, the Government stimulus spending. I want you to do that but can you also give us your thoughts on the Preventative Health Taskforce Report to be released by the Government today. Apparently going to suggest ‘sin taxes’, including potentially a $5 increase in tobacco tax. What do you make of that as a former Health Minister?

TONY ABBOTT: Well, just on the stimulus package what we are increasingly seeing is signs of sloppy administration. Last week we saw $1.5 billion in cost blow-outs in the school infrastructure program. We also saw the pink batts program having to be revamped to stop rorting by unscrupulous providers. We’ve now seen this terrible problem in the Northern Territory with the Strategic Housing Program where nearly $50 million has already been spent and not a single house has yet been built. I think people are starting to get the message Kieran that Labor has a casual attitude towards money. What’s a billion here in waste, what’s a billion there in waste if we manage to avoid a technical recession? I think that’s the Labor Party’s attitude to money and it’s not good enough. Every dollar the Government spends is a dollar that’s taken on trust from the taxpayers and every dollar has got to be spent with the utmost care.

KIERAN GILBERT: What about that Preventative Health Taskforce Report? I just want to move on to another issue. It’s going to be something the Health Minister releases today. Potential for increases in the ‘sin taxes’; reports that the tobacco tax could be increased by $5 a pack.

TONY ABBOTT: Well the interesting thing on the reports on that Kieran, are that the Labor Party seems to very much have fallen out of love with Medicare. They seem to want to replace Medicare in important respects with something more resembling the UK National Health Service with money coming out of fee for service Medicare rebates and going into these giant health centres. Well this sounds to me like an attempt to bail-out the State Government’s community health centres and I don’t think it will work. I think it’s a very, very foolish prescription. Medicare is not perfect but it is a much better system that what they’re talking about now.

KIERAN GILBERT: Does your criticism extend to increases in tax on alcohol and tobacco given that was something that the Coalition actually endorsed, I think, first before the Government had even raised the idea of an increased tobacco tax.

TONY ABBOTT: Yeah, we thought it made more sense to increase the tobacco excise than to rip the guts out of private health insurance but as I said, all I’ve seen in the papers this morning are reports that the Government has fallen out of love with Medicare because it doesn’t like a fee-for-service system and is going to build these large, bureaucratic, wasteful community health centres because the state governments have been falling down on their job. Now that’s not the way to go.

KIERAN GILBERT: Tony Burke, on the issue of the ‘sin tax’. Is this something the Government would be open to as part of that Preventative Health Strategy?

TONY BURKE: Kieran, you’re referring to a report that gets released later today. I haven’t seen it yet and I’m not going to bounce around what’s in it prior to its release. But can I say this with preventative health, because I think it’s fair to say for both sides of politics. Preventative health has always been the easier area to leave in the corner in health policy, for the very simple reason that any benefits you get from actions on preventative health don’t usually show up for more than a decade.

But on preventative health, 70% of the money that we spend is on treatments for sicknesses that were themselves [preventable], yet we invest 2% in preventative health. So to say: let’s have an overarching look at preventative health - in terms of short-term politics, short-term savings of money there’s probably nothing in it. In terms of having a sensible investment in making sure we’re better positioned for the future, it’s exactly what government should be doing.

KIERAN GILBERT: OK, well Tony Abbott made the point, Mr Burke, in relation to the Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program that the broader economic policy of the Government is looking a bit sloppy. Now this program was introduced a year-and-a-half ago but still not a house has been built under that Indigenous Housing Program: 18 months and not a house build.

TONY ABBOTT: That’s what Tony means when he talks about long-term strategy, they have a long-term strategy to actually start building houses because they can’t build them in the short-term and the medium-term.

TONY BURKE: Tony, I think it would be brave for anyone who has been involved in any previous government, from any side of politics, to say that people have been getting it right on Indigenous housing. On the Indigenous housing though - and you’ve seen it in today’s papers - Jenny Macklin has drawn very clear lines in the sand as to the Government’s expectations of what the Northern Territory Government will deliver and our willingness as to how far we’ll go, if it is judged that they are not delivering.

We are determined to get this right. We are determined to make sure that we can deliver a better deal on Indigenous housing. Part of what we’ve all been talking about since the apology is a serious attempt to close the gap on Indigenous disadvantage and that means that we have to take these issues seriously. I don’t think anyone can argue with the comments that Jenny Macklin’s put out overnight.

KIERAN GILBERT: Tony Abbott, your response?

TONY ABBOTT: Yeah, why would you trust them to get it right now when they so manifestly didn’t get it right? When this program was first announced 18 months ago there was something like six layers of management. Now either Jenny Macklin didn’t exercise proper stewardship over the design of this program or she thought there was nothing wrong with six layers of management. Look, I welcome the fact that she has now said that she will take personal responsibility for the delivery of these houses because I frankly think she’s set herself up to fail lamentably in the weeks, months and years ahead.

KIERAN GILBERT: Ok, I just want to touch on one final issue before we go. We’re almost out of time. Tony Burke, the Deputy Prime Minister is at the start of a five day visit to India to mend fences with India after the rocky period in the relationship due to the attacks on students, Indian students, in Australia. How much weight is the Government putting behind these sorts of visits? How important is it for the Government to get things back on track with India?

TONY BURKE: Beyond relationships with Government, Australia as a nation has always had a pretty special friendship with India and it’s a relationship that’s very important. The importance of how we can work cooperatively in the education space mustn’t be underestimated. I hate to throw another statistic around but I find this one extraordinary. In India, 60% of the population is under 25 [years] and yet they only have the capacity to provide tertiary education for 11% of that population. Now that gives us an extraordinary opportunity to work cooperatively with India and for that relationship to be as strong as it is. For the meetings over there, from the reports we’ve seen to have been as productive as they have been spells a very good future outcome both for Australia and for Indian students.

KIERAN GILBERT: Tony Abbott, we’ve only got a minute to go on the show, but you’d welcome that wouldn’t you?

TONY ABBOTT: Look, I’m happy that the Government is trying to repair this particular damage but I just hope that Julia is better at this than she has been at the schools infrastructure program and sorting out the award modernisation mess. Julia Gillard has too much on her plate, she can’t handle education and workplace relations, and to think that she can sort out foreign policy as well. It’s just too much. Julia Gillard is a very effective politician but not even Julia is such a good administrator that she can continue to carry this workload.

KIERAN GILBERT: Tony Abbott, Tony Burke, as always good to see you both - thanks.

TONY ABBOTT: Thanks so much.

TONY BURKE: Thanks Kieran.