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Transcript of doorstop interview: Gold Coast Convention Centre, Queensland: 8 November 2007: Gold Coast Liberal candidates; election campaign; pandas; Pakistan.



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MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS HON ALEXANDER DOWNER, MP

TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE

DATE: 8 November, 2007

TITLE: Doorstop - Gold Coast Convention Centre, Queensland - Gold Coast Liberal Candidates, interest rates, election campaign, pandas, Pakistan.

MR DOWNER: Well, let me begin by saying it's been great to spend 24 hours or nearly 24 hours here on the coast, and I've made a speech to the Master Builders, the international component of the Master Builders, and also had the opportunity to do a bit of work with Steve

Ciobo. Great to catch up now with Margaret May, and Stuart Robert, our candidate for Fadden as well. So very happy to support all our candidates.

The Liberal Party isn't taking the coast for granted. We are determined to ensure that we campaign strongly and effectively in this part of Queensland. The Labor Party has completely abandoned the Gold Coast. Shadow ministers are not bothering to visit. They have not made any commitment to serious projects in this part of Queensland.

The Liberal Party, if re-elected, is committed to upgrading the M1 road, $455 million. We're committed to helping schools in the district. We're creating two new medical schools at Griffith and Bond Universities. So we have a very strong commitment to the Gold Coast, and we think this is a wonderful, fast-growing, effective part of Australia that the Federal Government can help, particularly deal with some of the infrastructure problems, and we're happy to help. But we are certainly, unlike the Labor Party, not abandoning the people of the Gold Coast, and Labor is turning its back on the Gold Coast. It's ignoring the people of the Gold Coast. Shadow ministers can't be bothered to come here. Even the Labor candidate for Moncrieff has made that point, and he makes a good point. Labor doesn't care about the Gold Coast, the coalition is very committed to it.

REPORTER: Mr Downer, interest rates are still the talk of the day.

MR DOWNER: Sure.

REPORTER: Here on the Gold Coast, we've been rated the worst place for first home buyers. How is that going to affect the coalition's chances?

MR DOWNER: Well, the public will make that decision on November the 24th, but obviously, we don't want to see interest rates going up, and it's tough for people. And can I just say that the government very much empathises with them, and we absolutely understand the additional pain that this will cause. There's no question of that.

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But the second thing I'd say is this: when it comes to the election, people need to reflect on something. They need to reflect on whether they think this country will be better served and our economy be better managed by a Prime Minister, in Kevin Rudd, with no experience at all of ministerial office, has never been a minister in any government, in any circumstances, and his front bench will be made up of former trade union officials.

I mean, here we have a situation where we have a government in Australia today which is a known quantity, the Howard and Costello and Vaile Government. This government has done a very good job in terms of managing our economy for 11½ years. Now, people can stick with what they know. They can stick with the predictability and the certainty of continued strong economic growth in Australia. Or they can take a risk and they can go to the most inexperienced prospective Prime Minister this country's had, with a front bench, 70% of whom are former trade union officials. Now, if you ask me, to go with Labor at this election will be an enormous risk. To stick with the coalition is to stick with certainty, predictability and a strong economy.

REPORTER: Minister, isn't it worth taking the punt for voters given that we've had six interest rate rises under your government?

MR DOWNER: Well, they can make a judgment. They can compare the record of the Hawke and Keating Governments with the record of the Howard Government. They can compare that. They can see that throughout the Hawke and Keating Governments, interest rates were higher than they are under the present government. Why? The Hawke and Keating Governments ran budget deficits. The Keating Government left an $11 billion budget deficit and $96 billion worth of debt, all of which had to be funded. The Federal Government was borrowing $8 billion a year to fund its debt when we came into government. That puts pressure on financial markets. That's why interest rates were higher then.

Now, we have a situation today where interest rates are substantially lower than they were under Labor. But we have a lot of difficult international and domestic issues to deal with. We have higher oil prices, we have financial turmoil in the United States, we have a drought which has had a big impact on, in particular, vegetable prices. And of course, you know, this creates challenges in terms of economic management.

Now, when we are facing difficult challenges in terms of economic management, what is the sense of just going out and taking a risk on a leader who has never even been a minister in a government and 70% of his Cabinet would be former trade union officials, from a narrow, inward-looking, special-interest base? It's an enormous risk. That’s an enormous risk for Australians, and I think at times of economic uncertainty, you should never take an enormous risk, which is what Labor is.

REPORTER: Minister, how do you defend high interest rates to a gathering of builders? Obviously they're going to be upset about it.

MR DOWNER: Well, they understand though - these people understand the challenges that Australia faces. These are people who do understand, and you're welcome to ask them,

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but I am quite happy to make the point to them that we face difficult economic times. I'm quite happy to explain that we've had a drought, and that's had a very significant impact on food prices; that we are dealing with oil prices which are approaching $100 - I mean, about $95 a barrel, something like that. They understand the impact of these things. They understand the impact of these things on prices and they understand why the Reserve Bank has made the decision it's made.

I think another question for the builders would be this: do the builders think they would be better off getting rid of the present government and replacing it with a government completely dominated by former trade union officials? What would be the implications of that for the building and construction industry? And I think they will give you a pretty simple answer to that question.

REPORTER: Minister, given the challenges that Australia's facing, given the concerns you have outlined, how confident are you that the Liberals or coalition will hold or gain south-east Queensland seats?

MR DOWNER: Well, look, we'll just do our best. That isn’t in the end a matter for us to decide, that's a matter...

REPORTER: But do you have an assessment?

MR DOWNER: That's a matter for the people of south-east Queensland to decide and they will decide. I think in Stuart Robert, in Margaret May, in Steve Ciobo, we've got really experienced and able candidates, people who have a lot of commonsense, practical people with their feet on the ground who show enormous determination to represent the interests of south-east Queensland, the Gold Coast. I think they're great candidates, and I think they are

worthy of support, and the fact that I'm here supporting them shows you quite clearly that we in the government do not take the people of the Gold Coast for granted. Labor is ignoring them, ignoring the Gold Coast altogether.

REPORTER: Minister, you must be a bit worried about McPherson. They've got a strong candidate in Eddy Sarroff, the current Gold Coast councillor. Are you concerned there at all?

MR DOWNER: Well, I think, to be frank with you, two things about that. First of all, we take no seats for granted. We take no seats for granted. They're all tough to win. And the public deserve to be shown proper respect. And I don't think the Labor Party is showing the

public proper respect here on the Gold Coast in these seats. They're completely ignoring them. Not even shadow ministers can be bothered to visit, according to their own candidate. They can't be bothered to come and visit the people of the Gold Coast. Well, I don't think that's showing respect. And the government is showing them respect and not taking anything for granted. All seats are hard to win these days. We have a much more volatile electorate. People are much less rusted on to political parties on than they once were.

REPORTER: Talking about the Gold Coast, when are we likely to see some pandas down here?

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MR DOWNER: Well, that's a matter for locals to negotiate with their counterparts in China, and I'm happy to help with that process. So we'll see.

REPORTER: There were some concerns I suppose when you made the announcement about Adelaide getting pandas. We know that the group down here have been lobbying quite hard...

MR DOWNER: They've been negotiating with a zoo I think in China.

REPORTER: And...

MR DOWNER: These pandas, though, that are going to Adelaide aren't those pandas, they're not from the same place. They're not pandas from a zoo in southern China.

REPORTER: Is it hard to get pandas?

MR DOWNER: Well, it's possible, I think is the way to put it. Is it hard? It's hardish, but I'm certainly happy to help any locals here who are interested in getting pandas and to talk to the Chinese about it.

REPORTER: Am I right in saying that politically they'd have to go through your office because there has to be a lot of negotiations at the top levels? I mean, really...

MR DOWNER: Well, I think it can help. I don't want to over claim for myself. Far be it from me as a politician ever to over claim. But you know, I'm happy to help, and being the Foreign Minister for 11½ years, I have a lot of contacts in China. I know the Chinese leadership very well, and I'm happy to help.

REPORTER: Obviously it was written up here that we were gypped by the pandas being sent...

MR DOWNER: Well, they weren't the same - I don't know why. I did read that and it was said, I saw that, but I just make the point that the pandas that are going to Adelaide are not the pandas that were coming to Queensland. The two events are not related to each other. There's no relationship between the two.

REPORTER: Could I just ask a couple of questions about your role as Foreign Minister?

MR DOWNER: Of course you can!

REPORTER: Benazir Bhutto is calling for mass protests. How close do you think that Pakistan is to civil war?

MR DOWNER: I don't think it's close to civil war, but I made the point the other day when President Musharraf declared a state of emergency that I think this will contribute to

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instability, not stability. I think it's inevitable that you will get a lot of protests, and of course, people will feel that their liberties have been taken away from them by the state of emergency, and they'll want to protest. I think the challenge for President Musharraf is to get the country back onto the path of democracy. I think he should come out immediately and announce that he is prepared to allow the parliamentary elections to proceed in mid-January. If the parliamentary elections do proceed on time, that will help to ease some of the pressure. But you know, Benazir Bhutto is a very well-known Pakistani politician, well known the world over. I've met her from time to time myself. A very able woman. And you know, she's entitled to seek political office through the electoral process, and the elections should be organised for mid-January. That will help to douse the flames of protest.

REPORTER: Mr Bush has called for immediate general elections and called on General Musharraf to stand down as Army leader. Could I get your thoughts on that?

MR DOWNER: Well, I've said what I wanted to say about the elections, but in terms of him standing down as the head of the Army, yes, I think he should stand down as the head of the Army. You see, the reason he's declared the state of emergency is he's concerned that the Supreme Court would rule his recent election, or re-election, if you could call it that, but his recent election unconstitutional, and that's partly because he's the chief of the Army. So, you know, he needs to stand down from that position. He really does. And the sooner he does that the better. He's promised he will. So let's see him do it.

REPORTER: “Going for growth”, is that going to make a comeback at all?

MR DOWNER: Going for growth, we're certainly going for growth.

REPORTER: When are we going to see that slogan again?

MR DOWNER: I don't have it with me today, but the next time I do a doorstep I will remember to bring it along with me. Just in case you're coming up with some line that may have been spun, I'm not sure whether it has or it hasn't, by the Labor Party, I haven't really seen them say it...

REPORTER: Has it been buried?

MR DOWNER: I'll say it to you, we are going for growth, and that is our slogan, going for growth.

REPORTER: When is it likely to make an official reappearance?

MR DOWNER: I saw the Prime Minister on TV last night with “Going for growth” there all around him. Had a flag behind him, but “Going for growth” to his left and right. So I think “Going for growth” is still going, and why wouldn't we want to go for growth? What's Labor's slogan? Is it going to be "Going for recession" or “Going for, well, not too much growth” or “Maybe we're not much in favour of growth”? Is that their proposition? Maybe it is. But our proposition is that growth will lead to higher living standards and lower unemployment. OK?

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REPORTER: Thanks.

[Ends]