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Griffith University, Brisbane, 7 August 1997: transcript of doorstop [Jobs, GST, Lance Barnard, higher education]

EOE - PROOF ONLY

JOURNALIST: Well, firstly, no change in the employment figures, Mr Beazley. What does that say about the way the Government's handling it?

BEAZLEY: Well, I think the first point you note about this is that you need a government in there barracking for jobs, not a government which is holding Cabinet meetings on unemployment where no ideas emerge and where two thirds of the Ministers attend and where virtually none of the major industry Ministers attend. I think that has symbolised the Government's approach to what is a bad set of employment numbers. The position is flat. It's been flat for some time and it's flat at a level which is completely unacceptable. And the Government has no ambitions in this area. They are satisfied with leaving things as they are, taking the Treasurer's advice on that, and he is satisfied with an unemployment number which goes down to about eight per cent. Well, if that's the performance across the cycle, that is very bad news for Australian workers for a very long time to come.

JOURNALIST: They are still better figures than you were presiding over, though, aren't they?

BEAZLEY: No. Our figures were coming down. Indeed, they're not better figures. We actually, in full-time employment, even though there's been a bit of a jump of that in this last month, are actually lower than when they did their first Budget, the numbers of people in full-time employment. So, actually, a situation in which unemployment was coming down quite rapidly, and which there was quite good job growth has now bottomed out into a twilight. You know, John Howard used to talk about five minutes of economic sunshine, well what we've had from him is 15 months of twilight, with no prospect of moving out of this nether world of poor employment performance.

JOURNALIST: What would you do differently?

BEAZLEY: Interventionist government. That is what we'd do. We would start jawboning. We would not allow a situation to develop, such as it did in Newcastle, without Government resistance. We would do as we propose, as far as the textile, clothing and footwear industry is concerned, we would freeze the level of tariffs at the levels that they're going to and ensure that the industry responded by a decent set of investment proposals. We would be in the situation where we would not have imposed, particularly as their Budget situation did not oblige them to impose it, we would not impose that discouragement to industry that's gone through their changes in export market assistance and in research and development funds. Basically, industry has taken the view that this Government doesn't care what happens to them and they're responding accordingly.

JOURNALIST: What about tax reform? I mean, you ruled out a GST yesterday. What about indirect taxes? What would you undertake there?

BEAZLEY: Well, how does a GST, which wrecks small business, assist employment? A GST is an anti- jobs policy. You go around Europe and tell them that the GST, or VAT, is tax reform, they laugh at you.

JOURNALIST: Would Bob Carr say the same?

BEAZLEY: Bob Carr would say the same, yes. Bob Carr would say the same. The point about a GST is what it does is it smacks small business over the back of the head. The compliance costs, as a percentage of their turnover in Europe, on the examination that's been put in place and the GSTs there, is 30 times that of big business. So, the employment generating area would have to carry a cost 30 times as impactful on them as it is in the area of business which is not generating employment at the moment. So, a GST is a job killer. It is also a very damaging proposition for families and it puts an inequity in the taxation system which, to the Labor Party, is just not acceptable.

JOURNALIST: ... split in Labor over a GST.

BEAZLEY: No, there is no split in Labor over a GST, none whatsoever.

JOURNALIST: So, does the indirect tax system need to be reviewed?

BEAZLEY: Well, we don't mind ... we're not against taxation changes where they are necessary and where they produce a situation of equity or improve a situation of equity. There is large scale tax avoidance going on at the moment which is simply being addressed in two Budgets now by Mr Costello with a feather duster. But we don't mind a decent old look at tax reform. But the problem with this look at tax reform is when anybody mentions the words 'tax reform' all they've got to offer is a GST. We've got a firm view on GSTs and what we say about GSTs is that they are job killers and what we say is the priority, important though tax reform might be, the priority, the priority task for the Australian Government now, and this set of figures out today amplifies it, is jobs and jobs security. That's the priority task. Job security creates confidence, keeps families going. Jobs give young people hope and hope for those particularly in middle age who have been put out of work.

JOURNALIST: So, if there's not a GST, how do you reform the indirect tax system?

BEAZLEY: Well, they're the fellows who are advocating that what we ought to be doing is focussing on tax reform and not jobs. We say you should be focussing on jobs. What we say, in so far as we look at the taxation system now, where we see a substantial problem in it, is go where the Tax Commissioner has identified the problem. The Tax Commissioner has said that upper income earners are using trust arrangements in increasingly innovative ways, ways in which the tax system is not meant for them to be used, to the tune of at least $1 billion worth of lost revenue OK, that's where you start your tax reform.

JOURNALIST: Mr Beazley, is there anything you'd like to say in respect of Lance Barnard?

BEAZLEY: Yes. Thank you for asking that question. All of us in the Labor Party feel enormously the loss of Lance. I feel it particularly because, of course, he was a colleague of my father in Gough Whitlam's Government. Lance was a humble man, as well as a great one. And I got to know Lance particularly well when I happened to be Employment, Education and Training Minister because, years after he walked the stage as a senior figure in the Whitlam Ministry and then as an Ambassador, years after that, he had the humility to go back to Launceston and work on opportunities for training young people and he was leading group training organisations and getting in place new traineeship arrangements that were really giving a lot of young people in Launceston hope. And he was doing that up until the day he died. He was a great figure and a humble figure.

JOURNALIST: Mr Beazley, I just wanted to ask you about Peter Baldwin's discussion paper on Higher Education and your views on the learning account concept.

BEAZLEY: Well, it was interesting that after rubbishing Peter Baldwin up hill and down dale, Mr Kemp rubbishing Peter Baldwin up hill and down dale, and the Prime Minister doing the same, the Prime Minister, in one of his many floating balloons, which he floats and retreats from within two days, suggested the life-long learning account. I think that there is no question at all that one of the solutions that we have to come up with in the education area, which will be accorded one of two or three of the highest priority decisions by us as we go though policy development, but one of the questions that has to be answered is how do you ensure that people through life have an opportunity to train and retrain. Now, a learning account is one way that you might address that process. There are others as well. But it's certainly something worth considering.

JOURNALIST: But it's a form of vouchers, isn't it?

BEAZLEY: No, not the way he [Baldwin] put it. The form of vouchers that they're talking about, that Kemp was talking about before the election before last, and which I think that they're working themselves towards is highly specifically dedicated towards a mechanism of charging people entering higher education now. What Peter Baldwin was talking about was not a system applicable to higher education at this moment or for what ought to be the funding basis of universities. What he was saying is that in later life what might not be a bad idea is to give people an opportunity to get themselves into training and, maybe, higher education, but training generally. So, it was not a way of introducing, by the back door, a voucher system for the bulk of students attending universities, and we would certainly not look at it in that way. We think that the universities ought to be properly funded and voucher systems are not the right way of doing it.

JOURNALIST: So, is this being progressed in a policy sense, this ... concept?

BEAZLEY: Well, certainly, the question of learning for life is being, yes. There is an absolutely ... requirement in a situation where nobody gets a job for life to look at the opportunities for constant training and retraining and what are the best mechanisms for that. That is one particular proposition that's on the table.

JOURNALIST: And, finally, what are you addressing the students here today about?

BEAZLEY: Well, I'll be talking about what's happened in higher education, the fact that it's been devalued, the fact that this Government is going to be forced, if there's going to be any equity in higher education and real opportunity for ordinary Australians in higher education, they're going to be forced to reverse policy. Well, we want to not just simply say we told you so, we want to put down a couple of priorities for them as they go through that process. But the first thing that they've got us to deal with, I think, in the many bad things that they've done in higher education, is that appalling price signal they put into the market for people who want to do science and technology and engineering-based subjects. They have had their reward. Kids are dropping out of that area by the dozen right around the country. And it is what has given us our success in that area is what has given us our extraordinarily good competitive position in Asia in information technology and the telecommunications area. So, that would be my starting point. But the other issues have to be addressed as well.

JOURNALIST: Thank you.

BEAZLEY: Good.