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Transcript of doorstop interview Press Conference: Parliament House, Canberra: 31 July 2007: Commonwealth-State relations; interest rates; Dr Haneef.



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PRIME MINISTER

31 July 2007

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP PRESS CONFERENCE PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA

Subjects: Commonwealth-State relations; interest rates; Dr Haneef.

EO&E…………………………………………………………………………………

PRIME MINISTER:

Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve called this news conference to say something about the extraordinary intention of the Labor Party to reduce the role of the national government in the affairs of this country. I interpret their new federalism policy as being a policy of retreat by the national government from the affairs of this nation at a time when more than ever the Australian people want the Federal Government to play

a more and not less active role in the affairs of Australia. In 2007, the two great sentiments within the Australian community regarding governance are nationalism and localism. They want their national government solving problems, they’re not much fussed about theories of federalism or theories about blame games, they want outcomes, they want better results. The people of western Sydney want better public transport and if a greater involvement by the Federal Government in a whole range of areas leads to better outcomes then they want the Federal Government involved and you can interpret in no other way an intention by the Labor Party to loosen the controls over the spending of federal money by states, you can interpret it in no other way than a retreat by the national government. I mean, for example, if you get rid of Specific Purpose Payments in relation to health it means you can’t guarantee that there’ll be no co-payments introduced for public hospital treatment. If you remove specific payments in relation to education you can’t enforce national consistency in things such as literacy and numeracy and plain English reports and all the other national standards that people want.

I mean, when I talk to Australian parents they really want consistency and common standards throughout the country, they don’t want a retreat from that. They want, if anything, to go forward to that. They are thinking more of this Commonwealth of ours being a nation rather than a collection of states. I think this is a backward looking policy. Mr Rudd has sub-contracted his industrial relations policy to the unions, he’s now intending to sub-contract his spending policies to the states. He says it’s about ending the blame game, it’s really about reducing the role of the national government in the affairs of this country and that is the last thing that I find the Australian people want. The Australian people want better outcomes and they don’t see giving the states more freedom, more flexibility and greater power to do what they want to do, they don’t see that as a solution to better outcomes. I mean, you ask anybody who’s suffering the public transport chaos of Sydney whether they think greater flexibility and greater authority by the State Government is going to produce a better outcome. I think they would be very, very loathe to say…and can I just give you three illustrations in the past six months of where state and territory failure has required greater federal involvement to the public benefit.

I refer to the Murray-Darling Basin scheme, I refer to the federal intervention in indigenous policy in the Northern Territory and I refer to the greater federal involvement in relation to disability services. I mean, the extra money we put into disability services was because what the states were meant to be doing, they weren’t doing. Now under the Rudd formula what would happen is we would have given that $1.8 billion to the states without strings attached so that with that additional money they could go on ignoring the needs of people in this sector. I mean, we raise revenue through various forms of taxation and we have a responsibility to the Australian people to see that it is properly spent and you don’t discharge that responsibility by simply handing it over to the states without strings attached. This is 2007, it’s not 1957.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, do you envisage putting more strings on the GST funding for the states?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I’m not envisaging putting more strings on the GST funding. I do think a lot of citizens in states wonder what a lot of the State Governments have done with it. I think you have a reasonable balance at the moment where you have some generalised funding via the GST and you have specific purpose payments which enable the Commonwealth Government to require the states to meet certain standards and I don’t intend to abandon that. I don’t…I think that is going backwards. I think the public wants the Federal Government to insist on standards which are common throughout the nation. We are one people, we’re not a collection of states any more, we are one people and the Australian people want these things addressed on a national basis.

JOURNALIST:

Do you think the current system is working?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it works very well in some areas and it fails in other areas and I see the Commonwealth as having a role where it fails to step in which we’ve done in the Northern Territory, we’ve done with disability services, we’ve done with the Murray-Darling Basin. I mean, no system is perfect but…

JOURNALIST:

What about transport?

PRIME MINISTER:

I beg your pardon?

JOURNALIST:

What about transport?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think transport works well in parts and doesn’t work well in other parts, but the answer is not for the Federal Government to retreat. See the whole thrust of this is retreat, is a lesser role for the national government.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, if you mean what you say about the voter’s desire for nationalism and localism why don’t you put your money where your mouth is and have a referendum on it?

PRIME MINISTER:

No Jim, I’m not having a referendum on it. I mean, don’t raise a red herring…it is a red herring, there are plenty of ways in which you can fix the problem without having a constitutional change. We are fixing the problem in relation to the Territory because we’re intervening and as a result of the intervention in the Territory we’ve brought forth a lot more activity by the states, even though we haven’t directly intervened. There are many ways that you can fix a problem without having a constitutional change but the one thing you don’t do is to lessen Commonwealth involvement. I mean I don’t find anybody anywhere saying that you’ll solve the

problems of health and education in this country by the Commonwealth doing less. Now what they essentially do all the time, is people ask that the Commonwealth does more and if you take away or you reduce Specific Purpose Payments in relation to health and education you’ll end up having diverging outcomes across the country. I mean this is going backwards.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister you said that the disability spending, for example, you nominated as an area where the states have failed….

PRIME MINISTER:

Well they haven’t lived up to the agreement they made with the Keating Government.

JOURNALIST:

Okay, but what are the states doing, what are they spending their money on?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don’t know, that’s a question that the media should ask the states. I mean they get….well we had an agreement, we had an agreement in relation to disability services and the agreement was that they would look after accommodation and we would essentially look after income support and employment services. Now not enough was being done on accommodation and we’ve put a lot more money into it, $1.8 billion more, and we live in hope that that will be matched by the states. But what I’m saying, Mark, is that in 2007 it is unrealistic and against the national interest for the national government to be contemplating a lesser role in areas such as health and education. And if you reduce the conditions attached to Federal Government money to the states you are taking less interest in health and education and you are reducing your influence. I mean I don’t believe it’s in the interests of this country for the Federal Government to retreat. I’m not arguing that we should run everything. But the idea that we should retreat, that we should have a lesser policy influence in 2007 is just so out of touch with what the public wants. I mean it’s not what the public tells me.

JOURNALIST:

Is competition policy failing in directing the states to areas of need?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think competition policy worked quite well in many areas. I mean not everything about the existing arrangement has been a failure. But what I’m attacking is the idea that you’re going to improve the situation by the Commonwealth doing less.

JOURNALIST:

Well if you’re concerned about where the money is going, what the states are doing with it, why wouldn’t, as Dennis suggested earlier, having more strings on the GST money that goes to the states be the answer?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think the answer, Jim, is to preserve the present system, which is a mixture of generalised funding and specific purpose funding but where there are particular failures you just act in an appropriate way and I’ve described some of the areas where we’ve acted. I mean take the Murray-Darling Basin. I mean according to the, I guess,

the approach that is mirrored in this report, and the remarks that have been made about it, what we should’ve done with the Murray-Darling Basin is to have persisted with the cooperative approach. Now we’ve been trying that for decades and it’s been a failure. So what we decided to do was to get….seek a reference of powers, we’re only four fifths of the way there, or three quarters of the way there, the ACT doesn’t have to refer anything because they don’t have anything to refer, but…and we’ve put an extra amount of money on the table. Now that’s the way you deal with issues. Where there are particular problems you try and solve them in particular ways. But I just find it amazing that the Opposition is proposing a lesser role for the Commonwealth Government at a time when I find as I go around the community people want the Federal Government to involve itself to a much greater extent.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, will the Government be releasing the advice from the AFP on Dr Haneef?

PRIME MINISTER:

We’re still getting advice on that and there are discussions going on involving the Minister and the Solicitor-General and other advisers, and the Australian Federal Police. We’ve indicated that we would like to release as much information as we can that was relevant to Mr Andrews’ decision to cancel the visa and his unwillingness to issue a new visa and his continued intention of opposing the court action being taken by Dr Haneef. We don’t, however, in the process of doing that, want to in any way compromise investigations that have been carried out by the police. So that matter is being talked through at the present time and advice is being received and when Mr Andrews is in a position to saying something about it he will.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, given that Dr Haneef when he returned to India was given sort of quasi hero status and local authorities were offering the pick of medical jobs and so on, how do you think the Indian public and the Indian government is going to react to comments by yourself and others that there’s still a lingering suspicion over him, that he could have been directly sympathetic to terrorist activities given that the charges have been dropped and the Federal Court case is still pending?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don’t think it’s going to have any impact on our relations at all.

JOURNALIST:

Has the Government clarified with the British authorities yet whether the AFP was given misleading information about evidence in relation to the Haneef case?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that would be a matter you’d have to ask the police about because that really involves the communication between agencies that operate independently of the Government.

JOURNALIST:

What do the British think about releasing the material. You don’t want…

PRIME MINISTER:

I haven’t had any communication separately with the British.

JOURNALIST:

Was Kevin Andrews right to say that Dr Haneef’s departure for India heightens rather than lessens your suspicion?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I support his handling of this thing completely.

JOURNALIST:

Have you any legal advice or opinion on whether, if this information was released, what its legal status would be because presumably it would be defamatory.

PRIME MINISTER:

I don’t know that I am in a position to give a running kerbside, no kerbside opinions aren’t running, you are actually stationary when you give them, but I don’t think I am in a position to give either a kerbside opinion or a running commentary on the status of that. Look we can go on for a long time and get nowhere on this. At the moment the discussions are still going on between Mr Andrews and others and he is seeking advice and until all of that is concluded I can’t really add to what I have said.

JOURNALIST:

There was second doctor, Mohammed Asif Ali who was questioned on the first day and then let go. It’s come out that I think, 12 months of his employment record was fabricated. I think Mr Andrews office was saying last night they were looking at it, is that an issue of concern and do you expect some movement?

PRIME MINISTER:

My understanding, and I could be wrong, is that that’s unrelated to the other issue. Now I don’t know whether that’s right or wrong, but once again I am not conducting the investigation and that is something you might have to ask the Queensland health authorities or the police.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, joint Senate tickets for Queensland, do you think it’s wise to push ahead with that after what happened on the national conference floor on the weekend?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I wasn’t there, I am not sure what did happen. But I think that the discussions should continue because the greater the level of public unity between the two parties in Queensland at the election, the better for the Coalition.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, given the amount of times that ministers in your Government have attacked Mr Rudd as not having any policies, are you at least comforted that this new policy that’s come forward by him at least brings the political debate to a head and gives you something to get your hands around?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don’t object to a proposal to look at the costs that are put on land by local government and by state governments, I don’t object to that at all. The flaw in Mr Rudd’s policy as pointed out by Mr Costello is that it doesn’t add up.

JOURNALIST:

With housing, Prime Minister, how troubled are you about the prospect of an interest rate rise next week now that building approvals have come in so much stronger than anticipated?

PRIME MINISTER:

Jim, I am not going to speculate about the rise or not, except to say that the Reserve Bank in making judgements about interest rates will look at inflation indicators predominantly, that is the principle determinant of decisions taken by the Reserve Bank in relation to interest rates.

JOURNALIST:

One broad question in relation to the Haneef case, when Stephen Keim released the transcript of the first interview a lot of members of the Government said leave it to the courts, let the courts decide, they can weigh up these things. Now this confidential

information we are talking about now is due to go back before the Federal Court next Wednesday. Why the double standard, why accuse Stephen Keim of trying to try the case in public opinion, the Government says leave it in the courts and then you’re trying to put stuff into the public domain now, isn’t it a double standard?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, it’s not a double standard.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, I should say Kevin Andrews criticised Kevin Rudd for…

PRIME MINISTER:

Kevin Andrews criticised Kevin Rudd…

JOURNALIST:

For taking a me too stance over Haneef and you seem to have echoed his sentiments. What is wrong with Labor defending the Government?

PRIME MINISTER:

I beg your pardon?

JOURNALIST:

What is wrong with Labor defending the Government?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don’t object to the Labor Party agreeing with the Government when it is sensible of the Labor Party to do so. I have never said that I object to the Labor Party agreeing with the Government. The point I have made is that on some issues the Labor Party has played a double game. Mr Rudd has agreed with the Government but, coincidence, coincidence, coincidence, state premiers have gone out and attacked the Government and, you know, I know you will accuse me of being a suspicious bloke but that looks a little too convenient because it’s happened on too many occasions.

JOURNALIST:

You don’t believe Peter Beattie’s hand on heart claim that he’s had no instructions at all from your opponent?

PRIME MINISTER:

What’s the next question? The next serious question from Mr Coorey, yes?

JOURNALIST:

Any room for Harry Quick in the Liberal Party?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I think Mr Rudd should demonstrate a bit of party spine on this issue and get rid of Mr Harkins. See, we’ve actually got quite a charade here. Joe McDonald is still a member of the Australian Labor Party and surprise, surprise, surprise, the West

Australian executive isn’t going to get around to doing anything about it until at least December of this year and that’s a very interesting surprise. I think Mr Harkins ought to go.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, Michael Towke, should you intervene in the case of Michael Towke?

PRIME MINISTER:

Hang on, can I just make a point to be…in fairness to Mr Towke. He’s not been charged with any illegality and the question of whether he is endorsed, he’s been pres-selected by the local committee and under the constitution of the New South Wales division of the Liberal Party he’s not the endorsed Liberal candidate until that pre-selection is ratified by the state executive and before it makes a decision on that the executive has to examine certain matters and I’ve stated my position yesterday. If there are no valid objections to his ratification he should be endorsed. If there are and most particularly if there is evidence in relation to memberships having been paid he shouldn’t because that is a clear breach of the party’s rules. But the difference between him and Mr Harkins is two fold. Firstly he’s not been charged with any illegality and secondly he’s not yet the endorsed candidate whereas Mr Harkins is. Thank you.

[ends]