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'Cuppa' Farm, Tharwa: transcript of doorstop: drought policy; ALP policy announcements; leadership and opinion polls; ACCC appointment.

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Subjects: Drought Policy; ALP Policy Announcements; Leadership and Opinion Polls; ACCC appointment

CREAN: As you know, six weeks ago I visited drought-affected territory in New South Wales - out at Brewarrina, Bourke, Condobolin - and called then for immediate assistance to be given to the drought-affected farmers. Exceptional Circumstance had been called up there, but the money was not flowing. It took 64 days for the Howard Government to get money flowing to those farmers. I don’t know what it is about John Howard, but he seems to have some fixation with this 64, but it’s just too long. The fact of the matter is that farmers are struggling in these drought-affected conditions, and they need immediate assistance.

And we’re announcing a six-point plan today to address those sorts of issues. Key amongst the points is the speeding up of the processing - a seven-day turnaround to get an interim judgement because that, importantly, gets money flowing for Farm Household Assistance, but a 28-day turnaround on declaring an area Exceptional Circumstance. Sixty-four days - it just shouldn’t take that long. It’s outrageous, and the Government should act much more quickly, and these new provisions will ensure that they do.

Another point that I think is terribly important is that, the more you speak to the farmers affected by this drought, the key issue for them is protecting their core breeding stock. And what we’re suggesting be available, again under the Exceptional Circumstances conditions, is 100 per cent interest subsidies to enable them to keep their core breeding stock.

And a third key dimension to give them assistance is more flexibility in the way in which the Farm Deposit Scheme works. Now I introduced the Farm Deposit Scheme, despite what the Government says, as I did the Exceptional Circumstances scheme.


And whilst I claim ownership for it, I also accept that changes need to continually be made. And one of the other initiatives we’re calling for today is that when Exceptional Circumstances are called - as they have been in this drought - farmers who have had money in Farm Deposit Schemes ought to be also able to access the money they’ve put in over the past twelve months.

Now I think it’s far better if farmers can access their financial haystack, so to speak, so that they can address the real needs of their survival and getting through the drought - far better to do that than to deny them access.

I just also say, I think it’s about time the Prime Minister actually got out to drought territory and saw what was happening. His Minister has been bungling. There has been squabbling between the States and the Federal Government, and this requires national leadership. This is an issue that John Howard should be putting on next month’s COAG agenda.

He is talking water, but what better time to talk water than in the circumstances of drought and the consequences in terms of our long-term survival so far as water is concerned and ensuring that all of our rivers survive - but dealing with it in the context of drought and coming up with a comprehensive policy that actually works for farmers and doesn’t frustrate them.

These initiatives come as a result of building on that which I have previously developed in another role. But it also comes from having gone out, spoken to the farming community in drought-affected areas, and knowing the sorts of issues that need to be addressed. I urge the Government to adopt this plan.

JOURNALIST: Haven’t the States got a role to play here? The Federal Minister says that the Commonwealth is already footing 90 per cent, and all States except for Queensland have pulled out of drought relief.

CREAN: Under Exceptional Circumstances, that was the ratio that I negotiated as Federal Minister for Primary Industries with Coalition Ministers back in 1993. It was a recognition that the States had to do more, and we had to do more with the farmers in preparing better for drought before it got to Exceptional Circumstances, Paul. But Exceptional Circumstances is the once-in-a-one-hundred-year-type circumstances. Unfortunately, it’s happening in so much of Australia at one time.

But the whole purpose of getting the States locked in to better assistance and greater coordination with their efforts in the first stage, was making the commitment, the greater commitment of the Commonwealth in Exceptional Circumstances. All the Federal Government has been doing is to try and beat the States down in terms of the proportion. We, in fact, have got the agreement in place. What I’m arguing is that we need to make it work. And we need to have flexibility in the way in which it works so that it better suits the needs of the farmers. Of course the States have got a role to play, but it


has got to be led at the national level, and that is what these initiatives propose.

JOURNALIST: …[inaudible] the Government, I think, in Parliament was also saying that the States have been slow to make the applications, that they had to actually do that. I mean, is that true? Have the States dropped the ball?

CREAN: No, they haven’t, not at all. Take the Bourke-Brewarrina situation, the Exceptional Circumstances were declared over 70 days ago, now. Of course, one has to make the real assessment based on historic data. One has to put the case forward, but it has to have speedy turnaround. What we’re really talking about here is not the declaration of the Exceptional Circumstances, it’s the failure to get money through once they’re declared, and it’s the length of time it takes. I want to shorten that. I want to shorten it, consistent with the framework that already exists. But I also want to give additional assistance based on what the farmers have been calling for - greater flexibility in the way in which they can access support.

JOURNALIST: But in these circumstances, how much evidence should farming families be providing that they are doing it tough in the drought? How much evidence should be provided to the Federal Government?

CREAN: Look, if the Federal Government only got out there and looked, you know they’re doing it tough. I mean, I’ve been on properties which have got no water on them. Their stock are dead in what used to be the dam. The animals are dropping on their feet, and these are farmers that have been forced to de-stock significantly. What they want to do is to maintain the core breeding herd because, like all farmers, they know that droughts will eventually break. Unfortunately, they don’t look like breaking for some time.

But you would only have to go and look at the problem to understand that there is no income there. You only have to understand that, when farmers don’t get an income flow, they need to put food on the table. That’s why the assistance is needed. No one is questioning that they need support. What is at issue here is how quickly they can get it.

JOURNALIST: But isn’t that red tape there for a reason? Don’t the authorities need to check that historical data?

CREAN: Red tape should not be there to stop people who are in genuine need getting assistance, and that’s what happening at the moment. We have got to cut that red tape. And why shouldn’t these organisations be able to turn around the application quicker? If we give them deadlines, they will meet them.


JOURNALIST: Simon, you are travelling around the country making announcements like this one and other policy announcements. Are you having trouble getting the message up because the international situation we’ve been in with terrorism, Bali etcetera? Is the only chance for you to punch through your message, to do something radical, a major policy announcement - is that the way you’re thinking?

CREAN: Well we will be continuing to make major policy announcements, Fran, but I think it is true that in the current circumstances it is very difficult to get the message up. Take the other day, for example, when the Osama bin Laden tape emerged; the key story that was running that day up until that time, was the Government being sued by the liquidators of HIH for negligence in not taking steps to stop HIH collapsing. Now that would have been a story that would have run domestically. It’s an issue that we’ve been hammering in terms of companies being required to disclose better, to be more upfront, to be more open. That could have been a story, but it wasn’t. What subsumed it was a tape that hadn’t even been authenticated.

Now, in these times in which there are threats - post-Bali, and the Osama bin Laden tape, and the issue this morning about the arrest - of course people are going to focus on their security, the way in which they’re fearful. But what I’m convinced of, Fran, is that underneath all of that, there are pressing domestic issues that matter. Drought is but one of them, and I will persist and continue with the course of developing policy responses.

JOURNALIST: The latest Newspoll shows your party are at a level below where you were when you lost the last election which means, I guess, you’ve had no impact on the electorate. I mean, why should you, why do you deserve to be maintained as Labor’s Opposition Leader if that’s the evidence today?

CREAN: Well, what I think the polls show are two fundamental things, Fran. A) there is volatility out there, even in the circumstances that we’re finding - huge volatility between the polls themselves. Secondly, the polls show the advantage to the incumbent, and that doesn’t surprise me. In times of national concern about the security, people will turn to the leadership. And that is why, on those issues, I have been at pains to offer bipartisan support and constructive solutions as to how we can better secure ourselves as a nation. I will continue to do that.

I accept that these are things that matter. They are weighing on people’s minds, but underneath it all there are a whole lot of pressing issues. The decline in bulk-billing for example, which is now down to record low levels under this Government. The drought; the issue of maternity leave; the issue of the pressure on working families - these are all issues that matter. Why is it that Australians are asking themselves, if we’re going gangbusters as an economy, why are we paying more income tax then ever? Why do you think families are suffering under financial pressure? Because this Government’s


policies have put them there. Now we’ve got to expose the problem, as we have with drought, and provide alternatives to that. And I will not be deterred in that regard.

Now, of course we are going through tough times as an Opposition. Opposition is always tough. It’s the point I keep making to my colleagues. But don’t pretend that there is any magic wand in the current circumstances, and there is never a magic wand for a Labor party. The Labor Party has to be about getting on with the business of telling the story as to what the problem is, and proposing constructive alternatives. I won’t be deterred in that task.

JOURNALIST: Is it any consolation for you in the fact that John Howard is six times more popular than Peter Costello and only three times more popular than you?

CREAN: I think that is what demonstrates the problem for anyone seeking to become Prime Minister - from whatever side of the political fence. The polls demonstrate that incumbents are favoured, whether it’s George Bush, Tony Blair - if you want to take the two different sides of the political equation. It’s the incumbents in the current circumstances that are being held up as preferred Prime Minister. The key question, though, is: would I make a good Prime Minister? And I think the answer to that is clearly ‘yes’, because I show a determination to face up to the tough issues and to get outcomes, to understand the issues and produce results.

JOURNALIST: Mr Crean, some of your Ministers are writing you off already. Some of your Caucus are starting to mutter more loudly. I mean, is fracturing internal party discipline a problem?

CREAN: I was told when I left university and went to the Storemen and Packers Union as a research officer that I would never make General-Secretary, Fran. I was written off. When I was General-Secretary of the union, I was told I could never be ACTU President, and I got there. When I left the ACTU, I was told that I would never get into the Federal Ministry straight away, and I did. People have written me off time and time again, I just keep rewriting the chapters.

JOURNALIST: Is this a message, though, to voters or to Caucus? I mean, there are obviously rumblings on the backbench about your leadership.

CREAN: It’s a message to Caucus as well. It’s a message to my frontbench and it’s a message that I’ve given the Caucus and my frontbench at meetings last week. It’s a message that they need to understand and adopt.

JOURNALIST: How much time do you think you’ve got to reverse this trend in the opinion polls?


CREAN: The timetable that I’ve set myself is the next election, and I will be working every day to meet that deadline. I will be using every opportunity to expose their failings as a Government and to present the constructive alternatives. And, come the time of the next election, I believe that I can win.

JOURNALIST: But are your colleagues satisfied with that timetable?

CREAN: Absolutely.

JOURNALIST: Do you think the Labor Party can win the next election with anyone else as leader?

CREAN: The fact of the matter is that I was elected unanimously, and I’m going to lead them with that support.

JOURNALIST: It’s not unanimous at the moment, though, is it?

CREAN: Well, who says?

JOURNALIST: Well, there seems to be …

CREAN: Have you done a vote? Have you conducted a poll? Are you in the Caucus? Are you proposing an alternative?

JOURNALIST: There seems to be plenty …

CREAN: Speak up!

JOURNALIST: … of people in the Caucus who are willing to tell us off the record that they’re not happy with what’s going on.

CREAN: Look, journalists thrive on off-the-record comments. I only know one way forward, and that’s to be direct with people - say it to their face, say it to their face. No one’s said that to me.

JOURNALIST: So are you saying that if there are people who have concerns, they should come and talk to you straight to your face instead of talking to us.

CREAN: Of course. I think that if people have got concerns about anything in relation to me or other people, they should go direct to them. The scuttlebutt has to stop. We’ve got to get on with the task of winning. The leadership tensions are going to be on the other side of politics next year, and I’m certain that there will be a much more nervous Treasurer after today’s poll. But our focus has got to be on the timetable of the next election. It’s got to be about exposing the Government’s weaknesses and it’s got to be about putting forward constructive alternatives. That’s why I’m


here today. I mean, I haven’t just stumbled upon drought. I’ve known it to exist. I also know it needs a Federal Government policy response and leadership. I’ve given it in the past, I’m giving it now. But if I was in Government, if I was Prime Minister, drought-affected farmers would have gotten assistance sooner under me.

JOURNALIST: Does it seem to you, though, that it doesn’t matter what John Howard does or doesn’t do, his popularity is not being affected because of the times that we are in; that people are just aren’t marking him down on what you would call his domestic policy failures?

CREAN: Times will change, Fran. Look at the beginning of the year - they marked him down heavily. They marked him down heavily when there was the ‘kids overboard’ exposure. They marked him down heavily over the Peter Hollingworth thing. They marked him down heavily over the Michael Kirby stuff. They marked him down because he was exposed as deceitful, and having no plan.

Now, take the next six months in terms of the terrorism. Again, the threat of terrorism, the response to it, the anti-terrorism legislation, Bali, the Osama bin Laden tapes - in all of these things, all John Howard has done is react. Even the credit that has been given to him for handling Bali; it took him four days to do anything. And I was out there suggesting the constructive alternatives. I suggested the day of mourning. I suggested the Regional Summit - which he still hasn’t convened. I see some reports today about something that Minister Ellison is going to with officials. That’s not good enough. If we’re going to tackle terrorism in our region, you have got to do it through the heads of state. And if I was Prime Minister, that’s what I would be doing, convening a Regional Summit.

I also called for there to be a national coordinator of our relief effort and our evacuation effort. That didn’t happen until the Thursday after the Bali bombing. This was a Prime Minister that didn’t have a plan immediately to react, whatever credit that has been given to him in the past.

Now I accept, in circumstances of the media coverage, that times change and if the imagery is about identifying with the grief and all of those sorts of things, that’s fine, I welcome it. I urge the Prime Minister to go there and show that empathy, that understanding, that assistance that the families needed. All I’m saying is that, had I been Prime Minister, I would have done it and I would have done it sooner.

JOURNALIST: Can I ask you about Allan Fels, whose announcement today that he’s actually retiring early and that the Treasurer is now starting again the process of finding a replacement. Do you have a candidate that you want to put forward?


CREAN: Well, I think it’s inappropriate to nominate candidates. I think that is the problem, it cruels them from the beginning. This can’t be a political appointment and, if the Treasurer is starting again, let’s hope he starts properly this time and genuinely consults. I think the Treasurer has a real problem with consultation. The Treasurer seems to think that, simply because he has come to a view, that everyone else should fall in line. Well, the powers were given to the ACCC by the States on the basis that there would be consultation about the person that runs it.

We all know it’s one thing to establish the structure, it’s another to make sure that you’ve got the right appointments. And all of the States need to be consulted about it. So if the Treasurer is starting again, let’s hope he starts properly, because he didn’t start well last time and his nominee was rejected because of a failure of process.

JOURNALIST: Do you support the candidate, though? Do you support Graeme Samuel?

CREAN: I’ve said on the record before, I don’t have a problem with Graeme Samuel personally, but this is an issue of the key role of the ACCC. It’s a consumer watchdog. It needs key consumer influence in there, not just big business interests.