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Transcript of the Leader of the Opposition the Hon John Howard MP press conference



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• * Office of the Leader of the Opposition

BE/JF/SR-WH

T R A N S C R IP T O F T H E L E A D E R O F T H E O P P O S IT IO N T H E H O N J O H N H O W A R D M P P R E S S C O N F E R E N C E - M E L B O U R N E T H U R S D A Y 8 F E B R U A R Y 1996

RACE......................................................................................................................................... ......

HOWARD:

Ladies and gentlemen, I’ll start this news conference by reminding you that the release of the unemployment figure today which shows a nse from 8.1 to 8.6 in the number of, in the percentage o f Australians out o f work is a very sharp reminder o f the fundamental issue of this campaign, and that is which side is more likely to offer hope on the jobs front The figure represents the most outstanding example of the Government's economic failure. This

will be the last recorded measure of unemployment before the election and when you bear in mind all the boasts and all the talk about employment growth over the last thirteen years, it is a terrible indictment o f failure, it is a terrible criticism o f Mr Keating’s incapacity to lead this country into better economi c times that we should still have a figure of 8.6% o f Australians who are unemployed.

The second thing that 1 would like to say is that I’ve noticed in this morning's press that one of the reasons advanced by the Treasurer as to why lie has nothing further to say on the forward estimates o f expenditure and revenue on the Budget for 1996-97 is that he is constrained by the caretaker convention from being briefed by the Department of Finance

and the Department of Treasury' on the current situation. Can I say to the Treasurer, or more particularly, can i say to the Prime Minister, 1 am perfectly happy as Opposition Leader to waive adherence to that convention, T don’t mind Mr Willis being advised by the Department of Treasury and the Department of Finance in a totally up to date wav. I impose but one

condition on that that because it is the caretaker period that he also accept that Mr Costello as the Shadow Treasurer should likewise be advised by the Depaitmeni o f Tieasury and the Department of Finance. So i say to the Prime Minister, what's the problem, let both o f them be advised as to the situation. 1 understand this morning that Kim Bcazlcy says the latest

figures announced by the Government, there's no reason to change them. As far as I’m concerned Vd be perfectly happy for both Willis and Costello to be briefed by the Department o f Treasury' and the Department of Finance and 1 think that is the sensible way of handling questions that are coming from the media and elsewhere, understandably on this

issue.

Parliament House, Canberra, A.C.T 2600 Phone 2774022 ! COMMONWEALTH p a r l i a m e n t a r y l ib r a r y

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, Jeff Kcnnctt says this morning that the federal Liberal Party understands or estimates the deficit to be between 3 to 5 billion dollars. Is that true?

HOWARD:

Well I don't have any figure o f that kind and ί also understand from Mr Kennett that that comment of his was the result of a complete misunderstanding on his part between the deficit and the surplus and m fact the figure that was communicated to him was in fact the published surplus in the forward estimates.

JOURNALIST:

So he was talking, when he said the federal Liberals, he meant the federal Liberal P arty....

HOWARD:

Well you knowr, I have been advised by Mr K.ennett that the use o f that figure was as a consequence of his misunderstanding o f the conversation and the figure that was used in that conversation was m fact the published surplus in the 1996-97 figures.

JOURNALIST:

Does the federal Liberal Party have a hunch what the figure might be?

HOWARD:

Not to my knowledge. I mean if the federal Liberal Party has a body and a being separate from its federal Parliamentary Leader, it might, but I can tell you it hasn’t.

JOURNALIST:

Is it worth a tty to undertake your own estimate?

HOWARD:

Oh, no, look I’ve been, you know, 1 understand the difficulties. Look, I’m not going to do that. 1 mean, you can’t be fairer and more open than to say ‘throw open the books, let Willis and Costello have a look".

JOURNALIST:

If you do get a look at them and it shows...

HOWARD:

Took, no hang on, Fm not dealing m hypotheses T sav, Paul, throw open the books, let both o f them see them

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JOURNALIST:

Do you have any contingency plans for the event that you come to office and then find that the situation is far worse than you'd anticipated.

HOWARD:

I don't deal in hypothetical situations.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, economists have been, saying for some time though that this budget surplus the Government's talking about is fanciful and dial we're heading for a budget deficit o f around 8 to 9 billion dollars. 1 mean, vour own research and your own knowledge and your own contacts must be telling you the same thing aren't they?

HOWARD:

Oh there's a wide range in the private sector but could 1 say in defence of the Treasury and the Department o f Finance separately from any suggestion o f defending their political masters, their current political masters, that the track record o f the Department o f Treasury and the Department of Finance in a lot of these estimating arguments hasn’t been too bad

over the last decade, so one shouldn’t assume just because some private sector economists say one thing or the other Took you’ve got to operate on some figures. I’ve beep. Operating on the published figures. I’ve called on numerous occasions for the Prime Minister or Treasurer to tell us if there’s any qualifying information in their possession. They have as

late as this morning through Kim Beazley said no, I’m going one step further; Fm saying as Opposition Leader and alternative Prime Minister, during the caretaker period 1 waive any assumption that during that caretaker period, the Treasurer can’t have access to up-to-date information on the reasonable condition that Peter Costello have a like briefing. You can’t be fairer titan that.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard your promise of another $60 million today also dovetails with the fact of a budget surplus this vear. Have you taken into account not only the Government’s figures but your growth projections and how you will make savings in other areas.

HOWARD:

Well vi: the question of savings, Paul, we will be releasing a document shortly after the campaign launch which is going to deal in detail with the expenditure commitments which I believe particularly compared to the Government's being quite modest and will explain where the money’s coming from and 1 invite you all to look at that document very carefully -

I’m sure you will. We don't lightly take our responsibility to give an explanation to the .Australian public as to where the money is coming from.

JOURNALIST:

Will that document carry the caveat that all promises are subject to what the budgetary situation is when you get into government? Is there a chance that once you get into government...

HOWARD:

Well, this document will be based upon the best calculations that we can make o f what our promises cost and where w e can obtain savings. I have said ail along, and Peter Costello has said all along, tliat the comments we’ve made about how we will handle the Budget are, genetically speaking, based on the latest available Treasury' information. We can't do anything else.

JOURNALIST:

But Mr Howard, surely you say you won't do anything ..(inaudible).. if the situation turns out to be .(inaudible)., but we've seen governments on numerous occasions ..

HOWARD:

We haven’t seen - sorry

JOURNALIST:

We’ve seen governments get into office and say, “the situation is different, we must revise our programme”. What security does the electorate have that you won't go down this course?

HOWARD:

1 don't think there has been a case in the past when an Opposition Leader and an alternative Prime Minister has made the proposal that I made a few moments ago about examination o f the books. I think I have gone further to provide a basis o f honest dealing in relation to these things than any alternative Prime Minister has in the past. I can’t physically enter the

Department o f the Treasury' and seize the books and cany them away. I can only go there through Peter Costello if the Prime Minister o f the day gives permission. Now I just say again, the Prime Minister has the executive authority until there’s a change of government and T have no teasou, 1 have no secret knowledge, I have no covert figures, I have no

workings on the back of an envelope. I’ve iiollting off the back o f a truck that says to me that the figures that have been supplied are wrong.

JOURNALIST:

Rut Mr Howard, at the time of the. last Rudgat you actually attacked the Budget accounting methods and said that net of asset sales the Budget was in deficit and now we’re going through this charade where you’re basing your promises on the fact that it’s in surplus. Surely...

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HOWARD:

No, those same figurings, Mr Milne, suggested that in 1996/97 there would be an underlying surplus.

JOURNALIST:

If you haven’t got any information on the back of an envelope, why do you keep raising these doubts?

HOWARD:

Because you keep asking me questions about it.

JOURNALIST:

..(inaudible)., priorities ...(inaudible)

HOWARD:

No, no.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, wages growth. Keating’s version of wages growth is in excess of 5%. Is that too high7

HOWARD:

Well, it depends whether the wages growth has flowed from productivity improvements or not I am always in favour of wage increases if those wage increases are based on productivity improvements. That’s why I support the industrial relations policy I released. I haven’t seen the ABS Bulletin but I would want to know whether it was based on

productivity. You can’t just say figure X is good or figure X is bad unless you understand the linkage between that figure and productivity changes.

JOURNALIST:

What 's your view about the Government’s plans for Essendon Airport and will you match that promise?

HOWARD:

Well I’m not in the business of doing anything other than what we announced today in the area of the Arts. I’m not going to make a whole lot of running responses. I think Mr Kennett had something to say about that matter this morning and I wouldn’t offer any different view on it.

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JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, with your Arts policy you promised to maintain the current level of Commonwealth funding, ..( inaudible). You also promised to maintain the Creative Nations package and t h e ...

HOWARD:

Well, we’ve promised to maintain what is contained in the policy. It's quite clear.

JOURNALIST:

Do you expect the Arts community to embrace the Coalition now that you've released your Aits initiatives?

HOWARD:

1 would expect that any fairmindcxl member o f the Arts community- would see the policy as a very comprehensive, progressive one and as a policy which finally dispelled any lingering myths about the attitude of the Liberal and National Parties towards the Arts in Australia. I think it is an excellent policy. I think Richard Alston is to be complemented on putting it

together so well. I am verv happy with the response that it appears to have received from the Arts community. We do have a very genuine commitment and we have a very good record of achievement in that area T'm very- pleased, indeed, that over the past three years Richard Alston has worked so effectively with the Arts community to remove any unjustified perceptions or myths about our attitude

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, on the debates, the Prime Minister has offered you a compromise deal. Why won’t you meet him half way?

HOWARD:

Look, I’m not going to change a position I've had for months. The other potnt that needs to be made is that the Prime Minister welshed on. a handshake between Rohh and Gray, or should l say unless people think I’m talking about the former Tasmanian Premier, T should

say Andrew Robb and Gary Gray. Don't anybody be in any doubt about this. The conditions that I’ve laid down are not going to change.

JOURNALIST:

Do you care if there arc no debates at all?

HOWARD:

I’d like to have debates. 1 would. But I’m not going to have debates on terms dictated by Paul Keating or one of the nenvorks

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JOURNALIST:

..(inaudible)..it is fairly unedifying for Australians to see ..(inaudible)., two men who want to be Prime Minister niggling over such a trivial point. I mean surely ...

HOWARD:

1 think it’s very unedifymg that the current Prime Minister welshed on a deal.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, getting back to Jeff Kennett. Are you saying he's a bit o f a boofhead when, it comes to Federal economics?

HOWARD:

No. No.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, how did he get it wrong. How did he get something so simple wrong?

JOURNALIST:

Did you express your disappointment to the Premier today? ,

HOWARD:

We had a perfectly straight forward amiable discussion.

JOURNALIST:

What did he exactly say?

HOWARD:

Oh look M chelle, Michelle forget it. I’m n o t... come on Michelle.

JOURNALIST:

Well it’s a very big difference.

HOWARD:

That’s a very audacious question.

JOURNALIST:

Did you have to pull him into line?

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HOWARD:

Oh look, f don’t operate with Jeff on that basis.

JOURNALIST:

Did you contact him to tty and actually clarity'..?

HOWARD:

It was a spontaneous conversation.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, if you win government, will you pledge to release fresh Budget forecasts before the next election?

HOWARD:

I was asked a question about that yesterday by somebody. I think it was you! _ although Laura Tingle reported it. My answer is the same as the one T gave yesterday Γ11 consider that proposition, f m not going to have any advance on that

JOURNALIST:

So w e'll have the same situation happening again?

HOWARD:

No. no look, I’ve answered the question once and I don’t have anything to add to it

JOURNALIST:

What do you say to those voters who are concerned that you might find the situation different after the election and scrap..

HOWARD:

What I say to those voters, to everybody, not just those voters - to everybody - is that we have honestly pul together a programme based on the latest infommlion available from the most reliable sources who compile tills, iniWiuatiou, liial on an almost daily basis we have invited the Prime Minister if he has got further information to make it available, I have gone one step further today and made a quite imprcccndentcd offer to have both the Treasurer and Shadow Treasurer briefed by the Finance Department and the Department of the Treasury during the caretaker period. Now short o f a forced physical entry to the Treasury Building I can’t do any more.

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JOURNALIST:

Is it responsible to keep rolling our policies when you’re not sure you have the facts?

HOWARD:

Well you will find when the document comes down that we have provided savings that cover all of the conunitmcnts that wc’vc made.

JOURNALIST:

The only off-set from the arts portfolio this morning seemed to be the Keatings which would be scrapped. Is that correct? 1$ that the only off set to pay for what you promised?

HOWARD:

Well W e're not adopting an approach of hypothecating offsets. I mean what happens is that when the document comes out in the main we’II have new commitments and then w e'll have savings and then we'll have a balancing item.

JOURNALIST:

Is there any other savings from the arts?

HOWARD:

Well, I think what we should do is just wait and see when the document comes out.

JOURNALIST:

Why arc you scrapping the Keatings?

HOWARD:

We don’t think they’ve worked and we think they've been loaded in favour of people who live in one part of Australia. Much and all as it is a good place but T think that it’s just been a bit loaded.

JOURNALIST:

So you don’t feel they’re worthy people?

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HOWARD:

No, I didn’s say that. I mean some of the people who got those might well quality for other awards.

JOURNALIST:

Just for our own edification could you just tell us how Mr KLennett actually mistook a surplus for a deficit?

HOWARD:

Well I think you just should perhaps pursue that with him But I think there can be, in hurried conversations, there can be misunderstandings

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, have you asked Mr Kennett to publicly clarify his statements?

HOWARD:

We had a discussion and it was obviously in the context of him not wantin g there to be any public misunderstandings about his position. 1 think I’d leave it at that.

JOURNALIST:

But there has been, so has it been embarrassing for you?

HOWARD:

Oh look, Fm not embarrassed, i mean these things come and go during election campaigns. They don’t really alter the steady drift and the momentum o f a campaign.

JOURNALIST:

On unemployment - how long will it take to get the level back to what you regard as acceptable0

HOWARD:

Mick, J would find that very hard to pur a time figure on. 1 am very reluctant to put time horizons on things like that because T know how hard it is and 1 would rather disappoint people by not putting a time horizon and lose the cheap debating point on the subject than to run around with the figure that by the year 1998 no person under the age o f whatever will be

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without a job. I mean Fm not going to do that. All I can say is that we will try from dav one to create jobs for people out of work, particularly young people by reinvigorating the small business sector in particular. But I cannot put some particular time horizon on it. I think th ats pointless.

JOURNALIST:

Will you commit the Coalition then to a target figure?

HOWARD:

Our target is that every person who v/ants a job will have one. But I’m not going to, I’ve said before that I find these “x” per cents by “ y * years just tricky and deceptive.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Keating, I’m sorry Mr Howard...

HOWARD:

You are just forgiven, Fran. Only just though

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard you talked about Jeff Kennett making a blunder and getting.a surplus...

HOWARD:

No, no hang on, hang on. No that’s your words. There was a misunderstanding.

JOURNALIST:

You talk about, the misunderstanding but on AM and earlier this morning he talked about, as he understands, that the deficit is between $9 and $15 billion. I mean he clearly wasn’t talking about a surplus then. He’s been talking about a deficit all morning - how do you

explain that0

HOWARD:

Weil. I think if you want to pursue that you should speak to the Victorian Premier. I can only say to you that there is no such tiling as a Federal Liberal Party estimate o f the budget deficit. I mean it doesn't exist. Never has existed.

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JOURNALIST:

Simon Crean says that you will get rid off all the job training schemes m Working Nation and that will make unemployment...

HOWARD:

Well that’s just...

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, you suggested that Mr Kennctt today made a slip and yet yesterdav in the Carmen Lawrence affair you put a very harsh interpretation on what also could be seen as a slip. Do you think there’s double standards here?

HOWARD:

No, I don’t. At the very least, at the very least, yesterday Carmen Lawrence was guilty of monumental incompetence...

JOURNALIST:

So was Jeff Kennett.

HOWARD:

If 1 had in fact made the statement attributed to me, I think you would all agree, as mature political journalists, that it would have represented an extraordinary observation and comment by me and I would have thought the first instincts of any competent minister or politician would have been to call for an audio - wordd have been: can I have a tape o f what Howard said7 T mean 1 can remember when the information that ultimately forced the then Treasurer to then reveal that lie had failed to put his tax returns in for two years in a row

came into our possession, I in fact asked the then Shadow Treasurer, Mr Carlton, to go around and see Mr Keating and actually inform him of what we had been told and give him the opportunity of denying it. if in fact it was untrue or it was a hoax. And it was as a result of that visit to Keating’s office by Carlton that Keating went into the Parliament and admitted

it. I just think that at the very least...

JOURNALIST:

But you were making more serious allegations against her yesterday.

HOWARD:

No. I’m saying at the very Least.

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JOURNALIST:

Will you apologise to Carmen Laurence then for calling her a liar? (inaudible)

HOWARD:

1 said at the very least. I’ve got to apologise to Carmen Lawrence - break it down?

JOURNALIST:

She wasn’t lying though, was she?

HOWARD:

[ don’t know what the motive was and I chose my words very carefully. I said that at the very least. I don’t rule out at the very worst.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, we’re near the end of the second week. What’s you assessment now of the (inaudible) thing? One for 100 (inaudible)

HOWARD:

Well I’ll wait until stumps tomorrow to give you a progressive score. I think w e're over, I think we’re past 150 but...

JOURNALIST:

(inaudible) one wicket down.

HOWARD:

Yes but after a very solid 75 by that batsman.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, can you guarantee that you won’t be cutting all the job programmes and training schemes

HOWARD:

You want me to give you a guarantee we won’t be cutting them all out0

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JOURNALIST:

So you’ll keep some of them?

HOWARD:

Look can I just simply say what Simon Crean said was wrong.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, just to clarify - who initiated these telephone conversations with Mr Kenneths (inaudible). Mr Kennett or yourself.

HOWARD:

Neither. I think it was - it just sort of happened.

JOURNALIST:

Sort of spontaneously out o f the air?

HOWARD:

Mm, mm...

JOURNALIST;

Your staff or his staff?

HOWARD:

Just happened.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, this might not be the right meeting to ask you this in deference to my colleagues But can J ask you about the media coverage so far - are you happy with the...

HOWARD:

Where are you from'·

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JOURNALIST:

I'm from ABC radio. Agnes Warren’s my name.

HOWARD:

O f course, I recognise the voice, I’m sorry - welcome - about the media coverage0

JOURNALIST:

Vd tike to ask you about the media coverage - whether you think you’re getting a good deal from the media?

HOWARD:

Ah look I don’t think this is the time to make a comment on that

ends

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