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Transcript of doorstop: Parliament House, Canberra: Monday 10 May 2004: Costello leadership; Budget 2004; Iraq; child care.

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Subjects: Costello Leadership; Budget 2004; Iraq; Child Care.

LATHAM: In the last 24 hours Peter Costello has effectively issued an ultimatum to the Prime Minister to put in place a change of leadership in the Liberal Party otherwise he won’t be there next year as Treasurer, and this of course creates extraordinary instability and uncertainty at the top of the Howard Government. We have now got the extraordinary situation where the Treasurer can’t give a commitment that he will actually be there next year for the Budget or the management of the Australian economy, and we have a Prime Minister who can’t give a commitment that he will serve out the next parliamentary term if he wins the next federal election. This demonstrates a couple of important points. The first is that the budget that we have tomorrow is not really about the benefit of the Australian people; it is about Peter Costello and his political ambitions, and a government that has no horizon beyond the next federal election, and the squabbling between the Prime Minister and the Treasurer.

The second point is that both the Treasurer and the Prime Minister need to break the coded talk, need to break the façade and actually bring the Australian people into their confidence - to be honest and open with the Australian people about their future plans. This instability and uncertainty can’t go on; it is damaging to the economy, it is damaging to Australia’s national interests. They need to come clean with their future plans. The real risk, the real risk, for the Australian people and Australian voters is they can go to the next poll thinking they are voting for Howard but they will end up with Prime Minister Peter Costello - someone they didn’t vote for and someone they don’t really want in that role, and that is why the Prime Minister needs to make his plans clear and the Treasurer needs to break the code and outline what is really going on. It looks like there will be a transition to Prime Minister Peter Costello sometime in the next parliamentary term if the coalition wins, and the Australian people deserve to know that prior to the election, instead of the façade that we have at the moment and all of the instability and confusion at the top of the Howard Government.

JOURNALIST: But Peter Costello says it is the media trying to trick him into saying things - the media being ‘tricky’. Is it the media’s fault?

LATHAM: Well, it is a tricky question; isn’t it? This tricky question that has been put to him - ‘Will he be there as Treasurer after Christmas?’ Now, I couldn’t think of a question that is actually less tricky or more straightforward. Will he be there as Treasurer next year? Now, we are going into a federal election after this budget and the Australian people have got the right to know who is going to be running the Australian economy if the coalition wins the election. There is no trick in that: it is a straightforward, honest assessment to give the Australian people ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ - will he be there as Treasurer managing the Australian economy if the coalition wins the next federal election? So it is ridiculous to describe this as a trick. It is actually the need to have an honest and open approach with the Australian people, bring them into the confidence of both the Treasurer and the Prime Minister and just let them know where they stand.

JOURNALIST: It is a bit rich for Labor to criticise though, isn’t it, after the secrecy of the Kirribilli agreement?

LATHAM: Well, that is something that the coalition has criticised and said they would never do but we now have a situation where the Treasurer can’t commit to being in that position next year and a Prime Minister who can’t commit to serving the full parliamentary term if he wins the next federal election. I just think, in a democracy, the Australian people have the right to know - they have the right to know where these two men stand in the future, because all of the instability and uncertainty is bad for the economy. It is bad for the country and it could ultimately lead the voters down the garden path of thinking they are voting for Mr Howard but they end up with Prime Minister Peter Costello.

JOURNALIST: Are you therefore recommending a Kirribilli style agreement to ensure a smooth transition post-election?

LATHAM: No, I’m recommending an open and frank statement to the Australian people: will the Prime Minister stay the full parliamentary term and will his Treasurer commit to being the Treasurer after Christmas? On the hypothetical situation that the coalition wins the next federal election, I think they should be open and frank and let the Australian people know where they stand because all we have at the moment is coded talk and a charade they are playing out that is creating a huge amount of uncertainty and, ultimately, could lead the Australian voting public down the garden path.

JOURNALIST: Without such a statement, will the election campaign be a farce?

LATHAM: I think it tends towards being a charade, something that is not honest and open with the Australian people. In a democracy, if you are seeking the trust and confidence of the Australian public for the next three years, the Prime Minister should be able to say he will be there for the full three years. If that is not the case, which seems to be the likely scenario, he should spell out the transition - the transfer of power - to Prime Minister Peter Costello so the Australian people know what they voting for. In a democracy people have the right to know what they voting for, and that is the thing that needs to be sorted out between Mr Howard and Mr Costello.

JOURNALIST: On the budget, will your speech-in-reply contain a detailed tax plan or are you leaving those details for the campaign?

LATHAM: Well, let’s take this one step at a time; let’s see what’s in the budget tomorrow. But, in terms of our tax plans, we want them to be as detailed as possible, to be thought through and well-considered. So we will do that in a steady, methodical way. The Government hasn’t devised its tax plan within 48

hours and, in response, that would be a very high expectation for the Labor Party to meet such a deadline.

JOURNALIST: But will you have them out within weeks?

LATHAM: Well, you will know our response to the budget on Tuesday evening and Wednesday. I will be setting out all our directions in social policy and economic policy on Thursday and the timetable for the detailed plans that we develop in a considered, methodical way. And we will of course make that timetable known in due course. So, we are not tying ourselves into days, weeks, months or any other timetable. Our approach is to get the tax policy right, to get the detail right, and we will be doing that in a considered way and of course the Australian people will know well in advance of the federal election.

JOURNALIST: Mr Latham, is it time to get the troops out before Christmas, after what is happening in Iraq?

LATHAM: No, no, we are sticking to our policy and the timetable we have set out in that regard.

JOURNALIST: Just on Telstra, Mr Costello said there needs to be certainty in the area. Is Labor amenable to, say, infrastructure packages and so on being attached to the sell off of that?

LATHAM: No, Labor opposes the sell off. We want majority public ownership of Telstra. You have only got to look at the increased prices for line charges, the service faults and deficiencies to know that majority public

ownership is in the Australian public interest, and we will be standing by that policy.

JOURNALIST: Do you think greater certainty needs to be given to Telstra?

LATHAM: Well, under Labor, you have the certainty of majority public ownership and exercising the public interest to keep the prices down to improve the service delivery around the country. Our approach is certain. It is the Government that, from time to time, gets all over the place with regard to its Telstra strategy.

JOURNALIST: Are you concerned that voters might be swayed by the extent of the Government’s spending announcements, and what is Labor going to be doing to counter them?

LATHAM: Well, throwing money at problems doesn’t necessarily solve them and our approach is to use tax and social policy to actually solve problems - real life problems for the Australian people. And people will have a very real choice at the next election in all of those areas. We want to take a long-term, national interest approach coming out of the budget, whereas the Government’s approach is very much a short-term strategy for the next election.

JOURNALIST: Are you going to be able to match the Government on tax?

LATHAM: Well, let’s see what the Government does on tax. Let’s take this one step at a time. We will have a look at their budget and you’ll know our response on Thursday night.

JOURNALIST: Just on Iraq, are you concerned that Australia may not have an agreement on how prisoners should be treated?

LATHAM: Well, Australia, as an occupying power, has legal responsibilities for the treatment of prisoners. I would expect that this is one of the important matters the Prime Minister will be raising in his trip to the United States and ensuring that Australia is part of the solution. There have been some reassuring statements that these atrocities won’t happen again in the future. As an occupying power, Australia has a legal and ethical responsibility to make sure that is the case.

JOURNALIST: Mr Latham, are you going to the United States and is that a message you will take with you when you go?

LATHAM: Well, I have outlined my plans in that regard, and, of course, Labor has a very strong commitment to ensuring that Australia meets its

international obligations as an occupying power. We don’t want those atrocities to be repeated. They obviously undermine and weaken the credibility of the occupying forces as liberators, and it is a terrible thing. In every forum in this country, and overseas, we will be arguing that it shouldn’t happen again and all the necessary steps need to be taken to make sure that that is the case.

JOURNALIST: Will you be seeing John Kerry?

LATHAM: Well, look, I will be announcing the schedule and the outline of my visit in due course. So let’s take that one step at a time.

JOURNALIST: Mr Latham, on child care, there is a rally in Melbourne today by a number of groups concerned about the rising costs and lack of availability of child care, do you expect any of those concerns to be met in the budget and, if not, what will you be able to do about it?

LATHAM: Well, Labor has a very strong commitment to affordability and quality in child care. We see this not just as child-minding but early childhood development and there is an opportunity for Australia to have a first-rate child-care system, and we will be unveiling policies to that effect in the future. I hope the Government has answers in the budget. They have been talking about work and family for a long, long while. After eight years one would have thought they would have a decent child-care strategy. Let’s hope they have one in the budget tomorrow.

JOURNALIST: It is expected there will be a report on Senate reform released this week, does Labor have any plans for Senate reform?

LATHAM: Well, we have tried to have a dialogue with the Government on that subject. I’m not too sure it got too far so let’s see what they’ve got in their report. But the fact it is coming out in budget week doesn’t give you a lot of optimism or hope that it is going to a front-line Government reform in the future.

Thanks very much.