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Prime Minister discusses Telstra; Medibank Private; industrial relations; Future Fund; David Hicks; arranged marriages; and Lachlan Murdoch.



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PRIME MINISTER

2 August 2005

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP INTERVIEW WITH JON FAINE ABC RADIO, MELBOURNE

Subjects: Telstra; Medibank Private; industrial relations; Future Fund; David Hicks; arranged marriages; Lachlan Murdoch

E&OE………………………………………………………………………………………..

FAINE:

Prime Minister John Howard was in Melbourne last night for the AFL’s Indigenous Team of the Century celebrations. Prime Minister welcome back to the city.

PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning.

FAINE:

And just on the topical issue of protestors trying to stop the dredging of the bay, does the Federal Government have a view, an attitude on the channel deepening for the Port Philip Shipping Channel?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we would support what the local authorities are doing.

FAINE:

It’s part of your infrastructure plan is it not to free up all sorts of blockages in Australia’s export trade and the like?

PRIME MINISTER:

www.pm.gov.au

We support that.

FAINE:

The local Liberal Party are not all together happy. We had the Shadow Minister yesterday calling in saying that there are unanswered questions from the State Opposition.

PRIME MINISTER:

I’m not across the basis of that, but I mean generally speaking I don’t think protests should be allowed to impede decisions properly taken by local authorities, whether they’re Labor authorities or Liberal authorities. That’s the point I’m making. There may be aspects of the debate which I am not across that form the basis of the complaint by the Shadow Minister, but I don’t favour those sort of protests, certainly not on issues like that.

FAINE:

Is your Government planning to sell Medibank Private?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, it’s something that has been around, but we haven’t taken any decision. We announced, from recollection, that we’d have a scoping study, but we haven’t taken any decision.

FAINE:

The front page of today’s Australian Financial Review features a quote from your Health Minister Tony Abbott, saying that the Government is likely to sell Medibank Private, that it’s been discussed in Cabinet…

PRIME MINISTER:

It has been discussed, but we haven’t taken any decision. That is true. He’s expressed a view and I guess there is nothing wrong with somebody expressing a view. But you’re asking me whether we’re going to sell it. My answer is, and the Government’s answer is, that we have not taken any decision to sell it.

FAINE:

Is it something that you would like to do in this term of office, or in the next term of the Howard Government?

PRIME MINISTER:

I’ve got to tell you Jon that it’s way down on my list of priorities.

FAINE:

You’ve got quite a few things to deal with right at the moment?

PRIME MINISTER:

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It’s not something that I’m giving a lot of thought to at the moment. At some stage we’ll take a decision, but I want to make it plain that we have not taken a decision.

FAINE:

Is it unhelpful for Tony Abbott to raise it and…

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh no…

FAINE:

Scare people at the same as your negotiating a Telstra sale (inaudible) Medibank.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well Jon, you know, we’ve got to have a fairly adult view about these things. On the one hand, Governments are ritually accused of not being open and not willing to talk and Ministers not willing to express views, but when they do, people come along and say ‘this is terrible. You’re scaring the public.’ I think the public is very sophisticated, the public is quite capable of listening to things and differentiating between a Minister expressing a view and a Government taking a decision and when you’re in your tenth year of Government people have got used to your style. We’re not a Government that seeks to scare people, but we are a reformist Government and we are willing to do things that encounter temporary unpopularity for a greater long term good; of which industrial relations reform, of course, is the outstanding example at the present time.

FAINE:

And is it a matter then, its part of the big picture, but not on your short term radar screen?

PRIME MINISTER:

I’ve got to tell you I haven’t really thought about it. Once in the last five or six months, if you really want my honest view.

FAINE:

Well maybe it isn’t helpful then for Tony Abbott to raise it. 21 minutes to 9 on 774 ABC Melbourne

PRIME MINISTER:

I don’t expect him to think exactly as I do.

FAINE:

You don’t?

PRIME MINISTER:

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No I don’t. I don’t expect any of my Ministers to think exactly as I do. We are a collection of individuals, but we have a common philosophy and a common commitment to good Government. That doesn’t mean to say we agree on everything. That would be a very odd Government if we were like that.

FAINE:

No, but you run a very disciplined…

PRIME MINISTER:

We run a very disciplined…

FAINE:

Ship.

PRIME MINISTER:

Discipline is very important. But also maturity in accepting that there is a range of views that forms a successful Government is also important, and that is the approach that I’ve always brought.

FAINE:

You’ve had to tell Peter Costello that you thought he was overshooting the mark on industrial relations reform.

PRIME MINISTER:

No I didn’t tell him anything of the kind. I simply stated what the Government’s policy was in relation to unfair dismissal. And if you actually look at what Peter said concerning meal breaks and smokos, he merely made the point, which I would make, that sometimes under the present arrangements those things are matters of negotiation and what I’ve said is that the current arrangements are going to continue.

FAINE:

Has he done the same thing again, Peter Costello, in relation to the sale of the rest of Telstra?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I had a look at the context of what Peter said…

FAINE:

Well let’s go through it. The Nationals are saying…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well let me go through it. Can I just tell you what the Government’s position is on Telstra? We are going to consider it, and I’m not going to start responding to this or that speech or

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resolution, or this or that comment. The Queensland National Party have got a perfect right to express a view. In the end, a decision on this matter will be taken by the Federal Parliamentary Coalition Party Room. I will discuss the matter with my Cabinet colleagues over the course of the next few weeks, we’ll have everything in front of us, and we’ll take a decision. And until then, I’m not going to speculate about the minutia of that decision. I will make the general observation that it’s in the public interest that Telstra be sold and it’s in the interests of telecommunications in the bush that Telstra in the long run, be freed of the present absurdity where it’s half owned by the Government. What people should understand is that for so long as Telstra is half owned by the Government, it can’t realise its full potential as a company, it can’t raise money on the equity markets, it can’t expand and grow and multiply like any company that size should do. So I would make the point that in the long run, good telecommunications in this country will follow and flow from a strong, freely operating Telstra.

FAINE:

Unless you live in the bush?

PRIME MINISTER:

Beg your pardon?

FAINE:

Unless you live in the bush?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no, no, I would argue that that it’s in everybody’s interests.

FAINE:

Even people in the bush who say we are….

PRIME MINISTER:

I think in the long run it is in everybody’s interests to have a strong Telstra. Now, there are certain safeguards that are going to be legislated by the Government. We’ve made that very clear. But you can’t forever have this odd position of it being half owned by the Government and half owned by individual shareholders. But as to the terms and conditions of the sale and when it occurs and so forth, that is something that we’re going to talk about and I’m not going to speculate about.

FAINE:

Peter Costello yesterday said that if you had to put $2b which is the ambit claim from the Nationals into a fund to future proof Telstra, then that would probably force up in interest rates…

PRIME MINISTER:

No he didn’t say that.

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FAINE:

If you pump unnecessary cash into the economy…

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, but he didn’t say what you just - now to be fair to him, he did not say that. He was simply making the point…

FAINE:

Well two and two is four.

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no, it’s not. I actually read the quote this morning because I thought you might ask me that.

FAINE:

You just did did you?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yeah I did read the quote.

FAINE:

And you were spot on.

PRIME MINISTER:

I did read the quote and what Peter was saying, which is right, is that if any Government engages in irresponsible spending then you risk the possibility of higher interest rates if you go into deficit. But we won’t be going into deficit and we won’t be agreeing to anything that’s irresponsible.

FAINE:

Could a future fund force up interest rates? Do you think there’s any link?

PRIME MINISTER:

A future fund?

FAINE:

Yeah.

PRIME MINISTER:

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No. We’re going to establish a future fund. We wouldn’t be establishing something that’s going to force up interest rates. Look John I’m not going to, we’ve got all sorts of ideas swirling around in the dust, and we’re going to have a calm discussion about this and take a decision, and until then I’m not going to respond to individual suggestions that members of the Parliamentary Party are making.

FAINE:

At the same time, Telstra’s Senior Executives have been quoted saying, Kate McKenzie earlier this week, saying that the Universal Service Obligation is unsustainable. In other words she’s saying ‘watch out, there’s no way we can continue to afford to do this’.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well you already know that both the Deputy Prime Minister and I and the Communications Minister have said that Telstra should understand that it’s entirely sustainable.

FAINE:

Telstra’s short of a few directors just at the moment. All of this is taking place while the Board is remarkably bare. John Ralph and Tony Clark, two long term directors, have just announced that they will leave the company next week. Are you happy about that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well they’re leaving the company for the entirely good reason that they believe that they have served long enough as directors. They’re not leaving because of any unhappiness. I can assure you with Government policy, I think both of them have been outstanding directors of the company. John Ralph is one of the most respected business figures in Australia without any argument. And Tony Clark, and I declare that he’s a personal friend of mine, is also a person who’s made a massive contribution to Telstra as a Board Member. But they’ve each been Members of the Board for, I think in the case of John Ralph, 8 or 9 or 10 years, and in the case of Mr Clark about the same amount of time.

FAINE:

It gives you an opportunity then to handpick and choose individuals who are completely supportive of your intended policy direction for Telstra then and appoint them to the Board.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well the Board has a role in relation to the appointment of new directors, so does the principal Shareholder. Once again, this will be a matter that will be discussed in an intelligent fashion between the Shareholder Director, the Shareholder Minister, Senator Minchin, Senator Coonan and the Chairman of Telstra. I’m sure that good appointments will be made.

FAINE:

I’m sure they will too, but it’s all coming at a very inconvenient time. The future…

PRIME MINISTER:

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No there’s nothing inconvenient, because I’ve known for some time that both John and Tony were going to retire. They both informed me of that, informed the Chairman of the Board of that and they’re going to do it, they’re doing it in a completely understandable way. There is nothing odd or cantankerous, I can assure you, about the retirement of either of those men, and I thank them very warmly for the very good work that they have done as directors.

FAINE:

It’s all about succession planning. I’ll raise Lachlan Murdoch and maybe your own position if we get time. But let’s talk about David Hicks’ trial. One AM this morning, Australia’s leading military lawyer Captain Paul Willee QC, confirmed the remarks made yesterday by Lex Lasry QC on behalf of the Australian Law Council who’s been one of the independent observers of David Hicks’ trial, and the accused Australian in Guantanamo Bay; it’s regarded that the procedural flaws in the American setup for these prosecutions makes the whole process a sham, a farce and something, that you, your Government, according to those two eminent QCs should now express you disapproval of. Will you?

PRIME MINISTER:

No we won’t. We don’t, I know what they’ve said. We don’t share that view. It should be said at the outset that the consequence of the Military Commission trials not going ahead in the United States will be that David Hicks will come back to Australia and will go free without being held accountable in any way for the charges that have been made against him. That should be understood. It’s often overlooked when we talk about these things. He cannot be tried for the offences; they are now offences, but they weren’t offences under Australian criminal law at the time. So we have to sort of keep that in mind. I mean, the allegation against David Hicks is that he trained with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, but amongst other things after witnessing the events of the 11th September 2001 he rejoined the people with whom he had trained, and he also trained with another group, the precise name of which escapes me, in Pakistan. So and he…

FAINE:

And they’re serious allegations.

PRIME MINISTER:

They are very serious allegations.

FAINE:

He’s been in custody now for four years awaiting trial Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER:

I understand that and we have repeatedly said, and as recently as when I was last in Washington only three weeks ago that we want the trial brought on quickly. And I was told, and it was publicly repeated by Donald Rumsfeld at a joint press conference, that the trial would come on very quickly, and we’ll continue to press that. In relation to the most recent allegations made by the two Americans, our Ambassador spoke again to the Pentagon last night our time, and the head of the Military Commission operation said that those allegations had been extensively investigated over a two month period.

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FAINE:

By whom?

PRIME MINISTER:

By the people against whom the allegations were made.

FAINE:

So the American Military Prosecutors investigated these allegations by someone on their staff about them?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, but hang on, hang on, if somebody complains about something they believe is wrong in the ABC here in Melbourne, you don’t immediately bring in somebody from outside.

FAINE:

(Inaudible)

PRIME MINISTER:

No you don’t. I mean the idea that here is something wrong with a body against whom allegations are being made making some initial investigation. You’re asking me, you know, what we’ve done, how we’ve responded. I don’t…

FAINE:

But what of the liberty of these (inaudible) is what we’re talking about the stakes somewhat higher.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes. We’re talking about the liberty of citizens who might be affected by acts of terrorism too.

FAINE:

Yes we are.

PRIME MINISTER:

So the liberty of the citizen argument is not just on one side.

FAINE:

But we want these issues tested as quickly as (inaudible)

PRIME MINISTER:

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Well we do. I agree with that. I agree completely with that and we have pushed that repeatedly. But I think there is a tendency whenever this issue comes up to forget the seriousness of the allegations.

FAINE:

But they need to be tested.

PRIME MINISTER:

They need to be tested. They need to be tested as quickly as possible in the Military Commission process and then we will know, because there is provision made for observers and the like, then we will know whether, for once and for all, whether these allegations are made from time to time by different people are accurate or not.

FAINE:

So you take no notice, or you shrug off the criticisms?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, look, I don’t ignore criticism. I wouldn’t have said what I did about the inquiries that had been made if I completely ignored them, but I do know that in the long run, we had no capacity to try Mr Hicks because he did not commit an offence against, which existed at the time, against Australian criminal law. And the consequence of simply saying well he should come home would be that he would go free without answering in any way for those allegations.

FAINE:

The flipside of the proposition, Prime Minister, is equally troubling though isn’t it, which is that if you raise an allegation of terrorism against someone then it doesn’t matter what flaws there are in the procedure for…

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I’m not arguing that…

FAINE:

It’s a serious allegation…

PRIME MINISTER:

But Jon, they’re right. We went to very great lengths about a year, 18 months ago, to secure changes in the Military Commission procedure and we were satisfied and we remain satisfied that the changes made in the Military Commission procedure would produce a fair outcome. What we ask now, and what we want, and what we expect, and what we believe will happen, based on what I was told in Washington 3 weeks ago is for the matter to be tried before the Commission as quickly as possible. I think that is necessary and is certainly something that we continue to press for.

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FAINE:

9 minutes to 9 on 774 ABC Melbourne. Jon Faine with you with the Prime Minister of Australia John Howard in this studio this morning. And we will keep in touch with the events at the Rip, at the Heads at Port Philip Bay as the giant dredging ship, the Queen of the Netherlands makes its way through a protestor’s blockade. We’ll bring you more information on that as soon as there are events that need to be reported. The front page of the Australian newspaper today Prime Minister says that the Australian Embassy in Beruit has been approached by 12 women in the last 2 years who have been forced to enter into arranged marriages in Lebanon, and these 12 women have asked the Australian Embassy for assistance in escaping those marriages and returning to Australia. Do we need to do something to change immigration laws?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we might. I have sought - sorry, I will be seeking during the course of the day some further advice about that. On the face of it, it appears a disturbing claim, but I don’t want to jump to conclusions without having got more information.

FAINE:

Do we need to enter into some dialogue with people who come here from different parts of the world, I don’t want to just pick on people who have come from Lebanon, which is the story in question here - to do more to explain Australian values to communities that that come here?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think it’s always the case that people who come to this country should understand that it is different in many ways from the country from which they’ve come. And although nobody is asked to surrender for a moment the affection they hold for the country of their birth, the values of this country are universal values to all Australians, or values that all Australians should hold in common rather. And they should embrace them and certainly when you get into the area of, that you’re talking about now, of arranged marriages and the like, there are sharp cultural differences around the world in relation to those things. Now that might be necessary but I don’t want to jump to conclusions. I don’t know enough about this allegation. The first I heard of it was when I read my copy of the Australian this morning. So I have to say, give me a bit more time to find out some more information.

FAINE:

But it’s an issue that cuts to the core of multiculturalism, a debate that you’re more than familiar with.

PRIME MINISTER:

I am very familiar with it.

FAINE:

Your Government, and your predecessors over the years have gradually cut back some of the courses, some of the programmes available to new migrants when they enter the country.

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PRIME MINISTER:

I don’t think this is a question of courses, I think it’s a question of attitude. It’s a question of whether people come into Australia understand that they’re coming to a new country, and although they have a perfect right to retain affection for, and nurture their core culture which is understood and respected. We are, more importantly, Australians together, and the common values of this country should be accepted. And I don’t think it’s a question of courses, I think it’s an attitude of mind. I mean courses can be important, but it’s an attitude of mind to question whether a new community sees itself as separate and apart, or sees itself, whilst retaining it’s own characteristics, accepting the overall values. And can I say the overwhelming majority of people who come to this country from enormously diverse sources have precisely that attitude of mind and want to embrace being Australian. And often it’s some, it’s often the individual more sometimes than the self appointed community leader who wants to embrace the Australian values.

FAINE:

5 minutes to 9. Prime Minister can we talk about industrial relations reform which is a long cherished goal of yours personally and politically. Is Kevin Andrews cutting through? Is the message cutting through?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh yes, look Kevin is doing an excellent job. And industrial relations reform is necessary because in order to maintain the strong economy and the high standard of living we have at the moment into the future, we need to win for our country a new burst of productivity improvement. This is something for the future. People say to me, ‘why do you bother? The country’s going swimmingly, growth is strong, employment is high, wages are high. Why do you want to change anything?’ Well the reason I want to change anything is that they won’t stay like that, those conditions won’t remain like that unless we have further change and reform. And these changes, which will even more than we have at the moment, place a premium on agreements at the enterprise level, will lead to higher productivity and as a result they will deliver more jobs and higher wages into the future. And if anybody doubts that, have a look a France and Germany, for example, compared with Britain and New Zealand or Britain and the United States. In France and Germany the unemployment rate is double what it is in Britain and New Zealand and one of the major reasons for that is that the Germans and the French have left their labour markets more highly regulated than ours are.

FAINE:

Are you going to abolish long service leave? If you…

PRIME MINISTER:

No we’re not abolishing anything. Look all of these claims that we’re going to abolish things, I’ve already said on another programme here in Melbourne that the current arrangements in relation to holidays and smokos; and there aren’t many smokos left anymore. It’s become almost a criminal offence in this country to have a smoke. Not that, you know, I gave the dreadful habit up in 1979, but it’s the case in relation to these things, that current arrangements are going to continue. They are not issues. Public holidays don’t affect productivity. They don’t. That’s an urban myth.

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FAINE:

Long service leave not of the hit list?

PRIME MINISTER:

Long service leave is going to be preserved, absolutely going to be preserved.

FAINE:

There’s a lot of rumours floating around. We can’t wait to see the details.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I’m sure you are, and when the detail comes, people will realise just what a scare campaign has been conducted.

FAINE:

It’s working.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well look, I didn’t come into this business just to sort of worry about whether we were 10 points ahead in each particular poll. I have a responsibility to do something which helps to guarantee our prosperity into the future. I want in 5 years time, to see an unemployment rate that is as low as it is now, or even lower and I know that that won’t be achieved unless we can reform our industrial relations system. That is why I’m doing it.

FAINE:

Just a couple of minutes before the news. Prime Minister in all the material published about the decision of Lachlan Murdoch to quit his position as the heir apparent At Newscorp, one little snippet caught my eye. He rang you personally to tell you.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes he did. Yes, yes.

FAINE:

What did he say?

PRIME MINISTER:

He just said that he was going to put out this announcement shortly thereafter and that he had decided to resign all his positions other than membership of the Newscorp Board and he wanted to come back and live in Australia and he wanted to raise his family in Australia. I thought that was a wonderfully personal reason.

FAINE:

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He didn’t say anything to you? Or you didn’t give him advice about apparently youthful but stubborn ageing leaders making way for the next generation?

PRIME MINISTER:

Never entered the head of either of us. No part of the - he said (inaudible) was entirely factual about what he’s going to do, and what he told me, can I say privately, was completely consistent with what he said publicly. I wish him well and I think the Murdoch family has made a massive contribution to this country.

FAINE:

Which they continue to do, Dame Elisabeth in particular. Young Liberals. I’ve just shown you, you hadn’t read apparently the Age newspaper story today about the shindig, the Young Liberals Annual Party turning a little wild. Any advice for them?

PRIME MINISTER:

Matter for the organisation.

FAINE:

They’re notorious for having a good time but this seems to have gone a little far at their last ball.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I wasn’t there.

FAINE:

Prime Minister thank you.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you.

FAINE:

You’ve been generous with your time. We’ll take calls of course, straight after the news. The Prime Minister of Australia John Howard in the studio this morning.

[ends]