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Special Premiers' Conference: Prime Minister comments on the agenda and expresses optimism for agreement on new federalism

PETER THOMPSON: The Prime Minister and the Treasurer sit down with the Premiers in Sydney this morning, to finalise agreement on key areas of Commonwealth-State reform. The reform process which began in Brisbane last year, is aimed at creating a single national economy, and the PM and the Premiers discussed that business at a working dinner in Sydney, last night. The Premiers want a greater say on spending the money which Canberra gives them. The Prime Minister is hopeful that the next 24 hours will produce substantial agreement on the 3-Rs: reform of road and rail transport, and of regulations. In this interview with our chief political correspondent, Maxine McKew, Mr Hawke spells out his expectations for the second special Premiers' Conference.

BOB HAWKE: Well, I believe that the Premiers and the Chief Ministers share my view that we must make a range of decisions that are going to improve the delivery of service to the Australian people, increase the efficiency of relevant operations, reduce regulation which fetters effective competition, and in this way mean that your ordinary listener is going to be better off. In the end, if that's going to happen in the area of road transport, rail freight, electricity generation - just to take those examples - then it requires good decisions from us today, and I believe that my colleagues are minded with me to make those decisions.

MAXINE McKEW: In terms of road transport, there are disagreements there. What would you like to see come out of today's meeting?

BOB HAWKE: I'd like to see agreement come out today on the establishment of the National Road Transport, and with the responsibility there of that Commission setting charges for heavy vehicles which will be relevant to the damage that they cause, so that we will not be undertaking a process of trying to slug these people more, but to try and get a relevant relationship between their usage of the roads and the expenditure which the community has to undertake on roads. We'll also hope to see as a result of agreement here, an end to the absolute economic insanity that we have now of different regulations and conflicting regulations in one State as compared to another. We have the stupidity now that you can have a road haulier operating in a way which is legal in one State; he rolls up to the border, and then they have to uncouple and reconfigure the vehicle so that it then complies with the law of the next State. Now those things, to my mind, are unacceptable in this last decade of this century, and it's only by myself and my colleagues making sensible decisions in regard to the establishment of the National Road Transport Commission that we're going to make these changes.

MAXINE McKEW: Now, at the end of today's meeting, would you like to see some firm timetables in place, in relation to what you've just talked about and as regards the National Rail Freight Corporation?

BOB HAWKE: Yes, and I think we will get that.

MAXINE McKEW: When could we be looking, say, at the implementation of something like National Rail Freight, then?

BOB HAWKE: Well, I hope that we can actually come to the agreement today, and then when we do that, we will start immediately to the establishment of the machinery and the processes and the people that will get it going.

MAXINE McKEW: Prime Minister, the co-operative spirit that was evident in Brisbane last year, at the inaugural meeting, has that been maintained, do you think, or has it been subject to a good deal of stress?

BOB HAWKE: No, basically, it's been maintained, I think, Maxine. What's happened is that we had that, as you rightly say, very significant degree of co-operation in Brisbane. Then we had, as a result of the very significant areas of agreement on work to be done that we arrived at there, we've transferred the responsibility over to officials to undertake the preparation of the next stages of work. Now, when you have a lot of officials from a lot of States and Territories together, you can have some problems. They can't always be sure of precisely what is the desires of their political masters and that can create its own sets of difficulties. But as far as the Premiers and Chief Ministers are concerned, I detect a continuation of the spirit and the mood and the sense of commitment that was evident in Brisbane, at the end of last year.

MAXINE McKEW: What about the resistance of some of your own Ministers who have reservations about handing back powers to the States?

BOB HAWKE: I think there's been a degree of overstatement in the media about that issue, and it's probably been built up a bit because it's been related to other issues. What the facts are is simply this, that a number of my Ministers, including myself, may I say, want to be sure that if we move to meet the understandable desire of the States to have some untying of funds in the area of service delivery, then we can be sure that if we do that, then the national objectives in regard to those areas of service delivery are met, and that's a perfectly understandable reaction. And obviously, Ministers who are most directly concerned through their portfolio interests have expressed those interests. I don't worry about that at all, and the fact is that that has been healthily discussed by my Ministers and myself in Cabinet, and we have reached agreement on the way to handle this.

MAXINE McKEW: In fact, what guarantees are there that given those concerns, that there will be an equitable system that that will continue, if, for instance, you cede financial control over some social and community services back to the States?

BOB HAWKE: Well, that will be involved in the agreements we reach with them, and that's precisely the sort of thing that we'll be talking about today. I made it quite clear to my Premier and Chief Minister colleagues last night, that we had this realistic concern, not, may I emphasise, Maxine, just on the part of my Ministers, but on the part of the community and sectors involved in the welfare area whose responsibility is to ensure that the services that their clients get, are not disadvantaged or diminished in any way by any decision that we would take. Now, my colleagues amongst the Premiers and the Chief Ministers understand that this is an area of concern, not just of my Ministers, but of the clients and of the relevant organisations. So, I don't anticipate that we're going to have any difficulty in accommodating that concern, and, of course, as you know, that area is the area which is finalised at the November meeting, not the meeting today.

MAXINE McKEW: Indeed, but there will be a progress report on that, I gather?

BOB HAWKE: Sure, that will .. and particularly, that will go to areas like home and community care, TAFE and training, and those areas in particular.

MAXINE McKEW: Would you have in mind and, perhaps, would the States agree to some limitations on the way States spend money, in relation to the areas you've just mentioned?

BOB HAWKE: I don't think it's a question negatively of limitations. I think it's a question of them understanding, as I think they do, that the Commonwealth has established certain standards which the community and the recipients of services have come to regard as appropriate. Now, we understand the desire of the States in these areas, to have the opportunity of a certain untying of funds. But they on their part, I think, understand that we can't just do that in a way which means that the standard of services could diminish, because, in the end, what this whole exercise has been conceived of, on my part as the initiator of it, is to ensure that we give better and more efficient services to your listeners. I mean, that's what it's about. It's not to be seen just as an exercise in intergovernmental relations, because, in the end, what intergovernmental relations are about is simply to determine that one sphere of government or another may be able, with proper arrangements between the various levels of government, to deliver a service better. I mean, that's what the whole exercise is about: better services for citizens and a more efficient economy in the other areas that we're talking about. That's what it's about, not whether Bob Hawke is happy or Nick Greiner is happy or Wayne Goss or Joan Kirner or Carmen. I mean, it's not our happiness which is important, it's the welfare of our citizens.

MAXINE McKEW: Do you think that's understood by all Premiers?

BOB HAWKE: Yes, I'm sure it is.

MAXINE McKEW: As you say, you won't get to the area of financial reform until the November meeting....

BOB HAWKE: No, well, we'll get progress reports on what's happening.

MAXINE McKEW: Nick Greiner did say .. has said in the last 24 hours, that when it comes to this question of tied grants to the States, that you must deliver on this, that, in fact, if you don't, the whole process will be regarded as a failure. Do you see it as that important? Is it crucial?

BOB HAWKE: Yes, I understand from the States' point of view their concern about tied grants as part of the broarder question of what they referred to as the fiscal imbalance, and there are two ways that's been looked at: one is by the ongoing study in regard to the area of taxes and whether there may be some possibility of changes there, and the other is by giving them more flexibility by untying certain grants. Now this is centrally important to them. I've recognised that. I embodied my recognition of that in the communique from the Brisbane meeting last year, and I remain committed to it.

MAXINE McKEW: Prime Minister, how important is this whole process to you? Do you want to be remembered as a Prime Minister who introduced a new federal structure?

BOB HAWKE: It's not about how Hawke is remembered. What I've been about, Maxine, since I've become Prime Minister, is to try and make the decisions which, both immediately and in the longer term, are going to be better for the people of Australia. I mean, I have a view which has been publicly expressed of course, that if you were setting up now a form of government in Australia, you wouldn't necessarily have the federal system that you've got. But my view is that you've got it, and you've got to make it work as well as you can, and it's certainly not working ideally well now. And so if as a result of the initiative that I took last year - and which is an ongoing one now - we get in the result a better delivery of services, and if we get more efficient rail freight systems, if we get more efficient road transport systems, if we get more efficient electricity generation and transmission, if we get a situation where we don't have a whole series of State regulations which inhibit and make more expensive the manufacture of goods, but we get a situation where meeting the requirements in one State will be sufficient for a manufacturer to satisfy the whole of Australia, then if we get all those things, I know that Australia would be better off, will be very much better off, and I'll be pleased about that.

MAXINE McKEW: The South Australian Premier, John Bannon, feels that some of the momentum has been lost. He said one of the factors he mentioned was continuing speculation on the leadership, which he said was distracting from this policy area. Do you agree with that?

BOB HAWKE: No, there's been no distraction at all for me. There's been no distraction at all for the officials who've been preparing the papers. There will be no distraction today, as we make our decisions. I just make the point that, you know, the media has got to get it quite clear in their mind, that whatever agenda they set and whatever they think is taking up people's minds, is not necessarily a reflection of the facts of life. And the facts of life are that since the Brisbane meeting last year, which made remarkable progress - which the media graciously acknowledged - all the processes have gone on without any interference, any inhibition whatsoever, and I and my colleagues from the States and the Territories will pick up that responsibility today.

MAXINE McKEW: Prime Minister, if I can just ask you about Paul Keating's agenda at the moment: are you relaxed about his modus operandi at the moment, talking about various policy issues?

BOB HAWKE: It's a matter for Paul. It's totally a matter for Paul. If he wants to talk about issues, then I think it's quite appropriate for him to do that.

MAXINE McKEW: Are you in broad agreement with the sort of things he's been saying on matters like housing and superannuation?

BOB HAWKE: Look, in the area of housing and superannuation, what I'm doing is going ahead with the hard business of making decisions, hard, concrete decisions in these areas. We're doing the work, we'll produce the decisions. And if Paul or anyone else wants to talk about it, well, that's good - that may help the public debate - but the decisions will be made by government, and we are making them.

PETER THOMPSON: The Prime Minister talking to Maxine McKew.