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Prime Minister discusses industrial relations changes; anti-terrorism measures; Nguyen Tuong Van; and 1975 Dismissal.



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PRIME MINISTER

11 November 2005

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

Subjects: Workplace reform; Counter-terrorism legislation; Tuong Van Nguyen; Whitlam Dismissal

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

FAINE:

The Prime Minister John Howard is in our Canberra studios and joins me this morning as the business community congratulates the Prime Minister on finally getting through a long held dream for the Liberal Party, workplace relations reforms. Prime Minister, good morning.

PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning. The legislation has gone through the House of Representatives; it hasn’t gone through the Senate yet.

FAINE:

Do you entertain doubts that it will Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I never take anything for granted. I am hopeful, even optimistic, but I don’t take anything for granted, and it still has to go through a Senate committee process and a vote in the Senate, but I am reasonably optimistic. But until it has actually gone through, we can’t say it’s become law.

FAINE:

Prime Minister, these laws can’t be good for both employers and employees at the same time can they?

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PRIME MINISTER:

They can be good for the economy, and if the economy is strengthened by changes to the law then that is good for both sides. You can’t really look at industrial relations laws in the context of whether it helps or hinders the workers, or helps or hinders the employers?

FAINE:

Why not?

PRIME MINISTER:

Because in the end, it’s not the laws of industrial relations that govern job security and govern high wages. It’s the strength and productivity of the economy. You can have all the regulation in the world, you can say that nobody can ever be sacked and nothing can ever happen that’s bad, but if the economy goes bad, and firms can’t afford to employ people because they’re not making any money, they sack them. In the end, the greatest job security is a booming economy, and whatever changes we make should be directed towards strengthening the economy, making it work better, making it more profitable, because it’s profits made by firms that enable them to employ people, not laws passed by Parliaments. Now that’s not to say you shouldn’t have some laws, you shouldn’t have protections and safety nets which we do have. But there’s still a misguided view that you can legislate prosperity, you can’t. The only people who can generate prosperity are employers and employees and entrepreneurs and risk takers and share holders acting in concert. And what the laws should do is to maximise the freedom with which they can act in concert. That’s my philosophy.

FAINE:

But you can legislate for inequality can’t you?

PRIME MINISTER:

Legislate for any quality? What do you mean? Did you say inequality or any quality?

FAINE:

Inequality. You can legislate for inequality. And if you create an environment which will turn an economy that’s thriving into a dog- eat- dog economy and these are the fears of those in particular in low paid and low status jobs, then you end up with a dispossessed element in our community, people who are locked in to no hope, no future, low wage jobs.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well the worst sense of being locked into a hopeless future is not to have a job at all.

FAINE:

And we hope to avoid that. Isn’t the economy…your told, is a take it or leave it scenario.

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PRIME MINISTER:

Could I just go back to answering the rest of your question? That was the first part of my answer, the second part of my answer is that these laws are not creating inequality. They are not going to generate a dog- eat- dog society. That is the sort of exaggeration which in a year’s time will be looked at with derision by a workforce who will see that all these dire predictions of people being injured and killed at picket lines, of brothers being set against brother, of children not being able to celebrate Christmas with their parents. All of these absurd claims that have been made about the impact of this legislation; that will all be demonstrated to be wrong. And in a year’s time, people will look back and say why on earth did people try and exaggerate and try and scare us. I mean we’ve had an example with this business about sick leave. The Labor Party is still going on about it. There is, in substance, no difference in relation to sick leave. You know as well as I do your thousands of listeners, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of listeners will know that if you go off sick, your employers entitled to ask for a doctor’s certificate. Many don’t. Most employers don’t. A lot do. Depends on the circumstances. That’s not going to change and there’s nothing unreasonable in that. The one thing that is changing is we’re actually adding something to the law that says that you can’t be required to produce a certificate that you’re sick, if through circumstances beyond your control you can’t do so. For example, if you can’t get to a doctor or you’re living in a very remote area where you can’t access one. I mean, this is just the latest example, and yet Greg Combet yesterday on one of your sister programmes Radio National and the Labor Party spokesman again this morning is making these absurd claims that we’ve changed the law to stipulate that a doctor can demand a certificate every day. That’s not right.

FAINE:

An employer can demand a certificate?

PRIME MINISTER:

Sorry, an employer yes. Sorry.

FAINE:

Prime Minister, the laws that are introduced were supposed to make the workplace more flexible but the main thing I am hearing from employers is its going to make regulation of the workplace more complex. You’d have to say that you’ve struggled to introduce a simpler system haven’t you?

PRIME MINISTER:

The message I am getting from the major employer organisations is not that. I’m not saying that some individuals may not be saying it. I don’t and can’t speak to every employer. But that is not the message we’re getting from bodies like the ACCI or Australian Industry Group. That is not the message and you’ve got to bear in mind that what we are endeavouring to create is a single national system. A lot of what is in the legislation involves measures covering the transition of people who are currently covered by the state systems and because of the operation of the corporations’ law, will be transferred into the federal system. Now inevitably when you have that transitional period, you have a lot of pages, if you like, that are covering the transition. But the elements of the new system and the way in which people will be affected by it; and after all the degree of complexity of a system is directly related to those

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provisions in the legislation which normally affect people in their normal operations. And in those respects, particularly in relation to the making of agreements, it’s a lot simpler, and in fact, it’s the very simplicity of the new system, the approval of workplace agreements have been made a lot more simple. It’s that very simplicity which the Labor Party and the unions have attacked.

FAINE:

Well it’s very simple if you say to employees take it or leave it. Or you say to employees forget about bringing your union in here, you can bring; I think it was Kevin Andrews said the other day; you can bring your accountant with you.

PRIME MINISTER:

You can bring….

FAINE:

..come and negotiate when I’m going for a job.

PRIME MINISTER:

You are misrepresenting Jon, what the provision is. What Kevin was doing by talking about an accountant is to illustrate the range of people you can use as a bargaining agent. He wasn’t saying ‘forget about the union.’ That is not right. And you shouldn’t say that. What he was saying was that in addition to having a union bargain for you, or an individual union official, you can have anybody you like, including your accountant, your friend, your brother, your father, your priest, your mate, anybody you like, as well as if you choose, a union official. And it’s not right to imply that we’re replacing union officials with accountants. We’re adding accountants and a whole lot of other people to the range of people who might be available if you want them to, to bargain on your behalf. And you say ‘the employer says well here’s the agreement, take it or leave it.’ It has always been the case that if somebody is applying for a new job, the terms and conditions set by the employer, and if you like them, you’ll take the job. If you don’t, you won’t. Now that’s the situation now, it’s the situation in 1992, in 1994. It’s the situation in 1982. The real thing that determines whether you get the job you want is the profitability of the company. That takes me back to the strength of the economy. And the great virtue of these changes is that they will add to productivity. They will encourage more risk taking by small business because they won’t feel encumbered by the current unfair dismissal laws. They will facilitate the making of more bargains at the workplace level and that will lift productivity. And the more that we can lift our productivity, the stronger our economy will be and thereby the great will be the job security and the real wages gains of individual workers.

FAINE:

And Prime Minister, the economy has been doing very, very well as you keep reminding us, under your tenure. So if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. What’s the need for this radical reform of workplace laws when the economy’s gone so well under the old one?

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PRIME MINISTER:

Because there is no guarantee that you keep going forever. You can’t live forever off the back of previous productivity improvements. Economies that have done that in the past have fallen over. I’ve often quoted the example of Germany, regarded as the premier economy of Europe in the 1970s. It stopped reforming. Admittedly it had the challenge of absorbing East Germany, but that’s not the sole explanation by any means. One of the major reasons why its relative position has declined is that it went through a very long period of no reform. The reform challenge is ongoing. And the reason we want these changes is we want to maintain the current strength. If we do nothing else in five years time, our unemployment rate will be higher, the economy will be weaker, and people in five years time will look back and say ‘why on earth did the Government abandon the challenge and the responsibility of further economic reform’. You cannot live forever off the fact of earlier economic reforms.

FAINE:

I want to ask you about terrorism and other things as well Prime Minister, but just one last question on the workplace reforms. You’ve achieved what no one else has been able to do. You’ve united the Labor Party and given them an issue they can gather some strength from.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well Jon I am motivated in this endeavour by the views I have about the strength and the importance of the Australian economy and the importance of the strength of that economy to job security and job opportunities. The political consequences of reform are something that political parties on both sides will have to debate and in the end, as always in a democracy the Australian people will decide it. But if you imagine that I am sort of going to succumb to some theory that says well you mustn’t do this or that because it might have such and such an effect on the Labor Party, I think you know me well enough to realise I am not going to be seduced from doing what I think is right for the Australian community by that kind of argument.

JOURNALIST:

With my tongue firmly in cheek of course, political observers we’re watching what’s happening and the…

PRIME MINISTER:

Of course you are.

JOURNALIST:

…Labor Party has been instantly transformed from being a bit of a rabble to suddenly having something to argue about but there you go that’s the consequences of it. Prime Minister, on the terrorism laws, are you going to drop the sedition changes in order to get the rest of your terror package through?

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PRIME MINISTER:

No, no, we’re not, we’ve already, inside our own parties had a very lengthy debate and there is strong support for the approach that has been outlined by the Attorney General. We’ve always had sedition laws in this country.

JOURNALIST:

And we may from time to time, need them.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well exactly and we intend to keep them and we intend to keep their content under review and if there are further arguments in favour of further modernisation of the language, then that will be acted upon, but the form in which the bill has been presented is the product of a lot of discussion between the Commonwealth and the States…

JOURNALIST:

Yes.

PRIME MINISTER:

…and a lot of discussion inside the Government parties. We think it’s a fair balance and we believe it’s in the public interest that this bill be passed before Christmas; the main elements of the bill have not changed from those that I outlined way back in September.

JOURNALIST:

But you have the unanimous opinion, and this is a very rare event for Australia’s media barons, the journalists’ union, the executives of the different electronic and print outlets all saying this is going to impact on the way we do our work.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well with great respect, I have not had pressed upon me the unanimity of that opinion but whether it does or does not exist and I am not aware of such a chorus as you describe, I am a little surprised that you put it quite in those terms, but whether that is the case or not, these laws will not stop journalists attacking the Government, they will not stop cartoonists lampooning the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition, they will not prevent free and open political debate because in substance they are no different from the sedition laws that have existed in the past.

JOURNALIST:

Internal dissent that you’ve experienced in the last 48 hours within the Liberal Party, will that result in any watering down of the terrorism package?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, because the views that have been expressed by one or two of my colleagues in the Parliament were expressed in the Party room and they were expressed in the context of saying

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to the Government, we have some reservations but because of broader considerations we support the legislation. That was the way in which it was handled and it’s one of the strengths of this Government that we can acknowledge that there can be a range of views on the detail of something. Philip Ruddock spent about 12 hours with the Committee as he should, because this is an important issue, just as I spent a lot of time with some of my colleagues dealing with matters relating to mandatory detention. That is how a democratic party works. I think one of the strengths of this Government has been the willingness of the leadership of the Government to use the Party room process to bring about change and improvement to the extent necessary to meet concerns but without damaging the overall objective. I mean there is nothing that we have agreed to that alters the substance or weakens the substance of what we are trying to achieve, but we don’t pretend that we have a monopoly of wisdom and the views of colleagues on our backbench shouldn’t be listened to and if there are ways in which those concerns can be accommodated, just as there were ways in which the concerns of the States should be accommodated….

JOURNALIST:

Twenty-five past nine on 774.

PRIME MINISTER:

That whole process demonstrated willingness in a mature fashion against a background of agreed goals to try and see that we could have the most acceptable way of implementing (inaudible).

JOURNALIST:

The Prime Minister John Howard is my guest in our Canberra studio, Jon Faine with you through till 12 o’clock today. Prime Minister if your terror package goes through as it’s presently drafted and you had a similar security threat that we’ve experienced this week in say six months, how much of those police raids would the public get to know about?

PRIME MINISTER:

I am not going to in relation to that, even try and hypothesise, I just can’t do that because…

JOURNALIST:

It would all be kept secret wouldn’t it?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no, that’s, well I don’t think anything in the last few weeks, last few days has been done without the attendance of an enormous amount of publicity and that situation is simply not going to change but don’t ask me to try to hypothesise about a particular situation against the background of newly introduced laws. But this I will say, there’s nothing in these laws that is going to prevent legitimate, full reporting, consistent always with the power of courts to say that certain things for national security reasons can’t be revealed and that’s been the case for a long time.

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JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, two other matters before we have to wind up at half past nine. Lex Lasry QC is the Melbourne barrister acting pro-bono for a Melbourne man who is on death row in Singapore and Nguyen Van Tuong’s [sic] life is very much at the moment hanging in the balance, excuse the quite deliberate pun. Lex Lasry yesterday before a gathering of Melbourne lawyers said that he thinks you could do more and he wants you to make a strong, direct, and personal quote unquote, strong, direct and personal stand on this matter. Are you prepared to do so?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I have already done an enormous amount and Mr Lasry knows in full what I have done. He’s entitled to his view. I think his categorisation of me as lacking heart on this issue is wrong and unfair and I reject it completely. In my position, whatever influence I might be able to exercise over the days and weeks ahead is more likely to be exercised effectively without indulging in what I would describe as megaphone diplomacy. It is not always the public declaration of one head of government, the apparent taking of a public position in strident terms by head of government that yields the best results.

FAINE:

So having said that are you worried about a public rebuttal if you called for….?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no, I’m not concerned about any rebuttal of me. I have already been rebuffed, the Governor General has been rebuffed, the Foreign Minister has been rebuffed. I mean we have to understand that the prospect of obtaining a remission of the death penalty, of obtaining clemency is very, very remote to the extent that it’s fair to say it’s virtually nonexistent. Now it’s easy for Mr Lasry - and I’m not questioning the sincerity of his motives. I know he feels strongly for his client and his client’s family. I just want to say to him and to all of your listeners, I am doing my best in the way that I think most appropriate and more likely than any other way to achieve a good outcome - remote though that frankly is. And we have to keep reminding ourselves of that and I do not think doing what Mr Lasry has enjoined me to do will of itself make any difference at all. But I want to say that my commitment to doing everything I can in the most effective way I can, to bringing about clemency is strong…..

FAINE:

Sorry can I just clarify…. are you still engaging in some diplomatic engagement or some correspondence with Singapore, what exactly are you still doing?

PRIME MINISTER:

As I was saying my commitment to doing everything I can continues. As to the form of that, for reasons I hope your listeners will understand, I don’t think I can add to what I’ve previously said.

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FAINE:

Finally Prime Minister and I’m aware that you have to head off to a Remembrance Day service and we will be of course bringing a service to air here at 11 o’clock on ABC radio right around the country as well. It’s the anniversary also of the dismissal, 30 years ago now of the Whitlam Government, could you imagine being dismissed from office by the current Governor General, Michael Jeffery, advised by the current Chief Justice, Murray Gleeson?

PRIME MINISTER:

No.

FAINE:

It would be completely ridiculous a proposition wouldn’t it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don’t think I will as Prime Minister behave in the way the Whitlam Government behaved. I don’t think any government I lead would ever try to govern without supply. I don’t think any government I lead would every overturn a principle established in the time of King Charles.

FAINE:

But we still have the same constitution is the point I’m driving towards?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes well I know that’s what you’re driving towards but in the end it is the people in high office who are responsible for events, not a constitution. It’s always been my view that about the dismissal that the Governor General was unfairly blamed. If people resented what happened in 1975 they should have vented their anger at Mr Whitlam and Mr Fraser and their followers in both of the parties - including myself, a relatively minor player but nonetheless a junior member of the shadow opposition, shadow ministry. We are the people who brought about the clash of political wills. We are the people who stretch the fabric of the constitution - we were rather. It was Fraser and Whitlam and I think it’s been one of the great injustices of Australian history that John Kerr - who’s fate it was to resolve a deadlock he did not create, that he has been so savagely maligned by history. And I think the continued personal invective and spleen against a dead man, which is engaged in by people who should know better is quite depressing. It wasn’t the constitution that caused the crisis; it was the clash of political wills and the determination of a prime minister to stay in power without parliamentary authority to pay for the ordinary services of government, plus the determination of an opposition to bring about an election as soon as possible.

FAINE:

I’m just wondering if it could be the next great John Howard adventure if you haven’t tired of tax reform, workplace relations… constitutional reform?

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PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don’t thin there’s anything fundamentally wrong without constitution - I don’t. I mean look I don’t want to get into a debate about whether we should be a republic or not, that’s beside the point. Except to make this observation that the worst possible republic and formula in Australia would be to have an elected President. Because you would pit against a properly Prime Minister an elected President who would get flights of fancy about his or her popular mandate. So if you want an observation of mine, you’ve got it.

FAINE:

If you were at some point being accused of exhausting your agenda Prime Minister, and I don’t think anyone is accusing you of that, but if they did you could always embark on constitutional reform next?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don’t see that major constitutional surgery is needed in this country - I really don’t. There are things you… all the things that need to be done can be done within the confines of the current constitution - and that’s not to say you shouldn’t have an argument about whether this or that provision ought to be altered, but I don’t think it’s something right at the top of the list. I think it is something that is used as an excuse for inaction or inability by people in politics. They blame the constitution, they blame the system, they blame the rules, they never accept that in the end political events are shaped by the actions of men and women in politics more than anything else. I mean 1975 was not a product of the constitution. It was not a product of the monarchy. It was a product of the clash of political wills between two sides of politics and they knew that at the time and this retrospective attempt to paint John Kerr as the dark evil doer of terrible deeds has just been so unfair and one of the great historical distortions of my life.

FAINE:

And that’s coming from someone who was there.

PRIME MINISTER:

I was there and I did observe it. I didn’t obviously have the influence in my party then that I have now but I having observed it, I think he’s been unjustly blackened by history and I think it’s very wrong what’s been said about him.

FAINE:

As always, thank you for your time.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you.

[ends]