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Prime Minister discusses telecommunications; Telstra; paid maternity leave; welfare; border protection; and foreign relations.



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18 July 2002

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP RADIO INTERVIEW WITH JOHN McNAMARA, RADIO 6WF

Subjects: Telecommunications; Telstra; paid maternity leave; welfare; border protection; foreign relations

E&OE………………………………………………………………………………………

McNAMARA:

John Howard, good morning.

PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning, it's very nice to be back in Perth.

McNAMARA:

And your calls are welcome during this session with the PM, in Perth, 9484 1720 or free call across regional Western Australia, 1800 626 720.

Prime Minister, we're told that health and education services are the key part of this new telecommunications move you're announcing this morning. What's in it for WA?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, WA gets its fair share. It's a $50 million contribution by the Commonwealth and that is matched by state and local government bodies. WA will get $8 million from the Commonwealth and I'll be going to launch it this morning. And basically what it will do, well, for example, it will enable specialists to, as it were, visit patients in remote areas of Australia and at the launch such a conference will take place to demonstrate to the press and to others the advantage of something like this. We're spreading the contributions around Australia, every State and the Northern Territory will participate, and the Federal contribution to Western Australia out of our $50 million will be $8 million. And, I understand, at the launch the Western Australian Government will be represented by one of its ministers and it

PRIME MINISTER

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will be joining the Commonwealth. These are the sorts of things where governments should, as far as possible, work together.

It's another way of dealing with what used to be called and, I guess, still is, the tyranny of distance in our country. Western Australians are more conscious of that because of the size of the State than fellow Australians elsewhere. And not only will it help in the area of medical conferencing but it will also help in the area of distance education. So it's quite a valuable initiative. This is another response to the recommendations of the Besley Inquiry which identified gaps in telecommunications services in regional Australia. We said we'd respond and we set aside $150, $160 million to respond to Besley's recommendations and this is another part of that response. We are very serious about addressing the communications gaps. I guess people will always say you can do more. That's in the nature of government, you never do everything that can be done. But this is a very practical contribution to reducing the disability of people who live in country Australia.

McNAMARA:

To what extent is it part of what some people are calling the softening up process for the complete privatisation of Telstra?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I tend to see the two things a bit separately. I’m in favour of addressing gaps in services in the bush. I don't see that as something that's part of a softening up process. People are entitled, as a right because they are Australian citizens, to comparable services no matter where they live. Now, it's not possible to do that in every detail but where you have somebody who's got a serious health problem, the fact that they're in a remote area of Australia is not a reason why they should be denied the services of a specialist. On the question of the further privatisation of Telstra, that is our policy but it's subject to services in the bush being up to scratch. They have improved. We'll examine that some time in the very near future whether they've improved enough for us to declare that they are up to scratch and only then would we look at the sale of further shares. In the long run it's not logical to remain or leave Telstra…in the long run it's not logical to leave Telstra half owned by the Government and half owned by individual shareholders. And nobody thinks we should re-nationalise the part that's been sold so logically, in the end, it should be fully privatised but only when we are satisfied about services in the bush.

McNAMARA:

And yet according to opinion and according to feedback to this programme, indeed, many people remain dubious about a total Telstra sell-off.

PRIME MINISTER:

I understand that and part of my job as Prime Minister is to explain why in the long run it is not in the public interest to have it half pregnant, to have it half owned by the public and half owned by the Government. For example, it limits the capacity of the company to issue new shares if it wants to borrow in order to…if it wants to get money in order to expand it has to go into debt rather than issue new shares. There are a whole range of things that compromise its commercial operation with it being half owned by the Government and half owned by private shareholders. But I accept that it's not something that, on the top of the head, is popular. I've often in the past argued in favour of propositions that don't have 50% support in

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the opinion polls. It's the job of a Prime Minister, from time-to-time, to take on the responsibility of arguing the validity of something. I’m not somebody who gets up each morning and checks the latest opinion polls and says whatever direction the wind is blowing, I'll go. That's not really the job of a Prime Minister. I believe it's in the national interest after the bush has been looked after for it to be fully privatised and I accept that I have a job of explaining that and justifying that to the Australian public.

I might remind your listeners that it was our policy at the last election. It's not as if we've conjured this up out of thin air after we got elected. We've always been upfront about what we're going to do in relation to Telstra and I accept that I have to go on arguing the case and I'll do that.

McNAMARA:

We'll take some calls in a moment - 9484 1720, free call, 1800 626 720 in regional Western Australia.

Prime Minister, one of the headlines this morning, 'PM Polishes his Plan for Families', on the table, paid parental leave scheme to include fathers.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I saw that report. The report is accurate in so far as it says that we are looking at a range of policies to assist families with children to better balance their work and family responsibilities. This is the biggest ongoing social debate of our time, I call it a barbeque stopper. It's something that people are very interested in because it affects them. I think what you've got to do is recognise that there are different groups. Some people want policies that fully support the choice of women after their children are born to get back into the workforce as quickly as possible, and that's something like…paid maternity leave is part of that. Others want policies that encourage women or men, for that matter, who decide their children should have the full-time care of a parent while they're very young to stay at home, and then there's a whole group in the middle who are sort of trying to balance the two of them. And I think it's very important that you don't fall for the mistake of believing there's a one size fits all approach. There's no magic bullet, there's no sort of single answer to this. Paid maternity leave has a legitimate claim in the debate, there's merit in it and we are looking at it but I think we also have to bear in mind that there are a lot of parents who want policies that assist their choices which may not include paid maternity leave and what I want are a range of policies that accommodate those three different groups and that's what we have started to do. I mean, we brought in a baby bonus which recognises that there's a huge loss of income when you have your first child and the baby bonus is designed to assist women who drop out of the workforce to have a child in that period when they lose that income. We have greatly boosted the family benefits under the new tax plan and the people who've benefited most from those changes have been low-income families and, incidentally, sole parent families have proportionately done better under those changes than any other family group, which is an interesting observation given the criticism that's sometimes been made of the Government in relation to our social policies.

So it is right to say that we're looking at a range of policies, we are, and we recognise that we're dealing with different groups who want different responses from the Government. It's our job to support and promote and facilitate parental choice. It's not my function as Prime Minister to say, this is how families should order their lives. I don't tell parents that they should have one parent at home looking after a child any more than I say that you should get

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back into the workforce as quickly as possible. What we've got to try and do is promote choice. And my guess is that most families in Australia would like a reasonable period of time when children are very young, where one parent is at home full-time at least for a period and then their choices will vary as the children get older. Some women will want to re-enter the workforce part-time, a great number of them. Some will want to get back full-time for their careers, a significant number. But a significant number also see their role as a full-time homemaker. So you’ve got to accommodate all groups.

McNAMARA:

Which way are you leaning though? Taxpayer funded or business funded?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well as far as maternity leave is concerned, you can’t ask small firms to bear the cost. Many firms already provide maternity leave and I applaud them for that. I saw a segment on television last night about one of the banks did that. I congratulate them for doing that. The public service provides paid maternity leave already and it’s been there for a long time. So obviously if it is to become uniform, there will have to be a Government contribution. We’re not going to force small firms to make it available because that will result in fewer jobs. That will be the result of that. If you force firms that can’t afford it to make it available, well they’ll make it available but for fewer people.

McNAMARA:

So will that deny the right of working mothers who work for small business?

PRIME MINISTER:

No. If we extend it, we will want to see that women who work for smaller firms aren’t disadvantaged. I mean obviously if it is to become comprehensive, the taxpayer will have to make a contribution. That’s self-evident. We are examining it along with a range of other policies, but I just remind your listeners of what we’ve already done. The baby bonus legislation came into effect only on the 1st of July and I believe that as time goes by that will provide a lot of unexpected assistance to people who are having children for the first time. And it recognises what everybody knows and that is you start off with two incomes, then the first child comes along and bang, you’re down to one income, at least for a period of time. And I think that is of great help.

McNAMARA:

Enough of my questions. Some of yours right now. And John joins us on the programme this morning. John?

CALLER:

Yes. Mr Howard, yes I’m unemployed. I’ve been unemployed for some time. [inaudible] to stop the private companies if you sell off Telstra, and I sincerely hope you don’t and I think I speak on behalf of a lot of Australians on that one, what's to stop the private companies jacking up the line rentals as they have just done through Telstra, putting on timed calls so every three minutes the metre goes around and basically [inaudible] between the haves and

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the have nots in this country? I suppose at the present maybe I’m one of those. If you can give me a straight and a short answer, I’d appreciate it.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well you legislate to stop that sort of thing happening.

McNAMARA:

Simple as that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, you can do that. You don’t have to own 50% of Telstra in order to impose community service obligations on the company. And there’s a false idea in the community that the golden age of telecommunications in Australia was back 30 or 40 years ago when the PMG was a fully-fledged Government department. It wasn’t. Nobody should imagine that just because you have 50% Government ownership, you automatically deliver all of these benefits. There are many things that can be imposed by legislation, irrespective of who the shareholders in Telstra are.

McNAMARA:

Will there ever be a forceful case put by the telephone companies though to, you know, increase prices?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well you can’t have a situation where prices never increase. That’s unrealistic. Any more than you can say to people wages should never increase or pensions should never increase. Costs do rise. It’s a question of requiring justification for them. And it’s a question of having a regime that ensures that the interests of the public are taken account of.

McNAMARA:

John thanks for your call. Good morning Sam.

CALLER:

Good morning. Prime Minister, good morning. Prime Minister I was wondering, have you had personal experience of the United States as a private citizen, in that you advocate all of the economic and business practices of the US?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well the answer to your question is, I haven’t lived there as an ordinary citizen. I’ve visited there and I first went there not as a Minister, but as a young person travelling in the 1960s. The second assertion you make, that I follow all of their policies, is wrong. I don’t. I have markedly different attitudes towards social welfare policies in the United States. I think United States social welfare policies don’t provide an adequate safety net and I have long argued that Australia should not go down the American path. I’ve been a very strong opponent of American policies in things like gun control as well. There are many things

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about America I admire. There are many things about America I don’t. I think one of the great advantages of where Australia finds herself is that we can eclectically choose from the models and experiences of different countries and in many ways with our social welfare policies, we’re a nice balance between not going down the European path of having too much of a nanny-state and too big a role for Government, but on the other hand we avoid the mistakes of the Americans which have left many of their more vulnerable citizens overexposed to poverty and therefore leading them into crime.

CALLER:

Prime Minister, I live just outside of Geraldton and for several years now I have been trying to get Telstra to improve the line services to my house. And they tell me that they have a guaranteed performance of just two kilobytes per second, where as the service to the city is 50 kilobytes per second. And they say that that’s the end of the matter. They can’t do anything. Now, the privatisation of Telstra is just going to exacerbate this situation.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I’d have to examine the accuracy of what you’ve just asserted about the kilobytes. I do know this however, that over the past two years the Government has poured a lot of resources into diminishing the differences between the way in which people in rural Australia are treated and those in metropolitan Australia. And can I just point out to you that you don’t have to live in the bush occasionally to lose service with your mobile phones. There’s a black spot somewhere in Kirribilli,I can tell you, in Sydney and there’s also a black spot on the Epping Road in Sydney in the middle of my electorate of Bennelong. And I mean, look I’m not complaining about that. I’m just making the observation that that can happen all over Australia. But we are serious about trying to close the gap and the announcement that I’m going to make later this morning, which I mentioned earlier, is just a further installment of that.

McNAMARA:

Thanks for your call Sam. Let’s move on to (inaudible).

CALLER:

Good morning. Good morning Prime Minister. I’m an Iranian migrant and I came to this country in 92 legally. And I would like to say I 100% agree with your border protection policies. Coming from Iran myself, we had big big problems from Afghan borders. Because there is no order, they just sneak through. And I’d just like to say that I think that probably the first job of every Government should be to ensure the safety of the people you’re supposed to protect. And I don’t understand opposition of all the parties in this argument.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well can I say thank you for that. And could I just say this is, I assure everybody, not a pre-arranged question. But I should tell your listeners that I’ve had very positive experience of Iranian migrants who came to live in Western Australia when I was in Beijing recently. I broke a tooth and had to be treated by a dental service that the Australian Embassy put me on to and I was treated by this most magnificent dentist who had come from Iran and been trained at the University of Western Australia. So I think it’s a pretty good combination, training in Western Australia and having come from Iran.

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McNAMARA:

Thanks for your call.

PRIME MINISTER:

It wasn’t a pre-arranged question.

McNAMARA:

Okay. Michael, hello.

McNAMARA:

Hello John. Good morning Mr Howard.

PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning.

CALLER:

I have had my thunder stolen somewhat by John with the motherhood and parenthood debate.Targeted safety nets are my great…

PRIME MINISTER:

Targeted safety nets?

CALLER:

Yes. Instead of taking everybody and putting them in the same boat…

PRIME MINISTER:

I agree with that. You mustn’t do that.

CALLER:

Target them so that we get some benefits from it. I’m just looking at our local deli where they employ several young ladies. You could have three pregnant in any one time, you could have, I’m not suggesting that they’re all going out to get pregnant. And the owner is not in the position to pay another three to replace them while they’re parental on leave. I’m a great believer that this targeted safety net, the Government can do it. And it’s not only in pregnancy and anything else, it’s other things as well, the injuries and so on. Get people who really need the money, get it to them and I think the Government can do it without a great deal of expenses [inaudible].

PRIME MINISTER:

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No look, I think what your saying is that you have to accommodate a whole lot of different circumstances. Years ago the perceived model of a family was that you had a sole male breadwinner and when children came along the mother stayed at home and looked after them. Now that is no longer universally the case, but we should not make the mistake in recognising that it’s no longer universally the case. We should not make the mistake of swinging to the other extreme and saying that in every case now after a child is born, mum wants to get straight back into the workforce as soon as humanely possible and all of the policies should be designed to promote that. What you’ve got to do is recognise that women and men now have a variety of desires as far as the caring arrangements of their children are concerned and we should have policies that don’t favour one or other approach, but rather support the choice that parents make about the caring of their kids.

MCNAMARA:

Michael, thank you for that. Prime Minister, Ian’s on the line with some advice about how to get re-elected apparently. Good morning Ian.

CALLER:

Good morning, Prime Minister. I’ve been a Liberal voter basically all my life and I’m just making an observation, I reckon Prime Ministers and governments lose elections by losing touch with the people’s view and I reckon there’s a couple of things that you want to give a lot of credence to and a lot of -well listen to any way. Don’t sell Telstra. The majority of Australians don’t want you to sell Telstra, I believe. And another one that I think is very important, don’t follow the United States into any more wars. I reckon we should be looking, and you should be looking very much at our home situation, and perhaps, and I never liked Keating the man but give a far greater alliance and credence to our Asian neighbours, especially Indonesia. And I’ll tell you a quick one too, I reckon it’s time to get rid of that Ansett $10 levy. So good luck to your next elections, but don’t touch with the people my friend or otherwise you will not get back.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, thanks Ian. I always appreciate advice and I always listen to it. You’ve heard my views on Telstra. I could only pay you the courtesy of being honest with my own view, which I have. As far as our relations with Asia are concerned, they are important, it is our primary area of interest. But what I have sought to do as Prime Minister is to rebalance our relations and to remind people that we have interests not only in Asia but also in Europe and North America. The question of our involvement, and you are obviously referring to Iraq, well that is an issue that if we receive a request from the United States it’ll be considered at the time on its merits and according to the circumstances. We haven’t given and won’t give any country a blank cheque about Australian military involvement. We are nonetheless, a very close ally of the United States, and there are enormous benefits in that. But we also have an interest as a freedom loving democratic country in seeing that regimes that can, through the possession and potential use of weapons of mass destruction, represent a threat to stability in parts of the world and potentially in time in our own. We have a responsibility to support appropriate responses. So it’s not easy. We don’t ignore our relations with Asia, but you talked about closeness to Indonesia, well I want good relations with Indonesia but it’s got to be on the basis of respect. And I think we have rebuilt our relationship since the inevitable shake out from East Timor. But I think most Australians would have agreed that we did the right thing on East Timor and that did cause a temporary interruption in our relationship with

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Indonesia, but now things are recovering and I think the world sees us as having done the right thing by the people of East Timor and I’m very proud that we did.

MCNAMARA:

Good morning, Lyn.

CALLER:

Oh Good morning. Good morning, Mr Howard. I have a question regarding, I’m a mother that stays home, we’re a single income family, I’ve got a husband, he’s the wage earner. My biggest frustration is why we can’t income split you know like, it’s so hard to get ahead on the one income and raising three children…

PRIME MINISTER:

I have some, you know I understand the argument. I’ve talked to a lot of people about income splitting. The effect of the changes that we have made with family tax benefit A, do you, I mean I don’t want to pry into your personal affairs, but are you and your husband entitled to the existing family tax benefits?

CALLER:

Yes we are. But then like, if he gets a wage rise then straight away it goes.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it depends how high it goes but the financial advantages of the family tax benefit A and B, particularly family tax benefit B, which was designed to assist single income families with children under the age of five. Have you got any children under five?

CALLER:

No, that’s the thing.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well you would not get…people who have children under five, family tax benefit B delivers up to a certain level of income, exactly the same benefits as income splitting. Now one of the things that we will be considering as part of looking at all of our family policies is is whether in balancing the different groups - and I want your choice to stay at home to be as fully supported as the decision of mothers who decide to return to the workforce. Your decision is as right as the next persons.

CALLER:

That's right.

PRIME MINISTER:

And it is very important that that be said. I mean, I want your decision to be as respected and as supported and as facilitated as I do the right of a woman who says, well, I want to pursue

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my career but I also want to have children and we've got to support them as well, and we're trying to get a mix. Now, I take on board what you say. The limit on family tax benefit B at the moment is that it cuts out when your youngest child reaches the age of five and, you know, there is obviously…that's one of the things that one would be looking if one were making further reforms in that area.

CALLER:

The strange thing is, like, I've got two teenagers and a 10 year-old and when they turn 16 it gets reduced, whereas they actually cost you more money education wise and…

PRIME MINISTER:

Yeah, well, that is, I agree, mine are in their 20s now, although they still cost you a fortune, yes. Okay.

CALLER:

All right, thank you.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you.

McNAMARA:

You were a big fan of income splitting for a long time.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yeah, I’m not…I mean, the philosophy of it I am still very sympathetic with but if you're talking about targeting you've got to worry about, I mean, somebody on a very high income, you've got to wonder whether there's equity in that. And there are ways, I think, in which you can deliver the same benefits, as we have, when a family's got a child under five. The existing arrangements, you've got a child under five you get, up to a certain level of income, you get exactly the same benefits as you would get under income splitting.

McNAMARA:

Peter, good morning to you.

CALLER:

G'day, how are you going?

McNAMARA:

Good thanks, you're with the Prime Minister.

CALLER:

G'day Mr Prime Minister.

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PRIME MINISTER:

How are you, Peter?

CALLER:

Not bad. I've never ever talked to you directly before, I've never even got within cooee distance of you in all the years you've been around.

McNAMARA:

You've got under two minutes, Peter.

CALLER:

What I wanted to ask was, you're sort of supporting this new future Gulf war thing, if it happens. Last time the Gulf war was on fuel went up 10 cents a litre in Australia. When it was over it didn't seem to come back down again. Will we be looking at that happening again if this happens because it was done in Australia, it was done in a lot of countries but those other countries came back down again?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I don't think it's right to say that it didn't come down. It may not have come down straight away but petrol has gone up and down over the last decade so I don't think that recollection is completely accurate. Look, we will make a decision if we are approached and I've made that very clear. We haven't given a blank cheque but we do understand America's position and I think you have to look at the overall behaviour of Iraq, you've got to look at the continued and repeated…

CALLER:

That's my two minutes.

PRIME MINISTER:

…UN requirements.

McNAMARA:

All right, Peter, thanks for that. And, Prime Minister, enjoy your stay in the West. You're speaking at the Liberal Party State Conference. How are the Liberals travelling in the West at the moment, just briefly?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, federally we're doing well, State wise it's always tough, the first term in Opposition, but the policies of the State government here haven't been all that sympathetic to small business and I think they've made a lot of mistakes in giving the unions back too much control and authority, particularly in the building industry, no ticket, no start is back in earnest in Perth and that's bad news for the construction industry.

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McNAMARA:

Prime Minister, John Howard, joining us in the studio.

[Ends]