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Opposition Leader discusses Steve Irwin; regional airport security; 457 visas; Iraq; and Medibank Private.

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Subjects: Steve Irwin, Regional Airport Security; Howard’s rorted foreign worker visas; Iraq; Medibank Private

PRICE: In the Canberra bureau is the Opposition Leader Kim Beazley, nice to talk with you again.

BEAZLEY: Well, good to be talking to you Steve, but in the saddest possible circumstances. This is just dreadful news.

PRICE: Gee, they don’t create many like him. I mean, he was a one-off example of an Australian, wasn’t he?

BEAZLEY: Yeah, he was a quintessential Aussie battler, there’s no doubt about that. He in many ways defined modern Australian values of larrikinism in the best possible way. You know, the fellow would try anything, knockabout, talk to anyone, give the old flora and fauna a good workout a good boost. I mean, he was just fantastic. I mean, for him to go like this is just dreadful, terrible for his family. I regret that I haven’t yet seen the Australia Zoo, which I would have loved to have seen with him there.

PRICE: You’ve met him, obviously. I mean, I was talking with Chris Brown earlier, he said that this bloke never realised what a big, huge international star he actually was.

BEAZLEY: No, I don’t think he did. I met him in Canberra. I didn’t meet him in his natural situation, if you get what I mean. But he was up here, with all the rest of us sort of standing around in suits, and he came in in his shorts, his dungarees, his big boots. He was not going to make any concessions. He was going to the Aussie through and through. He was not going to be any different in Canberra from what he was in the north of Queensland. But, you know, I can’t believe he’s gone really.

PRICE: No, it’s just in such tragic circumstances. I wanted to talk to you this afternoon, you’ve been talking about security at regional airports in particular. Now this is something of a hobby horse of mine. I’ve been going on

about it for a couple of years now, after taking some flights out of places like Albury and from Kempsey up on our north coast. There is no security at regional airports.

BEAZLEY: I can’t fathom this Steve to tell you the honest truth. It’s five year, give a week, since the shocking atrocity of September the 11th. It’s a year now since Sir John Wheeler put down his report in which he identified regional airports as an essential weakness. All intelligence agencies will tell you, that at great length, in great detail and with enormous patience, al-Qaeda types study the weaknesses of all the societies that they’re hostile to. And you’ve got to say, it’s a glaring weakness in this society of ours. 66,707 regional flights a year go unchecked in Australia.

PRICE: Yeah, you get on to an aircraft - I mean I use Albury as an example because there’s a defence facility near there as you know - you’re often flying back on that aircraft with young Australian soldiers who are coming back from leave, coming back to Sydney. You get on board, you could carry anything you like, and I mean anything. You could take a bazooka on there if you wanted to. And you fly and land at Australia’s busiest airport, Sydney, and you taxi in next to fully-laden jumbo jets.

BEAZLEY: Exactly right. And one of my off-siders, Senator O’Brien, asked Senator Campbell, representing the Minister for Transport, a question on this. And he found not only do the circumstances that you describe apply, but there isn’t any automatic screening of baggage out of Hobart Airport.

PRICE: But that’s a capital city.

BEAZLEY: I know. This is the answer to the question that we asked. And it says checking baggage screening systems in place - no for Hobart. You’ve got a situation here where basically it’s open-go from any regional airport, in this case one capital city airport, to any other airport in the country. As you rightly say, you’re sitting there in your jumbos and the rest of it and scudding past you with unchecked baggage on board are all the commuter services you care to name.

PRICE: You have to wonder why we bothered with the Wheeler Report. Why did we bring this man out at great expense if we weren’t going to implement what he told us to implement.

BEAZLEY: Well, it’s the practical measures that this Government is weak on, Steve. That’s the truth. They can talk up a storm on terror any day of the week and they usually do. But when it actually comes to doing something other than introducing laws, when it actually comes to the practical measures, it’s weak.

They boast that they have spent $8 billion. But can you imagine spending $8 billion and not fixing the regional airports. Spending $8 billion and not having every piece of international luggage at Sydney Airport subject to x-ray. What are they spending the $8 billion on if those things aren’t being done?

PRICE: All we seem to be doing is checking the baggage that’s going to the United States to keep them happy, because if we don’t the flights won’t land.

BEAZLEY: Well, that’s right. If you don’t do that sort of thing, that’s from the other end. They discipline us from that end.

PRICE: As you say, it’s almost five years since September 11. What did you make of the Prime Minister’s comments last week in regard to the Muslim community becoming more Australian, settling into the community more quickly, learning English and treating women differently?

BEAZLEY: All of us should learn English. All of us should treat each other with respect. I mean, those statements are no-brainer statements, if you like. What I’ve got to say when I say that is I happen to know that many of those people who are leaders of the Muslim community are making enormous efforts to try and ensure that Aussie values get inculcated into the youngsters.

When you’re in positions like mine and the Prime Minister’s, it’s not sufficient to be a commentator. You’ve actually got to do things. Now, I’ve put forward a set of sensible suggestions which might give practical effect to the sorts of concerns, or alleviating the sorts of concerns, the Prime Minister was talking about. I’ve suggested in the past, and I’ll suggest it again, that if you’re seriously concerned about these matters, let’s introduce into all our schools the study of respect. Respect for each other. Respect for our traditions. Respect for Australian values. Have the curriculum inspected. Have the teachers with an idea about what they ought to do in helping the kids from so many different backgrounds get engendered into them that respect for each other. Be it respect on the basis of one’s ethnic background, or respect on the basis of gender, respect for women. I mean, these are the sorts of things that a Prime Minister can do.

You can sit - and do it very well - you can sit in a studio and bell the cat, raise the issues, but you’re not elected to do anything about this. You’re appointed to talk about important social issues. He and I are elected. We are supposed to do something. What we ought to have heard from the Prime Minister last week was what he was doing about it.

PRICE: It seems to me it would be dangerous to isolate out one religious group, as in the Muslim community. I mean, we’ve heard news today through the ACTU in regard to Australia’s guest worker visa system where we had a group of 50 Chinese workers working here on a Sydney construction site

with no knowledge of English. They can’t read a sign. Simply, they’re not Muslims.

BEAZLEY: Well, there’s the disjunction, isn’t there, between what John Howard says and what John Howard does. He says all migrants should learn English. What he does is import huge numbers of these workers who can’t speak English, sees them massively exploited, as many of them are, sees them put into very unsafe situations where they’re not only unsafe themselves, but they make other Australian workers unsafe by the practices that they assume.

So, it’s one thing to talk about when you’re deciding you’ll chat a bit about members of the Islamic community and talk about English there, but when English really counts - like in the workplaces with immigrant workers, they don’t seem to care at all.

PRICE: Just on terrorism, another 38 Australian troops off to Iraq, on top of 110 that left last week, so that’s 148 in a fortnight. Do you agree that we should be topping up the numbers?

BEAZLEY: Well firstly, I wish our troops well whenever they’re deployed. But I do not support the deployment to southern Iraq and I didn’t support our involvement in this war. My advice to John Howard is that what he should be doing now, having said that these troops were initially committed to protect the Japanese, that they should have been coming out with the Japanese. Having said that, quite clearly this escalation is a product of an assessment by the Chiefs that they face more danger. If you look at the character of what is being deployed here, it’s more protected armoured travel. And that clearly represents the fact that the situation in which the troops find themselves is getting more dangerous.

So my suggestion to John Howard is don’t be there. Bring the troops back. Concentrate on the region that is important to us. Iraq was a mistake, don’t compound it.

PRICE: Do you expect our troops to still be serving in Iraq when we go to the next election?

BEAZLEY: I don’t, because I do think that now if you look at what’s happening in the United States, if you look at the recent report from the Pentagon to the Congressional Committees on progress in Iraq, quite clearly, the Americans are positioning themselves to start to pull back from their current exposed positions in Iraq. And I would expect that at some point of time that you’ll see us follow suit. I have a strong suspicion that the decision not to come out with the Japanese, even though they had been the rationale for us going into southern Iraq, was in some measure related to the processes in the United States at the moment, the political processes in the United States. They will be

out of the way in November. And I would suspect that perhaps our escalation will come to an end then. But I don’t know.

PRICE: Just before I let you go, I’ve got my Medibank Private card in my wallet. Should I be cranky that the Government is trying to sell off Medibank?

BEAZLEY: You certainly should. I’ve got a Medibank Private card too mate. We’re both members of this operation.

PRICE: We’ve been tipping money in there for years.

BEAZLEY: We have and I’m furious at this. You know, if you’re going to privatise this, at least have the decency to poll all of us.

PRICE: Correct.

BEAZLEY: On whether or not we want to be privatised. I know how I’ll be voting in that, I’ll be voting no, because I know darn well that if Medibank Private is privatised, then the pressure will be upwards on our premiums and that

would be a very bad thing indeed.

PRICE: Do you think the Government is going to listen to that, or do you think they’re determined to sell?

BEAZLEY: Morally they should. I mean, they don’t own this darn thing. If anything it’s got some of the characteristics of a mutual. I know perhaps legally it hasn’t, but morally it has. And basically they do very well out of us, us members, they get a nice dividend out of us. That’s their management fee, if you like, for looking after our interests, the interests of Medibank Private. And basically what they should be doing if they want to sell it is to ring all of us up, or send us all a note and ask us what we think.

PRICE: Or give us some shares.

BEAZLEY: No I don’t think they should do that mate. They don’t need to do that. What they need to do is consult us on whether we want to be sold.

PRICE: Good to talk with you. Thanks for your time.

BEAZLEY: Lovely to chat with you Steve.

PRICE: Kim Beazley there, the Federal Opposition Leader.