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Prime Minister discusses centenary of Federation; GST and car prices; ABA; nursing homes; Glenbrook train accident; privacy.



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TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER

THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP

RADIO INTERVIEW WITH NEIL MITCHELL (3AW)

 

SUBJECTS: Centenary of Federation, car prices and the GST, ABA Inquiry, nursing homes, Glenbrook train accident, privacy

 

E&OE                                        

 

MITCHELL:

 

First today in our Canberra Studio, the Prime Minister, Mr John Howard. Good morning.

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Good morning, Neil, how are you?

 

MITCHELL:

 

I am well thank you. Mr Howard, the pilgrimage to London that you are planning for Next July, I read former Prime Ministers, State Premiers, Kim Beazley, Meg Lees. What will it all cost?

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well, I don’t know the exact cost of it but in time I’ll be happy to provide that. I know some people have criticised it. Let me defend it.

 

MITCHELL:

 

Please.

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

This is a major historical event. We are celebrating 100 years of the federation of Australia and the legal acts, or the historical event that gave legal effect to the

Commonwealth of Australia back 100 years ago was the passage of the Constitution Act through the British Parliament. And if you are to have any kind of historical observance then this kind of event is quite defensible. On top of that, on top of the historical association between Australia and the United Kingdom is a huge economic relationship. The British are the biggest foreign investors in Australia. They have now moved ahead of the Japanese and the Americans and in turn Australia invests more in Britain, I understand, than any other country in the world. You should never take an association like that for granted. We tend to take our association with the British for granted whereas we regularly send ministerial delegations to, large delegations, to Japan and Indonesia, not as big as this but nonetheless on a more regular basis. I mean, this is once, as it were in 100 years.

 

MITCHELL:

 

Well, how big will this delegation be?

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well, I have invited former Prime Ministers and I have also invited Premiers and Chief Ministers. And because it’s meant to be an Australian event and not a Coalition event I have also invited, quite properly, the leader of the Opposition and the leader of the Australian Democrats. Now, as well as the historical events, which are important, there will also be a major investment seminar to promote Australia as a financial centre. There’ll also be a trade promotion. There’ll be a number of very significant economic events that will underline the modern character of the Anglo-Australia to the British Australian relationship. Now...

 

MITCHELL:

 

I can understand that it’s a point of history and I can understand [inaudible] the Opposition Leader...

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

I mean, all of those things are important....

 

MITCHELL:

 

But why a football team? I can understand yoursel f and perhaps the Opposition Leader or a number of officials but why the football team?

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well, you mean why the State Premiers?

 

MITCHELL:

 

Well, why, there is so many — State Premiers...

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well, you have got to remember that in 1901 we were not a nation, we were a collection of six colonies and they federated and part of the history of the thing is they be associated with it. And that’s the reason why they have been invited. Now, I am quite certain that it would have been one of those events where if I’d left them out I would have been criticised. I would have been told, well, this federation was the coming together of the six Australian colonies or States to form a Commonwealth of Australia, if you are going to properly observe it you should acknowledge the role of the States.

 

MITCHELL:

 

But it’s our, it’s the middle of Winter, we have got a number of people going, I mean, it’s arguable... all right, representing Australia, it’s arguable it’s actually going to sell anything for Australia.

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well, you could say that about....

 

MITCHELL:

 

It looks like a junket.

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well, I don’t believe it is. I know some people will criticise it as that but I think.. there is a place in the governance of a country for the observance of important events. I mean, we are going to spend quite a bit of money commemorating the Centenary of Federation. Now, we could not do any of that, we could do nothing. We could never observe an historical event, we could never spend a dollar on that. I think part of a nation’s existence is to recall its history and to mark its history and irrespective of what views you might have about the republic or anything of that nature nobody can deny that the relationship between Britain and Australia has had an enormous impact on the history of this country. And, I mean, the very fact is that as a matter of law the foundation of the Commonwealth of Australia was found in an Act passed by the British Parliament 100 years ago.

 

MITCHELL:

 

Yes, but we have, I mean, you have this environment where the taxes have been increased for what’s happening in East Timor, fair enough. There’s concern about the surplus, fair enough. I know that you are probably only talking about half a mill ion or a million dollars, in the scheme of things it’s not a huge amount but the symbolism to the people, the middle of Winter, a team of politicians going off to London for the sunnier weather....

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well, it’s not very sunny. Have you ever found a sunny...

 

MITCHELL:

 

Well, it’s sunnier than Melbourne in July.

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well, I don’t know.

 

MITCHELL:

 

A cricket match.

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well, it’s probable at this stage that that won’t occur.

 

MITCHELL:

 

Oh. What’s happened to that?

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well, it was never, I mean, those stories were not, they weren’t as fully based as people are alleging but the indications are that that won’t be part of the programme. It’s not a result of anything that has been said over the last couple of days but it was only ever an outside chance and indications are that for a number of practical reasons, and some of them are related to the assembly of people, particularly the cricketers, it’s unlikely to take place.

 

MITCHELL:

 

Is it right Paul Keating has refused the invitation?

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well, I have read that in the paper. I haven’t heard from Mr Keating. I have certainly heard from the others and my advice is that they have all accepted the invitation. And, naturally, we would like Mr Keating to be part of it as well. There is nothing political about this, it’s an Australian event and he was Prime Minister of this country for four years and he is treated with precisely the same courtesies by me as is Mr Fraser, Mr Whitlam and Mr Hawke and Sir John Gorton who are the other former Prime Ministers still with us.

 

MITCHELL:

 

Who is going to run the country?

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

The country will be in very good hands, Mr Costello will be the acting Prime Minister.

 

MITCHELL:

 

We might find out we can do without you all.

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well, there you are, I mean, life’s always short no matter what you do, Neil.

 

MITCHELL:

 

Calls for the Prime Minister — 9696 1278. Another topical issue, Mr Howard, car prices and the GST. Now, we were told through the whole GST debate that car prices would come down. Do you stand by that?

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

They should come down, yes. Yes, of course I do.

 

MITCHELL:

 

Senator Minchin has said he can’t guarantee it.

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well, I don’t know that anybody can guarantee what people are going to charge but what I can guarantee is that the tax on cars will be less, much less.

 

MITCHELL:

 

So you can’t guarantee that the price will come down?

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well, I will be amazed if it didn’t. But I can guarantee that the tax will be lower and if it doesn’t come down it will be not the fault of the Government it will be because the market has so changed that people can demand and receive a higher price. Now, I don’t believe that’s going to happen. I don’t believe that.

 

MITCHELL:

 

Would the Government do anything if it did, I mean...

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well we’ll sool the Competition Commission onto the car dealers if the fall in the tax is not reflected in the retail price. I mean, let’s get one thing straight about cars. One of the biggest beneficiaries of the GST are car retailers because you are going from a 22 per cent wholesale sales tax to a 10 per cent goods and services tax. Now, that is a huge drop even if you allow for the fact that the 22 is on the wholesale margin and the 10 is on the retail margin, on the retail price. Now, it’s a huge change so I would be dumbfounded if there weren’t a fall. Now, how much will depend on the market but I can guarantee that the tax will be a lot less.

 

MITCHELL:

 

Okay. Well, what about the other aspect of it, the argument for the car industry which is that they need an immediate cut in sales tax because there is a buyers strike which will lead to workers being laid off. Will they get a reduction in sales tax?

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

I am not promising that. What we did promise was to keep the situation under review. I get mixed signals. I was at a function, an export function in Melbourne on Wednesday night and a car dealer said to me things are going very well. Now, he was of a part icular make, I better not mention it...

 

MITCHELL:

 

Well, you are not getting a free car are you?

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

No, I am not. I think he was a Honda salesman from recollection but I might have that wrong. But he was certainly one particular make, he sa id he was doing pretty well. Others are telling me they are not doing well at all. On an industry-wide basis we are monitoring and I saw some figures yesterday that suggested that the fall from last year, on a yearly basis to November, was not as great as many people had said. Now, all I can say to the car people is we are watching it on a daily basis. We are not going to be pressured into a premature reduction in sales tax, there is no point in that. On the other hand, we don’t want any serious long-term damage done to an industry that at the end of the day is going to get a huge boost out of the GST, a huge boost.

So if they prove to you that there is this buyer’s strike is it likely you will reduce sales tax?

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well, what we have said is that we will keep it under very close review and are willing to act if there is a clear need to act.

 

MITCHELL:

 

Okay. We’ll take a couple of calls and then other issues for the Prime Minister. Julie, go ahead please.

 

CALLER:

 

Try as you may, Mr Howard, it is a junket and I guess it’s a good time for all the leaders to be out of the country when the GST is about to hit.

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well, I can only repeat what I have said earlier and it has absolutely nothing at all to do with the timing of the GST. I don’t think anybody can accuse me of running away from the implications of the GST.

 

MITCHELL:

 

Thanks Julie. Sebastian, hello.

 

CALLER:

 

Good morning, Neil, Mr Prime Minister. I am a little bit concerned that the money could be put to better use and all you guys don’t have a party.

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well, Sebastian is it?

 

MITCHELL:

 

That’s right.

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

You could say that about any trip. I mean, that is a populist view among some people. That is a view that every single trip made by a political figure is a waste of money. That used to be a more widespread view in Australia than it might be now. And if you look at something in isolation, yes, you could say that the holding of any kind of celebration of our 100 years as a nation is a waste of money. You could say that could be put to a hospital or that could be put into schools...

 

MITCHELL:

 

But the celebrations in this country at least involve what the average person.. .1 don’t think you are taking any average people with you on this trip to Lon don.

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well, except that if you are celebrating a major political event, a major constitutional event, isn’t it appropriate that the people who are elected by the Australian public be involved? And many of the events will be held in relation to, I mean, historical observance in this country are not attended by large representations of the population although, of course, they are open to them.

 

MITCHELL:

 

Just to get it clear, I did see a report of last night that these people are invited and their partners, is that correct?

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well, their husbands or wives, yes. Well, I mean, I wouldn’t invite Mr Whitlam to go to something like this without inviting his wife. I think that would be properly regarded as something of a discourtesy.

 

MITCHELL:

 

Do you know how many people are going altogether because there will be staff and....

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well, I don’t know, I haven’t done that calculation. And until I know who is willing to come and until I know the full extent of it I can’t answer that question.

 

MITCHELL:

 

Okay, thank you Sebastian. Jeremy, go ahead please.

 

CALLER:

 

Good morning Neil and the Prime Minister, how are you?

 

PRIME MINISTER

 

Good thanks.

 

CALLER:

 

I must say that I think it’s a great idea and I was thinking that when you are over there why not have a celebration for the Australians over in England?

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well, one of the suggestions that has been made by one of the universities is that there be a gathering of all the alumni, all the Australian graduates of the university involved with Sydney University.

 

MITCHELL:

 

I think Jeremy was thin king more about getting Earls Court together for a beer.

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well, you could do that. But a lot of people who graduated from Sydney University live in Earls Court. I can assure you of that, they did. I met a lot of them when I was there myself in the 1 960s, not in Earls Court but elsewhere.

 

MITCHELL:

 

We’ll take a quick break and come back with more from the Prime Minister. [Commercial break]

 

Mr Howard, the cash for comment inquiry’s winding up and one of the recommendations put by council assisting is that there be a declaration by radio people of contracts they have to promote companies. That should be declared on air and also on a register. What’s your view on that?

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well I have to say from a personal point of view I think that’s fair enough. The conflict of interest point is a very important one for a lot of people. We as members of Parliament must make all sorts of declarations, even when the value I suppose of gifts and whatever involved is pretty small. So I certainly would have no objections to that. That’s just a very much an on the run personal response. I’ll want to see all the recommendations that come out of the finding of the ABA’s inquiry before we have a considered Government response. But the notion of the declaration of interest is a fair one. I watched it for a while on television yesterday the council assisting the inquiry, Mr Burnside, putting argument in relation to conflict of interest. I thought he put that part of his argument quite well.

 

MITCHELL:

 

So what is the process - the ABA makes a recommendation, the Government considers it?

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

That’s what I imagine would happen. We haven’t had anything like this before so I’ll have to wait and see exactly what comes out of it. But we’ll very carefully and properly consider any recommendations that comes in the ABA inquiry.

 

MITCHELL:

 

I better declare a vested interest here, but my view is that the handling of the 3AW situation’s had a touch of McCarthy about it.

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well I don’t know enough to pass a view on that. But look, I don’t want people to go overboard, but you will recall that when this first happened I stated a principle, I think I was in New York at the time, and stated a principle saying that I believe that when you hear a persons s view on air you assume that that is the view the person told and has not been influenced by any commercial consideration. Now that remains a valid point. The idea that if you do have a commercial arrangement you declare it is I think an entirely fair and reasonable proposition.

 

MITCHELL:

 

Do you think as a politician you’ve at times been questioned along certain lines because money’s been paid to people?

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Look I don’t really know. I’ve been questioned by so many people on so many subjects over so many years I’ve lost track. But I think talkback radio and the sort of medium that you and I... .the character of the medium that you and I are using right at the moment is an excellent one for the public. I think you get more information out of this kind of exchange than just about any other kind of media contact between a member of Parliament and a journalist. And I want it preserved as a very integral part of political exchange and discourse in this country. I think it is a superb way of my trying to explain something but you as an independent advocate of the public interest making sure that if the explanation’s not good enough then it’s made better or the public knows about it.

 

MITCHELL

 

That’s the key to it- independent.

 

PRIME MINI STER:

 

Exactly.

 

MITCHELL:

 

Can I ask you about the train accident, the awful train accident? But already there are suggestions that a funding cut could have led to reduced maintenance. Now this is a State issue obviously, but in the interests of propriety or truth, or the search of truth, do you think the Federal Government needs to step into this?

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

No. I think the whole thing is being handled.. ..and could I just say what an appalling tragedy it is and I know that the thoughts of all Australians will be with the families of those who’ve been killed and injured. And could I also say that once again you see our police and our firefighters and our ambulance personnel perfonning in a magnificent way in quite appalling circumstances. I can’t think of anything more macabre than having to climb into a train wreck and drag out bodies, and I really salute our police and ambulance people in particular for what they do in these circumstances, they really do deserve our praise.

 

Neil, there' s no evidence to me that the Federal Government needs to be involved. If Mr Carr wanted any help from me I’m sure he’d ask me. But Mr Carr has announced the establishment of two inquiries. There’ll be a coronial inquiry, that’s normal, and there’ll also be a full judicial inquiry presided over by a Supreme Court judge in New South Wales. I’m sure on the evidence available that everything’s being done that ought to be done. You can’t at this stage start saying it was because of this or that. You just don’t know and you have to have a proper inquiry and I’m quite certain that the New South Wales Government will do that and will handle the thing correctly.

 

MITCHELL:

 

Okay. We’ll take another call. Mary go ahead please.

 

CALLER:

 

Good morning Neil, good morning Prime Minister.

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Hello Mary.

 

CALLER:

 

Mary [inaudible] here from the Victorian Association of Health and Extended Care. My question is in relation to the Productivity Commission into the report on nursing home subsidies. That report was handed down in January and recommended to the Government that the current Coalition policy should not proceed. That policy will se $14 million taken out of the Victorian nursing home system. I’ve got two questions. The first question is when can we expect a response from the Government? And the second question is will that response be disadvantageous to Victoria?

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well I’m aware of the report. You can expect a response fairly soon. It’s a difficult issue. The response will be in an overall national sense fair. For the benefit of listeners, could I just point out Neil that at the moment the reimbursement of nursing home costs is lower in some States than it is in others. It is lower for example in Queensland because historically, because way back Queensland had a differently structured health system, the cost of a nursing home bed in Queensland was lower than it was in other States. Therefore the Queensland nursing homes got less money from the Federal Government.

 

Over the years that has changed but the funding formula hasn’t changed and Queensland therefore has fallen behind. And coalescence is meant to describe a process whereby over a period of years the per-bed subsidy paid by the Federal Government to a nursing home in one State doesn’t vary from that paid to another State. So at the end point you’re paying the same amount irrespective of whether the nursing home bed is in Victoria, Queensland or in New South Wales. Now you can understand that from the Federal Government’s point of view those States that have now got a relative advantage, and I say relative, don’t want to lose any of that. And those States that are relatively disadvantaged want the gap closed. And we’re trying to grapple with those two competing interests, and also contain the budget cost of it. I think we’ll Mary, I think at the end of the process we’ll come out with an arrangement that’s fair. I’m not saying everybody’s going to like it. A lot of people will say it doesn’t go far enough. Others will say it’s gone too far. But I think we’ll come out with something that’s pretty far.

 

MITCHELL:

 

Okay just another question on another area, the database company which Kerry Packer’s involved in. Do you think these people should have a right to opt out of that?

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well people... .well the information as I understand it, and if I get contrary information well I might have a different view, as I understand it the sort of material that in relation to say you or me on this would either be material which is publicly available now such as the electoral roll, telephone book, the Who’s Who and Australians, many of them break their necks to get into that. And plus any information that you and I have agreed can be transmitted by a person who now holds that information to a third party. Now that’s my understanding. And there won’t be anything on it that you and I don’t.. .have not either allowed to be passed from one party to another, or alternatively it is the sort of information about you and me that is normally available.

 

Now I saw the details, the alleged details relating to Mr Andrew Robb on the front page of the paper the other day and they had a whole lot of things listed about him which I could have found out about him not because I know him, simply by looking up the telephone book or the electoral role or looking in Who’s Who, or knowing where he lived, ringing up the local estate agent and saying what do you think an ordinary sized house in that street is worth. I mean that’s not particularly hard. Now the problem as I understand it is in the eyes of many is the concentration of this sort of information about everybody in one place. Well if that is a problem what you then really have to do is to stop any concentration and the implication of that is that, does that mean people who are making decisions about giving credit can’t get access to information about people. I mean look, it’s the sort of thing that’s got to be thought through and there is a balance to be found, and I don’t think just on the basis that one person has decided you can get it all in one place that we should sort of over react. On the other hand it’s something that’s got to be worked through because you have got to strike a balance between the right of people to store information, on the other hand the right of people not to have that information used against them.

 

MITCHELL:

 

Thank you very much for your time again. You’ll be having a holiday I hope, I would assume?

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Well I’ll be knocking off and having a few weeks off from the 1st of January. John

Anderson will be Acting Prime Minister from New Years Day for a few weeks into

January.

 

MITCHELL:

 

Where are you going? Can you tell us?

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

No, I don’t think I’ll go away at this stage. I just don’t know. Might stay at home.

 

MITCHELL:

 

Kirribilli’s not a bad sort of holiday.

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

No Sydney’s a nice spot. I don’t know, I might, I might. I just haven’t made up my mind yet and if I don’t see you before have a nice Christmas Neil.

 

MITCHELL:

 

Thank you very much. Same to you Prime Minister.

 

PRIME MINISTER:

 

Okay. Bye bye.

[Ends]