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Prime Minister discusses arts funding; Telstra; Mark Vaile; and football grand finals.



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PRIME MINISTER

29 September 2006

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP INTERVIEW WITH NEIL MITCHELL, RADIO 3AW, MELBOURNE

Subjects: Arts funding; Telstra; Mark Vaile; Grand Finals.

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

MITCHELL:

Mr Howard good morning?

PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning Neil.

MITCHELL:

Now it’s a bit of a party time around the country, so I’d like to start with something a bit different, do you recognise this?

[plays Midnight Oil song]

PRIME MINISTER:

I do, it’s Midnight Oil isn’t it?

MITCHELL:

It’s the Member for Kingsford-Smith who is advising us on matters of culture. He says that you’re a philistine, Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes I read that. He apparently said when was the last time that John Howard or Peter Costello made a speech extolling the virtue of creativity? I’ll send him a copy of the speech I made at the annual dinner of the business arts movement which I normally attend on a regular basis, and I might also send him some figures which show that in the current financial year the

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Federal Government will spend $652 million on the arts, against $250 million on sport. He probably doesn’t realise that and that excludes the money, the very large amount of money we spend on the ABC. And many people, including many in the ABC, would argue that that ABC is a great standard bearer for the arts. It’s correct of him to say that we should revel in our artistic achievements as much as we revel in our sporting achievements. He’s wrong to say that this Government ignores the arts, but he misunderstands the mood and the temper of the Australian people if he thinks having a go at people being heavily interested in and involved in sport, is in some way odd.

MITCHELL:

Do you think he sounds like a cultural guru in that song?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, he doesn’t. Look I’m prepared to be charitable and I’m prepared to take a very broad definition of art, although there are a lot of Australians who tend to have a narrower view of what art represents, but he’s just wrong if he’s looking at the support and the emphasis that we provide. Probably those figures I’ve used amaze a lot of people, they amazed me actually when I first had them dug out a couple of years ago. The ratio hasn’t altered although the amounts have altered, I was quite surprised. But the truth is when you add it all up we do support the arts. We support a lot of local art, sorry local artistic endeavour and we of course give some very strong support to the flagship companies like the Australian Opera and the Australian Ballet and a major block grant to the Australia Council. And some people in the artistic world are pretty good at complaining, they’re not very ready to acknowledge the financial support that is provided.

MITCHELL:

Sport might want more money when you use those figures?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it might, it might, and well, you know, in its various manifestations it does come at us and but they’re interesting figures aren’t they?

MITCHELL:

What would you rather do, honestly, spend a day at the New Year’s Test against England or a night at the opera?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh I’d rather spend a day at the New Year’s Test but I have attended the opera quite a lot in the past, the ballet less frequently, but nonetheless my wife and daughter are very keen ballet fans and attend it and I go periodically. I rather like the opera but I am unashamedly, like many Australians, very fond of sporting events, particularly Tests.

MITCHELL:

It just annoys me at times, it’s not Peter Garrett, but sometimes the arts world looks down on sports…

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PRIME MINISTER:

Well there is a certain elitism, and this is the reason why many people talk about the arts being elite and I think it’s a great pity. There’s this sort of petty complaint, saying when did you last go to the opera? When did you last see a stage play? When did you last listen to a piece of classical music? Well the truth is there’s room in Australia for all of these things and we ought to be over the moon about the success of our artists. I’m delighted to see a rekindling of investment in Australian films, I think that is terrific, they’ve gone through a rather difficult stage. I think it’s a big mistake for people in the artistic community, because they see somebody in my position being so overtly fond of certain sports, to say well that means he’s against the arts. They should actually look below the headline and understand what the Government does do and what the public generally thinks of arts. Actually more people visit museums at weekends I think, on many Saturdays, than go to sporting events. So it’s an extraordinary…and when you actually dig below the surface this country is quite interested in the arts and that’s what makes the complaints like Mr Garrett has made rather aggravating.

MITCHELL:

It’s interesting too the most popular Australian film at the moment, which was not funded publicly, is all about toilets.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, well…

MITCHELL:

Haven’t seen it?

PRIME MINISTER:

No I haven’t, I’m not in any hurry either.

MITCHELL:

Oh it’s quite funny. Okay, Telstra, now it’s accepted Telstra’s got a responsibility to provide a public service. To save money now it’s stripping pay phones out of railway stations in Melbourne and perhaps elsewhere. Now I’d argue they’re important for kids and for security, not everybody can afford a mobile?

PRIME MINISTER:

No I agree with that, I think it’s a very silly decision. I don’t know how much money it’s saving, probably not a lot.

MITCHELL:

$130,000 is the estimate.

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PRIME MINISTER:

Well, gee, very bad public relations apart from anything else, I mean really bad. Sure a lot of people have mobile phones now, not everybody, and mobile phone sometimes break down, sometimes your battery runs flat and that happens to all of us. And it just seems to me to be a foolish economy and from a security point of view, particularly late at night, young kids on trains, parents think as a fail-safe security device you’ve got…your mobile phone’s not working or you don’t have one, there should be a public phone. And I think it is rather insensitive of the company to do that.

MITCHELL:

Is Telstra a bit out of touch with its responsibility, or its sense of responsibility?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that sort of decision is out of touch. I won’t say every decision they take is out of touch, that wouldn’t be fair. But that decision is foolish and out of touch and should be changed.

MITCHELL:

Mr Trujillo, have you received any answers yet from Telstra on why he’s getting huge bonuses while the company’s struggling?

PRIME MINISTER:

No I haven’t.

MITCHELL:

Do you expect some?

PRIME MINISTER:

No I don’t expect so. I would hope that there are questions asked about it at the annual meeting. I am not against people being paid high salaries and I recognise in a globalised economy you’ve got to pay the market. I guess what Peter Costello was getting at, and I agree with him, was there were additional emoluments and bonuses over and above the agreed amounts and given the difficulties the company was having, according to the management, some explanation at the very least was needed.

MITCHELL:

Well it hasn’t come forward, no questions asked and it hasn’t come forward…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well the Prime Minister and the Treasurer. And well I think what we were saying was not so much that they should write to us but I think they should offer a public explanation for and defence of the decision.

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MITCHELL:

Have you seen the report, $1.5 million bonus for a strategy plan that he paid $54 million to get.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes I have seen that.

MITCHELL:

Does that puzzle you?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, but once again I don’t know that I want to give a running commentary on each and every single aspect. I’m not running the company, the Board is overall responsible for the company and the management is meant to answer to the Board. And if there are issues of accountability it’s the responsibility of the Board to see that those…that accountability is delivered. I mean we appoint…you know, we as shareholders, vote for the Board, directors are appointed, the Board appoints the managing director, they appointed Mr Trujillo and we’re happy to work with him. And I understand he’s got to be paid a high salary and I don’t object to that because otherwise you won’t get him. But he is being paid of course a lot more than his predecessor, a lot more.

MITCHELL:

Hmm…criticisms of the way he’s doing his job today too, not meeting with major customers -Telstra New Zealand-which is a major customer, say it’s easier to get to see you than it is Mr Trujillo?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I…I try to be available but look I don’t think it’s sensible or fair of me to criticise him for not seeing people. I am not his boss, he’s answerable to the Board and if people have problems about him, they should take it with the Board. They just take it up with the directors and not with the Government because we don’t directly employ him. And I really don’t think I should get into a day-to-day response to every criticism that’s made.

MITCHELL:

Well that’s fair enough. But what about broadly though, is he paid too much?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that depends on ultimately how well the company does and how the salary is justified by the Board.

MITCHELL:

In this environment…

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PRIME MINISTER:

It is a huge salary by anybody’s language and it’s about, what, four times what his predecessor was paid and he was paid a big salary by community standards. But chief executives of large companies are paid big salaries and they need to be paid big salaries and

I’m not going to go on the record as generally attacking high salaries being paid to talented company executives. We have to do that to remain competitive. But whenever the salary is very high - and his salary is very high - there does need to be an adequate explanation and I think what Peter was getting at, and I think quite correctly, he was speaking for a lot of

people, what he was saying was that well it is a big salary, normally these bonuses are geared to performance and delivery, and the result of performance, so let us have the milestones, let us have the demonstrated performance which justifies it.

MITCHELL:

Do you have full confidence in him?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, look, the way this operates is that we have a Board, I have confidence in the Board, the Board appoints the managing director, we work with who the Board has appointed.

MITCHELL:

You’ve got full confidence in the Board, even though they’ve gone into this deal, which they now won’t explain?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we haven’t perhaps heard the last of that.

MITCHELL:

In what sense?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think maybe there’ll be some explanations offered down the track.

MITCHELL:

From the Board?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, from the Board. But when you…when I’m asked do I have confidence in the Board that’s a general question and I can only generally answer it. That doesn’t mean to say that each and every decision that they make I agree with. It’s like saying do you have confidence in the Government? Now if somebody…might say, well I think they’re generally doing a good job, but that doesn’t mean to say you agree with everything the Government does.

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MITCHELL:

Some of your backbenchers have said he should be sacked?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, well look I’m not joining that, I don’t think it’s helpful for me to say whether he should go or stay. The truth is the Board has chosen him, the Board has confidence in him, we have confidence generally in the Board and we’re very happy to work with the Board and we’re very happy to work with him. Now there are areas where there’s a difference of opinion and that’s one celebrated area this week. But we’re all adult enough to recognise that. We don’t intend to alter our view on Mr Cousins, we will support him at the annual meeting, he’s very talented and I think he’ll bring a lot of firepower to the Board. To start with he understands the…what’s needed to communicate a clear simple message and a large company like Telstra needs to communicate its goals and its objectives a lot more clearly, and a lot more articulately, and in a way that connects with the public. Now it’s not just an ordinary company, Telstra, it’s a huge telecommunications company, it’s still 51 per cent government-owned, it has a long history of government ownership and it’s not enough to say, well we’re applying ordinary commercial principles in their totality and go away and don’t ask me difficult questions - it doesn’t work like that way in a company.

MITCHELL:

So it needs to connect better with the public…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think it’s got to sell its story better, and I mean that in a positive sense.

MITCHELL:

The sale will still go ahead?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh, yes.

MITCHELL:

Is all this harming, the potential…

PRIME MINISTER:

I don’t believe that it is because people will look at the intrinsic value of the company and whilst I am constrained from giving specific investment advice, it’s a great company.

MITCHELL:

Can we trust it to do the right thing out of government hands?

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PRIME MINISTER:

I believe so. I believe that the disciplines of the market will force it do so and we have a regularity regime and the Government has made it clear that it’s not going to relax that regularity regime to suit any individual participant in the market and therefore I’m confident it will.

MITCHELL:

We’ll take a break, comeback with calls, more questions for the Prime Minister. 96900693.

[commercial break]

MITCHELL:

The Prime Minister is with me, we’ll take some calls and ask some more questions. John’s the first the caller, go ahead John.

CALLER:

Good morning, I am Secretary of the Victoria Over-60 Cricket Association.

PRIME MINISTER:

Good on you.

CALLER:

I am the organiser of the over-60s interstate cricket carnival in Canberra, November 22, 23, 24, we’ve got six over-60 teams from interstate - Tassie, New South, ACT, Victoria…

MITCHELL:

Yes, where are we going John? Where are we going?

CALLER:

I’d like John Howard to take part (inaudible)…

MITCHELL:

To play?

PRIME MINISTER:

To play? Heavens above, well if you send the details to Darren Brown in my office, and I will have a look at it, I have a funny suspicion I might not be in Canberra at that time, but let me look at, I wish you well, I think it’s fantastic so many people over 60 are still playing cricket.

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MITCHELL:

Would you let him open the bowling John?

CALLER:

If he opened the bowling…

PRIME MINISTER:

If you give me a proper ball I will, yes.

CALLER:

His last try at bowling, I wouldn’t mind opening the batting.

PRIME MINISTER:

No I know, I thought you were going to say that mate.

MITCHELL:

That was a tennis ball.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, that was a tennis ball with tape, but anyway no excuses.

CALLER:

One thing, the ones participating have an average age of 70, the Victorian 2nd XIs and they will be playing at the University…

MITCHELL:

Oh no.

PRIME MINISTER:

Okay, okay mate just send me the details and I’ll have a look at it.

MITCHELL:

Okay John, we’ll get a number for you. Prime Minister we talked about this before but it seems to have developed, the proposition for gold mining at Kokoda.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, yes. I am quite concerned about it, and I did send a mission and that was reported in the paper this morning and I will be getting a report from them. We obviously respect the laws of Papua New Guinea, but the Kokoda Trail is of enormous historical and military significance to Australia and there has to be a way that fairness and justice can be done to all interests.

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But it was a high level delegation, it included the Director of the War Graves Commission as well as the senior foreign affairs man in my own Department, and I will be interested to hear what they’ve got to say, but we are very interested and we don’t intend to have it run away

from us without anything that can be done, being done.

MITCHELL:

Have you heard from Margaret Whitlam, I thought she might have apologised by now?

PRIME MINISTER:

I…no, but I don’t really want to talk about it, as far as I am concerned it’s an issue that has come and gone.

MITCHELL:

Move on.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes.

MITCHELL:

Kim Beazley has confirmed he would pull out of Iraq at once if he wins the election. Do you agree the war is becoming increasingly unpopular in this country?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think the war is unpopular, but what Mr Beazley has promised to do, is, if followed, by other countries, will guarantee the terrorists win. If it’s alright for Australia to pull out, why isn’t it therefore alright for Britain and America to do the same, and everybody knows that if Britain and America pull out, and follow Mr Beazley’s lead then the terrorists will win and that will be an enormous boost to the cause of terrorism around the world. And it actually, what he argued, flies in the face of one of the conclusions of the very intelligence assessment that he relied on to make his criticism of us. That intelligence assessment said that if the terrorists succeed in Iraq, then they will receive a worldwide boost, and it stands to reason, the propaganda value of an allied pull-out of Iraq would be enormous for the terrorists.

MITCHELL:

But that assessment also suggested that the war in Iraq was worsening terribly…

PRIME MINISTER:

It was one of those intelligence assessments that in a sense had a bit of…some conclusions on both sides of the argument, and often these intelligence assessments are like that.

MITCHELL:

So you still reject that it’s increasing the terrorist risk?

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PRIME MINISTER:

I am not persuaded of that, because the alternative, I mean one of the reasons that I am not persuaded of it is that the, you have to look at the alternative, I mean you, if somebody in my position has got to deal with real life options, I mean we either stay or we go. Now if we go, then if it’s alright for us to go, it’s alright for the Americans and the British to go, if the Americans and the British go then the terrorists win and the jihadist movement has scored the most massive propaganda victory imaginable.

MITCHELL:

But what if we hadn’t gone in in the first place?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well the reason we went in in the first place was that we believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, so did Mr Beazley and Mr Rudd. Mr Rudd said it was an empirical fact that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, I mean they now forget it. Our argument three years ago was not whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, it was whether we should mount a military operation or persevere with the United Nations.

MITCHELL:

When we go into a weekend like this with major events around the country, do you have a little edginess?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes I do.

MITCHELL:

In what sense?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I, like everybody else, I worry about the potential and I hope and pray nothing happens, I don’t believe it will and I know all precautions are taken, but you asked me a question, of course.

MITCHELL:

Is there any advice that it is?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no absolutely no advice, no suggestion, no intelligence warnings indicating that this won’t be other than a fantastic weekend.

MITCHELL:

And I think once again, it’s almost encouraging to see grandstands fall isn’t it?

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PRIME MINISTER:

I think it’s great, I think people are getting on with their lives and that’s what they should do.

MITCHELL:

Take a quick call, Josh, go ahead please.

CALLER:

Good morning Neil and Prime Minister. Prime Minister your talk about migrants speaking English…

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes.

CALLER:

My step-son when he came here went to a normal school, a high school, wasn’t coping with English at the start of this year and the school said, I think he needs more English tuition…when I went to get him into AIMS you wouldn’t pay. So I mean you’re a hypocrite

really aren’t you?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I’m not a hypocrite. You expect me to deny that charge but look, there is a for everybody who comes to this country, and I don’t know the circumstances in which your step-son came, but everybody who comes to this country who doesn’t have English is allowed you know some hundreds of hours of free tuition and then there is further backup in relation to that and this is over quite a considerable period of time. If you have the particular circumstances relating to your step-son, if you want to provide them off air to the station I’ll have it investigated.

MITCHELL:

Yes just hold on for a moment Josh. Prime Minister there’s going to be a conference about this in Sydney, but Ice, the drug, it seems to be emerging as a huge…

PRIME MINISTER:

I think that’s a valid worry. I hear there is some evidence that as the supply of heroin has dried up, and it certainly has, and there’s been a big reduction in the number of heroin deaths - and there’s no doubt we have been successful in reducing the heroin death rate, but I think

the concerns expressed by a lot of the police commissioners are valid and our Tough on Drugs campaign will have to be evaluated to make sure that we’re giving the right responses to people who are moving to other drugs of addiction and away from heroin.

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MITCHELL:

Mark Vaile’s stepping down from trade to concentrate on the Nationals election campaign. Anybody else planning to wind back for the same reason? It just seems a strange thing to do…

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no…

MITCHELL:

…Deputy Prime Minister and Trade Minister, or is it a Nationals leader?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well he is the Nationals leader and I think it’s a perfectly legitimate thing for him to increase his effort in rural seats that the National Party hold, I think that’s part of his job. But Mark said to me when he became Deputy Prime Minister that he wanted to remain Trade Minister until the intensive part of the Doha Round negotiations had concluded and then when that was over he would look at changing portfolios with Warren Truss. And I think Warren, who’s a quiet performer, but a very, very effective performer will do a very good job in Trade. Warren is a much under-rated by many people Minister, a very safe pair of hands, he’ll be on top of his brief and I think he’ll do a very hardworking, effective job for us on the trade scene.

MITCHELL:

It almost seems related with the AWB inquiry, quite some criticism of the AWB in being slack in providing information, what’s your view of that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think I better wait until the commissioner reports. I’ve read the papers and I’ve read the criticism that Mr Cole made of the company and the email, if correctly reported in the newspapers this morning, is certainly a very significant document.

MITCHELL:

Just to go back a little. Is Mr Ruddock right that under this native title decision, I know it’s being appealed, that beaches and parks could be at risk for white Australians?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well he normally is very careful in what he says and I’m myself expecting to read in Canberra when I go there shortly, an assessment from my own Department of the impact of this decision. And the concern people have is that the Federal Court decision by Mr Justice Wilcox is not consistent with the principles laid down by the High Court in the Yorta Yorta case and that seems to be the basis of the concern, not the reaffirmation of native title as such, but the way in which decisions are made about it, a continued connection with the land and the rights that might arise from that.

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MITCHELL:

Now you’re a very seasoned political watcher and if I can use you as a political commentator for a moment. Is there a chance Paul Keating’s making a comeback?

PRIME MINISTER:

That’s an interesting thought. To the Labor Party?

MITCHELL:

Well I didn’t think it would be with you.

PRIME MINISTER:

Ah, look, I don’t really think so. I think he’s just…

MITCHELL:

A lot of publicity…

PRIME MINISTER:

Yeh, yeh, he’s certainly having a lot to say but I suppose there’s still a lot of fight in him, he’s not very old.

MITCHELL:

Bad polls for Kim Beazley this morning.

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh yes, I don’t think the Labor Party would go back that far.

MITCHELL:

They wouldn’t go back to Keating?

PRIME MINISTER:

No. Not a hope.

MITCHELL:

The other thing, Mark Latham says Australian men are losing their character?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, I gave up listening to anything that Mark Latham said a long time ago and I wouldn’t read anything he wrote.

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MITCHELL:

Football, now we haven’t got a Melbourne team at home and you haven’t got a Sydney team in Sydney. Can’t you make this illegal?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no, I think it’s actually great for the two codes. I know that’s not a popular thing to say in Melbourne and it’s probably not a popular thing to say in parts of Sydney either, but if you look at the vision splendid of Australianising all codes of Australian…all codes of football, there’s only one that’s an Australian code, then I think you’ve…you’ve got to say hallelujah to what’s happened. But I can understand in particular Victorians wanting a hallelujah chorus to end soon so they’ve got a couple of local teams.

MITCHELL:

Who are you tipping here?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think Melbourne will win the rugby league and I still think, despite West Coast going in as favourites, I think Sydney will be hard to beat.

MITCHELL:

Thank you very much for your time.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you.

[ends]

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