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Shadow Minister comments on the future of the public sector and the role of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet under a Coalition government

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Well, the predictions to date about a John Hewson victory on the Commonwealth public sector, the effect that will have, have been almost universally dire. Job losses of up to 5,000 claims by the local Minister for Industrial Relations, Wayne Berry, that ACT workers would be the worst affected of any one in the country. The extreme predictions, of course, range across the spectrum. But they say that because public servants don't eat their young, they'll be cut off at the knees. It's provided very fertile ground for the ALP campaign in the ACT. So what really will happen? Well, if the polls are right and John Hewson does win, John Howard, who is the Shadow Minister for Industrial Relations, is also the Shadow Minister responsible for the public service; so, he will be the boss for many thousands of public servants. John Howard is with me now.

Good morning. Can we go first to this current issue of what would happen in the senior levels in the service, and particularly to the Financial Review article, yesterday, suggesting that there will be a big private sector broom sweeping through Canberra.

JOHN HOWARD: Well, I'm not privy to any proposals of that kind. All I can say is that like any incoming government, there will be changes in the upper levels of the public service. We won't be seeking to throw out every existing departmental secretary; that would be stupid. But all incoming governments change some of the top personnel. There are some very good men and women working at the top levels of the public service, and speaking for myself, I don't bring any particular public or private sector prejudice to this sort of thing. I've met some outstanding public servants in my time, highly professional, very balanced. I've also met some who've compromised themselves politically, and there are certainly some examples in the current public service of people who've got far too close politically to the current government. But the idea that you solve all your problems by bringing somebody in who's got private sector expertise sometimes works, sometimes doesn't. It's just a question of looking at each situation on its merits.

But I, for my part, won't bring to the job, if I have it, the presumption that a private sector person is always better than a public sector person. It's a question of looking at individual merit. I mean, some private sector people over the last 10 years have been responsible for some disastrous economic decisions that have cost them and their shareholders hundreds of millions of dollars; equally, some public sector people, particularly at a political level, have cost the nation billions. So, I don't think any of us in this kind of debate should sort of bring a prejudice either way. It's a question of looking at individual merit, but we will be adopting an open approach.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: But can you confirm whether there will be such a thing as an asset sales task force, possibly headed up by private business people?

JOHN HOWARD: Look, the idea of having a special task force to handle the privatisation policies of the new Coalition government, I'd be absolutely surprised if there weren't such a body. Now, the question of who chairs it, I don't know. That would be a decision .. I guess it would be made by the Treasurer or the Minister of Finance.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Well, names such as Pioneer International's Rod Price have been bandied about.

JOHN HOWARD: Well, you can run a whole lot of names past me. I don't know. But the idea of having somebody like that - a private sector man or woman of real ability to preside over such a task force, there's nothing wrong with that. It sounds pretty sensible to me, providing you get the right person. I mean, there may not be the right person available. I say once again I don't automatically assume that because somebody comes out of the private sector, they're a genius, any more than I automatically take the attitude that a lot of Canberra public servants take that, you know, everybody who's outside the federal wall is some kind of free market philanderer who wants to destroy all that is good and holy.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: We'll move on to some of the broader issues in a moment, but can I just nail down one other statement in this Fin Review report, and that says that the Opposition plans to gut the powerful Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet of its main policy divisions, leaving it as a small core co-ordinating .. a small core co-ordination agency which will fast-track the key elements of Fightback. Now, I know they're very interested because I had a phone call from them yesterday asking whether we're going to do anything about it.



JOHN HOWARD: Look, once again, I don't know. I'm not privy to any such plans to do that. There's always a lot of speculation of this kind floating round.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Does it sound like a good idea, though?

JOHN HOWARD: What? I think at various times over the years under governments of both persuasions, I think one of the problems has been that the Prime Minister's Department has tended to sort of shadow every single department. And I certainly recall in the time of the Fraser Government from time to time there were problems because you seem to have the operative department doing the work and simultaneously, but often without knowledge, the Prime Minister's Department was doing the same work. I don't see any point in that. But on the other hand, I think the Prime Minister's Department obviously has responsibilities that no other department has for overseeing the general direction of the Government and ensuring that the broad strategic objectives of the Government are being met, and that governments are applying a mixture of economic and other broader considerations, and there's certainly a role for the Prime Minister's Department in that. But once again, every incoming government makes changes, every incoming government brings a new or different philosophy to government and undoubtedly there will be quite a number of big changes when the new government takes office.

But the point I want to stress is that they won't be changes based on some kind of zealous prejudice. They'll be based on our philosophy of what the role and size of government should be, but they're also a philosophy of merit. I'm a great believer that that's the principle that ought to apply in the public service that if people are doing a good job, they ought to be adequately rewarded and it's really the foundation of our approach to wage fixation in the public sector that in some areas of the public sector people of real merit have fallen behind others in the private sector, yet in other sections of the public service, it still is a bit of a pace setter for sections of the private sector. It's a question of bringing in the principle of merit as far as possible.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: What will the job loss be in Canberra?

JOHN HOWARD: Well, Matt, I think the reports I've read are exaggerated.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: That's why I'm asking you.

JOHN HOWARD: I don't believe that there are going to be significant job losses. I can't sort of guarantee that every single position that is now held by every single person is going to remain exactly the same. I can't do that, no. No honest participant in this election campaign on either side can do that.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: A thousand, 2,000, 3,000?

JOHN HOWARD: No, I don't underwrite any of those figures. What we are proposing to do is to obviously contract out and privatise functions. Now that in aggregate job terms ought not to make any difference, but the question of the location and the disposition and the level of jobs in particular parts of the service, clearly that is going to alter.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: But there's no guarantee that those jobs will stay in Canberra? I mean, if you farm them out to consultants or whatever, then it could just as easily be done in Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, Adelaide?

JOHN HOWARD: Yes, but that's .. I mean, in some cases that will happen, yes, clearly. I can't deny that. But equally, you've got to set off against that the continuing trend for organisations and bodies to shift their national headquarters to Canberra. Business lobby groups are still moving to Canberra and each new government seems to bring with it new opportunities for people - what I might call on the periphery of government - and you shouldn't just look at aggregate Canberra employment in terms of the aggregate number of people employed in the public service. I mean, only a few months ago there was a very large opening of the national headquarters of one of the major private business organisations in Australia, and that provides jobs and opportunity. So, you've got to look at the aggregate mix, not just the public servants.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: All right. Why did you feel it necessary to say that you would resign if an attempt was made to do a Kennett with your industrial relations legislation?

JOHN HOWARD: I just wanted to emphasise the point that the Bill to give effect to our industrial relations law will reflect the policy. I mean, I'm just saying to you and I'm saying through your program to the people of Canberra, that we will not be doing things harsher or differently from what's in the industrial relations policy when we get in. I think trust and reliability or reliance on what people say during election campaigns is very important. Now this is a sensitive issue. The Government is running around telling all sorts of lies about our industrial relations policy. I have given certain undertakings on behalf of the Coalition, and what I'm saying is that if after the election through circumstances that I don't believe will arise, but if by chance they were to arise, that some attempt were made to produce a piece of legislation that went further than what's in the policy, then I wouldn't be a part of it. I'm making that very plain. Now, I don't believe that will happen.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Well, do you agree, though .. I mean, I presume you watched Four Corners last night.

JOHN HOWARD: I did watch Four Corners.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: The sentiments expressed by Peter Boyle, head of the Small Business Association, that Australia, one of the mistakes we made, was taking fear out of the workplace and that fear was a great motivator. Now do you agree with that?

JOHN HOWARD: No, I don't. I thought that was a very regrettable and certainly a comment that I would not associate myself with.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Well, he's painted as somebody who has a big influence on your policy.

JOHN HOWARD: Well, let me answer the question. I know Peter Boyle very well. Peter Boyle supports our industrial relations approach but in a number of respects he wants to go much further than I do. I mean, he spoke on that same program of opposing minimum condition. Now, I have always supported minimum wages. You can't find in the long 10 years that I've advocated industrial relations reform, I have never once argued that you shouldn't have minimum conditions, and my colleagues will know over the last couple of years that I argued very strongly we had to have minimum conditions.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Are you the last of the Mohicans in the Liberal Party? I mean, are the Peter Boyles who say that they influence the preselection process going to....

JOHN HOWARD: Hang on, Matt. Matt, you're asking me a question, now let me answer. I mean, I know Peter Boyle well. He supports our policy, but Peter Boyle did not write our policy. I mean, of all the people over the last 10 years - and this is not a time for false modesty - that has driven the debate on industrial relations reform in Australia, has been myself. And this idea from time to time pops up that people out there who belong to other organisations have sort of written the policy and the politicians have been the mouthpiece for it, is absolute nonsense.

Now, I don't run away from my association with Peter Boyle. As head of ASBA, he's been a strong supporter of industrial relations deregulation, but that program last night, of course, was guilty of one terrible piece of bias. Peter Boyle was identified as a member of the Liberal Party, which he is; he's identified as a friend of mine, which he is; he was identified as an associate of Jeff Kennett, which he is; but Mark Ryan who spoke on behalf of the Journalists' Association was not identified by the ABC as having been Paul Keating's press secretary for two years while he was Treasurer. And I think in the interests of objectivity and balance, the ABC should have done that, and I thought the program was loaded, prejudiced and biased and that cold hard fact that you can identify Boyle as a Liberal, but the fact that Mark Ryan was a member of the Labor Party, was on the Labor Treasurer's staff for two years, was not so identified. I think that blows the credibility of the program out of the water.

But just let me finish on Peter Boyle. What he said about minimum conditions of course is not and never will be Liberal Party policy. And what he said about fear was a comment that I reject. I don't agree with that. I have argued all along that our policy is based on the concept of trust and co-operation. The only fear element in our policy is that I want to remove the fear that many people have of trade union bosses who coerced them into joining unions and to accepting conditions that they often don't regard as being in their best interests.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Mr Howard, do you ever reflect on the fact that Australians by not electing you as Prime Minister, when they had the opportunity, gave up an opportunity for a more moderate form of Liberal Government and have, therefore, given up the opportunity perhaps to avoid some of the social division that may arise if a Hewson government is elected?

JOHN HOWARD: I don't believe there'll be social division under John Hewson. I believe that the program that we have at the present time is the right blend of - how shall I put it? - radicalism with security. I mean, the past is the past and the Australians are interested in the moment, about the present and about the future in addressing John Hewson's policies. You look at .. I mean, he made significant changes to Fightback to meet concerns that people had expressed about fairness. The industrial relations policy contains very comprehensive safety nets. It contains an employee advocate to whom people can go for help if they believe they have been dudded by their boss under a workplace agreement, and it won't cost them anything. You know, this is hardly the approach of a steel-eyed, cold-hearted group of people. I mean, I'm not interested in an Australia which is built on division. I mean, the thing that I am most saddened about Australia of the 1990s is that we are no longer the egalitarian community we used to be. When I grew up in the '50s and early '60s, the thing that I took most pride in was the fact that we all seemed to be in the middle class. We're all in the middle, but now you have these big gaps. You've got 30 per cent of the population that earns .. has household incomes of more than $72,000 and you've got 30 per cent under $22,000; in other words, the middle is smaller than the two ends, and I think that's a great shame. That's not happened under a so-called radical Liberal government; most of that has happened - may I say so - a lot of it has happened over the last 10 years under a supposedly benign, classless, egalitarian Labor government.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Mr Howard, can I just come back to a purely Canberra issue, and that is the separation of the ACT public service from the federal public service. What sort of deal could the ACT Government expect under a Hewson Government?

JOHN HOWARD: Well, to be perfectly honest, it is not something I have turned my mind to. It's not something that we're bringing any particular prejudice or bias to it.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Okay. Fair enough. It's not a priority.

JOHN HOWARD: To be perfectly honest, it's not something .. I mean, it's something that we would just sit down with the ACT Government and try and discuss on a fair, reasonable and sensible balance. Obviously there would be financial considerations involved which would involve Ministers in the new government, other than myself if I happen to be a Minister.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Yes, it's just an issue here because ACT public servants in the local Assembly are covered by federal awards. Will you dismantle federal awards?

JOHN HOWARD: No, what we're going to do with federal awards is to adopt a really an organisation by organisation approach. I mean, let's take an example. I often use the Taxation Department. We will give to the Commissioner of Taxation the authority to negotiate with his employees whether he wants to continue the award, if they want to; or, alternatively, whether he wants to put some or all of them on workplace agreements, if that is their wish. We'll apply the same industrial relations. In fact, we won't be terminating all federal awards if both an employer and an employee in a particular agency want to remain covered by a federal award, well, they can. If they disagree, well, the employees will be entitled to maintain their existing - I stress existing award conditions. If alternatively to those two things they both agree to go into a workplace agreement, well those workplace agreements will be negotiated according to the minimum conditions which are laid down in our policy. So, there'll be the same elements of choice and the same levels of protection for, I guess, people who continue not only under the Commonwealth public service as such, but also under the ACT because the ACT public service people won't, as I understand it, have a separate industrial relations system. I would think that would be an unnecessarily expensive exercise.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Okay. Mr Howard, just coming back to Mark Ryan. I worked with Mark Ryan when he was a cadet at the Advertiser, and I didn't think it was the same Mark Ryan I saw on the television last night, unless he's put on a lot of weight. we have had a couple of callers saying that the one on Four Corners is the AJA's barrister, Mark Ryan, not the Mark Ryan who works for Mr Keating. But we will check that out.

JOHN HOWARD: Well, if that is the case, I am prepared to withdraw my criticism. It did seem to be an astonishing coincidence.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Okay. Mr Howard, thank you.

JOHN HOWARD: If that is the case, let me put on record that I'm wrong. If that were the case, I would be wrong and I'd be prepared to withdraw that part of my criticism.

MATTHEW ABRAHAM: All right. Mr Howard, I thank you for coming on the program anyway.