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Prime Minister discusses changes in Cabinet, and why Bankstown airport is a good option.

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ELEANOR HALL: To discuss the new ministerial line-up, the Prime Minister, John Howard, joins us now. He is speaking to Fiona Reynolds.


FIONA REYNOLDS: Good morning, Prime Minister.


JOHN HOWARD: Good morning, Fiona.


FIONA REYNOLDS: Tony Abbott is being portrayed this morning as the big winner. He has been elevated to the Cabinet post of Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business, but he does not have a lot of experience; he has only been in parliament for six years. What attracted you to him?


JOHN HOWARD: Well, he is highly intelligent. He knows how to implement a policy brief. He has got ideas. He is very articulate. And the opposition—it is quite plain from the reaction—obviously takes notice of him. I think all of those things are qualifications to be in the Cabinet.


FIONA REYNOLDS: But in the past two years he has been expelled from parliament; used terms like ‘work-shy’ and ‘job-snobs’; been in dispute with churches over welfare; inspired a Labor walk-out in the House of Representatives. Are you comfortable with his style?


JOHN HOWARD: I am very comfortable with his ability and his style. You don’t, of course, mention that he bedded down one of the most revolutionary and beneficial changes to labour market planning in the Western world. He has been a very effective advocate of the Work for the Dole scheme. He does lock horns with the Labor Party; that in my view is a plus. And as for the arguments he had with the churches—he hasn’t had arguments with all churches. And in any event, when it comes to public policy, every section of the Australian community has got to stand or fall on the quality of its arguments. And I think Tony Abbott will be a very effective Cabinet minister, but as with everybody, you have to wait and see how they go when they actually get in the job.


This is a very significant change to the ministry, it is a generational change, and I think it will be a very strong line-up going into the new year.


FIONA REYNOLDS: Do you think Mr Abbott will be able to turn the charm on with the Democrats? After all, he will be negotiating with them, particularly on the second wave of industrial relations reforms.


JOHN HOWARD: Well, I am not going to speculate about those sorts of things. I have appointed the man to the job. I have brought Amanda Vanstone back into the Cabinet. I think she has done a fantastic job, and she recovered from a set-back she received in 1997, and I admire people like that who fight back. Overall I think it is going to be a very strong team.


FIONA REYNOLDS: Do you think you were a little harsh on Amanda Vanstone? She is now taking on Family and Community Services, but you did dump her from a senior ministerial post in 1997. Were you a bit harsh then?


JOHN HOWARD: No, I don’t think the judgment I made then was wrong, and I don’t think the judgment I have made now is wrong. One of the responsibilities of the prime ministership in a Liberal government is that you have to make all the decisions about the personnel, unlike the Labor Party where the leader has the caucus thrusting whoever they want on him; he doesn’t have the authority to allocate the jobs. Now, you can’t please everybody when you allocate Cabinet portfolios. I think I have done the right thing.


Could I just correct the claim made about John Herron—he was not dumped; nobody has been dumped. John Herron was doing well in his portfolio. He would have been happy to go on. I think everybody who is in the government now would have been happy to go on but there does come a time when generational change is desirable, and he recognised that as did others.


FIONA REYNOLDS: But you could have said to him:  No, John, I want you to stay.


JOHN HOWARD: Well, you do need, in a government, generational change—and I don’t think there is anything inconsistent with somebody feeling they are able to continue in a job but also accepting, at the same time, because of relative age differences, the need for generational change. And I think you will see that that is very much the case in what you have been talking about.


FIONA REYNOLDS: His portfolio of Aboriginal Affairs is now being picked up by Philip Ruddock; he has already been pretty busy with immigration. Do you think he is going to have the time to dedicate to Aboriginal Affairs?


JOHN HOWARD: Yes I do, Fiona, because he already has the reconciliation brief as assisting me in that area. I will be giving him an additional parliamentary secretary. And I notice that Bob McMullan was criticising him for having too many jobs, but Bob McMullan himself has two jobs. Apart from being Shadow Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation, he is Manager of Opposition Business and he is Shadow Minister for the Arts. So I think it is a bit rich for him to be saying Philip’s got too much work.


Philip is very competent. He is always in charge of the detail. And with the arrangements I have made for a parliamentary secretary he will be able to handle the job with great ease. And importantly, for the first time in a quarter of a century, Aboriginal Affairs is in the Cabinet. Now, that is a very significant move.


FIONA REYNOLDS: By giving Aboriginal Affairs, perhaps a little more attention by putting it in Cabinet, does that mean that in the past it has not been given full consideration?


JOHN HOWARD: No, it does not mean that. It just means that we are giving it a particular consideration as we go into the centenary year.


FIONA REYNOLDS: The defence minister John Moore’s retirement from politics forces a by-election in his Brisbane seat of Ryan. Is that risky at all given that there has been a lot of Liberal jostling and allegations of branch stacking?


JOHN HOWARD: Well, there is always jostling for preselection for seats safely held on one side of politics. Fiona, nothing in politics is risk free; doing nothing is risky. I have never been a person to sit and do nothing. We will not take the by-election lightly. I am sure the party will choose a good candidate, and I will be campaigning very strongly. I never take the Australian electorate for granted.


FIONA REYNOLDS: Will you be keeping a close eye on the Liberals in Ryan, though, or are you fairly happy with what has been happening up there?


JOHN HOWARD: Well, organisational matters are generally attended to by the Federal President, Shane Stone, and the Director, Lynton Crosby. But as somebody who has been through the Liberal Party organisation I always keep a weather eye on everything that is happening in the party all around Australia, not just in Queensland.


FIONA REYNOLDS: Will that also be to make sure that attention isn’t diverted from Labor’s electoral rort problems in Queensland?


JOHN HOWARD: Well, I don’t normally utilise programs like this to sort of map out my political strategy.


FIONA REYNOLDS: Prime Minister, will you be pushing for a by-election in Ryan as early as possible?


JOHN HOWARD: Well, the question of when John actually retires is a matter for him. He will no doubt talk to me and the party organisation about it. He is a former party president in Queensland. He will be cognisant of the interest of the organisation as well as, of course....


FIONA REYNOLDS: But he says he won’t be back when parliament resumes next year.


JOHN HOWARD: Well, yes, but the exact announcement is a matter for him. That is the point I am making.


FIONA REYNOLDS: Do you have a job in mind at all for Jocelyn Newman, perhaps Governor-General or an overseas posting?


JOHN HOWARD: Well, I don’t encourage speculation about those things, whether they involve Jocelyn Newman or anybody else. You know that if I have announcements to make I make them, and until I have announcements to make I don’t encourage speculation, and I don’t encourage speculation in either of those areas.


FIONA REYNOLDS: She does have a lot of talents, though, doesn’t she? You’d want to use them in some way, wouldn’t you?


JOHN HOWARD: She has a lot of talent. John Herron has a lot of talent. John Moore has a lot of talent. I have no doubt that in different ways they will continue to serve the Australian people—all of them, the three of them.


FIONA REYNOLDS: Could they be in for an overseas posting?


JOHN HOWARD: I am not going to encourage speculation about anything, but I would not want anybody listening to this program to think that I didn’t have enormous regard for the talents of those people. They have contributed mightily to the government, but they all agree that notwithstanding that contribution there is always time in the life of a government when generational change is a good thing.


FIONA REYNOLDS: Prime Minister, one final question. This time last week you announced the decision on the Sydney airport. Since then we have seen virtually every aviation commentator say that Bankstown is not a very good option for the industry, that regional airlines will suffer under the new regime. Can you guarantee those regional airlines that in five years’ time they won’t be forced out of Kingsford-Smith?


JOHN HOWARD: Well, I can guarantee them what was outlined in the statement made by Mr Anderson—that is their current access will be maintained. There will obviously be, over time, growth in relation to Bankstown.


I think that the decision is the right decision. I think people have misunderstood a number of things, including the unpopularity of Badgerys Creek as an alternative airport. It might be popular with the aviation writers, but I can tell you it is not popular with passengers, it is not popular with the aviation industry, and I think it makes far more sense to develop an overflow capacity for Kingsford-Smith and Bankstown, over time, and all of these things will happen quite gradually because you haven’t reached capacity at Kingsford-Smith. Kingsford-Smith is now running more efficiently than it was five years ago, much more efficiently, and that is one of the reasons why the government reached the conclusion that it did. And people should also bear in mind that when Bankstown goes into private ownership there is the opportunity for the enhancement of transport links between Bankstown and other parts of Sydney, not only by road by also by rail. And people should see the decision, in relation to Bankstown, in the context of that broader approach to transport infrastructure.


FIONA REYNOLDS: Prime Minister, thank you for joining us this morning, and have a good Christmas.


JOHN HOWARD: A merry Christmas to you and to all of your listeners.


ELEANOR HALL: Prime Minister John Howard, talking to Fiona Reynolds.