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Opposition Leader discusses his listening tour; party leadership; John Howard; petrol prices; merger with Nationals; hospital funding; infrastructure; and republic.



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LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION THE HON. DR BRENDAN NELSON MP

14 April 2008

TRANSCRIPT OF THE HON. DR BRENDAN NELSON MP INTERVIEW WITH DAVID ILIFFE ABC LOCAL RADIO QUEENSLAND

Subjects: listening tour; leadership; John Howard; petrol pricing; merger; hospital funding; infrastructure; republic.

EO&E………………………………………………………………………………......

DR NELSON:

Good afternoon David and good afternoon to all of your listeners.

ILIFFE:

Your listening tour to Australia at the moment… But it’s interesting to hear in the news today a member of your own frontbench, Andrew Robb, say today that Australia isn’t interested in listening to the Opposition at the moment. Is he right?

DR NELSON:

Well David, as you know we had an extended election campaign last year. In fact we had an election campaign that almost went for a year. Australians, in the end narrowly as it was, decided to change the government and whilst we’re disappointed - naturally - we respect that, but generally speaking what Andrew is saying is that Australians are basically over politics. They made a decision. They want the Government to get on with it. As I know, from listening apart from anything else, Australians are nonetheless quite concerned about what’s happening in the economy. And generally speaking it’s a case of us as the alternative government listening to what Australians want, what their aspirations, concerns and fears might be, and to make sure that I get

out and about around the country along with my senior people. So when he says that Australians are not listening, that’s what he means.

ILIFFE:

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But is that the sort of, you know, pessimistic view that you want being aired from your own front bench at the moment? Is that a concern?

DR NELSON:

Well look I don’t, David, I don’t think it’s pessimistic. I think it’s a self evident fact. As I’ve gone around the country I’ve found that people are very open, they’re very friendly, they’re happy to talk to me, say g’day, express a variety of views and concerns. But we’re going through a period where the Government has had an extended honeymoon, there’s been a lot of symbolism and the Government doing things that it said it would do that haven’t required any real decisions to be made. When we had to press them in relation to carers and seniors and the place of Japan in Australia’s diplomatic ties for example, then certainly Australians were getting quite, or were more than interested in what was going on then. But the Budget will be the time obviously when the Government will make the economic statement that will set the direction for the next year and that’s when I think Australians will become much more focused on what’s happening in the political environment.

ILIFFE:

I want to talk to you about the Budget and probably more importantly what the Opposition’s Budget reply is likely to contain. But before we get to that, the general consensus also within your party, particularly from what we’re reading across the weekend, seems to be that you have until after the Budget to turn around this poor standing in the polls at the moment, otherwise even your most staunch supporters will call for a change in leadership. Can I ask you, how damaging do you think that that sort of talk is at a time when you are asking the people of Australia to take you seriously as the alternative Prime Minister of this country?

DR NELSON:

Well David look I’m not going to comment on those sort of things that you read in the newspapers but I’d only say to you that I’m very determined to do the hard yards that are necessary here. I’m absolutely committed to doing this job and I will continue to do so and the most important thing is that we have the interests and welfare and wellbeing of everyday Australians foremost in our mind. And I can assure you that I’m very determined, I’m very focused on this and you will see with the passage of time how we go with that.

ILIFFE:

But you must be, I mean, you would need to comment surely when you consider that, you know, these are not just idle threats, these are… You can obviously only stay in this position while you have the numbers and, you know, the word on the street is that the numbers are shifting. You would have to concede that and acknowledge that this is something that needs attention?

DR NELSON:

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Well I certainly don’t concede that David and, as I say, I’m very determined. I’m working very hard. These are always, as when you’ve had a change of government, it is always very difficult for the new Opposition, the alternative government,

particularly after almost 12 years in government. But we will need to win back just about half of the seats that we lost at last year’s election and I’m very strongly of the view that if we listen to Australians, we recognise why there was a change - and it

was unprecedented for Mr Rudd to win government in a very strong economic environment, at least as it was then - and so too if we’re focused, if we work very hard to understand and develop policies that everyday Australians are inspired by and attracted to, then I believe we can do this. And, as I say, I’m not going to comment on stuff that turns up in the papers. All I’m going to comment on is what concerns people.

ILIFFE:

Without labouring the point though, the stuff that is in the papers obviously comes from insiders within the party. I mean it’s not made up by journalists; it’s real stuff isn’t it?

DR NELSON:

Well, as I said David, look I know you’re doing your job, you’re obviously very good at it, but I’m not going to comment specifically on the nonsense that turns up in the papers and the only thing in the papers that I’m interested in are the things that affect people in trying to juggle their small business overdraft, their home loans, their credit cards, filling up their car with petrol, buying groceries and trying to feed, clothe and house children. They’re the things I’m focused on.

ILIFFE:

Alright more on that in a moment. 1300 747 222 is the number to call if you have a question for Dr Brendan Nelson this afternoon. Give me a call. 1300 747 222. Audrey is on the line from Toowoomba. Audrey, good afternoon.

CALLER:

Good afternoon.

DR NELSON:

G’day Audrey.

CALLER:

Hello there.

ILIFFE:

Audrey, go ahead with your question.

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CALLER:

Okay. I would just like to ask you to stay loyal to John Howard’s policies and stay loyal to John Howard. I don’t think some of our members have treated him very well, and just remember just how many people did vote for John Howard and his policies, and I’d just also like to say that as far as Malcolm Turnbull’s concerned I think he should join the Labor Party because his policies are very similar, or sound to be. And go out into the western areas of our country and talk to the people out there and see how disillusioned they are with the present party.

DR NELSON:

Well look, thank you Audrey. Firstly, I’ll be seeing John Howard tonight. And I’ll just tell him what you have said about him, and I know a lot of people listening to this program feel the same way. I regard… It’s hard to, you know, compare one prime minister with those from earlier generations, but I believe history will regard John Howard as Australia’s greatest prime minister.

I do not intend to take the Liberal Party radically to the left or radically to the right. There are three principal reasons why there was a change of government. The longevity of the government - almost 12 years in the modern era - for a lot of Australians was such that they were looking to change. Secondly, I think we made a mistake in 2006 with WorkChoices in removing the no-disadvantage test. We moved in government to fix that last year but the union campaign, the dreadful turbo-charged campaign had caused so much damage by then. And then the third reason was the way in which we were approaching climate change, I think, back in 2006.

But I can assure you, Audrey, we are very, very proud of what was achieved. We are a more confident, prosperous country. And in fact Mr Rudd was so impressed with it as you know he embraced most of it, at least he pretended to.

ILIFFE:

Alright Audrey, I appreciate the call. Fourteen past four. 1300 747 222. David Iliffe with you. ABC local radio Queensland. My guest in our Brisbane studios is Opposition Leader, Dr Brendan Nelson. Dr Nelson, Audrey raises a good point I suppose and once again can we ask, is it - I’m not sure if damaging is the right word - but does it seem strange that perhaps immediately following the election with John Howard departing his position as leader of the party that, there was almost a back flip on issues that the Coalition seemed to be so strong on? I mean the apology to the Indigenous Australians, the changes to workplace, the issue, on even something a

little bit lighter, like the republic. Climate change. There just seemed to be a back flip on everything that the Coalition had been so staunch on.

DR NELSON:

Well, firstly, I should have said earlier David, please call me Brendan. In terms of, you know, if you like, back flip, after the 1961 election Sir Robert Menzies said, ‘we have heard the Australian people and we intend to be pragmatic, not dogmatic’. And in terms of the reasons for the change of government, Kyoto took on an evangelical

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zeal in many parts of Australia as symbolic, if you like, of one’s commitment to dealing with or addressing climate change.

We made the decision after the election, almost immediately in fact, that we should support the ratification of Kyoto and in fact Mr Rudd during the election campaign realised that John Howard had been right and what really counted was what happens from 2012.

In relation to WorkChoices we would be deaf to what a lot of Australians thought if we hadn’t accepted the fact that WorkChoices was a significant reason for there being a change of government. And so we said we will not oppose, and we didn’t oppose, Labor’s industrial relations changes. They actually picked up elements of WorkChoices by the way.

But I also say that we believe very strongly in unfair dismissal exemptions for small business and we also believe very strongly in individual agreements with a fair no-disadvantage test.

ILIFFE:

Well I was going to ask you about that because you are still talking about re-introducing individual workplace contracts, aren’t you?

DR NELSON:

Well I haven’t talked about reintroducing them. In fact what I’ve said is what I just said - individual statutory agreements with a fair no disadvantage test - which in fact is what the Labor Party has in its legislation. That will be one of the four pillars for workplace relations for us, along with freedom of association. You shouldn’t be forced to be in a union if you don’t want to be, but you should be free to be in a union if that’s what you want. Also, exemptions from unfair dismissal provisions for small business people who frequently have second mortgages on their houses to go and employ other people. And the other thing is the Australian Building and Construction Commission.

One of the other things was the apology to the separated children which is a very, very difficult issue for a lot of Australiana. And a lot of people listening to this, as you know David, would not agree that it was the right thing to say sorry to them. In the end my belief was that it was practically and morally the right thing to do. But as you know I was severely criticised for reminding Australians of what over 70 years those generations of Australians actually did to make this country what it is, and also I was severely criticised for describing the real state of Aboriginal Australia today after 35 years of welfare without responsibilities.

ILIFFE:

Alright. Seventeen past four. ABC local radio Queensland. Bill from Winton is on the line. Bill, good afternoon.

CALLER:

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Hello Brendan. How are you?

DR NELSON:

G’day Bill. I’m good thanks.

CALLER:

Brendan I think one of the main issues and I think next time when you have an election you might romp in if you addressed and got on to this fuel pricing thing. I think it’s the main cause of inflation and I know that we’ve got to import oil and maybe the oil’s running out and all that stuff. But what a lot of us can’t understand is, we export gas, we’ve got our own gas, and why is it we pay so much at the bowser yet it’s exported very, very cheaply overseas? And I know I could go on about the fuel and reckon we are getting a bit ripped off, but if we could convert most things to gas, but why is gas so expensive?

DR NELSON:

Well we have international agreements in terms of the pricing of gas and, as you know Bill, it’s still cheaper than petrol. One of the things we’re very concerned about is the Government is proposing for example to abolish the $2,000 support for LPG conversion, which is something we’re hammering hard. I mean it’s environmental madness to take that subsidy away, not to mention taking the rug out from under working families that are actually trying to avoid higher fuel bills with petrol. But you’re also right about fuel costs and the importance of it to Australians. I think, you know, whilst you can agree with the petrol price commissioner, we obviously will go along with that, but whether or not that will have any real impact on the price of petrol remains to be seen.

And the other train that’s coming down the track of course is that when Mr Rudd actually implements climate change policies they will increase the price of fuels, energy, and petrol in particular.

ILIFFE:

Alright. Nineteen past four. ABC local radio Queensland. David Iliffe with you. My guest, Brendan Nelson this afternoon. And your calls too - 1300 747 222. Brendan, you’ve spent more than two weeks tramping the country listening to the people and we’ve heard a lot about some of the people that you’ve met - the woman with only $30 to buy petrol, and other everyday examples of people doing it tough. Have you heard much that you didn’t already know? Have you heard much that has surprised you out there?

DR NELSON:

I think, well look, I haven’t heard anything that’s really surprised me, and it’s interesting David you remind me of the woman at Lowood, you know I was helping her put petrol in her car, who could afford only $30 worth and I saw another woman

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on the same day who put $5 worth in her car. And it’s interesting when I repeat that there are journalists in Canberra who criticised me for it…

ILIFFE:

I did read that on the weekend.

DR NELSON:

Yeah, you can’t win, but I think the things that have come through are there is a sense of concern bordering on fear amongst a lot of Australians about what is about to happen with our economy. And we seem to get different opinions being expressed day to day, week to week from economists, and also a sense that Mr Swan has the L-plates on in terms of managing the economy. There’s a bit of concern about that. And the struggles of petrol and groceries and trying to, as I said, feed, clothe and house children. But some of the things that have come through, particularly for your listeners, is a sense of isolationism. For people in regional and rural Australia the idea that many people in the cities whilst being sympathetic to people in rural and regional Australia perhaps there’s a sense that you’re distant from it. And that it’s very

important that those of us who do live in cities recognise the economic and cultural importance to this nation of what your listeners in particular have done to make this country what it is.

Water is a huge issue throughout the country and I’ve had the experience of the farmers in the western district of New South Wales - I was at Homebush last week - and listening to them just struggling to survive, literally, as many of you listeners are. As are the people on the Lower Lakes in South Australia, down there at Lake Albert. Three hundred cows that need a drink in the morning and no water.

The other key issue that comes through is infrastructure. Especially once you get out… I mean it’s an issue everywhere, but particularly in the regional communities where the money for roads and hospitals and water and sewerage and all of those things are not meeting the population growth.

And the other issue which is an endemic one is hospitals. And I just say to you David and your listeners that my very strong view is we have five year agreements for hospital funding between the federal and the state governments, and the Federal Government would normally sign them in July this year. They have, I think wisely, deferred that until the end of the year. I actually want them to roll those agreements over with increased money which is now available; performance benchmarks on those hospitals. But in the next five year agreement the money for the non-city hospitals should be quarantined. What is happening in the communities that are listening to this program is that the clipboard carriers are turning up from the capital cities and telling the doctors and the nursing staff what they will or won’t do and sucking the money

back into the larger city hospitals. And I think it’s very important that we actually quarantine an increased sum of money for those regionally based and rural hospitals. And also, as you probably know, we believe in putting some community boards back into those non-metropolitan hospitals.

ILIFFE:

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I think the Rural Doctors Association is one group that would certainly back you on that, that’s for sure.

DR NELSON:

Oh it’s plain common sense.

ILIFFE:

Twenty-three past four. ABC local radio Queensland. Taking calls this afternoon. Brendan Nelson is in our Brisbane studios, talking to you as part of his listening tour. Back in Queensland after a couple of weeks down south. 1300 747 222. Dave from Chinchilla. Dave, good afternoon.

CALLER:

G’day I just wanted to ask Dr nelson will he support in Queensland here the Liberals and Nationals coming together and support one party with Lawrence Springborg and the Liberals, and will he play a leadership role in trying to make that happen because I think in Queensland we don’t [inaudible] tend to have party at the moment and no alternative government.

DR NELSON:

Yeah, G’day Dave. Thanks for a nice easy question. Look I do, and I’ve said it publicly, I do support the idea of a merger between the Liberal and National parties and at a federal level we are actually looking at this very, very closely at the moment. Our Queensland Liberals decided to refer the matter to us and all I can say to you is that we’re putting quite a bit of work into this and it’s very, very important for a strong democracy and for good government, as you know, to have a very effective alternative government.

CALLER:

[inaudible] it seems to be going backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, and no one seems to be stepping up and saying, yep, let’s, you know, go down this track and let’s provide Queensland with an alternative government.

DR NELSON:

Well look David I can appreciate and I can feel your frustration on this one, and I am very sympathetic to the idea of merging the two parties. But it’s like mergers of anything - it sounds easier than it actually is and I just want you to know that we are working on this. I won’t say any more than that at the moment.

ILIFFE:

Alright. Dave from Chinchilla, thank you for that. Twenty-five past four. Fergus is in Hervey Bay. Fergus, good afternoon.

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CALLER:

Good afternoon Brendan.

DR NELSON:

G’day Fergus.

CALLER:

Mate, just wanted to basically, I know this is going to sound a bit silly but wish you the best of luck, basically for the... I think you’ve got the toughest job in politics to rebuild the party after a fair drubbing in the last federal election, and again just going back to what the last caller said, trying to you know, unite a coalition under a conservative banner. I’ve certainly been a conservative voter for the last you know, five or six elections and while it was fantastic to have you guys in power for so long and such a fantastic job you did with the economy, you know all I wanted to do was just say good luck for you know getting you guys ready for the next federal election and you know I’m sure you’ll do a fantastic job but you’ve got the toughest job in politics without doubt.

DR NELSON:

Thanks very much Fergus. Yeah. Well I used to be president of the Australian Medical Association. I’ve got to say I found that harder on many days. But look it’s an honour to do the job. It’s a real honour and whilst we’re not in government, I can assure you that I’m working very hard to make sure that in less than three years that we are ready to go and Australians see it that way, and to keep the government up to the plate in the meantime.

ILIFFE:

Alright. Twenty-six past four. 1300 747 222. Kelvin is in Mackay, Kelvin good afternoon to you.

CALLER:

Good afternoon.

DR NELSON:

G’day Kelvin.

CALLER:

Yeah Brendan I just wanted to ask with your government having been in power for the last 11 years and the country’s probably had some of the worst infrastructure shortages that we’ve ever had. Our hospitals are run down, are doctors numbers are down which you brought into place of lowering the doctors numbers. And I just find it

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hard to believe, and you didn’t spend money which… You just ran economy alright `cause you didn’t spent money so I just find it hard to believe that you’ve got answers now when you were there for 11 years.

DR NELSON:

Well Kelvin, look I just say to you by way of summary we went from the government of Australia having nearly $100 billion in debt to now having $60 billion saved for the future. We had interest rates at a rate lower than every level under the previous government. Inflation averaged 2.5 per cent. We’re in an environment where almost everybody in Australia that wants a job can actually get a job.

In terms of infrastructure the Federal Government is primarily responsible for airport infrastructure. That’s it. Most of the infrastructure is in the domain of the states and territories. Now I’m not saying that by way of apologia because I actually think that

we actually need major reform of our federation and which government is responsible for what and get the money out on the table.

And as far as the hospitals are concerned you’re right that the demand for hospital services and what people expect and need from our hospitals has increased. The Federal Government increased in the last agreement by $10 billion the money available for our public hospitals. But I agree with you that it actually needs significant more investment from both our federal and our state governments, but I also think the way in which our hospitals are actually run is a big part of the problem.

I’ve had a bit to do with hospitals over the years, and you generally know when you get into administration because you get carpet and air conditioning. And we seem to have had a growth in the administration of our hospitals but not quite so much growth in the number of beds within them. And one of the things that I think we’ve really got to bite the bullet on as a nation is we have an army of public servants in the health department in Canberra. Very few, if any, lay a finger on a patient. We have duplication at the state and territory level, and one of the five challenges which I’ve set out for our country into which we’re building policy is to actually have a look - in this the 21st Century - which government is responsible for what and to, as I say, put the money on the table in terms of how it’s collected and then how it’s distributed. And we’ll be releasing an options paper for Australians to look at for constitutional change within the next six months or so.

ILIFFE:

Alright. Brendan Nelson is my guest this afternoon. Twenty-nine past four. Brendan, I know you haven’t got too much longer to talk. Can I ask though how can people find out where you’re heading for the rest of this listening tour, where are you going in your remaining time in Queensland?

DR NELSON:

Well look I think the best thing to do would be to contact my office, but I’m in Brisbane tomorrow. On Wednesday I’m back in new South Wales and similarly on Thursday.

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ILIFFE:

Are you returning to spend more time in regional Queensland?

DR NELSON:

I will be returning to spend more time in regional Queensland but not on this particular listening tour. I have by the way since being leader been to Charleville, Emerald, Mackay, Cairns. I’ve been up to the Cape, to the Cape York Aboriginal communities. I’ve also been in Brisbane, obviously; to Lowood, Clarendon, Gold Coast, Southport and I can assure you I’ll get to wherever you are as soon as I possibly can.

Dave one of the things you said earlier by the way in terms of changing since we lost the election, you mentioned I think that we’ve supported a republic. Can I just say to you we’re Liberals. I’m a constitutional monarchist. I think the current arrangements work well. Quentin Bryce’s appointment just confirms that in my view. But probably half of the Liberals are republicans. We don’t have a party position on it.

ILIFFE:

Alright, that might surprise people given it’s another issue that it seemed that under John Howard it was very much a party issue. Perhaps now we’re forgiven for being mistaken and realising that it was actually a John Howard issue.

DR NELSON:

Yeah well John is a staunch constitutional monarchist, there’s no secret of that. I too, by the way, I’ve always supported a constitutional monarchy. I’m not a royalist, as such. I have great admiration for the Queen but I think our current arrangements serve

us very well and I think it would be difficult to actually shift the powers that are vested in our head of state to a person elected, whether popularly or by a parliament, without changing the balance of power between our elected political leaders and our head of state. But I realise I’ve probably just divided your audience, you know, half are enthusiastic republicans and half aren’t. But at some time in the future our country’s going to consider this issue again, but at the moment, David, on this listening tour, over the last 20 years I’ve spent in public life, I’ve yet to meet a person that’s said to me, ‘Brendan, my life is going to be so much better when we’re a republic’. I haven’t met one yet.

ILIFFE:

I think there are bigger issues, or bigger fish to fry shall we say. Dr Brendan Nelson I appreciate your time this afternoon, thank you so much.

DR NELSON:

Thank you so much, David.

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[ends]

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