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Prime Minister discusses fuel tax; GST; election; general practitioner retention grants; National Competition Policy; Brian Harradine; his twenty five years in Parliament.



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18 May 1999

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER

THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP

RADIO INTERVIEW - COUNTRY HOUR, ABC RADIO

JOURNALIST:

Well, thank you very much for joining us today on the Country Hour and it’s nice to see you in Longreach.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, it’s very good to be here.  It’s a great occasion.  It’s the 20 th anniversary of the formation of the National Farmers’ Federation and I thought it would be entirely appropriate to bring the Federal Cabinet to Longreach.  This is the first time, to my knowledge, that Federal Cabinet has ever met in Longreach.  We, since we’ve been in government, have made a habit of going around the country, of having regional Cabinet meetings, meeting on a regular basis outside of Canbera.  We have Cabinet meetings, obviously, from time to time in Sydney and Melbourne but we’ve made a real thing of going to other parts of the country.  And this is very much of a peace with that.  And I’m delighted to be back here.  I was here a couple of years ago speaking to a meeting on native title and that really began the process which ended up with a successful resolution of the native title issue.  So I’ve got a very positive recollection of my last visit to Longreach. 

JOURNALIST:

Well, that is interesting and, indeed, the visit is somewhat timely given the National Farmers’ Federation’s role in pushing tax reform.  How influential will the discussions you have with them today be in where you go from here?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh, very important.  The National Farmers’ Federation in the 20 years it’s existed has always, to its great credit, been in the forefront of supporting sensible economic policy.  The National Farmers’ Federation was one of the first major organisations in this country to support the deregulation of the financial system and the floating of the dollar and a more intelligent approach and a more worldly approach to financial matters.  The National Farmers’ Federation has been a strong advocate of the interests, the trading interests of agriculture abroad.  And they, of course, have been very strong supporters of tax reform.  And I welcome that and I thank the NFF for the consistent support that it’s given to tax reform.  And they’ve done that because tax reform is vital for farmers.  It really is because tax reform is all about reducing costs, the costs of doing business, the costs of exporting, the costs of fuel.  People tend to look at tax reform just in one narrow area and that!

is the imposition of a GST.  In reality there’s a lot more to that.  It’s an aggregate approach which results in the removal of a lot of business costs and their removal will make our farmers, in particular, more competitive on world markets.

JOURNALIST:

So will you look for their support for a compromise position today?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, the farmers, quite understandably, don’t want changes made to the package that will disadvantage them.  And I understand that and I sympathise with that and I’m with them on that.  We’re not going to reach some understanding that’s going to disadvantage Australian farmers.  They’re disadvantaged enough.  They carry the burden of corrupt world markets.  They are not heavily subsidised.  Many of them are not subsidised at all like American and Japanese and European farmers.  And they’re carrying a heavy enough load as it is and I’m certainly not going to reach any understanding or give any undertakings to anybody that is going to lead to them being disadvantaged under any tax package.

JOURNALIST:

You’d have to accept now, though, that a compromise position must be reached, unless you want to go to an election which I presume you don’t.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, what I’m doing at the moment is showing a willingness to talk to the Australian Democrats.  We’ve had an election on this issue and we won that election.  People seem to lose sight of that fact.  We disclosed every last detail to the Australian people.  We took the risk.  We won that election.  There is no justification on ordinary principles for there to be another election.  I don’t think the Australian public wants to have another vote on something they resolved in October of last year.  I certainly don’t.  I think the Australian public is a bit tired of the situation whereby you elect a government on a platform and then that government’s prevented from implementing that platform.  But look, I’m not going to do more than state the obvious and that is we’re going to have a discussion with the Australian Democrats.  We are a long way apart.  If they mean what they say then we’re a very long way apart.  But we’ll have a talk to them.  I think it’s very important that that discussion take place and we’ll see what happens out of that.

JOURNALIST:

You mentioned public support for the GST.  Polls in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age today, in fact, showing that opposition to it is up four points in a month.  That’s seventeen points since you released your tax package.  Surely that must concern you at a fairly critical time.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, that doesn’t overly concern me because, well, I don’t know quite how the question was phrased but even if were phrased in the most benign way imaginable, over the last few months there’s been a total concentration on the less positive sides of the package, on the GST aspect.  And inevitably there would have been an erosion of public support because the whole debate has been about compensation and the adequacy and very little focus on the fact that people get large personal tax cuts and fuel costs are reduced, export costs are reduced and the country’s made more competitive.  In a broader, fuller debate, as we had in the election last year, then the national interest benefits, the national benefit, the benefit for Australia, what’s in it for the whole country, what’s in it for individual taxpayers, that would assert itself a lot more and I’m quite certain public attitudes could well be different.

JOURNALIST:

But Prime Minister, in the same poll the ALP’s ahead for the first time since the election, again a concern at a critical time.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, that’s not been echoed in the other poll but, look, I think taking too much notice of polls only seven months after an election is a bit dumb.  I certainly don’t take much notice of polls when you’re only seven months after the last election.

JOURNALIST:

Not when a double dissolution’s looming, though.  It must be

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I haven’t indicated what we’re going to do.  But look, the things that matter are how people actually vote in elections and I’ve been in politics a very long time now and I’ve seen polls come and go.  I’ve seen people who rely on polls come and go too.  In the end, what really matters is the judgements you make of the attitudes of people after a campaign and your capacity to argue something in the national interest.  I mean, we need tax reform and you go into public life to do things that are right for the country.  You don’t go into public life to occupy a high office indefinitely irrespective of what you do with that responsibility.  And I’ve always seen public service about doing good things for the country and standing up for something that I believe in and arguing for it and fighting for it.  Many of the things that I’ve argued for in my life have come second in opinion polls all the time until they’re finally implemented and then I’ve lived to fight another battle.!

So, tax reform is really no different from that.

JOURNALIST:

Can you talk about the possibilities for compromise going first?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, not really, no.  There’s really no point.  I’m not signalling any willingness to compromise.  All I’m doing is signalling a willingness, along with the Treasurer, to talk to the leader of the Australian Democrats and to her spokesman about the issue.  People would be wrong to assume that I’m going into that meeting resolved to compromise.  I just want to find out exactly what the Democrats have got to say.

JOURNALIST:

Surely you don’t have any choice though.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, we’ll just see what comes out of the meeting.

JOURNALIST:

On the National Farmers’ Federation front, they’ve stated already unequivocally this week that they won’t budge on the diesel fuel package.  Can you guarantee that that package will stand as it is?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I’ve already said to you a few moments ago that I can assure the farmers of Australia that anything we do in the tax package will not disadvantage them compared to where they are now.

JOURNALIST:

So is that a guarantee that you won’t play with that package or you may tinker a bit?

PRIME MINISTER:

It’s a guarantee that the farmers will be, in any arrangements, be treated just as well as they are under the present package.

JOURNALIST:

And that may result in some changes to the package?

PRIME MINISTER:

No look, really, you can make a commentary as to what you think but I’m not going to answer any hypothetical questions about what are hypothetical changes.  People should understand that I’m not going to that meeting resolved to compromise.  I’m going to that meeting to find out exactly where the Democrats stand.

JOURNALIST:

What if the National Farmers’ Federation come out today, as I believe they will, and say that they’re prepared to move on the food issue within the GST.  Now, they’ve been one major group saying that shouldn’t be a point of compromise.  Would that give you some room to*?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I’ll be interested to hear anything they’ve got to but I’m not going to react to it either today, if it happens, or hypothetically now against the possibility that it might happen.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, can I ask you to answer some more general questions from rural Australia?  First up we go to the Northern Territory.

CALLER:

Steve Burns, the Northern Territory Manager for the Royal Flying Doctor Service based in Alice Springs.  In the budget, Prime Minister, $43.1 million has been set aside over the next four years for general practitioner retention grants.  The RFDS currently has 40 doctors working remote area Australia.  Should they not also qualify for these retention monies?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, that is a very good question.  I don’t off-hand know the answer to that.  Can I examine that and I’ll get the details of it from the station and I’ll come back to you?

JOURNALIST:

Certainly.

PRIME MINISTER:

I mean, could I say, your organisation just does an incredible job.  Off-hand I’m not aware of any other support that you may receive.  Let me investigate that.  I understand the point you’re making.

JOURNALIST:

Let’s move to South Australia.

CALLER:

Rob [inaudible] from Kingston southeast South Australia.  Mr Howard, I’d like to ask you why the Government is pushing the producers towards privatisation of all the bodies that we’ve got like the Wheat Board and the Wool Corporation and the like so we end up with a heap of private operators who are going to be bidding against themselves which will come to our disadvantage, I believe, especially with the number that will fold up and leave us with debts as has happened in this local industry?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I don’t have as gloomy a view as you apparently have about the consequences of privatisation.  When you say the Government is pushing you towards it there are a lot of growers and a lot of producers who support privatisation and I remember the debate that was conducted more than 10 years ago about the domestic monopoly in the wheat industry.  There was a lot of support amongst growers for ending that and for opening the thing up.  We do, of course, retain a single desk approach for export.  I’m not convinced, nor as I understand the view of many growers, are they convinced for that privatisation, in the long run, won’t be beneficial.

JOURNALIST:

And Mr Howard moving finally to the west.

CALLER:

Marie Dilly, dairy farmer from Coolup, Western Australia.  As I go around Farmers’ Federation meetings the one question I’m consistently asked is how is national competition policy going to benefit me and my business as a primary producer.  I find that a very difficult question to answer so, therefore, Mr Howard, could you please tell us how national competition policy is going to benefit not only the primary producers of this country but the communities with which they live?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, competition, generally, has already brought enormous benefits to farmers.  One of the reasons you have lower interest rates now is that there’s more competition.  Not as much as I would like and the major banks still have a long way to go to deliver more competition in the small business area but there has been a huge improvement in other areas.  We’ve had a review of national competition policy.  And I think that review is being released today or yesterday and we are inviting comments.  I know it’s a hot issue in the bush.  The aim of competition policy, of national competition policy is to reduce costs by achieving greater efficiencies.  Now, that’s the aim of it.  And if you can reduce costs through greater efficiencies then everybody benefits.  There’s not much doubt, using another generic example, there’s not much doubt that greater competition in the telecommunications area has produced a reduction in costs, not as much, once again, as people in the bush would like!

or people in the bush are entitled to have but it has produced significant advantages.  I would hope that the community will respond in a constructive way to this examination of national competition policy.  And we’ll look at the results of people’s responses to that inquiry.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, tax reform was the major election policy plank offered to the bush, along with the social bonus package that goes along with the further 16 per cent sale of Telstra.  Now, Brian Harradine’s definitely against one and still possibly against the other.  If neither of those things happen, where does it leave your bush policies, where does it leave country people?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, it doesn’t affect, in any way, the fact that we’ve delivered the lowest interest rates in 30 years and the lowest levels of inflation in a long time.  It doesn’t alter the benefits that have come to the bush through the Natural Heritage Trust which was funded out of the sale of 30 per cent of Telstra.  It doesn’t alter the fact that we’re putting money into GP attention.  It doesn’t alter the fact that we’re establishing regional health centres.  It doesn’t alter the fact that we’ve put over $500 million into the advancing agriculture scheme.  There are a large number of policies that are outside both taxation reform and the funding of particular initiatives out of the sale of another 16 per cent of Telstra.  But taxation reform, of course, is a very important thing not only for the bush but for the whole country.  The bush has also benefited from industrial relations reform and despite all the sound and fury against the Government and against Patricks at the time of the!

waterfront despite, the Australian waterfront has changed permanently as a result of the changes the Government supported last year.  And those changes will deliver long-term benefits to the bush as well.

JOURNALIST:

Do you still think you can get the tax package through today, these few days after Mr Harradine’s said no?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, you know as well as I do that his decision to vote against it has made things more difficult.  I never took for granted that he would support it, never.  If you examine carefully what I’ve said over past weeks you will notice that I’ve always said I was hopeful rather than over-confident.  I knew that he had reservations but I also knew that before the election he’d acknowledged that the Government was going to the public with full details of the policy and we had rather hoped that he would give a greater weight to the mandate received than the reservations he had.  Now, we’ll just see how things unfold.  Nothing has altered the fact that we need tax reform and we intend to continue to argue the case for it because, as I said a few moments ago, you go into public life to do positive things for the benefit of the country.  You don’t go into public life just to cling to office.  You go there to do proper things for the country.  And I’ve always seen it in those terms and t!

he longer I’ve stayed the more determined I am to try and achieve some positive outcomes.  Now, we do have the strongest economy in our region.  We’ve got the best set of economic figures for more than 30 years.  Now, that’s been the result of reforms that we undertook a few years ago.  People wrongly imagine that because we’re so strong now we don’t need tax reform.  That couldn’t be more wrong.  If we want to be strong in five years time we should go on reforming things like our taxation system.

JOURNALIST:

Twenty-five years to the day since your entry to Parliament.  What’s the personal cost to you if you don’t get this through when that’s been your major agenda?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, it’s not a question of personal cost to me.  It will be the cost to the country that matters.  Forget about the cost to me.  You see, politics is too trivialised and personalised in this country.  Everything is looked at through the prism of how will it affect him or her rather than the impact of good policy lost on the nation’s future.  And that’s what really matters.  I’ve achieved a lot in 25 years but the thing that really counts is how much more governments can do to make this a stronger, more competitive nation.  Now, everyone knows that we need tax reform.  Mr Beazley knows that because he supported it in the 80s.  My predecessor, Mr Keating, knows in his heart we need tax reform and so did his predecessor, Mr Hawke.  And we should really stop playing games with the country’s future.  And we are game playing at the moment.  We all know, as people that have been in public life for a long time, that reform in this area is long overdue.  I’ve known that for 20 years.!

Mr Beazley knows that.  He’s presumably an intelligent man.  He supported tax reform when he was a senior member in the Hawke Government.  He knows deep down that we can’t go on forever with our present tax system.  I think we should stop playing games with the country’s future because that is what is going on at the moment.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, thank you.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you.

[ends]

 

 

 

 

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