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Election 2004: Opposition Leader questions economic credibility of Treasurer, Peter Costello; discusses costing of Medicare Gold; employment; economy; industrial relations; Tasmanian forests; and troops in Iraq.

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Friday 8 October 2004

Election 2004: Opposition Leader questions economic credibility of Treasurer, Peter Costello; discusses costing of Medicare Gold; employment; economy; industrial relations; Tasmanian forests; and troops in Iraq


TONY EASTLEY: Well this election is much more than about personality.  


In the past six weeks both parties have announced plans to spend billions of dollars on programs they think will attract v
oters. We'll hear from the Prime Minister shortly. He's vying for a fourth term, to become the second longest serving Prime Minister after Sir Robert Menzies. 


But first to Labor's leader Mark Latham, who wants to be Prime Minister after becoming Opposition leader just 10 months ago. 


Good morning Mr Latham. 


MARK LATHAM: G'day Tony. 


TONY EASTLEY: You said this election was all about trust, and you promised that the electorate would be able to trust Labor's policies. But how can people make an assessment on your policies when they're piled upon the electorate in the week or so before the polling day, and they will have trouble scrutinising those things, and the Treasury will have trouble scrutinising those policies, as your promised they would be scrutinised? 


MARK LATHAM: Well, the Treasury's had no trouble scrutinising the main financial policy that we've put out - the tax policy. You might recall that Mr Costello claimed there was a $700 million hole in that policy, and he staked, on this program, his whole economic credibility on that claim.  


Overnight, the Treasury has produced their assessment of the policy and said that it's $500 million in the black. So Mr Costello has egg all over his face. His economic credibility is in tatters. 


In normal circumstances, he'd resign because of this, but obviously we're hoping the Australian people vote him out tomorrow.  


Our sums add up. Peter Costello and Mr Howard's sums don't add up.  


This was another false claim - dishonest claim - by the Government during the campaign, and Mr Costello's own department, the Treasury, has exposed him as being incompetent. 


TONY EASTLEY: All right. Tax and family policy scrutinised.  


What about Medicare Gold, though? 


MARK LATHAM: It's been put in as part of the normal process, so these results are coming back, and tax and family overall, in fact, shows that the policy is $1.5 billion dollars in the black. So that's a very, very good result. Labor's policies are adding up - they're actually adding to the budget surplus. 


TONY EASTLEY: But the Treasury has not been able to add up one of your chief platforms - Medicare Gold. It's still to be properly scrutinised. It wasn't submitted in time to be assessed by Treasury. Why was that? 


MARK LATHAM: Well I don't think that's right, and Treasury has been looking at that policy and they're obviously releasing further material during the day.  


But Labor's off to a flying start in terms of economic credibility and Treasury assessment. $1.5 billion in the black, and the Treasurer has made a false claim - staked his whole economic credibility on that - he said that on this program earlier in the campaign, and his credibility has been shattered. 


TONY EASTLEY: If you'd put tax and family in earlier, maybe it would have… there would have been time for Treasury - taken the pressure of Treasury - to actually come up today and say Medicare Gold is a goer, because out in the electorate, it's still a problem with many people. They're saying that we like the idea of Medicare Gold for over 75 Australians, but where is the money coming from, and where are the beds and doctors coming from? 


MARK LATHAM: Well, we've got an extra thousand doctors, 1,800 nurses, in our workforce initiative, and where are the resources coming from? That's in the policy.  


And we've heard from the private hospital system, the Catholic system, that with no extra staffing, if they had the resources of Medicare Gold, they could do 6,500 extra admissions at just one hospital - the Mater in Brisbane. So it's a policy that's been verified by the practitioners. It was lodged in time for Treasury scrutiny, and there'll be a range of material on both sides of the fence that they produce later in the day. 


TONY EASTLEY: But the very people that you… or some of the people that you had to convince about Medicare Gold were the doctors. And the AMA doesn't seem convinced by your plan - it lacks detail. 


MARK LATHAM: Well, we've got leading health economists who've worked on the plan. It's part of Labor's long-standing commitment. People said, 'Oh, you couldn't do Medibank in the '70s … you couldn't do Medicare in the '80s.' The same people, including the AMA, are talking through their kick. They're saying that about Medicare Gold. But it's got the resources, and it's got additional support through our billion dollar public hospital plan, and our plan to lift bulk billing rates - taking the pressure of the hospital system and helping with waiting lists for all the Australian people, whereas Medicare Gold obviously gets the over 75s off the waiting lists altogether. 


TONY EASTLEY: But it takes me back to this issue of putting your policies in late to Treasury for assessment. Was it a plan by Labor to do that? 


MARK LATHAM: Well no. The main area of contention, of course, was Mr Costello's claim about our tax policy. This has been the central economic credibility issue in the campaign… 


TONY EASTLEY: But setting that one aside… 


MARK LATHAM: … so we decided… Well, I mean, how can you set it aside? It's the main claim the Government made against our policy. Mr Costello said a $700 million hole. It's actually $500 million in the black on tax, and a further billion dollars on family. Mr Costello, having staked his economic credibility on this is in bad shape today. 


So I mean, that's been the central economic credibility debate, and the conclusion the Australian people can draw the day before the poll is that Labor's sums add up and Mr Costello has got it wrong, wrong, wrong. 


TONY EASTLEY: Have all the family initiatives been costed? 


MARK LATHAM: My understanding is that our family policy has been assessed by Treasury, and overnight, on their website, they've listed the finding that we're a billion dollars in the black. 


TONY EASTLEY: A number of groups have said that there is a fundamental problem with Medicare Gold, and that is, the doctors and the beds. The beds you've explained. Where are you going to get the doctors from? 


MARK LATHAM: Well, we've got a workforce plan for an extra 1,000 doctors, but… and that's needed for the future… but the issue of starting up… 


TONY EASTLEY: That's to train doctors, is it? 


MARK LATHAM: Yeah, to train doctors.  


But the issue in starting up Medicare Gold is not about doctors, it's about getting resources into our hospitals - funding to re-open beds. And the shortage of nurses in specialty and intensive nursing care… the practice nurses are there to ensure that in the middle of 2006 we make a flying start with Medicare Gold. And I've explained, as has the head of the Catholic hospital system, that immediate gains can be made with no extra staffing using the extra capacity of private hospitals. Just one hospital in Brisbane could do an extra 6,500 admissions starting up today if they had the resources. 


TONY EASTLEY: And the surgeons are there to do the operations? 


MARK LATHAM: Yes, there's no doubt about that. That's not the workforce shortage that would impact on Medicare Gold. There's a nursing issue for intensive and specialist nurses, but the routine practice nurses are there to ensure that Medicare Gold can make a very good start - a flying start - in the middle of 2006. 


TONY EASTLEY: All right. Still on the matter of jobs. Employment figures out yesterday show the national unemployment figure is down to 5.6 per cent, and it's down to 5.1 per cent in New South Wales - the lowest figure in the State for 23 years. 


The economy is in good shape. Why should people vote for you - a relatively inexperienced manager of the economy? 


MARK LATHAM: Well one of the bad experiences we've had under the Howard Government is the 350,000 fellow citizens who are long term unemployed - Australians on the dole for more than 12 months. So too the 800,000 Australian children who'll go to sleep tonight in homes where their parents haven't got work, they haven't got the positive role model of employment in the home. So these are big issues… 


TONY EASTLEY: But those unemployed have been around for a long time. I'm asking you why should people think this economy doing so well, why they'd look to you? 


MARK LATHAM: Well that's cold comfort for them. That's cold comfort for them. It's a shocking thing - a national shame - that for a long time we've had 800,000 children who grow up in jobless families, without the role model, the demonstration effect of work in the home, and that just means you pass on long term unemployment and poverty from one generation to the next. That's not the Australian way. We can't rest as a nation until we ensure that all the children have got positive role models, and we haven't got 350,000 Australians long-term unemployed. 


So it's no time to… for Mr Howard to say, 'Oh here's my record, this is as good as it gets'. We've got to work really, really hard to solve critical economic problems, particularly in the unemployment area. 


TONY EASTLEY: Governments are often voted out, and they're often voted out if there is a problem with the economy. There is no problem, really, with the economy in general terms, even by your understanding, is there? 


MARK LATHAM: I think that's a big problem, when you've got so many of our fellow citizens long-term unemployed, when you've got so many young Australians growing up without positive role models of work in the home.  


And it's not a time for complacency. There's plenty of countries that have said, 'Oh look, it's time to clock off in terms of economic improvements', and Labor's been the only party talking about economic progress through investing in education, trade practices reform, help for small business, our incentive plan, tax incentive across the board, not just above $52,000 a year, and our participation initiative to bring an extra 72,000 people - these are among the people in the jobless homes - into the labour market to get jobs, and part of the Australian go-forward for the economy. 


TONY EASTLEY: Mr Howard says that people are worried about the economy, and of course they're worried about interest rates. 


MARK LATHAM: Well, Mr Howard has said… that's a personal view of his. He's got all his dishonest advertising, but he hasn't got one single professional economist in the country who supports his claim. All the experts say that no difference between Labor and Liberal on interest rates - and why would there be? Labor in fact in this campaign has a bigger budget surplus across the forward estimates of more than $3 billion. So we're putting the downward pressure on interest rates compared to Mr Howard's spending spree. 


TONY EASTLEY: All right. On the subject of Mr Howard. He also says your industrial relations policy will drive up wages, and the business lobby agrees with him on that one. Why, when the economy is doing well - and workers have enjoyed wage increases during the period of the Howard Government - why would you want to change the industrial policy in Australia? 


MARK LATHAM: Well, we don't believe in the dog eat dog individualised approach of the AWAs. They're less than three per cent of the Australian workforce. But their abolition, I think, is an act of fairness. We don't want a dog eat dog industrial environment, where Australians are set against each other.  


I believe in the flexibility that comes from enterprise bargaining, but also the fairness from a decent awards system. So we're not going to recentralise the industrial relations system - far from it. We'll have the flexibility of enterprise bargaining - but what that says, at enterprise level, is let's have people working together - a bit of cooperation - to build productivity and I see that as the Australian way. 


TONY EASTLEY: But there is the old Australian adage of - if it's not broke, why try and fix it - and people have enjoyed wage rises under the Howard Coalition Government.  


MARK LATHAM: Well, this move to a more flexible industrial relations system started under the last Labor Government. We believe in enterprise bargaining. There's an old Australian saying - let's work together. And you're going to get a better result cooperating in the workplace than the dog eat dog environment of individual contracts.  


TONY EASTLEY: Is business right when they say this industrial relations change is more to do with you looking after the unions than anything else? 


MARK LATHAM: No. No. I think you've seen through the course of this week the great controversy about Tasmanian forests, that if the unions have got it wrong, I'll say so, and I'll do things in the national interest. 


TONY EASTLEY: You don't need enemies when you've got friends like people in Tasmania… 


(Mark Latham laughing) 


MARK LATHAM: Well, I like to do what's right, and on tomorrow's voting there's a clear choice between our plan to save the Tasmanian forests, and Mr Howard's plan which will reduce them to tree stumps and wood chips. 


TONY EASTLEY: Earlier this year, you were very passionate about bringing the troops back from Iraq. But there's been barely a mention of this in the campaign. Why is that? 


MARK LATHAM: Oh, there'd be dozens of mentions… 


TONY EASTLEY: But it's not a headline issue. And it was before. 


MARK LATHAM: Well, our policy is very clear, and it's been strengthened, of course, by the reality that we've got to secure Australia's interests and safety in our part of the world, and Mr Howard's adventurism and mistakes in Iraq have meant that we've made Australia less safe in the war against terror.  


We've made ourselves a bigger target. And we've diverted resources to the other side of the world, where we should have been putting them into Asia, disrupting JI, dealing with this problem at source.  


So Mr Howard has committed the greatest sin of any Australian Prime Minister in making the nation less safe in this vital war against terror. 


TONY EASTLEY: But you've spoken about loyalty during this campaign, and doesn't the Prime Minister have a point when he says that, regardless of your point of view on the Iraq war, doesn't Australia have a responsibility now to see it through? 


MARK LATHAM: Well, Australia under a Labor government will see through the reconstruction of Iraq under the United Nations processes. We're committing resources for health services, customs services, helping with the UN protective force. We started this debate saying let's do things through the United Nations, and we'll finish it by helping with the reconstruction and stability of Iraq through that UN effort. So… but in terms of defence deployment, security, our intensive effort to secure the safety of the Australian people, all of that's on the home front under Labor, and in the Asian region. 


TONY EASTLEY: Just briefly, at the end of the day, why should Australians vote for someone like you for Prime Minister who's never been a minister in a government? 


MARK LATHAM: Well, because Labor's put forward a plan for the future. Because I'm 43 years of age in the prime of my life. I'm not cutting and running into retirement. I've been tested through the course of this year. People would have seen the televised debate. They would have seen the six weeks of scrutiny in the campaign. And I'm raring to go, to give the Australian people a better government - one that saves Medicare, that gives us fair funding in our schools, and takes the financial pressure of families. 


TONY EASTLEY: Mark Latham, thank you. 


MARK LATHAM: Okay, thanks Tony.  


TONY EASTLEY: Well, Mark Latham, Opposition leader. We'll all know tomorrow, or perhaps the next day.