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Opposition leader comments on budget expectations, media ownership, NATO and East Timor.

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PETER CAVE: During the last federal election, opposition leader, Kim Beazley, put forward a great plan for Australia based on education. Tomorrow, Mr Beazley will have to sit through a budget speech Prime Minister John Howard says will be an education budget, and with unemployment trending down, low inflation and high growth, the only real question for the Treasurer is just how big a surplus he wants to deliver. The opposition leader has now joined us in our Canberra studio and he’s speaking to our chief political correspondent, Matt Peacock.


MATT PEACOCK: Mr Beazley, from all appearances, everybody is going to be a winner in this budget. It would appear to be bringing home the bacon in a way that you lot never did.


KIM BEAZLEY: I don’t think so, Matt. Basically, what this budget is going to be about is the GST, and in that sense it’s not the real budget. The real budget we’ll find out when the Senate deals with the issue of the GST. And the other thing is it’s going to be an education fraud. They talked about a bit of indignity on my part having to sit through listening to the Prime Minister on that. The indignity is all his way. He’s basically playing catch-up, because what there’ll be in education, as far as this budget is concerned, is no build-back of the $2.3 billion that they’ve cut out. There’ll be a certain amount there for private schools that come from reclassification of the Catholic system and from a change in the way in which needs are assessed, but that will raise the question: where’s the $350 million for the public school system? They’ll be simply maintaining what is there already for research and in literacy and in languages and, basically, what this budget is about is a giant giveaway in tax bribes built off slashing of education, slashing of innovation in industry, give off to high-income earners with a bit there to try and balance the situation for middle Australia while they put in place the nemesis of decent family life in middle Australia, the GST.


MATT PEACOCK: But there’s certainly no billion dollar deficit; there’ll be a surplus. How much would there be in a surplus if you were to bring in this budget?


KIM BEAZLEY: There’d be a slightly higher surplus. As you’ll recollect, during the course of the last election campaign we did not run the giveaway show that the government had in order to ....


MATT PEACOCK: So you’re saying you’d bring in $5 billion or so, $6 billion?


KIM BEAZLEY: Let’s see what the surplus is. But the point was our taxation package was in balance; their’s invaded the surplus to $5 billion. We did not go that far in putting back the resources that we needed to put back to - back in education, in research and development, in industry and the rest of it - but we put in a darned sight more than this budget will for that. This budget is not about the future of Australia. It’s about a tax giveaway for high-income earners to try and bribe a bit of community support for the unsupportable - the goods and services tax. That’s the heart of the budget.


MATT PEACOCK: But how essential is the surplus and how high do you think it should be held to?


KIM BEAZLEY: There should be a budget in surplus - that’s what I’m saying - there should be. But the point is this: you asked me the question, what it would be if the Labor Party had won the last election, and what I’m telling you is it would have been a bigger surplus because we would not be invading the surplus to pay for a goods and services tax in the way in which they are.


MATT PEACOCK: Well, of course, the person that will be paid or the people who will be paid will be Senator Harradine and Senator Colston. They’ll be in the budget lockup. Do you think their role is legitimate in scrutinising the budget in this fashion?


KIM BEAZLEY: Well, it’s a little surprising that they’re there but I don’t have a particular problem with Senator Harradine being in the budget lockup. The point is that not being in the budget lockup, the point is what you do about it when it comes through after that, and you know it’s not the real budget. The real budget only comes when they find out what’s happened in relation to the GST. But in so far as it’s a GST dominated budget, then the central core feature of it is the tax giveaway to high-income earners, the inadequate compensation for middle Australia and the GST. The rest of it is frippery playing catch-up. Trying to catch up the fact that they have gutted education funding at the commonwealth level over the course of the last four years, and the symbol of that will be the fourth year of cuts to our higher education system which will be enshrined in this budget.


MATT PEACOCK: A couple of quick other matters: Fairfax has now joined the other two major media proprietors in saying: forget controls, forget ownership controls. Is that something, now, that you’ll endorse with all the media proprietors saying: we don’t want them?


KIM BEAZLEY: Those in political life have always got to have their principle gaze cast upon the public interest as opposed to what media proprietors may want, and the public interest resides in competition. Now, what ought to be the terms and conditions of competition is effectively there, under review, at the moment. If we’d come into office, we would have put them under review. But our view is: whatever the review produces, there must be a convincing case that there is diversity at the conclusion of it. And frankly, defending people’s own economic interest is one thing - and they’re entitled to argue for it; all of them are entitled to argue for it - but the job of government is to note everybody’s economic interest declared and get on with the public interest.


MATT PEACOCK: And a quick final question: the NATO war is still progressing with this smart bomb on the Chinese Embassy. Has it all gone too far, do you think?


KIM BEAZLEY: Well, I think that they’d want to be taking every advantage of an opportunity to negotiate the people back into Kosovo and an end to this conflict. Whatever the justifications of it - and they are considerable given the murderous nature of Slobodan Milosevic’s regime - it’s very difficult to see what ends are currently being achieved by the process, and there does seem to be some indication out of the United States that they’re getting down to serious taws on what a negotiated outcome might be.


MATT PEACOCK: A quick final question on Timor: is it a new Labor policy, no MP to go there unless Laurie Brereton gets there first?


KIM BEAZLEY: I think it’s very important that our spokesperson has an opportunity to visit Timor, frankly. I don’t want to play games with this. It’s a reasonable request. This is a request from an opposition party who has enjoyed very good relationships with the Indonesian administration over the years, and who has a policy which, if successful in being achieved, will do enormous good to Indonesia and its international standing. So I do think that it’s a reasonable thing for Laurie Brereton to visit.


MATT PEACOCK: Kim Beazley, thanks for joining us.


PETER CAVE: The leader of the federal opposition speaking to our chief political correspondent, Matt Peacock.