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Opposition Leader discusses Iraq; paid maternity leave; reading to children; baby care payment; US alliance; and veterans' pension.

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Subjects: Iraq; Paid Maternity Leave; Reading to Children; Baby Care Payment; US Alliance; Veteran’s Pension

BARTLETT: We have with us the Federal Leader of the Opposition, Mark Latham. Good morning.

LATHAM: Good morning, Liam. Good to be here.

BARTLETT: It is good to see you here in Perth.

LATHAM: It is lovely to be here - with a bit of rain as well, it is very welcome.

BARTLETT: Yes, very nice. You brought that over from Canberra, no doubt.

LATHAM: I think when I was here in the middle of last year there was plenty of rain as well. I am getting in the habit.

BARTLETT: You will develop a reputation, if you are not careful!

LATHAM: You can’t get too carried away.

BARTLETT: Good Easter?

LATHAM: Yes, we did some work on Saturday out at the Kenwick community festival, which was great. I am looking forward to the week ahead that will eventually take me to the north of the State to look at some development projects for the Premier up at Port Hedland and Karratha. So we have a very busy week in Western Australia.

BARTLETT: Reading some of the papers over Easter, I saw a claim -- amongst a whole stack of other stories written about you and the Prime Minister -- from Tony Abbott that some members of your own party refer to you as the human hand grenade. Is that right?

LATHAM: Well, Tony Abbott would say that. I do not want to get into what people on his side say about him but I have never heard that before. But Tony Abbott is in the habit of making up stuff for political advantage. That is his style.

BARTLETT: Human nature, isn’t it? I mean, there would be colleagues in your own party waiting for you to go off?

LATHAM: Well, it is human nature for Tony Abbott to have a go at the Labor leader. He did that to Kim Beazley and Simon Crean. I mean, he is sort of John Howard’s head kicker, if you like. So that is nothing new. I don’t take it very seriously.

BARTLETT: Talking about the weekend papers, there are also claims in there that the Liberals, in the forthcoming election campaign, will target you as being too young, too inexperienced, too risky a choice in these times of terrorist trouble.

LATHAM: Well, I think people have to judge policy outcomes and the policy failure of course was the Government that took us into Iraq for the wrong purpose. They said there were weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist. Now Mr Howard has got into this mess in Iraq and he does not know how to get us out. That does not seem to reflect a good deal of experience. I think the Prime Minister has lost his judgment when it comes to Iraq.

BARTLETT: Isn’t that a bit of an Achilles Heel for you though?

LATHAM: Well, no, I think you have to judge people on their policies. Obviously education and health policies are important; the national security strategy is important. Labor has outlined our comprehensive strategy in that regard.

BARTLETT: But no-one can judge you on your experience.

LATHAM: I am in my 40s and a lot of people would say that in your 40s you are in the prime of your life - when you are most productive in getting things done. I don’t comment on the Prime Minister’s age and I don’t know why the Liberal Party want to make an issue of my age. I mean, there is a flipside to that argument and in the end the public will make up their own mind.

BARTLETT: When you say you don’t comment on his age - you are happy to say he is past it. You have often said in Parliament that he has run out of ideas. He is on the downward side of the hill.

LATHAM: Well, you put to me, Liam, the proposition that the Liberal Party want to talk about my age and I am saying we don’t talk about the Prime Minister’s age but we do make the point that the Government has grown stale after 8 years in office. They do not have solutions to saving bulk-billing or improving the education system. The Prime Minister has run out of puff out of all that time in politics. So if people are looking for new ideas and policies to take the country forward that is the important thing - it is not

my age of myself or the Prime Minister; it is the age of our ideas that matters. Labor has got a good fresh approach, particularly in health and education and getting things done for the country’s benefit.

BARTLETT: Is this what we will see, though, in the election campaign?

LATHAM: I am sure you will see personal attacks by the Liberal Party on me. We saw that in Parliament just recently and they have got their favourite journalist writing these stories up in the newspapers so that is not surprising. They did it to Kim Beazley; they

did it to Simon Crean; that is their style.

BARTLETT: But to be fair; you are not shrinking violet and we seen more of a man to man contest in the past few weeks.

LATHAM: Yes, in the Parliament there was a head to head contest and that can be good in the circumstances. I stood up for myself against the attacks that the Prime Minister was trying to put on me but it is most important to stick to the policy fundamentals. If the Liberal Party wants to play the man, I can assure you that Labor will be playing the policy debate and trying to put forward constructive ideas and try to be as positive as possible.

BARTLETT: Before this latest trouble flared up in Iraq - we have just been hearing on the news this morning the hostage taking and all of that sort of thing - you said you wanted the troops home by Christmas and that was a huge debate. Have you changed

your mind? Do you want them home sooner, given how the situation is going?

LATHAM: No, our commitment stands and I think our commitment is more important than ever. What we have seen in the last couple of weeks with the military occupation of Iraq has become more the problem than the solution. It is a bit like the Vietnam scenario where you have got nationalistic and ethnic tensions. You have got a military occupation that has become the issue in itself, and as in Vietnam you have got a Government with no exit strategy. The Prime Minister is saying you are going to stay there forever, basically. We are going to stay there for the management of these nationalistic and ethnic tensions. Well, that is not the job Australia should be doing. We need an exit strategy.

BARTLETT: He says the troops are going to stay there until their work is done.

LATHAM: Well, he won’t tell us what the work is. Originally the work was to find weapons of mass destruction. Then we find out they didn’t exist. Then the work was to get rid of Saddam and liberate the Shiites - now the Shiite’s are in part with the uprising against the military occupation. So that was not the work. So now if the work is for Australia to be there indefinitely managing the ethnic and nationalistic tensions, well, that is best done by the Iraqi people. We need an exit strategy that sensibly says that Iraq has got to be returned to the Iraqi People and that the military occupation is not sustainable for the long term, so that is the nature of Labor’s policy.

BARTLETT: So you are quite comfortable with that Vietnam analogy?

LATHAM: Yes, I think it is an apt analogy where the military occupation some people might say it was well-intentioned in the first place but they are proven wrong. The Prime Minister should own up to that mistake. He got us into the mess in Iraq and he does not know how to get us out. So we do need an exit strategy and let us be honest about it. The

Government had an exit strategy out of Afghanistan at the end of 2002, and it would be appropriate to have one now. Labor has got one. We need to know where the Prime Minister stands.

BARTLETT: You are not just playing populous politics there; are you?

LATHAM: No, no. Labor’s position has been principled from the beginning. We didn’t want the troops there in the first place.

BARTLETT: (inaudible) roll off the Vietnam example, isn’t it?

LATHAM: Well, it was also apparently easy for the Government to make the mistake of going to war in the first place. Labor opposed that war, and has taken the principled stance of saying, ‘We wouldn’t have the troops there in the first place.’ And now that the military occupation has become the issue we have got an exit strategy. We believe it is feasible to have them out by Christmas. You have got to have a point where Iraq is returned to the Iraqi people. You have the management of the country; you have got to have a reduction in the violence. You have all of these tensions, and the horrible scenes we have seen over the past fortnight - they have got to end. As long as there is a long-term military occupation it is hard to see how it will end.

BARTLETT: Making these historical comparisons, you have made comments previously about the importance of educating our kids - reading to them and so forth. With Anzac Day coming up there is obviously a greater emphasis with passing on the Anzac message

to our children, and I am sure you would agree that is a good thing. How do you think the education system should portray the Iraqi conflict?

LATHAM: Well, that will be for historians to write it up in the future. I know a lot of young people are interested in it. I was out at a university last week and students wanted to talk about increases in HECs and other problems but also the need to have an exit strategy out of Iraq. So young people will make up their own minds but history will record, in my belief, a war that was conducted for the wrong purpose. They said there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; it was part of the war against terror. Well, in the end it wasn’t. There were no weapons of mass destruction. Then they said the real reason we are here is to get rid of Saddam and liberate the Shiites. Then history will record that the Shiites are part of the nationalistic uprising against the military occupation. So I don’t think history will look at this favourably.

BARTLETT: What would you tell your kids today if they were watching TV and the news came up with some of those images that have come up? What should we tell our kids about Iraq?

LATHAM: Well, I will be telling my children that mistakes were made. This was a war that was not conducted for the right purpose and then they didn’t have an exit strategy. They got into this mess and didn’t know how to get out of it. So I think the parallel to Vietnam is justified. Malcolm Fraser and John Hewson, former Liberal Party leaders

have said exactly the same thing. Importantly, of course, is not just the history but learning from history. Vietnam does tell us that an exit strategy is important - you can’t stay there forever hope against hope. You need to have a way of returning the country to the people themselves and a way of reducing the violence and ensuring that military occupation is not an issue for the future.

BARTLETT: Hello, Jeff.

JEFF: Hello, Mark. Look, I have got an opportunity here for you that hopefully you can work towards fixing. It is in regards to Telstra. As you know Telstra is 51 per cent Government owned, and 6 months ago, roughly, Ziggy Zwitkowski, the CEO drew a line

in the sand and said we are not going to lose any more business etc etc, which is fair enough. But what he and his sales people are doing they are actually giving away taxpayer dollars to incent customers to either sign on with them again or to re-sign existing contracts or to bring their business over from a competitor. So they are giving away money - whether it is in a form of a credit on the account or a check or whatever I don’t know, I think it is a credit. But what is happening here, Mark, is that the big end of town, the big businesses, are getting these credits, these dollars, these bags of money, if you want to call it that. That is at the expense of all of us - the small businesses, the mums and dads who pay for Telstra in the first place and who pay higher phone bills every month - because some customers are getting money. Quite frankly, I don’t think it is right. I don’t know whether the Commonwealth Auditor is aware of this or whether he has got any jurisdiction over Telstra, but I don’t believe it is sustainable practice either, to give away money just to get business. How appropriate is that for a Government-owned body. I think it should be stopped and I would like to ask if you or Lindsay Tanner, your shadow minister for communication, could follow up and get some action on this. They are not generally putting it in writing so it is very difficult to prove.

LATHAM: We are happy to follow up and use the different forums of the Parliament to investigate that matter. Your general point is spot on - that Telstra needs to get back to its core activity and that is providing good telecommunications for the mums and dads of Australian families. So Labor strategy is to keep it in public ownership and if you like get it back to the core business of what Telstra should be doing and that is good telephony and other telecommunications services. They have gone off on a few tangents, as we have been reading about in recent times. And if what you have raised is one of them it certainly fits with Labor’s strategy of getting back to their core business and keeping them in majority public ownership.

BARTLETT: Well, we will get Jeff to stay on the line and we will get his information to pass on to you.

KERRY: Good morning, Liam and Mark. Hope you had a good Easter and enjoy your stay in the west. My issue this morning is about public education and the division between that and private. I am a teacher and I believe more resources - that is, teachers -

should be brought into the state system. I know it is a state issue but the children in state schools in this state do not have a friend in Alan Carpenter. He does not value the system

or teachers. I believe that male teachers need to be attracted back to the profession. Every year, around about October/November, state primary schools have to sit down and work out to decimal points and fractions etc how they are going to divide their educational staff across all the areas, but especially in the specialist areas of the arts, music and physical education. Brendan Nelson is continuing David Kemp’s federal agenda of the rich-poor system. I think, because we are highly taxed over here, we should have a better system. Every now and then Alan Carpenter will open a model school at the cost of a couple of million dollars and get his face in the media. I was wondering, when you and your party get into Government, will you address the issue of inappropriate funding toward public education?

LATHAM: Absolutely. Our commitment is to help needy schools, both Government and non-Government. In the Government sector more work needs to be done in improving funding. If schools are struggling I will not be sitting on the sidelines like Mr Howard just taking a pot shot at the Government schools. You need to get stuck in and solve the

problems. Labor’s strategy is to ensure that the best teachers are in the struggling schools - they have got incentives and professional development support to get the job done. I also agree with that point that we need thousands of extra men in the school system

providing the role models and the mentors for boys - if boys grow up without men in their lives they can end up on the wrong track and in all sorts of strife so rejuvenating the enthusiasm that men have for teaching is very important. In regard to the schools debate, I don’t see it as Government versus non-Government; I see it as needy schools versus over-funded schools. In fact, for the non-Government sector we will be maintaining their level of funding but changing the pattern of distribution. We will be taking money off the over-funded schools like the Kings School and Trinity Grammar and getting it down to the parish schools and the independent Christian schools that need more resources. So for us the issue is all about fairness and getting more resources and support into Government and non-Government schools on the basis of need.

BARTLETT: I think it is about 12 schools that will lose money under your formula?

LATHAM: No, we have not specified that. We have mentioned a few schools on the east coast - the obvious over-funded schools. But we will have the detail of our policy but I will provide this guarantee that we will be keeping the overall funding for non-Government schools we will just be changing the pattern of distribution and getting more of the funding down to the needy parish and the independent Christian schools.

BARTLETT: When will you release precise details of that?

LATHAM: We will have that well before the election campaign and our schools package will be all about need. I do not want to struggle between Government and non-Government schools the real issue is about need and getting the money where it is most required.

BARTLETT: Hello, Lyn

LYN: Good morning, Mr Latham. I thought it was quite interesting your opening discussion with Liam about Tony Abbott and his attacks on others and playing the man. If I recall, on two occasions, 15 October and 14 November 2002 you abused Parliamentary privilege to denigrate lawyer columnist Janet Albrechtsen with malicious unfounded accusations including calling her an ugly war, a fraud and a plagiarist. Are you going to publically apologise to Janet?

LATHAM: I think that was the controversy at the time and I think the point about plagiarism was well proven in the public debate, but I was responding to Liam’s comments about the forthcoming election campaign and I gave a commitment in my first day as Opposition Leader to be positive. I don’t believe in opposition for opposition’s sake and in this role I certainly want to be raising policy issues and that is what I certainly

intend to do for the future.

LYN: Well, would you go back and apologise to Janet then?

LATHAM: No, I am looking to the future. I am looking forward to an election campaign about policies. I am looking forward to an election campaign about policies rather than Tony Abbott’s personal attacks. I gave that commitment on Day 1, as Opposition Leader and I am sticking to it.

BARTLETT: Hello, Carol

CAROL: HI Liam and Mark. I have to congratulate you for creating debate in Australia on politics. It has been a long time since people are actually talking about issues. The thing I want to bring up for you is that Howard in my opinion is looking at the wrong end of the stick and here he is wanting people to be working longer and he is not really looking at creating a population. I think three things come to my view from my daughter who is thinking about having a baby. One is the high cost of child care then there are the HECs fees and the high cost of buying a house. There are our children putting off having children because they have all of these debts to pay before they can think of having a baby. I think we need to look at those three issues and make it easier for young people to have a family and you know we are going to need a bigger population down the track for us baby boomers. I think Howard has been looking at the wrong end of the stick and he does want us to work until we drop and I don’t think that is on.

LATHAM: No, I don’t think that is on either. You need a balanced retirement. A lot of people have worked hard for 40 years and they are looking forward to their retirement years to enjoy the quiet pleasures of life - stay active, sure, but Mr Costello’s rhetoric that we need to work until we drop is totally inappropriate. People need to make their own choices, if they want to do a bit more work, good on them but there should not be that expectation that that applies across the board. I think you are also right in pointing out the issue of work and family. We need to provide extra support for families so that people can have children enjoy the love and nurturing of a new-born baby without all of the financial pressures that can come with it.

BARTLETT: How would you do that?

LATHAM: Well, a few weeks ago we announced Labor’s baby care payment which starts at $3,000 for working and non-working mums and would rise to $5,400 in 2010. So that is our commitment on maternity leave but it is for non-working mums as well. What it basically says is that here is major financial assistance from the Federal Government so that mums and dads can spend time with the newborn baby and take off some of those financial pressures, because it is a great time of life to have a new baby in the house but it is also where the financial pressures come on and we want to help get the pressures off financially.

BARTLETT: What about the families of today who have already had babies?

LATHAM: Well, the Government has had a baby bonus scheme that has failed and we want to replace it with our baby care payment, a substantial amount of financial assistance. So people can concentrate on spending good times with the babies and doing the loving and nurturing - that great part of life without any of the financial costs.

BARTLETT: Would you look at any part of the tax system?

LATHAM: Well, no our commitment is this baby care payment which is a $2.2 billion commitment; it is a major piece of policy. We have fully funded it and fully costed it. It replaces the Government’s failed baby bonus. It really is a big commitment. We have heard a lot of talk about work and family. Well, we are not talking about it; we are acting with this policy.

BARTLETT: Would you consider income splitting for families?

LATHAM: No, no our commitment is the baby care payment.

BARTLETT: Look, I am pressing on with this because I remember reading a book you wrote a couple of years ago, Civilising Global Capital, you made an enormous amount about the need for taxation reform. What exactly will you do if you become Prime Minister?

LATHAM: Well, we have some plans on taxation reform and that will be part of the debate in Budget week. Our main priority is to bring down the effective marginal tax rates. Some families in Australia work hard, earn an extra hundred dollars and the Government takes more than a hundred dollars of them in tax and withdrawal of social

security. So we have to put some incentive back.

BARTLETT: What about if Mr Costello does that?

LATHAM: Well, if he does that it will be under Labor Party pressure. But let’s be frank about it is a bit like the work and family debate where the Government has been talking about it for 4 or 5 years and done nothing so we are working on the assumption that they

have given up and Labor’s got some plans where you can put a bit of reward for effort and incentive back in to the economy and that combined with our baby care payment is a really big benefit for Australian families and I think that is also a policy that is financially responsible. The income-splitting has been looked at in the past and even Mr Howard said the country couldn’t afford it. We have got a baby-care payment that is affordable and will make a real difference for the new babies and new families.

BARTLETT: What about if, as expected, the Government does deliver tax cuts come this budget next month and uses up everything in the piggy-bank. What are you going to be able to do?

LATHAM: Well, Liam, we have not been sitting around just watching the surplus being run down, we know the Howard Government’s form, you see. The 98 and 2001 elections they spent the surplus they went on a big spending spree to try to buy their way back into office. So what we have done is identify more than $6 billion worth of budget savings. That baby-care payment is fully funded by cutting out waste and mismanagement and Government bureaucracy where it is not needed. So we have actually been on the job of saying look let’s identify the areas of savings and fund Labor’s commitments in education, health, work and family. We are not relying on the surplus - whether it is big or small; we are working on the assumption that the Government will have a spending spree and throw money in trying to buy votes. So we have been adopting a policy of every dollar of social investment we need a dollar of budget savings and that is the Labor approach.

BARTLETT: Let’s take some more calls. Hello, John.

JOHN: Good morning, Mark.

LATHAM: Gooday, John. How are you doing?

JOHN: Alright, thank you. Seeing as you appear to be anti-British and anti-American if Australia was invaded let’s say by Indonesia would you call upon the Americans and British to come and help us?

LATHAM: Well, I am not anti-British and I am not anti-American. I am a strong believer in the American alliance. That was established by a Labor Government during World War II. We have kept it ever since and we support the American alliance 100 per cent. We want to see it as an equal partnership and that is important. But we would expect that the terms of that alliance would always be met in the future. I am not getting into

hypotheticals about Australia being invaded but I can tell you that we support the American alliance 100 per cent. And would always be assisting the United States if they were under direct attack and expect that to be reciprocated in the future.

JOHN: So your pre-emptive statement in the Parliament where you would actually withdraw our troops from Iraq at this time was not an American stance?

LATHAM: No, no it was a practical stance to say that that was a war conducted for the wrong purpose. It was a war where they said there were weapons of mass destruction and we now know that they did not exist and it is literally the other side of the world to the scenario you painted about Australia’s security. That is Labor’s point: we have always got to be mindful of the defence of Australia, participate in the war against terror and not go down blind alleys like the conflict in Iraq. I mean, if you talk all of the resources that have been poured into Iraq and actually use them to catch bin Laden, break up al-Qaeda, break up JI the world today would be a much safer place and that is the direction Labor wants to head. That is good for America and good for Australia.

BARTLETT: Thanks, John. Good morning, Ron.

RON: Good morning, Liam and Mr Latham. Look Liam I am glad you mentioned that book he wrote - Civilising Global Capital . I want to ask a question about his taxation policy. In that book he describes something called a progressive expenditure tax or PET. He proposed a tax on inheritance.

LATHAM: No, that is not right. That is not accurate.

RON: One of the examples you mentioned was death duties.

LATHAM: No, that is not right.

RON: You said an inheritance could be treated as income and could be taxed in the same way as other income. I am quoting direct from your book. I don’t know about you Mr Latham but I come from the bush and I remember death duties and so do many other people. For families they were crippling - in fact, no family business was spared and many ceased to exist. And now your fellow Labor MP Anthony Albanese is proposing a wealth tax, backing up your death duties scheme.

LATHAM: This is a point that Peter Costello was trying to raise in the Parliament last year.

RON: You wrote it in your book!

LATHAM: That is not accurate. I think you are on page 400, where there are some examples by an academic in the appendix to the book. It is not me endorsing death duties. That is not right at all. Progressive expenditure tax was something that was mooted at the time of the GST debate. But, now the GST is in, it is not possible to unscramble that egg. We have no plan -

RON: This was in 1998.

LATHAM: Yes, that is the time of the GST debate. But once the GST is in and legislated we are not going to unscramble that egg because nobody can.

RON: Anybody who borrows this book will realise that a vote for Labor, both state and federal, is a vote for death duties again.

LATHAM: Well, that is not true.

RON: Well, you will take a lot to convince me, mate. Incidentally, I am a returned serviceman and I support our position in Iraq.

BARTLETT: What is the Labor Party’s policy on veterans’ pensions?

LATHAM: Well, we were glad to see the Government finally get its act together with its response to the Clarke review. We are working on our response now. We think we can go further in some significant areas to help the veterans’ community. It was shemozzle when the Government didn’t really know what it was doing in response to Clarke.

BARTLETT: Would you change the way TPI pension is tied?

LATHAM: Well, we are looking at the detail of the Government’s response and we are looking at some ways we can add to it for the benefit of the veterans’ community so I do not want to get into detail now but we will have a response that helps the veterans’ community and goes another step forward compared to the Government’s response.

BARTLETT: Thanks for coming in and taking some calls.

LATHAM: A pleasure. Thanks, Liam.