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Prime Minister comments on petrol prices; Defence Legislation Bill 2000; IVF.



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22 August 2000

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP INTERVIEW WITH JOHN MILLER, RADIO 4BC, BRISBANE

Subjects: Petrol Prices; Peter Beattie and petrol prices; the Defence Legislation Bill 2000; Olympics and the army; IVF

E&OE……………………………………………………………………………………

MILLER:

And joining me on the programme this morning from his office in Sydney the Prime Minister of Australia Mr John Howard. Prime Minister good morning.

PRIME MINISTER:

How are you John? Good to be with you again.

MILLER:

I�m very well and it is good to have you on the programme too. Prime Minister let�s first this morning address the issue of fuel pricing. As you�ll know the Premier of Queensland Peter Beattie came out swinging yesterday and he�s now saying that if the federal Government doesn�t do anything he will consider setting up a royal commission into fuel pricing. Now I think most Australians are prepared to accept, they might not be happy with it but they�re prepared to accept that we have world parity pricing, if the price of crude oil on the world market goes up then it�s going to impact on our fuel prices. But what I think we are concerned about is the manipulation of petrol prices, the huge disparity between petrol stations on either side of Brisbane city, up to ten cents a litre or more. The idea that a tanker of fuel is delivered to a service station on Monday afternoon at eighty-nine cents a litre and the next morning that same fuel is priced at ninety-five cents a litre. Do you see what I mean? Is that the issue? Should not that be examined?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well can I first of all say that Mr Beattie is engaging in an unmitigated political stunt in calling for yet another inquiry into the price of petrol. He�s calling for greater powers for the ACCC. Has Mr Beattie forgotten that it was his government alone amongst the Australian states and territories that refused to hand over to the federal body, the ACCC, full surveillance powers prior to the introduction of the goods and services tax? It was the only state in Australia that refused to do that, the only state that refused to cooperate in a national scheme to provide effective price surveillance. Is Mr Beattie not aware that between June and August in Brisbane the price of petrol has gone up by six cents a litre on average and over the same period the refinery price of petrol which incorporates the effect of changes in world oil prices and the exchange rate rose by six point one cents per litre?

Look let us get one thing straight. Nobody likes petrol prices going up. I am aware as anybody else that the price of petrol is a very sensitive issue in this country but the Australian public should not be hood winked by Mr Beattie�s blatant political stunts into believing other than that the overwhelming reason why petrol is dearer now is because the world price has gone up.

Even if you accept what the Labor Party and Mr Beattie and others say, which I don�t, but even if you did accept what they say about the impact of the GST on the price of petrol you�re dealing with one point five cents a litre, no more than that. And we don�t accept that. But even if you did and you have seen movements of five, ten cents or more a litre, now this is overwhelmingly due to the world price. I don�t like it. I�m sorry about it. If I could so something about the world price I would but not even the President of the United States can do anything about the world price of petrol.

And it really is the most unmitigated stunt I have seen in years for Peter Beattie to carry on in his headline hunting, superficial fashion. Politicians who call for inquiries are either inflicted by one of two political disabilities- either they don�t have a policy or they don�t know how to solve the problem. So what do you do? You call for an inquiry. We have had forty-one inquiries over the last several years. I mean we have an inquiry every six months into the price of petrol. We still have by world standards very cheap petrol. I don�t like it going up and I know how the motorist is angry about it. I know a lot about the sensitivity of motorists to this.

But John we can�t control the world price of petrol, we really can�t and Peter Beattie knows that. And he really is insulting the intelligence of the Queensland electorate. He�s got billboards&. I mean I�m prepared to cooperate with a state premier of any political persuasion in the national interest but this latest stunt by Mr Beattie is just a piece of cheap political scare mongering. He knows that it�s the world price of petrol.

I mean I�ve had private discussions with Mr Beattie about the division of the GST. He loves the GST. If he thinks the GST is such a terrible thing I mean is he prepared to hand back to the motorists of Queensland the further reduction? I mean if he thinks there�s too much of a GST rip off in relation to petrol he�s getting it. So if he thinks there�s a rip off he can give an additional discount to Queensland motorists. Nobody�s stopping him doing that. If it�s so terrible and sinful for governments to have all of this extra GST revenue, he�s getting it. Why doesn�t he hand it back to the motorists of Queensland?

I mean the reality is that, I mean I�ll take the criticism on the chin. I can�t, the federal Government cannot, given the other decisions we�ve taken afford to cut the price of fuel excise. If we cut the fuel excise by five cents a litre that would cost $1.7 billion. Now we don�t have that money. And people who call for that cut to take place like Mr Beattie and Mr Crean and the motoring organisations, you know the Royal Automobile Clubs of Queensland and Victoria and the NRMA and the Federal Automobile Association let them say what other programmes of the federal and state governments are going to be cut to fund that reduction in excise. There comes a time with these sorts of things when the cheap point scoring and the grandstanding and the fear mongering has got to stop.

MILLER:

All right Prime Minister having had your say quite comprehensively on that let me come back to what I was talking about. But all of this started when people started saying why is it that fuel goes up on pension day? Why is it that it goes up on public service pay day? Why is it that it goes up on weekends when it is fuel that is already sitting in the tank? The issue�s been overlaid now by the fact that the fuel price increases are being exacerbated by the world conditions. But still don�t you think it�s time that the ACCC or someone had a look at the marketing and pricing of fuel quite apart from the consideration, the other issue of excise, and we�ll come back to that in a minute, and world parity pricing, quite apart from those just the way that fuel prices are manipulated? And blow me down all of sudden seem to go up on those days that I mentioned?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well John I know there�s a price variation. There�s a price variation often from one suburb to&

not only from one suburb to another but within one suburb.

MILLER:

Across the street.

PRIME MINISTER:

I mean I drove around my electorate in Sydney a couple of weeks ago and I looked at a whole lot of different prices. But it has ever been thus. And I�m not sure no matter what system you have you can deny to oil companies and to service station proprietors the capacity to do a certain amount of marketing. I mean people have done this from time immemorial. The real cause of the current concern John is not, may I say with respect, is not those price differentials it�s really the fact that there�s been an overall lift in the price of petrol.

MILLER:

As I said that has overridden the whole debate.

PRIME MINISTER:

It�s more than& I mean it�s the main& I mean, let me put it this way. If the price of Saudi crude fell back to $25 a barrel, I can assure you that a lot of the heat would go out of this debate. I mean it is the fact that it�s gone to $32 a barrel, and you are getting predictions from New York based financial analysts like Goldman Sachs this morning, saying it might go up another, the equivalent of another 20 cents a litre. Now I don�t, I think that�s exaggerated and I believe that is quite wrong. But the point, I mention it to underline that there are world factors at play here over which not even the President of the United States has control. And I mean, perhaps Mr Beattie can produce the answer, I mean perhaps he�s stronger than Bill Clinton.

MILLER:

You�re not missing Peter Beattie this morning, are you?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I am not. Because I mean, I have been willing, I am always willing and I have had a good practical relationship with Mr Beattie. He�s Labor, I am Liberal, that doesn�t matter, is not the matter. But I am not going to cop from any premier of this, in around Australia this sort of cheap grandstanding on a sensitive political issue. I mean he knows that it�s not within our power, other than to have a huge discretionary cut in fuel excise that will cost hundreds of millions of dollars and he�s not prepared to give up any of his money and fair enough for it, but he shouldn�t expect us to to sort of cop this sort of cheap political attack. It is a cheap political attack, he�s knows that it�s the world price that�s the driving concern and I am not going to allow him or any other premier around Australia to get away with such a cheap piece of political grandstanding.

MILLER:

Ok, well look let�s address the issue than shall we for a moment of world parity pricings. Brought in the late 70�s, I believe.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes it was, with the support of the Federal Labor Party at the time. Mr Keating was the spokesman on Resources and Energy and he strongly supported it.

MILLER:

Well it was Keating in the mid-80�s who linked it all to the CPI too, but that�s just fact.

PRIME MINISTER:

That is correct and we continued that, I am not going to walk away and I am not going to walk away from the fact that I was the Treasurer and Malcolm Fraser was the Prime Minister when world parity pricing was introduced.   And it was introduced because we believe it was a

sensible conservation measure and the windfall gain was not left with the oil companies but it was in fact captured by the Australian taxpayer through the then credit oil levy.

MILLER:

All right, now is it time that we review that oil parity pricing? Given that we�ve had some more massive discoveries of oil up in the Timor Sea?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I think that would be a mistake. I mean one of the reasons we�ve had massive discoveries in the Timor Sea is that world parity pricing gives companies the incentive to explore. You see, you�ve got to understand the cause and effect of world parity pricing. If you said to the oil companies, to the exploration companies, from now on we can�t guarantee that you�ll get the world market price, they�ll stop looking for oil. And once you stop looking for oil you are building the circumstances where in the years to come you will have a shortage of energy and the price would then really go through the roof and we would be paying in Australia the sort of prices they pay in the United Kingdom which are double what we pay here and in Europe. I mean our petrol is dear now compared to what it was a year ago, but it is very cheap compared with the sort of prices in Britain. I mean prices in Britain were something in the order, were close to double what they are in Australia and the same thing applies on most of continental Europe. But going back to your question, if you cut, if you move away from world parity pricing, you drop the price, then what you are running the risk of doing is taking away the incentive that oil companies have. I mean people will invest money and take risks looking for crude oil if they believe they can get the world market return on their product if they discover it. But if you are really in effect saying to them, well you invest your money, you take the financial risk but if you find crude oil we can�t guarantee that you will get a market return on it, we may in fact control the return you get on it, they�ll say thanks but no thanks we�ll spend our money on something else.

MILLER:

All right, so no inquiries, no changes to world parity pricing, no backing away from the level of excise in the GST in spite of allegations that this is actually providing the Federal Government with a bit of a revenue windfall?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, the extra GST revenue, if there is any extra GST revenue is going to the states. I mean under the arrangement it doesn�t go to us, it goes to the states. There�s a fixed, you know cents per litre of excise. I mean it is significant, I am not denying that, there is a hefty excise taken from petrol, I admit that. I am not pretending that, that�s always been the case. It was the case when Mr Keating was the Prime Minister. Of course there�s a significant excise and we could, we could John, we could reduce the price of petrol if we cut the level of excise, but if you cut the level of excise by say five cents and people would say anything less than that it�s not worth doing, that�s $1.7 billion, now I have got to get that money from somewhere else. And if I take $1.7 billion off the Federal budget surplus, I am really creating the, well I am creating more pressure for higher interest rates. If Mr Beattie is prepared to volunteer Queensland�s proportion of that $1.7 billion and he can persuade Mr Carr and Mr Bacon and Mr Bracks, the other premiers who supported this grandstanding call of his for an inquiry, well the Federal Government will consider it. But I will have a deafening silence from the premiers. They won �t be lining up saying John here�s the programmes you can take the money out of to fund a cut in excise. I mean you know, there comes a time when the glib one-liners and the calls for inquiries and everything have got to end and you�ve actually got the responsibility of looking people in the face and saying well I can�t do this, but I can do that.

MILLER:

All right.

PRIME MINISTER:

Now, I mean I would love the price of petrol to fall tomorrow. And I would love to find a

costless way of cutting excise. But that hasn�t been invented yet. It really hasn�t.

MILLER:

All right. Prime Minister, let�s move onto another couple of issues, the first of which is the Defence Legislation Amendment (Aid to Civilian Authorities) Bill. Now, I think most people would be prepared to accept that it is wise policy indeed to have our defence forces trained should, heaven forbid, the incidence ever occur and they�d needed to come into quell civil disorder, or indeed to assist in disaster relief, that I think is laudable. However, there is concern, and I share that concern that this bill takes away or overturns the convention that the before our defence forces can be brought in in such a manner, it has to be at the invitation or the behest of the premiers or police authorities in any given city or state.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, well I am sorry, I don�t accept that that is the case. I mean we discussed this very carefully and can I assure you that this legislation was supported by the Labor Party in Federal Parliament. I mean they strongly supported it.

MILLER:

Yes, I understand that and in the Senate as well.

PRIME MINISTER:

And the Senate. I mean the whole purpose, and they don�t support much, so it can�t be all that harmful. The whole purpose of this is to make it absolutely certain that in an emergency you can have a comprehensive call out and it�s not designed to overturn any conventions, it�s designed in co-operation with the state police forces. I am sorry, I can�t understand that criticism.

MILLER:

All right, well again my other concern was and it was addressed in part at least by a caller that I had just before the 8.30 news, a man who�s son is in the army and is undergoing this very sort of training as we speak down in Sydney. My concern was that Australian troops were not adequately trained and that putting people with even, you know a small level of training into these kind of situations heavily armed could be catastrophic.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don�t, once again I mean I don�t know the circumstances of the gentlemen who called you but Australian troops demonstrated pretty recently that their training is very good. They were put to the test just under a year ago and still are in East Timor and they�re coming up magnificently. But the whole idea of having the army in aid of the civil power in a special emergency is that the police don�t have the resources and the capacity and the equipment and the training to deal with terrorist situations where as the Army does. That�s the whole idea of doing this.

MILLER:

All right. So it�s primarily aimed at terrorism, not as people like Bob Brown would suggest aimed at civil disobedience.

PRIME MINISTER:

Of course it�s not aimed at civil disobedience. I mean there�s no way the Government I lead is ever going to use the Army in environment& I mean, I noticed in the Courier Mail this morning there�ve got a reference to Green Senator Bob Brown: �He insisted that the legislation was in force at the height of the environmental battles in 1980 it would have allowed the Army to disperse people protesting against the planned damming of wilderness rivers�. I mean that is nonsense. It�s not that at all.

MILLER:

Well I�m prepared to accept that from you but what if we go nuts further down the track and elect Atilla the Hun as Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don�t think Australians will ever so far lose their commonsense as to elect stupid people. I mean let me give you an example from Britain. I mean in the last 20 or 30 years some of the most difficult civil disturbances we�ve seen in our kind of democracy was in Britain over the miners� disputes. You�ll remember those huge police lines when all those pickets were out in those mines in Yorkshire. Now they didn�t use the Army. Now that�s the Australian tradition, you know the Australian, English, American&.well not so much the American. They have a National Guard which they call out fairly regularly. But I mean we have this long tradition that you only ever use the Army in a terrorist situation. I mean we use the police. I mean can I say the idea of ever using the Army in an ordinary civilian disturbance situation is anathema to me. I�m sure it�s anathema to Mr Beazley too. We just don�t operate that way and Bob Brown is, you know, just his usual exaggerated fashion.

MILLER:

So this legislation is framed in such a way that that could never happen by whatever circumstances?

PRIME MINISTER:

No it can�t be used in that way.

MILLER:

Well that�s cleared that up on trust and as I said I think most Australians would accept that it is laudable to have&..

PRIME MINISTER:

I mean if you have a situation, I mean just suppose at the height of the Olympic Games you have some insidious terrorist organisation and it does pose a real threat and you do&.Can you imagine what the public would say to me if we hadn�t have given the Army the legal power? Can you imagine what you�d say to me? I mean you�d quite rightly say you�ve fallen down on your duty. I mean that is what we�re guarding against and you need the Army and all their technical expertise in those extreme situations where you�ve got a terrorist threat not just a whole lot of people demonstrating. MILLER:

Quite categorically if we had a situation in Queensland where we had a repeat of say the right to march demonstrations of all those years ago&..

PRIME MINISTER:

That is a police matter, that is a civilian matter.

MILLER:

But under no circumstances armed forces would be brought in to deal with&.?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no of course not.

MILLER:

Okay. I just wanted to clarify&.

PRIME MINISTER:

I know. Look it�s a fair question to ask and I think it shows the liveliness of democracy in Australia that people should raise these things.

MILLER:

Absolutely. Now there was something brought to my attention that the Opposition is highlighting what they are calling, moving onto another subject now, a major loophole in the IVF legislation where they claim that defacto couples are forced to wait five years before having IVF babies and it�s saying, and I hate to use this word because it�s one of my least favourite words, that the proposal is discriminatory.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well the whole proposal discriminates in favour of children. It�s discriminatory to that extent and I plead guilty to discriminating in favour of children. Look it will be possible when this amendment goes through if it goes through and I hope it does, it will be possible for States to limit the availability of these procedures to married people and to defactos. Now different States have a different definition of what�s a defacto. Some people say it�s people who�ve been living together for five years, others might say three others might say two. But there�s no way that any State can put a prohibition on defacto couples. How they define it I guess is a matter for individual States but there�s no way they can put definition on what is&..a limit on a defacto couple having availability of this procedure. Now I think people are engaging in hair splitting in talking about the fact that different States have different definitions. Of course they do and there�s a restriction, there�s a requirement in the Victorian legislation that the married couple are living in a bona fide domestic relationship. I mean they don�t just accept the marriage certificate. They go a bit further and have a requirement. Are people saying that is discriminating against married couples? I mean come on, let�s get a sense of proportion into this discussion. It is very clear from what Daryl Williams said on Friday that we will in our amendment make it clear that any State that tries to deny the availability of these procedures to defacto couples they�ll remain in breach of the Sex Discrimination Act. I mean defacto relationships are not in anybody�s gun sights in relation to this issue. We�re not trying to stop that. I mean that�s a matter of individual choice. Different people have different views on that. What we�re concerned is to give to the States the right to restrict these procedures to people who are either married or in defacto relationships and we�re doing it because we believe very strongly in the right of children to have the reasonable expectation all things beings equal of the care of both a mother and a father, and quite plainly if you allow the Federal Court decision to stand there can be circumstances when that will not be the case and that is what we are concerned about. We are not trying to pass a judgement on defacto relationships. That is no part of what the federal government is trying to do.

MILLER:

All right. Prime Minister unfortunately we�re out of time. We�ll have to leave it there but thank you very much for your time this morning, and I must prevail upon you next time you�re in Brisbane to come in and do a bit of talkback with us.

PRIME MINISTER:

I will be delighted.

[ends]

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