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Interview with Hon. Tony Abbott.

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Sunday Sunrise

3 December 2000

Interview with Hon. Tony Abbott


GLENN MILNE: In Federal Parliament this week there was little seasonal cheer. We had some of the angriest and ugliest scenes for years. The Speaker accused, Ministers accused, an ALP walkout, and our guest this morning in the centre of much of it. Not that it seems to have shaken him in what looks like a new role as the Government’s hit man.


Tony Abbott, good morning.


TONY ABBOTT: Good morning, Glenn.


GLENN MILNE: You’re now one of the Government’s highest profile ministers. And it was reported at the weekend that, in a conversation in a Canberra restaurant, you were overheard saying that when John Howard retires you’d actually like to run for the leadership. Is that true?


TONY ABBOTT: That story was a fabrication, Glenn. And Alan Ramsay, who wrote the story, shouldn’t trust malicious gossips hiding behind pot-plants in restaurants.


GLENN MILNE: Well, let’s lengthen the timeframe then. Do you have any ultimate leadership ambitions?


TONY ABBOTT: I’m a junior minister, and I’m happy doing the job I’m doing now, Glenn.


GLENN MILNE: Turning to the scenes in Parliament this week, do you regret what happened?


TONY ABBOTT: I think it’s a pity that the ALP have run away from answering questions about what really did go on in the 1996 preference buying deal. And the statement that Cheryl Kernot eventually made in Parliament, raised more questions than it answered. She contradicted her leader, who said that there’d been a national preference selling deal, by saying that it’d been done at a State basis. She still hasn’t explained the fact that the person who benefited from Wayne Swan’s assistance, shall we say, the candidate in Lilley, was on her staff. So I think she’s still got plenty to answer.


GLENN MILNE: But can I put it to you that it was less the substance of the issue, than the way you went about it? You made certain accusations against Cheryl Kernot, which the Labor Party took to imply that she was taking bribes. Should you have gone about it a different way?


TONY ABBOTT: I think the ALP are desperate to try to raise distractions from the real issue. And the real issue is the climate of political corruption in Queensland, which is threatening to burn the National ALP, and which is certainly threatening to destroy Kim Beazley’s Opposition.


GLENN MILNE: Well, following the tragic death of Greg Wilton, the Federal Labor MP, earlier this year, you rose in the Parliament and said that politicians of all sides should be kinder and gentler to each other. What happened to that sentiment?


TONY ABBOTT: I think it’s important to get to the truth of what’s been happening in Queensland and elsewhere, Glenn. Now, the fact is, yeah, we should…


GLENN MILNE: But you play it hard, don’t you?


TONY ABBOTT: Oh, look, I mean we should - we should show respect for each other, but respecting other Members of Parliament doesn’t mean letting them get away with metaphorical murder. And that’s what the Queensland ALP appears to have been getting away with for years.


Cheryl certainly has questions to answer. I think Kim Beazley now has questions to answer, because it seems there may well have been some preference buying deals with the Greens in his own seat in Western Australia.


GLENN MILNE: He’s denied that, though.


TONY ABBOTT: Not very convincingly. And we’ve now got the situation where Con Sciacca appears to have been warehousing people at his own address, having people….


GLENN MILNE: Con Sciacca being a Labor frontbencher as well.


TONY ABBOTT: Absolutely. Now, on the Jim Elder standard, Con Sciacca should be resigning as well, if it turns out that he’s had people falsely registered. Falsely on the Electoral Roll, registered at his own personal private address.


GLENN MILNE: Well, as I say, a lot of these claims are denied. They seem to be coming out of the woodwork everywhere. I mean, how do we deal with them? Should we have an Australian Federal Police investigation in the same way that Wayne Swan, the other Labor frontbencher, is facing an investigation? Should it go to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, for example?


TONY ABBOTT: No doubt that committee will eventually look at these issues, but in the end it’s…


GLENN MILNE: Do you think it’ll look at the Kim Beazley and Con Sciacca issues?


TONY ABBOTT: That’ll be a matter for the committee. But in the end, the problem is happening in Kim Beazley’s Labor Party. This is a direct challenge to his leadership.


Peter Beattie, to his credit, at least appears to be taking some action against the ingrained culture of corruption. Kim Beazley, on the other hand, seems to prefer to shove his head in the sand and hope that it’ll all go away.


GLENN MILNE: Well, when these allegations arise, however, should the Australian Electoral Commission be looking at them?


TONY ABBOTT: I think that over the years the Electoral Commission has perhaps assumed, too complacently, that there can be nothing wrong with the Australian system. What we have seen over the last few weeks in Queensland, and what perhaps we’re seeing in other States, is a system that does need serious cleaning up.


GLENN MILNE: So would you be calling on the Electoral Commission, for example, to examine these claims as they arise?


TONY ABBOTT: I certainly think there is a role for the Electoral Commission to be much more vigilant than it’s been in the past.


GLENN MILNE: And how should it do that?


TONY ABBOTT: Well, look, that’s up to the Commission. That’s up to the relevant Ministers. But, yeah, they’ve got - they’ve got a role to be more vigilant than they have in the past.


GLENN MILNE: All right. Well, Kim Beazley and Con Sciacca are easy pickings for you, but there were allegations this week also, that Liberal Party operatives approached Independent candidates in the Frankston East by-election, offering the same sort of assistance in return for preferences. I mean, should they be investigated?


TONY ABBOTT: Well, anyone who has - who is credibly accused of illegality, should be investigated. But the point I’d make is that there are certainly no current Federal Liberal frontbenchers accused of anything untoward.


By contrast, we have a devastating situation inside the ALP where you’ve got the Queensland Deputy Premier resigned from Parliament and the Party, and you’ve got the senior Queensland Federal frontbencher standing down because he’s subject to criminal investigation.


GLENN MILNE: Well, that’s right, he did stand down, and Peter Reith didn’t. And Kim Beazley made that point.


TONY ABBOTT: And Peter Reith was never subject of criminal investigation.


GLENN MILNE: But the matters surrounding him were subject to an AFP investigation?


TONY ABBOTT: But, but there was never any accusation of possible criminal activity against Peter Reith.


GLENN MILNE: Let’s turn to portfolio matters. You’ve been seen as a Minister who takes a hard line on welfare fraud. There are reports this morning that the Government wants to cut the number of migrants - so-called third country migrants - coming in the back door, if you like, through New Zealand. How would that help cut our welfare bill?


TONY ABBOTT: Well, that’s really a matter for the Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock. But certainly what I’m determined to do, as Minister for Employment Services, is to ensure that people on activity tested benefits really are active. And that’s why we’ve got mutual obligation. That’s why we’ve got work for the dole.


What I’m looking at, along with Peter Reith and Jocelyn Newman in the context of the McClure process, is to try to ensure that with jobseekers we have earlier intervention, we have more constant engagement, and clearer pathways from program to program, to try to make sure that we work constantly with people, preferably to get them into a job. But if not, to give them something useful to do. Idleness should not be a way of life.


GLENN MILNE: The McClure Report, of course, is the big welfare blueprint that the Government’s going to respond to, which you’ve referred to in the broad, and you mentioned the principle of mutual obligation. How far should that principle be extended? I mean, to single mothers? To people on disability pensions, for example?


TONY ABBOTT: What we’re on about is trying to encourage participation in the mainstream of Australian society. Now, participation can mean different things for different groups. Certainly there’s a world of difference between someone who is ready for work and willing to work and on a Newstart benefit, than someone who has been certified by a doctor as incapable of work and is on a Disability Support Pension.


GLENN MILNE: Well, of course there was your, some would say notorious remark about ‘job snobs’, and that seemed to represent a hard line on welfare within the Government. Is the - am I right in the assessment that the Government is now softening its line on welfare?


TONY ABBOTT: No. I think the Government is adopting the right attitude to the right groups of people. Now, obviously we do have to ensure that people are serious about seeking work.


On the other hand, for people who, for various reasons are less capable of working, we’ve got to give them more opportunities to volunteer to participate. So it’s, I guess to use the old Australian vernacular, it’s courses for horses.


GLENN MILNE: Well, you’re still taking quite a tough line. There was the revelation in the Senate Estimates, for example, that Centrelink’s actually on a bonus for meeting breaching requirements. Breaching requirements being where you actually penalise a welfare recipient.


TONY ABBOTT: This is quite untrue, Glenn. We are going to pay Centrelink up to $5 million extra in the coming financial year if they meet all of twelve key performance indicators.


GLENN MILNE: But one of them is breaching a certain number of people?


TONY ABBOTT: No, no, this is quite wrong. This is quite wrong. What we’re trying to ensure is that a majority of job network member notifications are acted upon by Centrelink, and that’s to ensure that Centrelink and the Job Network have got a common idea of what’s reasonable behaviour.


And we’re trying to ensure that most Centrelink breaches are - can survive appeal. We’re trying to ensure that Centrelink doesn’t breach anyone without due process and natural justice.


So what we’re trying to ensure is better services to jobseekers. And remember this, Glenn, the Government does not determine the number of breaches. The number of breaches is determined by jobseeker behaviour.


GLENN MILNE: Tony Abbott, we’ll see you in Parliament this week. And hopefully it’ll be a little quieter than last.


TONY ABBOTT: Let’s see, Glenn.