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Radio 2UE with Alan Jones, 29 January 1996: transcript [Topics: Policy release timetable, ALP advertising, Sale of Telstra, Debate, NSW Governor, Tariffs, Unions, Health insurance]


JONES: If I could ask you just one question. Much of the criticism of you in recent months has been about the fact that you can't vote for John Howard, he's a weak leader. How tough did you have to be to survive the criticism at not releasing policy and how much pressure was there on you to maintain your strategy of releasing them when it suited you?

HOWARD: Very tough and a lot of pressure but I stuck to it because I knew that I was talking commonsense and I was also talking history. No successful Opposition Leader in Australian political history has ever delivered the policy speech before the campaign started. That basically is what the Labor Party and sections of the media were asking me to do. They were asking me to say, well, the campaign has not started but we want you to fire all the shots in your campaign locker before the campaign starts, and in parenthesis basically - and then we can attack you for having no policies during the campaign. Now I have watched other Opposition Leaders on both sides of politics allow their opponents to set their agendas and allow other people to set their agendas. I was determined that I was going to set my political agenda. The Australian public understood what I was doing. I received virtually no letters or telephone calls from the public telling me to do what I was being advised to do by the Labor Party and sections of the media. Wherever I went people would actually stop me in the street and say, 'You stick to your guns. Don't release the policy initiatives.'

JONES: Are you a smarter bloke than you were last time round?

HOWARD: I think everybody is with the benefit of experience, Alan.

JONES: What about the ads last night, "Little Johnny Howard"? Is that meant to be a derogatory expression to undermine your standing, do you think?

HOWARD: Well, I'm sure it's not designed to help me.

JONES: But you can laugh it off?

HOWARD: Well, of course. I mean, I'm flattered that they should start on me. Isn't that interesting? They've started on me. They've been in power for 13 years. They're supposed to have this genius of a leader running the place, despite the fact that he's presided over record debt and very high youth unemployment and a widening gap between rich and poor. But what do they do? They don't start on that, they start on me. Well, I should be so lucky that the Labor Party should decide that their only hope of winning this campaign is to attack me. I mean, I'm flattered.

JONES: What are the people out there worried about? You've walked across the country and talked to them all. What are they worried about in this campaign? What are going to be the issues from your perspective?

HOWARD: I think the pervading mood in the community is a sense of insecurity. They worry about their children getting jobs. They worry about holding their own. They worry about the pace of change. I think deep down people understand that change is necessary - and good change is necessary and I support it. I think there is a feeling of insecurity. I think they worry about the fact that they can't trust what people in authority tell them any more and one of the things I really am dedicated to doing if I win the Prime Ministership is to re-establish that sense of trust between the public and their elected leaders. I mean, none of us are perfect. If I win the Prime Ministership I'm not going to be - I'm going to make mistakes just as my predecessors have but I do, above everything else want to establish a bond of trust between the people and the government to bring back the time when you can say something and people will actually believe it. My opponent of course said before the last election, You're all going to have an L-A-W law tax cut" and he snapped it away after the election.

He said pensioners were going to be free of tax. He snapped that away. He made other commitments. Now I'm not going to promise a lot in this campaign. I'm going to promise a few things of course. There are changes in relation to small business. I'm going to promise later on today some changes in relation to Sydney Airport which is important to a lot of people. But they're not going to be huge promises.

JONES: Does the privatisation of Telstra, one-third privatisation of Telstra - I don't want to go into the debate for and against all that - but does that give you the money to fund whatever promises you might make as opposed to the government setting its face against it and then having to try and establish where it's going to get its $460 million for the environment and $28 million for the museum and so on?

HOWARD: Well, we're not going to use the proceeds of selling Telstra to fund expenditures that go on year after year. I mean, you only get the $8 billion once and you'd be a fool if you cut tax by $8 billion on the strength of that - I mean, what do you do the second year?

JONES: Well, how do you then wind back the debt? How do you wind back ...

HOWARD: Well, essentially you use the proceeds of the sale of Telstra to retire debt. The correct economic practice is to say that if you sell a capital asset you use the proceeds for capital purposes and that means essentially - not entirely - but it means essentially you're using it to reduce debt. One of the advantages of selling Telstra is that you do get 8 - perhaps more - the Prime Minister said it was worth - a third was worth $10 billion. Well, maybe it is. We put in a conservative figure because we didn't want it criticised. The advantage of that is that you'll be able to - apart from the advantages to Telstra you'll be able to essentially use that to retire debt. We will not be using it to fund recurrent expenditure.

JONES: Every person that you're talking to now right across this city has to each week, each month, make sure that what they spend is no greater than what they get in otherwise they're going to be absolutely down the tube. It's been suggested that the real budget deficit this year, 30 June, could be in the vicinity of $7 billion. You've promised to turn that into surplus. It's a hell of an amount to do.

HOWARD: Well, on the Government's own figures, and that's what our commitment was based on - on the Government's own figures the budget will be in surplus next year. Now that's the Government's prediction and we of course, in the absence of any revision of those figures - and if the government issues a revised set of figures during the campaign, well, obviously they have to be taken account of but based on what ...

JONES: Are they cooking the books, do you think? Can you believe their figures? Are they rubbery?

HOWARD: Well, their track record has been very bad but I'm not going to fling an accusation around except - unless I've got hard evidence. But on the basis of their figures a surplus next financial year is achievable.

JONES: The debate - there are going to be two debates, (February) 11 and 25 - you've put your foot down over Kerry O'Brien. Who would be acceptable to you?

HOWARD: I think there's a range of people. Certainly, to many people in the community, somebody like Paul Lyneham ...

JONES: And O'Brien isn't?

HOWARD: Well, I've discussed the matter, as has Andrew Robb, with the ABC and with Mr O'Brien and we put certain views to him and, let me say this, he understands my view.

JONES: But Paul Lyneham would be acceptable?

HOWARD: I think Paul Lyneham is regarded in the community as somebody who's tough, down the line, in the middle, doesn't favour either side, and that's essentially what you want.

JONES: How do you get 25 per cent of young people into jobs?

HOWARD: Cut the burden, take the load off the back of small business. That's the best ...

JONES: Fringe benefits tax is one of those loads. A caller this morning said he was going to abolish fringe benefits tax. What's he going to do about it now?

HOWARD: Well, it would cost $3 billion to abolish fringe benefits tax and I honestly, Alan, haven't got - can't find $3 billion. I can cut the compliance costs of the fringe benefits tax. I can scrap the stupid, unfair dismissal laws, which are actually discouraging small businesses from taking on new staff. I'm going to have a task force - its goal will be to cut the paper burden by 50 per cent in the first term of a Howard Government and I'm going to reduce the provisional tax burden, and that particular reform will be of particular benefit not only to small businesses but of course to many people on the land and in the professions.

JONES: Have you put Bob Carr on your Christmas card list because surely that's the biggest windfall you've received in the last fortnight, all New South Wales alienated by what he has done. Do you have a view about ...

HOWARD: I have a very strong view. I mean, what he did was undemocratic. What, I think, Carr has forgotten and what I suspect his mate Paul Keating has never learned, is that in this great argument about our constitutional future it's more important to be a democrat than to be either a republican or a constitutional monarchist. I want to take the opportunity of saying that Peter Sinclair and his wife Shirley did a magnificent job for the Australian public in this State. The most offensive aspect of this whole affair has been the implied criticism of them, that they were in some way remote from people or pompous or living in a grand style. Two more earthy, direct, quintessential Australians you couldn't meet in your life and they are the most charming of people and the most easy to meet. They have less pretension about them than many chardonnay socialists I've met and I think they've done a magnificent job and I think the attempt to denigrate them by implication, that they were in some way remote or ppmpous, is about as ungracious an act that I've seen for some time.

JONES: You are all for reducing tariffs. It gets a very complicated issue for ...

HOWARD: I'm in favour of reducing tariffs provided at the same time you reduce the operating costs of business, so that in a lower tariff environment, business has got a chance to survive.

JONES: But isn't that a factor in debt, because you see we've got fewer people in manufacturing industry now working in manufacturing industry in this country than there were when Billy McMahon was Prime Minister.

HOWARD: That's right.

JONES: So we could virtually say to people out there, we'll find you jobs but I don't think we can find you any in manufacturing. Is that a sustainable argument?

HOWARD: Well, it's a sustainable argument if you make - if you make other changes, I mean, what has happened is that we've cut tariffs in this country, which I support, but we haven't at the same time reduced the operating costs of business. And the other thing that we haven't done is that we haven't won enough reciprocal removal of tariff and non-tariff barriers from our trading partners. I mean I am constantly told by ...

JONES: So why then do we reduce tariffs if we haven't won those benefits. I mean, if we are $12.10 on average an hour for labour and say Fiji is 8 cents or Thailand is $1.80, how the hell can we make shirts more cheaply than them?

HOWARD: Well the answer is you won't. And well, no, you don't give up making shirts. There are many people in the textile and the apparel business who are still doing quite well, but you have to accept that in certain areas which are very labour intensive, it is very very difficult. I mean you could sort of attempt to put a 1000% tariff on, and in some areas you still wouldn't compete.

JONES: But what I don't understand is that in cars - forget shirts - cars, our automotive trade deficit just continues to escalate. In other words the amount that we're paying to get cars into the country increases and increases over the amount that we are ever getting in car exports. You've got to turn that around to turn the debt around. How do you do that?

HOWARD: Well, you reduce the costs of doing business. Can I just give you a simple example of what I have in mind. A couple of years ago there was a lot of concern that the Sizzler restaurant chain was going to buy American beef instead of Australian beef. Despite the fact that the American beef was 60% dearer off the hoof than was the Australian beef, provided after you'd gone through the processing of the beef and all the add on things out of the farm gate, the net result was that the American beef was 40 cents a kilo cheaper. So the American thing went from off the hoof being 60% dearer, to being 40 cents cheaper. Now, what that tells you, what it tells me, what it tells all your listeners is, is that the problem is not so much the efficiency of our farmers but everything that gets between the farmer and the purchaser, and one of the big costs of that is that cost of meat processing. And we have very expensive meat processing in this country and the reason we have it is that we have an outdated union structure in the meat processing industry. They run a stupid thing called a tally system, which adds enormously, enormously to the cost of the finished product. Now they are the things that I am talking about when I talk about reducing the costs of doing business.

We are killing efficient producers like our farmers by loading them with all those sorts of costs.

JONES: Does union leadership represent workers anymore? I mean fewer than 35% of people are in unions. What status does the ACTU have in a Howard Government?

HOWARD: Well, they won't be members of ...

JONES: Get a seat on the bank of the Reserve board, on the board of the Reserve Bank?

HOWARD: They won't be members of my Cabinet. They won't be. And I think their representation of workers is diminishing with the passage of time.

JONES: Malcolm Fraser put Bob Hawke on the board of the Reserve Bank.

HOWARD: Yes he did. I don't know that this of itself ...

JONES: Bill Kelty's on the Board of the Reserve Bank.

HOWARD: Of itself, I'm not making commitments but of itself I don't see any harm in having some, in having a trade unionist on the board of the Reserve Bank, a suitably qualified one. I don't object to that. I think there is some merit in that but what I do object to is that in the ANL and CRA disputes both of those disputes were taken over by the leadership of the trade union movement. The Prime Minister was completely sidelined, he was a bit player while that dispute was going on, while both those disputes were going on. Now that won't happen under us. I think the CRA dispute was very revealing because the union leadership was arguing against a situation where ...

JONES: ... against contracts.

HOWARD: I think against people being paid more money.

JONES: But they are against contracts. Bob Hawke told the pilots they could only get a job if they had a contract.

HOWARD: That's right, that's right, exactly.

JONES: Just the airport. Can you solve the problem of the airport noise?

HOWARD: Well I can certainly treat it more fairly. Look, I'm not promising a situation where aircraft noise is going to disappear but at the moment there is an unfair concentration on a limited number of people and our policy commits us to reopening the East West runway. It commits us to having a cap on the air movements at Sydney airport to about 80 an hour, which of course is above what the movements are at present. We are going to have an EIS into the construction of Badgerys Creek.

JONES: We've had every living document on Badgerys Creek. How many more reports are we going ...

HOWARD: Well, ten years ago. Ten years ago the EIS was carried out Alan and my gut feeling is that unless you have a proper EIS on Badgerys Creek, the population around that area will never accept the Government's decision to construct it.

JONES: What are your surveys telling you about voter backlash over airport noise? Are you in Bennelong likely to feel the impact of this?

HOWARD: I would expect that for a whole lot of reasons my majority in Bennelong will be OK. I'm more interested in some of the neighbouring seats. In fact, our policy will be of more benefit to people who are living in Labor electorates than it will to people living in Liberal electorates. I think there's a lot of intense feeling about it in the inner suburbs of Sydney. People feel that they've been dumped on.

JONES: Were they lied to?

HOWARD: They were misled, absolutely. The noise projections out of the Sydney Kingsford Smith EIS were demonstrated over time to have been utterly unreliable - completely false.

JONES: But the Sydney Airport noise proofing plan said over 16,000 homes should be soundproofed but out there listening to you now, because the government said it'll only do 4,200. Who pays for the other 12,000?

HOWARD: Well, what we're going to do is to extend the plan to pick up people who are living under the East West flight path who might suffer some noise as a result of the policy change we're going to make.

JONES: So, if the East West runway is reopened, those people who will have noise reimposed upon thenl will be protected by sound proofing.

HOWARD: Oh yes.

JONES: What will that cost?

HOWARD: It's very difficult to make a final estimate but it will be funded by the continuation of the special levy that was imposed in order to fund the Government's plan.

JONES: Public administration, just finally, in this country. Do you understand the disillusionment that exists amongst people about the way government runs itself, how infrequently it sits, the way politicians fund themselves on all sorts of benefits and the extent to which you are just constantly raped as a taxpayer to feed all that?

HOWARD: Yes, I think there's a feeling in the community often that the public doesn't get value for money and that is fed when you have a Prime Minister who turns up to Parliament only half the number of days it sits. That's a symbol. You might say, oh you're just picking on the Prime Minister but he's the leader of the government and he symbolises an attitude of mind. I will sit Parliament longer and if I become Prime Minister I will attend every question time when it's in session. So, let there be no argument, I'm not going to be part-time Prime Minister. I think there are a lot of areas of Federal and State Government where we have overlap and duplication. One of the commitments Peter Costello made for the Coalition early in the piece was to have an Audit Commission to examine amongst other things the areas of duplication that exist between Commonwealth and State Governments. I think there is a mood in the community that they don't get value for money. I can't answer all of their problems and all of their concerns overnight but I have a very good ear for what they are saying and thinking.

JONES: Well, what they are saying and thinking is in major areas. Not welfare, but in areas like health, where you and I should be paying for our own healthcare but we don't have to, in education.

HOWARD: On health we are going to have an incentive for people to take out private health insurance.

JONES: So it will take us off the public lists.

HOWARD: What do you mean by that?

JONES: It will remove my entitlement and your entitlement for going to a public hospital tomorrow. We should have to pay our way - we can afford to.

HOWARD: Well, if you take out private health insurance that's the change we have in mind. We are going to maintain the universality of Medicare, let me make that clear. I know there are some people who don't believe in that but we have a firm commitment to maintain the Medicare system and we are going to maintain bulk billing and community rating. More importantly we are going to tackle the thing that is the weakest link in the whole chain at the moment, and that is the decline in the number of people who have taken out private health insurance. It's gone from 61% in 1984 to 35% now.

JONES: And we're paying it and it's unaffordable. We've run out of time. Good to talk to you. You've got a long five weeks ahead of you. We wish you well and we'll talk to you again at some point down the track.

HOWARD: Thank you Alan.