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Transcript of interview with Neil Mitchell: Radio 3AW: 10 June 1009: Indian student demonstrations; Federal Election; health Reform; union recruitment; ALP; superannuation; economic eata; Therese.



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Prime Minister of Australia

Interview

Interview with Neil Mitchell - Radio 3AW

10 June 2009

Subject(s): Indian Student Demonstrations, Federal Election, Health Reform, Union Recruitment, ALP, Superannuation, Economic Data, Therese

E&OE

MITCHELL: Prime Minister, good morning

PM: Good morning Neil, sorry I’m late on the program

MITCHELL: No, no, I understand in Melbourne’s weather. The Indian students, more protests overnight, vigilante students in Melbourne trying to protect other Indian students. This needs to calm down. Its’ got an ugly feel to it hasn’t it?

PM: I think what we need to see is a bit of balance in this debate. It’s unacceptable for anyone to commit an act of violence against any student of any ethnicity anywhere in Australia. Chinese, Indian, Callithumpian, Queenslanders, anybody.

Any act of violence. And the truth is, in our cities right across the country, not just Melbourne there are acts of violence every day, that’s just a regrettable part of urban life. That’s one thing. But it’s equally unacceptable for so called ‘reprisal attacks’ and for so called ‘vigilante’ action as well. It’s equally unacceptable for there to be retribution attacks and for there to be vigilante action.

I think everyone needs just to draw some breath on this and I think we need to see a greater atmosphere of general calm. Australia, I’m advised is one of the safest countries in the world for international students, one of the safest countries in the world for international students, let’s get our statistics right here. And furthermore, Australians in India at any time, run a risk also of some violence. When I was looking for data on this only a couple of weeks ago, in the last decade I was advised we had I think up to 20 Australians who had either been murdered or had various forms of assault committed against them.

Now, that’s not the result of Australians being targeted in India, it’s just a fact of violence in cities around the world. As you know, as you’re walking down the streets of Paris or London there’s always a risk that something’s going to happen. So I do think we need some balance in this debate.

MITCHELL: I guess the danger is, the more publicity this has the more chance there is of dangerous elements within the community targeting people because they’re Indian though, because it’s getting that attention, sort of self feeding.

PM: Well, there is that real risk Neil. I think you’re right to point that out. And therefore I fully support hardline measures, hardline measures in response to any act of violence towards any student anywhere Indian or otherwise. And furthermore, we also need to render it completely unacceptable people taking the law into their own hands and believing that retribution attacks or so called vigilante action is the right way to go. As I said, all cities from time to time are going to have acts of violence.

Let’s put this into perspective. And Australia I’m advised on the statistics is one of the safest countries in the world for international students.

MITCHELL: But you’re asking the Indian students to calm down as well here because of the protests in Sydney, another one overnight and the vigilantes in Melbourne.

PM: Well, I believe we need some balance on this. It’s unacceptable for any acts of violence to be committed against Indian students. It’s unacceptable for any student group to believe they can take the law into their own hands and engage in so called retribution attacks or vigilante action, as I said. We need some balance in this and you know what the balancing statistic is, this is one of the safest countries in the world for international students. Let’s put all of this into

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perspective. And let’s also put it into perspective in terms of politicians elsewhere perhaps seeking to inflame this debate as well.

MITCHELL: We’ve got an Indian student who’s called in, if you don’t mind we’ll go straight to that. Hello Mickey, yes Mickey

CALLER 1: Hi Kevin, how are you?

PM: G’day Mickey.

CALLER 1: It’s fantastic to speak to you.

PM: Yeah, it’s good to talk to you mate. Where you from?

CALLER 1: I’m from Melbourne. Otherwise I’m Indian.

PM: Good.

CALLER 1: I just want to ask you, what should Indian people or Indian students should do at this stage where they’ve been bashed (inaudible) and what actions will be taken by the police or what should Indian community should do at this stage? Any message to the Indian community as well.

PM: Let me just say this upfront. In this country Australia, everyone is welcome. Every law abiding citizen of the world is welcome. We pride ourselves on that. We have an open door. And for the more than 200,000 Australians of Indian origin, they are fantastic first class citizens of Australia. I’ve known them for decades and decades in my own community in Queensland. I’ve known them right across Australia.

Secondly, for the 70,000 or 80,000 Indian students in this country, they are equally welcome. If any act of violence is committed against any student in your community, your first and immediate action has to be to get straight on to the police. What I heard in some report yesterday in Sydney, is that the police are sometimes not getting direct and immediate reports of what’s going on. Any act, any threatening act any physical act of violence should be reported immediately.

If there is any concern about lack of follow up, immediately then contact your local member of parliament and demand an answer, okay. So first and foremost go to the right channels, which is the police, who I think in difficult circumstances are doing a good job. Secondly, if you believe that no action has occurred within an immediately reasonable period of time, straight on to your local member of parliament.

CALLER 1: Okay Mickey, thank you very much for calling. One of the underlying things that worries me in what’s happening at the moment is whether we’ve got a future of racial tension. We do have many different races living in Australia as described. It’s all worked pretty well so far. Could this be an indicator of what’s ahead for us?

PM: Neil, I don’t think so. If you look at the whole spectrum of our country over so many, many decades, what is the great defining character of Australia? It’s inherent tolerance. It’s inherent culture of allowing other people to be themselves. Remember with each new wave of immigrants in this country there’s been debates and concerns and they’ve all faded and they’ve all been resolved.

After the war, debates about Italians and Greeks arriving. In the 70s and 80s, debates about Vietnamese arriving. In the 80s and 90s, about Chinese arriving. When the Indians actually arrived, I don’t think anyone knows. But you know something, the country is enormously richer for all of these arrivals, the renewal which comes from them, the vitality.

Look at the contribution of the Indian business community to Australia. So my sense is, right across this vast country of ours we celebrate the diversity and I think occasionally you’re going to have a flare up through a bit of misunderstanding. But let’ just stand back and put it into historical context. This is an enormously tolerant society and I am proud of it.

MITCHELL: (inaudible)

CALLER 2: Hi Neil, how are you going?

MITCHELL: Okay.

PM: (inaudible)

CALLER 2: Hi Kevin, how you doing?

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PM: I’m battling on mate

CALLER 2: Okay, I was an Indian student. I’m now working in Melbourne

PM: Good, are you earning a quid?

CALLER 2: (inaudible) not as a racial one, but as an issue of crime. What cultural (inaudible) the number of arrest that have or have not been made in relation to the incidents. It’s true that Australia is one of the safest countries in the world, but of late, the number of incidents have gone up. What I think is the police are not taking sufficient action

MITCHELL: (Inaudible) the line isn’t great. You’re saying the number of incidents has increased and you don’t think there is enough action from police. Is that your point?

CALLER 2: Yes (inaudible)

MITCHELL: Okay, Prime Minister?

PM: Look, my best advice from our police authorities whether it’s in Victoria or in New South Wales or elsewhere, is they are doing a great job through what at present are quite difficult circumstances. If you in the community, the Indian community, have a number of reported incidents - let’s just say over a given period of time it is X number - what you should do as community leaders is go into your local coppers and say, ‘these have been reported, what action has been taken?’

As I said in the previous caller, if you don’t have a satisfactory response from the police on that, then go to your local member of parliament and demand an answer. That’s the fall back in our system. But I would urge each member of the Indian community and more broadly across Australia - if there is an incident, even a threatening incident which doesn’t physically result in violence, than let the police know, date time and event.

MITCHELL: Thank you for calling, some other issues. Have you told the Party to be on stand-by for a November election?

PM: Absolutely not. We are head-down, tail-up wrestling with the challenge of getting through this global recession. I mean that’s, frankly the last address I had to the Party about implementing the Nation Building for Recovery Plan.

MITCHELL: So it’s not a matter of being ready at any time?

PM: No, we’re head-down, tail-up in terms of getting the roll out of this infrastructure program, 35,000 construction projects by years’ end - making sure that’s happening effectively, without stuff ups on the way through. Let me tell you Neil, that’s a challenge in its self.

MITCHELL: Health, now your election promise was that the buck stops with you.

PM: I thought you were going to ask about mine. No I don’t have swine flu by the way

MITCHELL: I’m pleased.

PM: How are you by the way?

MITCHELL: I haven’t got swine flu either. The buck stops with you. You’re approaching the deadline for the buck stopping which I think was June this year, yet the waiting list figures released today are worse. Now, you’ve given a lot of money to the states and in Victoria in fact it’s gone backwards and NSW and Queensland I think. Other states have made small gains. Is it time for you to assume control of health?

PM: We said we would get a report from Ms Bennett on what’s called a National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission, which is due in the middle of this year, ok. And that’s on the future direction of the entire health and hospital system.

We haven’t received it yet. Once we’ve got it, we’ll work our way through and we’ll announce our course of action once we’ve been through its recommendations. And we may need to do some further work on elements of that as well. But that report is still not in our possession. On the waiting list for, was it elective surgery you just mentioned?

MITCHELL: Yep.

PM: My last advice is the extra money we provided the states has provided in the last year 40,000 additional procedures. That’s 40,000 procedures which would not have happened, that’s nationwide, I can’t give you the breakdown for Victoria.

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MITCHELL: That’s true, but the waiting times have grown.

PM: Sure. What may be happening. This is what may be happening and I can’t give you a definitive answer to this, I’d much rather come back to your program with a detailed breakdown by state and what’s happening in each category, but if you’ve got 40,000 extra procedures occurring - and we’ve provided the money for that and we’ve measured those procedures having happened - is that others are now being added to the queue in even greater numbers. People who were originally discouraged from joining the queue. That may be the causative factor here, I don’t know.

MITCHELL: What will prompt you to step in and say, ‘ok, this is buck stopping with me?’

PM: Well, first of all get this report which will go through trajectories for the future. What most concerns me about the way in which the health and hospital system has been run in the past is rather than co-investing in reducing in waiting times for elective surgery, in reducing waiting times in accident emergency or in allowing people to be in acute hospital beds when they should be in nursing homes, for there to be absolutely clean lines of responsibility between Canberra and the states rather than blurred lines resulting in one side just blaming the other for the problems. Cleaning up that is of fundamental importance. If we cannot clean that up, then course you’ve got to look at more radical action.

MITCHELL: So do you extend the deadline? It was June 2009.

PM: No, we said mid 2009 and we’ve got a report that’s coming. This was commissioned a year or so ago and we haven’t received it. And we’ll work our way through it. Remember, these are very big decisions and we need to be calm, deliberative and decisive about the way in which we intend to proceed and we will.

But this involves the health and wellbeing of all Australians. You’ve got to get your preventative health care strategy right, you know what the impact of chronic diseases, the primary care stuff right, do we have enough support for GP related service, are we dealing with emergency and accident services correctly, or are they being clogged up by people that should be at GPs etc.

MITCHELL: Just another health issue. The rebate for cataract surgery was cut in the budget and it’s going to cost about $400 an eye extra for people that do it now. Why? Why would you target cataract surgery?

PM: Well there are a range of changes to various of the professional fee arrangements through the budget. On the detail of cataracts, I’ll have to get Nicola to come back to you on that as the Health Minister.

Look there have been tough decisions in the budget. Not all of them are popular. I accept that, accept the criticism for it. We rendered all together some $22 billion of worth of savings in the budget, these tough and these hard and many will be unpopular.

MITCHELL: Unions. NSW Unions are going into schools to try and recruit kid. They’re targeting kids 14 to 18, it’s a pilot program. The idea is that the kids pay $10 a month to join the union they get cheap tickets to movies and things like that. It’s a real marketing exercise. Are you comfortable with that?

PM: I saw it for the first time this morning in the newspaper. I’d actually like to get some more information. I mean ultimately, I actually put trust in principals making the right decision in their schools about who comes in to do what, whether you got a representative from an employer organisation to talk in a local commerce course or someone from the union.

I’d rather get the detail first. I think local principals, P&Cs - Parent and Citizens Associations, Parents and Friends Associations should be making these decisions. If there is anything more to be said on that I’ll wait until I get all of the facts.

MITCHELL: On principle, you haven’t got any objection to sort of politics within the school? Because it is certainly political.

PM: Well, you know in any school environment you’re going to have kids who are studying history that turns into politics (inaudible)

MITCHELL: This is signing them up to joining unions.

PM: I was about to get on to that. People who are studying economics, people who are studying commerce, for those sort of things. When it comes to active recruitment join an organisation, active recruitment to join an organisation, I have some alarm bells starting to ring.

But I’d rather get the details first as to what’s going in relation to this, and frankly any other association, for example political parties, Young Labor, Young Liberals, I mean these are kids of quite a young age can join these organisations. The question is whether that sort of activity is appropriate within the school. I’d rather get the detail.

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MITCHELL: Speaking of unions, the Labor Party is traditionally the political wing of the union movement. Who runs the Labor Party now?

PM: Well that’s a great question of political philosophy and history and we’ve got two minutes to answer it, is that right?

MITCHELL: No, no.

PM: The parliamentary party is a broad based church. I represent a tradition of the Australian Labor Party that doesn’t come from the unions. I’ve never worked for a union. I’ve never been a union organiser or anything like that. And you know something, there’s a whole spread of people in the Labor Party that are like that. Equally, there are people who have worked for unions -

MICTHELL: But the unions say you are not representing them.

PM: I was about to say, we for 100 years have come from both these traditions. And from time to time we have a barney about the best way, the best way for the future direction of the party and the movement, and the country. And sometimes we will tell our good friends in the trade union movement, ‘you’ve got it wrong’. Sometimes they’ll tell us we’ve got it wrong.

But I am the Leader of the Parliamentary Labor Party and I’ve been elected by the Australian people as their Prime Minister and I am accountable to the Australian people.

MITCHELL: What about the Labor Party conference? If the Labor Party conference changes its policy, asserts a policy on coercive powers for the building industry watchdog, will you follow that or will you stay with your line?

PM: The Government had an absolutely clear cut commitment prior to the last election about what it would do in terms of the building industry watchdog the ABCC.

MITCHELL: So regardless of the Labor Party conference -

PM: We will be adhering to our pre-election commitment.

MITCHELL: Regardless of the Labor Party conference?

PM: Absolutely. I take absolutely seriously my commitment to the Australian people prior to the last election. It was given explicitly on this question which is that when it came to the future of the building watchdog, that we’d bring about a change in 2010, that it would be folded into another organisation.

We said that, we were very explicit about it, we did not say at the time that we would be abolishing the function altogether. And we intend to abide by our pre-election commitment.

MITCHELL: You could have a union official going to jail under a Labor Prime Minister that would seem extremely unusual. What’s your feeling about that?

PM: Well we are responsible for policing the laws of the Commonwealth of Australia. Whether they are politically convenient or not on a given day is a separate matter but we intend to implement the laws of the Commonwealth equally, without fear and favour and we take seriously our commitments.

The other thing I would say about this Neil is as follows. Are our friends in the trade union movement saying that there have been no problems of improper behaviour in various parts of the construction industry in Victoria and Western Australia? Are they really saying that?

MITCHELL: Is the CFMEU a rogue union?

PM: Can I just say there are real problems and there have been real problems with elements of the construction division of that union in WA and in Victoria. And that is just a fact. And so if there was an expectation that I’m just going to get a broom and sweep that under the carpet, guess what? They’ve got it wrong.

MITCHELL: Superannuation. Do you know if you did go to an election this year and well if you step down next year, do you know what your deal is worth?

PM: I wouldn’t have a clue mate.

MITCHELL: $2 million.

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PM: Right.

MITCHELL: And if you stay around till 52 it is $4.5 million.

PM: Well, first of all the question on my staying around lies in the hands of your good listeners, not in relation to me.

MITCHELL: But is that fair? I mean you’ve cut back superannuation abilities of the average person yet you’ve exempted politicians. Why?

PM: Neil you must have asked this question to my predecessor and probably his predecessor.

MITCHELL: No, no - but you’ve cut it back in the budget and you specifically exempted yourselves.

PM: You know that superannuation laws have been subject to multiple changes over the years. And as far as superannuation entitlements of members of parliament are concerned they’ve been around for a long, long time. Furthermore changes were made in terms of parliamentary superannuation going back about three or five years now I think.

MITCHELL: But that’s only for people who joined (inaudible)

PM: That’s true and that was made absolutely explicit. The rules had changes as of that time.

MITCHELL: But why did your exempt yourselves this time? I mean you’re saying to people you can’t put more than $25,000 in salary sacrifice, yet you didn’t tough your own funds. Why?

PM: The superannuation arrangements for MPs, politicians have been established in law for a long period of time. The changes -

MITCHELL: But so were these for the rest of the population.

PM: Well Neil the laws for superannuation, both under the previous Government and mine from time to time are adjusted. And what we were concerned about is the ultimate sustainability of the taxation treatment of superannuation entitlements at the very upper end.

MITCHELL: But why not consistency? With yourselves. I mean you’ve got 15 percent going in for politicians, maximum of nine percent for the population.

PM: Well as I said, as of the arrangements which have applied for three or five years ago, that has changed. And that was a change brought amid great controversy at the time and as for the other arrangements within superannuation, the vast bulk of Australians now receive or continue to receive the same taxation treatment as before and as far as superannuation earnings are concerned, everyone, everyone out there in the community has taken a huge hit.

MITCHELL: Define benefit.

PM: Everyone out there in the community including those politicians who have come into the system since we changed -

MITCHELL: But not yourself, not Wayne Swan, not anybody before 2004.

PM: The politicians themselves changed the system in 2003-04.

MITCHELL: Okay. Are we seeing a turnaround? The economic figures are good, is it a real turnaround?

PM: Three things I would say. One, as of last week we are the fastest growing economy of the 30 members of the most advanced economies in the world. But we’re still not out of the woods yet.

Two, we have for the first time a tip up in business confidence in the data released yesterday. And three, for the first time, job ads appear to have stabilised at least for this month. We have unemployment numbers out tomorrow. We’re not out of the woods yet.

But what have we got so far? Government economic strategy, we have the fastest growing of the major advanced economies with the lowest debt and the lowest deficit. We’ve still got a long way to go.

MITCHELL: Do you see your wife’s feet in the paper today? (inaudible) in the gym, now they’ve photographed her feet.

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PM: No I haven’t seen that in the paper today.

MITCHELL: How does she feel about all that?

PM: You know every person but can I just say this, every woman I believe in particular, is deserving of some privacy.

MITCHELL: Thank you very much for your time.

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