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Handover to government of the interim report of the Reference Group on Welfare Reform: transcript of press conference, Parliament House, 12.30 pm, Tuesday 28 March 2000



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TRANSCRIPT OF PRESS CONFERENCE WITH SENATOR JOCELYN NEWMAN, MINISTER FOR FAMILY & COMMUNITY SERVICES, AND MR PATRICK McCLURE AT PARLIAMENT HOUSE 12.30PM TUESDAY 28 MARCH 2000

 

HANDOVER TO GOVERNMENT OF THE INTERIM REPORT OF THE REFERENCE GROUP ON WELFARE R EFORM

 

 

SENATOR JOCELYN NEWMAN:

 

Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen.  My job this morning is first of all to introduce to you Mr Patrick McClure, who is CEO of Mission Australia.  And, of course, he has also been the Chair of the Welfare Reform Reference group.  And, can I say at this stage, that I’m very grateful to Mr McClure and his independent committee for the amount of work that has already gone into what is a longer job yet to be finished.

 

Those of you who have had the opportunity to read the report will see that a substantial amount of effort has gone into this.  It is something which will now go out for consultation.  Mr McClure and his reference group will be consulting with the wider community on the report.  And will then be making a final report to government by the end of June.

 

Now, I think it’s very, very significant report and it’s one that - can I say I’m very grateful to the media on the whole for having treated this in the way I asked over the last few months since I first announced we’d go down this route.  Because it is a significantly important area for national discussion.  It is easy to frighten people who are vulnerable, and I think pretty much across the board you’ve all been pretty good and I just want to say I appreciate that.

 

This process is not yet finished, as I’ve said, and we will be getting the final report at the end of June.

 

If I could just now ask Patrick to give you an overview of the report and we’ll move along to questions later.

 

PATRICK MCCLURE:

 

Thank you, Minister.  The interim report is entitled Participation Support for a More Equitable Society.  The process that we’ve engaged in has been very open and transparent and the group has been quite independent of government.

 

There have been consultations with key interest groups.  We’ve received more than 360 submissions from organisations and individuals across the nation.  And we’ve looked at evidence from both Australia and overseas.  And I do stress this is a discussion paper.  There’s further consultations to come, with the final paper in July 2000.

 

Now, the report really outlines a fundamental reform of Australia’s social support system.  And the need for change is quite obvious.  In a time of strong economic growth within Australia, job opportunities are being distributed inequitably so that we find that there are job rich and also job poor households.

 

We find that in some areas high levels of employment and joblessness in other regions.  Many children live in families with no parent in paid work.

 

Secondly, there have been changes in the labour market.  From permanent full time to part-time and casual work.  We see also a high labour market turnover, a decline in some industries for example primary and manufacturing industries;  but a growth in others for example in retail, services and also information industries.

 

And, thirdly, we find too that more people are receiving income support.  There’s an upward trend over the past 30 years and now 1 in 7 Australians are reliant on income support, and we believe that this is often harmful for individuals, for families and communities.

 

A fourth change that’s a driver for this reform is globalisation and technical change - technological changes that have increased the demand for highly skilled workers.  But we find then a mismatch often between the workers that are available and the types of jobs that are going.

 

And, finally, the social support system has not adequately responded to these changes in our world.  We find its complex, its fragmented and there’s often lack of incentives for work.

 

What we are proposing then in this report is a participation support system.  We’re talking about reform of the social support system to encourage what we call social and economic participation.  We really want to ensure that people who are on income support are ready to take advantage of employment opportunities.

 

But I do want to stress that we are maintaining an adequate safety net, and there is no reduction in payments to individuals.

 

We also want to look at very much a preventive and early intervention role because the experience with families is that we can intervene early that often has very good benefits for children particularly.

 

Now, there are five features of this participation support system that we’ve outlined in some detail.  The first is individualised service delivery.  We really want to focus on the individual as they come into the system, with outcomes for that particular individual.

 

We want there to be more personal and flexible assistance than there currently is.  And we want better assessment tools that can determine a person’s capacity and their opportunity for work.

 

Secondly, we’re looking at an income support system that’s simpler and it’s more responsive to individual needs, to circumstances and also to aspirations.  And over the long term, and I stress this because we’re talking about fundamental reform of the social support system, this isn’t a quick fix.  It’s going to happen over many years.

 

And long term we would be looking at designing an integrated income support system.  And we’d be looking at reconceptualising the payments as participation support.

 

A third area  that would be a feature of this new support system is incentives and targeted assistance, or, in other words, making work pay.  And we talk about a return to work benefits, we discuss a participation supplement and even the idea of a participation support account that a person on income support could develop.

 

And also, of course, we take into account and there’ll be further discussions looking at this, on the impact of child care, of transport, of housing as well as, of course, the cost of disability.

 

The fourth feature is social partnerships.  And what we’re trying to say is that government, business and community all have a role to play to maximise opportunities for economic and social participation.  We see a role for community building and regeneration.  There’s some great examples that we cite in the report, and there’s many across Australia.

 

For example, Hyden in Western Australia, a small what they call a self-help town.  Where, in a period of 18 months, they developed 13 new businesses.  And, of course, that has a multiplier effect in terms of jobs and economic growth within that community.

 

We talk also about the Gwydir Valley indigenous employment strategy.  Where there’s a partnership there of local government, of business and community, working together providing employment for 100 indigenous Australians in an area where there’s 65% unemployment rate amongst that population.

 

We’re also talking about Government support for funding of local community building.  Bu t also the notion of social enterprise, which is very important.  Of developing social enterprises and encouraging investment in social venture capital.  And I think that’s going to be particularly important in regional Australia if we’re going to provide opportunities and regeneration in those communities.

 

The final point that we raise is that of mutual obligations where we look at - there’s a role for each of the parties.  Government has an obligation to fund income support and other services, employment, education and community economic development.  Employers also too, and business, has an obligation to generate wealth, to pay taxes, to provide employment including those on income support.

 

And again we give some good examples, for example there’s a John-style [phonetic], a company in Western Australia, where half of the workforce are people with disabilities.  The business is very profitable, employee morale is high.  It’s a good example of a business that takes its corporate citizenship responsibility importantly.

 

Certainly Televentures too is another examples, which is a business that looks for contract for telecentres.  Now, again it’s using high tech and information technology techniques and so on, but it’s for people with disabilities.  And, again, good example of mutual obligation of employers.

 

Thirdly we’re saying communities too have an obligation to provide opportunities for their citizens.  And one example is in Lightning Ridge where the local community development employment program has 308 indigenous participants.  They are taking part in conservation and community services and mix cropping.  There’s accredited training.  So a good example again of community’s mutual obligations.

 

And, finally, we’re saying individuals too have a mutual obligation.  That those expectations though would be established within the context of community values.  They’d be consistent with a person’s aspirations, and also taking account of their capacity and their circumstances.

 

So that really in short is an outline, a brief outline, of the report.  The next steps, as the Minister has already said, is that the final report will be due in July 2000.  The reference group will be continuing consultations, so we’ll be doing that with key groups including consumers, but also government and business.  And we think too that this welfare reform process - and it’s a long journey.  I mean we’re talking about fundamental reform of the social support system well into the 21 st Century.

 

It’s going to be a long journey.  It’s not  a quick fix.  So it will take time.  But we believe that this is a good time to start with a strong economic growth.  But I would stress that it will take a number of years to implement it.

 

That’s really, at this point, all I wanted to say.  And I believe now I present the report to you, Minister.

 

JOCELYN NEWMAN:

 

A formal handover.  Thank you.  Now, you’re all meant to clap and say, ‘this is great’.  Come on.  Okay.  Thanks very much Richard.

 

QUESTION:

 

Mr McClure, how long do you think it will take to implement this radical change that you’ve outlined in your report?

 

PATRICK MCCLURE:

 

Well, we are talking about fundamental reform of the social support system.  So, as I say, I don’t see it as a quick fix.  It’s not something  that’s going to be done in one year or two years, I think it’s going to take quite a considerable period of time.  Because one, the expense that is involved.  But, really, we’re talking about a whole culture change.  It’s a real challenge, I believe, not only to the government and it can be a government of any political persuasion, but it’s also a challenge to the wider Australian community.

 

QUESTION:

 

So doesn’t that suggest it needs to be  almost a bipartisan approach unless you envisage the Coalition Government staying in office for a very long period of time?

 

PATRICK MCCLURE:

 

Well, I would hope that - we would hope that both sides of Government, and I would stress, we are very much an independent group.  We have people that have had many, many year’s experience working in the community sector.  We had people from the academic life as well as people like myself that have served in community organisations for many years.  And so what we were trying to do was to develop really a vision for a social support system that provides social and economic participation opportunities for low income people.

 

My concern is, and as I say our organisation works with some of the most disadvantaged groups in the community.  My concern is that many people are being excluded from the economic growth and the benefits that are being shared around in the Australian community .  Now, this, I believe that this reform presents a new opportunity for those people to enjoy the economic and social participation goals that we set for them.

 

So I would hope that just the good sense of the report, the commonsense of it would appeal to both parties and I’m hoping that through the media, if you can encourage debate and constructive discussion about it, that it will lead to wider acceptance in the community as well.

 

QUESTION:

 

Would it be true to say that you approach is a carrot on a stick and there’s a fair bit of stick in there?

 

PATRICK MCCLURE:

 

No, I wouldn’t say so at all.  I think it’s a very optimistic view of human nature.  Because what we’re saying is that we’re talking about the opportunity for people to participate within the community.  We’re talking about opportunities for them to engage in education, in training options.  We’re looking at ways that they can be engaged also in the community.

 

We’re challenging partnerships between government business as well as the community to be involved and to accept their corporate citizenship responsibilities.  So, no, I don’t see it as necessarily a carrot and stick.  I think it’s really about trying to provide opportunities for Australians.

 

I guess we’re also trying to reconceptualise the debate and in terms of major welfare reform, the notion of a partnerships, looking at incentives, also looking at a simpler and more responsive social support system and individualised assistance.

 

These are really, I guess, new developments.  But I wouldn’t use the blunt instrument of simply carrots and sticks.

 

QUESTION:

 

But [inaudible] your reforms lead to the Government having to spend more money to provide, for ex ample, individual assistance?   More or less?

 

PATRICK MCCLURE:

 

Well, over time we would see that it would obviously - there might be targeted investment with a view to some return.  I mean, certainly - but as I say, this is something for the long term.  And when we come out with our final report, and you need to be aware that there’s further discussions to go.  This is a discussion paper.  The final recommendations will be in  June.  I presume we’ll be talking about recommendations that may be for the long term.  Some for the mediate - medium term, and some that are more immediate.  But it will mean certainly some targeted investment.

 

The other thing I do need to stress  that both the Prime Minister and the Minister have stressed that this is not a cost-cutting exercise.  We’re not looking at reducing pensions or allowances.

 

QUESTION:

 

Mr McClure, could I just clarify those points [inaudible] participation, would they come out of the safety net [inaudible] or would they be on top of them?  Like would that [inaudible]?

 

PATRICK MCCLURE:

 

Well, certainly if you read the text, it says that they would be in addition to.  We’re talking about a participation supplement.  And what it’s really doing is recognising that for many people, you know, there are extra costs associated obviously with employment.  And that might be in the form of transport.  It could be in a range of different ways.  But we were talking certainly about a participation supplement.

 

And also another area - and again it’s for discussion  a return to work benefits that we’re looking at.  And already overseas for instance in Canada and Ireland that works particularly well.  And what we’re trying to do and what we’ve tried to do is look overseas, particularly to the UK and the OECD because there’s many initiatives that’s going on there.  But to look at what seems to be good that’s been practised overseas but then look at - well, let’s try and make it, you know, very much adapted to the Australian culture and make it our own Australian way of providing social support. 

 

Excuse me.  This one here, I’m sorry?

 

QUESTION:

 

What is your program of work?  How much is, or would you expect to be able to put into effect [inaudible] couple of years once you get time [inaudible]

 

SENATOR NEWMAN:

 

Well, I’m glad that Patrick mentioned short term, middle term and long term, because that was how I would see it needing to be addressed.  There will be things, I guess, when we get the final report, that we’ll see are possible to do fairly early on.  I think there’s quite more things that will have to have a whole of government response to this.  As Minister for Family and Community Services I have taken the lead on this issue because I’m the person who spends $50 billion on income support and services.  But others of my colleagues also have an interest in this, and so it’ll be a whole of government response, and it’ll need implementation across government with whatever recommendations we accept and work to achieve.

 

So there will be work coming on stream all the time, I would think, in several departments to achieve medium term goals.  And to be working long term for the things which can only be, as you read in the report, if we go down some of the proposals it will be quite a long time before you could see some of them implemented.

 

But that doesn’t mean to say that that is government dragging its feet.  It’s just recognising the reality of an income support scheme on which we have many millions of people already dependent.  And if you’re going to change that you have to do things in a very gradual way.

 

QUESTION:

 

This is rated as a discussion paper.  Do you broadly endorse the thrust in this paper?

 

SENATOR NEWMAN:

 

I endorse the concept of participation.  It’s the sort of thing I’ve talked about for a long time.  Because to me it’s been a terrible waste to have so many Australians that were effectively excluded from a full involvement in and enjoyment of the richness of society.  And so opportunities, as you’ve heard Patrick talk about a number of times today.  To me that’s really critical to give people opportunities.  And there are some people who have been getting very few opportunities out of the existing system.

 

We tend, over many years, to have said ‘there’s some money.  Go away and don’t bother us.  We’ve done our bit by you.’  And really, that’s excluded people from the wider involvement in the community.

 

So a focus on opportunities and a focus on participation to me is the appropriate direction if we’re going to protect people from exclusion.

 

QUESTION:

 

[Inaudible] in this discussion paper and this reference group report could be trialed following the May budget.  Can you tell us which ones would be?

 

SENATOR NEWMAN:

 

No.  Sorry.

 

QUESTION:

 

Will there be any trialed?

 

SENATOR NEWMAN:

 

No, I can’t tell you now what I’m doin g - what we’re doing as a result of the budget.

 

QUESTION:

 

Will some of those be trialed?

 

SENATOR NEWMAN:

 

It could be, but I can’t - I can’t talk to you about the budget, you [inaudible]

 

QUESTION:

 

Senator, you seem to be suggesting that single parents should have to upgrade their participation once their child enters primary school rather than waiting until they’re 16.  Is that the case?

 

PATRICK MCCLURE:

 

No, no, if you would read the report closely you would find that we haven’t really talked in detail about any of the groups that are receiving income support.  What I really want to stress is to lift the level of the debate and the discussion to what’s much more high level and strategic and that is fundamental reform of the social support system.

 

So we’re talking about for an individual that were to come into the system, there’d be much more individualised assistance given to that person.  We would be looking at what is their life circumstances.  What’s their capacity?  We’d be saying, “Look, there would be an ability to get income support, but look, we want to provide opportunities for you.  It may well be at this particular point in your time that social participation is - is the most appropriate.  So that may well mean caring for children, or caring for a person who is disabled or caring for a frail, aged person.  I mean - or engaging in some community activity.” 

 

But at a certain point we would also say too, just again for the sake of an individual and their children, that it may be useful to look at part-time work opportunities.  Let’s look at casual work opportunities.  Let’s see are there training programs that you can be involved with?  What about, you know, other education forms? 

 

See, I’m particularly concerned about the 160,000 families with dependent children where neither parent is employed.  I think they are missing out on - they’re being excluded from the benefits of what’s a rapidly changing world.  And so what we’re stressing is opportunities for individuals to engage socially in the community.  And where appropriate and where there’s the capacity, let’s look at them engaging in the labour market.  And that is the economic participation.

 

QUESTION:

 

And what is the appropriate point?  When the child enters primary school or [inaudible]?  Is it worked out on individual person’s life?

 

PATRICK MCCLURE:

 

Absolutely.  It would be a particular individual’s life circumstance.  Now, we would need to take into account that individual’s - exactly where they were at.  What their responsibilities were.  I guess the number of children, what age they were.  What there circumstances were.  But we’re not - the report doesn’t - I mean we don’t go down to that level.  And I want to keep the debate higher than that at this - as I say, this fundamental report for reform of social support.  Yeah.

 

QUESTION:

 

How do you keep the debate higher than that when people don’t  actually know the implications for their own lives?  For example, you talk about the potential, complete withdrawal of income support as a last resort where people have the capacity to participate and when there’s no reasonable basis for non-compliance.  Whose that aimed at?  Is that aimed at people currently on disability pensions and people on sole parent or the parenting payment?  Who could be affected by this?  And in what nuts and bolts ways?

 

PATRICK MCCLURE:

 

Well, that’s exactly what we’re not doing at this point in time.  What I’m trying to - what we have here is a discussion paper.  What we’re trying to look at is fundamental reform of the social support system.  We’re saying, and that’s part of it, that there’s a mutual obligation.  But we’re also talking about an obligation on government.  We’re talking about an obligation on business and on community and on individuals.

 

And for some individuals…

 

QUESTION:

 

[Inaudible] some of these, apart from the individuals, none of the others can be compelled [inaudible] none of the others, the business, the community or the government can be compelled? The individual can be compelled.

 

PATRICK MCCLURE:

 

Well, I guess there’s government there is, because they provide - you know, to provide income support and to provide the range of support service as they currently do with employment, education and training and so on.  But in relation to the individual, no.  What we’re saying is that with each individual and taking - rather than having them in a category, in a rigid category, it would depend on the circumstances and the capacity of that particular individual as to whether they were ready to engage in either social or economic participation.

 

Now, if that person - if it seemed that they did have the capacity, there were the circumstances for them to be involved in part-time or full time or casual work then it would be reasonable to expect that that person took up that opportunity.

 

QUESTION:

 

Because that will give a lot of power to the people on ground level assessing these individuals there.  Much more than exists at the moment?

 

PATRICK MCCLURE:

 

Well…

 

SENATOR NEWMAN:

 

Can I say there’s already is discretion there in quite a number of areas.  And what you are talking about is something which is not foreign to the social security system.  But I personally find the idea of being more individualised attractive, and that’s why already Centrelink has moved to a one on one to one arrangement whereby you come in for help and you will continue to be helped by that one person.

 

Now, that is quite new in the way Centrelink is administering payments now.  It’s already starting to show good results where people don’t have to keep repeating their story over and over again to a succession of strangers.  There’s fewer mistakes happen because they develop a relationship where things are more accurate as a result.

 

It’s something that you could well build on to be treating individuals as individuals rather than as categories.

 

QUESTION:

 

Yes, but this is different point, isn’t it?  I mean [inaudible] . . .

 

SENATOR NEWMAN:

 

Well [inaudible] together . . .

 

QUESTION:

 

Yes but the point is that presumably you’d have to have reasonably generalised rules or else you would run the risk of a quite arbitrary system and [inaudible] to that. 

 

There is also a second question, in getting people into participation would you [inaudible] need to have reasonable choice, that you wouldn’t just say, well this person has to [inaudible] or whatever.  How much choice do you envisage?

 

PATRICK MCCLURE:

 

Well certainly the report stresses that, that it would be very much dependent on the choice of individuals, the aspirations of that individual, the capacity and the potential to either engage . . .

 

QUESTION:

 

[inaudible]

 

PATRICK MCCLURE:

 

I certainly wouldn’t see it as arbitrary at all.  But what I want to stress is that we’re getting down into a lot of detail - into detail that isn’t intended in this discussion paper.  We’re looking again - and I stress this - at broad directions for reform. 

 

There’s still - what we want to do is have this as a discussion paper to lead to quite a degree of constructive discussion within the community, we want to do further consultations and then certainly in July we’ll be making more specific recommendations t o Government, both of a long-term nature, but some that may well be taken up fairly quickly.

 

QUESTION:

 

[inaudible] underlying assumption of your report that parenthood, and particularly single parenthood, is not a full-time [inaudible], is not valued by society, and that incentives should be used sooner rather than later to get single parents to put their children in child-care and get them [inaudible]

 

PATRICK MCCLURE:

 

Not it’s not - that’s not the spirit of the report at all, and I’m surprised, having read it, that . . .

 

QUESTION:

 

That’s the way I read it.

 

PATRICK MCCLURE:

 

Did you?  Well you’re welcome to your opinion, but it certainly wasn’t on the mind of the reference group, and certainly isn’t part of my own experience.  I’m very, very conscious from our services in some of the most disadvantaged parts of Sydney of families at risk and the difficulties that are facing parents, including lone parents and raising children.  We’re very, very conscious of that.

 

But I come back to the point that if - unless there is an intervention, unless these individuals are assisted with opportunities for social and economic participation, they’d become increasingly excluded.  And this isn’t just an - these problems just aren’t in Australia, they’re across the world. 

 

It’s very interesting looking at the UK, with Tony Blair’s new deal for communities, is looking at much the same sort of thing where - by looking at partnerships between business, government and community to provide opportunities for people.

 

There are interventions with people on income support right across OECD nations to look at ways that we can provide targeted training, assistance, so that these people are able to participate more fully within the community.  I guess we’re talking about issues of social cohesion, of building social capital here that are very, very important, I think, to the future of Australia.  And the last thing, certainly, on the mind of myself or on the reference group is that we’re trying to penalise particular individuals that are on income support.

 

QUESTION:

 

How do you protect individuals who have dependants?  Or how do you protect the dependants of individuals who may not wish to participate in either the incentives of in the sanction regime that may be implement?  How do you protect those dependants from suffering because they may have a dysfunctional parent?  The parent may have drug/alcohol problems, may have . . .

 

SENATOR NEWMAN:

 

How do you protect them now?

 

QUESTION:

 

. . . mental health problems.  But if you offer them these incentives, with the underlying suggestion that there are also sanctions if they don’t take them up.  How do you protect their dependants?

 

PATRICK MCCLURE:

 

Well I think it’s a good question that you ask, and it’s one that we are continually confronted with within Mission Australia every day.  How do we protect the children?  How do we protect the 860,000 children that are in houses that - where neither parent’s engaged in work.  How do you protect children against domestic violence?  These are deep issues that confront all of us, and I certainly . . .

 

QUESTION:

 

But you haven’t addressed that in the report have you?  You talk about sanctions;  there is a very brief section on sanctions which is fairly non-specific, but it doesn’t even address the question of . . .

 

SENATOR NEWMAN:

 

But don’t you understand that . . .

 

QUESTION:

 

. . . dependants of those people to whom those sanctions may apply.

 

SENATOR NEWMAN:

 

But those kids are uppermost in my mind when I wanted this review to be done.  Because they are suffering now, and they are suffering into the - they’re suffering . . .

 

QUESTION:

 

[inaudible]

 

SENATOR NEWMAN:

 

No, no, no, but you see you focus on sanctions.  Really the important thing is, is the current situation okay, or must we do something about it?  And I believe that we must do something about it because these kids are not only living in poverty now, many of them, most of them, but they also have the potential to live in poverty into the next generation and the next generation.  That’s what we’re doing to kids now by having an acceptance that they can be in households with nobody in work for all their rearing years.  You know, that is the problem we’re trying to address.

 

QUESTION:

 

Senator, given that it is an interim report, can you give us an initial reaction?  Do you endorse the general directions of [inaudible]?  Are they [inaudible]?  Are they [inaudible]?  Are they [inaudible]?

 

SENATOR NEWMAN:

 

Well, it is a very substantial report and there’s a lot of stuff in it.  And I certainly have made it clear already that the general direction is very acceptable to me personally.  I think the participation focus, the social coalition focus - I’m delighted, for example, that the Business Council are featured in the report in one area, talking about what they can and should be doing as - in community strengthening, because in my portfolio I’m about strengthening families and strengthening communities to help strengthen families.  And so I am very much at ease with that direction.  It is significant. 

 

We are not the only country that’s been grappling with these issues.  Other people have different solutions.  I think we do need, as Patrick said, an Australian solution.  So this is a discussion paper and the Government is not committing itself to the - what detail you’ve got in here, but we do like - or I certainly very much like the direction.

 

QUESTION:

 

[inaudible] cost-cutting exercise [inaudible] Government [inaudible] child care [inaudible]

 

SENATOR NEWMAN:

 

Was that to me was it?  Oh I’m sorry I thought to Mr McClure. 

 

Well it is - the report has made it very clear that there may well be need for investment in people in the short term to achieve other goals, long term.  Now that is humane and I think that we must consider that direction.  But any more than that I can’t say yet until we get the final report.

 

QUESTION:

 

The report makes it a very direct point of the need not to single out welfare recipients as passive, non-contributors.  I’d just like to ask:  how do you rate the Government’s record on this?  You’ve expressed the need not to frighten people, and yet we’ve had Minister Abbott last year labelling “job-snobs”, etcetera.  Has the Government been guilty of this [inaudible] raising hysteria over this?

 

SENATOR NEWMAN:

 

No I don’t think so.  I don’t talk like that.  I’m the Minister responsible. 

 

Thank you.