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Transcript of Question and Answer session following the Leader of the Opposition's address to the National Press Club: National Press Club: 12 April 2005: Government control of the Senate; Polls, Infrastructure, Regional rorts; Reserve Bank; Government accountability; Additional Troops to Iraq; Opposition policies.

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Subjects: Government control of the Senate; Polls, Infrastructure, Regional rorts; Reserve Bank; Government accountability; Additional Troops to Iraq; Opposition policies

JOURNALIST: You’ve laid out for us today the challenges that Labor faces in the new Parliament when the Government controls both houses but not a lot of detail about how you’re going to combat that, other than this Wastewatch Committee, which sounds like a State Government (inaudible). How is it going to

operate? What will it do? And why is it necessary for front benchers doing this job?

BEAZLEY: We are blessed in this Parliament with a very good frontbench and a very good backbench. This is going to be, to get rid of this Government, requires an all court press, as they say in the classics, and an all court press will involve all of us. We have, on the backbench, a number people with very considerable experience in Government and great knowledge of what goes on inside it. Now hitherto Wastewatch committees at the State level have been finding out about the odd bunch of flowers sent by Ministers to their girlfriends, or boyfriends, as the case may be - female Ministers. But that is not what this is about.

I mentioned gothic irresponsibility fiscally; well we have gothic irresponsibility and the things that Wastewatch committees normally concern themselves with. Take the regional rorts, it’s a $400 million plus program - the real savings to be obtained here. We really do need people with some considerable expertise in government to actually read right what is happening here, what proprieties are being disturbed, what is not being effectively done. So, the Wastewatch Committee, when it goes in place after July 1st, will have a lot of work to do and will have a lot of people working to it.

I think part of the thing that I have to do is one of the things I’m doing here today. That is alerting others who have responsibilities in the accountability area to where the dangers lie and what we must do. For us to make question time work, well we can do things in the Parliament, we can pursue tactics that punish folk

who use it as a political spin sounding board and we will do those things. But when we start to do those things we also need an understanding in those who report on us as to what it is we’re up to. By stressing the importance and significance of what we’re doing, now that the institutional alternatives and checks and balances in this community are now so weak, what it will be necessary for one section which is potentially is not weak - namely yourselves - to do to assist the process.

JOURNALIST: During your speech you spent plenty of time attacking the arrogance of a nine year old government, which I suppose is fair enough in this point in the cycle, but one of the criticisms of your leadership in the past was that you had a small target policy approach. Apart from just being an alternative, I think people are expecting some detailed policy. When do you plan to deliver that detail?

BEAZLEY: As I said here, we’ll put out policies right throughout this term. What I’m trying to do here is to get into the Australian political process a maturity in analysis of politics. I think we have not had - and it’s not just the last nine years but over the last few decades - we’ve not had a real comprehension of what Oppositions are supposed to do. There are many people at fault here and those of us who’ve led Oppositions in the past are at fault as well. There is a sort of assumption that they are actually a hovering government, you know, that they’re out there in escrow, if you like, or in a special shrine, in which they sit there with that cooking pot in front of them and they pour out the alternative policies and the government gets on with its business. But, no, that’s not what an Opposition is. An Opposition is at the core of the system. An Opposition is there to give the system integrity. An Opposition should be judged, in the first instance, not on a clever alternative policy, but on the effectiveness in which it holds the government accountable on its policies. That’s what makes the Westminster system work. We don’t have to have a Westminster; we could go to the US system in which the legislature is a co-equal administrative body, if you like, with the Government. In which case the legislators, be they Liberal or Labor, would get about doing their business of putting up their own legislation and that sort of thing and the administration would attempt to do deals with them and the like. We didn’t choose to have that system. We chose to have a different system. We chose to have the one developed in the United Kingdom and for that, the Opposition is integral. It’s an alternative government really only in the six weeks prior to an election. In the interim period it holds the critical role of holding the government accountable. Now, we will put out our policy and continue to do that - and we’ve already made one or two pronouncements on that - and you’ll see more over the next six to nine months and a lot more over the next three years. But that’s not how we should be tested. We should be tested on how we perform our real role in the Westminster system; giving the government curry when it does the wrong thing.

JOURNALIST: The recent poll to which Stephanie referred earlier showing the Opposition ahead on 51 to 49, the two-party preferred vote, must have been very heartening to you and even more so, the important (inaudible) group over 40 per cent of the primary vote. That same poll gave 52 per cent of people

preferring John Howard as Prime Minister to your 31 per cent. To what extent do you think this reflects, for instance, the March interest rate hike rather than people preferring a Labor government, and how important do you think that measure is? What do you think the Labor Party will have to do to improve that preferred PM figure?

BEAZLEY: One of the things that politicians have to do, and they always say they have to do it and they never succeed, but they really do have to ignore the polls - because they are totally ephemeral. There’ll be a hundred of these

polls between now and election day. What politicians have to do is to strategise where the country needs to be, point out where the government’s failing to get there, if they happen to be Opposition politicians, and how they will ultimately, you’ll move from how the government’s failing to get there to how you will gradually as the term unfolds.

Now, that’s what we have to do and we have to not worry about how necessarily people are thinking about us on a day-to-day basis because quite often those polls do reflect the nightly television news services of the previous three days. That’s the truth of the matter. And you can get quite dramatic fluctuations in the polls whereas people are moving much more slowly.

I think there is, however, a public desire that we hold the Government accountable. They want us to do that and we get kudos whenever we do. So, what we have to do is to convince the public that we’re doing the job that they expect we will and if we do, at the end of the day preferred Prime Ministers, well all this sort of thing, doesn’t really matter. It becomes the preferred government. Who do you want to govern you? The Labor Party or the Liberal Party? That will be the telling thing that will count on polling day.

JOURNALIST: You talked about infrastructure. What is your policy on the use of the future of fund? Could it be infrastructure projects, indeed things like public housing or that which is just sure safe on national investment?

BEAZLEY: We’re looking at all the funding options in relation to national infrastructure because it is going to be critical to us and we don’t rule anything in or out. That’s an issue that we are looking at at this moment and have not reached a conclusion on. One thing we have reached a conclusion on is this: we agree with the Reserve Bank and the OECD, and for that matter, we discover in the last week or so, the BCA. There actually has to be national leadership on infrastructure. We need to provide that. That means we have to put money into the pot. That means we have to provide a sense of coherence among the various efforts that are being made by the States and we have to determine what

is essential in the infrastructure for the national economy, and, of course, we’ll have to find the resources to be able to do that. So, one of the things that we will be looking at is precisely what you’re talking about and in due course we’ll be making announcements on that. We’re also looking at incentives in relation to superannuation funds and we’re looking just directly at, off the Budget, at the Commonwealth funding.

JOURNALIST: You spoke about the evils of pork rorts and the need for the Opposition more than ever to be a guard for integrity in national life. Would a Labor Party going into the next election refuse to offer anything in the way of regionally-based pork rorts of the kind that seen in the last election?

BEAZLEY: We have to fight our opponents. We will do what we need to do fight our opponents and beat them and then we’ll change everything. I think, frankly, I think regional funding, there is a case to be made for resources to go to regional areas for there to be an improvement in the efficiency of the national economy, there’s no question about that. But there should be an independent judgement on those things. It shouldn’t simply be the Ministers who decide willy-nilly, without any proper criteria, what ought to happen.

We’re not talking about small bickies here. We’re talking about a $400 million program. We’re talking about AusLink, it’s multiples of that. We’ve got quite a big pot which is now being more and more redirected for the purpose not of getting serious outcomes, but of getting, you know, those Joe Blows’ elected, or not elected, as the case may be, the bribes don’t always work.

So, we will not be silly enough to deny ourselves the capacity to defeat our opponents. But when we get into office we’re going to approach it with the same consciousness that I remember that the Hawke and Keating governments had in their day. We took one step back from where we were in government and our own electorate and said, ‘this country’s in serious trouble. We will have to toss over many of the sacred cows we’ve herded and milked over the years and we are going to have to do the right thing by the nation in the national interest and take our lumps’.

There was once in this country a government that did that thing. It wasn’t altogether perfect and it did do political things but by and large it spent its political capital on the national interest and died for it. Now, that’s not this mob. They accumulate the political capital of the general polity and spend it for themselves. We’ve got to stop that. We’ve got to end it and we’ve also got to beat them.

JOURNALIST: Mr Beazley, what sort of independent inquiry are you talking about in relation to the Reserve Bank affair? And are you surprised that they took seven months to speak out? Should they have broken their silence during the election campaign?

BEAZLEY: It really would have been helpful if they had. That would have been an absolute ripper. Now, I also don’t want to be silly about it, you know. An election campaign is a complex event and merely because you’ve tumbled one piece of chicanery by your political opponents doesn’t mean you’re going to win. They can drop the spurious advertising and get on with the business of libelling you in some other way and you actually have to be effective in your defence of that. So, I’m not crying stinking fish here. As a sort of political aficionado, as well as a practitioner, it’s nice to think of horrible events happening to your opponents and how delectable they would have been. But that’s sort of off to one side.

I think the inquiry ought to be done, as these inquiries are, ex police commissioner, ex judge, someone who’s got a bit of sense and judicial capacity, and we need it for one reason: not to embarrass the Liberal Party per se, that would be an ancillary benefit, it would be to so humiliate the process that we never do this again - not us, not them - in relation to the Reserve Bank, that we do not traduce these institutions simply to get ourselves into office.

You know, I think one of the things that worries me about the contemporary climate is when I was elected to Parliament in 1980, these were all powerful institutions, powerful checks and balances - Reserve Bank and the board of the Reserve Bank, the heads of the Public Service - they were not the political puppets of the government of the day. The ABC was not traduced and oppressed, with folk put on the board with a particular ideological hue to tell the journalists what’s expected of them. It was a different world then.

Fraser, when he had the majority in the Senate, had to confront a nation where powerful institutions were being built. All these institutions have been weakened by the Howard Government and people cowed by the feeling that there’ll be

disapproval if they go the wrong road, that includes a lot of journalists as well. They will fight back and that’s what we’re going to do and this inquiry would be a big help in us being able to do that.

JOURNALIST: You’ve spoken for half an hour today about why you want to be Opposition Leader, could you answer the more important question, why do you want be Prime Minister?

BEAZLEY: I want to be Prime Minister of this country because I think we have the ideas and direction we know need for the next phase of what generates economic growth. I said at one election campaign I wanted to be an education Prime Minister. I’ll amend that. I want to be a education, skills and innovation Prime Minister so people have absolutely clear what it is that we need right now. The struggle for microeconomic reform, if you like, in your community never ceases but it never stays the same.

Howard now talks about industrial relations. Really, that’s puerile. The industrial relations lemon has been squeezed dry. All that had to happen in industrial

relations was to get productivity-based wage bargaining combined with enterprise bargaining so that wages were determined by the firm and wage increases were determined by productivity. You’ve had four or five agreements now, enterprise agreements, in most of the places where the collective bargaining takes place, there aren’t any inefficiencies left: gone, they’re all gone. In the other areas where it’s an individual contract the employers in this country can pretty much do what they like in that area anyway.

And if you look at productivity in the workforce there are 15 countries ahead of us in labour productivity according to the Productivity Commission. Every one of them has more restrictive work practices than Australia, every one of them. So,

the question arises, what’s wrong? And the answer is simple. It’s skills and innovation. Therefore, as Prime Minister, that’s what I’d want to pursue and it’s not a one-off and it’s not the odd inquiry. It is how you systematically devote

yourself for three years and more. The same applies to infrastructure. It’s building the nations so the nation survives. It’s getting the population policies in place so that we have the right balance and we don’t actually go into the business of an ageing population producing an un-defensible community. These are things that as Prime Minister I’d want to confront.

It’s ecological sustainability when there is a wreckage around our environment that you cannot sustain for another century, it’s how you actually deal with that. We are just off the agenda of Australia now we’re on to the Liberal Party’s toy-pit

and the time has come to duck-shove them out of it get them into the business of thinking anew about their country. Get their patriotism back into them not just their Liberal Party particularity. I think that’s a hopeless thing to do, really in the end, better to elect us and that’s what we’ll do.

JOURNALIST: I wasn’t sure, one of the things in the speech I wasn’t sure what it actually meant. You said, ‘if this was another country it would be corrupt’, you were talking about the Regional Partnerships and that the IMF would be called in, are you saying the Government is corrupt and should the IMF be called in?

BEAZLEY: No, I’m arguing by analogy. We look around, it’s not a million miles from home in the region around us and we’re always giving lectures to people on accountability. We’re always giving lectures to people in the region that utilise public funds for their own political purposes. You take a look at Australia now, hundreds of millions of dollars into government advertising, hundred of millions of dollars into infrastructure programs to support government. You know, the twisting and turning of more programs in their favour, take another billion dollars now being out for the organisation of members of parliament to get resources into schools. All of it, not with any independent board assessing all these sorts of things, like a National Infrastructure Council, but all of it to be determined in the end in the Minister’s office. We’re talking about billions of dollars, billions.

Go and think about the complaints that are made about countries in regions not a million miles from us and what we worry about in terms of governments who use the public purse basically to get themselves re-elected. And take account of those billions of dollars up against public funding of political parties which is an important counter to corruption in this country. The fact that, in federal politics, parties are dependent by and large, on the votes they get and the money that they receive as a result of those votes is a great check on corruption in this country. But what does it produce for the Labor Party? The last time it produced $16 million and I presume about the same for that for the Liberal Party. It is small change compared to the billions that governments are now spending to defend themselves but those billions are the resources that could go into skilling the population and a real infrastructure program.

We would point the finger, if a country around us ran into economic trouble we’d point the finger at any program that looked like any of these programs, that’s the truth of it. If we were being invited in to provide a loan or assist with the World Bank or the IMF, the first thing we would demand in the budget of any nation in the region around us, is that those portions of the budget being used by politicians to advance their own interests at election time go. That’s the first thing we’d do and having set that as a standard, it’s the first thing we should do.

JOURNALIST: You’ve repeatedly opposed Mr Howard’s decision about two months ago to send the troops to Iraq, the extra 450, they’re about to leave. Will your farewell message to those troops include the fact you don’t think they should be going?

BEAZLEY: They already know that. My farewell message to the troops will be that as far as the Labor Party is concerned we will do everything in our power to ensure that they are properly resourced and properly supported while they’re there. If that means the provision of additional equipment, we’ll support that too and I think it actually does. I think it’s very unwise to be deploying these troops without an accompanying helicopter contingent associated with them, to operate with them. When I say these things, Howard says I walk both sides of the street, he says: well you say Mr Beazley - Downer says it more that he does - he says: you say Mr Beazley our troops shouldn’t be going there, but then Mr Beazley you say that the troops aren’t being properly equipped, the troops aren’t getting enough, there should be more troops by implication in what you say. And he says that’s both sides of the street.

That’s puerile, what it is: is commonsense. If you’re going to put your troops in danger you put them in danger only with the best possible support for them. Now, they go into that area and they have to bid for what is described as

divisional assets located in Basra, I hope they don’t get involved in a big fire fight because they are not heavied up. They don’t have tanks, they don’t have artillery and they don’t have attack helicopters and these would be awfully useful if they

get into a big fight. These are the things we will concern ourselves with when it says you bid for divisional assets, well, how easy is it to bid for those divisional assets? How available are they going to be and in what circumstances? My message to the troops would be this: we think that the Government has wrong priorities here, but we also understand that you, loyally do your job and we would want you to loyally do a job for us, so we will honour your moral commitment by making your personal commitment by our moral commitment by making absolutely certain you want for nothing. That’ll be my message to the troops.

JOURNALIST: Mr Beazley, we live in a time when our electorate is deeply cynical about politics and politicians and at a State level we’ve heard from the Labor Party over the course of the last decade telling us that if they were in government they would be more accountable and less arrogant and less in love with secrecy in government and there’d be no special deals for mates and then, sure enough, when they get into government many of the same rules apply, it’s politics as usual. Why should punters believe that you would be any different in government?

BEAZLEY: Well, they do have to take us on trust. I suppose there’s no getting around that and it is true that the Labor Party is as capable of breaking an election promise as the Liberal Party is, you promise to be different and you hope that you would be. I think the best answer to it, apart from the role that all of you perform, is to actually have a set of legislation that you would put in place to have yourself governed by. A better FOI Act, a better Act on controlling how governments use advertising, you’ve got to actually put around yourself a few impediments and that’s what we would do. We’d put a few impediments around

ourselves, I’m not saying that there wouldn’t be a thrust to try to get this and that argument up when you’re in government, that seems, in a way, only natural. The question is how you’re checked and a set of bits of legislation usually does it. Make the hurdles a bit too high to jump over.

JOURNALIST: Just harking back to the earlier question about when you would be putting your positive side, offering policies and detailed policies. You mentioned the six week period of the election campaign, do you still feel constrained by the funding requirements placed on Treasury and does this mean that we won’t see truly detailed policies until the election campaign?

BEAZLEY: It doesn’t mean you won’t see truly detailed policies. You’ll see that but you do appreciate, I think, that most people who are political writers now understand this that the way that so-called Charter of Budget Honesty operates and the fact that all the budget numbers get revised and put out about two weeks into the campaign really makes it virtually impossible for an Opposition to produce a detailed costed policy until well into the campaign. It’s just a simple fact of the matter, there’s no running away from that, there’s nothing

else you can do.

I do think that short of the final numbers you can well before the six weeks of an election campaign, have very clearly in the public mind what it is you’ll do. I think what my objective would be: would be to get a very clear cut figure in the public mind in such a way as to say: all of that final set of numbers will do is indicate the pace at which we can do it. That’s the position I’d want to be in before that final phase of the election campaign.

JOURNALIST: AC Nielsen today found that most Australians believe, by a factor of almost two to one, I think that John Howard is doing a better job as Prime Minister than Peter Costello is doing as Treasurer, do you agree with them? If I can do a quick double barrel, right through the period of the Labor Government, the Democrats amongst others were demanding truth in political advertising, is it not a fact that if we did have truth in political advertising, then your complaints about the Reserve Bank would have a much better recourse in terms of being pursued and even prosecuted, and until you commit yourself to that, aren’t you just a clanging symbol?

BEAZLEY: Until we can pass the legislation all we are is a sounding claxon, a warning, a toxin to the public about what is really necessary in this country. I think the truth of the matter is you wouldn’t actually need it, truth in advertising if the Reserve Bank, the fact that the Reserve Bank had approached the Electorate Commission with public knowledge, it wouldn’t matter what the judgment of some independent body was about whether or not there was truth in the advertising. I think getting definitions of that is always difficult, that may be the way to go and it’s something that we’ll take a look at. It may be the way to go I think you’ll probably find it’s a bit hard to actually get a sensible set of criteria down, you just rely on the capacity of other sections of the system to provide checks and balances when that comes through. So, we certainly would want to operate with a level of integrity in the election campaign that would be different from that of our political opponents. I’ve forgotten what the first part of your question was.

JOURNALIST: John Howard is doing a better job-

BEAZLEY: Oh, doing a better job, yes, it’s easy for me to forget that. I think the pair of them are joined at the hip when it comes to operating this government. They are both complicit in it. It is true that John Howard has trashed Peter Costello’s reputation as a Treasurer, I mean, I didn’t agree with one the things that he did in his first three budgets. The first three budgets were

Treasurer’s budget, the last seven budgets have, in fact, been whatever John Howard wanted for his own political interests and it must have been a total humiliation for somebody who once had a reputation as a Treasurer to have to put up with all of that. There’s not much of him left really after seven budgets worth of trashing by John Howard and really they’re joined at the hip, politically, it doesn’t matter which one we confront, I think they would both present a similar sort of target to us at the next election campaign. I think John Howard is pretty

played out, I do expect that it’s more likely than not I’ll be confronting Peter Costello as Prime Minister of this country but compared to what he was a few years ago as a political individual, he’s a very worn husk of a man.