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Transcript of doorstop interview of the Opposition Leader, Kim Beazley, MP: Opposition Leader's Courtyard, Parliament House, Canberra: 6 March 2005: Skilled workforce shortages; training; Iraq; Lebanon; Visit to Australia by the Malaysian Prime Minister; States/GST.

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Subjects: Skilled workforce shortages; training; Iraq; Lebanon; Visit to Australia by the Malaysian Prime Minister; States/GST

BEAZLEY: There’s a major point of difference emerging between the Government and the Opposition in this country now - a major point of difference on priorities. Their priority, the Government’s priority, is to import skilled workers. Labor’s priority is to train Australians. We’ve got a skills shortage in this country now because the Government dropped the ball on vocational education and training. Let’s make no mistake about that. The Government dropped the ball on vocational education and training.

John Howard, this morning on TV, said that the issue here was growth in the Australian economy outstripping skills. That’s not true. The reason that there is a shortage now is that there is no growth money for skills training, no growth money for skills training in Commonwealth budgets.

So here we have the major difference in priorities in this critical economic area. Their priority, the Government’s priority, is to import skilled workers. Labor’s priority is to train Australians.

JOURNALIST: Mr Beazley, do you think Mr Howard made a slip of the tongue when he said if we were ever to pull out of Iraq or do you fear Australians will be there for a long time?

BEAZLEY: John Howard’s got no exit strategy on Iraq, that is pretty clear. He’s sending forces into Iraq with no real plan as to how they’re to be utilised, with none of the support in that heavy military environment that is Iraq, that they need to be absolutely safe and this is something we’re going to keep an eye on.

JOURNALIST: What will you be saying in the way of an exit strategy? Do you want a time and date put on it or just when things get to a certain level there?

BEAZLEY: I don’t think they should be there. That’s the view that I have on that. I think that they are going to find if the circumstances go bad in Iraq and

a civil war develops they’re going to find that the pressure is going to come on the Australian contingent to be deployed elsewhere. To be deployed in hotter areas. John Howard did not resist in the end the pressure to get more Australians involved and he won’t resist the pressure to get them involved in more difficult areas if it comes to that. I think most Australians, whether they supported the war or opposed the war, thought we’d done enough. Thought

we’d done our fair share and it’s come as a complete surprise to them, this decision of John Howard’s.

JOURNALIST: Syria’s troop withdrawal from Lebanon. The Prime Minister says that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein has played a part in the emergence of democracy and hope in the Middle East and was commenting on the Syrian

withdrawal. What’s your response to that?

BEAZLEY: I think the Syrian withdrawal is a product of international pressure and a product of the guts of the Lebanese people. They are a courageous people, the Lebanese, and a skilled people, and it’s time Syria

should have been out of there yesterday. They’re the ones who are putting the pressure on and the international community’s getting in behind them.

JOURNALIST: What about the overthrow of Saddam Hussein? Is that drawing a long bow?

BEAZLEY: The overthrow of Saddam Hussein has produced an opportunity for democracy in Iraq but it is flawed. One community did not participate. And as a product of that community not participating we’re left with a real problem that might emerge subsequently as a civil war. And it wasn’t the reason, by the way, that the war was fought. The war was fought because we believed, or we were told, that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. That’s why the war was fought. When John Howard was asked, ‘are we fighting this war to overthrow Saddam Hussein’, he said ‘no’. That’s what he said at the time. Is there a relationship between the two? I don’t think so. But is it welcome that the Lebanese are throwing off their shackles? Absolutely.

JOURNALIST: He’s claiming credit for the Coalition of the Willing, though. That’s effectively what’s occurring.

BEAZLEY: He’s obviously going to claim many things but I think we should focus on what is really happening and what’s really happening there is the Lebanese people are throwing off the shackles. As far as I can see this situation in Iraq has got little to do with it.

JOURNALIST: Do you think the visit of the Malaysian Prime Minister to Australia is a positive move for regional relationships?

BEAZLEY: It’s very good that the Malaysian Prime Minister is coming here. I think, obviously, and we all said it at the time, that the change of Prime Minister in Malaysia would be a big help to Australian-Malaysian relations and so it’s turned out to be.

JOURNALIST: Isn’t there a hole though in your argument that Howard has disengaged from the region, though?

BEAZLEY: Oh, not at all. This is quite a complex and sophisticated argument that’s going on about this. We need to do more and more to ensure that we can play the role in this region that we need to play to deal with a problem of jihadist activity. The fact that we can build good relationships with Malaysia is important in that process.

JOURNALIST: Do you not see this a positive move towards -

BEAZLEY: Of course it’s a positive move. I’m all for it. We’ve got to build on these things. That’s what we’ve got to do.

JOURNALIST: Do you believe that the States should adhere to the intergovernmental agreement on the GST and do more to reduce their taxes?

BEAZLEY: Let’s be absolutely clear about this. We are talking about the GST and the States this week, or this weekend, because John Howard does not want to talk about interest rates. Every time he has an economic problem - and this week it’s rising interest rates and broken Liberal promises - he wants to take a lump out of the States. We’ll let’s not be fooled. He made a mistake, or his Treasurer did earlier this week, when he talked about interest rates going up

to 10 per cent as being acceptable. Well, I’ll tell you this: if interest rates get anywhere near 10 per cent as this Government breaks its promises, you will all be deafened by the sound of people’s front door keys clattering on the desks of

their bank managers as they get put out in the streets. That’s what will happen if the Liberals break their promise on this. The promise is already well on the road to being broken.

JOURNALIST: Mr Beazley, still, would you be urging your State colleagues, though, to remove those taxes such as stamp duty? I mean, stamp duty takes a fair whack when people are buying new houses.

BEAZLEY: The Commonwealth’s getting more revenue into it than the States are getting, understand that.

JOURNALIST: The States are getting more than they were promised, as Mr Howard said.

BEAZLEY: Don’t ever believe Costello. Look at the facts. The Commonwealth is getting more into its coffers than the States. As you saw in the last election, Costello blew the budget to the tune of $66 billion to get himself re-elected and he put pressure on interest rates. Now, he knows that. So, what

does he do? He gets out there and tells you to focus on the States when he knows he’s getting more revenue than the States because you must not talk about interest rates. We must not talk about the war, says Costello, which in this case means interest rates. Because Costello made a bad mistake earlier this week when he was virtually encouraging interest rates to rise to something close to 10 per cent. And he doesn’t want to talk about that and his broken promises so he talks a lot of baloney about the States.

JOURNALIST: So do you think the Commonwealth should cut taxes before the States cut taxes?

BEAZLEY: Let’s go into the Commonwealth and its spending. The States, on skills, have increased their contribution. If John Howard had done what the States had done on skills and not spent the $66 billion on getting himself re-elected but had made a contribution on skills, if they had done what the States have done, the Commonwealth would have spent another $830 million over the last five or six years on skills. If the Commonwealth had spent that it would not now be importing skilled labour. Let’s understand that. If the Commonwealth had spent what they should have spent on skills we would not be talking about importing skilled labour because we’d have enough trained Australians to do the job. Don’t let the Commonwealth get away with this situation.

I was a proud member of the government that did the right thing about the economy of this country: opened us up and gave us a prosperous economy. John Howard and Peter Costello have trashed that outcome in their own political interest and we’re now paying a penalty for it.

Young Australians are paying a penalty because they’ve not had the money put into their training that they should have put in and now they’re getting a double insult by the Commonwealth getting in there and saying it’s going to import skilled labour to replace what they should have been doing in training young Australians. They’re out there blaming the States but if the Commonwealth had done as much as the States have done in skills training over the course of the last five or six years they’d have spent another $830 million.

They’ll spend $66 billion on getting themselves re-elected but they’ll not spend $1 billion on getting young Australians skilled.

We’re at a turning point in debate about the Australian economy and where we ought to be going. We’re now in a turning point in Australian politics. Don’t miss this turning point by the Government’s camouflages. This is a different world

we’re walking into now and this is a world of the Howard-Costello era of accountability and we’re not going to let them go.

JOURNALIST: But even your Treasury spokesman says that the States need to meet the obligations of that agreement.

BEAZLEY: The States are meeting their obligations on training young Australians and the Commonwealth is not. It is not. Their latest piece of camouflage is to talk about technical colleges. Understand this: if all those technical colleges are put in place as quickly as they can conceivably be put in place they will not produce one new apprentice until 2010, not one new apprentice until 2010 and after 2010, 3000 a year, when the shortfall identified by Australian business is at least 20,000 a year.

This is a government which has been permitted to escape its responsibilities for far too long because it has not been subject to the critical analysis that a democracy demands a government be subject to. Well, I’m not going to let them off the hook anymore and neither should anybody here.

JOURNALIST: The skilled shortage, I mean, surely they’re trying to address that by bringing the skilled workers in?

BEAZLEY: And what a confession of failure. That’s their priority - import skilled labour. Our priority is train Australians in skills. A migration system serves many good purposes but this is the wrong use of it and what we ought to be seeing from this Commonwealth is that instead of using this as their cover, their umbrella, their camouflage, they’ve got to be held to account and put under pressure to do more for skilling Australians. They should have been under that pressure for the last five years and had they been under that pressure for the last five years, if they had done what the States have done for the last five years, the Commonwealth would not be importing skilled labour.

JOURNALIST: Mr Beazley, what should they do now, though, with technical colleges and their plan now isn’t enough, what should they do?

BEAZLEY: They should be putting pressure on business to start getting back into apprenticeships. No more than one in 10 businesses are engaged in that. And let’s put that pressure on. They should be putting contributions into the system of training now, an emergency contribution to the system of training. They’ve got themselves into creating a new bureaucracy and a new institution in the technical colleges. The TAFE’s there are crying out for money. Do you know how many positions, how many places people have turned down in TAFE’s over the last five years because the Commonwealth has not put the money into it? Two hundred and seventy thousand people applied for entry into TAFE’s and couldn’t get it because of chronic Commonwealth under-funding of TAFE’s.

Now, we’ve got the technical and vocational education training establishments and they deserve Commonwealth money and they’ve not got the Commonwealth money. If the Commonwealth had put that money in and those 270,000 people had been trained, would we be having this conversation? Of course we wouldn’t.

The time has come now, there’s a change now. We’ve got the Commonwealth in a position where we can start to analyse the way in which they’ve trashed the great inheritance they got from the Hawke and Keating governments and I’m not going to let them go for a second.

JOURNALIST: Can I just ask you more on the Malaysian Prime Minister? It’s the first visit in more than 20 years. Isn’t it time to shelve your criticism of the Government on its relationship with Asia? I mean, that’s a pretty big coup.

JOURNALIST: I’m about the security of the Australian people, not about plastic political claiming of credit. It’s a good thing that the Malaysian Prime Minister is coming but there is so much more work to do. If we’re to get ourselves into the position that we should be in of trusting this region so we can make the contribution to the surveillance and interdiction effort against the terrorists, we’ve got a long way to go. For those who are out there in the media do two things about this: welcome the visit of the Malaysian Prime Minister, it’s a good thing, get your head around the things that we now need to be doing with our friendships in this region to ensure the security of our people. Visits are one thing and they’re good things, but what we need to do we’re a long way from.

JOURNALIST: Mr Beazley, are you padding up this afternoon for the cricket game?

BEAZLEY: No, I’m not padding up for the cricket game this afternoon. I would look ridiculous.