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Transcript of joint doorstop interview: Goulburn: 16 April 2008: FuelWatch scheme; listening tour; drought assistance; carers.



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LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION THE HON. DR BRENDAN NELSON MP

16 April 2008

TRANSCRIPT OF THE HON. DR BRENDAN NELSON MP, JOINT DOORSTOP INTERVIEW WITH ALBY SCHULTZ MP, GOULBURN

Subject: FuelWatch scheme; listening tour; drought assistance; carers.

EO&E………………………………………………………………………………......

DR NELSON:

This FuelWatch system of Mr Rudd’s has got all the hallmarks of a stunt about it. I’m particularly concerned about how this is going to affect battlers that that are filling up on a Tuesday night. I mean, I don’t see how it’s going to help Australian motorists if

we’re actually losing the discounting that we get earlier in the week and that’s when people that have really not got much money are shopping around for fuel. We know in Sydney, for example, that there’s twice as much fuel that’s sold on Tuesday night than there is on a Thursday night. And what this FuelWatch system has really got the potential to do is to mean that people that are really desperately hanging out for Tuesdays to fill up with petrol will end up paying more than they’re paying at the moment.

Mr Rudd needs to make it very clear to Australian motorists that as a result of this particular scheme, that they’ll be paying not a cent more in petrol. And he still hasn’t told us exactly how much less we can expect to pay in petrol as a result of it.

QUESTION:

Given the success in Western Australia, how can you come to this point?

DR NELSON:

Well some people argue about the so-called success in Western Australia. You know, we’ve got to understand that we get discounting on petrol earlier in the week. We know that on a Tuesday night it’s pretty much the cheapest time of the week to buy

petrol. If we have this FuelWatch system where 24 hours in advance prices are going

to be posted, what it might mean is that over the course of a two-week cycle there might be a slightly lower average cost but the real discounting that means that battlers get the cheapest fuel now on Tuesday night is going to disappear

And it’s very, very important that Mr Rudd needs to guarantee to Australian motorists that they will not pay a cent more in petrol than they’re doing at the moment. We’ve got to make darn sure that that discounting absolutely continues. And what is the point of losing the discounting we’re getting every week and instead having it done

every two weeks? I don’t see how motorists that are really battling with petrol prices are going to benefit from having less discounting than they’re having at the moment.

QUESTION:

So you won’t be supporting the legislation on FuelWatch?

DR NELSON:

Well look, this has got all the hallmarks of another stunt where Mr Rudd is making it seem as if he’s doing something when he isn’t doing much at all. We will have a look at the fine-print in this legislation because I’m suspicious that the workers and the

battlers that are getting discounting every week, early in the week, might actually lose it.

QUESTION:

Without wanting to get into, I guess, an esoteric argument about the economics of petrol pricing, can you just explain why it is that the discounting will disappear just because we know the price 24 hours in advance?

DR NELSON:

Well, the experience from Western Australia is, and looking at the model as the RACV points out, is that instead of having discounting on a weekly basis, that you might get it on a fortnightly basis because the flexibility that the oil companies have got to have that discounting earlier in the week is actually being lost.

And, I mean, all of us want to see cheaper petrol. All of us know that there are Australians today that are only putting $10, $15, $20 worth of petrol in their car because they’re struggling with petrol prices and groceries and interest rates rising under Mr Rudd’s Government, but we also want to make darn sure that nothing is done to make it harder for people to get a decent, discounted price of petrol and get it on a weekly basis. And I’m very concerned to see the comments of the RACV, for example, that are very concerned about this.

I also notice that there is a strong argument that, for discounting in Western Australia, that it’s not had the impact that Mr Rudd says it’s going to have. And, as far as the legislation is concerned, we’ll have a look at the fine print. We are really concerned about workers, about battlers, people that need weekly discounting filling up on a Tuesday night, and we’ll have a look at the fine-print in that legislation before we let it go through.

QUESTION:

With your understanding of FuelWatch, given that there’s not a hell of a lot of flesh being put on the bone as yet, is it possible that petrol stations may be able to nominate two prices going into a 24-hour period and, I mean, people will still know a 24-hour period ahead but they may raise it?

DR NELSON:

Well, again, this is a good example of the fact that we’ve had a lot of stunts from Mr Rudd. We’ve got a lot of superficial information, but we haven’t got the real detail of this at the moment.

And, again, you see, what’s happening here is Mr Rudd is trying to make the average Australian think that in some way we’re going to get cheaper petrol out of all of this, when in fact the reality is the people that actually know the economics of petrol retailing are concerned that we will lose the discounting we get early in the week, and if we do get it, we’ll get it once in a fortnight instead of every week. And most Australians know you’ve got to fill your tank up with petrol at least once a week.

QUESTION:

Just on the listening tour, what have you learned this morning and what have you heard from Alby and the people here?

DR NELSON:

Look, again in Goulburn, as in many other parts of Australia, the drought has had a devastating impact on the farming community. It’s not only farmers themselves and people that are trying to survive on the land that have been affected by this, but also businesses that supply them. I’m standing in a business that had its turnover cut by 60 per cent as a result of the drought and that means that there are farmers who don’t have money, who can’t pay their debts, who can’t plant their crops and who are not able to support the economy of their local communities. And I think all Australians need to appreciate just how devastating this drought is and has been, not only for the men and women on the land but those whose businesses are relying on it.

The other key messages here, of course, are the importance of interest rates, of petrol prices and diesel prices feeding into the costs of actually running a business and the importance also of making sure that unions and the Labor Party don’t get back into workplaces, especially bringing back in unfair dismissal laws.

SCHULTZ:

Yeah, there’s an absolute concern out there in all of the small businesses that I’ve spoken to in this electorate about the return of the unfair dismissal issue. They’re absolutely horrified to think that that could return.

The other issue, of course, that relates to what Brendan’s just told you about how these businesses are hurting because of the drought is that this business is an example, and the one we previously visited have both down-sized in terms of their staffing. So, the employment of country people has suffered as a result of the drought, as well as the ability of business to continue to survive despite the resilience of those businesses

in diversifying and doing all of those things - their ability to survive is under extreme pressure.

DR NELSON:

Yeah. Obviously, not only from the visit to Goulburn, but in South Australia, the western district of New South Wales and in Queensland, I think that the Government is going to have to look at the eligibility for exceptional circumstances support. I also think that we’re going to have to extend the availability of exceptional circumstances financial support to allow farmers to restock, if they’re into cattle and sheep, and also

to replant.

It’s also very important that the Government I think further extend the provisions that it’s got for Centrelink and other social security support for the men and women that are on the land. Whilst a lot has been done over the last 10 years to support farmers that are in drought and the businesses in communities that rely upon them, I think that there’s much more than can be done.

QUESTION:

How much financially is needed in ballpark figures?

DR NELSON:

Well in the order of, in total, in the order of $3 billion has been made available in recent years for drought assistance for farmers and the businesses in those communities that they support. I think we need to provide as much as we possibly can to these men and women.

Farming Australia has been good to this country and we need to be good to it. And our country is going well overall. Mr Rudd was given a strong economy late last year and I think we need to be, and we can afford to be generous to Australia’s farmers. I mean it’s absolutely heartbreaking to see men and women who’ve spent four, five or six generations on the land, who’ve lived through six or seven years of drought, who are ashamed that they’re not able to pay their bills, who can’t plant their crops and who are struggling at the moment not only with government intervention but also insensitivity, I think, on the part of the Government at times to the provisions of exceptional circumstances support and other forms of financial assistance which they need to [inaudible].

SCHULTZ:

Can I just make a comment on the point that Brendan just made with regards to the difficulty of people who have seen their crops fail year in and year out. It costs a farmer about $1000 an acre to plant a crop. The average crop that’s financially viable

is about 200 acres. So it’s $200,000 every crop year. And when you have that sort of contribution made by them where they borrow money to put crops in and then it fails and they lose the $200,000 you have a situation where their debt starts to override their ability to pay it back through the assets that they have because the value of their assets keep dropping. So there’s an enormous problem there and their problem flows on to the businesses such as this particular business here.

QUESTION:

Dr Nelson, just on a wider agriculture question, there’s rumours starting to come out of the Department of Agriculture of a possible root-and-branch structural reform. Is that the sort of thing that’s required of that department?

DR NELSON:

Well, look, I’d have to ask the farming community whether they think changes to the bureaucracy in any way are likely to help them…

SCHULTZ:

The answer will be yes.

DR NELSON:

Yeah. I’ve been the length and breadth of Australia, well over the last few years, but particularly over the last month. I’ve spent quite a bit of time with farmers and their representative organisations. I’ve heard many issues raised with me but I haven’t heard anyone say to me, Brendan, it’s going to be a lot easier to plant crops if we change the bureaucracy in Canberra. The only argument I’ve heard from the farming community is they’d like to see less red tape, not more.

QUESTION:

[Inaudible] $3 billion. Is that what you’re talking about of the former Howard Government’s plans or how do you actually see [inaudible]

DR NELSON:

Well in the order of $3 billion has been provided to support drought affected farmers and businesses in those local communities in recent years. Money obviously is continuing to flow but I think the eligibility for drought assistance and other forms of relief needs to be even more generous than it’s been in recent years and in particular I think extending eligibility where farmers are having to restock and replant.

Also a lot of people have been excluded because of asset tests and income provisions and I think that’s another area that we need to be looking at. There’s an enormous amount of good will in this country toward Australia’s farming community. They’ve been the economic and cultural backbone of this country for a couple of centuries and I think it’s time now for us to be exceedingly generous with them.

If I could make some comments about another issue, Mr Rudd had his community cabinet yesterday in Penrith. I’m not sure how many of them caught the train out there but one of the questions that was asked of Mr Rudd was about carers. And it was obvious from the reply that he gave that he looks and sounds like the bureaucrat that he is. It’s worth reminding Australian carers that it took Mr Rudd almost one week to guarantee that carers would continue to receive the $1,600 lump sum bonus that

they’ve received in the last four years. And I don’t think it’s good enough for Mr Rudd to simply say that the New South Wales Government, as incompetent as it is, has bucket loads of money. That is not an answer that carers are looking for. What

carers are looking for and what we will be looking for in the forthcoming Budget is further financial assistance for the carers of this nation. They save this country $31 billion a year in the care and support they provide to those whom they love. And it’s very important we see those carers bonuses locked in every year for the next four years. And we will also be looking at other financial assistance provided to carers. I find it interesting that even after the recent debate about carers, when Mr Rudd was refusing for almost a week to guarantee them that lump sum money they desperately need, that he’s still struggled to answer what you think would be a basic question from a woman struggling to look after her 25 year old son.

QUESTION:

Sorry back to EC again, but given Rudd’s plans and the whole razor cut situation and trying to tighteng the belt, so to speak, why was the boosting EC actually helping the bigger situation?

DR NELSON:

Well if you are to make it easier for farmers to access exceptional circumstances funding, isn’t that what a caring country would do for the farmers that have cared for it for so long? If you think about the priorities of this nation Mr Rudd because of the economy that he’s inherited will have in the order of a $20 billion surplus without lifting a finger to cut a dollar off anything. And if you think of the priorities in terms of carers, pensioners, farmers, families, family businesses, you would think that Mr Rudd would be placing support for drought affected farmers at the top of his list. And we’ve already seen from Mr Rudd’s government cut-backs to funding for drought affected farmers, and in fact two thirds of the so called funding cuts foreshadowed by the Finance Minister only a couple of months ago actually take money from rural and regional Australia.

SCHULTZ:

And we’ve got to understand that the Labor Party historically hasn’t had much concern for rural and regional Australia. But they’ve got to get the message that rural and regional Australia is playing a significant role in keeping this country viable and they’ve got to get their focus away from developers’ donations and urban based parties making donations to the Labor Party, and focus on the real issue, which is keeping the rural economy going along and buzzing along to the extent where it continues to make that significant contribution to Australia’s economy as a whole.

QUESTION:

Can you just give us some sort of wrap on how the listening tour [inaudible] the positives and the things like that that have come out [inaudible]

DR NELSON:

Well, look, it’s gone very well in that I’ve been able to visit as many parts of Australia as I possibly can. I’ve spoken to and I’ve listened to Australians from all walks of life and all backgrounds. Interest rates, groceries, petrol, diesel, water, infrastructure, health care, looking after families, industrial relations laws and getting unions back into small businesses. They and many, many other issues are the things that are worrying everyday Australians. I think Australians quite rightly are concerned about what’s happening in our economy, how things have changed over the last four months. And the uncertainty that lies ahead in terms of the Government and the Reserve Bank having a policy to slow down the Australian economy which of course will increase unemployment, having just seen a slight increase in the last figures.

SCHULTZ:

Can I make just a brief comment about Brendan’s presence here today? I don’t know whether you’ll run it or not, but the reality is that Brendan is practising as the leader of the coalition what he practised as a minister of the crown. He’s coming into seats at the request of his backbench to talk to their constituents about the concerns that those backbenchers like myself are raising with him. That’s an indication of the leadership style of this bloke and it’s also an indication that he does care about our constituency and I’m pleased to see him here.

QUESTION:

So he’ll get our vote?

SCHULTZ:

He’s always had my vote.

DR NELSON:

Just look, one final comment on the petrol issue. Mr Rudd might not be looking at petrol pricing on Tuesday nights but I can sure as hell tell you I certainly am and I’ll continue to do so, as will battling Australians who know that they need a discount in fuel every week, early every week, and they don’t want the Government to take it away from them. And Mr Rudd needs to absolutely guarantee that nobody is going to pay more for petrol as a result of this FuelWatch system.

QUESTION:

Do you have anything at all to say about the Olympic torch - the latest developments?

DR NELSON:

Well look, the Government’s absolutely right. I’ve made this point myself before - that the security for the Olympic torch needs to be and must be provided b Australian security forces. I think we need to show the rest of the world that if we do have a point of view, that if there is a protest to be made, then it will be done lawfully and

peacefully. But the Olympic flame represents the Olympic spirit and if I’m invited to do so I’ll be very happy to attend. Thank you.

[ends]