Verity James Interviews John Howard – ABC Radio, Perth

This is the transcript of Prime Minister John Howard’s appearance on ABC radio in Perth.

Howard was interviewed by Verity James.

The interview is a good example of Howard at work in a relatively hostile environment.

Transcript of Prime Minister John Howard interview with Verity James, ABC radio, Perth.

JAMES: We are taking calls now with the Prime Minister. Good morning.

PRIME MINISTER: Good morning.

JAMES: Thanks for joining us. How is the election campaign going?

PRIME MINISTER: I suppose I’d have to ask the voters that and I’ll know in about 17 days time. When I called the election, I nominated the main issue to be economic competence. In other words, who is better able to govern Australia in these difficult international economic circumstances. The present Government that’s only been there two-and-a-half years or a government that had 13 years and left us with a $10.5 billion deficit and very high interest rates which we have turned into a surplus and reduced so that every family is $320 better off a month in paying off their mortgage. We think our credentials to manage Australia at the present time are much stronger than those of the Labor Party.

JAMES: All right. Let’s talk about credentials. Now, in particular I would like to ask you about ethics and personal ethics. Now, later today you are going to be launching an addition to your illicit drug campaign to stop illicit drugs. We have a much bigger problem with legal drugs. We have a problem in Australia where every half hour one Australian dies of a tobacco related disease. We have a huge problem with miners taking up tobacco smoking. Tthe Federal Government makes $64 million from the receipt tobacco just from miners, $4 billion in receipts from adult smokers and yet you accepted tobacco sponsorship at your Federal Liberal Convention in March this year. How do you balance that?

PRIME MINISTER: Oh , I think that’s, with respect, I think that is easily balanced, quite easily balanced. Let me tell you why. Tobacco is a legal substance, and unless you are arguing that the sale of tobacco should be prohibited, then I think your argument falls to the ground and I don’t….

JAMES: Do you think it is not addictive?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, hang on, you asked me a fairly lengthy question, so can I give an answer? The claim that really tobacco is a greater threat than drugs is not one that I necessarily accept. I think tobacco is bad for you. I used to smoke, I gave up smoking 20 years ago because I decided that it was bad for my health. But I think, whilever a substance is legal, and I don’t think the majority of the Australian community is in favour of banning of tobacco, I don’t believe that it’s unreasonable of governments to tax that activity and to use some of that tax money in order to defray our health bill.

JAMES: A tiny amount, let me say the Federal Government dropped it by half from $4 million to $2 million in your campaign to stop people smoking.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, our campaign, our campaign against smoking has gone on very, very strongly. In fact, the laws that we have enforced against tobacco sponsorship and advertising have been tougher still than those of the previous government and those of the previous government were fairly tough. I’m not saying that they did nothing, in fact, the first government in Australia to ban television advertising of tobacco was the Fraser Coalition Government in the late 1970s.

JAMES: So it’s okay to ban tobacco sponsorship then, but it’s okay to accept it for what some people will say was a group of Liberals getting together to talk about policies. I mean, it’s like saying it doesn’t kill on one hand but we will take the money on the other hand.

PRIME MINISTER: No, I think your argument fails to ignore the point I made a moment ago and that is that it is a legal substance.

JAMES: But what about the message though, the moral message you send to the community? That you accept tobacco?

PRIME MINISTER: I think the the moral message that you are choosing is a rather selective one.

JAMES: Well, there would be a lot of people who are dying of smoking related diseases at the moment who might disagree with that.

PRIME MINISTER: There would be, but I think it would be also very important to bear in mind that until the community supports the total prohibition of tobacco smoking…

JAMES: So you don’t think your Government is sending a message to the community?

PRIME MINISTER: Are you going to confine that kind of attack to tobacco? What about, what about alcohol?

JAMES: It is the tobacco…..

PRIME MINISTER: No, hang on, once you…well, are you in favour of banning alcohol are you?

JAMES: No, and nor have I said banning alcohol. Because alcohol is not proved to be bad for one drink. In fact, two glasses of red wine is proved to be good.

PRIME MINISTER: Let me finish. What about the damage it does on the roads?

JAMES: Sure.

PRIME MINISTER: So why don’t you ban it?

JAMES: What I am….

PRIME MINISTER: No, but that’s the kind…..

JAMES: But Mr Howard, I never said the word banned. You used the word banned.

PRIME MINISTER: I’m sorry, I’m sorry, that is the kind of argument that you started. And once you go down that kind of path you are forced with the logic of your own analogies.

JAMES: Mr Howard, may I just say I didn’t say the word ban. You did. What I said, if you just let me finish, what I said was, is it an ethical matter for the Liberal Party to accept sponsorship of tobacco knowing how many people it kills for a Liberal Party convention? That was my point.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I have, I have not difficulty with that decision.

JAMES: And yet your Health Minister did.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I didn’t.

JAMES: All right. We’re going to take some calls now. Wayne joins us first up on line, good morning.

CALLER: Good morning Verity, good morning Prime Minister. My question relates to salaries and wages and conditions in residential and community based aged care. About two, two-and-a-half years ago, the aged care industry started lobbying the previous Minister for Family Services for equity in salaries for registered nurses in this State and at the moment with the recent wage rise for registered nurses in the public health sector, the State health sector in Western Australia, registered nurses in aged care services now are about $120 a week behind on full-time wages, though their counterparts in the State sector for very comparable work. Now, my question, firstly, is that fair in light of the government refusing on numerous occasions over the last two and and a half years to index the subsidies coming into residential aged care to allow for those wage rises. And the second question, if this indicative of the situation we will find in general salaries and conditions, all staff providers will not be able to provide the care that has been legislated for by the Government in its recent nursing homes and aged care reform?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the question of wages in particular areas of activity, of course, are governed by the relevant industrial laws of both the State and Commonwealth. And I am not sure that the circumstances of that particular award are under the direct control of the Federal Government, I don’t think it is. The general point you raise though about the adequacy of resources coming into nursing homes is very important. And the changes that we made last year are designed, and they continued to be designed, to get more resources into nursing homes. And what the Labor Party is doing is taking decisions in the name of trying to ride some populist attack on us over nursing homes that will, in fact, leave nursing homes in the future with fewer resources and therefore a lesser capacity to address the sort of problem that you’re addressing. If you take away a carefully means tested accommodation charge, and if you take away carefully and fairly means tested daily charges, what you are doing is reducing the flow of resources into nursing homes, you are reducing the quality of those nursing homes and you are reducing the capacity of nursing home providers to deliver salary justice to their employees.

CALLER: Yes, Prime Minister, my question has not actually asked for those things to be removed. This is a problem now with the current conditions where there is not enough money to meet the increased demands that those salary, those staff reasonably will have with a legislated or regulated changes to salary conditions with counterparts in the State sector.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the question though of whether an individual can be paid more by his employer is something that can vary from employer to employer. I mean, it is simply not possible to, for a government to ordain a particular level of revenue flow, or ordain a regime for fees and charges that will enable a revenue flow into a group of businesses which will guarantee that in each and every case, the employees of those businesses will receive what they believe to be fair and just.

JAMES: Wayne, we’ll leave that question. Let’s move move on to Jessie now. Good morning.

CALLER: (Sings) – Which part of no don’t you understand? The Mirrar people they own this land. They want to keep on living there with good plain water and good clean air.

Mr Howard, does it not matter to you that 85 per cent of people are opposed to Jabiluka, especially the traditional owners?

PRIME MINISTER: I don’t agree with you.

CALLER: How can you not agree? There is not a single person saying they want that mine up there.

PRIME MINISTER: There are a lot of people saying they want that mine up there.

CALLER: A newspoll [inaudible] people were in favour of the mine. Seven per cent of people in the Newspoll were in favour of Jabiluka mine. Two thirds of the people were definitely opposed to it. How can you argue with a newspoll?

PRIME MINISTER: How can I argue with a Newspoll? I’ve argued with a Newspoll most of my political life.

CALLER: So you don’t agree with going along with what the majority want?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I go along with what the majority want when they vote at a federal election. And if the majority of…..

CALLER: [inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER: No, if you’d let me finish. If the majority of the people don’t like our policy on Jabiluka, on uranium or, indeed, on anything else they will vote us out on the 3rd of October, and I suggest that you behave in a way that respects political debate a little more than you have.

CALLER: I don’t call it political debate when you’re representing seven per cent of Australian people’s interest.

JAMES: All right Jessie thank you for making that point. It’s quite an interesting thing though about any election, that comment you just made then. About that people will vote on October the 3rd according to how many policies. I mean, you have based it on a GST but that doesn’t mean that they believe…..

PRIME MINISTER: It will depend on the issue.

JAMES: But don’t you think that it requires more complexity than a yes or a no. I mean, we might be talking about uranium….

PRIME MINISTER: Do you want to have…do you want to replace general elections or referendums on each subject do you?

JAMES: Not necessarily, I am just wondering if there’s a better way to do it? Is there a better way to do it?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I don’t think there is?

JAMES: Is there a better way to listen to, if there is a greater majority on a particular issue?

PRIME MINISTER: No, I don’t think there is, unless you’re going to have a referendum on each issue. I mean, we might have a referendum say on the future of every single item that comes up in an election campaign. And I think the Australian public would get very, very bored with that. The Australian public would be angry because they’d have to be dragged to the polls every week. Because in any one year you could have 40 or 50 contentious issues and the only way that democracy can work in an orderly fashion is to have the sort of electoral process we have. Now, I understand the point you’re making but from a practical point of view I don’t know how you get around it. Unless you resort to a method of having plebiscites or referendums on each individual issue. And I think the Australian public would get very angry and tired about that. They would say: what’s wrong with you fellas, we elected you for three years, you go away and take all the decisions you want to on individual issues and then when those decisions have been taken at the end of your three year period if we don’t like you we’ll vote you out. I don’t think you can run it any other way.

JAMES: Okay. Thank you for that. Andrew joins us now. Good morning.

CALLER: Good morning Verity. Good morning Prime Minister. I’m a secondary teacher in a government school and we as teachers, especially those of us like heads of department responsible for budgets, are really struggling financially at the present to provide all of the services that we believe our students are entitled to. I’ve got a couple of questions about the GST from a schools perspective.

PRIME MINISTER: Yeah sure, go ahead.

CALLER: But first of all, our costs include such things, and just for our listeners, you know, large ticket items like microscopes, lathes, hand mixers, TVs, computers, photocopiers etc, consumables that we go through every day, photocopy paper, class sets of textbooks, graph paper, food for cooking classes, timber for woodwork, paints for art, etc and then all the services that we need to pay for like, you know, computer repairs, photocopying services, professional development courses. The question is, you know, will schools have to pay GST up-front on all of those costs that we now currently are tax exempt?

PRIME MINISTER: You’re, as a….you’re getting…you say you get tax exemptions on those. Well, because of the way the GST will apply in relation to government services, the answer is no.

CALLER: The question is do we need to pay it up-front though? Not that we need to pay GST, do we need to pay it up-front?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, you’ll have to buy the items with the way the Government operations will be that you’ll be able to get refunds.

CALLER: Okay. Now, that leads me into the second question and that’s the administration. Whose responsibility, I mean, because a GST, because at the present it’s tax exempt, it’s relatively easy for registrars and people like myself to be able to order and administer a fairly small budget. Who’s responsibility will it to keep tabs on…

PRIME MINISTER: Well that will be done.

CALLER: ….because I haven’t got extra time, the registrars haven’t got extra time. And in a case where you’ve got tax exemption now and it’s easy and then there is a tax where they’ve got to be reimbursements, who’s going to do it and who’s going to be paid to do it?

PRIME MINISTER: Well that will be done, I imagine and these are things that will need to be worked out with each government department. But these are things that will be done on a departmental level and I am quite certain that it won’t be left to individual schools to carry out those sort of activities. See, one of the advantages of a GST, and I’m glad you’ve asked me this question, is that all of the revenue of the GST is going to be dedicated to the States. And that means that over a period of time the amount of money going to the States, and therefore the amount of money available for public education, the amount of money available for hospitals and police and health services will rise very significantly. And in 10 years, for example, after the introduction of the GST, the States will be better off to the tune of $25 billion over and above the arrangements that now operate. And the operations of Government will be reduced, significantly reduced, because many, there are many things that governments don’t have wholesale tax exemptions for now. You mention that you have got them on some and I think you will find that even an education department doesn’t have a complete wholesale tax exemption in relation to some items that are bought. And the benefit of a GST is, firstly, that internal operating costs of government will fall. Secondly, there’ll be a guaranteed flow of revenue, $25 billion more over 10 years. That means a more guaranteed source of money for government schools, for police, for education and other services and for health services. And I’m quite certain that administration of the thing can be handled very, very effectively by your department and I don’t believe that in individual schools are going to be left in that situation.

JAMES: Mr Prime Minister, John Howard, here on 720 6WF. We’ll move to other calls now. Gloria joins us. Good morning.

CALLER: Good morning Verity. Good morning Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER: Good morning.

CALLER: My question is two-fold, it’s about private health cover. My first question is why cannot the gap be insured? And secondly, following that concept, rather than a rebate which most people aren’t terribly interested in and accept that it’s going to be a very limited use, could you not use that towards insuring the gap, surely fees could have some cap attached to them one way or another and public hospitals means-tested for access. One surely would help counteract the other.

I work in a medical field. In the last three years from say 10 patients, eight being covered with private cover and now there’s probably two. There must be some major incentive?

JAMES: Mr Howard?

PRIME MINISTER: I am sorry is she finished? Look, as far as the gap is concerned, in the past we’ve been against insurance against the gap because we think that might result in upward pressure on doctors fees, which might end up leaving people no better off. It’s a question of judgement and choice as to whether you don’t extend the general health insurance rebate. We’ve decided to extend it. We think to say to people that no matter what your income is, if you get a private health insurance policy you can get a 30 per cent tax rebate is a very good idea because if you get more people into private health insurance then you will get less strain on the public hospitals. You were talking a moment ago about strain on the public hospitals. One of the reasons why there is a strain on public hospitals is that more people are dropping out of private health insurance.

Now, you ask me about means-testing access to public hospitals. The problem with that proposition is that it runs directly counter to one of the principles of Medicare. Medicare says that you should be able to be treated by a doctor and that you should have access to a public ward in a public hospital and that they are the two things that are guaranteed to Australians under Medicare, and we don’t intend to alter that.

JAMES: And which, in a sense, is means-tested because you are paying more the more you earn.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, that’s true you do pay more the more you earn and that’s an argument that people should bear in mind when they are comparing taxation reductions for people on high incomes versus people on middle incomes. Obviously, if you pay…if you earn more, you pay more under a progressive system which the Medicare levy is.

JAMES: Mr Howard, how are you finding the personal stress of the campaign?

PRIME MINISTER: Oh, easy.

JAMES: Easy?

PRIME MINISTER: I don’t find the campaigns excessively stressful. I go walking every morning, I sleep well, I eat regularly, I talk to people, I am fairly seasoned to election campaigns.

JAMES: Mmm. You seem more tense as the campaign is going on?

PRIME MINISTER: What, have you been following me around all day have you, every day?

JAMES: No, but I listen, I listen to what goes on. Mr Howard, what about ABC funding, will you match Kim Beazley’s offer?

PRIME MINISTER: We’ll be making a statement about that at some time between now and the election. I am not making any commitments at this stage.

JAMES: Do you have a commitment to keeping the ABC?

PRIME MINISTER: Oh, we have a commitment to keeping the ABC. But we also have a commitment to ensuring that the ABC provides, I think, a lot of the services that people in the country need. I think the quality of services from the ABC to the bush is a very important part of Australian life. We certainly have a very strong commitment to keeping the ABC. I think in turn the ABC has an obligation to behave in a very objective fashion when it comes to election campaigns. And it doesn’t always do so and we have a commitment to continue to pursue.

JAMES: Are you saying that we are not?

PRIME MINISTER: …..objectivity on the part of the ABC during the election campaign.

JAMES: And are you saying that we are not or are…..

PRIME MINISTER: Oh no, the ABC’s coverage of this election campaign has not been balanced, no.

JAMES: Oh, in Western Australia certainly there have been accusations that, I can only talk about the local front of course, is that, in fact, there’s been a bias towards the coalition.

PRIME MINISTER: I am sure you would say that. But I am just taking nationally but anyway let’s not waste time on that. I don’t think your listeners are interested in an exchange on that.

JAMES: Deborah, good morning.

CALLER: Oh good morning Verity and good morning Mr Howard. Actually I am very interested in what’s happening with the ABC but that’s not actually….

JAMES: Thank you Deborah.

CALLER: My pleasure. I am a postgraduate student at the University of Western Australia.

PRIME MINISTER: I am sorry, I missed that. You are a postgraduate student?

CALLER: At the University of Western Australia.

PRIME MINISTER: Yes, what are you studying?

CALLER: History. Australian history.

PRIME MINISTER: Good.

CALLER: Yes, it is good.

PRIME MINISTER: Good to hear people studying Australian history because the teaching of it seemed to sink rather badly for a long period of time and I just think it’s terrific that people have come back to studying it.

CALLER: Well, one of the problems that we are actually facing at the moment, and it is not just localised within my university or within my department, it is completely across the country is the difficulties that we are facing in history and in all humanities and all social sciences and all arts subjects. Universities at the moment, from my experience, are just reeling under the policies and the effects of your policies that have happened over the last three years. I have never seen universities in such an abysmal state. My department, for the first time in its history, is facing certain redundancies this year just because the funding is just so tight. At the same time, I have about 12 months to go before I finish my doctorate but although I would dearly love, the whole reason I am doing this PhD, is to be trained into a university position. I know that when I finish there’s almost a guarantee that there are no jobs for me and that the policies that have been presented by the Liberal Government over the last few years have ensured that at the end of my degree I will be jobless.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I don’t accept that. And, of course, you obviously have a fairly well rehearsed complaint about the Government but I’ll…and a well tutored one but let me try and respond to it. Let me make a couple of points. You argue that there’s been a reduction of funding. There have been budget changes that we had to make and every sector had to carry its load. You may think it’s irrelevant but it’s not, we did encounter a deficit of $10.5 billion, we are living in a very difficult economic environment and can I tell you that there’ll be no money available for anybody’s education if the Australian economy goes under and goes the path of say the Indonesian economy or some of the other economies in Asia. And the first responsibility of any government is to get the country’s economic house in order and we had to deliver economies in different parts of the federal budget. We tried to do it in a way that was fair and reasonable. You talk about resources being taken out of universities. I mean, I was amazed yesterday to read that Mr Beazley is going to abolish up-front HECS fees. Now, that may sound rhetorically attractive to you and to a lot of people but what that means in practice is that if he wins the election it will be possible for foreign students to buy a place in an Australian university but it won’t be possible for an Australian student to buy a place in a university. I think that is a very undesirable policy for two reasons. Firstly, it discriminates against Australians and that’s always bad and incomprehensible and the other thing is it’s denying universities access to private funds. Can I just say that whoever wins this election and whatever the Opposition may say in the election it is not going to ever be possible in the future for governments to totally fund universities….

JAMES: A lot of universities already now are having to increase the number of fee paying students, for example, [inaudible]. And they are saying that they…..

PRIME MINISTER: I mean, somebody – if I may finish – somebody did ask me a question.

JAMES: I thought you had finished.

PRIME MINISTER: No, I hadn’t. I am sorry I hadn’t finished I still had another couple of points to make. The whole purpose of our policies has been to induce a greater private provision into universities because we are honest enough to say that the Government can’t go on forever in funding universities. I think what the Government has tried to do and do it very successfully is to create the situation where you have more private resources being put into universities.

JAMES: If we don’t…..

PRIME MINISTER: Don’t what?

JAMES: As I am about to say. If we don’t put more money into our universities surely we are not creating any sort of clever country, surely we are driving people out of the country and moving away the whole emphasis on having an educated, clever, intelligent country where the brain power stays here where Australia benefits?

PRIME MINISTER: I agree with that but my argument is that you have got to get the money not only from the Government but you have also got to get the money from private sources because governments will never have enough money to provide all of the resources that you quite rightly say – and you are quite right what you just said – that if we don’t get more money into universities then we will drive clever people away. I utterly agree with that but the whole thrust of our policy has been to get a greater contribution from the private sector. Now, what Mr Beazley is doing is to cut off a very, very potential lucrative source of money from the private sector into universities and yet amazingly enough say that while, if you happen to be an American or a Singaporean or an Englishman you can buy a place in an Australian university but if you are an Australian you are not allowed in. That’s an extraordinary policy.

JAMES: Let’s take another call. Ken, good morning.

CALLER: Good morning Verity and good morning Prime Minister. Thank you for making yourself available. My question is about aged care and I am concerned about the impact of the aged care reforms on the adequacy of care for elderly people in both residential and community care settings and, with respect Prime Minister, Wayne’s call earlier was endeavouring, I think, to draw your attention to the inadequacy of funding for West Australian registered nurses. Because each State is funded separately under the reforms, of course, it does mean that in Western Australia people aren’t able to be paid the same amount of money. Well, nurses, I am sorry, aren’t able to be paid the same amount of money as they are in other States. And I wonder too, Prime Minister, if I could just add, that with the new funding it’s a pity that the old hostel system that was in place with the capital subsidies and the variable fees they have been eliminated under the new model and that was a very successful model that helped ensure that senior people were able to find adequate housing in hostel accommodation.

PRIME MINISTER: Yes, I am not….I don’t know that there is an enormous amount I can add to the previous answer that I gave you but notwithstanding what you say nothing alters the fact that the capacity of individual nursing homes and hostels and so forth to pay employees is something that is going to vary from institution to institution because many of them have different conditions and many of them have different circumstances under which they operate. Many of them have different staff levels and have different practices and the funding provision that is made by a Federal Government is not the sole reason which governs their capacity to pay.

JAMES: Mr Howard, Senator Nick Bolkus has released a statement that the Federal Government….a cap of heroin is cheaper. Is it cheaper under a GST or is it just cheaper? I think we need to have that clarified at the moment.

PRIME MINISTER: I am sorry, what question are you trying…

JAMES: Well, I was just reading it off air because it’s been called in…

PRIME MINISTER: Well, you raised something about heroin and the GST, I mean, what are you getting at?

JAMES: Well, I’ll get that question clarified.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think you should because….

JAMES: Thank you Mr Howard.

PRIME MINISTER: No, no, I think the whole idea of suggesting that the GST is in some way tied up with heroin should not be left hanging up in the air.

JAMES: Sure, and I will get that clarified. One of the things I wanted to ask you about, you have got the drug strategy that you are announcing today, we talked about it a little bit earlier. You feel that the illegal…that the legal drugs aren’t as bad a problem as – that’s what you said earlier – as the illicit drugs here. So you have got $215 million, I think, already committed to the reduction of illicit drugs. What will your announcement say today?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, what I said, if I can go back to what you have just said which is not quite an accurate representation of what the point I was making is that I think abuse of legal drugs is a very serious health problem but I also believe that the level of community concern about drugs such as heroin and other related substances is even more intense. And we have a zero tolerance policy towards those and I will be announcing very major extensions and additional resources. We’ll be announcing the formation of an AFP, an additional AFP strike team to be based in Perth. We’ll be announcing the establishment of three more AFP strike teams around Australia which will bring the total number of AFP strike teams to 10. We’ll be putting more resources into education and we’ll also be putting more resources into community programmes which are designed to detoxify and to rehabilitate people. But I would like to have…..

JAMES: We have the news coming up now, so it’s 9:00 o’clock, thank you.

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