TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP WITH THE TREASURER, THE HON PETER COSTELLO MP PRESS CONFERENCE AFTER PREMIERS' CONFERENCE PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA
Period of Service: 11/03/1996 to 03/12/2007
Release Date: 21/03/1997
Release Type: Press Conference
Transcript ID: 10279
Document: Original Transcript (PDF 583.86 KB)
Fax from PRIME MINISTER
21 March 1997 TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER
THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP
WITH THE TREASURIER, THE HON PETER COSTELLO M] P
PRESS CONFERENCE AFTER PREMIERS' CONFERENCE
PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA
E O E
The meeting was shorter and quieter than last year. There was a ready acceptance by
the States for the Commonwealth bonouring the commitments made last year in
relation to the financial assistance grants. We did agree to special requests from both
the Australian Capital Territory and Tasmania to defer half of their contributions for
this year into next year. That was put forward as a special request from those two
jurisdictions because of the particular economic circumstances and it was supported by
the other states and the Commonwealth agreed to that. In relation to the specific
purpose payments the Commonwealth confirmed the offer document which is the
amount of specific purpose payments in the for-ward estimates and we said as a
maximum in the budget process we would cut 1.3% off those specific purpose
payments. Last year we said that we would cut three percent as a maximum off the
specific purpose payments as outlined in the forward estimates. It is fair to say the
States weren't happy with that figure but of course that is not a negotiated figure. The
idea that you reach agreement on what we pay another party out of our budget has
never been a part of Premiers" conferences. In the end, like any other outlay, the
Commonwealth wil determnine how much is paid out of the budget. The meeting also
at the end had a very intense and helpfiul discussion about what of course is the
predominant domestic challenge Australia faces at the moment and that is to find a
resolution to the very difficult Wik issue. it was a very good discussion and it was of
great assistance to me in the light of my meeting on Sunday afternoon at the Lodge
with representatives of the indigenous community, the mining industry and the
National Farmers Federation and I took the opportunity fortuitously of this gathering
to get the views of the State Premiders. Last night in particular they expressed
appreciation of the fact that on this occasion with this government they have been fully
consulted and fully involved in discussing matters relating to Native Title. But overall
as Premiers' conferences go, it was a fairly straightforward meeting. Inevitably there
are disagreements. States rarely express rapture at the financial offers of the
Commonwealth; we kept our word on the financial assistance grants; we gave a little
special assistance to Tasmania and the ACT, we said that at a maximum we might take
Faoxm 21/ 03/ 97 19: 08 Pg: 1
Fax from $ 139 million out of $ 10 690 million of specific purpose payments to the States, that
being the figure in the forward estimates.
JOURNALIST: Is that figure, 1. 3 inclIude a one percent additions in the.. that you foreshadowed some
COSTELLO: The efficiency dividend which was announced in last years budget was in relation to
running costs on specific purpose payments. It's already been factored into the
specific purpose payments. What our forward estimates have in them, is as the Prime
Minister said, an air1ount for specific purpose payments of $ 10 692 million. We said in
our budget we couldn't see us affecting that by more than 1.3% and we won't. Now,
what it actually is, t may be less but it certainly can't be more. Last year we said we
wouldn't affect sp ilic purpose payments by more than 3% we affected them by two
and a half.
They say that you lare forcing them to make the tax increases, that you aren't man
enough to make yourself They are going back to...
They wanted me to break my commitment to the Australian people about putting up
tax. it's always easy to tell somebody else to break his or her promise.
JOURNALIST: They're going back~ to their states to galvanise public opinion now, it's the Howard
tax, the Costello tW, to this service and so on. Are you happy to wear that?
Well Ii think it will l e seen as part of the ritualistic aftermath of Preiers' conferences.
The public has heard it before. Can I just give you one little statistic. Even if we were
to cut the whole $ 139 million out of the specific purpose payments, total
Commonwealth pa r ents to the States in 1997/ 98 would rise by about If we
didn't cut one dollar out of our own purpose payments in the coming budget, they will
be rising by We obviously will cut many millions of dollars out of the forward
estimates in relation to the Conmmonwealth's own purpose payments so the point I
simply make is that any suggestion that we are cutting the States harder than we are
cutting ourselves is wrong. Fafru~ 21/ 03/ 97 19: 08 Pg: 2
Fax from JOURNALIST: as a maximum is a bit bigger for the Commonwealth to be adding to its own
purpose outlays in the Budget?
I don't want to get into that but we will obviously not....
Well what is relevant is to look at all of the payments to the States and when you lump
in the financial assistance grants and the specific purpose payments. In the forward
estimates they are up by 1. 1 which will take away the $ 139 million that gives you the
0.7 and what I'm saying is that even if we didn't take a dollar out of our payments,
we're on We're obviously going to take many dollars out so from what those
sort of arguments and comparisons are worth.., it can hardly be said that we are asking
them to carry a burden that we are not carrying ourselves.
JOURNALIST: limit the cuts in the budget to your own purpose payments to you're saying
now that that's not the case?
Well, I'm saying the figures are as I describe them.
Can I give you the actual figures? The actual figures are....
are better. Well they are! I
COSTELLO: Of course they are Prime Minister! In 1996/ 97 the actual payments to the States are
$ 33 billion $ 188 million. Our forward estimates show including the increase in the
FAGS, the financial assistance grants, that in 1997/ 98, it would be $ 33 billion $ 553
millon, that is a 1.1 % increase. We reserve the right to reduce that $ 33 billion $ 55 3
million dollars by $ 139 million. We reserve that right. If we exercise that right the
increase would be 0.7% rather than 1. 1% that's the worst the States could do. The
point the Prime Mnister is making is the best the Commonwealth could do, that is if
Fa om21/ 63/ 97 19: 08 Pg: 3
Fax from no money were cut out of Commonwealth owned purposes is That's the best
the Commonwealth could do.
And I can assure you that won't be the case because we will be cutting out of our own
purpose outlays, so that sort of disposes of the argument that in some way we're being
harder on the States than on ourselves.
Can you tell us what the difference would be for the second fiscal year, 1998/ 9 which
is your target fiscal year?
Well this was only in relation to 1997/ 8. In relation to 1998/ 9, there would be the real
increase plus the fa9 that it's only been reduced by 50% would lead to substantive
increases. I can't give a figure but it would be greater in 1998/ 99 on current policy, but
we haven't discussed specific purpose. paymnents for 1998/ 9 yet with the States. But
the point that the Prime Minister makes is, the Conumonwealth has never agreed on
specific purpose payments announced with the States.
PVM NIST R.-
it's an alien notion to the whole Premiers' Conference procedure. You don't negotiate
an agreement on specific.... I mean, last year I didn't negotiate an agreement with the
states, I told the Premiers that in response to a question, that we did not expect that
the reductions in the specific purpose payments would be greater than 3% off the
forward estimates 4nd they expressed satisfaction with that assurance, and it ended
being 2.5% but you don't reach an agreement on these things. I mean, you listen and
you are courteous and we were and we did.
Mr Howard what was your position in terms of the States arguing this afternoon for a
significant change in the rights to negotiate process under the Native Title Act?
Well that issue along with a number of other issues has been under discussion for quite
some time and I'm not going to in the interests of keeping all the options that ought to
be on the table on th~ e table. I'm not going to get into the detail of what was discussed
this afternoon or last night or what was discussed about 10 days ago when I had a
meeting with Mr Borbidge. I'm trying to get an agreed outcome and I want to express
my appreciation of the very constructive attitude that the Prerniers have taken, and I
include all of the Premiers in that. I include the Premier of New South Wales as much
as I include the Premiers of the other States. I think they are genuinely trying to reach
an agreement. It's going to be very hard because the parties are still a long way apart.
Fa rom21/ 03/ 97 19: 00 Pg: 4
Fax from JOURNALIST: Can I ask what's your expectation after your talks today on the timidng of a decision by
you on this? Secondly, we were talking a little earlier by Tracker Tiilmouth, that they
are hoping to see you I think on Tuesday. Can you confirm whether that will be
Well the answer to that second question is yes and I'm also having a meeting with all
of them together on Sunday and I am having second meeting with...
JOURNALIST: This Sunday?
This Sunday in two days' time, and on Tuesday I am having a meeting with a group
of the indigenous leaders including Tracker Tilimouth, so the answer to that is yes.
My expectation on timing? It is really no different from what I've been saying up until
now. I've said about Easter. Well we are getting pretty close to about Easter.
Obviously if we are on the verge of a breakthrough in this area and you need another
week or two or threF, well, nobody's going to quibble about that. On the other hand if
it looks over the course of the next week or two we are not on the verge of break
through I may w911 shortly after I come back from China be putting certain
recommendations tq the Federal Cabinet.
Did you put a package to the Premiers this afternoon, did you put forward a proposal?
PRIME MHISTE I:
No, I had a discussipn with them last night and then there were some discussions from
the... I then had some discussions this morning with one or two of them and then there
were some discussigns between my office, federal offices and state officers and then
there was fuarther discussion around some proposals that came out of those discussions
this afternoon. It's pne of these things that just keeps rolling on and on and on.
JOURNALIST: Have you put a central proposal of.. -to put to the various parties?
Look I'm trying to, reach an outcome that respects the opposition of the indigenous
people to extinguish but delivers the certainty to which I believe the farmers of this
country are rightfiull entitled, and it is very hard. Fa rom21/ 03/ 97 19: 08 Pg:
Fax from : 21/ 03/ 97 19: 08 Pg: 6
JOURNALIST: Are you more confident now than you were say, a week ago?
About the same. Going in a straight line. Reasonably flat but nonetheless straight.
JOURNALIST: After lagt night's discussion on this matter were you disappointed when this morning
Mr Court and Mr Borbidge came out with very strong statements saying that they
basically settled for kiothing short of extinguishment?
I didn't actually seq those statements. Seriously, I don't want to sound di singenuous
but the only Prengier I heard this morning was the epitome of sweetness and
reasonableness. I 4ieard the Victorian Premier being interviewed on Radio National
and he correctly described my determination to bend over backwards to try and reach
an agreement which was satisfactory to all parties. I understand the feelings of people
on this and I am trying hard to get an agreement within the parameters I described to
Laura and it's very -hard and I can't say that I'm overwhelmingly confident that it can
be achieved but I do understand the view of the Aboriginal community about
extinguishment but they must also understand that if there is to be an alternative to
extinguishment if we are to stop short of extinguishment, we have got to reach an
agreement that delivers certainty to the farmers of Australia and also a regime which
prevents scores of Century Zincs.
I mean, the Century Zinc thing has been a disgrace and essentially Century Zinc has
been a disaster. It's a condemnation of the Native Title Act as it now stands and
perhaps the most interesting development in this whole debate is the growing incidence
of Aboriginal elders and people in the Aboriginal community condemning the existing
Native Title Act, the Waanyi elders who came to see me three or four weeks ago were
bitterly critical of the operation of the Native Title Act so, I mean, I understand the
concern of the Aboriginal people about extinguishment. They must understand that
we've got to have some very dramatic changes to the present system otherwise it
JOURNALIST: ( inaudible) as a result of the consultations? How much is your own view of how this..
Fax from PIME MINISTER:
My broad view hasn't changed. Look, you have a view. I've had from the very
beginning an idea as to how you might reach an accommodation in this area if there
was some goodwill from all parties and I have been trying all sorts of proposals and
you put a set of proposals in some discussion and then people react to that and you
add a bit and then you try somebody else and you take a bit away and you add a bit
more and you just keep trying until you get something that everybody clicks on. Now
in the end that might happen. In the end it mightn't. Then I've got to decide what
recommendation I put to the Government.
JOURNALIST: You've described this as a ritualistic aftermath of the states ( inaudible) in the Premiers'
Conference. Is it a ritualistic aftermath to have the Treasurer of Victoria accusing you
of abandoning Federation and saying that ( inaudible) your own expenses ( inaudible)
Yes. I've heard worse than that.
JOURNALIST: . the aftermath to have the Premiers and Treasurers leave without an agreement on
financial jpayments to the states which we have..
Look there's no, the agreement stands. They made it clear in the room.
The state Treasurers said that there was a total confict between yourself and the
Treasurer about exactly what was going on. Mr Egan said that when he asked a
question of you, you nodded and Costello shook his head. I mean, why...
Mr Egan has a particular way of putting things.
JOURNALIST: Why was there so much confusion about...
There wasn't any confusion about it but Mr Egan always likes to add a bit of colour.
Fa om21/ 03/ 97 19: 08 Pg: 7
Fax from JOURNALIST: Why were all of the Treasurers confused about it and saying that you were ambiguous?
I wasn't ambiguous because they introduced into the discussion a figure that wasn't in
the offer document and a figure which hasn't been discussed in the discussions that I
had had privately with the Premiers last night. I mean, let's get this straight. Last
night we had a discussion and the Premier of Victoria I think it was, said to me, ' Well,
we seem to have got a very civilised outcome on the financial assistance grants and the
commonwealth is offering its deal. Now what about the specific purpose payments?"
And he said, last year you put a ceiling of 3% on any cuts? You know, what sort of
figure have you got in mind this year? And I said, in the order of 1 2. He said, we'd
like it closer to one than two. If it goes close to two there will be a lot of trouble.
JOURNALIST: What was the figure that the Treasurers made up?
Some figure of 0.8. And it was on the figure of 0.8 that this question, various
questions were put to me, Look, it's always been the case that Treasurers and
Premiers complain about specific purpose decisions by the Commonwealth.
JOURNALIST: Aren't you nevertheless ( inaudible) the point there, some services simply can't keep
being cut, like public hospitals and so on?
Actually, if you look at the contributions to public hospitals, the commonwealth
contribution to public hospitals over the past five years have gone up and the state
contributions have gone down.
Mlr Kennett suggested the possibility of another meeting next week.
I'm too busy next week, Alan, I'm going to China on Wednesday and I've got one or
two other things on. Fa au21/ 03/ 97 19: 08 Pg: 8
Fax from JOUJRNALIST:
Mr Howard, on native title, in terms of the discussions ( inaudible) in respect of native
title and Century Zinc, to what extent have Aboriginal people put a view to you that
some of these so called Aboriginal leaders, they're not actually representatives?
Look, I'm trying to get an agreement and I am simply not going to be drawn on that.
It's not helpflul. I'm not into that.
JOURNALIST: Mr Costello, do you feel that your relations with the premiers and the treasurers have
improved since last year's meeting?
COSTELLO: Actually I thought they were very warm-
Yes. COSTELLO: In fact, very warm indeed.
COSTELLO: In fact, I actually thought it was a very warm conference.
COSTELLO: As the Prime Minister said, the agreement which was handed out in relation to the
fiscal grants, the general revenue was maintained and agreed. In relation to specific
purpose payments, they have never been agreed. Can I make this point about specific
purpose payments. These are wheni the Commonwealth decides to run a programme
and makes a specific purpose paym~ ent to the states to run it. Now the Commonwealth
has never in the past come to an agreement about what it will spend or whether it will
get out of one and into another. The Commonwealth has always made those decisions
in the budget context and that has been the position at every Premiers' Conference.
Fa om21/ 03/ 97 19: 08 Pg: 9
Fax from Last year for the first time ever we gave an indicative figure. We gave another
indicative figure this year but these are not negotiated matters.
JOURNALIST: So the Treasurers were just stunting?
No the Treasurers are arguing a case for a status quo position. That is they don't want
any further tightening in relation to..
They wanted more money than we were willing to offer. Now there is nothing
particularly revolutionary about that.
COSTELLO: And we have reserved under the Budget the right to vary specific purpose payments.
And all we've said is we've reserved the right to vary them but they won't be varying
particularly much if the ceiling is 1.3%.
PR] NME MIN1STER:
If it's not a negotiated position, why did you leave the room to consider their counter
offer to your 1.3%?
PRIMEAEMSTER: You often go out to have a chat to each other. That happens.
JOURNALIST; If it's not negotiated, why bother?
Well we are infinitely courteous people,
JOURNALIST: Mr Howard, we've had a confiation that the Australian Defence Force has been put
on an increased state of readiness because of Papua New Guinea. Was that merely on
the possibility of evacuation of Australian nationals or was it also to give assistance to
the civi cairn in Papua New Guinea, Fa om21/ 03/ 97 19: 08 Pg:
Fax from ] PRIME MINISTER:
Well it was in response to a routine determination by the head of the Australian
Defence Force, General Baker, and it wasn't specifically in response to, it certainly
wasn't in relation to the latter of the alternatives that you have suggested but it was a
normally prudent, sensible thing and it was a very sort of modest acceleration of the
state of readiness and the sort of thing that you would expect the commander of the
ADF exercising normal commnonsense and prudence to do.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, what contact have you had with your emnissary to PNG?
Well he's returning to Australia right now and I hope to be briefed by him in either
Canberra orSydney later this evening and I have had some telephone messages relayed
to me through my office but I will be seeing him as soon as possible to get an extensive
debriefing from himn, and I want on behalf of the Government to thank Mr Flood and
Mr White and Mr Taylor for the job that I think they have done. I think they are three
first class public servants who I believe have done a very good job and I am looking
forward very much to hearing what they've got to tell me.
JOURNALIST: Do you have a preliminary feeling on what's going on over there?
Well it's obviously still very unstable but the calming influence being exercised by the
former head of the Defence Force, General Singirok, is to be welcomed. We remain of
course very strongly opposed to the use...
do you have a preliminary feeling on what's going on over there?
Well it's obviously still very unstable but the calming influence being exercised by the
former head of the defence force, General Singirok, is to be welcome. We remain, of
course, very strongly opposed to the use of the mercenaries and every indication we
get that the mercenaries have, in some cases, gone or are going is to be welcomed.
And overall the more that that is accelerated the better. We remain willing to discuss
the reasonable alternatives that were put on the table at my meeting with Sir Julius
Chan in Sydney last Sunday week. It's a country that's important to us and the
internal stability of Papua New Guinea is something that we take very seriously. But
we respect the fact that it's a sovereign country and it does have a very difficult
situation in Bougainville. The impression is that things are domestically a little calmer
today than what they were yesterday but I don't want to emphasise that too strongly.
Fa rom21/ 03/ 97 19: 08 Pg: It
Fax from JOURNALIST: Is your information that Sir Julius Chan is now rather more inclined to look at those
reasonable alternatives favourably?
Well he has certainly changed his position on the mercenaries, there's no doubt about
that. The mercenary contract has been suspended and there's an inquiry and it's been
suspended for at least two weeks. That does represent a very significant change. I
don't want to put it any more strongly than that.
JOURNALIST: on the specific alternative arrangements that you put to him.
Well, the two were linked when I put it to him and it's obvious that there has been
movement on one. I don't want to presuppose what is in his mind and I don't think
it's sensible of me to try to do so. But I do note there has been movement on one.
JOURNAJJST: ( inaudible).,. expressed concern that money from the Natural Heritage Trust would
only be paid out if the States matched it on a dollar-for-dollar basis. They said they
had no idea this was the case. Is this in fact the case or would you reconsider?
Well, I did receive some questions from the Premiers about that. I said that I would
investigate what had taken place at the meeting between the Commonwealth and State
Ministers. The preliminary advice I had was that that was not the case, but there may
well have been a misunderstanding. But I'm going to find out some more information
and come back to the Premiers, But we obviously, in providing a lot of extra money
for the environment, we don't want that money as it were to replace State expenditure,
we don't want the States to use the provision of that money as an excuse, a reason, an
opportunity to reduce their own spending. But equally it's meant to be money over
and above what is already being spent by the Commonwealth and the States on the
environment. But I'll look into that and obviously the Commonwealth's policy in that
area will be observed,
Thank you very much. Fa om21/ 03/ 97 19: 08 Pg: 12