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Transcripts from the Prime Ministers of Australia

Transcript 11028

Interview with Leigh McClusky and Tony Pilkington, Radio 5AA, Adelaide

Photo of Howard, John

Howard, John

Period of Service: 11/03/1996 to 03/12/2007

More information about Howard, John on The National Archive website.

Release Date: 13/08/1999

Release Type: Interview

Transcript ID: 11028

Subject(s): health system; superannuation for politicians; private health insurance; inflationary effect of GST; unemployment benefits; referendum;

 13 August 1999

E&OE……………………………………………………………………………………….

PILKINGTON:

Prime Minister, good morning and welcome.

PRIME MINISTER:

How are you? Nice to see you both again.

MCCLUSKY:

Thank you. Prime Minister, obviously one of the big issues here in South Australia, and I know it’s one that has been involving the Federal Government, the issue is health and, you know, health funding. And there is a huge amount of confusion I think for the public of South Australia over who has what responsibility financially for our health system and who is giving or who is not giving the amount of money because it seems the crisis we’re feeling here is also being shared in New South Wales and Victoria. What seems to be the problem, how do you read it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I’d say a couple of things. The first thing I’d say is that with all its faults the Australian health system is probably the best in the world. If you’re a battler it’s better to get sick in Australia than in Britain or America or Japan or Germany. So, all of us should remember that whatever grizzles we have about the current system it is a lot better than the alternatives around. Well, that’s the first observation I’d make. And you asked me about funding. Well, public hospital funding is the responsibility of the States. We give the States money and they have money from other sources, and they run hospitals. We don’t run hospitals. I know there’s a disposition, when anything goes wrong, for a State government to say, well, it would be all right if only the Federal Government would give us more money. Now, we increased the money going to the States under the Medicare agreements by about 17 per cent over the next five years. When the GST comes into click there will be rising revenue for the States and they’ll be able to use that on whatever they want to. We’ve put another $1.5 billion into private health insurance. We’re going to double the amount of money spent on health and medical research in Australia over the next five years. And we’re looking very actively at some of the other problem areas.

MCCLUSKY:

I was just going to say, when you actually deal out money to the States under the Medicare agreement, how specific can you make it in terms of the use of that money?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh, we can require that that money be spent on hospitals, yes, and it is, but we can’t stop States withdrawing their own resources - no Federal Government can do that. Now, I’m not saying every State does that but there have been examples over the last few years, and the figures prove it, where as Federal Government funding has gone up in some States there has been a reduction of State funding. Now, can I say that the worst thing about this whole debate is that it always gets caught up in this political crossfire. I’ll be talking to John Olsen this afternoon and I’ll be saying to him that if there are particular areas that we can work together to improve, I’d like to do that. There’s no point in having a national inquiry. Another productivity inquiry will just freeze action for the next 18 months. The public gets very cynical about inquiries. They think inquiries are what politicians order when they don’t know the answer. And that’s my view about the call for a productivity inquiry by the State Premiers. But I’ll be talking to Mr Olsen, I hope, against the background of recognising that although we have a good health system it can be made better and there are flaws in it.

MCCLUSKY:

I know that you obviously weren’t looking forward to the inquiry about the health system and obviously a lot of people agree…

PRIME MINISTER:

It’s not so much not looking forward to it, I couldn’t see the point of it.

MCCLUSKY:

Well, couldn’t see the point in it, and particularly a Productivity Commission report that would take another 18 months.

PRIME MINISTER:

Eighteen months and nothing happens…

MCCLUSKY:

All right, but we do now have a Senate inquiry that has been given the go ahead, will you be assisting that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, we won’t try to obstruct it but that is a politically driven inquiry. It was set up by a majority of non-government Senators and it came out of a meeting of Labor Shadow Ministers and Ministers of health in Melbourne. So, it’s hardly, you know, conceived in immaculate sort of impartiality.

MCCLUSKY:

So are you saying it won’t do any good?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don’t think it will do much good at all, no, but we’re not going to obstruct it. And it certainly won’t stop me or the Government working to improve things.

PILKINGTON:

Prime Minister, when you talk to the Premier this afternoon, I mean, what will you be saying to him about the health issue? Will you be saying, look, try and get together with Minister Wooldridge or, I mean, reallocate funds?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I’ll be talking, I hope – I’ll be taking, I hope, a common sense approach and that is starting from the fact that we do have a good system, not from the starting point that the system is in collapse, chaos and crisis because it’s not. And people who run around the country saying that are wrong and they’re doing a great disservice. We have a health system that is much better than any alternative around the world but it does have defects.

PILKINGTON:

But Prime Minister, in this State alone, I mean, there’s been so much concern over the last week or so…

PRIME MINISTER:

I know that.

PILKINGTON:

…down at Flinders Medical Centre. We’ve conducted a poll here – 91 per cent of people are saying the State government needs to redirect $10 million immediately into that.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, could that well be the case. I mean, I’m the Prime Minister, I’m not going to answer for the State government and if there’s legitimate criticism of the State government, well, they will deal with that. I’m not saying there is. The only thing I’m saying is it’s not good enough anymore for any State government to say, look, everything would be all right if only the Federal Government would give us more money. And the Federal Government has given them a lot more money. The Federal Government’s put in double the amount of resources into health and medical research. We’ve put $1.5 billion a year extra into private health insurance. But I am perfectly happy to talk in a constructive way about health policy with any Premier. As for a problem that’s important in Adelaide – I mean, you mentioned the Flinders Medical Centre, I in fact was talking to a doctor from that centre last night over dinner so…

PILKINGTON:

What did he say to you?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, it was a private discussion and he didn’t know I was going to talk about it on air so to be fair to him I won’t.

PILKINGTON:

But was he concerned, though, about the situation down there?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, we talked about the issue. I’m just saying that I mentioned that to make the point that I am not unfamiliar with the fact that there is a lot of debate in this city, in this State about health issues. But I can’t answer for that, I mean, that is a State issue overwhelmingly and that’s for Mr Brown and for Mr Olsen.

MCCLUSKY:

Prime Minister, what do you say to those people who are saying, ah, this is all part of a deliberate ploy, this is the State and Federal governments deliberately running down the public health system simply to push people, to scare people, into going back into private health insurance and the private system?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, my reply to that is that if that were the case we wouldn’t have increased funding to the States for public hospitals if we wanted to do that. But, why would we want to do that? There’s only, sort of, what, 31, 32 per cent of people in private health insurance. That couldn’t conceivably be one of our objectives. I mean, we need both and that’s why we put money into the private system and it’s why we increased funding for public hospitals. But, in the end, the doling out of the dollars into particular centres and the administration of the distribution of the money for public hospitals is a State responsibility. I mean, I can’t determine how much money goes to the Flinders Medical Centre. I mean, it’s ridiculous. The State government can and that’s…

MCCLUSKY:

And should.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, yes, but I’m not going to buy into the argument because it’s not fair to Mr Olsen or to Mr Brown for me to sort of blow in and say, you know, do this, do that, in relation to a problem that is entirely within their responsibility.

PILKINGTON:

Prime Minister, on to the issue of the referendum, you’re still confident of winning it come the 6th of November…

 PRIME MINISTER:

No, I’ve not said that. I don’t know what will happen.

PILKINGTON:

But what’s your gut feel, though?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don’t know. My gut feel, at the moment I would say that the preamble has a fair chance of getting up and I’ll be voting for the new preamble. The republic, I don’t know. I’ll be voting ‘no’ on the republic because I think the present system is very good. We’re a totally independent country and I’m a conservative on issues where I don’t see any screaming need for change.

PILKINGTON:

Are you concerned about the number of your own Coalition people who are…

PRIME MINISTER:

No because it’s a free vote.

PILKINGTON:

A free vote, yeah.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yeah. I mean, I decided two years ago it should be a free vote. I mean, this is a very interesting issue. We are allowing a completely free vote. The Labor Party is running a political campaign. I mean, they’re going to run it like an election campaign. They’ve got their National Director out there saying there’s going to be, you know, Labor for the republic. Well, that’s their right but we take the view on something like this where I think you’ll find on the day there will be some people who are normally Labor voters who will vote ‘no’ and there are a lot of people who are normally Liberal voters who will vote ‘yes’. Now, I don’t know how many and frankly I don’t care.

PILKINGTON:

Will you be disappointed if a lot of your Coalition people actively promote the idea of a ‘yes’ vote?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, it’s happening already. I mean, why would I be disappointed if I allowed a free vote. I mean, I decided two years ago we should have a free vote because it’s the mature thing to do on something like this. You can’t say the one true Liberal position is yes or no anymore, frankly, than you can say the one true Labor position is yes or no. I think the listeners to this programme who are Labor voters, some of them are going to vote yes, some of them are going to vote no and vice versa. It’s that sort of issue.

MCCLUSKY:

Prime Minister, can I ask you, why did you think it was so important that the actual question contained reference to it being the President being elected by a two-thirds majority of the Parliament? I know certainly the Democrats were arguing for a simpler question and a lot of people…

PRIME MINISTER:

It would have been misleading not to have said that.

MCCLUSKY:

Well, I suppose the question that we’re getting from listeners is, look, it’s almost in two parts, do I want a republic, yes or no, then how do I want that elected. To roll it all into one, does that mean the question is bound to fail?

PRIME MINISTER:

No. But the reason that it’s rolled into one is that is what will happen if you vote yes. I mean, if people vote yes on the 6th of November we will have a republic with a President chosen by two-thirds of the Parliament. We won’t just have a republic. I mean, that is the reason – the reason I wanted the question as it is is because it’s a truthful description of what people are voting for. People are not just voting on the 6th of November on the issue of whether we are a republic. They are voting as to whether we are a republic where the President is chosen by two-thirds of the Parliament. What people were really wanting was for us to, sort of, ask half a question because they thought if put that way it would have a better chance of winning. What I’m saying is that people should be told in the question what they’re voting for. And what people are voting yes or no to is a long amendment to the Constitution which inserts references to a President, deletes references to the Queen and the Governor-General and provides that the President shall be chosen, after a consultative process, by appointment of two-thirds of the members of Parliament on the nomination of the Prime Minister with the support of the Leader of the Opposition. So, what I wanted to do was to summarise in the question what people were being asked to approve. And what my opponents wanted me to do was to only summarise half of it with the half that they thought was most attractive and that’s why I resisted. And I thought that attempt to cut out reference to two-thirds was wrong. I thought it was deceptive and that is why I resisted it. And I don’t care if it were recommended by an all party committee. I think on this issue, with great respect, they were wrong. I think the public is entitled to know what they’re voting for and what they’re voting for is a republic with the Queen and the Governor-General being replaced by a President but that President is not voted for by the people but that President is appointed by two-thirds of the members of Parliament. That is exactly what is going to be on the ballot paper.

[COMMERCIAL BREAK]

PILKINGTON:

We’re taking calls. Our guest of course is Prime Minister John Howard.

MCCLUSKY:

First caller, from a mobile, Mark. Good morning to you.

CALLER:

Good morning. Good morning Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER:

Hi.

CALLER:

My question is a simple one, and I guess requires a simple answer. Do you believe that it’s fair that ordinary working Australians do not have the same access provision for their supperannuation as Federal politicians? Do you think that’s fair sir?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don’t think it’s fair that the total remuneration package of any section of the community should be out of proportion to the work they do. I think if you look at the total remuneration package of members of Parliament, given the responsibilities they have and the hard work of most of them, I think the total remuneration package is fair.

CALLER:

Well it’s not so much the total sir, it’s the access provisions.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I’m sorry, no. I mean you can’t just take one aspect. I mean I could equally say to you – do you think it’s right that the managing director of the largest bank of Australia should be paid five times the salary or ten times the salary or eight times or something, what ever it is, the salary of the Federal Treasurer? Yes or no.

CALLER:

Well I mean I don’t know what their responsibilities are. I’m just saying that…

PRIME MINISTER:

What I’m doing, I’m simply making the point is that you can’t just look at one aspect. I mean I know superannuation for members of Parliament is generous. I also know that by the standards of responsibility that senior ministers in particular carry, their remuneration is much lower than the remuneration of many people in the community who carry much higher responsibility. So there are swings and roundabouts and I therefore think you’ve got to look at the total package.

MCCLUSKY:

All right. Up at Bilsbury, Anita, good morning.

CALLER:

Yeah, hi Prime Minister. I just want to question – we are just feeling rather despondent in my family at the moment. My husband goes to work six days a week and starts at four to five in the morning.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yep, what does he do?

CALLER:

He’s a concrete truck driver.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes.

CALLER:

And now he brings in about $450 to $500 a week. Right, I have to go out to work to supplement that income because I’ve got three children.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes I understand that, yes.

CALLER:

I’ve got friends, and numerous friends who have got two children, unemployed sitting at home and they bring $450 a week home.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that will be much harder….

CALLER:

It just really frustrates me.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yeah I can understand that. We have done something about that. I mean I have to know what the family income of those friends is.

CALLER:

They get nothing.

PRIME MINISTER:

They don’t get anything? The parents get nothing?

CALLER:

Well they don’t go out to work at all.

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh, the parents don’t go out to work.

CALLER:

No so they’re on family income and they get….

PRIME MINISTER:

Yeah yeah, I see, it all gets added together.

CALLER:

I wouldn’t like to see people live on less than what we live on. But there has to be some…..

MCCLUSKY:

An incentive.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yeah well I agree with that. And that’s one of the reasons why we’ve introduced work for the dole.

CALLER:

Yeah but that’s only for young children.

PRIME MINISTER:

No, well it’s gradually moving up the age rate. It’s now been extended. How old are your friends? Are they under 35?

CALLER

Older. Some are older some are younger.

PRIME MINISTER:

We’ve moved it up to 35 and we are progressively expanding it and it’s in response to exactly what you say. I don’t want to see people starve and people won’t ever be allowed to starve on the streets. That’s not our way. But I think people should be required to put something back if they’ve been given the dole.

CALLER:

Have we ever considered going back to some sort of a coupon system? I’m not asking to live without money. But for things like electricity, buying food, and stuff like that. I wouldn’t want to do that, I would want to go out and get a job if I’m forced to do that.

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no. I would….well, have we ever considered it? We haven’t considered it over the last three-and-a-bit years. My hunch is that Australian sort of natural egalitarian spirit would say well, gee, we don’t like that, it sort of brands people.

CALLER:

Well that’s exactly right so they’d go out and take the jobs that are out there [inaudible] have.

PRIME MINISTER:

I do agree with you that there should be greater incentive for people to look for work. I agree with that and we are making it progressively harder for people to do what you have described without being required to work in return. That’s the whole mutual obligation principle which underlies work for the dole. So we are moving in that direction. Probably not as fast as you would like but we are moving in that direction.

MCCLUSKY:

At Henley Beach, Matt, good morning to you.

CALLER:

Yes good morning Prime Minister. My question was this – is it right and proper for the people to choose by referendum whether or not we should be a republic? Why’s it then not right and proper for the people to choose by referendum how the President should be elected?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well some might answer that you can, that if you want to directly elect a President well you will oppose the republic proposition on the 6th of November in the hope that some time in the future there’ll be another question put to your liking. The reason that there’s only one question being put on the 6th of November is that that was the question that emerged from the Constitutional Convention. You’ve got to remember that before the ’96 election I promised that if I became Prime Minister, even though I was not in favour of change myself, I would allow the Australian people to resolve this issue. I said I’d have a convention and I said at the beginning of the convention that if a clear view emerged as to a particular model to be put to the people that model would be put. And the model that is being put on the 6th of November, which does not provide for a direct election, provides for Parliamentary choice, that was the model that received the greatest support by far at the Constitutional Convention and that is why it’s being put. I mean you can’t have a situation where you just sort of…you can’t effect a Constitutional change to convert to a republic without specifying how the President is to be chosen so therefore you have to specify the model otherwise you don’t get a Constitutional change.

MCCLUSKY:

Prime Minister in hindsight, do you think, and I think a lot of people didn’t understand what was happening at the Constitutional Convention, we hadn’t had one before. They didn’t sort of understand what was going on. In hindsight do you think that many people didn’t realise the amount of power in shaping the model and the question that that convention would have. I mean obviously people are now saying – hang on I want to put my hand up and nominate somebody.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I can….I mean I was very open about it. I mean the difficulty I had quite frankly Leigh is that if I had departed from what the Constitutional Convention decided I would have been violently attacked by the Labor Party and the republicans for trying to sort of fiddle the outcome. I mean what I tried to do at the very beginning is be very open. I told the public before I became Prime Minister that I did not personally support change, and I’ve maintained that position throughout. I don’t hide that fact, I don’t care if people disagree with me. I don’t hide it, that’s my position. If they don’t like it well they can [inaudible]. But I also said that I would have a convention and I would obey the majority view coming out of the convention. Now the majority view was the model that is being put.

MCCLUSKY:

In the run up to November 6th, will there be a public education campaign?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes. There will be a….

MCCLUSKY:

What will that be?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well there’ll be a publicly funded education campaign that will sort of start fairly soon, which will explain the present system, it’s strengths its weaknesses, it’s strengths, and then explain the alternative system which will be a criticism of the weaknesses of the present system and also how the alternative would work. And that will be neutral. It will be oversighted by a committee of experts chaired by Sir Ninian Steven, the former Governor General, and it will be designed to just inform people about the present system and how the alternative would work. And then in addition to that both sides have been publicly funded to run an advertising campaign of their choice and that’ll be the sort of the symbols and drums sort of….

PILKINGTON:

Equal funding for both? [inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER:

Equal funding yes. Equal funding for the ‘yes’ case and the ‘no’ case.

PILKINGTON:

All right. Harry, where are you, at Banksia Park. Good morning to you. You’re talking to the Prime Minister. Yes Harry go ahead.

CALLER:

G’day Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes Harry.

CALLER:

Look there’s one thing I want to ask you about. We don’t want to know what the problem is between the Federal government and the State government, but regarding the healthy, if everybody in South Australia, say 60,000 couples or families took out private health say tomorrow, you’d be up for 800 per year which works out roughly at $50 million a year. Now we know that the private health is going no where fast. It’s just staying stable at the moment. Why can’t you divert that money? You must have it around somewhere in your slush fund.

PRIME MINISTER:

Don’t have a slush fund.

CALLER:

Divert it from there into the public health system?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well private health insurance is actually increasing, slowly.

CALLER:

Very very slowly.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well for the first time in about 15 years at least there has been an increase in private health membership in Australia in two successive months. So that’s a reversal of past trends but we would like to see it not only continue but also to gather pace. We think that the problem at the moment is that there are too few people in private health insurance and one of the reasons why there’s a load on public hospitals, and why public hospitals are in the spotlight, is that there are too few people using private hospitals. And if you had a diversion of more people into private hospitals you would take the load off the public hospitals and that would help to solve some of the problems of public hospitals. So we think it’s a better use of that hypothetical $50 million that you were speaking of to subsidise people to take out private health insurance.

MCCLUSKY:

Prime Minister, I’d be intrigued to hear your thoughts on this, a news story. A survey rather has found the GST could inflate prices higher than government predictions. In it’s first study of the new tax system the Commonwealth Bank claims the annual inflation rate could blow out to over 5%. How do you react to that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that’s not our advice. Our advice is that it won’t be anything like that. It will be in the order of sort of the 1.9-2%, which was talked about. And we’ve also seen independent, that is non-government economic analysis supporting our conclusion. Economists rarely agree.

MCCLUSKY:

So they’re wrong?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well according to our advice they’re very wrong, yes.

MCCLUSKY:

[inaudible]

PILKINGTON:

Prime Minister, before you go, you’ve recently had your 60th birthday. Your personal question, how far down the track are you looking ahead? I mean next federal election, I mean does John Howard stay as Prime Minister for as long as you possibly can or do you have a retirement….?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh I don’t have any retirement date in mind. What I’ve said in response to this in the past is I sort of take one election at a time. I certainly feel very fit and energetic.

MCCLUSKY:

You look good at the moment. I don’t know what you’ve been doing.

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh well, quiet life.

MCCLUSKY:

That’s fair, that’s right.

PRIME MINISTER:

Practicing with those new golf clubs.

MCCLUSKY:

Exactly.

PRIME MINISTER:

But look you take one term at a time in this game and at the moment I’m feeling pretty well. But in the end these things are not my choice. They’re really things that the Liberal Party and the public in a sense have an ownership of. You don’t own a Prime Ministership. It’s a great privilege that’s given to you by the Australian public.

PILKINGTON:

So there’s no pressure from home to say – look one more election and then [inaudible] ?

PRIME MINISTER:

No no no, certainly no pressure from home. I mean in many respects in our own sort of family life with our children grown up and that, you know, we’ve sort of reached that stage where the freedom of movement of the oldies is easier.

MCCLUSKY:

Do you feel stronger as the Prime Minister now?

PILKINGTON:

It must be wonderful to have….

PRIME MINISTER:

I think after you’ve been there for a while you have a better feel for it, and we’ve, you know, we’ve hit a few boundaries lately. Well we’ve hit a six, several sixes with the GST, and that’s good. And I feel very pleased that we got agreement this week on our Constitutional preamble because whatever people think about the republic I think most Australians will want to support the preamble, and I’ll certainly be voting for the preamble although I’m going to vote no on the other one. But I think we as the government…and yesterday we had a 7% unemployment figure and the youth unemployment rate in Australia has now declined by 5.8 percentage points.

MCCLUSKY:

It’s pretty [inaudible].

PRIME MINISTER:

5.8 percentage points since we came to power. Now I really am delighted about that and that is far more important to me than any arguments about the Constitution to actually create a situation where there are more young people who can get a job and there are more opportunities for the young in our community. That is infinitely more important than anything else.

PILKINGTON:

Prime Minister, thank you for your time this morning. We know you’ve got a busy schedule. Welcome to Adelaide, more importantly welcome to Adelaide’s 5AA.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you.

PILKINGTON:

Thanks for coming in.

MCCLUSKY:

See you next time.

[Ends]

Transcript 11028