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Transcript 21113

Interview with Catherine McGrath AM Programme, ABC Radio

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: 18/02/2004

Release Type: Interview

Transcript ID: 21113

MCGRATH:

Prime Minister, good morning.

PRIME MINISTER:

Morning.

MCGRATH:

On the issue of veterans'; entitlements, it was a very vigorous debate in the party room yesterday – did it catch you by surprise?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, because every so often the party room will have a different view and it will want to go further than the Cabinet and this is the normal operation of the machinery of Government. The men and women of my party room are not ciphers, they';re not yes men and women, and every so often they will say to the Cabinet – ‘we don';t agree with this or we would like you to go further or we';d like you to make a change';. Now, that is normal, it happened on recollection at least or two three occasions last year. It could well happen again during the course of this year. It is a perfectly normal thing and any Prime Minister or any Cabinet is of the view that they';re always right and should never take the view of their colleagues are really a bit out of touch with reality. Look, what happened, we put up a package. My colleagues wanted to go further, wanted to make it more generous and after listening to them and listening to their very strong views I said, okay, I';ll take it back to the Cabinet and we';ll have another look at it.

MCGRATH:

Well, how did Cabinet get it so wrong because you ruled off on what you thought was good policy?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, Catherine, every so often you have differences of opinion. It';s not a question of who';s right or who';s wrong, it';s a question of working through the differences. But this happens in all governments. We';ve been in office for almost eight years, it';s happened from time to time during the whole of that eight-year period and it will happen again for so long as the Government remains in office. And it will happen with future governments. I think we';ve got to understand that you have a process, the Cabinet is drawn from the members of the Government parties, the members of the Government parties are strong-willed people. They put their views, I listen to them and when I assess that there';s a genuine strength of feeling, not as distinct from a genuine division of opinion, I say, okay let';s have a look at it. Now, that happens occasionally. It happened on this occasion and I have no problem at all in saying, okay we';ll have another look at it.

MCGRATH:

However, it is different climate now. Last year when these things happened, you were against Simon Crean, the Government wasn';t under any serious threat. This time the climate is different, you had superannuation last week, this week this issue and Mark Latham is on the march.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, the question of who';s on the march, or who';s running, or who';s doing this that or the other that will be resolved by the Australian people at the appropriate time. But I don';t intend to adjust the way in which I deal with the views of my colleagues according to who is the leader of the Labor Party. I deal with the views of my colleagues on the merits and on the merits they had a strong view that we should be even more generous and I said that Cabinet would have a look at it and I don';t apologise for that, I';m not embarrassed by it. I think it is just sensible leadership. A leader who is never willing to listen to the strong views of his friends and colleagues is not a very good leader.

MCGRATH:

So what the backbench wanted was they were concerned about the pensions paid for…?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, I';m not going to go into the details. Suffice to say, they wanted to be more generous and I said that Cabinet would have another look at it. But I';m not going into the detail of that and I';m not going to pre-empt that Cabinet consideration which will take place over the next few weeks.

MCGRATH:

Now, last week on super, you went in again with an idea that changed what you believed and stood for for thirty years – now which one was good policy?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, Catherine, I';m not going over that. I';ve done umpteen interviews on it, try as much as you like. I';m not going into that. People know my position on that and I';ve got nothing to add.

MCGRATH:

But for the Australian public who are listening, who might want a chance, who might not heard the interview on this.

PRIME MINISTER:

Catherine, you';re wasting your time on that issue.

MCGRATH:

Prime Minister, on family payments, the Government';s been under a lot of pressure by the Opposition on this.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, one thing the Opposition could do, of course, is to pass the Bill that would extend our capacity to top up a further 35,000 families. There were never any top ups. If you overestimated your income under the former Labor family benefits system you didn';t get a top up, under our system we';ve given 585,000 Australian families an average top up of $850 and we want to make that even more generous, and Labor is blocking that legislation in the Senate.

MCGRATH:

You';re talking about the legislation in the Senate, but that does with respect deal with another issue…

PRIME MINISTER:

It';s still family benefits, I mean, it';s all the same issue. The point I';m making is that it';s a bit hypocritical of the Labor Party to criticise our system which is essentially a system they follow. I mean, if somebody is overpaid their social security entitlement it';s been the practice of governments over the years to, in a sensible way, seek to recover that overpayment. Labor did that. There are overpayments under the present system. We';re devising ways of reducing the overpayments and, in fact, the latest figures indicate they';ve fallen by about 14% on the same period last year. But I';m simply making the point that an attempt by us to make the system more generous and to extend the capacity for top ups has been rejected so far by the Labor Party. It';s another example, of this dog-in-the-manger politics that they';re attracted to.

MCGRATH:

If I could get back to the key question which is about moves to tighten up the current system to improve the problems with overpayments.

PRIME MINISTER:

We';re not trying to tighten it up. In fact, we';re trying to make it easier for people. We';re not trying to tighten it up.

MCGRATH:

Amanda Vanstone received a letter from you in September last year asking her to bring forward further measures to address this issue. Now, the criticism now from the Opposition now is that you';ve delayed this for some sort of election campaign.

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no, that';s not correct. What';s happened, Catherine, is that we have made some changes, we';ve got some legislation stalled in the Senate courtesy of the Labor Party that will make further changes. It';s all part of the one system. We';re not deliberately sitting on it for electoral purposes. That';s nonsense.

MCGRATH:

We';ll move if we can. The issue of weapons of mass destruction and Iraq – will you hold a Royal Commission? Labor says you should?

PRIME MINISTER:

Catherine, what I';ve said and what I think the leader of the Opposition at the moment has said is that let';s wait until we get the inquiry report from the Jull Committee and can I just take this opportunity of denying absolutely the allegations being made by the Labor Party that I have either leaked or authorised the leaking of the contents of the report. The Government has not leaked that report, I';m sorry that it has come out. I';ve seen the report because it was sent to me by the Chairman of the Committee. So if somebody sends me a report it';s likely that I';ll have a look at it. It';s a bit disingenuous of somebody to send me a report and then suggest that somehow or other I shouldn';t look at it.

MCGRATH:

So can you guarantee that no one in your office leaked it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I certainly would be astonished if anybody connected with me had leaked it. They certainly had no authority to do so and I have every confidence.

MCGRATH:

But, I mean, have you done a check? Have you asked? Have you asked your office to investigate?

PRIME MINISTER:

Catherine, I have no reason to believe, but I will ask seeing you raised it with me. But I have no reason to believe and I can';t imagine that anybody would have done that. I mean, why would we do that?

MCGRATH:

There';s speculation from the Labor Party.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, the Labor Party will say anything. I mean, of course, they will say that. But we haven';t – that';s the bottomline, I haven';t, we haven';t, that';s the situation. And as far as an inquiry is concerned, I am quite happy to wait. But can I just say again, I did not exaggerate the intelligence that was given to me. The speeches I made were consistent with the intelligence advice that we had received. Any suggestion that we put pressure on the intelligence agencies to alter their assessments to suit the Government';s political convenience are denied. And as far as I';m concerned, I don';t have anything to apologise for. If I had my time over again, my decision would have been no different. The world is a better place without Saddam Hussein. I for one do not believe that we would have got the outcome in relation to Libya, if it hadn';t have been for the action taken by the Coalition in Iraq. And I believe that in the long run history will judge that action as having been not only right, but having brought a greater era of stability to the Middle East.

MCGRATH:

Prime Minister, there';s a story in the newspaper today about Qantas officials, Qantas security officials telling a parliamentary committee on airport security that one in 12 times security was breached in their attempts to test Qantas security. Are you worried about that given there';s a…

PRIME MINISTER:

Catherine I haven';t seen that story so I can';t comment.

MCGRATH:

But what sort of protection is there…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I haven';t seen that story so I';m not commenting.

MCGRATH:

Prime Minister, negotiations over the Medicare safety net, how are they going?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well there are discussions still going on with the Senate, with the Senators, the independent Senators, and I don';t know what the outcome will be. But this could be resolved today by the Opposition Leader announcing that the Labor Party is no longer going to block our safety net. I can';t understand why the Labor Party opposes something that brings benefits to people. The introduction of the safety net will in no way prevent Labor, if it were to win the next election from introducing its own Medicare policy. I can understand an Opposition saying I can';t vote for this because if this change is brought about that will prevent us if we ever win government from introducing our policy. There';s some logic in that because that is the fundamental objection in principle, but there is no logic except blind opportunistic obstructionist politics in a position which says I';m blocking this because we';re not in government and we can';t implement our policy and I';m not going to let them implement theirs even though what they want to do is not inconsistent with what we believe in. So that is classic dog-in-the-manger politics and the Labor Party should change its tact.

MCGRATH:

Prime Minister, Telstra';s likely to be a big election issue, what did you think of the idea that went to the board?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that was a matter for the board, it';s a matter for the board. I';m not going to comment on the internal deliberations of a large corporation, that';s not my role…

MCGRATH:

It';s still majority government owned…

PRIME MINISTER:

But I don';t think it should be and I think this whole incident highlights the absurdity of continued government ownership. What it does, it fingers the absurdity because this company can';t issue shares to raise capital, it';s very limited in what it can do because of that majority government ownership and those very limitations deny the millions of Australian shareholders in Telstra a full return on their investment and what this incident has done is to highlight again the long term incompatibility of having what is probably the largest corporation in Australia slightly more than half owned by the Government. So I think it just again illustrates how short sighted those that continue to oppose the full privatisation of Telstra.

MCGRATH:

Prime Minister, thanks for speaking to AM this morning.

PRIME MINISTER:

Pleasure.

[ends]

Transcript 21113