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Transcript 22180

Interview with Alan Jones Radio 2GB

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: 21/03/2006

Release Type: Interview

Transcript ID: 22180

JONES:

All right PM thank you for coming in. The Prime Minister is with me just before, I can say to our Sydney listeners, he heads off for a walk, so he's elegantly equipped in tracksuits. This is a tsunami.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it's certainly the biggest cyclone this country's had in velocity. Thank heavens there has been no loss of life to date. I mean that's the first thing we ought to say, but the physical damage is enormous. The first responsibility, the first need is to provide shelter and food for people who have lost their homes. You need to restore power and as the Johnstone Shire Council mayor just said a moment ago, electricity is used to operate sewerage. Now they're the first things to do. The next thing of course to do is to assess the reconstruction task and then of course we have to assess the long term economic damage and what needs to be done to get local communities and businesses back on their feet so people can be re-employed. Now it's a very big task and I'm going up there tomorrow to, I'll see the Premier, he and I will go around together because the Federal and State Government must work together on this; to make an assessment and of course receive the advice I'm getting constantly from our own people as to what needs to be done, but I want the people of far north Queensland to know that the rest of the country is behind them. We want to work with them to get them back on their feet; we recognise that the impact on their livelihoods in many cases has been quite devastating. We continue to hope that there will be no deaths and to date the notified injuries are not in the critical or very serious category, although there have been 23 people admitted to hospital or treated in some way and we hope that that remains as it is at present.

JONES:

PM, I've got Patrick Leahy on the line here and he will be able to give you; I promised I'd let him speak to you. He's the President of the Australian Banana Growers' Council. They produce, as you know, up there 80 per cent of the Australian banana crop. Now we can all do without bananas, but that's not the issue. These people have been wiped out now economically. They will have nothing for nine months. Patrick will you come in again please?

PATRICK LEAHY:

Yes.

JONES:

Yes, good morning and this is the Prime Minister. Now Patrick would you just explain to him you are a banana grower. You've lost all your crop at Tully, what 200 acres. Just explain to the Prime Minister what happened firstly and then what has happened to the community.

PATRICK LEAHY:

Yes, Mr Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning Patrick, nice to talk to you. I'm sorry about the circumstances.

PATRICK LEAHY:

Yeah, could be better. John, I'm a farmer in the Tully region and I live on my farm and it was devastating to sit in my house and watch my crop just slowly at first go to the ground and then all of it went with a rush, you know. But I feel for my fellow growers because some of them are going to, well all of us are going to have financial hardship, some worse than others. But one of the big decisions that we've all got to make in the days to come is what we do with our employees. You know, we're a medium concern at 200 acres and we employ 36 people and it's very hard for me to say to them, look you're going to have to go and find unemployment benefits. You know, I've got people with young families and mortgages and really it's going to be a struggle for them as well as it is for the growing community.

JONES:

Patrick, just explain to the PM also and then we'll get some comment from him, because it's the multipliers here as well. Of course you mentioned the truckies who would cart your bananas, there will be no work for them, the people who make the cartons, there's no order for them, the freighters, the fertilisers who supply the fertiliser and the absence of any income at all for months and months and months.

PATRICK LEAHY:

Yes, the first one is, like we'll virtually have no income at all from say the earliest is maybe six months we might see a trickle coming in, but generally it will be nine months. And with such a devastation that we've had, all of our crops going to come in together so we're going to virtually have a glut or low prices if everyone comes back at the same time. But when we're talking the multiplier, you know we've got say between 350 and 400,000 cartons of bananas leaving north Queensland every week of the year. Those truckies that come up here, they bring produce into north Queensland and the only reason they really come up here is because they're guaranteed a back load of bananas. So that keeps the freight of produce into north Queensland at a reasonable cost, where we're going to have none of that back freight.

JONES:

It's a frightening stat PM. 300,000 cartons of bananas leave every week.

PATRICK LEAHY:

Not only that, the flow on effect, a quarter of what we make, you know, we're talking that we're going to take at least $300 to $350 million out of the economy of north Queensland over the next nine months, but a quarter of that is actually wages that we pay to our workers. And if you multiplied that by a flow on of at least three times that it changes hands, somewhere between the grocer or the hotel or the bloke buying a car, bank, you know, we're talking about maybe $700 million that's not going to go around in the economy of north Queensland, which is a lot of money.

JONES:

PM?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well Patrick I have listened very carefully to all of that and I can understand your sense of despair, but don't despair. There's a lot of willingness on the part of the community generally and the Government on behalf of the community to help you. I accept what you say. I would like when we've finished talking if you, I'll get the details, contact details from you and I will be in the region tomorrow and it may be possible just depending on where I am and where you are etcetera that we could have a bit of a talk. Because your industry is quite crucial to the economy of the devastated area and everything you say just makes perfect commonsense. If your crop is destroyed you're not going to have any income for some time. You've got to rebuild, you worry about your employees and the multiplier effect of which Alan speaks is evident. So one of the first things we have to do is to try and assess the scale of the economic damage, and its obviously very big indeed, and different ways in which we can assist and we'll be doing that and the process is starting now. Obviously it's not something that can be done overnight, but this is a natural disaster that nobody can prepare for, nobody can effectively in a business sense, insure against them. Something comes along like this and flattens you, then you are entitled to say well can somebody give us a bit of a hand to get back on our feet and that ought to be the aim of the Government and it will be the aim of the Government.

JONES:

Patrick, I understand also you're talking about bananas, but of course if I could just say for the PM that the sugar people have of course you know gone through a very difficult time. And here they were now facing the best price ever and so it is cruel, very cruel. And then I understand that the mango, the lychee, the passionfruit and rambutan crops have also been completely wiped out. So Patrick that devastation is universal.

PATRICK:

That is correct, yes. You know, bananas might be the biggest horticultural crop in North Queensland but by far the Atherton Tablelands, you've got macadamias, lychees, avocados, mangoes, it is right across the field, you know. It is not just one little area that has been affected and I hear you say that it is 100 acres sweep, 100 hectares, um sorry...

JONES:

...100 kilometres...

PATRICK:

...sweep, but I think it is probably got a little bit more reach than that, you know.

JONES:

Patrick while I've got you here because this is important, now to the serious stuff for the PM. Many people PM, and if you'd stay there to hear the PM's response because I know all these people up there are interested, they have talked about the immediacy with which we responded to Indonesia and statements that have been made in the United Nations by us that there was problems in Pakistan and Indonesia with tsunamis and so on. And we immediately gave a billion bucks and we said only a couple of months ago in the United Nations that we have got to look after poor people and we will increase that aid from four million to two billion or something. Can I just ask you something? Don't we need a national disaster fund? I have talked to you about this before, in which money is appropriated every budget so that when the bushfires occur as they did devastatingly in Canberra, or when the floods in northern New South Wales occur, or when this occurs beyond any kind of expectations there is a fund which is capable of really ameliorating the problems faced by these people immediately rather than have the public appeal that we have got. Yet again, people pitch in and the Queensland Government has given $100,000 and the Commonwealth Bank 50 and so on.

PRIME MINISTER:

Alan, this is not something that can be fixed by a public appeal. I mean a public appeal is good because people want to get involved and they want to help. But can I just say to your listeners that the Federal Government will give what is needed to get these communities back on their feet. I mean we are going to help, we are not going to have a situation where our generosity to others is greater than our generosity to those of our own who are in need. But we just need a day or two to make a proper assessment of how the money can best be spent. But what is reasonably needed, and we've got to make a proper assessment of it, will be made available.

JONES:

Patrick was talking to his farmers today. What is the machinery for trying to identify that need, distributing funds which would be necessary to a: feed...

PRIME MINISTER:

...If I can take specifically his interest. We have got to get a proper assessment of the extent of the problem. Now we have been given an overview, but there will be varying degrees of damage, and then we have to work out the most effective way of giving those people assistance to get back on their feet. Now that might vary. Some people might want loans, some people might want grants, some people might want different (inaudible). It depends and we, in consultation with the industry, and that is why I wanted the opportunity if I could tomorrow to talk to him and I am sure one way or another we can, if I cant do it personally somebody on my behalf can; so that we can get a proper assessment of what is needed. Now there are some arrangements and I don't want to bore you with bureaucracy but there are some arrangements, standing arrangements with the Commonwealth and the states where, under the emergency relief assistance the State can give cash grants, they can make loans and then we reimburse them once the cost of that goes beyond a certain level. Now as I say, let's not bore you with bureaucracy, but the most important thing for Patrick's industry is they can give to both the State and Commonwealth people an assessment and I will certainly be getting in touch with him, he leaves his, you've got his number here, we'll make, we'll establish that contact and if it were possible to talk tomorrow that would be very useful.

JONES:

Is there something that you want to ask the PM now Patrick?

PATRICK LEAHY:

Yes, Mr Howard I have been contacted already about meeting with you tomorrow...

PRIME MINISTER:

...Good...

PATRICK LEAHY:

...So, it just relies at the moment if I can get out of my farm.

PRIME MINISTER:

I understand that and if that is not possible then I will get a bloke, somebody to talk to you at length on the phone so we get a proper assessment.

JONES:

Well Patrick you hang on there, would you and give those appropriate details to Gavin and we will immediately pass those onto the PM's staff here before he takes off this morning.

PATRICK LEAHY:

Thank you.

PRIME MINISTER:

Very good to talk to you Patrick and I am sorry for all of this and we will do all we can to help.

PATRICK LEAHY:

It is nobody's fault and we all have to work through it together.

JONES:

Well the intention is good Patrick, whether the end result doesn't sometimes live up to the intention but I think everyone will be doing their best. Thank you for your time Patrick. PM are the instruments adequate? I come back to this national disaster fund, are the instruments adequate to meet this kind of emergency?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I believe they are, but let's test it, lets see how it goes. I mean you can have a dedicated fund or you can have an arrangement which is so flexible that when you have a problem you respond in the way that is best suited to the occasion. That is the process that we have adopted over the years and there will be certain disasters that require cash grants to get people back on their feet. I remember there was, some floods in New South Wales a few years ago, and we gave people cash grants in order to plant their winter wheat crop and that worked. (Inaudible) had to borrow the money to do it. In other cases because of the timing of the disaster that is not the most appropriate way, you have to provide people with carry-on finance. It just depends on what the circumstances are. Now it sounds as though the banana people were, they were on the verge of sort of selling, getting the bananas for sale and then along this comes and flattens it.

JONES:

And there are all the multipliers, the freight travel, the truck drivers...

PRIME MINISTER:

Well if things stop then people lose their jobs and there is no money going around in the community and it is the lack of circulation of money in a local community that has a devastating effect because there is nothing there to replace it. If something happens in a couple of suburbs of Sydney, devastating though it is, you have the rest of the city economy to keep the money going around. But if you get a community like Innisfail, I mean I know it very well and you have all of those tiny communities there dependant on certain industries which are very seasonal, they struggle, only one or two years out of five is any good if they're lucky and then they get flattened by something like this, it is very hard.

JONES:

PM while you are talking about that and look we might just, I am speaking to my team in Sydney, if need be we will just go beyond the news here, there are a couple of things I want to raise with you. The regulations for the industrial relations legislation while we are talking about things; the common request for information that I get from listeners is, for the average bloke who says, look it is not my salary that keeps me going that enables me to pay the mortgage, it is my overtime and my penalty rates. Now am I going to lose that, because if I lose that I am really in trouble. That is the basis whereby I am able to be able to afford the lifestyle I currently enjoy. Are the penalty rates and overtimes at risk?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well if you are under an award that has got penalty rates, no. If you negotiate a workplace agreement, that's a question of negotiation.

JONES:

Now that's another skill, that's where you've got not much power to negotiate.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it depends. At the moment the employees have a greater power to negotiate than ever before because there is a shortage of people. There's not only a shortage of skilled people, there is a great shortage of unskilled people. We have the lowest unemployment rate in 30 years. It's a worker's market like nothing before, it really is and it is quite extraordinary how the balance has tilted. Now awards still provide for penalty rates and the law provides that if somebody goes into a workplace agreement and there's no mention made of penalty rates in that agreement, then the award provision automatically applies, it's a default provision. But there are, and I haven't run away from this, there are some circumstances where a person who has been out of work for a very long period of time, they would rather get on the bottom rung of the ladder in relation to getting a job...

JONES:

It's half past seven, and we'll go to the news but I will just, while the Prime Minister turns his mobile phone off, cause that's an issue that ... there we are, have you got off? Do you know how to work it?

PRIME MINISTER:

I do. But it's somebody rather important calling me.

JONES:

It's your wife. I'll let you go in a minute. I just wanted to finish that point about that, so the person out there listening because they constantly say to me, what's going to happen, I am on, it's the penalty rates and the overtime that keep me going.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well if somebody is on an award, they're unaffected. If somebody maybe out of work, I mean you know, that's not the person you are talking to, but the person who is out of work is a person that should be considered, well that person is offered a job say that might not have penalty rates and that person says to himself or herself, well is it better that I get that job and then I go on to something better and something more beneficial in the future and I think that's the kind of flexibility that we need.

JONES:

Just one final thing, cause I will let you go. Iraq, because they are all talking about anniversaries, why do you think in all that we are not told, for example, it doesn't appear anywhere, that 86 per cent of Iraqi households have satellite TV, there are 44 commercial TV stations, 72 commercial radio stations, more than 100 newspapers. I mean 8 million Iraqis voted for an interim government, that it's always a picture of doom and gloom isn't it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well because that's easier to report Alan and we're not told that 3400 schools have been refurbished and re-opened over the last three years, we are not told that in the last opinion poll 60 per cent of Iraqis felt they had a brighter future than they did under Saddam, we are never told those things. Now it is still the case that people are dying, there's enormous bitterness between the Sunni and the Shia but the crucial answer to that is for the politicians in Iraq to form a government and once they get a government of national unity formed and I believe they will in a few weeks, then I certainly feel that there will be an improvement in the security situation. Because unless you have a group of people who had been chosen by the public, telling you what to do, giving some kind of leadership, you are not going to get the place to settle down. I mean these people have gone through the terror of voting in the face of the most fearful intimidation, nothing that we've ever experienced in our lifetime, we just take it for granted and I think they are now saying to their fellow Iraqi politicians, give us a government so we can get the benefit of the democratic choice that we made.

JONES:

Just finally, the Commonwealth Games down here, I mean you've been to a lot of these Olympic Games, Commonwealth Games and so on, how good is this? I mean it has just been a phenomenal performance by Melbourne and by the public here hasn't it?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think Melbourne has really shone. It's just been wonderful to walk around the city, the spirit of the people; they are very loyal sporting spectators. Melburnians are people who embrace a civic and communal event like no other group in Australia and the city is well organised, it's clean, the people are friendly, the crowds are big, the applause for a performance whether it's an Australian or not is generous. Last night Papua New Guinea won a medal in the pool and his reception was as if he were an Australian. It was absolutely fantastic.

JONES:

You would have noticed at the walk presentation PM, is it just a rumour that you are getting yourself ready for a late entry, a tilt at Beijing, or something are you?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I am thinking about it Alan, a late entry.

JONES:

80 kilometre walk?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes indeed.

JONES:

One every morning.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes indeed.

JONES:

Thank you for your time, you'll be off to north Queensland tomorrow.

PRIME MINISTER:

I will be going to north Queensland tomorrow and I'll be spending time talking to local people and I'll see the Premier and we want to help.

JONES:

Good on you, good to talk to you.

[ends]

Transcript 22180