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Transcript - 24285

Interview with Paul Kelly and Greg Sheridan, Sky News

Photo of Abbott, Tony

Abbott, Tony

Period of Service: 18/09/2013 to 15/09/2015

More information about Abbott, Tony on The National Archive website.

Release Date: 14/03/2015

Release Type: Transcript

Transcript ID: 24285

Subject(s): Remote communities in Western Australia

PAUL KELLY:

Prime Minister Tony Abbott, thanks for your time today.

PRIME MINISTER:

Nice to be with you, Paul.

PAUL KELLY:

Given your long involvement in Aboriginal affairs and your knowledge of remote Aboriginal communities, surely you can’t believe that this is a lifestyle choice?

PRIME MINISTER:

It is a choice that some people make to live in very remote areas. The important thing is to ensure that we, the Australian people, keep the compact that we have with everyone to try to ensure that everyone can go to school, everyone has an opportunity to work and everyone’s community is safe. The difficulty in some very remote communities is that it’s not realistic to get those kids to school, it’s not realistic for those adults to go to work and that’s why I think it’s understandable that the Western Australian Government is thinking of what it needs to do to ensure that people are in communities that are sustainable.

GREG SHERIDAN:

Prime Minister, a lot of the remote communities, the health outcomes are actually better for Aborigines than they are in the fringe-town camps in Moree and Kempsey and places like this. Noel Pearson wonders what you’d do with the people from remote communities?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, we’re not talking here about, as I understand it, closing down the larger remote communities; we’re talking about very, very, very, very small places that might have a dozen or even fewer people living there. The important thing from my perspective is that every Australian, particularly indigenous Australians, should have the opportunity to go to a decent school, should have the opportunity to develop at least a work culture and should be living in a place that’s safe. Now, I take your point, Greg, that health outcomes are sometimes better on these outstations than in some of the larger settlements, but health outcomes aren’t the only things we’re interested in, although they are very important.

PAUL KELLY:

But, Prime Minister, given the criticism from people such as Warren Mundine and Noel Pearson, do you concede that this was a poor choice of words?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well look, I do interviews every day and people may well quibble over particular words that I have used, and if people want to say that I should have expressed myself differently, that’s their right, but the fundamental…

PAUL KELLY:

But do you agree with that? I mean, do you agree this was a poor choice of words?

PRIME MINISTER:

Paul, I’m not going to concede that. I accept people have a right to be critical of me, but I’m certainly not going to concede that. The point I was trying to make was that we need to get the kids to school, the adults to work, we need to have safe communities and in order to sustain a school you normally need a certain number of people, in order to sustain an economy you normally need a certain number of people and in order to have police – and I accept that not every community needs resident police – but certainly in order to have resident police you need to have a certain number of people there.

GREG SHERIDAN:

Prime Minister, on another aspect of Aboriginal policy, you were quoted once as saying you’d sweat blood to achieve constitutional recognition for Aborigines in Australia. Are you still committed to that? What’s your timetable on that? Do you think Noel Person has a point that you’ve used up a little bit of political capital needlessly and that might set that back?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, you know, you pick up a few bruises in this business, Greg, because every day you’re engaged in a fierce political contest and I’ve got to say that there are a lot of people who are out there looking to be outraged, so to speak, and I think sometimes a little bit more give and take would be helpful to the quality of our national conversation. But, no, I do remain committed to constitutional recognition. You might remember John Howard put this fairly and squarely on the national agenda in the lead up to the 2007…

GREG SHERIDAN:

In this term of government?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think it will be difficult to do it in this term of parliament. I think that probably early in the next term of parliament would be the time to do it. Many have suggested that the 27th of May 2017 may well be a fitting day, which is the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum. What I think we need to do is to have a proper process over the next 12 to 18 months where we come up with potential forms of words, we discuss and debate those forms of words. Hopefully, we can, at least in a preliminary way, finalise a constitutional recognition amendment and then I would imagine that one of the very first Acts of a new parliament might be to pass the relevant referendum act.

PAUL KELLY:

Prime Minister, do you think there’s still hope that the Indonesian President can be persuaded to change his mind in relation to the planned execution of the two Australians?

PRIME MINISTER:

There’s always hope, Paul. How strong that hope is is not something that I really should speculate on and I’m inclined to think that after everything that’s been said in recent weeks, probably now the less said the better if we want the best possible outcome for these two Australians.

GREG SHERIDAN:

Do you, Prime Minister, feel that Indonesia, if it goes ahead with its declared intention of executing everyone on death row this year – that’s more than 60 people – do you think this will do devastating harm to Indonesia’s international standing?

PRIME MINISTER:

Obviously, when you’ve got, I think, at least 40 foreigners on death row, there is a real issue going ahead with all of those death sentences, but again, I’m not here to run a commentary on Indonesia. I’m here to do the right thing by the people of Australia and it’s obviously important for the Australian Prime Minister to defend out people, to protect our interests and to advance our values and that’s what I’ve been trying to do.

GREG SHERIDAN:

Prime Minister, if I may say, it seems to have stirred you somewhat personally. Do you feel, despite their backgrounds so different from yours, a sense of personal identification with those two young Australians? Do you think everybody deserves a chance for repentance and redemption in this life?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I think even secular systems have a concept of mercy. I mean, justice tempered by mercy is at the heart of our traditional jurisprudence, and look, these two appear to be as rehabilitated and as repentant as serious drug criminals can be and they appear to be working for Indonesia as it were, in Indonesia’s prison system against drug crime and that’s why I think it would be a real pity if these executions did go ahead.

Now obviously, Greg, I’m a parent and I suppose inevitably you think to yourself, “What if those were someone who was very close to you? What would you want the Australian Government to do for those people?” and, obviously, you’d want the Australian Government to make the strongest possible representations, you’d want us to be relentless in those representations and in what I hope is the way best calculated to bring about success, that’s what we’ve been.

PAUL KELLY:

The Intergenerational Report to your Government argues that all the savings from the 2014 Budget will be necessary in order to meet the challenge of the ageing population and getting the Budget back to surplus. So, given that argument, can I ask you are you committed to maintaining the savings in one way or another – getting the savings in one way or another, all those savings from the 2014 Budget?

PRIME MINISTER:

Paul, I’m pleased you mention the Intergenerational Report because, obviously, it was a very important and timely document and it shows essentially three scenarios: where we were heading under the policies of the Labor government, which was towards Greek style debt and deficit, where last year’s Budget and its associated restructuring was intended to get us, and yes, it was intended to fix the budget problem for a generation and had everything been passed, that’s exactly what would have happened, but even what has been passed by this Parliament and this Senate does make a very substantial start to the repair job. Basically, Labor’s debt and deficit are halved over the next 40 years under the measures that have already been implemented.

So, of course there’s more to do, but how far down the road we get and how quickly down the road we get is, if I may say so, subject to the Parliament. So, we will get the savings that we can out of this Parliament, but I can’t promise, Paul, that this Parliament is going to pass all the things that this Government might like.

GREG SHERIDAN:

Prime Minister, if you lose Medicare co-payments, pension reform and university reform, wouldn’t you then say in broad terms that your reform agenda is dead?

PRIME MINISTER:

Absolutely not. Just look at what has been achieved: the carbon tax is gone, the mining tax is gone, the boats have stopped, a massive infrastructure rollout is underway, the Budget is well on the way to repair and three free trade agreements that defeated both of the previous governments that people have said were impossible to achieve have been finalised. So, a lot has been achieved and a lot is still to come. I mean, we’ve got a families’ package that will come out in the next few weeks, we’ve got a small business and jobs package, particularly a small business tax cut that will come out in the next few weeks. It will be a prudent, frugal Budget and then we’ve got the federation and tax reform white papers coming up and they will be very transparent, consultative processes because if there is a lesson from last year it is that we have to take the community with us for difficult change and that means more of a conversation than was possible in last year’s budget process.

PAUL KELLY:

Ok, well the big reform facing the Parliament over the next fortnight will be higher education fee deregulation. How important is this to you and your Government to get this through?

PRIME MINISTER:

An even better question, Paul: how important is this to our universities? And the answer is very important, because if our universities are to be amongst the best in the world, they need to be liberated. At the moment, one of our universities is in the top 50, why not try to get two in the top 20, but unless we take the dead hand of Canberra away, that is going to be extremely difficult.

PAUL KELLY:

Ok, well the question is how committed are you to this reform?

PRIME MINISTER:

Very committed – very, very committed. This is a reform that, if it fails, the universities will be seriously impeded and it’s a reform that will come up again.

PAUL KELLY:

Now, if this is defeated by the Senate, what do you do? Do you stand by the reform or do you ditch it like the Medicare co-payment? What do you do?

PRIME MINISTER:

This is a reform which has already been adjusted somewhat…

PAUL KELLY:

Yes.

PRIME MINISTER:

… in the process of bringing it thus far, but the reform as adjusted is one that we stand by, Paul.

PAUL KELLY:

Does that mean you’ll put it onto a double dissolution list?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I’m expecting that the Senate will see sense…

PAUL KELLY:

I understand.

PRIME MINISTER:

… because just about every Vice-Chancellor is campaigning for this. Vice-Chancellors generally tend to think that putting out a press release is campaigning for something, but nevertheless, they are nearly all on the record saying that this is something that ought to be done.

PAUL KELLY:

But your message about this is you will stand by it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Absolutely. Look, this is something that we believe in. We want to see Australia with the best possible universities and I should point out while we’re on this subject, Paul, that under our changes no one need spend a dollar upfront to go to university and, still, at least 50 per cent of the cost of your university degree will be borne by the taxpayer and one of the very good things about the package of changes is the very large increase in scholarships for underprivileged students…

PAUL KELLY:

Sure, ok.

PRIME MINISTER:

… that will take place under it.

PAUL KELLY:

Well let’s just talk now about pensions. The Labor Party this morning has dismissed as a mean trick the proposal by your Minister, Scott Morrison…

PRIME MINISTER:

And isn’t that so typical of the Labor Party, Paul. All they can do is complain. That’s all we hear from the Labor Party – no solutions, just complaints – this constant litany of ‘cruel cuts’. Well, they caused this problem and it’s really high time that they were prepared to be part of the solution.

PAUL KELLY:

Well, as far as you’re concerned, how important is the proposal from the Minister, Scott Morrison, to have a three year review of the pension by an independent body to look at the adequacy of the pension which raises the possibility that it could be adjusted each three years?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, the possibility, Paul. Look, it shows that we are serious about trying to get this reform passed, and may I just say that under our proposal, pensions will go up twice a year every year, they’ll maintain pace with cost of living which is surely a fair…

PAUL KELLY:

But they won’t go up, Prime Minister, as much as they would have otherwise, so what is your explanation to the pensioners of Australia as to why the increases in the pension rate under your Government won’t be as great? What’s your explanation to them?

PRIME MINISTER:

What we’ve actually delivered for the pensioners of Australia thus far, Paul, is the removal of the carbon tax but the maintenance of the carbon tax compensation. So, as things stand, all of the pensioners of Australia are better off under this Government. Now yes, we are proposing from 2017 to change the indexation rate to CPI and, yes, over the long-term the rate of growth is expected to be lower under this indexation than under the current indexation, but under Scott Morrison’s proposal, there will be this three yearly adequacy review to look at the situation and…

PAUL KELLY:

But what’s your explanation to pensioners? What’s your explanation to the pensioners as to why the Government’s doing this?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, in the end, in order to keep paying pensions, the system has to be sustainable and, as you know, at the moment there are about five working aged people for every retirement aged person. Under the demographics as things stand, by 2055 there’ll be less than three working aged people for every retirement aged person unless we make the sorts of changes that last year’s Budget flagged. Now, raising the pension age will certainly mean that the ratio of working aged people to retirement aged people does improve…

PAUL KELLY:

Are you prepared to take this issue to the next election? Will you stand by this as well, even if it’s defeated in the Senate?

PRIME MINISTER:

Again, Paul, I accept that in this term of parliament, and indeed every term of parliament, what you can do as a government is determined by the legislation that you can pass, but we’ve put a proposition on the table. It’s a tough proposition, but I believe it’s a necessary proposition and I don’t think the Australian people are incapable of having a hard conversation…

PAUL KELLY:

So you will stand by it then presumably?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I think that the sustainability of our social security system, particularly the sustainability of our retirement income system, is a very important question that we need to deal with.

GREG SHERIDAN:

Prime Minister, on another aspect of the Intergenerational Report, it flags that in order to address the deficit problem there would be no tax cuts for the rest of this decade and that would see an enormous movement of Australians into higher tax brackets through bracket creep. Now, would you be satisfied as a Liberal Prime Minister to preside over a situation in which Australians in effect were paying a much heavier tax burden?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, Greg, obviously I want to get taxes down. The Liberal Party believes in the marrow of its bones in lower taxes, smaller government, greater freedom. That’s what being a Liberal is all about, but we can only get taxes down if we can get spending down and the desire for tax cuts without spending restraint, you’re willing the end but not the means which is not a very smart position to be in. So, if we want tax relief there’s got to be spending restraint. We can’t have the one without the other.

GREG SHERIDAN:

Prime Minister, in the broad, this budget dilemma that we face, it seems that Western societies have lost the ability to discipline themselves fiscally. They all have an entitlements crisis. The whole of Europe is blighted by this entitlements crisis. Nobody can produce fiscal consolidation. The same is true in the United States. Isn’t this a bit of a civilizational crisis for the Western system, that is simply cannot address this fundamental contradiction between what it wants to spend on itself and what it earns?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think it’s a fair point you make, Greg, and yes, there is this culture of complaint, there is this grievance mindset which, sadly, parts of our polity are fanning, parts of our media are fanning and in the end we have to be bigger and better than this. Now, I know that sometimes the people who are trying to do the right thing don’t do it as well as we might and, obviously, I can always be a better salesman. There are times when I dare say I could choose my words better, there are times when the Treasurer, the Finance Minister, all of us could choose our words better, but complaint about the precise measures that the Government has introduced at this time, complaint about the quality of the salesmanship doesn’t alter the fact that we are living beyond our means, we are borrowing, even now, a billion dollars a month every single month just to pay the interest on Labor’s debt and deficit.

So, we do have a problem. We do have a problem. It must be tackled and I guess my task is to try to enlist all decent people of goodwill in this important national challenge.

PAUL KELLY:

The United Kingdom Government has just signed on to the China Investment Regional Bank. Can we expect your Government to reconsider and reassess this decision and would you like to see Australia also join this bank?

PRIME MINISTER:

That’s a good question, Paul. There’s really a two stage process involved here. There’s, as it were, signing on to negotiate becoming a potential foundation member and then actually subscribing to the bank once the articles of association are finalised. Now, our position all along has been that we are happy to be part of something which is a genuine multilateral institution such as the World Bank, such as the Asia Development Bank. What we’re not prepared to do is sign on to something which is just an arm of one country’s foreign policy.

Now, I note that the UK has indicated an intention to sign up for the negotiations, the New Zealanders before Christmas signed up for the negotiations, the Singaporeans likewise, the Indians likewise. We’re looking very carefully at this and we’ll make a decision in the next week or so. I would like to think that it is possible for this to be a genuinely multilateral institution and I think it could well be an important part of brining China fully into the international community if they do become the largest partner in a genuinely multilateral institution in the same way that the United States is the dominant partner, but by no means the controlling partner of the World Bank – Japan is the dominant but by no means the controlling partner in the Asia Development Bank. If China is prepared to set up such an institution, well I frankly hope that many countries, including the United States and Japan, would join it.

GREG SHERIDAN:

Prime Minister, I wonder if I could ask you about your recent national security statement. Now, a lot of people have a lot of praise for the strength and balanced nature of the Government’s response to the threat of Islamist terrorism. You made one remark in that statement that you had heard many Western leaders say that Islam was a religion of peace, you wished more Muslim leaders would say it and mean it. A lot of Australian Muslims took that to be a reflection on their leadership generally. Do you think Australian Muslims should do more? Do you think their leadership is doing enough? Was this an expression on your part of dissatisfaction with Australian Muslim leadership?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I think that right around the world the Muslim leadership is stepping up to the plate in a way that it until recently hasn’t. Look at the leadership that President el-Sisi of Egypt has provided when he called for the Imams of Al-Azhar University, one of the really important religious centres for Sunni Islam, he called for a religious revolution and he said that we needed to jettison centuries of mistaken thinking. You’ve got people like my friend Prime Minister Najib who said of the Daesh or ISIL death cult that it’s against god, against religion and it’s against our common humanity. So lots of Muslim leaders…

GREG SHERIDAN:

And our Australian Muslim leaders?

PRIME MINISTER:

… lots of Muslim leaders are speaking out and that’s good – and that’s good – but I think there is an issue that needs to be dealt with by Islam and that is pluralism, the sorts of things which over many centuries the West has come to grips with…

GREG SHERIDAN:

And the Australian Muslim leaders, specifically?

PRIME MINISTER:

As I said, I think more and more are speaking out and that’s a good thing.

GREG SHERIDAN:

I have one very specific question: you yourself and the Liberal Party generally have made many, many statements about Hizb ut-Tahrir. Before the last election I think it was Liberal Party policy to ban the organisation. We keep hearing government statements about it, but are you planning to do something or not? And if you’re not planning to do something, wouldn’t you be better not giving them this publicity, and if  you are planning to do something, when are you going to do it?

PRIME MINISTER:

We do intend to crackdown on hate preachers and, you know, ‘behead all those who insult the Prophet’, that’s not the kind of thing that people ought to be saying in a country such as Australia given everything that is happening in the world at the moment. So, we do intend to crack down on hate preachers…

GREG SHERIDAN:

And when would we see legislation or movement on this?

PRIME MINISTER:

I’m not going to say next week or next month, but shortly.

PAUL KELLY:

After the spill motion, you said that good government would now start…

PRIME MINISTER:

Restart, Paul.

PAUL KELLY:

Restart. Are you satisfied with the good government and quality of government you’ve displayed since then?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, I am, Paul. Look, it is a pretty humbling business to face a spill motion – very humbling business to face a spill motion – but it can also be instructive and, let’s face it, even a prime minister has to be a servant as well as a leader. So look, I think I have learnt from this experience. I think over time I will be a better leader as a result of this experience. There isn’t a successful leader who hasn’t gone through some crises and, invariably, it’s the way they respond to those crises which is the measure of their long-term success.

PAUL KELLY:

Ok, well what is the test now for the Party after the spill motion? Is the test the Government standing in the polls as we go through this year? Is that the fundamental test which will determine your future?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, obviously, we all pay some attention to these things but I don’t think we should be obsessive about them, Paul. I’ve recently been reading John Howard’s remarkably good book of the Menzies era and Menzies was something like seven points behind in the polls at the beginning of the 1963 election campaign and went on to have a pretty impressive win. So look, we can spend too much time navel gazing, we can spend too much time obsessing about opinion polls and I think it’s important to focus on the job at hand and that’s what this Government is doing. The test of the success of the Government in coming weeks and months will be the single-mindedness of our focus on the job in hand.

GREG SHERIDAN:

Prime Minister, everyone who knows you thinks you’re a good bloke yet the polls tell us you’re very unpopular. Why is that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I’ll leave you to speculate on these things, Greg, and maybe the people who write about politics focus on the wrong things, who knows? I’ll leave you to speculate on these things. All I know is that people want me to get on with the job and, look, I’ve been out and about in regional Australia over the last week. Prior to the previous sitting fortnight I spent a week out and about in metropolitan Australia and outer-metropolitan Australia. I think people want this Government to succeed. I think people want my prime ministership to succeed. The last thing people want in my judgement is to revisit the musical chairs of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd era.

GREG SHERIDAN:

Prime Minister, one question on the style of your Government. In the first year of your Government a lot of ministers had to clear their media appearances with your office and very often they were told no, they couldn’t go ahead and do the media appearances, and this was at a time when your Government was getting hammered in the media. Isn’t that suggestive that your office did have too tight a command and control approach to government and saw media opportunities as a threat rather than an opportunity?

PRIME MINISTER:

If I may say so, Greg, this is the kind of inside the beltway preoccupation which turns people off our politics. I think out there in the real world this is the last thing that people are interested in. Now as it happens, a sensible government does coordinate its media appearances but a sensible government does not try to repress ministers who have got a message to tell.

PAUL KELLY:

Just on this point, Prime Minister, you were given an extension of time in office by the spill motion earlier this year. If there is not an improvement in the Government’s credentials and you disappoint yourself, would you consider resignation and handing over the reins to another leader?

PRIME MINISTER:

Paul, I am determined that we will not be in that position. I am determined that we will not be in that position. I was elected first by the Party and then by the people to do a job and I am determined to do that job to the very, very best of my ability. Now will I be perfect? Of course, I won’t. Will I sometimes be a disappointment? Of course I will. But I am absolutely confident that the Party and the public expect me to do this job and I will bend every fibre of my being, I will spend every ounce of energy that I have to do this job as well as it humanly can be done.

PAUL KELLY:

Prime Minister, we’ve run out of time. Thank you very much for your time today.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you so much, Paul, thank you so much, Greg.

[ends]

Transcript - 24285