PM Transcripts

Transcripts from the Prime Ministers of Australia

Transcript 15601

Interview with John Laws, Radio 2UE, Sydney

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: 10/10/2007

Release Type: Interview

Transcript ID: 15601

Subject:
Pacific Highway; RAAF aircraft; hospitals; death penalty, federal election.

E&OE...

LAWS:

Good morning Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning John.

LAWS:

I see that you're promising a massive injection of money for the Pacific Highway upgrade this morning, something like $2.4 billion, don't you think the voting public's going to feel a little cynical about that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well some people will, others won't, most people will welcome the extra money because what this will mean is that if it's matched by, what 2014-2015, we will have been able to complete the duplication of the highway as far north as Woolgoolga and then working back from the Queensland border, as far south as Ballina; and will have done some safety work on the 200 odd kilometres between Woolgoolga and Ballina, and then after 2014 we'll make more money available, and if that is matched then we can complete that final section between Ballina and Woolgoolga.

LAWS:

Okay. How many times has this been promised before?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well not this amount, no, well that's....we have spent $1.3 billion on it and the New South Wales Government has spent roughly the same amount of money.

LAWS:

But it has been promised before.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I'm not sure this $2.4 been promised before.

LAWS:

But it didn't matter anyway because once the election was over the whole idea seemed to be set aside?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I'm not sure that I accept that, I think it is a bit rough. But bear in mind John that this was originally, under the arrangements we had with the states, this was a state road, it wasn't part of the national network. The New England Highway is part of the national network, now some people might say that was not right or should have been another arrangement, but that was the understanding, therefore it was the responsibility of the New South Wales Government and I nonetheless point out that we have over the years assumed responsibility for funding half of it and we're saying that this $2.4 billion will be made available, it's up until 2014, that's between 2009 and 2014, and if it can be matched by the New South Wales Government we will complete the duplication as far north as Woolgoolga and working back from the Queensland border as far south as Ballina.

LAWS:

Okay, but the reality is the Pacific Highway, one of the major highways in the entire country, is still not a proper road even yet; you've had since 1996 to fix the road.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes well of course it's not totally fixed, I accept that, I'm not going to pretend otherwise, that's a reality. But there has been over the time that we've been in Government, we have put $1.3 billion into it and between 1996 the duplication has increased from some 65 kilometres to 261. And we do need to do more and we are committing another $2.4 billion, and I repeat, under the arrangements that had existed for many years between the Commonwealth and the states, it was a state responsibility. Now that's not the blame game, that's just pointing out who's responsible for what, but because of the importance of the Pacific Highway and despite the fact that it was meant to be a state responsibility, we have assumed at least half....and to its credit the former Federal Government also assumed some responsibility for upgrading the highway as well.

LAWS:

Okay but the New South Wales Government has already admitted, they admitted this morning I believe, that it doesn't have the money to match you, so why not just dip into that surplus?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we'll just wait and see, sometimes state governments say that to try and evade their responsibilities. Let me put it this way, we're not going to leave people stranded on this and our commitment is a very strong one, and I don't believe some of the protestations of the New South Wales Government, particularly in the lead up to an election. I don't think any Labor Government anywhere in Australia is going to do anything to cooperate with me between now and the election.

LAWS:

You're not suggesting that politicians tell lies are you Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I'm suggesting that between now and the next election, which will be not later than early in December, the New South Wales Labor Government is not going to be very cooperative. After the election I believe that they will be more cooperative. I'm not accusing them of lying; I'm just stating the bleeding obvious.

LAWS:

Which is they're being dishonest?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, that they are playing politics on this issue between now and the election.

LAWS:

Isn't that dishonest?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I'll leave that for other people to make a judgement on. I haven't come on to sort of run a character ruler over the New South Wales Government.

LAWS:

No, no, I don't expect you to.

PRIME MINISTER:

No I'm not, you know I'm not really into that business, I'm just....look John, the Labor Party is praying for the day when they control every government in Australia, and so is the union movement because 70 per cent of Mr Rudd's government will be ex-trade union officials and for the first time in history we'll have a Labor government at every level in this country. That's why they're not going to cooperate with me on anything much between now and the election; that's the point I'm making.

LAWS:

Okay. But just back to the Pacific Highway, is the lack of matching funding going to be your exit strategy?

PRIME MINISTER:

No it's not going to be an exit strategy, but I believe that once the election is behind us, if we are returned, the New South Wales Government will adopt a more reasonable attitude. But I wouldn't want anybody to think that if the New South Wales Government remains bloody minded that we're just going to turn our back on the issue, we're not going to do that.

LAWS:

Are you aware that the Liberal Party website's been hacked into by some computer hacker who's posted some outrageous language attributed to you?

PRIME MINISTER:

No I'm not aware of that.

LAWS:

Oh you better have somebody....

PRIME MINISTER:

I better have somebody have a look at it.

LAWS:

And get rid of it quickly because it's.....

PRIME MINISTER:

Well thank you, thank you, thank you, I'm glad you mentioned that, I was not aware of that.

LAWS:

And it's very unpleasant I can assure you.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I can...well I can assure anybody who's seen it, it's not me.

LAWS:

I don't think that assurance is necessary Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you.

LAWS:

Why aren't you up at Grafton, has something happened to....

PRIME MINISTER:

My plane's been delayed. It blew a gasket or something or other and I won't be leaving Melbourne until 11o'clock, but I'll still be there and I'll still be able to make this very important announcement with Mr Vaile about the Pacific Highway.

LAWS:

Is it a commercial plane or is that the Prime Minister's.....

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no it's a Royal Australian Air Force plane, but they sometimes have faults. It never bothers me, the RAAF run a very good show and their planes are very reliable, but I'd rather, if it's blown a gasket, I'd rather fly on another plane until the blown gasket is fixed.

LAWS:

Nobody would blame you for that. In your own state, in fact only a few kilometres from your house....

PRIME MINISTER:

My own state?

LAWS:

Yeah.

PRIME MINISTER:

I'm a citizen of Australia, but New South Wales, yeah I understand.

LAWS:

Okay. Just kilometres from your house, great grandmothers are being shoved into storerooms by stressed out nurses, hardly good enough. Your Health Minister wants to bring a league table to rank public hospitals, what will that do?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think it's always a good idea to compare the performance of hospitals, but I think a far better way of improving the administration of hospitals is to have them run by local boards, I think that is a much better way. What is wrong at the moment is that nobody is in charge, nobody's accountable. You can't run a school without a Principal, you can't run a company without a Managing Director, you can't run a club without a General Manager; how can you hope to run a hospital without having a CEO that's ultimately responsible for everything.

LAWS:

Well isn't that, isn't that the job of the Minister in the state, Reba Meagher?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no, but no Minister, and certainly not Reba, can run all these public hospitals. I mean that is a joke, you can't. I mean I don't pretend to run all of the departments that are within the domain of the Federal Government. We have Secretaries to run the departments. But we're applying a management approach. This area health service approach, district approach, which is in my view in defiance of all ordinary management principles, now I'm not pretending it's easy, but if you had every hospital run by a local board you'd get lot more sense and this is particularly so in country areas where there's an enormous emotional investment in local hospitals, and if you had a CEO that's accountable then that would be a very good thing.

LAWS:

Okay, I noted back there that you said certainly not Reba, is that a reflection on her ability or lack of it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it's a reflection on the many deficiencies in the New South Wales public hospital system.

LAWS:

Not in the Minister?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well she's responsible. Of course it's a criticism of her, it's a criticism of her administration, of course it is, but the point I was making, John, was I don't believe that a Minister can in practice run every hospital. He or she is, overall, responsible for the administration of the health system, but unless you have individual hospitals in the charge of somebody who's ultimately responsible, a CEO, and that person in turn is accountable to a group of local citizens, you won't get that local focus which is so very important. Now that applies a lot more in country areas, in regional areas, but it also applies in city areas. People do identify with their hospital and I was quite struck by the number of people I spoke to in shopping centres in my electorate last Saturday morning who talked about Royal North Shore Hospital. They'd either worked there or they'd been treated there or they'd had their babies there, and it was something that they felt some kind of community ownership of. Now that was an interesting thing but it's also a good thing.

LAWS:

Very good I would've thought.

PRIME MINISTER:

And it suggests to me that they care about it. Now if they care about it why don't we give expression to that care by letting them feel some kind of ownership of the hospital? Now the way you do that is not put it in charge of a bureaucracy in either Sydney or Canberra, but you put it in charge of local people. And could I say I was interested that Mr Rudd last night on the 7.30 Report said that if he became Prime Minister, and if he couldn't work something out with the states, the Commonwealth was not going to takeover the running of the hospitals, the Commonwealth was going to fund them, but not take over the running of them. Now that's a very interesting observation.

LAWS:

Very.

PRIME MINISTER:

I thought his whole thrust was that if he couldn't reach an agreement with the states then the Commonwealth would take them over. Well he said last night the Commonwealth is not taking them over.

LAWS:

But would provide the money.

PRIME MINISTER:

Provide the money. Well I think it's a fairly bad principle to provide money for something without knowing who's going to oversee the spending of that money and if the state administration of hospitals is so bad that the Federal Government should take over the entire funding of the hospitals, but still leave the states in charge of the hospitals, I don't think that's going to improve anything. I mean our view very strongly is that whatever mix of Commonwealth and state funding there is, that you should, having funded the system, you should then allow each individual hospital to be run by a CEO accountable to a local trust or a local board.

LAWS:

Well my understanding certainly was that the Commonwealth would take over.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well when you say takeover, everybody thinks that means you're going to run them.

LAWS:

Well I suppose it does but I seem to remember he also said something about the buck stopping with him?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well if the buck is stopping with him that implies that he's going to run them. I mean you can't say the buck stops with you unless you're running something.

LAWS:

Unless you're stupid.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I'm not going down that path. I'll leave that to others. But if you say to the world the buck stops with me, what you are saying to the world is I will accept responsibility. But he said last night that the Commonwealth would not run them. Now I don't know who's going to run them. If the Commonwealth is not going to run them, is he saying that what he's going to do is give...take over all of the financial responsibility but still leave the states in charge? I mean heavens above that is recipe for waste and lack of responsibility the like of which we've never seen before. You cannot say to another level of government we'll give you all the money but you can decide how it's spent and you can run it and you're not in any way accountable to another group of people. I mean, that is in my opinion a very bad management approach so I don't at this stage know exactly what his policy is. I thought I did, I no longer know what his policy is because most Australians when they heard him say the buck stops with me, I will take them over if we can't work out something with the states, most Australians would have inferred from that that the Federal Government would take over the running of hospitals in some way but apparently that is not the case because last night he said that the Commonwealth would not run them and he in fact attacked Mr Abbott for alleging that that was ever part of his policy. Well I've got to say to Mr Rudd I thought it was always part of his policy because when you say to the world I'm taking them over or the buck stops with me, you're really saying I'm going to assume responsibility for them. Now maybe he will blame his staff for that and, or something or other for giving him a bad briefing paper the way he blamed his staff yesterday for, or Mr McClelland for enunciating his policy on the death penalty.

LAWS:

Yeah, well we need to talk about that in a moment. How much are you spending on this election campaign? $2.4 billion now for the Pacific Highway.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes but that $2.4 billion comes out of the global amount for AusLink that was contained in the Budget.

LAWS:

Ok, but it's still money, $35 million for Tasmanian hospitals...

PRIME MINISTER:

But John, what is wrong with spending a surplus? People are constantly saying to me you've got a big surplus...

LAWS:

How long have you had the surplus?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we've had a surplus now for a number of years...

LAWS:

Well why didn't you spend it before?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we spent it on a lot of things...

LAWS:

Still plenty left.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well yes but you've got to keep some so you don't overheat the economy. We don't want to overheat the economy so that interest rates go up too much.

LAWS:

But let's just look at the spending, $2.4 billion now for the Pacific Highway which you've explained, $35 million for Tasmanian hospitals, coincidently all in pretty marginal seats. How much in total is being spent and is Peter Costello happy with the amount? I get the impression he's not.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well he certainly is because the money for roads was in the Budget that he brought down in May. I am perfectly happy to go through all of the major spending things we've committed ourselves to since the Budget with you and justify every one of them. $1.9 billion for additional disability services...

LAWS:

Nobody's going to complain about that.

PRIME MINISTER:

No, and is anybody going to complain about the $1.5 billion over two years going into the Northern Territory intervention?

LAWS:

No, but I'm not complaining about anything Prime Minister, I'm simply saying that in your recent biography Peter Costello says and I quote in relation to government spending at your insistence, he says I have to foot the bill and that worries me.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well he was talking as all Treasurers do about the need to make sure that we always had enough revenue to cover our expenditure and he would be a lousy Treasurer if he didn't worry. I was once a Treasurer and I used to have the same feelings. I used this think gee, all these blokes, they just think money grows on trees and that's a very natural reaction.

LAWS:

Is he worried now?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, he's not worried now.

LAWS:

I mean, you spent $6 billion in the 2004 election, looks like you're spending even more this time around and that's not concerning?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yeah, but John, he's not. I can tell you they are, all of these things, and they stand or fall on their merits. I mean, the things that I announced in the 2004 election I was very proud of, what, the 30 per cent tax rebate for child care, the Investing in our Schools Program which has turned out to be one of the most popular education investment programs we've ever had, where every local P&C...

LAWS:

I think they've all been good.

PRIME MINISTER:

And they've all been good, they've all been sensible, long term investments and, of course, all the extra money that we are spending on defence; do you know that we are now spending 47 per cent more in real terms, that's 47 per cent more after allowing for cost of living increases on defence than we were spending when I became Prime Minister and we're planning to have a regular 3 per cent real increase in defence expenditure through the year 2060. Now all of that's possible because we've got a surplus, we're running a strong economy. If we weren't running a strong economy we couldn't spend this money.

LAWS:

Ok, speaking of defence, Kevin Rudd's been carpeted by, has carpeted his Shadow Foreign Minister Robert McClelland. Was that an outrageous mistake?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I thought it was outrageously unfair of Mr Rudd to carpet his foreign affairs spokesman for stating Labor Party policy. It's Labor Party policy to argue against the death penalty on a consistent basis no matter what the circumstances are. Mr Rudd even criticised me in December of last year for not criticising the imposition of the death penalty on Saddam Hussein. He said that you had to be consistent. What Robert McClelland was doing on Monday night, poor bloke, and I say that in a comparative sense, all the bloke was doing was articulating Labor policy through a speech which had been cleared by Mr Rudd's office and because it got a hostile reception in the papers the next day...

LAWS:

Rightly so.

PRIME MINISTER:

Rightly so, but the hostile reception was directed at the policy. Now Robert McClelland was the unfortunate messenger, so what did Mr Rudd do, he turned around and pretended to the world that it was all Robert McClelland's idea and then he blamed his staff. I mean, Mr Rudd has articulated that same policy himself and he should have been man enough to have accepted responsibility for it instead of trying to blame somebody else. Now...

LAWS:

Do we have any right to interfere with another country's laws?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I have argued that it's a very difficult thing to do particularly when you're dealing with citizens of another county. I assert the right to argue in relation to Australian citizens and my policy on this, my attitude on this and people can criticise me for being inconsistent and I'll have to wear that criticism, but my policy is this: I don't support the death penalty in Australia and therefore by extension if any Australian is sentenced to death overseas I will argue for remission of that sentence, but in relation to the citizens of other countries I find it very hard to argue against the application of the death penalty in particular cases. And when it comes to people who've murdered Australians there's no way I as Prime Minister or as an Australian, as an individual, that I'm going to argue that the death penalty should not be imposed. Now people think that is inconsistent, well I'll have to wear that criticism. Now I was criticised by Mr McClelland for that attitude on Monday night, but that's Mr Rudd's attitude and what Mr Rudd has done on this occasion, in his version of the blame game, is to say well it's not my fault and you know, it was insensitive and the staff shouldn't have cleared it and they've all been counselled and Robert's been counselled and everything. I think McClelland has been treated very badly. He's a strong Labor man and he fights for his cause but most people regard him as a decent bloke.

LAWS:

Yeah, he is.

PRIME MINISTER:

He is a decent bloke and he was arguing his brief. I mean, he was giving a speech in good faith to a human rights organisation...

LAWS:

Yes but it's bad timing.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes I know but I'm afraid if a speech as been cleared through the leader's office, the leader can't then turn around and say well it wasn't me.

LAWS:

He's now admitted that he must accept ultimate responsibility...

PRIME MINISTER:

Well you've got to accept ultimate responsibility after sort of having grabbed some television headlines last night beating up on his own foreign affairs spokesman. I mean, that is just pathetic. Look, I get a lot of criticism and if you're the leader of a government and a party and if something good happens then you get some of the credit for it, some of it, but if something bad happens you've got to wear it and whenever anything goes wrong inside my government it's my fault as far as the public is concerned.

LAWS:

And the same with Mr Rudd.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it should be but you see he always blames. I mean, this is a pattern. He tried to alter the date, the dawn service date and that's somebody's fault, that's Channel 7 and it's his staff and everybody else and then he didn't know Brian Burke was coming to dinner and that's the fault of one of his parliamentary colleagues, I mean, in the end I think when Mr Rudd talks about the blame game what he's really saying is that it's never his fault, it's somebody else's fault.

LAWS:

Yeah, but with respect you're all pretty good at it. I mean, you and your ministers blamed staff over the children overboard affair and the AWB bribery scandal was another one.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well John, I went in a witness box and was cross examined on oath about my role in AWB and I wasn't dealing there with something that had been approved by my office. I was dealing there with the allegation that I had direct knowledge of the illegal conduct of an independent company and I was cross examined on oath and the royal commissioner found that I did not have knowledge so that is a vastly different thing. Here is a situation where Robert McClelland was articulating the Labor Party's policy on the death penalty through a speech cleared through Mr Rudd's office and Mr Rudd now says to the world oh well it's his fault, it's my staff's fault and they've all been counselled. Now look, it's, we move on to other things but I just make the point that if you're the leader of a party you should understand that loyalty flows in two directions. You expect your colleagues to be loyal to you and you've got to be loyal to them and the loyal thing for him to have done was not have cut McClelland loose and now left him hanging. I mean, essentially he said last night to the Australian public, this bloke's not going to be my Foreign Minister if I win the election.

LAWS:

Well he virtually said that.

PRIME MINISTER:

Of course he did, I mean, he's absolutely humiliated a decent bloke for what? Articulating his policy. I mean, I could understand him humiliating him if he'd come out in favour of invading New Zealand or something stupid but all the bloke was doing was...

LAWS:

...articulating...

PRIME MINISTER:

Was articulating what Mr Rudd himself has already said on several occasions.

LAWS:

Are you deliberately delaying calling the election to give Kevin Rudd more time to stuff more things up?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I am choosing to announce a number of government decisions and bear in mind that before the election is called any commitment I make is a government commitment and work can start on it straight away and therefore if the government is returned well that work continues and the work can go on through the election campaign. There's quite a difference. If I announce something now and say, and the election is held X number of weeks after I've made the announcement, the bureaucracy can implement that decision because it's not being made during the caretaker period.

LAWS:

So these decisions will be made prior to the calling of an election?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well everything I'm announcing up until the calling of the election by definition is a government decision.

LAWS:

Isn't it by definition called pork barrelling?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that is an expression that is...you are entitled to use if there is no worth or merit in the decision.

LAWS:

And all these are good.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think spending $2.4 billion upgrading the Pacific Highway is very good. I think spending $1.9 billion on more disability services is very good.

LAWS:

I certainly don't, can't argue with either of those Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I don't think anybody can.

LAWS:

I think they've fixed your plane.

PRIME MINISTER:

I hope so.

LAWS:

I'd better let you go and climb aboard it Prime Minister. I hope it's safe.

PRIME MINISTER:

I'm sure it will be, I have great faith in the RAAF.

LAWS:

Good on you and thank you very much for your time.

PRIME MINISTER:

Bye bye.

LAWS:

Bye.

[ends]

Transcript 15601