17 August 2001
TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP INTERVIEW WITH NEIL MITCHELL, RADIO 3AW
Subjects: illegal immigration; tax indexation; workers' entitlements; Qantas; maternity leave; Russell Mark; GST effecting caravan parks; volunteer work; MCG
MITCHELL: First today in our Sydney studios is the Prime Minister, he'll take your calls as usual. Mr Howard good morning.
PRIME MINISTER: Good morning Neil. Good to be with you again.
MITCHELL: Yes, thank you for your time. The 348 boat people have arrived up north, now we've been trying everything but this is the second largest batch ever to arrive, we're told there are more almost literally about the land. What do you do now?
PRIME MINISTER: Well we have to deal with them as we have with the others. We have to redouble our efforts to make it less attractive to come to Australia and that means if possible getting further measures through the Parliament to tighten the rules and make it less beckoning to come in the first place. It is a huge problem. We are a humanitarian country. We don't turn people back into the sea, we don't turn unseaworthy boats which are likely to capsize and the people on them be drowned. We can't behave in that manner. People say well send them back from where they came, the country from which they came won't have them back. Many of them are frightened to go back to those countries and we are faced with this awful dilemma of on the one hand trying to behave like a humanitarian decent country, on the other hand making certain that we don't become just an easy touch for illegal immigrants. Now I believe the Government has got the balance about as correct as it can in current circumstances. If the Labor Party and the Democrats had passed some legislation over the last few years to make it less encouraging and beckoning for people to come to Australia that may have had some impact.
MITCHELL: The strategies are not working are they?
PRIME MINISTER: Well when you say the strategies are not working what is the alternative? You see the only alternative strategy I hear is really the strategy of in the sense using our armed forces to stop the people coming and turning them back. Now for a humanitarian nation that really is not an option.
MITCHELL: So there is no way we can get tougher?
PRIME MINISTER: Well you can toughen the laws. If you toughen the laws and you shorten the time within which people's status is resolved you make it harder for people to abuse the legal system. If you do those things you are sending a message to the people smugglers that we are not an easy touch.
MITCHELL: Is Australia getting help from the countries involved such as Indonesia…..?
PRIME MINISTER: We are getting a reasonable amount of help from those countries yes.
MITCHELL: We need more do we?
PRIME MINISTER: You've got to understand that it's a burden for them as well and Indonesia is not a wealthy country and Indonesia has to grapple with illegal immigrants. And I did discuss this issue with a number of the Indonesian ministers when I was in Jakarta. Neil this is one of those incredibly difficult issues where on the one hand there are people screaming at as saying that we're being too harsh, which we're not, and then on the other hand there are some people saying well you've got to do something to stop people coming in yet not really offering any alternative other than the very harsh and unacceptable one from the humanitarian point of view of turning people back into the sea.
MITCHELL: It must be becoming a significant financial burden.
PRIME MINISTER: It is a financial cost and we're working overtime at it and Philip Ruddock is all the time in negotiation with other countries. He's all the time trying to secure agreements and he's been quite successful with a number of countries in trying to secure agreements for the return of people. But for other regimes such as those in Iraq and elsewhere that's difficult.
MITCHELL: See on Philip Ruddock's figures this boatload that's arrived now will cost Australia over $20 million.
PRIME MINISTER: That's right. Well I agree Neil. Now the alternative is to say right from now on we don't allow anybody, people arrive at Ashmore Reef they will be sort of put back on the boats and sent back to sea. Now I don't think people, I mean some people might argue that, I have to say while I understand the public concern about this that is not really an option for a humanitarian nation.
MITCHELL: So are we in for a whole new brush of this?
PRIME MINISTER: Well I am concerned and I think we have to look yet again at further tightening of the law particularly the laws that can be abused so that people can stretch out an appeal after appeal. I think what we've got to have is a situation where people's status is quickly resolved and once it's resolved then they are deemed to be illegal immigrants and they have to be returned.
MITCHELL: So you remove their right of appeal?
PRIME MINISTER: Well you've got to, I think you've got to ensure that the procedure is not abused. I mean you can't as it were, I'm not arguing that we should suspend the rule of law, I'm not arguing that at all. I'd never argue that but what I would argue is that you should make sure that the processes are not abused.
MITCHELL: So somehow reduce the time taken up…..
PRIME MINISTER: Well one of the problems has been that because we haven't been able to get certain amendments to the law through the Senate people have been able in effect to string a situation out and then after a while the impression is created that once you get here then one way or another you'll be able to say whether you are a genuine refugee or not. Now many of these people can establish genuine refugee status and that is of course something that we accept. I mean we've always taken refugees and we always will. But what they are doing is queue jumping. I don't care what anybody says and they are not being held unreasonably. I mean I've heard some people describe the conditions in which they're held as concentration camps. That is insulting and demeaning to people who were held in concentration camps during World War II and it's a ridiculous and extravagant and outrageous criticism.
MITCHELL: Would you say they're well cared for?
PRIME MINISTER: Well I'm saying given the circumstances they are properly cared for, yes I do say that. But it is difficult. I mean on the one hand we've got to behave in a humanitarian way, on the other hand we can't give the message to the rest of the world that once you arrive here whether it's legally or illegally then we're an easy touch and you can stay no matter what your status is. And we have to strike that balance and I will say that I've got a minister who I think is striking the balance magnificently. He's doing an absolutely first class job in extraordinarily difficult circumstances and he gets nothing but sniping from the sidelines both from the Opposition and many others.
MITCHELL: There has been enormous criticism to the government because of the case of that young boy who's suffering from the traumatic stress syndrome. What's going to happen with him?
PRIME MINISTER: Well when you say criticism of the government, I mean the government is not directly responsible. I mean I'm very sorry about that and Philip Ruddock has talked about the boy being fostered out and there's a suggestion more recently that his father has now agreed for that to happen. But what happened with that case was that they did arrive, their appeal was heard, it was dismissed. They were declared not to be entitled to refugee status. Now it is a very sad situation but we cannot ???? immigration policy on the basis that every time a decision goes in the wrong direction if there's enough publicity about it then we overturn it. I mean this just highlights the dilemma. I mean on the one hand you're saying to me a couple of minutes ago these people are pouring in, what are you going to do about it? The implication being that we're too lax. And then the next minute you're saying to me look at this tragic case, what are you going to do about that? I mean the fact that you question me from both of those directions only highlights the great dilemma that we have on this issue.
MITCHELL: Do you think Australia has any responsibility for what's happened to that young boy?
PRIME MINISTER: I don't believe that, look I'm, let me put it this way, that's a very difficult question to answer because whatever answer I give I'll be criticised by some. I am sorry for what's happened to that little boy, but the history of this family must be taken into account. I think it's unfair to blame Australia for it, I think it's very unfair.
MITCHELL: Claude go ahead please Claude.
CALLER: Morning gentlemen, two quick comments, first of all Prime Minister I've never liked any political party in Australia, whatever my reasons are but I give you credit for one thing, you do seem to be one of the most honest leaders I've ever seen and I talk about when you ran for leadership and you…
MITCHELL: Okay Claude, the current point not the history please. What was your question or your point?
CALLER: Yeah, um number two was I like the way that you're dealing with these people coming from overseas. I think that the people that do come, they are going to be social security people. And the people that are genuine and if you're sorting them out and really looking for genuine people I think you're doing the right thing 'cause the people that come in they're going to be only on social security (inaudible) can't handle, most countries don't have a social security system like we do.
MITCHELL: Okay Mr Howard do we know what it is costing, I mean Phillip Ruddock's $60,000 a head, have we any idea of what this has cost all up?
PRIME MINISTER: Well I'd have to take that on notice and give you the exact figure to date. I mean it's certainly millions of dollars, it's very expensive.
MITCHELL: In a related area Bob Carr wanted new rules on immigrants being screened, this is not illegal immigrants but migrants screened for military background. Now what does that mean? What will be done?
PRIME MINISTER: Well I think this is Bob Carr trying to shift a bit of the responsibility over law and order in Sydney to the Federal Government and can I say in reply to him that if he's got any sensible suggestions than we'll respond and Phillip Ruddock indicated that in a meeting with him yesterday.
MITCHELL: So this one isn't sensible?
PRIME MINISTER: Well I'm not saying it isn't, I'm not saying it isn't, Phillip Ruddock and he had quite a constructive meeting yesterday but that's only a fraction of the reason for the concern about crime in the streets and suburbs of Sydney. I think we've got to be, whenever I see a state premier saying oh look the Federal Government ought to do something about this, I ask whether they're in the process of shifting the blame for something which they are responsible. I mean we are very tough in relation to our immigrations checks, we can always be tougher, we've tried to be tougher in relation to illegal immigrants and we've been blocked by Mr Carr's own party in the senate. I think one of the things that Mr Carr ought to do is tell the Federal Labor Party not to block some of our measures in the Senate.
MITCHELL: Well what specifically do you want to get through that Labor's blocking?
PRIME MINISTER: Well there were some measures some time ago which would have tightened the times in relation to the processing of applications for refugee status.
MITCHELL: (inaudible) another area, average weekly earnings have jumped 5.3 per cent, in dollar terms $41.70. is it time for wage restraint?
PRIME MINISTER: Well I think it's always a good idea for every body in the community and this is not disordinary wage and salary earners but also high income earners, always a good idea to show wage restraint. But I think we're in any danger period, average weekly earnings have gone up. But there's nothing wrong with average weekly earnings going up proving they're based on higher productivity.
MITCHELL: The Treasurer's saying that wage claims need to be tempered, pay rises could threaten inflation and the low interest rates. Do you agree with that?
PRIME MINISTER: Well of course I do if it gets out of hand yes.
MITCHELL: But it's not out of hand yet?
PRIME MINISTER: Well I don't think it's out of hand but it's getting uppish.
MITCHELL: What about some restraint by government 'cause bracket creep I read today out of this will give you $1 billion extra on the estimates. Average earnings are getting close to the second highest tax rate of 42 cents in the dollar, what about some government restraint?
PRIME MINISTER: Well all of this argues a very strong case that if the government has the financial capacity to do so it should give personal tax relief rather than spend more.
MITCHELL: But that argues a case for tax indexation doesn't it?
PRIME MINISTER: Well there are different ways of getting tax relief, I mean we have said repeatedly that if we have the room, in other words if the size of the surplus allows it we will give back income tax relief.
MITCHELL: Are those figures right? Do you think that this increase in average weekly earnings will eventually deliver the government $1 billion extra?
PRIME MINISTER: Well Neil I'd have to look at the figures but as a rule if wages go up and people are pushed from one bracket into another more revenue is collected but let me make the point that under the new tax scales between $20,000 and $50,000 of income there's no change in the tax bracket. So a very big percentage, indeed the biggest percentage ever of taxpayers are really in a very wide band. I mean you only get this bracket creep if you go from one tax bracket to another. So if you're earning $35,000 a year and you get a pay rise to $40,000 you don't go into higher bracket. You don't have any bracket creep, you don't' suffer any detriment as a result of the progress tax scales. If you say go from 45 to 55 you would suffer some…
MITCHELL: I guess the point is you're earning (inaudible) you're getting close to moving into the second highest tax break.
PRIME MINISTER: Well they are certainly getting closer, I mean if we'd have had our druthers in the Senate once again we'd have had a top marginal rate coming in at $75,000 instead of $60,000 but the Labor Party said anybody on $60,000 was rich.
MITCHELL: We need to take a break here, we'll come back with more for the Prime Minister in just a moment.
MITCHELL: The PRIME MINISTER is in Sydney. We'll take a call for him. Darren, go ahead please.
CALLER: Mr Prime Minister, my name's Darren and I'm a little bit nervous. I worked for the Supreme [inaudible] company, which went into administration in March this year. I lost 22 years worth of entitlements. One of the comforting things was we all thought that the government scheme set in light of the national textiles thing last year - it's now five months later. We ring every week to the hotline and are told they still don't know how much money they can give me and they still don't know when we'll be getting this money. And I'm one of 300 people that have been really hurt and struggle through all this and still we don't have an answer and we find out that because we live in Victoria we're only entitled to $10,000, not $20,000 because our State government doesn't contribute.
PRIME MINISTER: Well, that is true. Your State government doesn't. I mean, the national textiles case, which is talked about a lot, it was possible for people to get their full entitlements there because the New South Wales Government, on that occasion, matched the Federal Government's contribution dollar for dollar.
MITCHELL: Are you saying you haven't got anything, Darren?
PRIME MINISTER: But are you saying you haven't got anything?
CALLER: Still five months later. We ring every week.
PRIME MINISTER: You got nothing at all.
CALLER: Not one cent.
PRIME MINISTER: Well, can I follow that up. I'm concerned to hear that because we do have a safety net scheme and although you quite rightly say it should be double the benefit if the Victorian Government carried its share, like it should, like the South Australian Government has now offered to do…
MITCHELL: Darren's still entitled to $10,000.
PRIME MINISTER: He's still entitled to our contribution and I would like, if you can leave your name etc and the name of the company with the station I'll get that investigated straight away because you shouldn't have to wait, you should not have to wait that long. That's unreasonable.
CALLER: There are people losing their houses at the moment and doing it really hard.
PRIME MINISTER: Yeah, look, I'm aware of that and that's why we brought in this entitlement scheme and why I again call on the State governments to kick in their half.
MITCHELL: Darren, hang on, if you're happy we'll get your details off air and pass them on to the Prime Minister's office. If I may, Prime Minister, a couple of quick things.
PRIME MINISTER: Sure.
MITCHELL: Qantas - would you allow any of Qantas to be sold off overseas?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, already 25% of Qantas is owned by British Airways.
MITCHELL: They're talking about the need, perhaps, to sell more.
PRIME MINISTER: I've read that. I mean, we would have to consider any application on the merits and we'd have to consider it in accordance with our foreign investment policy. I don't want to, by general remarks, pre-empt any decision the Government may take on this. We would like in the whole region a fairly strong Australian ownership. I don't think it's in Australia's interests to have all of the airlines in our aggregate region owned or controlled by overseas interests, not all of them.
MITCHELL: Maternity leave - has the Australian Catholic University gone too far with its deal?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, it really depends on whether the University can afford it. I don't think anybody argues against the desirability of maternity leave, paid maternity leave. I think it's a very good idea. But if a firm can't afford it then it shouldn't be forced to provide it because if it does that will result in fewer jobs being available. If you say to a small firm, look, you've got five employees and one of them has a baby and they get the paid leave for a certain number of weeks and then they get the 60% for the remainder of the 12-month period, well that firm can't afford that. What that firm will do is let go of one of its other employees and that's the problem and I don't think it's fair in those circumstances. But if the firm can afford it then that's great. So I would encourage people to look at it entirely on a firm-by-firm, enterprise-by-enterprise basis. Some will be able to afford it, some not but I would hate to see it enforced on firms whether they can afford it or not because if that were to occur then you will just have higher unemployment.
MITCHELL: That's the problem is that it creates an expectation - claims will go in and the unions will be saying firms can afford it, firms will be saying, no we can't.
PRIME MINISTER: Well, in some cases they will be right and in some cases they will be wrong and that's the, I guess, the justification why for 15 or 20 years now I've argued for an enterprise-by-enterprise approach to workplace relations. I mean, the fact is the circumstances of companies vary. Some companies can afford to do it, some can't.
MITCHELL: Russell Mark - sorry to lose him as a candidate?
PRIME MINISTER: Yeah I am. I'm sorry about that. I think it's a great pity. He, I thought, was a very attractive candidate but he's given certain reasons. I know that people in the Party organisation, the Party President and the Party Director have been talking to him and I've noted his interviews with your colleague, Steve Price. He has not expressed any criticism of the Government, in fact, he's very supportive. It seems to be a local personality difficulty in the area.
MITCHELL: Nothing to do with his approach on gun laws.
PRIME MINISTER: Oh, heavens no, no, no. There has been no suggestion, no, no, no. I imagine there'd been any difficulty there he wouldn't have been a candidate in the first place. No, I don't think that's got anything to do with it.
MITCHELL: Caravan parks - are you making a change to the GST effecting caravan parks or not?
PRIME MINISTER: What we are doing is trying to find ways of simplifying the accounting procedures so that the option of input taxing as distinct from the GST is more attractive. We're not altering the present law. The present law gives caravan park operators an option. They can either charge a reduced GST of 5.5% or they can, what's called input tax and that input taxing is reflected in a slightly higher rent. Now, at the moment most of the caravan park operators argue that the accounting involved in it all and the procedures and everything are such that it's less attractive to offer the input taxing offer than the reduced GST option and we're looking at ways of making it more attractive to offer the former rather than the latter but we're not altering the law. I mean, the option has always been available but I've always said that if you can simplify it and fine-tune it we're ready to do so and I've never made any apology for that and I'll go on doing it in not only this but also other areas.
MITCHELL: Do you agree that you and your Government, you've made something of a come back?
PRIME MINISTER: Neil, I feel that we have a better chance of winning the election now than was the case a few months ago, yes I do. I'm not carried away with it. I think we're still behind and I think it's still going to be very tough because we have a small majority and we're going for a third term. We've done a lot of things. We've implemented a lot of changes. In the process, when you change things, you always tread on some toes and you upset people, so it's still very tough but we're certainly back in the game but we still have a long way to go and I'm working day and night to give the Government the best shot of winning the election.
MITCHELL: November still is looking like the favourite tip. Have you decided yet?
PRIME MINISTER: Haven't decided a date.
MITCHELL: Okay. What about Peter Costello's suggestion on volunteer work? Now, I assume you don't have time to do any volunteer work, do you? Do you think politicians should do more?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, I certainly, when my children were involved in local sport and all those sorts of things I, like most other parents, get involved in a lot of volunteer things. But I think already Australians are great volunteers. I think what Peter was doing was extolling the virtue of volunteer work and I think Australians are wonderful volunteers. This last week I've presented certificates to probably four or five hundred volunteers in different gatherings in Sydney, including one in my own electorate on Wednesday. And I think Australia has a great volunteer tradition and I just say thank you to all of them.
MITCHELL: Maybe we should set up a registry of volunteer work that politicians do, do you think?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think you're being…are you being cheeky?
PRIME MINISTER: I think so.
MITCHELL: The MCG - there's a big plan being run by our State government here to rebuild the MCG. It could mean the end of the MCG Members Stand. What's your view, as a traditionalist in cricket, what's your view?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, as a traditionalist, I mean, you know, you've got to sort of go with the flow and you've got to live in the modern world but you've also got to try and preserve a bit of tradition. I wish we could do both.
MITCHELL: Like to keep it there if possible.
PRIME MINISTER: Well, yeah but, I mean, obviously there are commercial considerations and you can't completely dismiss them but I wish there was some way of doing both.
MITCHELL: Do you know what Alexander Downer was doing with his hand movements in [inaudible]?
PRIME MINISTER: All I can is that I have no idea and I don't want to get into it but I've always found Alexander Downer a perfect gentlemen.
MITCHELL: Thank you very much for your time.
PRIME MINISTER: Thank you.