The Crest of the Commonwealth of Australia Treasury Portfolio Ministers
Picture of Peter Costello

Peter Costello

Treasurer

11 March 1996 - 3 December 2007

Transcript of 21/07/2005

Interview with Tony Jones
Lateline

Thursday, 21 July 2005
10.25 pm

SUBJECTS: Aboriginal Issues, Welfare, Industrial Relations, Steve Vizard, Zimbabwe

JONES:

Peter Costello, thanks for joining us.

TREASURER:

Thanks very much, Tony.

JONES:

Now, in spite of Australia's historically high levels of prosperity, the life expectancy of Indigenous people is 17 years lower than the rest of the population. Is this, in a way, the unfinished business of this Government?

TREASURER:

Well, I think that whatever we've been doing in the past to improve things for the Indigenous population it hasn't been working as well as we would have liked and you can see that on indicators such as life expectancy. You can see it in relation to infant mortality. You can see it in relation to educational standards.

On practically every measurement, Indigenous Australians are a long way behind the rest of the community. And what that means, I think, is we've got to look for new approaches and new ways. We've got to make sure that we learn from mistakes and those taxpayers' dollars which are being spent - and there's been a lot of them - they've got to be used more wisely and it's one of the reasons why I am engaging in my own briefings up here in far north Queensland and going into the communities over the next couple of days.

JONES:

Alright, we'll come to some of the potential solutions in a moment, but what you're saying is that, effectively, after a decade in power, is a failure of this Government, is it not?

TREASURER:

I'm not saying that everything is a failure. I think there are some things that were a failure. I think ATSIC was a failure, yes, and it didn't work. I think the idea that all you had to do was spend increasing amounts of money to fix the problem was a failure and that didn't work.

I think some things were actually successful, some of the programs which were broad-banded programs were successful. But after you look back at the results for a very, very large sum of money, which was allocated through ATSIC, yeah, the outcomes were disappointing.

JONES:

Look at the life expectancy figure one more time. If, for example, another section of the population - Anglo-Saxon men - were mostly dying under the age of 57, something would have been done about it, wouldn't it?

TREASURER:

Well, obviously we would have looked at the causes and if the diseases were treatable, we would have treated them. I think in relation to Aboriginal health we've got to look at the causes, and it may be unfashionable to say this, but some of the causes include alcohol. And there was a view that you couldn't actually name some of the problems that were causing untimely deaths. But I think that the problem is now so serious we can afford to be honest with each other. We can look at other things, such as family breakdown, which has been a big problem and we ought to be honest enough to talk about that as an issue.

JONES:

Alright. Noel Pearson has been absolutely brutally honest with his own people in that regard. What concrete measures do you think might emerge out of the talks that you've had today?

TREASURER:

Well, they're talking about some of the things that can work. Alcohol management programs, for example, can have success. There is no one solution to fix all problems, but they can have success. They're talking about putting the family back at the centre of policy and that's an issue that's been left behind in the debate over Aboriginal issues. All of the focus up until now has been the community, but also the family and responsibilities inside families. They're talking about how welfare, far from solving the problems, might have become the source of a problem.

JONES:

Alright. One concrete idea that's been put forward - you've already spoken about it to some degree - is that welfare payments could actually be stopped to families who don't send their children to school. Is that something you'd like to take to Cabinet?

TREASURER:

It's something I'd like to investigate to see whether it works. The problems are now so great we've got to be honest enough to do things that work, even if they don't sound all that politically correct. If that works then it's something that ought to be looked at very carefully, particularly if the communities themselves are saying that they'd like to see these approaches. You see what's been coming through in the talks that I've been having is that to give money without having useful work and to ask for responsibilities in return actually undermines the structure of families in societies. We wouldn't be surprised actually to hear about this in non-Indigenous Australia. We know in non-Indigenous Australia, some of our big cities where you've got first and second and third generation welfare recipients.

JONES:

Can I just cut in there, because I was going to ask you if you do introduce some sort of legislation along those lines it would have to apply to everyone on welfare, wouldn't it? Black, white and brindle?

TREASURER:

This shouldn't come as any great surprise to us. Welfare dependency might be a problem in Aboriginal communities. Because we know that welfare dependency is a problem in non-Indigenous communities. So it shouldn't come as any great surprise to us.

JONES:

So any change would go across the board, would it?

TREASURER:

I'm not actually saying these changes will be introduced but I'm saying I've got an open enough mind to examine what some of the leadership is putting forward. I don't think I'd do it if it didn't have the support of the leadership because you've got to have the support of the leadership to make these things work. I've got an open mind. I'm not saying it's going to be done, I'm not saying there's going to be legislation, but I think we're now at a stage where we can be honest and open and that's where I'm at.

JONES:

Alright, now let's move on if we can. In June of 2003 after Mr Howard made it clear he had no intention of resigning, you said that your colleagues would now expect you to contribute on a wide range of issues and that you intended to do that in the months to come. Is this part of that?

TREASURER:

Well, I've been engaging in a lot of broader issues which I think are going to be important for the future of our country, issues like the nature of voluntary society, building social capital. I put the ageing of the population and the demographic change and fertility rates and the nature of work squarely in the focus of Government. And where there is an opportunity to engage in these issues, of course, I want to do so.

JONES:

The problem is getting back to the previous statement, made in June of 2003, that those months have now stretched into years and is that why you're now effectively referring to your leadership run as a marathon?

TREASURER:

Well, you know, the thing is Tony, I probably get asked that question daily. If not daily, weekly.

JONES:

We haven't heard of you being a long distance runner before yesterday, I think.

TREASURER:

Some days probably three or four times. I always deal with them in utter politeness and good humour and batting back these questions over a long period of time does require the patience of a long distance runner.

JONES:

Would you agree, though, that in this race you're actually up against the Emile Zatopek of Australian politics?

TREASURER:

I knew you were asking me the question because you had a good zinger coming, Tony and it's the patience of a long distance runner.

JONES:

Alright, let's put it this way if I can. The only trophy that the Emile Zatopek of Australian politics, John Howard, doesn't have on his mantlepiece at the moment is the "Sir Robert Menzies Endurance Cup". Surely he's got to be tempted to go for that?

TREASURER:

Not just one zinger, but two and three zingers, Tony. You've been working on them all day and you keep batting the questions up and the patience required to answer them is the patience of a long distance runner.

JONES:

I ask the questions though, and they are legitimate questions if you think about it. Donald Rumsfeld is running the Pentagon, he's 73-years-old. Alan Greenspan is running the US Federal Reserve, he's 79-years-old. I think Ronald Reagan was 78 when he left office. If John Howard went for as long as him, he'd still have three elections in him.

TREASURER:

Well, I think Noah lived until he was 979 didn't he, Tony? I'm surprised you didn't put that one in as well.

JONES:

I don't suppose the Prime Minister is going to compare himself to Noah, but Ronald Reagan's not out of the question, is he?

TREASURER:

As I say, I think the important thing that people focus on is how we're dealing with problems in Australia. What are we doing about the issues that concern them?

JONES:

Alright, let's move onto ground you're probably surer on and that is the industrial relations campaign. What was the point of launching a national industrial relations campaign without releasing the detail?

TREASURER:

Well I think what the Government did is it announced the essence of a policy and the essence of the policy as you know, is to increase flexibility in a way which will lead to higher productivity which will give a renewed impetus to reform in the Australian economy. Now when you come to draft a bill, a bill is a very long piece of legislation probably running I guess to hundreds of pages and it will take some time until we get the bill, which is as I understand it will be later this year. But there'll be plenty of time to debate this, Tony. You're talking about long distance running before, the gun's hardly started on this debate and it's got quite a way to go. I've been through a few long debates in Australian politics. The longest I've been through is the GST, which was being discussed in the mid-'80s and was introduced in 2000. So this IR debate has a long way to run.

JONES:

That's right, it could take a decade or more to get the legislation through, if you have to convince someone like Barnaby Joyce to sign off on it, for example.

TREASURER:

I'd be surprised if it took a decade, but it's going to take some months to get legislation. Therefore, before the legislation is enacted it's going to take some additional time again.

JONES:

Are you going to put part of that time into trying to convince the Queensland state party executive of the Nationals that it's actually a good idea to have a national system of industrial relations, because they're implacably opposed to it at the minute and they're the ones that tell Barnaby Joyce how to vote?

TREASURER:

Well, I would say to the Queensland division of the National Party that it's been a long-held belief, I think of the Queensland National Party, like it has of the Liberal Party, that we need a more flexible industrial relations system. I can certainly remember when I was a lawyer engaged in industrial relations disputes back in the mid to late '80s, the Queensland Nationals - significant figures in the Queensland National Party - used to argue the necessity for reform back then and many of them are still actively involved in the Queensland National Party. So I would be astounded if the Queensland National Party said they would like to keep in place an industrial relations framework which is inflexible, which gives a lot of power to trade unions and which holds Australia's economic performance back. That would astound me. But if they would like any persuasion on the point, of course we're very open to do so. I'd be astounded if they needed persuasion frankly.

JONES:

This is what Senator Joyce told us and he's reflecting their opinion to a large degree. He said, "Since Sir Henry Parkes was about, the Federal Government's been trying to take other states’ rights and we're not going to just sit back and let that happen."

TREASURER:

Well, this is not a question, I think, of taking state's rights. I think this is a question of conferring new individual rights. The right to actually contract on an individual basis, the right to get a job, the right to have higher wages. And to actually portray this as some constitutional issue is completely wrong. Look, can I tell you from the outset of Federation there was an industrial relations power conferred on the Commonwealth Parliament. You know why? Because in the 1890s before Federation started it was understood that industrial disputation didn't respect state borders, it can actually cross state borders and that's been going on for a very long period of time and if you can have a better system which can deal with industrial relations disputes and wages and employment and businesses, which don't stop at state borders, they actually trade across state borders you'd be a mug not to go down the line that will give you a better system.

JONES:

Briefly, Treasurer, on the Vizard case, the former head of the National Crime Authority says the DPP's advice not to seek a criminal case for insider trading against him was a serious mistake and he's asking you to release the DPP's advice publicly as a matter of transparency. Will you do that?

TREASURER:

I've asked for an explanation from the DPP as to why he decided not to lay criminal charges. The DPP has given me certain advice and asked me not to release it until the case is concluded. That is, until the matter which is currently before the court is concluded. Now once that's concluded, if the DPP is happy for the matters that he's put to me in writing to be released, yes I will release it.

JONES:

Alright, finally Peter Costello, we heard a moving call on this program last night from one of Zimbabwe's leading Opposition figures for Australia's help to get an indictment against President Robert Mugabe in the UN Security Council for crimes against humanity. Would you and the Government back that call?

TREASURER:

Yes, I think we would, but this is a matter for the Security Council. We're not on the Security Council but we would lend our voice to members of the Security Council to consider that. Australia's been at the forefront of arguing for sanctions to try and restore human rights in Zimbabwe. For example, we are supporting the expulsion of Zimbabwe from the IMF [International Monetary Fund]. And we are also making our voice known in other international forums and we would lend our voice if there is a case there to the Security Council doing that.

JONES:

It does appear to you then that there could well be a case against Mugabe for crimes against humanity?


TREASURER:

That's the point, you see. If there is a case then the Security Council can refer it and if there is a case, it should be referred. Let's not mince our words about this, the situation in Zimbabwe is awful, it's terrible. The expulsion of people from farms, confiscation of private property, threats of assault and violence, the rigging of elections - it's a pretty serious business. And if there is a case that can be made out, yes it ought to be referred.

JONES:

Peter Costello, we will have to leave it there. We thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us tonight.

TREASURER:

It's great to be with you, thanks Tony.