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 31/08/2005

Interview with Neil Mitchell
3AW

Wednesday, 31 August 2005
8.45 am

SUBJECTS: Leadership, tax, petrol prices, Indonesia

MITCHELL:

Mr Costello good morning.

TREASURER:

Good morning Neil, good to be with you.

MITCHELL:

Thank you for coming in. Do you accept that leadership tensions have been aggravated the past few days?

TREASURER:

Oh, only this, that they have been in the papers again.

MITCHELL:

Not in your mind?

TREASURER:

No, not in my mind, no, but they have been in the papers again so they get reported on the media so, if they are on the media they are in front of the public.

MITCHELL:

Have you spoken to the Prime Minister since this began?

TREASURER:

Oh yes.

MITCHELL:

Did you talk to him about the leadership issue?

TREASURER:

Well, we had a discussion about tax just to clarify what the position was and we are in complete agreement in relation to tax. In fact he said that on Monday I think. And I don’t think there has been any disagreement between us on tax. But of course the moment that you suggest that there is a disagreement in the Government, of course you give the media the opportunity to write other stories so that is really the way I see it.

MITCHELL:

Was it, you don’t think it was in any way a deliberate go at you, because he seemed to be contradicting you?

TREASURER:

No, no, I don’t think so. If you were asked this question, are you in favour of cutting tax, the answer is yes. Is a politician in favour of cutting tax? Is a farmer in favour of rain?

MITCHELL:

So where is the priority, that is the issue?

TREASURER:

…and so, when you are asked that question, ‘are you in favour of cutting tax’, the answer is yes. That is my answer, of course I am.

MITCHELL:

But where is the priority?

TREASURER:

Well, the priority of course, in my mind, is to balance the Budget, fund health, keep interest rates low and then to do whatever you can to reduce tax. That is my priority.

MITCHELL:

At the top, in the middle or at the bottom?

TREASURER:

Well, everywhere you can. This last round of tax cuts that we put in place were mainly for people who had previously been on the marginal rate, top marginal rate, we extended the threshold so that an Australian doesn’t pay the top marginal tax rate now until they earn $1 over $125,000.

MITCHELL:

But come on, let’s not dance around this…

TREASURER:

Now…

MITCHELL:

…is the media totally wrong in saying that you and the Prime Minister have been at odds on the tax issues? That is a total fabrication, is it?

TREASURER:

Yes.

MITCHELL:

Okay. What did you mean when you said yesterday, ‘I lead this country’?

TREASURER:

I said, well actually Neil, let’s be very precise…

MITCHELL:

What did you say?

TREASURER:

…well it is all there on the record but expect to be misrepresented. I said as Treasurer and Deputy Leader in a sense I lead and I have to lead in relation to economic policy. That is what I said.

MITCHELL:

And so…

TREASURER:

Hang on, hang on Neil, I mean you can’t blame the journalist who wants to sell a newspaper for turning that around into a headline, but what else would you expect me to do? As the Treasurer, it is my responsibility to look after economic policy, just as the Health Minister is supposed to look after health, just as the Foreign Minister is suppose to look after foreign affairs. Now you wouldn’t expect in Australia, having made that statement, to be properly represented, but that is what I said.

MITCHELL:

You wouldn’t expect in Australia to be properly represented, what do you mean?

TREASURER:

Well as I said, and this is the cut and thrust of politics, you expect that if people can get a headline out of it, they will.

MITCHELL:

Okay, do you think in the current climate those words were wise?

TREASURER:

Yes, because if I had have said I don’t lead on economic policy you would have had an even better headline.

MITCHELL:

But it was a bit broader than just economic policy, wasn’t it?

TREASURER:

Well you know, I am the Treasurer, I am the Deputy Leader, I feel in a sense I lead in this country, with ten Budgets and responsibility for the economy. What else would you expect me to say?

MITCHELL:

Who does lead this country?

TREASURER:

John Howard is the Prime Minister of this country, he is the head of the Government, he has Ministers that are expected to lead in their areas and the one I lead in is the economy.

MITCHELL:

Who is the driving force of the Government?

TREASURER:

Well we all have our different areas of responsibility. In transport, it would be the Transport Minister. In Agriculture, it would be the Agriculture Minister.

MITCHELL:

But who is the driving force?

TREASURER:

Well in different areas it is different persons, but as I said to you, John Howard is the head of the Government, he takes overall responsibility but it is a Cabinet Government Neil. This is a very important point, we are not a Presidential system, it is a Cabinet Government of which Ministers take responsibility in their own areas.

MITCHELL:

Are you and John Howard an equal partnership?

TREASURER:

Well look, we work together and we work together in common policy as the two most senior people in the Government.

MITCHELL:

What does that mean? Is it an equal partnership?

TREASURER:

Well look Neil, I don’t want to give rise to more headlines. It is a partnership, we each have our areas of responsibility.

MITCHELL:

Do you totally support him as leader?

TREASURER:

Of course, nobody has supported John Howard more as leader than me…

MITCHELL:

That is past tense.

TREASURER:

…well, I helped him become leader…

MITCHELL:

That is past tense.

TREASURER:

…I have been his deputy for ten years…

MITCHELL:

Past tense.

TREASURER:

…I have served as his most senior Minister and nobody supports him more than me.

MITCHELL:

Present tense. What about the future?

TREASURER:

Well as I said, I mean there is the record. Look Neil you can have all of the questions in the world but the reality is this, nobody supports John Howard more than me.

MITCHELL:

Are you willing to guarantee long term support for him?

TREASURER:

Well, what I have only done it for ten years? I would have thought that is pretty long term.

MITCHELL:

What about the future?

TREASURER:

Well I support his leadership. I mean, nobody supports it more than me, I don’t know how many times you want me to say it…

MITCHELL:

Well, how long will you be patient, and I am truly trying to cut through all of the political stuff that has gone on around this. We know you want to be leader, you have said that, we know that, well the indications are that John Howard is coming towards the end of his time and you are getting a little impatient, aren’t you, is that a fair thing to say?

TREASURER:

I don’t think so, no.

MITCHELL:

You are not impatient?

TREASURER:

No.

MITCHELL:

So how long are you willing to wait?

TREASURER:

Well, as I said, and again I said it yesterday, if opportunities arise, you look at them when they arise.

MITCHELL:

Do you still want to be Prime Minister?

TREASURER:

Well, if opportunities arise, you look at them when they arise.

MITCHELL:

Okay, and you are willing to sit forever and wait?

TREASURER:

Well, when you say ‘sit’, this is the whole point, do you think I sit…

MITCHELL:

No.

TREASURER:

…as Treasurer, bringing down Budgets, being responsible for monetary policy, bringing down intergenerational reports, trying to get the financing of our defence and health and aged care systems in place. This is the point Neil, you don’t sit. You do quite a lot of work in quite significant areas and that is the point I am trying to make. Don’t think that senior ministers of a Government just sit around twiddling their thumbs. The country doesn’t run itself by accident, it is not a fluke. There are a lot of other countries in the world that don’t grow in the way Australia does, that don’t have low interest rates, that don’t have balanced Budgets and that don’t have low debt. This is not an accident, it is not a fluke, it takes a lot of work.

MITCHELL:

But you have been Treasurer for a long time, you must look at new challenges?

TREASURER:

Well you do and that is why I opened the whole demographic debate in this country, about the ageing of the population, about the fertility rate, about how we are going to cope with 2040. I am now engaged on a plan to finance Australia to 2040.

MITCHELL:

Some backbenchers are saying you should be a little more modest. Do you think you might have done yourself some damage in the past few days?

TREASURER:

Oh look, I am not going to engage in a running commentary on myself Neil. Your job is to engage in a running commentary on me.

MITCHELL:

What about a running commentary on Malcolm Turnbull, has he been a little evil in what he has floated up to sort of undermine you a bit?

TREASURER:

No look, anybody is entitled to put ideas out but they have to be assessed on their merits and…

MITCHELL:

Is there any of the 280 ideas worth it?

TREASURER:

Well there are 280...

MITCHELL:

Are any of them any good?

TREASURER:

…you would have to give me a number if you wanted me to describe a particular proposition.

MITCHELL:

Have you read them all?

TREASURER:

Well, I looked down the list.

MITCHELL:

Did anything grab you, stand out as a fresh idea?

TREASURER:

I looked down the list.

MITCHELL:

Did you see any good fresh ideas there?

TREASURER:

I looked down the list.

MITCHELL:

Do you remember it?

TREASURER:

I have got a fair idea what the list was.

MITCHELL:

You are off to… is there a time for new energy in Government, I mean this…?

TREASURER:

There is always time for new energy in Government, absolutely, you never stop.

MITCHELL:

How do you do that? How do you get that?

TREASURER:

Well you have got to start lifting the horizon. You know, when I did the Intergenerational Report, I warned Australia about its fertility rate, I put on the agenda the ageing of the population, I said we have got looming problems to finance health into the future. I laid out a plan to get there. This is a big area of reform for the Government. Now, John Howard has laid out another area – industrial relations reform – big area of reform for the Government. We have got Telstra going on at the moment, a big area of reform, always looking for new areas that have to be improved.

MITCHELL:

Everybody gets tired over a period of time in the job. You are not tired of being Treasurer, are you?

TREASURER:

No.

MITCHELL:

Is John Howard tired?

TREASURER:

Doesn’t look like it.

MITCHELL:

Does he sound it?

TREASURER:

Doesn’t sound like it.

MITCHELL:

Still got the ideas?

TREASURER:

He is working on industrial relations reform as we speak.

MITCHELL:

He still has the ideas you believe?

TREASURER:

Well that is a big idea, it is one of the ideas that I also believe is very important for Australia. I have been rattling on about that for 15 or 20 years.

MITCHELL:

Is the Commonwealth Games an important time in Australia next year?

TREASURER:

I think so. I think it is very important for Melbourne, don’t you, because it will put Melbourne on the international stage…

MITCHELL:

Is it important for John Howard?

TREASURER:

Well, I don’t think he is competing in the javelin, is he, if that is what you mean?

MITCHELL:

You have seen the speculation…

TREASURER:

You know, I won’t be competing either. When you say is it important, we’d both enjoy it, we would both like to go…

MITCHELL:

Could it be used as his swansong?

TREASURER:

Well, I am not, you see Neil, you know what happens, you ask these questions and then hope that somebody can report them as big new revelations. It is not my purpose here.

MITCHELL:

A couple of other things. Petrol, $1.29 today around Melbourne, $1.30 for petrol. What the hell is this going to do to us?

TREASURER:

High petrol prices are bad for the economy and they are very difficult for consumers.

MITCHELL:

Can you do nothing about it?

TREASURER:

Well I think we have got to raise our voice in international fora about OPEC and the production of oil. If the world could get the production of oil increased that would be the most concrete thing that could lead to a lowering of petrol prices.

MITCHELL:

Will you review the tax on the tax on petrol?

TREASURER:

Neil, we cut excise to 38 cents a litre. If we hadn’t of cut it and it was still indexed, it would be 52 today, so it is 14 cents less than it would have been.

MITCHELL:

So there is nothing more you will do.

TREASURER:

Well, there is the point, it is 14 cents less, but the price has gone up because the price doesn’t go up as a result of tax, it is the world oil price, people know that Neil.

MITCHELL:

Well, tax aggravates it.

TREASURER:

The tax doesn’t because the tax doesn’t change, it is 38 cents a litre.

MITCHELL:

Yes, but the GST is a tax on a tax.

TREASURER:

Okay, well the GST goes to Mr Bracks. You ask him, you ask him and I have told you this before...

MITCHELL:

(inaudible).

TREASURER:

…no, no, no, no, you ask him if he wants to do what the Queensland Government does with his GST.

MITCHELL:

John Brogden, what was your reaction when you heard he attempted suicide?

TREASURER:

Shock. Look, Neil, this is the way John would be feeling. He has done a stupid thing, a distasteful thing. He has lost his job and he could have lost his career. He is humiliated by the whole thing and it is on the front page of every newspaper in the country and he feels that he can’t put his head up in public anymore and tries to avoid the shame. And the only thing I would say is nothing is worth that, nothing is worth trying to end it all, and he ought to know that whatever the pain that he is feeling from public shame or from newspapers, he has got friends and he has got family and that is much more important.

MITCHELL:

You are off to Indonesia next week, why?

TREASURER:

We are going up to Aceh to have a look at the reconstruction of Aceh after the tsunami and to have a look at how the Australian aid programme is going. It is the biggest aid programme we have ever had and we want to get a progress report, see how it is going.

MITCHELL:

Well thank you for your time. I can empower you to take $20 to Aceh and find an aid organisation to donate it to there, given that Melbourne, I think, beat Essendon.

TREASURER:

Congratulations Neil, it is true, it is your choice of charity and it will be a pleasure to donate it on your behalf.

MITCHELL:

Put it on the plane. Thank you for your time.

TREASURER:

Thanks Neil.