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 17/05/2006

Interview with Tony Jones
Lateline

Wednesday, 17 May 2006
10.30pm

SUBJECTS: Leadership, Rupert Murdoch, Private Kovco, Indigenous Affairs

JONES:

Peter Costello, thanks for joining us.

TREASURER:

Good to be with you, Tony.

JONES:

Now, asked about his comments today on the Prime Minister's future, you described Rupert Murdoch as a very, very significant global businessman, a great Australian, an extraordinarily intelligent person, etcetera, etcetera, are there any other adjectives you'd like to add to that now?

TREASURER:

Well, look, I think he is certainly one of the most successful businessmen Australia has ever had, possibly the most successful. Somebody who started off with a small company here in Adelaide, where I am at the moment, and has gone global and you've got to admire that in somebody and I do and with someone who has the global reach in the way that he does across the continents of the world, he's someone who is a very interesting person to talk to about world events.

JONES:

How about these ones: foresightful, perspicacious, politically astute. What do you think of that one?

TREASURER:

Oh, certainly in a league with you, Tony, I would say. I could apply all of those to you as well.

JONES:

Look, we're making light of it, but you would accept, wouldn't you, that Rupert Murdoch is regarded around the world as a political king-maker?

TREASURER:

I would say this, he is possibly the world's biggest media baron ever. He has publications in North America, in Britain, in Australia and he's someone who's been a very successful Australian and he's a proud Australian and I pay tribute to him because of that.

JONES:

A proud American, too, as it happens.

TREASURER:

Well, he's somebody who has also taken his businesses global, but I don't think he's ever forgotten his Australian roots. He does a lot of good work on behalf of the Australian-American Association in the United States.

JONES:

I don't mean to be flippant. He's essentially saying, isn't he, when it comes to Australian politics, the king is dead?

TREASURER:

Look, people will interpret his comments in various ways.

JONES:

How do you interpret them, though? I'm interested in your personal interpretation because now you have one of the world's most successful media barons ever essentially saying it's time for a change at the top of Australian politics. John Howard shouldn't do what Margaret Thatcher did. You're the next in line. It should have some bearing on your future.

TREASURER:

Well, Tony, I don't really feel it's up to me to interpret these words. Look, I look at them, I note them, other people will interpret them. It's not a statement by me, it's a matter for him. He's made his views apparent and it's his views. I'm not his interpreter. In fact, News Limited is much more my interpreter than the other way around.

JONES:

But, it does look rather like you may have News Limited on your side now. One way of looking at this, as we journalists do, is that Rupert Murdoch has now moved into the Costello camp.

TREASURER:

I don't know if that's right. I find that journalists are very independent people and they usually don't have their views dictated to them and the fact that somebody senior in an organisation takes a view, doesn't really matter that much to a working journalist. Let me give you an example, Tony. Let's suppose Donald McDonald said something nice about me, I doubt that would influence the way you conducted your interviews. Suppose the Chairman of Fairfax, who I happen to know, says something nice, I've never noticed that swings the opinion of Fairfax journalists and I expect it's the same in relation to News Limited as well.

JONES:

Yes, except as a political king-maker in a variety of different countries, prior to elections, he's put his weight and the weight of his publications behind certain political leaders. That's absolutely clear and it looks like that opportunity is now open to you.

TREASURER:

Well, there are a lot of different papers in the news stable and you will find sometimes they go different ways and I don't put any great store on that. The journalists are the people that run newspapers and they write the comment and, by and large, they're the people that decide whether to give you a good go or a bad go.

JONES:

Have you ever spoken to Rupert Murdoch about your ambitions to be prime minister?

TREASURER:

Look, over the years I've had a number of conversations with Rupert Murdoch. Mostly they've related to global politics, but I won't go into what we've discussed over the years, just the kind of things you'd expect an Australian Treasurer to discuss with somebody who's a significant businessman.

JONES:

I would actually expect you to discuss your leadership prospects with him in private and the obvious question is whether he's sympathetic or encouraging?

TREASURER:

Well, it's rude to talk about yourself in these conversations, Tony.

JONES:

Actually, I was talking about Rupert Murdoch, in fact, and what he thought about you.

TREASURER:

As I've said, over the years I've had numbers of conversations and mostly, as you would expect, they're conversations about developments and the economy, nothing that you would find particularly exciting, I am sure.

JONES:

Now, we all know that you want to be the prime minister sooner rather than later. You know that we know that and yet we always fence around actually saying it and I know the words are difficult for you to actually say because words have a certain power. But you do look terribly happy these days and there's been a lot of interpretation that you know something that we don't about the succession. Can you rule out or in that you know something right now?

TREASURER:

Well, you know, I'm just a happy chap and that's one of the reasons why I look happy. The second, of course, is that having just brought down a Budget which I think is good for Australia and good for the Australian people and it's something worth selling. I've been in Broken Hill, Darwin, Perth and now Adelaide in the last three days and I'm concentrating on that and that's the way you should read me. I'm focussed on my job, I'm doing my job, I'm not letting a wasted hour go by and I'm explaining what we can do for the Australian people.

JONES:

Okay. You are obviously going to fence these questions off ad infinitum and I don't blame you for that. Can I just ask you one question - another person with leadership ambitions in the Cabinet is Brendan Nelson. Do you think he's done any damage to those ambitions with the serial bungles over the Private Kovco affair?

TREASURER:

I don't think you can blame Brendan for what's happened. Look, a terrible mistake was made with Private Kovco's body. We all regret that. It was corrected and I think Brendan handled that in a very delicate way. Another terrible mistake has been made, somebody has been careless with a disk, apparently. I don't think you can say that's Brendan's fault, there would be a lot of people in the Defence Force and they have to be careful with confidential material and he will do what has to be done, I think, in order to reassure the widow and the family of Private Kovco and I think he's doing that in quite a humane and sensitive way.

JONES:

Under these kinds of circumstances - and we are talking about serial blunders - you left out the one where Brendan Nelson appears to have had several different stories as to what actually happened to Private Kovco, how he was killed. But in situations like this where you have a series of blunders, who should take the blame? Should it be the Minister or his public servants?

TREASURER:

Well, if a public servant has left a confidential disk in a public place, that public servant should take the blame. I don't think you can hold the Minister accountable for that. So, I don't think you can say these are errors of the Minister. What the Minister has to do is the Minister has to ensure the situation is retrieved as best as is possible and deal humanely. I think Brendan won a lot of marks for going down and speaking to Private Kovco's widow and I think it was well handled in a difficult situation. Look, it shouldn't have happened, Tony. None of us wished it had have happened. Something happened a long way away from Australia, It is regrettable, it is unforgivable, but I think he did what he could in a very difficult situation.

JONES:

All right. A complete change of subject if I can, Peter Costello. You are in Adelaide tonight and not so far from where you're sitting in the burns unit of the hospital there's an 18-year-old Aboriginal woman, who only a day or so ago, allegedly, had petrol thrown on her as she was set on fire - according to the reports - by her boyfriend because she refused to have sex with him. Now, every day this week there have been horrific new reports about violent sexual abuse of women and the rape of children. Is this now a national emergency?

TREASURER:

Well, I think it is a disgrace that young people in the communities are being subject to sexual abuse. I think it's a blot and a stain on Australia. I think everything that can be done should be done to stop it. I think, Tony, that in the past too many people have had an interest in playing these things down rather than publicising them in trying to pretend that they weren't happening. The full, gruelling ordeal has now been laid bare, including on your programme, from the Crown Prosecutor and all of the law enforcement authorities and anybody who was in a position to do something about it, frankly, should now redouble their efforts to bring to justice those people who have committed crimes. Now we've got to be very plain about this, this is a crime and people who do it should be brought to justice and heavily punished.

JONES:

Does it require now, though, a coordinated national approach?

TREASURER:

Well, I think bringing it out in the open is an important point, number one. Number two, I think we've got to get rid of this idea - which has been over all of this area - that somehow being culturally sensitive means turning a blind eye. The third point I would make is this conduct is never justified. There's no such thing as a customary law which justifies sexual abuse. It is not justified by anything. It is a crime against a person and in Australia should be prosecuted as such and the person who did it should be punished and we have got to let that message be known in the communities to the perpetrators, to the victims, to people who are working with the communities, to our anthropologists and our sociologists and our culturologists that this is not going to be tolerated anymore. And full credit to the Crown Prosecutor, she has obviously been horrified by what she's seen, she has gone public, I think a lot of what's been going on has been known, but I think a lot of people have been too afraid to speak out about it in the past.

JONES:

Now, Mal Brough, your ministerial colleague, the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, said last night, that if he can't get the Northern Territory Government to act more decisively to stop the endemic violence against women and children in the Territory, he would consider a Commonwealth takeover of the Aboriginal communities there. Would you, do you think, countenance that?

TREASURER:

Look, in the final analysis, I am confident the Commonwealth would do what was required, but, bear this in mind, Tony, the Territory is a self-governing Territory. In order for the Commonwealth to take over, you would have to take back some part of that self-government. That's the end of the road. I believe that the Territory has a police force and a court system which, properly directed and properly resourced and properly led, can get to the bottom of this. It should be given the opportunity to do so, but I certainly wouldn't rule out the Commonwealth doing what was required if the Territory proved unable to meet this terrible crisis and I would urge the Territory authorities to do so. They have a police force, they have a court system, they have a prison system, and I would urge them to do so, so that we don't have to sit around and watch this kind of thing continue.

JONES:

Do you agree with the Minister that it may be time to consider actually taking the most vulnerable children out of the communities, putting them into boarding schools or something of that nature?

TREASURER:

Quite possibly, yes, I do. I think it is totally legitimate for the protection of a minor to take them out of a dangerous situation. Totally legitimate. Now, you see, Tony, there has been a lot of reticence about this because some people would say that's another stolen generation. You see? This is one of the reasons, I believe, why there's been a reticence to deal with the problem in the communities, but I believe it is totally legitimate to take a child out of a dangerous situation, it ought to happen in white families, it ought to happen in black families. If that is the only way that a child can be protected, rather than scarred for life, then, notwithstanding the fact that they might be taken away from their local community, as long as they're put in a sympathetic alternative and safe alternative, I think that should be permissible. Yes, I do.

JONES:

Finally, the Opposition is saying tonight that with one of the most generous budgets in history, there is very little in there for Aboriginal women and children in these kind of conditions. Is that right?

TREASURER:

Look, look, no. Tony, the allocation of this Budget - $3.3 billion, from memory - for Aboriginal Affairs, plus a huge Indigenous package, plus new proposals to make welfare conditional on school attendance and new proposals to take welfare off defaulting parents is a real breakthrough. Now, the Commonwealth, as you know, doesn't run the police service of the Northern Territory or the court system of the Northern Territory. I think there's - well, there's been too many cases - and I would urge the Territory authorities to look at them and I can tell you this, the Commonwealth stands ready with resources to do things which matter. And can I say to you, Tony, the whole debate here is changing. Where the debate is going now is that we need law and order in Aboriginal communities, we need education, we need to get control of welfare. Turning a blind eye, engaging in symbolism, giving welfare, the approaches of the past have failed and we need to change and this debate is heading in a much better direction.

JONES:

Peter Costello, we haven't talked a lot about the Budget, I appreciate that, but other matters have pressed upon us. We are very grateful that you are able to talk about them and thank you for coming in to talk with us tonight.

TREASURER:

It's a great pleasure to be with you, Tony. Thank you.