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 16/09/2007

Interview with Laurie Oakes
Sunday

Sunday, 16 September 2007
9.25 am

 

SUBJECTS: Election 2007, Coalition’s record, future agenda, industrial relations

OAKES:

Mr Costello, welcome back to Sunday.

TREASURER:

Thanks very much, Laurie.

OAKES:

I guess the big question today is why have the rest of you been letting John Howard down?

TREASURER:

Well we’ve been working as a team over the last four or so terms of government and I think if you actually look at the record of this Government you will see that it has put in place measures which can stand favourably against any previous government in Australian history.  Unemployment at 4.3 per cent, balanced budgets, we have retired debt and more Australians in work than ever before.

OAKES:

You say that but I have got yesterday’s Sydney Daily Telegraph here, the front page headline, ‘you are nothing without me, PM says party in strife without my popularity’.  Why have you been letting him down?

TREASURER:

Well you and I know Laurie that the Daily Telegraph is always a colourful newspaper and that is the way they have decided to put their headline on.  But I don’t think that is the substance of what the Prime Minister said.  I think what he was saying was that it is very important that he and the Party and the Cabinet and our candidates work together to make sure that we have good government in Australia.

OAKES:

What he actually said was ‘if the Party’s level of support in the opinion poll was as high as mine is, well, we would be a different story’.  He is obviously not to blame?

TREASURER:

Well Laurie, when it comes to managing a political party or managing a government, it takes more than one person.  Of course the leader is the most import person, there is no doubt about that.  But in a Westminster system it is the Cabinet that makes decisions, it is the party that decides on policy, it is the members of Parliament that vote on legislation.  We are not a presidential system.  This is not the United States of America.  This is the Australian system and in the Australian system everybody has as responsibility.  And anyone who has been around in politics for a long time knows that.

OAKES:

But we now have a government with, a two headed government if you like don’t we, now that you have been elevated to the position of almost co-Prime Minister?

TREASURER:

I don’t think so.  We have a Westminster system of government.  Under that system the Prime Minister, of course, is the first amongst equals and the Cabinet takes responsibility for decisions.  The members of the party are responsible for policy, and of course, enacting legislation.  This is the way in which the Westminster system has been established.  We are not America.  This is not a presidential system.  We don’t separate the President out from the Congress.  This is Australia.  That is the Australian system.

OAKES:

Well before we move on, I suppose there is one issue that we should get out of the way.  There is more speculation in the papers today that there could be another move against Mr Howard if Newspoll is bad this week.  If the Government’s position does get worse this week, is there any possibility of a pre-election leadership change?

TREASURER:

Laurie, my position is today as it was last week, and as it was last year in fact.  I’m going to this election as a team.  John Howard asked me to go to this election with him as his Deputy Leader and his Treasurer.  Last year I said I would.  I will, and that’s it.

OAKES:

So you are not interested in a taking over if Newspoll is bad on Tuesday?

TREASURER:

The position today is the same as it was last week.  It is the same as it was a year before.  We had the discussion about these matters last year, he asked me to be part of his team in this election.  I will be.  Nothing has changed.

OAKES:

Well, I mentioned the term co-Prime Minister.  People are talking about two for the price of one.  They are talking about a leadership duumvirate.  How will this work?

TREASURER:

Well in an election campaign, obviously you want to layout your vision for the future of the country.  We have a vision for this country which involves dealing with climate change, with water, building a first-class educational system, making sure we keep our tax burden low and providing work for every Australian who wants it.  That is the vision for Australia.  Now in order to realise that vision, you need concrete policies.  For example, if you want to actually improve the water situation you need a plan to readdress Australia’s irrigation.  A plan that we are putting forward.  If you want to address climate change you need to engage countries like China and the United States, as we did with the Sydney declaration.  If you want to reduce tax you have to make sure that you take the income tax burden off people’s backs and give them incentive to work.  Now these are all things that are important for Australia’s future and they require concrete steps to get there.  And we are putting forward those concrete steps to say to the Australian public we have come a long way, but we want to go further.  There is more to be done in Australia and it is a Liberal leadership that is going to accomplish it.

OAKES:

Well John Howard is saying that this election you vote for me now and for Peter Costello later.  Given that, will you have a bigger say in the election campaign and what is promised than you would otherwise?

TREASURER:

Well I would hope that I can campaign to the utmost of my ability alongside John Howard and our other team, other members of the team of course, it is not just a two person team incidentally, it is much bigger than that.  And I will be campaigning on these issues – climate change, water, tax, jobs, education – and putting forward for the Australian people the vision that will take us into the next decade.  And I would say to the Australian people this: for all of the bluff and bluster we get from Kevin Rudd, all he ever amounts to is calling together a new committee.  Even yesterday his big announcement was a new committee.  You can’t run a country by committee.  What you need is policy.

OAKES:

Well the Government has had plenty of committees including on climate change.  We still don’t have any targets so I don’t think Kevin Rudd is unique there.  But can I ask you under this new system will you get to co-author the policy speech?

TREASURER:

Well I will be engaged in drawing the policies, as I’m required to as Treasurer by the way, because I have to cost them.

OAKES:

But won’t you get a bigger role this time?

TREASURER:

Of course I will be putting forward ideas but the policy speech and the policies, Laurie, are in fact at the end of the day determined by the Cabinet.  I will have a role as part of that Cabinet team as all Cabinet Ministers will.

OAKES:

The same role as previous elections or is this one different?

TREASURER:

Well as part of the team I will be engaged in policy as I have been over recent years, Laurie.

OAKES:

Well Mr Howard says he will probably certainly stand aside well into the next term.  This ‘probably, certainly’ constitute a core promise?

TREASURER:

Look, over the course of recent periods the Labor Party and others have been demanding that John Howard make a statement in relation to his intention – one that he has made by the way – and I think he has been very up front with the Australian people.  It is not so unusual incidentally to have a succession in politics.  Ask Peter Beattie.  Ask Steve Bracks.  Ask Bob Carr.  Ask Geoff Gallop.  Ask the Labor Party.  It is not that unusual.  In fact, you would have to say at the moment in Australia it seems to be the norm.  So John Howard has made a statement about his intentions, but there is something that has to be done first, Laurie.  There has to be an election.  The Australian people are going to decide who the next government of Australia is and I think they will decide it on the basis of a) the experience and the calibre of the team; and b) the policies for Australia’s future.  And they are the policies that I want to put forward to the Australian people over the months which lie ahead.

OAKES:

Well this system that is now in place has been interpreted as the Prime Minister hitching himself to you so that you can help him get across the line in the election.  Will it work?

TREASURER:

Well of course I’ll be working during the election for the election of John Howard and the team.  Of course I will be.  As I have been in previous elections.  And I’m doing this for this reason:  I am doing it because I believe that an inexperienced, trade union-dominated government in Australia is exactly what we don’t need.  And I want to say to the Australian people that the steps we’ve taken – 2.2 million jobs, the elimination of Labor debt – it came from hard work.  It came from policy.  Don’t be complacent about it.  We are not complacent about it.  It takes a lot of work.  And you can’t risk these things.  I don’t think Kevin Rudd understands economic management and if he gets into the Prime Ministership I think Australia and its future is at risk.

OAKES:

Some of your supporters are concerned, though, that under this new system you will now be tainted, that if the Government loses the election you share the blame with John Howard.  You are no longer a clean skin.

TREASURER:

Well look, I share responsibility as all members of the Cabinet do for the decisions of the Government.  I have never walked away from that.  I am very happy to share responsibility because I think when you actually look at the decisions of the Government, they have made Australia a better place.  It is not a question of trying to walk away from responsibility.  It is a question of accepting responsibility.  And I think if you actually look at the outcomes, people would be very glad to say that they were part of a government which has accomplished the things that it has over recent years.

OAKES:

Mr Howard says that he will stay as Prime Minister if he wins until he has implemented his election programme and then hand over to you.  So people are voting for two Prime Ministers at this election possibly.  What are the differences between you and John Howard apart from an 18 year-age gap?

TREASURER:

Well Laurie when you are talking about succession, you are talking about what will be happening at the 2010 election.  Now we are going into the 2007 election…

OAKES:

But we are also talking about what happens halfway through the next turn when John Howard hands over.

TREASURER:

Well, the lead-up to the 2010 election, so let’s not get too obsessed with the 2010 election when we haven’t even had the 2007 election.  Look, I think I bring to our team a focus on economic management.  People know what I stand for: jobs, balanced budgets, low tax, low interest rates – which were 10½ per cent when I became Treasurer and are now 8.3 per cent.  They know that I want to use the economic growth that we have had to bring people into the workforce, people who have been marginalised, people who have a contribution to make and they know that I want to address Australia’s great challenges.  Challenges like the water crisis we are having, and we have got to provision for and climate change which is going to be a great issue for decades to come.

OAKES:

Well when Gordon Brown was waiting in the wings after Tony Blair announced he would retire, people knew there would be a difference between a Blair Government and a Gordon Brown Government.  Will there be a difference between a Costello Government and a Howard Government?

TREASURER:

Well Laurie as I said, you are speculating on the situation in 2010.

OAKES:

But aren’t people entitled to know if they’re voting for as Prime Minister in this election?

TREASURER:

People are entitled to know this.  I stand for jobs.  I stand for balanced budgets.  I stand for low tax.  I stand for enfranchising people who have been marginalised in our community and bringing them into the economic mainstream.  I want to fix our water crisis.  I want to address climate change and I want to build the best education system that Australia can possibly afford.  But you can only do all of these things from a strong economy.

OAKES:

In the recently published Howard biography you were quoted talking about spending splurges at election time.  You said, ‘I have to foot the bill and that worries me and then I start to think about not just footing the bill today, but if we keep building all these things footing the bill in five or 10 years, and you know, I do worry about the sustainability of these things.’  Now that you have this new elevated status – co-Prime Minister – will you have more say?  Will you be able to curb John Howard’s big spending pre-election habits?

TREASURER:

Well you see Laurie, we are putting things on a sustainable basis.  Let me tell you how we are doing this.  We are putting Australia’s finances on a sustainable basis because now the Government has no net debt.  That is we have paid off Labor’s $96 billion.  We are putting things on a sustainable basis because we have established a Future Fund which will now fund liabilities that are coming upon us with the ageing of the population.  And we are now putting on a sustainable basis the education system with an Endowment Fund which has $6 billion to invest in our education.  This is what we have been about, making Australia fiscally sustainable.  I put this to you Laurie, if you want to look at the Commonwealth financial position in 1996 after 13 years of Labor, and you want to have a look at it now after 11 years of Coalition Government, it is like two different worlds.  Two different words and we don’t want to go back to where we were.

OAKES:

A final issue, one of the concerns people have about a Costello Prime Ministership I think is that you came into Parliament as an industrial relations hardliner, you have made a few statements since that would suggest that if you became Prime Minister you would want to tighten up WorkChoices.  Do you rule out now any more workplace reforms if you become Prime Minister?

TREASURER:

I think we have got the balance right.  I think with the fairness test we have got the balance right for employees, that is they are entitled to fairness.  I think from the business point of view we have got the balance right because we allow Australian Workplace Agreements.  And I want to make this point.  If we go backwards on Australian Workplace Agreements, as the Rudd union-led government wants to, you will set off a chain of inflation in this country which will end in recession.  That is what has happened in the past.  There is a reason why Australia has had its longest period of economic growth.  It is because we have attended to the policy challenges.  If we go back now, Laurie, we will go back to the bad days.  The days of wage claims, inflation, interest rate hikes, recession and ultimately dis-employment.  That is what Rudd-union Labor stands for and that is why we have to keep these reforms with the fairness test in place.

OAKES:

But if you become Prime Minister no more workplace reforms, never ever?

TREASURER:

The important thing is to hold the gains we have made.  Fairness for employees, a better system for the economic growth of Australia.

OAKES:

Mr Costello, we thank you.

TREASURER:

Thanks, Laurie.