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The journos -v-Rudd: press club question time
TRANSCRIPT OF NATIONAL PRESS GALLERY Q&A SESSION 21 NOVEMBER
MIDDLETON: Jim Middleton ABC television news. One quick question and one a longer one. You just talked about accountability. If you are elected to office on Saturday, will you pledge to hold a full-scale news conference after each and every Cabinet meeting unlike the last three governments. And secondly, you have spoken frequently in this campaign of not spending more than you can afford, and yesterday when asked about it again you invoked the warnings of the Reserve Bank about inflation. But the one name you didn't invoke was Treasury. If you do win on Saturday, on Monday you'll be presented with a very large book from Treasury, which will go through in great detail what you promised.
RUDD: How many pages are in it, Jim?
MIDDLETON: I wish I knew. But, it will go through those and it will tell you whether it thinks they are affordable or not. Will you accept their advice on the affordability of those propositions if you win, or will you ignore it? If you do choose to ignore it, what value is there in your promise not to spend more than you can afford?
RUDD: Well let me take those questions in sequence. The first one I was not anticipating because my efforts are directed at winning the election this Saturday. That's where all my focus has been. But I have also said repeatedly throughout this campaign that I believe in accountability. I’ve said, if you’ve read clearly the text we put out to the Australian people on our views on press freedom, that we think the balance at present, for example, on Freedom of Information has gone wrong. Therefore, for example, we have a policy now to abolish conclusive certificates - something which has been near and dear to the heart of various journalists here not just in the last few days but across the last few years.
So consistent with that determination to be accountable, I am prepared to accept the challenge that you've laid down. And to repeat the challenge so you don't think that I'm squibbing it, that if we are elected, that subsequent to a Cabinet meeting, I would present or the relevant ministers would present, for an appropriate press conference to be accountable to you the ladies and gentlemen of the press. Stop blanching, Joel. But our efforts at this stage are directed at winning.
On the second point you raise, Jim, which goes to the question of financial responsibility. Let me answer it at a couple of levels. We have been exceptionally rigorous in the spending commitments that we have put forward for this election. We, unlike the Government, have put forward a whole range of savings options which the Government has not put forward and that's clear from the process which has been under way.
We also have been very mindful of the public warnings by the Reserve Bank about inflationary pressures, particularly the Reserve Bank’s upward revision of the inflation forecasts for the period ahead, released in the Bank’s monetary policy statement last Monday. And mindful of that, it simply reinforced my predisposition to be modest in what we put forward by way of a platform to the country and we did. We put forward a platform last Monday which represented something less than one quarter – last Wednesday – something less than one quarter of what Mr Howard had put forward on Monday.
In terms of the contents of Treasury’s blue book, first of all, you have to win an election to be shown a copy, and that's a big challenge for us between now and Saturday. I am always attentive to the advice of the likes of Ken Henry, who I regard to be a first class public servant, who has served independently and impartially governments of both political persuasions. We'll be very mindful of what the Secretary of the Treasury says. But our commitment to implement our program has been framed within an atmosphere of fiscal responsibility, reinforced by the speech that I delivered at the Australian Labor Party launch last Wednesday. And we would adhere to that commitment to fiscal responsibility.
One final point: when I talk about a razor gang, I'm dead serious. And it's probably not the right town or a popular place to talk to talk about it here in Canberra. But I have lived in Canberra, Therese and I have lived in Canberra and it just strikes me as passing strange that this Government, which supposedly belongs to the conservative side of politics, has not systematically applied the meat axe to its own administrative bloating for the better part of a decade. I am not talking here about a reduction in federal government services, I am talking about the administrative budgets of departments. And therefore I'm very mindful of what can be done through a razor gang process as far as non-core functions of government are concerned. Combining those disciplines, which is essentially conservatism and the way in which we have framed our spending commitments. Secondly the fact that we unlike the Government, have put forward savings options and on top of that our determination to implement a razor gang if elected, I believe we can implement our full program in a fiscally responsible fashion.
PORTEOUS: Mr Rudd, Cinton Porteous from the Courier Mail newspaper. You just made a very strong pitch there to Australian voters saying you stand ready for the responsibilities of government. When people go to the ballot box, they have a choice between yourself and the experienced team of Mr Howard and Mr Costello. As was pointed out, you have been head of the Labor Party for less than 12 months; you have no ministerial experience; your core economic team has no ministerial experience. Why should voters believe you could be a good Prime Minister given your lack of leadership experience?
RUDD: Well, when Mr Howard became Prime Minister in 1996 he had a truckload of experience. A truckload of experience as Treasurer delivering the country 22 per cent interest rates. A truckload of experience in delivering this country double digit inflation, double digit unemployment, having delivered four of his five Budgets as Budget deficits and having delivered us a recession deeper than anything we’d seen since the 1930s. That was Mr Howard’s experience that he brought to the table in 1996. Mr Costello, the Treasurer brought no experience of ministerial office whatsoever. I ask people to place that in context. Secondly, our plans for the future are clear cut and framed within a fiscal envelope and fiscal environment of inherent economic conservatism. And that's because I take those fundamental disciplines seriously as I have throughout my professional career. In terms of familiarity of the machinery of government, I make another point. If you’ve worked in the machinery of government as much as I have, at a State level, at a Commonwealth level, in Australian missions overseas, and having worked in business for a period of time, and having grown up on a farm in rural Queensland - I have actually been around a bit and done a few different things.
I think it’s actually quite a reasonable proposition not to present myself to the Australian people as a lifelong professional politician. I have done a bunch of other things. And the large slice of those other things actually goes to the machinery of government. I spent five years, for example, representing the Queensland Government as its senior public service representative on the steering committee of the Council of Australian Governments, where we spent our time negotiating major microeconomic reforms as officials like national competition policy. I'm reasonable familiar with the machinery of government. And, therefore, I would hope that the Australian people, in viewing that by way of background and being mindful of the background which our opponents brought to office in 1996, would make an appropriate decision come this Saturday.
GRATTAN: Michelle Grattan of The Age. Mr Rudd, Labor announced a business advisory group headed by Rod Eddington, but I don't think it has actually added members to that group. Do you intend to fill out the group and in government what would be the mechanism for receiving advice from that group? Would it report to you directly, or would it go through one of your ministers and if so, which one? And could you also tell us something of the mechanism in government for getting advice formally from the ACTU?
RUDD: Firstly on Rod Eddington. I think Sir Rod has been a great source of advice to me personally and to Wayne Swan throughout the course of this year. I value his counsel greatly. Secondly, in terms of the composition of the Council of Business Advisors, that you refer to, that has been developed and we have a panel of some six or seven individuals who I believe are ready to roll. On the question of the broader advisory processes from the business community in to government - my experience in the Queensland Government has always been that having an open door with business and listening to corporations large and small and also their peak bodies is the best way to proceed.
I was just having a conversation with someone before, I'll leave them unnamed in case it embarrasses them, but they were from the National Australia Bank. That's a big bank, it could be anybody - about this simple proposition which as you’ve heard me speak of a lot and the Treasurer has taken objection to this, about how you go about transforming our financial services sector into an export platform to the rest of the world. It’s a very sophisticated sector, our funds management sector is particularly of great depth and breath and density. I always asked myself the question why can't we project this into the region as a major new export business for the nation. In taking that further, both in terms of the taxation arrangements which you have already indicated the reduction in the foreign withholding tax, but also in how we re-badge and re-brand Australia as a funds management capital for wider East Asia. We have just been talking about how we'd do that consultatively with the peak bodies, IPSA, the Bankers Association and the other peak bodies. The only way you deliver good outcomes here is if you do it consultatively, and I very much believe in a ‘Team Australia’ approach.
The third part of your question was about the ACTU. I haven't given much thought to that to be quite honest in terms of how all that would work, but I'm sure we'll chat from time to time as appropriate.
LEWIS: Mr Rudd, Steve Lewis from News Limited. In the series of commitments you just made - I was going to call them commandments, but there's 11, not 10 - in the series of commitments you made…
RUDD: I’m more new testament than old, mate.
You made no mention, you made no mention of any measures to put, to address cost
of living pressures on working families, and yet that's been a common theme
throughout the last 12 months or so. In particular there is no mention in your
speech, in fact during most of your campaign, of grocery and petrol prices which
you have promised to address if elected. Therefore, can you outline the
benchmark by which voters, the electorate will be able to judge whether a Labor
Government has been successful in terms of tackling grocery and petrol prices,
keeping them lower. Or is this an irresponsible promise, on par with
John Howard's 2004 pledge to keep interest rates
Many of you have been at press conferences where I have said - and said repeatedly - I do not pretend to have a silver bullet on any of these questions, I don't. But I do have a fundamental difference with Mr Howard who looks down the barrel of a camera and says to working families they've never been better off. Let me tell you, that's not my experience as I wander around Australia and talk to people. Each of those measures delivers some relief to the family budget. And the question which working families have asked me repeatedly around Australia is this: Mr Howard and Mr Costello lecture us about how well the national economy is going, then why am I finding my household economy – my household budget – such a struggle?
BONGIORNO: Paul Bongiorno, Ten News. Mr Rudd, just wondering at this point of the campaign, what odds you give yourself for winning, is it 60/40? Do you believe that you are the red-hot favourite? And if you do win, are you satisfied with the balance between civil liberties and national security, especially in light of the Haneef affair, and the finding of a court recently that the AFP overstepped the mark? Do you believe a whole range, a whole raft of laws relating to individual rights and national security need review?
RUDD: On the first question, many of you heard me say this, let me say it loud and clear. Whoever wins this election on Saturday will win by a nose. I mean it. If you know what I know, in terms of travelling around the country, this is tough, ugly and nasty and it's going to be trench warfare from here until Saturday. And this is tighter than many people in this room may think. And so I regard our challenge - which is to make history to win 16 seats and we have only won from opposition twice since World War II - a huge challenge.
On the question of civil liberties and national security - this is always a tough one. Let's just be blunt, it is, getting the balance right. We've been through so many Shadow Cabinet decisions and discussions on this over the last several years and we've had animated and passionate discussions about this. These things are not just pushed to one side as if they don't exist. These are hard, difficult balances to get. We are not Robinson Crusoe on this. Democratically elected governments in the United Kingdom and elsewhere face precisely the same challenges. Principal number one: is that families across this country expect an alternative government or the current Government to take hard-lined, hard-nosed decisions to protect, not only national security, but the security of families.
Therefore, when you are dealing with something as ugly as global terrorism it requires a hardline approach. I therefore have fully supported the resourcing, appropriately, of our security agencies, of our intelligence agencies. And as laws have been passed through the Parliament you will have known over recent years how many of those we have inserted appropriate amendments into and by and large the Government’s accepted those amendments. Therefore, if you look at the specifics of say the Haneef case, the truth is I don't think any us on our side of politics know precisely what's gone on there. Other than something smells. And that's why I'm dead serious, whether we win the election or whether we don’t, that there should be a full judicial inquiry into that matter so we can get to the bottom of what went wrong. It's quite important because that then informs the future debate about the nature of our laws, the implementation of our laws by the relevant agencies, and let's have all those facts on the table. They are not currently on the table. And that's the problem.
COMPARE: The next question is from Laura Tingle.
TINGLE: Laura Tingle from the Financial Review, Mr Rudd. The Labor Party tends to take on a bit of a character of its leader, and I suppose I would like you to tell us what sort of Labor Party you'll be leading, and, in particular, what powers will the caucus have if you are Prime Minister? Will it have any powers to elect people into various positions, and particularly what role would Labor have in trying to re-establish the rights of the Senate. I am not talking about negotiations on Labor legislation, but some of the rights of the Senate to investigate and inquire and generally look at broader range of issues?
RUDD: Just getting the triple bunger down so I don't forget. Character - well, people can make their own judgments about all of that. I just think it's important to be straight up and down and fair dinkum with people. I’ve said at other forums, tell the public what you can do, and what you can't. The problems you can fix and the problems that you can't fix. And be fair dinkum about a timetable for doing that and have measurements out there so people know when you have. That's, if you like, a hallmark I would like to see entrenched in any incoming Labor Government if we’re elected.
By way of personal instinct, I have an inherent distaste for grandiose rhetorical statements which don’t have any substantive dimension to them. I'm very much into the business of ensuring that when we say we are going to do something about homelessness, for example and I have been to a number of homeless shelters recently, that quantitatively we come to grips with the number of people who are sleeping rough on an evening - the actual undersupply when it comes to emergency housing and the undersupply of secondary housing to which those people go once they are out of the centre. How do we fill the gap, how long will it take, what will it cost? These are the instincts I bring to bear. There is a clear cut plan for the nation's future, but I believe any plan is not worth the paper it's written on unless you are serious about the mechanics of its implementation and measure that. So for me that's really important.
The second point you say is the powers of the parliamentary party. I have said quite clearly in a departure from I think about 100 years of settled Labor history, that if we win this election, that I will be appointing Labor's ministry. I will do that. When it comes to the role of the parliamentary party, I believe it's appropriate for the parliamentary party to have its say when it comes to the range of parliamentary positions, for example, committee chairpersonships and the rest. I think that’s entirely appropriate.
The final question that you asked was one of the role of the Senate and Senate committees.
I think there's been a bit of a cancer at work in recent years, and I go back particularly to that disgraceful saga called Kids Overboard. I think there is a challenge for us all to make sure that we have proper processes of external accountability. I know it's very easy to say from opposition, because you are not in government and then when the heat is on you, it all seems different.
But you know if you’re running a decent government you shouldn't fear these things. I think the Australian public are mindful that when mistakes are made, as long as you are upfront about it and tell people that things have been done wrongly, that's OK. This culture of secrecy, most recently reflected in this extraordinary decision to suppress this document concerning the Government's Work Choices options of a couple of years ago, I think says everything that's wrong about the current Government. Therefore, consistent with what I said before about changing FOI laws – the abolition of conclusive certificates - and fronting up for regular Jim Middleton or post-Jim Middleton press conferences. I think, therefore that the Senate Committee system should have a robust review mechanism.
I was asked recently at a press conference about the role of ministerial staff in this context and that's been a matter of some debate. When staff have assumed executive responsibilities, for example in the allocation of funds under discretionary grants programs like the Regional Partnerships Program, should staff therefore be accountable to those sort of committees? If they have exercised executive function, they should be.
JOURNALIST: Mark Riley from the Seven Network, Mr Rudd. Little surprised to hear that you haven't thought about the consultative mechanism you’ll employ with the ACTU. I’m pretty sure they have.
RUDD: I'm just being straight up and down with you mate, I haven't. I've had other things on my mind.
JOURNALIST: It’s on that issue, really. You talk about the negativity of the campaign by the Government and much of it, obviously, has been focussed on the unions, trade unions and the union links with the front benchers in your party. But I haven't heard you give a passionate and a strong defence of trade unionism one would expect from a Labor leader, so here is your chance.
RUDD: Well yesterday, Mark, when you were here, I was actually in Campbelltown in Western Sydney. I was there receiving from various union reps 90,000 signatures on a petition. Nurses, firies, other emergency services personnel represented by their various organisations. I sat there in front of the entire gallery - the travelling gallery I should say - and spoke about the importance of petitions like that in bringing to the focus of government and the alternative government the concerns of working families. That could only have been done through the agency of unions.
Secondly, in the speech I’ve just given, I have spoken also about how can the Government run these sort of campaigns in the face of the experiences of the likes of Bernie Banton. I went and saw Bernie - second week of the campaign, I think now - I went and saw him at his house. And Bernie's experience, and why I made reference to it in my remarks today, is all about the critical work which is done by the representatives of employees in workplaces across the country in just getting some basic decency and justice.
Ask Bernie where he would be were it not for Greg Combet. Just ask Bernie. So for me that just speaks volumes. It also speaks volumes about a Government when you have, as I said before, Mr Howard's headkicker-in-chief then descends on Bernie and have a whack at him and then only apologise afterwards when the political heat gets too much. I think that says everything about them. It says a lot about the likes of Bernie, and why we are proud of people who stand up for the rights and conditions of working people and working families right across Australia. And I met so many of them in the streets of Campbelltown yesterday.
DUNLEVY: Mr Rudd, Sue Dunlevy from the Daily Telegraph. Mr Rudd, your wife, Therese, has built up a $170 million business from scratch. There can be no question at all about her economic management skills. Of the two of you, isn't she the one better qualified to be running the country? And if you do win the election on Saturday, will Australians get two for the price of one as the Americans did with the Clintons?
RUDD: I’ve said before on many occasions that Therese is the real success story of this family and I am really proud of everything Therese has done with her life.
It's been a tough year for Therese, as many of you would know, and I'm really proud of not just the way in which she's handled all that, but the fact that she's built up this business.
I remember going with her to the Commonwealth Bank in Bris-Vegas back in whenever it was, the 80s, late '80s, I think. And on bended knee we asked for a - I think it was a $10,000 bank loan - thereabouts, because she had an audacious idea to start up a business. And after a fair bit of persuasion, she got the money. And started off in an attic office in South Brisbane, sharing half a secretary and here we are 18 years later, and she’s worldwide employing 1200, 1400 people. So I think she's done a fantastic job, and I'm really proud of what she's done.
JOURNALIST: Hi, Mr Rudd. Matthew Franklin, from The Australian. I’ve got two questions. One, are you going to follow the lead of some state governments in Australia, whereby they have what’s called community Cabinet meetings, that is take your Cabinet out to meet real people and keep in touch that way?
Secondly I'm interested to know how you’re going to manage expectations within the Labor Party, and within the union movement. You’ve described yourself as conservative, you’re certainly socially conservative – my observation. Some Labor governments in the past, particularly the Goss Government which you worked for, had a lot of problems dealing with the left of the party when they presented strongly conservative policy. And then they were sort of steamrolled by the expectations of the party and also you may have the same problem with trade unions. I wonder how you are going to manage that and whether you have a political base which is strong enough to keep that at bay?
RUDD: Let me take the second question first and then I'll come back to Cabinet out there in the regions. If I'm elected as the country's next Prime Minister, I am absolutely determined to govern in the national interest, and in nobody's sectional interest, and that's the way it will be if we are elected. There will always be vigorous debates with any political party and there certainly is within ours. But you know something? The old classical divide between left, right; Callithumpian, non-Callithumpian, I actually don't think they apply in contemporary politics.
If you go to the substance of our agenda. When I gave a speech, for example, in this town on the 40th anniversary of the 1967 referendum, I draw your attention to the content of that speech about a commitment to close the gap in terms of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal life expectancy; Aboriginal mortality of children under five and also in terms of literacy and education levels. That is a fundamental program for reform embodied in the goals set in that speech. And you know something? If we’re elected, we intend to implement that. And, I am confident that the party, if we form government, will be in there right behind the implementation of those sort of programs.
Secondly, I have also said that part of our responsibility as a wealthy country in the world is what we do for the rest of the world in poverty and underdevelopment. The commitment we’ve made in terms of 0.5 per cent of GNI is a big commitment by 2015, but it’s driven by my concern and the party’s concern that this country can do better in its contribution to just improving the decency and the lot of others. It's also in our national self-interest to do so because of the radical problems of underdevelopment across Melanesia where we face real problems in terms of long term security as well.
I'm confident the program we put forward is a substantive reformist program, and I'm confident that the members of our party, in all their diversity, will be in there behind the implementation of that program. Because for all our faults, the Labor Party is about decency, and we want to ensure that decency is applied to workplaces and also those people who are finding it hard to make ends meet at home and abroad.
On country Cabinets, sorry I missed your other point. I've said when I have been on the road, I think a big problem - and I say this with the secretaries of Finance and PM and C here present - if we form the next government of the country everyone needs to get their skates on because we going to be out there.
Part of it, and I speak here as some one who has formerly been a public servant in Canberra albeit in the Department of Foreign Affairs, it is very easy for the public service to become disconnected from Australian realities, not because public servants are insensitive it’s just because of where we are here, in Canberra. I have been part of that myself in the past and I think it is very good therefore for the Cabinet, backed by the senior mandarins, to be out there in regional Australia on a rolling basis. And again, my colleagues may be horrified to hear this but what I have in the back of my mind is for us to be doing that on a monthly basis. Because I think it is really important to keep in touch and my experience of that in Queensland State Government is that it is a very good way to keep in touch. It will horrify many public servants and quite a number of would-be ministers but I think it is a good way to be in touch. Huge wealth-generating parts of the country in the West, in Queensland never get to see Cabinet in town. We should. The indigenous communities, they need to see Cabinet in town as well, that is what I want to see happen - if we win.
JOURNALIST: Maria Hawthorne from Australian Associated Press. Last night John Howard warned undecided voters that electing a Kevin Rudd Government wasn’t like getting an unwanted Christmas present - that they could not just take it back on Boxing Day. So in that festive mood, you’ve spelled out today a list of things that you want to see in place by 2010. What can voters expect to see in place by Christmas next year from a Rudd Government?
RUDD: If we’re elected I want an incoming Labor Government to hit the ground running. It’s why I’ve said in response to many questions that I am not attracted to any large-scale machinery changes in the public service. I think the public service otherwise can turn in on itself as you go through cartwheels of administrative and sub-administrative reform.
Going through the measures. One, as I've already indicated, we would proceed with early ratification of Kyoto. I’d be attending Bali. Therefore we would have by mid-year, on top of that, the basis for us determining interim targets for an emissions trading regime and I think that’s absolutely essential. And furthermore, we would have in force by year's ends a uniform mandatory renewable energy target. Because at present if you speak to the renewable energy sector there is great concern about the disparate systems across the various States and Territories. That needs to be brought together around Labor’s proposed national target of 20 per cent by 2020. That is number one.
The education revolution, I want to get the roll out of broadband, get the roll out of computers in schools started. That means that ‘08 would be spent on a complex and very expensive national tendering process. We would have to get that right. There is a large allocation of public funds, it’s $1 billion plus, therefore you have to get your tender specifications right. Because when this roll out occurs you’ve got to have a replacement cycle for computers in schools, you’ve got to have a maintenance program for computers in schools and you’ve got to have a system which can therefore handle rolling repairs. And that would have to be built into a) tender arrangements for such an expensive piece of public money; and b) the cooperative arrangements you fashion with the states.
Thirdly, by year's end, you would have a pretty clear idea about whether we’re going to have a cooperative or a less than cooperative agreement with the States and Territories in what I’m proposing on health and hospitals. Now that’s going to be very interesting and perhaps colourful negotiations if we win but it is really important.
COAG therefore, I would propose be convened within the first 100 days if we are elected to form the next government. That would form a very large part of the agenda. It is an enormously complex area of work and you would be looking at identifying five to six key performance indicators which State and Territory systems would have to sign up to, vis-a-vis bringing down elective surgery waiting lists, what happens in accident and emergency et cetera before you would then finally frame your long-term arrangement for the States. And frankly that’s a fairly big slice of work.
JOURNALIST: Mr Rudd, Andrew Fraser, Canberra Times. Mark Latham spoke passionately about the reintroduction of a Commonwealth dental scheme. That’s something that you’ve embraced wholeheartedly. Kim Beazley often spoke of his grand desire to be education prime minister. As evidenced again today, you’ve accepted that or appropriated that mantra in its entirety. Why should voters be attracted to you on Saturday when they see so many similarities, both in policy and in philosophy, to the two men who lost Labor the last three elections?
RUDD: I have no intention whatsoever of commenting on the past. I’ve put out there a plan for the future. I'm positive about the future. I think we can take this great country and make it even better. That’s what I am on about.
But the content of the plans I think speaks for itself. It’s not something we have pulled out of our - I was going to say ear, but I won't say that now - pulled out of the air, that is what I meant to say. Oh dear.
It’s not something we’ve pulled out of the air on the eve of an election. We have been at this all year. And this education revolution platform, with chapter after chapter, it’s an exciting platform. I do not believe Labor in the past has actually articulated one set of policies after another from when you’ve got kids in childcare through to early childhood education for 4-year-olds through the teaching of maths, science, Asian languages within schools, computers in schools, an education tax refund, doubling the number of undergraduate and postgraduate scholarships and making sure that we’ve got state of the art trades training centres in each one of our nation’s 2,650 our secondary schools.
These are all very substantive, tangible, measurable commitments and I’ll be held accountable for that and the same applies to what we have said in terms of health, including our proposal within that for measurable standards on the delivery of public dental programs for all those Australians out there who need to get their teeth fixed. It is just obscene what’s happening out there at the moment.
I therefore believe that the Australian people are a very practical people. If they look at an alternative Prime Minister and say is he being fair dinkum about his plans across these four to five key areas and they have all got measurable timelines and commitments, then I believe they will respond to those plans positively.