Interview with Neil Mitchell, 3AW

 

PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning Neil, great to be with you.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Thank you for your time. We’re getting a message from Vietnam earlier this morning, there was quite a mess there overnight. There were hundreds of veterans turned back from Long Tan, even Harry Smith the legendary commander didn’t get through. They were very, very annoyed. Did the deal come unstuck?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well Neil, we’re very disappointed that not all of the Australian veterans and their families were able to go to the Long Tan complex and reverently commemorate Vietnam Veterans Day before the Long Tan Cross. As you know the day before, on the 17th of August, there was a decision taken in Vietnam to ban any attendance at Long Tan. The Foreign Minister Julie Bishop spoke to her counterpart, I spoke to the Prime Minister of Vietnam for an hour and we were able to persuade the Vietnamese Government to allow small groups of veterans to attend at Long Tan.

NEIL MITCHELL:

But did that come unstuck overnight or yesterday?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well what happened was that 700, around 700 Australian and New Zealand veterans did attend the Long Tan area, did visit the Cross and reverently commemorate that battle and the Australians that fell there, and of course all the Australians…

NEIL MITCHELL:

So, well that’s about…

PRIME MINISTER:

521 Australians who fell in the war.

NEIL MITCHELL:

That’s about 3,000 missed out then? Weren’t there about 3,500 there?

PRIME MINISTER:

My information is there were around 1500.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Okay, so half of them missed out.

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, we understand that this is obviously a very sensitive issue in Vietnam. The point that we’ve made to the Government and that Julie and I have made to our counterparts, is that we respect the right of the Vietnamese Government to determine what ceremonies and observances are held in their country. But to change the rules, literally the day before, was very unreasonable and clearly disappointed the…

NEIL MITCHELL:

So what happens next time? What happens next year?

PRIME MINISTER:

What we will do - we will agree very, very clearly and very publically, so that there is absolutely no possibility for any misunderstanding on what the rules will be.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Fair enough.

PRIME MINISTER:

It’s vital to do that. I think the Vietnamese Prime Minister and I had a very good and a very frank discussion. We made progress.

There were 700 veterans that attended at Long Tan that would not have been able to get access had it not been for that conversation, but we remain very disappointed that all of them were unable to do so.

NEIL MITCHELL:

To local issues now, have we got a budget emergency or not? It’s reported today that Deloitte modelling shows we could blow out, increase, our debt by $100 billion within the next few years. $100 billion. It is reported the average Australian is already paying $1,200 a year interest on the debt. Now, do we have a budget emergency?

PRIME MINISTER:

We certainly have a very big budget challenge Neil, there is no question. I gave a speech in Melbourne about this earlier in the week. It is absolutely clear that we have to address the deficit. Until we address that deficit and bring the budget back into balance –which is what we have set out a plan to do – unless we do that, we will not get the debt under control.

NEIL MITCHELL:

And we’re not going to grow our way out of it?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, well growing our economy certainly assists and that is absolutely a key part of our plan. But we’ve got to do both. We’ve got to grow our economy. That’s why we went to the election with an economic plan for jobs and growth. At the same time we have got to live within our means.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Okay and if we don’t get this right – I mean the economists, even Graham Richardson today is writing about saying it’s a serious issue - if we don’t get it right, what are the implications for that average person listening to you, driving in their car to Melbourne?

PRIME MINISTER:

It means they won’t have the Government services in the future that they have today. It means the taxes they pay, the high taxes they pay today, will be even higher in the future. It means Governments won’t have the ability to fund the social services, the schools, the hospitals, the roads, the public transport. You know, we have to recognise Neil that when we talk about fairness, nothing is more important than being fair to our children and our grandchildren. Because there is nobody for whom we should have more love and more concern than our children.

NEIL MITCHELL:

But it’s more…

PRIME MINISTER:

We are letting them down by piling up debt.

NEIL MITCHELL:

It’s more urgent that that isn’t it? If we’re talking about predictions – well, do you accept this? It could blow out by $100 billion, an extra $100 billion in the next few years, do you accept that?

PRIME MINISTER:

What Chris Richardson has done is made some assumptions about slower growth and so forth, and if you punch those in, you will get higher levels of debt, assuming you don’t have savings measures passed. So…

NEIL MITCHELL:

So is this $100 million, $100 billion blowout a possibility?

PRIME MINISTER:

Neil, there is no question that the debt could blow out by $100 billion or more if the Parliament is not prepared to face up to reality and deal with this budget challenge. We have to live within our means and that is the point that I have been making from the time I became Prime Minister. We have to deal with this economic challenge, we have to drive economic growth, we have to drive investment and jobs and at the same time, we have to ensure our Government lives within its means.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Doesn’t that mean more than the $6.5 billion cuts that you’ve got on the table? Doesn’t it mean there has got to be more pain?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well what it means is that we have to find the savings. We have to, and the $6.5 billion that you’re referring to are the ones that the Labor Party has agreed to in the course of the election campaign, and that’s what we will be presenting as what we’ve called an omnibus bill. So, just collecting them all together, and we’re saying to Mr Shorten - and we’re saying this in a very collaborative and frank and honest way – you’ve already said that you, after all, will support these. Well, let’s get on with it and let’s get them done and then we can talk about the other measures we need to take on.

NEIL MITCHELL:

That’s my point. There will need to be other measures. What sort of measures? What else would you look at?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well Neil we have set out a number of those. You know we’ve set out a measure to repeal a number of supplements, and we’ve obviously sought to direct some of those savings into improved childcare.

But it is a significant challenge and you know Mr Shorten has said that he wants to be collaborative in this Parliament. Well, now is the opportunity for him to – as Graham Richardson his fellow Labor Party member said in the newspaper today, he just cited it – it’s the opportunity for him too to lay out his plan.

We’ve laid out our measures, it’s all in the budget, we’ve set it out in the budget.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Is there anything sacrosanct? Going ahead, going forward –that buzzword – is there anything, any area sacrosanct or will you look at everything?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well Neil we obviously have to look right across the board, but plainly there are vital areas of Government concern. I mean let me give you for example Medicare. You know, Medicare and health spending, we know that we will need to spend more on health in the years ahead. We budget for that, particularly as our population ages. But what we need to do is ensure that we can - so far as possible - constrain the growth in health spending and at the same time ensure that every Australian gets the health services they need.

NEIL MITCHELL:

So how do you do that?

PRIME MINISTER:

You do that by being more efficient. You see at the end of the day, a Government is no different to a household budget or a business.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Yeah, but…

PRIME MINISTER:

You’ve got to try to ensure that you make every dollar work as hard as it can to deliver the services you need.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Are you saying the health section, the health sector, the hospitals, have to be more efficient? Are they wasting money?

PRIME MINISTER:

Neil I’m not saying that, I’m saying to you that we have a whole strategy with hospital funding, as you know, that is based on a national efficient price and that has had success in bringing down, through efficiencies, the cost of procedures.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Prime Minister could I just – quickly something else - I noticed you put $5 in a street beggar’s cup in Melbourne the day before yesterday. We’re told not to do that, do you think it’s a good idea to give money to beggars?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I know people have got different views on that. But you know, every time I see someone in that situation, I always think: “There but for the grace of God, go I.” So, it was a human reaction and I’m sorry if that has disappointed some people. Maybe they think you shouldn’t give money to people who are sitting on the street.

But look Neil, I felt sorry for the guy and I think that we should all remember: “There but for the grace of God goes me.”

NEIL MITCHELL:

18C, which makes it illegal to offend people, do you accept it needs to be changed?

PRIME MINISTER:

Neil it’s an issue that I‘ve certainly looked at, and it was considered as you know during Tony Abbott’s time as Prime Minister.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Well he says he regrets not doing it.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, yes.

NEIL MITCHELL:

So will you do it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it is not a priority for us. Can I just emphasis this; we have a very extensive legislative programme on the policies we took to the election. We have to deal with the CFA, we have to make the Fair Work Act changes that will protect the CFA Volunteers. We have to deal with the Australian Building and Construction Commission, we have to deal with the Registered Organisations Bill, those are the bills that triggered the double dissolution. We have to bring in all of those budget measures we were just talking about before and we have deliver on our budget and our economic plan. We obviously have to hold a plebiscite on same-sex marriage. So my Government has a lot to do…

NEIL MITCHELL:

So 18C isn’t a priority isn’t it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well no, it’s not a priority. With all due respects to the very worthy arguments surrounding it, it is not going to create an extra job. It is not going to ensure that your listeners are going to get to work or get to school, or get around their business sooner. It’s not going to build an extra road.

NEIL MITCHELL:

I accept your point on priorities but where do you stand on it? It is reported today that you had general support for attempts to amend it as expressed to the crossbencher Bob Day. Do you support the need to amend it? Not now, but in the future?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it depends how you amend it Neil…

NEIL MITCHELL:

Well how would you amend it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well Neil I’m not going to go through the intricacies, with all due respect, of 18C in this radio conversation.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Oh but you know it’s a problem within your party don’t you? I mean you’ve got Tony Abbott talking about it, you’ve got the right wing of the party wanting to change it, you’ve got the crossbencher issue, Senator Derryn Hinch says it’s urgent.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, you know there is no shortage of people who list for me all of the challenges and difficulties I face as Prime Minister. But my job is to keep my eye on the key objective, which is to ensure that we drive strong economic growth, delivering more and better jobs for Australians and that we bring our budget back into balance, we live within our means and ensure our kids and our grandkids are not crippled by a mountain of debt.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Prime Minister is China a security threat to Australia?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well Neil I would say that there are security challenges around the region. Obviously I’m not going to start picking out one nation rather than another, but there are obviously differences of opinion between us and China in some security areas. Obviously as you know - without labouring the point – we have continued to urge China not to engage in island building, if you like, in the South China Sea, and to resolve territorial disputes there by negotiation and in accordance with international law.

NEIL MITCHELL:

They seem to be expressing interest still in the New South Wales power grid, and there has been some interest in the Port of Melbourne, would you be open to the Port of Melbourne being sold to Chinese interests?

PRIME MINISTER:

Neil we’ll assess all of these issues. National security issues are assessed very, very carefully and they are not matters that you would expect me, or your listeners would expect me, to go into in detail on the radio.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Fair enough. Will you be setting up a banking tribunal so complainants can go to a tribunal to take up their issues with the banks?

PRIME MINISTER:

This is something that Warren Entsch has proposed and also a similar proposal has been made by a Parliamentary Committee. There is a Financial Ombudsman service at the moment. This is something that - I would say - the Government is certainly looking at that. I would say that our focus – and this is a big difference between us and Labor in this regard – our focus with respect to the banks and financial services is to take action.

We want to ensure that where there are failings, where there are problems that we deal with them. That’s why we gave ASIC $127 million, because they can get on and take the investigations and prosecutions now. In terms of improving the way customers and particularly retail customers are dealt with, we’re very open to looking at action in that regard and that is the difference between taking real action now, on the other hand proposing a royal commission which would go on for years and years, cost hundreds of millions of dollars and then write a report, and help nobody, except the legal professions no doubt.

NEIL MITCHELL:

And if I may, just quickly, are you looking at lifting the non-concessional superannuation contribution limit from $500,000 to $750,000?

PRIME MINISTER:

I read that report in the press. As you know the Treasurer is consulting with colleagues. Our policy is the one we took to the election, the one that was set out in the budget, but he is - and I’m staying in very close touch with him on this of course - he is carefully consulting with his colleagues, our colleagues, and of course other interested parties and stakeholders.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Olympics drawing to a close, we haven’t had a great performance, will you be reviewing - and we’re talking tough financial times –the amount of money that goes to Olympic sport?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well all of these matters are constantly reviewed but at this stage we’re celebrating the success that we’ve had. I think our athletes deserve our support and our congratulations.

NEIL MITCHELL:

I was a bit spooked by that security scare in Melbourne with the protester on the stage, how did you feel about it?

PRIME MINISTER:

I felt, as you could see, I felt safe and comfortable - relaxed and comfortable as John Howard would say – at all times. But the AFP is looking into that and they’ll be presenting me with an incident report.

NEIL MITCHELL:

We’ve got to do better. We’ve got to do better for any Prime Minister than that, don’t we?”

PRIME MINISTER:

Well again, I don’t want to be unhelpful but I think the less I say about that sort of personal security, the better. You know, many people have made the point that you’ve just made.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Thank you so much for your time.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you so much Neil.