Australian Government coat of arms

Prime Minister of Australia

The Hon Tony Abbott MP

Press Conference, Melbourne

08 November 2013

Prime Minister

Subjects:

The Federal Government’s commitment to repeal the carbon tax; boosting productivity and delivering effective, efficient government; Operation Sovereign Borders; foreign investment; Indonesia; manufacturing; Defence force; motor industry.

E&OE

PRIME MINISTER:

As some of you probably know, this morning I had a roundtable on the abolition of the carbon tax, along with my colleague Minister Greg Hunt, with senior members of manufacturing industry, with senior members of the power generation industry, with senior representatives of the retailing sector. It's absolutely crystal clear that everyone in this country wants the carbon tax repealed as quickly as possible. The only people in this country who want to persist with the carbon tax are the Labor Party and the Greens, who are in denial about the election result.

It's also pretty clear from what ACCC commissioner Rod Sims has said in the last 24 hours, that there are substantial, swift benefits to households to be had from the repeal of the carbon tax. The carbon tax is costing the average household $550 a year. Get rid of the carbon tax and the average household is $550 a year better off.

This is an important benefit for families and the best Christmas present that Bill Shorten could give the families of Australia is to stand aside and let the new government and the incoming parliament repeal the carbon tax. As you know, when Parliament sits next week, the first item of legislation that the Parliament considers will be the carbon tax repeal legislation.

Repealing the carbon tax is the immediate focus of this Government's determination to get tax down. We don't just want to get tax down, we also want to see less regulation and we want to see a smaller bureaucracy. Earlier this week, Cabinet decided that all future submissions would have much more substantial regulation impact statements attached; that, in the future, Cabinet submissions will need to quantify the costs of any regulatory change and would need to match any additional regulatory costs with reductions in regulatory costs because we are serious about reducing the regulatory burden on Australian businesses and ultimately on Australian consumers by at least $1 billion a year every year. We are serious about that.

We’re also serious about a smaller bureaucracy and that's why some 20 redundant advisory groups have been abolished or amalgamated as one of the early decisions of this government. We certainly won't be stopping here. This is a government which will always be looking to try to ensure that the machinery of government is as efficient and as small as possible. We believe in effective government, we believe in efficient government, and effective and efficient government is not the same as big government; it's not the same as over-government – and that, I regret to say, is what we've had too much of over the last few years.

What you see is a government which is taking significant early steps towards reducing the tax burden, towards reducing the regulatory burden and towards reducing the size of the bureaucracy and obviously this is very important as we move into the first sittings of the new Parliament next week.

James?

QUESTION:

One of the groups you’re abolishing is the firearms advisory council, which I believe was comprised of technical experts in the area. Can you explain to us the rationale behind that, and I understand that concerns have been expressed that bureaucrats are out of their depth on this stuff?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, the fact is, we have a bureaucracy, we have a system of regulation for firearms and if there's any need for change, obviously we will consult as appropriate. What we don't need is an absolute plethora of standing committees and if you look at the committees that have been abolished, some of them have been in existence for many, many years and the policy issues which they were designed to consider have been resolved one way or another. Others were established by the former government, often to strike a pose rather than to make a decision and an obvious example of that was the High Speed Rail Advisory Group. Well, this was to advise on something that was supposed to happen, if it ever happened, in 2030. We think with ministerial advisory councils, at least one regular vehicle for input from constituency organisations into the relevant portfolio, we are more than capable of managing these issues given that we've also got expert departments on hand.

QUESTION:

Can you tell us what the ban on contractors that has apparently been circulated at departments is going to achieve and also the issues that might get managed through them?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I don't accept the premise of the question. Certainly, we are determined – and we took this policy to the election – we are determined to reduce the size of the Commonwealth public sector payroll by some 12,000. We're determined to do that, but we're going to do it by natural attrition. In the ordinary course of events, obviously departments and agencies make decisions every day about people's employment, but that is a matter for the relevant people in departments and agencies within the overall parameters of government.

QUESTION:

You have also made some cut backs to the CSIRO, Prime Minister, and about a week ago, at a dinner, you said that science is absolutely critical, we will support science to the fullest extent possible. How do you reconcile those two things?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, we haven't made any cutbacks to the CSIRO. The management of the CSIRO and the employment of staff inside the CSIRO and the management of contractors for the CSIRO is a matter for the CSIRO itself.

QUESTION:

Scott Morrison's press conference today descended into even more farce than usual. How long are these Friday briefings going to continue and is it acceptable for the Government to be keeping information from the Australian people about what's happening on our borders?

PRIME MINISTER:

The important thing is to stop the boats – that's the important thing – and the best way to stop the boats is to ensure that we are not providing a shipping service for people smugglers and we are not providing a shipping news service for people smugglers. Now, I'm pleased that the boats are coming at a much-reduced rate although as Minister Morrison indicated at his briefing today, there is currently a situation in the Indonesian search and rescue zone which Australian personnel are attending to.  But we will continue to have weekly Operation Sovereign Borders briefings while Operation Sovereign Borders continues to be necessary. I hope that at some early period we can conclude that the boats have been definitively stopped, but I don't imagine that is going to happen within weeks. I'd like it to but I think that for some months at least we will be having weekly briefings under Operation Sovereign Borders.

QUESTION:

Is it acceptable that the best source on what’s happening on Australia’s borders appears to be the Indonesian Government?

PRIME MINISTER:

What we've said from the very early days of the new government is that we will have weekly briefings on Operation Sovereign Borders. Now, people are entitled to ask whatever question they want at those briefings. Not only is the Minister on hand to address issues, but you have got General Campbell the commander of Operation Sovereign Borders on hand…

QUESTION:

[inaudible]…refused to answer questions, so journalists are having to go to the Indonesian authorities who do provide answers. So, how is that a satisfactory arrangement?

PRIME MINISTER:

The important thing is that we stop the boats and none of you would want to jeopardise our operations to stop the boats, surely, given that we have seen an absolutely tragic toll in lives lost at sea while people smuggling operations continue. None of you would want to jeopardise the success of these operations, and I certainly am absolutely convinced that Minister Morrison and General Campbell want to ensure that the operation succeeds and they are happy to answer questions as fully as they can consistent with the need to deny to people smugglers information that would be helpful to them.

QUESTION:

Is this incident an illustration of the tow-back policy failing, and is Indonesia so upset that they might stop cooperating fully with your initiatives?

PRIME MINISTER:

We've got good and improving cooperation with Indonesia. I want to make that absolutely crystal clear. We have good and improving cooperation with Indonesia and as I'm sure most of you know, I travelled to Jakarta at the end of September to meet with President Yudhoyono and with other ministers. We had what I think was a very successful exchange and the point that President Yudhoyono made in that visit is that people smuggling is a problem for Indonesia, just as it is a problem for Australia. “We are victims,” said the President, of people smuggling, no less than Australia is a victim. So, I think that it's absolutely crystal clear that we do have good and improving cooperation. Minister Morrison was in Jakarta a week or so back for discussions on a ministerial level. Special Envoy Molan has been regularly in Indonesia over the last month or so for discussions at an official level. I'm confident that we will get improved cooperation from Indonesia over time. It's already good. It's getting better. I'm confident that it can get better still because everyone in the official establishment in Indonesia understands that it is in Indonesia's national interest just as much as it's in Australia's national interest that the scourge of people smuggling be eliminated.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, has the allegations of spying derailed the improving relationship with Indonesia?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, I think that people in Indonesia are realists just as people in Australia are realists. All governments collect information from a variety of sources, but it has been the absolutely consistent policy of the Australian government: first, that Australian officers an agencies operate within the law and second, that we do not comment on security matters and I intend to maintain that tradition.

QUESTION:

What will you do if Indonesia continues to refuse to take them?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, the point I'm making is that as Minister Morrison was quite explicit about in his briefing earlier today, there is a situation in the Indonesian search and rescue zone and Australian personnel are attending to it. Our cooperation with Indonesian authorities is good and improving all the time.

QUESTION:

On another matter, can a country that claims to be open for business and open for foreign investment credibly knock back the ADM bid for GrainCorp?

PRIME MINISTER:

Every country is determined to ensure that foreign investment and indeed all aspects of economic policy are run in accordance with their overall national interests. Now, it is clearly in Australia's national interest that we are substantially open for foreign investment – substantially open for foreign investment. The Australian economy is critically dependent upon foreign investment. That doesn't mean that every single foreign investment proposal in every last respect is in our national interest and that's why we have got an FIRB process, that's why in the end it is up to the Treasurer to say yes or no to these and that process is in train here as it is in train in all cases that require FIRB approval.

QUESTION:

What’s your reaction to QANTAS cutting jobs today – 300 jobs at Avalon today?

PRIME MINISTER:

It's always tragic when any business sheds staff. Whether it's the corner store or an iconic employer like QANTAS, it is always tragic when a business sheds staff. It's a tragedy for the workers involved and for their families. It's sad for the business because even very large businesses are close-knit institutions where people have very strong personal bonds and when a workplace is disrupted by the departure of quite a large number of people, this is tragic for everyone. It's tragic for those who go, it's tragic for those who stay; who lose their friends and workmates. On the other hand, in the end these are decisions that businesses do have do have to make from time to time. The important thing is to try to ensure that regardless of what's happening in any particular business, we have an expanding economy where people's chances of getting a job are going up, not going down and that's why the government is so determined to get taxes down, to get regulation down and to make government more efficient and effective so that there are more opportunities for employment in the private sector.

QUESTION:

Do you agree with Peter Reith then if onshore gas isn’t drastically ramped up in Victoria and New South Wales that more manufacturing jobs will go?

PRIME MINISTER:

We do have a gas problem, particularly in New South Wales. The New South Wales Government is acutely conscious of this. Minister Macfarlane is acutely conscious of this. We do want to expand the availability of gas, particularly in New South Wales, but it's got to be done in ways which are consistent with high environmental standards and proper protection of the rights of land holders. This is always a management exercise, it's always a question for negotiation and I think that the gas miners are much better at respecting the rights of landholders today than they might've been a few years ago.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, the advisory body on positive ageing is due to report very soon. Why not keep that body alive I guess until it's ready to report?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, the fact is we all know that it is important to treat older Australians right. We all know that it's best to do that. The truth is that we do have plenty of input in to government on these issues. The Council on the Ageing, for instance, is a private sector body which is more than able to provide us with advice, more than able to provide us with advice and, look, it's not just the quality of the advice or the quantum of the advice – certainly not the quantum of the advice – it's the quality of the decision-making that matters and I would respectfully invite the people of Australia to judge us on the quality of our decision-making not on the quantum of our advice and I think we have more than enough advice on this issue to make quality decisions.

QUESTION:

Why is your party room so riven on the issue of GrainCorp?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don't believe that the premise of your question is correct.

QUESTION:

Would you like me to list off the MPs that have voiced their public opposition to it at all?

PRIME MINISTER:

You can say what you like by way of statement, but you have asked me a question and I’m going to do my best to answer it. And, look, we all want a proper process to be undertaken and seen through and that's exactly what we've got here. We've got a proper process that is taking place. There is Foreign Investment Review Board consideration. The FIRB will make a recommendation to the Treasurer and the Treasurer will make a decision and the decision will be on the basis of what the Treasurer judges to be in Australia's overall national interest.

QUESTION:

What's your reaction to those recent allegations of sexual abuse in the Navy?

PRIME MINISTER:

Again, all credible allegations of this kind of conduct are disturbing. My understanding is that they are being investigated by the military chiefs. The military chiefs certainly take this issue very, very seriously indeed and while I would be the last person to say there is never any problem in this area, I do think that our Defence Forces are determined to stamp out inappropriate behaviour. I think that the people who serve in our Defence Forces have the highest of aspirations, the noblest of purposes and I think by and large their behaviour is of a very high standard.

QUESTION:

[inaudible] back to the investigation, Mr Abbott? Is it because it's involved in the stand-off in Indonesia?

PRIME MINISTER:

The actual conduct of investigations is a matter for the Defence Chiefs and the appropriate authorities and I am confident that they will conduct those investigations and deal with any matters that those investigations show to be well-founded, they will deal with them appropriately.

QUESTION:

Is it the ship off Indonesia, sir? Is it involved in this stand-off?

PRIME MINISTER:

I’m just not going to get into details of which ship might be where. What I want to reassure the Australian people is that our Defence Forces, our Defence Chiefs take these matters very seriously indeed and I think that the overall culture of our Defence Forces and of our Defence personnel is an admirable one and I want to defend the overall conduct of our Defence personnel and I want to applaud the way our Defence Chiefs have taken a very, very strong stand on this issue.

QUESTION:

Mr Macfarlane told The Australian last week, the only way the car industry is likely to survive is with permanent subsidy. At the moment our car industry subsidies are normally transitional. Do you accept that premise, that the only way it is going to stay is we acknowledge these subsidies will have to be permanent?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, again, the Government's position on this is well-known. We do plan to continue generous support to the motor industry. We do have a Productivity Commission inquiry going on at the moment in what's necessary to improve the long-term viability of the motor industry in this country. That inquiry is due to report by the end of March. I know the carbon tax is not the only problem which the motor industry faces, but I did see a report in a very fine newspaper this morning to the effect that Holden were losing something like $200 per car. Well, if the report commissioned for the confederation is to be believed, the carbon tax alone is adding some $400 to the cost of producing a car here in Australia. So, eliminating the carbon tax is a significant step towards assisting the motor industry, just as not proceeding with the $1.8 billion fringe benefits tax hit was a very, very significant, immediate boost to the car industry. Now, that’s…

QUESTION:

What do you say to the premise...

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I'm just – what I say, and I'm going to conclude on this note, what I say is that we want the car industry to have a long-term, viable future in this country. But in the end, in the end, the best way that government can help the car industry is to try to ensure that as far as is humanly possible, it is operating in a low-tax, less over-regulated environment and that's exactly what the Coalition is trying to do for the car industry at the moment and I am confident that everyone in the motor industry was thrilled to see the motor industry saved from the former government's $1.8 billion fringe benefits tax, because that was an absolute dagger aimed at the heart of the car industry in this country.

[ends]