Australian Government coat of arms

Prime Minister of Australia

The Hon Tony Abbott MP

Press Conference, Parliament House

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Prime Minister

Subjects:

Opening of the 44th Parliament; the Federal Government’s commitment to repeal the carbon tax; Indonesia; Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council; the Federal Government’s commitment to repeal the mining tax; Warsaw Climate Change Conference; Pollie Ped

E&OE

PRIME MINISTER:

Good afternoon and welcome to the 44th Parliament. Obviously, the 44th Parliament is now getting down to business. We elected a new Speaker this morning. The Governor-General's speech comes this afternoon and from tomorrow the legislative agenda of the new Government will be dealt with by the Parliament.

There are five very significant bills that will be going into the Parliament tomorrow and subsequently this week. The first and most important is the carbon tax repeal legislation. This is an absolutely vital piece of legislation. It is at the heart of the Government's mandate. The people got to vote on the carbon tax at the election and in the days to come this Parliament will get to vote on the carbon tax and I trust that ‘Electricity’ Bill Shorten will have a light bulb moment and will appreciate that the people's verdict must be respected if the pressure on families is to reduce and if the pressure on jobs is to reduce.

Then, of course, there's legislation to deal with Labor's debt legacy and the last thing that the Labor Party should be threatening is the kind of stand-off in the parliament that we've seen in other countries over this kind of issue. The Labor Party often attacks the Coalition for being obstructive. Every time the former government brought this kind of legislation into the Parliament for the good of our country, we were prepared to pass the legislation and I would commend our example in the last Parliament to the Opposition in this Parliament.

Then of course there's the mining tax repeal legislation and obviously the mining tax repeal legislation also involves repealing the spending associated with the mining tax. The mining tax overall was a multi-billion dollar hit on the Budget because it wasn't raising anything like the money which the Government said it would. And then there's important legislation to improve the governance of unions and to restore the rule of law in the commercial construction industry.

This is a Government which has made a strong start. Obviously, it's only a start but we have made a strong start and I am confident that we will make a strong start in the Parliament from tomorrow.

QUESTION:

A very senior and experienced Indonesian government adviser have said talks are under way in which Australia might accept people from Indonesian detention centres as part of some sort of boats deal. Is that right? Or do you rule out that prospect?

PRIME MINISTER:

Talks are under way with the Indonesian Government on a whole range of matters, at a whole range of different levels and I'm very pleased that we have such a close, constructive and cooperative relationship with the Indonesian Government. What I think you were specifically referring to, Joe, are discussions about how people who are picked up in the Indonesian search and rescue zone should be treated and obviously under normal search and rescue rules, people who are picked up in a country's search and rescue zone go to the nearest safe port in that country but we're discussing this with Indonesia. The one point, though, I really would like to stress on this whole boats issue is that the boats are stopping. There is still a long, long way to go but in the first two months of the new government we had a 75 per cent reduction on the last two months of the old government; and in the month of October there was a 90 per cent reduction on the peak month of July under the former government. So, while the boats certainly haven't stopped, they are, on the evidence, at least stopping.

QUESTION:

On that point, Mr Abbott, is the idea that you're working on that, for example, if 80 people were picked up in the Indonesian search and rescue zone, that Indonesia would take those people back but you would take 80 people who are considered genuine refugees or whatever, from their detention centres?

PRIME MINISTER:

One of the things that I'm not going to do – and one of the things that no government should do if it wants to get the best possible outcome for the Australian people – is engage in negotiations with another country, dare I say it, through the media. I respect that you obviously want to get as much information as you can out of me and my colleagues and, as a former journalist, I respect the imperative that you're under. But my job is to try to get the possible relationship with Indonesia and other countries that we're dealing with on this subject so that we do permanently and finally stop the boats. So, I'm just not going to comment other than to say that we are, of course, talking with the Indonesians, as you'd expect, about the best way of handling people who are picked up in their search and rescue zone.

QUESTION:

How did Minister Morrison's comments about no rhyme or reason to the Indonesian response stack up with your aspiration of a close relationship?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, I'm not going to run a commentary on a commentary, so to speak. My determination is to work as closely and as collegially and as consultatively with the Indonesian Government and with other relevant governments such as the government of PNG and Sri Lanka and Malaysia to ensure that we permanently and finally stop this scourge, because as you all know, this is a deadly scourge. Hundreds of people have died over the last few years since the former government weakened its predecessor's border protection regime. It is an imperative of national policy that these boats stop and it should be a humanitarian imperative that these boats are stopped.

QUESTION:

Just on a different topic, Prime Minister. Maurice Newman last night said many things amongst which he said the NDIS and school funding reforms are recklessly expensive, the minimum wage was too high and the IR system was too rigid. Do you agree with any of those sentiments?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, Maurice is the Chairman, as you know, of the PM's Economic Advisory Council and you would expect robust advice from someone who amongst many other things is a former chairman of the ABC. But, in the end, Maurice is one of a range of voices that the Government takes very seriously. What we are not going to do is break our fundamental commitments to the Australian people and one of our fundamental commitments was to turn the NDIS from a dream and an aspiration into an affordable and sustainable reality and we are going to do that. We said that we would match the former government's spending commitments over the forward estimates period when it came to school funding and we will do that but look, I absolutely accept that the former government has left a shocking fiscal legacy, an absolutely shocking fiscal legacy, and it's very important that that be dealt with. But we'll deal with it in ways which are consistent with the commitments we took to the election. Michelle?

QUESTION:

If you can't get your mining tax package repealed before Christmas, or early next year, how much is that going to cost the Budget in terms of those other measures like the school kids' bonus in the current financial year?

PRIME MINISTER:

Obviously, it will be expensive. I accept that. I accept that – not one that I’m going to bandy around here – because I accept that if it doesn’t happen it will be expensive for the Budget but I don’t expect that it won’t happen because, as I said, I think ‘Electricity Bill’ will have a light bulb moment at some point in time and he will understand that there is no future for political parties which tell the electorate that they got it wrong. Parties sometimes get it wrong. The electorate doesn’t get it wrong on issues like this.

QUESTION:

Yesterday you expressed frustration, you thought that the people who were rescued last week should have been returned to Indonesia. The safety of life at sea convention is fairly flexible on that. It says they don’t have to be returned to a port where the rescue happened. I want to ask you about that. I also want to you ask you about, you say that you want to lift the tone and lift respect in Parliament. If so, why do you keep using that pejorative ‘Electricity Bill’?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, it would probably be ruled out of order in the Parliament, I accept that, and obviously when I’m in the Parliament I am subject to the standing orders as interpreted by Speaker Bronwyn Bishop, or Madam Speaker, I probably should say. So, let’s see where things go in the Parliament. As I say, I certainly want the Parliament to be better as well as different this time and I think that’s what Bronwyn wants as well and if there’s anyone in the Parliament who is going to act without fear or favour it’s Bronwyn Bishop.

Now on the other subject, Sabra, look, our determination is to try to ensure that we have a good and constructive, a better and even more constructive relationship with Indonesia every day, and that means talking to them about the sorts of things which happen in the Indonesian search and rescue zone. As things stand, we have had a stronger naval and customs presence in much of their search and rescue zone than they have themselves and that’s why inevitably in a whole range of search and rescue situations people have ended up on Australian boats, but the Indonesian search and rescue zone is obviously the prime responsibility of that country. We will do what we can. We will not shirk our duties and our obligations when it comes to life at sea but all of these things are happening in Indonesia’s search and rescue zone. That’s why it’s important that we have the best possible relationship with Indonesia on this subject.

Yes, David?

QUESTION:

On the global climate change talks in Warsaw this week, what approach do you want your government to take to those negotiations? If there is discussion about $100 billion in climate financing will you say no to further contributions? If there’s discussion of compensating for loss and damage, would you say no to that and would you also be very cautious about any increase in the five per cent commitment by 2020?

PRIME MINISTER:

David, our position at the discussions in Warsaw will be absolutely what our position is back here in Australia and that is that we accept that climate change happens, that mankind, humanity, make a contribution to it and it’s important that we take strong and effective action against it. We will meet our five per cent emissions reduction target but this government has made no commitments to go further than that and we certainly want to get emissions down as far as we reasonably can but we are certainly in no way looking to make further binding commitments in the absence of very serious like-binding commitments in other countries and there’s no evidence of that.

QUESTION:

You had previously committed to or agreed to, as policy, targets between five and 25 per cent on a specific range of conditions. Is that still your policy or has that changed?

PRIME MINISTER:

Lenore, we have made one commitment and one commitment only, which is to reduce our emissions by five per cent. Now, that commitment stands. It’s a commitment that we have been absolutely upfront about ever since I have been the Leader of the Opposition, we have never made any commitments, any commitments to further binding targets over and above that and we won’t, in the absence, Lenore, of absolutely clear evidence that other countries are going to take a very serious alike approach. Now, we want to get emissions down. We all do. We all want to rest lightly on the planet and the great thing about Australia is that we have got our emissions intensity down by some 50 per cent over the last two decades just because your average business or enterprise here in Australia wants to reduce its power bill. There’s the classic case of Linfox which has reduced its own emissions by some 40 per cent just because it wants to save money and it wants to run the most efficient possible operation. Now, we want our economy to be efficient. We want our businesses to be effective and to have low costs and that’s going to bring our emissions down particularly in conjunction with our direct action policy.

QUESTION:

Mr Abbott, you’re repealing the carbon tax but what’s your advice to companies that say well we’ll hold off on paying our liabilities because we think it’s going to be repealed and we really don’t have to pay this money. As an example, when Clive Palmer was asked about it today.

PRIME MINISTER:

Obviously, everyone has an existing carbon tax liability and while the carbon tax remains, there will be a liability. I want the liability to be as low as possible. That’s why I want to repeal the carbon tax as quickly as possible and let’s not forget that as long as the carbon tax lasts, that’s a $550 a year hit on households. It’s a $200 a year hit on power bills. It’s a $70 a year hit on gas bills. I want that impost to come off. I want that impost to come off as soon as possible and the best Christmas present that Bill Shorten could give the people of Australia who are struggling with these high costs is to actually respect their mandate and let this Bill pass.

QUESTION:

What do you say to companies that are just holding off on paying that liability? Should the tax office chase them?

PRIME MINISTER:

They’ve got to pay their bills, obviously, and everyone’s bills will be lower if my bill to repeal the carbon tax is passed, by that Bill – ‘Electricity Bill Shorten’ – over there in the Opposition suite.

QUESTION:

You’ve had a fairy combative relationship with Clive Palmer in the past. How do you feel about him now that he’s an MP and do you think you would like to meet with him?

PRIME MINISTER:

When he was part of the Liberal Party I met with him from time to time. I understand that from time to time he still meets with some of my colleagues, as you would expect, of Queenslanders. I certainly expect that from time to time he will want to see me. From time to time, I may want to see him and I will treat him with the respect and the courtesy and the consideration that every Member of Parliament who wants to talk to a Prime Minister deserves.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, it's known that you claimed travel allowance on the Pollie Pedal. Isn't it true that at least in recent times that the accommodation and food for the Pollie Pedal was provided by the organisers? If that is the case, do you think your claim of travel allowance is legitimate?

PRIME MINISTER:

That's not correct. There was, as I recall, the organisers as part of the ride fee and I've always paid the ride fee as part of the ride fee, you got I think muesli bars and I think you might have got a bowl of cornflakes or Weet-Bix at the start of the day, I think you got access to a tent site at a caravan park and look, I don't in any way apologise, Dennis, for claiming TA for the Pollie Pedal because the Pollie Pedal is a perfectly legitimate form of engagement with the community. It’s precisely the kind of engagement with the community that I think politicians who are serious about representing the people of Australia should have.

QUESTION:

Did you sleep in those tents and did you eat with your fellow Pollie Pedallers?

PRIME MINISTER:

On occasions, yes to both.

QUESTION:

In lieu of Bill Shorten agreeing to your, to abolish carbon pricing, your government will still get revenues of $3 or $4 billion this year from the carbon tax. If it is like you said that such a toxic tax that's destroying business would you consider reducing the carbon price to zero or asking the Parliament to support that so it removes the impost from business immediately?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I am against the carbon tax. Whether it's a fixed tax or a floating tax, I am against the carbon tax. The Australian public are against the carbon tax, whether it's fixed or floating and the thing about a floating tax is that what sometimes floats down can float up very fast indeed. I know the European carbon price is pretty low at the moment but it has been as I recall at up to $50 a tonne albeit for a brief period and certainly the Europeans are talking about ways of getting the European carbon price up because, amongst other things, European governments are desperate to raise revenue. So, the whole problem with this carbon tax – whether it's a fixed tax or a floating tax – is that it's socialism masquerading as environmentalism. It damages our economies, it hurts our families, it jeopardises job security and on the basis of the former Government's modelling it wasn't even going to reduce our emissions by 5 per cent. That's why we're against it. We'll take two more questions.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, you wrote to the President of the Philippines yesterday offering further assistance. Have you heard back yet and how likely is it that you may send military or other assistance and secondly, on radio yesterday when asked about the CHOGM meeting in Sri Lanka you said that you wouldn't propose to lecture other governments on human rights. Do you think there's never any situation where you might appeal to other governments about human rights and why not do it with Sri Lanka next week?

PRIME MINISTER:

Karen, look, on the terrible, terrible situation in the Philippines, I obviously have conveyed my condolences to the President of the Philippines on the disaster which has struck that country. We have agreed to spend $10 million on disaster relief for the Philippines. There's a range of measures that will be undertaken under that. We'll be spending them materials, medicines. My understanding is that in the next day or so there'll be a civilian medical team taking off for the Philippines. We have a team on the ground which is looking at what is needed and I certainly don't rule out further assistance because the Philippines is a friendly neighbour whose people are suffering horribly as a result of this disaster and in the best traditions of Australia's mateship, we will stand by the people of the Philippines in their hour of need.

On the subject of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka, I don't propose to lecture the Sri Lankans on human rights. I accept that by Australian standards probably things could be done a little differently and maybe a little better. But they have had a terrible, terrible civil war, a terrible civil war – the savagery of which is almost unimaginable to Australians and I thank God that that civil war has ended. Yes, it ended brutally, but it has ended and things are much better in Sri Lanka now, much, much better for all Sri Lankans – Tamil and Sinhala. They are much better for all Sri Lankans now that that civil war has ended and I praise the Sri Lankan government not for everything it has done, but I praise the Sri Lankan government for having managed to end one of the world's longest running and most brutal awful civil wars.

QUESTION:

On the debt ceiling, Prime Minister, why has the figure been set so high at 500 and would you consider in the interests of getting it through as a priority, the Labor and Greens compromise of lowering it to 400?

PRIME MINISTER:

The former government basically were like bad tenants that trashed the house before they were evicted. They've been evicted and now they are trying to stop the new tenants from cleaning up the mess. That's essentially what's happening here. The Treasury advice is that based on the mess that we have inherited from Labor, that the debt will peak, that gross debt will peak significantly in excess of $400 billion. The only way we can be absolutely confident – in 2016 – the only way we can be absolutely confident that we will never again have to go to the Parliament. The only way we can absolutely be confident that Labor's debt legacy has been finally put in the past is by doing it this way, and if the Labor Party and Opposition members want to put their shameful fiscal history behind them, the best thing they can do is allow this legislation to pass, deal with Labor's debt legacy and let the repair squad get in and fix Labor's mess.

Thank you so much.

[ends]