Australian Government coat of arms

Prime Minister of Australia

The Hon Tony Abbott MP

Interview with Neil Mitchell, Radio 3AW, Melbourne

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Prime Minister

Subjects:

Victorian inquiry into the handling of child abuse; Kevin Rudd; the Federal Government’s commitment to repeal the carbon tax; foreign investment; Indonesia; CHOGM; Centenary of ANZAC.

E&OE

NEIL MITCHELL:

Prime Minister, good morning.

PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning, Neil.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Thank you for your time. The Victorian inquiry on child abuse has been very critical of Cardinal George Pell. Do you agree Cardinal Pell carries some responsibility in what has happened here?

PRIME MINISTER:

I obviously supported the establishment of the inquiry. I can’t say, Neil, that I have seen the report. I saw Daniel Andrews being interviewed about it briefly on Sky. So, I am probably not really in a position to comment on it. As is pretty well known, I have a lot of time for George Pell. Does that mean that he is perfect? No. Does that mean that he doesn’t bear some responsibility for the errors of the church? Of course not. The only thing I would say, Neil, is that my understanding is that the first senior cleric that took this issue very seriously was in fact Cardinal Pell and without having seen the report that is really all I can say.

NEIL MITCHELL:

I guess there is just one part of it that I wanted your reaction to. The report says quote, that Cardinal Pell, showed a reluctance to acknowledge and accept responsibility for the Catholic Church’s institutional failure to respond appropriately to allegations of criminal child abuse. I mean, you know him, you know what has happened. Do you think he has shown a reluctance to acknowledge and accept that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I didn’t see his evidence before the committee and I haven’t read the report. He is, in my judgment, a fine human being and a great churchman. Is he perfect? Has he handled every issue perfectly? Of course not. As I said, all I know is that he has by repute been the first senior cleric in Australia to take this issue seriously. Of course it has to be taken seriously. Of course all of the institutions which have in the past – and maybe even still – not handled this thing well need to lift their game and obviously anyone who has committed the hideous breach of trust involved in child abuse needs to be brought to justice.

NEIL MITCHELL:

As probably Australia’s best known Catholic and a former trainee priest do you accept the church did cover up and move paedophiles around?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, again, I was a seminarian for a couple of years. I wasn’t involved in matters of policy and I wasn’t involved in administrative decisions. So, I just don’t know for a personal fact what was done. I know that it wasn’t handled well. I absolutely know that it wasn’t handled well and I understand that these things probably did happen but I suspect that it wasn’t just the church that didn’t handle these things well. I suspect a generation ago there was this general view in our community that certain things just didn’t happen. We all know now that they did happen. It was hideous, it was gruesome, it cost some people their lives, it cost some people their sanity, it has rightly damaged the reputations of institutions that otherwise deserve our respect and I deeply regret that as I think all decent people do.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Yeah, some senior Catholics said they felt ashamed of the way the church handled it. Do you feel that way?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I certainly feel that it could have been done better, Neil; it should have been done better and I dare say if I was closer to all of this, yes, I would be repulsed and horrified by it. Look, the point I want to make Neil is that institutions have got to make sure their house is in order. Institutions have got to make sure that as far as is humanly possible there is restitution for wrongs done in the past and any individual who has been guilty of these horrific crimes needs to be brought to justice.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Will you look at the recommendations with a view to, if they need to be implemented federally? I mean, the key one to me seems to make it an offence to knowingly put a child in danger – in other words to move the priest or whoever around rather than deal with it. Will you look at those recommendations with a view to federal involvement?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, there is a federal Royal Commission taking place.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Yeah, that’s going to take a while, though.

PRIME MINISTER:

It will, and obviously these are matters which in the first instance would be the responsibility of the Attorney-General and I have no doubt that he would look at this. The criminal law is, generally speaking, Neil, the responsibility of the states and territories and I am confident that all of the states and territories would want to heed the lessons of this particular report. I guess the other point to make is that to the best of my knowledge and understanding, it is already a requirement of law that if a person in a position of responsibility such as a teacher or indeed a priest becomes aware of child abuse, he or she has an obligation to report it to police.

NEIL MITCHELL:

I don’t know that a priest has, particularly from the confessional.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, you know, I am not a lawyer and this is not my area of professional expertise…

NEIL MITCHELL:

No, fair enough.

PRIME MINISTER:

…but it was my understanding that if you become aware of these sorts of things and you are in a position of responsibility you have an obligation to go to the police.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Just to move on to some other things. Kevin Rudd, some nice things said about him last night. Have you got a job for him?

PRIME MINISTER:

The short answer is no. Look, a man who has been a very big figure in our public life is leaving the Parliament and it is appropriate to look to his successes and his achievements and celebrate them.

NEIL MITCHELL:

What, and not look at his failures and his faults? It amazed me last night to hear all these people from both sides. You’d think he was going out a saint! I mean it’s only a short time ago he has been called a psychopathic control freak.

PRIME MINISTER:

By his own colleagues.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Well yes, but you went close at times.

PRIME MINISTER:

And Neil, look, do I think Kevin Rudd was a good prime minister? No, I don’t. Do I think Kevin Rudd left the Labor Party in good shape? Absolutely not. Do I think Kevin Rudd’s policies on a whole host of issues were effective? No, they weren’t. He started the spiral of debt and deficit which is imperilling our economy and our prosperity. His policies on climate change were inconsistent, erratic and ultimately disastrous. We got through the global financial crisis because of the reforms of the Hawke, the Keating and the Howard Governments, not because of the spending spree of the Rudd Government, which the Gillard Government perpetuated. But last night was not the occasion to give a full reckoning of Kevin Rudd’s time in public life. It was the occasion to look at the good things that he had done, not to dwell on the bad things and by far the best thing he’s done was the national apology which was a grace note in our history and in the life of the Parliament and that’s why I chose to dwell on that.

NEIL MITCHELL:

I mean, you haven’t got a job for him? Maybe in the future, somewhere in the UN or something?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that would be a matter for the UN. Do I think that Kevin Rudd can usefully contribute to our public life in the future? Yes, I do. But do I think that a Coalition Government is going to rush to find a job for him, no I don’t.

NEIL MITCHELL:

You’ve adopted a bit of his habit of asking yourself a question and answering it! Are you annoyed, talking of climate change, are you annoyed at being called ‘Typhoon Tony’?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh, I’ve been called a lot worse including by the former Prime Minister in the Parliament, Neil!

NEIL MITCHELL:

But there’s a lot of, you know, there’s a lot of suffering going on at the moment…

PRIME MINISTER:

There is.

NEIL MITCHELL:

…to use that sort of political language.

PRIME MINISTER:

There is. I think that I’m much more entitled to call Bill Shorten ‘Electricity Bill’ than anyone is to call me ‘Typhoon Tony’ but I accept that there’s always tit for tat stuff that goes on in our Parliament.

NEIL MITCHELL:

What’s Plan B if you don’t get the carbon tax repeal through?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, we’re working on Plan A and we confidently expect Plan A to come to fruition because if the Labor Party does persist in supporting the carbon tax which they told us they’d terminated, the Australian public will be thinking every time the electricity bills turn up, every time the gas bills turn up, every time household costs go up, they’ll be thinking Bill Shorten and his team could have done something about this and they didn’t.

NEIL MITCHELL:

So, you think you’ll get it through the Upper House, through the Senate?

PRIME MINISTER:

I believe that when the Labor Party seriously looks at itself, stops being in denial about the election result, they will accept that a democratic party cannot tell the voters, ‘Sorry voters, you’re wrong, we the party are right.’ In the end a democratic political party, whatever its fundamental philosophical position, has got to accept that the voters call the shots.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Ok, we’ll take a quick call if that’s alright.

PRIME MINISTER:

Sure.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Gloria, go ahead.

CALLER:

Good morning Mr Prime Minister and congratulations on your prime ministership.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you, Gloria.

CALLER:

I just wondered, look, I’m just wondering, is there anything that you can do about overseas buyers buying property here because it’s putting a hell of a strain on the people that are here trying to buy homes. They go out and they think it’s going to be three or four hundred thousand and then they get a phone call, you can see them getting phone calls from people of other nationalities and they make it higher and higher. And we can’t, it’s hard for them to even rent.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Yeah, there is growing evidence of that, Prime Minister – that the housing market’s being forced up by international buyers.

PRIME MINISTER:

True, but there are restrictions on overseas citizens buying residential housing. My understanding is that they can buy new home units but they can’t go and buy established residences. Now, look, there are pluses and minuses here Gloria. If we keep foreigners out of our market, sure, prices are lower but that’s good for buyers but it’s bad for sellers and the sellers, 99 times out of 100, are Aussies and if we reduce the price for buyers we are also reducing the price for sellers. So, it’s a bit of a two-way street and I’m not proposing to change the rules at this stage, Gloria.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Thank you, Gloria. Prime Minister, are you going to pull Christopher Pyne into line? I thought it was all going to be sweetness and light and respect in the Parliament. There isn’t too much. The respect didn’t last too long, did it?

PRIME MINISTER:

It’s going to be a robust debating chamber and it should be but it shouldn’t be a place for name-calling and motive-impugning and character assassination…

NEIL MITCHELL:

But wasn’t that happening yesterday?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I thought the Labor nominators of someone to stand against Bronwyn Bishop sank a little low in some of their comments about the new Speaker. Apart from that, I guess we saw a bit of petty undergraduate stuff from Tony Burke yesterday and a whole lot of divisions that were designed to disrupt a meeting of mine with the Indonesian Vice President. But, look, the opening day of a new Parliament tends to be an opportunity for the defeated Opposition to let off steam and that’s what they did.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Samantha, go ahead please.

CALLER:

Good morning, Neil and good morning, Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning, Samantha.

CALLER:

Thank you. I just have to say that you’re actually wrong with your comment before about housing. A friend of ours, from China, has bought an established house already and it’s not new housing, it’s an established house.

PRIME MINISTER:

Is this person a citizen?

CALLER:

No, she’s not a citizen, the family, no, and they live in China and I was just sort of, when you said that, it is true that the housing market is getting eaten up by overseas investors and I see it and even though I’ve got friends that are Chinese, I see it every day.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Ok. Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well Samantha, if you want to give Neil the details of this particular transaction to the extent that you are aware of them, I’ll get my office to have a look at it, but as I said, my understanding is that under normal circumstances, if you’re a foreigner, you’re not entitled to buy residential real estate.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Thanks, Samantha. Hold on and we’ll check that out as well. Prime Minister, if we’re not spying on other countries, we’re a bit silly, aren’t we? Shouldn’t we all be spying on each other? Isn’t that the way of the world? Isn’t this a bit of posturing going on about Indonesia?

PRIME MINISTER:

As I’ve said on a number of occasions, Neil, every country gathers information. They gather information from all sorts of sources and it’s not surprising. Everyone knows it happens. The important thing is, what is done with the information and the Australian Government uses the information that we get, in the best interests of our country and in the best interests of our friends and our neighbours and Indonesia is a very, very good friend of Australia and we have close cooperation with Indonesia and I want it to be closer in the years ahead.

NEIL MITCHELL:

You’re not going to change our intelligence operations are you? Surely we continue spying when appropriate?

PRIME MINISTER:

I’m just not going to use that kind of, if I may say so – and I’m not saying this critically, Neil – but to use the term spying, it’s kind of loaded language.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Collecting intelligence.

PRIME MINISTER:

Researching, maybe. Talking to people. Understanding what’s going on. I mean, we all do this all the time. Everyone does, but what Australian ministers have never done is comment on the operational details on intelligence matters. We just haven’t provided a commentary on that sort of thing.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Well, this combined with the boats issue. I mean, have our relationships with Indonesia taken a bit of a battering since you’ve been Prime Minister? Have we taken a bit of a backward step?

PRIME MINISTER:

Absolutely not. Please, Neil, and I really do need to remind your listeners of the Oceanic Viking disaster – that was a standoff that lasted some weeks with an Australian vessel effectively being taken over by illegal boat arrivals who it had picked up. There was a standoff at an Indonesian port. There was the live cattle ban catastrophe – probably nothing has set our relationship with Indonesia back more than that – a crazy decision by a government that was panicking about a TV programme and look, you know, my first trip as Prime Minister was to Indonesia. The discussions with President Yudhoyono were extremely cordial. Julie Bishop I think has been to Indonesia three times. The Defence Minister’s been there. The Trade Minister’s been there. I think Julie Bishop has had seven bilateral meetings with the Indonesian Foreign Minister. Our relations with Indonesia are very, very good and they’re getting better. There will always be some issues that are contentious, but the best way to deal with them is openly, candidly and behind closed doors and that is what I propose to do.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Are you aware of a report in The Australian newspaper today that a senior Labor figure is being investigated over a rape in the 1980s?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, I haven’t had a chance to read the papers this morning, so I really can’t comment and I wouldn’t comment on something of that nature anyway.

NEIL MITCHELL:

A matter for police?

PRIME MINISTER:

Exactly right. If something has happened, let it be looked into and treated as it should be by the relevant authorities.

NEIL MITCHELL:

You’re off to CHOGM, when?

PRIME MINISTER:

This afternoon.

NEIL MITCHELL:

This afternoon.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yep.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Where is it?

PRIME MINISTER:

It’s in Sri Lanka – Colombo.

NEIL MITCHELL:

And what happens there?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I’ll find out, because it’s my first meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government and there’s 50-odd heads of government there. I suppose the most internationally significant head of government who will be there is British Prime Minister, David Cameron. I have a good relationship as you’d expect with the Conservative Prime Minister of Britain. I’ve obviously been briefed on a number of the issues which are likely to come up and look, Australia is an enthusiastic participant in all of the international organisations to which we belong and the Commonwealth is an important association of a very diverse group of countries, but we have a commitment to the best values of the former British empire.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Prime Minister, is it correct in another report that you have restricted the number of politicians who are going to Gallipoli for the 2015 commemoration, the Centenary of ANZAC?

PRIME MINISTER:

We’ve allowed what we think is the appropriate number of politicians and this should be a peoples celebration, not a pollie-fest and so the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and the Shadow Minister for Veterans’ Affairs will go and I think that’s enough of a political representation.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Thank you very much for your time. I noticed an interview on ABC TV last night, a press conference, you’ve been criticised for not being sort of public enough in your leadership. Has there been a change?

PRIME MINISTER:

Neil, look, I’ll be interviewed when there’s an issue running. I’ll be interviewed when there’s something to say, but I never want to be a political exhibitionist who has got to be parading himself before the public just because he needs the attention.

NEIL MITCHELL:

Thank you for your time.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thanks so much.

[ends]