Australian Government coat of arms

Prime Minister of Australia

The Hon Tony Abbott MP

Interview with Chris Uhlmann, ABC AM

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Prime Minister

Subjects:

Visit to Indonesia; China; Budget 2014; the Government’s commitment to repeal the carbon tax and the mining tax; Clive Palmer; polls.

E&OE

CHRIS UHLMANN:

Indonesia will be Tony Abbott’s first stop in a trip that will also include France Canada and the United States. Tony Abbott, you said you wanted to have a more Jakarta-focussed foreign policy but since September most of that focus has been on what divides our nation. How will you repair that?

PRIME MINISTER:

I am going to Indonesia tomorrow and I will meet up with President Yudhoyono. I am expecting a good meeting, a warm meeting. He has been a great friend to Australia, he has been a fine President of Indonesia and I am very much looking forward to ensuring that the relationship is on a very sound footing before he leaves office later in the year.

CHRIS UHLMANN:

And how do you reassure Indonesians about that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I let the Indonesians know that I will always treat them with respect; that we will never do anything that would be harmful to their interests; that we are determined to cooperate as much as we humanly can in areas of mutual interest. When it comes to commercial links, when it comes to people-to-people links, obviously, these are going from strength to strength.

CHRIS UHLMANN:

But the friction point at the moment is turning back boats and as long as that continues there will be friction with Jakarta, won’t there?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, the interesting thing, Chris, is that there haven’t been any boats for quite a few months now and that source of friction is drying up thanks to the successful policies of the Australian Government.

CHRIS UHLMANN:

You stopped the boats reaching Australian shores, have you stopped them from leaving Indonesia and until you do that, of course, there will be a point of friction?

PRIME MINISTER:

Because none of them are making it to Australia, very few of them are leaving Indonesian shores. The whole point of leaving Indonesia is to get to Australia and if you never get to Australia, why bother leaving Indonesia?

CHRIS UHLMANN:

Can you claim, as your Defence Minister did yesterday, that you have stopped the boats?

PRIME MINISTER:

I suspect that we will always have to be vigilant and that from time to time there will be things happen that we would prefer didn’t happen, but we have now had six months without a successful people smuggling venture to Australia. We haven’t been in that situation since 2008. It seems that we have virtually restored the position which existed under the Howard Government – in the last five years of the Howard Government. So, while there is a sense in which you never declare victory, I think that we have obviously had a great deal of success.

CHRIS UHLMANN:

You talk about respect in this relationship with Indonesia. How do you feel about the fact that Indonesian journalists were in the room and recorded the conversation that you had with the President last month?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, it was a very good conversation. It really was a very good conversation, and…

CHRIS UHLMANN:

Did you know it was being recorded?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, I was having a very genial conversation with the President and I could tell that the President was very keen to have a warm conversation with me, and, look, the important thing is the quality of the conversation – that is the important thing. I have always emerged from my discussions with President Yudhoyono feeling uplifted and encouraged and that is a very good thing.

CHRIS UHLMANN:

How can the Indonesian Government credibly claim that that was a mistake; that there were journalists in the room recording a conversation between you and the President?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, as I said, as far as I am concerned, Chris, the important thing is the quality of the conversation and it was a good conversation. I was very pleased to have it because I have now had quite a few conversations with the President and all of them – all of them – have been very encouraging, very uplifting, very good for the relationship and there is no doubt that President Yudhoyono is and will always be, I think, a great friend of Australia.

CHRIS UHLMANN:

Looking in the region are you concerned by China’s recent actions? There is a growing concern about what is being seen as a more belligerent stance by China, particularly with Vietnam.

PRIME MINISTER:

The point that Australia has always made is that we should avoid unilateral actions, we should avoid provocations and that disputes should be settled peacefully in accordance with international law. We have always had that position. That’s a very sensible position for Australia to hold and that is the position we will keep.

CHRIS UHLMANN:

But if China acts so provocatively as to plant an oil rig in waters that are claimed by Vietnam, should nations just stand mute?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I think it is very important to constantly express the principle that there should be no unilateral actions because it is in the best interests of everyone – overwhelmingly in the best interests of everyone – that our region be a peaceful and prosperous region and if we want to be prosperous we’ve got to be peaceful.

CHRIS UHLMANN:

On domestic politics, did Malcolm Turnbull defy a request to coordinate meetings with crossbenchers through the House leaders?

PRIME MINISTER:

No. No, he didn’t. But look, I’m not really interested in who has meals with whom. I’m interested in getting on and prosecuting the case for a very good Budget, Chris, and part of that is obviously having genial relations with the crossbenchers and that’s what we want because we want them to look with goodwill on this Budget and to pass it.

CHRIS UHLMANN:

And so has Malcolm Turnbull given you a thorough briefing on what was discussed?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I think that one way or another we need to have genial relations with the crossbenchers. This is one of the reasons why I’ve been having just ‘get to know you’ meetings with some of the crossbenchers and that will continue. But this is a Government, Chris, which is absolutely focussed on getting the Budget message across. This is the Budget we need for these times. We could not go on racking up $1 billion a month in dead money every single month just paying interest on the borrowings and, look, if that message needs the occasional meal with a crossbencher – so be it.

CHRIS UHLMANN:

Well, it is a tough Budget and it is a tough sell. Why, then, do your ministers appear so often to be not knowing their briefs and working across purposes?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I think that’s not really a fair assessment…

CHRIS UHLMANN:

Well mistakes on student fees, collecting debts from the dead which was knocked on the head and drug testing for people on unemployment benefits.

PRIME MINISTER:

Peter Costello once pointed out that, you know, every day was an exam and if you got 30 out of 30, no one could give a rat’s, so to speak! If you ever…

CHRIS UHLMANN:

There are a few Ds being handed out at the moment though, aren’t there?

PRIME MINISTER:

…and if you ever got 29 out of 30, that was a major disaster, but look…

CHRIS UHLMANN:

What about a fail?

PRIME MINISTER:

…29 out of 30 was a pretty good mark, frankly, when I was at university.

CHRIS UHLMANN:

When it comes to negotiations, do you think that Clive Palmer actually wants to negotiate in good faith or is the balance of power just the latest toy in a billionaire’s playpen?

PRIME MINISTER:

Chris, I think Mr Palmer certainly wants to get rid of the carbon tax and get rid of the mining tax…

CHRIS UHLMANN:

And you?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh absolutely. I want to…

CHRIS UHLMANN:

No, I’m sorry he wants to get rid of you as well, doesn’t he?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no, we both want to get rid of the carbon tax and the mining tax and they will be the first items of business when the new Senate meets at the beginning of July. I expect those toxic taxes to be gone and I expect them to be gone with the support of most of the crossbenchers.

CHRIS UHLMANN:

Now on the economy, major business groups are calling for a cut to Sunday penalty rates. Do you think that that would boost productivity? Do you support that as an idea?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I certainly think that we need to lift productivity and this is one of the big features of the Budget – to lift productivity by building infrastructure, by ensuring that we live within our means, by getting taxes and regulations down over time. Yes, we must boost productivity if we’re going to pay our way in the world successfully, but penalty rates are a matter for the Fair Work Commission and people are perfectly entitled to bring applications to the Fair Work Commission to ensure that their businesses are profitable and they can continue to maximise employment.

CHRIS UHLMANN:

Look, it has been almost three months since Arthur Sinodinos stepped down to face the Independent Commission Against Corruption hearings. Do you believe that he can return to the role as Assistant Treasurer?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I obviously hope that he will return to that role because he is an outstanding individual who has so much to contribute to our public life and to our national life more generally. He has done the right thing. He stepped aside for the duration of the Inquiry at least insofar as it refers to him and it still hasn’t reported and I am looking forward to getting that report as quickly as possible.

CHRIS UHLMANN:

The ABC has confirmed that Reg Grundy, his spokesman has told the ABC that he was directed by the Liberal Federal Director Brian Loughnane to make a donation that was $200,000 through the Free Enterprise Foundation to maintain the families’ wish for privacy. Should campaign donations be transparent?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, they should be made in accordance with the law and that, as I understand it, has always happened in respect of the Liberal Party.

CHRIS UHLMANN:

Are you planning a reshuffle?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh gee whiz, Chris, this is a Government which is eight months old. We’ve got a big budget…

CHRIS UHLMANN:

There’s a lot of ambition on the backbench.

PRIME MINISTER:

We’ve got a very good backbench, but we’ve got a big Budget to market and to legislate. So look, we’ve got a very, very big job ahead of us. If I may say so, Chris, we may not be the most popular Government at the moment but we are the hope of our side.

CHRIS UHLMANN:

You’re certainly not popular.

PRIME MINISTER:

If our country is to face the future with strength and confidence, this Government must succeed and this budget must be legislated.

CHRIS UHLMANN:

A couple more quick things. You say you are not popular – you certainly aren’t. The polls show that again today.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I wasn’t elected to run a commentary on the polls, Chris. I was elected to fix up Labor’s debt and deficit disaster. We were elected to fix up Labor’s mess and that was never going to be easy. There were always going to be decisions that we would have to take that some people would dislike and dislike intensely but I am confident that the public know that we cannot go on as we did over the last six years.

CHRIS UHLMANN:

And finally the Queen’s Birthday is nearing. Will we see any more Knights and Dames or is two enough for Australia at the moment?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think these are a grace note in our public life. I think that where people have performed absolutely exemplary service, where people haven’t so much sought public office or high office but have accepted it. I think it is perfectly fitting and appropriate they should be Knights or Dames in the Order of Australia.

CHRIS UHLMANN:

Anyone in mind?

PRIME MINISTER:

Chris, we have got the Queen’s Birthday honours coming up and let’s see what they reveal.

CHRIS UHLMANN:

Tony Abbott, thank you.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you so much.

[ends]