Aboriginal Issues, Welfare, Industrial Relations, Steve Vizard, Zimbabwe – Interview with Tony Jones, Lateline

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Aboriginal Issues, Welfare, Industrial Relations, Steve Vizard, Zimbabwe – Interview with Tony Jones, Lateline

Interview with Tony Jones


Thursday, 21 July 2005

10.25 pm

SUBJECTS: Aboriginal Issues, Welfare, Industrial Relations, Steve Vizard,



Peter Costello, thanks for joining us.


Thanks very much, Tony.


Now, in spite of Australia’s historically high levels of prosperity, the life

expectancy of Indigenous people is 17 years lower than the rest of the population.

Is this, in a way, the unfinished business of this Government?


Well, I think that whatever we’ve been doing in the past to improve things

for the Indigenous population it hasn’t been working as well as we would have

liked and you can see that on indicators such as life expectancy. You can see

it in relation to infant mortality. You can see it in relation to educational


On practically every measurement, Indigenous Australians are a long way behind

the rest of the community. And what that means, I think, is we’ve got to look

for new approaches and new ways. We’ve got to make sure that we learn from mistakes

and those taxpayers’ dollars which are being spent – and there’s been a lot

of them – they’ve got to be used more wisely and it’s one of the reasons why

I am engaging in my own briefings up here in far north Queensland and going

into the communities over the next couple of days.


Alright, we’ll come to some of the potential solutions in a moment, but what

you’re saying is that, effectively, after a decade in power, is a failure of

this Government, is it not?


I’m not saying that everything is a failure. I think there are some things

that were a failure. I think ATSIC was a failure, yes, and it didn’t work. I

think the idea that all you had to do was spend increasing amounts of money

to fix the problem was a failure and that didn’t work.

I think some things were actually successful, some of the programs which were

broad-banded programs were successful. But after you look back at the results

for a very, very large sum of money, which was allocated through ATSIC, yeah,

the outcomes were disappointing.


Look at the life expectancy figure one more time. If, for example, another

section of the population – Anglo-Saxon men – were mostly dying under the age

of 57, something would have been done about it, wouldn’t it?


Well, obviously we would have looked at the causes and if the diseases were

treatable, we would have treated them. I think in relation to Aboriginal health

we’ve got to look at the causes, and it may be unfashionable to say this, but

some of the causes include alcohol. And there was a view that you couldn’t actually

name some of the problems that were causing untimely deaths. But I think that

the problem is now so serious we can afford to be honest with each other. We

can look at other things, such as family breakdown, which has been a big problem

and we ought to be honest enough to talk about that as an issue.


Alright. Noel Pearson has been absolutely brutally honest with his own people

in that regard. What concrete measures do you think might emerge out of the

talks that you’ve had today?


Well, they’re talking about some of the things that can work. Alcohol management

programs, for example, can have success. There is no one solution to fix all

problems, but they can have success. They’re talking about putting the family

back at the centre of policy and that’s an issue that’s been left behind in

the debate over Aboriginal issues. All of the focus up until now has been the

community, but also the family and responsibilities inside families. They’re

talking about how welfare, far from solving the problems, might have become

the source of a problem.


Alright. One concrete idea that’s been put forward – you’ve already spoken

about it to some degree – is that welfare payments could actually be stopped

to families who don’t send their children to school. Is that something you’d

like to take to Cabinet?


It’s something I’d like to investigate to see whether it works. The problems

are now so great we’ve got to be honest enough to do things that work, even

if they don’t sound all that politically correct. If that works then it’s something

that ought to be looked at very carefully, particularly if the communities themselves

are saying that they’d like to see these approaches. You see what’s been coming

through in the talks that I’ve been having is that to give money without having

useful work and to ask for responsibilities in return actually undermines the

structure of families in societies. We wouldn’t be surprised actually to hear

about this in non-Indigenous Australia. We know in non-Indigenous Australia,

some of our big cities where you’ve got first and second and third generation

welfare recipients.


Can I just cut in there, because I was going to ask you if you do introduce

some sort of legislation along those lines it would have to apply to everyone

on welfare, wouldn’t it? Black, white and brindle?


This shouldn’t come as any great surprise to us. Welfare dependency might be

a problem in Aboriginal communities. Because we know that welfare dependency

is a problem in non-Indigenous communities. So it shouldn’t come as any great

surprise to us.


So any change would go across the board, would it?


I’m not actually saying these changes will be introduced but I’m saying I’ve

got an open enough mind to examine what some of the leadership is putting forward.

I don’t think I’d do it if it didn’t have the support of the leadership because

you’ve got to have the support of the leadership to make these things work.

I’ve got an open mind. I’m not saying it’s going to be done, I’m not saying

there’s going to be legislation, but I think we’re now at a stage where we can

be honest and open and that’s where I’m at.


Alright, now let’s move on if we can. In June of 2003 after Mr Howard made

it clear he had no intention of resigning, you said that your colleagues would

now expect you to contribute on a wide range of issues and that you intended

to do that in the months to come. Is this part of that?


Well, I’ve been engaging in a lot of broader issues which I think are going

to be important for the future of our country, issues like the nature of voluntary

society, building social capital. I put the ageing of the population and the

demographic change and fertility rates and the nature of work squarely in the

focus of Government. And where there is an opportunity to engage in these issues,

of course, I want to do so.


The problem is getting back to the previous statement, made in June of 2003,

that those months have now stretched into years and is that why you’re now effectively

referring to your leadership run as a marathon?


Well, you know, the thing is Tony, I probably get asked that question daily.

If not daily, weekly.


We haven’t heard of you being a long distance runner before yesterday, I think.


Some days probably three or four times. I always deal with them in utter politeness

and good humour and batting back these questions over a long period of time

does require the patience of a long distance runner.


Would you agree, though, that in this race you’re actually up against the Emile

Zatopek of Australian politics?


I knew you were asking me the question because you had a good zinger coming,

Tony and it’s the patience of a long distance runner.


Alright, let’s put it this way if I can. The only trophy that the Emile Zatopek

of Australian politics, John Howard, doesn’t have on his mantlepiece at the

moment is the “Sir Robert Menzies Endurance Cup”. Surely he’s got

to be tempted to go for that?


Not just one zinger, but two and three zingers, Tony. You’ve been working on

them all day and you keep batting the questions up and the patience required

to answer them is the patience of a long distance runner.


I ask the questions though, and they are legitimate questions if you think

about it. Donald Rumsfeld is running the Pentagon, he’s 73-years-old. Alan Greenspan

is running the US Federal Reserve, he’s 79-years-old. I think Ronald Reagan

was 78 when he left office. If John Howard went for as long as him, he’d still

have three elections in him.


Well, I think Noah lived until he was 979 didn’t he, Tony? I’m surprised you

didn’t put that one in as well.


I don’t suppose the Prime Minister is going to compare himself to Noah, but

Ronald Reagan’s not out of the question, is he?


As I say, I think the important thing that people focus on is how we’re dealing

with problems in Australia. What are we doing about the issues that concern



Alright, let’s move onto ground you’re probably surer on and that is the industrial

relations campaign. What was the point of launching a national industrial relations

campaign without releasing the detail?


Well I think what the Government did is it announced the essence of a policy

and the essence of the policy as you know, is to increase flexibility in a way

which will lead to higher productivity which will give a renewed impetus to

reform in the Australian economy. Now when you come to draft a bill, a bill

is a very long piece of legislation probably running I guess to hundreds of

pages and it will take some time until we get the bill, which is as I understand

it will be later this year. But there’ll be plenty of time to debate this, Tony.

You’re talking about long distance running before, the gun’s hardly started

on this debate and it’s got quite a way to go. I’ve been through a few long

debates in Australian politics. The longest I’ve been through is the GST, which

was being discussed in the mid-’80s and was introduced in 2000. So this IR debate

has a long way to run.


That’s right, it could take a decade or more to get the legislation through,

if you have to convince someone like Barnaby Joyce to sign off on it, for example.


I’d be surprised if it took a decade, but it’s going to take some months to

get legislation. Therefore, before the legislation is enacted it’s going to

take some additional time again.


Are you going to put part of that time into trying to convince the Queensland

state party executive of the Nationals that it’s actually a good idea to have

a national system of industrial relations, because they’re implacably opposed

to it at the minute and they’re the ones that tell Barnaby Joyce how to vote?


Well, I would say to the Queensland division of the National Party that it’s

been a long-held belief, I think of the Queensland National Party, like it has

of the Liberal Party, that we need a more flexible industrial relations system.

I can certainly remember when I was a lawyer engaged in industrial relations

disputes back in the mid to late ’80s, the Queensland Nationals – significant

figures in the Queensland National Party – used to argue the necessity for reform

back then and many of them are still actively involved in the Queensland National

Party. So I would be astounded if the Queensland National Party said they would

like to keep in place an industrial relations framework which is inflexible,

which gives a lot of power to trade unions and which holds Australia’s economic

performance back. That would astound me. But if they would like any persuasion

on the point, of course we’re very open to do so. I’d be astounded if they needed

persuasion frankly.


This is what Senator Joyce told us and he’s reflecting their opinion to a large

degree. He said, “Since Sir Henry Parkes was about, the Federal Government’s

been trying to take other states’ rights and we’re not going to just sit

back and let that happen.”


Well, this is not a question, I think, of taking state’s rights. I think this

is a question of conferring new individual rights. The right to actually contract

on an individual basis, the right to get a job, the right to have higher wages.

And to actually portray this as some constitutional issue is completely wrong.

Look, can I tell you from the outset of Federation there was an industrial relations

power conferred on the Commonwealth Parliament. You know why? Because in the

1890s before Federation started it was understood that industrial disputation

didn’t respect state borders, it can actually cross state borders and that’s

been going on for a very long period of time and if you can have a better system

which can deal with industrial relations disputes and wages and employment and

businesses, which don’t stop at state borders, they actually trade across state

borders you’d be a mug not to go down the line that will give you a better system.


Briefly, Treasurer, on the Vizard case, the former head of the National Crime

Authority says the DPP’s advice not to seek a criminal case for insider trading

against him was a serious mistake and he’s asking you to release the DPP’s advice

publicly as a matter of transparency. Will you do that?


I’ve asked for an explanation from the DPP as to why he decided not to lay

criminal charges. The DPP has given me certain advice and asked me not to release

it until the case is concluded. That is, until the matter which is currently

before the court is concluded. Now once that’s concluded, if the DPP is happy

for the matters that he’s put to me in writing to be released, yes I will release



Alright, finally Peter Costello, we heard a moving call on this program last

night from one of Zimbabwe’s leading Opposition figures for Australia’s help

to get an indictment against President Robert Mugabe in the UN Security Council

for crimes against humanity. Would you and the Government back that call?


Yes, I think we would, but this is a matter for the Security Council. We’re

not on the Security Council but we would lend our voice to members of the Security

Council to consider that. Australia’s been at the forefront of arguing for sanctions

to try and restore human rights in Zimbabwe. For example, we are supporting

the expulsion of Zimbabwe from the IMF [International Monetary Fund]. And we

are also making our voice known in other international forums and we would lend

our voice if there is a case there to the Security Council doing that.


It does appear to you then that there could well be a case against Mugabe for

crimes against humanity?


That’s the point, you see. If there is a case then the Security Council can

refer it and if there is a case, it should be referred. Let’s not mince our

words about this, the situation in Zimbabwe is awful, it’s terrible. The expulsion

of people from farms, confiscation of private property, threats of assault and

violence, the rigging of elections – it’s a pretty serious business. And if

there is a case that can be made out, yes it ought to be referred.


Peter Costello, we will have to leave it there. We thank you very much for

taking the time to talk to us tonight.


It’s great to be with you, thanks Tony.