AWB, National Party, Helen Kroger, Budget forecasts, Safeway, ACCC, Qantas, civility – Interview with Jon Faine, ABC 774

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AWB, National Party, Helen Kroger, Budget forecasts, Safeway, ACCC, Qantas, civility – Interview with Jon Faine, ABC 774

Interview with Jon Faine

ABC 774

Wednesday, 1 February 2006

8.30 am


SUBJECTS: AWB, National Party, Helen Kroger, Budget forecasts, Safeway,

ACCC, Qantas, civility


Peter Costello, Happy New Year.


Thanks very much Jon, great to be with you.


Well you look refreshed after a holiday. Kevin Rudd on AM this morning

repeats calls that are coming from several quarters for a broader inquiry into

the Wheat Board scandal. Do you concede?


Look, the Government called the inquiry to establish whether or not any Australian

laws have been broken and that is still in progress and we have to wait until

we get the final report to know what the answer to that is. Can I just say Jon,

lest there is any doubt, no one would condone rorting of the UN programme. If

the Wheat Board rorted the UN programme then it shouldn’t have and it

is thoroughly reprehensible. And if any Australian laws have been broken then

people will be prosecuted.


The inquiry will only look at what the inquiry is entitled to look at. Commissioner

Cole has terms of reference that limit who he can call and what questions he

can ask. What is wrong with a broader inquiry as we learn in today’s Fairfax

newspapers, The Age, on the front page today, that the Australian Government’s

Ambassador, nothing to do with the Wheat Board, your Ambassador, the Government’s

representative was lobbying for a US inquiry not to go ahead into the Wheat

Board issue.


Well you heard from Alexander Downer on AM, he said that the reason

for that was that there was a UN inquiry and he made the point that the UN inquiry

was likely to get to the bottom of the matter rather then get caught up in US

politics. I think he is absolutely right.


He may be right, he may not be right. Aren’t we as citizens, as taxpayers,

as voters entitled to know?


And the UN then did do the report and coming out of that it wasn’t as

if the Government tried to cover anything up, the Government called an inquiry

and that is happening now.


A limited inquiry, Peter Costello.


No an inquiry as to the relevant matter as to whether or not this scheme was



The question what’s relevant is now up for grabs, isn’t it?


No, no…


(inaudible) that very parameter of relevance is what is being (inaudible).


…no, no. What is relevant is whether the UN Food For Oil Programme was

rorted and what is relevant is whether or not Australian laws were broken. Commissioner

Cole who has full powers of a Royal Commissioner is calling everybody who is

relevant to that and he will report. And as I just said to you…


Well who is relevant? We don’t know.


…well Commissioner Cole decides who is relevant.


But is it people who are public servants who are relevant, departmental heads

are relevant, perhaps even politicians are relevant. We want to know the full

extent of the knowledge and the cover-up that has led to us being the world’s

worst bribers of Saddam Hussein’s regime.


Who knows who is relevant is Commissioner Cole. Commissioner Cole can call

whoever is relevant and as the Prime Minister has made clear, if that includes

anybody they will go. Now it is up to Commissioner Cole, it is not you, it is

not me, it is not John Howard, it is a Royal Commissioner who has a counsel

assisting, who has got lots of money, he can take evidence on oath, they can

be cross examined. He decides who is relevant.


So if he calls for a broadening of his terms of reference that will be granted?


I am sure of one thing, if he makes a request of the Government it will be

very carefully considered, absolutely.


It has to be granted, surely doesn’t it? As we, as the ripples are spreading

and we want to know how far this goes.


Well Jon, it is not up to me to answer what would happen if a hypothetical

request were made but I have no doubt whatsoever that all consideration and

support will be given to Commissioner Cole as it has been. Now let me say again,

if bribes were paid to Saddam Hussein that is absolutely reprehensible and unforgivable.


Money that is perhaps being used for…




…armaments to hit back at Australian troops who are out there to unseat

him, that is about as bad as it gets.


You know, Saddam Hussein was a dictator. Saddam Hussein was a tyrant. The Oil

For Food Programme was designed to allow innocent Iraqis to eat whilst there

were sanctions on his regime. If anybody knowingly paid money to Saddam as part

of that programme, it is reprehensible, unforgivable and most probably broken

Australian laws and they will be prosecuted. But you understand I have to say

this, Commissioner Cole hasn’t made any findings…


Not yet.


…everybody is innocent until proven guilty so let’s just wait and

see what he reports.


Well at the same time though his report will be limited and I have to go back

over this once more, his report will be limited by his terms of reference. If

his terms of reference have been exhausted now and are shown to be inadequate

for the task that you say you want done, then they need to be expanded, don’t



If Commissioner Cole wants to make any request of the Government, he will,

but can I just make this point Jon, the inquiry was set up by the Government,

it is funded by the Government, it was the Government’s idea and I think

you would have seen in the conduct of that inquiry, Mr Cole is pursuing it in

a fearless way and any suggestion that Mr Cole is pulling his punches…


There is no such suggestion and as we see with Royal Commissions time and time

again at state and federal level they can sometimes turn around to bite the

hand that created them, whether that happens here or not we are yet to see.

But as citizens we need to know whether or not it was incompetence or collusion

and whether it involves people within the Government or the public service as

well as the Wheat Board.


Well we don’t know if it involves the Wheat Board at this point.


Well we surely do.


Well hang on, evidence has been given and Commissioner Cole will make his finding.




If he makes that finding, you and I have got to be very careful, if he makes

that finding then it would be unforgivable, reprehensible and I am certain would

lead to a prosecution. But let’s see what the finding is.


As matters stand on the 1st of February, and that could take some

time and I am sure politically you would like the heat to fade in the meantime,

as on the 1st of February though, surely the Wheat Board’s

monopoly arrangements need to be reconsidered and is that already underway within

the Government?


Well look, there is a provision I believe for other people to be licensed to

actually make export sales. I believe there is that provision. The trouble is

nobody has ever been given such a licence. If you ask me, in appropriate circumstances

those licences should be given and this is something that the Government will

have to look at.


So taking away the monopoly of the Wheat Board, the Wheat Board could stay

there as an entity, it could be restructured, people may come or go but it may

no longer be the monopoly exporter for Australian wheat?


Well as I said, I do believe there is already provisions for other people to

be licensed it is just that it has never happened yet so it could actually allow

that to happen under the existing legislative framework.


Are you looking at that now?


I believe it should be looked at, yes.


So you are encouraging the Government to embark on that course?


Well I am not the responsible Minister and so it is not my area but if you

ask me my personal view, yes I believe that ought to be looked at.


You could talk to your close friends in the National Party about whether or

not that is the way to go, Peter Costello.


I could and…


What would they say?


I probably will.


Would they return your calls at the moment? Relations between you and National

Party leaders would be poisonous wouldn’t they?


They are very good actually. I spoke to Mark Vaile shortly before he went overseas,

he just got back I think yesterday and we had a discussion about things and

I can assure you the relations are very good, very good indeed. Mark and I enjoy

a very close relationship.


Whilst you are doing your best to undermine the position of the National Party

in the Coalition is a bit odd that he would enjoy a close relationship with

you at that point.


Nice try Jon. Of course I am not doing my best in any such pursuit. What I

am doing my best to do is to ensure a Coalition which has worked well for a

long time and has seen a stable Government for ten years continues, that is

what I am doing.


Do you really believe in a Coalition or would you rather that the National

Party just basically went away and become, well everyone who is involved became

a part of the Liberal Party, one conservative force in Australian politics?


No I really do believe in a Coalition and the reason I believe in a Coalition

is that the Liberal Party wouldn’t have a majority in its own right, it

needs a Coalition partner to form a majority and to become a Government and

that is in the interests of the people of Australia so I very much do believe

in a Coalition.


Now your fingers weren’t crossed when you said that, I just checked,

but there is a view in the commentariat that you wish the National Party just

disappeared and you would get all of their support, their voter base, the conservatives

who vote National would all vote Liberal, wouldn’t they?


Look Jon, this has been discussed over the years. There are some people who

do believe in amalgamation…


Are you one of them?


…well I haven’t traditionally, no, and by the way they are in places

you may not expect. I believe that the Queensland National Party leader put

forward a proposal for some kind of amalgamation, Lawrence Springborg. The risk

of an amalgamation and this is why I haven’t traditionally supported it

is that sure, most National Party supporters would part of an amalgamated organisation

but there would be some who wouldn’t. And you could go right down the

amalgamation path and still be left with a continuing National Party or some

kind of new political force that springs up to try and represent those people.

That is the downside.


Pauline Hanson-style you mean?




Sixteen minutes to nine on 774 ABC Melbourne, Jon Faine with you, Peter Costello

the Federal Treasurer is my guest in the studio this morning. Well, if you don’t

want to see complete amalgamation it would seem that your fingerprints are all

over the defection of Julian McGauran and the National Party are saying well,

this is going to provoke a reaction in us, they are saying we are going to now

assert ourselves from the Liberal Party within the Coalition. Does that cause

policy problems for you?


Well I know part of your job is being controversial, but you just said my fingerprints

are all over this. Jon as I have made clear on numbers of occasions, I did not

orchestrate anything in relation to Julian McGauran, I just say that again for

the record because I don’t think I should leave that assertion unchallenged,

that he made his own decision, that over the years he has been a part of the

Coalition and he wants to continue to be part of the Coalition. Now, to me,

whether he has a National Party hat on or whether he has a Liberal Party hat

on is not a big deal. The critical thing is whether he votes for the Government’s

legislation in the Senate.


But what it has done is provoked a reaction from the Nationals saying we will

now assert our independent identity within the Coalition more aggressively.


Well, these are matters for the National Party but you know, I would point

out that the strength of the Government has been the Coalition, that Julian

McGauran has been a great supporter of the Government and Julian McGauran wants

to continue to be a great supporter of the Government.


You could now end up with three-cornered contests in critical federal seats,

even here in Victoria, Corangamite, but particularly in Queensland or Western



Well we will have three cornered contests when a sitting Member retires. So

if a sitting Member retires in a Liberal Party seat the National Party can run

and if a sitting Member retires in a National Party seat the Liberal Party can

run. That has been the situation. This is what happened in the seat of Murray

when Bruce Lloyd retired and that was Black Jack McEwen’s seat. The Liberal

Party was able to run and the Liberal Party won it, Sharman Stone won it, it

is now the safest Liberal Party seat in Australia. And if any Liberal retires

then the National Party is welcome to run and if any National Party member retires

the Liberal Party is welcome to run.


And you have now got some Liberal backbenchers saying that they think Peter

McGauran, Julian’s brother should be dumped as Agriculture Minister because

he is not up to the task. So there is all sorts of ill-discipline breaking out

over this issue.


Well I don’t agree with that. I think that Peter McGauran is a valued

member of the Coalition, he is a Cabinet colleague of mine, I have a great deal

of respect for him. You know, in politics people are entitled to criticise your

job, I have learnt this over the years, you wear criticism but just because

someone criticises a particular Minister that doesn’t mean it is right.


When is the last time you had Liberal backbenchers calling for the dismissal

of one of their own Ministers? It is like kicking an own goal.


Probably every month.


No, I’m sorry, not so.


Some of those Liberal backbenchers have I think done it before in relation

to National Party Ministers and you know, there are some National Party Senators

– and I won’t got through them – who regularly have a go at

the Liberal party. But what does it all mean though, Jon?


That is a fair question. 12 minutes to 9, Peter Costello to some other issues,

The Age newspaper reports today that your hand-picked President of the

Victorian branch of the Liberal Party, Helen Kroger will shortly quit and will

seek preselection to replace Kay Patterson as a Liberal Senator. Senator Kroger

are we going to see?


Well as I said, I know you do this to be controversial – “my hand-picked

President” – no, somebody…


Well you are the Senior Victorian Liberal.


…yes, yes, yes, somebody who is elected by, overwhelmingly elected by

the delegates of the Liberal Party State Council, of whom there are about 700

– okay, so let’s just put that on the record. Now, Helen has been

the President I think for three years. The normal term of a President is three

years, whether she decides to run again for a fourth year is a matter for her

but ordinarily you do three years but that is a matter for her and I don’t

really know what she is thinking at the moment but this State Council I think

is in April. I read in the newspaper that other candidates are putting themselves

forward and may well have briefed the newspaper in order to put their names

forward, those candidates. But in my experience if you brief the newspapers

and say, oh people are urging me to run as President, generally that is counter-productive

in the Liberal Party, the Liberal Party members make these decisions.


Would you like to see Helen Kroger as a Senator?


Well it is a matter for her if she wants to nominate. I have enormous respect

for Helen Kroger, I think she is a fabulous person, she has been the best State

President of the Liberal Party certainly since I have been in Parliament in

15 years. We had the best Federal Election result under her State Presidency

that we have had in those 15 years so I think she is a woman of enormous energy,

high intellect, great character and I would wish her well in whatever she decides

to do.


You wouldn’t want to see the President leave during an election year

though would you? Surely that is an undesirable outcome?


The reality is two years out of four or two years out of three we have an election

year, that is state and federal.


The biggest challenge for any President of the Liberal Party is to steer the

Party towards the election date which is fixed for late November of this year

and you don’t want your President leaving in April, surely?


Well the normal term is three years, Helen saw the Party through the Federal

election in 2004, I am sure people would want her to be President and I am sure

people would want her to fill any capacity they could find but this is a matter

for her and it is a matter for the branch members.


Well the interpretation everyone is going to put on it is if she leaves, people

are saying well that is to distance herself from the train wreck of the Robert

Doyle-led effort in this year’s State Election.


No Jon, because let me tell you, in State elections it is the organisation’s

responsibility to get the preselections ready, the get the campaign team in

place, the organisation has a responsibility in relation to finances but it

up to the candidates to win their seats and it is up to the Parliamentary Party

to carry the campaign…


And the President has nothing to do with all of that?


…well the President has to get the organisation in place, help raise

the money, ensure the preselections in place, get the campaign manager in place,

all of which has been done and the important thing now I think is to get on

with the campaigning.


Is Robert Doyle still going to lead the Liberal Party at the State Election

in November?


As far as I know he will.


Are you happy for him to do so?


He has my support to do so, but Jon, you read in the paper from time to time

that other people think they should be leader. Well, it is a democratic Party,

they can nominate and they can seek the support of their colleagues to become

leader. That is their right but if they don’t want to become leader they

should make sure that they lock down behind Robert. And as far as I can tell,

although you read in the papers from time to time that X or Y would like to

be leader they keep on saying they don’t, they don’t want to be

leader, they are not going to run. So given that, I can’t see that there

is any point in keeping these issues alive, they should all lock down, support

Robert, get on and win the State Election, that is my view.


Eight minutes to nine, Peter Costello my guest on 774 ABC Melbourne,

Jon Faine with you through to 12 noon, a couple of other things certainly before

we get to the news Peter Costello. The Business Council lashed out at Budget

forecasts, you are the Treasurer, you are in charge of all of this and pointed

out that over the past five years Treasury’s annual Budget forecasts have

been wrong by an average of 255 per cent and they make the obvious point, how

can you plan an economy when you keep getting the figures so wrong?


Well it shows that you can use a statistic for any purpose, doesn’t it?


In what way?


Well let me say to you, Commonwealth revenues are about $200 billion, Commonwealth

expenditures are about $200 billion. So a 1 per cent error is $2 billion and

2 per cent is $4 billion. Now, let’s suppose there has been a variation

of $4 billion. That is a 2 per cent error. But the way in which they did their

statistics is they say oh you know, the balance was suppose to be 2 and it turned

out to be 6, that is a 200 per cent error. You know, take the 4 on the 2 rather

than the 4 on the 200. I must say, I thought it was quite inventive the way

whoever did it, did it…


But the bottom line…


…and the bigger point was this, and this is where the author of the report

was completely mistaken, the bigger point was this. That they said somehow the

costing of tax proposals had counted against them being introduced and they

had three case studies in that report. One was on international income, one

was on foreign source income, one was on something else. Ken Henry, the Treasury

Secretary put out a compete refutation of that which showed that whoever wrote

that report was wrong.


But you are still, the Treasury estimates are billions of dollars out and this

dampens the appetite for tax reform. People say hang on, you have actually got

buckets of money to play with even though during your projections, phase of

the Budget you keep thinking you haven’t.


If you could get a forecast which was within 1 per cent or 2 per cent, what

amazes me is how accurate that is, not how inaccurate. You are talking about

$200 billion, when you bring a May Budget, when we bring down a May Budget,

let’s think about this, we bring down a May Budget in 2006 we are trying

to forecast what a financial outcome will be as measured in September of 2007,

right. Now, let’s suppose you are sitting down now, you tell me what the

oil price will be in 2007?


Who knows?


Tell me what the Australian dollar will be?


Who knows?


Tell me what inflation will be?


Well you (inaudible) that.


What will the state of the US economy be? Jon, tell me this. Will the stock

market be up or down? Give me the All Ordinaries in June of 2007. If we knew

all of these things Jon, you and I would be living in Omaha, Nebraska with Warren

Buffett giving him investment advice…


Wouldn’t be my first choice, would that be yours?


…well that, he is considered to be the oracle, the greatest financial

analyst in the world, Warren Buffett nobody knows. And the fact that when you

have to take into account the oil price, the exchange rate, the US economy,

inflation, the all-ordinaries, employment, you can get within 1 or 2 per cent

it amazes me actually how accurate it is.


Well, State Government’s boast that they are able to do it but on another

couple of things…


Well the State Government’s always revise up and down.


…the ACCC…


It’s just that their numbers are smaller.


…The Australian Competition and Consumer Commissioner yesterday handed

out a $9 million fine to Safeway the supermarket chain over price fixing and

cartel operations excluding products from competitors who are undercutting their

shops in other outlets, this is a huge slap in the face to one of our biggest

corporations, isn’t it?


Well this illustrates that business, whether you are small or big but in this

case big business, cannot abuse its power in the market to damage competition.

If you have power in the market under Australian law you cannot set out to injure

your competitors. Safeway was found by the Federal Court to have done that,

the biggest fine I believe in trade practices history, possibly in corporate

history, $9 million. If anybody thinks that the law doesn’t have teeth,

go and read this case, if anybody thinks that the ACCC is not serious, go and

read this case. The ACCC is well funded to prosecute abuse of market power and

this is a classic case where it took on a big business and succeeded. Now what

is in it for the small consumer? What is in it for the small consumer is this,

in a more competitive market process will be lower. That is why we do this.

In a more competitive market prices will be lower and business has to get this

message that we are building a competitive market and will not tolerate abuse

of market power.


In that case will you open up air routes to competition between Australia and

the US? Qantas are saying they don’t want that.


Well this is a matter that the Government is considering at the moment.


Prices will be lower with competition.


Well this is a matter that the Government is considering at the moment and

we will take on board your submission, Jon.


Well if you are going to be consistent between bread prices and airlines you

will be…


Yes well, there are a lot of things to… look if Qantas were found to

be using market power to suppress competition they would be subject to these

laws same as anybody else. That is not the situation in relation to the air

route, that’s a bit more of a technical argument.


Alright, on the final issue if I get the chance before the news, civility,

the Chief Justice of New South Wales, Jim Spigelman, the Prime Minister, say

that we are losing civility in our society, do you agree?


I think we could profit from more manners, I think we could, yes, it is incumbent

on all of us to do our best, you, me, everybody, media…


Even you in the Parliament?




You are one of the most scathing debaters in the Parliament.


Yes, but always on issues.


Are you going to tone it down?


Always on issues. I am not one of those MPs, I never have been, there are some

that specialise in going through people’s private affairs, I have never

been interested in doing any of that kind of thing, what I am interested in

is jobs, interest rates, inflation, the state of the economy, whether people

can afford to school their kids and I will debate those issues with all of the

vigour I can.


Peter Costello, thank you, we have covered a lot of ground, it has been most

worthwhile, thank you.


It is great to be with you, thanks Jon.