Floods, fuel, Woolworths chief, entity taxation, defence spending, reconciliation

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Floods, fuel, Woolworths chief, entity taxation, defence spending, reconciliation

Transcript No. 2000/108





Doorstop interview

Thursday, 23 November 2000


2.00 pm

SUBJECTS: Floods, fuel, Woolworths chief, entity taxation, defence spending,



I’d like to ask what sort of impression you’ve had as you’ve been

travelling around, particularly with the flood waters?


Well, obviously the flood has been a terrible tragedy for all of those people that have

lost properties and now cannot get crops, either harvest crops or plant crops for next

season. It’s a terrible tragedy for them. I think the whole of Australia feels very

deeply the sense of loss. The Government has announced immediately a $10 million programme

to fill any gaps under the assistance packages. We’re moving very quickly to

implement the assistance packages and we’re also talking to banks and other financial

institutions to make sure they take an accommodating position. But I can just reiterate

the Commonwealth Government stands willing to help and to stand by people at a time of



What about the establishment of a national disaster plan that would cover these sort of

things in future, like crop losses, for instance, that often don’t come under this



Well, look, these things have been talked about from time to time but we’re

actually finding that the arrangements which currently exist are meeting the needs.

We’ve put an additional $10 million fund if there are problems that aren’t being

met, but we are finding that that fund, plus the existing arrangements are meeting the

situation. I think the important thing is to get on and start delivering the assistance as

soon as possible. It’s a situation where we’ve got to help people get back onto

their feet as soon as possible.


Have petrol prices been, come up much as you’ve been travelling around?


People have a genuine interest, I think, in petrol prices and we had quite a discussion

about it in Goondiwindi last night, which are of interest to people all over Australia.

And, like everybody in Australia, I think that petrol prices are obviously causing a lot

of trouble for family budgets. And that is caused by the rise in the price of oil, which

in Australian dollar terms has gone from about $18 to $64 in the last 18 months. And until

there is some reduction in the price of oil, then we won’t be able to bring those

prices down.


There’s no other solution that the Government’s considering?


No. The price rise has been caused by a rise in the price of oil. Until you bring back

the price of oil, the barrel price of oil, you’re not going to be able to deal with

those price rises – which are very high, very significant, but if you’ve got a

price of petrol which has trebled, price of oil which has trebled, I should say, then your

price of petrol is going to move accordingly.


So do you think the Government’s message is finally sinking in, especially from

the primary producers – that is, that it is world factors dictating these price



I think people who’ve looked at the issue carefully know that the big factor

that’s occurred is that the world oil price has gone up. Anybody who says that this

is a consequence of Australian conditions, would have trouble explaining why oil prices

have gone up in the United States, why they’ve gone up in the UK, why they’ve

gone up in France, why they’ve gone up in Germany. And I think people who’ve

thought about things to that extent know that, because the world oil price rises, petrol

price rises as well. There’ve been a few people who have run around and tried to make

political capital to try and say that this must be a fault of something else, but you

don’t have to think too long to realise what the cause of rising petrol prices is.


Were you surprised last night that questions were more about fuel in general, and there

was only one that only mentioned excise? Does it mean that maybe your message is getting



Look, I find that because this is a complicated area – you’ve got world factors,

you’ve got Commonwealth taxation regime, there’s an excise, there’s GST,

you’ve got State subsidies – that people don’t really understand the way in

which all of these factors interact. And if somebody comes along and says to them, well,

you know, just blame Canberra, you can get a few people in for a short period of time. But

once they sit down and have it actually explained that, in the petrol price, there’s

the world oil price, the world oil price is set in US dollars, a big factor is the world

oil price, another factor is the exchange rate. And that is the principal determinant of

why prices have gone up. And then they say, well can’t we do something about

Australian oil? And you explain that Australian oil is sold on world markets, this is a

global commodity, we don’t have a separate price structure, we can’t maintain a

separate price structure. People realise that these are international factors. And the

best thing to be done in a situation like this, is for us to add our weight to every other

country in the world – the United States, Japan, France, Germany, Britain – in

calling for increased production so that the world oil prices come back. That is the most

practical answer to this situation.


But don’t you get a sense that some people don’t believe the Government lines

– I say you, the Government – appreciates how much of an impact it’s having

on household budgets and family budgets? The cost of getting to work and back again if you

live in western Sydney or western Melbourne?


Look, I think people are rightly and justifiably angry about high petrol prices. So am

I. Rightly and justifiably. I agree with them. And I suppose people will say, well,

don’t tell me to complain to a Saudi prince.


Precisely, I mean it didn’t work in 1972. Why’s it going to work in 2000?


… let me register my feeling here in Australia, and that’s a fair thing. But

then you move to the next step, and you say, well, if the cause is the international oil

price and you want to actually do something positive about it, you better come up with an

idea of dealing with the international oil price. And once you move to that stage, the

stage of and now let’s think constructively about what can be done, that’s when

I think people get a more serious appreciation of the issues.


The boss of Woolworths today has, or yesterday, has made a very strong attack on the

Government for not doing enough for the rural areas. What’s your response to that?


Well, I haven’t seen his attack, but look, the boss of Woolworths is entitled to

his views. It doesn’t mean that they’re right. He runs a corporation. He’s

entitled to state his views. But I don’t think anybody would say that, just because

you’re the boss of Woolworths, you’re an export on rural policy, Michelle. I

don’t know if you’ve ever argued that before, if I may say so.


On another matter, Peter Reith seems to have signalled his intention to oppose in

Cabinet aspects of your entity tax legislation, apparently the profit first rule it’s

called. Will you continue to fight for that or will you be seeking concessions as a



I don’t know what Peter has signalled. I’m here in Walgett today. I was at

public meetings in Goondiwindi. I’m dealing with the issues that are here and I

don’t know what’s been signalled.


So will you stick to your line, though, on that matter?


Well, look, until I actually am told what Peter said …


I could show you, Treasurer.


Well, I’d rather hear it from Peter, if that’s all right, Geoffrey. Until

I’m entirely sure as to what Peter has said, until he reports his views to me, I

don’t think it’s wise for me to, sort of, comment because he may have been

misreported and I may compound that misreporting by commenting on that.


Now there’s also been speculation that the low dollar will compromise the big

defence money rise. Was that built into the calculations? In other words, by making



I think I can assure of this: that, when the White Paper comes out, it will outline the

kind of defence capability that we will build in Australia, and we will fund that



So it’s dollar-proof, as it were?


Well, we’ll fund it in whatever currency it’s either constructed or

purchased. Some of these, if I may say so, some of these acquisitions are in five years

time and 10 years time So, I think you’d be a brave person if you wanted to now

forecast the exchange rate in 5 years time or 10 years time. But what I can say to you is

that we will be delivering on that programme in the currency at the exchange rate that it

happens to be at that time. You’ve got to remember that the Commonwealth actually

does a lot of transactions, foreign exchange transactions, and whilst a devaluation can

cost in some areas, it can produce gains in other areas, and conversely. So it’s not

all one way in relation to the exchange rate.


[inaudible] indigenous leaders, Mr Costello. Will you go on the walk in Melbourne, the

reconciliation walk?


Well, I haven’t looked at that yet. Somebody raised that with me today and I said

I haven’t …


One of the indigenous leaders?


Yes. And I said I hadn’t actually seen it come across my desk. So I said it

depends on what’s happening.


So you’re not ruling it out at this stage?


I’m not ruling anything in, and I’m not ruling anything out. I only really

had it drawn to my attention today.


Why do you have any doubts about doing that?


Well, I don’t know what date it is, Michelle, and I don’t know what I’m

doing on that date, surprisingly enough.


If you’re free, will you go?


We’ve been through these sorts of discussions before, if I may say so. Just calm

down, you know. I mean, we’ll just all calm down and work out where we’re going,

what we’re doing.