Leadership, election, Telstra, industrial relations reform, Scoresby tolls, economy – Interview with Neil Mitchell, 3AW

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Leadership, election, Telstra, industrial relations reform, Scoresby tolls, economy – Interview with Neil Mitchell, 3AW



Interview with Neil Mitchell


Monday, 11 October 2004
8.30 am


SUBJECTS: Leadership, election, Telstra, industrial relations reform,

Scoresby tolls, economy


Peter Costello good morning.


Good to be with you Neil.


Well congratulations, now you are here to announce that you are challenging

John Howard for the Leadership?


No, as it turns out.


You are going to be asked that every five minutes for the next few years.


Well, you do get a bit tired of it all, but the important thing is we have

just been re-elected, we have got a big job to do, we get on with the work

today, there is a great deal to be done and we respect the charge, the requirements

that the Australian people have put on us to be a good Government and govern

well and to keep the economy strong. That is what they said on Saturday.


There is talk of a re-shuffle, do you expect to stay Treasurer for the

next three years?


Oh yes, I expect to stay, yes. I have said all the way through the campaign

that I was running for re-election as Member for Higgins and Treasurer.


Three years as Treasurer?


Neil, as you said, you go through all of these questions, I expect to be

Treasurer and I will be giving it my full and utter devotion.


John Howard is now certainly judged as one of the great Liberal Prime Ministers,

I think second only to Menzies?


Undoubtedly. Four election victories, second only to Menzies. He, you know,

has just given brilliant leadership to the Liberal Party through the campaign.

His re-election gives him a great mandate and a great authority. A lot of

people have written him off over the years and have said that he has failings

in this, this or the other area, but the fact is, he has won four elections,

you can never take that away from him.


Does that give him the right to go when he choses?


Well it gives him the right to stay as Prime Minister. I don’t think

anybody would be thinking of going after just winning a fourth term.


Is this I mean, I made a joke of it at the start, but is this in danger

of be destructive, the talk about ascension, the talk about Costello taking

over from Howard?


To be frank with you it is just tiresome. Here we are the day after an

election, the Prime Minister has just been re-elected and people want to

ask you about what he might do in the future. What he will be doing in the

future is being Prime Minister, I would have thought that is entirely obvious.

These questions just go round and round but I don’t think that it

is what the public is interested in, Neil. I think what the public is interested

in now is having re-elected the Government, what is the Government going

to do?


Well is it a vote of confidence for you as well, not just as Treasurer

but the Labor Party targeted you so much in this campaign and everywhere

I went I saw Labor Party pictures of you at polling booths. Yet that didn’t

have an impact, the majority has increased. Do you think that is a vote

of confidence for you?


Well I thank the Labor Party for the publicity, you can’t buy publicity

like that. On all of the polling booths when you see your picture up it

is just fantastic. And what did we get, a swing of 3 per cent to us, a

bigger swing in Victoria, 3 per cent. So a lot of things went right in

the campaign for us, economic management was the key issue, interest rates

and Labor’s wrap at the very end of the campaign I thought was misguided

and misjudged. So that is their problem, we weren’t upset about it,

they made their decision, I thought it was just another one of a number

of bad decisions that the Labor Party made through the course of the campaign.


Do you see it as a vote of confidence in you?


Well I feel that the fact that the Government has been re-elected, that

our margin has increased, that the central issue of the campaign was economic

management and interest rates. The fact that I have been Treasurer for eight

and a half years running economic management, making the decisions which

impact on interest rates, speaks for itself. The record is there. As I said

all the way through the campaign the record is there, we are very happy

to be judged on our record, I think we were judged on our record. Now that

is the past, I think what people now want to know is, you have been re-elected,

what are you going to do for the next three years?


Well let’s look at it, do you think you will have control of the



My best estimate at the moment is that we will get 38, that is half the

Senate, which doesn’t give you enough to pass a Bill, but it means

that the opposition Parties can’t amend your Bills. So it is a square

situation, you need an extra vote to pass a Bill, Neil.


Okay. The sale of Telstra, will that now be sooner rather than later?


Well it is our policy once the services are up to scratch in the bush to

get the remaining part of Telstra onto the market. And not because we need

the money but because you have a very difficult situation now where about

49 per cent of that company is privately owned, 51 per cent is held by the

Government, it is hamstrung by this situation, it finds it hard to make

commercial decisions and you need to resolve its status one way or the other.

I have always said Neil, you can have a private telecommunications company

as they have in Britain and America and most of the western world or you

can have a public one, but it makes no sense to have a 49-51 half pregnant,

half owned, Government owned one.


So is that now a priority?


I wouldn’t say that it is an urgent priority, it has been our policy

I think since 1993, so it has been ten years our policy, I wouldn’t

say it is an urgent priority but it is something that will have to be resolved

sooner or later.


What will you do with the money, is there still a social dividend in Telstra?


Well what we are trying to do with assets, where you have an asset sale,

what we try and do is reduce debt or build other assets. If you have an

asset sale and you spend the money it’s just like selling off the

family silver, what you should do is you should invest that in another area.


What about other priorities, unfair dismissal laws, cross media laws, what

are the priorities if you have got a friendlier Senate?


Unfair dismissal, number one. I think we have tried on 41 occasions to

change the unfair dismissal laws to make it easier for small business, to

make it easier for them to create jobs, to reassure them. So if we could

get those changes through the Senate that would be an absolute priority.

It has taken far too long already, that has got to be fixed up. I actually

think Neil if you can improve industrial relations in this country, you

can get more people in work. Now we have got unemployment now at 20 year

lows, about 5.6 per cent. But I think if you can change industrial relations

you can get even more people in work. The great thing about getting…


So what are you looking at? Do you mean beyond the unfair dismissal laws?


…unfair dismissal, flexibility on awards, we need improvements in

relation to work practices, productivity gains. I think that you could improve

industrial relations quite significantly…


You know what the unions will say, look out, here they come, they are going

to get us.


…but the unions have opposed all of the changes, they have always

cried wolf and where are we now? An unemployment rate of 5.6 per cent. If

you could take it lower the great thing about that, you get more people

in work, that means they draw down less for unemployment benefits, they

start paying taxes, the whole community gets a dividend and it is good for



So industrial relations is a priority?




And specifically, what?


Unfair dismissal laws would be the first area, but as I was just saying

not the only area.


Do you think there is any real chance that the Bracks Government will drop

the Scoresby toll?


I would simply urge them today to think carefully. I am not saying this

for political reasons. To be frank with you Neil, if Steve Bracks goes and

puts tolls on the Scoresby Freeway he will be punished politically, it would

probably be good for the Liberal Party. But I would really, seriously urge

him to think again. For the sake of the poor people who are going to have

to pay a toll every day of their lives for the rest of the lives. Now, the

Commonwealth Government is offering $560 million, the State Government puts

aside $560 million over four years, you can build that as a freeway. No

tolls, a freeway. $560 million over four years is not a lot of money for

the State Government. They have it. Their GST windfall, this is the windfall

from GST over and above what they were guaranteed, their windfall over the

next four years is $2 billion. So Mr Bracks has the $560 million. He has

got a $2 billion windfall. We can have a freeway, he can keep his promise,

the signed agreement can be implemented, the people of the Eastern Suburbs

can have their freeway and there is no need for tolls.


Can he really get out of it now though, I think this week he is due to

sign off on it?


Well he hasn’t signed a thing, that is the beauty. He has not signed

an agreement for a toll, he doesn’t have to sign an agreement for

a toll.

I would really seriously say to him though, he is probably thinking to

himself, oh look, you know, if I do a back flip the commentators will have

a go at me or they will say I am weak, I would say to Mr Bracks you know,

to listen to the electorate and to act accordingly sometimes takes more

courage. Now, if you have a look at those seats that the Scoresby Freeway

goes through, the seat of Aston where it goes right through the heart of

the seat of Aston, there was a 7 per cent swing to the Liberal Party on

Saturday, making Aston our safest Liberal seat in Melbourne. Now if you

can’t see a message there I would also say to the Labor Members in

Isaacs and Holt who are also affected by that freeway and who took very

large swings of 5 and 6 per cent against them on Saturday, speak up for

your electorate. You are the people that are going to be punished by the

electorate when those tolls come in. Speak up for them, say something about

them, it is not too late to have a Scoresby Freeway.


We are nearly out of time so a couple of other quick things. What, on the

economy, what are the priorities now, what are the, we are facing a bit

of a tough time ahead aren’t we?


We have world record oil prices which are very high, they will take a toll

on global growth which will affect us, that is a difficulty. We have the

threats of terrorism, there are still parts of Australia that are drought

affected which are reducing our exports, so it is a tricky time.


How are you going to pay for it?


It is going to take a lot of management, we get back to work today. Here

we are the day after the election, in the office, back to work, working

on implementing our promises and paying for them all.


Bob Brown says it will be a nastier country now because of this victory,

what is your reaction to that?


Well it is just silly, a silly thing to say. You know, this will be a country

which will continue strong economic management, people will stay in work,

families will be able to afford their mortgages and plan for the future,

I hope that technical education will be improved, that we will be a strong

country respected internationally so it is a silly thing to say, to say



Do you think Mark Latham will survive as Leader?


He will survive as Leader for a while and then probably mid next year the

talk will start.


So who will be the two leaders contesting the next election?


Well I don’t know what will happen to Mr Latham, you know, there

is an attempt in the papers to say it is all the fault of Mr Crean. I don’t

think you can blame Mr Crean, he wasn’t the Leader, Mr Latham was

the Leader and Mr Latham has to take responsibility for what happened. These

attempts to try and shoot the blame off to Crean or somebody else, Mr Latham

took the decisions, it was a presidential campaign, it was deliberately

a presidential campaign by him, he had none of his colleagues on the stage

at his launch, not his Deputy Leader, not his Shadow Treasurer, just him,

and he will have to take responsibility.


Do you think there is any chance John Howard will contest the next election?


Well Neil as I have said, I am not going into all of those things other

than to say…


(inaudible) involving you (inaudible).


…well that is a matter for him, he has made his position entirely

clear through the course of the campaign.


Are you going to keep talking about other issues, you (inaudible)…?


Absolutely, yes and very pleased to take the opportunity to speak out on

wider issues.


What did the PM say to you when you spoke immediately after the result?


He said to see what a fantastic result it was. We discussed the seats.

I obviously congratulated him and he thanked me for the work I had done

in the campaign. It was, as you can imagine, it was quite a happy conversation.

It was probably, probably the same conversation you have with your producer

when you win a ratings war, I imagine.


Probably. Are you going to take some time off?


Well we are at work today and it will be pretty full boar actually up until

Christmas. New Government will have to been sworn in. Parliament will have

to be recalled. I will have to start work on next year’s Budget in

the next two or three weeks.


Looking forward to that, number 10.


Looking forward to that and but hopefully at Christmas time we can have

a couple of weeks off over Christmas so we will just hold on until then,

now Neil.


Thank you for coming in just to finish a great weekend. I owe you $20 because

Essendon won.


Thank you very much. Why don’t you give it to your favourite charity.


Well you might need it with the promises of $14 billion, you might need

your 20 bucks.


Well Neil just as long as you keep supporting Melbourne, I will keep taking

money off you on a regular basis.


Thank you for your time, congratulations.




Treasurer, Peter Costello.