Laurie Oakes

Sunday August 8, 2010
Laurie (google)

LO: LO: Minister, welcome to the program.

NR: Good morning.

LO: Mark Latham, what do you think of him?

NR: Well, look, I think we're seeing a lot of former leaders from both sides of politics appearing during this campaign. I think that when it comes to election day people will be much more focused on what we're offering in terms of alternatives, what the Gillard Government can deliver and what Mr Abbott is promising as prime minister. But we've seen John Hewson, we’ve seen Bob Hawke, we’ve seen Malcolm Fraser, we’ve had a whole cast of former leaders making appearances. And it adds colour and movement, but ultimately, it doesn't actually focus on the real issues that will affect the community, and that's keeping the economy strong, which enables us to invest in the health services, the area closest to my heart. And there couldn't be a starker difference between us and the Liberal Party on both of those issues.

LO: But why do you think that Mark Latham is doing the kind of thing that he did yesterday? By the way, our CEO apologised on behalf of this network and said that he crossed the line. But why do you think he's doing that to his old party?

NR: Well I don't know. I can't speculate what his motivation is, but I think, really, we all know that ultimately the public cares much more about what a Government will do for them, whether it is providing more health services or investing in having world class schools, than they are about personalities. And ultimately, that's a matter for the media, how much attention is given to personalities and how much attention is given to the former leaders. But really, when you look at Malcolm Fraser saying that Mr Abbott is not ready to govern, and Peter Costello saying that Mr Abbott is bored by economics, he's got some pretty big issues to worry about on his side of politics and that's what happens in election campaigns.

LO: But it is the Labor Party itself that's created the Rudd monster, if you like. It is because of what happened to Kevin Rudd that he is now dominating the campaign.

NR: Well, I think the Labor Party, as we famously said before, is bigger than just one person. And I think that's what former prime minister Kevin Rudd has made clear, and certainly what Julia Gillard as Prime Minister has made clear. It's actually what we offer as a Labor Government that is going to be in people's minds when they vote on election day, and there is a vast range of differences between us. Being able to keep the economy strong, being able to get rid of WorkChoices, being able to deliver the National Broadband Network, and in health and education, implementing some changes that have never been tackled before, and interestingly, when it comes to health, an issue where Mr Abbott didn't have the guts as the Health Minister to be able to pursue the ambitious changes that will improve services to our children, to grandmas...

LO: I hate to point it out, but all of the things that you're mentioning happened under Kevin Rudd. They became policy under Kevin Rudd, they were implemented under Kevin Rudd, and yet, the Labor Party threw Kevin Rudd out. If he did such wonderful things, why did you do that?

NR: Well I don't think anybody has been trying to walk away from what have been very ambitious health reforms, and Prime Minister Gillard has made clear that this is something that is a very positive legacy of Prime Minister Rudd. But ultimately...

LO: But that's the whole point. If he did this and if he had this legacy, why did you throw him out?

NR: Well I think we've been through all of that before. We've made clear that there were a range of issues where we believed we needed to take a different direction. This is one where we are determined to be able to implement ambitious reforms, because we know that they are going to deliver better services. We know that mums and dads want to be able to ring a GP in the middle of the night to get some advice about a sick child. We know people want to get their hip replacement done more quickly. These are things that Mr Abbott is tossing out the window. He has them on the health cuts list, and I think the challenge for Mr Abbott today when he's launching his campaign, is to explain to people - he's in Brisbane - Mr Abbott needs to explain to the people of Queensland why he is taking away commitments for GP superclinics, extra beds in hospitals across the country, from Cairns to Townsville, Queen Elizabeth Hospital. Mr Abbott needs to explain why those communities don't deserve those services, and so far, we've heard nothing on that.

LO: I wonder if you and others in senior positions in the Labor Party appreciate the irony of the situation. Julia Gillard hoping to be rescued by the bloke she knifed?

NR: Well, look, I think that the context that you may want to put it in, Laurie. But ultimately...

LO: Is there another context?

NR: Well I am a strong believer in thinking and being able to point to many examples where Labor, as a party, has a history of delivering health reforms, and this is not just one prime minister's history, this goes back to introducing the pharmaceutical benefits scheme. Introducing Medicare and now fundamentally reforming the way that we fund the hospitals and the GP services. That's greater than any one person. There's many people who have contributed fabulously to that. But we are taking to the community an opportunity for them to decide whether they want to improve and enhance their health services further, or whether they want to go back to Mr Abbott cutting those services.

LO: On the night of the leadership change, you said you were sad, but you added and I quote, "What would have been more sad is for us to not give ourselves the best chance." In other words, you thought you wouldn't win the election under Kevin Rudd. Now you seem to think that you can't win it without him.

NR: Well again, I don't agree with that assessment Laurie. I think that we have done the right thing to give ourselves the best chance to win an election, which is going to be fundmentally a photo finish. We've always said that it was going to be really difficult. I don't think that the media or the community believed it was going to be difficult. I think now there is a new focus on that, and if the polls that we're seeing today and in the last couple of days are correct, Mr Abbott would be the Prime Minister in two weeks time and I think that would be a devastating impact for the community. We will see cuts again to health services. Communities from the Gold Coast to Wynham to Townsville, to Cairns, let alone the rest of the country, but I know everyone is focused on... And I think you're in Brisbane today too... The impact on those communities will be devastating. Our health service will not be invested in, will stop the National Broadband rollout. Our economy is going to be in the hands of someone who is already bored with the economy and thinks we should copy New Zealand when they went into recession. This is a big choice. That will be a very bad outcome for the country and we want people, of course, to focus on what we, as a Labor Government offer, which will improve their lives into the future and the risks that Mr Abbott poses.

LO: The kind of message that you're trying to get out today has been obscured I guess, by the whole soap opera thing in the Labor Party. How do you shake off the soap opera for the final fortnight and get on to proper mainstream campaigning?

NR: Well we've been campaigning across the country from day one, and it is interesting because...

LO: No-one has noticed because of the soap opera.

NR: Well I think in local communities, people do notice. I think people notice when I go to the QE2 hospital in Brisbane and say they are going to get a new palliative care ward, when I can announce to a community that they're getting 20 extra beds, when we can explain that there is going to be a superclinic in their community so they can get afterhours care. Communities do understand that. It is true that that hasn't always been in the national headlines, but I think, increasingly, people are focusing on the local impact for them, and when they see that their schools and their children won't get computers that they need for their studies or where they worry that their jobs might be at risk because Mr Abbott hasn't got any strong economic record, in fact he's got a very dubious one, these are pretty big issues and I suspect people are actually quite focused and quite concerned about those. Not just about the personality politics that of course we've seen dominate much of the campaign nationally.

LO: Well before Tony Abbott came out with his health policy the other day, you claimed on the basis of his record as Health Minister, that he would want to wind back health spending. In fact, he's proposed quite a significant increase, hasn't he?

NR: Well no, he hasn't Laurie. What he has actually proposed...

LO: Well, $3.1 billion, an extra 2,800 hospital beds. That's pretty big.

NR: Well, $3.1 billion compared to our $7.4 billion of extra spending - 2,800 beds, 1,000 of which he hasn't actually accounted for in his budgeting. So I actually don't accept that these are commitments that are real. He has either not costed them properly, in which case there's a half a billion dollar hole, or they're a 1,000 beds short. And he can't tell us where those beds will be. He can't tell communities that have commitments already made to them whether he will honour those. And I think this is actually quite a damaging policy which has been put together in a rush, and which makes clear, by the way, that he will not pay for any beds until they are actually set up. So effectively, writing IOUs for millions of dollars across the country where we pay and he might actually pay in the end. I don't think that...

LO: But isn’t that better than the kind of thing we’ve seen with school halls, where money is sort of loaded up at the front and then the States can do what they like?

NR: Well, if it were a situation where States could do what they liked, that would be right. But that is not the situation agreed to by us with the States and Territories. There are, in fact, much more strict performance accounting measures. There are strict quality measures. There are new pricing arrangements. All things which Mr Abbott is trashing. He's cutting funding for all of those things. He won't even support the My Hospitals website, which would allow consumers to compare what is happening at their local hospital and another. This is a man who when he was the Health Minister said he thought this was a good idea, and now he's trashing it as part of his savings to make a big headline promise on beds which he will never deliver.

LO: You say that he won't deliver, you say he hasn't funded his promises, but Labor to fund your promises is going to rip $300 million out of Medibank Private as a special dividend. Why can't the money go to policyholders?

NR: Well, this is a one-off event. Of course we have made sure...

LO: I'm sure policyholders wouldn't mind a one-off premium cut either.

NR: Well, by its nature, from tuning it from a not-for-profit organisation into one which has its separate corporate identity and does pay a benefit to taxpayers well into the future. But remember the comparison here is that Mr Abbott wants to sell off Medibank and have it be entirely private. There will be no benefits that are paid to taxpayers and there won't be then any sort of competitive tension which exists from having at least a majority publicly owned private health insurer compared with others. So I think you do have to look at the two different options that are being put forward here, and Mr Abbott has always said that he would sell off Medibank. He doesn't really seem to believe that there's a public role in health at all because we know that he cut $1 billion from public hospitals when he was in Government. And we're fearful that if he's the Prime Minister, he'll take that approach to health spending again, just cuts and cuts and cuts.

LO: In his policy speech today, Mr Abbott will say that the coalition are the better economic managers and he'll be able to point to opinion polls showing that the punters agree with him.

NR: Well I think that it is our job certainly, to make clear again to people really the extraordinary work that was done in protecting the economy from the global financial crisis and the hundreds of thousands of people that have kept their jobs as a result of it. And in comparison, you have Mr Abbott, who even the former Treasurer Peter Costello says is not interested in the economics, whose former leader, Malcolm Fraser, says he's not fit to govern. These sorts of issues I think are pretty important, when you have the New Zealand Finance Minister saying he's bemused by this debate and Mr Abbott's praising the situation in New Zealand, when actually they went into recession and we were able to protect Australia from that. So I think there will be a big focus for the rest of this campaign on Mr Abbott's ability to manage the economy. The risks of not being able to manage it, and of course, then the cost to the community in terms of services that can be delivered, whether it is through health or education or the National Broadband Network.

LO: You lay down a couple of markers. What should Mr Abbott do in his policy speech today?

NR: I think the challenge for Mr Abbott is to explain to communities across the country why they don't deserve a GP super clinic. Why mums and dads across the country shouldn't be able to pick up the phone at no cost and get a GP to talk to in the middle of the night? Why there shouldn't be faster access to elective surgery if your grandma needs a hip replacement? He needs to explain to the Cairns community or the Townsville community why they shouldn't get the extra beds that our Government is delivering because of a partnership with the States and Territories. And if he doesn't do that, the community is entitled to say - why should we vote for him if he can't protect these extra services or guarantee them coming to our community? What is in it for us?

LO: Minister, we're out of time, but we thank you.

NR: Thanks very much.

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