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Tim Fischer, Deputy Prime Minister

LAURIE OAKES - POLITICAL EDITOR:
Good morning, Jim. Mr. Fischer, welcome to the programme. Before we talk politics, what can you tell us about that Australia will do to help the victims of the PNG tidal wave?

TIM FISCHER - DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER:
It is an horrific disaster, as Minister Alexander Downer announced last night. We've diverted a C130 Hercules aircraft which was in the area in operation in Papua New Guinea to provide some relief supplies immediately. And also the Government will now be providing a mobile medical hospital and personnel associated with the mobile medical hospital to the area and assisting and liaising further with Prime Minister Skate and indeed, with the Papua New Guinea authorities to do what we can reasonably do to assist in what seems to be an horrific loss of life.

OAKES:
Do you have any ... the latest estimates of how bad the loss of life is?

FISCHER:
It is hundreds with hundreds injured, many of them children, and Australia has a particular and special and positive relationship with Papua New Guinea, and we'll be further liaising with the Papua New Guinea Government to provide realistic help in those circumstances. It's the least we should do, we will do, and I might add, we also export a great deal to Papua New Guinea, it's in our interest.

OAKES:
Okay, the National Party. What are you going to do about the disunity that's come to the fore?

FISCHER:
Well, I reiterate that the commitment to stay in a purposeful coalition looking to the next century, the next millennium, is absolutely my position, and indeed the position of members of the parliamentary National Party broadly stated, and indeed the organisation, president Don McDonald and through that. But of course, in the aftermath of the Queensland election, yes, there has been some slippage, I am not going to deny that, but I'm also going to deal with it. And it includes a combination of loosening up, fine tuning. The Australia Post decision, post the Queensland elections, is a very positive breakthrough for country Australia.

Richard Alston and I were fully involved in ensuring that there was a logical outcome.

OAKES:
But that didn't stop your own troops from continuing to attack you and to attack the Government.

FISCHER:
And it's a great pity, because that drowned out the practical nature of the Australia Post decision, the standard letter rate remains, Australia Post office mail centres remain open throughout country Australia, no privatisation of Australia Post. And that's why we'd urge that everyone emphasise the breakthroughs which this government is providing ... the very good government that it is providing to all Australians.

OAKES:
Well, there's an old saying, a hackneyed saying, that a party that can't govern itself can't govern the country. Do you agree with that? And isn't that what we're seeing at the moment?

FISCHER:
Disunity in politics is death, and I'm going to have to work even harder at that circumstance, and also liaise ... I've been out in the last few days, taking my political medicine from Wentworth to Wee Waa yesterday, and beyond, and not just listening though. I mean, the Government is actually, under Prime Minister John Howard, making some of the decisions which perhaps could have been made earlier, in the advantage of all our hindsight.

But let's take one small one, sugar. They've got a major problem with the CCS level, which is a content level, very important to export value, so we're addressing that, and putting an extra thirteen million dollars into that, to give one specific example, right through to getting Telstra infrastructure up to scratch in country Australia.

OAKES:
But as you say, it may be all too late. I notice you're quoted today as saying there's a real possibility Labor could win the forthcoming election. Well, did you say that to try and shock your troops into line? Or do you really think John Howard could prove to be a one term wonder?

FISCHER:
That remark before the mobile phone dropped out, when talking to that journalist, twice, was made in the context of a snapshot in time. At this time I'm going to ensure that that is not going to be the case. But there is a volatility in politics today which all of the senior ministers recognise - John Anderson, Peter Costello, John Howard - we all recognise that, and that's why we are determined to put realistic policies before Australians, offer them a real choice. I guess that choice is about the politics of hate and division and fear and taxation status quo, and all the damage that does to exporters, versus the politics of achievable progress, expanding our export base and bringing in fair dinkum and fair tax reform for the PAYE workers and exporters.

OAKES:
But people don't believe you, do they? I notice John Anderson, your deputy, saying yesterday, that the turmoil and the shifting sands could crush him in his seat. That applies to the whole National Party, doesn't it?

FISCHER:
So, we have to work even harder at putting down fair policy benchmarks for the next elections. And when you get into that thirty-three day campaign it is a bit different from state elections. I've contested both of course. And you do have an absolute focus on the leaders, and you have an absolute focus on policy. And there cannot be any policy fudge. I'll be standing on a platform for pay dirt for PAYE workers, long overdue, they've been carrying more than their fair share of governance costs, part dirt for exporters, pay dirt for fixing the transport tax system in this country.

My opponents, including One Nation and Labor, will be standing on a policy of total opposition to a broad based indirect tax, therefore higher transport taxes, higher PAYE taxes.

OAKES:
But you'll be out there in the shadow of John Howard and the Liberal Party. Doesn't the National Party need to differentiate itself from the Liberals?

FISCHER:
Well, this is a mantra which Doug Anthony, I thought, addressed very clearly the other day, and it is ... always been thus. It is a difficult road to hoe. It is, as Jim would say, a rock and a hard place. But look at what we've delivered from that position of between rock and a hard place. It is the triple-A package. It's bringing back farm management deposit scheme that actually works, which Labor took away.

OAKES:
But the bush, clearly, doesn't think you've delivered much.

FISCHER:
Well, I think it's being drowned out by a great deal of static. But I would say to country Australia, look at exactly what has happened over the last two years in terms of so many of our export oriented industries. In fact, as Minister for Trade, we will report officially in a few days' time, an all time record set of exports to the world. Full marks to our exporters. We've been urging them to diversify - they have. And we've also put real energy into the country to country bilateral negotiations, which has expanded our market access, so that no one can really throw a rock at me in relation to trade portfolio performance whatsoever.

OAKES:
And yet in the bush, people still think the National Party is the same as the Liberal Party. Would it have been better if the party had not changed its name, if it was still the Country Party?

FISCHER:
That's also a bit of a mantra. We represent a lot of coastal seats. Some have difficulty with that. That's for the organisation to decide. I respect the organisation and its contributing role in making recommendations in relation to policy, though they certainly believe that to make a further change in that regard at this time would not be the right thing.

OAKES:
You don't want to go back to the old name.

FISCHER:
Not at this time. I think it's for the organisation however, and if the organisation wants to return to that after the next cycle of elections that's their decision.

OAKES:
Now, Richard Alston said the other day, talking about the Queensland Nationals and One Nation, if you run around trying to mimic someone else's agenda and think the punters are going to vote for you then you're sadly mistaken, they'll vote for the real thing. Do you agree?

FISCHER:
I think Richard and I have a particularly close working relationship. We went to the same secondary school many years ago - in my case, even longer, he's younger than me. But it's a case that ... there's a degree of truth on that. But it also allows me to say that in respect of telecommunications, what are we looking at? We're looking at liaising with the Telstra board - and full marks to the board to make ... on making the CDMA decision to bring forward a handpiece which will switch automatically between analogue and digital. Four hundred million dollars, resolving a Labor mess on mobile phones.

But we're also going to liaise with the Telstra board to appoint two rural and regional directors to that board, long overdue, and more breakthrough ... cut through communications, we get a more sensitive performance by Telstra with regard to their existing infrastructure, as well as boosting infrastructure in country Australia.

OAKES:
So, that would be a means of making Telstra more responsive to the needs of the bush you believe?

FISCHER:
In a proper and commercial way, and in liaison with the board, remembering that that's only part of an equation. It was always in the legislation ... Telstra ... possibilities that we would sell down by stages, sell down by tranches, taking into account market conditions and factors.

OAKES:
But is that going to fool anybody? The legislation would still say the goal is to sell a hundred per cent of Telstra. So, why would anyone believe that you're not going to do that if you're just going to do that in stages?

FISCHER:
Well, they might believe it because it's a very big ask on the capital markets of a country of eighteen million people, but a good GDP and one that's continuing to grow against the odds. But they might also believe it because that is a logical way to have that option in. But the overall objective of a full sell-off is a policy approach which is cogent and correct and is the best way to pay off the huge debt the Federal Government still owes the world.

OAKES:
The federal president, Don McDonald, in that now well publicised letter he wrote to you on behalf of the federal management committee, said the committee specifically calls on you and John Anderson to meet the Prime Minister and advise him that your party will not support any more than a forty-nine per cent sale of Telstra. Did you and John Anderson do that?

FISCHER:
Yes, we did.

OAKES:
And what did John Howard say?

FISCHER:
Well, I don't dwell on the internal da... internal aspects of government, I'm not going to add to the burden of the situation. But I'm leader of the National Party first, Minister for Trade, Deputy Prime Minister, and of course, at the threshold point, first and foremost, Federal Member for Farrer. And in all those roles you're in constant contact.

OAKES:
But you and your deputy went to John Howard and you said, my party, our party, won't support more than a forty-nine per cent sell-off. He said, hard luck Tim. But you're still in the Coalition.

FISCHER:
No, no. The Cabinet situation in the Coalition is that there is always a range of policy debates on critical matters, including Telstra, on ... including Aus Post [sic], including Federal budget, getting it back into surplus, but the right priorities to do that, and we participate fully in that. And furthermore we formally ... and I formally, in the Prime Minister's office, presented a communication to the Prime Minister, and I don't dwell on all of that because that's a part of the internal workings of government.

OAKES:
But you can see why the bush doesn't think you're fair dinkum, can't you?

FISCHER:
Well, I think they ought to look at what has been delivered to country Australia - not enough - we've only been there two and a half years, and we had to address that ten billion dollar Beazley budget deficit and policy vacuum that he offers. So, give us a chance, and a deserved chance, on merit, and when you see the fullness of the tax reform policies, I think there will be a mood swing associated with that.

Difficult as a broad based indirect tax might be, if it is pay dirt for PAYE tax payers, for exporters hard pressed on the tax system as it stands, and for rural and regional Australia, people are going to sit up and take notice.

OAKES:
How do feel about the section of Don McDonald's letter calling for the referendum to appeal the constitutional power to pass laws helping Aborigines? How do feel about leading a party that wants that?

FISCHER:
Well, it's all about a desire to obtain true equality, a colour blind constitution through a right ...

OAKES:
Or is it ... or is it ... or is it about out-Hansoning Hanson?

FISCHER:
But if it's about an aspect of elevating racism in a negative way, of course I would not want for that, and neither would Don McDonald. And there's another technicality which has got to be studied in a bit more detail, and that is what impact it would have on the Wik outcome and the ten point plan, and I don't have yet enough information on that, because I want to say this - a ten point plan delivered a great deal of certainty within the postscript of the Wik decision. It is, to quote Frank Brennan SJ, it will pass muster, quote-unquote. And Noel Pearson, that first twelve hours of Noel Pearson was ... is correct reaction, and his real reaction, it was a fair outcome, and then the lobby got to him. But I want, as I say, we delivered Wik, I don't want to unscramble Wik.

OAKES:
But just to clarify this, you're not saying out of hand that this is a silly idea, repealing that section of the Constitution? You're prepared to look at it?

FISCHER:
Well, I'm not saying that there'll be any referendum, we don't need any referendum associated with the next federal elections. This is ...

OAKES:
But subsequent to that, would you look at it?

FISCHER:
But I do not believe that it is a wise course of action unless I can be convinced that it is truly about providing a colour blind constitution in terms of the law of the land, and I'm having more examination of that.

OAKES:
Wilson Tuckey, talking about the Nationals repositioning themselves the other day, came out with a great line. He said, I don't know why they don't just ask Tim Fischer to dye his hair a deeper shade of red. I mean, he's got a good point, hasn't he?

FISCHER:
Well, I think he hasn't because we have always been written off ahead of every federal election. Under my leadership our seats have actually gone up at each federal election. I've led this party into government. And we're not going to roll over, as a party, to the forces of negative hate, and we're not going to roll over to the forces of policy vacuum which would shackle our export industries, because we are the real economic keys of hope for country towns, large and small. They are in... expanding our export base - the wine industry, fifteen million to over seven hundred million dollars of wine exports this year.

But helping those like citrus and pork get into profitable exports on a bigger way, they're very hard pressed at this time. More to come.

OAKES:
Mr Fischer, how do you react to the almost open talk about your leadership, members of your party saying the trouble with Tim Fischer is he's not strong and independent enough within the Coalition, he kowtows to John Howard and the Liberals?

FISCHER:
Well, they can't have it both ways. And I would point back again to a decision announced just on Thursday, the Australia Post decision. Now, I put it to you, that if there was no National Party would there have been a more wholesale deregulation approach, even as late as eighteen months ago, with regard to Australia Post? Perhaps there would have been. This was a balanced correct decision. And I now have, for the first time, an opportunity to spell out that that was notching back from sweeping deregulation of Australia Post, government retaining ownership of Australia Post, and pushing back two years any of the modest changes involved but retaining the community standard letter rate and the cross-subsidy involved.

I'm proud of that decision. I wish and hope that the branches throughout the party might say you have got it absolutely right on Australia Post, that is a correct decision for both the Liberal and National Party for the Coalition and for Australia.

OAKES:
Mr Fischer, we're out of time. We thank you.

Transcript supplied by Rehame Australia.



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