Peter Costello

Media Transcripts

December Quarter National Accounts; OECD Report; drought; bulk billing; leadership

TRANSCRIPT

THE HON PETER COSTELLO MP
Treasurer

Interview with Kerry O'Brien
7.30 Report

Wednesday, 5 March 2003
7.45pm

SUBJECTS: December Quarter National Accounts; OECD Report; drought; bulk billing; leadership

O'BRIEN:

Peter Costello, on the economy, the OECD says we are one of the better economies in the world, but at the same time we are systematically slowing down and we've got a record current account deficit and record foreign debt. How do you explain the contradictions?

TREASURER:

Well, Kerry, the OECD has said that Australia is one of the stronger growing economies of the world and is resilient. And, I think the figures today showed what it meant by resilient. We are in the worst drought probably in a century, and yet the Australian economy continues to grow, not as much as it has been, but it continues to grow by 3 per cent. The last time we had drought of this dimension it was inevitably accompanied by recession and wide spread unemployment. And yet we have come through his drought, still in it, and hopefully it will end, with an economy which is still growing and growing faster than most of the rest of the world which proves that there is resilience.

And, as I said today there are really two stories. There is the farm economy, which has been through a severe recession and has been hit savagely, and then there is the remainder of the Australian economy which continues to out-perform the world and grows strong, led by business investment. And when you put the two together the Australian economy, thankfully, continues to grow.

O'BRIEN:

Labor says that for the first time ever, Australian households are spending more than they earn. They point to a collapse in savings. Does that concern you?

TREASURER:

Well, again, what the National Accounts show, and the statistician made the point, is, that there wasn't a positive savings ratio because the household income includes agricultural farming, non-incorporated businesses. And those agricultural businesses are not getting in any income. They are spending more than they are receiving. They are not saving. And as a consequence of that you have a negative savings ratio. Now, that is a consequence of drought, and obviously...

O'BRIEN:

But that hasn't happened in past droughts has it? I mean we had the drought that led to the last recession but the savings ratio did not dip into the negative then did it? So it's more than that isn't it?

TREASURER:

Well, no farmer is saving at the moment. Farmers are spending on stock and feed, and they are not getting income, so when you add that in, and the statistician made that point in the National Accounts today, when you add that in, that is what produces this particular outcome.

O'BRIEN:

So, you are not worried about savings?

TREASURER:

Well, Kerry, I am never one to say to people, don't save. I think saving is important, we have some compulsory schemes and we have some voluntary schemes, so I will never say that. But what I can say to you, is that that outcome is a feature of the drought and hopefully the drought will pass. And when it does when the agricultural sector gets back into income it will take that one-off out of those figures.

O'BRIEN:

How do you, Peter Costello, evaluate the personal cost to farmers themselves. We've got the big picture figures, how do you evaluate it at the farmer level?

TREASURER:

It is awful. It is the heartbreak of seeing no crop in the ground. It is the heartbreak of disposing of stock, of seeing stock die in the field. You know the whole of New South Wales is now drought declared, and every farmer is now eligible, subject to an income and assets test, to drought assistance in the whole of the State. You see it in other ways. The National Accounts today said that we lost 20,000 jobs in the agricultural sector...

O'BRIEN:

60,000 in the last two quarters.

TREASURER:

...and added to that 40,000 in the quarter before. Now, as it turns out, the number of jobs in Australia, overall, is still increasing. That's because the non-farm economy is growing so strongly that it can make up for those 60,000 jobs, and more so. But in the agricultural sector that is very severe.

O'BRIEN:

Do you know, for instance, what farm incomes have fallen by?

TREASURER:

Well, farm incomes are essentially zero in most of Australia at the moment. Farmers are drawing down on savings. They are not making any money. And what people have got to understand, of course, it is not just the living expenses, because the Government has now stepped in with assistance - farmers are eligible to apply for Newstart, what used to be called the dole, they can get the dole, and that puts...

O'BRIEN:

(inaudible) it seems though...

TREASURER:

...food on their table.

O'BRIEN:

There seems to be a lot of frustration about how the system is working and the National Farmers Federation are pleading with you for substantially more funding support for farmers in the May Budget, both to help them survive right now, and as you say many of them are struggling to put food on the table, and then to get back on their feet when the drought is over...

TREASURER:

Yes...

O'BRIEN:

...are you going to be able to give them more money?

TREASURER:

Well, I was going to go into it. There are two elements, there is income support and every farmer in New South wales is now eligible for what we call Newstart, or the dole, and that gives them the equivalent payment of an unemployed person, and that is for food on the table.

O'BRIEN:

Yes.

TREASURER:

Secondly, as I was going to go on to say, their business expenses don't stop, you see, this is the business expense of hand feeding, or the business expense of keeping the stock, or the business expense, hopefully, of cultivating the land, or whatever. Now, this is where you can get additional business support, that's where the difficulty has been.

O'BRIEN:

(Inaudible), the Farmers Federation are saying it is not enough...

TREASURER:

No, I think what they are saying...

O'BRIEN:

...I'm asking, are you going to find more money in the Budget?

TREASURER:

I think what they're saying, they're saying it's taking far too long to get out...

O'BRIEN:

They also want it in different forms and they want more money.

TREASURER:

...and we are looking at this because a lot of this being administered by the State agriculture departments and we also want to know why it's taking so long to get out, and I can assure the farmers of this, the Commonwealth is going to be breathing down those departments to make sure that that money does get out, but I can tell them this...

O'BRIEN:

I wonder who is going to breath down your neck.

TREASURER:

...well the money that's paid out through Centrelink, that's paid out for the dole, for income support is being received and being accessed immediately.

O'BRIEN:

OK, can we move onto Medicare and bulk billing which you have had a lot to say about in the last few days, in particular that Medicare was never designed for doctors to bulk bill every patient, it was never designed to be universal, that's bulk billing. Who exactly should be entitled to the benefits of bulk billing?

TREASURER:

Well, we have never had 100 per cent coverage of the Australian public with bulk billing.

O'BRIEN:

No, no, that's acknowledged. But who should be entitled to it?

TREASURER:

Well, so you want to make sure that bulk billing is available to as many people as possible, and certainly available to low income earners such as pensioners and the like. Now, this question came up today, somebody said, well are you objecting to 100 per cent bulk billing, and I said no, of course not. If the doctors are prepared to serve everybody in Australia for 85 per cent of the scheduled fee, fantastic...

O'BRIEN:

But you know yourself, that the reason the bulk billing, the reason that fewer doctors are bulk billing, is because they say they can't afford it, they're going out the door backwards in terms of their own business. So, we know that you are never going to get 100 per cent, in fact it's declined from a peak of 80 per cent for GPs to 70 per cent with every sign that it is going to go lower. So what should be the level of bulk billing, and who should get it?

TREASURER:

...and so that's if as you say that doctors are never going to extend it, never have extended it to 100 per cent of the public then you would want to make sure that it goes to the most needy and ...

O'BRIEN:

So who decides that?

TREASURER:

...well they are the people who are on pensions or low income earners, and the Government is looking at measures to actually encourage bulk billing wider coverage to the low income earner.

O'BRIEN:

But who is going to decide that? Your saying, you've said categorically no means testing for bulk billing, are you going to leave it to the doctor to decide who is worthy of, or needy enough to get bulk billed?

TREASURER:

Well, Doctors do decide that to some extent because the evidence is that they do actually have higher bulk billing rates for pensioners and low income earners, but we think that there are other things that can be done to encourage that and we are looking at that at the moment.

O'BRIEN:

But are you saying that patients should go in and show their health card, their pension card, their dole card, is that what should happen?

TREASURER:

A lot of them do. In fact you will find that in a lot of surgeries they do show their pension cards and that's why the rate of bulk billing among pensioners is much higher than it is amongst the general population.

O'BRIEN:

So you're not going to means test but you want doctors to means test?

TREASURER:

No we are not going to means test. What I am saying is that many doctors extend bulk billing to pensioners at the moment, whereas they don't extend it to higher income earners and we want to encourage them to continue and to widen the extent of bulk billing amongst lower income earners and people who are pensioners.

O'BRIEN:

Very quickly before we go, once again the old leadership question that keeps coming up, and it's coming up tonight because the Prime Minister put it back on the map today, when he said in the Parliament that basically he will be around for the next 18 months in the Parliament. That takes him to the next term, I imagine that you would welcome the news that he will be around to lead you into the next election.

TREASURER:

I think what he said in the Parliament today, and I would thoroughly endorse this, is the longer the Labor Party talks about interest rates the longer we will engage them on the issue...

O'BRIEN:

No, no he said that basically he will be happy to sit in the Parliament for the next 18 months and hear it and deal with it.

TREASURER:

He said he would be happy to sit there and remind the Labor Party of it's record on interest rates for a very long time, as will I Kerry.

O'BRIEN:

For 18 months, to the next election?

TREASURER:

I'd be happy to do it for 18 years.

O'BRIEN:

Peter Costello, Thank you.

TREASURER:

Thank you.

 

5 Mar 2003

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