Peter Costello

Media Transcripts

Press Conference, Parliament House, Canberra

Transcript 

of

THE HON PETER COSTELLO MP

FEDERAL MEMBER FOR HIGGINS

Press Conference

Parliament House, Canberra

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

1.15pm



E & OE

SUBJECTS:      Peter Costello

MR COSTELLO:

Ladies and gentlemen I have had requests for about 30 interviews today and I can't do them all.  We backbenchers only have one staff here in Canberra but I have the best staff imaginable - Philippa. And I want to thank Philippa for all the work that she does.

So I thought the best thing to do was to come down here and to throw myself at your mercy and see if I could answer any questions that you might have.  I just want to say one thing which is that I didn't expect yesterday to have the opportunity to speak in the House of Representatives.  I didn't expect that both the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister would say the kind things they did and it gave me the opportunity to speak to the Parliament and I appreciated it.  I think it is good for the Parliament that significant statements are made there.  Once upon a time if a Minister resigned they would come into the Parliament and they would explain their reasons.  That doesn't seem to happen any more.  When people retired they would come into the Parliament and they would give their appreciation of politics.  We MPs who value the Parliament ought to treat it with respect.  Because if we don't treat it with respect the public won't treat it with respect. 

When I first arrived here in Canberra there used to be a glass case out the front next to the House of Representatives entrance and in it was an excerpt from something written by Sir Robert Menzies.  He said: "I believe that politics is the most important and responsible civil activity to which a man" and we can interpose or woman "may devote his (or her) character, his talents and his energy.  We must in our own interest elevate politics into statesmanship and statecraft.  We must aim at a condition of affairs in which we shall no longer reserve the dignified name of statesman for a Churchill or a Roosevelt, but extend it to lesser men who give honourable and patriotic service in public affairs."

I made an enquiry by the way as to where that statement from Sir Robert went and it seems to have been whisked away at some point during renovations in the Parliament House.  But it's true - what more can you ask of people than to give honourable and patriotic service to their country?  And it is something that I always wanted to do - to give honourable service to my country. 

I came to Canberra to make a difference.  You will judge but I think over 20 years I have made a difference and I feel that I can leave with honour.  I wanted to leave at a time of my own choosing.  I have seen too many people grow old in politics and get trapped by it.  I have seen others that have had the electorate decide the time of their departure or the preselectors decide the time of their departure.  I have seen others grow bitter in politics by defeat.  And I don't want to be any of those things.  I wanted to choose the timing of my departure, not have it done by the electorate, by the preselectors or even by you men and women of the press.  I wanted to do that myself and I wanted to do it at a time where I could depart with honour having served my country which is what I came here to do.  And it has been a great privilege. 

And one of the things I have enjoyed most of all is dealing with the press.  The thing I have learned about all of you is the less you say the more mysterious you become.  And I have perfected the art of saying nothing and you gave me column inches that I couldn't believe.  And I thank you all very much for that. 

Are there any questions?

JOURNALIST:

As George Brandis suggested do you believe you were double-crossed by John Howard Mr Costello?

MR COSTELLO:

I really don't want to go back into all of that.  I have written a book.  It's all there. It is coming out in paperback shortly.  You make your own conclusions, I present the facts, you draw your own conclusions.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Costello when did you decide that you were going to leave?

MR COSTELLO:

Well really before the 2007 Election.

JOURNALIST:

When did you decide on the timing of the announcement?

MR COSTELLO:

I announced the day after the 2007 Election that I would not run for the leadership and that I would look to exit from politics.  I thought maybe I should not come back to the Parliament.  But this thought ran through my mind, if I have just been elected to a three year term, and I believe the Parliament is important I can't run from it.  I didn't particularly enjoy coming back to be frank because you're seated at the back and you have got to take the slings and the arrows but I thought I ought to do that as well - come and get a bit of punishment.  I gave enough over the years so I thought I ought to come and take some.  And my...

JOURNALIST:

Which is more fun?

MR COSTELLO:

...my colleagues, many of my colleagues wanted me to stay, my electorate wanted me to stay, my preselectors wanted me to stay but I really had made that decision the day after the 2007 Election. Sorry Annabel?

JOURNALIST:

Did you waver in the subsequent 18 months?

MR COSTELLO:

Oh look you know when people come and tell you how indispensable you are there is a tendency to believe it.  But I have always had one motto in my life, it was never believe your own propaganda.  Never believe your own propaganda.  So I was always a bit of a sceptic about myself when it came to those things.  Mr Bongiorno, sir?

JOURNALIST:

So you are definitely not returning - Colin Barnett comes to mind - he actually announced his retirement and someone was preselected and now he is the Premier of WA?

MR COSTELLO:

Well I don't think that I will become the Premier of WA Paul.

JOURNALIST:

I will concede to that.

MR COSTELLO:

Look as I said I came to Parliament to try and make a difference.  I ran for election because I was a self employed married father of one who was paying 17 per cent on my home mortgage and huge taxes.  And I thought this can't be right.  This can't be right for Australia.  I have got to go to Canberra to do something about this.  And I came to Canberra and I always believed that if you are careful with spending we should try and lower taxes, we should balance our Budgets, we should reduce our debt.  I always believed that we should have more flexible labour market, that's what I came here to do and if somebody had said to me look you will have the opportunity to deliver 10 surplus Budgets and retire Commonwealth debt you know I would have said nirvana, take me out of here.  And I had the opportunity to do that.  And my only regret is this - I felt that clearing Commonwealth debt was a gift I could give to future generations.  Rudd was ready to kill that.  And it tells you something about how temporal politics is really - the lasting achievements can be taken away so quickly.  But we have still got - and I think this is the economic point here - the strength of the starting point will lead to the strength of the finishing point.  Mr Rudd is quite right when he says we are in better condition than America and the UK and all the rest.  It is not because we have managed the accumulation of debt better, it is because we started from a much stronger position.  And because we started from a stronger position the finishing point will be much better.  It wasn't the journey - it was the starting point.

JOURNALIST:

Are you going to be contesting, I mean, are you going to be staying until the next election?

MR COSTELLO:

I am very happy to serve the term.  I have indicated to the Party that once they get the preselection done if it is in the Party's interest to do a by-election I am open to that.  So that is a matter for the Party.  I think that will depend on getting the candidate in place and it will probably depend a little bit on the finances too.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Costello having missed out on one certain dream job in politics what is your dream job now beyond politics?

MR COSTELLO:

Well look if I could take the field for the Essendon Football Club I would be happy to do so.  I think they might need a bit of experience at the moment.  So that would be my next dream job.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Costello you twice had the opportunity to take the leadership after the election, in the immediate aftermath and then when Brendan Nelson found it, do you admit to yourself that you never really had the desire to take the leadership and fight to become Prime Minister that the (inaudible)?

MR COSTELLO:

No I don't Phil because I think that the time for me to become the Leader of the Liberal Party was really after the 2001 Election.  That is when I went to John Howard and I put that proposition to him very directly, very directly.  He did not agree and I don't think the Party at that stage was in the mood for voting in a new leader.  I thought the next opportunity was after the 2004 Election where again I went to John Howard very directly and as plain as I am speaking to you now and said to him that I thought it was in his interests, the Party's interests, the nation's interests and - I was honest - in my interests for that to occur.  Now it didn't.  That was the time for me, that was the time I think for our Party.  Our Party should have learnt the lesson from Labor.  Labor did it with Beattie and Bligh, Labor did it with Carr and Iemma, Labor has done it with Bracks and Brumby, Labor has done it with Lennon and Bartlett.  This is the way a modern Party organises itself.  Now some in the press will say oh well you should have split the Party and if need be brought down the Government.  I have told you that I didn't think it would have been in the interests of the Party, I don't think it would have been in the interests of the nation, I don't think it would have made winning the 2007 Election that much easier frankly - splitting the Party and tearing down a leader.

JOURNALIST:

You are only 51.

MR COSTELLO:

Yes.

JOURNALIST:

The next election is going to be very close, you weren't tempted to sit around and take the leadership, have one last go around?

MR COSTELLO:

Well yes, if I had stayed on, of course, I would have had to return to the leadership, yes.  I didn't think it would have been fair to stay on and stay on the backbench.  And it's because of the fact that I think that is not in my interest, it is not in the Party's interest that I will serve my term and then depart.

JOURNALIST:

Tony Abbott said...

MR COSTELLO:

I will miss you all.

JOURNALIST:

Tony Abbott's analysis of your decision yesterday, your announcement yesterday, was that it was the supreme act of self sacrifice that you died so that Malcolm Turnbull might live on.

MR COSTELLO:

And that casts me exactly as who?  Come on say it Annabel, compare me, come on.  I couldn't go there that is heresy, blasphemy. 

JOURNALIST:

(inaudible) removed from (inaudible)?

MR COSTELLO:

Tony always has those biblical allusions but when you have an ex-priest talking like that you know where he is going.

JOURNALIST:

Taking you back to 2007 and the APEC meeting what would have been your strategy if John Howard had actually handed over because an election had to be called pretty soon after.  Would you have given yourself a bit more time, I know you had written a speech.

MR COSTELLO:

Yes.  I think we would have taken as much time as we could have got.  I wrote a speech.  I said what we had to do.  We would have had to ratify Kyoto that would have been an easy decision.  We should have been a symbolic move on the apology, we should have got rid of all of those things that I think we should have attended to anyway and had just become sticking points for us.  We should have done something in relation to WorkChoices.  We did in the end, we came back to the Fairness Test but it was all very late.  I will say here and now I think Australia needs statutory agreements, I do, I think we need statutory agreements I think they should be subject to a no disadvantage test but I think things have gone into reverse too far.  We have now gone back past where the Reith Reforms had got us in 1997 and I think we have gone back past where the Keating Reforms had got us.  We are in the midst of a great re-regulation of the labour force here and unemployment is rising anyway but I think it will rise higher than it otherwise would have needed to have risen because of those changes.

JOURNALIST:

If Mr Howard had handed over in 2004...

MR COSTELLO:

Sorry just one, two.

JOURNALIST:

You said yesterday that Opposition was a time when Party's define themselves and count what they stand for.  Do you think the Coalition should have fought harder, stuck to their guns more on those IR reforms and how should they be defining themselves, how should the Coalition be defined?

MR COSTELLO:

Well I never accepted this argument that because Labor had won the election we had to agree with their changes to the Unfair Dismissal Laws.  We had tried to amend those laws 43 times and been defeated in the Senate.  I never once heard the Labor Party say we had a mandate.  We had won four elections on it and they defeated it in the Senate.  And the idea that they win one election and they got a mandate the other way I could never follow that argument.  The hardest thing I ever did in a policy sense in politics was introduce the GST.  That damn near killed me.  That changed the price of every good and every service in this country - three billion prices - on one night.  And the hysteria that was around - now we fought a whole election on that.  I never heard the Labor Party say after the 1998 Election oh we will vote the GST through the Senate.  And so I couldn't understand the argument that said all of a sudden because they had won an election they had a mandate on these things.  And so my answer to your question is the small business community of Australia, I think the Liberal Party of Australia believes that unnecessary impediments on the flexibility of hiring and firing is job destroying.  And that was my view.

JOURNALIST:

Had Mr Howard accepted your argument after the 2004 Election and allowed the transition at that stage what would the workplace reform you brought in as Prime Minister have looked like.  Would they have included a Fairness Test and why didn't the Party Room raise more concern about the electoral impact with Mr Howard at the time in 2005?

MR COSTELLO:

Look I want to be careful here.  I don't want to rewrite history and it is very hard for me to put myself back into that time and say I would have done this differently or not.  I can honestly say to you I always supported statutory agreements, I always thought that there had to be a floor, a test, it was originally called the No Disadvantage Test that was dropped, something was subsequently brought back as the Fairness Test but without getting into the ins and outs of it I do believe in statutory agreements.  I think people have the right to make them and provided that there are protections against exploitations I think they ought not be denied that right.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Costello Tony Abbott also said this morning that there is no doubt you would have made a better Prime Minister than Malcolm Turnbull.  Do you agree?  And my other question is on the GST business (inaudible) about raising it this weekend both Parties ruled it out immediately.  Do you think (inaudible) of having that debate?

MR COSTELLO:

I would not recommend to anybody to go through the introduction of the GST.  I just cannot explain to you how difficult that was.  It wasn't just that it was GST it was changes to the family allowances, the taper rates, the income tax rates, it was the abolition of the state taxes the FID, the BAD, the bed taxes, it was the reconstitution of the Commonwealth/State financial relations, the country got itself into hysteria about it.  The Australia Institute put out a press statement saying that introducing the GST would lead to something like 90 more deaths in Australia.  The Hairdressers Association said that because hair cuts went up people went to the barber less frequently and baldness would increase.  You know this was the level of hysteria that was going on.  I will never forget the day before it was introduced, it came in on a Saturday, the press said well you won't be able to attend any football match in the country because they will be paying GST and you will be booed out of the stadium.  It was serious.  But people apparently believed all of this.  Now once you have done it, it looks so ho hum.  But don't forget Kevin Rudd used to call it fundamental injustice day.  You know the day when the social compact of Australia was ripped apart.  Now once you have done it everybody will say oh well we will never go back.  But as for raising it I wouldn't support raising it because the States never even abolished all of the taxes they promised to abolish for 10 per cent.  Well so now you are going to put it up to 15 per cent and what they will promise to abolish other taxes.  When?  How are you going to enforce that?  And the thing that really worries me about that is they might be sneaking back some of those taxes anyway.  For example the withdrawal of the grants system in Queensland for petrol prices is the equivalent of putting up the petrol excise.  It is the equivalent of it.  So you have got some of those taxes creeping back and you are paying the 10 per cent GST, they will be promised oh well if it goes to 15 per cent we might get rid of some other taxes, if I felt there had been a clean and unequivocal performance of the last Agreement I would think about another one but there hasn't been, there just hasn't been.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Costello the Prime Minister in his press conference just a few minutes ago he said that in this country we don't make use of people of talent across the political divide.  He said he left open the opportunity, the possibility, in the future that you might be to serve the country in another way as a Government appointee.  Are you interested?

MR COSTELLO:

Well I wouldn't have spoken about this unless he has and he has obviously and I am not entirely sure what he said but yesterday he invited me down to his office.  He and I had a very friendly chat.  He made essentially the same point to me then.  And he was very generous about it.  And I thank him for that.  He was very supportive of some things I might be able to do to help the country and if I can I would like to.  I am on an International Advisory Board for the World Bank which is a very senior position for an Australian.  It gives me the opportunity to work on international economic issues.  Obviously I have to earn an income but if in addition to that I can do things on the international stage that would help our country I would be very interested and that is something that he discussed with me yesterday.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Costello what do you think the Liberal Party or the Coalition needs to do politically and on ideology to win the next election and draw the line for that?

MR COSTELLO:

The Liberal Party has a very strong record which it must defend.  Not because of my sensibilities but because defending the record is the key to convincing the population of its credentials on economic management.  You can no longer say to the electorate I am a Liberal and think they will therefore trust you on economic management.  I think you can say I was part of a Government that did 10 surplus Budgets, retired debt, created 2.2 million jobs therefore you can trust me on economic management.  And I think the Liberal Party has to hold that sphere of economic credibility above all things.  Labor knows that incidentally that is why Labor sought to undermine the legacy with the inflation genie.  Do you remember the inflation genie?  The whole idea of the inflation genie was to say oh you know the credentials weren't so good after all, look they left this inflation genie running around the place.  The inflation genie vaporised but that was an attempt to de-legitimise the record.  And so I think the Liberal Party has to defend its record, reinforce its credentials and its got to be able to say in the midst of this downturn here are the things we should be doing now to prepare for the recovery.  And that is where I think it should be focussing. 

JOURNALIST:

Mr Costello politics has on the whole been good to you and you have been good to it.  So are there any regrets that you have on contemplating leaving politics?

MR COSTELLO:

Look it is an exciting life.  Matching wits with your opponents in the House, matching wits with your opponents in the Press Gallery - it is an exciting life and there is always something more that you want to do, there is another Budget, there is another portfolio, there is another policy, there is another economic achievement, and because there is always something else that you want to do very few people are able to time their departure - very few people - and I have always said to myself I want to be able to time my departure and so I look at 20 years, I feel privileged to have been able to have done the things that I have, obviously I would like to do more but you have got to "know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em".

JOURNALIST:

Mr Costello there seems a fair bit of (inaudible) good will Tony Abbott nominated Julia Gillard as a strong performer.  Who would you say as you are going out is a strong performer?

MR COSTELLO:

In the current Parliament?

JOURNALIST:

Yes.

MR COSTELLO:

I don't want to be critical of any of the current MPs but I don't think the place is as interesting as it was when I first arrived.  I think the Parliament in those days used to have more wit about it.  And it was more spontaneous.  And I enjoyed that, the feeding off the interjections.  Now you will have a long answer which finishes off with a pre-focus group tested tag line.  There is nothing in that really.  It is not spontaneous, it is not witty, I always thought that we were paid to entertain.  I always tried to entertain you people.  I always tried to have a joke for you that you could write up the next day.

JOURNALIST:

And you never focus group tested?

MR COSTELLO:

No I never had focus groups.

JOURNALIST:

You had us.

MR COSTELLO:

You're my focus group.  You can make them up as we went along.  And half of them I never even knew what was coming out until it had been said.  It was very dangerous.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Costello you mentioned debt earlier do you reckon that it is inevitable that either side of politics in the next term or of the next government would have to given the interest bill would have to raise taxes or cut services or maybe even go to the Australian people and say this is what we are going to have to do. 

MR COSTELLO:

I think what will happen is this that as we pull out of the downturn with the level of borrowing not just of the Government but of governments around the world the next big challenge is going to be inflation.  All this liquidity - how do we manage the recovery - and I think that after we have bottomed and when we start coming out then we are going to see inflationary figures taking hold around the world and you are going to see interest rates whirring back.  Now this is only going to happen after we've bottomed and after we're into the recovery and that is going to be the next challenge.  I always believe that you sow the seeds of the next challenge in confronting the last one.  Now I think the origins of the sub-prime fallout were the Tech Wreck of 2001 and the terrorist attacks when the Federal Reserve pumped the liquidity of the financial system trying to stave off recession in 2001 and build confidence in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks which led to a huge housing bubble in the United States which eventually crashed with the repercussions that went around the world.  Now we come into this downturn, again liquidity of the system is being pumped up quite rightly, interest rates cut aggressively - in my view too late - but managing the recovery is going to be the next challenge here and I think when that does happen the debts will have to be serviced. 

JOURNALIST:

Mr Costello you have lived more than half your life for the Liberal Party.  Can you see yourself taking on an organisation role once you leave elected politics?

MR COSTELLO:

Oh probably not. 

JOURNALIST:

Short of actually going on the field with Essendon and your dream job appointments what is likely to be the way you will go to make a living?

MR COSTELLO:

Well in the commercial enterprises.

JOURNALIST:

Anything in mind?

MR COSTELLO:

Well I will manage your contract if you like.  I hear it is a big one.

JOURNALIST:

I know you have (inaudible) over the last 18 months and you have talked to us about preserving the Coalition's legacy from Government has been as a kind of a galvanising feature from the backbench encouraging your colleagues to hang on that legacy in issues like IR even climate change.  Who do you think will perform that role now that you're leaving?

MR COSTELLO:

Well I was pretty interested to see that a lot of comment in the last 24 hours has been coming from my good friend Tony Abbott. 

JOURNALIST:

Do you think, do you look at Tony Abbott as the next...

MR COSTELLO:

Not on economic matters but you know Tony is a great writer and theorist and he has got a book coming out shortly which I think probably will be in the next couple of months the second most interesting read in the bookshop.

JOURNALIST:

Is he the next leadership figure from the Right do you think?

MR COSTELLO:

The funny thing about the Liberal Party is I have never really figured out who was Left and who was Right.  Let me tell you a story, the first time I went to a State Council of the Liberal Party in about 1980 I turned up there and they said to me you can vote for this candidate or that candidate.  And one is Malcolm Fraser's candidate and one is Andrew Peacock's and I said well I will vote for Malcolm Fraser's.  And they said good, you are a member of the Right of the Liberal Party.  Now who would believe that story today that by supporting Malcolm Fraser you were in the Right of the Liberal Party.  So whether it is Right or whether it is Left, you see it is not like the Labor Party, the Labor Party you know the union comes in with a block vote and it either goes to the Left or it goes to the Right.  In the Liberal Party individuals come and in and they might be opposed to stem cell research and they might be in favour of tariffs you know are they on the Right or the Left - who knows.  And even in the Parliamentary Party I have never figured out whether I was on the Right or the Left sometimes I was on both.

JOURNALIST:

You mixed widely.

MR COSTELLO:

Yes exactly right.  And to me that is what politics should be about frankly.  You are sent up here, you have got your views, you represent your constituents, you state your view.  Let's have a real debate about these things.  I always thought the best Parliamentary debates were on things like stem cell research and euthanasia because people actually had to take positions and they had to argue them.  And that is the way the Parliament used to be.  And then they have got to take a position they have got to think about them and you see the Parliament at its absolute best.  Last two questions.

JOURNALIST:

As you talk about generational change, what is your message to your old timers on the backbench of the Liberal Party and National Party now who are refusing to go at the next election and it seems they may be carried out in a casket.

MR COSTELLO:

Well look I said two things in the Party Room today, I said to the young people you are here, you are in Opposition it should be the most creative thinking time of your career - figure out what you stand for.  And I said secondly take in the wisdom of the people who have been here for a while, you know, when they have been here for a while they do have wisdom and so I think whether a person runs for re-election or not is a matter for them and their electorate committee and their constituents and that is their entitlement.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Costello would you advise your children to run for politics (inaudible)?

MR COSTELLO:

I think it is quite an exacting career and I think it is getting harder.  Maybe it is the fault of the Parliament itself that we haven't treated it with enough respect but I think it is getting harder.  I think the intrusion of politics is getting greater too and that is making it harder on family life.  So my advice is to anyone who is thinking about a political career you have got to really want to do it.  You have got to really, really want to do it if you are just interested in being an authority on everything become a journalist.  The thing that always amazed me is that you're the only people who know how to run the country and you have all decided to go into journalism.  Why couldn't some of you have gone into politics instead?  But I have enjoyed my time with you.  I hope to see a lot more of you and I love you all.  Thank you very much.

16 Jun 2009

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