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Transcript 12081

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTERTHE HON JOHN HOWARD MPRADIO INTERVIEW WITH NEIL MITCHELL, 3AW

Photo of Howard, John

Howard, John

Period of Service: 11/03/1996 to 03/12/2007

More information about Howard, John on The National Archive website.

Release Date: 07/12/2001

Release Type: Interview

Transcript ID: 12081

MITCHELL:
Mr Howard, good morning.
PRIME MINISTER:
Good morning, Neil.
MITCHELL:
Prime Minister, can you confirm the report from India that Melbourne';s Rialto was one of the targets named by this man, Mohammed Afroz?
PRIME MINISTER:
I can confirm that he did say that, yes. The question of whether everything that has been said is completely accurate is, of course, the subject of further investigation and further examination. And we have sought the approval of the Indian authorities to talk to this man and we';re waiting on that response. We can confirm, as Daryl Williams did yesterday, that the man detained in India is not an Australian citizen but he did undertake flight training in Australia in 1997 and 1998. We can confirm that.
MITCHELL:
And that was in Melbourne at Moorabbin?
PRIME MINISTER:
Yes. He left Australia in December of 1998 and then the rest of it is something that is subject to further investigation. I';m not saying the other claims are inaccurate or untrue but I am saying that they need to be the subject of further discussion and further investigation.
MITCHELL:
Do we know how he got into the country?
PRIME MINISTER:
Well, he got into the country, as I understand, in the normal way for a visitor undertaking this kind of activity.
MITCHELL:
So he';s here quite legally.
PRIME MINISTER:
Yes, yes, there';s no suggestion to me at the moment that he got here other than in a legal fashion.
MITCHELL:
Was Parliament House Canberra also named by him as a target?
PRIME MINISTER:
Not to my knowledge.
MITCHELL:
So the Rialto was the only one.
PRIME MINISTER:
Yes.
MITCHELL:
We don';t know yet whether to take him seriously but presumably when these sort of allegations are made they have to be taken seriously.
PRIME MINISTER:
Well, they do have to be taken seriously but, equally, sometimes allegations of this kind can be either embellished or fabricated, embellished or fabricated completely. What we do know is that he did undertake flight training here. We do know that. As to the rest of it, we have been given a report by the Indian authorities and there have been statements made by the Indian Minister. We seek, quite naturally, to undertake some of our own investigations. I';m not being critical of the Indians in saying that, it';s just a normal sort of thing one does. So the veracity of the further claims made by this man are the subject of further investigation and I can';t really say any more than that. I want to be as forthcoming as possible because this is a matter of grave public interest to all of us and the public is entitled to have as much information on these sorts of things as is consistent with the proper and, I know, publicly supported desire of the intelligence authorities to maintain the protection and integrity of their sources.
MITCHELL:
It does bring it home, doesn';t it, it brings home to people in Australia that it could be this close to Australia and potentially it affects the way people go about their lives.
PRIME MINISTER:
Well, I don';t want it to affect the way people go about their lives and there may be no substance in this beyond the fact that he had flight training in Australia. Now, a lot of people have flight training in Australia. It may be that he had a vague intention of being involved in terrorist activities but never really got to a stage where any kind of planning, therefore proximate threat did not at any stage arise. I don';t know that, I don';t think anybody at this stage knows that but it is true that something like this can happen in Australian. I said that some time ago in the wake of the attack on the United States and I don';t want to be alarmist or exaggerate it but we have to understand that we are not invulnerable and always protected from this sort of thing. We';ve been refreshingly free of it. I hope that continues to be the case but nobody can take that kind of situation for granted and it is a reminder as you said a moment ago as to why we are involved alongside the United States in Afghanistan. Because what happened in the United States was an attack on all of us because we share common values and common institutions.
MITCHELL:
Is this the only such case that is being investigated by Australian…
PRIME MINISTER:
To my knowledge. To my current knowledge yes.
MITCHELL:
There was a report of a flying school in South Australia…
PRIME MINISTER:
Yes but that';s not turned up anything that would give rise to any concern or suspicion.
MITCHELL:
What do you think the message is to people who would work in a building like the Rialto? I mean it would have to be in your mind when you went into work today wouldn';t it?
PRIME MINISTER:
Well I suppose it would. I guess it';s been on the minds of people all around the world who work in tall buildings. But life must go on and you do have to allow, and I';m not saying that this is the case in relation to the person that we';re talking about, but you do have to allow for the fact that people will embellish and invent and exaggerate and fabricate for whatever combination of psychological or other reasons. That is a possibility. And I';m not saying it does apply here – I don';t know. But we';ve got to bear in mind that that is a real possibility.
MITCHELL:
The man in India said he, it';s reported he moved around the Muslim community in Melbourne frequently and frequented mosques. Is the cooperation being offered from the community in Melbourne?
PRIME MINISTER:
Well let me put it this way, I';m not aware of any lack of cooperation but I am not specifically briefed on that. I';m not suggesting for a moment that people associated with mosques in Australia would be other than just as alarmed as you and I are about this.
MITCHELL:
Now a related area. Have Australian troops seen action in Afghanistan?
PRIME MINISTER:
Well they are in what you might call a theatre of potential action as I speak. I can';t say more than that because I don';t know. I mean sometimes when you commit troops they get involved in situations and then you don';t hear about them for a little while later. But they are certainly in what you might call a theatre of action. That was disclosed a couple of days ago by Senator Hill the Defence Minister and they are obviously potentially to be involved in further more serious action at any time.
MITCHELL:
That, well I guess as I said, it brings these reports from India bring back the reasons for that.
PRIME MINISTER:
Well they certainly do bring back the reason. I mean anybody who doubted for a moment that this is something that we ought to be involved in because it could effect us not only in the sense of shared values we have with the United States but also in a very direct sense, this is a reminder of that possibility. As I say, there may be nothing more in it than the fact that this person was trained in Australia. That may be the case. I';m not saying it is. I';m not for a moment casting doubt on what the Indian authorities have said. But bear in mind they are relying in a sense on what the man is alleged to have said. People do sometimes say things about what they have done that never occurred.
MITCHELL:
Are all the Australian SAS troops in that situation or are some still being held out?
PRIME MINISTER:
The general picture is that the bulk of them are there but there are some still in their Middle East base.
MITCHELL:
Well is it clear yet that they';ve actually been into a situation of action?
PRIME MINISTER:
Well I don';t want to say anymore than I';ve said already Neil. That';s not trying to be difficult it';s just that sometimes things can have happened shortly before you';ve spoken and you subsequently look as though you';re misleading the Australian public.
MITCHELL:
OK. I';m just a little interested that the Washington Post, CNN and the rest are reporting where the Australians are but there seems to be a bit of reluctance by the Government to confirm what the SAS are doing.
PRIME MINISTER:
No I don';t think that';s right. What Senator Hill said a couple of days ago was that there had been an advance party that had joined the Americans and then the great bulk of the remainder were going to join the Americans in Afghanistan and a smaller group were remaining in the Middle East and we';ve made it all along that they would be right in the front line activity of Special Forces and others in relation to trying to find and capture Bin Laden and those immediately around him. Now that is the position, the broad position. Beyond that is to get into speculation about operational things and that is something I don';t want to do because I';m not, for proper reasons, I don';t want to get into that detail.
MITCHELL:
OK. The Defence Minister Mr Howard says there';s a cash crisis for defence. Now I thought from discussions during the election campaign that that would not be the case.
PRIME MINISTER:
I don';t know that he said there was a cash crisis. He did say and it was quite consistent with what I said during the campaign, was that although the cost of the operation in Afghanistan was within the budget capacity for a period of time, if it went on longer then there could be a need for more resources. I don';t think Senator Hill used the expression crisis as such.
MITCHELL:
Projects being modified is what…
PRIME MINISTER:
Yeah well he was making a very general observation. I think all Defence Minsters tend to do that but look, we';re increasing spending on defence. The defence budget as it now stands has a capacity to meet the commitment in Afghanistan to a certain period. Obviously if it goes on longer then there';ll be a need for further resources. I';ve never suggested otherwise but it';s too early to be making any definitive judgements on that and it';s something that will be examined when the budget is being put together.
MITCHELL:
Is it correct as being reported that in your information that Kandahar could be about to fall?
PRIME MINISTER:
Well I have the same information as has been carried on all the news bulletins this morning. If that information is correct then it';s very good news and it';s a great compliment to the skill with which the Americans and those with whom they have cooperated in Afghanistan have conducted this campaign. If you do have a situation where Omar is going to give up and all the news reports and other reports suggest that, then that is an extremely positive development and I know it would be widely welcomed in the Australian community. Remember the objective of this exercise has always been to catch Bin Laden and those around him. In the process of course necessarily involving fighting the Taliban because the Taliban are giving him comfort and protection. Once that comfort and protection is removed, then the capacity and the likelihood of catching Bin Laden thereby ought to be increased and that is also very welcome news.
MITCHELL:
So it';s a step towards the end presumably.
PRIME MINISTER:
Well it is a step towards the end. I';m not going to say we';ve anywhere near reached the end. Often with these campaigns you make very rapid progress up until the 11th hour and then getting from 11 o';clock to 12 o';clock to use a metaphor, takes infinitely longer than getting to 11 o';clock in the first place.
MITCHELL:
We';ll take some calls to the Prime Minister and as well I have more questions. Gary go ahead please.
CALLER:
Thank you Neil and thank you Mr Prime Minister.
PRIME MINISTER:
Gary.
CALLER:
The reason for my call is that I believe that there, and a little bit closer to home, but there are Jihad troops in Indonesia that are going through different areas of the islands and what have you, slaughtering many people and what have you. Are you aware of that situation and how that can affect on Australia as well?
PRIME MINISTER:
Well I';m aware from time to time that claims are made about the behaviour of military forces in Indonesia. Some of those claims are not accurate. Some of them are being investigated. Indonesia is a very big country and there would obviously be some people in that country who might be sympathetic to some positions of extreme Islam that none of us would agree with, including the great bulk of Indonesians. I have no doubt that the Indonesian Government is very strongly opposed to terrorist behaviour and I';ve no doubt the Indonesian Government is keeping a very close watch on any capacity or any potential for extreme Islam to gather strength or grow in that country.
MITCHELL:
I was talking to a clergy man myself earlier this week who was of the belief that as many as 50,000 Christians could be massacred within the next few weeks. I mean he was arguing that terrorism is erupting on our own doorstep. Do you think that';s accurate?
PRIME MINISTER:
Well there have been a lot of communal clashes between Muslims and Christians and there has been a breakdown in that area over the last couple of years. Whether you would say that';s the result of terrorism as we are talking about it in the context of September 11 in Afghanistan or rather a breakdown of religious tolerance in Indonesia is a moot point. There have been clearly documented reports of killings and violence, Christians being killed, slaughtered.
MITCHELL:
Is it Australia';s business?
PRIME MINISTER:
Well it';s our business in the sense that we are as a neighbour and as a humanitarian country concerned about it. It is not our business in the sense that we have an obligation to intervene. It';s an internal matter for Indonesia. It';s a difficult, tragic situation when that kind of thing happens. I sympathise with the Indonesian Government. It';s a very big country and trying to keep control of the situation and dispense justice in a fair and even handed fashion is a big challenge. So we remain a very interested and worried neighbour and friend willing to help where we can.
[COMMERCIAL BREAK]
MITCHELL
Prime Minister, immigration, both the Victorian Premier and the head of Melbourne Major Events – Steve Vizard – are both arguing for increased migration with a review of population policy. Do we need more migration?
PRIME MINISTER:
Well if we can absorb more immigrants and they are people who make a positive contribution to Australia the answer is yes.
MITCHELL
Well can we absorb more?
PRIME MINISTER:
Well that';s something that you review from time to time and we have an open mind, I';ve said this repeatedly over recent months, we have an open mind on the level of immigration that this country can have and if there is economic support for a higher intake and if there can be proper settlement policies for them than we';re willing to consider a higher level. On the other hand we have to remember that the possibility or the capacity for Australia to get people with the skills that will make an immediate contribution to this country is not perhaps as great as it might have been in the years immediately after World War II when there was a completely different economic and social picture in many parts of the world.
MITCHELL
I guess underlying all that is what should…..the population of Australia, what should it be?
PRIME MINISTER:
Well in very general terms the population of Australia should be what we can sustain both socially, economically, and also environmentally. Look we are an aging population that is true but can I say to those people who think by doubling the migrant intake you solve the aging problem they';re wrong. There have been a lot of economic studies done on this and even if you dramatically increase the migrant intake way beyond what most people are calling for now its impact on the age demographic of this country would be minuscule.
MITCHELL
Do we need, Steve Vizard';s also suggested a summit on population, on immigration, do we….?
PRIME MINISTER:
No I don';t know that we need a summit. We certainly need debate on it. I';ve talked to Mr Vizard about this. I talked to him in Melbourne about a week ago and we had a brief discussion about it. I don';t think you just automatically call summits every time you want to talk about something. I am very happy to have a debate about immigration policy. There';s no reason why we shouldn';t talk about it. It';s a separate issue might I say from illegal asylum seekers.
MITCHELL
Yes I was going to ask you about that.
PRIME MINISTER:
It';s quite a separate issue and the two should not be mixed up as apparently the Victorian Premier is doing.
MITCHELL
Well I don';t know. He';s offered to take more refugees. He';s not saying illegal asylum seekers. The Premier has offered to take more…..
PRIME MINISTER:
But hang on, he';s also said the so called ‘Pacific solution'; should be abandoned. Now what he';s really saying is that people who come here illegally should be allowed onto the Australian mainland and processed here. If they don';t go somewhere else, they';ve got to go somewhere, they can';t be sent back in leaky boats into the sea because that would be life threatening.
MITCHELL
So would you take him up on his offer to take more refugees?
PRIME MINISTER:
Well the question of whether we take more refugees is also something that we keep an open mind on. I';m not opposed….I';m not fixated on a particular level of refugees, certainly not. But people have got to understand the implication of what I think Mr Bracks is saying. He';s saying don';t send people to third countries if they seek to come to Australia illegally. Therefore what he';s really arguing for is they should come onto the Australian mainland. Now okay, that';s fair enough, he';s entitled to argue that but that does represent a very significant departure from the policy the Labor Party adopted during the recent federal election campaign. That';s fine if he wants to argue that very strongly but he can';t, having said the ‘Pacific Solution'; is not a goer and should never have been implemented he';s quoted in the Melbourne Age as having said, well if it should never have been implemented the only real alternatives were to turn the boats back into the sea which would have been completely inhumane or take the people onto the Australian mainland. Now I don';t believe it';s in Australia';s interests for us to tell the rest of the world that now we';re going to stop trying to prevent people coming onto the Australian mainland, we';re going to change that policy, we';re going to take them. Can I say that will invite a resumption of boats coming to this country in a much greater number and that would not be in our interest. It';s a difficult issue and I';m not saying that the perfect solution is the one we have now but what I am saying is it';s preferable to the alternative which appears to be what Mr Bracks is advocating.
MITCHELL
Prime Minister, the head of the Reserve Bank says it';s a bit too easy…..well I';m paraphrasing, too easy to sack people, tough times come along, the temptation of businesses to sack people to try and restore profits and that';s counterproductive in that it drives the economy down. Do you agree that it happens a bit too readily, that some businesses are a bit too willing to, well we';ve got tough times let';s sack some people?
PRIME MINISTER:
Some are like that. I broadly agree with what Mr Macfarlane has said. There is a medium term interest both for a company and the economy generally in companies trying to avoid the retrenchment option. I broadly agree with what he said. Clearly it will vary from company to company and quite obviously over-staffing and too heavily padded conditions are reasons why some companies get into difficulty, but equally companies should remember that good staff are their greatest resource and they should hang onto them where they can.
MITCHELL
Still on economic matters is the razor gang back? I read some comments from the federal Treasurer that it could be the biggest cut since your first year in office. Has the razor gang returned?
PRIME MINISTER:
No…we';ve got an Expenditure Review Committee. We want to have a cash surplus next year. It doesn';t need to be big. There';s no economic argument to have a big surplus.
MITCHELL
So what sort of cuts are we looking at?
PRIME MINISTER:
Well I think it';s premature to be talking in any specifics. We';re not going to….let me make it clear – we';re not going to undermine in any way the social security safety net. I don';t want to start this whole process of people running scare stories about unfair cuts in social security and areas that are part of the social security safety net. Obviously any government that wants a surplus is on the lookout to contain expenditure growth in areas that can be contained. But we have set over the last five or six years a number of parameters. We support the social security safety net, we';re not going to re-enter discussion in areas like that but obviously there are some areas where the growth of programs has been very strong and if there are ways in which you can curtail that growth without hurting the social security safety net well we';re going to do it.
MITCHELL
Thank you very much for your time through this year. It has been a very tough year hasn';t it?
PRIME MINISTER:
It has been. It';s been the most active eventful year that I';ve had I believe, in the time I';ve been Prime Minister. It';s been very challenging. It';s had some wonderful successes. It';s also had some incredibly sad and grim moments. We';ll always remember this year as associated with the terror attacks on the United States and the aftermath of that. But out of that of course has come a determination by free nations to fight terrorism. I found that meeting I went to in Shanghai in the middle of the election campaign quite uplifting as an international meeting because you saw the President of the United States and the President of Russia and the President of China cooperating. Not agreeing on everything but cooperating for the common good and that was a source of hope.
MITCHELL
Will it be tougher next year?
PRIME MINISTEl it be tougher next year?
PRIME MINISTER:
I don';t know. I wish all Australians well. I think Australians can go to Christmas with a sense of security and hope in a grimmer world than we had 12 months ago. And I hope they enjoy the blessings of Christmas and spend a lot of time with their families and those they love most.
MITCHELL
Thank you for your time and enjoy the holiday.
PRIME MINISTER:
Thank you very much Neil and Merry Christmas to you.
[Ends]

Transcript 12081