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Transcript 12117

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTERTHE HON JOHN HOWARD MPINTERVIEW WITH CATHY VAN EXTEL, RADIO NATIONAL

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: 09/11/2001

Release Type: Interview

Transcript ID: 12117

Subjects: Illegal Immigrants; GST; 2001 election campaign; terrorism
VAN EXTEL:
Did the Navy or anyone in the Defence Department ring your office or Peter Reith';s or Phillip Ruddock';s office to advise you that the initial information about children being thrown overboard was incorrect?
PRIME MINISTER:
Cathy, nobody rang my office to that effect and I';m not aware that they rang the offices of the other two ministers but you would have to talk to them to get a direct answer on that. The situation is that I have operated in the belief based on advice that there were children thrown overboard and that advice was originally given to me by the two ministers on Sunday the 7th of October and it was confirmed in writing by the Office of National Assessment on Tuesday the 9th of October. I therefore have no reason to doubt it';s believity as to the question of the video, I never saw the video as being the primary source of evidence. I have not seen the video and it was never in my mind the primary source of evidence, the initial advice apparently was conveyed by the captain of the vessel from one of his superior officers. But at no stage was I told that that advice was wrong and in fact to this day nobody is saying that that advice is wrong. You will note that the last word on the subject, from Admiral Shackleton is a confirmation that Defence had in fact told the Minister of its belief that children had been thrown overboard.
VAN EXTEL:
But as a consequence of releasing that information, that belief turned into fact, certainly from your Minister, Peter Reith.
PRIME MINISTER:
Well Cathy, can I just remind you that it was stated as fact in the advice given to me in writing by the Office of National Assessment. There was no qualification that it was a bare belief. It was a bald statement and I read that out at the Press Club yesterday and what I read out came directly from the intelligence report. I indicated then that I';m quite happy for Mr Beazley to have a look at that full intelligence report. I can';t make it public so I just…
VAN EXTEL:
Is there any reason why you can';t make that public, given that it is on an issue of asylum seekers rather than national security?
PRIME MINISTER:
No because you don';t make the entirety of the intelligence report public but I';m offering to the Opposition, it would obviously be my main critic on this, and therefore the main beneficiary, if I can put it that way of any misrepresentation of the situation by me. I';m offering him full access to that document.
VAN EXTEL:
Alan Jones is not a big critic on yours and this morning he';s quoting a part of that report which suggests that people jumped into the water and took children with them out of overwhelming fear.
PRIME MINISTER:
Well I don';t, I didn';t see Alan Jones, I don';t know what he said, obviously I didn';t see the interview so I can';t comment on that.
VAN EXTEL:
Given that you';re relying on the advice from Defence and from your ministers, what does that say about the quality of the advice you';re receiving?
PRIME MINISTER:
I have no doubt about the general quality of advice I';ve received from Defence. I mean it';s not, I mean it remains the case that we received advice that children were thrown overboard, I have not received any advice from Defence to this moment which countermands or contradicts that. What Admiral Shackleton said in his doorstop interview yesterday as I read it, related to what was on the video, it didn';t relate generally to the whole issue.
VAN EXTEL:
Doesn';t it concern you that Defence hasn';t come forward with the accurate information. What does that say about the lines of communication between the Minister and his department?PRIME MINISTER:
Well you say they haven';t come forward with the accurate information. What';s the evidence that their information is not accurate?
VAN EXTEL:
There certainly are a lot of questions still unanswered on this issue.
PRIME MINISTER:
Well there are a lot of questions asked but I mean you are making the statement based on the premise….
VAN EXTEL:
It';s not conclusive though that the children were held over the railings as a threat or thrown over.
PRIME MINISTER:
Please don';t interupt, you are making a statement which is based on the premise that Defence';s initial advice was wrong. There is no evidence to establish that. As I speak, Defence has not said to me, or to Mr Reith or Mr Ruddock, look we';ve got this completely wrong, there was never any basis for these claims that children were thrown overboard.
VAN EXTEL:
Have you spoken to Mr Reith since the head of the navy's comments yesterday?
PRIME MINISTER:
Of course I have spoken to him. I have spoken to him on several occasions.
VAN EXTEL:
And has he assured you that there was no secondary advice which corrected that initial report?
PRIME MINISTER:
He has assured me, yes. And we went over again the circumstances in which the information came to him. So there is no…you are running and other commentators are running the line that in some ways what has happened has countermanded the original advice. Now we have to act on advice in relation to these issues. They are not pleasant and all we can do is act on advice. And if there had have been something wrong with the original advice, something fundamentally wrong, then I would have assumed that the Navy would have got in touch with the Minister and said ‘look, what you said then is wrong because the facts are as follows';. Now that did not occur, so I am told. I have not been given different advice. If I were given different advice I';d make it public.
VAN EXTEL:
Do you accept that there could have been other reasons why children could have been thrown overboard from the boat? That it would not have been just simply a case of a threat or a tactic to involve the Navy?
PRIME MINISTER:
Well Cathy, not having been there I am not going to speculate about that. It';s a hypothetical thing and it is not for me to do that. I';ve been…
VAN EXTEL:
Initially, you were very happy to speculate that children had been thrown overboard and that it was blackmail.
PRIME MINISTER:
I';m sorry, I wasn';t speculating then, I was relying on unqualified advice. That wasn';t speculation. You';re asking me to express an opinion on a hypothetical situation, I';m not going to do that.
VAN EXTEL:
Were you then too quick to jump on this and make political mileage out of it?
PRIME MINISTER:
No.
VAN EXTEL:
Just moving on, this morning there are reports of another boat on fire. Another boat involving asylum seekers on fire, two people are believed dead. Are you able to confirm this information?
PRIME MINISTER:
There has been such an incident. What I am going to do and I have already spoken to the Defence Minister, is to have him put out a statement which releases in full the report that we have received from the Navy regarding the incident. So we don';t have, particularly on the eve of the election, allegations from the media or from our opponents that in some way we are misrepresenting the situation. And what we are going to put out, it';s being done now I believe by the Defence Minister, we are going to put out the Navy report, it does indicate that the vessel was, in the view of the Navy, deliberately lit. And that their attempts to secure it and to secure the engine were frustrated by the people on board. That all of the people, including thirty children, were rescued. There were, unfortunately, two fatalities, apparently from drowning, through no fault of the Navy or the Customs, they were saving lives. However, people can read the defence report and they can draw their own conclusions. And I have taken the step of requiring that the defence report to be put out in full so people can';t subsequently say that we are in some way manipulating the circumstances. I have no interest or desire to manipulate any of the facts in relation to these very difficult circumstances. We don';t enjoy what';s occurring. But we are not going to be deterred from our strong policy of protecting our borders, we are not going to allow a situation to arise where illegal immigrants can come to this country without going though a proper process of refugee or immigration assessment ….that is our very strong policy.
VAN EXTEL:
Prime Minister, yesterday you argued that the Pacific Solution is not unsustainable. What happens when Australia runs out of Pacific islands, needs the navy for other purposes or the economic situation deteriorates and it becomes too costly?
PRIME MINISTER:
Well Cathy, the economic situation in Australia will not, as you put it, deteriorate and it become too costly. That seems to assume that if we resumed a policy of much freer illegal immigration into this country that that wouldn';t carry a cost, it would. The idea that the policy we are now following imposes a huge additional cost and that the alternative would be much cheaper is not necessarily correct.
VAN EXTEL:
Do you accept that a side effect of the asylum seeker issue has been to feed racist elements in Australia?
PRIME MINISTER:
No I don';t. I don';t find any racism in the Australian public. I find constant references to racism in articles and news commentary and in the utterances of my critics on the policy. I don';t find, as I move around the community, people expressing racist sentiments about the illegal immigrants at all. It is not a racially based policy. We would apply the same approach irrespective of where the people were coming from.
VAN EXTEL:
One Nation claims you';ve hijacked their programme and the Party has been barely visible in their campaign. The polls are suggesting that the Coalition has picked up the One Nation vote. Are you comfortable about that?
PRIME MINISTER:
I am very comfortable about the policy that we have followed. I have never had any truck with One Nation. I don';t know how One Nation is going to poll. I haven';t spoken to One Nation. One Nation is being placed last on Liberal Party how to vote cards all around the country. I don';t know how you can imply that in some way that I have cosied up to One Nation. That';s a bit rich.
VAN EXTEL:
In the past you';ve wanted Australians to be relaxed and comfortable. In this campaign you';ve been constantly referring to the current global and economic uncertainties. Are we now frightened and tense?
PRIME MINISTER:
I don';t think we';re frightened and tense. I think the world changed forever after the 11th of September. That';s what';s cast a pall of uncertainty, if you like, over our future - not the campaign tactics of the Coalition or the Labor Party for that. We do live in a different world and what I';m saying is that in this era of greater uncertainty it is better to re-elect a government and a man who';s demonstrated a capacity to take difficult decisions, demonstrated a capacity to lead the country through some awkward and challenging circumstances. That is the basis of my appeal, the economy of Australia fortunately is very strong. We are in a position to stare down most of the challenges ahead. But had it not been through the economic reforms and changes we';ve made then we';d been in a lot weaker position.
VAN EXTEL:
Yesterday WA Liberal Barry Haase said that the GST should apply to food. It is also the view of the Treasurer. Can you guarantee that it won';t be increased?
PRIME MINISTER:
No that';s not the view of the Treasurer and Barry Haase has retracted that statement and I can guarantee that if we are re-elected that the GST will not be applied to food. And I can also guarantee if we are re- elected that the rate will not go up. I mean these are last minute desperate furphies by the Labor Party to try and attract attention. But let me make it clear the GST on food will not happen under a Coalition government nor will the rate of the GST go up under a Coalition government.
VAN EXTEL:
The Liberal Party has been critical during this campaign of the Democrats'; preference arrangements that favour Labor in marginal seats. If the Coalition is re-elected has that soured relations?
PRIME MINISTER:
Well I think if the Coalition is re-elected you I guess turn over a new page and you set about trying to establish the best relationship you can with the minor parties in the Senate. And that will the attitude that I will bring. However I have to say that the Democrats and the Greens have shown a distinct Labor bias in their preference allocation. In the case of the Democrats it really does undermine their claim to be a party in the middle and a party separate and apart from the two major parties.
VAN EXTEL:
Mr Howard most commentators believe that Kim Beazley has out campaigned you in the past five weeks. How difficult has it been to run a caretaker government in the current circumstances as well as run for re-election?
PRIME MINISTER:
Well I suppose Cathy the question of who';s out campaigned who is ultimately determined by the Australian people. Certainly this election campaign has involved me being both a political leader in a campaign and also Prime Minister in some very difficult and challenging circumstances on a day to day basis. It certainly has been a big job but I have felt very up to it. I felt quite fuelled over a very long and gruelling five week campaign. I';ve got a more open campaign than Mr Beazley. To my knowledge he';s not exposed himself to a dare I say to a real person during the whole campaign. He';s not gone on any street walks. Even on Melbourne Cup day he sought the companionship of the members of the Labour Club at Belconnen rather than just an ordinary workers club. So…
VAN EXTEL:
Just going back your campaign. Being in Washington at the time of the terrorist attacks had a big impact. Do you feel as a politician you';ve changed in the past couple of months and are your priorities different. Well I think everybody would after going through that experience you feel that some of the things you have taken for granted are challenged for the first time. I believe that the terrorist attack has had quite an impact on the psyche of younger people in Australia. In a subliminal way it has threatened the, put sunset over the idea they have of all travelling and perhaps worhey have of all travelling and perhaps working for a few years in another country. I';m sure they';ll still do it. I hope they do. We';ve all got to get on with our lives. We have to take additional precautions we can';t stop living because then the terrorists will really have won in a big way.
VAN EXTEL:
Prime Minister thank you for joining us this morning.
PRIME MINISTER:
Thank you
[ends]

Transcript 12117