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Transcript 12499

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP INTERVIEW WITH PAUL MURRAY, RADIO 6PR

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: 14/03/2002

Release Type: Interview

Transcript ID: 12499

Subjects: Senator Heffernan; health insurance; MRI machine

E&OE...........

MURRAY:

Good morning, Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning, Paul, thanks for the character reference.

MURRAY:

Well, Prime Minister, what does it say about the quality of your Government at the start of the third term that your close friend, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Cabinet, can launch a personal attack on a High Court Judge under parliamentary privilege without informing you?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, Paul, I've already dealt with this difficult and sensitive matter in the Parliament yesterday and at the moment I don't have anything much to add to what I said yesterday. It is true, as you say, that the speech was made by Senator Heffernan without prior reference to me. The issues generally involved in it were the subject of earlier discussions between us and, indeed, between Senator Heffernan and other senior colleagues but I had no warning of that speech. But there is a process for handling those issues. Parliamentary privilege is an important right that our system has. It should never be abused but it does exist to be used. The question of whether it has been improperly used on this occasion will only, I suppose, be established in an objective way in the minds of people when this issue is fully played out. Now, I hold to the presumption of innocence. I make no claims myself about the behaviour of the Judge. I know him. He's made a big contribution to the legal profession in Australia. I also know and like my colleague, Bill Heffernan. I know he feels very strongly on certain issues and ultimately he has to justify what he's done. He's offered to stand down from his position and I have accepted that offer and I think that is the right thing to do.

MURRAY:

Is that the sign of a disciplined Government, Prime Minister, that the Secretary, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Cabinet launches an attack on a High Court Judge without informing the Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, the question of whether I run a disciplined Government is determined by a whole range of factors, not one particular incident. And I think the way in which the Government is effecting the lives of Australians generally is a better guide as to whether or not I run a disciplined Government. And the employment news that has just come out indicates that in that very important area we are running a disciplined Government and a disciplined economy.

MURRAY:

Well, I'll get to that Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER:

And I'm quite happy to defer detail of that and deal with the other matter because I don't avoid these issues.

MURRAY:

Yes, I know you don't.

PRIME MINISTER:

And I just wanted to make the point, though, that you can't determine whether a government is disciplined or ill-disciplined according to one particular incident. Now, I'm not going to say anything more now about the Heffernan-Kirby matter. Matters were raised in the circumstances that I have described and beyond that what I've said yesterday in the Parliament and beyond reiterating that I was not given any warning and I certainly did not, as falsely alleged by the Opposition Leader this morning in Canberra, in Parliament, did not encourage Senator Heffernan to make the speech, far from it.

MURRAY:

You say that Bill Heffernan didn't tell you. You say Peter Reith didn't tell you that the children overboard story was a lie. You say Michael Wooldridge didn't tell you he was diverting money from asthmatic kids and the rural health crisis to give to his new employers. What do your close political allies tell you?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, that's a clever glib comment, Paul, with respect but given the range of issues that a Prime Minister has to deal with, the fact, in particular, in relation to the Michael Wooldridge matter that he didn't specifically raise that with me, there are lots of decisions that are taken by Government Ministers, within their authority and in accordance with the rules, that are not raised directly with me.

MURRAY:

These aren't trifles I've raised with you.

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no, no, they're not, none of them are trifles. And I'm simply making the point, Paul, and you know it as an experienced commentator on politics, that everyday the flood of decisions and the flood of issues that come across the desk of a Prime Minister mean that decisions which are important in themselves - and I'm talking particularly here of the Wooldridge matter and I'll come to the children overboard again, I won't avoid any reference to that either - in relation to the Wooldridge matter it is not, on the scale of things, surprising that a decision like that would have been taken without reference to me. And it doesn't indicate a breakdown in the disciplines of government. I mean, in the end, whether we are a good or a bad Government has to be determined according to our overall management of the economy, our overall management of the direction of the country and I think in those areas if this is an "annus horriblus" the way it has started economically, then please give me a magnificent year because it will be truly a stellar performing economy and it will be truly a remarkable country. I mean, this country has got the strongest economy in the developed world at the present time. We are growing faster than any of the other major developed economies. We have, since being elected in '96, created 950,000 new jobs. We have the lowest interest rates in 30 years. Western Australia's unemployment rate has now fallen to 6.3% which is the second lowest unemployment rate of a State in Australia. So if people want to start talking objective assessment of how this Government has performed and, you know, I'm very happy, I'm very happy to sit here all day and say things about our management of the affairs of the nation that effect the people of this country.

MURRAY:

I regularly give you credit on this programme for your economic performance but as you said governments are judged on a variety of issues and one of them is character [inaudible].

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes.

MURRAY:

The Senate this morning has called for you to make Bill Heffernan apologise to Michael Kirby, will you do so?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I haven't heard that and in any event I'm not going to handle that matter any differently from the way in which I have indicated in the Parliament yesterday it will be handled. You would expect the Senate to do that. The Senate is dominated by anti-Coalition Senators. I mean, don't throw that Senate outcome at me as though it's the result of some considered, reflective, ultra judicial judgement. It is a purely political hit at the Government which you would expect a Senate majority comprising Democrats and Greens and Labor, of course [inaudible].

MURRAY:

Yeah, a political response to a political muck rake.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, the question of whether there was justification in the matter being raised will, as I said earlier, be determined by the ultimate playing out of this issue. But parliamentary privilege should not be abused and that was a view I put to Senator Heffernan last year when we discussed this matter. It is a view that I hold to very strongly. The question ultimately, though, of whether parliamentary privilege has been abused will be determined by the ultimate playing out of issues. And parliamentary privilege is there to be used. If it was never intended that it be there it would no longer be available. I mean, the purpose of parliamentary privilege is to allow, in exceptional circumstances, matters to be aired in circumstances where they can't be the subject of legal proceedings. Now, it's a very special right and it should be used very carefully and this is not the first time a High Court Judge has been attacked under parliamentary privilege. The first time was 20 years ago when a Senator from Western Australia, who was a Labor Senator, used parliamentary privilege to attack a now deceased Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia.

MURRAY:

I remember it well.

PRIME MINISTER:

Now, I'm not going to say anything more than that except to remind your listeners that this is not the first time. Now, the question of whether that was fair or unfair was very much in the eye of the beholder at the time and I guess you never fully resolve whether that was fair or unfair in the minds of many people. There was another attack made…

MURRAY:

On [inaudible] Murphy.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes. And some people to this day regard that as having been monstrously unfair. Others believe that it was justified. But it is a special right and it shouldn';t be abused and in the end people who abuse it will suffer a harsh judgment.

MURRAY:

Is your friend Bill Heffernan simply a homophobic or are there matters of substance in his claims?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I have no direct knowledge of any of these matters, therefore I';m not going to express…

MURRAY:

You told me earlier he told you about them before.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes but it doesn';t alter the fact I don';t have any direct knowledge of them. People … you can tell me something, doesn';t mean to say I have direct knowledge, you';re just repeating, giving me your view of a set of circumstances. Look, Paul..

MURRAY:

… when he told you about them you didn';t think they were substantive enough for you to launch an inquiry about them.

PRIME MINISTER:

Paul, I';m not saying any more on that, on the substance of the allegations and the way in which they';ve been…

MURRAY:

Well let me just ask you about the process…

PRIME MINISTER:

I';m sorry you asked me about the process and I';m answering that question and I';m saying I';ve got nothing to add to what I said yesterday…

MURRAY:

Well just let me ask you (inaudible) and we';ll move on if you don';t like this question. But I want to put this to you, surely the police are not the right people to investigate complaints against judges. In fact it could be very dangerous to have the police investigating complaints against judges.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well leaving aside this particular issue, talking in the general, I don';t agree with that because if an allegation is made a judge is entitled to the same the presumption of innocence as any citizens is and normally if an allegation is made the response of a citizen is if you believe I';ve done something wrong you take it to the police. There is no federal judicial commission in Australia. In Australia, and I';m talking here in the general, I';m not talking about any particular judge, in Australia if somebody is a judge of the Federal Court, including the High Court, that person can only be removed by a resolution of both houses of parliament, the Senate and the House of Representatives, on the grounds of proved misbehaviour. There is no body established to deal in the first instance with allegations that might amount to proved misbehaviour. Therefore you really have a void and one of the things I said yesterday was that in future so that people who felt strongly that matters should be ventilated did not feel they had to use parliamentary privilege, and I';m not expressing a view here as to whether the use yesterday was right or wrong, the day before yesterday was right or wrong, I';m simply explaining the principle. What I said was that I thought we should adopt a recommendation of the Law Reform Commission that a device be established by the Parliament to deal with any allegations that people had about judicial officers. Now I actually think it would be a good idea to have that and if you';re suggesting that you think that would be superior to the present void then I agree with you.

MURRAY:

(inaudible) police investigate criminal offences, offences by judges going to their propriety, to their ability to the job may not be criminal.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that is, once again I';m talking in the general, that is quite possible. There can be behaviour which whilst not criminal in character, and I repeat I';m not talking here about anything other than the principle, but there can be behaviour which whilst not criminal in character may amount to behaviour that would bring a court into disrepute and it might be the subject of a motion for removal after a process for inquiry. But at the moment there is no standing protocol, there';s no arrangement, there is no procedure whereby claims of that kind can be investigated. Therefore the only proposal, the only device, the only approach, the only track available is that of a reference to the police.

MURRAY:

Now Prime Minister there are very patient callers waiting for you. 9221 1233 if you want to speak to the Prime Minister. John';s first up Prime Minister, good morning John.

CALLER:

Good morning Mr Prime Minister. HBF over in Western Australia, your Minister, Senator Patterson, got up and said in the House increases would be an average of nine per cent. HBF in Western Australia, 18 per cent. I also received a letter yesterday from HBF, it says on it the Federal Government has given it an additional rebate from $183 to $216.50 which means another, would have been a further increase by HBF if you hadn't have put money in. Now there';s an actual 26 per cent increase by HBF. Now doesn';t your Minister look at it, I';m a disability pensioner paying $84 out of my pension to stay in a hospital fund over in Western Australia. I';m on a medication called Colofac, remember it c-o-l-o-f-a-c. It';s for irritable bowel pain yet you will also Viagra and crap like that to be put onto the fund. That';s now also on top of HBF has gone up from $17 a month to $22.40 a month by HBF. Doesn';t your Minister, another one that I suppose you can't say I don';t know nothing about. Doesn';t your Minister look at these funds before they authorise something like 18 and 26 per cent rise.

MURRAY:

Let's let the Prime Minister respond John.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well John what the Senator said was that the average increase was the figure you quoted. When you have an average some are above and some are below. And I have no reason for a moment to doubt that that figure was accurate. I did take a very keen interest in this issue, in fact when I was in Singapore I made it very clear when I heard of a suggestion from Medibank Private that it should get a 13 per cent increase, I said that was, in my words, a bit rich. And as a result of the Government';s action, the Minister';s action, that increase was pared back very significantly. So far as the prescription that drugs are concerned and recommendations we try and run a system where the experts make the recommendations as to what should be put on the free list, or the subsidised list I';m sorry, I know it';s not free, that';s a misnomer and I apologise for it. Because it';s better to have people who are experts in this area making recommendations. Now there has been some talk about further extensions in relation to Viagra and I can assure you that the sort of view that you have expressed is a view that many people have and we';ll certainly be taking that into account if we get a recommendation in that area.

MURRAY:

Okay thanks John. Good morning Pricilla.

CALLER:

Good morning Paul and Prime Minister. It';s no secret to the Western Australian public how much we';re in need of an MRI machine for our kids. Look I don';t have enough time to elaborate on the many positives the machine would bring but I am instead asking directly for your help as a national leader and who is a parent too. I';m having an extremely difficult time convincing Kay Patterson and the independent committee how much we need this. The high demand on the machine and the ever increasing pressure on the staff has been at maximum capacity for years. You know there are so many sick and critically ill children of all ages that can be helped, who are eagerly awaiting scans, and that';s including my son. Prime Minister, I know you';re a man of faith and I pray to God every day for the parents and the children who are suffering. My son has a brain tumour and I know children that have died because of this MRI situation and it';s heartbreaking. That is why after pursuing all other avenues unsuccessfully I';m going to ask you today who holds the position to convince Ms Patterson is the dire seriousness of the MRI crisis and what do you suggest I do now.

MURRAY:

Thanks Pricilla.

PRIME MINISTER:

Whereabout's is your son? Is he in a hospital at the moment?

CALLER:

No, we';ve had a brain tumour for three years now and we';ve had all the treatment that we can have and we';ve had several….

PRIME MINISTER:

I mean I am, let me say I feel very deeply for you and the position of your son. Are you saying that it';s the absence of the MRI machine….?

CALLER:

I';m saying that children are being (inaudible) …..

PRIME MINISTER:

Yeah I do….look please, I';m trying to assist. The situation is, you know, I';m aware of this and I know it';s particularly for the MRI services in the Princess Margaret Hospital. I mean at the mean there are five Medicare funded MRI units in Perth. I';m told that they';re all within a five kilometre radius of Princess Margaret Hospital. I understand that those five, there';s one at the Sir Charles Gardiner, there';s one at the Royal Perth and there are three privately owned facilities. Now the provision of MRI services for in-patient treatment at Princess Margaret Hospital is the responsibility of the government, the Western Australian government. I';m just stating a fact, I';m not trying to pass the buck on this.

MURRAY:

But they need a Medicare licence….

PRIME MINISTER:

No Medicare eligibility is not needed for this to happen so I';m told.

MURRAY:

Well it';s not economic to run unless they get a Medicare….

PRIME MINISTER:

But I mean that is one of the things that has to be taken into account. I mean there are five provided in the area. There are five and they';re all within a five kilometre radius of Princess Margaret Hospital and what we have to try and do is strike a balance in relation to the adequate provision of the services but also…..

MURRAY:

The advisory committee to Michael Wooldridge recommended last year that there be an MRI at Princess Margaret. Michael Wooldridge overrode that.

PRIME MINISTER:

Did they recommend they Medicare eligibility or did they just recommend there be one provided?

MURRAY:

No they recommended there should be one there. The question of licence is now before Kay Patterson.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yeah I understand that. Well I mean I will, in view of the, you know, views that have been put to me I will have a further discussion with Senator Patterson. But the advice I have as of now is you do have five within a five kilometre radius, that the responsibility, I mean financially for the provision of in-patient services in Princess Margaret is the responsibility of the Western Australian government.

MURRAY:

Margaret';s on the line for you Prime Minister. Go ahead Margaret.

CALLER:

Good morning Mr Howard and good morning Paul. Mr Howard, six years ago as a swinging voter I voted for you because I was sick of Paul Keating';s arrogance and I really believed if nothing else you were a very honest man. I';m afraid I now feel you are very arrogant and you are not a very honest man. Everytime something dubious comes up you say oh I didn';t know about that. Well you';re the head of the company and you should know about everything important that is happening. Now could you tell me why you keep saying I didn';t know about that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don';t keep saying I didn';t know about that and that is not a fair statement, it';s not an accurate statement. In relation to particular issues I';ve tried to answer those questions always very honestly and faithfully and it is the nature of modern government which is very complex that there are some issues that you don';t know about it. There are other issues that you do know about.

CALLER:

What are the issues?

PRIME MINISTER:

I';m sorry, look, please, I listened to you and you';ve made a very substantial personal criticism of me and I accept that in good faith and I listened courteously to you and I';m trying to answer your question. I don';t think that is being either discourteous or arrogant. I think it is being normally polite. It is never possible for a head of a government to know every single thing that is happening. It is important that a head of government know about the very important things that are happening and if you look at the state of our country I think I can claim without any sense of hubris or arrogance that I have a reasonable understanding of the important things that affect this country. As far as the children overboard issue was concerned what was really important about that in the election campaign was whether people agreed or disagreed with our border protection policy. What I find as I go around the Australian community is people are saying look, we voted for you because we thought you had a tough border protection policy, that was the issue that swung our votes. Now I know the Labor Party is running this issue hard and they';re entitled to do that as a matter of political combat. But what I have said in relation to that issue is based upon my faithful recollection of events and I don';t have anything to apologise in relation to that and I have not been deceitful in relation to that.

MURRAY:

Prime Minister, we';re unfortunately out of time…..

PRIME MINISTER:

[inaudible] didn't get an opportunity to tell your listeners….

MURRAY:

[inaudible] news Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yeah well I mean, they';re 6.6% which is a remarkable unemployment figure and a lot more important may I say than some other issues that are being run.

[ends]

Transcript 12499