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Transcripts from the Prime Ministers of Australia

Transcript 20725

Interview with Neil Mitchell, Radio 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: 14/03/2003

Release Type: Interview

Transcript ID: 20725

MITCHELL:

Mr Howard, good morning.

PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning, how are you Neil?

MITCHELL:

I'm well, thank you. Mr Howard... perhaps your speech hasn't worked. It hasn't swung the country behind you. What's your reaction to that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, you can't make a decision on that the morning after. I don't think you will get a full expression of the views of the Australian people until the issue of the United Nations is resolved and when the final decision is taken by the Government. This is a very difficult issue and there are a lot of people against what I'm arguing. I'm sure there are a lot in favour. I think the people in the middle is probably greater than the combination of the people on either extreme.

MITCHELL:

You think there are that many undecided?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think there are a lot of people quite undecided, yes.

MITCHELL:

Well, are you confident you can get the majority...?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, Neil, that's really a sense for other people to comment on. I will try and persuade the Australian people about the justice and the good sense in what I'm doing. I believe in it very strongly. I've argued it as best I've can and I'll go on arguing it. I mean, in the end on something like this you can't keep tacking like a yacht according to the latest opinion poll. You have to really make up your mind on a course of action and then go out there and argue your case and that is what I'm doing... I will go out and argue my case and it's ultimately to the Australian people to make a judgement.

MITCHELL:

Are you... as I say, we're trying to fix that problem.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yeah, okay, I think it may have gone now.

MITCHELL:

You said you'd decide on a course of action and follow it. Have you decided on a course of action?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well the course of action, what I'm describing is what I'm doing - the deployment of the troops, the case I put yesterday. Look Neil, when the United Nations process has been finalised, Cabinet will meet and take a final decision and then the matter will be debated in Parliament. We're obviously in a position to participate militarily, we've deployed troops. But I've withheld taking that final decision because you never know at the last minute what event may arise that could influence that decision and I would not be doing my job if I foreclose the opportunity to respond any last minute developments, that's the point I'm taking.

MITCHELL:

Look, given that you haven't made a final decision, have you made a final decision as to whether the UN is relevant? I mean, will you join in the United States action regardless of the UN decision?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, that's a different way of answering the earlier question. Let's wait and see how things work out in New York, then we'll take a decision.

MITCHELL:

Well, let's look at the popular support for it. Are you prepared to go, if necessary, to go into action even if you believe the Australian people don't want it?

PRIME MINISTER:

In the end, the decision I take will be based, and the Government will take, will be based on our assessment of the national interest and if the national interest is believed by us to require a course of action which at that particular time may not enjoy popular support in the opinion polls, well we'll still do it. But opinion polls change and my critics can't have it both ways, they can't say, as they have on occasions over the last seven years, that I'm poll-driven and then criticise me for not listening to the most recent opinion poll, and opinion polls move around and while ever the possibility of a UN resolution is there, you won't really get an authentic test of public opinion as to whether or not they would support action being taken without the 18th Security Council resolution because while there are a range of options, you don't get a final read out. Look, even talking about this in this fashion underlines the point. But in the end, governments have got to do what they believe is right and suffer properly the consequences or otherwise of their decisions at the ballot box. You can't make policies, particularly on national security, according to the latest opinion poll, I mean, we just cannot do that.

MITCHELL:

...make the decision regardless of public opinion.

PRIME MINISTER:

We make the decisions on your assessment of what is in Australia's national interests because that is the job you are elected to do.

MITCHELL:

They could mean we head into an unpopular war.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, a lot of things governments do are unpopular. I understand that, but to react and govern in any other way is really being negligent to the obligations I have to the Australian people. They elected me because of their broad support for the policies of the Government and they entrust me with taking decisions in the national interest. And if at election time, they're unhappy with what the Government has done, well they will take it out on the Government, I understand that, all of my colleagues understand that. And you can't govern in any other way, you have to make an honest assessment and if I can just say again Neil, and I'm getting repititious, but in the past I've been attacked for being poll-driven, now I'm being attacked for not being poll-driven. I mean, my critics have got to make up their mind.

MITCHELL:

Does this come to a head next week? Is it the final week next week?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I would expect so.

MITCHELL:

Is there a possibility the support of the United Nations will in fact not push ahead with any UN resolution, they could withdraw it,.

PRIME MINISTER:

That is a possibility. You've got to remember that you don't need the 18th resolution for legal reasons. There is adequate legal authority in the existing resolutions for force to be used to enforce the disarmament or bring about the disarmament of Iraq.

MITCHELL:

So, how would that effect Australia's position if it doesn't go to a resolution? If the UN, in a sense, is removed from the equation next week?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, if the UN was removed from the equation by the resolution not being put, then obviously the UN process has ended and we would, as a Cabinet then meet and take a final decision.

MITCHELL:

Do you have any proof that Saddam Hussein is working with al-Qaeda?

PRIME MINISTER:

We have plenty of intelligence suggesting a number of things of the toleration of al-Qaeda people in Baghdad, of links between an al-Qaeda related organisation and Iraqi intelligence. Now they're... that's the solid evidence we have of links. What I have argued is not what some people have suggested, that I didn't proove yesterday. What I've argued is that if a country like Iraq is able to keep possession of chemical and biological weapons, other rogue states will want to do the same thing and the more countries like that that have those sorts of weapons, the greater it becomes the possibility that they'll get into the hands of terrorists. That's my greatest concern and that really lies at the heart of my belief that something should be done.

MITCHELL:

Do you really believe Australia is facing its own Pearl Harbour?

PRIME MINISTER:

I used the illustration of Pearl Harbour to make the point that if you wait until you have criminal jury proof that terrorists have got the weapons and they're going to use them, it's too late. That was the imagery I was invoking by talking about Pearl Harbour and I don't apologise for saying that. I mean, people have chosen to put that remark in a particular context, I can't help that, but that was the point I was trying to make, that if you wait for the sort of proof that you'd need to give to a Criminal Court jury then it may be too late.

MITCHELL:

Well, what about what is behind that? Do you believe that there is a danger of conflict on Australian soil?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don't see...I'm not saying we're going to have a conflict tomorrow, no I'm not, or even in the immediate future. I'm saying that there is a general risk to the world particularly to western societies if chemical and biological weapons spread because as they spread so will increase the likelihood of them falling into terrorist hands and international terrorists are prepared to strike anywhere and that is my great concern.

MITCHELL:

We'll take a couple of quick calls. Please keep them as tight as possible because we want to get as many as we can. Michael, go ahead.

CALLER:

How you going, Mr Howard?

PRIME MINISTER:

Not bad, Michael.

CALLER:

Yeah, look, I just want to see what you think on our view. I seen you on the 7.30 Report last night and you keep mentioning it's your argument, what you think: what about listening to the Australian public. I don't think there's any need for war. To me it just seems like you've committed yourself with Mr Bush and you can't go back on your decision now but to me it's like you want to go back and you also say that you don't have any evidence. I mean, why go to war if you don't have any clear evidence?

MITCHELL:

Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, the situation is, as I've outlined it during this interview, I am concerned that the Australian community could suffer if weapons of mass destruction proliferate because if they proliferate they will fall into the hands of terrorists and like any other western nation Australia is a terrorist target. Now, that is my belief. I respect the fact that you obviously have a different view. It's not a question of just following America. The American alliance, incidentally, is very important to Australia. It is more important to Australia's long-term security than the United States. So you never factor out the American alliance when you take important national security decisions. But the central reason why I've taken the stance I have is the one that I've outlined.

MITCHELL:

Do you believe Saddam Hussein is attempting to disarm or is he still playing games?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh, he's playing games. I mean, he wouldn't have even got the weapons inspectors back in his country if it hadn't been for the American military build-up. And this is what is so insubstantial - let me careful and diplomatic - about the French position. I mean, they are perfectly happy to have the dividend of inspectors back in Iraq and a few morsels of cooperation but roundly condemn the Americans for everything they've done. If the Americans had not put the troops there the inspectors wouldn't have gone back into Iraq and if the American troops were to withdraw...I mean, let's say, for example, tomorrow we brought our troops home, which Mr Crean keeps saying I should do, the British took their troops home and the Americans took their troops home, does anybody really believe the weapons inspectors would then continue to get cooperation from Iraq. I mean, you've got to be joking. Nobody believes that. And this is the artificial insubstantial character of the French position, in particular, vis-a-vis, the Americans.

MITCHELL:

What about the British, do you think they're equivocating now?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I don't. I think Tony Blair has shown the strength of a true Labour leader, if I may be committed to say that.

MITCHELL:

What do you mean by that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I mean that he's been very strong and he's standing up for what he believes is good for his country.

MITCHELL:

And Simon Crean isn't.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, Simon Crean's position I don't agree with. I'm not impugning his patriotism and I'm not going to do that. I'm not suggesting he's not a good Australian. I don't play that sort of game. He disagrees with me on this. I think his argument is insubstantial but I'm not questioning his commitment to this country.

MITCHELL:

Have you been warned of the possibility of a massive humanitarian disaster in Iraq?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, in an intelligence assessment I looked at a few months ago there were a range of possible scenarios painted. I mean, one scenario is that if the war is quick humanitarian consequences will be relatively small. If it were longer then they would be larger. I think when you're talking, though, about humanitarian considerations you've got to remember that there's a very powerful case - and I put it yesterday - that the people of Iraq will suffer less if Saddam Hussein is removed, even if that removal involves military force.

MITCHELL:

Hello, Ian, go ahead please.

CALLER:

Yes, good morning, Mr Howard. I was just wondering whether the Government has made any plans or contingency plans for the acceptance of Iraqi refugees?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, what we've indicated is that if there were a particular refugee problem we would be willing to play our part.

MITCHELL:

Mr Howard, were you emotional during the speech yesterday?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, I was.

MITCHELL:

What was in your mind?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, what was in my mind was really what I was trying to communicate to my fellow Australians. It's a very difficult but crucially important issue and I do understand and respect the fact that a lot of people disagree with me and I'm trying to reach them and talk to them. I don't think I'll convince a lot of them. I might convince some of them. I might reassure others. I accept that responsibility. It's part of the democratic process and I am perfectly happy to accept the judgement, ultimately, and my Government is, of the Australian people on this issue. But I believe very strongly in the case that I'm putting. I believe it does go directly to the Australian national interest and that's why I'm arguing so strongly.

MITCHELL:

Do you have a sense of history in all this? I mean, you're known as an admirer of Churchill, do you look to those days or those [inaudible]...

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, I am an admirer. I mean, who wouldn't be, he was the greatest figure of the 20th Century, without argument in my view. But we're living in different circumstances now and although I am a student of history, I read it a lot, I'm not sort of getting carried away with any sort of nostalgia about anything. I'm dealing with this in present day circumstances according to what I believe is right and I think it is important. And I think it is important that we understand that we are living in a different world environment now. The old idea of aggression was that an army rolled across a border and then you tried to repel that army. We're now talking of international terrorism in a borderless world.

MITCHELL:

Hello, Steve. Go head please, Steve.

CALLER:

Mr Howard, I'd like to ask you to answer a straight, simple question please. In the last Gulf War United Nations estimates were that 3,500 Iraqi civilians, playing no part in the defence of the country, were killed. Iraqi estimates are 35,000 so the figure is presumably somewhere between those two. How many innocent Iraqi civilians are going to die if this war happens in a very different sort of war where you're going to have to go all the way to Baghdad and into Baghdad itself, not stop south of it, how many do your intelligence estimates are you going to kill?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, sir, I don't have a figure and I can't have a figure because it depends entirely on how any military action might work out. It can't be assumed that what you assert will happen does happen. I put back to you the fact, sir, I'll perhaps turn the question around and perhaps say to you, how many tens of thousands of innocent people will die if Saddam Hussein's regime continues? Are you aware of the tens of thousands and in terms of the wars in which he's been involved and started up, more than a million people that have died, are you aware of the 200,000 odd people who've gone into the prison system and disappeared over the years? I mean, when you talk understandably about civilian casualties if military conflict breaks out, can I make two points. The one person who can stop a military conflict and also achieve disarmament in one blow is Saddam Hussein yet whenever we talk about the humanitarian cost of action there's an assumption that Saddam Hussein is right, so to speak, in his position and those who criticise him are wrong and that all the responsibility rests on those who are critical of him and none on him. I think it's about time we got a bit of balance and perspective back into the humanitarian debate.

MITCHELL:

Prime Minister, the Catholic Bishop of Canberra, Pat Power, says you have swallowed pro-Israel rhetoric from the United States. Do you get offended when people doubt your integrity on this and say you're just pandering or kowtowing...

PRIME MINISTER:

No, can I say particularly in relation to pro-Israel rhetoric from the United States, can I say with great respect to His Grace that my respect and admiration for Israel long pre-dates my entry into public life. People who know me know that. I have a great regard for the Israeli state and for the Jewish people but I also believe very strongly that the west has got to try harder to get a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. I think the suggestion that the American approach is driven by Israel is wrong. I know that to be wrong and this administration is no more pro-Israeli than earlier administrations, in fact, historically democratic administrations have tended to be more pro-Israeli. So I think that whole argument is flawed in relation to America, it's certainly flawed in relation to me. I think we've got to try much harder and I strongly support the development of an independent Palestinian state and I hope that Ariel Sharon uses the authority of his re-election to be a bit more responsive to international pressure for a settlement but until those suicide bombings stop it's pretty hard to expect the Israeli people to talk to anybody.

MITCHELL:

Just finally, Prime Minister, and quickly, the world is in a holding pattern, is it not, international stock markets, the world is in a holding pattern...

PRIME MINISTER:

The FTSE bounced back this morning. I don't know what will happen to the all ordinaries but the FTSE came back 6% overnight. So certainly there is a lot tension on financial markets.

MITCHELL:

Thanks very much for your time.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thanks.

[ends]

Transcript 20725