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Transcript 20746

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: 21/03/2003

Release Type: Interview

Transcript ID: 20746

MITCHELL:

In our Canberra studio is the Prime Minister. Mr Howard, good morning.

PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning, Neil.

MITCHELL:

Mr Howard, Australian troops, as you'd confirm, were among the first into combat, they've now been in action almost 24 hours. Is everybody okay?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, the information we have to date is that everybody is okay, that of course is my overwhelming concern and anxiety now and will remain so while ever the activity lasts. I can't talk about where our Special Forces are or what they're doing, I'm sure people will understand that. But I can confirm, as I did yesterday, that they've taken part in operations. I can also confirm the operations of the FA-18s, the Hornets, the latest advice is that everything is okay. Last night, I spoke by telephone to Brigadier McNarn, who's the Australian Commander in the Gulf, and he reported that all of our men and women were in good spirits, their morale was very high. Obviously, in a situation like this there are many periods of anxiety, in one sense the anxiety of waiting has ended but the different and more threatening anxiety of conflict has begun and of course that's a very anxious time also for the mums and dads and wives and husbands and sweethearts back here in Australia. So, it's a very tense period and our thoughts are very much with our men and women. Their lives are on the line and I just repeat, whatever people's views are about the Government's decision, I know all of our thoughts are going to be with our people over in the Gulf.

MITCHELL:

Are they still in action?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I don't want to give a running commentary... I mean, particularly with Special Forces, just accept that they're continuing to do their job.

MITCHELL:

Can you tell us what time they went into Iraq yesterday?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I don't...

MITCHELL:

Fair enough. Can you tell us in general terms what they're doing? I mean, it's reported today in the Australian newspaper that they're doing reconnaissance deep inside Iraq. Is it possible to go that far?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, it's not. I really do not intend to say anything about what our Special Forces are doing because they do undertake very dangerous and difficult tasks and anything said might, however innocently and inadvertently, do something to compromise their safety and I'd be horrified and the Australian public would be horrified if I were to do that. So, please accept that I'm not trying to be difficult or uncommunicative, I try and be as candid as possible but in a situation like this with these particular men, I can't say anything other than what I've just said.

MITCHELL:

What about the FA-18s, because I guess they're more obvious. Have they been flying escort duty, is that correct?

PRIME MINISTER:

So far, yes. They may go onto other duties but they've essentially been doing escort work at present.

MITCHELL:

The...

PRIME MINISTER:

Can I also say that each day now from 11 o'clock in the morning, there will be a detailed briefing given by the ADF at Russell Hill, and whilst obviously I will, and the Defence Minister in particular, will be saying general things, we think it's a good idea for the more detailed military briefings and explanations to be given by the experts. And they can provide more, how shall we put it - more authentic information because they're the experts.

MITCHELL:

Fair enough. Now, your... you've got a taped video message to be sent to the troops so they can actually see it. What do you say?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I express our thanks, I express our admiration, I tell them that everybody's thinking of them, that we're doing our best to support their families and give comfort and to try and share as best we can the sense of anxiety that their families feel, I tell them that we believe it's a just and legitimate cause that they're involved in and we hope to see them all safe and sound back home as soon as possible.

MITCHELL:

How specific is the information you're getting from the United States now? Did you have contact overnight?

PRIME MINISTER:

I haven't spoken to anybody overnight. The Secretary of State rang me late yesterday morning to talk about the then immediately pending American action. We will be having a meeting of the National Security Council this morning at half past nine and we'll receive a very detailed briefing from General Cosgrove and the other military people about what has happened. Once you get into the phase we're now into, it does become very much a question of what's happening on the military front. You have good military leaders, which we do, we rely very heavily on them, they are the experts, they've been given a task by the Government of the day and I have every confidence of course in them and they of course are in very regular contact through the CENCOM headquarters in the Gulf with their American and British counterparts. We of course, all of us are hearing the news reports, as is the case in all of these situations the news reports are often very reliable sometimes through no fault of the reporters they may not be but at this stage I can't really add anything much. It may be that later on in the morning, particularly from the briefing given by the ADF, there'll be more information forthcoming.

MITCHELL:

Okay. But... are the Americans... well, have they outlined their strategy too? Do you know...?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, they've gone into... well we've got... we obviously have been ...were briefed with certain considerations, I can't really go further than that.

MITCHELL:

I understand that. But on your interpretation of what's happening at the moment, it would seem that the major attack has not begun. They promised 'shock and awe', do you believe the major attack of this war has begun?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I think what you have to do in a situation like this is to retain flexibility. I'm sure the Americans are retaining flexibility. It was pretty obvious from what the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, said overnight that they have responded and reacted and thrust forward in a particular way based on certain assessments. And I think it's very unwise to declare that this or that is going to be the strategy because often the military, for very good intelligence reasons, will change its strategy and if you have enough flexibility, both in your military thinking and in your command structure, and in the forces you have at your disposal, to change that strategy, then you do. I think everybody would like to see the task completed as soon as possible with the minimum number of casualties, and recognising consistently throughout this that we don't have any quarrel with the ordinary people of Iraq, we don't want to inflict any avoidable pain injury or death on them. We do have a big quarrel with the regime because it's the regime that has defied the world in relation to its chemical and biological weapons. We mustn't lose sight of what this is all about.

MITCHELL:

I guess what I was getting at is whether the broader attack could still be called off if Saddam Hussein was to go into exile?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think it's silly of me to even speculate about that at the present time because that becomes news, it becomes a comment, and once you're into a military situation I don't think we should be running around with hypothetical scenarios.

MITCHELL:

Okay, but would you say - so if we've had scud missile attacks on Kuwait city, some fear they were chemical warheads, but that as yet hasn't proved right, is this in fact already evidence that Saddam Hussein was in breach of any guidelines?

PRIME MINISTER:

I have no information that would enable me to answer that question yes or no.

MITCHELL:

Do you have a view on whether Saddam Hussein is still alive? Could that have been a double on television yesterday? That's being speculated...

PRIME MINISTER:

I don't have any information that would inform me either way. There are a number of scenarios. It could be him. It could have been recorded when they say it was recorded. It mightn't be him. It might have been recorded earlier. I don't know. And at this stage I don't have any independent intelligence advice that bears upon that subject.

MITCHELL:

We'll take some calls for the Prime Minister in a moment - 9696 1278, please keep them brief, and given what's been happening in Parliament lately - I want to get on to that later - please keep them respectful, I urge, even if you're against the war. One thing that concerned me Prime Minister was George Bush yesterday saying there will be no half measures in this war, no half measures, which raised in my mind just how far he was prepared to go in the use of weaponry. Do you still believe...

PRIME MINISTER:

I didn't see that in... there is nothing that we've, information we've received to suggest for a moment they'd use nuclear weapons. What he was... I interpreted that to mean that having started it, they were determined to finish it.

MITCHELL:

The terrorism issue - you say we've been a terror target for a long time, and that's clearly right. But there must now be an increase in the risk of terrorist activity in this country, must there not?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well our intelligence agencies tell us that they haven't received, since the deployment of our forces, they have not received any information that would warrant the lifting of the level of terror alert. Now the terror alert went up generally. It was heightened after the 11th of September 2001 and there was a general terror alert given at the end of last year. I mean one of the difficulties with this is that different countries have different ways of describing terror alerts. The Americans have this colour coding system. We don't generally go in for that. I mean clearly we have increased our level of surveillance and security and our response capacity.

MITCHELL:

Where have we increased the level of security?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well in different ways - in relation to buildings, we've put more resources into our intelligence services, we've put more resources into building up our counter-terrorism capacity.

MITCHELL:

You don't mean recently?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I'm talking generally over the last 18 months.

MITCHELL:

There was a report there was increased security for a number of senior members of the Government.

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh well look, in a situation like this you do I suppose redouble your efforts. I mean I'm still going about my ordinary business.

MITCHELL:

Yes, but if there is increased security for members of the Government, the public need to have an increased security awareness as well.

PRIME MINISTER:

There is increased security for high office holders and Ambassadors and so forth, but that has been there for some time. It's not something that has dramatically happened over the last couple of days. That's the point I'm making.

MITCHELL:

Okay, Joseph. Go ahead please Joseph.

CALLER:

Hello Neil. Good morning Prime Minister [inaudible] is alright. Prime Minister, I actually don't agree with you about the terrorist target. I think that our position as a terrorist target has increased tremendously since we joined the war in Afghanistan and now this war in Iraq, and I think people in the Arab world see us as part of the American machine and your reference to bombings in Israel - yes, we all disagree with terrorism - just confirms those views. And I think that we have created a situation where now America is a more difficult target and our inexperience with these things means we're an easier target.

MITCHELL:

Okay. Mr Howard?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don't share that view. The fact is that as a western country, Australia has been a terrorist target along with all other western countries, and I'd like to point out to you the fact that other western countries such as France and Germany, that have taken different attitudes on this issue, it hasn't meant that their citizens have been spared. I mean if you go back to the attack on the 11th of September, that was certainly an attack on people and facilities in the United States that claimed the lives of people of many nations. It claimed the lives of many Islamic people.

MITCHELL:

George Bush is certainly linking this directly to the war on terror, isn't he? Which I'm not sure that you are, linking it as directly to the war...

PRIME MINISTER:

Well everybody has their own way of describing things. I mean my argument is that Iraq has chemical and biological weapons. If they're not taken away, other countries of an equally rogue variety will say we can do the same and the world won't stop us, and the more of them that have them, the more likely it is logically that international terrorists will get their hands on them, and that's what I'm really very concerned about. And I think, you know, that really is the fundamental basis of the attitude that this Government has taken.

MITCHELL:

Well is the campaign, this campaign, is it to disarm Iraq or is it to change the regime?

PRIME MINISTER:

It is to disarm Iraq, but axiomatically if you disarm Iraq through a military operation, the regime goes. Let me answer this way - if there had have been total compliance by Iraq months ago with the demands of the world community, and there had been total disarmament, well in those circumstances the regime may well have stayed, detestable though it is. So I want to make it clear our primary goal has always been the disarmament of Iraq, but if military action now having become necessary, when that is concluded, axiomatically it's going to lead to the removal of the regime.

MITCHELL:

Do you have any information on what is happening in southern Iraq at the moment that you're able to share with us?

PRIME MINISTER:

No I don't. I don't have, you mean in and around Basra?

MITCHELL:

Yes, that's right.

PRIME MINISTER:

I don't at this stage have any information other than what was carried on the news bulletins about half an hour ago.

MITCHELL:

Okay. Helen, go ahead please Helen.

CALLER:

Good morning Mr Howard. Mr Howard, I'd just can't see as a Christian, intelligent man, you can justify bombing the heart out of a whole country who are already terrified by a leader, in order to get one man out of the way. That's the Iraqi people's responsibility. We should be helping them to do that, like the Filipinos got rid of Marcos. I just can't see how you justify the killing of so many people.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well bad though Marcos was, and he was a very corrupt person, very corrupt, and he was a very self-indulgent person and he took his country into poverty, he was not as brutal a dictator as Saddam Hussein. And I think it's very important that we keep a sense of proportion, understand what we're talking about. You say you want to help the people of Iraq. When you are ruled by somebody like Saddam Hussein you say from outside we've got to help the people of Iraq, very difficult to help the people of Iraq. I mean he could have ended a lot of suffering if he'd voluntarily disarmed after 1991, there would have been no economic sanctions imposed by the UN and his people would have been a lot of better off. But he's refused to do that. So you have to be realistic, you say we should help the people of Iraq and not engage in military action. But when you have the apparatus of terror that a dictator like this imposes it becomes impossible, no matter how much good will you have towards to the ordinary people to provide that assistance. And in event on the scale of suffering I have believed for a long time that the people of Iraq will suffer less if he's gone than if he's left there.

MITCHELL:

Mr Howard the politics of this in Australia, ugly scenes in Parliament yesterday. Now surely this is not what we need at this time, to have our leaders shouting at each other?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I wasn't shouting.

MITCHELL:

No but your Foreign Minister was.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well there was an enormous amount of noise from the other side when I and the Minister spoke. I mean I respect the fact that the Labor Party has a different view, I think everybody should endeavour, when Parliament resumes next week, everybody should redouble their efforts to have a calmer, more decorous handling of this issue that has obviously provoked difficulty and tension within the Parliament. That's part of the democratic process. But I don't think yesterday was a good day for the Parliament, I agree.

MITCHELL:

How did you react, Gavin O'Connor, the Labor MP said you had blood on your hands. What was your emotion, reaction to that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I have grown used to those sorts of remarks from some people in the Labor Party, I say some. I mean there are a lot of people in the Labor Party who don't say that, that's not to say they don't disagree with me. But this is not a time for looking at everybody on the other side of the Parliament in black and white terms. There are a lot of people on the other side of the Parliament who I disagree with very strongly but I still respect on an individual basis and I'll continue to treat them in a completely courteous fashion. I think those sorts of remarks are so immature. I mean bear in mind that it's only five years ago that there was bipartisan support for the sending of 150 SAS to the Gulf with a warrant to take part in operations if necessary.

MITCHELL:

You would clearly rather have bipartisan support.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well yes, I mean one of the reasons I raised this issue of 1998 is that back in 1998 the then Opposition Leader Mr Beazley and his foreign affairs spokesman used exactly the same sort of arguments, as far as the legality of things are concerned as I'm using now. I mean for example in Mr Brereton speaking to the Parliament on the 2nd of March 1998 had this to say, that faced with a breach, and he's talking about Saddam Hussein, the United States and the United Kingdom were clearly entitled to look back to the underlying resolution, that is resolution 678 which authorised the use of all necessary means to liberate Kuwait and to restore international peace and security in the area. Now that essentially is the argument, the legal agreement that we used and our government lawyers have given us. So in that sense there's been a shift in the Labor Party's attitude. I stress I'm not denying their right to do that, it's a democracy and they're entitled to change their policy. But there is an inconsistency between the attitude that was taken then under Mr Beazley's leadership and the attitude that is now being taken under Mr Crean's leadership.

MITCHELL:

The speculation in one of the papers today that you're even looking at a double dissolution as soon as April.

PRIME MINISTER:

That is nonsense, I mean I did see that, I think that was the article written by Mr Beazley's former Chief of Staff. But I'm not looking for a double dissolution, I think Parliament should run their full term and I've had two Parliaments, I'm now into my third and both of those, the first one was four or five months short of the three years, but the second one was dissolved bang on the three years. And at this stage I see no reason why, at this stage, I have to say that, I don't know what's going to happen, but I see no reason why it shouldn't run it's full term and the idea that I'm planning some kind of double dissolution, Neil I haven't got time to think about anything else essentially right at the moment than responsibilities I now have.

MITCHELL:

Protests in the streets yesterday and again today, would you rather they weren't happening?

PRIME MINISTER:

I guess I'd rather when our forces are in the field, I worry always that they might get a confused message out. But I always defend, can I stress this very strongly, I defend the right of lawful and peaceful protest, it's part of our democracy and I'll always defend people's right to engage in it.

MITCHELL:

Did you get any sleep last night?

PRIME MINISTER:

I got some, not as much as I sometimes do. Of course I didn't, it's only natural.

MITCHELL:

What was the, what your emotion, I'm sure you will have watched some of it coming live from television, a live war on TV.

PRIME MINISTER:

My main concern is the for safety of our men and women, that's what I think about more than anything else.

MITCHELL:

Are you concerned about the public of Australia coming behind you?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that is a matter for their judgement. I mean I've done my best to explain why we're doing this, I believe in it very strongly and I have argued it as strongly as I can and I will go on arguing it and it will be for the Australian people to decide in their wisdom as to whether or not they agree with me.

MITCHELL:

Thank you very much for your time.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you.

[ends]

Transcript 20746