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Transcript 20758

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: 17/04/2003

Release Type: Interview

Transcript ID: 20758

MURRAY:

Good morning Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning Paul.

MURRAY:

Prime Minister, if I could just start with the ongoing commitment of Australia with what's happening in Iraq. Are we now what is termed 'an occupying power' under the Geneva Convention?

PRIME MINISTER:

We have the obligation of an occupying power under the Geneva Convention. We, along with the Americans and the British have responsibilities, certainly, and we won't neglect those responsibilities.

MURRAY:

I think under the fourth Geneva Convention they are mainly the protection of civilians aren't they, in the post war period?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well there are a lot of obligations we have. We have obligations in relation to protection of people, we have obligations in relation to their general well being and we'll see and particularly of course the Americans and the British because their relative contribution has been even greater than ours. We will together see the responsibilities are discharged. The sooner we can get the people of Iraq involved in their own governance, in their administration, their own future, the better, and that will take a little bit of time because they have no experience, what they are experiencing now for a long, long time, perhaps never before. This is the first opportunity in my lifetime that the people of Iraq have a real genuine opportunity to have a free and open democratic system of government because the regimes that existed even before Saddam Hussein, although he was much, much worse, they were not the real models of democracy.

MURRAY:

Yes. Do you see the existing force that we have in Iraq now as being the group that will carry on our obligations as an occupying power?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well some of the forces that we have there now we will begin to bring back pretty soon because hostilities have effectively ceased. I would see us through the month of May beginning to bring back the Hornets and the SAS. Two of the ships, the ANZAC and the Darwin, are slated to return within the next few weeks and other force elements will come home, but during what I call the transitional phase we will leave some forces there and in some specialist areas where we are sending people that we haven't had there previously, air traffic controllers. From next week Baghdad airport will be largely operated by Royal Australian Air Force air traffic controllers. Now there will be particular niche things that we can do. The one thing we have said all along we don't really think is appropriate for Australia, given our commitments elsewhere, is to have a large peacekeeping force, there is talk about battalions and so forth. We haven't, for reasons of our commitments elsewhere, we haven't really seen that as being our game. What we see as our best way of contributing is, of course in the difficult stage, the one we have just gone through, the best we could offer, and they are very good, and they are as good if not better than any in the world, let me say that, I don't think without any exaggeration, I really mean it, and we have been there right at the sharp end, but as we go into the next phase I don't see it being our game to have a large peacekeeping force. That's not to say you won't have groups doing particular tasks and making particular contributions. You have got to remember that we still have a being peacekeeping responsibility in East Timor.

MURRAY:

And Bougainville.

PRIME MINISTER:

And Bougainville. I am not saying that anything is going to happen in the region that will require a similar contribution, but one never knows and it is one thing to contribute a highly professional niche special capability for an operation in a country like Iraq over a short period of time for a very good cause - it's another thing to have a very large number of regulars deployed there indefinitely. They are the considerations we have in mind and I made that very clear to the United States before the war started. The last time I was in Washington I made it very clear that it could not be assumed that Australia could make a big peacekeeping contribution if there were a military conflict and it went well, and so forth, so that should not be assumed.

MURRAY:

What do you say of these reports today that we are under increasing pressure from the United States and Britain and there is a suggestion there that a thousand or so troops from Townsville may be sent?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, that is based I think on some enquiries that have been made on a sort of military departmental level. I certainly haven't been approached by the Americans. I haven't been approached by President Bush. Robert Hill's not been approached by Donald Rumsfeld and I am not aware that Alexander Downer has been approached by the Americans or the British. I mean obviously they would be delighted if we were to continue to make ever greater contributions because our forces are highly regarded. We work well together, we get on well together and all of that. But you have got to have a sense of proportion. We had a particular capability and they've done superbly well. I mean the Australian public should be brimming with pride for what our men and women have done. And they've obviously impressed their American and British colleagues, but I have to have regard to our obligations elsewhere, and I also have to have regard to the fact that the time involved. It's one thing, as I say, to have a short, sharp, highly professional, highly effective contribution when it's really hot. It's another thing to have a very long commitment of a large number of regulars.

MURRAY:

The other issue is that this may well be far from over there. There are suggestions that the country could still plunge itself into a civil war between the rival factions, which have always existed there. And that if we do have an ongoing commitment, we get sucked into that.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well Paul I think the predictions of a civil war are unduly pessimistic. It's very important that people have a sense, can I say again, of proportion. We have just seen a loathsome dictatorship, lasting more than a generation, end. And that creates a tremendous release, as well as relief, within the community and Iraq will go through a lot of difficulty, a lot of turmoil, a lot of travail as it experiences, to use that old clich‚ the heady wine of freedom. You've got to have difficulty, they've had looting, you're going to have some domestic, in a military political sense, violence, you're going to have all those sorts of things and that is to be entirely expected. It's a bit pessimistic to say that you're going to automatically lapse into civil war but it's going to be hard and we will play a role in helping. We have people plugged into the reconstruction authority and we're ready to provide advice and to provide help and we'll provide some military capability in the transitional phase but the one thing that I think is, I've said before and I'll say it again, is that it's not, given our other responsibility it's not really our game to have a large peacekeeping force there.

MURRAY:

But there'll be some?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I said, I've already said that we'll be keeping some elements there. I think for example we'll probably keep the C130s and the P3s there for a while. I mean those C130s do terrific work. They're the ones that got the medical supplies into that Baghdad hospital last weekend and they have really been fabulously effective and we, I think we'll probably have some commando elements there for a while amongst other things. They can have some responsibility...

MURRAY:

A policing role?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well not, not in a sort of traffic sense but perhaps in relation to Australian assets that are there, Australian specialists that are there, I would expect that we would continue to have one of the ships - the Sydney would probably stay there for a few months - on the other hand I would expect the Kanimbla to probably come home around about June sometime.

MURRAY:

You've just made some families down at Rockingham pretty happy.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I'm, see this it is a very awkward, I'm very conscious of that, I want to tell people as soon as I can when I think they're loved ones are coming home, on the other hand I don't want to say one thing today and then have to change it tomorrow. I've talked to General Cosgrove and Senator Hill about these things very carefully in anticipation of interviews like this and very conscious that I don't want to mislead people because I know how anxious they are and it's got to be borne in mind that some of the people, for example the Sydney is still on its way, it's not there and we've had ships in the Gulf now for years and so it's not, and we've had the P3 surveillance aircraft have been there in that area as part of the general war against terrorism for some time so we're not talking here about dramatic new departures from what we've been doing even before the war started, but it can be said that those force elements like the hornets and the special forces that were sent there, particularly for the shooting part of the operation, you can expect to see them home by the end of May.

MURRAY:

I know you're having morning tea with some SAS families and you'll obviously have some news for them there. Let's go to the lines now Prime Minister. (inaudible) is on the line.

CALLER:

Yeah good morning Paul, good morning Mr Howard.

PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning.

CALLER:

My question is regards to a rhetoric that is going on now in the United States in regard to Syria. Would the Australian Government go along if the Americans follow through on that rhetoric?

PRIME MINISTER:

Do you mean the invasion of Syria?

CALLER:

That is correct.

PRIME MINISTER:

No, we are not contemplating any invasion of Syria, neither are the Americans. The Americans are just making the logical point that the Syrians shouldn't help the now fallen Iraqi dictatorship and shouldn't harbour, relieve and give comfort to people who are part of that or terrorists and they should not have, if they have got them - chemical and biological weapons - but I see no evidence that the Americans are gearing up to invade Syria and certainly there is nothing on our radar screen, nothing remotely resembling that.

MURRAY:

Prime Minister, the next caller is Kylie. Good morning Kylie.

CALLER:

Good morning Paul. Good morning Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER:

Hello Kylie.

CALLER:

As you know Prime Minister my husband was killed in Afghanistan.

PRIME MINISTER:

Andrew, yes.

CALLER:

Yes, that's right, and my question to you is that the Minister for Defence, Robert Hill, has stated that the current military compensation legislation is inadequate. My financial adviser has told me that I am certainly worse off financially with my husband's death. You told the Australian people and the SAS troops that I would be looked after and that our troops in deployment would be generously looked after. Can you tell me what has changed?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I don't accept that we are not looking after the forces. I continue to be very sorry about the death of your husband. And the military compensation scheme - I hope to be able to say something soon about some changes in relation to that. There are some features I feel are inadequate but I, with every respect, do not accept that when you add together the through life value of the benefits that are available to somebody in your situation, it is fair to say that, well, imply, as I think some have, perhaps not you, that we are being indifferent to somebody in your situation. Because it is necessary to get a fair estimation, a fair assessment of the benefits that flow to somebody in your position is to tabulate the through life benefits. I mean there is a tendency with these things to compare lump sums and not look at the benefit over a long period of life.

CALLER:

Well I receive $13,000 a year which is equal to an old age pensioner.

PRIME MINISTER:

There are some other benefits you receive aren't there?

CALLER:

Well I don't get any of the benefits that an old age pensioner gets. I don't get any discounts on water rates or shire rates. I pay full fees for everything. I am actually required to go to work to supplement my income. I receive $13,000 a year compensation, how does that compare to my husband's income that was roughly between $70 to $75,000 a year? And you say that the gold card is something extra that I receive. It is apparently $8000 a year. I don't need $8000 a year worth of medical benefits, I am a fit healthy 28 year old woman. I am lucky to go to the doctors once a year. But basically what I get is $13,000 a year, which is equivalent to an old age pensioner. I think I need more than $13,000 a year to live on.

PRIME MINISTER:

I don't though that it is quite reasonable and you quite rightly put your finger on one reality of your situation, despite your bereavement you are very fit person, you are a young person. I would imagine that subject to your family responsibilities, and I know you have them, that you would want at some point to enter the workforce, and I don't think that is an unreasonable expectation, an unreasonable thing and you would probably find that of enormous benefit to yourself. So I think it is a little, how shall I put it, inappropriate to compare a fit 28 year old person, not withstanding the great bereavement you have suffered, and I don't want to sound in any way insensitive to that and I am not, you know that, and nobody in the government is, to somebody who because of their age is no longer in a position to work.

MURRAY:

Kylie of course did receive a lump sum payment, and there is money put aside for retirement.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, of course there is.

MURRAY:

Prime Minister, Daryl called the program yesterday.

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh yes. I read about Daryl and I...

MURRAY:

Given that I know you're looking at changes to Medicare, I thought that maybe embraced the issues. G'day Daryl. The Prime Minister's listening.

CALLER:

Good morning Paul. Good morning Mr Howard. My question is directed at Medicare and obviously the safety net, which I think most people are aware of its existence but not necessarily the mechanisms of how it works. Well my question is in respect to a family situation. My wife has suffered a serious illness which will require long term treatment, no different to...

PRIME MINISTER:

How is she getting on now?

CALLER:

Look, look she's strong and, you know, we're positive.

PRIME MINISTER:

Excellent.

CALLER:

The thing is just in respect to the actual family gap - the $119.70 per year - that safety net, you must actually, as a family member, you must apply each and every calendar year at the start of the year to come under the umbrella.

PRIME MINISTER:

I'm told, and I did have this checked out and I'm going off some advice I got from the Health Insurance Commission, I'm told that you've got to, need to register once and not every year and that you need to, so I'm told, that families register for the safety net because there's no other way that the Health Insurance Commission can identify members of an individual family.

CALLER:

That's correct. I've been to the Health Insurance office yesterday and they were most helpful and I must praise them. But just in respect to what you're saying, you're going on advice as well that I have been given, but I was also told that there is a need to register at the start of the year and because of the nuclear families which are around in our society today, that is the difficult part of tracking actual families, but for mum, dad and the three kids of the average Australian family, if an individual member does not reach that magic figure of $320, there is not an automatic flagging mechanism which advises that family that they have reached their safety gap and instead of receiving just the 85 per cent rebate, they are now eligible for the full 100 per cent scheduled fee rebate. That doesn't happen. So if you did have a family of five, obviously there could be a thousand dollars which could be paid by the family for a year's health costs, when in actual fact they only needed to have $320.

MURRAY:

Okay the Prime Minister...

PRIME MINISTER:

Look I don't, I mean I'll see if there are ways in which we can make the administration of it work better but you've acknowledged there is a fundamental practical reason why a family has got to register. I'm told you're only required to do it once, and if there's a way in which we can make certain that people utilise this because they know that they have the entitlement... I'm told that in 2001, which is the last year for which we have records, 18,000 families throughout Australia accessed the safety net and I'm also told the availability of the safety net is promoted through Medicare offices, periodic direct mailouts to patients and promotion through some doctors rooms. We are looking at some improvements to Medicare including an examination of the existing prohibition on insurance against gap payments which a lot of people regard as a real anomaly in the present system and I hope to be saying something about those issues within the next few weeks.

MURRAY:

Okay, so it won't be a Budget item. It will be...

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I never say what's in and out of the Budget but we have been looking at a lot of things in the health area over the past few weeks. We haven't just been...

MURRAY:

Bulk billing?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we're certainly committed to bulk billing and we're certainly committed to it in the spirit of the original Medicare arrangement which always allowed for the fact that not everybody would be bulk billed. I mean we have this more recent Labor Party construct that the whole idea of Medicare was that you'd have 100 per cent bulk billing. That was never the intention if you look at what Dr Blewett said way back when Medicare was introduced. But we certainly want to provide incentives and assistance to doctors to keep levels of bulk billing high and there are a number of other things that we are talking to the medical profession and others about at the present time and I think when the package is announced it will be seen as reinforcing the universal elements of Medicare, but also providing continuing support for the private options because our system has got those two elements in it.

MURRAY:

Prime Minister, last caller for you this morning, for here anyway is [inaudible]

CALLER:

Good morning Mr Howard. I've just, and what you said about taking it out on you at the election about the war issue and everything. I would just like to let you know I've been a meat worker all my life and I've been a Labor man all my life and I'm going to take it out on you at the election all right - I'll be voting for you John Howard.

PRIME MINISTER:

Good on you mate.

CALLER:

[inaudible] thank you.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you.

MURRAY:

Well that was a call you didn't mind taking.

PRIME MINISTER:

No.

MURRAY:

If I could just ask you one last question. Peter Costello announced yesterday that Peter Reith, who was a Minister in your Government, has been appointed to a $250,000 tax-free job in London with the European Bank of Reconstruction. Fifty applicants for that job. Can that be seen as anything other than a job for the boy?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well certainly in the sense that whenever you appoint a former politician people say it's a job for the boy. But you've got to ask yourself is the boy qualified? And I think somebody who did more than anybody else in the last 20 years to break the union monopoly on the Australian waterfront, which did great damage to the Australian economy and was something that people screamed for years should be addressed and who was a very competent senior Minister, I think he's very well qualified. I mean, he's not going to be incidentally paid by the Australian taxpayer and London is a very expensive city and I think everybody ...

MURRAY:

Well you know that many people think that he left politics under a cloud and his honesty was under question.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don't... I mean some people, look the Labor Party hated Peter Reith because he was effective and they've never sort of left him alone because he was effective over the waterfront and had a lot to say about his role in relation to the children overboard affair. I always found Peter Reith an honest person, I found him a very able person and if you look at the qualifications for the job, I think he's well qualified. When Labor was in office, I was always very careful not to criticise good quality appointments. Neal Blewett, who I mentioned earlier, was the High Commissioner in London when I became Prime Minister. I didn't bring him home. I allowed him to serve out his term because I thought he was doing a conscientious job and I would hope that... and some years earlier Doug McClelland a former Minister in the Whitlam Government was a High Commission to London. Everybody says that Doug McClelland was one of the best High Commissioners Australia's ever had. The idea that a former politician can't do a good job is ludicrous. Andrew Peacock did a very good job as Ambassador in the United States, John Spender did a good job as Ambassador in Paris. I can think of quite a number of former Labor Ministers that have done good jobs in diplomatic positions. You need a mixture. You shouldn't have just former Treasury and former Foreign Affairs bureaucrats, much and all as I respect them and love them, in all of these positions. You have got to have a mix. And somebody with Peter Reith's experience in that job, which is what - three years or something - is I think very good and I defend the appointment.

MURRAY:

You're off to have morning tea with the SAS.

PRIME MINISTER:

I am. Well, all of the services and not just the SAS, but they are a big part of it.

MURRAY:

The SAS community here has been in turmoil over this long running inquiry into the allegations in East Timor. Are you totally satisfied with that inquiry?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it is carried out by the military. The military has its own disciplinary procedures and I am told by the military that it was done properly and it was done painstakingly and it was done in accordance with military law and military procedure. I didn't conduct it, the Defence Minister didn't conduct it. If we got involved in it personally we would have been criticized for interfering with the process of justice.

MURRAY:

Surely you'll be asked about it...

PRIME MINISTER:

I'm sure I will and I will do my best to answer their enquiries. But I just finish by saying that the Australian community can be very, very proud of what the SAS has done in Iraq and in fact very proud of what everybody has done. It is a great credit to Australia. It was the right thing for this country to do and I think it is enormously to the credit of Australia that we were able to play this role.

MURRAY:

Are you proud of what they achieved in East Timor as well?

PRIME MINISTER:

I am, absolutely. Very much so. I mean, this is country that has a capacity to punch above its weight because we are a focused society, because we are an egalitarian country and people pull together for a common purpose. And this always comes to the fore when Australia is involved in something like this and it is one of the great assets we have.

MURRAY:

Very good to have you with us today. Thanks a lot.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you.

[ends]

Transcript 20758