PM Transcripts

Transcripts from the Prime Ministers of Australia

Transcript 20759

Interview with Liam Bartlett, ABC Radio

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: 20759

BARTLETT:

We welcome Prime Minister John Howard to the program, in Perth to meet the families of Australian troops serving in the Gulf, in what has been described as something of a victory lap around the country. Prime Minister, good morning.

PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning. Well, I wouldn't call it a victory lap. I started having receptions for families just after the military engagement commenced and what I have wanted to do is to have one in every major city. We had one at Admiralty House in Sydney and then we had one in Tasmania, and we've had one in Brisbane, one in Melbourne, one in Adelaide, and we're having one in Perth today and I'm very grateful that the West Australian Governor, General Sanderson, has made Government House available. It's just a cup of tea and an opportunity for me and others to just say to the families of men and women in the Gulf how much we appreciate their efforts, and how much we continue to think of them. The military operation of course has gone very well and I'll have the opportunity of saying that to them in a personal way, and everybody should be very proud of what they have done. They did the right thing by their country. It was a just cause. And I'm very grateful so far, cross all my fingers and toes, that nothing has happened to any of them, and that's tremendous.

BARTLETT:

We've got a very good record, haven't we?

PRIME MINISTER:

We have got a wonderful record. As I now speak, we haven't suffered any casualties and I guess now that the hostilities have effectively ended, the likelihood of casualties ought to be lower, but you can't be absolutely certain of that. It's still a pretty dangerous place and there is still a bit of sporadic resistance, and that will probably go on for some time.

BARTLETT:

But as you say Prime Minister, now that the general hostilities have ended, that Saddam Hussein's regime has been toppled, there seems to be some confusion as to the exact nature of Australia's commitment post-war in Iraq. Can you spell out for us exactly what that will be.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well what is going to happen is that we will begin bringing people home and I would say by about the end of May we will have got a situation where I mean, the Anzac and the Darwin, two of the ships, they'll be home by the end of May. We expect the Hornets will be home and also the SAS regiment and some of the special force combat support elements, and also the naval clearance diving team. We would expect the Kanimbla and the accompanying Army air defence and landing craft elements to come home in June. Now there will, during a transitional phase, be some elements that will remain somewhat longer, and that... I mean the Sydney is on the way in fact, the Sydney... it will be some couple of weeks still before the Sydney arrives there. And we would expect to keep at least one vessel in the area for a while and some of the commando elements also could stay longer. We will review their position in another few weeks, all of those. But there is clearly a case now to bring home or begin arrangements to bring home the Hornets and the SAS, and of course the Anzac and the Darwin are slated to return home anyway.

BARTLETT:

So out of a total commitment of about what? About 2,000?

PRIME MINISTER:

About 2,000. I mean you're looking at pretty well half I've talked about coming home within say the end of May and into June. Now exactly when some of the others will come home... there is a transitional phase. You don't have 2,000 personnel there and the day after the hostilities cease, you can make arrangements to pull them all out. I don't think the Australian public wants that to occur, but equally I don't want those forces that were particularly at the sharp end of conflict, and I'm thinking of the SAS and the Hornets, there is no need to keep them there any longer than essential because their task was specific and precise and they've done it well. They've all done it magnificently. But there will be some who will remain during a transitional phase.

BARTLETT:

So, do we look at those troops post June, I suppose, around about post June, as a peacekeeping force?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think you look at them doing particular tasks. What I have said is that I don't think Australia should be in a situation where we have a large number of peacekeepers, a la the East Timor deployment, simply because we have responsibilities of that kind going on over a period of time in our own region. But that doesn't mean that you can't have particular forces that provide support in certain areas. For example, Baghdad Airport as from a few days from now, will be run by RAAF air traffic controllers. That's obviously the major airport in Iraq. Now that's a very useful thing that we can do. We're going to provide people to help in the search for chemical and biological weapons, and we're going to keep the force elements there and make contributions consistent with our responsibilities, but...

BARTLETT:

How long will that go on for?

PRIME MINISTER:

I can't put a time on that.

BARTLETT:

You don't know?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, well I don't think anybody knows. I mean it is quite impossible. We've got to keep a sense of proportion. It's only a week now since that statue came tumbling down, and it's a country of 26 million people. The transitional phase is quite challenging. Everybody expected that. But this is the first time the Iraqi people have experienced any kind of freedom for a generation, and it's a pretty heady wine, to use that old clich‚, and you need to give people time to adjust. And there are going to be mistakes made. There are going to be difficulties. There are going to be arguments. There is going to be criticism. That is unavoidable. But we have to, as I say, keep a sense of proportion. No nation goes from the iron grip of a tyranny like that to freedom, without there being a lot of adjustment, pain and challenge.

BARTLETT:

But in that time, post June, if we still have troops there - whether you want to call them peacekeepers or structural support or whatever...

PRIME MINISTER:

We will have some force elements there, yes. Whatever description you use, yes.

BARTLETT:

Will any of that involve further commitment for the SAS, or will that just be regular infantry?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, no it will be the particular people who are there. I don't myself see a role, another role in Iraq for the special forces and the Hornets for example, if you want to take two particular parts of our forces. I, as the situation is revealed to me, now I can't see that they're role is other than coming to an end and there's no reason therefore why we shouldn't start planning for them to come home.

BARTLETT:

You mentioned the weapons of mass destruction. All the chemical weaponry of those weapons of mass destruction that we were told that Iraq had are you surprised that they were not used and so far haven't turned up?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I'm not surprised they haven't turned up now, so far. I mean they were clearly hidden and I never expected there to be a sign on the road to Bagdad saying "WMD 5 kilometres from here turn right". It was never going to be like that it was always going to be very hard to find them. I think that will take time.

BARTLETT:

Were you surprised they didn't use them?

PRIME MINISTER:

I, well in one sense I was in another sense I wasn't. Having, they having said all along that they didn't have them, I suppose that would have been the ultimate concession if they had of used them and there's also a view that in order to hide them from the weapons inspectors they broke them up and hid them in their disaggregated condition - well broken down condition - in different parts of the country. Now that will take some time to investigate. That's another theory. Another theory is that some of them have been sent out of the country. I'm not in a position to know at the moment and I don't think anybody does, but there's already been plenty of evidence found of a circumstantial kind. People have found plenty of instruction manuals about how to deal with chemical and biological weapons. They've found plenty of suits, they've found antidotes, now why would the Iraqis have all of that material if they didn't have chemical and biological weapons. There was no suggestion even from them that the Americans or the British were going to use chemical and biological weapons, so it seems to me that that already is very strong circumstantial evidence.

BARTLETT:

Twenty minutes to nine, we're talking to the Prime Minister, John Howard, I'll take some calls in just a second. Domestically, Prime Minister, can I just ask you this, your opposite number is having a very hard time at the moment, you're killing him in the popularity stakes, the dogs metaphorically baying for his blood from within, do you feel any sympathy at all for Simon Crean?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look what I try and do on something like this is really not comment on the internal affairs of the Labor Party I think it always sounds terribly false and self-serving. People will think well he's just saying that to exert maximum political leverage. I don't take popularity polls for granted, I mean whenever you see your popularity go up you ought to remember one thing, it's likely to go down before it goes up again. I've been on every point of the political chart in my career.

BARTLETT:

That's precisely why I asked that.

PRIME MINISTER:

And, I just, well look I'll leave comments about him and his position and his party to his party. I've always thought it sounds self-serving for a Prime Minister or an Opposition Leader to comment on the relative popularity or so forth of his opposite number. I'll leave that to others but for my own part I don't get carried away by the polls. The Australian electorate is always pretty evenly divided when it comes to an election and anybody half-way through a term who gets carried away with the fact that the polls are telling him he's a long way in front at the present time ought to take a reality check and not get carried away and I'm certainly not. The next election will be a very tough fight for the Government and I'd just say to all of the Liberal Party supporters around the nation that we should treat it as such and work very hard over the next eighteen months to make sure that we win again.

BARTLETT:

Let's go to the phones. Okay. First up, hello Cam.

CALLER:

Good morning Liam and good morning Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning.

CALLER:

Prime Minister I've grown up with Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke, Keating and now yourself as Prime Minister and I'd like to give you a pat on the back and just say that by a long way you're in touch with the Australian community and I think your leadership, certainly through your last term of office, has been sensational and I just like to give you that pat on the back. And I've also got another point coming back to the domestic issue with our State Labor Government which has slashed road funding and trying to vote one vote one value out here in the bush. I don't know if you're aware just in our area alone, which is the great southern, ripping $1.8 million off us in road funding this year and for a Shire like Tambellup which is 80 per cent gravel roads as it is anyway, getting our roads graded once a year, do you think that we can cut a better deal?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well first of all thank you for your kind remarks, I appreciate them very much. As far as the road funding is concerned, the Federal Government has three levels of responsibility in road funding. Firstly we have to fund national highways, we normally try and get some support from the states in relation to that and then we have what we call roads of national importance, which is sort of designated as they are roads of national importance, they're not major national highways but they're not local roads and we try and get a matching arrangement with the states on those and then we have local roads where the Federal Government pays money direct to Local Government and we increased our funding about three years ago over a four year period for local roads, we increased that by $1.2 billion. Now I think what has happened in some parts of Australian and I'm not asserting that this is the case in Western Australia, I have to check before making that assertion, some parts of Australia as the Federal Government has increased its funding for local roads through Local Councils, the States have pulled back a bit so some of the local authorities are no better off.

BARTLETT:

It's a complicated formula sometimes isn't it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it is, unfortunately this is one of the consequences of a Federal system of government, you get these complications. It is the hardest area of government where you have shared responsibilities, it's like an area like health where the State governments run the public hospitals yet the Federal Government puts as much money into public hospitals as State governments do. We don't have any control over their administration, we put an enormous amount of money and will continue to do so into public hospitals and then we of course run the private health insurance side of it. It's always, I don't know how, absent getting rid of one level of government and I'm not advocating that, I don't know how you ever solve that problem.

BARTLETT:

Cam thanks for calling. Hello Stuart.

CALLER:

Good morning Liam, good morning Prime Minister. How are you?

PRIME MINISTER:

Very well.

CALLER:

I'll make mine brief. I just wanted to say good on you for making the tough decisions, somebody has to make them and it's very easy to sit on the other side and point fingers and I know you've copped a fair bit of criticism about supporting the Americans on going to war but I know what it's like to live under dictatorship and I say good on you and keep up the good work.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thanks for that. You sounded as though you might have known Mr Mugabe did you?

CALLER:

Oh yeah, I know him pretty well.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I'm glad to have you in Australia.

CALLER:

Thank you very much it's an honour to be here. Thank you.

BARTLETT:

Thanks Stuart. There's another tyrant that needs toppling.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well yes, he's not in the Saddam Hussein class, but he rorted an election and he's using availability of food as a political instrument and fortunately the majority of Commonwealth countries have agreed that his country should remain effectively suspended from the Commonwealth until the next meeting in Nigeria later this year.

BARTLETT:

It's pretty pathetic sanction though considering (inaudible)

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think it is a pretty pathetic sanction and part of the problem is that it is very hard to get some of the neighbouring countries to accept that although he may have been ally in the past, in the struggle against apartheid for example, and I understand the feelings on that very much, he really is a tyrant and he really should go. And he has done an enormous amount of a damage to a wonderful country and he's not just, and people should understand, he's not just persecuted the small white population. There are thousands upon thousands...

BARTLETT:

Across race.

PRIME MINISTER:

It's quite across race, yes.

BARTLETT:

Thanks for your call Stewart. Hello Lynette.

CALLER:

Yes, hello.

BARTLETT:

Good morning.

CALLER:

How are you?

BARTLETT:

Well.

PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning.

CALLER:

My question this morning is about the artillery barracks in Fremantle. It's the home of the Army Museum of WA. Now two years ago it was recorded that you confirmed the site would be transferred to WA. The transfer of land titles hasn't happened as yet, and the buildings are falling in disarray and most of the people that actually work there are volunteers. Now I would like to know what is going to happen. When will this be finalised?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well Lynette, I'm a little mystified that the thing hasn't been finalised. As far as I'm concerned, we entered into an understanding and I don't intend to see the Federal Government renege on that understanding. And having it only been brought to my attention since I've been here that there is still some problem, I will investigate it. I don't pretend to know all the detail of what the latest apparent hitch is. I'll have to find out about that and rather than speculate about it on air, I'll just talk to the Defence Department about it and find out. But...

BARTLETT:

Does the offer still stand, as you understand it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well what I can say is that what we said we were going to do, we'll do. That's what I'm saying.

BARTLETT:

Right.

PRIME MINISTER:

Now, maybe some people are alleging we said things that, or what we said meant one thing and in reality it means something else, but we're not - as far as the Federal Government is concerned, we made a commitment and we're not going to walk away from it.

BARTLETT:

Are you one of those people who were in the public process at the time Lynette?

CALLER:

Yes I was. My father was Tom Starcevich, Victoria Cross Winner, and his medals are actually in that building.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I understand your interest. Look, please believe me, I don't want to see... the Commonwealth is not going to wriggle out of this, but I just frankly don't know all the detail of it, and without checking it out, I'll just be speculating in the dark and probably get myself into all sorts of trouble in the process.

BARTLETT:

Can I just say though, as we understand it, and Lynette you can correct me if I'm wrong here, the original offer was to hand over the site, or the offer as it stands, hand over the site minus Gun House.

CALLER:

That's right, yes.

BARTLETT:

And that includes paying the State Government, the Federal Government paying the State Government commercial rent for 10 years with a 10 year option on the main barracks buildings which obviously ensures the future of the Army Museum.

CALLER:

Well that's something you'd have to confirm with the curator I think, on that.

BARTLETT:

We did that. We talked to him yesterday on the program. And it just seems bizarre that this thing hasn't been put to bed for some [inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I'd have to say I'm surprised it's still around, because I can recall talking about this a couple of years ago. I will look at it, but I don't have all the detail in front of me, and I'll just complicate the thing further if I try and speculate about it. But let me assure you that whatever commitments we made, we'll honour.

CALLER:

I appreciate that. Thank you Mr Howard. And I'm sure the rest of the veterans...

PRIME MINISTER:

And you know, with all of these things, different people can have different ideas about what precisely things, you know, commitments mean. But whatever commitments we made, we're going to keep.

BARTLETT:

Lynette, thank you for your call.

CALLER:

Thank you. Bye.

BARTLETT:

Hello Tony.

CALLER:

Hi Liam and Prime Minister. Prime Minister, last night I was listening to the television, and they graphically depicted a father who was kissing the blood of his dead children on the roof of his house. This happened after supposedly the war had finished. We also saw children with their arms and legs blown off in hospital. Why on earth, now that this horrific act has happened, why aren't you flying in doctors and nurses and people to try and rebuild some of this mess that's there? Instead of that, we hear one of your Ministers saying that he's going to see what he can do as far as getting our wheat contract back. It seems to me, in fact I'm feeling ashamed, ashamed to call myself an Australian under these conditions, and I think in years to come, it could well be a phenomenon that it will take a long time to get rid of.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well you shouldn't be ashamed to be Australian, ever. And well, can I answer your comments, and certainly not over this. The answer in relation to flying in medical equipment is we have done that. Last Saturday morning...

CALLER:

Doctors.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, just hear me out. And indeed sir the problem is not so much the availability of doctors. The problem is, and I've been told this repeatedly, is the availability of equipment, of supplies. And because of that, last Saturday morning the Defence Minister and General Cosgrove and I agreed that we would gather together all of the surplus medical supplies on Kanimbla and ship them by C130, fly them in by C130 into Baghdad, and within a period of fewer than 36 hours they were into Baghdad and they were into the hospitals. And I think partly as a result of what we did, the Americans have also poured in an enormous amount of medical equipment. Now, I have seen those pictures. I have seen and read the stories of Ali, the little boy who lost his arms, and that upsets and devastates me as much as it does you. Sadly, whenever there is a military conflict, there are civilian casualties. I just ask you to bear in mind that there were tens upon tens upon thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of casualties, including many children, of Saddam Hussein's rule. You didn't see any television pictures of those because television cameras weren't allowed into hospitals, except in circumstances designed to make propaganda against the west. And the children that starved under Saddam Hussein's rule because of the UN sanctions were as a result of his rorting the sanctions regime and diverting the food, diverting the revenue from the oil for chemical weapons rather than for food and medical supplies. So I do ask that when you are understandably distressed with stories like this, that you weigh that distress against the hundreds of thousands of people who died, and you surely have seen the results of the chemical gas attack on the Kurdish village in 1988. I mean you have to, when you're talking about the humanitarian side of things, you have to weigh in the balance the humanitarian cost of Saddam Hussein in the past, and also....

CALLER:

Prime Minister, I have seen those pictures...

PRIME MINISTER:

You had also a continuation, and we are... I mean, as far as the wheat contract is concerned...

CALLER:

[inaudible] think that we would do that to other people, but apparently we do. That's what I'm ashamed about.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes. You are perfectly happy then for the world to do nothing to get rid of Saddam Hussein. If that is your view... do you seriously imagine that by continuing to sort of make speeches and issue press statements, the world would have got rid of Saddam Hussein? That's what we've been doing for the last 12 years.

BARTLETT:

Tony, thanks for calling. Do you think he's still alive?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don't know.

BARTLETT:

Do you have any intelligence on that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, the open source intelligence view is mixed. Some people think he may have been taken out right at the beginning. Others think later, and others think he might still be alive. And other people think that bloke that, you know, wandered around and stood up in the square a couple of weeks ago was a double. I just don't know.

BARTLETT:

Prime Minister, a quick email to the program. This is from a fellow called John Ryan, Blue Ryan. It says, Liam could you please ask the Prime Minister when you have him on the program today some questions on the totally and permanently incapacitated ex-servicemen and women issue, TPI issue. He's got two questions for you. Why has his Government not honoured a 1996 election promise to have Centrelink not count the TPI pension as income, which causes TPIs without war service to get $200 less per fortnight than other TPIs? Why will his Government not index the TPI pension to male total average weekly earnings or the CPI like other pensions?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well in relation to that second thing, we don't index all pensions to the male total average weekly earnings.

BARTLETT:

He's mentioned old age, war widows.

PRIME MINISTER:

We do to some of them, but not all of them. And as for the first part of the question, I will literally have to check what that undertaking was. I don't recall that such an undertaking was made, but I'll have to take a raincheck on that and if you like, off the program if you give me the gentleman's details, I'll write to him.

BARTLETT:

Certainly. What about the other issue though? Obviously... we get this question a lot on the program Prime Minister from people who are on the receiving end of these TPIs, because their argument is it's declining in real value over time, which is very hard not to argue.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, but there are... you know, the same income test and so forth don't apply to those that apply to other pensions, so you've got to take that into account as well. You really do have to take that into account as well.

BARTLETT:

So, we have no intentions of...

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I can't... I mean, I don't want to, you know... you always like to agree to everything that people put to you, but I just, I'm not going to give a promise on the run if I can't be absolutely certain that I'm going to honour it.

BARTLETT:

Alright. Let's talk to Sarah. Hello Sarah.

CALLER:

Hello. Hi Prime Minister. How are you?

PRIME MINISTER:

Very well.

CALLER:

I'm just ringing to say you've done a fantastic job, and to thank you for everything. I was just wondering if you could explain the salinity funding to WA farmers, and I'll hang up and listen.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well the salinity funding, the Federal Government decided a couple of years ago that we'd put $700 million into a fund to kick off the challenging problem of salinity, and we asked the States to match that so we'd have $1.4 billion. And we've gradually got most of the States on board. We still haven't got Western Australia signed up, and that does surprise me because Western Australia has quite a big salinity problem.

BARTLETT:

Certainly do.

PRIME MINISTER:

And the reason why at this stage we haven't got Western Australia signed up is that the projects that the Western Australian Government really wants to have credited to the salinity fund, are really projects that were sort of announced and committed to in the past by the State Government, and therefore we're not going to end up having a whole lot of new salinity projects, or they're not ones that really fall within the criteria of the fund. We'll keep working on that. In fact I may briefly see Mr Gallop today. I'm not quite sure whether he will be at the function I'm at or not, but if he is, we may in fact have a brief discussion about that... Dr Gallop, I mean. But I think, you know, we really are going to... Sarah, isn't it? We are going to make progress on this and you will understand we need the cooperation of the state governments and local government because everybody has got to work together on this. And the $1.4 billion we're talking about is really in a sense the beginning. You have to expend a lot more money over the years ahead to tackle this problem. And it's very acute in Western Australia, a very acute problem, and that's why I would imagine that Western Australians would want the cooperation between the two levels of government to be very strong.

BARTLETT:

It's important enough for you and Dr Gallop to put your heads together, isn't it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, well I'm... you know, as I say, we made the offer and we've been trying to sign up. And I've got an agreement signed with everybody else. Western Australia is the only State that we haven't had the sort of framework agreement signed.

BARTLETT:

Are we harder to work with or something?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, I would never... I've never found Western Australians hard to work with. Never.

BARTLETT:

The Government, I mean.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well look, I haven't come here to attack the State Government. I've just come here to answer questions. People get a bit tired if there is too much headbutting between the Federal and the State Governments. But we are waiting on the Western Australian Government to agree to the general criteria, and when they do we can sign the agreement.

BARTLETT:

Prime Minister, thanks for coming in an talking to our listeners.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you.

[ends]

Transcript 20759