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Transcripts from the Prime Ministers of Australia

Transcript 21207

Interview with John Laws, Radio 2UE

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: 16/04/2004

Release Type: Interview

Transcript ID: 21207

LAWS:

Well a surprise for us – on the line we have our Prime Minister John Howard. Prime Minister, good morning.

PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning, John. How are you?

LAWS:

I';m very well thank you Prime Minister and you?

PRIME MINISTER:

I';m fine. I';m just driving into Raymond Terrace.

LAWS:

Well, you';re going to a nice area. Are you moving on up to Nelson Bay and having a look around that whole area?

[line drops out]

We';ve got the Prime Minister back. Sorry about that, John.

PRIME MINISTER:

No, that';s alright. No fault of your';s.

LAWS:

Okay. We';ve got a number of things that are very topical and a number of things on which you';ve commented. One being the 13-year-old girl being given permission to have a sex change operation. Do you feel very strongly about that?

PRIME MINISTER:

I guess like a lot of people it troubles me that such a dramatic and potentially irreversible decision is taken at such an early age. I recognise that it';s a particularly sad and difficult case and I don';t want to sound sanctimonious or in any way unsympathetic. On the other hand, it is a very early age. It';s very unusual. It';s not occurred before in Australia to my knowledge, not a decision of this kind.

LAWS:

No.

PRIME MINISTER:

And, like many other people, just as a human being, as a parent and as somebody who worries about these things like most Australians, I';m thinking about it and just wondering whether it was the right decision. I';m not being automatically critical of the judge. He had to take a decision, an application was made by the relevant state department. This child is a ward of that state. But … Alex is a child.

LAWS:

Yep and I';ve got to say it…

PRIME MINISTER:

13 years of age.

LAWS:

Yeah, well that';s what bothers me.

PRIME MINISTER:

I think that is what bothers a lot of people. Now when you are a child then somebody';s got to make decisions on your behalf. It can';t be the child';s parents sadly in this case for reasons that have been explained. It can';t be some other guardian. The application apparently has the support of the child';s aunt as well as six psychologists. So the judge didn';t take the decision lightly and I';m not saying he did it capriciously. It';s an unusual situation and one that our community has got to think about and I recognise it';s not immediately in my jurisdiction, but when you';re Prime Minister you get asked about everything and you';re a bit of… you really have to be willing to express your views on these issues and my view is that I worry about such a decision being taken at such an early age.

LAWS:

Yeah, I was concerned when some of the information given to the judge was information along the lines of the child the age of 13 wanted to commit suicide because she wasn';t a boy. But I';m sure you can remember even more clearly than I can being 13,14,15 and when that testosterone starts galloping through your veins if you';re a boy and all those hormonal changes take place if you';re a girl. We all have troubled thoughts.

PRIME MINISTER:

Of course and sadly Alex has had a much harder life than most of us, much harder life and we';ve got to feel sorry for her. But that doesn';t mean that those things should overwhelm a court or overwhelm a decision-maker. If anything, they';re things that should restrain and constrain us in taking decisions. So it';s the age factor that bothers me, really does.

LAWS:

Me too. You weren';t too restrained in taking a decision, which has been welcomed I imagine by 98 per cent of the population in relation to ATSIC.

PRIME MINISTER:

No, we';ve been concerned about ATSIC for a long time and I said some weeks ago that I didn';t think having a separate body served any purpose. I deliberately waited until we had an opportunity of considering the report given to us by Bob Collins and the other members of that committee. The separate representation approach has failed. My view is that aboriginal people remain the most disadvantaged in our community.

LAWS:

Right.

PRIME MINISTER:

And we should focus all of our energy on helping them to better enjoy the benefits of a very prosperous and successful society and their future best lies in getting a better share of the bounty of this country through enjoyment of employment and educational and health opportunities. And the ATSIC approach focused far too much on the symbolic rights issues – those are important but they';re not as important and they';re not as easily identified and obtained as health and education advancements. And although we still have a long way to go, we are making improvements. The infantile mortality rate amongst indigenous people has halved over the last 12 or 13 years. We have seen a very significant increase in aboriginal children staying at school and going into tertiary education…

LAWS:

Yeah, but not enough.

PRIME MINISTER:

No, not enough. I still think we have a long long way to go, but it';s very important that we not just remain in a flow of total despair over what';s been achieved. Now a lot more can be achieved and I think it can be better achieved by treating everybody equally and where there are areas of disadvantage, having special assistance and special programmes which is the best way of helping indigenous people.

LAWS:

Do you stop and think – well where did the money go? I mean, there';s been billions of dollars spent, given to ATSIC to spend and it seems it hasn';t been spent in the right areas. I mean, the health services are impossible.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, to be fair, the health services were transferred back into the department in 1995 by the Keating Government.

LAWS:

Yeah because they didn';t do anything.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, they weren';t being spent… the money wasn';t being spent wisely – that is true and we supported that decision. And what will now happen is that the housing and employment programmes will come back into the departments. I don';t think the money';s been wisely spent. I think the culture of favouritism and nepotism that has surrounded that body has become notorious.

LAWS:

Yes.

PRIME MINISTER:

And I can';t say anything more about individuals because there are still court proceedings under way. There';s no doubt the body has lost the confidence of the aboriginal community. The debate now is what replaces it. We don';t think there should be another representative body with power to administer funds because I think the same problem will arise.

LAWS:

It will.

PRIME MINISTER:

And I believe the best thing to do is to get advice from eminent people in the indigenous community and there are plenty of them. And, but in the end the government of the day has got to be responsible for the people of this country irrespective of whether they';re Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders or people of European descent. It';s irrespective of what their background is, we';re all Australians together.

LAWS:

Well, that';s the way it should be.

PRIME MINISTER:

And when you';ve got an area, a group of people who are clearly disadvantaged, you';ve got to honestly recognise that and I have always said that as an identifiable group the aboriginal people of this country are the most disadvantaged and we should be ashamed of the poor outcomes in so many areas. But you don';t solve it, in my view, by setting up a separate body which has a separate political existence and sees itself as more preoccupied with symbolic issues and rights issues than it does of the advancement of the cause of the people who have elected them.

LAWS:

Do you…?

PRIME MINISTER:

I';ve never been very comfortable with ATSIC.

LAWS:

No neither have I.

PRIME MINISTER:

I was critical of the concept years ago when it was set up. Of course it was something that when I became Prime Minister we inherited, we tried to make changes. My first indigenous affairs minister John Herron was bitterly criticised for a lot of the things he said but history has demonstrated…

LAWS:

He was right.

PRIME MINISTER:

He was absolutely right. And at that time, of course, the Labor Party was very strongly opposed to even modest reforms. They now say they';re in favour of ATSIC, but whether they will support our legislation let';s wait and see, in favour of abolishing ATSIC rather. But whether they will support our legislation in its entirety I';ll wait and see. I hope they do because we can';t go on with a body that has clearly become dysfunctional and has lost the confidence of the Australian community, lost the confidence of the very people who…

LAWS:

That';s right.

PRIME MINISTER:

The members of it. That';s the even more relevant thing.

LAWS:

Okay. Can I finally ask you – how can it be as it';s been in the past and will it continue that land that is considered to be sacred by the aboriginal people is returned to them as it is a sacred site and within a very short period of time that land is sold quite often to developers, which makes me think it can';t have been very sacred to begin with.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, where that happens it shouldn';t. You say how can it be? There are different laws in Australia and many of them administered by different levels of government that has allowed that to happen. I think most people believe that where that occurs the law is being perverted and it shouldn';t be allowed. I mean, I respect that there are sacred sites for indigenous people and if some land is returned on account of its sacred character providing it continues to be so treated, then perhaps up to a certain point that';s fair enough. But where it';s converted to commercial advantage, it';s not fair and I can understand why the average Australia is unhappy with that.

LAWS:

Is something that you will also look at?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, yes, yes. I have to say though that just off the top of my head, most of the examples of where that has occurred have been at a state or territory level because just quickly with that once again off the top of my head, land management and land law is essentially something administered by states.

LAWS:

Okay. Does this decision on ATSIC affect these aboriginal land councils which have also been a hideous problem?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, some of them have been established under the Northern Territory Land Rights Act. We have to be careful to acknowledge that some of them though have been very successful. The Cape York land council, which Noel Pearson is associated with and…

LAWS:

Yes, very very good man, Noel Pearson.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, of course and there are many good aboriginal leaders and I have visited the Cape York area and I strongly support the approach of having alcohol bans in areas where the local people want that and I';m disturbed that the support that';s been given to those bands by a number of people, including the Queensland Premier, and I agree with him on this, or he agrees with me, we';re both on the same side, that there is an attempt being made by some people who undermine that approach. I think the Cape York example is one that could readily be followed in other parts of Australia.

LAWS:

Okay, just finally, because I know you';re on the move there – could Richard Alston be a contender for the chairmanship of Telstra? I mean, I would like it. I think he';s a very competent bloke and I';m sure that Bob Mansfield is going to be missed sadly by Telstra. But would it be possible for Richard Alston to become chairman of Telstra?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, it';s possible for anybody of ability and he';s certainly got a lot of ability and a lot of experience. But the question of who will be the next chairman is something that obviously has to be discussed by the board and I';m sure the government will be consulted. I don';t think I will say any more for reasons you will understand.

LAWS:

Okay, for reasons you will understand, I now have to tell you Prime Minister that Telstra is a major sponsor of mine.

PRIME MINISTER:

I understand John. Touche!

LAWS:

Have a nice weekend, Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER:

Okay.

LAWS:

Thank you.

PRIME MINISTER:

Bye bye.

[ends]

Transcript 21207