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Transcript 21286

Interview with George Moore 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: 20/05/2004

Release Type: Interview

Transcript ID: 21286

MOORE:

We have Prime Minister, John Howard, on the line now. Good morning, Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning, George. Nice to talk to you. Sorry to hear John's unwell. I wish him a quick recovery.

MOORE:

So do I. A complete surprise to me too, half an hour ago I was in my jammies.

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh well, ready for anything.

MOORE:

We are. We're rearing to go. Do you really think that you've made genuine progress in Iraq?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I think the great untold story is the progress that's been made with the social infrastructure. The fact that there's started to be for the first time in a generation real investment in public health in Iraq. The fact that two and a half schools, 2,500 schools have been rehabilitated. The universities are open. Inflation has been cut from horrendous levels to about 20 per cent a year. There are 15,000 mobile phones being sold, I think, every week, whereas they were banned under Saddam Hussein. There have been municipal elections held, the courts are operating. For the first time in 15 years Iraq has a unified currency. Now all of these things are the hallmarks of the basic infrastructure of a modern state and they are facts that should be borne in mind of side by side with the ongoing violence, the ongoing attacks and the many other difficulties that the country faces. But there's no doubt in my mind and those figures and facts seem to bear it out that the country's a lot better off than what it would be (inaudible).

MOORE:

Alright. You still there? We've got a slightly wonky line there. You've conceded that the task has been tougher than you first thought. Which aspects of the mission in Iraq have, well, I think you've perhaps overestimated or underestimated?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I think the level of post war opposition. That's self evidently the case. I think everybody a year ago may have hoped for, with good reason, that that would be less difficult. But it doesn't alter the fundamentals of the choice. We either see it through or we walk out. If we walk out, the country will be taken over by Islamic extremists, the country will become a symbol of a terrorist victory and it certainly won't have democracy and it will be certainly looked at with some dread by its neighbours in the Middle East. Can you hear me better now?

MOORE:

Yes, I can hear you better now. Do you think the goal, and it's a very very worthy goal, the goal of democracy in a country like Iraq, is that something that can be done over just the next few years. I mean, how would you imagine at this stage Iraq to be when we leave?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that's impossible to answer except to say that we won't leave until we've finished the task that we've been given. Democracy taking root in Iraq will be difficult. But I'm satisfied and most people who observe the country are satisfied that that is what the people want. It'll be a form of democracy which is their own. We shouldn't try and say you've got to have this or that form of democracy. It may well be that some kind of federal system emerges because there are very distinct differences between the Kurds in the north, the Sunni in the middle and the Shi'ite in other parts of the country and maybe an answer to that is to have a federal structure of government and they will choose their own way of having democracy. But it's a rather arrogant assumption for people to say well, Arab states can never be democratic. I think that is an arrogant and it's inaccurate assumption and if I were a citizen of any one of those states that believe in democracy, I'd be quite offended by it.

MOORE:

Right. Now the assassination of the council's leader earlier this week, has that... how much has that set back the plans for the hand over?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, it hasn't set back the actual plans at all. But it is a reminder of the determination of those who are opposed to democracy to do anything to stop it happening. Violence could well increase between now and the 30th of June because as that date draws nearer, those who don't want there to be a peaceful transition, an effective transition, will do everything they conceivably can to stop it coming about.

MOORE:

Alright. Now I've been reading a lot of newspapers, I watch a lot of television, I do a lot on the internet. Just over recent weeks, I've been detecting a sense that perhaps America is starting to lose its nerve. Have you had contact with President Bush? What's your reading of all this?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I haven't spoken to President Bush in the last few weeks. I've not had any need to. I don't believe America is losing its nerve. I think the Americans have been badly shaken by the examples of improper behaviour by some of their military. That's been a setback. But the good thing, if I can put it that way, and I hope that expression is not misunderstood by your listeners, the good thing is they're doing something about it. But whatever people criticise the Americans for, they can't be criticised for transparently dealing with things that are embarrassing. I mean, they're putting people on trial. They're acknowledging their mistakes. They're apologising to the people who've been mistreated. Far far worse happened under Saddam Hussein and if you did something like that you didn't get court marshalled you got promoted.

MOORE:

Alright. Just a couple of other issues we've got before we let you go. How much credence do you place in these claims that David Hicks has been tied up and beaten?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, they are coming from somebody who's a Taliban supporter. We will have them investigated. I do initially take them with a grain of salt. These allegations that Hicks and Habib have been ill treated have only come since the stories of American prisoner abuse have surfaced. We didn't hear anything about them last year or the year before. At the end of last year, Mr Hicks' Australian lawyer said that he was grateful for the treatment he'd received from his guards in Guantanamo Bay and the people from the Australian Embassy who'd been to see Hicks and Habib in Guantanamo Bay did not report to us any complaints from them about torture or improper treatment. So I am sceptical. I question why it is that these claims have only arisen now. Why didn't they come out earlier? It is coming from somebody who's prescribed in the press reports as a Taliban supporter. Now having said all of that, of course we will take these reports to the Americans, and we'll say what is your answer to this - is this true or is it not? And we'll obviously remain on the case in pursuing any allegations, but it does strike me as strange that it has taken all this time, and only after the allegations of American prisoner abuse have surfaced, for these claims to come forward.

MOORE:

Alright. Now one story that is really seeming to grow in momentum over just the last 24 hours is about the free trade deal and how it may adversely affect the cost of medicines in Australia. This could be a real issue in the lead up to an election, unless we can be reassured that it's otherwise.

PRIME MINISTER:

That's just not correct George. The free trade agreement does not affect in any way the operation of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. The Americans pushed very hard for measures that would have limited our capacity to extend the availability of generic pharmaceuticals, which is a very important element of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, and during the last weekend of the negotiations, they almost came unstuck because we would not agree to what the Americans wanted. They did push very hard. The American pharmaceutical companies are very strong and they pushed very hard, and they wanted something which during that last weekend I said no to. I was directly involved in those final discussions. I wasn't in America, but I was on the phone pretty well constantly, and I said no we're not going to agree to that, and even if it will result in the whole deal being scuppered, we're not going to shift. And there is no substance in these allegations. I know people will make the claim. The people who are making the claims, they don't appear to me to have any factual basis. They appear on my understanding to belong to a kind of amorphous consumer group and they're not a group of people who, on my understanding, have specialised knowledge.

MOORE:

Yeah, I think the word they used yesterday was 'estimates'. But when this free trade deal was announced, as far as the pharmaceuticals and medicines were concerned, we were told that no it would have absolutely no effect, but what I am hearing from these people you just referred to is that this will actually open the door, open that crack in the door for them to get their head in.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, but they don't say how. I mean that's my point. I mean how does it open the door? I mean I've been through the fine print of this. How does it open the door? I mean it's not good enough, and they shouldn't be allowed on such an important issue as this, to get away with just saying oh it will open the door. It doesn't open the door. If the door had been opened, we wouldn't have the agreement.

MOORE:

Would you say that this is some sort of scare tactic in the lead up to the election.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well of course. I don't know the motivations of this particular group, but I do know that the Labor Party is certainly... hasn't endorsed this free trade agreement. For the life of me, I don't understand why people should be opposed to it, other than some kind of suspicion of all things American at the moment, which seems to be a fad with some people in the Opposition and elsewhere in the community. America has the biggest economy the world has ever seen. It will grow more important as part of the world economy as the years go by. The stronger the American economy becomes, the stronger ours will become if we are linked to the American economy in a free trade agreement. And we're achieving all of this without limiting our capacity to trade vigorously with countries like China and Japan and Korea, where our trade has gone through the roof over the last few years. You see, this is a win win. There is no incompatibility. It will add billions of dollars over the years to our GDP. That has been demonstrated by independent economic analysis. And we're getting extra for our beef, we're getting extra for our dairy. We missed out on sugar, but the sugar people in Australia are no worse off as a result of the free trade agreement, and we've just announced an extra domestic package for that industry. And there are huge openings in the area of services and investment, and we have protected our Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and we've also protected the local content rules, and we've allowed in the local content rules for reasonable expansion when it comes to digital and to new forms of media. Now I mean I'm aware of the concerns and I was very much addressing them when the negotiations were going on, and this proposition about the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme is just wrong.

MOORE:

Alright. Now the reason I wanted to be so clear on this is because the cost of medicines of course very, very dear to Australians' hearts, particularly as we age and get older. That's why this morning I wanted to talk to you about this and get a rejection of this idea that has been all over the media in the last 24 hours.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it does not have any substance and I will, as a result of this interview, I'll get onto the Health Minister Tony Abbott and I'll get him to get hold of the detail, if there is any detail of these allegations, and deal with them. But I'm still at a loss to know exactly how they believe the door has been prised open.

MOORE:

Yes. Once these things get a run, they seem to take on a life of their own, don't they?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well of course, of course, and they have to be dealt with. But people who make these allegations have an obligation to do more than just say well look it's going to prise the door open. I want to know how it's prising the door open, and what precisely do they believe that we have given away.

MOORE:

Alright. Look thank you very much for your time this morning. I'm sorry John wasn't here to talk to you, but it's been my pleasure.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you very much George. Bye, bye.

[ends]

Transcript 21286