PM Transcripts

Transcripts from the Prime Ministers of Australia

Transcript 22414

Interview with Neil Mitchell Radio 3AW, Melbourne

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: 11/08/2006

Release Type: Interview

Transcript ID: 22414

MITCHELL:

Mr Howard, good morning?

PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning, Neil.

MITCHELL:

Is Australia's level of security under review?

PRIME MINISTER:

It's under review. We've decided at the moment not to lift it because the threat was to flights bound for the United States. But if there is any need to lift the alert level in the future that action will be taken. This has been a remarkable effort by the British intelligence authorities, they deserve the gratitude and congratulations, not only of their own public, but certainly the travelling public who might have been affected. I have naturally seen the intelligence assessments that our agencies have obtained because of their close cooperation with MI5 and it is very bit as serious as represented by the British Home Secretary. The people arrested in the main are British born. It's too early to definitively say it's an Al Qaeda plot. It certainly has a lot of similarities but whoever it is, it's evil and potentially lethal in a quite horrific way. And it is a reminder, sadly to all of us, that terrorism is still a very live and menacing threat to the kind of existence we've all taken for granted.

MITCHELL:

George Bush says this is evidence that we at war with Islamic fascists, is he right?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well certainly Islamic extremism is an enemy of democratic societies. Islamic extremism is an enemy of Islamic societies and I say immediately, and it must be said, that this sort of activity whilst we can't be absolutely certain until further evidence emerges of the links and the sources and the motivation, but I'm sure this kind of activity would be condemned, unconditionally, by the overwhelmingly majority of Australians of Islamic background. And I want to say at the very beginning we have to be very careful we don't generalise from the particular and scapegoat a section of our own community any more than the British or the Americans should scapegoat a section of their community. Terrorists have claimed more Islamic lives in the last few years than the lives of any other religious cohort and this is a threat for all of us, and it should be seen as such.

MITCHELL:

Will you be calling a meeting of the security committee?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well if it's necessary to do so, but I'm in Canberra and obviously in touch with our security officials and if it's necessary to do so but right at the moment the evidence suggests that the threats were directed against, or going to be directed against planes travelling to the United States. And as a result, immediately, any flights bound from Australia to the United States are affected by the American prohibitions, which means for example, liquids and gels cannot be taken on board any aircraft leaving Australia and bound for the United States, except the baby formula, the breast milk, or juice if a baby or small child is travelling, prescription medicine, insulin and other essential non-prescription medicines, and there are a whole lot of other restrictions which will apply. This will necessarily cause a lot of delays and inconvenience, but I know the public will accept that that is completely unavoidable.

MITCHELL:

Given the step this has taken towards the use of liquid explosives, do we not have to accept that this will change airline travel permanently? I mean it could even lead to similar bans on hand luggage on domestic flights in this country?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well all of those things are real possibilities. I don't want to make decisions on that on the run. But the potential use of liquid explosives brings a whole new menacing dimension to the terrorist threat. And that sort of response could well be necessary.

MITCHELL:

Prime Minister we're now five years into what has been called the war on terror, but the situation seems worse not better.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well yes in one respect, perhaps not in another respect. This attack has been foiled. There has been no successful attack on the American mainland since 2001. Tragically we have lost Australians though in Bali and of course terrorist attacks go on in Iraq, in Afghanistan and in the Middle East. It will be a long war and we have to sadly accept that. And it's not a war that's going to be won quickly. It's a borderless war. It's different. We were all brought up to think of war as an army rolling across a border, and armies in the field, that is no longer the case. This is an entirely different conflict and because of that, and because we are free societies, and we resent, naturally, losing any of our freedom of movement, it's a very hard war to fight.

MITCHELL:

We now have the United States and United Kingdom both on extremely high levels of terrorist alert - I don't think they could be any higher. Given Australia's high profile support for the activities of the United States and the United Kingdom, do we have to accept we are a potential target?

PRIME MINISTER:

Most people are targets. The Canadians, who are not involved in Iraq, foiled a plot a few weeks ago, a few months ago, to attack I think their Parliament and some buildings in Toronto. There have been attacks and plots and menaces and threats in all sorts of countries.

MITCHELL:

Well yes, but there's clearly a heightened danger at the moment.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think there's a heightened danger for a lot of countries, and clearly Australia's one of them and I have never, in the whole time that I've had to deal as Prime Minister with this issue, I have never pretended, and I do not now to the Australian people, that this country is immune from an attack. I cannot guarantee, I cannot promise, I cannot tell the Australian people there will not be some attack in this country.

MITCHELL:

But you do believe there's a heightened danger at the moment?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think there's a heightened danger everywhere, including in Australia.

MITCHELL:

At the moment?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, but not...just that...how shall I put it...that is an instinctive reaction, it is not an evidence-based reaction?

MITCHELL:

What was your emotion when you heard about this?

PRIME MINISTER:

Like everybody else, I guess, chilled, because it brings a new dimension to it. I mean commonsense tells you that if people take explosive liquids onboard an aircraft, and they're going to become suicide bombers, and they're going to blow a hole in a pressurised cabin, you can imagine what the horrific loss of life would be. And as somebody said on the radio this morning, you shouldn't imagine that the design was destined to occur over the ocean, the design was clearly on the part of some that it might occur over a very crowded city.

MITCHELL:

Prime Minister do you believe this could add support to your bill to handle asylum seekers, a controversial legislation, because how much of that is about security?

PRIME MINISTER:

I wouldn't seek to draw a link. I very strongly support our border protection bill, but there is no evidence that a link exists between this and potential illegal arrivals in this country, and I am not going to do that because there's no evidence to support that and it's important at a time like this that I be factual and responsible in the linkages that are drawn.

MITCHELL:

Were Australian agencies involved in any way in the cracking of this threat?

PRIME MINISTER:

I am not aware of that but there is very close cooperation between the British intelligence agencies and the Americans and our own. My understanding is that there is a lot of cooperation between the British and Pakistani intelligence authorities, and also obviously the United States. But this is overwhelmingly a British operation and given the specificity that we've been provided and given all the other things, it is a first-class operation by the Brits and they deserve congratulations.

MITCHELL:

Have you had any conversations with either the British Government or the Americans?

PRIME MINISTER:

No not yet, and I will if needed. But at the moment, all the evidence suggests that the plot was to blow up US-bound aircraft and not aircraft bound for any other country, and that is the explanation why at the moment the new restrictions apply as I understand it to Australian aircraft bound for the United States, but not Australian aircraft bound for the United Kingdom.

[commercial break]

MITCHELL:

Mr Howard, on to other issues, are you embarrassed to have senior members of your Government voting against you on border protection?

PRIME MINISTER:

I wish it hadn't happened, however, we've been in office now for 10 years and from time to time even in the most cohesive arrangement and the best organised household there are going to be differences of opinion, and whilst in crossing the floor, three of my colleagues have rejected the majority view of the party, reached after a lot of deliberation and after a lot of changes have been made, they have decided to that, and in the end the exercise of their individual opinion is one that they hold to. But I do want to make it clear that what's at issue here is not any weakening of our border protection laws, but whether we make them even stronger, and we have very strong border protection laws, and these changes are designed to make them even stronger, and it would be a pity if they were not made stronger.

MITCHELL:

But will you get them through the Senate?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don't know, I have no idea how Senator Fielding is going to vote, he is his own man and anybody who thinks they can predict how he is going to vote has greater powers than I do.

MITCHELL:

Have you offered him a deal?

PRIME MINISTER:

No I haven't offered him any deal, he would be insulted with a deal. I talked to him yesterday, it was a good discussion, we talked about this, we talked about other issues, but he did not indicate to me how he was going to vote, and he says he is still assessing it, and I believe him.

MITCHELL:

So what if you are defeated in the Senate, what will you do then?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we'll have to consider that, I don't want to at this stage...

MITCHELL:

Have you considered it yet?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh well, I've given, I've thought about it Neil but I won't make any decision, I mean considering in the sense of the Government, members of the Cabinet, sitting around and deciding what we are going to do. Now this is an important piece of legislation, but it's not as important as the fact that yesterday we had a 30-year low in unemployment, it's not as important, and it is not as important as the issue I was talking about a few moments ago, but it is important and I would like to get this legislation through because it would make our border protection laws even stronger and more effective and more consistent.

MITCHELL:

We'll take some calls for the Prime Minister, I have more questons as well, John go ahead please.

CALLER:

How you going Mr Howard?

PRIME MINISTER:

Very well John.

CALLER:

I am very glad that you stayed on as Prime Minister and I hope that you can stay on until you are 100 for all that matter.

MITCHELL:

Peter Costello just fell over.

CALLER:

Why don't we employ more people to, for more thorough baggage handling, I mean there seems to be a lot of still quite, you know while the unemployment figures are great and everything there are still a lot of people out there that I think would be willing to, you know, enter positions of protecting Australia?

PRIME MINISTER:

John, whenever something new happens to remind us of the ongoing terrorist threat, we always look again at what our security capacity is and whether we need to make any changes, and maybe we'll end up doing that, I am not saying we are going to, but it is always possible.

MITCHELL:

So there would be a review of security?

PRIME MINISTER:

We do it automatically, but not because we think the arrangements are inadequate, but in a sense security is very much relevant to that old question, how long is a piece of string? You can keep spending more and more on security, you can double, treble, quadruple your commitment and there will still be areas that people will say you haven't attended to and that would be right.

MITCHELL:

Hello Vicki, go ahead Vicki.

CALLER:

Hello, good morning, good morning, just lost the voice there for a moment. Look Prime Minister, if this sort of thing happened here, that we had the situation like they have over in England with the home-grown terrorists, could they be charged with treason?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well they would be charged with more than treason, they would be charged with, well equally, if not more serious crimes. I know treason is hard to beat as far as a serious crime is concerned. We shouldn't imagine that something like this couldn't happen in Australia, and I guess the sobering thing about the July attacks of last year in London, and the arrest of those people in Canada, and the arrests in Sydney and Melbourne at the end of last year, the sobering thing about all of those things were that you were dealing with people who in the main, had been born in the countries where they were arrested. You weren't dealing with people who had been flown in for the purpose, you hadn't, I mean in that sense it was unlike the September 11 attacks.

MITCHELL:

Prime Minister, another issue, the Telstra record loss yesterday, share price down, record loss, dummy being spat over regulation. I see Sol Trujillo saying that essentially it's your fault, the record loss, still, do you accept that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well of course not.

MITCHELL:

Well what do you say to him?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I would say to his board, who appointed him, that the Government does not intend to change the regulatory regime and nobody should imagine that the Government is going to be intimidated into changing the regulatory regime. We've made a very clear position on this, and I am actually quite disappointed that Telstra walked away from the fibre-to-the-node discussions because some weeks ago I met the entirety of the Telstra board, Mr Trujillo was not there, but the board indicated to me that they were very close to reaching an understanding with the ACCC.

MITCHELL:

So what's happened?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don't know.

MITCHELL:

Isn't it bluff do you think?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it could be. If it is, well it won't work. We have a clear position on regulation, and that was the basis on which the sale legislation went through the Parliament. I mean what Telstra and what everybody must understand is that there was a lot of negotiation involved and a lot of understandings reached in order to get parliamentary authority for the sale of the Government's remaining interest in Telstra and the idea that, notwithstanding that, the regulation put in place is disposable and can be varied or bent, or thrown away in order to respond to what the company wants is very misplaced. I mean we are not going to do that, we think the regulation is justified in the circumstances and I want to work with the company, the management of the company is determined by the board. It is the board's decision to appoint Mr Trujillo, I work with him, I have, of course, met him on a number of occasions...

MITCHELL:

Do you maintain confidence in him?

PRIME MINISTER:

Of course, well the board, look I have confidence in the board and the board in turn appoints the managing director and I work with who is appointed and therefore I have confidence in him.

MITCHELL:

Surely any sale of Telstra must be delayed now?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we have got to make a final decision on that and there are a number of ways of which we can deal with it and we have never said that we are going to sell the shares just for the sake of getting rid of them. That would be unfair to the body of Australian taxpayers and it would certainly be unfair to existing Telstra shareholders. I mean I am acutely conscious of the rights and the interests of Australians who bought shares in Telstra some years ago and I don't want to do anything that duds them.

MITCHELL:

Mr Trujillo is going to get a $2.6 million bonus, a salary of nearly $9 million this year after a record low, a record loss, a record bad result, bad share prices and the fight over regulation, why does he get that, why does he get a bonus?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well you should ask the Board of Telstra to justify his remuneration package.

MITCHELL:

Does it puzzle you?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think a lot of Australians think some corporate salaries paid are a bit rich.

MITCHELL:

Is this a bit rich?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that is a matter that has got to be determined in the end by the board.

MITCHELL:

Are you surprised that he is getting a bonus?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, I think it is always surprising when companies don't do all that well that some chief executives get bonuses. But I believe in competitive capitalism and I am always loath to get into the business of saying, well he gets paid too much. You have got to have a society where some people, because of their responsibilities and the financial acumen they have and the risks that they take, are paid more than others but equally there are some circumstances where some executive salary and remuneration does stick in the craw with people, but as for Mr Trujillo I don't particularly want to single him out. If you have any argument with his remuneration I suggest you take it up with those who set it and that is the board of directors at Telstra.

MITCHELL:

Love to do that. Do you find it a bit unusual, according to The Australian that Mr Trujillo has not bought one Telstra share?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think that is a matter for him.

MITCHELL:

But surely a chief executive can invest in his own company?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well some don't on the grounds that they might be seen to have a conflict of interest, look I don't, I am not, if everything else in the garden were lovely I would not hold that against him.

MITCHELL:

Not too lovely in the garden though.

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no well at the moment...

MITCHELL:

There's a few weeds.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well there are, there are a lot and, but the people I am most concerned about are the existing Telstra shareholders. Now that does include the Government, but it is the smaller Telstra shareholders that I am most concerned about.

MITCHELL:

Prime Minister a couple of other quick issues, petrol, we keep going around in circles on this. Do you realise that you have to do about 30,000 kilometres a year to make LPG worthwhile in your car. What about the Australian, the average Australian does 20,000?

PRIME MINISTER:

I have been given some calculations that suggest it is a lot lower than that. If you're saying to me, is LPG the answer, no. Nothing is the answer to high world oil prices until those prices come down, but you can do some things at the margin. We are looking at the LPG option. We are looking, as I said the other day at the possibility of giving some help to people who buy a car with an LPG alternative, or convert. I am not suggesting that Is going to solve the problem, it can have an impact at the margin and the advice I have is that the mileage, if I can be forgiven for using the old expression, the mileage is close to half what you cited.

MITCHELL:

Really?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yeah.

MITCHELL:

Is there any chance of an excise cut before the next election?

PRIME MINISTER:

We don't plan an excise cut.

MITCHELL:

I understand that, but are you ruling one out?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well on present settings and advisings and moods and so forth, yes.

MITCHELL:

Did Kim Beazley have a Mark Latham moment yesterday when he told Wilson Tuckey to go and take his tablets?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that is, that is...

MITCHELL:

A lot of people have criticised that as being having a go at people with mental illness.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that is a matter for commentators and for the public. I said what I wanted to so yesterday and I didn't think the incident reflected well on either man. I thought that given that Mr Beazley does aspire to be the Prime Minister I thought it was a poor contribution by him. I am actually more critical of the behaviour of the Labor Party in the Parliament...

MITCHELL:

What the chickens?

PRIME MINISTER:

The toy chicken, I mean this is all designed to try and embarrass Peter Costello. Well I didn't embarrass Peter. It made them look very foolish. I mean we are back after a six-week break and we are debating petrol prices and I am making an announcement to send some extra troops to Afghanistan and we're ending the week on a very serious and sober note and the whole Labor Party is rolling with laughter at a toy chicken. Well I think that is very poor.

MITCHELL:

Industrial relations laws just quickly. Joe Hockey going into help in the batting. Are you still open to change on laws, is there still a possibility of some further movement?

PRIME MINISTER:

I have said all along that we are happy to fine-tune. We are not considering any changes of substance, but with a big law in a big area, if there are some unintended consequences, there are some anomalies, there is some fine-tuning then I am certainly happy to embrace that, but I don't see any need for substantial changes. We've now been, what, three or four months into the new laws and we were told by Mr Shorten that the new laws would be a green light for mass sackings. We were told by Mr Beazley that these laws would make it easier to sack 11 million Australians and there haven't been mass sackings.

MITCHELL:

So you won't blink?

PRIME MINISTER:

No I am not going to blink on the fundamentals of this legislation.

MITCHELL:

Just a final question Mr Howard. Dean Jones, I know you'd know him. Robert Ray took after him quite savagely in the Senate this week, I thought. Do you believe Dean Jones is a racist?

PRIME MINISTER:

No I don't. I think he said the wrong thing and I am sure he regrets it. I like Dean Jones, I don't think he has got a racist bone in his body. I just think that he was just being careless, he was being a bit cavalier and you cannot be too careful in relation to links between one particular racial or religious group and terrorism. It is not fair to do that, but did I think it suggested a darker side of Dean Jones? No I don't. Now others may disagree with me, Robert Ray obviously does, well I disagree with Robert Ray, I think he is going over the top.

MITCHELL:

Thank you very much for your time.

[ends]

Transcript 22414