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Transcript 22471

Interview with Jon Faine ABC Radio, 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: 14/09/2006

Release Type: Interview

Transcript ID: 22471

FAINE:

The Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard, joins me from our Canberra studios on a day when the Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone has launched an attack on the Opposition Leader Kim Beazley, accusing him of xenophobia, and fanning racist fires. Prime Minister, good morning.

PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning.

FAINE:

Racism is now right back there in the middle of the political debate. Is this a strategy that you are happy with Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don't think racism is back. I don't think this country is a racist country. I know some commentators are always keen to put race back on the agenda, but I've always taken a more optimistic view about the Australian people than many others. And I know I've got into trouble, probably on occasions from you, for not being critical enough of so-called racist sentiments in the Australian community. I think what Amanda Vanstone was doing; and Amanda's a very colourful person, she's pugnacious and she has her own turn of phrase, but she's a very good Minister. I think she was making the point that in the utterances about the 457 visas, the Labor Party always quotes cities in a certain group of countries but not in others. And I've actually pulled out some of the figures this morning and I find that the largest source country for 457 migrants by a long way is the United Kingdom, by a long way. There are four times as many people who come to Australia on 457 visas from Great Britain as there are who come here from China. There are two and a half times as many come from Great Britain as come from India and so I think in her colourful way Amanda was making that point.

FAINE:

Did you know this article was to be published today?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I don't vet the articles my colleagues write.

FAINE:

No, but your office is the strategic headquarters, there's no doubt about that.

PRIME MINISTER:

We did not vet this article. We don't require ministers to run every article past us. Come on.

FAINE:

Not necessarily the chapter and verse and every word of it Prime Minister but this...

PRIME MINISTER:

Well John you've asked me, you asked me a question...

FAINE:

The issue I suppose is whether or not you knew that this was going to open up a new ground of attack on the Labor Party and is that something that is a deliberate strategy from your office and elsewhere in the Liberal Party Government?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, there's no deliberate strategy. It's the responsibility of ministers to argue their case and point out where they believe the Opposition is trying to misrepresent what the Government is doing. There's a very big debate going on about these 457 visas and what the Labor Party is trying to do is to run an argument that the Government is deliberately encouraging the importation of workers from overseas and that importation is taking away the jobs of Australians willing and able to fill those positions.

Now that is not true and the Labor Party is being very hypocritical on this issue because the major users of 457 visas are state Labor governments. There's no greater user of 457 visas in the country probably than the New South Wales Department of Health, so Labor governments are using these visas. They're constantly asking us to shorten the procedures, they're constantly saying, for example, in Western Australia I have had the Deputy Premier saying on a number of occasions that the meat industry will collapse in that state if we don't let in more foreign workers. Yet at a federal level, the Labor Party is saying we're taking away the jobs of Australians and trying to create the impression that the great bulk of the people who are coming in to fill these positions are coming from Asia and the Middle East, when they ought to know by looking at the figures that that's untrue. That's the point.

FAINE:

In China, Prime Minister, would you agree that you could abuse the 457 visa procedure? They could be put to abuse.

PRIME MINISTER:

Look in any system, Jon, there can be abuse, of course there can.

FAINE:

And there has been abuse.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well where there has been abuse, that abuse should be punished, but you don't close down the whole system because some individuals might abuse it, anymore than you, you know, change an education system because a few people might abuse it, or you walk away from the public hospital system. I mean we've got to have a sense of proportion in these debates. Now we have a shortage of skilled workers in this country because the boom in the economy has run ahead of the number of skilled workers that are available. Now we are taking certain steps to alter that, but in the meantime there are gaps and we need to fill those gaps if we are to maintain our productivity and we fill those gaps by bringing in skilled migrants from overseas, and we do that without discrimination. But it does happen, that by far the largest source country for skilled migrants, and that's not surprising, is the United Kingdom because the language and the culture and the way of life and everything is still so similar to ours that it's easier to get skilled migrants with the right set of skills from that country. But we very happily take them from India and China because we do run a non-discriminatory policy, and the point needs to be made that if anybody is to be involved in a responsible debate about this issue, they should not misrepresent to the Australian community the sources from which our skilled migrants come.

FAINE:

Can we join up a few other dots Prime Minister, Kim Beazley earlier this week said that he thought it would be appropriate for people who are applying for a visitor's visa to Australia to have to swear that they would respect various Australian values before they came here, and today I understand that your Government will announce that English language tests will become compulsory for migrants to Australia. We are still talking, by and large in different ways, about the same thing which is race as an issue in Australian society, are we not?

PRIME MINISTER:

No I don't think we are in relation to what we have in mind.

FAINE:

They all boil down to the same thing don't they?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that's your view and you can state it. I respect a 100 per cent your right to state it.

FAINE:

Don't think you really do, but go on.

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh Jon, now come on, now that's a bit, come on, no, no, you're better than that. Now come on, don't say that. I do respect your right to violently disagree with many things I say, I don't think you should...

FAINE:

Well I often don't, I often don't.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well no, you shouldn't, you know, anyway look let's move on from that, let's not waste time on that. The citizenship test which Andrew Robb is going to reveal details of shortly was foreshadowed by him in April so that has absolutely nothing to do with anything that Mr Beazley has said. What I understand Mr Beazley said earlier this week, and it's a bit obscure because he said it at a doorstop, but what I understood him to say is that people coming to this country, whether they're visitors or long term immigrants should when they apply for their visa, sign up to Australian values. Now as far as tourists are concerned, that's impractical. Eighty per cent of tourists to this country don't sign a visa application form, they are issued with an electronic travel authority normally embedded in the ticket they get from their travel agent.

FAINE:

It's a sort of non-issue.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yeah it's...but in any event, I don't think it's reasonable to say to somebody who's visiting this country, you've got to sit down and sign up to our values, I don't agree with that.

FAINE:

Prime Minister Barrie Cassidy earlier this morning said, it's as if Kim Beazley is playing leap frog with your government over who can set up the biggest hurdles on all of this.

PRIME MINISTER:

Let me just sort of address the substance, I mean I'll leave you and Barrie Cassidy to deal with the commentary, you are asking me about the substance, now I am answering on the substance, I am not providing a commentary. As to the question of people embracing Australian values when they come to this country, of course I agree with that, and whatever form is necessary to ensure that, I support. People should always embrace Australian values, and I have been talking about that for a very long time. I think the problem in the past has been that the more, how should I put it, the more radical interpretation of multiculturalism has allowed people to argue that you can really sort of keep your own home-grown values when you come to this country, and not embrace mainstream Australian values. Well I have never accepted that and I think you know that, but I have always argued that there should be a greater level of integration. We, by and large, have been successful with that, and how you do that, well it's a question of, in different ways you do it. But I am very strongly for integration.

FAINE:

And are you introducing compulsory English classes for migrants?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well when you say compulsory, there are free English classes available for a significant period of time for all migrants who come to this country...

FAINE:

That's now...

PRIME MINISTER:

...who don't speak English yes.

FAINE:

Are you planning to make it...

PRIME MINISTER:

Compulsory? No, well one of the things in the, there is a discussion paper that will canvass these issues, but we haven't made any decision to do that.

FAINE:

Are you keen on it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I'm keen on everybody learning the English language as soon as possible.

FAINE:

I'm keen on that too and I think it should be something, in fact personally I am somewhat puzzled that people wouldn't want to learn the English language.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I am too because it's absolutely essential.

FAINE:

Whether you make it mandatory is a different thing.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well you know as well as I do, making something mandatory doesn't necessarily make people accept it, I mean there has to be a disposition.

FAINE:

And you prefer carrots to sticks wherever possible?

PRIME MINISTER:

We all do, don't we?

FAINE:

That's what I'm asking about.

PRIME MINISTER:

But let's see how this discussion goes. But what we are looking at is a discussion on a test for citizenship and I think that's a very good idea and I'm very much in favour of it and we have been working on that now for some months and Andrew Robb has been talking to people, we haven't just produced this, so I would reply to your suggestion that this is sort of part of a series of ploys and counter ploys in the past few days, that's nonsense, Andrew announced this last April.

FAINE:

Did you see Paul Keating on the Lateline show on ABC TV last night?

PRIME MINISTER:

No I didn't, I heard a little bit of it. I'm touched by his concern for the Liberal and National Parties.

FAINE:

In a nutshell and I can't do this nearly as well and nearly as theatrically as Paul Keating does I suspect, not many people could, he says that there are threats to our democracy and the reforms, the reforms to media regulation and media laws and ownership laws that you're proposing to bring in, does he have any ...

PRIME MINISTER:

I think Mr Keating is still sort of carrying on his decade and a half long vendetta against, well, principally the Packer media empire.

FAINE:

But not only, mind you.

PRIME MINISTER:

No look, I mean, he is not on the scene anymore...

FAINE:

You have no interest in taking up any of the points he made?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, not really. I won't be guided by his advice, let me put it that way.

FAINE:

Meanwhile, Barnaby Joyce and others are saying the reforms Helen Coonan, Senator Coonan is proposing to introduce are contrary to the interests of people in regional and rural Australia because it will reduce the number of sources of information available to them. Does he have a point?

PRIME MINISTER:

Let's have the Senate inquiry and we'll have some further debate, I'm not going to engage in a running commentary on every commentary made on this proposal.

FAINE:

But your media laws have been, it would seem they've stalled according to all the reports in the newspapers today. The progress you were hoping to make with them...

PRIME MINISTER:

They're being introduced into the Senate today.

FAINE:

They will be going ahead today?

PRIME MINISTER:

They're being introduced into the Senate today.

FAINE:

Alright, well we look forward to seeing what is introduced. A couple of other quick ones if I may before I run out of time Prime Minister. Has the Australian Government taken interest in the situation concerning Naomi Robson, the Channel Seven Today Tonight host in West Papua.

PRIME MINISTER:

Not especially that I'm aware of.

FAINE:

She has been spoken to by Indonesian authorities, we're told she's in custody they're in a hotel, but they are said to have entered the country without the relevant journalists' visas. Are you in any way instructing people to keep an eye on what's going on there?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no, I think we, people who do that do that without prior reference to the Government. Obviously if any Australian citizen anywhere in the world wants consular help they will receive it, but I am not aware of any particular request, particular responses or particular contact between her and the Government.

FAINE:

Relationships with Indonesia are delicate at the moment, is this in any way going to become an issue between governments.

PRIME MINISTER:

I would be amazed if it did. It certainly shouldn't.

FAINE:

And finally, relationships with the Solomon Islands of all things seem to be deteriorating and rapidly. What do you regard as a satisfactory outcome in our impasse, diplomatically, with the Solomon Islands?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well certainly not in anyway accepting the justice of the expulsion of the High Commissioner. Any country has a right to expel another country's envoy, we can't stop that happening, but there is no justification for this. Mr Cole was doing his job and doing it very well. We are concerned about the Commission of Inquiry we think that will undermine the normal processes of Solomon Islands' law against people charged with offences relating to the riots. We remain concerned about the level of corruption and poor governance in that country. I have no doubt that the people of the Solomon Islands want Australia to remain involved and committed and our goal is to help the people of the Solomon Islands. We're not trying to take sides politically but we are determined that if Australia is to continue to pour the millions of dollars of our taxpayers money into that country, that in return we have to see some improvement in economic growth and some reduction in corruption and some improvement in governance. The Australian people want to help the people of the Pacific, but they're not prepared to have their aid money made available unconditionally, they want in return an improvement in governance, less corruption and greater economic progress and I think that's a perfectly reasonable approach to take and that is the basis of the attitude that's been taken by the Australian Government to date and it will continue to be the basis of our attitude.

FAINE:

If this goes to its next step then, in this escalation of hostilities we could end up being effectively told to leave the Solomon Islands, would you be prepared to do so if that was the price we had to pay?

PRIME MINISTER:

We will maintain the position I've outlined and I have no doubt that the people of the Solomon Islands want Australia's help. They value the friendship and help of Australia and I would say to them we want to continue helping you but in return for our help we want back from you less corruption, better governance and greater economic progress. And I think the Australian public has a very clear-eyed view, they are very sympathetic to countries like the Solomon Islands, they feel responsibility, but they want something in return and I think they're being quite reasonable.

FAINE:

As always Prime Minister thank you, you've been generous with your time again this morning.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you.

[ends]

Transcript 22471