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Transcript 22474

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: 15/09/2006

Release Type: Interview

Transcript ID: 22474

MITCHELL:

In our Canberra Studio the Prime Minister, Mr Howard good morning.

PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning Neil.

MITCHELL:

Mr Howard I understand you're releasing a discussion paper today on citizenship, the things that have been reported are a four year wait to become an Australian citizen an language tests for potential citizens. What else is in it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well the paper is going to be released on Sunday which is Australian Citizenship Day and this is a paper that's been in preparation now for some months. Mr Robb announced in April, he is the Parliamentary Secretary in charge of this area, he announced in April that we were going to discuss with various groups the desirability of a citizenship test. Certainly we are going to lift the waiting period to four years. There will be a fairly firm English language requirement and the paper itself and I don't want to steal Mr Robb's thunder will contain quite a number of other issues. It will pose a series of questions, it will draw on the experience of other countries that have introduced citizenship tests and we're going about the whole thing in a methodical way.

MITCHELL:

So it would become more difficult to become an Australian citizen?

PRIME MINISTER:

It won't become more difficult if you're fair dinkum, and most people who come to this country are fair dinkum about becoming part of the community, I think most people will welcome it. You'll certainly need to know a good deal more about Australia and about Australian customs and the Australian way of life.

MITCHELL:

What type of things Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think one of the issues that will be raised is some of the history of the country, and some of the values of the country. It's a balance that has got to be struck between on the one hand not being in any way stereotypical because one of the great things about Australia is that we don't like being stereotyped, but on the other hand we're not ashamed of this country, we are in fact very proud of what it has achieved, and if we've made a mistake in the past in relation to national identity its that we've crawled away from it a little to frequently and we went through a period of time I reckon about 10, 15, 20 years ago where we were sort of almost apologising for what this country had achieved and being too deferential to alternative cultures and there has been a movement back from that a reassertion of the confidence we have in what this country represents. Not a brutish confidence, not a belief that we haven't made mistakes and that we can't learn and that our culture hasn't changed as a result of post World War Two migration, it obviously has and it's benefited as a result, but cultural diversity should never come at the expense of a clear, strong, compelling national identity.

MITCHELL:

So you would say that the era of cultural cringe has finished?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I hope so.

MITCHELL:

It did exist though didn't it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Of course it did, but it had various forms. It used to be a cringe towards perhaps too much deference to our British origins, and then we went through another stage of thinking the only thing that was worthwhile was to be zealously multicultural and I think we've now come back to a more sensible balance where people are welcome from any part of the world providing they become part of Australia.

MITCHELL:

If a prospective citizen did not pass the English test or the citizenship questions, the history questions, would they then be ineligible to be a citizen?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that's the idea of a test, yes. I mean the exact form we haven't settled on, and the whole idea of this paper is to raise all of these issues and to get the reaction of the community and then we'll take a final decision. But the whole idea of a test is that you've got to pass it in order to qualify. Now...

MITCHELL:

So would you come back and have another go in six months?

PRIME MINISTER:

I would imagine so, but don't push me on that at the moment.

MITCHELL:

Fair enough.

PRIME MINISTER:

It's a discussion paper, we are always asked to try and sit down and talk to the community about these things. Well it's the essence of having a conversation with the community not to say at the beginning of the conversation well this is how every last detail of it is going to be.

MITCHELL:

The English language thing interests me because as you well know that sort of a dictation test was misused even though it...

PRIME MINISTER:

That was designed to enforce a White Australia policy.

MITCHELL:

Sure, but the English language will be contentious possibly for that reason. I mean what level of English...

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it would have to be a reasonable level, but I can't understand how anybody can take exception to that. I mean the great unifying thing about this country is language. I mean, our culture, the culture of any country is heavily defined by its language because along with the language comes the literature and the cultural history bound up with it and whether some people like it or not the fact that we speak the English language means that we have an advantage that others don't because English is overwhelmingly the lingua franca of the world now and especially in Asia the great, maybe numerically, lots of people speaking Mandarin and Hindu and so forth, but as a lingua franca, as something that binds different counties together, it's an extraordinary facility that we speak the English language.

MITCHELL:

I wonder if the average Australian-born Australian might have trouble passing a basic history test.

PRIME MINISTER:

Maybe some of them do, but I read an editorial this morning that sort of said it's a bit like, you can't choose your relatives, people who are here are here. I mean, the idea of asking native born Australians to pass some kind of test, people who are citizens by birth is absurd and that won't happen. But I am, of course, alive to the neglect of Australian history, and you will be aware that in recent months, going back to before but certainly in my Australia Day address this year I lamented the poor instruction in Australian history now and it's not bad in New South Wales, it's pretty poor elsewhere and we had that history summit which had bipartisan support. Bob Carr the former Labor Premier of New South Wales came along so I certainly think we have to lift our game in that department and that applies to native born Australians as well as Australians by naturalisation.

MITCHELL:

Think you might slip a few cricket history questions in there?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well you never know, I think to understand the history of this country I think we might have to do that.

MITCHELL:

Will you embrace Kim Beazley's idea on visa questions as well, and visa pledges for people coming into Australia.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I'm sure that is something that will come up in the discussion. I am all in favour of people coming to this country embracing the values, that is what this is all about, but I did point out the other day the impracticality of people who are visiting this country on short stay tourist visa's signing up to our values, you have to put the boot on the other foot.

MITCHELL:

The problem is values, I mean, Mr Beazley wants a line in there that you will only work for award wages.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that's absurd, that's not a value that's a political polemic and he knows that. Now, that shows how ill thought out his proposal was. What we are doing by contrast, is we're going about this in a methodical way. I mean plainly you can't have as one of the values an issue that is a matter of political contention. For him to say that would be as equally absurd for me to say that you have to sign up to say that Australian Workplace Agreements are better than collective agreements. I mean, that sort of thing is not at issue. We're not arguing about that, surely to goodness we can have a mature discussion about the sort of test a new citizen should pass, we should all embrace the notion that when people come to this country whatever their cultural background may be, their first requirement is to become part of the Australian mainstream. That is where zealous multiculturalism went wrong, it really encouraged people to believe that the Australian mainstream was the optional extra, and you could essentially just remain identified with your original culture. Now, nobody wants people to forsake their original culture or repudiate it, despise it, we never ask people to do that, there is always a place in your heart for the country in which you were born, but there has to be a greater emphasis on integration into the Australian mainstream and as you know I've been saying that for 10 years or more and I think most Australians agree.

MITCHELL:

9690 0693 if you would like to speak to the Prime Minister. Do you agree with Amanda Vanstone that Kim Beazley is playing the race card?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, just let's look at the facts. There are two and a half times more 457 visa applications from, or visa grants from Great Britain than there are from China, yet in trying to whip up opposition to what the Government is doing, the Labor spokesmen constantly refer to Bombay and Beirut and Bangladesh. They don't, as Amanda rather colourfully said, refer to Birmingham, Bristol or Blackpool.

MITCHELL:

But she also says he's not racist but it's the race card. Do you agree with that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well let the facts speak for themselves.

MITCHELL:

Could I ask you about something else? The parents of Scott Rush who's been sentenced to death for drug smuggling in Bali say they want Government money to help fight to save him. Will you provide it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we have already provided a lot of money. I've met Mr and Mrs Rush. They came to see me in Sydney some weeks ago and they're very nice people and I feel desperately sorry for them. And we have I think, I'll check the figure, I think we've provided already more than $100,000 in legal assistance.

MITCHELL:

Is there more there or not?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I'll have to check that. I mean whatever is reasonably available will be provided.

MITCHELL:

She's also said she wants an unequivocal statement from you to try and save his life. Will you give it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well what I will do is this: that I will let the appeal process run its course and after it has been exhausted, and if he is still facing the death penalty, I will ask the Indonesian President to exercise clemency.

MITCHELL:

You don't want him or any of those Australians to die?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I am against the death penalty.

MITCHELL:

Well, in some cases.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I'm certainly against the death penalty being applied to Australians and if you're going back to my reaction in relation to the Bali Bombers, Neil, I cannot find it in my heart to publicly ask the Indonesian Government to spare the lives of the people who murdered 88 Australians. I'm sorry, if people think that means I've got a double standard, and some will say that, I will have to cop that criticism. But as a matter of commonsense in relation to Australians, I don't believe in the death penalty. I don't believe in it in Australia because the law can make mistakes, that's my pragmatic reason, and it follows from that that we will always argue for clemency for Australians. I think these young people have been incredibly foolish and I take the opportunity of discussing the issue to again plead with young Australians not to be so stupid as to imagine that they can escape the wrath of Asian laws in these areas.

MITCHELL:

Hello Alex. Go ahead Alex please.

CALLER:

Yes, I just want to discuss the merits of enforcing the English language. I agree that we should encourage more people to learn the English language etcetera when they come to Australia. The only thing I'm a little concerned about is that you know, learning a language in itself; I mean my parents speak three languages and made sure that we learnt at least two of those as well as English.

PRIME MINISTER:

You're very fortunate.

CALLER:

Yeah, it just doesn't happen that easily as people think, that you just you know, come to the country and you learn the language. I actually was speaking to some people from Taiwan yesterday who speak English very broken of course. But their attempts at least in the English language, they knew, probably wouldn't pass a test.

MITCHELL:

So what's your point Alex? That it's not necessarily beneficial or it is?

CALLER:

It's a good thing to have, like to encourage people coming to the country to learn the language, maybe as part of the conditions that they have to go to class for a certain period, but telling people that you must pass a test of English, you're just sending a message out there that you're not really welcome unless you actually speak it already.

MITCHELL:

Okay.

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no, but we're not saying that. That, with respect Alex, is not right, that's not what I am saying. We have, you know, the two great examples who come to mind of people who came here not speaking any English and became great Australians were Arvi Parvo and Victor Chang. Now I'm not saying that you won't have people like that in the future. What we're saying is that people should be encouraged after they get here to learn the language, and boy, those two gentlemen certainly did. And as part of the test to become an Australian citizen, and you're talking here now about what will be a four year period. There will be a requirement of reasonable English proficiency and given the commonality of the language to the country, I think that's quite reasonable. We're not saying that nobody in future will be admitted unless they can speak fluent English at the time of admission. Now that would be ludicrous, and we are not going to do that, but we are obviously going to continue to do is to maintain the margin in certain categories of immigrants for people who do speak English.

MITCHELL:

Thank you Alex we'll take a quick break and come back with more for the Prime Minister in a moment.

[COMMERCIAL BREAK]

MITCHELL:

The Prime Minister's in our Canberra studio, 96900 693. Prime Minister has Telstra got under your guard a bit, I read they are going to have 12 pay TV channels on mobile phones within a few weeks.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well if they are able to do certain things under the existing law, I am not going to be saying they can't do it, I don't think that means they've got under our guard.

MITCHELL:

But you were intending to sort of sell off that right weren't you?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well there is certain spectrum that is available and that won't be affected by anything else that's happening under existing arrangements.

MITCHELL:

Rudi, go ahead please Rudi.

CALLER:

Yeah g'day Mr Howard, I just wondered I've seen a thing where you said that you don't believe high interest rates are stopping people from continuing to own a home, and with the combination of high interest rates and high petrol prices, are you so removed from the man on the street, I mean you just got a $20,000 a year pay rise, are you so removed from the man on the street that you aren't aware of the facts that interest rates and petrol prices are stopping people from purchasing a house and keeping that house?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no, what I said was that the major reason why houses are a lot more expensive now was not higher interest rates because interest rates are much lower than what they were when houses were a lot less expensive, and I have also argued that one of the reasons why some people, and we are talking about a very, very small number of people, have had their homes repossessed is that low interest rates have encouraged people to borrow more, and over extend themselves and when you add to that the activity of some, and I stress some, of the non-bank lenders in the community, you have perhaps had a larger number of people who have taken on loans which they cannot afford. Now I am not removed the reality of high petrol prices sir, I am not. I am aware very, that's why we announced incentives for LPG conversions. I think we have been reminded in the past few days, as the price of petrol has come down, just how influenced the price of petrol in Australia is by world crude oil prices. Because you've seen the world crude oil price fall, and petrol prices in Australia have begun to fall. Now I am not making any promises that it's going to stay down because I don't control world crude oil prices, but I can assure you, sir, I am very alive to the impacts of petrol prices and interest rates, but I am also alive to the fact that they were a lot higher a few years ago and they were 17 per cent when my predecessor was in office.

MITCHELL:

Prime Minister, I am sure you are aware of the unedifying little brawl between Channel Seven and Nine over the crew being deported from Indonesia. Has that embarrassed this country to have that crew deported, do you believe?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well not really because no country is in control of or responsible for the actions of all of its citizens overseas. I mean obviously people should obey the law in other countries, but I also respect the energy of journalists who want to get a story, and certainly on the face of it seems seems a tragic, bizarre story.

MITCHELL:

Is there anything the Government can do?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I have asked our consul to check the facts, and I don't know what the facts are. I've read the report in the Herald Sun this morning and the other reports, and I have asked our consul to check the facts.

MITCHELL:

Jane go ahead please.

CALLER:

Hi Mr Howard. I am a teacher at AMES Centre in Melbourne...

PRIME MINISTER:

A which, I'm sorry?

CALLER:

An AMES Centre - Adult Multicultural Education Services.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, sorry, yes.

CALLER:

Most of my students are refugees from Sudan and Afghanistan and have had no schooling in their country before they come out here and my concern, I guess with the new policy and the test is that these students get 510 hours or something about 610 hours when they come out here, and from my experience when those hours are finished, a lot of them are just beginning to start to read and write and have some basic English, and they want to keep going, and they are just starting to learn and it's over. And so I think this is one of the problems, many students are very keen to have better English but perhaps they are not...

PRIME MINISTER:

Well what you talk about is certainly the initial bit but that is certainly not the end of it, and the other point I'd make is that you are talking here about a test that could be applied after somebody has been in the country for four years. You are not talking about a test that is going to be applied within a few weeks. I mean we are talking about a period of four years. Now if somebody is living in this country for a period of four years, and we are not talking about somebody having to pass the equivalent of a PhD in English expression. There would have to be a reasonable level of proficiency and that is one of the issues that is going to be raised in the discussion paper.

MITCHELL:

What level are we talking about there, grade three, grade six?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I would think at least the latter.

MITCHELL:

Grade six?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that is my un-tutored response, I mean I am not an expert in this field, I am just a layman, but I think people listening to this programme understand what I mean when I say a reasonable degree of proficiency in the English language and you have to do a little better than just being able to answer yes or no and give your name. But after four years, and with the instruction that is freely available and the intermingling hopefully with other people in the community, and this is why it's very important that we encourage people from day one to intermingle and to become part of the mainstream and not remain separate and apart, it's very important, then we ought to be able to reasonably apply that approach.

MITCHELL:

Okay can I just ask you a couple of very quick things, I know you are running short of time. You once told me you wouldn't die in the ditch over media law changes. There's a few bullets flying around at the moment.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, well I've avoided most of them so far, look...

MITCHELL:

Does it really matter to people?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well to a lot of people it doesn't, I agree with you, it doesn't and that's one of the reasons why I don't intend to expend a lot of political capital, however, the current laws are out of date and the technological changes in the media mean that we do need to make some changes, and I think we would be silly in the long run not to make them. But I will see how the debate evolves and we'll hear the views of my colleagues and others, and we'll see what comes out of it.

MITCHELL:

Greg Combet from the ACTU is pushing the collective bargaining after...

PRIME MINISTER:

Well Greg Combet has got himself into a totally confused position. When he spoke to the National Press Club a couple of days ago, he said this, and I quote; 'we are not putting and I don't understand Mr Beazley to be putting a position where before a collective bargaining process can take part there is a necessity to establish a majority of workers in that workplace want the collective agreement'; that's what he said two days ago, and yet last night on Lateline he said oh no that's not what I mean, you'd have to have a majority. Now our position is very clear and that is that it's for the employer to determine the nature of the industrial arrangement in a workplace and we don't accept that if 51 per cent of people in a workplace vote in favour of a collective agreement, then the right of the 49 per cent who don't want it, to make an individual contract with the employer should be overridden. And we also support the right of the employer to decide the nature of the industrial structure, and I have to say that there's great confusion as to where the Labor party stands on this, I am sure they want to get rid of workplace agreements, and I am sure they want to take our industrial relations system back to what it was before this government was elected in 1996. Now I think that would be a very retrograde step, I mean we can't go back in this area, we've got to keep going forward.

MITCHELL:

Prime Minister just quickly is it correct that you are looking at tax benefits or tax deals for foreign executives coming into Australia?

PRIME MINISTER:

We legislated to that effect a couple of Budgets ago.

MITCHELL:

So they get a better deal than Australian executives?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well there is, well there was until recently, part of the tax law that meant that people who came here for certain periods of time were treated in a fairly penal fashion under our tax laws, and it meant that some chief executives felt having served here for a short period of time, they then had to go back to the country from whence they came, and in a globalised economy we don't think that's a good idea. Now this is not the stuff of populist politics I realise that, but if we really want Australia to be part of a global economy, then we've got to facilitate the movement around the globe of people with great talent, including Australians leaving here to go to other countries.

MITCHELL:

Now one of our Victorian Senators, Senator Steve Fielding is fired up because he's got new mugs with the Senate logo, apparently it's been delivered to the Senators, new Senate mugs with a Senate logo, made in China.

PRIME MINISTER:

Made in China?

MITCHELL:

Not made from China, made in China.

PRIME MINISTER:

Made in China. Well I don't control.....

MITCHELL:

Bad message though...

PRIME MINISTER:

Well yeah, well yeah but I mean that should be taken up with the President and the Clerk of the Senate, take it up with Senator Calvert and Mr Harry Evans.

MITCHELL:

Can you say go Demons for us?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well if you'd like me to, although....

MITCHELL:

It might be a dangerous in Perth.

PRIME MINISTER:

I think it might be a bit dangerous in Perth, but it's all the action there at the weekend, isn't it.

MITCHELL:

It's disgraceful.

PRIME MINISTER:

I know you feel that way Neil and if I were a home-grown Victorian I would probably feel the same way.

MITCHELL:

Thank you for your time.

[ends]

Transcript 22474