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Transcript 22514

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: 13/10/2006

Release Type: Interview

Transcript ID: 22514

MITCHELL:

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

PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning Neil.

MITCHELL:

Prime Minister, the drought is clearly a crisis for Australia, what are the implications for this country?

PRIME MINISTER:

...those a moment ago. The implications for our farmers are also enormous. It will cut their income, it will make their life harder and the implications for the nation are very big indeed, because farm income, although a lot less of the total now than it used to be, is still very important and we all psychologically have mood swings related to what's happening in the bush. I think Australians living in the cities identify with the bush still very strongly. It's part of our history, it's part of being Australian. And when the bush is suffering, we feel it, not only in a direct sense, but we also feel it in an emotional sense. And I would expect this drought to leave a very big impression on the Australian psyche. But having said all of that, the Government at a federal level will do all it reasonably should to help Australia's farmers through this drought. If they need more assistance they will get it. This is not a time for cheese-paring, it's not a time for being reluctant. Obviously we won't throw money away, but farmers can rest assured that where they're entitled to assistance they'll get it.

MITCHELL:

What would you do? Would we be looking at...

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we already have the Exceptional Circumstances system where an area is drought declared, we're going to look at whether the rules need any further fine-tuning. The Federal Government pays over 90 per cent of the total cost of operating that, so for all intents and purposes, although the states are involved administratively, financially we carry the great bulk of the burden. We're going to look next week at whether there should be any changes and as areas remain in drought, well the Exceptional Circumstances will be extended. Where areas not now in drought should be declared, then they will be declared and I will keep a very careful eye on the thing. It's something I have discussed already with Mr Vaile and Mr Costello, as well as the Minister, Peter McGauran. I just want farmers to know that they are not alone and their fellow Australians, through the national government will be there to help them.

MITCHELL:

Do you accept this is a rural recession?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well whatever you call it, it's a hammer blow to our farmers.

MITCHELL:

Peter Costello describes it a recession.

PRIME MINISTER:

I am not going to argue about a word, I'm just ... but I also know how people get sort of traumatised by a particular word. And look, it is very severe. There is going to be a big cut in their income. Fortunately we introduced a few years ago a thing called the Farm Management Deposits Scheme, which allowed people during good years, and there have been some good rural years recently, to put money away and when they needed it later on, to pull it out and pay a much lower rate of tax on it.

MITCHELL:

So what are the implications for the country's economy, for GDP growth?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it will affect our GDP growth. Just how much remains to be seen and of course it depends on the extent to which our booming economy in other areas can offset it.

MITCHELL:

This puts conflicting pressure on interest rates doesn't it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes it does. In the end I guess the Reserve Bank will be driven more by the inflation level than anything else but these are all things it should be taken into account.

MITCHELL:

An interest rate rise would cripple the farmers at this time.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don't want to use such severe words as that. The Reserve Bank looks at these things every month. The Governor has said that something that will weigh heavily on his mind is that inflation figure that will come out towards the end of this month.

MITCHELL:

Have you had reports, as we are hearing, about concern about suicides?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I get reports about that on an ongoing basis. I have not, to be honest, had particularly, you know, additional reports over the last few weeks, no.

MITCHELL:

I know Jeff Kennett's been suggesting we need to get sort of teams into the bush to help people. He's quite concerned about it.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes I know he is, and I respect the work he does in this area. As part of our mental health initiative, $1.9 billion Commonwealth mental health initiative, we announced last Monday that there would be additionally support for rural services and this has been very well received in country Australia.

MITCHELL:

Will all this drive up prices in the city, it would seem inevitable?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it could in some areas, yes it could. This is one of the interconnections between the rest of Australia and our farmers.

MITCHELL:

Are the states doing enough?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well let me put it this way, we pay more than 90 per cent of the Exceptional Circumstances. We have paid out in drought relief more than $1.2 billion for Exceptional Circumstances.

MITCHELL:

So they could do more?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I mean, I'm not really in the business of blame-shifting and I don't really think at a time like this it helps for me to sound as though I am nit-picking. I just state the facts, and the fact is that the great bulk of the cost of the drought is carried by the Commonwealth. The overwhelming bulk of it is carried by the Commonwealth, we accept that. As long as the states sort of don't get in the way of us doing what's necessary, I'm not going to get stuck into them.

MITCHELL:

I understand one of the senior climatologists have briefed the Government, it's a pretty grim outlook isn't it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it is a very grim outlook, yes. It's a very grim outlook. But having said all of that, we've got to try and keep a sense of perspective. It's very tough for people in the bush, it's very tough for country people. The country overall is still doing very well. I mean look at that unemployment figure yesterday, a 30-year low. We've now had 205,000 new jobs created since our new WorkChoices legislation came in. I'm not saying that WorkChoices has created the 205,000 jobs, but I think it does prove that all the predictions from the Labor Party and the unions that WorkChoices was going to drive up unemployment, slash wages and produce huge industrial strife, has been demonstrated to be completely wrong.

MITCHELL:

Does this talk on climate change alter your feelings or your outlook on Kyoto?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don't think it alters my outlook on Kyoto, but it certainly emphasises that the world does have a problem with climate change; and bear in mind that Australia's contribution is miniscule. And also bear in mind that unlike many countries that have signed up to Kyoto, Australia is likely to meet, or go very close to meeting, her obligations under the Kyoto Protocol. So in a sense, we have a clean bill of health on the Kyoto front unlike many other countries. I think we do need to, as a nation, look at new ways of contributing to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, but we shouldn't be so foolish as to imagine that if only we'd have signed a bit of paper a few years ago we wouldn't have a drought.

MITCHELL:

Is it the advice you're receiving that this could well be the worst drought in Australia's history?

PRIME MINISTER:

The worst in a century. The records before that were a little less precise.

MITCHELL:

The worst for a century. Now doesn't that mean we have to take extraordinary action?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it depends. Our capacity to handle these things is better now than what it was 100 years ago or 50 years ago. And so we can handle things a little better. But look, I think we have to do more at a national level in relation to water issues. I think we have to act as a nation. I said this morning during another interview that when it came to water availability and water supply we had to obliterate state borders. We can't behave like a group of states in relation to water matters, you have to look at the whole nation because rivers flow across state borders, when they're flowing, and the Great Artesian Basin lies under the state borders of this country. At the moment there's a severe shortage of water in south-east Queensland, yet it is suggested there's quite a bit of water in the northern rivers system on New South Wales. Well many Australians would think, if that is the case, then the water in the northern rivers system, New South Wales, might be available for their fellow Australians in south-east Queensland. I don't think the existence of a state border should stand in the way. That's the sort of thing...

MITCHELL:

But are the states accepting that? There's certainly criticism of the states today isn't there?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think what I want to do is collaborate with the states. My first preference in these things is always to work in collaboration with the states. And I'll always try and do that. But at the end of the day, we are Australians before anything else and when it comes to natural things like water, the geography of the country, the climate of the country, we cannot allow for a moment, the state borders or state differences to stand in our way of achieving a solution that's good for all Australians.

MITCHELL:

We'll take a quick break, come back with more from the Prime Minister who spoke overnight to the US President, George Bush.

[Commercial Break]

MITCHELL:

The Prime Minister's in our Canberra studio, 9690 0693 if you'd like to speak with him. Mr Howard we understand you spoke to the American President overnight, what was the gist of the conversation?

PRIME MINISTER:

It was about North Korea. We talked about the progress with the Security Council resolution. The President is cautiously optimistic that a strong resolution, with the support of the major powers in the Security Council will be passed and there will therefore be some consequences flowing from that. It's not completely tied up but he is quite optimistic. We talked about the implications for the whole region in relation to that and also chatted very briefly about Iraq and a few domestic political issues as two party leaders tend to do.

MITCHELL:

Will Australia be involved in searching North Korean ships?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it's possible as part of an internationally-sanctioned understanding.

MITCHELL:

That could be seen as an act of war, couldn't it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh, no, no, hang on, I chose my words very carefully, what I'm saying is it would have to be part of the internationally-sanctioned arrangement. There is this Proliferation Security Initiative where a whole group of countries have got together and agreed that they would act to prevent the proliferation of nuclear material, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and if there were, for example, some kind of trade embargo sanctioned by the Security Council under Chapter 7 of the United Nations charter, then it would be reasonable for Australia to participate, along with a lot of other countries, in enforcing those sanctions, that's what I'm talking about.

MITCHELL:

Do you believe North Korea when they threaten nuclear strikes?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think North Korea should be treated seriously in relation to anything it says because it's an outlaw country that doesn't behave in a normal, rational fashion. You're dealing here with a relic of the old Stalinist approach to government. It's obviously broken ranks with its old benefactor and mentor, namely China. It's pretty obvious from what's happened over the past couple of weeks that the Chinese are very unhappy with what North Korea has done because it's a little humiliating for China. China was seen as the one country in the world that could rein in North Korea. Now that means, that in responding there will probably be more collaboration between China and the United States than might otherwise of happened, but it's also a big worry that a country as erratic and bizarre as North Korea has broken free of the influence, or significantly free, of the influence of the country that might be likely to restrain it in other circumstances.

MITCHELL:

Did you and Mr Bush discuss the possibility of military action?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I don't think the Americans are contemplating that. We're certainly not advocating it and don't support it. You don't ever in these circumstances, to use the clich‚, take it off the table. But this is something that has to be pursued to the end through the available diplomatic channels. It's tortuous, it may not produce any result, it's a very hard position and you've got a rogue state that's got some kind of nuclear capacity, how big is still mysterious. A lot of people think it was a pretty small nuclear explosion but we'll never totally know. But it seems on all the available evidence that it was probably a nuclear explosion and it's a real dilemma because nobody wants military conflict, yet you're dealing with a country that doesn't seem to respond to the sort of pressure and the sort of situations that other countries respond to, it's not rational and when you're dealing with a totally irrational country it's very perplexing.

MITCHELL:

It would be dangerous work, would it not, if Australia was to be involved in helping with the blockades, searching ships?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh yes, but we wouldn't get ourselves into something like that unless we were completely satisfied that it had been fully sanctioned and I think we're just running ahead of ourselves a little bit in talking about that, but I certainly don't rule it out because as part of the international community we would need to consider a request.

MITCHELL:

The head of the army in Britain, General Sir Richard Dannatt, has said the troops should be pulled out of Iraq soon. Do you see any prospect of us being out before 2010?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh I'd be surprised if we were still there in 2010.

MITCHELL:

That was the American projection wasn't it?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no, it wasn't really. I think all that happened was that Pentagon said, as part of contingency planning, it was going to have, you know, planning for the possibility of being there by 2010. But look Neil, I am not going to commit myself to a date. We will go when we believe we have finished our job. Now I don't know when that will be, I really don't, and I don't want to be seen as a result of the comments I'm now making or have just made to be suggesting that I see us out by a particular date, I'm not going to do that. We will stay and complete the job. I remain very strongly of the view that if we were to go before the job was finished, why shouldn't the Americans and the British do the same?

MITCHELL:

But you'd be surprised if we're there for another three years?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I said that, yes I did, but I'm not saying that we will definitely not be there by a particular date, that's really what I'm saying.

MITCHELL:

You are in Timor, you are suggesting, well I read that you're suggesting we could be there til 2010, in Timor?

PRIME MINISTER:

Ah well, I don't quite know, I did see that article where I said we'd certainly be...have a substantial force until 2007 which is when the election is being held. Beyond that I think it depends on the circumstances. But Timor of course is different of Iraq, there's not the same level of violence. That cuts both ways. It means that the pressure on our forces is not as great but on the other hand the need for them perhaps is not as great. I mean the problem with Iraq is that if we were to go prematurely, then why shouldn't the Americans and the British do the same? And if the Americans and the British go prematurely and the country descends into total chaos and the terrorists run around the world saying 'we've defeated the Americans, it's the greatest victory over the west since the beginning of time', and it becomes a recruiting propaganda piece of advocacy for jihadists. It would be the most enormous boost to terrorism imaginable for the Americans to retreat from Iraq and if we go prematurely why shouldn't they do the same thing?

MITCHELL:

Jason, go ahead please Jason.

CALLER:

Good morning Neil, good morning Mr Howard. On the issue of rain and well, the drought situation, it's all too easy to put everyone on water restrictions, why has it been so long since we've put some major effort into the water storage facilities with the ever-increasing population?

MITCHELL:

Why not building dams?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes well I think that's a fair question but perhaps, and I am not trying to pass the buck, but the Federal Government doesn't build dams, you ought to ask Mr Bracks that, you ought to ask Mr Iemma about that. I mean, I grew up in Sydney and I've got to say the failure to build dams in New South Wales over the last 10 or 20 years has been scandalous, of course you are right.

MITCHELL:

Howard, go ahead please Howard.

CALLER:

Yes, good morning gentlemen and good morning Prime Minister. I am currently in Denver, USA and I am just staggered by the number of people who think George Bush was the bloke that caused the North Korea's problems. I think we should just let North Korea implode, it's only three years ago that people were eating, it's a document, that people were committing cannibalism in North Korea to stay alive.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well the problem with North Korea, Howard isn't it?

MITCHELL:

Yes Howard in the States.

PRIME MINISTER:

Howard in Denver. The problem with North Korea, Howard, is the threat it poses to its neighbours. That's what's worrying us. Now if it were one of these things where you could sort of turn your back and say well that's your problem, although I've got to say from the humanitarian point of view we can't turn our backs on the children of North Korea and the deprivation of those people because the living standard in that country is terrible and one of the crazy things about North Korea is that if only she were reasonable and gave up an aspiration to be a nuclear power then there would be a lot of aid flowing very quickly. I am sure the world, if it genuinely believed that North Korea had forsworn nuclear weapons, would pour aid into the country to try and help these poor people.

MITCHELL:

Howard's other points is that it's being said in the United States and it's been said a bit here that the Americans should be negotiating, should be sitting down with the North Koreans, do you believe they should?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think the threat North Korea poses is not just a threat to the Americans. I mean it is all very well for people to say the Americans should sit down and negotiate one-on-one yet when it comes to decision-making on behalf of the world, they don't leave that just to America, they insist on being part of it. But people can't have it both ways, they can't require the Americans to carry all the responsibility but share the decision-making authority and that essentially is what many countries want to do, particularly some of the European countries.

MITCHELL:

I guess Iraq is related to that, I mean do you accept now that what has happened in Iraq and it's pretty messy, has been poorly planned?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well certainly the post-invasion phase, the post-military operation phase, has gone on longer and has not gone as well as one might have hoped. But that doesn't alter the fact that we have got to face choices now in 2006. The choice is to persevere in the belief that Iraq will eventually emerge more or less in a democratic state, being able to run its own affairs or walk out. Now if we take the latter course, it will be an enormous victory for terrorists.

MITCHELL:

But do you believe that if we left, the Americans would as well.

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no, but you've got to look at the moral implications of our doing that.

MITCHELL:

Okay.

PRIME MINISTER:

I mean you can't fairly say that it's okay for us to go, but it's not okay for the Americans and the British to go, you can't turn around and say well look don't worry, the Americans will stay there and they'll fix it. What kind of national morality is that?

MITCHELL:

Prime Minister on something else, are you comfortable with the legislation that we were discussing yesterday which sort of sets up a pension police where public servants would have the power to enter houses and search them for welfare fraud?

PRIME MINISTER:

That's a very emotional or emotive description of it, it's designed to prevent fraud.

MITCHELL:

But at the moment you use federal police, overseeing it, this will be just public service doing it.

PRIME MINISTER:

The current arrangement puts a lot of stress on the police, and provided the public servants act in accordance with the law, and follow the procedures followed by the federal police then, provided all of those things happen, I can't see where it's any worse than the current situation, or any different.

MITCHELL:

Well at the moment you have sworn officers doing the searching and entering houses and in this case you have public servants.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes but what it is happening here is very similar to what happens in relation to investigative work by the Taxation Office and other federal agencies where I believe sworn officers are not used.

MITCHELL:

Well thank you for speaking to us. Can I just ask you just on a lighter note, what suit are you wearing, do you know? Who made it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think it was made by Anthony Squires, I have worn them for a long time.

MITCHELL:

Every Prime Minister since Sir Robert Menzies apart from Paul Keating has worn an Anthony Squires suit, they say.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it's a great Australian company, they have been very good to me and they've got some good business out of me too, I might say. I've bought quite a few suits over 10 years.

MITCHELL:

Oh you pay for them do you?

PRIME MINISTER:

You bet.

MITCHELL:

Why would Peter Costello be fitted today for Prime Ministerial suit?

PRIME MINISTER:

He recognises a great Australian company.

MITCHELL:

You don't think he is a bit premature?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think he is spot on.

MITCHELL:

Thank you for your time.

[ends]

Transcript 22514