PM Transcripts

Transcripts from the Prime Ministers of Australia

Transcript 22908

Interview with Steve Price, 3AW

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: 13/10/2000

Release Type: Doorstop

Transcript ID: 22908

E&OE……………………………………………………………………………………

JOURNALIST:

Thanks for your time Prime minister.

PRIME MINISTER:

How are you Steve?

JOURNALIST:

I’m well thank you. I’d like to get onto to the Middle East in a moment but we need to deal with the Peter Reith matter. The opposition says that this has been one giant cover up. Has it been?

PRIME MINISTER:

No.

JOURNALIST:

So you let the public know about this at the first available moment?

PRIME MINISTER:

At the first available moment that ….. it became known as a result of unauthorised disclosure of the police investigation that should quite properly have remained private until the results of that investigation were known.

JOURNALIST:

So the leak to the Canberra Times was unauthorised.

PRIME MINISTER:

Unauthorised.

JOURNALIST:

So you would have preferred the police investigation to have taken its course before this became public?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes I would have, because you can’t conduct the proper police investigation in the blaze of publicity. It’s the normal practice with something such as this that you have a police investigation. Now, let’s just follow it through. If the police had investigated and they had found that there was some liability then of course.. and if charges had involved Mr Reith, then that would have been announced and he would have been stood aside while those charges were dealt with by the courts. That’s the usual thing to do.

JOURNALIST:

So you didn’t believe that the fact that he gave the number to his son and his son made $950 worth of calls was of public interest?

PRIME MINISTER:

I thought that what we had to do was to have the police investigation carried out first to determine whether there was any liability. That’s what I think should have happened. And there are quite a number of cases where entitlements are overdrawn by Members of Parliament and those details would in the normal course of events become public. Now, that $950 repayment would in the normal course of arrangements have become public because details of it are tabled in Parliament along with the details of all the other entitlements of Members of Parliament. So there is already in place a procedure whereby that would have become publicly known, so there was no cover up of that.

JOURNALIST:

So given your determination that this followed due legal process, why has Peter Reith now chosen to pay back the $50,000 before the Solicitor-General makes a decision on that matter?

PRIME MINISTER:

Because he decided this morning that that’s what he wanted to do and I felt I shouldn’t stop him doing that because after all he’s the person whose reputation is being attacked, he after all has had to go to the bank and make arrangements to borrow the money to pay it. I don’t think it would have been fair and reasonable of me to say well look Peter, I’ve said that we should have the opinion before there’s any further decision. He’s come to me and said look, this issue is damaging the Government and I’m not prepared to have it go on any longer. I’ve decided after discussion with my family that I’ll pay the money, even though I maintain what I’ve maintained before. Now in those circumstances would anyone have said oh no you’ve got to go on enduring the attacks on your reputation until we get the Solicitor-General’s opinion. I don’t think I had the right to do that. I don’t think any common sense person would think I should have either.

JOURNALIST:

Doesn’t that imply guilt?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, it doesn’t imply guilt. It implies a determination on his part to end the damage to the Government and also to, I guess, end the constant attacks on him. I think he’s been subjected to quite ferocious attacks but he accepts that in politics. He’s taken a decision to pay an amount of money, which he never got in the first place. When all the dust settles, Peter Reith will be $50,000 worse off. He didn’t make those phone calls. He made a mistake in giving the card to his son. He’s acknowledged that. The phone calls that are attributable to his son have been costed and he’s paid that but on top of that he’s $50,000 worse off.

JOURNALIST:

This is a $50,000 payment for his political survival isn’t it?

PRIME MINISTER:

It’s a $50,000 payment that he alone bears. Different people have put different interpretations on it. I don’t put that interpretation on it. The interpretation I put on it is of a person who’s made a decision to accept personal responsibility for the payment of $50,000 – a bill he didn’t know was being racked up because he wasn’t told – and he’s put the interests of the Government ahead of his own interests and that’s commendable.

JOURNALIST:

And you didn’t ask him to step in and pay the money?

PRIME MINISTER:

He made his own decision.

JOURNALIST:

Without any advice from you?

PRIME MINISTER:

He and I have been talking about this matter, as you might expect, quite a bit over the past few days - a bit funny if we hadn’t been. But the decision that he took this morning was his own. He came to me this morning after I’d done an interview on a rival radio station at the beginning of the day and he said, “I’ve thought about this matter and I’ve come to the conclusion that I want to pay the money now irrespective of what may be in the Solicitor-General’s opinion because” then he gave his reasons which I’ve already canvassed. Now, he came round to see me. That was his decision.

JOURNALIST:

You’re his Prime Minister. Has this damaged him in your eyes for future frontbench promotion?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, he’s pretty senior now. I don’t know what you mean by that. Do you mean some other even more senior position.

JOURNALIST:

Well eventually when you Prime Minister are not there, I don’t think there’s any secret that people have interpreted that he has ambitions to …

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh, look I don’t think you can make a judgement. This incident has not been helpful to Peter. Of course he’s had a lot of negative publicity about it. He knows that. I think everybody knows that but on the other hand he’s accepted that, for a combination of reasons, he should pay the money and he’s paid it. I think a lot of fair minded people will say we’ll he’s done the correct thing. As to what impact it has on his long-term ambitions, you can’t make an assessment about that. People’s progression in a political party – they’re influenced by a lot of things, not one single incident.

JOURNALIST:

Has he been hammered harder because he is the hard man of the Government?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, I think there’s an element of payback in relation to this from both the Labor Party and sections of the media. Yes I do. There’s no doubt about that but Peter understands that and he accepts it, he wears it. His not dispirited. He’s $50,000 worse off.

JOURNALIST:

We’ve been obsessed with this this week. It’s not the biggest story in the world. The Middle East is. Dreadful circumstances..

PRIME MINISTER:

Terrible.

JOURNALIST:

…overnight. We have two Israeli soldiers lynched and we have a, what amounts to a Kamikaze attack on a US ship. What’s our attitude to the situation now?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well like everybody else, I’m distressed that the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, which seemed so close to success, appears now to be disintegrating. I join other leaders in calling for restraint on both sides. I think there is a sense of desolation around the world that what looked just around the corner and within reach has been snatched away. There’s not much good people apportioning blame at the moment. It’s really a question of showing restraint so that some kind of negotiation process can be resumed. The Americans have a major role to play because of their historic influence, particularly on Israel but also on the Palestinians. I remember going to Israel only a few months ago and I saw both Berak and Arrafat and the atmosphere was one of optimism and hope and people were marvelling that Jews and Arabs were negotiating in goodwill and the prospects seemed so good. It’s just so tragic what has happened.

JOURNALIST:

Having been there as recently as you have, does it bring it much more clearer?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh definitely. I visited Arrafat’s headquarters in Gaza and I did so with the encouragement of the Israelis and I took with me some senior members of the Jewish community from Australia. It was an extraordinary experience to sit down and have lunch with Yasser Arafat and also very significant people in the Jewish community with the encouragement and blessing of the Israeli Government. Everybody was full of hope and optimism and it’s an awful tragedy that this has happened.

JOURNALIST:

It’s a remarkable month when you think about it. I looked in my diary and realised that it’s a month ago today that you were sitting in Stadium Australia waiting for the Opening Ceremony.

PRIME MINISTER:

It has been an incredible month but it is ending in a very, the last day or so have been quite tragic and regrettably the brutality of what happened to those Israeli soldiers has provoked intense anger inside Israel. The linkage between what’s happening there and the terrorist attack on the American ship is hard to be certain about. One would imagine that there is some relationship. I think it’s hard to believe that that doesn’t represent some kind of retaliation because of perceived links but I can’t be certain of that. I do know that there are a lot of people in Australia who are concerned – they have relatives and friends and they have feelings. But I believe that the communities in Australia who have different points of view about the Middle East, in the past they’ve displayed a great deal of restraint and tolerance and put Australian interest ahead of other interests, and I’m sure they’ll go on doing that even though they’d be very concerned and will anxiously follow what happens.

JOURNALIST:

Thanks very much for your time.

[ends]

Transcript 22908