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Transcripts from the Prime Ministers of Australia

Transcript 10709

Radio Interview with Jeremy Cordeaux, Radio 5DN

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: 19/10/1998

Release Type: Interview

Transcript ID: 10709

E&OE……………………………………………………………………………………….

CORDEAUX:

Good morning, sir, how are you?

PRIME MINISTER:

I’m very well, Jeremy, nice to be back.

CORDEAUX:

Very, very nice to speak with you and congratulations. I guess you feel elated, relieved, justified, all of that.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, I do, I feel all of those things. It was a tough election campaign. We took a lot of risks. We put a very bold tax reform plan in front of the public and the public went with it. And I was especially delighted at the performance of the Liberal Party in South Australia. We still hold 9 out of the 12 House of Representative seats. We only lost one and it by a fairly narrow margin and I’d like to thank Sue Jeanes, who unfortunately was unsuccessful in that seat of Kingston, for the contribution she made to the Parliament over the last two-and-a-half years. And I congratulate all of our marginal seat holders; Trish Draper, Chris Gallus and Trish Worth. They’re not easy seats for Liberals to hold. We’ve now held them on a number of occasions and it’s a real credit to them, their local hard work, that they’ve done so well.

CORDEAUX:

South Australia, I guess in fact or in reality anyway, is nicely represented. We should thank you for that.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, it’s on ability. You’ve got Robert Hill who is the Leader of the Government in the Senate. He’s done a great job as Environment Minister. The way he handled the climate control issue at the Kyoto Conference in 1997 won him the respect of the whole of Australian industry. Alexander Downer who, he had a couple of problems at the beginning but he really has been a fine Foreign Minister and I was never in any doubt that come his re-election I’d appoint him as Foreign Minister again because he really has, in the last year, come through very strongly. And, of course, Nick Minchin was a great success in helping me concerning the Wik issue and also the Constitutional Convention. I’ve given him a new portfolio, a big one, very big one, right across the spectrum of manufacturing, tertiary and the mining industry and that will be a key economic portfolio and very important to job generation. And Amanda Vanstone I think has done a very good job and amongst other things is the chief Skase chaser and she has an expanded role where I put the border control functions of the customs service in with the Federal Police into the Justice portfolio. And, of course, while it’s a matter for the Party Room naturally to decide, another South Australian, Neil Andrew, has nominated for the position of Speaker. And if he were to be elected in that position I’m sure he’d do a first-class job and, of course, he’d be another South Australian. And Trish Worth continues as a Parliamentary Secretary. So it’s a very strong team from South Australia but people are there on merit. They’re all contributors, they’re all major figures, very strong figures in the Government.

CORDEAUX:

Looking at some of the interpretations or the analysis. Some people are saying it’s a safe and a ‘steady as you go’ kind of a theme and others are saying it’s quite leading edge and revolutionary. I can’t…I suppose it depends on who’s looking at it.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I think if that’s the spread of headlines and analysis, I’ve got it about right. Look, I have kept people who’ve done well. There’s never any point in changing just for the sake of change. I never intended, for example, to shift John Fahey out of Finance. There was some nonsense in the paper that I was, that was completely unfounded. I haven’t been able to say anything until now. I never intended, also, to give responsibility for the GST to other than the Treasurer, Peter Costello. I mean, the Treasurer’s responsible for taxation and the idea that on the cusp of the most important taxation change Australia has ever faced you’d somehow or other dilute the responsibility of the Treasurer for taxation has escaped me. But anyway, I let all that go through to the wicket keeper until the Ministry’s been chosen. And I’ve kept very good performers. I mean, Peter Costello’s done a great job. Peter Reith’s done a very good job. I’ve added to his responsibilities. I’m sure Nick Minchin will do well. Other people have either kept their same jobs or been moved around but I have brought in some new people. I’ve brought in three new faces from New South Wales in Jackie Kelly, Joe Hockey and Tony Abbott. I brought in Wilson Tuckey who’s not a few face in the sense that he’s been around for a long time but he’s got a lot of parliamentary experience and I think he will add to the fire power of the Liberal Party in Western Australia and that’s very important.

CORDEAUX:

Well that’s the one, I suppose, that people are most interested in, Wilson Tuckey, who let a coup against you back in ’89. What was your thinking behind that?

PRIME MINISTER:

I gave him that job because I think the way he’s behaved and so forth over the last few years he deserves it. And there’s no point in carrying grudges in politics. You’re silly if you carry grudges. Look, what happened in 1989 now is interesting history and as far as I’m concerned it’s a decade ago and what matters to me is what happens in 1999 in the year 2000. Wilson is a very good parliamentary performer. He’s got a wealth of political knowledge. He relates very well to Western Australians and he understands rural and regional Australia. And he’s got a job in the area of forestry and conservation and also a general brief to assist me, particularly in Western Australia. And I think he’ll do that very well and I have absolutely no doubt that he’ll be a real plus.

CORDEAUX:

Will you be mounting a challenge against Cheryl Kernot’s apparent win? Well, I suppose it’s more than apparent now.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, she’ll be declared…well, that’s a matter for the Party organisation. I don’t know too much about it other than what I’ve read in the newspapers. And the decision as to whether or not a challenge is mounted is not one that I will take, it will be taken by the Party organisation. I guess all I can say about Cheryl Kernot is that if I were a voter in Dickson, particularly a Labor voter, I’d feel pretty second rate. I’d feel pretty insulted. I wouldn’t be very happy. I’d feel that I had, as a member, somebody who only thought she was good enough to represent me when she was certain of election but if there was any doubt about it, there was no honour or glory in trying to represent the people of Dickson. I think it’s the ultimate put down to an electorate to say that you’re only good enough to represent when you believe that you will win the election. I think that is the ultimate put down and I don’t think it’s something that the people of Dickson will forget for years. But, anyway, I’m not particularly troubled by her presence on the frontbench of the Labor Party. I’m disappointed that Rod Henshaw didn’t win the seat. And if there is anything in a challenge, well the Liberal Party organisation will no doubt mount it but that’s a matter for it to determine, not me.

CORDEAUX:

Well, you reckon who have a mandate. I personally reckon you’ve got a mandate. There are people out there who don’t reckon you’ve got a mandate for tax reform. But what is the latest on Mal Colston, for example? I understand there has been some talk that he may be willing to support the GST.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I don’t know. I’ve had no discussion with Senator Colston and I don’t anticipate any in the near future. You’d never, on my experience, get anywhere trying to nail down Independents in advance. They take an independent view. I’ve simply said that we’ll re-examine the attitude we took in the last Parliament about his vote and there are reasons for doing that which I’ve already explained. But that decision is not as a consequence of any discussion that I’ve had with him. I don’t anticipate having any discussion with him for some time. In the course of events, Peter Costello or Rod Kemp, the Assistant Treasurer, may talk to him as legislation comes up, as we have in the past and as we would do in relation to Brian Harradine. Our plan is to put the legislation in as soon as possible, to push it through the House of Representatives as soon as possible and ask the Senate to vote on it as soon as possible. I mean, that’s what we said we’d do. We’ve had an election. We’ve been through the ultimate political trial in Australian politics and that’s a Federal election campaign. And having got through that with our programme intact we don’t intend to muck around now and we intend to put it up to the Parliament and ask the Parliament to vote in favour of it, as did the Australian people.

CORDEAUX:

I can understand that if it doesn’t go that way in the Senate you can be very angry, you can be very frustrated, but there hangs the future of this country, I believe, if you can’t get your tax reform through.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, Jeremy, I hope that that sort of consideration weighs on the minds of the Australian Democrats, on the Australian Labor Party. I mean, I’m often reminded, quite rightly, of things I’ve said in the past when I do something now that’s different from what I said in the past. That’s fair enough. But let me remind your listeners of something Kim Beazley said a year after the 1996 election. He said then that if the Coalition were to present a properly argued GST at the next election and we won that election the Labor Party would let it go through in the Senate. Now, he was later to change that position. Now, he’s entitled to change his position just as I was entitled to change my position on things. I am not condemning him for changing the position but I do think in the presentation of the Labor Party’s attitude on this issue the voters should be reminded that Mr Beazley has changed his view that he once took the principle position that Paul Keating took in prior to the 1993 election and that was that if we won we were entitled to put our legislation through the Senate. Anyway, we’ll have a lot of debate about this as the weeks go by but our position’s very clear. We have the guts to present a GST to the public with all of the risks that that involved and all of the political pain that that involved. We won that fight, we now have a moral and political right to have our legislation enacted and that is the argument that I’ll be putting to the members of the Australian Senate.

CORDEAUX:

People have been making a bit of your statement that there’ll be a slightly or a new look Prime Minister, a new look John Howard. What did you feel was wrong with the old look?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, nothing and I am amused of the way in which people have, sort of, gone almost berserk about my making a few remarks to the effect that inevitably I would be different. I certainly won’t be trying to reinvent myself and I certainly won’t be throwing out or compromising any of the fundamental political values and attitudes that I have got. I simply made the observation that inevitably you are different each term because you have had a different experience, you have different challenges and you have different ways of responding to those challenges. I also said that there were a number of non-economic issues that had to be dealt with during the current term and I mentioned aboriginal reconciliation which I have always wanted to achieve and obviously the republican referendum. Now, they are issues that are going to come up and they’ll have to be dealt with and naturally they’ll have a greater focus. But the reaction of the Canberra gallery to my remarks about being different have been quite over the top. I have no intention of trying to "reinvent myself". I have always had a sensitivity towards social issues, I have always believed that if we could get reconciliation on sensible grounds that would be a good thing for the peace of mind and the soul of the country. I have always believed that but there are different ways of achieving it. But I am not into the business of reinvention but I am into the business of making certain that you have a proper balance between economic and social issues. You don’t run a country by the economy alone. People don’t always want to hear about taxation and the balance of payments and the level of inflation. But in the end, they do want governments to focus on jobs and economic growth.

CORDEAUX:

People evolve in any case, people do change…..

PRIME MINISTER:

Everybody evolves, everybody mellows. I mean, we were talking earlier about relations between Wilson Tuckey and myself. They weren’t always good, everyone knows that. Everybody mellows and it is just as well we do and we are all better for it and we all take a different perspective and take a longer view. And I want to take a longer view, I want to provide leadership to this country that is appropriate as we change from one century to another and that is not only giving it economic strength and economic leadership but it’s also trying to manage some of the non-economic issues. But not managing it by turning the values of a political lifetime on their head, I have no intention of doing that and I never intended to convey that impression.

CORDEAUX:

How do you see this republican debate referendum going? Are you still going to…you are not going to actively campaign for a……

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, I don’t see myself as being the head of the no case.

CORDEAUX:

No.

PRIME MINISTER:

But people will know where I stand and, look, my own view is not going to alter. I noticed in the Sydney Morning Herald today that Malcolm Turnbull is, in his typical style, he is trying verbal me into becoming a republican. Now, Malcolm, that’s not going to happen. But I see my role as Prime Minister in making sure that the people have a decent go at taking a decision on it. I promised to have a convention, I did. I promised if the convention produced a result I’d put that to the people, I’m doing that. I would expect that some of my senior colleagues in the Government will campaign yes and some will certainly campaign no. I can think of three or four who will campaign strongly for the no case. That is their right as it is the right of people to campaign for the yes case. I will stay aloof from the day-to-day campaigning but people will know what my view is, but it’s not a party issue. Now I don’t know what the result will be and I don’t know what else I can do. I am not going to advocate something I don’t believe in but I am certainly not going to try and be a roadblock to a republic. I won’t be that. I have always said that if the Australian public wants a republic then I will provide the mechanism the wherewithal and as Prime Minister I will facilitate it while at the same time reserving my right as an Australian citizen as well as a Prime Minister to express a personal point of view.

CORDEAUX:

But if you were a betting man you’d have to agree that there’s little chance of the Australian public voting for a…the model of the President that seems to be the one that they’ll put up?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I don’t know what the result will be. There is a mixture of emotions in the community, there is a feeling...there is a general feeling about the desirability of change from a lot of people but there’s a lot of disagreement amongst those people as to what form the change ought to take. So we’ll wait, it’ll be a fascinating exercise in participatory democracy. It’s not the most important issue on the political horizon but it does have to be dealt with. The most important issue is still job security, job generation, economic growth, economic strength. They still remain the main issues but there are other issues and those other issues will bulk rather larger this time than they did last time.

CORDEAUX:

I remember before you went to America we had a talk and I just put it to you off the top of my head, maybe what we should do in terms of the job situation, unemployment, would be to remove the minimum wage and you didn’t like the idea of that at all. But when you came back from America you thought, well, you’d be prepared to put that on the table to be discussed. Now, if we don’t do something to, sort of, change the mechanism we are going to be locked into this eight or nine per cent unemployment forever it would seem. We have got to change some of the dynamics in here.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, if you get rid of the minimum wage in this country you will take away a social security safety net that has always been part of the Australian way. And I am not in favour of that. I am in favour of keeping things that provide greater flexibility for younger people such as youth wage levels. It was one of the issues in the campaign. The Labor Party wanted to get away with….abolishing junior wage rates, that would have driven up youth unemployment. We are not in favour of that. The problem with the United States, Jeremy, is that you do have an unemployed welfare dependant underclass with people literally begging on the streets.

CORDEAUX:

The so-called working poor.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, it’s even worse than that because if you fall right through the welfare safety net in America you have nothing and all you have left is the streets or crime.

CORDEAUX:

Well, if we don’t do that what can we do?

PRIME MINISTER:

I do think there is a price to be paid if you have no minimum wage safety net. There is a price to be paid, it’s a social cost and I don’t believe the Australian nation wants to pay that and I don’t want to pay that either.

CORDEAUX:

Well look, if we don’t touch that what other…..

PRIME MINISTER:

America’s crime rate is very high and part of it is the consequence of a rather more severe approach to welfare.

CORDEAUX:

What else can we try though to bring unemployment down?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, you have got make the labour market more flexible and there are still different things that can be done in that area. You need stronger economic growth and you need to allow your…the dollars that are available for investment to flow into the industries that can most profitably use it. In other words, you need to remove all the barriers to the free-flow of investment and that’s one of the reasons why we need tax reform because you will reduce business costs and you will make our export industries more attractive to investment. There are different ways in which by making the economy grow more strongly you can get unemployment down. But if you get rid of a minimum wage you may have a slightly lower rate of unemployment but you will pay quite a heavy social cost.

CORDEAUX:

Yes, well I…..

PRIME MINISTER:

I mean, that’s the trade-off and, I mean, it’s an awkward trade-off and on, well not on balance, but fairly firmly I….see our minimum wage levels in this country are not as…they certainly mean that some people don’t get jobs who would otherwise get jobs. But they also mean that we have a culture of providing a safety net which has produced a more cohesive society than the United States has produced. You can’t separate America’s welfare and employment approaches from America’s crime rate.

CORDEAUX:

I see that there is some criticism this morning of you, you have come under attack it says here from a senior member of the Australian arts community for relegating the arts portfolio to a junior ministerial position.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I haven’t actually. I heard that, that is Michael Lynch.

CORDEAUX:

Yes.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, he seems to misunderstand that you have got a senior Minister for communications, Information Technology and the Arts, that’s Senator Alston who is about the fifth most senior person in the Government. And then you have a junior Minister, Peter McGauran, who is responsible specifically for the Arts and the Centenary of Federation. McGauran will have the day-to-day responsibility but the overall policy direction in the arts will still rest with Alston. So I don’t quite know what Michael Lynch is getting at. I thought he went off half cocked in making that remark, a quite silly remark that.

CORDEAUX:

Prime Minister, very good to talk to you and I thank you for your time. Just quickly, if you’d been Captain of the Australian cricket team would you have wanted to beat Sir Don’s record, would you have gone on or would you have declared?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I spoke to Mark Taylor on the phone yesterday morning, I am sorry on Saturday morning, while he was having breakfast and we discussed this and he said that he was going to pull up stumps. In other words, he was going to declare and he made the observation to me then which he later repeated on television that he thought there was some particular honour in sharing it with Sir Donald. But Mark has always put the interests of the team ahead of his own personal grandeur and that is a mark of the man. I am delighted at his success. I have been a great backer of Mark Taylor’s and when he was under attack a couple of years ago I wanted him to see it through and he stared down his critics and his, not only he stared them down he’s knocked them into the pavillion of every ball and I just think that’s a terrific performance.

CORDEAUX:

I think a lot of people can identify with that kind of behaviour because they have probably gone through it themselves.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, they can and he is a modest, understated Aussie bloke and I just think he’s a terrific role model.

CORDEAUX:

Prime Minister, great to talk to you and I thank you very much for your time.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you.

 [ends]

Transcript 10709