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Transcripts from the Prime Ministers of Australia

Transcript 11080

Radio Interview, ABC Country Hour, Hamilton, Victoria

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: 02/08/1999

Release Type: Interview

Transcript ID: 11080

Subject(s): US lamb decision, free trade, wool industry, family farming in Australia

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

JOURNALIST:

Welcome, Prime Minister John Howard, to the Country Hour, Australia’s longest running radio programme. Have you had much of a chance to speak to a few people? You arrived a couple of hours ago.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, I think I’ve probably met about two or three hundred people in the last couple of hours. It’s funny, only one of them mentioned guns. You must have been in the gun corner.

JOURNALIST:

Maybe I was, but the US lamb decision is clearly on a lot of people’s minds. What exactly did US President Bill Clinton say to you when you met him?

PRIME MINISTER:

He didn’t offer any plausible explanation. He made it plain that he took the decision for domestic political reasons, which is of no comfort to Australia’s lamb producers. It’s a lousy, unfair decision. We did all we could. We made a lot of noise. We complained. But America is a big country and when America decides it’s going to protect one of its own, it’s so big that it can afford to roll over anybody and that basically is what has happened. There’s no point in my mincing words about that. There’s no point in my pretending that there’s anything to gain by retaliation because if you retaliate all you’re going to do is risk yet another export market in the United States. And bear in mind that although we’ve suffered this bad decision on lamb, in 1998 we increased our exports to America by 34 per cent. I had a beef producer a few minutes ago say, now don’t say too much to the Americans because they might cut off our beef. Now, I can’t imagine they’d do that because of our complaining but you’ve got to remember that there is an imbalance in size between Australia and the United States. So if we complain, we’re helping our own lamb people quite significantly. And we’ll naturally take them to the World Trade Organisation and if we can prove breach of rules against them we’ll certainly pursue that very strongly.

JOURNALIST:

Do we need to revise our ideal of free trade? I mean, as a few said, it’s only okay if we’re not in a US election year at the moment.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, in relation to lamb that’s the case but in relation to a lot of other products we’ve got a lot from a more open trade. Thirty per cent of imports of beef into Japan now are from Australia. We’ve won new markets in Asia and in other parts of the world for a lot of our primary products. And the reason I pursue freer trade is not for some kind of mystical, theoretical, ideological purpose. I pursue it because it is in the interests of Australian exporters that they have access to world markets. And we are a small country and the best way that we can build opportunities for Australian farmers is too expand world markets. If we hadn’t have pursued more open trade over the last few years Australian farmers would be in a weaker position than they are now.

JOURNALIST:

Doesn’t it provide a bit of a dilemma for the Australian Government? We don’t have, you mentioned the US, we don’t have the taxpayers that the US have and we don’t have the rich heritage, I suppose, of Europe where farmers are seen as real custodians of the landscape, therefore, does this not leave the Australian Government in a dilemma as to what to do with Australian farmers because they’re at the whim of the international market [inaudible]?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, everything in government is a dilemma but we have a lot of things going for us. Our farmers are very efficient. We have a lower cost structure now than many other countries. And we have to keep working very hard in international forums to get more open access to markets. And you try and you succeed in some areas and you get knock backs in others. But the worst thing to do would be to retreat back into protectionism because if we shut product out from Australia, Australian product will be shut out from other countries. We had an example of that last year with salmon when the Canadians retaliated in relation to a quarantine decision on salmon, subsequently revised by cutting our beef imports into Canada. Now, we protested against that but it’s an illustration that it’s very much a question of looking at the main chance for Australia. I’m not driven by free trade when I go overseas or, indeed, in determining trade policy. I’m driven by one thing and that is Australia’s national interest.

JOURNALIST:

Well, what is the future role of government with agriculture given that government seems to be pulling out of the wool industry, pulling out of the dairy industry, pulling out of the grains industry?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, the best thing that a government can do is provide a good economic climate and that’s what we’ve done in spades over the last three years. When I went around the bush 10 or 15 years ago the two things people complained about most were high interest rates and high fuel prices. Interest rates now are lower than they’ve been for 30 years. I’d like them to go even lower. And fuel costs are about to come down quite dramatically as a result of the introduction of the goods and services tax. Now, when you bear in mind that we now have the lowest inflation rate, the lowest interest rate structure, a more stable economy and a very skilfully managed exchange rate you have general economic conditions which are better for all Australian producers than they have been for a long time. Now, that’s the best thing we can do. We can’t influence world commodity prices. There’s no way we can make the Russians and the Chinese buy more wool. What we can do is to remove the impediments that reduce the competitiveness of Australian producers. And we have certainly tried very hard to do that and we’ll go on doing so.

JOURNALIST:

We’re here in wool country that has really copped it to the last decade or so. Privatisation of the Woolmark Company, do you favour it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, the policies that have been implemented, and they started in relation to Wool International, I very strongly support. And we’ve had the Taskforce from Ian McLachlan and that is now being debated with primary producers with the wool industry and when we get the results of that debate we’ll take some decisions.

JOURNALIST:

And very quickly, the future, your vision for family farming in Australia.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, there will always be a place for family farming.

JOURNALIST:

Why?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, because it’s part of our heritage. It’s part of the Australian legend. It’s still, for many people, a profitable business. It’s not as easy as it was. It’s very tough for a lot of farmers but the best thing that we can do is to maintain a low cost structure and good general economic conditions, particularly low interest rates.

JOURNALIST:

Thank you very much for joining the Country Hour.

[Ends]

2 August 1999

Transcript 11080