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Transcript 12572

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP INTERVIEW WITH NEIL MITCHELL, RADIO 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: 02/08/2002

Release Type: Interview

Transcript ID: 12572

Subjects: Commonwealth Games; Woomera; United Nations Report; medical indemnity insurance; competition; Iraq; Woomera Detention Centre; stem cell research; Archbishop Pell's comments; economy; Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras; David Hicks.

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

MITCHELL:

Firstly in the studio today is the Prime Minister, Mr Howard, he';ll take calls in a moment. If you';d like to speak to the Prime Minister 9696 1278. Mr Howard, good morning.

PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning Neil.

MITCHELL:

Perhaps our best ever Commonwealth Games, will you prime minister at the next games in Melbourne?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well there';s an election in between then. It';s a matter for the Australian people.

MITCHELL:

Would you like to be?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look that sort of gets of me into an area that I';ve commented on in the past and I don';t really have anything to add to what I';ve previously said.

MITCHELL:

What about the Athens Olympics?

PRIME MINISTER:

I';m sure they';ll be hugely successful.

MITCHELL:

Would you like to be Prime Minister then?

PRIME MINISTER:

Next question.

MITCHELL:

I see Alexander Downer lining up for the Deputy';s job in Treasury, it's all getting a bit presumptuous isn';t it?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don';t have anything to add.

MITCHELL:

You';re really not going to get into that?

PRIME MINISTER:

No I';m not.

MITCHELL:

Woomera, asylum seekers. Security can';t be too flash, I see Bob Ellis, the former Labor speechwriter tricked his way and spoke to some of the asylum seekers. Will there be charges against him?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that is a matter for the law enforcement authorities. Prime Minister';s don';t decide whether people get charged. I';m not going to comment.

MITCHELL:

Are you concerned about…

PRIME MINISTER:

… one way or another. Well I';m not going to get into a sweat over it.

MITCHELL:

Doesn';t say much for security, Bob Ellis isn';t hard to spot.

PRIME MINISTER:

You could say that.

MITCHELL:

Does it concern you as a security issue?

PRIME MINISTER:

I have to say not particularly, it doesn';t.

MITCHELL:

Broader issue, do you accept that it would be better not to hold the children in detention.

PRIME MINISTER:

We have tried the idea of having them out in the community with their mothers and the reaction has been that they don';t want to be separated from their fathers. And if you put the whole family out the danger is they just melt into the community, that';s a view that';s widely held across the political spectrum in Australia.

MITCHELL:

What, abscond you mean?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes.

MITCHELL:

Your immigration detention advisory group says to extend the release of the fathers, to extend the trials so that more kids, more whole families get out. Would you look at that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we continue to look at those but our view remains that if you go beyond having your mother and children then you do run the risk that people abscond and if that happens successfully for those who abscond then you immediately create a very powerful magnet for more people to try and come here. That is the problem. I';ve said many times that we don';t like detaining people, nobody likes that, but we don';t believe there is any workable alternative to the policies that we';re adopting and all of those people who criticise the policy in the end, what they are really arguing for is a policy that will allow people to dissolve away into the community, they do abscond, that has been the experience in other countries and it';s one of the reasons why other countries are increasingly uneasy about the effectiveness of their own asylum seeker policy.

MITCHELL:

We have here your immigration detention advisory group recommending it.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I understand that, I understand that Ray Funnell has made those comments, I';ve read them, I';ve heard him, I respect his view, it's been considered but for the reason I';ve explained we';re not disposed to change. Now we don';t like this situation and it obviously would not be necessary if people didn';t seek to come here illegally but this is a problem, a challenge, a debate that';s been with us for a very long time and it';s inevitable that every time people focus on mandatory detention the debate will be reignited. And that';s fair enough, it';s a democracy and I';m quite happy to answer for what the Government is doing and I defend what the Government is doing as being the only the course we can take in the national interest.

MITCHELL:

Are you personally uncomfortable with children remaining in detention?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look I don';t like it, but I don';t like children being in these circumstances of danger in the first place, I';m very unhappy about the fact that children are taken on perilous voyages. Of course I am. I';m touched by it as any human being would be. But the alternative is to really just throw up our hands and say right the people smugglers have won, we';ve lost and we';ll give it all away. Can you imagine the impact now on the people smuggling industry around the world if Australia changed her policy and said we';re now going to abandon mandatory detention.

MITCHELL:

We';re just talking about the children.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well no, you';re not, because you can';t have children out there on their own, I mean one of the contradictory things about Bagwati's report was that he was arguing about keeping families together, I think we';re all in favour of that, and yet spinning off that people are saying well let the children out, but you can';t let the children out on their own, they';ve got to go out with a parent. We';ve tried months ago the idea of them coming out with their mothers and being in local community accommodation and there';s been a great resistance to that because they don';t want to the separated from their father. Now I can understand that so you';ve got a catch 22, if you let the whole family out you run the risk of them absconding and just disappearing into the community and that would happen and there';s no doubt in my mind and the experience of other countries indicates that.

MITCHELL:

Do you feel any of the report, the UN report, is justifiable? I mean it';s very damning stuff and the Government seems to have dismissed it as being … well it's wrong. Do you feel…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we haven';t just dismissed it, we have rejected it, we';ve analysed it. I mean, two things hit me in the face about it. The judge himself admits that he didn';t inspect the education facilities yet he says they';re inadequate and he admits that he based his finding of inadequacy on the complaints and criticisms of advocacy groups. Well of course the advocacy groups would say that the educational facilities were inadequate. The other internal contradiction in the report is that he complains about the length of time it takes to access people';s claims yet he wants that process lengthened even further by adding additional elements of judicial review, now that to me is internally contradictory. But I don';t think we should kid ourselves that there';s no way any report in relation to detention, if you start from the proposition that you don';t believe in mandatory detention is going to be complimentary.

MITCHELL:

But it';s not pleasant in there, it wouldn';t be pleasant.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it';s not pleasant, no kind of detention is pleasant and we are endeavouring, we are endeavouring to make it better, we';ve got a new facility being constructed at Baxter, some people have even criticised that facility for being too comfortable. So you can';t win. But, the food is good, the health care is good, there is a, so I';m told, a reasonable level of air-conditioning. So you are not in our view treating people in any way inhumanely as has been alleged. You have proper food, you do have educational opportunities for children, you do have high quality medical attention. So you';re dealing, I mean the basic responsibilities that you have in relation to people in detention are there and this is not an easy issue but I ask again…

MITCHELL:

Was the report biased?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well the report was flawed, I';m not going to try and put myself in the mind of the judge, I don';t know him, I';ve not spoken to him, I can only react to what was in it. But it was, in our view, in our measured view, it was just dismissed arbitrarily, it was analysed and we issued a very detailed document pointing out what the flaws were and we believe it was fundamentally flawed.

MITCHELL:

Unfair?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well fundamentally flawed.

MITCHELL:

Do you believe the public is still with you on this?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don';t test it regularly. I support this policy because I think it';s in our national interest, I believe the majority of Australians continue to believe that but it';s not something that the Liberal Party measures on a weekly or a monthly basis, we just don';t operate that way, contrary to what people might think.

MITCHELL:

We';ve talked many times about speeding up the process and the whole problem is it takes too long.

PRIME MINISTER:

Although, that criticism is nowhere near as valid as some might have thought it was some time ago. I mean we have really speeded it up as much as possible and people don';t arrive with any documents and part of what is involved in this in a sense covering the trail as to where you';ve come from.

MITCHELL:

Onto the health issue, Kerryn Phelps from the AMA says babies are dying because insurance has driven obstetricians out of the business. Do you believe that?

PRIME MINISTER:

No I don';t believe that, I think that';s a very emotive comment and I';m trying to engage the AMA in a very constructive sensible debate. I';ve had meetings with the AMA, my responsible ministers have had meetings with the AMA and I do ask that they bring to the debate less emotion. We can all get emotional and we can all make statements like that.

MITCHELL:

But that';s a terrifying statement.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, I know, well I just think we could do without that. We are trying very hard to resolve what is a very difficult issue, it';s not the Federal Government';s fault that this nation has become ultra litigious, it';s not the Federal Government';s fault that from time to time some doctors are careless and we';re trying to find a proper resolution and the AMA should bring to that goodwill of the medical profession and I have goodwill towards the medical profession, I have a great regard for the profession and I feel sorry for the burden that many doctors now carry in relation to soaring insurance premiums, I really do. And it is a problem and we do have to find a solution and part of the solution is to curb very significantly the litigious propensity of the Australian community. We do have to avoid going down the American path in relation to litigation. I think it would be a nightmare if we ever embraced in this country the sort of attitude to go into court that the Americans have. They go to court about everything. If they have an argument with their friend they go to court. It is something that I dread in this country and I hope that everybody at State and Federal level and in responsible positions such as the AMA we all coalesce to stop that happening.

MITCHELL:

Some of the lawyers are saying that's not right. They reckon it's the insurance companies' greed, there is not statistical evidence that litigation has worsened significantly.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well they are naturally arguing against any proposition that litigation should be curbed but there's plenty of evidence that I've seen that shows that the number of claims have risen, that the propensity to sue has increased. I'm not saying insurance companies are blameless. I'm not saying that at all.

MITCHELL:

Do you think they should be capped?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think you should have rigorous competition laws. I'm always a bit reluctant about capping something because it's a very precise fundamental intervention in the market to you can't charge more than 'x'. It is always better to create circumstances of competition and allow market forces to produce their own price cap.

MITCHELL:

Alan Fels will glad to hear you defending competition. He's getting a bit of a hard time at the moment isn't he?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yeah that's understandable but I think fundamentally he acts in the public interest.

MITCHELL:

He's got your support?

PRIME MINISTER:

Of course he has. We reappointed him.

MITCHELL:

Why are they all going after him?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that's fair enough. He can look after himself. I mean people go after me all the time and I think…. I mean it's right and he's a big boy and he can look after himself, and maybe from time to time he makes mistakes and goes too far but fundamentally I think he's doing a good job.

MITCHELL:

Can you think of those times when he's made mistakes?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well if said anything about that I'd speak to him first.

MITCHELL:

Is that a black card conversations is it, bit like your term of leadership.

[ad break]

MITCHELL:

Mr Howard is there any doubt that there will be some type of action against Iraq?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think it's more probable than not. The Americans have not made a decision. I know that they haven't made a decision. But they're obviously looking at it very closely and you asked me which you have, I think it's more probable than not that something will happen but just when and in what circumstances and preceded by what I don't know. I think it is an issue that is beginning to be debated in the United States and it's obviously an issue that's beginning to be debated in this country and I think that's a good thing because it's not an easy thing for the United States and for the rest of the world and certainly not for Australia.

MITCHELL:

Is it certain Australia will be involved in that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think it's likely if the Americans do decide on military action that they will seek some involvement from Australia. I do think that's likely. They haven't done so. They haven't asked us to be involved in military action but it's an issue that we have to think about. But it's a hypothetical question at this time.

MITCHELL:

Richard Butler I noticed has said let's go in and have another look first before there's any military action. Is that a fair point?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I can understand why he said that but one of the difficulties of course is that the regime in Iraq has been very resistant to United Nations' inspections. It's all very well to say go in and have another look. That assumes that you'll be able to have bona fide look and that is part of the problem.

MITCHELL:

So why is there a need, in simple terms, why is there a need for action of any sort against Iraq?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well those who would argue in favour of it would say that if you don';t do something now they will perhaps acquire a nuclear capacity, they might in the not too distant future use their weapons of mass destruction against their neighbours, against Israel but not only Israel, against other countries and that unless you act sooner rather than later it will be too late and the world will then turn around and say to the United States why didn't you do something about this problem and this is the great dilemma. I mean I don't think anybody, you know, in an ideal world you wouldn't want anything to be done and I understand that. This is part of the debate that the Americans are having and we have got to have. But in the end it is always in Australia's national interest to see that the threat posed by people like Saddam is not allowed to go completely unchecked. On the other hand the country is a long long way away from Australia and there are some consequences if any military involvement were to take place and they're the sort of issues that the Australian community must debate.

MITCHELL:

But it's fair to say though you're one of those who believe that action will be necessary?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I haven't as Prime Minister we haven't received any request. We haven't made up our mind because it's a hypothetical issue. But it is something that is obviously engaging us, it's engaging our American allies and part of the national interest involved in this is the shared commitment we have with the United States to a set of values around the world and it's always important to keep that in mind.

MITCHELL:

We'll take some quick calls for the Prime Minister and then we'll move onto a few more questions in a moment. Richard, could you go ahead please Richard.

CALLER:

G'day there Neil, Prime Minister. Just a quick one. I'm wondering whether yourself Prime Minister or Philip Ruddock has actually been into Woomera?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well Phil Ruddock has. I haven't.

MITCHELL:

Several times I'd say.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes. I haven't been there but Phil Ruddock has been there several times.

CALLER:

And Neil was going to get in there, can we get Neil back in there to get some real first hand information?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it would always be reliable if Neil went.

MITCHELL:

Can he get in?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well you better talk to Ruddock or somebody about that….

MITCHELL:

… no I was booked to go in when trouble broke in.

Richard thanks for calling.

We are negotiating to get me in there again as soon as possible.

MITCHELL:

Sean, go ahead please Sean.

CALLER:

Good morning gentlemen. Mr Prime Minister, just a quick one, is there a third airline come in because I was told that Singapore has, I'm one of the existing 3000 employees that was last with Ansett, I was told that Singapore has a list of all our names potentially for a new airline.

PRIME MINISTER:

I'm not aware of that. I'd like to see as much competition as possible and I wish you well and I'm not aware of that.

CALLER:

Thank you for calling Sean. Prime Minister, Meg Lees, what can you offer her?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don't look at her behaviour in terms of us offering her something. I think it would be insulting to her integrity for me to sort of see what has happened in terms of us sort of offering her something.

MITCHELL:

Well can you get, for example, would you now get through the pharmaceutical benefits changes?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don't know.

MITCHELL:

[inaudible] started negotiating….

PRIME MINISTER:

Well no I haven';t and I have been very measured in what I've said about what's happened in the Democrats. I don't take anything for granted and it's obviously something that she's given a lot of thought to and Andrew Murray's given a lot of thought to. Whether what has occurred in time makes it more likely that we'll get certain things through we'll have to let time tell us. But at this stage I can honestly say to you that, I mean I haven't spoken to Meg Lees since she resigned and I respect what she's done. I've always found her a very straightforward person to deal with. That doesn't mean to say that her views and mine are similar on all that many issues. I mean Meg has very different views from me on a whole raft of issues. But that didn't stop us negotiating the tax policy.

MITCHELL:

I was thinking would you negotiate with a third person or would it be somebody else who does that?

PRIME MINISTER:

It would depend on the circumstances, that applies with any independent Senator. I mean, over the years I've spent a lot of time negotiating personally with Brian Harradine and I'm prepared in the future. But I don't want to be sending the signal that I see this as a sort of an automatic dam burst as far as the Government is concerned. It is not and people who think it is are wrong. They misunderstand the mood and the temper and the attitude of Senator Lees certainly and also I think Senator Murray.

MITCHELL:

I noticed the Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson says that on embryo research that your proposition your scheme worries the life out of him. Is there a significant split in Cabinet…?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well you can't have a split in Cabinet on this because it's a free vote. There's no such thing as a Government position and John's position on this bill is different from mine. I respect his position.

MITCHELL:

Have you got the numbers?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don';t know. I don';t see it as a number gathering exercise in that way. I quite honestly have not done any counting on this. I';ve come to a view that the bill we put up is a fair balance. I don';t think Professor Trounson';s comments about Catholics were very helpful. I respect the Catholic Church';s position on this. I don';t agree with it, but I respect it and I don';t think Catholic position is illogical. You can disagree with something without regarding as being illogical. I';ve come to a different conclusion. I';ve spent quite a bit of time talking to Archbishop Pell and Arch Bishop Jensen and a number of other people and I came to the view that there was no significant moral difference between exposing embryos and thereby leading to their destruction to room temperature and destroying them for the purposes of research. So that';s the basis of my moral conclusion on this. And it is a free vote and I respect the fact that John and a number of my close colleagues and friends in the Government have a different view, but isn';t that the virtue of a participatory democracy that every so often on these sorts of issues you can have people who philosophically agree with each other on most of the Government';s charter, but on something like this everybody has a free vote. You get a very good debate and I hope the community is involved…

MITCHELL:

Speaking of Archbishop Pell, what do you think of his comments in Toronto that abortion was a worse crime than priests molesting children.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don';t want to get into running a yardstick over that. I mean, I think…

MITCHELL:

Given the position he was in and the argument around his attitudes a few weeks ago, isn';t that destructive to say something like that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well look, I haven';t heard… read all of the circumstances. I mean, I';ll state my view. I mean my view is that child molestation is an absolute abomination. It';s appalling and cannot be tolerated in any circumstances. There can';t ever be any excuse for it.

MITCHELL:

What';s your view on abortion?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I have a conservative view on abortion but that';s not a party political matter, it';s a personal view. I';m against abortion except in very limited circumstances.

MITCHELL:

The economy, are we through the rough ride. Do you think the markets will settle down now?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well the fundamentals here are strong, they';re very strong. The danger is that what is happening on the markets, particularly in the United States, might have an effect on the real economy, start having a real effect, a lasting effect on people';s wealth and therefore people';s spending and investment proclivities in the US and that could have an effect on world growth. But we are better placed to withstand that than just about any other country. And one of the advantages Australia has is that when there was a real boom in the tech stocks, it didn';t effect the Australian markets as much as it effected the US markets. So as we didn';t go up as far, we don';t have as far to fall. And that';s a blessing now and we might have thought a few investors and speculators might have thought a few years ago that that wasn';t a good thing, but they';d be counting their lucky stars now we didn';t go the way of the US.

MITCHELL:

One would assume that all this does not put an upward pressure on interest rates.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I understand that argument and I think it';s quite a good argument, but of course that';s a matter for the Reserve Bank.

MITCHELL:

And not for the Prime Minister to talk about. Just very quickly David Hicks, the suspected terrorist being held indefinitely without fail, is that fair?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well given the circumstances of Afghanistan, I think it is yes.

MITCHELL:

And the Gay Mardi Gras is like a dead ducky. It looks like it';s going to curl up and go away. If it';s such a great event, why wouldn';t the Government step in and save it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Why would we, it';s a commercial enterprise… do we bail out every commercial …

MITCHELL:

It brings a lot of tourists to Australia.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we';re not in the business of bailing out commercial enterprises like that. I can assure you that that won';t be happening.

MITCHELL:

Are you going to watch the game this weekend?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes.

MITCHELL:

Will you watching them in Melbourne in four years?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh, I certainly hope to be alive in four years time.

MITCHELL:

Is remains the black card conversation?

PRIME MINISTER:

In fact, tomorrow night I';m going to the Olympic Stadium to see the Wallabies play the All Blacks in the Bledisloe Cup.

[ends]

Transcript 12572