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Transcripts from the Prime Ministers of Australia

Transcript 20948

Interview with Liam Bartlett ABC Radio, Perth

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: 10/10/2003

Release Type: Interview

Transcript ID: 20948

BARTLETT:

Prime Minister, good morning to you.

PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning, Liam.

BARTLETT:

Nice to talk to you. And just talking about the World Cup, you're off to the Rugby tonight for that opening game, aren't you?

PRIME MINISTER:

I certainly am and it's going to be a great night and a great spectacle. I hope an opening win for Australia against Argentina. But this is the third biggest sporting event in the world, it's a huge tribute to the Australian Rugby Union that we're hosting and I know it will be a wonderful advertisement for Australia, of course I hope the Wallabies will retain the Webb Ellis trophy.

BARTLETT:

You and thousands of others. The key question there, though, is will you be singing Waltzing Matilda?

PRIME MINISTER:

I certainly will be with great gusto and great enthusiasm and I would imagine that 82,000 other people, more most of them, I guess we've got a few visitors from overseas who may not know the words, but I certainly will sing it yes.

BARTLETT:

I don't think that ruling from the International Rugby Board is going to carry much weight.

PRIME MINISTER:

No. No offence meant. They are visitors in our country, they're great people and it's a great game and I can't be more delighted to be part of this opening and I can't be prouder as the Australian Prime Minister who happens to be lucky enough to be in that job when the Rugby World Cup has come to Australia. As somebody who loves sport, I count myself very fortunate as having been Prime Minister at the time, not only at the Sydney Olympics but also the Rugby World Cup and that, of course, will be opened at the Olympic Stadium or Telstra Stadium or Stadium Australia, as some people call it. I think it's officially called Telstra Stadium, but when you say the Olympic Stadium, everybody around Australia knows what you mean.

BARTLETT:

Yeah, well, here at the ABC we tend to like those generic names.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yeah, well, I do to actually, like Sheffield Shield - I shouldn't have said that.

BARTLETT:

[inaudible] let's not go back there.

PRIME MINISTER:

No.

BARTLETT:

We'll open the talkback line. If you'd like to talk to the Prime Minister, give us a ring - 9484 1720, or 1800 626 720. Onto more serious matters, Prime Minister, and your appearance at the Bali memorial service this weekend. Are you disappointed that Indonesian President Megawati won't be turning up?

PRIME MINISTER:

I never expected her to Liam. There is a cultural issue. The Balinese people who in the main are Hindu, do not attach the same significance to the first anniversary of a tragic event, as people in the western culture do. And that is really the main reason and I never expected that she would come. The senior Minister in her Government Bambang Yudhoyono who's the senior coordinating minister for security will be there. I saw him in Canberra yesterday and he'll represent the Indonesian Government at the memorial service.

BARTLETT:

Alright. So you just... sort of cop that one and say well that's part of their culture, you're not saying it a political thing, you're saying...

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I don't, I don't because where it has mattered, the Indonesians have gone to great lengths to cooperate the investigation which has already brought to justice and conviction, therefore a number of people involved in the attack, is in earnest of how serious they are about trying to find all of the people who were responsible for this outrage. So, if you're looking for a test of the bona fides of the Indonesians, that's the answer.

BARTLETT:

Well, how do you think we're going on that score? I mean, most of us would remember very clearly those scenes 12 months ago and you in those scenes hugging the various people and trying to give them some solace and the words that you said to one of them which were reported many times over "don't worry we'll get the bastards".

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, we have gone a long way. Bear in mind, that the crimes were committed on foreign soil, they were committed in Indonesia. But the Indonesian police engaged in a remarkable level of cooperation with the federal police of Australia who provided a lot of technical help. As the Australian public knows, there's already been what three people convicted, two sentenced to death, maybe they'll appeal, there are more people to be tried and there are still more people to be captured and one, of course, the mastermind of Jemaah Islamiyah, Hambali recently was taken into captivity and is being interrogated. So, progress has been made, there's more to be done. But we are at the very least a significant way along the pathway of delivering on the commitment I genuinely gave to those grieving people.

BARTLETT:

Prime Minister, just coming back to President Megawati's non-appearance. I just can't help get the feeling we're not having a terrific run with Asian leaders at the moment, are we? Dr Mahathir gave us another serve the other day, said we should behave like Asians, not be too critical of others.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, the leader of the largest Asian country will be visiting Australia at the end of this month ahead of visiting just about any other country and will be addressing a joint sitting of the national Parliament - that's the Chinese President Hu Jintao. Dr Mahathir has had a long standing problem with Australia and I've long since given up dignifying his comments with responses. I'm not the only Prime Minister who's had a run in with Dr Mahathir.

BARTLETT:

Well, that's true.

PRIME MINISTER:

It's just one of those situations that it's better to let it just slide away because he's now retiring, he'll be retired at the end of this month. The important thing is that our relationship with the people of Malaysia, although the political level has remained very strong, there are 200,000 Malaysians who went to Australian universities - that's an astonishing figure.

BARTLETT:

Ignore him. I mean, we just ignored those comments and he goes away, or in fact he is going away.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, sometimes it's more evocative and it's more eloquently expressive of how you feel by ignoring something than to get into a detailed rebuttal.

BARTLETT:

But...

PRIME MINISTER:

We behave all around the world in accordance with who we are, we are Australians. And I'm always very proud to behave like an Australian whether I'm in Asia, or Europe, or North America and I think this country has long since passed a situation where it tries to behave other than as we are. And that is as very distinctive identifiable people.

BARTLETT:

Where do you stand on pre-emptive strikes in the region? In the wake of the...

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I don't...

BARTLETT:

Sorry, can I just finish my question?

PRIME MINISTER:

Sorry.

BARTLETT:

... because putting in context for our listeners. In the wake of bombings last year you seemed very comfortable with unilateral action, if that's what it took. But the Indonesian Security Minister has expressed his concern about that during that current trip to Canberra. And I wonder if you've now changed your mind in terms of trying to keep the Indonesian politicians happy?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I think it's a question of recognising, Liam, that the countries of Asia and our region are very engaged and committed in the fight against terrorism and I'm certain that the levels of cooperation that we now have are such that if we had concerns about particular activities in particular countries there would be responses from those countries.

BARTLETT:

So, you don't think there's any need now for us to consider...?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I've just stated what I think the current situation is and what I think the reality is because there's a very high level of cooperation.

BARTLETT:

So we have cooperation to the extent that we would not have to consider it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I'm just stating what I believe to be the position. I think in some of these things that you have to deal with the likelihood and the possibilities and the realities and the likelihoods are that every country has a vested interest in fighting terrorism. Terrorism has claimed the lives of more Muslims in the last six months than it has the lives of Christians or Jews. This idea that in some way it's something that is in anyway associated with mainstream Islam couldn't be further from the truth. Therefore, terrorism is as much the enemy of Indonesia and the Muslims of Indonesia as it is the enemy of Australia and the citizens of this country.

BARTLETT:

Well, that's what the Indonesian Security Minister is saying, isn't he?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I didn't see the exact text of what he said. I, with respect, I don't need to because I know and he knows and we all know that we are co-operators and brothers together, if I can put it that way, in the war against terrorism, whether we are Indonesian or Australia. The bombing at the Marriott Hotel claimed the lives overwhelmingly of Indonesian people. Whatever may have been the symbolic target in the eyes of the terrorists, the people who were the victims were overwhelmingly citizens of Indonesia and people of the Islamic faith.

BARTLETT:

Prime Minister, last night the Governor General argued the case for pre-emptive military action from the UN in order to prevent mass blood shed. Do you support that argument?

PRIME MINISTER:

I haven't read the speech in full. I heard some reports on it. I think I better have a look at it before I go to any kind of answer in detail on that. Clearly, the likelihood of the United Nations being given the authority to behave like that in the future is quite unlikely, indeed remote, it's a question of doing the best, the world doing the best it can within the range of existing possibilities.

BARTLETT:

Are you comfortable with the Governor General expressing a clear view about these security matters?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look I'm not going to give some kind of mark on what the Governor General has said in a speech without having had a look at it.

BARTLETT:

I'm not asking you to score it, I'm just asking...

PRIME MINISTER:

I think you are.

BARTLETT:

I'm not, I'm just asking are you comfortable with the Governor General making such a public comment?

PRIME MINISTER:

I have no doubt that the Governor General will follow the proprieties of the office, I have no doubt at all.

BARTLETT:

Well in that in what...

PRIME MINISTER:

Look I don't think you can have a situation where a Governor General says absolutely nothing, but obviously a Governor General has to avoid any suggestion of partisanship and a Governor General has to respect the fact that the policies of the Government are enunciated by Government Ministers. Now I think you can find that a happy form of words and a happy expression that meets all of those goals.

BARTLETT:

What's happening with these sheep Prime Minister, why is it taking so long?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we are, at the moment, still investigating the possibilities of them being given to another country, we have tried about 25 to 30 countries and...

BARTLETT:

No-one wants them?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, not at the moment, that's true. Right at the moment there's still additional feed and provisions being taken on the vessel, where it is in I think in Kuwait and if we cannot, and it doesn't appear likely that we can, within the very near future find somewhere for them to go, then, on all the advice we have at the moment, the only alternative applying proper quarantine precautions will be to bring them back to Australia.

BARTLETT:

When will that be decided?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we had a meeting about it last night, the Cabinet met last night, and that was the decision that was taken. And there'll be a further statement made by the Minister about the matter after certain discussions which are now taking place have been concluded. It's a very difficult issue and I do understand the concern that people have, it's not our fault if I can be very direct about it, we believe the refusal of the Saudi authorities to take the sheep was not a reasonable decision, there's no evidence according to our veterinary inspections, and they've been thorough and they're expert, to suggest that there was the disease, the scabby mouth disease suggested and we can therefore only conclude that there were some other reasons.

BARTLETT:

Seems bizarre to bring them all the way back to Australia.

PRIME MINISTER:

But Liam the task of slaughtering 50 or more thousand sheep at sea is horrendous.

BARTLETT:

We can't give them away?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we have been endeavouring Liam over the past several weeks to do that, we have, we have made contact with 25 to 30 countries. I can assure you that remains infinitely the preferred option.

BARTLETT:

No-one wants 50,000 sheep, even as a gift?

PRIME MINISTER:

I can only report to you what has been the result, we would like to be able to send them to another country, we would not want to bring them back because that's a fairly long journey, we do believe however that at the end of the day bringing them home, and applying the strictest possible quarantine procedures, the strictest possible quarantine procedures, that that is a better outcome, a much better outcome than slaughtering them at sea. On my advice you would have to undertake significant changes to the structure of the ship, and it's no easy task, you need modern facilities and if they could be bought back to Australia and subject to quarantine, the slaughter take place in a modern facility in the more humane fashion that would inevitably be part of that process then I hope the Australian people would see that as a better way of handling the problem than to have them slaughtered at sea.

BARTLETT:

Alright, quarter to nine, we're talking to the Prime Minister and let's go to the phones Prime Minister, Peter's first caller, hello Peter.

CALLER:

Hello Liam.

BARTLETT:

Good morning.

CALLER:

Good morning, good morning Mr Howard.

PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning Peter.

CALLER:

Yeah my question is about the $7.5 billion surplus, two part question, firstly have you made up your mind about what you want the Government to do with that and secondly is there any reason why a large portion of this couldn't go to tertiary education facilities and the public health system.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well Peter the $7.5 billion is not there, it's already been used. The $7.5 billion was the surplus in last year's budget and all of it has been used to reduce debt, and by reducing debt we have a lower interest bill and this year as a result of having a much lower debt than we had in 1996 we have $5 billion a year available additionally to spend on things like tertiary education, I mean we are going to put more money into universities and we are going to put more money into a whole range of activities in education, but the $7.5 billion, I know a lot of people think that it's still there sitting idly in the bank earning interest, I can assure you it isn't, its already been used by the Government to repay people who lent earlier governments money to finance their deficits and the good news though is because we have repaid $66 billion of the $96 odd billion we inherited in 1996 we pay lower interest and that lower interest now runs at about $5 billion a year, and we have that $5 billion additionally available to spend on all sorts of things. So we have benefited enormously from repaying debt, I think you'd know from your own experience if you pay off debts you don't have interest payments and the money you'd otherwise spend on interest you can spend on something else.

BARTLETT:

What about the principle of what Peter's saying though Prime Minister:

PRIME MINISTER:

The principle?

BARTLETT:

Rather than worrying about possible tax cuts, you know whatever is left over the way in terms of excess cash flow and increased tax revenue, put it to health or education.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don't think you can sort of say yes or no to that. I mean I am in favour of spending whatever is necessary on both health and education, there will be debate in the community on what is necessary, the principle I've stated is that after you've balanced the budget and spent what is necessary on health and education and defence and roads and all those other things, if there's something then left over it ought to be given back by way of tax cuts and not be used on something that is just dreamt up as some kind of additional expenditure. The key debate of course is on what is a necessary level of expenditure on health and education and defence and naturally there are different views in the community on that but the principle that I guess Peter's enunciating is not very different from the principle I'm enunciating.

BARTLETT:

Well there certainly is on health at the moment.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I guess on, well not on principle but really on the question of what is an adequate amount, I don't think we, I don't think either of us is arguing that we shouldn't keep Medicare, I certainly favour it and I'm sure he does, I don't know whether he supports private health insurance to the extent that I do, I think we ought to spend money on private health insurance, I think it's very important because it gives people security and takes a load off public hospitals.

BARTLETT:

With the blue that's running at the moment with the doctors, principally on the east coast, who is in charge of health at the moment? Are you running the portfolio? Are you directing traffic or dishing out the orders to Tony Abbott?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well Tony Abbott is the Minister and a very good one, he's got a very good intellect and he's done a first class job in a difficult area taking it over only a week ago, but naturally as Prime Minister I take a keen interest in everything, that's the way our system works, I'm not dishing out orders to Tony, you don't need to do that, his instincts are so good that in...(inaudible)..the thing well.

BARTLETT:

You've had to be more hands on in the past few days, is that what you're saying, because of the AMA problems?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no. It's normal for the Minister in a sensitive area to talk on a regular basis to the Prime Minister. That's the way our system operates and it's always been the case whether it's been me or Bob Hawke or Malcolm Fraser or Bob Menzies. It always works in that fashion.

BARTLETT:

Dennis, good morning.

CALLER:

How you going, Liam? And G'day, Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER:

G'day, Dennis.

CALLER:

Recently, Prime Minister, my son Glen emailed to you and you responded with an email and you also wrote him a letter. I'd just like to thank you very much for that. Glen was thrilled with receiving a letter from you.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you very much. Well, I get 4,000 pieces of correspondence a week in different ways and I try very hard to respond to people and I'm glad the system works.

CALLER:

Well, look, if Glen was here I'm sure he'd ring you up himself.

PRIME MINISTER:

How old is Glen?

CALLER:

Glen's 14.

PRIME MINISTER:

What's he do? He's still at school, is he?

CALLER:

He's still at school and this week he's away on annual army cadet camp with his two sisters and his mothers, so they're out...

PRIME MINISTER:

All of them on army cadet camp?

CALLER:

Yeah, they're all in the army cadets together.

PRIME MINISTER:

That's the modern army, that's terrific.

CALLER:

Well, it's a family army in our...

PRIME MINISTER:

Not dad's army, family's army.

CALLER:

No, family's army yeah. The mother's a lieutenant and the three kids are cadets.

BARTLETT:

Good on you, Dennis.

PRIME MINISTER:

That is great.

CALLER:

Yeah and look I'm extremely proud of them. He rang me yesterday, Glen, and he's been up doing his junior NCA's course and he got his results and he got recommended to be promoted as soon as possible. So, I'm extremely proud...

PRIME MINISTER:

Great story.

CALLER:

Yeah.

PRIME MINISTER:

He deserves a promotion.

BARTLETT:

Thanks for calling, Dennis. Good on you. Hello?

CALLER:

G'day, Liam. How are you?

BARTLETT:

Good, mate.

CALLER:

Mr Prime Minister, Mr Howard, how are you?

PRIME MINISTER:

I'm very well.

CALLER:

Now, I'm just a bit worried about this singing bit that you're doing. It's a, you know, you're going to be singing Waltzing Matilda and you have represented us as Slim Dusty's funeral here a week or so ago. And thank you for that and I appreciated that very much that you were there because Slim was a top bloke. And you sang 'the pub with no beer' we had you on television doing that. Is this going to be an after politics career for you?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no, no, mate. Let me put your mind immediately at rest and everybody else's ears. Please, when I sing I do it in company with a lot of people so the relatively ordinary sound of my singing is drowned out. Whenever my children hear me sing they always say - I'm glad you've got a day job, dad.

CALLER:

So, we won't be having a band called the Howard's?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no, no, we won't have a Howard version of the Ramrods, no.

BARTLETT:

Good on you.

CALLER:

Thanks for that.

BARTLETT:

Thanks for your call. Hello Joanne.

CALLER:

Oh, good morning, Liam, Mr Prime Minister. Just in regard to the Senate reform, I heard you talking yesterday that 90 to 95 per cent of the bills do pass, there's a couple of per cent in there just for housekeeping. The other percentage is obviously the problem. But I was just wondering if they were of importance? Isn't it better to sit down and have these talked over it, or is that the problem that we want to get these passed through quickly?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, we certainly try very hard to sit down and talk with people, we've had a lot of discussions in relation to things like the unfair dismissal laws; the budget measures of a couple of years ago who keep the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme more sustainable; the proposals, of course, these are more hotly debated about the sale of the rest of Telstra. They're some of the things that have been blocked by the Senate. We would love to be able to negotiate compromises in relation to them. You may remember in respect of the GST, that I had a lengthy discussion with Meg Lees when she was the Leader of the Australian Democrats and we reached a compromise, it did involve some changes from what the public had voted for, but it was 85 per cent of what we put up and we thought that was something worth settling for and it's given us a better tax system. So, overall we're very much in favour of sitting down and negotiating. It's just that on some issues, no matter how much you talk there is an unbridgeable gap. Take something like unfair dismissal laws. The Labor Party will never change its position on that because its union history gives it a different perspective and the Democrats have so far been reluctant despite numerous discussions and some signs of willingness to compromise to support that. So, in the end, I guess I'm saying to the Australian people is you're going to get a number of pieces of legislation where if the Government keeps getting a mandate and the opposition parties in the Senate keep opposing the measure, there has to be a way found to resolve the deadlock, other than a double dissolution because a double dissolution is a very drastic response to disagreements over individual pieces of legislation. That's all I'm arguing, I'm not arguing for some weakening power of the Senate. I mean, I'm not wanting to reduce the terms of Senators. The Labor Party's talking about reducing the term of Senators from six years to four years, I'm not arguing that.

CALLER:

And just in regard to... yes I am, yes, but if they're important issues then it's important for us to talk about but to get that... educate the people at the bottom end that possibly don't know what these changes are about and before we know it we're being taken over, you know...

PRIME MINISTER:

I don't want to do that, I don't. I mean, even my...

CALLER:

I'm sure you...

PRIME MINISTER:

Even my most strident critics... you hardly say... I'm not proud. I'm not trying to ride rough shod over the conventions of the country. I'm a constitutional conservative. As most people know, I don't like big changes, but I do think after 100 years, this kind of fairly modest change is worth at least discussing. Now, if we can't gather what we believe to be reasonable community support for the proposal, then I'm not going to wast the public's money by having a referendum, but I'm hopeful that we can because I do think we need a more effective way of dealing with resolving these disagreements short of a sledgehammer process of a double dissolution.

BARTLETT:

Alright. Thanks for the question, Joanne. Good morning, David.

CALLER:

Oh, good morning, Liam. Good morning, Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER:

Hello, David.

CALLER:

Prime Minister, I'm ringing to make a plea on behalf of a small community in the south west of Australia in regards to temporary protection visas relating to the Afghan population down there. The anxiety in our community is almost tangible and I wonder if there's anything your office can do to help us save the economic and social impacts that are happening to our town.

BARTLETT:

You're talking about Albany, David?

CALLER:

I am talking about Albany, yes Liam.

PRIME MINISTER:

Is this something that arises out of unauthorised arrivals?

BARTLETT:

... 60 people on TPV, temporary protection visas, Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yeah.

BARTLETT:

And 50 of them have TPVs... had full time employment [inaudible] in Albany.

PRIME MINISTER:

And they've had their... and when do their visas run out?

CALLER:

They've been here for three and a half years or more. They've just received a 28 days notice from the refugee review tribunal. It's causing just so much anxiety.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I do understand that but the difficulty with something like this is if you have... if you don't administer the laws in a consistent manner across the country you really will undermine any kind of public confidence. Now I would have to go back into all the details of this, but my understand is that they would be concerned that they may not be able to stay indefinitely in the country.

CALLER:

They've made the case for permanent protection visas and myself and many others were [inaudible]...

PRIME MINISTER:

And that's being dealt with by the tribunal, is it?

CALLER:

Yes, the submissions are being put.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I really think I have to stay out of that and let the tribunal deal with it because you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't. Our opponents [inaudible] campaign are attacking Mr Ruddock when he was Minister for intervening. I mean, we have a set procedure where you have determinations made and then there's a tribunal process and there are some discretions reserved for the Minister in the end. But you have to allow that tribunal process to work its way through first. I understand your anxiety...

BARTLETT:

David, thanks for the call.

PRIME MINISTER:

... you have to respect the position.

BARTLETT:

Prime Minister, thanks very much for talking to us this morning.

PRIME MINISTER:

You're very welcome.

[ends]

Transcript 20948