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Transcript 21065

Interview with Alexandra Kirk AM Programme, ABC

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: 16/01/2004

Release Type: Interview

Transcript ID: 21065

KIRK:

You're meeting General Richard Myers later this morning. Beyond him thanking Australia for its involvement in the war against terror - what is his mission here?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, obviously given the close defence relationship between Australia and the United States visits by their highest-ranking military officer are part of that arrangement. We'll talk about different aspects of the defence relationship, I'll get an update from him on conditions on the ground in Iraq. We'll obviously touch a little on the missile defence issue but there are a whole range of things that are part of what is now, of course, a very close defence relationship and one which continues to be quite fundamental to this country's future security.

KIRK:

And from where you stand, how serious is the Government about committing to the controversial US missile defence program?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, rather than call it controversial, I would call it a commonsense proposition. We are going to be part of the examination. We don't take the negative attitude the Labor does. We take the attitude that something that might enable this country to deter a missile attack on it in the future is part of the commonsense defence of Australia. We are serious about examining what involvement we could have. At this stage, it's very preliminary, there have been discussions going on between our respective officials over the past few days and I will get an update on those before I see General Myers and we'll also both talk about that. But the idea that it's controversial to look at the possibility that this country can give itself the capacity to defend itself against a missile attack in the future, I find that quite extraordinary.

KIRK:

But will that commitment to the US defence missile program come at a regional cost because China and Indonesia are clearly concerned?

PRIME MINISTER:

Alex, our friends in the region have been kept informed and just as we don't agree with the United States on everything, we don't agree with Indonesia and China on everything. The first requirement of the Australian Government is to protect Australia and I will always put the protection and the defence of Australia ahead of any other consideration and it stands to reason that if there is available to us a mechanism that can provide us with defence against a missile attack in the future we would be foolish, in fact, recklessly negligent not to take advantage of the opportunity of acquiring that capacity.

KIRK:

Realistically, what is the chance of a threat of a missile attack?

PRIME MINISTER:

We hope very remote, but the whole idea of a defence posture is to protect against something you hope will never come and the idea that you can, sort of, take the risk on something like that when there might be mechanism available I think is very careless and negligent, but we have known for some time of the possibility of these discussions. We've kept our friends in the region well informed. I don't think anybody could argue that Australia's relations with a country like China aren't anything other than excellent. This Government has seen a deepening of the... and presided over a deepening of our relationship with countries like China and Japan and Korea. The relationship with Indonesia I believe is in better shape now than it's been for some years. So any suggestion that these discussions, while so might evoke different responses in different parts of the region, any suggestion that these discussions are going to rupture or upset relations with our friends in the region are misplaced.

KIRK:

In the US there's also still persistent comment about there being a place for Australia in the US Defence Secretary's reorganisation of the US military that Australia could play a role as a base, a military base, and those comments persist in the US - do you expect General Myers to raise it with you today?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I don't know exactly what he's going to raise, but I've said constantly in the past that if we were asked to provide additional facilities we'd have a look at it. I've never rejected it out of hand. I don't run away from that as some people on the Australian political horizon do. It's part of the defence relationship but I want to emphasise that with we have not received any request at a ministerial, presidential, the Prime Minister, to my knowledge military to military level. That doesn't mean to say that in the vast military complex of the United States you don't have some people running around saying, "wouldn't it be a good idea to have a base here or there" - but nothing has to come us.

KIRK:

And realistically, you don't expect it to?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I don't expect it to. Certainly not today, but as I say, Alex, I don't know precisely what the General's going to raise and he's free as you would expect in a close relationship to raise any matter he wants to.

KIRK:

And still on relations with the US - your Trade Minister Mark Vaile and the Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and a raft of officials are off to the US soon. Australia has just two weeks to strike up a free trade deal with the US. It's now crunch time - will it happen?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I hope it does. But it will only happen if it's in Australia's interests. I've said all along that I am very strongly committed to a Free Trade Agreement with the United States if it can be negotiated on favourable terms. That means significant additional access for agricultural exports from Australia. It means the protection of the essentials of things like the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. There's no way we're going to bargain away the enormous advantage that Australian consumers now enjoy as a result of our Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. That scheme is almost unique in the world. It's a scheme that ought to be copied by other countries. It's a scheme the future cost of which needs to be controlled if we are to maintain it and that's why the Labor Party and other parties in the Senate should drop their absurd objections to some of the cost control measures we're trying to introduce because unless you control the future cost of something like this the capacity to put new life saving drugs on the list is impaired. But we're not going to trade away things like that which are of benefit to the Australian public, but if consistent with those sort of considerations we can get a good outcome then it will be of huge benefit to Australia because America is the biggest economy in the world. It will grow stronger rather than weaker in the years ahead and it would be a very foolish Government that passed up this once in a generation opportunity of negotiating a Free Trade Agreement. It won't come again. You won't get this remarkable conjunction of political and other circumstances that make it within reach provided the terms are right for Australia.

KIRK:

Later on today, you're going to fly to Darwin to meet the first Adelaide to Darwin train. The transport magnate Chris Corrigan says the economic returns are smaller than, as he says, than a tick's testicles. What's your view of the economic benefits to taxpayers for such a huge public investment that your government's pledged?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well on this issue I disagree with Chris Corrigan. I of course respect very much the role he played in the reform of the Australian waterfront, very much respect that role, but I think he's wrong on this. I have been a strong supporter of the Darwin to Alice Springs railway, I'm very proud that it's the national government I've led over the last seven and a half years that has finally bought to fruition this century old dream.

KIRK:

And when do you think it'll return money to taxpayers?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think over time it will. Alex there are occasions in the building of a nation where you have to listen to the theoretical economic advice, you have to think yes, look in present day circumstances you'd say no, but if you're thinking of the future, if you're wanting to build something that captures a nation's imagination you have to back your own judgment and that's what we did several years ago and I'll be looking forward very much to welcoming the train in Darwin, I'll be wanting to thank the successive Premiers of South Australia and Chief Ministers of the Northern Territory who played a very dynamic role.

KIRK:

And is it time to go back in your view to more big nation building projects?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it's a question of looking at each issue on its merits and also taking a longer view and I looked at this several years ago, I listened to the advice, I decided to back a belief that over time this would prove not only to be economically successful but it would capture the imagination and it would aid the opening up of the Northern Territory, the further development of the Northern Territory and the enhancement of Darwin's links as the Asian gateway of Australia. And I think all of those things are very important to Australia's future and I think putting in those terms and in that context this is a very proud weekend for Australia and something that I'm very happy to have played a role in.

KIRK:

And if finally if we could go to what is breaking news today that the French terror suspect Willie Brigitte has written to his Australian lawyer protesting his innocence, saying he's not a terrorist or a criminal and his lawyer seems to think that Mr Brigitte will be released soon. Is that your understanding?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don't know any more than what I've read in the papers on this issue, I guess Mr Brigitte would protest his innocence and I guess his lawyer would back him up. I can only say what was said at the time that we received advice, I have no reason to doubt that advice, the French authorities received advice, they had views, they communicated those views and I don't retreat in any way from what the Government has said or what the Government has done, obviously he's being dealt with by French law now, he's not being dealt with by Australian law, remember that, he's a Frenchman, he's gone back to France and he's being dealt with by French law and I don't have any control over that.

KIRK:

Do you understand that the French authorities are preparing to release him or not?

PRIME MINISTER:

I have not received that advice, no. But as I say that is a matter for the French authorities and what people have to understand in this whole fight against terrorism is that there will be people who from time to time who come under suspicion and you have to act on suspicions, provided you've got proper grounds. If you don't, if you wait until you've got a watertight, beyond all reasonable doubt case before you do anything, you'll end up making many mistakes with horrific consequences to the civilian population, not only of this country but other countries and I am sure that ASIO and the other authorities acted in a bona fide fashion, they acted on information from the French, he was sent back to France, he's now being dealt with by the French authorities, it doesn't surprise me that he would say he's innocent but beyond that I can't further inform you or your listeners, I wish I could.

KIRK:

Mr Howard, thanks for joining AM.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you.

[ends]

Transcript 21065