PM Transcripts

Transcripts from the Prime Ministers of Australia

Transcript 22788

Interview with John Laws, 2UE Radio

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: 29/05/2000

Release Type: Interview

Transcript ID: 22788

Subjects: Reconciliation, treaty

E&OE…………………………………………………………………………………

LAWS:

Are you there Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes I am.

LAWS:

Thank you. I’m sorry we messed you around. We had a loose plug here. How are you John?

PRIME MINISTER:

I’m very well thanks.

LAWS:

Okay. What did you think of the events of the weekend?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I thought that it was a successful weekend for the cause of reconciliation and that’s good. And I’m very pleased about it and I’m very pleased for people like Evelyn Scott who’ve worked so hard and decently for the reconciliation process, that it turned out to be such a success. I thought the turnout yesterday indicated that there’s a lot of support in the Australian community for reconciliation and. . .

LAWS:

I don’t think there was ever any doubt of that.

PRIME MINISTER:

We all support reconciliation and of course as the Council itself acknowledges there are many paths to reconciliation and it doesn’t surprise me that lots of Australians want to walk in support of bringing people of different races together. I think everybody now recognises that they are a disadvantaged group or a lot of people do, not everybody and that we need to do something to remedy that disadvantage. There are obviously differences, I mean I don’t disguise the fact that I’ve been widely criticised in the media and elsewhere for not supporting a formal, national apology. I’ve explained why, I don’t believe the current generation can be held accountable for the injustices inflicted by earlier generations, particularly when those practices were sanctioned by law at the time. I’m personally very sorry, I think we all are for any injustice. But it’s not a lack of sympathy or empathy or sensitivity, it’s just a belief of mine and I hold it very sincerely. It’s not based on an opinion poll, it’s just a genuine belief that I hold and it’s not just myself but the whole Government holds that view.

LAWS:

Can I ask you this. Do you believe if you did apologise, you have personally apologised, but if you gave the official apology do you think this would end the problems as. . .

PRIME MINISTER:

No, because. . .

LAWS:

I don’t think it would.

PRIME MINISTER:

Just about everybody would say it’s not sincere and how can you argue as I have done consistently that it’s not appropriate and then you say, well in the name of sort of something or other you change your position. I’m quite certain that it would not be accepted as sincere, I’m quite certain that my critics would still be there. But that is not really the point. I can only say and act in accordance with how I feel and believe. The most important obligation that a political leader owes to the people who elect him is to be candid with them. I have said that I’m very sorry for the injustices that were visited upon Aboriginal people in the past. As an Australian I know that they were treated very badly indeed. But I do not think that the current generation of Australians who are not involved in that should accept responsibility for it. Now that is my view, I hold it sincerely, I’m sorry that a lot of people don’t agree with me on that but I can’t say something that I don’t believe. And it is just no good a Prime Minister, no matter what the criticism he cops saying something that he doesn’t believe.

LAWS:

But the point is even if you did say sorry and even if you did say it with all the sincerity in world, I still don’t believe that would solve the problem because. . .

PRIME MINISTER:

No it wouldn’t. I mean. . .

LAWS:

I don’t, do you understand what it is that the Aboriginal people want?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think many of them want a treaty.

LAWS:

But a treaty’s something you have after a war isn’t it?

PRIME MINISTER:

I know. I think a treaty would be so divisive and I had a talk to them on Thursday. They came to see me and we had a long discussion.

LAWS:

I met Pat Dodson strangely enough at the airport. I was coming in and he was going home. But he says that even after that meeting very little was reconciled except that you’re going to have another meeting.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that’s right. I mean I will always talk to representatives of the Australian community and I’ll try and reach agreement but a nation, an undivided united nation does not make a treaty with itself. I mean to talk about one part of Australia making a treaty with another part is to accept that we are in effect two nations.

LAWS:

Yeh well, that’s it.

PRIME MINISTER:

Now that seems to me to be completely contrary to the whole notion of reconciliation. And what Australians, what I think the great bulk of the people who walked over the Bridge yesterday want is for all of us to be treated equally together as Australians and to have the same opportunities that the next person has.

LAWS:

Yeah well I agree with that.

PRIME MINISTER:

And that’s what people want. Nobody wants…

LAWS:

But what do that Aboriginal people want?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it depends who you talk to. If you talk to the public spokesmen they increasingly talk about a treaty. If you talk to people in remoter parts of Australia they’re interested in better health, better eduction, more jobs, improved living conditions. That’s what they’re interested in and some of them are quite critical of the role of some of their leaders, not unlike of course the rest of the Australian community- they can be critical of their leaders too. I mean they’re not Robinson Crusoe in that. I find often a disconnect between what the spokesmen are saying and what the people on the ground are saying but that’s not necessarily a strange thing. But the notion of a treaty is very divisive because demands about land ownership and so forth will be made if there were ever any negotiation for a treaty and that would open up a divide rather than heal a rift.

LAWS:

Tell me, did you find that severely insulting the behaviour on Saturday when Aboriginal people and even some white people turned their backs on you?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I was ready for it John, I knew it would happen. I was determined to be at the occasion. I wanted to make it clear to the Australian public that I supported reconciliation. I wanted to make it clear to Aboriginal leaders like Evelyn Scott and others who although they disagree with me have behaved in a totally decent and courteous fashion that I wanted the event to succeed for them and I think in many ways it was a wonderful event. I don’t think it ever is helpful to drown anybody out, I don’t think it achieves anything.

LAWS:

Well I mean you are the Prime Minister whether they subscribe to your politics or not is immaterial. Well you know the position of Prime Minister should at least entitle you to some dignified behaviour by those in front of you.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well certainly their behaviour wasn’t but I expected that and there was nothing in the speech I gave that was in any way unsympathetic towards the cause of reconciliation it was not provocative. I didn’t go there to hector or sermonise but simply to tell them in my own words how I felt. And I’ve said that frequently that I am very sympathetic to the goals of reconciliation I just can’t agree with the leadership of the Aboriginal movement on a formal national apology or on a treaty. The great bulk of the declaration that they presented I agree with but in three important respects, that’s the formal apology, the question of self determination and the role of customary law, I couldn’t agree to those things. See as the Prime Minister you don’t have the luxury of giving general assent to something. If you say you agree to something then that is a statement given on behalf of the entire government of the nation and the idea of separate self determination implies that you have separate development. I mean one of the clauses that I wanted to put in was that all Australians should have equal rights.

LAWS:

Well isn’t that correct?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well of course it’s correct but that was not acceptable to the people who wrote the declaration.

LAWS:

So what do they require? Preferential treatment?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, well I’m not sure but it troubles me that that kind of phrase was not acceptable because everybody believes that. I mean I want Aboriginal Australians to have equal rights. I’m perfectly prepared where there is proven disadvantage…

LAWS:

Of course, of course.

PRIME MINISTER:

… to give extra help. I don’t regard that as a special right, I regard that as merely addressing a proven disadvantage. But they were the points really that I had difficulty with. Now it’s my responsibility to respond openly and honestly on behalf of the Government to a document that’s presented. I don’t have the luxury of just generally putting up my hand for the whole process and not worrying about the detail, I’ve got to do both. I do put up my hand for the whole process, I’m very sympathetic to it but I’m also charged as Prime Minister with the responsibility of saying well look I can’t agree to that because it has this implication and I don’t think the Australian people would thank me as Prime Minister for agreeing to something that would set up a process where we would have a divisive debate over a treaty.

LAWS:

Well I would suggest to you that the majority of people who marched… walked over the bridge yesterday were doing so in the belief that the ultimate aim was equality for all Australians.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I’m sure they were. Now… and I’m for that and we’re all for that and we all want that. There’s no longer a debate in this country as to whether Aboriginal people should be treated equally. That debate has long since been resolved in favour of them being so treated, that is not the issue. And it’s not a debate about racism.

LAWS:

It shouldn’t be.

PRIME MINISTER:

Australians are not racist. Some are but the great bulk are not and that’s not the issue. The issue is how you achieve this general aspiration of reconciliation.

LAWS:

So where do you go from here? I mean has anything changed between Friday and Monday?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well not in the sense that I have a different view or the Government has a different view about a treaty or a national apology, no. I think what we’ve seen over the weekend is a demonstration of something I believed and knew anyway and that is there’s a lot of community support in general for reconciliation and what people really want is what you said so well a moment ago and that is all Australians to be treated equally, in a decent fashion without division or singling out on the basis of race or colour.

LAWS:

Do you think it will ever be resolved?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think it’s going to be difficult but you just have to keep trying. But the last thing I believe that any Prime Minister should do is agree to something which in his heart he believes has problems down the track.

LAWS:

Oh I accept that and I like many others have said that I can’t understand why in the first instance you didn’t say sorry and I still can’t but that’s your business. You’ve said that you’re personally sorry and I just think it’s stupid for the Aboriginal people to pursue something that couldn’t be given with sincerity anyway.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I can only, I can only say how I feel and how the Government feels. I can’t and I’m not going to say things I don’t believe and if ultimately the Australian people judge me harshly for that well that is what I will accept as part of the democratic process. All you can ever do in public life if you’re fair dinkum is to say what you believe, argue your case, put it courteously and effectively to the Australian people and they will make a judgement in the appropriate way and I mean nobody wants to have criticism on one’s stance on particular issues and I’m certainly getting loads of it at the moment. I understand that and I accept that’s part of the job but one thing I will not do is just adjust my words and my phrases in order to remove some you know political heat. I mean I just can’t operate that way and I don’t think the Australian people would want me to do. I will always deal with them openly and candidly if in the end they don’t like what they hear in that process well they have the means at their disposal to remove me and I understand that and I accept that as part of the democratic process.

LAWS:

OK Prime Minister thank you very much for your time.

[ends]

Transcript 22788