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John Howard on the latest round of leadership -

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John Howard on the latest round of leadership turmoil

Broadcast: 12/09/2007

Reporter: Kerry O'Brien

It's business as usual for John Howard after narrowly escaping a leadership battle. After a crisis
meeting in Canberra this morning, his party has decided to stick to the status quo and rally around
the Prime Minister. Kerry O'Brien spoke with the Prime Minister about how much damage has been
done.

Transcript

KERRY O'BRIEN: And the Prime Minister joins me now live from our Canberra studio.

(to John Howard) Prime Minister, you said in very steely tones yesterday that you've never walked
away from a fight and you're not going to now. But do you agree that sometimes it can take more
courage and wisdom to walk away than to stay and fight?

JOHN HOWARD, PRIME MINISTER: Well, it depends on the circumstances, but that doesn't apply here.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Were you entertaining doubts about the wisdom of carrying on as leader after last
week's dreadful poll after a history of bad polls because why else would you ask Mr Downer, your
trusted offsider, to take soundings from Liberal Cabinet ministers?

JOHN HOWARD: Kerry, I have never contemplated falling on my sword. In other words, I've never
contemplated a situation where I would say to the Australian public it's all too hard, I'm going
away and give the impression that I was frigtened of defeat. I'm not, I don't believe I'll be
defeated, I don't believe I'll be defeated in the election, I don't believe I'll be defeated in my
own seat, but we've got a big fight. And what I did was ... as part of, I guess, a rolling dialogue
that I had with Alexander about the party and its future, I asked him to talk to my colleagues now.
He did that, and in doing it he wasn't acting with any disloyalty or treachery, he was acting
correctly and I don't cast any aspersions on his behaviour or indeed Peter's behaviour during this
whole thing.

But I got some views, they are rather more equivocal let me say, than some of the reporting has
suggested, and I reflected on all of that, and the rest, as they say, is history. And it is to me
now history because we have a big fight ahead of us, we can win this election. We can do better at
preserving the prosperity of the Australian people than the Labor Party, and I am determined that
we give it everything we have because we owe that to the millions of Australians who support us,
and we owe it to the future of our children.

KERRY O'BRIEN: But you did ask Mr Downer to take soundings from your senior Cabinet colleagues, and
you did ask him to take soundings about the leadership, and I understand it wasn't in the context
of you thinking of falling on your sword. To me, there's a very different issue from falling on
your sword or taking a considered view that it's in the best interests of your party to go.

JOHN HOWARD: Kerry...

KERRY O'BRIEN: And it's my understanding that that's what you put to Mr Downer, and what he put to
his colleagues?

JOHN HOWARD: Look Kerry, I'm not going to get into the detail of my conversation with Mr Downer,
I'm not. I had a conversation with him, he had a meeting, he got views, he communicated those views
to me, he acted correctly, he acted decently, you know what my reaction to all of these things has
been over the past few days, there is simply nothing to be gained by my trying to answer to you
precisely what may have been said in a meeting that I didn't attend. I know what Mr Downer said to
me, I know what was in my mind when I spoke to him. I've told you there is really nothing to be
gained, and we're both wasting our time going into it any further.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Ok, but I'm not going to ask you...

JOHN HOWARD: I'm more interested in the future of this country, I'm more interested in the future
we have for the people who are viewing this program.

KERRY O'BRIEN: I'm not going to ask you what you said and what he said. What I'm going to ask you
is whether you were surprised, having asked him to put the question to your colleagues, in the
context of, what do they think - not under pressure - but what do they think, that when he came
back and made their feelings known, that the majority or dominant view was they're not going to
force you to go, they're not going to, the decision was purely yours, but that in that context, it
would be better for the Liberal Party if you stood down as leader before the election. Now, were
you surprised by what Mr Downer told you?

JOHN HOWARD: Well, I can only say that the reporting he gave me was more equivocal than that
summary suggests.

KERRY O'BRIEN: You've always said that you'll only stay leader for as long as your party wants you,
but faced with the message that perhaps it is time to do, decision in your hands, but it is time to
go, your response has been: 'Well, I'm staying anyway', and you've said it in no uncertain terms.
Can you understand why some of your colleagues are now wondering why you bothered to ask?

JOHN HOWARD: Well Kerry, what matters is the party has decided that they want me to stay. I want to
stay. I've got a lot of fight in me, there's a lot of things I want to do, and I have resolved very
much to fight this election campaign like none other. And there are a lot of things I want to
accomplish, and that's why I'm staying in politics. I heard Peter Beattie say the other day that he
has lost interest in politics; I haven't. I love politics and I'm still determined to try and do
the best thing for this country, and I'm still determined to give my party and the Coalition a real
chance of winning what will be a very difficult election.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Mr Costello said today that he wasn't invited to the Downer meeting and didn't know
about it. Did you ask Mr Downer not to ask Mr Costello, or did you leave that to Mr Downer's
judgment?

JOHN HOWARD: Look, I'm not going to talk about that, except to observe that Mr Costello has behaved
correctly in this matter, and the account he gave of his no-involvement was absolutely accurate. I
don't offer any criticism of him. Peter is an ambitious man. One day he will lead the Liberal
Party. I believe he is my logical successor. Now, that is a matter for the Party to decide, not for
me, but that is my belief. Now, I can't say any more than that.

KERRY O'BRIEN: But if all that's a given, Mr Howard. If all of that is a given, and you feel this
about Mr Costello, what an extraordinary omission it was when you were taking soundings from your
most senior colleagues, not to take soundings from Mr Costello as a part of that?

JOHN HOWARD: Well Kerry, he wasn't at the meeting, neither was I. And look, this is all trivia,
frankly. It really is trivia. I don't think your viewers are very interested in it, they're
interested in what I've got to offer them in the future, not anything else. I mean, this is...

KERRY O'BRIEN: Aren't they interested in making evaluations about whether you are genuinely a team
or whether privately you dislike each other intensely?

JOHN HOWARD: Well, we're like any other group of politicians. We have able men and women, all with
ambition, but we have been remarkably united over 11.5 years. I mean, I look at Bob Hawke and Paul
Keating. Peter Costello and I have behaved in a totally gentlemanly fashion towards each other
compared to those two. I mean, give us a break, come on.

KERRY O'BRIEN: (laughs) I'm just playing with those images Mr Howard. You also said in your part
... where you've always said that you'll only stay for as long as your Party wants you, you also
said in your party room today as I understand it, you added: 'and in the best interests of the
Party'. I mean, you don't...

JOHN HOWARD: No, I've used that ... but look, can I just say something about it. I've given a lot
of thought to this, and my position to the next election, and this is what I'll be telling the
Australian people is, is very simple. If the Australian people are good enough and kind enough to
re-elect me again, there are a lot of things I want to do, and I would want to approach those
things with enormous energy. But I would expect well into my term, and after those things have been
implemented and battered down, I would probably, certainly form the view well into my term, that it
makes sense for me to retire, and in those circumstances, I would expect, although it would be a
matter for the Party to determine if Peter would take over.

Now, that's the honest position, and I'm not going to say anything else to the Australian people. I
mean, I've noticed Steve Bracks and Peter Beattie look their electorates in the eye and said, you
know, 'We're going to stay three years'. 12 months and Beattie is gone. A little longer than 12
months and Bracks is gone. Now, I'm not going to do that. Some people have said to me, 'Why don't
you say to the people you're going to stay three years, even if you may not be certain you're going
to stay three years'. I've thought this through, and what I'm saying to the Australian people is I
want to be re-elected, there are a lot of things I want to do for them. But well into my term, I
would come to the conclusion that it would be in the best interests of everybody if I retired, and
in those circumstances, I would expect Peter to take over, but that would be a matter for the
Party. Now, that is the honest truth, and I think most of your viewers believe it would be the
case.

KERRY O'BRIEN: I think they've probably already made the assumption, Mr Howard. But what you're
saying is that at some point in the next three years, if you're re-elected, you will retire from
politics and probably Peter Costello will become your replacement. So in a sense, for the first
time, you are saying to voters that at this election they will be voting not for one Prime Minister
but for two prime ministers, the second probably being Peter Costello.

JOHN HOWARD: They'll be voting for a team, and I think that's good. I think actually this election
if it's a contest between teams as well as a contest between Howard and Rudd is a good thing. So
they'll be voting for Howard, Costello, Downer, Turnbull, Brough, so the list goes on versus Rudd,
Gillard, Peter Garrett, Wayne Swan as treasurer instead of Peter Costello, really.

KERRY O'BRIEN: But what I also said Mr Howard, is that you're going to be asking people to vote for
two prime ministers, you and Peter Costello.

JOHN HOWARD: Well, I'm asking people to vote for somebody who levels with them. I don't think Steve
Bracks and Peter Beattie levelled with their respective publics. I mean, what changed their
circumstances between their elections and when they retired? I mean, the glib thing is to say to
people you're going to serve three years even though you know in your heart that may not be the
case. Well, I am not going to embrace the glib option. That was the approach taken by others, it's
not the approach that I am going to take.

KERRY O'BRIEN: So, it's not an acknowledgement on your part that your leadership has been weakened,
that your leadership is a factor in this campaign, and you're assuring people you are not going to
be around for the full three years?

JOHN HOWARD: No, no, no, Kerry, it's not. I mean, I have been Prime Minister of this country now
for 11.5 years. I am the second-longest serving prime minister in Australia's history. Frankly, I
love the job. It still stimulates and energises me. There's a lot of things I want to do for the
Australian people. and that's why I would hope that they might be kind enough to re-elect me
because I want to serve them. And I won't find it easy if I am re-elected to retire. I won't find
it the least bit easy because I am very committed to this job, and I will not like leaving it.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Well, let me just put point this to you...

JOHN HOWARD: But everything comes to an end. I mean, everything must and...

KERRY O'BRIEN: It does.

JOHN HOWARD: Of course it does, even this interview.

(Kerry O'Brien and John Howard laugh)

And we must, you know, we must be honest and candid and adult about it because otherwise you get
this ridiculous situation where a bloke can never retire without in some way having misled the
public. Well, I'm not going to do that.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Last question Mr Howard. This also is a message from you to the electors of
Bennelong, your own electorate. And you're saying to them that if they elect you, if they put you
back in the Parliament this time, you're not going to be there for the full three years, at some
point in the three years, there'll be a by-election. Can you see the potential negative in that for
them?

JOHN HOWARD: Well, the position in ... the position in relation to that is ... I mean, I'm very,
very upfront. I mean, whether ... depending on when I ... whether there would be a by-election or
not is something that I would determine then, because it has not been unknown for people in those
circumstances to serve out their term. It would depend entirely on circumstances.

KERRY O'BRIEN: John Howard, thanks very much for talking with us.

JOHN HOWARD: You're very welcome.