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Opposition Leader responds to Prime Minister banning him from speaking at VP commemorations, comments on Japanese Prime Minister's apology for war aggression, dealing with party disputes, and the Noel Crichton-Browne issue -

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ANDREW OLLE: To Federal politics, now, and after reportedly branding John Howard gutless, yesterday, former Premier, Nick Greiner, offered abject apologies to the Opposition Leader, today, and claimed he'd been misreported. But Mr Howard has other things on his mind like the behind-the-scenes work for a cease-fire among his Liberals in the west, and yesterday's VP Day ceremony at which the Prime Minister refused to let him speak. Paul Lyneham invited Mr Howard to speak tonight.

PAUL LYNEHAM: John Howard, welcome to the program.

JOHN HOWARD: A pleasure, Paul.

PAUL LYNEHAM: Were you really annoyed when Paul Keating wouldn't let you speak at yesterday's VP commemoration in Brisbane?

JOHN HOWARD: I thought it was the wrong decision by him. I don't ever get too annoyed about anything he does any more, but it would have been in line with the Hawke approach in 1990 at the Gallipoli ceremony when both Bob Hawke, as Prime Minister, and John Hewson, as Opposition Leader, spoke. These occasions are not Labor or Liberal occasions - they're Australian occasions - and nothing bulks larger in the genuine iconography of Australia than respect for the war dead, and always, those occasions should be utterly above and beyond party politics.

PAUL LYNEHAM: In that event, why wasn't he right when he said he was speaking as the head of government on behalf of all Australians irrespective of their political belief?

JOHN HOWARD: I think, in the nature of things, Paul, we do have a Labor Party and a Liberal Party. I think we do have a Government and an Opposition, and if you want to put beyond argument that it's a uniting and not a dividing occasion, then you always involve your opposite number as Bob Hawke correctly did in 1990.

But the incident has now passed. I didn't mention the thing yesterday; I didn't want to. It was a wonderful occasion.

PAUL LYNEHAM: Would you have said anything remarkably different to what he said?

JOHN HOWARD: No, but as you know and as the Prime Minister often says, symbols are important, and uniting symbols and involving both sides of politics are always important on occasions such as this.

PAUL LYNEHAM: Paul Keating seems relatively satisfied with the Japanese Prime Minister Murayama's apology to the victims of Japan's World War II aggression. Are you?

JOHN HOWARD: Well, the words of the apology themselves go a lot further than we've had before and, to that extent, it's a real step forward and to be welcomed. I guess the worry a lot have - and I am one - is that it perhaps is a symbolic statement that masks a deeper rejection of the realities of history. For example, the Liberal Democratic Party in Japan, which is the ruling party, has authorised a book on the history of the war which has such extraordinary denials as a denial of the rape of Nanking and basically casts Japan in the role of a victim. So I welcome what the Prime Minister said - on the face of it, a lot further than what's gone before - but I can understand that perhaps the Japanese haven't done what the Germans have done and faced, in more brutal reality, the facts of history. I think they really should take a leaf out of the German book and, in a more fulsome, full-on way, recognise what really did happen.

PAUL LYNEHAM: And unless they do, no apology, no form of words, can be seen as fair-dinkum, can it?

JOHN HOWARD: Well, I think it's possible to say that the Prime Minister meant what he said. I don't have any reason to doubt that he meant what he said, but I also say that behind all of that is an institutional rejection of what actually happened, and, in that sense, the Japanese have behaved differently from the Germans.

PAUL LYNEHAM: And talking of apologies, I see Nick Greiner's given you a beauty today - abject apology. He said he didn't really call you gutless, after all. Do you accept that?

JOHN HOWARD: Yes, I do.

PAUL LYNEHAM: But he did refer to you in a speech called 'The gutless society', and I suppose the underlying point is he was saying too many people in politics and business are playing it too safe. You're playing it, so your critics would say, safe politics, not much policy.

JOHN HOWARD: Well, we've produced a lot of policy. It's just that I'm going to do what any other successful Opposition Leader has done - including Nick Greiner in 1988 - and wait until the campaign to release my campaign initiatives. But people will know what I stand for when they vote for me - they will know that very, very clearly. And one of the reasons that I've been able to do it with credibility, so far, is that people already have a very good fix on what John Howard stands for. I'm not a blank sheet of paper so far as policy is concerned. I'm not a new bloke on the block as far as policies ....

PAUL LYNEHAM: But we've got to know about your fiscal policy, for example, don't we?

JOHN HOWARD: Well, you will know. If I offer any kind of revenue relief, any kind of tax cuts, people will know where the money's coming from. Of course they will, and I've said that repeatedly. It's just that I'm not going to be driven by the Prime Minister or anybody else into revealing my campaign initiatives when they want them; I'll reveal them when I want them. But people will know exactly where they stand under a Howard government when they cast their votes on polling day.

PAUL LYNEHAM: Malcolm Fraser says the constitution of the Labor Party gives it a distinct advantage over the Liberal Party in handling difficult disputes like Batman and Noel Crichton-Browne.

JOHN HOWARD: Well, there's certainly no doubt that the Labor Party has a more centralised, authoritarian, Federal structure, than we have.

PAUL LYNEHAM: He seems to think it's more effective, too.

JOHN HOWARD: Well, I read that article. It depends a bit on what you regard in the long term as more effective - authoritarian central control or democracy. There's no doubt that, in some cases, excessive reliance on State autonomy can mean that something which is damaging the Federal health of a political party can go by neglected for longer than it ought to be.

PAUL LYNEHAM: And has that been the case with your party in Western Australia?

JOHN HOWARD: Well, there are lot of things happening in Western Australia, at present; there are a lot of discussions going on; there are lot of meetings taking place; and I'm not going to get into the role of an armchair commentator on my own party division.

PAUL LYNEHAM: Because you've got too much going on behind the scenes, haven't you? Let's be frank.

JOHN HOWARD: Well, Paul, you know how politics operates, and part of the process is to talk and to listen and persuade. And I think I've said to you before that strong leadership is not making noise from the hill. Sometimes it is quietly talking behind the scenes and making suggestions and trying to bring people together, and I can say that, at a Federal parliamentary level, my colleagues are working together in great harmony and unison at the present time, and there is a common commitment on behalf of my Federal parliamentary colleagues in Western Australia that the supreme objective is one of party unity and winning the Federal election. And that's a very important starting point.

PAUL LYNEHAM: Most of them are telling me that Noel Crichton-Browne should be kicked out of the Liberal Party.

JOHN HOWARD: Well, I can't dispute what they've told you because I don't know what it is, but ....

PAUL LYNEHAM: They haven't said it to you?

JOHN HOWARD: Well, they've said a lot of things to me, Paul, but I've made my position on that person known. He has been asked not to attend any further meetings of the Federal parliamentary party and I have the support of all of my colleagues in saying that. The question of whether he remains in or out of the Western Australian division is a matter for the division.

PAUL LYNEHAM: John Howard, thanks for your time.

JOHN HOWARD: A pleasure.

ANDREW OLLE: The interviewer, Paul Lyneham, of course.