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Transcript of Question and Answer session, National Press Club address: The Hon Prime Minister, John Howard, MP: Great Hall, Parliament House, Canberra: 8 October 2004\n



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PRIME MINISTER

7 October 2004

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP QUESTION AND ANSWER SESSION, NATIONAL PRESS CLUB ADDRESS,

PARLIAMENT HOUSE

E&OE………………………………………………………………………………………..

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, Steve Lewis from The Australian. I apologise for the interruption, they clearly weren’t from the CFMEU. During this campaign…

PRIME MINISTER:

Not from The Australian, I hope, either.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, during this campaign, you’ve spoken of the need for ten year horizons in terms of policy development on water, I think on skills, and other areas. I’d like to cast forward just three years if I may to the year 2007, John Winston Howard happily ensconced in the Lodge, Peter Costello delivering I think it would be his 12th budget, telling reporters he’s just got one or two left in him. If I could use this timeframe Prime Minister, can I pose two questions. Will taxpayers still be paying a punitive 47 cents in the dollar marginal rate or will a re-elected Howard Government seek to do something about rates and not just the threshold? And secondly, on the issue of international terrorism, will Australia still be engaged in the war against terrorism or do you believe that within that timeframe al-Qaeda and its supporters can be defeated?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, can I take the second question first. I think we’ll still be engaged in the war against terrorism. I think it will be a long war. I can’t put a timeframe on it, but I don’t believe it will be over in three years time and I think anybody who imagines it will be over doesn’t understand how serious the challenge is. In relation to taxation rates, I would hope - and I make no promise and I want that underlined so nobody comes back at a future gathering and says you promised - and I’m not promising, I’m simply in response to your question saying if

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there does arise the capacity in future Coalition budgets to provide further relief then we would certainly want to do it. And both Peter and I have tried to state our priorities in this area and they include, where there is capacity, further taxation relief and taxation reform. We have done something towards ameliorating those punishing rates at the top level. I think we do have rates that are too high at that level and I think part of the entrepreneurial culture that we need to entrench is tied up with that. But we have a lot of debate in this community about the equity of the tax system and we always have to take people along with, I mean, it remains astonishing to me that there could have been a debate after the 1998 election about putting the threshold for the top rate up to $75,000 yet as you know that was defeated and words like ‘not rewarding the rich’ were flung around at that time. But that would be our general attitude in that circumstance.

JOURNALIST:

Mark Forbes from The Age. Prime Minister, you haven’t mentioned the war that Australia remains engaged in. Isn’t it time to come clean on weapons of mass destruction given the Iraq Survey Group has now found that Iraq’s nuclear, chemical and biological programmes were halted and stockpiles destroyed some years ago, don’t these findings vindicate the advice of your peak defence intelligence assessment organisation which told you that there was no evidence of Iraq restarting its programmes and that its capabilities may have been destroyed. Why do you continue to hide behind an apparently false statement that you acted and made these statements about WMD on the basis of your intelligence advice?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I don’t hide behind false statements. There was an aggregate of intelligence advice given to the Government at the time and the decision that we took, which was in part based on that advice, but not only on that advice, was justified in my view and the view of many by that advice and it’s been the finding of both the Jull Inquiry and the Flood Inquiry that no influence was exerted on the intelligence agencies, there was no massaging by ministers of that intelligence and, indeed, it’s been remarked that many of the statements I made were more circumspect than remarks that were made by many of others who were involved in this debate. I stand by the decision we took in relation to Iraq. I have no regrets at all about the fact that Saddam Hussein is no longer leading Iraq and it remains my very strong conviction that if the advice of my critics had been followed Saddam Hussein, with all that that implies, would still be running Iraq.

JOURNALIST:

Jim Middleton, ABC Television News. Prime Minister, you’ve talked a lot today about industrial relations. I’m just wondering how it felt yesterday to be lending your credibility and authority to the CFMEU, one of the most strident advocates, recidivist advocates of the closed shop and the union successors, heirs and successors to Norm Gallagher? And also, whether the decisions you announced in Tasmania yesterday, as well as finding a responsive chord in those Tasmanian Labor seats that might not also find a responsive cord across Bass Strait among the rural workers in a string of seats that you’re defending, particularly up the Queensland coast.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, Jim, I felt absolutely no compunction about sharing a platform with some fellow Australians who are interested in their job security and the job security of their families and if

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on occasions some of those people happen to belong to a union which in this age of mega unions straddles a whole range, I mean, I think the union that journalists belong to now is a… or those who chose to belong to a union in this era of the freedom of choice, that that union covers a multiplicity of activities, and I think that’s true of the CFMEU. So I felt absolutely no reluctance to share that platform. I respected the fact that the two union men who were there are both members of the Australian Labor Party. I think one is a member of the Federal Executive of the Labor Party. But on this occasion we agreed, we thought that these matters should involve a balance between caring for the environment and looking after jobs and caring for isolated communities and I felt very proud that we were able to announce a policy that identified with those three values. As to the political consequences, I’m not going to speculate about that. I announced that policy because I thought it was the right policy. We are going to put 172,000 hectares more into the reserve system in Tasmania. That is a good outcome for the environment, but we’re going to do it in a way that doesn’t cost jobs and I think that’s a good outcome for the people of Tasmania and I was very proud to be able to announce that policy and to see that it did receive very strong support by those who were gathered in Launceston.

JOURNALIST:

Louise Dodson, Sydney Morning Herald, Mr Howard. Researchers like Hugh McKay who has done work on the mood of the nation has found very high levels of disengagement among people about this election. Do you think after eight and a half years, voters are bored with you?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I’m sure some are. I have no doubt that there is a section of the Australian population that’s more than bored with me. I understand that. And that is true of any Prime Minister who makes an impression, it’s true of any Prime Minister who stands for something and takes difficult decisions and is prepared to argue a case from the point of view of minority support in the community, from the vantage point rather, or disadvantage point of minority support in the community. I’m surprised that he’s found disengagement, I have not found that. I’ve actually found people in this election campaign more engaged in many respects than they have been in some of the earlier campaigns in which I’ve been involved. I might be wrong, I may talking to the wrong people. And when I say engaged, I mean not only people who are engaged by expressing their support, but also people who, in different ways, are expressing their dissent from what the Government has done. So I think people, generally remarking, people are never bored with good outcomes, people are never bored with prosperity, people are never bored with a sense of security and a sense of confidence and a sense that the nation is in the hands of a group of men and women who are a good team and not a government led by somebody who sees himself as simply a one man band.

JOURNALIST:

Stephanie Kennedy from ABC Radio, Prime Minister. The day you announced the election date, you said in your press conference that you’d made some mistakes and that, like any government does, that you had made mistakes in the past. When you were asked at that press conference to expand on that statement you didn’t want to at the time. I’m just wondering if you’d like to expand on that now and tell us what some of those mistakes may have been over the eight years of your prime ministership.

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PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I think I had expanded a little later. I think I remarked that earlier on I’d probably made a mistake in taking too much time and allowing too much time to debate about resolving some issues relating to Native Title. I certainly think the Government made a mistake in the way in which it explained some of the consequences in relation to petrol excise in the wake of taxation reform, but I certainly did something about that mistake. I apologised for it and I made some changes to the excise regime which means that petrol is now four to five cents a litre cheaper than it would otherwise been if I had not taken that action. As to other mistakes I think you might forgive me if I beg off going into detail on them at this ponit. Look, I’m a fallible human being like anybody else. I don’t pretend to argue that I haven’t made mistakes over the last eight and a half years. But I would argue that I have got the big things right. We are economically stronger than we’ve been at any time since World War II. We are widely respected around the world. We are seen as a country that’s achieved and succeeded. We are seen as a country that can do things well. We’re seen as a country that will take a stand even though it’s a big unpopular and we’re seen as a country to date that we’ll see the distance and not cut and run in the face of adversity.

JOURNALIST:

Mark Riley from the Seven Network, Prime Minister. In your address to the nation on March 20 last year you outlined the legal basis, as you saw it, for the war in Iraq and you said that there were numerous Security Council Resolutions in the early 90s that authorised military action. And then Sir, you went on to say that that action was only suspended on condition that Iraq gave up its weapons of mass destruction. Clearly we all know this has not happened. As a result the authority to take military action under those earlier resolutions has revived. On the basis of what the Iraq Survey Group has reported today wasn't Kofi Annan right, even on your reckoning, that the war in Iraq was illegal under international law?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don't accept that it was illegal, and we provided legal advice at the time saying that the action that we took was valid and proper based on the serial non-compliance of Iraq with Security Council Resolutions. I mean that was the legal basis of the war - that Iraq had not complied with the Security Council Resolutions. Now we all like the benefit of hindsight, but the legal basis of the Coalition action was the non-compliance with Security Council Resolutions, and at the time that the decision was taken Iraq was seen as not only in breach, but persistently refusing to fully comply in relation to requirements concerning weapons of mass destruction. And the very report, the Duelfer report, which has obviously perhaps provoked your question and that of Mark Forbes, acknowledges explicitly the serial breaches of United Nations Security Council Resolutions by Iraq. Duelfer found that Saddam Hussein had refused to cooperate fully with UN inspectors in the IAEA and despite the unanimous passage of 1441, which warned that Iraq posed a threat to international peace and security, remained in material breach of its international obligations and would face consequences if it failed to comply. Now, they are Duelfer's findings today and those findings are consistent with the legal basis of the decision that we took back in March of last year.

JOURNALIST:

Laurie Oakes, Prime Minister, the Nine Network. You say, assuming that you win the election on Saturday, that you'll remain Prime Minister and Liberal Leader as long as your party wants you. How do you judge when the party no longer wants you? Will you wait for a

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delegation to tap you on the shoulder and say it's time to go old timer? Will you sit tight until someone moves for a spill in the party room? Or will you take some responsibility yourself to bring about an orderly transition? And finally Prime Minister, when you do get out before the next election, do you think you'll be throwing Peter Costello a hospital pass?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well Laurie, speaking of hospitals, I can say that if I ever went under a bus Peter Costello would be my automatic, logical and, in my view, deserved successor as leader of the Liberal Party. I've been leader of the party for a long time. I understand my party. I love it. It's given me a lot. The success I've achieved in public life is in no small measure due to the generosity of the spirit of the Liberal Party to me through thick and thin over a long period of time. I think I know its mind, I think I know its heart, and I think I will know its mood towards me. I don't need to be more specific than that.

JOURNALIST:

Lenore Taylor, the Australian Financial Review. One of the reasons you've given in this campaign for your claim that interest rates will be higher under Labor is that Labor Governments always spend more. In fact in this campaign both sides have spent about a net $13.5 billion. Does that mean that this campaign will put upward pressure on interest rates, no matter who wins? And you just said you would try to offer tax relief if you had the capacity in the next term. Didn't you already have the capacity, but you just chose to spend the money on something else?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well Lenore, I think my claim more particularly has been that Labor always runs deficits. And it's possible, I acknowledge, for a party to spend more than another without going into deficit, and I think you'd acknowledge that it's the necessity of a government being in deficit to compete with private borrowers on the markets for money to fund that deficit, that exerts the upward pressure on interest rates. And until you get into deficit, you are not actually exerting upward pressure on interest rates, although as you get close to deficit, you can have quite an adverse effect on interest rate perceptions, and therefore have an effect on the rates. In relation to spending in this campaign, can I just make a couple of comments because the Labor Party has been claiming a virtue that it does not deserve in this area. According to their own policy documents, Labor has committed to gross spending of $39.5 billion and it claims savings of $30.1 billion. That results in a net spend of $9.4 billion. However, on our calculations, Labor's true net spend is likely to be much higher and we believe potentially in the order of $16 billion or more over the forward estimates period. Let me illustrate. The true cost of Medicare Gold has been estimated by experts, and this has not been convincingly refuted, and I specify Econtech and also Access Economics, the true cost of Medicare Gold has been estimated to be $4 billion more than Labor's estimate. Labor's coastguard policy has been costed at $300 million, compared with a $800 million version at the last election. They've under-costed a promised reduction in HECS fees for maths and science students by $160 million. Labor's cost its new army battalion in Townsville at $480 million, when Defence advice is that the true cost is up to $690 million. Labor continues to oppose the disability support pension reforms which are factored into PEEFO. There's a saving there of $220 million and Labor's been silent on this during the campaign, but if they're going to continue to oppose it, then they must fund the cost of that opposition. So on the spending side, there's a question mark over at least $5 billion, and of their claimed savings about $2 billion come from claims that are unlikely to be accepted, although we don't know for certain

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by Treasury. For example, their participation dividend and some increased ATO compliance, and of course overturning the annual GST reporting (inaudible) announced in the budget, which was of great help to small business. Together, that would add a further $7 billion to Labor's net spending of $9.4 billion over four years. So when you look at the gross spend and you subtract the real value of the claimed savings, Labor’s claimed fiscal virtue looks a lot shakier than they would like us to believe.

JOURNALIST:

James Grubel from AAP, Prime Minister. At this election we saw something different, it was a joint Coalition campaign launch with the National Party. Is that a sign that some time in the next term talks of a merger between the Liberal Party and the National Party will be on the agenda and will you be looking at the Coalition agreement if you are returned and deciding on the ministries depending on the results the National Party achieves?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, James, I thought it was a good idea to have a joint launch. I thought it sent a very strong signal that we are two very close, united parties. We have separate identities. It doesn’t mean that we’re going to have merger talks in the next term if the Government is returned. I’m a great believer that working cooperatively in coalition but maintaining the separate identity has certainly served us very well to date. And in present circumstances I wouldn’t argue for change. Nobody could have a better Deputy Prime Minister than John Anderson. He’s not only a first rate human being and a very committed person but he’s also somebody who understands and argues very effectively for the interests of people living in the country areas of Australia. And his passion, and I rightly call it his passion, for reforms in areas such as water has been one of the very beneficial influences in the Government. His understanding of many social issues and the consistency with which he argues the cause of those is one of the things that is very memorable about many of the Cabinet discussions that we have. So we will have a coalition. I’m a great coalitionist, I’m a passionate Liberal of course, first and foremost, but I think the coalition between our two parties has been very productive. I will keep the coalition arrangement if we are re-elected. The Leader of the National Party will be the Deputy Prime Minister. I honour and value that partnership and as to the question of the arrangement of any portfolios, I haven’t really thought about that, it’s presumptuous to do so. I’m focused on those undecided voters who may be listening this to answer because this is going to be a very tight election and I’ll worry about those things if I have the luxury of doing so on Sunday but I can assure you we’ll have a coalition. It will be fair to the National Party and it will be fair to the Liberal Party. And the Leader of the National Party will be the Deputy Leader of the Coalition…Deputy Prime Minister rather and that is how it should be.

JOURNALIST:

Chris Hammer from SBS World News, Prime Minister. Two days before the last election you addressed the Press Club and quoted from ONA advice on the children overboard matter. I don’t want to revisit that but I’m wondering what kind of advice you’re now receiving from the intelligence agencies, from the Department of Foreign Affairs, about the unfolding situation in Iraq and specifically, do they believe that free and fair elections will be possible in January or do they believe that escalating violence will make that not possible?

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PRIME MINISTER:

Well, speaking very generally and without sourcing what I’m about to say to particular agencies, the situation in Iraq is difficult. There’s a determined attempt being made to prevent the elections taking place, there’s a determined attempt being made to intimidate the Coalition forces, there’s a determined attempt being made by terrorists in other organisations to make sure that what could be the great democratic experiment in Iraq is not achieved and does not take place. Now, that imposes a very clear obligation on countries like Australia to stay the distance. I can’t conceive of anything that this country could do that would be more demoralizing or dispiriting to that cause than for us to implement the withdrawal of our forces before this coming Christmas, which is less than three months off. I mean, who is going to look after the 20 or 30 non-combatants that might be part of the UN force? Who’s going to provide protection to the Australian mission in Baghdad? Are we going to leave that to the British and the Americans, having said, well, we’re going to take our forces home but you can look after our civilians? I mean, I don’t think that is something that appeals to the Australian public and I don’t think that’s something that would increase the repute of this country around the world.

JOURNALIST:

Malcolm Farr from the Daily Telegraph, Prime Minister. There’s been polling in which your opponent's honesty has been rated as above yours. Do you believe that Australians could vote for a man whom they suspect at least of not having been as open and frank with them as perhaps he could have been?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, Malcolm, I don’t accept the criticisms that have been made by people about my integrity or honesty. I’ve leveled with the Australian people, I’ve never set out to deceive them and I say that very firmly and very tenaciously. As to how people will vote, we’ll find that out on Saturday. As to polling, it’s a miracle with all the polling that’s now taking place that anybody answers polling questions, there have been so many polls. And as one of my predecessors, Malcolm Fraser, once said, there is only one poll that counts and that’s going to be in two days time.

JOURNALIST:

Dennis Atkins, the Courier Mail, Prime Minister. If you are re-elected on Saturday, would you like to see the full sale of Telstra to take place during the next three years?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, Dennis, our policy on that is that that should occur, subject to the conditions that have been enunciated in that policy and obviously those conditions would have to be met.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, Paul Starick from The Advertiser. You’ve talked a lot about the difficulty in winning a fourth term after eight and a half years in office. If you lose on Saturday will it be because your campaign’s focused too much on Mark Latham and the past and not enough on a bold agenda for the future?

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PRIME MINISTER:

Paul, I’m not a political commentator. I’m not going to speculate in advance as to what might be the reason if this or that happens. I am still talking to people who are undecided and the last thing I’m going to do is to try and put myself in the role of a commentator. There are still people out there who are undecided and I want them to contemplate that if you do change the government you change the nation, and that our economic strength, our low interest rates, our high employment, a very low inflation, the strong growth, the strong budget, they are not constants, they are not givens, they’re not on automatic pilot and if a Labor government is elected there is a very big risk that so many of them will be compromised or will disappear.

JOURNALIST:

Paul Bongiorno, Network Ten, Prime Minister. In this very forum, just before the Iraq war, you said - I would have to accept that if Iraq had genuinely disarmed I couldn’t justify on its own a military invasion of Iraq to change the regime. Charles Duelfer, in his evidence before the US Senate overnight, said once inspections began in 1991 Iraq chose to yield most of its weapons and bulk agents, as well as the large facilities that were widely known to exist. This advice, of course, came to the Government, as we know, from one of your opponents in your seat, Mr Wilke. Will you now admit that you were mistaken and like Tony Blair will you now apologise to the Australian people for your mistake.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, Paul, the advice that we were given at the time was the basis of the decision and that decision was taken in good faith. It is true that on the basis of the work and the surveys carried out to date stockpiles of WMD have not been discovered but it’s also true that Duelfer and many others have certified to both the capacity and the intention of Iraq to resume its WMD ambitions once the United Nations sanctions and the United Nations pressure are disappeared. And can I remind you that the real pressure that was being exerted on Iraq in March of last year, before the Coalition operation commenced, the real pressure that was being exerted on Iraq was the presence of Coalition forces around Iraq and, indeed, one of the hypocrisies of what occurred at the time was the willingness of some, and they will remain nameless, that were prepared to take advantage of that pressure in order to bolster their case about further United Nations process, yet simultaneously in the same voice condemned the United States and the United Kingdom and Australia for participating in the very military build-up that was exerting the pressure on Iraq.

JOURNALIST:

Andrew Fraser, Canberra Times, Prime Minister. Can you guarantee that no public sector jobs will be lost in Canberra in a fourth term for the Coalition and how many public sector jobs do you see in jeopardy under the announced policies of your opponent?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I think there are quite a number under the policies of our opponents. I’m not going to give an explicit guarantee in relation to every last job, I can’t do that, but what I will do is to say that none of the policies that we have announced threaten in any significant way public sector employment in this city. And can I also remark that in the eight and a half years that we’ve been in government there has been a very significant economic transformation in Canberra. There are a majority of people now employed in the private sector and I think,

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without in any way being disrespectful to government employees, that is a very good thing. I think Canberra now has a strong, vital, distinctive economy. I think it has industries that are associated with the city. I think it has a much better mix of the public and the private and I think people see the complementarity of the public and the private in Canberra far more now and to better advantage than used to be the case. And can I say that the co-operation between the public and the private in Canberra and the sense of distance that sometimes existed in the past is not there to anywhere near the same degree. But I can’t give an absolute guarantee in relation to any… the last job but I’m not aware of any policies that are going to have any significant impact and, indeed, some of them that have been announced will have some positive employment consequences, for example, the commitment to the National Portrait Gallery and a few others that involves some expenditures, but I’m not aware of any that are going to have particularly adverse consequences, but I’ll fall short of an absolute guarantee that you’ve requested.

MC:

Prime Minister, thank you very much.

[ends]