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Transcript of the Prime Minister the Hon John Howard MP Press Conference: Parliament House, Canberra: 29 August 2004: Federal Election 2004.\n



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PRIME MINISTER

29 August 2004

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP PRESS CONFERENCE, PARLIAMENT HOUSE

Subjects: Federal Election 2004

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

Good afternoon. Ladies and gentlemen, I saw His Excellency, the Governor-General this morning and on my advice he has agreed to a dissolution of the House of Representatives with a view to an election for the House of Representatives and half of the Senate to be held on Saturday, the 9th of October. The Writs will issue on the 31st of August. Parliament will be both prorogued and the House of Representatives dissolved respectively at 4.59 on Tuesday and 5.00pm Tuesday, the 31st of August. The rolls will close on the 7th of September and polling day, as I mentioned, will take place on the 9th of October.

This election, ladies and gentlemen, will be about trust. Who do you trust to keep the economy strong and protect family living standards? Who do you trust to keep interest rates low? Who do you trust to lead the fight on Australia’s behalf against international terrorism? Who do you trust to keep the Budget strong so that we can afford to spend more on health and education?

The election will be about the future of this nation over the next 10 years. And in the weeks ahead I will unveil detailed plans addressing the major challenges which face our nation over that 10-year period. Those plans will be based on the certain knowledge that all of our policies in the future, as they have been in the past, will be fully funded, eminently affordable and coming off the base of about the most strongly performing economy in the Western world.

Economic strength and economic stability is the basis of the realisation of other hopes and aspirations for a nation. Without economic strength and economic durability all the goals in the world will not be achieved. And the great achievement of this Government over the last eight-and-a-half years is that we have delivered a strong, robust and competitive economy. Over that period of time we have created 1.3 million new jobs. We have wiped $70 billion off the debt we inherited from the former Labor government. We have seen interest rates, so critical to Australian families, particularly at the present time in an international climate of upward pressure on interest rates, we have seen those interest rates fall to 30-year lows. And,

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importantly, we have delivered real wage increases to Australian workers of some 14% over that period.

We have given to the Australian people and the Australian nation a sense of hope, a sense of prosperity and a sense of optimism. Australia is a proud, respected nation around the world, not only because of the inherent worth of the Australian people, which is always there and always our greatest asset no matter who might be in government at a particular time, but it is undeniably the case that the economic strength and the determined and unambiguous stance Australia has taken on difficult international issues has given to our country a new dimension and a new respect. But in the process of doing these things we have not neglected the vulnerable in our community. We have strengthened Medicare, and it is an irony of this election campaign that the only party promising to take away something from Medicare is, in fact, the Australian Labor Party. The Medicare safety net, the most important structural addition to Medicare in 20 years is of growing benefit to Australian families and the more vulnerable in our community, yet Labor, for ideological reasons, is committed to taking that safety net away.

Managing an $800 billion economy is a challenging task. It requires focus, experience and steadiness. It requires an experienced team. The successes that my Government have had are not successes that I solely claim for myself. I have a great team. I have, in my view, the finest Treasurer this country has seen, Peter Costello. I have in Alexander Downer an outstanding Foreign Minister. In Phillip Ruddock, firstly a fine Immigration Minister and now a fine Attorney-General. In Tony Abbott, somebody who’s brought reforming zeal to the healthcare portfolio. In Brendan Nelson, who’s brought great reforming zeal and negotiated through the Senate against all predictions major, long-term, systemic changes to our higher education system. So I present myself to the Australian people as an experienced, committed, focussed Prime Minister who is leading an experienced, focussed team that has a track record of success.

It has been said by one of my predecessors that if you change the Government, you change the country. A change to a Latham Labor government would be no mere adjustment at the margin. In two crucial areas it would represent a real threat to the living standards of the Australian people and Australian families. The first and most sensitive of those is, of course, the area of interest rates. It’s an historic fact that over the last 30 years interest rates under Labor governments have always gone up because Labor governments spend more than they collect and drive budgets into deficit. So it will be with a Labor Latham government. And it’s been calculated that if interest rates, under a future Labor government led by Mr Latham, were to rise to the average of what they were under previous Labor governments, that would add an additional $960 a month to the average mortgage of the average Australian family.

Labor would hand back control of industrial relations to the trade union movement. At a time when only 17.5% of the Australian private sector workforce belongs to a union it is a pathetic retreat to the past to hand back 100% control of our industrial relations system to the trade union movement. They would abolish work place agreements, they would weaken small business protection in the Trade Practices Act, they would increase the role of unions even in workplaces where there are no union members.

Ladies and gentlemen, it has been for me the greatest honour of my life to have served as the Prime Minister of Australia over the last eight-and-a-half years. Serving the Australian people is an incredible privilege. I have found that experience stimulating, rewarding and I have tried to my very best ability to be strong and true in their interests. I seek their support again. I ask the Australian people, when the election comes along, to return the Coalition

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Government. We have been a good Government. We've made our mistakes, like any Government does, but we have been a Government that has led Australia forward, we've been a Government that has protected Australia, we've been a Government that has made Australia more prosperous, and we've been a Government that above everything else, has propounded and defended the interests of the Australian people, both here and abroad. I enter this election campaign with energy, commitment and enthusiasm. I want to go on serving the Australian people. I believe in them. I love the opportunity of serving my fellow Australians. It means a great deal to me, and I humbly ask them to give us the opportunity, when the time comes, to get on with the job that we have been doing over the last eight and a half years. We will not let them down.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, you said this election is about trust and the future. Can you now give the Australian voters an unequivocal guarantee that if re-elected, you will serve out the entirety of the next (inaudible)?

PRIME MINISTER:

I will go on, if the Australian people do me the honour of returning my Government, I will go on serving in that position for as long as my party wants me to. I do not intend, and I make this very clear, to be time specific. I will go on serving for so long as my party wants me to.

JOURNALIST:

But considering you're seeking a renewed mandate Mr Howard, don't voters deserve a guarantee from you that if you are re-elected, that you will serve out the full term?

PRIME MINISTER:

Alison, I will go on in the job for so long as my party wants me to.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, it sounds like you're running very much a fear campaign of the consequences of a Latham Government. What positives are you offering voters?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we'll be offering a lot of positives. I mean look at what we have delivered over the last eight and a half years. But I do not apologise for warning of the risk of high interest rates under a Labor Government. Interest rates always go up under Labor governments because Labor governments spend more than they collect and they drive budgets into deficit, and that helps drive up interest rates. And we are living, at the moment, in an international climate where there are some upward pressures on interest rates, and it's all the more important that the relative credentials of the two sides of politics on interest rates be very prominent in people's minds, and it will be because it's very relevant to the living standards of Australian families.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, can you guarantee no rise in interest rates?

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PRIME MINISTER:

I will guarantee that interest rates are always going to be lower under a Coalition Government.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, what's the rationale of allowing the Senate to sit and having to (inaudible)?

PRIME MINISTER:

The rationale? Well the Senate of course is not controlled by the Government, and it's in the hands of the non-Government parties as to whether the Senate sits because there's a standing resolution. It can only sit for two days because the prorogation takes effect on Tuesday afternoon, but I could have advised a prorogation this afternoon, but I didn't want anybody to suggest that I was trying to prevent the Senate doing any pointless political business it might want to do.

JOURNALIST:

Why not allow the House of Reps to sit as well?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well there's no point in the House coming back.

JOURNALIST:

But you'd have Question Time, you could (inaudible)

PRIME MINISTER:

Well there's really not point. Not with, what, a day and a half?

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, doesn't it leave the impression that you're running scared from Mr Latham, not wanting to face him in Question Time?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh really, really.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, why the longer campaign?

PRIME MINISTER:

Why the longer campaign? Essentially to avoid having the election on the weekend of the Rugby League Grand Final. I indicated that I wasn't going to allow that to happen.

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JOURNALIST:

Parliament could have sat this week and then you could have called the election next week.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I've called the election for the 9th of October, and I think having another week is not a bad idea. We might at long last see a few policies from Mr Latham. I mean we're six weeks from the election, and we don't know what this man stands for. He wants to be Prime Minister. We know that. Fair enough. But we have no idea what he stands for. I've often said before, I didn't agree with a lot of what they stood for, but I knew what Bob Hawke and Paul Keating stood for, and people know what I stand for. A few of them don't like it, I understand that, but I have no idea, and I don't think the Australian people have any idea, of what Mr Latham stands for, and perhaps giving an extra week will give him an opportunity to let us in on what his plans are, what his detailed plans are, for the future of the Australian people because this is an election very much about the future of this country. It's where we want to take this country over the next 10 years, and that is what the Australian people will hear from me over the next six weeks, and it will be against the backdrop of them knowing what we have achieved over the last eight and a half years. We're not asking them to take it on the never never. We are saying to them - look at our record, that demonstrates our capacity, and on the basis of that you can trust us to better protect your living standards, keep interest rates lower, better lead the fight against terrorism, better keep the Budget strong so that we can spend even more on health and education.

JOURNALIST:

(inaudible)

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes.

JOURNALIST:

Can you tell us what...

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think I'll hear about all of them... no, no, I always leave that to my critics, and I have one or two of those, and I think people will give a demonstration of that. Look, we have... every Government makes mistakes Lenore, but I don't intend to spend this particular press conference going through them. But I am a human being. I have all the frailties of a human being and my Government has all the frailties of a Government composed of human beings, but if you look at the track record of the last eight and a half years, and if I can borrow the famous injunction of Ronald Reagan in 1984 - do you really believe Australia is better off now than what it was eight and a half years ago? The overwhelming majority of Australians would answer resoundingly yes to that question.

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JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, with the economy going well... with the economy going well, why do you think you are behind in the polls?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh I don't know. I think we're living in an age of greater volatility. I think the polls are going to bounce around.

JOURNALIST:

Would you say you're...

PRIME MINISTER:

Look I'm not going to start giving a running commentary on the polls Louise. I know it is tempting and I know you like to get me on the record, but look the polls are going to bounce around. Look, once you call an election, opinion polls sort of become a bit academic because it's too late to change, isn't it?

JOURNALIST:

(inaudible)

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I think that would be novel. I don't think I'd get away with that.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, given your refusal to give an unequivocal guarantee on serving the next term, isn't it fair for voters to assume that a vote for Howard is a vote for Costello?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, it's not. It's fair to assume for people to take me on my word.

JOURNALIST:

Well, why not give an unequivocal…?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, well, what I have said is that I will remain the leader of my party for so long as my party wants me to.

JOURNALIST:

Does that mean you’re giving a guarantee that you wouldn’t resign...

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PRIME MINISTER:

I will remain for so long as my party wants me to, I can’t be any more unequivocal of that and I’m not going to sort of give some other combination, Misha, some other permutation. That is how I feel. I mean, if anybody imagines that I’ve sort of lost interest in this job, forget it.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, where will you focus your campaign and how will you address that issue of generational change? Mr Latham’s quite a bit younger than you.

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh, I don’t think people take too much notice of age, it’s your performance, your fitness. I don’t think I’m seen as somebody who’s lacking energy and commitment or fitness. But, look, you know, it’s ability and performance, it’s not a particular age that really matters and I don’t think Australians worry about that. They’re just worried about how good you are in the job and who… they’ll look at us and say can I trust Howard or Latham to keep my interests rates low. They don’t say, can I trust somebody who’s x age against somebody y age to keep my interests rates low. They look at our relative abilities. They say, which of the two of them is more likely to keep the Budget in surplus so we’ve got more to spend on health and education; which of the two of them is more likely to protect our living standards. They’re the questions they’re going to ask. They’re not going to say, can he still run a marathon or can he do this or he do that. I mean, I think I’ve demonstrated a certain capacity for long distance running or walking perhaps. I don’t think there’s much doubt about that. But, look, I don’t seek to bring these matters into it. I mean, you asked me the question, I don’t think the Australian voters are fussed by age differences. They’re fussed by who they think they can trust with these important things that affect their lives. I mean, the things that affect their lives that they’re worried about and they’re going to ask themselves, well which of these two blokes is more likely to keep my mortgage affordable and that’s a very pertinent question, that’s far more important than the age difference between Mr Latham and myself.

JOURNALIST:

Can you guarantee that your election spending spree will not send the Budget into deficit, as it did in 2002.

PRIME MINISTER:

Absolutely.

JOURNALIST:

… goodwill off the back of the Olympic Games…

PRIME MINISTER:

No.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard…

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PRIME MINISTER:

That’s, I hadn’t… really? Goodwill off the back of the Olympic… no, I took a decision some time ago that the Australian public should be allowed to see the Olympics uninterrupted by the crossfire of an election campaign.

JOURNALIST:

Will the welcome back be bipartisan now?

PRIME MINISTER:

The welcome back? Well, it was never intended to be a political exercise, never. I have never sought to politicise those issues. I will respect all of the caretaker conventions. But, you know, no more, no less.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, you talk about trust being a key theme of the election. What about your credibility and especially over issues…?

PRIME MINISTER:

The Australian public will give their verdict on those matters on the ninth of October and my masters and my makers are the Australian people, nobody else.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, we’ve heard you (inaudible) from some of the people who were on that asylum boat…

PRIME MINISTER:

(inaudible) boat.

JOURNALIST:

… talking about their distress of having been accused of wanting to throw children into the water, they’ve been accepted as refugees, they’ve settled in Australia, they’ve learnt English. Just before the election campaign you said you didn’t want people like them in Australia. And what do you say to them now?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, I don’t intend to go further into that. It’s been done to death that issue and I have no further comment on it.

JOURNALIST:

(inaudible) owe them some apology… Mr Howard

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PRIME MINISTER:

No, I don’t.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, having settled on October 9 as the date, you could have let the Parliament sit for this week. Did you have something to fear from that?

PRIME MINISTER:

No.

JOURNALIST:

Who’s going to lead the Liberal Party if you lose?

PRIME MINISTER:

I am working to stop that option occurring.

JOURNALIST:

So is this the fight of your political life?

PRIME MINISTER:

I beg your pardon?

JOURNALIST:

Is this the fight of your political life?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh, yes, tough fight. I mean, we start as the underdog, there’s no doubt about that. We have a tough fight ahead of us. The longer you are in office the harder it is. And I wouldn’t want anybody, I mean I understand that, I don’t enter this campaign with any sense of complacency. I enter this campaign with a great sense of realism, an enormous reservoir of experience and determination, great energy and a dedicated commitment to lead the Coalition back into office because I believe that that will be the best outcome for the Australian people.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, you said in the past you haven’t sensed any generic hostility towards the Government, is that still your view?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh, broadly yes.

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JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard…

PRIME MINISTER:

This will be the last question.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, do you believe that the Coalition can win seats from the Labor Party?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think there are some seats that we could win from Labor. I think this could be an election that might see some seats change hands, I just don’t know. It’s going to be very very close, Dennis. We don’t have a big margin, we don’t and that is obviously the challenge. I think a factor that will loom, particularly in the area of industrial relations as we get closer to the date, a factor that will loom in people’s minds is the prospect that if Labor does win we’ll have coast to coast Labor governments for the first time ever, I think, in Australia’s history. And what that portends in the area of industrial relations will be really quite important. Thank you.

[ends]