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Prime Minister criticises Asian newspaper editorials condemning his failure to publicly censure the discriminatory immigration views expressed by Independent MP, Pauline Hanson; repeats view that Australia's history is positive and not racist

MONICA ATTARD: The Prime Minister has hit back at Asian newspapers which have criticised his refusal to respond directly in Independent MP, Pauline Hanson, and the race debate she's inspired. Accusing media in the region of ignorance and deliberate misrepresentation, Mr Howard went on to list a number of his own comments where he's reasserted his commitment to non-discriminatory immigration and where he's condemned intolerance. From Canberra, our chief political correspondent, Fran Kelly.

FRAN KELLY: Interest rates are coming down and the industrial relations legislation is now a certainty. And yet still the Prime Minister wakes up in the morning to find the front pages dominated not by these achievements but by the race debate and criticism of his handling of it.

Contrary to John Howard's confident prediction to John Laws last week that this issue will all be forgotten in three months, continuing reports here and overseas indicate otherwise. The Sydney Morning Herald reported today another round of strongly-worded editorials in regional newspapers criticising the Prime Minister for being silent on the comments of Pauline Hanson and the debate that its unleashed in this country.

That follows former Liberal Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser's comments on P.M. last night that the current race debate is extremely dangerous and more serious than at any time when he was in politics. The strength of those comments have forced the Prime Minister out on this issue again today, with a statement planned for the Parliament anyway but brought on earlier than intended by Opposition Leader, Kim Beazley.

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KIM BEAZLEY: Has the Prime Minister seen reports of comments by former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser on the race debate when he said, and I quote: 'I believe it's extraordinarily dangerous for the future of Australia'? Has he also seen the unprecedented plethora of editorials from around the region on just this subject? Will the Prime Minister now admit that substantial damageis being done to international perceptions of Australia as a result of an anti-Asian, anti-Aboriginal debate which he has allowed to run out of control? Will the Prime Minister provide leadership and put a stop to it by declaring such views absolutely unacceptable?

FRAN KELLY: The Prime Minister refuses to concede that his handling of this issue has been wrong, a position he put again to his joint party room this morning. He believes he's managing the issue properly and there's a feeling in his office that this latest debate is simply the result of the lid being lifted off after being stifled under Labor in the past. And, despite the strength of the criticisms in the Thai and Singapore newspapers, John Howard still argues that he's said enough on the comments raised by Pauline Hanson and raging now in the community.

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JOHN HOWARD: I would remind the writers of newspaper articles in the region, I would remind any other entrants to this debate from whatever side of politics or from whatever position they occupy in the Australian community of something that I said on 8 October 1996 in this Parliament in answer to a question asked by the Leader of the Opposition.

Let me take the opportunity of saying to the honourable gentleman that the Liberal and National parties will yield to nobody, no political force in this country, in our commitment to racial equality and racial tolerance.

Let me make it very clear to the Leader of the Opposition that no matter what arguments there may be about immigration policy in this country, once a person has come to this country that person is entitled to the respect that is due to every other Australian, irrespective of that person's background.

On subsequent occasions I have said that I find any demonstration of racial intolerance or racial discrimination as despicable and repugnant to the underlying values and beliefs of the Australian community.

And those remarks have been made by me repeatedly over the years. They have been made before and since the events that appear in the minds of the Leader of the Opposition and others to have triggered the current debate.

FRAN KELLY: But according to Australian business people in the region, one issue of concern is that the Prime Minister's comments on non-discriminatory immigration and multiculturalism are often followed by some form of qualification which in their minds sends mixed signals on these issues. The constant criticism that continues to dog the Prime Minister is that he failed to denounce Pauline Hanson's comments loudly and clearly when she made her speech in the Parliament on 10 September, thus allowing the debate to run.

By the Prime Minister's own admission, his major reply on this issue wasn't made in the Parliament until four weeks later on 8 October. And although he faced media questioning in the meantime, his answers still failed to denounce Ms Hanson's comments but rather the Prime Minister always began by defending her right to say what she did. In fact in answer to Alan Jones on 2UE on 30 September, the Prime Minister again defended Pauline Hanson's right to her comments and added that he thought some of the things she had to say were an accurate reflection of what people feel.

Today the Prime Minister again chose not to attack Pauline Hanson and the damage her views appear to be doing in the region, but turned instead on the commentators criticising him in their overseas journals.

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JOHN HOWARD: I denounce the distortion and the ignorance of the remarks which I have made which are evident in the articles that have been written in the region. They are wrong, they misrepresent my position, they deliberately misrepresent my position and they could not have been written in full knowledge of what I have said, because as I have clearly demonstrated, I have clearly demonstrated frequently over recent weeks, Mr Speaker, I have denounced intolerance. I have supported a non-discriminatory immigration policy, although let me say I strongly support, in the context of that debate I strongly support the steps that the Government has taken to change the composition of Australia's immigration policy.

FRAN KELLY: And the Prime Minister is not backing off on this issue, whether it's because party polling is telling him not to, as some claim, or whether he simply believes he's done enough, his line does not waver. Today in the Parliament he even revisited his comments from last week that Australia's history is a positive and tolerant one and not racist and bigoted, comments that at the time prompted widespread criticism for denying racist episodes of our history.

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JOHN HOWARD: I do not take the black armband view of Australian history which is so popular in some circles. I believe that the truth about Australia's past should be taught in an unvarnished fashion and I believe that the balance sheet of Australian history is overwhelmingly a positive one. I believe that the balance sheet of Australian history will demonstrate a people who have had great achievements, a group of people who have had heroic achievements and have done much to bring about a remarkably enlightened, tolerant and diverse Australian community.

FRAN KELLY: The Prime Minister's determination to keep his message clear and consistent doesn't address the problems he now faces with perceptions in the region. The overseas editorials quoted today and reinforced by anecdotes from Australian businesses operating in Asia indicate one thing, that more needs to be said if this issue is to be killed off, and the message given so far isn't working.

This week another plank in that message to the region should come in the form of a bipartisan statement in the Parliament restating a commitment to multiculturalism, to non-discriminatory immigration and a denouncement of racial intolerance. After this morning's headlines, the Government was quick on to the phones to the Opposition to organising another meeting to work out that statement and more meetings are expected later today.

But the wording is still under negotiation, and while no one is giving any clues on what exactly it will say, the Opposition will only volunteer that they hope that a useful bipartisan motion will be reached by Thursday at the latest.

MONICA ATTARD: Fran Kelly in Canberra.