Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Prime Minister discusses Iraq; elections; Midnight Oil; wheat farming; US free trade agreement; Iraqi prisoner abuse; and petrol prices.



Download PDFDownload PDF

PRIME MINISTER

9 June 2004

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP INTERVIEW WITH LIAM BARTLETT, ABC RADIO, PERTH

Subjects: Iraq; federal election; Midnight Oil; wheat farming; Free Trade Agreement; prisoner abuse; petrol prices

E&OE……………………………………………………………………………..

BARTLETT:

Prime Minister Howard, good morning.

PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning, Liam. Nice to be with you again.

BARTLETT:

Good to see you. Not a bit jet lagged, are you?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think I will be tomorrow. I flew into Perth last night or yesterday afternoon having flown direct from London through Beijing. So I probably will, like everybody else, suffer for it tomorrow, but I’m okay at the moment. If I wander off and make pro Labor comments during the interview, you realise I’m jetlagged.

BARTLETT:

… I’d stop and call a doctor. You’re becoming something of an expert at attending military ceremonies. The ceremony at the SAS Barracks (inaudible) I understand to honour the SAS contribution over a number of different…

www.pm.gov.au

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, to present unit citation awards, the unit citation awards will be presented by the Governor General, he’s the commanding chief of the armed forces, in respect to the SAS service in Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq. They’re an outstanding regiment. They have a reputation all around the world. Whenever you talk about military matters with foreign political leaders who have any knowledge of Australia they talk very warmly of the SAS. And also simultaneously in Tindal there’ll be a similar ceremony being attended on my behalf by Mal Brough, the Assisting Defence Minister, to honour the work of the 75th Squadron, they provided the Hornets when they served in Iraq. So in different parts of the country there’ll be two ceremonies where similar awards will be presented for the service of those units.

BARTLETT:

I would imagine you’d be going to that with a bit of a spring in your step. You’ve got the UN resolution being passed… take that as something of a victory.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well the UN, well I’m really very pleased. It’s been passed unanimously and what it does is to give all the legal underpinning and all the international authority necessary for the transfer on the 30th of June to the interim Iraqi Government led by the Prime Minister Mr Allawi and that is a very big step forward. What it means is that the process is working and what it means is that we’re looking to a more optimistic future. There will continue to be attacks on both civilian and military people in Iraq as the terrorists and insurgents endeavour to stop Iraq becoming democratic. But if more and more involvement in the running of Iraq can be given to Iraqis, and this government will have effective authority, then that is a real step forward and a real step along the road to the day we all look to when Iraq is democratic in its own Iraqi way. Iraqi democracy won’t be the same as Australian or British or American democracy and neither it should be, and nobody wants a country to take a form of government that it feels uncomfortable with but it’ll be a terrific thing for the Middle East if we can have another democratic country. There’s only on democratic country in the Middle East at the moment and that’s Israel, none of the other countries can really claim to be democratic and if in fact we can see the emergence that a truly democratic Arab state that is going to have a profoundly beneficial impact on the whole region and on the whole Arab world.

BARTLETT:

Prime Minister, your talks with the US President last week, did he give you any indication of how long he wanted us to stand shoulder to shoulder?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh, simply until the job was done.

BARTLETT:

There was no…

2

PRIME MINISTER:

No hint of a time, no. Well, I don’t think he knows either. We all want to see the job finished as soon as we reasonably can. I mean, nobody wants to stay an occupier, nobody wants to stay in another country, nobody wants to have its troops overseas any longer than necessary. But at the moment it’s impossible to say when. Clearly, if the various steps along the path to Iraqi democracy occur and occur effectively, then that will be bring a bit closer the day when our people can come home and the Americans who’ve got 140,000 people there, by far the largest, they can also come home. But I think it is quite impossible at the moment to specify any particular date.

BARTLETT:

Even with this resolution, it doesn’t really bring forward that…

PRIME MINISTER:

No, what this resolution does is to put beyond any argument that the first step in creating a democratic Iraq has been taken, that there is full international authority being given to vesting sovereignty in this interim government after the 30th of June, if the interim government were to turn around and say to us or say the Americans…

BARTLETT:

Go home.

PRIME MINISTER:

Go home, we’d go home. Now they’re not going to do that because they’ve already made it clear that it would be giving a foothold to the terrorists if the international forces were to leave, their foreign minister’s already made that clear in a speech to the Security Council. But the point is that there will be authority given to this government. It will have sovereign control and it will be able to make the decisions of any government.

BARTLETT:

At the press conference with the US President, when George Bush was berating Mark Latham’s idea of pulling the troops out, tell me were you standing their wincing or smirking?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I wasn’t either. I didn’t know the question was coming. And what he did was to give a very direct answer to a question from an Australian journalist. I didn’t know Steve Lewis from The Australian was going to ask that question. But it having been asked, what President Bush did was to give an honest answer. He didn’t attack Mr Latham personally. What he did attack was the negative implication of his policy. Now he, in my view, had a right to do that.

BARTLETT:

He went on and on a fair bit about it, I mean were you standing there thinking, look I wish he’d put a sock in it?

3

PRIME MINISTER:

No, he feels very strongly about this whole issue and he’s right because if a country like Australia were to go, quite apart from the fact that we would be taking very able people away from doing very important work - running the Baghdad International Airport is very important, protecting our diplomatic mission in Iraq - and if we took our forces away from protecting our diplomats we’d have to take our diplomats away because right at the moment you can’t leave Australian diplomats in Baghdad with out military protection.

BARTLETT:

So his tirade wasn’t embarrassing you at all?

PRIME MINISTER:

No. Well, can I say, with respect, I don’t regard it as a… I did not regard it as a tirade. It is a very strong response honestly given to a question asked by an Australian journalist.

BARTLETT:

13 past ten. Talking with the Prime Minister John Howard and if you’d like to ask the Prime Minister a question - 9484 1720 or 1800 626 720. Prime Minister what do you think of the chances of Peter Garrett becoming a member of the ALP?

PRIME MINISTER:

I will leave that to the ALP. I’m going to stay right out of it.

BARTLETT:

Did you ever listen to any Midnight Oil songs?

PRIME MINISTER:

I’ve listened to a lot of songs, yes, but I’m not going to get involved in that issue. That is a matter for the Australian Labor Party.

BARTLETT:

What would your favourite Peter Garrett number be, though?

PRIME MINISTER:

(laughter)...Oh, I quite like Beds are Burning.

BARTLETT:

Do you? What about US Forces?

PRIME MINISTER:

Pass!

4

BARTLETT:

Alright. Look, I wanted to ask you, with all these military parades and you know the D-Day and stuff, the SAS things, we, when I say we, leaders, you included, are quite happy to be in the headlines alongside our veterans or our serving personnel. But do you think that we’re still in the background? Are we still doing the right thing, especially by our veterans because many veterans, as you know, here in Australia still have a big bone to pick with the Government over their compensation entitlements and especially their benefits, their retirement benefits and the way in which they’re tied to the CPI rather than the average weekly earnings.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, Liam, the answer to that is I think we are but I recognise that no matter what you do there will always be some who think you can do more, it’s a bit like road funding. We have just made one of the biggest ever Federal Government announcements on road funding, double the size of the Snowy scheme and people are saying, oh it’s just not enough. You will never satisfy some people entirely and I’m not saying that there aren’t further anomalies that can’t and won’t be attended to in the future, but we did make a very big set of changes a couple months ago and it did involve in relation to the TPI the linking of part of that to the compensation element of that to, not the CPI, but the more favourable index which was male total average weekly earnings. So, once again, it’s a significant move forward. Not everybody supported that, but as I read the reactions of the various ex service organisations they were all very supportive. Now they will never say everything we want has been given. It’s not in the nature of any organisation ever to say that. It really falls to the community to a make a judgement as to whether what we provide is fair and reasonable. We had additional benefits in the budget to make sure that specialists continue to give top line treatment to veteran gold card holders and we just continue to review these things on a regular basis.

BARTLETT:

There was a story written yesterday by a journalist Ian McPhedran about the Defence Force…

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, I’m having that, I was not aware of that. It was drawn to my attention this morning.

BARTLETT:

Just amazing isn’t it.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I get the facts before I comment.

BARTLETT:

Well, he says - just to let our listeners know - he says that the Defence Force Retirement and Debt Benefits, the DFRDB scheme, have used this, it was established back in 1973, uses actuarial tables from 1963 to calculate so called life factors and 40 years on the system still uses those 1963 tables. That calculates male life expectancy 74.4 years compared with the

5

actual figure of 77.4 which leaves them roughly, bottom line, leaves them about $3000 a year worse off.

PRIME MINISTER:

Liam, I’ll get some advice on that. I’ve only just heard about it.

BARTLETT:

So you are going to investigate that?

PRIME MINISTER:

I will get some advice on it.

BARTLETT:

Prime Minister, with the boost you received in the opinion polls last week, are you more or less inclined to go the polls early August?

PRIME MINISTER:

I haven’t made up my mind when I’m going to have the election.

BARTLETT:

I ask you that question because if you don’t go in the first week of August, your choices narrow, don’t they, very dramatically with the Olympics and that sort of thing.

PRIME MINISTER:

I’ll just repeat my answer - I haven’t made up my mind when.

BARTLETT:

Are you going to Athens?

PRIME MINISTER:

No.

BARTLETT:

Definitely not?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, the Sports Minister Rod Kemp will represent the Government at both the Olympics and Para Olympics, but I’m not going, no. I made it very plain earlier in the year that no matter when the election is held it’s not appropriate for me to be out of the country for a couple of weeks in August.

6

BARTLETT:

Not even to see Ian Thorpe swim the 400?

PRIME MINISTER:

It’s all very tempting. But, it is very tempting, very very tempting, but I can’t.

BARTLETT:

Alright. Will Rod Kemp be given any more than a couple days out of the country or will he have to rush back for campaign…?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, it depends on the state of my mind when he goes.

BARTLETT:

Alright. Let’s take some calls. With the Prime Minister in the studio and Rob is the first caller. Hello, Rob.

CALLER:

Yeah, good morning Liam. Good morning, Mr Howard. I’m sitting on my tractor this morning, I’m a wheat farmer, hang on I’ll just shut it down so you can hear me. Yeah, look, I’m ringing about the Iraq debt (inaudible) as a wheat farmer I personally depend on interest of about $25,000 to $35,000 and you know it’s been going on since 1990 and I think it’s about time it’s finalised. I reckon you as a government should just pay us out. It’s a shame that I think, just at the moment, that you think more of Bush in Washington than you do think of your own bush?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I don’t think that is a fair observation. This has got nothing to do with Bush in Washington, it’s got to do with realistic prospects of recovery. But 80 per cent of the Iraq wheat debt was met by the EFIC arrangements and that’s come out, effectively come out of the taxpayers’ pocket. And as to the remaining 20 per cent, well if that’s recovered it can go the growers. But the fact is the debt is simply not recoverable from a practical point of view and not only Australia but every nation around the world has agreed to in different forms into some kind of debt forgiveness and on top of that, can I point out with respect that Australia has enormous future prospects of selling wheat to Iraq. Iraq is one of our best markets and we’ve done extremely well, we’ve done better than the Americans in selling wheat to Iraq since the war ended and part of the process of guaranteeing or securing those future markets is to adopt a sensible co-operative attitude in relation to debt forgiveness. I’ve already indicated that we’ll be funding the, subject to the outcome of a feasibility study, we’ll be funding a milling facility in Iraq which is something that is very strongly supported by the Grains Council and the Australian Wheat Board. I think we have been very fair in relation to this and bear in mind that this goes way back to the time of the first Gulf War and all of the commitments that were made as I see it by the Hawke Government at that time…

7

BARTLETT:

There was a commitment by prime minister Hawke…

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes and they have been fulfilled, let me say in defence.

BARTLETT:

Not entirely.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well they have, in defence of… I don’t accept that. In defence of the former government, and I’ve been through the papers very very carefully, those commitments have been fulfilled.

BARTLETT:

… no Australian would be worse off, no Australian farmer would be worse off if… because of the original Gulf War.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, but if you bear in mind that 80 per cent of the debt has already been met under the insurance arrangements.

BARTLETT:

Prime Minister, why don’t we just make it, make the other 20 per cent?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, but why don’t you therefore make good every time there’s any kind of export lost by any country… no hang on…

BARTLETT:

You did it for the sugarcane farmers.

PRIME MINISTER:

No, we haven’t done it for the sugarcane farmers, we’ve given the sugarcane farmers a rescue package, which by no means compensates, no means compensates for what the sugar growers would have… what they expected to get out of the Free Trade Agreement.

BARTLETT:

$400 plus million…

8

PRIME MINISTER:

...I’m sorry the aspirations of the Australian sugar industry in relation to the Free Trade Agreement were way above what that rescue package represents and that rescue package is an amount of money over a number of years. It’s some $440 million a year and although it is...

BARTLETT:

And the other difference, as in what they’re in marginal seats? You’re not in a marginal seat, Rob.

CALLER:

Yeah. No, Mr Howard, as a wheat grower in the early 70s (inaudible) in Indonesia and since then, they’ve stored everyone else’s wheat in it except for ours and I can see the same thing happening in Iraq.

PRIME MINISTER:

We’re doing....

CALLER:

Our farm lobby groups have decided to build a wheat processing facility in Iraq and I can see them using everyone else’s wheat except for ours. I mean, they didn’t bloody ring me up and ask me if it was okay if I write off my debt. I want my money. I don’t want a wheat processing facility in Iraq. While you are there you can listen to me, if there was a game of football fixtured on Anzac Day and the Labor Party were playing the Japanese, I’d barrack for the Japs but just at the moment I feel that strongly - I’ve never voted Labor in my life, I’d just about vote for them. You guys want to start listening to what people in the bush are saying.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, sir, if the rest of the 20% can be recovered, you’ll get it.

CALLER:

But why we as a group of farmers, why should we have to carry the burden for the whole of the economy. Why can’t the Government just pay it? That $180 million would be a great little fill up for the bush at the moment.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, but sir.

CALLER:

You know, everyone.

9

PRIME MINISTER:

But sir, every time an exporter doesn’t get everything he wants and there’s a payment failure the Government can’t stand behind it...

CALLER:

...to insure that...

PRIME MINISTER:

Could I now...

BARTLETT:

Hang on.

PRIME MINISTER:

Could I now, I have listened to you, Rob, very patiently and courteously - will you give me a go now mate? The original deal involved ensuring by EFIC and it was subsequently taken on the national interest account, which meant to come out of the taxpayers’ pocket - 80% and we’ve met that obligation and what we’re saying is that if the other 20% can be recovered, you can have it. But we’ve met that obligation and there are a number of other things that the Hawke Government did at the time which have been met and on top of that we are doing all the things that we’re talking about. In other words, building that milling facility and it won’t result in people taking somebody else’s wheat. We have done very well indeed in, not only getting back into maintaining a very strong market for wheat in Iraq, we’re doing better than anybody on that and I think the outcome is fair and reasonable.

BARTLETT:

We’ll leave it there, Rob. Thanks very much for your call. Peter is next, Prime Minister. Hello, Peter.

CALLER:

Yes, hi Prime Minister and welcome to Perth. I’d like to know how you personally feel about the way Faulkner and Rudd are behaving, attempting to sort of, drag Australian troops names through the mud about this Abu Ghraib and abusing the Geneva Convention (inaudible) and things like that. I mean, I know they are socialist politicians, but at the same time they are actually Australians. Do you feel, I mean, it just makes my skin crawl when I think about what they’re trying to do there. They’re just trying to have a go at you really, but they’re being terribly disloyal and unpatriotic.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I don’t mind them having a go at me because I’m their political opponent, but I do resent as you obviously do the implication behind all of this, no matter what they say there’s always a disclaimer at the end but the implication is that in some way Australian forces or personnel were involved in the Abu Ghraib scandal. I mean, that’s the implication. Every time there’s a reference to Major O’Kane or something like that there are then those appalling

10

pictures flashed on the screen. Now, we had nothing to do with that behavior. I have seen no evidence that any Australians were involved in it or condoned it or encouraged it or failed to take any action they reasonably could to stop it. We didn’t hold any prisoners. Every prisoner that came into contact with an Australian was always legally in the custody of Americans, not in the custody of Australians and I agree with you that the implication is that in someway we were involved. And leave myself out of it, I’m used to copping it and I have to and I will because it’s part of my trade. However, I think it’s despicable as far as our own defence personnel are concerned.

CALLER:

Can I just say something else?

BARTLETT:

Very quickly.

CALLER:

In the light of this Spanish incident. Latham (inaudible) I can’t believe how the man could be so stupid. Don’t they learn anything from what is going in the country?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I agree with you. I think the worst thing that happened in relation to Spain was that as a subsequent decision of the new Government to pull the forces out has sent the signal to the terrorists that if you...

CALLER:

Absolutely.

PRIME MINISTER:

... hit hard enough in the right place you will get the reaction you want.

BARTLETT:

Alright, Peter. Thanks for calling. Hello, John.

CALLER:

Good morning, Liam. Good morning, Prime Minister. Prime Minister, will you give the Australian people the opportunity to make a direct choice of a Republican head of state without the condition that parliament made the appointment which to me is a little dishonest?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I don’t have a proposal to do that. I think we had a debate on the republican issue a few years ago and we had a referendum. It’s an issue that could come back in the future. I don’t see it coming back in the next few years and I don’t have any plans to do so. My own

11

personal view is that if Australia were to become a republic we should try to replicate the present system. I think any kind of direct election of a President would fundamentally alter our current system of Government and would set up the direct power contest between the elected President and the Prime Minister and that would cause endless conflict. I don’t support that kind of approach. However, I’m not planning anything. I am a conservative on these issues. I think the present system works very effectively. That’s not to say in the future the issue won’t come back for debate, it almost certainly will but I don’t have any plans to bring it back.

BARTLETT:

Alright, John, thank you. Hello Peter.

CALLER:

Hi there Liam and good morning Mr Prime Minister. Welcome to Perth as, I think, everybody has been saying. Mr Prime Minister, since your Government came to power the GST has undoubtedly made your Government coffers rise very, very steeply and you’ve got buckets and buckets of dough as they say. And I just see that every time the barrel price for oil goes up, I see you guys rubbing your hands with glee because it’s making you people money and more money that you don’t really budget for and the Australian people are now paying over a dollar a litre for fuel. And I live in the country down here and I’m paying over a $1.20 for a litre of fuel. Mr Prime Minister, I realise that asking a Government to reduce taxes is really like farting against thunder, but really why can’t you adjust the GST or the fuel excise on fuel once it gets to a certain point and this way it wouldn’t make any difference to your coffers because you’d be getting the GST but it certainly would help the people, the drivers in Australia by maybe capping the price of fuel at the moment?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, Sir, the GST does not come to the Federal Government.

CALLER:

But fuel excise does.

PRIME MINISTER:

No, well I’ll come to fuel excise in a minute because it’s levied volumetrically, in other words, it’s not varied according to the price. The GST - all of it goes to the states, every last dollar and the coffers that are now swelling according to you are the coffers of the states and I just happen to have in front of me a table which shows how much better off each state is as a result of the GST over and above what it would have been under the old funding arrangement. And in the case of Western Australia, where I am at the present time, in the coming financial year - Western Australia will be $229 million better off than it would have been under the old arrangement because of the GST and cumulatively in the five years from 2003-4 to 2007-8 Western Australia will be 1 billion, $165.8 million better off as a result of the GST. So maybe your phone call might go to Dr Gallop and if you think Western Australia is an orphan, Queensland - the figure is 3 billion, $184.3 million. In New South Wales, over a billion. Victoria, 1.5 billion and so forth. So the point simply is that under the arrangement we made and we did it deliberately. We said, we’ll give all of the GST to the States so they have more

12

money to spend on Government schools, on roads, on police and all of the things that State Governments are meant to look after in this country under our constitution.

13

BARTLETT:

Okay. So what can you do about the petrol prices?

PRIME MINISTER:

Now excise. Well, I can’t do about the petrol price because it’s influenced by world factors and if, you think, I’m just making that up. I had a lengthy talk to Alan Greenspan, the Chairman of the Fed, when I was in Washington and he obviously isn’t blaming domestic factors for the price of oil. On excise, the caller said what about the excise? The excise is 38 point something cents a litre and that is whether the price of petrol is a dollar or the price of petrol is 85 cents because it’s levied on the volume. It’s a volumetric tax, it is not an ad valorem. The GST is an ad valorem tax. It goes up a bit when the price goes up but the States get that. The Commonwealth gets the excise. So is anybody is getting a windfall enrichment it would be the States. Now, bare this in mind that this price is not likely to stay at this level and I certainly hope for your sake and everybody else’s sake it doesn’t indefinitely. And I’m moderately optimistic that it won’t be with us for too long, but don’t get the idea that the Federal Government is getting a lot of extra dough because all of it’s going to the States.

BARTLETT:

Did Alan Greenspan give you any indication of how he saw it because...?

PRIME MINISTER:

He was not as pessimistic about the longer term future as a lot of other people were. Let me put it that way.

BARTLETT:

The oil price also has a big impact on the American economy.

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh yes. A big impact yeah. A very big impact. Huge.

BARTLETT:

So he wasn’t pessimistic?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, he wasn’t as pessimistic. I mean, everybody accepts that it’s difficult and it has a lot to do with the stability of Saudi Arabia. That really in a way, is the key because Saudi Arabia is the largest producer of oil in the world. However, there is an element of international investors having taken positions in relation to the price of oil rather than as well as the price being affect by normal forces of supply and demand.

BARTLETT:

Peter, thanks for your question.

14

15

CALLER:

Yeah, thanks Liam. I’ll get into Dr Gallop.

BARTLETT:

Yes.

CALLER:

That would be worse than farting against thunder mate.

BARTLETT:

Thanks very much. Prime Minister, thanks very much for coming in today. It’s always good to see you here in Western Australia and on this programme talking to our statewide audience.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you.

BARTLETT:

We appreciate your time.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you.

[ends]