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Prime Minister discusses illegal immigrants and asylum seekers; economy; Business Activity Statement; and CHOGM.



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6 September 2001

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER THE HON JOHN HOWARD RADIO INTERVIEW WITH JOHN MILLER AND ROSS DAVIE, 4BC

Subjects: illegal immigrants, economy, Business Activity Statement; CHOGM.

E&EO………………………………………………………………………………………

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister good morning to you.

PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning John and good morning Ross.

JOURNALIST:

Good morning Mr Howard. Now the state of the polls after your strong action on the illegals is the biggest boost that you’ve had since the gun laws debate. It’s been widely applauded by the community. It’s all anyone on this program wanted to talk about over the last few weeks. But some detractors would still suggest its wedge politics.

PRIME MINISTER:

Wedge politics. Well I don’t agree with that. I did what I thought was right for Australia. It’s not wedge politics. I didn’t arrange for this to happen. We were presented with a situation that we had to respond to and we did exactly the right thing. We have sent a message. I’m not guaranteeing to the public there won’t be more boat people arrive and we won’t have to take them in the circumstances. But I believe that what we have done plus the increased surveillance. Those two things together have sent a very powerful message, a strong signal,

PRIME MINISTER

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that this country is no longer an easy touch. We live in hope that we may be able to work out an arrangement with Indonesia. We’ve been trying for some time to achieve that and I have three of my very senior colleagues in Jakarta at the moment talking to the Indonesian Government about that. The problem is that it’s too easy to get out of Indonesia and we haven’t had an arrangement with that country for illegal immigrants or arrivals in Australia to be returned and what we seek is such an arrangement. And if people knew in advance they weren’t going to be readily allowed out of Indonesia or would be returned then they wouldn’t go there in the first place. So choking off the supply in the first instance is the medium term response. In the short term we had an opportunity to send a very strong signal and it was the right thing to do and it had nothing to do with wedge politics. Those words are being used by the Opposition which frankly has flip flopped from one side to the other every day. They’ve had a position for every day since we encountered this problem.

JOURNALIST:

Your ministers in Jakarta including Philip Ruddock, your Immigration Minister, and Peter Reith, the Defence Minister, they’re not going to face an easy task I mean given that the President of Indonesia wouldn’t even return your phone calls.

PRIME MINISTER:

No it is not easy and that is something that should be accepted and understood by the Government’s critics. This is a very difficult issue for Australia and that is why instead of trying to score cheap political points about wedge politics my critics and particularly the Opposition should have sat down and thought about what was a good outcome for Australia. They haven’t really done that. I mean the first day I announced what we were doing Mr Beazley said he supported it. Within four-and-a-half hours he was accusing me of Hansonism and racism and wedge politics. The next response was that we’d worked out a humanitarian solution and then a day later he says oh no it’s humiliating. Then he votes against the Border Protection Bill which would have put beyond argument the right of the Government to do what it’s done. So I don’t think the Opposition has covered itself in glory on this issue and certainly has not acted according to Australia’s national interest.

JOURNALIST:

All right. You mentioned the Border Protection Bill there and we now have this Federal Court action underway. A lot of people have been speaking to me in the last couple of days saying how can this happen, how can a duly elected democratic government have to go before a court to justify action on what is clearly a matter of national security.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I understand why people say that. You will understand also that as the matter is still before the court I don’t want to comment about the role of the court. It wouldn’t be positive or appropriate for me to do that. But I will say this and it’s quite proper for me to say this - that if that Border Protection Bill had been passed it would have put that issue beyond any argument and I even offered to do it on the basis of just a six month trial period if you like so the law which the Labor Party said was too draconian would have operated for only six months and that would have taken it beyond the election. And if the Labor Party were to win

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the election they would discontinue the legislation. I really made them what I thought was a very reasonable offer. But even that wasn’t good enough so they decided to vote it down.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard with the polls the way they are and with news that your US trip is being shortened which will bring you back to this country for the last couple of weeks of Parliament, you must be very tempted to announce an early election date.

JOURNALIST:Interest rates in that equation too.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well John and Ross can I just say about the American trip, what I’ve done is to take two working days out of it and they would have been one day in New York and one day in San Francisco. I had planned to go to Silicon Valley. I would have liked to have done that but I’ve decided because a number of issues which are around and about which we’ve just been talking that I should be back so that I’ll be in Parliament for the whole of the week after next. On the original schedule I would have missed Monday and the Tuesday and part of the Wednesday. I think it’s my obligation to be there from the beginning. It is an important sitting of Parliament. It will have a number of critical issues to deal with - the ongoing issue we’ve been speaking about and other matters that are coming to conclusions. But as far as the election is concerned it will be held towards the end of the year. We have a meeting of CHOGM in Brisbane and that will naturally go ahead. So I don’t know why people are getting particularly excited about so called early elections. The three years in fact will be up around the time of the CHOGM meeting so to have an election some time after that which would be the normally expected thing is hardly early. It’s indeed right on schedule. And I have said all along that I’m going to have an election towards the end of the year and I hope as each week goes by people will increasingly believe it.

JOURNALIST:

Well the interest rate cut. Let’s look at that a little more closely if we may. It does come with a warning that a global downturn could well spoil the party. How well placed are we to stand up against that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Extremely well placed. We are doing better than other countries but there is a threat from overseas. There’s no doubt about that. We are better placed because we’ve got our house in order. We’ve got rid of the deficit, we’ve paid off debt, we have low inflation, we’ve reformed the tax system, we’ve reformed the industrial relations system. We now have the lowest current account deficit for years. We have a huge trade surplus and that’s almost unheard of. It’s helped by our super competitive exchange rate but it’s also helped by the fact that the new tax system took $3.5 billion of embedded indirect taxes out of our exports. So what I would say to the Australian public is there are some international economic difficulties, they may effect us, but because of the reforms this Government has implemented and the strength our policies have given to the economy, we are better able to withstand those international influences than if we had done otherwise. And we’re infinitely better to

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withstand those influences with a continuity of current policy and this will be the last set of circumstances in which we want to change policy by changing the government.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, you said that the jury’s still out on the Tax Office’s handling of the GST implementation. Are there any changes planned there?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well can I just say in relation to that issue that I recognise that implementing the GST’s been an enormously challenging task for the Tax Office and I know they’ve worked extremely hard to make it as easy as possible for people. I’m not in the business of attacking the Tax Office. They’ve got a very difficult job. I was asked a question and I tried to give a response to that question. Obviously when we have a big change like that there are some teething troubles. I’ve said all along that we remain ready fine tune the administration of the new system without rolling it back. It’s not a backflip to fine tune the administration. I mean I’m completely untroubled by those accusations. When we changed the Business Activity Statement we wern’t rolling back the GST. We were making it simpler from an administrative point of view and as far as I’m concerned we remain ready to further fine tune the administration to make it simpler.

JOURNALIST:

I’d have to concur with you actually. My BAS statement has become increasingly easier to fill out.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I mean that’s the sort of thing I’m talking about and when you make a huge change like this it is inevitable you have to fine tune the administration and you ought to be able to do that without people running around making ridiculous statements about backflips. But anyway I’m pretty unconcerned about that. I think the public understands entirely what we’re doing.

JOURNALIST:

Can we revisit the situation with the illegal immigrants and our relationship with Indonesia. What will Philip Ruddock,Peter Reith,etc what will they be asking the Indonesians to do?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well they’ll be repeating and offer that’s been made for quite a while and which I repeated in Jakarta and that is that we would be willing to fund the construction of a processing centre in Indonesia. We would pay the money to an international agency which in turn would pay it to the Indonesians. And people arriving illegally in Indonesia rather than being allowed to go onto Australia would be held there and processed there and some of them returned to the countries from which they came and others dealt with by being sent to other countries that were willing to take them after they’d been assessed and determined according to the international criteria to be refugees. Now this is an offer that’s been on the table from Australia for some time. It’s not as if we’ve just thought of it. I talked at some length to senior

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people in the Indonesian government, I mentioned it to the President and I talked in detail about the proposal to other senior ministers. So it’s been around for a while and they’ll be continuing to seek an agreement with Indonesia both in relation to that and also a memorandum of understanding with Indonesia regarding how we handle this problem because we do need that agreement if we are to have a medium to longer term solution and we have been trying to get that but you need two people to reach an agreement.

JOURNALIST:

But surely Prime Minister if these people, these illegal immigrants, would be illegal immigrants, have paid substantial sums of money and there’s an awful lot of money involved….

PRIME MINISTER:

There is a lot of money involved, yes. The people smugglers are making a ‘motzer’ out of this. That is what I think is what angers a lot of people because they are the people who are really the most blame worthy in the whole exercise.

JOURNALIST:

Yeah but given that they’ve paid this money, that they’ve been told they’re going to be transported to Australia. How would you get them into these processing centres when they’re just heading for the docks?

PRIME MINISTER:

The Indonesian authorities can do that because the people have got to arrive….they presumably arrive in Indonesia, many of them arrive by air, some of them come from Malaysia and it’s not impossible for the Indonesian authorities. I mean you can’t leave an Indonesian port without the authority of the harbour master.

JOURNALIST:

So you are going to be asking the Indonesians not just the passive action of having an Australian funded processing centre…..

PRIME MINISTER:

Yeah but we wouldn’t run the processing centre. It would be under the authority of the Indonesians and involve the United Nations refugee authorities. I mean we would be providing resources because we recognise that Indonesia is a poor country. We recognise that and we’re not blind to that reality. We also recognise that Indonesia has an enormous pile of other problems and it’s a very large country, big population.

JOURNALIST:

Diverse population.

PRIME MINISTER:

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Very diverse population, very weak economy. I have a lot of sympathy for the problems its government has and that is why we are naturally willing to share or accept financial burden because it is in our interest and it’s only fair we do so. But if there were a political will there I’m sure that we can find a way of making it far less attractive for people to come to Indonesia in the first place.

JOURNALIST:

So you want the Indonesian authorities to nab them and bring them into the processing centre?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well the Indonesian authorities have the capacity if the they’re so disposed to prevent them from leaving and once people know that they’re not going to be allowed to leave they’re less likely to come in the first place aren’t they because they don’t particularly want to settle in Indonesia. They want to go to Australia. But if they now that that route to Australia is closed off by one means or another they’re going to stop coming to Indonesia in the first place.

JOURNALIST:

Yes,it alarmed me when I saw the amounts of money involved here where it was quoted in I think the Australian at the weekend that one people smuggler had made $25 million…

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh look it is vile international racket, people smuggling and it does disadvantage many genuine refugees who are living in pitiful circumstances in refugee camps around the world whose entitlement to come to Australia as part of our refugee programme is greater than the entitlement of many of the people who are being exploited by the people smugglers. We continue to be ready to take genuine refugees, we take more on a per capita basis than any country except Canada. So nobody can say we aren’t generous and reasonable. But we naturally have the right to decide who comes here and what in circumstances and we have a right, we can have obligation to insist that it be done in accordance with international rules.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard this problem as we know is not confined to Australia, we saw footage the other night of people trying to go through the Euro tunnel and a boat load of people trying to arrive in Italy. What sort of world wide action’s being taken in…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it’s spasmodic.The United Nations High Commission for Refugees is trying and it does some very good work, many of the camps it runs are magnificent in the circumstances. Over the years I’ve been to number of them. And although they’re very basic, levels of nutrition and care for children are very high so it’s part of the United Nations work that I think that is very praiseworthy and it’s one of the reasons why we’re keen to have them involved. But you need the cooperation of countries to make things work and most of all of course it throws a

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spotlight on the tyranny of certain regimes around the world. People flee them, people have political differences, in other cases of course people’s circumstances are exploited by international criminals and people smugglers are certainly those.

JOURNALIST:

Well we wish them luck in Jakarta and I will come back to something that I had in a question earlier on, did it concern you that the Indonesia President would not return your phone calls phones….?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don’t see any point in commenting unduly on that. That was her decision and I think we just move on from it.

JOURNALIST:

Alright well now do we have confirmation that the surveillance vessels and surveillance aircraft will be able to use Indonesian facilities for porting and…

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes they can use the Indonesia home porting facilities and be refuelled there. Because we sent a military mission to Jakarta last week to tell the Indonesian authorities in advance that we were going to step up surveillance. They offered home porting facilities and refuelling so that’s fine.

JOURNALIST:

Now look ahead a little bit if we may to the upcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting known as CHOGM that will be held here in Brisbane. I received a bit of a briefing on that yesterday and some of the facts and figures are just astonishing. It is interesting to note that this is appareantly a record turn up for Heads of Commonwealth Government countries.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes. There’s certainly a very high attendance, I think people are very keen to come to Australia and Brisbane and Coolum are of course magnificent places to host such a gathering. Brisbane’s got a great capacity for gatherings of this kind, its convention and hotel facilities are outstanding. We originally were going to have it in Canberra as the national capital but the hotel capacity simply wasn’t adequate there and I decided that it would a good idea to have it in Brisbane because Sydney’s had a lot of things including the Olympic Games and the last CHOGM meeting in Australia was in 1981 and that was held in Melbourne so it seemed to me very logical and particularly given the great convention and hotel facilities of the city plus of course the fact that we can have the retreat at the Coolum resort which is not all that far away. I think it will be a great opportunity once again to showcase Australia and in this case showcase aspects of Queensland, particularly Brisbane and Coolum resort. I think it will be a great conference, there’ll be some demonstrations, why on earth in the name of logic I don’t know because the great bulk of the country’s representative at this conference

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are not wealthy countries. And they’re really protesting against the very people they claim to be concerned about. I just don’t understand that. It’s completely illogical to me. CHOGM is one of those meetings that is concerned about democracy, governance, it’s concerned about human rights, it’s concerned in different ways of trying to bridge the gap between rich and poor and it’s a unique grouping of countries all of which had a historical association years ago with the United Kingdom and share in common a commitment to the rule of law and parliamentary processes. That’s why we get concerned when those processes are interrupted in countries like Zimbabwe.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard some of the issues you mentioned there are democracy and human rights. Would you like to see Robert Magube here in this country?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I would like to see things changed in Zimbabwe. I am very concerned as are a growing number of other Commonwealth leaders about what’s happening. There is a view and I think it deserves attention that the best way of driving home a point to somebody like Magube is to actually have him at the conference and tell him. And rather than saying no don’t come here and conduct a long distant megaphone exchange, there’s no doubt that what is happening in Zimbabwe is unacceptable.It has to change otherwise people are entitled to look at Zimbabwe’s continuing association with the Commonwealth.

JOURNALIST:

Closer to our shores and matters relating to the Commonwealth ,Fiji had been chucked out after the military coup.It is likely that they will if the electoral process goes smoothly be allowed back in. but what do you make of George Speight being elected to the parliament?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that’s the ballot box. I mean that’s well you can’t in the end if you believe in democracy, you can’t dispute the right of the people to vote for somebody. There was no doubt that Speight had a lot of support from the indigenous Fijians. I didn’t agree with what he did and I’m glad in the name of democracy that Mahendra Chaudhry has done so well. I don’t think he’s going to end up being Prime Minister.It’s a bit early to tell yet but he certainly has done well. He may the leader of the Fijian Labor Party but my concern on this issue is above and beyond any considerations of Labor and non-Labor, I thought what happened to him was outrageous, I felt sorry for the tremendous physical strain indeed physical abuse he was subjected to in the time that he was held captive and it’s a great tribute to his own stoicism and his own determination that he’s emerged from that and he’s still a significant player in Fijian politics.

JOURNALIST:

Alright Prime Minister just summing I guess and wrapping up on the situation with the illegal immigrants and the continuing (inaudible). Efforts now underway in Jakarta, I guess all we can say really Prime Minister is that we wish them well under what will as we said not be an easy task.

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PRIME MINISTER:

No it is not an easy task and I can’t promise that this thing is going to be completely solved in the next few weeks. But what I can say to the Australian people is that we have completely changed the direction of it, we have send a strong signal, I believe the combination of what we’ve done over the Tampa, the increased surveillance, the heightened international attention on the matter will over time act as a very powerful deterrent. It won’t stop people coming here altogether, we’ll continue to respond to them lawfully and decently but we want to reassert the right of this country to control its borders and within the embrace of a very generous immigration policy and a generous refugee policy, a completely non-discriminatory refugee policy and immigration policy, we want the right to decide who comes to Australia and in what circumstances.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard over the last couple of weeks we’ve copped a fair work out by the foreign press haven’t we, calling us unhumanitarian (inaudible).

JOURNALIST:

Does any of that concern you Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don’t think it’s right to say that all of it has been as critical. I’ve taken the opportunity to talk at some length to both the Australian High Commissioner in London and the Australian Ambassador in Washington and they say that the general public reaction in those two countries and they’re not the be all and the end all of our friends overseas but they’re both pretty important to us,that the reaction both in the media and in the general population has been a lot more understanding of the Australian Government’s decision and supportive of it than would have been suggested by some of the reports on the reports that have appeared in the Australian media.

JOURNALIST:

So in actual fact the reporting of the reports…

PRIME MINISTER:

I mean I for example, somebody faxed me an editorial from the Times in London, now that’s not as I say (inaudible) voice from it, far from it, but it was quite supportive of what we’ve done. And the reaction that I’m told by both of these people from the Americans and Brits on the issue is that they do sort of understand the problem we’ve got.

JOURNALIST:

Alright Mr Prime Minister John Howard thank you very much for your time this morning, sadly we’re out of it, we will talk to you again soon I’m sure.

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PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you.

[ends]