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Prime Minister discusses unfavourable opinion polls; speculation about the future of his leadership.

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Monday 10 September 2007

Prime Minister discusses unfavourable opinion polls; speculation about the future of his leadership


PETER CAVE: There were reports over the weekend that a view was crystallising in the Cabinet that John Howard should consider resigning, and handing over to the Treasurer Peter Costello. 


Mr Howard will be hoping to have put an end to such speculation by declaring, once again his intention to go to the election as the leader. The Prime Minister joins us now, live from Kirribilli House, in Sydney. 


To talk to him, our Chief Political Correspondent Chris Uhlmann. 


CHRIS UHLMANN: Prime Minister, good morning. 


JOHN HOWARD: Good morning, Chris. 


CHRIS UHLMANN: Is it still in the best interests of the Liberal Party that you lead it? 






JOHN HOWARD: Well, I have experience, I have a policy grasp and I lead a team which is very experienced and very respected and very talented, but ultimately, that'll be decided on election day but the party addressed this issue last year and a decision was taken.  


The overwhelming view of the party then was that I should remain as leader and Peter Costello should remain as deputy leader and Treasurer and that's been the position and that will remain the position and what we must now do is focus on what the public is telling us through the opinion polls, and I think they are telling us a number of things, and focus on getting ready for the election battle ahead which I do not in any way regard as unwinnable for the Coalition. 


CHRIS UHLMANN: Could anything convince you to change your mind about leading the party? 


JOHN HOWARD: Look, I've given you an answer and the answer is very clear. I've used very simple English words and what I would say to my colleagues is that we can win this election. I think we have to understand the public is telling us some things in the opinion polls. What they're telling us is that although they believe we've done a good job with the economy, it's simply not good enough to propound the strength of the economic status quo, we have to tell the Australian people how we intend to use that economic strength to address current problems and future challenges.  


It's never enough to harp on the past or the present, people want to know how you can make things even better and we should be using the current, unbelievable strength of the Australian economy as a springboard for dealing with problems and challenges in the future and that's what the Australian people want to hear from us. 


CHRIS UHLMANN: Now you said you'd say to your colleagues, and that's the problem, isn't it? Some of them are panicking. 


JOHN HOWARD: Oh, I don't think many of them are panicking. 




JOHN HOWARD: Well, I can just give you my assessment. I've… I think I have a pretty good understanding of the mood of my colleagues and I understand that. The polls are bad. They're very bad. But we mustn't abandon our capacity as political beings to see through the merits of the current political debate. The preconditions, if you look at history, the preconditions for change of government do not exist at present. This is not regarded as an incompetent government, I don't regard it as a perfect government and I certainly don't regard myself as being without failings as a prime minister. I've made my share of mistakes.  


But we're regarded as competent, we've got a very much better team person for person than the Labor front bench and the economy is in remarkably strong generic condition. Unemployment's at a 33-year low and the prospects for this country are wonderful but people say, "Well, John, that's fine, but what are you going to do in the future, how are you going to use the great prosperity we now have to give us an even better future" and I think the mistake that we have made for a while is we have spent too little time on outlining that and too much time on saying how well we've done over the last 10 or 11 years. I don't intend to stop talking about what we've done over the last 10 or 11 years, but I intend to spend a lot more time laying out what we're going to do in the years ahead. 


CHRIS UHLMANN: But how do you win the argument for the future, Prime Minister? How do you stop people from thinking that you are part of Australia's past? 


JOHN HOWARD: Well, I guess the best way you do that is to demonstrate that your plans for the future are better than the other person's. That's how you do it. Unless they… 


CHRIS UHLMANN: But what are they, Prime Minister? 


JOHN HOWARD: I beg your pardon? 


CHRIS UHLMANN: But what are those plans for the future? 


JOHN HOWARD: Well, they are to use… I don't have time on a short interview like this to detail all of them, but they are effectively to use the prosperity we now have to deal with the difficulties some people still have and also to build a stronger and more prosperous future and I think we have to shift the balance of the debate and the projection to those things, rather than spend all our time saying how well we've done over the last ten or eleven years. And we have, and we have every reason to talk about that, but I think we may… we make the mistake if we concentrate almost exclusively on that. 


CHRIS UHLMANN: But is it simply a matter of economics or a matter of spending? Aren't there other issues about Australia… 


JOHN HOWARD: Oh yes, I think… 


CHRIS UHLMANN: …that you need to concentrate on as well? Perhaps looking at Iraq, and looking at the images that people saw last week? We saw an Opposition leader who could talk differently than the United States about Iraq, but keep talking. 


JOHN HOWARD: Well, what you have to do is to call issues how you see them, and I disagree with Mr Rudd on Iraq. I think he's wrong. And I think he's wrong because his policy would give a victory to the terrorists, and I don't think that is in Australia's interests.  


See, what Mr Rudd has done, essentially, is agree with me on everything that has strong popular support and the two areas that Mr Rudd has disagreed with me, and there's really only two that have stood out, one of them is Iraq, and I know our position on Iraq is not popular, although in the long term I believe it's right; and on industrial relations, where the stance we have taken is keenly debated, I think the dividends are clear already in lower unemployment, fewer strikes and higher wages after you allow for inflation, but he's only really disagreed with me on those two issues because he know that they are in one case unpopular with the public, in the other quite controversial.  


So you ask me about Iraq and Mr Rudd, I think Mr Rudd is wrong on Iraq, that's why I don't intend to change the Government's policy. Now, I'm not going to be untrue to the things I believe in. I believed in the commitment to Iraq, I know it's unpopular, and I believe that if the Coalition is to prematurely withdraw, it will deliver a big victory to terrorism and I don't think that is in Australia's interests.  


CHRIS UHLMANN: But what if… 


JOHN HOWARD: And I don't care what Mr Rudd says. 


CHRIS UHLMANN: But what if the people of Australia don't agree with you on Iraq and don't agree with you on WorkChoices and Mr Rudd, the only distance between you and him you just said are those two issues and they prefer his stance on those. So what risk is there in change? 


JOHN HOWARD: Well, you don't change something to a position you don't believe in. I mean, what worth am I to the Australian people if every position I take is conditioned by a transitory reading of opinion polls?  


CHRIS UHLMANN: But is it more… 


JOHN HOWARD: I mean, Mr Rudd has taken… 


CHRIS UHLMANN: Is it more than that, though, Prime Minister? Is it perhaps that your relationship on Iraq with George Bush has blinded you to Australia's best interests? 


JOHN HOWARD: Well, I think it's in Australia's best interests to defeat terrorism. Don't you? 


CHRIS UHLMANN: The question's to you, Prime Minister… 


JOHN HOWARD: Well, I've answered it, and I've answered it directly and also rhetorically. 


CHRIS UHLMANN: And on WorkChoices as well? 


JOHN HOWARD: Well, WorkChoices, the evidence is very much there. The evidence is that we have lower unemployment, much lower. I mean, if Labor's policy is implemented, if they bring back the unfair dismissal laws, that will discourage small business from taking on more staff and unemployment will begin to rise again. If they give the unions more power, which their policy will do, that will encourage more strike action. And Mr Rudd's policy stands for higher unemployment and more union power.  


I mean, stripped of all the verbiage that is the point of difference between us on industrial relations. He stands for bringing back the unfair dismissal laws which are bad for small business, and he also stands for greater union power in the workplace, whether they're wanted or not, and that will increase the potential for strikes and will be disruptive for business. 


CHRIS UHLMANN: You've said you don't fatten the pig on market day; isn't it late in the year to start talking about the future, when that's something that you say now that people wanted to hear a lot more of earlier? 


JOHN HOWARD: Well, I think the expression of fattening the pig on market day is rather broader than that. I mean, if the Government were going into this election regarded by the electorate as quite incompetent, if we had presided over a recession, if we'd seen the unemployment level go to more than a million, then you wouldn't be able to fatten the pig on the market day or indeed six months before market day. You would be regarded as completely incompetent government. But I don't assess that the Australian people regards the Government as incompetent.  


That's not to say they think we're perfect, I want to make it very clear that I certainly think the Government has made mistakes and it's had quite a number of blemishes, all governments do, but fundamentally, people do think the country is heading in the right direction.  


They do think the economy is strong, they are pleased about the lower unemployment, but what they're clearly saying, both through opinion polls and otherwise, we would like you to tell us how you intend to use the prosperity this nation has as a whole to deal with the problems that some of our fellow citizens have and also to build an even stronger and more prosperous future. 


CHRIS UHLMANN: Alright, just finally, Prime Minister, the opinion polls, and now 51,000 people have been canvassed over six months, say that you're 57 to 43 behind Labor. Can you close that gap between now and election day as leader of the Liberal Party? Is there life left in Lazarus? 


JOHN HOWARD: Well, I believe we can still win. I think it's going to be very tough and it will require an extraordinary commitment from people, but I ask my colleagues to not allow their political understanding to desert them.  


In the end, governments are thrown out because they are regarded as incompetent or because their leader is deeply unpopular. I do not think those conditions exist, I don't say we're perfect, and I'm not saying for a moment everybody loves me, they plainly don't. Those two fundamental preconditions to the defeat of the Government do not exist at the present time, and I therefore believe that we can win. It's going to be tough, we're obviously behind, but I do not think the conditions fundamentally exist for us to be rejected and that's why I remain optimistic about the outcome. 


CHRIS UHLMANN: Prime Minister, thank you. 


JOHN HOWARD: Thank you. 


PETER CAVE: Prime Minister John Howard, speaking there to our Chief Political Correspondent Chris Uhlmann.