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Prime Minister discusses reconciliation; water; Solomon Islands; defence policy; GST; ATSIC elections.



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14 June 2000

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER,

THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP

INTERVIEW WITH KEN BIRCH

RADIO 2 VM, MOREE

E & OE………………………………………………………………………………

Subjects: reconciliation; water; Solomon Islands; defence policy; GST; ATSIC elections

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it’s great to be with you. This is my first time in Moree as Prime Minister and it’s great to be amongst you and last night the Eisteddfod was a great experience and I am looking forward to hearing more about the employment strategies of the cotton industry.

BIRCH:

Much we want to talk about this morning, first of all reconciliation, of course it’s working in a practical way here in Moree, what about the rest of Australia Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think it’s uneven. There is tremendous goodwill. I don’t find anybody in the country who doesn’t really want reconciliation, but of course it means different things to different people. To me it’s very much about giving everybody a fair go, it’s very much about ensuring that indigenous people get the same health treatment, the same employment opportunities, the same educational opportunities and the same quality of housing as the rest of us. And that to me is the most important yardstick.

It’s also of course about recognising the distinctive character of the culture of indigenous people and the special contribution they have made to the history of this country and also understanding that they were

badly treated in the past, and acknowledging that. Now they’re the things that I think most people see reconciliation as representing and they really want society to get on with the job of including indigenous people as a full part of the Australian community.

BIRCH:

Prime Minister the Gwydir Valley cotton growers association, the aboriginal employment strategy is working here. It is terrific for Australia to have a look at this and maybe follow on behind it.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well Moree has been a bit of a trail blazer. It did go through a lot of racial difficulties in the past, nobody denies that, and a few years ago the people in the town decided they had to do something about it. And that is what is special about Moree that there was a clear recognition right across the community that the community had to do something about the problem. You couldn’t just say well it’s up to the government, it’s up to this or it’s up to that outside body. They’ve done something and it really is working very effectively and it is showing the way to other towns and I hope other towns follow it.

BIRCH:

And the aborigines who are involved in these programmes as well hold senior positions, it’s not just [inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that’s what you want. I mean if the indigenous people of this country are to be treated as part of the community in every sense of the word well there should be no position that is unavailable to them.

BIRCH:

Now you talk about practical reconciliation, so why is the government taking such a backward step in reviewing the case of the water scheme ban on the local [inaudible]. I know it’s been an issue that’s been around for a long time..

PRIME MINISTER:

It’s one of those things where there are competing interests in the community and we’re trying to get the right balance. There’s an indigenous interest but there’s also a local community interest and I know that John Herron is particularly concerned about the cultural sensitivity that the people in the area have in relation to the lagoon. I’ve heard him talk about it on a number of occasions at cabinet meetings.

BIRCH:

So what’s going to happen?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we’re going to try and balance those two interests.

BIRCH:

Mr Prime Minister we’re talking about water, another state issue is the water issue and rural Australia is very concerned about the white paper.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, I’ll be talking in some more detail about this when I go out and visit a Cotton farm this morning and I had some precursor of it last night when I spoke to some of the growers and water is about as hot a topic and as sensitive a topic as you can find anywhere in this part of Australia. It’s our most precious resource and all of the Governments of Australia, not just the Federal Government, but all of the State Governments have got to reach an accommodation on this that takes account of the different interests of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia and I see my role as bringing the States together and trying to get an outcome that is fair to the cotton growers of New South Wales as well as being fair to the consumers of Adelaide. It’s not easy, incidentally.

BIRCH:

Prime Minister, Australia exchange rate is a big concern for your government. Of course it’s great for us here, with exports, but what’s your feeling ?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don’t talk about the level of the dollar. We have a free floating exchange rate in Australia now. I mean it varies according to market forces and there is one thing I don’t do is to speculate about where it might. I am sorry but I don’t.

BIRCH:

[inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER:

Ah well you could, but it wouldn’t work.

BIRCH:

Prime Minister are you concerned about neighbouring nations’ political turmoil, Fiji the Solomon Islands, it must be a real worry for you as Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I am worried about the instability in those two countries. You had a terrorist take over in Fiji. It’s more obscure in the Solomon Islands. It’s not as clear cut in the Solomon Islands and it may be the resolved there by democratic processes. But in Fiji, it’s a clear terrorist take over. We have to offer our good offices. We must be willing as a large nation in the region to try and bring the parties together but we should resist random calls for the use of Australian Police and Australian Military Forces. You only ever use Australian Military Forces where there is a clear international sanction or mandate for it, such as in East Timor, where there are clear objectives and where there is a clear exit strategy. The lives of Australian men and women is the most important responsibility that any government has in these situations and I don’t intend to respond to sort of ad hoc calls from the Opposition which are utterly opportunistic and cynical.

Their philosophy in these things is to disagree with the Government. They don’t have any clear philosophy about helping with Fiji or helping the Solomon Islands, they just want to bag the Government and that’s easy to do but I am not going to respond to that. We will continue to offer our good offices. The Foreign Minister has been to the Solomon Islands. He is willing to lead a Commonwealth mission to Fiji and if we

patiently assist in that way we can make a far better contribution.

BIRCH:

Mr Prime Minister a blast from the past Andrew Peacock to lead public consultations on defence policies.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, I think that is an excellent move. Andrew is highly regarded. He understands the issue. John Moore, the Defence Minister and I will be releasing the discussion paper in Canberra within a couple of weeks and then there will be a widespread process of consultation. We want to involve the Australian people in debate on defence policy. It’s not something for the elites, it’s not something to be kept under wraps in Canberra. It’s not something to be sort of reserved for experts. It’s something that should be debated around the Australian community and there is enormous interest in Defence policy in this country. And that group that Andrew is going to lead will I understand will include people of different political views and that’s a good thing because we want there to be a range of inputs and we want the Australian public to feel an ownership of defence policy.

BIRCH:

Prime Minister do you sleep all right when you have got so many problems..

PRIME MINISTER:

I do I slept extremely soundly last night, here in Moree. It was a great eisteddfod. It was a great concert and I had a talk to some of the locals afterwards, particularly some of the people who work in the Indigenous employment strategy for the cotton industry and went to sleep very soundly.

BIRCH:

[inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER:

Well he had it in his own special way.

BIRCH:

…back lash next election, many business say they are not prepared for the GST.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I can’t wait for the first of July and quite honestly, all the debate now about whether it’s good or bad or how it’s going to effect people is a bit academic. And I find as I talk to people and as recently as last night, what they’re saying is look, most people are ready for it but we won’t really know until the first of July. The sooner the first of July comes the better. My feeling is that if it will be far better received than some of the doomsayers are predicting. But in the end, it’s in the hands of the public. We have made a decision to do something that is good for the country. It’s risky, it’s unpopular, it’s bound to upset some people, but it’s good for Australia and that’s why we’ve done it. And if the final verdict of the Australian people is that they don’t like it, then I have to except that. But I won’t have any regrets because I have done what I believe was good for the country. But I am more optimistic than that. I think the Australian people after a period of time will see it as highly beneficial.

BIRCH:

Prime Minister there are growing concerns in remote areas that they are facing larger burden under the new tax and back benchers such as Bob Katter are saying they are very concerned for [inaudible] and are requesting freight subsidies.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well they’re not going to face larger burdens. In fact the arrangements for excise on fuel, especially diesel, will mean that we have made special beneficial arrangements for more remote areas. I mean cutting the price of diesel by twenty-four cents a litre helps remote areas more than it does the city. That’s a matter of elementary logic and that’s why we’ve done it. Rural Australia, remote Australia, outback Australia will not be hurt by the GST and in the last budget we put five hundred million dollars in to a new programme to help get more doctors in to remote parts of Australia. We improved the benefits for isolated children. Now I know the privations of many people who live in remote Australia. But any suggestion that the GST will hurt them is wrong.

BIRCH:

But they are hurting.

PRIME MINISTER:

They are being affected by the long term decline in commodity prices. No Australian Government can influence the world price of a commodity. However we can influence the level of interest rates. Interest rates used to be twenty-one and twenty-three per cent under the former government. They’re now much lower, much lower all over Australia.

BIRCH:

Prime Minister talking of Reconciliation, we have local identity, Tony Dennison, he’s a councillor, he has a great track record of working on reconciliation. Tony I would like to throw to you for a couple of questions you would like to ask the Prime Minister.

DENNISON:

Thank you Ken, good morning Prime Minister. One of the questions that I would like to ask you is with elections for ATSIC, why aren’t they compulsory to vote, all Aboriginal people to vote, like local government and state government and federal governments?

PRIME MINISTER:

Tony that is a good question. I have to confess that I personally don’t favour compulsory voting for anything. The point you’re making is that it’s good enough to compel people to vote compulsorily at a Federal election, why don’t they compel them to vote compulsorily at any election. I guess the view is taken that because it wasn’t a vote for a position that affected the whole community, it was a bit unreasonable to make it compulsory. Would you like it compulsory for all indigenous people?

DENNISON:

Yes I would. I will give you my reasons because you know ATSIC delivers Aboriginal health, education..

PRIME MINISTER:

Well not health. Well some aspects of health

DENNISON:

..well they used to but handed it over. Look the point I am making is this is that if you have an election of ATSIC it depends on the day who turns up, the biggest car or the biggest bus and rounds up all the relatives…so if you got the most relatives on the day, you can get elected to ATSIC, you see?

PRIME MINISTER:

I understand your point.

DENNISON:

And then that means if we’ve got people who are put in to these positions that are not really in the best interest of the community, a lot of these people who get in there they don’t have a clue how to do their job and therefore we get the same people elected all the time and then we feel in the community that any money that is supposed to come in for education and all these other things never actually gets to the grass roots people. And if we had a democratic election, where we were all forced to vote, then we would get a true representative of the Aboriginal people, not just the same few that get in there every time there’s an election because they can run around and muster the most numbers. Reconciliation is going a long way, but we need to get tougher still. Like why don’t we get people like that misappropriated funds from the land councils or ATSIC and things like that. We need to take a tougher line and I am speaking because I know a lot of the grass roots Aboriginal people would like to see this happen. But far too often we get them in to court and they get found guilty then they get let off.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well Tony, I am not in a position to make observations on court decisions. Like every other Australian citizen, I am governed by the rule of law but your point about compulsory voting is something I will talk to the Aboriginal Affairs Minister about. I guess one of the reasons why we haven’t had it in relation to ATSIC is that it’s a community that’s spread in many cases in remote parts of Australia and trying to enforce a compulsory voting regime because if people don’t vote theoretically there’s meant to be some kind of fine or penalty and there then might be criticism that we’re being unreasonable in trying to collect those penalties. So there are some practical arguments but..

DENNISON:

But they still have to get there for local government votes and state government and Federal votes.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I’ll… I haven’t I must say I have not turned my mind to it before but I will talk to the Aboriginal Affairs Minister about it. I can undertake to do that.

DENNISON:

Well one of the best things toward reconciliation Mr Prime Minister is to get away from the welfare mentality. To get away..

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I certainly agree with that.

DENNISON:

And the hand outs and Senator Ridgeway was quoted there recently as saying that you know we should have designated seats in Parliament for Aboriginal people. Now I strongly disagree with that because that comes back to the old hand out regime. If two Aboriginal people were designated a seat and we still have this current system in place where you know whoever gets the most relo’s during the day will finish up in Parliament. And if you give them something for nothing then are the other politicians going to respect them because they have been given something for nothing or you know, then it’s back to the same thing, the welfare handouts and mentality, given places for nothing.

I don’t know if you are aware but I stood last year for the upper house in New South Wales and I was preselected in I think probably the first Aboriginal [inaudible] pre selection in New South Wales for the Liberal Party. But it was, dog eat dog, you know you were in there boots and all fighting for your position and I mean I would probably appreciate it if I won a position. If I won it on my merits rather than have it given to me.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think a lot of people hold that view. That’s one of the reasons why the Government doesn’t favour quota seats for any group in the community. We think every body should be treated on merit. Australia has seen two Aboriginal Senators. One, late Senator Bonner who was pre selected by the Liberal Party and represented Queensland and one currently of course Aden Ridgeway who’s a member of the Australian democrats and my hope is that in the years to come we have Aboriginal people entering Parliament representing the mainstream of the community. They can still bring an indigenous perspective. Neville Bonner always spoke very movingly on Aboriginal issues. Aden Ridgeway brings an Aboriginal perspective and I am sure in the future others will do the same. But primarily they should be there and whenever I have talked to even Aden, I’ve talked to him about his aspirations, although he is very naturally keen to project an Aboriginal perspective, he’s talked about a desire to represent other issues as well and that was the case with Neville Bonner. I agree with you. I don’t think it’s a good idea to have seat allocations for Aborigines any more than any other group in the community. I think that is the view of most Australians.

BIRCH:

Mr Prime Minister the time is running out, but another issue that haunts you wherever you go, a lost generation and sorry is something that Tony would like to talk about this morning.

DENNISON:

Well I took some elders to the airport yesterday and my mother was one of those people and my family was effectively devastated by the stolen generation and as a child myself, I mean I suffered a lot of sexual abuse as a child while living in the missions from people who were supposed to look after us. But I’ve come to the conclusion over the years and so has my mum that you know all of the media people that are with you today and including yourself Mr Prime Minister was never actually there. So you can’t be held responsible. You can’t even feel guilty for what happened to me and my family. My Dad was taken as a four year old and never knew his family until he was about thirty. He never knew that he even had sister or a father. You

know didn’t even know that his mother had died. But talk at the moment, and the debates about it and the elders that I had at the airport yesterday, we really think that you should not say sorry as the Prime Minister. You are not responsible, your government isn’t responsible and the best thing that you are doing for us as Aboriginal people is that you are pushing things like education, you are pushing things like jobs in the bush and fixing up our health problems. And that’s a more practical way for reconciliation for us. I mean saying sorry from you and I believe you said it personally….

PRIME MINISTER:

Many times, many times.

DENNISON:

Saying sorry as Prime Minister is not in my opinion going to change anything.

BIRCH:

Well it has legal ramifications.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it can have legal ramifications. But my position, I am quite happy to state it again is that there is a difference between saying you’re sorry about something. You hear about a tragedy that effects somebody, you will say to them I am very sorry to hear that. You don’t apologise for it unless you’ve been involved in it. And that is the position I have taken. I know there are a lot of people who disagree with me. But there are a lot of people who agree with me. I am as sensitive to the mistreatment of Aboriginal people in the past as any body else but I don’t agree that one generation should accept responsibility for the misdeeds of an earlier one and I do believe that we have to acknowledge what happened but try and address the on going disadvantage in the way that the Government and many other people are endeavouring to do.

BIRCH:

Why are the media articulating this then?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don’t know. Perhaps as a member of the fourth estate you could explain that. I don’t always find that particularly metropolitan newspapers articulate that difference. I should also tell you that there is a lot of people in the community though who understand the point I make, there are a lot of people in the community who do see the difference and do understand that I am not being insensitive. I’m being candid with myself. I can’t accept responsibility for something and nor should the current Government the current generation for which it was not responsible.

DENNISON:

Nor should you be expected..

BIRCH:

Prime Minister time is just running out and I know you have got a very heavy schedule, but Tony final word to..

DENNISON:

We had Charlie Perkins up here for the freedom rights celebration and Ken and I had him in the studio. Two questions I wanted to ask Charles Perkins and I actually got them up in the studio here. One of the questions I asked Charles was, what do Aboriginal people expect out of reconciliation and the question I asked him was do they expect white people to respect Aboriginal people and he said that is exactly what we are looking for. When I said to Charles, I said then why are you, a so called self elected leader of the Aboriginal community continue to show disrespect to the Prime Minister by turning your back on him and encouraging other people to do so. And he had a long winded answer, as usual for everything. And the second question I asked him was I said Charlie, are you really fair dinkum about looking after all black fellas or just the black fella on the back of the fifty dollar note. And he had a long winded answer for that as well.

BIRCH:

I might get the Prime Minister just to..

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I read occasionally and see occasionally what Charlie has to say about me and you know I have been in this game a long time and I let that go over my shoulder. I think respect is the key to all of this. We have to as a community respect each others culture and differences and I would hope as the years go by the Aboriginal people of Australia will believe that they have been given both respect and acceptance and if we can achieve that then I think we’ve done something. If we don’t achieve that, then I don’t think the process of reconciliation has worked.

BIRCH:

Mr Prime Minister, thank you very much, I know you’ve got a tight schedule. Thank you very much for talking to us on 2VM this morning.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you.

[ends]

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