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Prime Minister discusses leadership; the economy; children overboard affair; Greens; Queensland; Trish Worth; and terrorist threat.



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PRIME MINISTER

31 August 2004

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

Subjects: Leadership; economy; children overboard; Greens; Queensland; Trish Worth, terrorist threat to Australia.

E&OE……………………………………………………………………………..

JOURNALIST:

Mr Prime Minister, good morning.

PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning, John, Ross.

JOURNALIST:

Good morning, Mr Howard.

JOURNALIST:

Both very well, I think, thank you. Prime Minister, let’s get this out of the way first off shall we....

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, (inaudible) question....

JOURNALIST:

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Yeah, given Peter Costello’s very, very public pledge of loyalty yesterday - why can you not now just simply say and defuse the whole issue, that given unforeseen circumstances you will serve out a full term?

PRIME MINISTER:

John, Peter Costello’s always been loyal and we’ve worked together very closely. My position is that I’ll remain leader of the party as long as my party wants me too. I’m not time specific. I’ve made this very clear in the past and I’m not going to alter a formula and I’m not going to alter my position, express it differently simply because we’re in an election campaign. Because what I have said expresses my position and I’m simply saying that if the Australian people are good enough to re-elect the Government I lead on the 9th of October, then I’ll continue as leader and therefore as Prime Minister as long as my party wants me to. Now that is plain and it is the only sensible, it is the only way I can express it because it represents the fact. And Peter and I have worked together very closely and I continue to be amazed that the Labor Party attacks Mr Costello. Don’t they understand that he’s been an extremely successful Treasurer. The public respect Mr Costello. The public think Mr Costello has done a very good job with the economy. When they look at their low interest rates they think, well, hasn’t that bloke Costello done a good job managing the economy. So I invite the Labor Party to go on attacking Peter. It only increases his stature. But my position remains. I’ll continue as leader for long as my party wants me to. I’m not time specific. I’m just making that plain and that is my answer and it was my answer yesterday. It’ll be my answer today and it’ll be my answer because it represents the true position. I think it has been completely candid because it represents my situation.

JOURNALIST:

So to paraphrase your reply then - if John Howard and the Howard Government is re-elected at the coming election - Peter Costello has said he will not be challenging for the position and I can’t for the life of me see anyone else in your.....

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, Peter Costello, to use the proverbial expression, if I went under a bus, I believe, I am sure the party would choose Peter, probably without opposition. But I mean, that’s a matter for the party. May I say that people seem to overlook the fact that I hold my position as a gift from my party colleagues - I don’t own it. It’s not mine to

pass on to somebody. I am there because my colleagues have elected me and this idea that I somehow or other own the position - I don’t. My party’s been good enough to trust me as their leader since January of 1995 and I’m incredibly grateful for that honour, but I am their servant as I am the servant of the Australian public. But look, I don’t mind, I mean we can talk about this interminably and in a sense it emphasises the strength of the Government. I mean, they are so preoccupied with Peter Costello, the Labor Party, they are spending all this time attacking him. Now if he were, you know, had all the defects of which they speak - why would they spend so much time attacking him? I mean, it’s an ordinary law of political communication that you tend to fear somebody by continuing - well you demonstrate a fear of somebody by continuing to attack them - and I think that every time they attack Peter Costello they are demonstrating a sensitivity to how effective he’s been as Treasurer and what a

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very good partnership the two of us are and given that the central issue in this election campaign is who would you more trust to properly manage the economy, then they can go on attacking Peter. I don’t think it advances their cause and far be it from me to though to give them any advice on tactics in the middle of an election campaign.

JOURNALIST:

Alright Mr Howard, then let’s leave that alone shall we and move on to polls. You are according to The Australian this morning starting to bite into the Labor lead - does that please you?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, obviously when you get a good poll you’re happy, when you get a bad poll you’re not so happy. Anybody who says otherwise is not being candid. But this election campaign is very hard to pick, the result that is and I don’t know who is going to win. I hope we do, I believe we deserve to be re-elected but I have no idea what the final outcome is going to be and I believe the polls are going to bounce around. I do believe that the central issue is the one that I identified on Sunday and that is who do you trust to better manage the economy and to protect living standards? Who do you trust to keep your interest rates low and who do you trust to lead Australia in the fight against terrorism and who do you trust to keep the budget strong so we can afford to spend more money on health and education? Now they are the central issues in the campaign and what I will be talking about will be those issues. I’ll be talking about some others as well, but they’ll be the central part of my plea, my request, my case to my fellow Australians. I will be unveiling some new policies that will cover the major challenges that this country has in the years ahead. We ought to be debating the policies that are relevant for Australia over the next 10 years because an election campaign is a time to look forward, you must look back a little to draw on the experience of the past, but you shouldn’t be a slave to that and certainly you shouldn’t dwell on the past. What we have to do is to give people a sense of what we have in mind for the future.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, very interesting that you should go straight onto the front foot and talk about trust when you are still under a fair amount of scrutiny and in fact Mike Scrafton is to appear in the Senate committee tomorrow into the children overboard situation.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I mean I know what he’s saying, I disagree with him. The other thing I’d simply say is that I think most Australians remember of that period that we stopped the boats coming and we stopped illegal immigration coming to this country and we were strong on border protection and the Labor Party was weak. But I do believe the Australian public want to hear from both parties about the next 10 years, not about the last three days of the last election campaign. But the Labor Party has set up a political stunt in the Senate, that’s as obvious as anything and it’s entirely predictable what will be said.

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JOURNALIST:

Now yesterday on this network Peter Costello said that Australians should be wary of terrorism threats in the lead up to the election. Now that’s been seconded by a former Bush adviser who says the Australian election campaign is at more risk of an al-Qaeda terrorist attack than the United States Presidential election is.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we all hope and pray that nothing happens and I devoutly hope that, I know all Australians hope that. He was making the obvious point, and I think it was a very interesting point, given that he’s a critic of the Bush administration, that because there is a difference between the keeping of troops in Iraq- and that is the Labor Party will cut and run and bring them hope before Christmas- because of that, because there’s a difference between the Labor Party’s attitude here and the attitude of Senator Kerry, who’s George Bush’s challenger in the United States, he therefore thought that a terrorist attack was more likely in Australia than in the United States. Now that is what he was saying. Our advice has not changed, the possibility remains of a terrorist attack, I’ve not received any information which would heighten that concern. I want to emphasise that. And like every other Australian I hope and pray nothing happens. But it is interesting that he made the point - he made the point- he, a critic of the Bush administration made the point that the difference stance being taken by the Labor Party in Australia from the Democratic Party in the United States heightened the likelihood of danger in Australia. Now that is his view, I don’t necessarily endorse it, so I’m not going to endorse any, engage in any kind of scare talk about this. I hope that nothing happens, I don’t believe anything will happen, I really don’t, because I think the possibility of an attack in this country is a lot less than in many other countries, but I can’t rule it out.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, the Associated Press has published an international news story on the ABC news website which has as its headline “John Howard, first Iraq invader to face vote.” Any concerns about being the first leader to go the polls?

PRIME MINISTER:

No. I’m never frightened to face the Australian public, I’m accountable to the Australian public and I don’t retreat from the decision I took in relation to Iraq, if I had my time again I would have taken the same decision and if my Government is re-elected Australian forces will stay and finish the job. Unlike the Labor Party, we will not cut and run because cutting and running does not buy us any immunity and you know, as you’ve just pointed out there are views to the contrary from other sources.

JOURNALIST:

Now you say that a Latham Government variously quoted you as saying that voters would be risking economic disaster if Labor wins the October federal election that the

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Labor Government would bring increased interest rates. Isn’t it an inevitability with interest rates where they are now that they are going to rise?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, John, I don’t think that is inevitable. Interest rates are much lower now then they were when we came to office. I mean the average mortgage is $500 cheaper then it would otherwise have been if the Keating interest rates had continued. The point I made yesterday and I make it again today is that because of Labor policies in the past and you have look at what they have done rather than what they say, of running bigger deficits and because their industrial relations policies will lead to reduced productivity and therefore the possibility of inflationary wage claims, for those two reasons I believe interest rates will be higher under a Labor Government. And I don’t think anybody listening to this programme can dispute the fact that one of the dramatic successes we have achieved for middle Australia is to preside over the lowest housing interest rates in 30 years. And the value of homes have gone up around Australia and many people are quite highly geared and they’re sensitive to interest rate increases. Therefore the party that has the best track record on keeping interest rates as low as possible is the party that will attract or should attract their support because that interest rate movement and the degree of it is a very sensitive thing to middle Australia and certainly a very sensitive thing to many people in Brisbane and all over Queensland.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, given that Queensland is a key state for you and it will have some bearing on your success or….

PRIME MINISTER:

A great deal of bearing. A great deal of bearing.

JOURNALIST:

There are a number of projects awaiting funding in Queensland Ipswich Road being one of them and Campbell Newman’s tunnel plans for this city. Any plans to announce anything with regard to funding for those issues?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I won’t get into particular projects at the present time. We did of course in the Auslink road announcement several months ago, we made some very big funding commitments that were of enormous benefit to people in Queensland. And I will be coming to Queensland quite a lot during the campaign, in fact I expect to be in Brisbane on Thursday and it will be my first stop out of Canberra and Sydney and I will, in the course of the campaign, come back and have quite a bit to say about our plans which are specifically for Queensland. I might point out of course that the strength of the Australian economy is of benefit to all Australians and no state has benefited more from the proceeds of the Goods and Services Tax than Queensland. And the Queensland Government has almost untold riches, so to speak, as a result of

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the GST. And Mr Beattie is almost embarrassed, even despite the fact that he belongs to a different political party than I do, at the fact that it has turned out to be a great bonanza for Queensland. Because Queensland has access to a growth tax and the carving up of the pie has been of benefit to Queensland, for good reason, because it’s a big State and maintaining essential services around a big State are more expensive than they are in a small State. And that’s why Queensland has done better out of the Grants Commission.

JOURNALIST:

Herald Sun newspaper today Prime Minister says Greens manifesto is backing the official supply of ecstasy as well as State sanctioned heroin and marijuana sales at what it calls appropriate venues.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I’m glad that that article has appeared and it underlines the point I made yesterday and that is that there’s more to the Greens than being warm and fuzzy about the environment. The Greens would have you believe that they are a single issue party, that all they believe in is protecting the environment. Now we all believe in protecting the environment but sensible middle Australians who want to protect the environment, who have a concern about greenhouse gas emissions, about forests and things like that, they want a party that will deal with those things but don’t support illicit drug use, don’t support increases in personal tax, don’t support the reintroduction of death duties at certain levels of estates. And these are all policies that the Greens have and I think one of the things that needs to happen in this election campaign is that the real Greens agenda needs to be exposed. People who are tempted to vote for the Greens simply on the basis of their concern for the environment should learn what else they’re voting for. That article has done us a great service.

JOURNALIST:

According to the article it says the other Greens policies revealed including introducing laws to force people to ride bicycles more often, eat less meat, Medicare funding for sex change operations, an open door policy on asylum seekers, and capital gains tax on the most expensive family homes. You’d love to see that out in the public wouldn’t you?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think it’s important people understand what parties stand for. I mean the small parties, they run around and sermonise about the rest of us, and carry on as though they have some kind of moral monopoly and point the finger at the major parties, whether it’s the Liberal Party or the Labor Party, and just parade under a warm and fuzzy agenda that everybody of course agrees with. I mean we all want to protect the environment, everybody does, that’s not a debate anymore it’s a question of how you do it sensibly. But in the process of this election campaign, the rest of the Greens agenda has got to be exposed so that people who might be tempted to vote for them because of the environmental appeal of their policies understand what else they’re

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voting for and I will certainly be pointing that out and I think it’s important that it be… happen with everybody.

JOURNALIST:

On the subject of smaller parties, minor parties if you like, the emergence of the Family First Party, they would have an agenda that you would surely agree with - family issues.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I don’t pretend to know all the detail of their policies. But certainly, the concept of a family first party is one that I support. But, once again, may I say, that is not something that is the monopoly of that particular group. I think everybody supports the central role of the family in our society and so many of our own policies in the last budget, in particular, were designed to helping families and in fact, over the next few weeks, the second $600 payment to people who get the family tax benefit, those that have put in their tax returns and had a reconciliation of their family benefit payments during the year, those payments will be going out over the coming weeks. And what it will mean for hundreds of thousands of Australian families that not only did they receive the $600 a few months ago, but this is the payment for this year and they will, of course, in subsequent years, providing the Government is returned- there’s no guarantee from the Labor Party that they’re going to keep the lump sum payment. I keep hearing suggestions from Mr Latham that he’s going to turn that into a fortnightly payment. I actually think that’s a bit, if that happens, that’s a bit insulting. He’s really saying to Australian parents that they can’t be trusted with a lump sum. I find that very insulting. What we’ve got at the moment is, we’ve got the bulk of the payment is fortnightly and we’ve decided to add the supplement of $600. I’ve found, John, as I’ve gone around Australia and spoken particularly to mothers of young children that they rather like the lump sum, it’s a form of compulsory saving and it’s a chunk of money you can actually do something with and you can buy something that you really need. Whereas if you divide that into fortnightly payments it just sort of disappears into the general stream. So I’ll be very interested to see whether the Labor Party tries to convert that $600 into a fortnightly payment. And if they do, I think it is done on the basis of the assumption that somehow or other parents don’t know what is best for their children. I think that is very insulting. I mean, Australian parents know what to do with $600 for their children. They spend it wisely and they are the best of people to decide that, not the Government.

JOURNALIST:

Alright, now will you be having words or having your people have some words with Liberal, South Australian Liberal MP Trish Worth, who’s compared policies for dealing with asylum seekers with quarantine rules for the import of live animals.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, that’s not a fair representation of what she said. No, I will not be having words with her. I heard all of that on the ABC this morning, sorry for the alternative plug, I just happened to be listening on the ABC…

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JOURNALIST:

… are they still on the air?

PRIME MINISTER:

I beg your pardon?

JOURNALIST:

Are they still on the air, actually?

PRIME MINISTER:

Now, now,don’t be rude. Now, and, I thought she was simply making a point that if you come to Australia then there have to be tests made. I think it was just a beat up by her opponent and I certainly know Trish Worth very well. And can I tell you - I mean, she is very, very compassionate towards refugees and she was one of the people in the party who was pushing very hard for temporary protection visas and she’s the last person who you can hang that sort of tag on. So, no I won’t be having words with her because she is a very sensitive, compassionate woman.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, a listener has called in and wants to know if she votes for you, will you introduce more rights for men for their children. She says her husband is finding it incredibly hard to access his daughter.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, what we will do is to change the family law system and introduce family relationship centres across Australia which will really be composed of welfare organisations that have great family counselling capacities and we’ll fund them. And the whole idea of this will be, before people go to court, and get into the acrimonious situation that obviously her husband is in, presumably in relation to children of his first marriage. See what happens now is that people separate and they get into the hands of their lawyers immediately and they’re like boxers who go into opposite corners of the ring and unless you have a very compatible settlement, everything sort of becomes a stalemate and people waste their money in pointless court disputes. Now what we need is a shock absorber, so that when people do separate they get some advice and they try and reach an agreement before attitudes harden too much about access and custody. So I believe that will be better for men because many men get poorly treated as a consequence of the way the system works at the present time. And the original idea for the committee that led to this new policy was my concern that too many children were growing up without having fatherly influences in their lives. I think it is a terrible tragedy that when families break up, boys in particular will end up with no male role models and with fewer and fewer male teachers in the schools this is a huge problem and you have often have boys reaching the age 16 or

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17 without any male role model at all and that is very bad and it’s something that we have to, as a society, address.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, we’re going to have to leave it there. We’re right out of time. Thanks for talking to us this morning. No doubt we will speak again before the election.

PRIME MINISTER:

I certainly hope so.

[ends]