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Prime Minister discusses the allegations against Senator Colston, Tim Fischer's criticism about the High Court, the mercenaries in Papua New Guinea, legal aid funding, and gambling

PETER THOMPSON: And now the Prime Minister. The Howard Government's second year has started with a wide-ranging and heated debate about political propriety, with the focus on the Deputy President of the Senate, Mal Colston. The issues of native title and the role of the High Court are also central. This morning, we're joined by the Prime Minister and he's talking to Pru Goward in our Canberra studio.

PRU GOWARD: Prime Minister, welcome. Can I begin with Senator Mal Colston? He continues to hang on, despite the barrage of criticism from Labor, but how long do you think before the Government really can't afford him?

JOHN HOWARD: We're not going to be bulldozed by vitriolic hatred and abuse. I mean, this has not got anything to do with ethics, it's got nothing to do with parliamentary morality, it is just a vicious Labor Party pay-back to somebody who deserted them. Now, I understand they're angry, but that outburst by Robert Ray yesterday said it all to the Australian public. I mean, this is about a Labor Party pay-back. Hell hath no fury like the Labor Party rejected. And frankly, as far as we're concerned, we will let the law run its course. If Colston has done anything wrong, then the law should apply to him as it would to you or me, but we're not going to be bulldozed by the Labor Party picking up every bit of scuttlebutt around this building, under parliamentary privilege hurling it at him, we'll allow the law to run its course.

We're not going to protect Mal Colston - we're certainly not going to do that - but we're not going to be swept along in this river of bile and vitriol which is all borne out of the fact that he left the Labor Party and, on a number of crucial votes, voted with us rather than with the Labor Party. Now, that's why the Labor Party is upset. I mean, it's got nothing to do with their concern about his propriety. I mean, if they were all concerned about certain things, many of which are alleged to have occurred while they were in government, why didn't they get indignant then, and what I find fascinating is Kim Beazley's uneasy role in this. I mean, he might ask me a question today because I'm raising the matter, but I get the very distinct impression that this whole thing is being run by Ray and Kim Carr and sort of whether Kim Beazley likes it or not.

PRU GOWARD: Yes, but should a party Senator resign from a party but remain in the Parliament, almost under false pretences?

JOHN HOWARD: Well, there are precedents all over the place. Don Chipp resigned from the Liberal Party in 1977 and remained until the election.

PRU GOWARD: Well, that's the Liberal ....

JOHN HOWARD: Well, of course, and I don't remember people engaging in parliamentary outbursts against him of the type that Robert Ray engaged in and he, after all, formed a party that secured the balance of power in the Senate. So, in long term, that probably had more consequence, far more consequence for us, than Colston's behaviour has for the Labor Party.

PRU GOWARD: But if all these things have been alleged, some of them, as you say, will be provable or not provable by law, but aren't you nonetheless concerned that it casts a shadow, not just on one Senator, but on the standing of all parliamentarians?

JOHN HOWARD: .... I mean, there's nothing I can do about that. All I can say is ....

PRU GOWARD: Except that you're attached to it.

JOHN HOWARD: Oh, I can say it is my belief that the overwhelming majority of Senators and Members on both sides of the House - I repeat: on both sides of the House - are completely scrupulous and honest regarding these things. I really do believe that. Most men and women who come into Parliament are there to do a job according to their belief systems and, of course when something like this happens, but life's always been like that. When something goes wrong with a small number of people in a larger group, it always has the potential to reflect on the larger group, but there's nothing that the larger group can do about that except have a procedure for things being investigated, and we are doing that. But I repeat: I'm not going to give a running commentary on every bit of corridor gossip which, under parliamentary privilege, without any kind of substantiation .. I mean, did Senator Ray say 'So-and-so told me that you on such-and-such a flight did this, did that?' There's none of that. And if the man has done anything wrong, well, he should be found out and he should pay the penalty for it, but equally he shouldn't be hounded in what is nothing more than a backyard pay-back of the most vicious open and vitriolic kind.

PRU GOWARD: All right, but do you want greater scrutiny? Do you feel the public now feels the need for greater scrutiny of travel allowances and how the honour system works?

JOHN HOWARD: I think the best thing to do is to allow the processes that are in place now to apply in relation to the allegations that have been made against particular people. The question of whether some broad change to the rules down the track is something that should be considered away from the spotlight of these allegations. But the danger of doing otherwise is that people say 'There must be something wrong; they must all be doing it.'

PRU GOWARD: It doesn't matter what they think. The electorate has to be ....

JOHN HOWARD: It matters a lot what people think and that's the whole thrust, and what I would say to the Australian public is that I believe that the overwhelming bulk of people are very scrupulous and completely honest. If you have complaints against somebody, make the complaint to the Minister, to the Federal Police, let it be investigated. We won't interfere, we won't stop it, but we're not going to give sort of aid and comfort to every bit of scuttlebutt around the corridors.

PRU GOWARD: Now, Prime Minister, on another issue, your Deputy PM, Tim Fischer, has reportedly told the Age he wants to see 'capital 'C' conservative head the High Court when Justice Brennan retires next year'. Now, shouldn't the country's paramount legal figure really be above that description, be above prejudice, if you like?

JOHN HOWARD: Well, I think a lot of people have, including judges and retired judges themselves, talked a lot more openly about how they might be described in their role as judges. There was a time you would never have had Sir Owen Dixon, for example, talking about whether he was a black-letter lawyer or whether he should pursue a more or less activist role, but I think it does have to be said, in fairness to people like Tim Fischer, that some of the judges themselves have talked more openly. I'm not criticising them for this, incidentally, but there are some .. I mean, there's one High Court judge in particular who is renowned for making speeches over the years about all manner of things. Now, once again ....

PRU GOWARD: Justice Kirby.

JOHN HOWARD: Yes. Now, I won't express a view at this stage as to whether that is a good or a bad thing, but once you sort of open the door and once you accept that people on the bench, or people recently retired from the bench, can talk more openly and in general terms about their role, and categorise themselves and talk about the evolving nature of the High Court, it is inevitable that, as part of that expanded debate, politicians are going to do the same thing. Now, for my part, I'm not going to speculate about Sir Gerard Brennan's replacement. Under the provisions of the Constitution, he has to retire when he reaches the age of 70. I won't be making any comment at all to anybody about his replacement, who that person may be. All I can say is that the processes of consultation will go on, we will consult the States, but, at the end of the day, it is our decision. It's a very important decision and it'll be made conscientiously, but you won't get any comments from me.

PRU GOWARD: When your Deputy Prime Minister, though, criticises the High Court for the slowness of its decision on Wik, then finds out and accepts the explanations of the Chief Justice in a private letter, but fails then to correct the public record, is the public entitled to think that you are putting, as a government or certainly the Deputy Prime Minister, is putting pressure on the High Court?

JOHN HOWARD: No.

PRU GOWARD: Well, why didn't he correct the record? Shouldn't he have?

JOHN HOWARD: It was self-evident what had happened, self-evident.

PRU GOWARD: Was it?

JOHN HOWARD: Yes, quite self-evident.

PRU GOWARD: He got the letter on 3 January and he ....

JOHN HOWARD: He released it. As I understand it, he released it.

PRU GOWARD: Yes.

JOHN HOWARD: Well, I mean, if you release the letter, the correspondence covers it all. I didn't think there was any need for any further comment.

PRU GOWARD: But it wasn't released until this month.

JOHN HOWARD: Well, because a freedom of information request was made, which puzzles me anyway.

PRU GOWARD: So you don't think the public would have any concern over your wish to put pressure on the High Court? You would not ....

JOHN HOWARD: I don't regard anything that Tim Fischer did as putting pressure on the High Court, no.

PRU GOWARD: Papua New Guinea ....

JOHN HOWARD: The point I should make about that, Pru, is that Sir Gerard Brennan, in his reply, emphasised the fact that there's absolutely no constraint on people debating and criticising decisions of the court. This is something that is often misunderstood. People regard the criticism of a judgment as being in some way improper. It never has been and it never ought to be. The only thing that oughtn't to happen is that the integrity of the bench should not be attacked and their application to work not attacked now. They are the two things.

PRU GOWARD: All right. Can I look at Papua New Guinea, Prime Minister? How serious do you believe the situation is there now when your Foreign Minister has cancelled a trip to stay home and monitor the situation?

JOHN HOWARD: Well, it is a serious situation and was a serious situation last week when I first spoke about it, and it remains a source of very great concern to me. We ....

PRU GOWARD: What do you think might happen that requires ....

JOHN HOWARD: Well, Pru, a number of things could happen. I hope the mercenaries are not deployed on Bougainville and we are bending all of our own efforts and we are encouraging others to bend their efforts to stop that occurring, and I don't want anybody to be in any doubt that we have put that view very strongly to the PNG Government, but it is an independent country with all the sensitivity of a former colony, if I can put it that way, towards a former colonial power, and it's always going to be a relationship that has to be handled with that care and sensitivity that the relationship borne out of that former association always produces.

PRU GOWARD: Legal aid, Prime Minister, it's a national day of protest today. Are you at all concerned, I mean, the nub of the claim which is that essentially people might be able to walk free who should be in gaol because they haven't been given a proper defence?

JOHN HOWARD: Well, the nub of the issue is really whether what we have done is fair and reasonable, and what we have said is that the Commonwealth will fund matters under Commonwealth law, and the States ought to fund matters under State law. Over the years, there's plenty of evidence, and I gave some of it in the House yesterday, of where money we have put in in the past has been diverted to fund State matters, so you have to apply that principle to each case. Now, the one that's received publicity, the Mantiri case, that is fully covered by current Commonwealth funding until 30 June, because the new arrangement doesn't come into operation until the end of this financial ....

PRU GOWARD: But clearly a Mantiri case could arise in the next financial year, couldn't it?

JOHN HOWARD: Yes, but if a case like that arises, it's just not good enough for the States to say, 'Well, it's your responsibility.' You've got to look at under whose law the person is being prosecuted and whether the funds are available.

PRU GOWARD: Prime Minister, you're tough on the States, aren't you? I mean, that's $120 million you're taking out ....

JOHN HOWARD: What you mean, I'm tough on the State? It's not a question ....

PRU GOWARD: Well, you're taking $120 million out of their budget.

JOHN HOWARD: Yes, but over the years .. well, over a period of years, not annually. I mean, this business of automatically multiplying everything by four, but forgetting to tell the public. I'm not criticising you, but it's become a bad habit here. You multiply by three or four - you use the global amount - and everybody thinks that's an annual amount. It's not an annual amount, it's less than that.

PRU GOWARD: Do you accept, though, that the States are doing it tough at the moment? I mean, you've got Jeff Kennett now raising the possibility that they just can't wear another big budget cut this year from you, and that he wants to ....

JOHN HOWARD: Well, we haven't said anything about what approach we're going to take at the coming Premiers' conference. I recognise that the States made a contribution last year. I think they're doing it tough. I think all governments have got to live within their means. We're doing it tough; we inherited a $10 billion deficit. That's tougher than any of the States are doing it, and we've got to do something about it because we ultimately provide the safety net in this country; we look after people as far as unemployment benefits and pensions are concerned; we have a very big underlying deficit; we cut a lot out of it last year and we've got to cut more out of it this year, and nobody should run away with the idea that the Commonwealth is a bottomless pit - I mean, it's not - and, at the end of the day, we are the people who raise the taxes.

I mean, when people think of taxation in this country, they think Federal, they don't think State, and the sensitivity of the Australian public towards taxation and fundraising is .. funds raising is something that's directed towards the Federal Government.

PRU GOWARD: And so you feel the issue of legal assistance and getting a fair trial is not your responsibility?

JOHN HOWARD: No, it is our responsibility for matters under Commonwealth law, and we think it's the responsibility of the States for matters under State law. I mean, the States are always saying that there should be a clearer delineation of authority and you shouldn't confuse roles. They're always very keen to defend their own independence in certain areas and I understand and respect that, so let's apply the principle. I mean, we will fund matters under Commonwealth law; let the States fund matters under State law. It's a fair principle, isn't it?

PRU GOWARD: Prime Minister, to mark your first anniversary, you made several strong criticisms of gambling. Is this a personal issue for you or do you actually believe the Commonwealth Government ultimately might be moved to do something about it legislatively?

JOHN HOWARD: Oh, I'm not contemplating any legislation. I would think that's unthinkable. It's not for a government to tell people that they can't gamble or whatever, any more than for a government to say to people, 'You can't have a drink.' I mean, heavens above, I'm not a wowser.

PRU GOWARD: But it's tough on the State, again, isn't it? I mean, it's a purely voluntary tax.

JOHN HOWARD: Well, it's not a question of being tough on the States. I mean, heavens above, there is clear evidence that some people who can't afford to gamble are doing so and they are paying a very heavy price, and so are their families, and so is small businesses. Now, I expressed a concern that gambling may have reached saturation point in this country. I don't regret saying that, I don't resile from it one iota. I believe it. You say, is it a strong personal view of mine? Well, it is, but not fanatically so. I don't have any sort of personal problem with gambling. I don't gamble much myself, very, very ....

PRU GOWARD: Have you ever placed a bet?

JOHN HOWARD: Oh, once, about twice in my life. Yes, I'm not a gambling man, but I don't care about it as .. it doesn't sort of trouble me in a social sense. I get a bit troubled if people do it to excess because I feel sorry for the price that they pay - it's a very heavy price. Now, that's why I raised the matter, and there's a lot of community concern about it. Don't anybody underestimate the level of community concern about this. Now, it's not an attack on the States.

PRU GOWARD: But from their point of view, Prime Minister, it's a voluntary tax, you don't have to gamble, and they find it hard to ....

JOHN HOWARD: Well, I suppose that's the equivalent of saying .. I mean, it's no more voluntary than any other tax, Pru. It's the equivalent of saying you don't have to buy something on which sales tax is levied. I mean, look, of course people don't have to gamble. What I'm concerned about is that a small section of the population, to use your expression a few moments ago, is really doing it very hard, and I wouldn't want to see any further expansion of gambling facilities in this country, but any suggestion that we would legislate, no, of course we're not going to legislate. But can't a Prime Minister or a Premier or a senior political figure, from time to time, express a view about something which isn't on the balance sheet, hasn't got to do with the budget, hasn't got to do with micro-economic reform or taxation or economics?

PRU GOWARD: ... certainly, it's been welcomed by a lot of people.

JOHN HOWARD: I mean, it's the totality of one's view towards society that surely counts in this job.

PRU GOWARD: Prime Minister, thank you for your time this morning.

JOHN HOWARD: A pleasure.

PETER THOMPSON: And John Howard was with Pru Goward.