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Prime Minister discusses forthcoming election; Mark Latham; Saddam Hussein; David Hicks; Mamdouh Habib; baby bonus; Medicare bulkbilling; police corruption; ships; and cricket.



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PRIME MINISTER

2 July 2004

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP INTERVIEW WITH NEIL MITCHELL, RADIO 3AW, MELBOURNE

Subjects: election; Mark Latham; Saddam Hussein; David Hicks; Mamdouh Habib; baby bonus; Medicare; bulkbilling; police corruption; vessels; cricket;

E&OE……………………………………………………………………………..

MITCHELL:

Mr Howard, good morning.

PRIME MINISTER:

Morning, Neil.

MITCHELL:

I’ll take calls from the Prime Minister in a moment 9696 1278. What are you doing on Sunday?

PRIME MINISTER:

On Sunday I’m going back to Sydney after having attended the Olympic dinner and I’m actually having a private luncheon with one of my brothers and members of his family and then in the evening I’m going down to Canberra to get ready for a meeting with the Prime Minister of Thailand who’s coming in to sign the Free Trade Agreement. No problem with the Labor Party supporting that Free Trade Agreement, but that then is not with the United States.

MITCHELL:

Have you got time for a visit to the Governor-General on Sunday?

www.pm.gov.au

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I will be in Canberra on Sunday afternoon but if you’re asking me to comment about when the election is going to be, which I think you might have been - I haven’t made up my mind yet. I really mean that seriously. There seems to be an idea around that I’d made up my mind ages ago when the election is going to be held. I can be quite honest in saying I haven’t, I haven’t made up my mind when it’s going to be held. It’s going to be held, in practical terms, before the end of the year and once again, I don’t think people like elections in December any more, although I don’t totally rule that out but I haven’t made up my mind.

MITCHELL:

It must be in your mind at the moment?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I’m thinking about it. But I haven’t made up my mind yet.

MITCHELL:

Would you think about it much over the next 24 hours?

PRIME MINISTER:

Probably no more than I have over the last 24 or 48 hours or two weeks.

MITCHELL:

Obviously the August 7 has been discussed as the date and that has to be done by Sunday. Are you willing to rule out August 7?

PRIME MINISTER:

I’m not going to rule out anything in relation to this. Things may or may not be ruled out by what’s called a fluxion of time. But I don’t see any need to keep ruling particular dates in and out.

MITCHELL:

Fair enough. Do you agree with the approach that says you wouldn’t want an election during the Olympics and you wouldn’t want it during the September sporting time?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think I would agree that particularly those two weekends, one in September now and one in October which most people agree from an Australian point of view are definitely out as far as election dates are concerned. As to other events I’m not totally certain that you can say yes or no. Although clearly you want to have it at a time when people are focussed but there could be other considerations where you make an on balance judgement.

MITCHELL:

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It’s interesting, we always concentrate on the date - what is the process that goes through your mind? What do you weigh up when you decide?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, you obviously weigh up political considerations. I mean, there can be issues that are running heavily for and against a Government. It’s one of the prerogatives of incumbency that you have and every Prime Minister, whatever persuasion has done that and you think of whether it’s better from the Government’s point of view to have it on a particular date and you also take into account any inconvenience for the public, you take into account such things as school holidays. They’re not definite bars but if you allow for every conceivable thing that might cause inconvenience you run out of dates. I think you end up with Boxing Day and that would be very inconvenient.

MITCHELL:

So that process going on now, that thought process goes on now. Do you think your travelling well? Do you think the Government’s in good shape at the moment?

PRIME MINISTER:

I find that very hard to tell, Neil, quite honestly. I don’t find a sense of rejection of the Government in the community. But when you’ve been in office for eight and a half years the ground can shift from under you without realising it and I don’t take the public for granted. I think it will be hard for us to win - I really mean that, I’ve said it before on this programme because we’ve been there for eight and a half years but on the other hand, I think, I hope modestly speaking we’ve done a pretty good job with running the economy. It’s a pretty stable country with high employment, low inflation and people feel a sense of well being and Australia appears strong and confident in the world. I think they are things that are working our favour. I don’t think the alternative has fleshed out what he believes in. I have no idea of the big policy differences that a Labor Government would implement. I don’t have a clear picture. Mr Latham is a blank sheet of paper policy-wise as far as I’m concerned and I’m not meaning that in any personal sense, it’s an observation as his political rival - where are the big differences?

MITCHELL:

Well, do you feel you’ve made a bit of a comeback over recent weeks?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I’d like to think so. I think we’re travelling a little better. But I’m very cautious about claiming any kind of rails run because I don’t think it is like that at all.

MITCHELL:

So in the end is the decision on an election the gut or the head?

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PRIME MINISTER:

It’s more the gut.

MITCHELL:

How is it today?

PRIME MINISTER:

It’s pretty good. I’m enjoying 3AW’s tea as usual. But in the end you go on instinct. I am by nature an instinctive politician on a lot of issues. Most people who become leaders of political parties after a while they get to rely more on their instinct than on anything else. You don’t behave, one hopes, irrationally but you do rely on instinct on a lot of issues.

MITCHELL:

You mentioned Mark Latham - do you trust him?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don’t have enough knowledge of him to make a judgement on that. I’ve barely dealt with him and I can therefore only react to his public persona. I’ve had very little personal contact with him. I haven’t had anywhere near the personal contact with him that I had with some of his predecessors - I’m not saying that’s right or wrong, it’s just circumstances because he came into parliament a long time after I did and we didn’t have any rivalry in portfolios. We’ve not found each other in ones company, we haven’t found ourselves in each other’s company, rather. So I don’t really have any capacity on which to form an assessment, to make a private assessment whereas, I mean, I can think of somebody like Kim Beazley who although I disagreed of him very strongly and I was very critical of him, I found him on a personal basis a likeable person and somebody who, I think, if he’d have said something to me privately he’d stick to it. Now, I’m not saying that’s not the case with Mr Latham - I just don’t know him very well.

MITCHELL:

There are allegations to be raised on the Sunday Program this week and a report in the press today of another violent incident involving Mark Latham and it’s alleged, I believe, that he struck another Councillor on the Liverpool Council - do you see any signs that he is a violent or a threatening man?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, I don’t want to make any comment about that particularly in advance of that program. All I can say is I haven’t personally experienced anything like that. So in those circumstances I’m not going to add to speculation. I don’t think that’s right. I know nothing more about that particular incident than what you’ve just mentioned and what has been reported in the press. I mean, there are other matters that have been dealt with in the media in the past, but speaking of any personal experience, I can’t say that.

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MITCHELL:

If it is reported that...agree that it’s politically relevant?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I think the most sensible thing for me to do is just like everybody else wait and see the program. MITCHELL:

Have you ever hit anybody?

PRIME MINISTER:

No. I think I may have lost my temper as a very young child and thrown a punch at one of my older brothers, but I think he probably threw a punch at me too.

MITCHELL:

Never as an adult?

PRIME MINISTER:

No. I’m not a violent person. No. Not as an adult - no.

MITCHELL:

Saddam Hussein, images going around the world of Saddam Hussein unrepentant - is there a chance that these appearances could rally your supporters do you think?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, that I guess is the risk of democracy and an open trial. On the other hand, it must be very cathartic for the Iraqi people to know that this person who terrorised their lives and murdered a lot of their family members and citizens for so long is now being brought to trial.

MITCHELL:

What should happen to him if he’s found guilty?

PRIME MINISTER:

He should be punished in accordance with the law of Iraq.

MITCHELL:

Would you support execution?

PRIME MINISTER:

If that’s what the Iraqi people want - yes.

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MITCHELL:

Personally, even though you’re opposed to execution?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I’m opposed to the capital punishment in Australia but I also respect the right of other countries to decide their own penalties. That was the view I took in relation to people who murdered 88 Australians in Bali and it’s the view I will take in relation to Saddam Hussein. That doesn’t alter my own view that in so far as the law of our country is concerned, I oppose capital punishment on the purely pragmatic grounds that the law can, from time to time make mistakes.

MITCHELL:

Could that not make him a martyr?

PRIME MINISTER:

People always say that when you are faced with the capital punishment issue. I don’t believe so, no I don’t. I don’t believe that will be the case at all.

MITCHELL:

Are you happy with the way the hand over of power has gone?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think it was good to bring it forward. It’s a less than satisfactory situation because there’s still violence but given that that violence would almost certainly have escalated around the 1st of July because it was a pre-announced date, the idea of bringing it forward a couple of days was very good.

MITCHELL:

Just before we go to a break. We might get to the baby bonus in a moment, but there are reports today that the United States may in fact repatriate some of the people from Camp X-ray - have you heard any chance, any suggestion that Hicks or Habib could be apart of that?

PRIME MINISTER:

I haven’t been told that they could be part of it. If they came back to Australia, according to the advice I have, they could not be prosecuted and they would just go free.

MITCHELL:

Well, Hicks has already been charged - hasn’t he?

PRIME MINISTER:

Hicks has been charged under the military commission. I have not received any advice that that could happen in relation to either Hicks or Habib.

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MITCHELL:

Would you be comfortable with Habib coming back?

PRIME MINISTER:

I wouldn’t be particularly comfortable with a situation where somebody who against whom these allegations have been made in effect was set free without some kind of trial of the allegation.

[BREAK]

MITCHELL:

The Prime Minister’s in the Melbourne studio with us. Prime Minister, there seems… a few callers have told me there seems to be sort of a loop hole in the baby bonus (inaudible) well, the $600….

PRIME MINISTER:

Yeah, yeah… but that’s not a baby bonus though.

MITCHELL:

Well, but it’s (inaudible) called that. The $600 cuts out before the $3000 cuts in. Look, a caller who says she’s caught in the middle of it has called in, we’ll let her…

PRIME MINISTER:

What her baby’s been born after the budget…

MITCHELL:

Yeah, after the 15th of May. Marika, go ahead Marika, I assume, Marika.

CALLER:

Good morning Neil and Mr Howard. Mr Howard, I’m ringing to discuss this issue, my baby was born in June and it seems that all babies born in June are essentially missing out on both the $600 lump sum payment and the $3000 baby bonus because the payment phases out before the baby bonus kicks in and I’d like to know what…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I inquired about this of somebody who ought to know last night and I was told that anybody who had a baby up until the 30th of June would get the $600 because they, on the birth of the child, become entitled to the family tax benefit.

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CALLER:

Well, according to your advertising, you had to be receiving the family tax benefit on the 28th of May to be entitled to that $600 payment.

PRIME MINISTER:

Can I just check that for you and if you’d like to leave your name and address I’ll follow it up.

CALLER:

Thank you very much.

PRIME MINISTER:

What’s your name again?

CALLER:

Marika.

PRIME MINISTER:

Marika, thanks.

MITCHELL:

Yeah, hold on Marika we’ll get your details off you. But we would have had probably a dozen calls along similar lines so certainly that’s a reality.

PRIME MINISTER:

Let me check that.

MITCHELL:

Just on that issue, do you know yet how much money has been overpaid?

PRIME MINISTER:

The estimate I’ve had is that there are about 2200 cases. Now these typically have arisen where in the financial year 2002-2003 the family would have taken it as a tax rebate at the end of the year. Say Mr Smith claimed it off his tax and then he and his wife sit down and decide for the next year it’s better for the family finances that they take it as a fortnightly payment and Mrs Smith applies in her name for a fortnightly payment, both of their names have remained in the system. It isn’t possible, so I’ve been told, under the systems they have for Mr Smith to be paid twice, but it is possible within the same family for Mr Smith to get a payment and Mrs Smith to get a payment where there has been alteration in the way in which they’ve claimed the benefit. Now it’s happened in a limited number of cases, you’re dealing with two to three million payments and it’s happened in, I’m told, in a very limited number of cases because of the way in which the systems have been geared because the payments are

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made to individuals and you can’t get two payments to the one individual but you get two payments to the one family.

MITCHELL:

And do are you still urging or expecting people to give it back?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, we’re writing out to them today I’m told, and we would explain the circumstances and the advice I have is that these amounts cannot be legally recovered but we will be encouraging people to send the money back.

MITCHELL:

Do you think there’s a realistic chance that that will happen?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think it will happen in some cases, yes I do. I do. It’ll be interesting to see. Bear in mind that it is, you know, there are a lot of people who in the community who are very honest and I have a lot of confidence in…

MITCHELL:

Yeah but Government’s not too considerate of me if I make an error on my tax, why should we be considerate to the Government when it makes an error like this?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, that is one of the reasons why we’re encouraging people rather than taking legal procedures.

MITCHELL:

And you think people will be honest enough…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I think some people will and others will find it very difficult because I understand and accept and respect the fact that people need every dollar they get and more because they have a lot of expenses and I don’t want a situation where people are put into financial hardship because of an administrative process. I certainly don’t want that to happen. That is why we have taken the attitude of inviting and encouraging rather than the attitude of financial proceedings… legal proceedings.

MITCHELL:

We’ll take another call, Jo go ahead.

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CALLER:

Yes, hi. Mr Howard, regarding health, I’ve got three brief points. First, despite your ads I’m angry that we no longer get universal bulkbilling under Medicare…

PRIME MINISTER:

You never did have it.

CALLER:

Well, now (inaudible) young children and pensioners which isn’t me and I did get it before. Secondly, I’m furious that I was bullied and blackmailed into joining a private health fund and have to keep paying higher fees under threat of a life time penalty. And thirdly, I’m seriously offended that your benefits and your definition of families don’t include the elderly or gay people or singles or people without children or people on less than $52,000 for that matter or families on leaky boats ...(inaudible)

MITCHELL:

Okay, one issue… yes Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, in relation to health, I don’t agree that bulkbilling ever covered 100 per cent. It was never going to cover everybody and what has happened in the last few months is through the introduction of the new MedicarePlus package we have in fact seen for the first time in several years an increase in the number of people who are being bulkbilled, it is not confined to children under 16 and card holders. Bulkbilling rates are a direct reflection of the availability of doctors in certain communities. When you have a lot of doctors in an area the bulkbilling rates are high. When you have few doctors the bulkbilling rates are low. And what we have to do seriously is to address the shortfall of doctors in certain areas. But the new thing you didn’t mention is, of course, the safety net and this is something that’s available to everybody. If you’re a card holder or you’re a family tax A recipient once your out of pocket out of hospital expenses go over $300 a year 80 per cent is picked up, if you’re anybody else, that includes everybody, it’s over $700 and 80 per cent is picked up. Now this is the first time in history we’ve ever had a safety net like that. And I think a combination of that and the enhanced encouragement for bulkbilling is just, if I can borrow an old expression, what the doctor ordered.

MITCHELL:

Okay, thanks for calling Jo. We’ll take another call, this also goes to the baby bonus, there might in fact be more information. Davie, go ahead please Davie.

CALLER:

It’s David.

MITCHELL:

David, I’m sorry.

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CALLER:

That’s alright. Good morning Mr Howard. In regards to the family bonus (inaudible) $600, we had a child on the 20th of May and we checked our account (inaudible) and would have seen the money come through. We’ve got two other children where we received $1200 for them and then we didn’t get that $600 for the third child. We made an inquiry to the family assistance centre and they told us as of the 15th of May, your child’s born after that or your child’s then born before the 1st of July you sort of miss out. So I buy that as a bit unfair that both children in between those dates don’t get any sort of assistance.

PRIME MINISTER:

Let me, I indicated earlier on that in the answer to that other question, I would make inquiries about that, but I can only repeat the information I was given last night…

MITCHELL:

(inaudible)

PRIME MINISTER:

Because I anticipated a question like this and that’s why I made that inquiry.

MITCHELL:

Okay thanks for calling David. Any chance still of Victoria getting the power to bug phones?

PRIME MINISTER:

What do you… oh in relation, I’m sorry, no, not unless they have a crime commissioner, no.

MITCHELL:

Isn’t that going to hinder the attempts to fight this?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I just think it’s an improper use of that very draconian power. Let’s understand that even though we’re dealing with crime we’ll all in favour of fighting it. Interception of phone calls is fundamentally a big invasion of people’s privacy and we’ve got to be certain that the people who are given the power have the necessary legal constraints and an ombudsman does not fit that bill.

MITCHELL:

Isn’t there a way of imposing those constraints if still given the power to the ombudsman?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, they can only be effectively imposed by the laws of Victoria and they’ve got to have somebody who’s the equivalent of a crime commissioner.

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MITCHELL:

I guess there’s no way of negotiating.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I think if the Victorian Government were to seriously, certainly if Mr Bracks wants to talk to me about this I’m very happy to do so, I’m in favour of fighting crime, I’m sure everybody’s in favour of fighting crime. But it’s a very big thing to give power of this character to an ombudsman and we haven’t done it in relation to other states and I think it breaches a very important legal principle.

MITCHELL:

Just on security issues, as I understand it, as of the 1st of July, various vessels coming into ports are required to be escorted. Is that correct under your new…?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yeah, that’s my understanding, certainly…

MITCHELL:

..happening yet?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, what’s this, the 3rd of July, I’ll have to ask.

MITCHELL:

And who would escort them? I think it was things like oil tankers and passenger liners coming in, of course a lot come into Port Phillip Bay and Sydney Harbour. Who would escort them, is it the Navy or is it the…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I think it would be a combination of vessels, but as to what the practical arrangements are, I know they are meant to start, I don’t have the detail of the practical arrangements with me.

MITCHELL:

I don’t know if you’re aware of this, there are reports here about a new airport fee, a landing fee to impose on the air ambulance here…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I have read about that and I have asked for some information about it. These are charges that are imposed on all services and it’s a result of trying to make the air services

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operate in an efficient manner and let me, I did see those reports, I think they were in the Melbourne Age yesterday, I have sought some information.

MITCHELL:

Did you also see the reports of Alexander Downer controlling more, attempting…

PRIME MINISTER:

I did… I think what he did was fair. He simply pointed out to them that their promo gave a misleading impression, a misleading impression being that the Americans have changed their travel warning but no acknowledgement had been made that we changed ours and that was wrong because we had. And I think he’s got a perfect right and I’m glad he did pursue that and make sure that false information or a misleading impression was not created by that promotion by the ABC because you’re dealing here with the Bali attack, you’re dealing here with the implication that in some way if DFAT had behaved differently the Bali have not have occurred and…

MITCHELL:

The ABC said it was right but still pulled it off. Isn’t that bowing to his pressure?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I don’t think the ABC were bowing to his pressure, I think he made a good point and I don’t think they were right, I think he was right in complaining about the possible misleading impression that was going to be created.

MITCHELL:

The cricket’s on up north, Muralitharan not here, is that because of what you said?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, they don’t say that. I think what I said was a reflection of the findings of that clinic in Perth.

MITCHELL:

Okay, another sporting issue, Jason Akermanis to Brisbane players quote in the papers as saying that he met you after one of the Rugby games I think it was…

PRIME MINISTER:

The one in Brisbane against England and...

MITCHELL:

Sorry, and he gave you some advice on how to win the next federal election, coming from Jason Akermanis that’ll be interesting. What was it?

PRIME MINISTER:

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Oh, he wants lower tax.

MITCHELL:

Only for footballers?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no he didn’t say that. He’s quite happy for anybody else on the same or remotely approaching level of income to have a tax cut as well, I’m sure. He’s in favour of lower tax. Well, we are cutting taxes. In fact they were cut from the first of July. So I said we’re half way there Jason and he said you’ve still got a long way to go.

MITCHELL:

… right.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, everybody would like much lower tax and a lot more spending but something’s got to give and you’ve got to strike a balance between those two.

MITCHELL:

Thank you very much for your time. The next time we talk will we be in an election campaign?

PRIME MINISTER:

We’ll talk again in two weeks.

MITCHELL:

Are we already in an election campaign?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, some people say that, but there’ll be one soon. But just exactly when I can’t tell you.

MITCHELL:

Thank you very much.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you.

[ends]