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Prime Minister discusses involvement in war against terrorism; illegal immigrants and asylum seekers; ABC; and Governor-General.



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21 December 2001

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP INTERVIEW WITH CLIVE ROBERTSON, RADIO NATIONAL

Subjects: Australia’s involvement in war against terrorism; illegal immigrants; ABC; Governor General.

E&OE…………………………………………………………………………………………...

ROBERTSON:

Good morning, Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning, Clive.

ROBERTSON:

You know what the ABC’s like, don’t you?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, know it well.

ROBERTSON:

Brickbats and bouquets for you, all right, okay. It’s been a hell of a year and the few things that I’m disturbed about and, indeed, these won’t surprise you, is that we seem to have lost heart in Australia. I mean, I look at the refugee situation and I know legally there are problems but even so I want you to cheer me up over this because I spoke to Mr Tim Costello, you might know his brother, I think you’ll probably meet him socially,yes.

PRIME MINISTER:

I know them both.

PRIME MINISTER

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ROBERTSON:

He said despite everything we’ve got to show a heart, these are people who are in trouble and these are people who, unfortunately, are described as illegal immigrants. I would say untested immigrants because some of them have a testing process. And there are far more immigrants who are going to come across from around the world, the world is not getting smaller. I feel really sad that we’re looked upon as a mean generation in Australia because we never used to. So cheer me up over this. Tell me that I can feel better about this.

PRIME MINISTER:

I think that’s a harsh judgement on us. I don’t think the…

ROBERTSON:

That’s how I feel.

PRIME MINISTER:

How I feel.

ROBERTSON:

Yes.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I’m sorry you feel like that. You shouldn’t because…let me put it this way, it is easy for people to feel that way because on the face of it you have people who are in less fortunate circumstances than us wanting to come here and it’s a fairly easy argument to say, well, the warm, generous-hearted thing is to let them in.

ROBERTSON:

But why is that not in itself a starting point and then work out how we can do it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, to start with, we can’t possibly take all of the people who want to come here who are in less fortunate circumstances than ourselves. That is the starting point. There are 23 million people around the world who are in need of a place to live and therefore if you can’t take them all, and plainly Australia can’t take anywhere near that number, you have to establish some kind of process to determine the most needy, and that’s basically what we’re defending. I mean, that is the principle. I mean, I don’t find this easy, I really don’t. I don’t like the criticism but there is really no alternative than having some kind of process whereby the relative claims of all the people in need are compared with each other and then we take our share of the most needy. Now, that is what an orderly refugee process implies and that is what we’re trying to uphold or maintain in the policy that we’re adopting.

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ROBERTSON:

Are you concerned about the people who legitimately go to the Australian Embassy in their countries and come over here legitimately, are you concerned about upsetting them and those who are trying to bring their families out here?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, every day, as a local member, I get people asking me can they bring their relatives from difficult circumstances and because they have to wait or they don’t fit the category I have to say no and they are some of the fiercest critics of those who would attempt to come here in an irregular fashion, if I can put it that way. Look, I don’t lack concern for the people. I mean, I thought the sinking of that boat all those weeks ago, or several weeks ago, that was terrible. I mean, 350 lives were lost. That is an appalling human tragedy. We’re all affected by something like that but I don’t think if…if we were tomorrow to change our policy and to say, well, from now on people will come to the Australian mainland and they’ll be processed on the Australian mainland. What would happen, Clive, is that you would have a vast increase in the number of people coming by boat, that’s what would happen. Now, we couldn’t handle that, we really couldn’t.

ROBERTSON:

Why can’t we handle it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, because unless you have - there are two reasons why you can’t do it - firstly, I don’t think it would be fair on other people who don’t have the resources to pay people smugglers and are waiting in refugee camps, it’s not fair on them. And every country, especially a country Australia’s population size, must have some right to decide what its population will be and the rate at which that population by immigration will grow.

ROBERTSON:

So that’s where the criticism comes in, people have their own concepts of what we should be doing.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, of course.

ROBERTSON:

We do care, we do care.

PRIME MINISTER:

We do care. I mean, I find this a very difficult area of public policy and if anybody imagines that I sort of revel in being regularly bucketed by people like Tim Costello and I notice the leaders of other church groups came out yesterday in a very strong, moral condemnation. I

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would ask them to accept that there are people of good conscience on both sides of this debate and don’t make the mistake of sort of putting all of the moral sanction on one side of the argument. It is not like that and it shows a misunderstanding of the motives of the people involved in this policy to take that attitude.

ROBERTSON:

However, the perception does exist when we look at human rights and the condemnation from overseas [inaudible]…

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, but can I say in relation to the overseas things, I have spoken to our ambassadors in quite a number of countries and, for example, in countries that we have a lot to do with and they say that the reaction of many people below the sort of non-government organisation level is somewhat different and they are more understanding of our position.

ROBERTSON:

Yeah okay, but still, you have to live with the perception, though, don’t you, as a politician you have to counter perception.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, of course I do but…

ROBERTSON:

And that’s almost impossible, isn’t it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, in the eyes of some people it is not almost impossible, it is impossible, because there are some people who take the view that whenever there’s a criticism voiced of Australia from overseas that criticism must be right. I mean, there are a group of people in Australia who live in a sense of perpetual shame about being part of Australia and they automatically assume that whenever criticism is voiced of this country from abroad that criticism is correct and that Australia must be unworthy and wrong and immoral. Now, I don’t take that view. I have a more optimistic view of Australia’s history and of what Australia has achieved. It’s not perfect and it never will be but I have a more optimistic view.

ROBERTSON:

Well, that’s a good point, a good point. Now, I’ve got to ask you a couple of things which you might diplomatically not want to answer. I heard Mr Downer talking on AM saying we’re committed to the war against terrorism. This week we had some stories on the school of America’s , are you familiar with that?

PRIME MINISTER:

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Yeah, I heard it on Radio National.

ROBERTSON:

And which I find very disturbing. Now, I know diplomatically this puts you in a strange position, if we’re fighting with terrorists and the terrorists, some terrorists, are proved to be recruited and trained by the Americans it makes us feel, excuse me, are they going to end up bombing themselves. So how do we get a sense of proportion. I mean, is this something you can discuss or is this…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I don’t know as lot about the…

ROBERTSON:

Shouldn’t you?

PRIME MINISTER:

I know something about it. That was a very good piece the other morning and I listened to it as I was walking and I thought the priest made a, is he still a priest, I’m not sure?

ROBERTSON:

Yes, a Catholic priest.

PRIME MINISTER:

He made a reasonable point. That story could be true, I don’t know, I don’t know enough about the other side of it.

ROBERTSON:

Would you…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, it’s certainly is not something I would support, no.

ROBERTSON:

But would you investigate it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, when you say would I investigate it, I don’t have a capacity (inaudible) occurring in our country.

ROBERTSON:

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No, no, except that we have committed ourselves to be allies of the Americans, with the Americans.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes but that, when you commit yourself to be an ally of a country it doesn’t mean that you sort of assume responsibility for every single thing that takes place in that country, does it?

ROBERTSON:

Well, I mean, if it happened here the Americans…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, but I can tell you it’s not happening here.

ROBERTSON:

That you know of.

PRIME MINISTER:

No, it’s not happening here. Well, I am satisfied that it’s not happening here and if anybody were to bring any evidence to my attention…

ROBERTSON:

Any Catholic priest or other…all right, but given the fact, and we’re talking about humans here, forget about alliances and what have you and I know that we quickly, like the British, jumped up and down and said all the way with LBJ type approach when it came to Afghanistan. The fact that they have this thing in the closet here, I mean, would you feel a protocol if - and I’m not telling you what to do - if you were going to have a cup of tea with Mr Bush to bring it up. I mean…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I wouldn’t do it that way, there are other ways I would try and find out about it.

ROBERTSON:

All right, at least you heard it and you know as much as I do.

PRIME MINISTER:

I do, I do.

ROBERTSON:

And it is disturbing if it’s true, isn’t it?

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PRIME MINISTER:

Well, yes, the report was disturbing, yes, very disturbing.

ROBERTSON:

You obviously listen to the right station, Mr Howard.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, from time to time, yes.

ROBERTSON:

Well, can I bring up the subject of the ABC.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes.

ROBERTSON:

I know they say don’t mention the ABC cause he’s fed up with it, well I’m not fed up with it, I’ve been away from it and now I’m back. If you don’t like something or someone in your Government doesn’t like something do you sort of, can you ring the board and sort of say, it’s John Howard here, how are you going, look, I heard something there, is this the way we should be going, do you ever do anything like that?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don’t take advantage of the friendship I have with the Chairman. It’s well known that Donald Macdonald is a close friend of mine. We don’t often talk about the ABC and I certainly don’t use that association to lodge formal complaints.

ROBERTSON:

But you could unwittingly because like the George Orwellian actual big brother, they think oh Mr Howard mightn’t like this. I mean, there’s that influence -passive influence.

PRIME MINISTER:

I don’t get the impression that the ABC goes around saying I won’t say this because Mr Howard doesn’t like it. I certainly don’t get that impression, no. So I think those of you who worry about the peace, order and good governance of the ABC should rest easy, that doesn’t happen.

ROBERTSON:

I never have by the way.

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PRIME MINISTER:

No, no, no.

ROBERTSON:

I never have.

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, my attitude to the ABC is that if I have a criticism of it I will voice it publicly rather than privately.I mean from time to time if the ABC current affairs or news runs a report that I think is wrong and my office thinks is wrong, my Press Secretary will ring up Jim Middleton or somebody and say, look Jim, this is wrong and they’ll probably have a vigorous exchange as they say in the trade.

ROBERTSON:

But everyone has that right, really.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yeah, but people have got a right to do that and I - we’ll continue to do that. I mean, I think there is on a lot of current affairs issues, I think there is a culture that is sort of what I say politically correct and more left than right of centre in relation to a lot of political issues in Australia in various areas of the ABC. I’ve always said that and I think it’s probably still the case.

ROBERTSON:

When you retire would you like to [inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER:

No thanks.

ROBERTSON:

Okay, can I…

PRIME MINISTER:

But can I say very genuinely though, I mean, I think some of my opponents will say he’s just saying that for political reasons, I do support the ABC. I think having a public broadcaster is a very important part of the media in this country and we would be a lot less well informed, we would be a poorer country from the point of view of information if we didn’t have a public broadcaster.

ROBERTSON:

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Now can I talk about the Governor General?

PRIME MINISTER:

Sure.

ROBERTSON:

The Governor General has denied any cover up of the sexual abuse of the Anglican Toowoomba Preparatory School in 1990. He says he had legal advice not to reveal it. Now I’m quoting here. But the Queensland Chief Justice who was the key legal adviser at the time for the Anglican school said he was never asked to give legal advice and never gave any. The ALP are saying why was fear of legal action more important than welfare or families? So I’ve only got the quote of two people there right. And I’m not asking you to …

PRIME MINISTER:

The Governor General didn’t say incidentally that he had legal advice not to reveal the allegations? He didn’t say that, no. I’ve got his statement with me.

ROBERTSON:

OK.

PRIME MINISTER:

And I’ve actually had quite a lengthy discussion with him about this matter and I’m quite satisfied on the basis of that discussion that the statement that he put out two days ago is his honest recollection of the events. In relation to the Chief Justice, the Governor General did not allege that the Chief Justice had given him advice.

ROBERTSON:

Really?

PRIME MINISTER:

No. He didn’t allege that. No. It is true that the Chief Justice did not give him advice but nobody said he did.

ROBERTSON:

Did he get advice?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well he told me that he got advice from a number of sources.

ROBERTSON:

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So the ALP is saying do you as the Prime Minister have confidence…

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes I do. I do. The charges that have been made against the Governor General, and we are dealing here with an area where human behaviour is really at its most depraved and vile, when you get people who interfere with young children. I think everybody has a flesh-creeping reaction to that and I understand. It’s just abominable when it happens but we’ve got to be fair to the man. Schools of this kind of not just run by Archbishops. They’re run by headmasters and school councils and the suggestion that in some way the Archbishop of Brisbane or indeed the Archbishop of Sydney be it Catholic or Anglican or Melbourne or whatever, is involved in the day to day running of individual parish and private schools is ridiculous.

ROBERTSON:

Where does the buck stop though?

PRIME MINISTER:

The buck stops in terms of the day to day administration of the school. It clearly stops with the headmaster and the school council. But look, the Archbishop has a role and the criticisms that have been made of him, and look I don’t have any direct knowledge of this I am, I’ve talked to him about it and I’ve tried to form a judgement. The criticism made is that he was involved in a cover up. Well there’s no evidence of that. I mean that is ridiculous.

ROBERTSON:

What about the church itself then below him?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well over the years that may be the case. It could still be the case but that could be the case with a government department in relation to a government school. I mean you shouldn’t assume that that’s not the case. The second point is that he was indifferent to parents. Well he’s detailed in his statement two examples of in the first instance of his endeavouring to contact some parents when he was first contacted. Mind you we’re dealing with people’s recollections of events eleven years ago. And on another occasion he believes he did speak to a parent that he said in his words he wasn’t able to satisfy her expectations. The third area of criticism is that he should have required the resignation of the headmaster. Now in his statement he says that he had a three hour meeting with the headmaster in which he discussed the whole matter and at the end of that meeting the headmaster said did he think he should resign and then Archbishop, now Governor General said no I don’t. Now people can eleven years later say that was wrong, that was an error of judgement, but that’s all it is. I mean he did apply himself to the issue. I mean what people are really alleging is that he just sort of did nothing and was indifferent to it. Now I don’t think that’s fair. I think some of the criticism that is being made here is unfair in that because it’s a sensitive issue where you have a 150% revulsion and abhorrence in our community of this behaviour, and because you’re dealing with a man who can’t like me everyday go on the media and reply, he is put in a very difficult

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position. I mean if he starts getting into a running commentary on every nuance of this, and yet I know his natural instinct in a way is to do so, he gets put in a very difficult position. And I would say with all respect to Mr Crean and others if they have particular complaints, they have specific criticisms, areas of his conduct can we have those rather than sort of generalised comments. I mean the sort of willing to wound, afraid to strike sort of approach is not really satisfactory when you’re dealing with somebody holding this office who can’t, like a Leader of the Opposition or a Prime Minister, reply every hour of the day in the normal fashion. But I am supporting the Governor General. I have discussed this matter with him. I know he’s very upset about it because he’s distressed that his ministry has been blackened in the eyes of some by it. And I feel for him over that but I’ve always found him to be a very committed genuine conscientious person. Not everybody agrees with him. He’s risen to high office in his church. He’s risen to high office in the country. He has his critics. We all have our critics but on the information available to me, the three charges of cover-up nonsense, the indifference to parents, if you look at the context of what he said I don’t think that is a reasonable charge and certainly in relation to the headmaster he made a judgement and I think it was a judgement that people could reasonably have made in the circumstances.

ROBERTSON:

Its twenty-two and a half past eight I’m talking to Mr John Howard our Prime Minister. Can I just mention the Aboriginal question?

PRIME MINISTER:

Sure.

ROBERTSON:

I spoke to a lovely lady, Dr Larissa Berren, she’s a Professor of Law and I asked her, would you like Mr Howard, this is during the week, to actually say that he and the Government are sorry about what happened, this is the apologies to the Aborigines. And she said I think if it actually came from Mr Howard there might be some scepticism about how much he meant it. And I said do you think its too late now? And she says I think for Mr Howard it might be. But she thinks for other people it might not be. So it seems inevitable in her mind that whoever succeeds you whenever that is will simply apologise and you’ll stand out like the Rock of Gibraltar as someone who is not willing for whatever reason not to do it. That’s her perception. I know you’ve been through this, but.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yeah I have. That is the perception of some people and it will never be altered. I have personally said I’m sorry. I’ve said that on numerous occasions ,that I John Winston Howard am personally very sorry for any of the injustices that were meted out, practised on indigenous people years ago. I am. And it is not a good part of our history. It’s one of the blemishes on our past. I’ve said all of this before as an individual. What they want me to do is to formally apologise as Prime Minister on behalf of the nation for what was done then. I don’t agree with that because I don’t think the current generation should assume formal collective responsibility for the deeds of earlier generations. Particularly when many of those deeds were sanctioned by the law of the time. I have sponsored through Parliament a motion of sincere regret in which the Parliament expresses its sorrow about what happened. Now

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there’s a difference about an apology and saying sorry. I mean if I bump into you I say I’m sorry. If you lose a close friend I ring you up and say Clive I’m sorry about it. I don’t apologise for it. That’s the difference.

ROBERTSON:

I’m sorry about the Second World War but I didn’t cause it.That’s what you are saying?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yeah.

ROBERTSON:

So what you just said to me, what’s the difference between you saying that as Mr Howard and Mr Howard the Prime Minister. What’s the subtle difference?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well but I say that both as Prime Minister and as an individual.

ROBERTSON:

So what do they want?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well no they want me, they want a formal apology as distinct from an expression of sorrow.

ROBERTSON:

Which would have legal ramifications?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it could have legal ramifications.

ROBERTSON:

Although they say they have no legal ramifications thus far.

PRIME MINISTER:

They say that but that’s not been the experience.

ROBERTSON:

So are you saving us from litigation?

PRIME MINISTER:

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Well that is not the only reason. I’ve never hid behind the law in relation to it. I’ve never done that. What I’ve said in the past is that that is an element in it but it is not the only element. It is the principle if you like of one generation formally, or one group being formally accepting responsibility as distinct from expressing personal sorrow about particular events over which they had no direct control.

ROBERTSON:

Well I’ve never heard you say it and and you’ve said it to me and that’s what I say as well. We have run out of time. We could have spoken of course all day. I hope the next years good for you.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you very much. I hope it is for you. And it’s good to hear you back on Radio National.

ROBERTSON:

I’m giving you your eight cents a day worth Mr Howard.

PRIME MINISTER:

You are and I think it should be longer than 6 weeks.

ROBERTSON:

Do you?

PRIME MINISTER: I think it should be-much longer.

ROBERTSON: Well ring up your friends. Thank you Mr Howard. Thank you and regards to your family.

[ends]