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Prime Minister discusses rain; Liberal Party leadership; Iraq; anti-war demonstrations; petrol prices; Shane Warne; cricket in Zimbabwe; and tax cuts.



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PRIME MINISTER

21 February 2003

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

Subjects: rain; leadership of the Liberal Party; Iraq; protest marches; petrol prices; Shane Warne; cricket match in Zimbabwe; tax cuts

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

MITCHELL:

Apologies for the delay. In our Sydney studio the Prime Minister,Mr Howard.Good morning.

PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning. I was delayed for the best of all possible reasons - it’s raining.

MITCHELL:

You were talking to George Bush?

PRIME MINISTER:

It’s raining.

MITCHELL:

I thought you might have had a phone call from the American President.

PRIME MINISTER:

No.

MITCHELL:

No. That rain’s good. It’s causing havoc down here as well Prime Minister.

www.pm.gov.au

PRIME MINISTER:

Long may it go on.

MITCHELL:

Yeah. Prime Minister, I’ve got to ask you about the leadership first if you don’t mind.

PRIME MINISTER:

Sure.

MITCHELL:

I think it indicates there's an issue which has to be settled. Simple question - have you decided yet whether you will stay past your 64th birthday?

PRIME MINISTER:

I haven’t made a decision yet about my long term future, I haven’t. What I have said is that I will whatever time that involves I will see the Australian people through the current Iraqi crisis. I’ve made that very clear. But I’ve also made it very clear that I haven’t made a decision about my long term future. I’m not thinking about that at the moment. I really am focused on this very big issue and a lot of other issues. But seeing that matter has come up I don’t mind stating what is honestly the position.

MITCHELL:

Well there’s the impression of Peter Costello jumping up and down like a cat on a hot tin roof. Did you discuss this issue with him?

PRIME MINISTER:

I haven’t discussed it with him recently because there’s been no need to. Look, Peter, I don’t think that’s a fair depiction.

MITCHELL:

I get the impression…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think it’s a very false….I think Peter’s behaviour and support and loyalty and all of this has been quite magnificent and we work together very closely. I think those who endeavour to paint his behaviour in that fashion are not only wrong, they’re doing him a disservice. It's just not the case. Look I was honest enough several years ago to talk about this issue, not for any other reason than that I was just being honest and I think most Australians understand that at some stage in a person’s career they begin to give some thought to their longer term future. But right at the moment I can say honestly to you and your listeners and through them to all the Australian people that I haven’t made a decision about my long term future. I’m not thinking about it. I’m thinking about Australia’s long term future. I’m not, you know, obsessed with my own position.

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MITCHELL:

I think it would be fair to say we’re in quite a situation here? It’s not going to be resolved by July is it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well what I’ve said in relation to that is that I will see this issue through. Now I can’t be more open and more direct than that. There’s nothing clever or opportunistic or Machiavellian about that. As to the longer term future I haven’t made a decision. I’m not thinking about it. I don’t want to think about it because there are far more important things and right at this moment the last thing that we should be considering or talking about is John Howard’s personal position or future but rather how Australia deals and how the world deals and most particularly how the Security Council deals with this enormous challenge to its authority.

MITCHELL:

I guess, the final point on this would be that the timetable has now changed. I mean as you say you answered honestly, said July would be when you'd probably decide. That timetable must have changed now because of these events. I mean you wouldn’t lock yourself into a decision in July would you?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I can only repeat what I said Neil. The difficulty with this thing is people analyse every single…not just every single phrase, every single word, and they then listen again to the voice inflection when the word is uttered.

MITCHELL:

But the timetable has changed.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well no, the position is as I’ve stated it. I’m not going to start talking about timetables. I will see this Iraqi issue through. I’ve made that crystal clear, without doubt. In no way should people think for a moment that I would contemplate a change in my position while ever this issue was with us. Beyond that I have not made up my mind about my long term future and I’m not thinking about it. I don’t want to think about it. I don’t think it’s important. I think what is important is doing the best I can to articulate what the Government believes about this very difficult issue.

MITCHELL:

Okay, well there’s a lot to be done there obviously. There’s been some fury from protestors towards your comments that you thought they offered comfort to Saddam Hussein. Would you rather they didn’t protest, would you rather they weren’t out on the streets?

PRIME MINISTER:

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No. I celebrate their right to peacefully demonstrate. I believe in Voltaire when he says I don’t agree with what they say but I defend to the death their right to say it. I don’t agree with their cause….their method - let me put it that way. I guess their cause is the same as mine and that is peace, it’s just that we have very different ways of achieving it. I don’t agree with their views but I defend very strongly their right to express them. What I said yesterday was not in condemnation of their right, was not impugning their loyalty as Mr Crean quite falsely said. What I said yesterday was that they had to understand the implications of what they did as I do. When I make a statement or do something on behalf of Australia I know it will be seen around the world, depending on the issue, and people will form a judgement and the same applies to protestors. And they have a perfect right, I encourage them to exercise that right if that is how they feel providing they do it peacefully.

MITCHELL:

Well do you believe it was an unintentional consequence, they’re not supporting Saddam Hussein, they’re opposing war because that’s what they’re saying today?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well whether it’s intentional or unintentional I’ve got to deal in reality. I thought the point made, you indeed may have made on early morning television, it would be a good idea if some of their placards were as equally (inaudible) at the very least about Saddam Hussein as they are about George Bush. I’ll leave J W Howard out of it because I’m not asking for any sympathy or consideration in this issue. But I mean one of the difficulties that the people who have attacked the Government’s position have on this issue, if you listen to them, they spend most of their time attacking America. They say very little about the horrific human rights abuses that occur in Iraq. I mean people talk about the possible loss of life. If there’s military action against Iraq. There will be some loss of life. That will be unavoidable. But what about the loss of life that is occurring right now in Iraq, what about the one-and-a-half million people that have died at Saddam Hussein’s hands, what about the loss of life that will occur if these chemical and biological weapons get into the hands of terrorists or if they spread to other rogue states? What about that loss of life? On the scale of human casualties and suffering I would argue doing nothing would be more costly than doing something.

MITCHELL:

So you think our protestors should carry a few anti-Saddam signs as well?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that’s up to them but I make the point, I defend their right, I respect their right, I don’t challenge their loyalty as Mr Crean falsely said. I don’t at all. They care as much about Australia as you and I do. But they have to understand that these things are observed and these things do give encouragement and provide some kind of reassurance. Now that is just a fact of life. We live in an world of instant communications and people have to understand. That’s the point I’m making and I’ll go on making it because it’s accurate.

MITCHELL:

I’m (inaudible) that found time to watch us on the Today program.

PRIME MINISTER:

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I did indeed. It was a lively exchange.

MITCHELL:

Sean, go ahead please Sean.

CALLER:

Yeah g’day. Look I’m very concerned Mr Howard with your position and the fact that you’re demonising the people who have participated in these marches. It is nonsense to suggest that we should be anti-Saddam when it’s not about the fact that he’s a dictator, it’s about disarmament and we believe there’s no reason yet to go to war on this issue. And second of all the fact that you and others continue to portray people who have participated in these marches as naive and, you know, we don’t understand the consequences of our actions. We are not responsible for the perception of others, just like you’re not responsible for the fact that people in the east believe that you are anti-Islam.

MITCHELL:

Okay, Mr Howard.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think some of you do understand the consequences of the demonstrations. I heard the Greens Senator Nettle yesterday saying that she was angry that the demonstrations had been used in the way they had been used in Iraq. Now what individual people intend or understand or don’t intend about their own actions is a matter for them. I repeat I defend their right, I don’t impugn their loyalty, but I point out the consequences. And you say it’s not being anti-Saddam. Well can I say with respect it should be. I mean this is part of the difficulty with the people who are objecting to the Government’s position. What is the basis of the objection? Is it in the case of some of them it’s anti-American - I’m not saying it’s in the case of that last person, I don’t know his own motivation - but if you’re interested in disarmament, then you’ve got to be anti-Saddam because Saddam is the barrier to disarmament. We wouldn’t be talking about this issue if Saddam Hussein had accepted the discipline of the Security Council. I mean, that is the issue. So I think he should be the issue and not President Bush.

MITCHELL:

We’ll just take another quick call. John, go ahead please.

CALLER:

Good morning Mr Howard. I just wanted to ask the question. You said that the protestors are responsible for the consequences of their actions. The countries like Russia, China, France, Germany and Indonesia - are the Government’s of those countries giving comfort to Saddam Hussein by opposing your position?

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PRIME MINISTER:

I think they are giving him encouragement, yes. I do. I’m not saying they’re supporting him and I’m not saying that the demonstrators are supporting Saddam Hussein. I mean you have to be careful that you don’t misinterpret or misrepresent what I said.

CALLER:

[inaudible] France, Russia and China?

PRIME MINISTER:

I know. Look I don’t think there is any doubt in the world that if… let me put it in the other way. If over the last three weeks the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Russia had all said the same things and had all spoken with the one voice, there would be a lot more pressure on him. That’s my point.

MITCHELL:

It’s a little different to giving encouragement to him.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well encouragement in the sense of him thinking that he can go on with his stalling tactics. That’s my point, and I think it’s a perfectly… I know I don't yield on this. I’ll go back to my point of just a few seconds ago that if over the last few weeks, all of those countries had spoken with one voice, he would feel under much greater pressure to do what the United Nations wants him to do. Now, we all say we want a peaceful solution. Does anybody seriously think that you will achieve a peaceful solution without all of the countries of the world uniting and putting the maximum diplomatic pressure backed with a threat of force on Iraq? Does anybody seriously think that you can achieve a peaceful outcome other than in that way?

MITCHELL:

If we’re talking about delays, why the latest delay at the United Nations? Why has the United States decided to delay, and I read that we are in daily contact with them, why have they delayed the resolution?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I can’t for certain say at this very moment why. My suspicion is that there is a lot of discussion going on to gather support for another resolution.

MITCHELL:

Would you advise Australians to get out of Iraq?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we have issued a travel warning largely to that effect, yes.

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MITCHELL:

Do you know yet, have you got an estimate how much it will cost us if we are involved in a war?

PRIME MINISTER:

It will be some hundreds of millions.

MITCHELL:

I did read estimates in the billions today. Is that right?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh well they’re not ones that have come from the Government.

MITCHELL:

Jeff, go ahead please. Speak to the Prime Minister. Go ahead.

PRIME MINISTER:

My point… I cannot believe the ideals of people when they protest (inaudible) at the likes of Saddam Hussein… would they do the same thing for Idi Amin? Would they do the same thing for let’s say Colonel Gaddafi, Robert Mugabe? I mean, I cannot believe that people would protest against such a [inaudible] class him as an animal. And I would say when the war does start, and when it’s all over, I think 95 per cent of the people of Iraq will be very happy.

MITCHELL:

Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think the people of Iraq would be much better off without Saddam Hussein’s regime, but I think I understood the gentleman was saying that were people protesting, demonstrating on behalf of Saddam Hussein. I may have misunderstood him. But,no I’m not suggesting that people are doing that. I’m not saying those people who went into the streets support him.The point I'm making is that the way in which their demonstrations are depicted and the fact that they contain posters and rhetoric and everything, more criticism of the United States than of Iraq, that that is the impression that is created.

MITCHELL:

Prime Minister, petrol prices are up. Are we stuck with this as long as there is uncertainty in Iraq?

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PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think that is contributing. So incidentally is the strike in Venezuela. That’s also a major factor. You may be aware that the price was starting to go up before the latest, most intensive phase in Iraq and I think those two things feed in. Our price is tied to the world price.

MITCHELL:

Is there anything you can do about it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well not a lot in the short-term.

MITCHELL:

So we’ve just got to cop a dollar [inaudible] indefinitely.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well no, I’m saying that won’t happen indefinitely, but while there is tension internationally, the price is affected. That is unavoidable and obviously I wish it were otherwise. I mean Neil, I wish we were talking about something else.

MITCHELL:

Yeah sure. It's what people[inaudible] talk about.

PRIME MINISTER:

I know that and I understand that. I’m happy to talk to as many people who wish to, and I think debate is important and I think an expression of a range of views is very important, and I think it’s also important we all must understand the impact of the stances we take.

MITCHELL:

Shane, just very quickly. Shane has got a few more questions for the Prime Minister. Go ahead Shane.

CALLER:

Mr Howard, I don’t believe the proposed war on Iraq is about weapons of mass destruction. Even Hans Blix within the last week has questioned some of Colin Powell’s evidence. Tony Blair in the UK…

MITCHELL:

Not a speech please Shane.

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CALLER:

Tony Blair in the UK has had to resort to plagiarising other people’s so-called evidence. There’s no proven link to al Qaeda and it’s not about freedom and dignity. I mean the Palestinians have been…

MITCHELL:

Your point Shane?

CALLER:

Well what I would say is there was an interesting article in the Australian newspaper on Monday about John Howard’s popularity in Israel.

MITCHELL:

Your point please Shane.

CALLER:

I think the point is it’s all about oil, it’s about US domination and it’s about reshaping the Middle East to suit Israel.

MITCHELL:

Okay. Prime Minister, quickly please.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it’s not about any of those things. It’s about the danger to Australia if countries like Iraq continue to have chemical and biological weapons, and those weapons get into the hands of international terrorists. That fundamentally is what this is about.

MITCHELL:

Shane Warne, the Prime Minister (inaudible) interested, has not yet arrived at the Cricket Board but his mother has, Bridget, and so has wife, so that’s going to be a dramatic day. But that leads me to cricket. Zimbabwe - Australia is due to play there on Monday. Would you still like them to call it off?

PRIME MINISTER:

I’d like the International Cricket Council to do so. I have never argued that the Australian team should unilaterally pull out if it didn’t want to. I haven’t put that kind of moral pressure on the Australian team. I don’t think it’s fair. My argument has been that the International Cricket Council should have listened to the views of the British and New Zealand Governments and shifted all of the games from Zimbabwe to either Kenya or South Africa. That’s been my position.

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MITCHELL:

But Australia will be going there and playing on Monday. Is that an embarrassment for the country, do you think?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think they’re really stuck with a situation that could have been avoided if the International Cricket Council had taken another view.

MITCHELL:

Yes but, I mean, is it embarrassing to have Australian sportsmen…

PRIME MINISTER:

I never think the Australian cricket team embarrasses this country. I think many of them have misgivings about the situation but they also have a contract with the Australian Cricket Board and they’re trying to be good, if I can put it this way, good corporate citizens in relation to their own sport.

MITCHELL:

Tax cuts. You’ve promised that, I think it was 80 per cent of Australians, would pay no more than 30 per cent of their wages in tax. KPMG is predicting now that by next year, the average wage earner will be paying 43.5 per cent. So the promise is gone… bracket creep.

PRIME MINISTER:

No, what I said was that under the new tax system, when it was introduced, that would be the case. Now over time, if you don’t adjust for bracket creep, obviously that percentage will fall.

MITCHELL:

So, you will adjust it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I can’t promise we will. I would like to be able, if we could afford it, to offer tax relief rather than spend more. But there are a number of areas where we have to spend more. Defence is clearly one of them. But the point I’ve been making is that if there is any fat on the bone, if there is any room, then we would want to be giving tax relief rather than spending more.

MITCHELL:

Well thank you for your time. I hope the rain continues in Sydney, as it is in parts of Victoria, and around New South Wales.

PRIME MINISTER:

So do I. [ends]