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Prime Minister denies prompting President Bush's comments against Opposition Leader Mark Latham.



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This transcript has been prepared by a source external to the Department of the Parliamentary Library.

 

It may not have been checked against the broadcast or in any other way. Freedom from error, omissions or misunderstandings cannot be guaranteed.

 

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PM

 

Friday 4 June 2004

Prime Minister denies prompting President Bush's comments against Opposition Leader Mark Latham

 

MARK COLVIN: It's rare for the head of state or head of government of one country openly to favour either side in another country's coming election. 

 

But President George W. Bush gave the appearance of doing exactly that when he met the Prime Minister, John Howard, in Washington. 

 

Asked directly about Mark Latham's Iraq policy, President Bush said it would be a disastrous decision for Australia to pull out of Iraq, and it would embolden the enemy. 

 

Tonight, there are suggestions within the Federal Opposition that it was John Howard who prompted the US President to make such a strong attack. Mr Howard's denied it. 

 

The Labor leader, Mark Latham's refused to comment, relying only on a written statement which reaffirms the Opposition view on Iraq. 

 

Louise Yaxley reports.  

 

LOUISE YAXLEY: President Bush's strongly worded sentiments came in answer to a question from an Australian journalist during a press conference with Prime Minister Howard in Washington. 

 

President Bush accepted the invitation to give his view about the Labor plan to bring troops home by Christmas. 

 

GEORGE BUSH: It'd be a disastrous decision, and for the leader of a great country like Australia to say that we're pulling out would dispirit those who love freedom in Iraq. It would say that the Australian government doesn't see the hope of a free and democratic society leading to a peaceful world. It would embolden the enemy who believe that they can shake our will. See, they want to kill innocent life, because they think that the Western world and the free world is weak - that when times get tough we will shirk our duty to those who long for freedom and we'll leave. 

 

LOUISE YAXLEY: It's been a carefully managed 'keep your head down' strategy from Labor's top ranks today. 

 

Mark Latham, his defence spokesman Chris Evans, and the foreign affairs spokesman, Kevin Rudd, have not been available for interview. 

 

Frontbencher Simon Crean was asked while campaigning in Tasmania. He says Labor's view is clear and would not damage the alliance with the US. 

 

SIMON CREAN: The Americans and the President know that position. We stand by it and we're absolutely certain it will not undermine the alliance and that we can work with the Americans. This was a view that was put when the President came here, I think we dispelled it, we'll do it again. 

 

LOUISE YAXLEY: While the current leader wouldn't be drawn today the former Labor Prime Minster Bob Hawke, who's a man with strong US links, says its Prime Minister Howard who's putting Australia at risk, not Mark Latham. 

 

BOB HAWKE: That Australia's interests are being put in jeopardy by this identification by Howard with Bush, and Mark Latham is discharging absolutely his responsibilities in a totally correct way in saying Australia's interests and security should not be jeopardised in this way. 

 

LOUISE YAXLEY: Long-serving Labor MP, Warren Snowdon, suggests the Prime Minister organised this. 

 

WARREN SNOWDON: I don't think this is about George Bush, this is all about John Howard. And it's John Howard's seeking to legitimise his own position, and I think it's as clear a picture as you could possibly get about his own insecurity. 

 

LOUISE YAXLEY: You're saying that you think that the Prime Minister asked the President to say this? 

 

WARREN SNOWDON: Well you could see him... the images are startling, you know? You could picture a very forlorn image of the Prime Minister tugging at the shirtsleeves of President Bush, pleading for him to have a word on his behalf because things weren't going that well at home. 

 

LOUISE YAXLEY: Labor backbencher, Harry Quick, agrees with Mr Snowdon. 

 

HARRY QUICK: I think the Prime Minister has very cleverly using each and every opportunity to try and put terrorism up there as the number one election issue whenever the election's held in Australia. 

 

LOUISE YAXLEY: Would it help his cause? 

 

HARRY QUICK: Well the vibes I'm getting from people in my electorate in Tasmania - they're getting sick and tired of it - they want the thing resolved. All they ever see is the desolation and death and destruction in Iraq. They want our troops home by Christmas hopefully, and for us to play some role with the UN in the reconstruction. 

 

LOUISE YAXLEY: But John Howard denies asking the President to make those comments. 

 

JOHN HOWARD: Well he speaks for himself. He was asked a question, and he gave an answer to it. Obviously he feels very strongly and I understand that.  

 

LOUISE YAXLEY: Mr Hawke says its clear Mr Howard wasn't unhappy about it. 

 

BOB HAWKE: I don't think there was any writhing in anger on the part of our Prime Minister when he heard these words coming out of the mouth of the President of the United States. 

 

LOUISE YAXLEY: The Foreign Minister Alexander Downer says the President was summing up his nation's strongly held view about the potential impact of other nations taking their troops out of Iraq. 

 

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well it's a big issue for the Americans this, after what the Spanish did. So I wouldn't just interpret it as a… I mean, inevitably people in Australia will as buying into a domestic debate… it's a bigger issue than a domestic debate in Australia for the Americans, because there are 34, 35 countries participating in the Coalition providing security in Iraq.  

 

And obviously from the American point of view it's going to be disastrous in terms of stabilising Iraq if most of those countries decide that in the interests of political expediency they'll just cut and run. 

 

MARK COLVIN: The Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer.