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Prime Minister discusses Alan Jones; sugar; intelligence inquiry; and Iraq.



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29 April 2004

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP INTERVIEW WITH JOHN MILLER AND ROSS DAVIE, RADIO 4BC

Subjects: Alan Jones; sugar; intelligence inquiry; Iraq;

E&OE…………………………………………………………………………………….

JOURNALIST:

Joining us live in the studio this morning the Prime Minister of Australia, Mr John Howard. Prime Minister, good morning Sir and welcome.

PRIME MINISTER:

How are you John, Ross.

JOURNALIST:

Good morning Mr Howard.

JOURNALIST:

Let’s hop straight into it, there’s a lot of discussion around the ridges this morning in the accusation and counter claim from our presenter John Laws to Alan Jones, formally of this network, now of course as we know with 2GB in Sydney. John Laws has categorically stated that at a dinner party attended by amongst others who’s manager John Fordham that Alan Jones said that he was so intent that Professor Flint maintain his position as head of the ABA that he went to Kirribilli House and told you as Prime Minister to renew Professor Flint’s tenure or he would withdraw his support. Did such a conversation take place?

PRIME MINISTER:

At the dinner party?

PRIME MINISTER

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JOURNALIST:

No, no.

PRIME MINISTER:

No, well let me just make the point - I don’t know what was said at a dinner party …

JOURNALIST:

Fair enough.

PRIME MINISTER:

…but there was never any conversation of that kind or anything remotely resembling that between Alan Jones and myself, none whatsoever.

JOURNALIST:

And yet John Laws says that he was witnesses who were at that dinner party…

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, at the dinner party. But they are two separate things. There’s the question of whether Jones and I had a conversation and I can attest to that that it didn’t happen. As to what happened at a dinner party, well don’t ask me I wasn’t there.

JOURNALIST:

Sure.

PRIME MINISTER:

I can’t show any light and I don’t intend to speculate about what happened at a social gathering where I wasn’t present. But I can tell you that no such claimed conversation between Mr Jones and I took place, okay.

JOURNALIST:

Would you ever entertain anything like that?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no. If somebody approached me, somebody from the media with a threat that they would withdraw support for me if I didn’t do such and such, I would, to use the Australian vernacular, tell them to get lost.

JOURNALIST:

Well, that’s fair enough, that’s fair enough.

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PRIME MINISTER:

And that’s whether they’re Alan Jones or John Laws or John Miller or Kerry O’Brien or Laurie Oakes or anybody. But can I say to be fair, that’s never happened. I’ve not had that experience.

JOURNALIST:

I’d be very surprised…

PRIME MINISTER:

I mean, Jones has never done that to me, Jones is a forceful bloke. I know him well, I don’t deny that, but he’s never said that to me.

JOURNALIST:

And yet John Laws is on prime time television telling people that at a dinner party he said he did.

PRIME MINISTER:

No, well, I can’t answer for what people say at a dinner party, I mean really. This is ridiculous. But I can answer for what people might or might not say to me and my observation of the way people react to me. Look, radio commentators, as you know, are not shrinking violets and they are not reluctant to sort of have their say and fair enough. This is a democracy and if somebody wants to say to me, well you’re a fool, you’re wrong or something else, they’re perfectly entitled to. But the suggestion that somebody would say, well if you don’t do this I’ll bag you in the campaign, well, that didn’t happen.

JOURNALIST:

Well, Mark Latham has seized upon the opportunity and says that there should be an inquiry.

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh, yes, well, I mean, have an inquiry rather than a policy, I suppose. It’s a good substitute.

JOURNALIST:

All right. So we can categorically state that while you have no knowledge of what went on at the dinner party and that alleged conversation that at no time was any direct approach made to you to influence the tenure of Professor Flint?

PRIME MINISTER:

There was no conversation of that kind between Jones and myself or anything remotely resembling it.

JOURNALIST:

Yes, well it makes for interest newspaper headlines anyway, doesn’t it?

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PRIME MINISTER:

Yeah, well they’re personalities and they both have strong views and they’re both very influential in their field and I guess it’s inevitable that these clashes occur and they don’t seem to have a very good relationship.

JOURNALIST:

Sure, no they don’t. From time to time though, I’m sure you would admit, that there are people, not necessarily radio presenters, but other people, people, captains of industry, people with causes that they are espousing. Who would seek to come to you…?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, people come to me all the time saying you should do this, you should do that. The point I’m making is that I don’t bow to those influences. I listen to what people have to say when they approach me and there’s nothing wrong with that. But in the end you’ve got to make decisions on the merits. And the decision to reappoint Professor Flint was made on the merits of people. Some people like it, some people don’t. We took a decision, what it is now, three and a half years ago almost, I think it’s three and a half years, to reappoint him - it was a Cabinet decision. Now I defend that decision and some people like him, some people don’t.

JOURNALIST:

Well, one expression was going to be - would you have that kind of direct overriding influence on such a decision anyway?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, it goes to Cabinet and I… obviously you know I get a say in Cabinet, of course I do. But it goes to Cabinet and obviously I haven’t… I take a keen interest in appointments, I always have and I think I should. I will in the future. But, you know, the suggestion here is that because a broadcaster, namely Alan Jones came to me and said if you don’t appoint this bloke I won’t support you in the next election campaign and I went ahead and appointed him. Well that is wrong because no such conversation ever took place, no such threat was ever issued. And I just for the record say that if anybody did try to threaten me in that fashion I would to use the vernacular tell them to get lost.

JOURNALIST:

Would you say that the letter that was sent from Professor Flint to Alan Jones bearing in mind his very influential position and the fact that there was a cash for comment inquiry about to start, was a little shall we say ‘chummy’ on ABA letterhead?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, I can understand people saying that. But, you know, I think in relation to that correspondence, well I’ve… I think in relation to all of that, I’m just seeking some advice on that and I don’t really have any more… anything more to say about it.

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JOURNALIST:

Fair enough. Look, I think it’s important too that we do not let this one story, which involves two very, well to be kind, very talented broadcasters with egos to match dominate our situation this morning because today is a very very important day for Queensland. Today you’ll be announcing a rescue package, I suppose you could call it, for the sugar industry which is in all sorts of bother.

PRIME MINISTER:

A rebuilding and reform package. It will be very important to the sugar industry. It will be in excess of $400,000 million. It will both assist people who can no longer continue in the industry to re-establish themselves with some dignity and some support. It will also help people who can make a successful go of it do it in a more effective fashion and it will also contain some new ideas that will enable the transfer of properties from one generation to the

next without people incurring some of the penalties that they now incur. The sugar industry is hugely important to Queensland and it’s hugely important to Australia, but particularly to Queensland. It’s the victim of corrupted world markets. It does, however, need to reform and it’s fundamental to this package that reform and restructuring does take place. This is not an open-ended pipeline to the mint or the treasury. It is a generous response and it is generous to the people who are in great difficulty. It will give them time to sort out their situation and those who can make a go of it will be assisted and those who can’t can have the assistance available to re-establish in some other industry. So overall, after weeks of discussion and consultation with the industry, I believe that we have put together a package that is generous but also in long term, you know, far reaching terms very effective.

JOURNALIST:

So there’ll be some money available for farmers who want to get out?

PRIME MINISTER:

There will be.

JOURNALIST:

You touched on something very very interesting there, though, because one of the fundamental things about the sugar industry, has been my experience in travelling in far north Queensland, is that it’s an industry where families have been on the farms for generations, where the career path of the young sugar fellas and women in the sugar industry is mapped out almost from birth. Now you said that there would be provisions in this package to make it easier, shall we say, or to facilitate without penalty, the transfer of titles to the younger generation. Can you elaborate a little on that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I think that’s essentially it. I’ll be going into some more details with the announcement in Bundaberg. But there is a problem where you can have a property that’s been in the family for a long time and the parents would like to gift it to the children and you can do that without direct penalty but it does have an impact on the entitlement of the parents who have a pension because of the operation and the assets’ test and we’re looking at making changes there to make that easier so that you can facilitate the flow through of the title and the ownership to

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the children. It’s quite, and I mention this as an illustration of how comprehensive the package is, it’s not just a question of giving people some money and saying well see if you can make a go of it, here’s a bit of extra money. It’s a serious attempt to tackle some of the structural problems. It’s hard being in sugar now because the price is so low and the subsidies coming from countries like Brazil are so massive. We couldn’t get anything for them in the Free Trade Agreement with the Americans because the American sugar industry is in the same situation. I mean, I had a very frank discussion with President Bush about this and he said that our sugar industry is totally opposed to any more sugar coming in. They signed a Free Trade Agreement with a central American country, it’s not been presented to the congress for ratification this year and I’ll be surprised if it’s ever presented and one of the reasons for that is that that there’s a provision for a sugar quota. Now I don’t think the Congress is going to ratify that. Now in the face of that, I took the view that the sugar farmers of Australia were entitled to some special recognition. Now they haven’t lost anything out of the Free Trade Agreement with America - let me make that clear - they didn’t lose anything. It’ just that they didn’t gain what they hoped they might gain. Even if they had have gained something out of the Free Trade Agreement, it wouldn’t have been a lot and it wouldn’t have been enough to fix their problem. But it obviously had given them some hope and I understand that. I believe this package will give the industry hope. I ask them to grab it, to use it, to understand that it’s a genuine attempt with generous financial support to have a breakthrough and to consolidate the industry around those areas that can succeed.

JOURNALIST:

Is it likely to keep Bob Katter happy? He’s been pretty passionate about that.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I hope so. I hope it does because it’s a serious attempt to tackle the problem. It’s just not just giving more money. It’s not just saying you’ve got to deregulate, you’ve got to take a cold bath of competition. I mean, I believe in competition. I also understand that when

you’re living in a corrupted world market as the cane growers are it’s a pretty empty thing, competition.

JOURNALIST:

Fair enough. Alright, now of course you’ve got to say I suppose that Florida is a sugar stronghold in the US. George Bush’s brother is Governor of the region. Now, he’s hardly likely to fly in the face of that, is he, and so you would say that there is little, if any hope of

the US market ever being opened up…?

PRIME MINISTER:

I can’t see any hope of getting an increased sugar quota into the United States in the foreseeable future. I’m going to be realistic and I’m going to say that - there’s no point in pretending otherwise. And that is why, it’s one of the major reasons I came to the conclusion when I came back from the discussions… when the discussions concluded, you may remember I went to north Queensland and met a lot of the people in the industry and said we will deliver a package. Now today we fulfil that promise and we deliver a very comprehensive and a very generous package.

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JOURNALIST:

Is there any provision within that package to deal with the dreadful social problems? I mean, okay you’re presenting a package that should ease concerns, but these concerns have been the root causes, we are led to believe, of many many tragedies, of suicide most recently, although I believe that still hasn’t been exclusively…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well there are some specific elements that will be directed at that. But if you give people hope and you give people a basis to continue, a basis to plan constructively for their future, then that does relieve a lot of the tension and a lot of the burden.

JOURNALIST:

Okay, let’s move onto global matters, shall we? A lot of interest, of course, in your Hercules flight into and out of Baghdad. We need to talk to you about that, pretty… some fairly hairy moments there on the flight out we’re led to believe.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, more importantly, this visit was an opportunity for me to thank the men and women of the ADF for what they’re doing and I’m glad I went. They appreciated it. They are doing a fantastic job. Their work is anything but symbolic. The HMAS Stuart rescued five Americans after they’d been tipped overboard as a consequence of a suicide bomber blowing up their dinghy, blowing up their rubberduck and two of them, their colleagues, were killed.

JOURNALIST:

That’s the reality of it.

PRIME MINISTER:

Now that is the reality of it. That is not symbolic and it is an insult for anybody to call that sort of thing symbolic.

JOURNALIST:

Well, I’m glad you raised that because those are the exact words that I used yesterday and they’re echoed by the families of people who are serving… men and women who are serving in Iraq, echoed very strongly that they felt that this was a gross insult on behalf of Mark Latham.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, by all means attack the Government’s policy. I don’t mind them doing that, but when you get to the stage of saying that something is symbolic when they are doing that sort of thing within the last three days, it’s a bit rich.

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JOURNALIST:

Would you describe the trip as one of, well, most memorable moments of your tenure as Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh, certainly very memorable in a way, an emotional way. But also it’s a serious issue. They are those men and women they are exposed to danger, but they’re very professional and they’re cheerful and we all hope they can come home as soon as their job is completed and that that is completed as soon as possible. But I can’t put a time on that. We don’t want them to stay there any longer than necessary, neither do they but they know they’ve got a job to do.

JOURNALIST:

The situation is deteriorating however in both… well, in Najaf and Fallujah…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well Fallujah’s the really difficult area.

JOURNALIST:

Heavy handed one would think. Americans now coming under fire because of civilian casualties. Tony Blair supporting George W’s modus operandi, if you like. What do you think, it’s really starting to look a little heavy handed now?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well there are… the next two months are very important. If the next two months are won both military and politically then Iraq will have a bright, democratic future. The majority of the Iraqis, and I learnt, I was satisfied as a result of going there that this is certainly the case,

the majority of Iraqis want a democratic future, they’re glad Saddam is gone, health services are improving. The Iraqi authorities are now spending 26 times more on public health than they did under Saddam Hussein, electricity supplies are better than before the war, schools are better, hospitals are better - they are making progress. On the other hand there is a small but determined well-armed ruthless group who are trying to derail the democratic process.

They are largely but not entirely concentrated in Fallujah. The Americans have the difficult judgement to make if you leave them there, the resistance and the insurgency will go on indefinitely and could grow. If you try and root them out you run the risk of alienating some others because of the possibility of civilian casualties. It’s a hard ask but in the end you can’t ignore a determined group of people who are impervious to sensible negotiations.

JOURNALIST:

And the place has now also become a breeding ground for terrorist organisations.

PRIME MINISTER:

There’s no doubt about that. I mean, let me go back to HMAS Stuart. What the crew on the ship were doing were dealing with a terrorist attack. I mean when people send suicide bombers to blow up an oil refinery that is a terrorist attack. I mean, how else would we

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describe an attempt to blow up vital infrastructure in Australia? An oil terminal or a rig or a electricity grid - that’s a terrorist attack and that’s what the crew of the HMAS Stuart were dealing with.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, you mentioned Saddam Hussein before - have you been briefed at all by the Americans as to what they’re doing with him now and what ultimately his future will be?

PRIME MINISTER:

I understand from this morning’s news that he’s celebrating his 67th birthday.

JOURNALIST:

I don’t think there’ll be a cake somehow.

PRIME MINISTER:

No I don’t think so. They are holding him, continuing to interrogate him and I understand the next move is that he’ll be brought to trial before a special military tribunal, a special tribunal of some description under the authority of the Iraqi Government and tried in Baghdad. That’s my understanding.

JOURNALIST:

So they will hand him back to the Iraqis?

PRIME MINISTER:

He’ll be tried according to Iraqi law that’s my understanding. There may be a special tribunal and there maybe some input from the coalition. But essentially, he’ll be tried by the people he persecuted for 30 years and that is the right course of action.

JOURNALIST:

Now on the subject of that too, there is another, well Martin Toohey, the Navy Barrister has now come forward calling for an inquiry into the running of our intelligence services stemming from the advice given to the Government ahead of our involvement in Iraq?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I think it’s broader than that. I don’t think there’s a need to have another inquiry - we’re having one at the moment by Philip Flood and that in turn was recommended by another inquiry that was set up a parliamentary committee and the parliamentary committee included not only Liberals but also Labor people like Kim Beazley and Robert Ray and they said somebody like Philip Flood should do the inquiry. I see what’s happening here as the robust expression of differences of view within the defence intelligence community and I don’t think it forms a ground for having a Royal Commission or some other kind of inquiry because

overall I think our intelligence agencies do a good job. That is not to say they haven’t made mistakes. But in the end intelligence is an element, an essential element, in the process

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whereby governments take decisions. We get the intelligence but in the end we form our decisions with a whole lot of thing including the intelligence.

JOURNALIST:

Now, you mentioned Kim Beazley there. Kim Beazley famous or infamous for his decision on the Collins class submarine and we now know that he fighter jets on order, the 16 billion planned to buy fighter jets is being beset by cost blow outs and possible…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I’ve seen that report, I haven’t fully informed myself as to whether the basis of the report is correct or not. You get a lot of these reports about cost blow outs and cost blow outs do occur and always have occurred and occur in every country in relation to the development of new technology connected with new weaponry. It’s often difficult to forecast and foresee in advance what’s going to happen.

JOURNALIST:

Well, we are talking according to The Australian newspaper this morning anyway about the largest single Government purchase since federation, it’s fairly important?

PRIME MINISTER:

Very big and very valuable. It’s a fantastic aircraft concept, it really is and it will give an enormous defence reassurance to the Royal Australian Air Force when we get it.

JOURNALIST:

How long before we see one of those?

PRIME MINISTER:

You’re getting well into the, sort of, next decade.

JOURNALIST:

Okay….(inaudible)

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no they don’t.

JOURNALIST:

Look, just very quickly because time is against us here. Robert Hill, the Defence Minister is in Baghdad at the moment - do you expect him to come away with a perhaps clearer picture of just how long or is that still..?

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PRIME MINISTER:

We won’t be able to precisely estimate it. We will make provision in this year’s budget for the troops to remain there until at least the middle of next year and obviously if they have to stay there longer we’ll make further financial provision and if miraculously things come together very quickly, they’ll come home earlier and the budget will save money. But I would be misleading the public if I pretended that they’re going to be home in the very near future. But they get rotated and one of the good things about many of the people who are there is

they’ve only been there for a few months and there are rotations so it’s in that way made easier. But they’re doing a fantastic job and I was so delighted to be able to thank them.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister Howard, thanks for your time this morning.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you.

[ends]