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Prime Minister discusses banks; fertility rate; paid maternity leave; Ali Bakhtiyari; Iraq; USA; Telstra; Archbishop Pell; and the Democrats.



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23 August 2002

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

Subjects: banks; fertility rate; paid maternity leave; Ali Bakhtiyari; Iraq; USA; Telstra; Archbishop Pell; Democrats.

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

MITCHELL:

First today, in our Canberra studio, the Prime Minister Mr Howard. Good morning. Sometimes you think the banks don't know when to stop, don't you?

PRIME MINISTER:

The public relations, to say the least, is often very poor and I don't profess knowledge of that analyst's report, so I can't really comment on it. But I've always felt that the banks need to understand their social obligations as well as their genuine obligations to their shareholders. Making profits is fine, I'm all for it. I believe in companies making good profits because shareholders get a good return, but it's always a question of balance.

MITCHELL:

Okay, I accept you haven't seen the report, we'll be talking about that later. Now, something different. There's a problem with our fertility rate. I wonder if this is it? The number of marriages down to a 25-year low, divorces up to a 20 year high. It's like marriage phobia. What's happening to marriage?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it's less popular than it used to be and I don't claim to have all answers to that…

MITCHELL:

It's pretty important…

PRIME MINISTER:

PRIME MINISTER

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Well, I think it's tremendously…. I think it is the bedrock institution of our society and I've long held a view that there should always be a special status given to marriage. That's why I've not accepted attitudes that would bland away the status of marriage within our society. I think it is regrettable that marriage is less popular and less readily embraced. Although, you have to see these things in perspective - people are marrying later, fewer people are marrying. But it is still, I find as I move around the community even amongst younger people, it is still the preferred ultimate relationship that most people want to have…

MITCHELL:

I wonder if they're…

PRIME MINISTER:

And, you know, the fact that more marriages fail now, isn't so much that people don't want their marriages to work, it's just the society we live in and the aspirations people have are different and perhaps greater and their expectations are greater and we have to have an understanding of that. We shouldn't amidst these sorts of figures get too pessimistic about it. We ought to understand that it is still the ultimate relationship that most people eventually want, although they're less willing to commit themselves at an earlier age.

MITCHELL:

There is not a lot of tax benefit in being married. Is there something the Government could look at there to improve the financial attractions of marriage?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think you would have to turn the taxation system on its head and multiply by two or three to have a big impact and then you've also got to answer the question, do you have a right to call on people who aren't married to, through the tax system, fund people who do marry. There are balancing factors. There are some tax advantages in marriage. I mean, obviously there are economic advantages in people living together whether marriage or otherwise, you can share costs. I mean, we all understand that. I don't think even a dramatic change in the tax system is going to have a huge impact on people marrying. It's a bit like the debate on the fertility debate, which is related to what you say. Governments can have an impact at the margin, but their policies ought not be seen as a way of totally altering human behaviour. Human behaviour is influenced by a whole range of considerations.

MITCHELL:

You believe maternity leave, paid maternity leave, would help the fertility rate?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don't think it would have much effect.

MITCHELL:

Really?

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PRIME MINISTER:

I'm not against paid maternity leave as a concept, provided it's not dumped on small business. I'm not against it. I think it's part of the range of policies that should be considered. But the evidence I've seen doesn't indicate to me that it has a measurable impact on the fertility rate.

MITCHELL:

Is it still worth pursuing then?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes. It's worth looking at. We haven't made a decision on whether to do it or not, but I'm not rejecting it. It's one of a number of things that I'm looking at and the Government's looking at in our review of the balance of our work and family policy. We've already done a lot of things in this area and if we can do more I would like to. And I have as a very central policy objective to try and assist Australian families to, as effectively as they can, balance their work and family responsibilities, giving people, particularly women, choice. I don't believe in telling people how to organise their lives, particularly when they have young children. But if they want to stay at home for a while, or even for a considerable period of time, it shouldn't only be a privilege that's available to wealthy and well-off families, it should as far as possible be available to all.

MITCHELL:

Ali Bakhtiyari, the asylum seeker famous in part because his children sought asylum from the British here in Melbourne, both the Australian newspaper and the Age have now tracked through his story and both have found it to be wrong. What should happen to him now?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I think he should just continue to be dealt with in accordance with the law and he may have some rights available, I'm just not quite sure. It's very hard to kept track of every individual case, but my understanding of what has come out is that it supports the conclusion of the immigration authorities and supports the line that's been taken by the Immigration Minister. And it's a very difficult situation and it's not an easy position. I don't derive any sort of pleasure out of the Government being apparently proved correct on this situation. And we are dealing with people's lives and peoples…

MITCHELL:

But he has been the face of the protest…

PRIME MINISTER:

Of course…

MITCHELL:

And he seems to have been conning people.

PRIME MINISTER:

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Well, I would just invite people who've been so ready to criticise Philip Ruddock, and so ready to brand the Government as heartless, and so ready to criticise the system, I just ask them to have a look at this material and just accept that we're not people who are behaving unreasonably. We're trying to defend the integrity of an immigration system that most Australians want us to defend and most Australians believe should be defended.

MITCHELL:

This must be costing a lot of money through the courts. I mean, given what's been publicly declared one would hope Mr Bakhtiyari might remove that application and just leave the country.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, the law is the law, Neil, and we are all subject to it. We have tried, on occasions, to shorten the time involved in these things and thus reduce the cost. We've had some success but over the years we've had a lot of resistance from the Democrats and the Labor Party in the Senate. We'll continue to try and keep things as quick, or make things as speedy and as inexpensive as possible but people do have rights under our system, that's what we exist to, I suppose, defend. I mean, we have a democratic system and people have got rights but I do think there's very strong support in the community for the Government's determination to maintain the integrity of the immigration system and also the refugee system.

MITCHELL:

Okay, we'll take a quick call. Michael, go ahead please.

CALLER:

Thank you, Neil. Good morning, Mr Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning, Michael.

CALLER:

It seems to me…I’m just a bit confused, it seems to me that the solution to the banking problem is as simple as deregulation of the banking industry. Given the fact that there are four major banks in this country and that the overseas exercise in America of actually deregulating the financial and banking institutions over there proved successful that this country should embark upon a simple exercise of deregulation, much the same way that happened with the mortgage industry. Why has that not been undertaken?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, we have deregulated our financial system very significantly. I don't know that just slavishly copying America provides the answer to everything. I admire a lot about America but their banking system is different from ours. The record of bank failures and depositors losing deposits I think is probably greater in the United States than has been in Australia. I

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think we have a better balance between freedom and prudence in our system than does the United States.

MITCHELL:

Do you agree that customers are getting a pretty rough deal still, though? I mean, [inaudible] $10 million [inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I must say I haven't come across this latest material but, well, I’m against banks charging excessive fees and if there's evidence that out of this or any other report that there's more that can be done by the Government to stop that happening then we'll certainly embrace it.

MITCHELL:

Do you believe they're excessive at the moment?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, you've got to balance it against interest rate falls. Interest rate falls have been very significant and there's no doubt that people are a lot better off even if you take fees into account than what they were a few years ago because of the sharp falls in interest rates and I think it probably varies a bit from bank to bank and I think it probably varies from customer to customer and from situation to situation.

MITCHELL:

We'll take a quick break and come back with more from the Prime Minister.

[COMMERCIAL BREAK]

MITCHELL:

We'll try to take some more calls for the Prime Minister before nine, he's in our Canberra studio.

Mr Howard, last time we talked when you were in Melbourne we talked about Iraq and you seemed to think then conflict was probable, is that still your view?

PRIME MINISTER:

My view, as first articulated on your programme a couple of weeks ago, hasn't changed. I formed a judgement then that things, more probably than not, some action will be taken by the United States. I don't expect it to be in the very near future and that judgement may turn out not to be correct but I still hold it. I think the Americans are examining all of the options. I would like to see the matter solved without resort to force, of course, we all would. Nobody wants another military conflict, can I just make that very clear, we all abhor military conflict. But it would be completely unnecessary if Iraq were to comply fully with the Untied Nations' resolution.

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MITCHELL:

Are you still of the view that Australia would be likely to support the United States?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, what I said last time was that we would likely be asked to assess and we would make a judgement that if that request were forthcoming against the background of the circumstances when the request was made. I have not made any advance commitment of Australian support. We are in a position to know what American military planning and military thinking is, which is one of the advantages that flows from our close alliance with the United States, and obviously if we were asked we'd give it serious consideration. But I've not made any advance commitment and we've not been asked to make any advance commitment and it's something that we'd obviously have to deal with at the time.

MITCHELL:

But it seems to me from the polls the Australian public is not supportive of the prospect of conflict with Iraq, would you commit Australia regardless of that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, if we were to receive a request I would make a judgement based on what I thought was the right thing in the long-term interests of Australia.

MITCHELL:

Regardless of public opinion.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I think it's too early to have a settled view about what public opinion is. It's perfectly natural now, if asked, they would express opposition. I don't find that surprising at all. No detailed case has been made because no decision to be involved has been made and until, and unless and until a decision to be involved is made one is not in a position, except by inference, to articulate a case. I mean, at the moment we are still part of international efforts to encourage Iraq to comply with the UN Security Council resolutions. And the one thing that is indisputable is that Iraq remains in breach of the Security Council resolutions and if Iraq were to comply fully and genuinely with those resolutions then that would transform the character of this whole issue overnight.

MITCHELL:

We'll take a quick call before we move on. Ali go ahead please.

CALLER:

Hello, good morning. [inaudible]. I'm just concerned why we do affiliate some things with America. When we look at their sort of society and lifestyle, it's so bad. There's a murder every one minute, theft every how many seconds, how many homeless, how many jobless and….

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MITCHELL:

Are you saying this is relevant to our support over Iraq?

CALLER:

It is relevant because why do we….does the government and the media put America as a benchmark [inaudible] as the country we'd like to be with or equal with.

MITCHELL:

Okay. Prime Minister….

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don't put America as a benchmark for everything that Australia should do. I've taken a question a few minutes ago saying the opposite. There are things about America I admire, there are things about America such as the rampant gun culture and their, on occasions insensitive social security system that I don't admire. But there are a lot of things I do admire about America and it is the most powerful democracy in the world and it was the country that years ago ultimately protected Australia from invasion.

MITCHELL:

Archbishop Pell Prime Minister, it's been argued that your public support for him sends the wrong message to victims, that it sends a message that men of power stick together, even a message to kids - there's no point in coming forward if you are a victim because nobody will believe you. Do you regret your public statements on Archbishop Pell?

PRIME MINISTER:

No I don't and I think that criticism, if it's been made, is unfair. I could equally argue that it sends the wrong signal if you are never willing to support somebody even if you believe in them.

MITCHELL:

But you didn't speak in support of Justice Michael Kirby or Geoff Clark.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well Michael Kirby's situation was different in one very important respect and that is that if there had been any adjudication of his position as a High Court Judge I would have been part of that Adjudication so therefore it's a very different situation. As things turned out the allegations proved to be completely without foundation and he continues as an honoured and respected member of the High Court.

MITCHELL:

So you think it was appropriate to be publicly supporting….Archbishop Pell it must be said strongly denies any wrong doing.

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PRIME MINISTER:

Of course he does.

MITCHELL:

For a Prime Minister to support him, privately is one matter, but to do it publicly is quite an extraordinary…

PRIME MINISTER:

I don't think it's extraordinary at all. I think part of the discharge of my job is from time to time in situations like this to react in a perfectly human way. I know him. I can't say that we're as close as some press reports have implied. But I formed a judgement about his character and it was on the basis of that judgement that I made the comments that I did. Now if I'm proved wrong well that will be embarrassing to me and it will bring a lot of criticism on me, well I'll just have to deal with that if it were to arise. You say in relation to Geoff Clark, I mean I think the position in put in relation to Geoff Clark was I defended the application of the presumption of innocence to him. I think in fact that….

MITCHELL:

You've gone further with Archbishop Pell.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think….

MITCHELL:

[inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER:

Hang on. I think it's…..well I've said that I believed his denial.

MITCHELL:

So….

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think in relation to Geoff Clark the other observation in fairness to me, there was a lot more detail and so forth of those allegations and they'd been aired and supported by a major news network. Now the police…. I mean I've got to be careful what I say about this and you understand that, the police have…. charges are not being laid and that's it as far as I'm concerned. I continued to deal fully and openly with Mr Clark. He came as Chairman of ATSIC to the Lodge during the period of….when that thing was going on. I think that was in fact the subject of implied criticism if I may say so….

MITCHELL:

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From me.

PRIME MINISTER:

….by you, yeah, on this program.

MITCHELL:

It was.

PRIME MINISTER:

So I don't think you can say I've been unfair to Geoff Clark. Give us a break.

MITCHELL:

Would you rather the police were investigating Pell?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think everybody would. The Catholic Church would but the man has chosen not to go to the police. I mean that point has got to be made. Nobody has been charged. Apparently the person involved has declined to go to the police. I can't and won't say any more than that but I can only repeat I don't regret saying what I did and I don't think it sends the wrong signal. I think I could equally argue that if you're never prepared to state your belief in a person's character that sends the wrong signal to young people and sends the wrong signal to the community. I think child abuse is just about the most abominable thing imaginable and nothing that I've said in any way implies anything other than an absolute horror about it. But equally it's fair to point out that people's good name is their most prized asset and people are entitled to that consideration.

MITCHELL:

The drought Prime Minister, the wheat crop I noticed from today revised down 20%. Is there a need for aid, is the drought that bad?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think in many areas of Australia it is. Under the arrangements we have with Commonwealth and State governments that aid is flowing. In the first instance under those arrangements the State provides the assistance and as it gets more severe the Commonwealth clicks in with its help, and where exceptional circumstances are found to exist the Commonwealth picks up the bill as to about 95% of it.

MITCHELL:

A couple of very quick things. Politics, the Democrats, will they be easier to deal with now or are they dying?

PRIME MINISTER:

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Well I'm not going to make any smart-alec comments at the moment. They're obviously going through a great deal of turmoil. Will they be easier to deal with? Not necessarily so. I've been fairly cautious about that to date. It's a pretty strange decision I have to say as an observer as well as a participant in the political scene.

MITCHELL:

[inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER:

No. To install Brian Greig, given the views of the parliamentary party, when it's the National Executive has made a decision to deliberately humiliate their own parliamentary party. It's pretty hard to run a parliamentary party like that. I seem to remember years ago Bob Menzies did very well out of the depiction of the Federal Executive of the Labor Party as 36 faceless men.

MITCHELL:

Are you sorry to see Denis Napthine go in Victoria?

PRIME MINISTER:

On a personal basis I'm sorry always when that kind of thing happens because I know the intense feeling of disappointment people can feel when they lose party room ballots for leadership. But the decision's been taken by a clear majority. I think Robert Doyle's got off to a very good start, a very good start, and I think the combination of Robert and Phil Honeywood will be very effective. I've heard Robert on the media quite a bit over the past couple of days and I'm impressed that he's sharpening the difference. He's emphasising the extent to which the unions over-influence the Bracks Government and I think that's very relevant against the background of this building industry inquiry. So I think both of them have got off to an excellent start.

MITCHELL:

The National Farmers Federation says Telstra's far from right in the bush, complaints are up 12%, you say it's close to fixed. Who's right?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well the inquiry will tell us. That's why we've got an independent inquiry.

MITCHELL:

Okay. I wouldn't normally raise this with you but we're enormous trouble with the case of the World War II veteran, Vic Goulter who's being pursued by Veterans Affairs for $120,000. If he did do the wrong thing, very much a technicality. 83 years old, he's ill, he is a World War II veteran. He spent six years in the AIF, he was injured. In my view he's being treated as a dole bludger. Are you able to ensure this case is being reviewed? He's being harrassed.

PRIME MINISTER:

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Well I've only just caught up with it in the last couple days and the amount involved is $122,000. I don't think it's quite right to say it's just a complete technicality. It does relate to his entitlement according to where he's lived to get the service pension. His disability pension is not affected. He does have appeal rights which he's not taken up yet. All I can say is that on the face of it I don't think the department has been completely unreasonable but I will in the light of the obvious sensitivity of something like this have a personal look at it.

MITCHELL:

I appreciate that. Just something else, maybe the law needs changing on this, the heroin dealer in Perth who won his case to claim $220,000 in drug money as….

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes I know the case.

MITCHELL:

Can't let that…..

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we're not. The Commissioner of Taxation is looking at an appeal and if that appeal is unsuccessful we'll look at a law change.

MITCHELL:

Peter Costello seemed to learn a lot in the bush. Are you heading back to the bush soon?

PRIME MINISTER:

I'm always in the bush. I'm very pleased he went and I think it's very good to have all of my ministers going around.

MITCHELL:

Good learning curve for him?

PRIME MINISTER:

He already knows a lot. We can all learn more. I'm learning something every day.

MITCHELL:

Thank you very much for your time.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you.

[Ends]