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Prime Minister discusses terrorism; security measures; illegal immigrants and asylum seekers; CHOGM; Ansett; and petrol prices.



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3 October 2001

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER THE HON JOHN HOWARD RADIO INTERVIEW WITH ALAN JONES 2UE

Subjects: Terrorism; Australian security measures; illegal immigrants; CHOGM; Ansett; petrol prices

E&EO…………………………………………………………………………………………..

JONES:

The Prime Minister is on the line. Prime Minister good morning.

PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning Alan.

JONES:

Can I just take those words again for you? So you don’t have any intelligence available to indicate that Australia is an intended target?

PRIME MINISTER:

No. But I chose those words very carefully. There are no doubt some people in Australia who are sympathetic to terrorist organisations. And we should take that into account. We should also understand that this country is more vulnerable as a result of what happened on the 11th of September. Every western society is more vulnerable. We are not as vulnerable as the United States or some other western nations, but we are more vulnerable. We are all more vulnerable. This is the great, balancing dilemma a government faces in a democratic society. On the one hand you don’t want to unnecessarily disturb the way of life people are used to. You don’t want to sound alarmist. Life should go on. We mustn’t be frightened to live. However against that background you do have to take measures to provide additional

PRIME MINISTER

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assurance and additional security recognising of course that no government can give an absolute guarantee that some act of terrorism or madness won’t occur. I want to say to the Australian people, to your listeners, we are not as vulnerable as other countries. We should not be alarmed but nor should we be complacent, nor should we lazily assume that it can’t happen here.

JONES:

There have been suggestions, or there were last year were there not, that just before the Olympics that there was evidence that some of these terrorist organisations were operative in Australia?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well there were some suggetions but I think it’s always hard in an area like this as to what one can say to keep the public informed and equally what one can’t say so as not to compromise traditional approaches to intelligence and security. What I’m speaking of is the situation at present.

JONES:

Right.

PRIME MINISTER:

The point you make is really the point I underline that just because there may not be evidence of a proximate threat, doesn’t mean that a situation can’t develop in the future that changes that and I think that’s really what you’re alluding to.

JONES:

Yep. There are reports today that you received a briefing on the US evidence against bin Laden. Now, it is true most probably isn’t it that to mobilise adequately public opinion which you always need in these things and the international coalition, I suppose evidence is needed. Will that evidence be made public? Is there adequate evidence to determine that bin Laden and his organisation were responsible for September 11?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I have seen a large number of intelligence reports. I see them every day. They are not disimilar to the intelligence reports that the Americans would have - there’s a great sharing of intelligence between the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom. One of the very important assets in our relationship with the Americans is we do share intelligence. Now, let me answer your question this way, I think that all countries like Australia would want to make as much material available publicly to undewrite the strength of the case without compromising security sources. The reason why there’s always a reluctance to go into too much detail about intelligence is that you might frighten off some of the sources of human intelligence. I mean there are different forms of intelligence and obviously you have to be very careful about that because it defeats the whole purpose.

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JONES:

Yep. It’s the price you pay in a free society isn’t it?

PRIME MINISTER:

It is. It’s a dilemma. Part of me wants to sort of disclose everything and another part of me says that if you do that …

JONES:

You’re jeopardising…

PRIME MINISTER:

You’re jeopardising your capacity to get information in the future. And it’s just a dilemma and no Prime Minister in our country has really broadly departed from the approach that I’m adopting on this occasion. There is, there has been a lot of material that I am satisified, as indeed of course is the President and the British Prime Minister overnight was saying essentially the same thing. Now the sources of intelligence, would not, or the material would essentially have not been dissimilar.

JONES:

Right. You did say yesterday that armed guards will fly on random domestic and international flights. Now is that not nonetheless a confirmation to the travelling public that well before boarding the plane we can’t guarantee security?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well in absolute terms nobody can guarantee that an act of terrorism won’t take place. I wish I could, but I can’t. All I can promise is that we will take all the measures we reasonably can and within the bounds of practicability to reduce the likelihood of an act. We will be very tough, in fact in the past I suspect the baggage inspections at Australian airports before the 11th of September were tougher than they were on many American flights.

JONES:

Definitely, no doubt about that.

PRIME MINISTER:

We have been very tough for a long time and we’re going to get even tougher and I apologise in advance to the travelling public for the inconvenience. I think most people will accept it just as they accept the additional inconvenience involved in the measures we’ve taken to keep foot and mouth disease out of this country.

JONES:

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Just on that Prime Minister because the flip side of terrorism is security and we’ve been talking a lot about this on this programme just in the last couple of days. One of the concerns that listeners write to me about is that we’re a vast island continent. Almost 26,000 km of coastline. A big uninhabited interior. Thousands and thousands of airstrips dotted around remote parts of the bush and no one knows. And I suppose no one can know who lands there, when they land there, what cargo they might be carrying. Are you convinced that 8 boats and 15 planes patrolling the 25,000 km of shoreline is enough?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I suppose no amount is ever ….you can always have more and that area of responsibility, that area of activity rather, remains also under review as a consequence. But we have upgraded it an enormous amount in the last couple of years and the size of our coastline of course is a big issue but we do have some very comprehensive radar capacity and we have other capacity which has an impact on the capacity of people to get into this country. You’ve got to remember of course that modern terrorists come in different ways. You’ve got no guarantee they’re going to fly in a plane and land at an isolated airstrip, but equally you have no guarantee they won’t.

JONES:

And I suppose they say to me that we spend millions of dollars every year on half a dozen or more government agencies to protect our borders and yet guns and drugs and people and diseases stream in. I mean we have over 40 exotic diseases imported.

PRIME MINISTER:

That is true but it’s also true that we have been a lot more successful in recent years in intercepting drugs. The drug hauls, and this is anothor, it’s a different issue but it’s the same challenge. The drug haul is a lot less now. I mean you could say that of the United States. I mean the Americans spend $60 billion a year on security…

JONES:

And security intelligence, you’re right.

PRIME MINISTER:

And some might say that their system failed because it didn’t intercept this attack. I think what it underlines is that no matter how much you spend, you cannot give an absolute guarantee. I mean this is the nightmare of a situation like this that you can pour all of the resources you can put your hands on, you can take every additional precaution, you can respond to every possibility, and then because of the movement in a free society that people have, and you can’t close the country down. You can’t just stop people moving. I mean you just can’t do that.

JONES:

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But inspecting 3 out of every 10,000 containers is that too chancey?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well most customs agencies and security agencies over the years they have found that you pick up things on the basis of intelligence and tip offs. Rarely is it done as effectively in a totally random fashion.

JONES:

Just about the other question that you’ve got of course about the refugees, or asylum seekers, whatever they are. We heard at the weekend there are almost 17,000 have had their refugee claims rejected are either on the run or have been given short term visas and told to leave or are now involved in class actions. And thousands are waiting deportation in detention centres. Now if following the problems in Afghanistan there is a refugee crisis are we prepared to deal with that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well the best way to deal with what will be an exodus of refugees is to help Pakistan. We’ve already committed an additional $14 million dollars a year to the UN to help them build an additional processing and holding centre in Pakistan. The real, the effective response in my view to a mass exodus of refugees from Afghanistan will be for the world to massively help Pakistan, the adjoining country, the country that will be the first country for the refugees to look after them. In the end that is more effective. Firstly they are there, secondly the better outcome if there’s a change in conditions in the country they fled from is to return to that country. And also it makes a great deal more sense because trying to disperse and resettle hundreds of thousands of refugees that suddenly appear inside a neighbouring country is extremely difficult. So I would believe that the world needs to assist Pakistan in handling this refugee exodus. We have already, and I think it’s important the public be reminded of this, although we’re taking and continue to take a very tough line in relation to illegal immigration into this country, we are not unsympathetic to the difficulties of low income countries like Pakistan in dealing with refugees and we have put recently quite a lot of additional money in the way of the UN refuguee organisations to help there and we remain sympathetic to providing further assistance and I think the world needs to remember that if, and I’m sure it will, that if there is as people anticipate an exodus of refugees into Pakistan that that country will need a lot of help.

JONES:

What are you going to do about these 200 people on board the Manoora? Many people are ringing here and saying, well listen, if they are Iraqis, as it seems quite clear they are, why not turn the boat around and take them back to Iraq?

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PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I think it’s more sensible as the boat is just anchored off Nauru, I think it’s more sensible to persevere in the short-term in relation to getting them on to Nauru.

JONES:

How are you going to do that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, there have been further discussions and I would hope that the process will go on today but let’s just wait and see.

JONES:

But Nauru are seen to now be unhappy, don’t they? They say they don’t want hundreds of angry boat people forced to land against their will on their territory. You could understand…

PRIME MINISTER:

I think what I will say at the moment, Alan, is that we’re hopeful the process will recommence today and let’s see what unfolds. We’re respectful, obviously, to Nauru’s sensitivities but it has to be also understood that there’s no way that these people are coming to Australia.

JONES:

You’ve given Nauru, what, $20 million?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, there have been a number of arrangements, there’s been areas of support we’ve given to a country that’s one of our pacific neighbours. There has been financial assistance and there are good grounds for providing that financial assistance. The country is not a wealthy country and there’s no reason why that assistance shouldn’t be given.

JONES:

So you think you’ll get them off the boat?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, let me say this, Alan, that we would expect the process to recommence today and let’s see what unfolds.

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JONES:

Right. Is this an inhibiting factor in setting a date for an election?

PRIME MINISTER:

What’s that?

JONES:

The fact that this matter with Nauru isn’t resolved?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no, no, no.

JONES:

Are you aware of the phenomenal price, and I use that word advisedly, that business is paying for the collapse of Ansett?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I know that some businesses are paying a high price if you’re in the tourist industry but not all of that is due to the collapse of Ansett. A lot of that is due to the fear people have developed about travelling since the 11th of September. I mean, I have to make the point that the impact of that on the disposition of Americans in particular to travel to Australia has been enormous.

JONES:

Yes but, I mean, you cancelled CHOGM, are you going to reschedule?

PRIME MINISTER:

Hang on, hang on, Alan, I didn’t cancel it.

JONES:

No, you didn’t, no I’m not saying you did.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well look, can I also take the opportunity of saying that I’m working overtime at the moment to get CHOGM back. And yesterday in Sydney I met the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Don McKinnon, and we’ve both agreed on trying to get the meeting in Brisbane between the 2nd and 5th of March. That is a date which is acceptable to us, it’s acceptable to the Commonwealth Secretariat, it’s acceptable to the Queensland Government and we are, right as we speak, he’s in the process of talking to other Commonwealth leaders so that we can get

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the meeting reinstated. If we win the election we’ll go ahead with it on that date and I’m sure that if Mr Beazley wins the election he will want to go ahead with it as well because it’s one of these things that’s in the interests of Australia. So I can say to people who are understandably concerned about the collapse of that. I mean, that was due overwhelmingly, entirely, completely to the aftermath of the 11th of September. It had nothing to do with Ansett collapsing at all…

JONES:

Sure. But it does mean…

PRIME MINISTER:

…get it back between the 2nd and 5th of March.

JONES:

Yeah, good on you. But it does mean that outfits like the Hyatt Regency at Coolum, who were fully booked for CHOGM, now are facing very significant losses, aren’t they?

PRIME MINISTER:

Alan, I do understand that and I am sorry about it but when the British Prime Minister and the Indian Prime Minister both say they’re not going to come. I mean, I didn’t want it cancelled and nor did many other leaders and the Canadian Prime Minister did not want it cancelled.

JONES:

But your people are bearing the cost. I’ll just take a news call here but I will go on with the Prime Minister if I might because a couple of these things are matters of real concern.

Prime Minister there seems to be a major issue, if not a scandal, about pre-paid tickets. Why should people who had pre-paid tickets with a carrier and an accommodation house find that the money paid to a wholesaler, in this instance Ansett and I might add one of the greedy ones too because they used to take up to about 20% of the commission, find that that money isn’t in a trust or anywhere else, it’s just slipped into the Air New Zealand sewer. What redress do pre-paid ticket holders have?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, they become creditors and they have to, regrettably, they have to take their chances along with many other creditors.

JONES:

Shouldn’t that money be paid into a trust fund. I mean…

PRIME MINISTER:

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Well, the answer…in retrospect you could say that, that is true, but I mean, there can be no end of trust funds and in the end companies will have no working capital.

JONES:

But it’s not their money.

PRIME MINISTER:

No, when you say it’s not their money, I mean, they’re pre-paid tickets but…

JONES:

But the service hasn’t been provided yet.

PRIME MINISTER:

I think most people running a business would see a pre-payment as part of their cashflow.

JONES:

Isn’t it an extraordinary situation. Just so you understand, PM, and you may not and forgive me, I’m not having a shot at you, but you may not understand what happens because I didn’t understand this. But when you pre-pay via the wholesaler the wholesaler doesn’t on-pay that money to the carrier or the accommodation house. In fact, I could then stay at my accommodation at the Sheraton Hotel and the Sheraton Hotel won’t be paid by the wholesaler for 30 days or 60 days after I, in fact, have stayed. They’ve got access to this money for a hell of a long time.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yeah, look, I do understand that in the same way that sometimes when people pay indirect taxes to businesses that’s not their money either but they don’t have to remit it for a certain number of days. If they’re operating on a three-monthly basis they have the benefit of the use of that. And I don’t think anybody would say that they shouldn’t. It all becomes part of their cashflow. What we have to guard against is overreacting and putting a further straightjacket on business every time there is a corporate failure. I think it’s very important to get a balance. I mean, you’ve got to protect workers’ entitlements and we acted immediately to do that in relation to Ansett. You’ve got to see that the Securities’ Commission, the corporate watchdog, pursues directors if they’ve behaved improperly. But we’ve got to be very careful that we don’t visit upon legitimate, profitable businesses restrictions that…

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JONES:

That’s true Prime Minister. When you’ve got 70 year olds delivering Census books, walking from one end of the street to the other, to save for a discounted pre-paid ticket so they can visit their…

PRIME MINISTER:

I do understand that and it may well be that in the wash-up of all of this one of the things you have to do is to make some changes along the lines that you’re hinting at. All I’m saying is that we have to think about those changes very carefully because every time you put a further restriction on legitimate businesses the harder you make it for them to operate and the harder to make profits and, therefore, to employ people. I want a balance in all of this and I think it’s very important that, you know, we put a peg in the ground and say we’ve got to have some balance.

JONES:

That’s right, I think the balance is heavily distorted against the poor coot that saved for a pre-paid ticket.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, Alan, it is in a case like that, that’s true, but the other thing is that there are a lot of smaller businesses that need cashflow to survive and we’re all the time exhorting people to be entrepreneurs and to take the risks involved in business and we’ve just got to preserve a balance.

JONES:

With the tremendous potential we have for inbound tourism, I mean, particularly now with the value of our dollar, but apart from the natural beauty and attraction of Australia can we survive with one major airline?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh, I don’t want one major airline and we won’t. My view is that out of this there will be a slimmed down Ansett. You will have a Virgin that will be quite aggressive. I would expect Virgin, over time, to be very aggressive and to take market share from Qantas.

JONES:

But you’re confident that Ansett will get up.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I believe there’ll be a slimmed down Ansett. I mean, in the end it will be the money of businessmen and women that will get it going again and they will invest in it if they think they can make a reasonable return.

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JONES:

But see, if it doesn’t get up you know…

PRIME MINISTER:

I can only express a view that out of the collapse of Ansett, out of the grounding of Ansett, a slimmed down version, whether it’s called Ansett Mark II or III or whatever, I believe it will emerge but it will be very different and it should be very different.

JONES:

I’m just wondering why you wouldn’t assist, say, with a capital injection into that because if it doesn’t get up there’s got a massive unemployment benefit with people unemployed, a massive loss…

PRIME MINISTER:

The reason why we wouldn’t go beyond what we’ve already done - and we’ve done more to help Ansett than anybody else - we have guaranteed the workers’ entitlements, we did provide them, along with Qantas, with a $10 billion insurance indemnity, we have provided them with a ticket guarantee that’s allowed these planes to fly. I mean, if we had not provided that guarantee those Ansett planes would not be in the air. Ansett and Qantas, after 10 days of negotiation, could not agree on wet leasing of Ansett aircraft. I don’t know, in the end, whose fault it was but they couldn’t agree and it was the Government that provided the guarantee in relation to the tickets for Ansett Mark II to fly again. So we have done a lot of things. We’re the only player that has really put money on the line in order to try and address the situation.

JONES:

Sure, but I mean if Ansett doesn’t get up there’s a massive loss in corporate tax, personal tax, GST, all those sorts of things. It seems to me…

PRIME MINISTER:

Where does it end?

JONES:

Well, I don’t know, that’s for you to decide.

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PRIME MINISTER:

Well, that’s the reason why I am very reluctant about cash injections per se into companies because if you do it for one, why don’t you do it for another.

JONES:

But you did it for Mitsubishi.

PRIME MINISTER:

We provided incentives for Mitsubishi to invest in this country. We didn’t provide a cash injection into a failed company and there is a difference.

JONES:

But this company’s failed. If you put $500 million you’d have equity.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes but, Alan, it’s not the role of a government to have equities in companies.

JONES:

It is in Telstra.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, we started with that and we’re trying to change that subject to looking after the bush.

JONES:

Does your permission, though, allowing Qantas to bring foreign planes into the country…

PRIME MINISTER:

Foreign planes to run their international routes thus freeing other aircraft to run domestic routes.

JONES:

Right, so these foreign planes will not be used…

PRIME MINISTER:

…going to fly international routes…

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JONES:

But it does give Qantas a greater capacity on the domestic route.

PRIME MINISTER:

…greater capacity, well, Alan, I mean, maybe this wouldn’t have happened if a wet lease arrangement between the Ansett administrator and Qantas had been negotiated, maybe this wouldn’t have happened, I don’t know. But in the end I had to deal with a situation where my first responsibility is to meet the demand for aircraft seats. That’s my first responsibility. And we have, by and large, done that. I’m not saying it’s perfect. I’m not saying that there isn’t still some inconvenience but, by and large, the flow of passengers has continued. Now, I want to see more competition. I believe there will be. I don’t want to see Qantas have a stranglehold. I’m not on Qantas’s side, I’m on the side of greater competition. But we have done more than anybody else to get some Ansett capacity up in the air. Without our guarantees there would be no Ansett aircraft flying around as we speak.

JONES:

I bet I’ve got a question, Prime Minister, that you can’t answer.

PRIME MINISTER:

What’s that?

JONES:

Petrol prices, we heard, the crude oil price is at $22 and a bit of barrel, it was $30 a week ago, we should be getting petrol at 90 cents a litre at the pump and we’re not. The dilemma goes on, doesn’t it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Ninety cents a litre. I drove past some petrol stations last night in Epping and North Ryde that were below 90 cents a litre. I went to a meeting in Eastwood and I drove home and I always look at those boards.

JONES:

[Inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER:

My mind is on automatic for the detection of those boards and I can tell you many of them were below 90 cents a litre.

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JONES:

Very good. And just one final thing, I’ll let you go, there has been an election in Fiji. I had a letter yesterday from the manager of a Sevens team asking for the Australian Government to lift sporting bans and allow his team to play…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, my understanding was that they were lifted.

JONES:

My understanding was that they were, he says they’re not, so can we…

PRIME MINISTER:

I’ll check that out basically because Fiji is, in my judgement now, a lot more democratic than some of the countries around the world that condemned it.

JONES:

You’re dead right. Good to talk to you. Thank you for your time.

PRIME MINISTER:

Okay.

[Ends]