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Prime Minister discusses industrial relations; uranium mining; Ministry; climate change; and Collins class submarines.



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Prime Minister of Australia | John Howard

Interview Transcript

03 April 2007

Interview with Matthew Abraham and David Bevan ABC Radio 891, Adelaide

Subject:

Polls; workplace reform; uranium mining; Coalition frontbench; climate change; Collins Class submarines

E&OE...

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, welcome to the studio.

PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning.

JOURNALIST:

Good news, I suppose, in a way for you this morning regarding the polls, the latest Newspoll showing that you've managed to claw back some of Labor's lead. Do you take any comfort from that?

JOURNALIST:

Oh not an enormous amount. We're still a country mile behind and we still have a lot of hard work to do but polls taken at this time of the electoral cycle are not necessarily reflective of what ultimately happens, but there's no doubt that the Labor Party is ahead and there's no doubt that we have a lot of work ahead of us and when I see polls like that it only encourages me to work even harder.

JOURNALIST:

But you'd look at that poll and think, well, maybe at last Kevin Rudd's ascendancy has peaked?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, the facts speak for themselves, or the figures speak for themselves. They're still well ahead and have been so for several months so we have our work cut out but I don't want to spend endless time talking about polls. It's really a bit irrelevant talking about polls because in the end a poll is a snapshot of what people think at

a particular time and they don't change their minds on the basis of how I react to a poll or how the Opposition Leader reacts to a poll. They change their mind if they are persuaded, as I believe to be the case, that Mr Rudd doesn't have a clear cut plan to keep the economy strong. He's going to embrace policies on climate change that have not been carefully thought through. I mean, they are the issues that in the end are going to determine whether or not this government is returned.

JOURNALIST:

Newspoll did look at, putting aside personal approval rating and all that caper, they did look at industrial relations changes and the economy and they're showing that people don't like it overall and when it comes down to how that will affect your vote some 84 say it is important, totally important, 13 regard it as not important. How would you interpret that in terms of...

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don't know that I want to interpret that, I mean that's sort of going down a pointless path. These workplace relations changes are very important to our economic future, that is my belief and that belief won't change. Politics is after all about doing things that you believe are in the long term interests of the country and I have believed in workplace relations reform for more than a quarter of a century and I have been arguing for it and I really do believe that if Mr Rudd and the Labor Party win at the end of the year, and they'll then control every level of government in the country, you will have no checks, no balances. You'll have Labor governments everywhere and they will be heavily influenced by the unions, there's no argument about that, particularly on IR. And if those reforms are rolled

back it will be first time in a generation that a major economic reform has been reversed and I think that will be a mistake. Now, I have the job in front of me to persuade the Australian people of that but I want to make one thing very clear that I believe in these reforms, the Government believes in these reforms because we think in the long run they're good for the country. The evidence of them not being good for the country is nowhere to be seen. In a year since they've come in, employment has fallen to a 30... unemployment rather has fallen to a 32 year low. Real wages have continued to go up, they've now risen by 19.7 per cent in the time we've been in government and strikes are at an all time low, you have to go back to 1913. So the evidence is not there to support a conclusion that they're bad for the economy. I think what happens, Matt, is when you have a general mood against a government, the public tends to mark the government down on everything and when that mood turns around they tend to mark the government up a bit more on things, so I don't know that you should read too much into that particular micro element of that poll.

JOURNALIST:

We have a text message here from one of our listeners. Could you please ask Mr Howard if he proposes to keep working well into his 70s as Mr Costello wants us to all do?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think, answering that question very analytically and not personally for a moment, if everybody worked at least until they were in their middle to late 60s that would make an enormous difference. The big problem Australia's had is far too many people retire at 55. Until quite recently that cohort of 55 to 64 in Australia was less in work, if I can put it that way, than comparable cohorts in other relevant countries. For my own part, well look I've said before I'll remain in this job while the Party wants me to.

JOURNALIST:

It's not a great message to send people is it? You've got to work harder, longer...

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no, it's not a question of...well no I think it's a question of balance, Matt. There are many, many people I know who have retired after a very, very busy life and suddenly they're doing nothing and they go to pieces. They do because they are used to being relevant and useful and then all of a sudden they find they're not. I think what is involved here is a management, a managed change in your level of effort and responsibilities. Now, people ought to stay in the workforce longer,

perhaps work part time.

JOURNALIST:

Do you fear that?

PRIME MINISTER:

What?

JOURNALIST:

When you stop being Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER:

I'm sure I'll have plenty of other things to do, but other people don't adjust as well.

JOURNALIST:

No, but you're meant to have a plan for retirement. That's meant to be part of your working life.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I can...

JOURNALIST:

I've got the boat.

PRIME MINISTER:

You've got a boat, well I don't have a boat but I'm quite sure that there'll be things I can find to do but I'm not getting into the business of speculating what they might be because you know what people will then do.

JOURNALIST:

We're just trying. You could see, though, in this next election campaign that Labor will be able to raise the question, well how long will John Howard stay?

PRIME MINISTER:

But they did that last time.

JOURNALIST:

Yes but...

PRIME MINISTER:

And they did it the time before.

JOURNALIST:

But surely the question gets bigger and bigger as you get older and older?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, but people know that I've got a very good team. They also know that if I went under a bus Peter Costello could do a great job in my place. They know that there are other people who will support him in those circumstances. Alexander Downer,

for example, has now been Australia's longest serving Foreign Minister. Alexander is only in his 50s. Brendan Nelson, Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbott, Julie Bishop, it's a very strong frontbench.

JOURNALIST:

Some people...

PRIME MINISTER:

It's not just a Howard Government, that's the name given to it because I'm the Prime Minister, but I do have a very strong team. It's one of the advantages I have over Mr Rudd. I mean does anybody really think that Wayne Swan could be

a better Treasurer than Peter Costello? Does anybody think that Malcolm, Peter Garrett is going to be a better environment minister than Malcolm Turnbull? I tell you what, the coal miners of Australia and the workers in the uranium industry that I visited yesterday at Olympic Dam, certainly don't think so. They're...a lot of them are quite unnerved by the anti-development attitude of Mr Garrett.

JOURNALIST:

It could be argued though that Kevin Rudd is more like you than Peter Costello, so if you like the John Howard brand, he's just a younger a version.

PRIME MINISTER:

If you're looking at policy he's a country mile from me. I mean, Peter Costello actually believes in the policies that have given us the prosperity we now have because he's been one of the architects of them whereas Mr Rudd's been one of those who voted against all of the reforms that we've introduced since he's been in Parliament.

JOURNALIST:

You visited Olympic Dam yesterday and had a briefing on the progress there. We've got the Premier in Chile looking at an enormous open pit operation by BHP Billiton there and that's going to be replicated but on a bigger scale in the Roxby expansion. What's your assessment of how that is direct heading, what direction that's heading?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I'm pretty optimistic although I am worried about the reservations that Mr Garrett has expressed. Now if Mr Garrett were ever to be environment minister perhaps he would try and put the blockers on it, but from our point of view, we believe in the expansion. It's a wonderful mine, it's got a wonderful safety record and safety is right at the top of the ethos of BHP Billiton and the potential is just enormous. We have this God-given resource and we should use it wisely and use it for the benefit of the entire community.

JOURNALIST:

You don't think Peter Garrett would be able to stop the expansion of Roxby Downs, I mean Mike Rann has got a juggernaut going on...

PRIME MINISTER:

But hang on, but hang on, yeah but hang on. Mr Garrett said that you shouldn't automatically accept the expansion; I mean he did say that.

JOURNALIST:

He'll get rolled, he'll get rolled.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well you say he'll get rolled but I mean why should you even have somebody like that within a bull's roar of the environment portfolio? I mean I am quite sure that if my environment minister was running around expressing reservations about uranium mining, the Premier of South Australia would be crawling all over him and so would a lot of other people.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, speaking of the environment the European Union's top environmental official has again criticised the US and Australia according to our

news over their policy on carbon dioxide emissions and saying that the only reason they haven't signed up to Kyoto was political pride. Is that a fair call?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well no it's not a fair cop and can I say in reply to that gentlemen, and I have just got a list here of the Kyoto performance for countries that he represents; Australia is one of the few industrial countries meeting its Kyoto target. Canada is currently

projected to be 44 per cent over Kyoto and the following EU... 12 of the 15 EU countries are currently not on track to meet their Kyoto target. Denmark, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Italy are some of the countries. Portugal is 20 per cent over, Spain's 36 per cent over, Denmark's 25 per cent over and Italy's 20 per cent over. Now Australia by contrast, is actually on track to meet the target set for us by the Kyoto agreement.

JOURNALIST:

So this is the Kyoto you have when you are not having a Kyoto?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, the reason we haven't signed it is, as well as meeting our target which we are quite happy to do in contra-distinction from the countries that presume to lecture us; let's understand what's happening here. You've got the spokesman for a

group of countries lecturing us about not having signed Kyoto yet the great bulk of the countries on whose behalf he speaks are falling well behind their Kyoto targets and are doing less well than Australia in meeting them. The reason we

didn't sign the protocol, ratify the protocol, we signed the Kyoto agreement, was that we would have assumed obligations which countries against which Australia competes such as China and Indonesia would not have assumed and that would have put our industries at a competitive disadvantage. So our answer to the

spokesman for the European Union is look to your own affairs, get your countries complying with the targets you proclaimed. Could I also say to the Australian public that we should be very wary of European lectures on this issue because the economies of Europe, which are not resource intensive, do not have the fossil fuels, do not have the uranium reserves that we have; are very different from the Australian economy and we'd be doing our country a lot of damage if we applied European solutions to a completely different Australian situation.

JOURNALIST:

You are listening to Matthew Abraham and David Bevan and Prime Minister John Howard.

[station break]

JOURNALIST:

Mike's called from Kingston, good morning Mike.

CALLER:

That's Kingston Park, good morning. Look Mr Howard I am a businessman and I am also the bloke that went on a, I am an ex Liberal supporter too, I am the bloke who went on an 18 day hunger strike for justice for David Hicks. We finally got justice when he was charged. I didn't want freedom, I just wanted him charged. I

am now about to go on a sex strike and I am calling on Mrs Rann, Mrs Downer and your partner...

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, I don't have a partner, I have a wife.

CALLER:

Mike, thanks for your call. Steve has called from North Adelaide, good morning Steve.

CALLER:

Thank you Mr Prime Minister, thank you for all the sacrifices you have made for our country, it's something which goes unrecognised, so I thank you. My question relates to state-federal mix. The state-federal mix was great when we were a tiny little isolated country, do you think it's time to get rid of the state governments which are full of politicians who frankly are fairly second rate and it seems to me that we have a major impediment to progression of this country due to the squabbling between the states and the federal government. We can vote you out if we don't like you; we have an option to do that, do you think it's time to have a basic re-think of the way the Constitution is structured?

PRIME MINISITER:

If we were starting this country again, I wouldn't be in favour of the present structure. I don't think it's serving us as well as it should but we are not starting it again and the reality is that if we tried to get rid of it then I think there would be resistance but I do agree with you that people increasingly look to the Federal Government to solve things even where there is a clear state responsibility. You take something like dental health, that's clearly a state responsibility but because there is an enormous backlog and the states are saying well we want more money from the Federal Government and the public says you are the Federal Government you've got to fix it and our response is well that's a state responsibility. I do find that as I move around Australia, and it doesn't seem to vary according to where I am, but if there is an issue people will say to me, why isn't this fixed and I say well that's a matter for Mr Rann or for Mr Iemma or Mr Carpenter, Peter Beattie depending on where I am; they say well look you are the Prime Minister, you've got to fix it. What it indicates to me is that people are more

nationalistic now, they think that the national government is very important, they think the local environment in which they live is very important, but I don't think they ascribe as much importance to state governments now as they used to.

JOURNALIST:

Isn't this a long way from Liberal Party philosophy of small government or is that...?

PRIME MINISITER:

No, no it's not a question of...I don't think it's a long way from small government, but I think Australians have become more nationalistic and more localistic, if I may put it that way. In the time that I've been in public life, I find that people are a lot more interested in their local community. There is actually more interest in local government elections now than there used to be 20 or 30 years ago. And there is also a heavy concentration and interest in the federal scene and less so at a state level. Now that's not, I am not being critical of the people in state politics, there are some good people in state politics from both sides, I am not, I am just making a general observation to the gentlemen's question which I think is indicative of how people are feeling.

JOURNALIST:

Do you despair at the state of the Liberal Party and the calibre of the Liberal Party at the state level but particularly in South Australia?

PRIME MINISITER:

Well I think we have a lot of work to do. My advice to all of the state Liberals all around the country is that they've got to tell an alternative story, they've got to build a case for change. It's not enough that the people are unhappy with the incumbent government because state politics now is a lot less ideological than it used to be and so...

JOURNALIST:

People want the place run.

PRIME MINISITER:

They do, but they've got to be satisfied that the alternative will do it better and the failure of state Liberals over the last little while is that they haven't really built a case for change. And you can't expect people to vote a government out unless you can firstly satisfy them that that government deserves a rebuke or deserves defeat and secondly, that you can do it better. Now we had an example in the last New South Wales election where people wanted to throw that government out but sadly they didn't think the Liberals could do a better job and that's why the voted Labor back. Now it's a stark lesson and my advice to the New South Wales Liberals; and they're choosing a new leadership team today or tomorrow or something, is that they have got to start work immediately on developing an alternative story so that when the next state election comes around, if people are still unhappy with Labor, then they will say well not only are we unhappy with Labor, but we think the other crowd have got an idea of how to run the place better, let's give them a go.

JOURNALIST:

Is that your fear about Kevin Rudd, because you must...

PRIME MINISTER:

My fear about Mr Rudd? Well my fear about Mr Rudd is the damage that a union dominated Labor Government on top of eight state and territory Labor governments would do to the country. You will have every level of government run by the Labor Party and there will be no checks and there will be no balances. The greatest fear I have is for the country if there is a union dominated Labor Federal Government on top of eight state and territory Labor governments.

JOURNALIST:

Carol has called from Melrose. Good morning Carol.

CALLER:

Oh good morning everyone. Prime Minister, I am just curious, the dependent spouse rebate in the tax code gives my husband, who is working and I am not any more, some $1500 tax deduction. Now that's worth $30 a week and I think I cost a bit more than that.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I am sure you're worth a lot more than that.

CALLER:

No, I cost a lot more than that. So when is something going to be done about it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well could I inquire, I don't wish to be intrusive, but I inquire, your children are all grown up are they?

CALLER:

Yes they are.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well what we have done, and perhaps in the eyes of people like your good self perhaps wrongly, over the last 10 years we have put a lot more support into single income families where there are dependent children. And you will find that the situation that obtains now for people on quite modest incomes; I think the figure is

that if you're a single income family and you've got two children, one of whom is under five, you effectively don't pay any tax until your total income is about $45,000 a year. Now that is a vastly better provision for families, single income families in that situation than used to be the case where all they had was the dependent spouse rebate with a loading for dependent children. And even if you added in the old family allowance, the amount of provision for that family was a lot less than what it is now. Now that's for people who've got children. Obviously in situations where somebody is not, my own wife is not in the paid workforce, but I am on a big income, but a lot of people are in your situation and I understand your point and you're right to remind me of it, but I wouldn't want you to think that we have neglected single income families with dependent children. Arguably, they have been the biggest winners of all.

JOURNALIST:

Anything for Carol in the next budget?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I can't talk about the next budget.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, it's 27 minutes past nine. You're about to leave the 891 studios and go to the sub corp.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, I am going to inspect one of the Collins Class, HMAS Waller, one of the Collins Class submarines, and they've got a new torpedo delivery system, which I am told is state of the art. I am going to have it explained to me. I think they might even allow me to pretend I have got something to do with rendering it operational. But I am told, and I have no doubt that this is correct; the Navy wouldn't tell me otherwise, I am told that this is state of the art and will really put the Australian Collins Class submarines, which have had a very chequered history at a very...very much at the leading edge of all of these things.

JOURNALIST:

They haven't got a red button for you to push have they? I always worry about that.

PRIME MINISTER:

No, they're far too wise to give me a red button, Matt. Very dangerous.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, and just quickly, on David Hicks, are you proud of what happened there in terms of the plea bargain because there must have been quite a major behind the scenes role by the Federal Government in achieving that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we had wanted, as you know, this matter to be brought to finality. Our concern was not that he was going to be tried before the Military Commission. I defended the Military Commission process. I know a lot of people attacked it, but I defended it and we thought we got some major concessions that put it more or less on a par with what might happen in a civilian court. But our worry was that it had taken too long. Now...

JOURNALIST:

Do you think he got off lightly in the end though?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well he effectively got six years. He didn't get nine months. I mean people are running around saying he's only got nine months. Now, incidentally, many of the people that are saying that, are the people that have said he shouldn't have got anything, the people who said he should have been brought back to Australia in full knowledge he couldn't be charged with anything in Australia. So I find the reaction of people, and I have to include the South Australian Premier in this, I mean the South Australian Attorney General joined with all the other Labor Attorneys General demanding that Hicks be brought home. I can remember seeing all of them lined up on television after they had had a meeting with Major

Mori. They weren't arguing for a sentence, they were arguing for him not appearing before the Military Commission. And for Mr Rann to now turn around and say oh I am worried about the safety of the South Australian public is just rank hypocrisy. Look, people wanted this matter resolved, it's been resolved. Whenever there is a plea bargain in the American system, there is always a lesser sentence. I mean that is the nature of a plea bargain. You plead guilty and you receive, perhaps, a lesser sentence than you would have received if you would have been found guilty. You trade off the guilty plea against the lesser sentence. Now that has been the situation for time immemorial. There is noting unusual about that and for people to...

JOURNALIST:

Even in saying that.

PRIME MINISTER:

What?

JOURNALIST:

And I know he's had five years in a hell hole I suppose, but do you reckon he has got off lightly?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well Matt...

JOURNALIST:

Because I thought the signal we got was this guy was a terrorist, that he...

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no, well he trained, look he will forever be seen correctly as a self confessed supporter of Al Qaeda, the terrorist organisation that orchestrated the attack on the World Trade Center, and the terrorist organisation linked to people with like sympathies in Indonesia that was responsible for the attack on Bali which claimed 88 Australian lives. So I don't mince my words in saying that. Now he trained with them. I am not saying that he took part in either of those attacks, I am not saying that, because plainly he didn't. But he was sympathetic towards and trained with that organisation. There was never any doubt in my mind that that allegation was correct. He has now admitted it. He effectively will serve some six years for that. Now given that he pleaded guilty and given the way that plea bargains operate in

the United States; they operate under a different name in Australia, but effectively the same mechanism is engaged. This sort of thing does happen a great deal. I am pleased that the matter has been resolved. I have never seen him as a hero. I have always thought that some of the concern about him has been misplaced. I did understand the feeling of many people that no matter what had been alleged against him he was entitled to a day in court. He's had his day in court. He's pleaded guilty. He is a self-confessed supporter of Al Qaeda and he effectively will have served six years and from my point of view, I think the matter rests.

JOURNALIST:

Now on a happier note and a closing note, because you do have to head off to the sub corp, but you're about to become a grandfather. Melanie is expecting.

PRIME MINISTER:

Melanie, our daughter is having a baby in September and we're very pleased. We're very happy, it will be our very first grandchild and we're looking forward to the event and we're very happy for her.

JOURNALIST:

Now courtesy of the skilful knitters of Adelaide, including the Childhood Cancer Association, these are some Adelaide Crows booties.

PRIME MINISTER:

The baby's father, I have got to tell you, is a great supporter of the game they play in heaven, rugby union.

JOURNALIST:

Rugby union.

PRIME MINISTER:

But I am sure he will like these nonetheless.

JOURNALIST:

They're Adelaide Crows booties, so that's suitable for a boy or a girl.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you.

JOURNALIST:

And they're knitted by the women of Adelaide.

PRIME MINISTER:

That's very nice.

JOURNALIST:

And that's a little baby beanie with an ABC logo on it, and my wife stitched that on last night.

PRIME MINISTER:

Tell her thank you. That's lovely.

JOURNALIST:

We like to get them early at the ABC.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, very good, okay. Well Matt and David, thank you.

JOURNALIST:

And we do wish you the best. It's a lovely thing to be a grandad and have a baby, it's beautiful.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you, and a happy Easter.

JOURNALIST:

Same to you, thank you very much.

PRIME MINISTER:

A very peaceful and safe Easter to all of your listeners. Please, please drive carefully over Easter, it's very important.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, thank you for coming into the studio.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you.

[ends]