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Opposition Leader discusses Iraq; opinion polls; leadership; and Health Ministers' meeting.



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LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION

TRANSCRIPT 0F INTERVIEW - JOHN LAWS, RADIO 2UE SYDNEY

E & OE - PROOF ONLY

Subjects: Iraq, Polls, Leadership, Health Ministers meeting

LAWS: Simon, good morning and welcome.

CREAN: Good morning, John. How are you?

LAWS: What’s your reaction to our United Nations ambassador’s address this morning - which must have had the approval of John Howard?

CREAN: Yes, well I’m worried about it. I mean, it’s a two week deadline in circumstances in which, on what we’ve been told by the Security Council will not get past. It’s also true that the second Blix report that came out on Saturday said that there was no basis for military action against Iraq at this stage. In other words, let the weapons inspectors continue to do their job.

The Security Council clearly has to determine what to do off the back of that Blix report. But I think a two week time limit is too short and it’s a resolution therefore that would be seen destined to failure. And one has to question the motives of the Australians in putting forward in those circumstances.

LAWS: What do you believe the motive is?

CREAN: Well maybe it is a stalking horse for the United States so that it does present a trigger in circumstances in which they’ve already predetermined to go in without Security Council resolution. That would be a huge worry and if Australia is complicit in that, that is a damaging position for Australia to put itself in. But, I would like to know why the Government is saying `two weeks and two weeks only’ against the background of the Blix report last weekend which clearly said progress was being made and we need more time.

LAWS: How much time do you think is needed?

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CREAN: That again is a matter for the Security Council. After all, this thing has been going on for twelve years, John, as you know. There has been containment of Saddam Hussein. He hasn’t used the weapons of mass destruction, we know he has them and he has to disarm of them because the United Nations has determined that. But in the circumstances where they haven’t been used, where the weapons inspectors are identifying and reporting - I would have thought the smart thing to do, the sensible thing to do was to continue to let the weapons inspectors do their job. We want to achieve the disarmament of Iraq by peaceful means, not by war. And that’s the stark choice.

LAWS: Do you really think it’s not past that time?

CREAN: No I don’t think it’s past that time, I don’t believe it’s passed that time at all. And for those that argue that the only solution at the moment is war are sending us down a very dangerous path. The United Nations has not determined that position, maybe the US has and Australia is so locked in that we can’t get away from it. But, I think it is a very worrying dimension that a two week timetable is being put forward by Australia. This is a matter that the Security Council has to consider in the light of all of the information that the Blix report has handed to them.

LAWS: So, do you believe that our representative to the United Nations, urged by our Prime Minister, is doing George Bush’s bidding?

CREAN: Well that’s one interpretation that can be put on it, John. I think that the two week timetable, the two week timetable from what we know from Security Council members will not get up. So why is Australia putting it forward?

LAWS: You don’t believe that the UN will agree to action being taken against Iraq?

CREAN: I’m saying that the UN Security Council has to determine Saddam Hussein’s position in relation to resolution 1441. And that resolution is a very strong resolution. It was carried unanimously.

LAWS: Do you believe Saddam Hussein?

CREAN: In relation to what? That he doesn’t have the weapons of mass destruction? No I don’t. I believe that he has got them. The Security Council believes he’s got them. The real issue is how do you disarm him of them? Can you do it through the diplomatic processes - which I say are the one’s that have to be exhausted - or do you just go to war? And I’m against just going to war in the current circumstances.

LAWS: Well so am I. I think John Howard is against going to war.

CREAN: Well the trouble is though is that because John Howard is part of the Coalition of the Willing if the US decides to go to war we’re locked in.

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LAWS: Well I don’t know that it’s fair to say that we’re part of the Coalition of the Willing, that was the statement used by George W Bush who’s now taken to using extraordinary phraseology and just happened to include - did you watch the look on the Prime Minister’s face when he said it? I don’t think the Prime Minister was all that happy with the comment.

CREAN: Well, you know the words were `yes I do’. It’s like the marriage proposal - `Will you be prepared to come to war with us? Yes I do’. This is what George Bush said after John Howard and he had a very close personal relationship and discussion in the White House. When George Bush was asked, `Do you count Australia as part of the coalition of the willing’, George Bush said yes I do. It’s a marriage proposal put and responded to.

LAWS: But John Howard didn’t respond to it. John Howard looked, I thought, my opinion only, looked very uncomfortable when George Bush said `yes I do’. And George Bush hurriedly put the proviso on it that that’s up to John.

CREAN: Why do you think he looked uncomfortable? Because George Bush was telling the truth and John Howard wasn’t. You can make your own assessments of this John…

LAWS: Well that’s why I think we need to talk about it but I mean, are you actually saying that our Prime Minister’s a liar?

CREAN: I’m saying he hasn’t been truthful with the Australian public.

LAWS: Well what’s the difference?

CREAN: Well that’s the terminology that you use, I don’t use that term, I simply say he hasn’t been truthful with the Australian public in the same way as he wasn’t truthful with the troops on the Kanimbla. Why did they wait to give the Anthrax injections until they left Australia? There is just a litany of evidence here, John, that the Australian Prime Minister has said no commitment is being made. I don’t believe him, I don’t believe the Australian people believe him and the cat was let out of the bag when George Bush confirmed in his view, George Bush’s view, Australia was part of the Coalition of the Willing. How could he come to that conclusion unless he had had the discussion with the Prime Minister?

LAWS: Well, he could have assumed it, I suppose. But these are semantics.

CREAN: No, it’s more than semantics, it’s a huge assumption. It was a critical question and it does go to the credibility of our Prime Minister.

LAWS: Okay, could you tell me how would our Prime Minister be advantaged by us being that close to the United States and simply going to war because they did?

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CREAN: Well I think this is the strange conclusion that our Prime Minister has come to, that he believes he’s got to support the US come what may. I don’t have the same view. I do have a very strong commitment to the Australia-US alliance. But that doesn’t mean you have to go along with everything they say. A strong partner means you’ve got the courage to actually say to them `I don’t agree with the way you’re going, this is the way we should go’. It’s also true, John, that Article 1 of the Australia-US alliance says international conflict should be resolved through the United Nations. Why aren’t we pushing that? I’d be interested in you asking John Howard, when you get him on the program next, why isn’t he applying Article 1 of the Australian-US alliance when it comes to our special relationship?

LAWS: Well, why do you believe he’s not?

CREAN: Because I think that he’s signed up, he committed, he made some sort of commitment some time ago back in the middle of last year. I can’t put a precise date to it, I’ve tried to put the evidence out in the parliament about this.

LAWS: Do you think that…

CREAN: We’ve got a preparedness to go with the US if they determined action was needed. Now, the correct path should have been to say to the US we have to deal with this collectively, not unilaterally. If we’re to get disarmament, if we’re to get world order, peace and security and all the things we want, it has to be part of a collective decision making process not a unilateral one - and the vehicle for that is the United Nations.

LAWS: Well, given that our representative to the United Nations, our ambassador, John Dauth, has made the statement this morning - isn’t that indicative of the fact that the Prime Minister is taking the diplomatic line?

CREAN: He’s going through the diplomatic channels now. I think it’s the wrong resolution to put forward by Australia given what we know the Security Council members have been saying and given what the Blix report is. But can I also make the point, John, yes they’re going through the United Nations now, but they’ve been dragged to it. It’s not where John Howard started.

LAWS: Oh no, I agree with that.

CREAN: In the middle of the year he was not going the UN route. I’ve been arguing consistently since April that we have to go through the United Nations. John Howard’s become a recent convert to it. And by the way…

LAWS: But isn’t it better late than never?

CREAN: Well yes, but how, again you’ve got to judge his actions. When the first Blix report came out he embraced it, he said it was a terrific report because it supported strong action. When the second report came out asking give us more

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time he bagged it. You’ve got to be consistent in this, John, and I don’t believe the Prime Minister has been consistent in his view of the role of the United Nations. He has been consistent about his support for the US under any circumstance and that’s the wrong course for Australia to be going down.

LAWS: Do you, feel you’ve gone to far in questioning America’s position on this?

CREAN: No I don’t. I have consistently said to the Ambassador directly, and to, in all of the discussions that I’ve had in Washington with American colleagues over there in the state department etcetera, I’ve consistently said I support the alliance, but that doesn’t mean that we will automatically support action that you take against Iraq. The case has to be made. That’s what a strong ally says. And that’s what I’ve consistently argued to them and will continue to argue. The strength of the alliance is in partners being prepared to be open, honest and challenge each other, not just agree.

LAWS: What do you believe are George Bush’s motives?

CREAN: Well, George Bush’s motives are clearly to disarm Iraq but has a belief that the only way it can be done is by force, is by war, is by attack.

LAWS: Okay, but what’s his motive for wanting to disarm? Is it a humanitarian motive? Is it an avaricious motive?

CREAN: I’ve not heard the humanitarian motive ever argued. I, in a sense, don’t know what his motive is because I think there have been some conflicting statements from time to time. But what we do know is that he believes the only course of action is war. I think he’s wrong in that regard and I will argue that he is wrong in that regard. And I continue to make the point that the United Nations still is the only vehicle now by which the disarmament of Iraq can occur by peaceful means.

LAWS: Okay, and if the United…

CREAN: If we want the peaceful outcome the United Nations is the cart to be on, not the United States.

LAWS: Okay, but then if the United Nations say, well there’s no alternative, you’ll have to go and do this by force do you then accept that? Do you then agree and would you accept the fact that we should then be involved?

CREAN: I do, and I’ve consistently said that. You can’t have it both ways. And this is what I was prepared to go to the rally in Brisbane and say where I was invited to go and speak. I wasn’t going to get up there and just adopt the populist route that says no war under any circumstances. I am a passionate believer in Australia’s national security interests lying in strengthening the hand of the United Nations to resolve international conflict. If you go down that path you can’t say you

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back the UN and aren’t prepared to then back decisions that it takes to enforce its mandate.

LAWS: So really, how far apart are all of us on this? I mean, I believe, I would prefer that there to be no war under any circumstances. But I believe that if the United Nations says there is no alternative and the Americans decide that they must do it then I believe we’ve got to be with the Americans and I believe that we’ve got to accept that decision brought down by the United Nations. I’d prefer it not to happen but wouldn’t the Prime Minister prefer it not to happen? So aren’t we all in the same boat? Don’t we all think the same thing?

CREAN: We all say that’s what we prefer, but there are three positions. There are people who take the view that there should be no war under any circumstances, I’m not in that cart. But I believe I’m in the second cart that says `do it through the United Nations’ but importantly, the United Nations is the vehicle by which we can achieve a peaceful outcome. John Howard is signed up to the cart as part of the coalition of the willing that says regardless of what the United Nations does we’re going to war. That is the dangerous position for Australia to be in. And I hope that the demonstrations over the weekend have convinced the Prime Minister to move back from the third cart to the second cart. That’s where we can get a unanimous position in. That’s where we can get bipartisan position in this country - it won’t be unanimous - we can get bipartisan support in this country for getting the resolution of international conflict through a collective decision making not a US-led unilateral decision.

LAWS: I’ve never heard the Prime Minister say we will go to war with or without a sanction by the United Nations.

CREAN: You haven’t heard him say it, but you’ve heard George Bush say he counts John Howard in the Coalition of the Willing.

LAWS: Yes, you’re placing a lot on that. It was George Bush that said that.

CREAN: Well, it’s not just me that’s placing a lot on it, John. A lot of other people do.

LAWS: I don’t think you and the Prime Minister are all that far apart on it.

CREAN: Well, I think we are. He supports unilateral action led by the US …

LAWS: He’s never said that.

CREAN: He supports unilateral action led by the US. I don’t. And I think on your …

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LAWS: But he said that he …

CREAN: No, on your program …

LAWS: He’s never said …

CREAN: … even when you put the question to him, if …

LAWS: Yes, he wouldn’t answer it.

CREAN: He wouldn’t answer it. Well, you asked him specifically, from memory, ‘If the United States decides to go it alone without the UN Security Council, will you withdraw our troops?’, and he wouldn’t answer it.

LAWS: No, he wouldn’t answer it.

CREAN: Well, you know, I just say, John, this is more of the circumstantial evidence. He’s very clever with his words, John Howard - always covers his bases and won’t be drawn on a direct answer. But just look at the evidence that’s been mounting up over the course of the last couple of weeks.

LAWS: Okay, quickly onto other things. As you say, thousands of people marched against the war at the weekend. Why are you having trouble converting that sentiment into support among your voters? I can’t believe it, and you’ve taken a fair belting by some of your own people in the press today.

CREAN: Well, that’s the job of the Opposition Leader, isn’t it. Look, it’s a tough job, John. I don’t resile from that and I knew it was going to be a hard slog over the three years.

LAWS: It’s pretty tough when your own people are saying you’re living on borrowed time, no resurrection is likely.

CREAN: The same usual suspects. They’ve been saying it from the beginning, disgruntled people. You have to live with that. I don’t like it, I have to be honest about it. I wish they’d not only shut up - if they had the courage to actually say it to me, I’d have more respect for them. But they don’t say it to my face, and I am one of those people that does believe that if you have a disagreement, if you have an argument, if you have a point of view, say it to people directly. The worst of the cowards hide behind anonymity and get their line up in the papers.

LAWS: Tell me about that! Do you know who these people are?

CREAN: I’ve got my suspicions as to who they are, but I’m not going to name names. I just say to them, have the courage to say it directly. Otherwise, just shut up. But let’s get on with the task. I’ll tell you the other thing, John, is that every Opposition Leader goes through the circumstances in which they have a

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bad poll. This one, interestingly, coincides with the Prime Minister also having a bad poll. His popularity, his approval rating has slumped dramatically over the last four weeks. The interesting thing about the poll is there was no bounce to any political party. The Greens didn’t get a vote increase, Labor didn’t, and neither did the Liberals. People are …

LAWS: Well, the only thing that went up was your dissatisfaction rating, I’m sorry to say.

CREAN: Well, John Howard’s disapproval rating went up significantly. His disapproval - it’s gone up 17%, his disapproval rating.

LAWS: What did yours go up?

CREAN: I think it was 6 or 8 - 6, I think it was.

LAWS: Yes, anyway, let’s not talk about the polls. Finally, because we have talked for a very long time …

CREAN: John, can I just make the point. It’s a long haul. It’s a

marathon, not a sprint, John. I’m not going to be deterred by one opinion poll. I’m going to stick to my guns.

LAWS: Do you think he might call an early election?

CREAN: There is a lot of speculation about that. I think the important statement yesterday was that he intends to stay to fight the next election. That must have come as a bit of a shock to Peter Costello, and he is certainly using the war to get over what people believed he was going to do and that was retire in the middle of the year. I might say also this talk of war is clouding some pretty

significant issues, John - health, for example. The Federal Health Minister is not turning up at a meeting with State Health Ministers on Friday.

LAWS: Why?

CREAN: Because she is arrogant. She doesn’t believe that this is an issue that matters in the electorate, because no one is talking about it. You can’t get up on these issues while the war is talking. This is the Government - arrogant and out of touch. But you know as well as I do that we are not going to solve the health issues in this country unless we’ve got Federal and State Governments working together.

LAWS: True.

CREAN: For the Federal Minister not to turn up is an outrage. She should be told by the Prime Minister to turn up and attend the meeting.

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LAWS: She says they’re money-grubbing, or something. Anyway, we’ve got to go. You’ve been very generous with your time. But just, in finality, if the UN gives the go-ahead for war, you will support the UN?

CREAN: I will back the UN in terms of enforcing its resolution. If there is a decision by the UN that requires action, then Labor will back that. But the opportunity clearly still remains to avoid the war. And the only way to avoid the war is through the United Nations. That’s why I argue we’ve got to get behind the United Nations, but it can’t be a half-hearted approach to the United Nations. If you’re in there backing the United Nations, you’ve got to be prepared to back its decisions as well.

LAWS: Okay, thank you very much for your time, Simon Crean. Always interesting to talk to you.

CREAN: Thanks very much, John.

LAWS: And I hope you weather the storm, and I hope we can all do without a war.

CREAN: I’ll weather the storm, and I’ll desperately ensure that we avoid the war - as much as I can.

LAWS: Yes, me too.

(ends)