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Prime Minister discusses trust fund for court actions against One Nation; health funding; and funding for Murray-Darling Basin.

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Thursday, 28 August 2003



LINDA MOTTRAM: First this morning, Tony Abbott has given his explanation about what he meant when the told One Nation dissident, Terry Sharples, that Mr Sharples wouldn't be out of pocket through his court actions against One Nation. Mr Abbott says it didn't amount to offering him money. Mr Abbott also says he didn't lie on his ABC Four Corners interview back in 1998 when he said no funds had been offered to Terry Sharples.


But what impact is all of this having on the standing of One Nation? Well, writing in the Australian newspaper this morning, Peter Coleman a trustee of Australians for Honest Politics, the fund set up by Tony Abbott, says that until this week One Nation was a spent force but this focus on Mr Abbott's activities will revive Pauline Hanson's fallen fortunes.


Well, the Prime Minister John Howard has given his full endorsement to Tony Abbott. To discuss these issues and tomorrow's Premiers' Conference we are joined in our Canberra studio by Mr Howard who is speaking to our chief political correspondent, Catherine McGrath.


CATHERINE McGRATH: Mr Howard, Good morning.


Tony Abbott said last night that in 1998 he thought it was very important that the One Nation 'juggernaut', he called it, be stopped. Did you think that back then?


JOHN HOWARD: Catherine, can we just cut to the chase on this whole thing. Five years ago everybody knew about Tony Abbott's activities—the Labor Party knew about it, they knew about the fund, they knew about Coleman and Wheeldon. And it is the height of hypocrisy for the Labor Party now to turn around and say: outrageous; shocking new disclosure; slush fund revealed. They knew about it and they remained silent about it; more than that, I believe they secretly endorsed, and on occasions not so secretly, what Tony Abbott was doing.


See, the real hypocrisy of this, Catherine, is that for five years the view of the Labor Party, and many sections of the media, has been that I was too soft on Hanson. People said I should have gone after One Nation even more. Now, they are criticising Tony Abbott, and by implication, me, for having gone after One Nation. Now, you can't have anything that justifies Peter Costello's great description that 'hypocrisy, thy name is Labor', than that.


CATHERINE McGRATH: Can we go back to 1998.


JOHN HOWARD: But I have gone back to 1998.


CATHERINE McGRATH: You, have, you have.


JOHN HOWARD: But I think it is necessary to go back to '98.


My view, Catherine, is that One Nation failed politically for two reasons. It failed because it had no solutions to Australia's challenges. You can always awaken discontent in people, you can always complain, but in the end the average Australian demands of all political leaders that they offer solutions. And I think Pauline Hanson failed politically, firstly, because she offered no solutions and, secondly, the party was wracked by chronic internal wrangles and disputes. And any political party that continues to manifest that, over a period of years, is going to lose support.


CATHERINE McGRATH: Can I ask you, though, going back to that initial question—Tony Abbott said the juggernaut should be stopped. Did you think that too?


JOHN HOWARD: Well, I thought One Nation should be exposed politically. I believe that it was perfectly legitimate to pursue a belief, as Tony did, that there was something improper or invalid about the party's registration. But that was in no way the prosecution for a criminal offence of Pauline Hanson.


CATHERINE McGRATH: I just want to focus on what your thoughts were, if I could.


JOHN HOWARD: No, no, no, … I think it is important. Because what the Labor Party has been saying, by implication. And Craig Emerson has used these words—'that Tony Abbott sought the prosecution'. I saw him say that. Now he knows, you know, and your listeners know, that prosecution is something related to a crime; it is not related to a civil action. You sue for damages or you apply for something in a civil action. You don't have to be a lawyer to know that; we all know that.


CATHERINE McGRATH: Tony Abbott was involved in a civil action.


JOHN HOWARD: Yes, but he was in … no politician is in any way responsible for Pauline Hanson being in jail: Tony Abbott is not; Peter Beattie is not; I am not; Kim Beazley is not; Simon Crean is not. So that was done independently and the question of what now happens is a matter for the appeal process.


CATHERINE McGRATH: So can I ask you, though, if you thought back then that One Nation should be exposed politically, when you read it in the media in late 1998 that Tony Abbott had set this up, and when he disclosed it formally to you, what did you think? Did you think: good on you, Tony, that's the way to go?


JOHN HOWARD: I knew that he was pursuing it … but Catherine—


CATHERINE McGRATH: But what did you think about it? What did you think about it?


JOHN HOWARD: Catherine, I had a lot of things to think about then. I was trying to remake Australia's taxation system, I was trying to make sure that we weathered the onslaught of the Asian economic crisis, I was worried about jobs for people, and I was worried about a burgeoning difficulty in East Timor with Indonesia. I think it was the end of 1998 that I may have written a now famous letter to the then President Habibi. So I had a lot of other things on my mind. I mean, let's keep a sense of perspective: this wasn't the most important thing on my radar screen.


CATHERINE McGRATH: No, I am not suggesting it was. I guess I am just giving you an opportunity to explain to our audience who'd probably like to know. Did you think: good on you, Tony?


JOHN HOWARD: Look, Catherine, Tony was pursuing this. I was broadly aware of what he was doing; it was in the papers. And for the Labor Party or anybody in the media to now turn around and say that this is a dramatic new revelation that demands explanation—I mean, that is really tears of vernacular—give us a break.


CATHERINE McGRATH: I am trying to focus in on you really rather than the matter, and to get—


JOHN HOWARD: Yes, I gathered that. I am quite aware of that.


CATHERINE McGRATH: I guess people would like to know what you thought: that this was really going to … for example, Peter Coleman says this morning that one of the problems was that the more you argued against One Nation the stronger they became and the backlash was very strong so fighting them this way could really do them some damage. Do you agree?


JOHN HOWARD: Well, Catherine, in fact one of the criticisms that was made of me at the time was that I didn't attack them enough. One of the reasons I didn't attack them a lot was precisely that. And I think the judgment and the vindication of time and history is that that approach was correct. But I recognise that there a lot of people in the community, and amongst the commentariat (sic) who didn't agree with me and criticised me for it, and hold it against me, and so I think there was a range of views even in my own party as to how to deal with this.




JOHN HOWARD: Let me finish … an important issue, historically and both now.


A range of people in my own party may have disagreed. But that only underlines the fact of how hypocritical it is for people to now turn around and in effect say: you attacked them too much. I mean, you can't have it both ways, can you?


CATHERINE McGRATH: And further to that you explaining that you stood back a little bit for that reason, did you also—


JOHN HOWARD: No, 'stood back' is your word. I just stand by what I describe as my reactions.


CATHERINE McGRATH: But did you also, to some extent, feel this involvement of Tony Abbott will have some effect as well?


JOHN HOWARD: Catherine, it's five years ago. I had a lot of things—


CATHERINE McGRATH: But you must have had a thought about that?


JOHN HOWARD: Look, Catherine, a lot of thoughts, and I have given you a lot of them. Let's move on to something else.


CATHERINE McGRATH: Can we talk, just to finish off this issue and then move on to health and the water issues.


On the question of honesty, when Tony Abbott did that interview it was before the trust was set up, it was before things were made public, it was in 1998, and he was asked whether there were ever any party funds or other funds being offered to Terry Sharples. He said, 'Absolutely not'.


JOHN HOWARD: Yes, I've seen that.


CATHERINE McGRATH: Now, is that a complete answer?


JOHN HOWARD: Look, Catherine, I am not going to re-debate what was debated between Kerry O'Brien and Tony Abbott last night for 15 minutes of the 7.30 Report . Tony has given his explanation. I've always found him to be an honest person. I do take his point that you can draw a very clear distinction between a direct offer of money and saying to someone, particularly where pro bono lawyers are involved, 'you're not going to be out of pocket'. Now, that's his view and I have always found Tony very straight up and down bloke. In fact one of the criticisms of Tony Abbott is he is too upfront.


CATHERINE McGRATH: This moves on to the wider issue that has been discussed for many months in this country about the honesty of the government: information given over issues, children overboard, over ethanol et cetera, et cetera.


Now, can I ask you whether you think, in terms of the issue of whether complete answers are given. Are complete answers given to the public if the public want to know answers?


JOHN HOWARD: Catherine, I have always striven to be very open and direct with the public. There are occasions where, in the interests of security and where there is a legitimate national interest involved, it is not possible to be other than very non-committal. As far as the question of weapons of mass destruction are concerned, which is one of the issues cited, I simply rest my case. Everything we said on that was consistent with the intelligence assessments we have received, and I think people should await the completion of the Iraq Survey Group's work before jumping to hasty conclusions about that.


CATHERINE McGRATH: Now, you know, you're very aware that there is public opinion about the honesty of politicians on both sides—and not only your government but governments previously. Now, if for example—I want to give this example because it gets to the core really of what we are talking about.


JOHN HOWARD: Is it a real example or is it a manufactured one?


CATHERINE McGRATH: Well, it is actually a manufactured one but let me ask it and we—


JOHN HOWARD: Now, hang on, hang on, this is silly, Catherine. I mean this is a waste—

CATHERINE McGRATH: What I want to ask you about is—


JOHN HOWARD: I am sorry, I am sorry. You said you want to ask me something that you admitted was manufactured. Now, come on, where do we end?


CATHERINE McGRATH: Well, what I want to ask you about is full answers. What I want to put to you, Prime Minister, is—


JOHN HOWARD: This is not serious journalism to ask me something you admit is manufactured. I don't really think you should ask me manufactured questions.


CATHERINE McGRATH: If you meet someone in the street and they expect to get a full answer from the Prime Minister—


JOHN HOWARD: Catherine, this is silly.


CATHERINE McGRATH: Well, Prime Minister, can I ask you this—


JOHN HOWARD: If you have a serious real question to ask me I'll answer it otherwise I think we ought to move on to something that your listeners are interested in.


CATHERINE McGRATH: Well, I just want to ask you this question. If someone was asking someone if they donate money to the Salvation Army, for example, and this person doesn't donate money but donates their time—is that a full answer?


JOHN HOWARD: I know what that is related to. It is related to a reprise of the debate between O'Brien and Abbott last night. I have already indicated I don't have anything to add to that.


CATHERINE McGRATH: Well, I think our listeners might want to know what a full answer is, on the general issues, Prime Minister.


JOHN HOWARD: Catherine, I have already indicated I don't have anything to add to that, and I don't think you should waste the time of your listeners with manufactured questions. I wish you wouldn't manufacture things.


CATHERINE McGRATH: I wanted to give you that opportunity to discuss that.


Prime Minister, if we can move on to the issues of health and water. On the health issue, the ACT has signed the agreement; the others are refusing to sign still. The New South Wales government is indicating that it is going to take a very strong line. There is a front page story in the Sydney Morning Herald today about a cancer patient having to drive back to Tumut because her operation can't go ahead. The New South Wales government is going to hold a press conference in the Prince Alfred Emergency Ward this morning highlighting this issue. It's a real problem for a lot of people. This is the real barbeque stopper, isn't it, a health issue.


JOHN HOWARD: Well, of course it is.


CATHERINE McGRATH: Is there going to be a resolution?


JOHN HOWARD: Well, Catherine, let's deal with the facts. The first fact is that the hospitals in New South Wales are owned and operated and controlled by the New South Wales government; the federal government has no role in their operation. And the question of whether beds are available or operations can be performed is the responsibility of the hospital authorities and the New South Wales government—that's the first fact.


The second fact is that over the last five years the states collectively have reduced their share of the funding of their own hospitals, and we have increased our contribution. We contributed more over the last five years to the operation of the states' hospitals than they did.


The third fact is that for the next five years we have offered a funding increase of 17 per cent over and above inflation—a $10 billion increase—and the states have said it is not enough.


CATHERINE McGRATH: Will they sign up by Sunday, do you think?


JOHN HOWARD: Hang on, just let me finish the facts and then I'll get to the speculation.


They have said that they want more, even though we have offered an increase of 17 per cent—and they are not even willing to promise their own patients that they will match our increase. Now, they are the facts.


Let me say to the states: one way or another—we can talk about health at Friday's meeting. I have indicated that. I think the agenda items that have been pre-agreed should be dealt with. I don't mind talking about health. We have made a generous offer but we have also made a final offer, and that should be understood.


I notice the ACT has signed up. The ACT said they got major concessions from the Commonwealth—will improve the number of GPs; improve our after-hour GP access; improve the operation of our hospitals by freeing up hospitals beds et cetera.


Well, can I say to the other states—those sorts of deals are available under our offer but you've got to sign up to get the benefit of those deals.


CATHERINE McGRATH: If we can move on to the water issue. You are offering $125 million to be matched by the three states. Are you going to reach agreement, do you think?


JOHN HOWARD: Well, that's in relation to the Murray. I hope so. It's a big offer, and it is proportionate to what the Commonwealth contributes to the Murray-Darling Basin Agreement. It hasn't been plucked out of the air. It's got some history to it and it is proportionate but, more importantly, I hope we can reach agreement on a national system for recognising, and that will lead in time to the trading of water rights around the country based upon the principle that if you take somebody's property right away then there has to be reasonable compensation. Our officials have done an enormous amount of work on this. And the big news that could come out of COAG on Friday would be an historic agreement on water.


Health is important, but in the end it is an argument about funding. The water thing is very much an argument about the future of water in this arid continent of ours, and if we can rise above political differences, together, on Friday and reach agreement on water, I think the Australian people will say the Federation works. This is a big test for the Federation because property rights are the province of the states. We have a role as the national government but we have to pool our sovereignty and deliver something for the nation.


CATHERINE McGRATH: Prime Minister, thanks for your time this morning.


JOHN HOWARD: Thank you.


LINDA MOTTRAM: The Prime Minister John Howard in our Canberra studio, with our chief political correspondent, Catherine McGrath.