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Prime Minister discusses an apology to the Stolen Generation; interest rates; mandatory sentencing; the tax package; and Kosovar refugees.



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7 April 2000

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER

THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP

RADIO INTERVIEW WITH NEIL MITCHELL, RADIO 3AW E&EO…………………………………………………………………………………..

Subjects: Stolen children; interest rates; mandatory sentencing; tax package; Kosovar refugees

MITCHELL:

In our Sydney studio, the Prime Minister Mr Howard. Good morning.

PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning Neil.

MITCHELL:

Would you rather coach St Kilda?

PRIME MINISTER:

(inaudible)

MITCHELL:

You’ve said you’re sorry for any hurt caused by the Government commission on the stolen generation will you now agree to a formal apology from the parliament?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no they’re quite different things.

MITCHELL:

Why?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well because the report is a report of a submission and a submission of my Government.

MITCHELL:

That was a calculated use of the word sorry yesterday though wasn’t it?

PRIME MINISTER:

No it was genuine.

MITCHELL:

Oh, I don’t doubt it was genuine; it was calculated. I mean Senator Herron used the same language.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well interestingly enough we hadn’t liased…

MITCHELL:

Really?

PRIME MINISTER:

… about our responses in the Parliament, no.

MITCHELL:

So there was no agreement to use the word sorry?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well certainly not. I certainly had no discussion with him. When I was asked the question I just decided to give that answer. Now you may find that strange but I don’t think it was anything odd. If you have a report prepared in good faith which contains a factual analysis. You put it in without any malign intent and then some people are offended by that well what’s wrong with saying sorry about that? I mean it’s in relation to an act of the Government, today’s Government and it’s a perfectly natural thing if some people are offended to say well we didn’t mean to offend you, there was no malign intent; it was prepared in good faith, it hasn’t really been you know seriously disputed on a factual basis. Some people were offended by it and I’m sorry about that and I say to those people, to those of my fellow Australians that may have been, that wasn’t the intention and there was no malign intent, we weren’t trying to play wedge politics. I didn’t want the headlines in some papers of the last few days, the last week.

MITCHELL:

But clearly, you would have been conscious of use of the word ‘sorry’ in this environment?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well Neil it’s the sort of thing I say… I mean anything I have done or I’ve been directly associated with that’s offended somebody, it’s a perfectly human thing to say I’m sorry. If I interrupt you unreasonably I might say I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to do that and that’s just part of the language. I think we’re getting too hung up. We’re getting absolutely so focused on a word or an expression we are losing a sense of proportion. We’re talking here about the impact on some people of a document prepared in good faith in response to a Senate Committee request. The formal national apology relates to an entirely different thing.

MITCHELL:

OK but…

PRIME MINISTER:

It asks the current generation to accept formal responsibilities for the deeds of an early generation and that raises a whole lot of other considerations and the Government’s position on that has been repeated on numerous occasions and it hasn’t changed.

MITCHELL:

So there’s no change on that? The head of ATSIC, Geoff Clarke and a number of other Aboriginal leaders have said what you and Senator Herron have said is not enough, you should go further with a formal apology.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don’t agree with that. I think it’s perfectly proper and desirable and reasonable for us to say what we have said in relation to the unintended impact of that document…

MITCHELL:

Was the document…

PRIME MINISTER:

… which was our document.

MITCHELL:

Was the document accurate?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it was prepared in the indigenous affairs branch of my department and on the best information available to Senator Herron when he oversaw its preparation, it was.

MITCHELL:

Do you stand by it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh, I stand by the document, yes.

MITCHELL:

So you apologise for its impact but not for its content?

PRIME MINISTER:

I apologise if it had any personal impact on anybody but I haven’t yet been persuaded that there’s material in it that’s inaccurate.

MITCHELL:

Was there a stolen generation?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well there were people… see we’re… we are now getting back to the debate that people are telling me is so divisive and in relation to any hurtful impact, I’ve said I’m sorry, yet we’re meant to go back to it. Well I’ll go back to it if you ask me the question. Clearly there were large numbers of people who were taken

away who shouldn’t have been forcibly removed, there’s no argument about that. There were also many children taken away in those days who would be taken in the same circumstances, away today because they weren’t being properly looked after. As to the magnitude and the implication which I think the submission was addressing, that an entire age cohort so to speak of people were taken well that’s what the document was addressing. Now I can’t put it any different way and I think we you know really are sort of churning over old ground in a quite unproductive fashion.

We didn’t set out to hurt anybody but equally there were features of that report that deserve criticism, that original report. For example there was nobody who was involved in the removal practices given an opportunity of appearing before the inquiry. There was no evidence taken from any of the people involved. There was reference in the context of the debate to the expression, the use of the expression ‘genocide.’ Now that is a wholly exaggerated wrong, the use of that expression. It wasn’t genocidal. It was clearly wrong and clearly unacceptable according to today’s standards but many of the people involved in those practices did not have any malign intent, they believed at the time that those practices were beneficial.

MITCHELL:

So the policies were well intentioned you’re saying?

PRIME MINISTER:

By many people, yes. Yes they were.

MITCHELL:

What about the policies themselves? Were they well intentioned?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well by today’s standards they’re not acceptable, at the time they had wide support.

MITCHELL:

That doesn’t mean they were well intentioned. Wasn’t it an attempt to delete the Aborigine blood?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well some people believe it was. Look Neil you know as well as I do that years ago we had a policy of assimilation in this country. Now that was practiced because those generations believed that that was the best thing. Today’s generation does not believe that’s the best thing. Today’s generation says that we should respect the separate cultural dignity of the indigenous people and I do, the Government does, most Australians today do but you have to remember that attitudes were different several generations ago or even thirty years ago so…

MITCHELL:

Have you accepted that what has happened has brought racial politics to Australia in a very strong sense?

PRIME MINISTER:

Not as far as the Government is concerned. I mean we have for example…

MITCHELL:

There has been some awful things happening this week. I mean Charles Perkins talking about violence.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think some people have gone overboard, I think their reaction has been bad but…

MITCHELL:

Is he one of them?

PRIME MINISTER:

I beg your pardon?

MITCHELL:

Is he one of them? Has he gone overboard?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think his remarks were well… look I don’t want to inflame the situation and you know that words uttered directly by Prime Minister’s are analysed. We’re all interested, I mean we can’t have it both ways… you can’t say it’s oh a shocking thing what’s happened this week and then set about sort of as it were adding more words to the debate and potentially exacerbating. I mean we are either serious about having a restrained, calm discussion or we want to inflame the situation by as much extravagant rhetoric as possible.

MITCHELL:

Or was it a shocking thing that happened this week?

PRIME MINISTER:

No I said people are saying it’s a shocking thing?

MITCHELL:

Do you think it was?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think… look there was nothing on the part of the Government designed to create racial politics or racial tension. I mean the charge has been made against us that we sort of did this deliberately as some kind of diversion, I mean that’s the most absurd proposition I’ve heard in years.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well who approved the submission?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well this submission was prepared in the indigenous affairs section of my department, which is the section that Senator Herron is serviced by as minister…

MITCHELL:

He signed off on it I suppose?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well Senator Herron signed off on it. It was at one… at a stage in its preparation it was shown to an adviser in my office and I myself did not know of the document’s existence until after it had been submitted to the Senate Inquiry.

MITCHELL:

It would seem you’d obviously prefer it had not released… not been presented in this…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well let me put it this way Neil, I’d have been happy not to have had the debate in the headlines of this week, of course.

MITCHELL:

So you’d rather it wasn’t presented in this way?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well Neil look I’m not going to walk away from a Minister who’s acted in good faith.

MITCHELL:

You’ve already said the document’s accurate (inaudible)…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I’ve indicated a number of things about its impact.

MITCHELL:

OK financial matters. Now there are strong arguments that the latest increase in interest rates effectively undermines the average Australian any benefit from the GST and statistically that seems a sound argument.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it’s not because it doesn’t take into account the interest cuts that have occurred over the last four years. It’s a bit rich for somebody to come along and say hey look under the tax reform plan we’re going to cut your tax by $30 but under these latest increases of the interest rates that’s halved by say $15 without also taking into account the sort of $40 or $50 cut in interest rates that’s already occurred. So if you’re going to include the interest rate rises you’ve got to include the interest rate cuts.

MITCHELL:

Well if it does there’d be a lot of people who just now would be signing up for these kind of interest rate agreements and they’re the ones who’ll be looking at their pay packet after the GST.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well there’ll be some but the great bulk of people, the great bulk of people, won’t be doing that, they’ve had mortgages for a number of years and they’re $250 a month better off on average.

MITCHELL:

But do you agree that it will remove most of the benefit that comes through?

PRIME MINISTER:

No I don’t agree it will remove most of the benefit because you’ve got to take into account the interest rate falls but in any event you have never seen tax cuts and interest rate adjustments as offsets. The Labor Party never provided any tax cuts to wipe out the impact of the 17% interest rates we had when Mr Keating was treasurer. I mean this is a ridiculous argument. First of all they selectively use the rises without including the falls and then they pretend there’s some law of economic management that says that every time there’s

an interest rate adjustment there’s got to be a corresponding tax adjustment. I mean that’s a ridiculous proposition. I mean in net terms you would have to ask people if they are better or worse off as a result of government policies.

MITCHELL:

Well, look that’s part of what I am saying. I mean if the people are saying to me, after the GST comes in they will not be better off because of the interest rate rise.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I say to those people that unless they are in . . . unless they’ve just taken out a mortgage, and in any event it will vary according to particular circumstance. Anybody who’s had a mortgage for say two years . . .

MITCHELL:

But Mr Howard they’re looking at balancing their budget in the week after the GST, they’re not worried about the history.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I am sorry. I mean you . . .

MITCHELL:

Through that period, they’re now looking at the previous . . .

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I understand that, but that doesn’t alter the fairness of the comparison.

MITCHELL:

OK, related matters, the dollar below 60 cents. I mean for the third time, one of those times was the banana republic statement, does that concern you?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don’t talk about the dollar.

MITCHELL:

Interest rate strategy working?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don’t know what you mean by the interest rate strategy.

MITCHELL:

Well, I mean part of the strategy was to prop up the dollar, wasn’t it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, that’s asking me in another way to talk about level of the dollar, I am not going to do so.

MITCHELL:

OK. Can we, I mean is there anyway you can talk about what the year ahead holds in terms of interest

rates? There is a degree of nervousness about further rises, do you think we’re at about the right level for the year, or not?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I can’t really do that without getting into the business of speculating or commenting on what the rate ought to be, I just can’t do that.

MITCHELL:

But the GST surely will put pressure on inflation and therefore interest rates.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, there will be a one off, short lived, however you describe it, inflationary, or cost of living impact from the GST - price impact. Because the price of some things will go up, some will stay the same and some will go down and everybody will have a tax cut. And people then in net terms as a result of those things will be better off. Now, just . . . I mean we think it will be short lived, we understand that and unless it is not short lived there is no enduring impact on interest rates.

MITCHELL:

We’ll take a call for the Prime Minister. Marion, go ahead please.

CALLER:

Good morning Mr Howard.

PRIME MINISTER:

Hi Marion.

CALLER:

My quality of life has been pretty good since I retired. I am one of those people brought up a family and worked in between. My last pay packet before I retired was $8.19 an hour, so that was not too good. But never mind, I have been happy. Now when my rent is taken out of my pension, I have a $138, I’m quite happy. I go out everyday, have a coffee, take a couple of classes and buy my clothes. But after July, I really am panicking, and please don’t tell me you’re giving me 4% rise on my pension because that would be taken up with the rent and other things. I don’t think any of you in parliament have the slightest idea how real pensioners, those working poor plus the people on the dole, just how they live. And quite frankly you’re not interested. Because you’ve never done it yourself. You’re all from a background of middle class.

MITCHELL:

Let’s put that aside for the moment.

CALLER:

Right.

MITCHELL:

And get to the question please Marion. Yes Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I am going to mention the increase in the pension, because . . .

CALLER:

4%?

PRIME MINISTER:

I am going to mention it because you are getting it. And there is a rent adjustment as well which you didn’t mention. You say I don’t understand. I haven’t lived on the pension, that’s true and nor has Mr Beazley and nor had Mr Keating . . .

CALLER:

I did mention all of you in Parliament.

PRIME MINISTER:

Alright. And give me a go, I listened politely and patiently to you and I just would like the same opportunity. I haven’t, that’s true. But I do talk to a lot of people and I do try and understand. I do try and get a balance between running an economy that encourages more jobs being created and also looking after the poorer people in the community. And we try and get a decent social security safety net and the compensation package that’s been introduced for the GST I think is very good and is very strong. Now we are going to keep an eye on how it operates and we’re going to be particularly concerned about how it operates in relation to people on the pension and low incomes. But we have gone out of our way to make sure that there is a good compensation package to protect people traditionally who are paying rent. We also have, I don’t know whether you have any savings, you may not. If you do there’s also a bonus for that. I don’t know whether you have income from sources other than the pension, I am not sure. If you do there’s further additional [inaudible] bonus in relation to any savings that you may have. So, there are quite a number of other things, and without knowing your full income profile, and I am not suggesting that it is anything more than just the pension. I don’t know.

MITCHELL:

Marion, if you want to . . .

PRIME MINISTER:

But there are other things that are there that you didn’t mention and I think it’s only fair on behalf of the Government that I point those out as well.

MITCHELL:

Thank you Marion, thank you for calling. Thank you to the Prime Minister. A quick break and then more of John Howard in our Sydney studio.

[Commercial]

MITCHELL:

Your calls to the Prime Minister, keep them quick if possible. Raymond go ahead.

CALLER:

Mr Howard, I just precede my question by saying I am a proud Australian Jew who’s parents were fortunate enough to come to this country, seventy years ago. I ask you sir, in very simple terms, if the President of modern Germany, and his successors over the last ten years and the German Parliament have been able to offer a total apology to those who survived the holocaust and their relatives and other generations of Jews for what were done by previous generations of Germans, why cannot your Government

and the Parliament do exactly the same?

PRIME MINISTER:

Now my answer to that is that it implies an equivalence between the holocaust and the treatment of the Australian aborigines in years gone by and I don’t accept that that’s a fair comparison. I know a great deal about what happened in the holocaust and I have a profound empathy with the suffering of the Jewish people. I don’t think that is with great respect, an historically fair or accurate comparison. I would point out to you and it seems to be lost in all of this that I have on numerous occasions said that I am personally very sorry for the way in which aborigines were treated in the past. I’ve said that on numerous occasions and I repeat it here this morning. And Parliament has passed a motion of deep and sincere regret. And many people think that is an even more profound expression than what they are now asking for. I think it is the appropriate way to respond. But without in any way diminishing, in any way, diminishing the mistakes that were made in this country in the past to liken that to the holocaust is historically inaccurate, wrong and I don’t accept it.

MITCHELL:

Mr Howard do you believe that you have public support on this issue?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don’t know, I haven’t polled it.

MITCHELL:

But there was a poll a little while ago and it wasn’t . . .

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I haven’t . . . was there, I mean I think polls done perhaps several years ago but I mean Neil, I don’t know. Some people support me, some people don’t. You know what some people have said to me - John, just say it and get it off the agenda. Some of my critics have said that. Now, I am not going to do that, that would be rank hypocrisy, it would be . . .

MITCHELL:

Do your colleagues support you, because they didn’t on mandatory sentencing this week, did they?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well there is a widespread view in the Government that a formal national apology of the type sought by the Labor Party and ATSIC is not appropriate.

MITCHELL:

Did you say to the backbenchers that threatened to cross the floor that it could be the end of the Government?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh, look I am not going to go into what was said in the party room. Any public disunity is bad for a government.

MITCHELL:

Do you oppose mandatory sentencing?

PRIME MINISTER:

I have always personally opposed mandatory sentencing. Like I oppose personally a lot of laws that operate in the various states. I oppose as you know heroin injecting rooms. But in the end I accept that is something that ought to be run by the states. I don’t get people saying that I should override that even though I oppose it in the Territory.

MITCHELL:

I thought I saw . . .

PRIME MINISTER:

I don’t understand, I don’t see the logic of people who on the one hand want me to override the things they object to and not override the things they approve of. Now if they assert the right to have that view well they should acknowledge it in relation to others.

MITCHELL:

Why were the euthanasia laws overridden and not mandatory sentencing?

PRIME MINISTER:

Because euthanasia was on an entirely scale. We were introducing a new moral paradigm in this country if we had decided to go down that path. We would have been saying to every Australian that you can go to the north if you wanted to, if you were able to do so, go to the Northern Territory and take advantage of that. We would have established an entirely new national benchmark. It wasn’t just restricted to the Northern Territory and in any event that went to the very essence of the kind of society we were or would have been . . .

MITCHELL:

Mandatory sentencing . . .

PRIME MINISTER:

From the moral standpoint that involved a far greater issue than mandatory sentencing.

MITCHELL:

Doesn’t mandatory sentencing go to the heart of the type of society we are?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well a lot of people would argue that mandatory sentencing is a response to a grave social problem and that is the prevalence of crime, particularly certain forms of property and violence against the person crime. I mean there are two arguments on mandatory sentencing and I respect the worries of people who feel that we need tough laws against crime. I mean I am against mandatory sentencing and Neil for the very simple reason that I think it is always better to leave the discretion in the hands of the judiciary. For that reason I am against it.

MITCHELL:

Does mandatory sentencing work?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think the jury’s, no pun intended, the jury’s out on that.

MITCHELL:

Just a couple of other financial matters. Interest rates . . . I think you can comment on this…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we’ll wait and see.

MITCHELL:

The banks, as I made the point earlier. It took 66 days to pass on the drop. Have you got any assurances from them that they won’t go beyond the quarter percent?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I don’t sort of deal with the banks on a day-to-day basis, that’s more in the Treasurer’s domain, you might ask him. But more importantly, you ought to ask the banks.

MITCHELL:

You wouldn’t expect them to would you?

PRIME MINISTER:

What?

MITCHELL:

Pass on more than a quarter percent?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, definitely not. And we would be extremely critical of anybody who passes on more than the official interest rate increase.

MITCHELL:

Another member of the Ralph Review Committee has suggested that perhaps business tax changes should be delayed while the GST beds down, it’s just too much for business to cope with. Would you consider that?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, well we have considered it and decided against it. We think the changes ought to go ahead and we acknowledge that there are a lot of changes, but these are changes the business community’s been asking for for twenty years. The business community have been arguing for major tax reform in this country for decades. We have a recommendation for business tax review presided over by one of Australia’s most respected business men. We implemented virtually all of those recommendations. Now I say to the business community - yes there’s, it’s a big meal but it’s a meal you ordered. And if you put it off there’ll be pressure for some other reason to put it off. And I don’t think it’s good government to keep putting things off. Tax reform has been put off for decades in this country and this is the first government since World War II that’s had the guts to implement decent tax reform and we’re not going to be diverted from it.

MITCHELL:

Just finally, the Kosovo refugees who leave tomorrow I think. Is there no chance of a stay, do they have to leave?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well these are, this is a tremendously difficult issue. It is always naturally, you know evoking of emotions to have photographs of children, I mean I greeted the first contingent of refugees who came to this country last year. My wife and I went out to Sydney Airport and we shook the hands and embraced hundreds of them as they came off the plane. So I am very conscious of the emotion of all of this. But they came here on a certain basis and difficult though it is, that basis has to be adhered to.

MITCHELL:

Unequivocally.

PRIME MINISTER:

Sure.

MITCHELL:

Thank you very much for your time.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you.

[ends]

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