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Transcript of address at the launch of the Howard Factor: Parliament House, Canberra: 2 March 2006

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2 March 2006



First of all, I congratulate and thank The Australian and Melbourne University Press for this book. I believe that it will make a very important contribution to debate about the last ten years and understanding of what has motivated the Government and what has motivated me. It is a wonderful example of The Australian newspaper in association with University Press playing out its role as the third of the three great pillars of the Australian democracy of which I speak. As you know I am an unrepentant opponent of a bill of rights. I believe very strongly in a parliamentary system. I still shake my head in disbelief when I read and hear of how many great issues that we debate in Parliament here in Australia are resolved by successive court decisions in the United States. We have just gone through, in our national Parliament, the exercise of a free and open vote on RU486. Although not directly a debate on abortion, nonetheless a debate which brought into play people’s attitudes to abortion. Those debates, in a definitive way, do not occur in the United States Congress because those matters are resolved by the courts. And I do not want to see, with great respect and I have great respect for the judiciary of this country - it’s had a remarkable record of incorruptibility- I don’t want to see that occur in Australia.

But the third of the three great pillars is of course a free and sceptical media. No politician is honest if he says that he always enjoys the freedom and the scepticism but it’s indispensable to the functioning of our democracy. And can I say something about The Australian’s contribution to national political debate. It has made, as a newspaper, a remarkable contribution. I think Michael’s analysis of so many things about the way in which the media has developed is absolutely correct I think back over the ten years that this Government has been in office and I think of the positions taken by The Australian newspaper. The Australian newspaper has been a broadly supportive, generously so, of the Government’s economic reform agenda. A strong supporter, consistently, ever since many of us started talking about industrial relations reform, of industrial relations reform. It’s only criticism of the Government is that it might not have gone far enough. I think it has. I think the Government’s got the balance absolutely right Michael, I want to make that clear. To all of you out there who might be reporting these remarks, The Australian is a strong, but on occasions not uncritical supporter of taxation reform. The Australian of course, on the other hand, was of all the newspapers in Australia the most passionately consistent supporter of an Australian Republic, a position which brought it into conflict not with the Government, because the Government allowed a free vote on that issue, but certainly brought it into conflict with the elected head of the Government, myself. But The Australian waged a very passionate campaign.

It was a very strong supporter of our participation in the military operations in Iraq and I welcome very much the editorial it wrote last week in the wake of the

publication of the hitherto unknown tapes that were captured in Iraq. On the other hand, as Michael points out, it’s been a fierce, how shall I say, a fierce commentator on proceedings before the Cole Royal Commission, commentary which I follow on a

daily basis with very great interest. And it has been critical, although supportive generally of our border protection policies, highly critical of aspects of the implementation, so indeed in relation to the implementation of our policies on asylum seekers.

So all of that adds up, if I may say so, and I hope with no offence to any other media representatives here today it all adds up to a newspaper that takes the national political debate very seriously, a newspaper that always engages my interest and a newspaper that sees it’s role not only to report the economic news and the straight political news in terms of the contest between the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister,

but also the broader debates about the culture of our country. So it’s not surprising therefore that The Australian decided to produce this book and I marvel at the speed with which it has been produced. A couple of the contributors have complained to me in no uncertain terms that I spoilt their Christmas holidays and that they were under

the whip from the editor to have the publication finished in time.

We do of course, we in politics and you in the media, have an ever closer interactive relationship. I think of that wonderful photograph that’s appeared in many publications, of a press conference between John Curtin and the media in the 1940s when it was said that he talked very confidentially about the progress of the war. It’s a wonderful old photograph and he’s actually sitting in the very desk that I now use and I managed to rescue from the Old Parliament House some years ago, having been the original custom built desk for Prime Minister Bruce in 1927. And I think how far we’ve progressed. I think of the Menzies retirement press conference in 1966. I think of the changes, the enormous influence of radio current affairs programmes in the 1980s when programmes like AM and PM and in the case of AM still have extraordinary influence and sway. I think of course of that great Australian

phenomenon, the rise and the influence of talkback radio. I’ve often been surprised in discussions with leaders of the opposition in the United Kingdom, and I’ve had this discussion with a number of them over the past few years, when I say well what about talkback radio as an influence on political discourse? In that country it is virtually non-existent. And because of the, I guess, the large metropolitan concentrations in Australia and plus the huge reach of the ABC across the whole country, radio as a method of communication has been quite remarkable.

It’s all the more important therefore for the print media to respond to these challenges, to interact with them themselves, which they do, and to improve the quality, which certainly has been a goal of The Australian in every way that they can. I thought the media was a big part of my life when I became Prime Minister. I had no idea what a big part of my life it would be over the last ten years. If it was all pervasive and omnipresent in 1996, it is doubly or trebly so in 2006. We do live in a 24 hour news cycle, 7 days a week. Such is the character of the media and the presence of the media that vacuums occur a lot more rapidly than they used to. There was a time where if you had if you had an initiative a week you’d done very well and you’d provided enough for the media. You now need virtually an initiative a day. The journalists refrain, O’Leary keeps coming into my office and saying anything new, which is

hardly surprising and entirely proper. But all of that means that there’s a great interaction between us.

I have read this book. I think it’s a very balanced book. I, like any other person who is the subject of detailed analysis, I am always interested in people’s views of me and of my Government. But I think it’s a very professional job and I hope that it receives wide readership and generates interest. What struck me about the book was not the predictable areas of focus such as our economic policy, our foreign policy, the political contest, but some of the other chapters. Can I say that I thought Paul Kelly’s analysis of the style of the Government was thoughtful and accurate and I think it reflected some of the things that we have tried to do, particularly the restoration of Cabinet as being the authentic, disciplined, orthodox decision making body. We do have more, I guess, presidential Prime Ministers than we used to have, simply because of the media and the way in which our society is organised. And one of the things, I think I’ve said this recently, that I find that I’m asked to have a view and to comment on things that perhaps 20 years ago a Prime Minister wouldn’t have been asked to have a view on or comment on and as a result, there’s more focus on the person who is the head of the government. But we have tried to restore the central decision making role of the government and I am especially proud of the success we have had compared with other countries in establishing more effective, whole of government responses to challenges that the country has. And the best example of that of course is the National Security Committee of Cabinet, which has met very frequently and operated extremely effectively in responding to the enormous challenges that this country faces in the area of terrorism and associated issues. And Paul’s chapter I think brings that out very well.

I was particularly interested in two other chapters, not because I was less interested in the others but because they came at things from a slightly different perspective. I’m thinking of Imray’s analysis of the Australian idiom and my passing attempts to embrace it and the analysis he brings of the different methods of language and communication in Australia. I thought it was an interesting and atypical chapter. And

of course I don’t know how she found the time to do it given her forensic focus on another issue, but Carolyn Ovington’s analysis of South Park conservatives was not only interesting but perceptive. It is true and this really relates back to the picket fence. And this is the point I tried to make in the interview I had with Tony Wright from the Bulletin this week that the Y Generation is different, profoundly different from the younger, baby boomer generation. I don’t think any of us have a complete fix on why that is so. I think there is, in a sense, a natural reaction as every generation of the young, through the ages, there has been some kind of reaction against the attitudes of their parents. But it is true that families and relationships bulk very large in their lives and anybody who imagines for a moment that somehow or other the Y Generation had grown beyond the notion of the emotional security that a family brings them has really no fundamental understanding of the nature of the Australian people.

We have been successful beyond my expectations on a number of occasions on getting a fair share of support from that section of the Australian community. We haven’t sought to garner it by embracing every new contemporary, trendy cause that may have been around because that it to stereotype and to misunderstand the character of the aged cohort with which we are dealing.

So can I say to Nick and to Michael and to Robert, the publisher and to Melbourne University Press, I wish this enterprise well. It has been of course an extraordinary journey over the last ten years. It’s a journey that I have travelled with many people in this room. The nature of Australian politics and the nature of the relationship between

a Prime Minister and the Press Gallery is one of, on occasions, caution, scepticism and wariness. But it’s an important relationship and I hope that in that time, I have practiced what I preached, and that is that the media do have a right to assert vigorously and without compromise, their views. No democratic process is complete without a free and sceptical media. I will differ with media coverage. I’ll have my arguments with those who write about and talk about this Government. But where I do have differences, I have endeavoured to express them openly and very directly in a public manner, rather than to use other methods of registering my complaints and concerns and I will continue. Perhaps one or two occasions in the past couple of weeks, demonstrated my views on certain issues where they have been very different from one of my co-hosts today. But such is the character of political debate. I believe in a free media, but a free media must accept in the nature of the expression it will come under criticism and it will be made accountable We live in an age of accountability. We are all more and more accountable than we’ve ever been in the past and anybody who thinks they can turn back the clock on accountability is deluding themselves. That applies to Prime Ministers, that applies to political correspondents and it applies to Editors. It applies to all of us.

I think the Howard Factor is making a contribution to serious, informed political debate. I am grateful for the publication of the book. I wish it well. I think it’s a fair account of the subjects that its covered in the main and I thank you very much for inviting me here today and I launch it, I wish it well and I hope it returns some dividend to its publisher.

Thank you.


Kylie Jacobson Assistant Media Adviser Office of the Prime Minister t 02 6277 7744 f 02 6273 2923 m 0419 850 223