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Parliament House: transcript of press conference: 2001 election.



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5 October 2001

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER THE HON JOHN HOWARD PRESS CONFERENCE, PARLIAMENT HOUSE

Subjects: 2001 Election

E&EO…………………………………………………………………………………………..

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. Shortly before lunch I called on His Excellency the Governor General and advised a dissolution of the Parliament so that the general election can take place on the 10th of November. That advice having been accepted I announce that the election will take place on the 10th of November.

It will be as all elections are a very important election for the future of the nation and of the Australian people. Before detailing the choices can I say that it has been for me an immense privilege to serve as Prime Minister of Australia for more than five-and-a-half years. And during that period of time the Government I have led has endeavoured on all occasions to be a servant of the Australian people. And if re-elected I recommit myself to serve the Australian people and to lead a government that governs for the interests of the entire Australian community, for the great mainstream of the Australian public, and a government that will always put Australia’s interests first.

This election presents the Australian people with a very clear choice. At a time of immense security and economic challenges, above all the nation needs at the helm a group of men and women who have strength, who have experience, and have a clear view of what they believe in and what they stand for. This is not a time to change to either a prime minister or to a party that finds it difficult to articulate a clear view on the great issues that challenge the Australian nation.

It is not a time to swap clarity and strength with obscurity and indecision. It is not a time to abandon a true and tested team that has had the courage over the last five-and-a-half years to tackle difficult issues, at times embracing immense political opposition and political difficulty and unpopularity. This is a time of course to choose strength and purpose and stability over the alternative.

PRIME MINISTER

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In seeking a mandate I not only seek a mandate in relation to the contemporary challenges of the time but I also seek a mandate on the strength of the Government’s stewardship of the Australian economy over the last five-and-a-half years. All the economies of the world are heading into difficult times. Prior to the 11th of September the United States economy was under significant pressure. The economies of many of the major industrialised countries of the world other than the United States are either in recession or under great pressure.

The events of the 11th of September have worsened that situation and have accelerated the pressures. Yet if you look at the Australian economy you see even out of the mouths of objective independent observers a recognition that the Australian economy is performing better than most.

The reforms of the government I have led over the last five-and-a-half years have given the Australian economy a strength and a resilience to withstand the sudden unwelcome shocks that have played around the world, reverberated around the world since the 11th of September. If we had not undertaken the reforms, if we had not got our budget back into surplus, if we had not repaid almost $58 billion of Labor’s $96 billion of debt, if we had not reformed the taxation system, if we had not reformed the industrial relations system, the Australian economy would now be succumbing far more readily to the ravages inflicted upon world economies by the unhappy events of recent weeks. So the strength of our economic record of itself is a very powerful reason why I respectfully ask the Australian people to endorse us again.

We have seen from the Opposition opportunism and expediency. Mr Beazley’s had five-and-a-half years to define himself to the Australian public. He’s had five-and-a-half years to tell the Australian public what he stands for and what he believes in. He’s led the Opposition now for the same time that I’ve been Prime Minister and I don’t believe the Australian people have any clearer view now than they did in March of 1996 what he or the Australian Labor Party stands for. This was no where better illustrated than in his vacillating chopping and changing over the issue of illegal immigration.

You cannot expect the Australian people to take on trust an alternative government in the circumstances we now face which cannot make up its mind clearly and quickly on an issue of that importance. And we have seen this expediency on display today with the extraordinary attack that Mr Beazley has mounted on my decision to attend the APEC meeting. The national interest requires that I go to the APEC meeting given the presence of so many other world leaders particularly the projected presence of the President of the United States. And it is clearly in the national interest rather than any narrow political interest that I be at that meeting and that should be apparent to Mr Beazley and it should have been accepted and recognised.

Ladies and gentlemen, this election is not only about the record of the Government, it is not only about as it surely is the clear choice as to who is better able to steer the fortunes of the nation and determine the future of the nation in these difficult and suddenly dangerous times. It is also about some of the longer term challenges of Australia’s future. It is about how we better balance work and family responsibilities, so important to millions of Australians and their families. It is about how we better respond and cope with the challenges of an ageing population and it is also about the question of the sustainability of our environment and the longer term challenges of water quality and salinity. Those three issues are issues that I have

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touched upon before and they will be touched upon by me and my colleagues during the course of this very important election campaign.

Finally, can I say that the next five weeks will be an opportunity for the Australian people to assess the past performance, the current capabilities and the future potentials, not only of the Liberal and National parties but also of the Australian Labor Party.

I enter this campaign with no sense of hubris, no sense of complacency, a sober recognition that this election is taking place in sombre, unhappy circumstances not only for our country but because we are part of the world community, for the entire world. I do not take it for granted. It will be for me an immense mental and physical challenge but one I undertake with great zeal. I have never been more committed to winning an election or a political campaign in my life. I believe that the Government I lead and the men and women in it have a capacity to match the need of the Australian nation in these suddenly very difficult and challenging security and economic circumstances.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard (inaudible) rated the underdog going into the campaign?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that is a matter for you. I not only go into caretaker mode at twelve noon on Monday, but I go fully into campaign mode as of twenty past two this afternoon. I will leave the commentary to those of you who are, shall I say, more practised at it than I.

JOURNALIST:

. ... ever been more committed though to winning Government, you've also perhaps never been in such a great position in the polls. Can you believe the position you're in now compared to how things were eight weeks ago, compared how perhaps you felt eight weeks ago?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, that calls for a bit of commentary. I simply ask the Australian people to look at our record, compare our capacity with that of the Labor Party at a difficult time for the Australian nation. I don’t take anything for granted. I think we have a big fight ahead of us.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, you’ve been a reformist government in the past, what will your agenda be in the future, will it be steady as she goes, stick with someone you know or have you another big reform…

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PRIME MINISTER:

Well, you are always a bit of both, Paul. One of the strengths of the Government is that we have been reformist in those areas that have needed change, but we have been passionately determined to defend traditional attitudes where it’s been our belief, or my belief, that those traditional attitudes should be defended. And that kind of blend and mix is going to operate in the future. We will have, during the campaign, an opportunity to unveil quite a number of initiatives and they will address many of those issues.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, have you received any advice recently relating to any military action overseas and if you do receive advice during the campaign how will you handle that advice?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, the answer is - and I assume it’s directed to an American led response to the terrorist attack - is no I haven’t. I will keep the Australian public informed as regularly and as best as I can. I think the Australian public is entitled to know, of course. The capacity of news agencies around the world to report incidents and so forth now is so considerable that there’s not a lot that can be undertaken that the world doesn’t hear about through the services of the media. But I see my role as very much being one of keeping the Australian people informed and in touch about what is occurring.

JOURNALIST:

[Inaudible] go to APEC even if President Bush has to pull out and, secondly, will you brief or have briefed Mr Beazley on the evidence that you were given by the Americans about Bin Laden…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, the evidence that I was given was, as defined by the Americans, for my eyes only. I read it and I gave it back to the Ambassador. In those circumstances, although I have a reasonably good memory, it’s a bit difficult for me to go through all of it. But, I mean, it’s open to Mr Beazley if he wishes to approach the Americans, that’s a matter for them. But if there’s anything in particular he wants to know and that I can recall I’m very happy to provide it. I have not sought, in any way, to shut Mr Beazley out of anything to do with matters that effect our nation in terms of security. But the Americans volunteered the information to me. I read it in my office and gave it back to the Ambassador. So that was the circumstance in which it was given to me. I did indicate yesterday that I was influenced, significantly, by my understanding that Mr Bush would be going to the APEC meeting. My understanding is that he is going to the APEC meeting so, certainly for now I think the question’s academic.

JOURNALIST:

If you’re re-elected on November the 10th…

PRIME MINISTER:

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I’m sorry, I can’t hear you.

JOURNALIST:

If you’re re-elected on November the 10th will you serve out a full three-year term as Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER:

I’ve been asked this question before. I have said in the past that I’d think about my future when I reach the age of 64. Right at the moment the last thing I want to do is leave government because I have an overwhelming commitment to see the Australian people through the present, very great and unexpected challenges that the country faces.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, is there any connection between your decision to call the election today and the possible timing of US plans to start military action?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, there is absolutely no connection. And can I say that one of the interesting historical pieces of trivia that might strike…catch people’s attention when they read the correspondence exchanged by myself and the Governor-General is that in my letter to the Governor-General I pointed out that the current term of the House of Representatives expires at midnight on the 9th of November 2001 and the election is being held the day afterwards. I don’t think you could more fully complete your term. It’s got absolutely nothing to do with the timing of any possible American military action, nothing at all.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard will you accept Mr Beazley’s request for there to be two televised debates?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, that’s a matter that’s going to be the subject of discussion between Mr Walsh and Mr Crosby, the two Directors of the Party. I thought what obtained in the last election campaign worked quite well.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, why November the 10th?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, it seemed to be an appropriate date. We have run our term. We must face our makers and await our fate and November the 10th seemed an entirely appropriate date.

JOURNALIST:

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…..call the election today Mr Howard? Was it…

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh look, you know, it’s the sort of thing that rolls around in your head and you kick it around with a few people over a period of time.

JOURNALIST:

Are you concerned that it’s going to conflict with the first test?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, whatever you do there’s always some difficulty. When the 3rd of November was talked about some souls reminded me that that was, what, Derby Day in Victoria and something else somewhere else. There’s no date that is absolutely ideal but I’m quite certain that there are a lot of people in Australia, I know one or two of them, who can simultaneously keep their mind on both politics and cricket.

JOURNALIST:

How do you rate the challenges of military action…

PRIME MINISTER:

The challenge of what?

JOURNALIST:

How do you rate the challenge of dealng with the international situation in terms of your career?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, certainly the security circumstances facing the world at the moment are the most difficult that I can recall in my time in public life, they clearly are. I think one has to go back, perhaps, to those days of the Cuban missile crisis in my lifetime, well, my adult lifetime - my lifetime embraces, of course, an earlier period than that - to get a comparable issue. I mean, Vietnam was a traumatic period in the history of Australia, in the history of the United States but it perhaps didn’t affect the entire world in quite the way this challenge does. And it’s a different challenge, it’s not classically defined in terms of war and peace as most of us have known it to be. And it’s a very difficult time, it does involve Australia, we are a close ally of the United States. We owe the United States through our friendship and alliance relationship the very open and strong support that we have afforded to the United States and her people.

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JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, given the state of the budget and your comments to the Party Room about not having as much to spend on policy that you might perhaps have liked. Do you think this campaign…

PRIME MINISTER:

I don’t know that I said as I would have liked.

JOURNALIST:

Do you think this campaign will now become a very personal campaign focused mainly on character where policy may take a little bit off the centre stage?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it won’t become a personal campaign in the sense, for my part of vituperation and unwarranted personal denigration. In any election campaign there are comparisons made of the metal of the two leaders, and this will be no different and that is as it should be and as it has always been. Certainly because of changed economic circumstances it will only be emphasised and aggravated by the course of the world economy since the 11th of September. There isn’t as much money in the budget. There’ll be surpluses but they will be lower. And I make no bones about that and that will exert a discipline not only on the Government but it will also exert a discipline on the Opposition.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard (inaudible) to win. Does that mean that you regard the Beazley Opposition as the worst alternative you’ve faced?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don’t have a lot of respect for the Beazley Opposition as an alternative Government. I certainly don’t. But there’s a broader reason for that, I think that the challenges facing Australia at the present time are special and atypical and I feel very heavily the responsibility to win because I believe that we can do a much better job of steering the fortunes of the nation in the time immediately ahead.

JOURNALIST:

So it’s a much more positive than negative…..

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, yes it is. I sense that that is a difference yes.

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JOURNALIST:

How will you kick off your campaign Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER:

By having a pleasant chat in the courtyard with you.

JOURNALIST:

Out in the electorate tomorrow?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I will be going to open the Campaign Office in the Federal Division of Bennelong for the Liberal Party.

JOURNALIST:

What are your plans for tonight?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I’ve got to talk to a lot of people in the media and I think I will have a quiet meal with my wife and son and daughter.

JOURNALIST:

…..champagne?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no champagne, perhaps a little white wine but certainly no champagne, lots of discipline in that department, Louise, over the weeks ahead.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard you said you didn’t go into caretaker mode until midday on Monday…

PRIME MINISTER:

That’s right.

JOURNALIST:

So will you continue to take decisions as Prime Minister over the weekend and up til midday?

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PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, and as required I’ll continue to take decisions as Prime Minister during the caretaker period but I will observe the caretaker conventions. The caretaker conventions require you to avoid any major policy decisions particularly those that might bind an incoming Government. If issues arise where it’s in the national interest that decisions of that kind be taken then you have an obligation to consult your opposite number, in my case the Leader of the Opposition, in the case of Ministers, Shadow Ministers. But I won’t be sort of using the weekend to take a whole lot of hurried last minute decisions but obviously in the nature of things life goes on and you have to keep dealing with the interminable number of files that come across your desk and there’s always a lot sort of conjured up on the eve of a caretaker period to sort of clear the decks.

JOURNALIST:

Will you outline the style of this campaign Australia will be going to see from you? You talked about leadership, talked about the economy. What are your key themes going to be and what sort of style are people….?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh we’ll be certainly stressing stability and consistency and a clear view of how we see the world. One of the things I’ve tried to do as Prime Minister is to take stands on issues, many of my stands have been unpopular, many of them have been unpopular with many of you and I dare say they remain unpopular but we haven’t been reluctant to state a position. Our opponents in contrast do go from one side of the street to the other and sometimes down the middle of the road as well.

JOURNALIST:

…..tax cuts?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well our position remains that available surpluses, we see it better that available surpluses be preserved for income tax relief. Obviously, this year and next year there are not going to be a lot of surpluses. The budget is just simply not going to be in as strong a position because there’s been a slowing of economic growth.

JOURNALIST:

…to the people on income tax….?

PRIME MINISTER:

We will have something to say about income tax - yes. We certainly will. We will have something to say right across the board. We intend to release, have prepared to release policy right across the board. Nobody should think that we go into this election campaign unwilling to release policies right across the board. They will be tailored in terms of their cost to the

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circumstances of the time. But they will be quite comprehensive and there will be a number of surprises.

JOURNALIST:

….tax reform that you went into with in ’98, there’ll be nothing of that magnitude?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well this is a different election. The circumstances are different. Every election is different. And this is very different from 1998 and is very different from 1996. And it’s our responsibility to respond to the new and different circumstances but also to provide a link and a thread and a continuity of what we have done in the past.

JOURNALIST:

…..caretaker mode until Monday? What’s the….

PRIME MINISTER:

That’s just the convention. I sought advice on this from my Department, from a widely respected person in my Department and she is sort of the repository of all the corporate knowledge on this and I said when does this caretaker period start? She said from the dissolution of the Parliament and the issuing of the writs and that is on Monday at 12 noon. So that’s the origin of it. But we’re not sort of, there’s no particular magic in that, it’s just that that’s how it’s done.

JOURNALIST:

…..been calling for some time for major reform of superannuation to address the challenge of the aging population. Will your reforms go to the heart of the tax regime and is it likely to have the scale of the previous tax reform?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we won’t be offering tax changes of the scale of 1998. They were generational and sweeping and vista encompassing. But any changes in this will be quite different from that. They’ll be far more modest. We will be having something to say in the superannuation area - yes.

JOURNALIST:

About tax? Is that the tax..

PRIME MINISTER:

We will be having something to say about that - yes.

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JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard how important do you think immigration is going to be during this election campaign given that issue helped boost the Coalition in the polls?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that I guess is largely a matter for the Australian people. I mean, I don’t know to what extent it’s going to influence people but as far as immigration itself is concerned, and we believe in having a strong immigration intake and we believe in what we’ve done over the past few years to alter the mix to get a higher percentage of skilled migrants. We will retain our long-standing commitment to take a good number of refugees. I do however believe very strongly that the challenge for the world is to assist countries immediately adjacent to other countries that have a lot of refugees. In other words in present circumstances the best thing the world can do is to really help Pakistan deal with the influx of refugees from Afghanistan. It’s far better to put resources into those countries and to help the countries deal with the problem because you will never be able to successfully disperse refugees of that number around the world. You’ll never be able to do that and I think it’s very welcome that the United States has put additional humanitarian aid into Afghanistan and also offered additional assistance to Pakistan. It will not be lost on you that we have now devoted something like $23 million more to helping with the refugee problem in Pakistan in particular. But beyond that we don’t intend to alter our general immigration policy. We have a non-discriminatory immigration policy in this country and that is going to remain. We will never walk away from that. We will from time to time have a different number and we reserve the right not on grounds of race or national extraction but on other grounds we reserve the right to alter the mix. But I don’t see any revolutionary changes in that. Two more and then I really must go.

JOURNALIST:

One Nation (inaudible)?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don’t know. Our view is clear. One Nation will be last on every Liberal Party how-to-vote card throughout Australia.

JOURNALIST:

The tourism industry would like financial aid before the election, would that possible under a caretaker Government?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well you can’t initiate new policies under a caretaker government.

JOURNALIST:

Have you got an eye on Malcolm Fraser’s record as the second longest serving Liberal Prime Minister at all?

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PRIME MINISTER:

I’ve just got my eye on the next five weeks.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard you’ve got unemployment figures next week and at the end of the campaign. Are you bracing for a rise in unemployment in the wake of the recent corporate collapses?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don’t know that I’m bracing for any particular outcome in those two areas but I accept that the labour market will be influenced by any economic slowdown although having said that I’ve got to observe that thus far it’s proven to be very resilient. And I don’t think we should be talking it down needlessly but I can’t be certain as to what those figures are going to be anymore than anybody else can. Thank you very much.

[Ends]