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Transcript: Howard Interview

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP INTERVIEW WITH NEIL MITCHELL RADIO 3AW

Subjects: Lamb tariffs; Davis Cup; Productivity Commission report into gambling - poker machines, gambling advertisements; Australia’s health system - Medicare, State Premiers; return of Kosovo refugees; Unemployment rates Treasury figures; Australia’s Banks Radio talk show hosts & pecuniary interests; Sydney-centrism - Jeff Kennett;


MITCHELL:

Mr Howard, welcome home.

PRIME MINISTER:

Good day, how are you Neil?

MITCHELL:

I’m well thank you. At least we gave the Yanks one back for the lamb in the Davis Cup defeat.

PRIME MINISTER:

It was great, I saw the first day and Hewitt and Rafter were fantastic and the surrounds of thousands of cheering Americans made me more energetic in my support.

MITCHELL:

Tell me, did you get a bit annoyed when Bill Clinton left you standing out in the rain all alone for a press conference?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I didn’t expect that he’d go to that news conference because he’d have been on a hiding to nothing. The Australian press would have peppered him with a whole lot of questions about lamb. I didn’t expect that he would join me. I asked him to but I didn’t think he would. Look the Americans did us in the eye over lamb and we made it very plain that we were very unhappy. It was a domestic political consideration and America is so big and strong and when it decides that it’s going to do something for a domestic political reason it really rolls over everybody.

MITCHELL:

How did you get on with him, OK?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh I get on with him quite well but I disagreed with him on this issue. I think he’s misunderstood just how strong is the feeling in Australia, but at the end of the day he owed people domestically and that’s why he took the decision that he did, I mean there’s no point in beating about the bush. It’s a lousy decision; it’s quite indefensible on trade grounds. It was induced entirely by domestic political considerations.

MITCHELL:

But we won we beat them in the Davis Cup.

PRIME MINISTER:

We did beat them in the David Cup and the other thing I should say is that our trade to America overall rose by thirty four per cent in 1998, but that is cold comfort to our very efficient lamb producers.

MITCHELL:

Now, poker machines. The Premier here has declared a cap of 27,500 in Victoria, is that still too many?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I think we have far too many poker machines in Australia. I don’t have an overnight solution but …

MITCHELL:

Do you think Victoria has too many?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, Australia has too many, therefore that includes Victoria, of course it does. I mean everybody’s in the same boat on this, well look, but really…

MITCHELL:

But New South Wales has a hell of a lot more….

PRIME MINISTER:

….I’m the Prime Minister of the whole country, I do not want to get - much as all as the Premier keeps throwing in this nonsense about Sydney-centricity - I don’t want to get into a slanging match between Sydney and Melbourne or New South Wales and Victoria on this issue. It is a broad national problem and I’m not particularly proud of the fact that Australia has, with a population of just under 19 million people, has 21 per cent of the world’s poker machines. I mean I’m proud of some of our records in most fields, but that is something of which I’m quite ashamed.

MITCHELL:

So you’d like to see them reduced across the board.

PRIME MINISTER:

I would like, I don’t know how it’s done, but I think we gamble too much and that does cause social problems, and that may not be a popular thing to say, but it happens to be true and just as political figures are meant to take leads in relation to other social ills such as excessive drinking and too much smoking, then obviously there is a concern in this area. Now I don’t have the solution to it at my fingertips.

MITCHELL:

Well what about the suggestion that came up yesterday about a restriction on gambling advertisers?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, there’s obviously something in that and I notice that Jeff Kennett has had some comments to make about that and that’s fine.

MITCHELL:

It’s pretty enticing stuff isn’t it? I mean that’s the nature of advertising.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, of course, of course it is. Now we as a community have resolved to take very strong action in relation to advertising for cigarettes, and nobody seems to object to that as a mode of government and community intervention, and cigarette companies may, and I understand for commercial reasons why they might do it, but the rest of the community supports it, and that has over time made a difference. We’re probably in advance of many other countries with which we are normally compared in that area. Now….

MITCHELL:

So you think we should look at the (inaudible).

PRIME MINISTER:

I think we have to, I think the first thing to do is to recognise that there is now indisputable evidence that some people’s lives are ruined and destroyed and there’s a lot of human misery inflicted on them and their families by excessive gambling. Now I don’t care about people who can afford to gamble, I don’t care for a moment about people who gamble in moderation. I do not want wowser-like to prohibit gambling altogether, that’s not my argument at all, but you would be absolutely insensitive to reality if you didn’t accept that this is a big social problem for some people. It’s a social problem for the community and we have to find, co-operatively, a way of addressing it. Now that’s what I’m saying, I don’t pretend for a moment that I have the solutions at my fingertips.

MITCHELL:

Well restricting advertising is one way, another area might be to advertise more about the dangers of gambling.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that is another way.

MITCHELL:

Could the Federal Government get the States are in this difficult position where they probably don’t want to advertise all that much about the dangers because they rely so much on the income.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it’s something for which they have a primary responsibility, but I’m not saying that in a political sense of trying to fix them with the only responsibility. But it is of course primarily a matter within their regulatory remit and the Premier made that observation yesterday. Now that doesn’t mean to say that the Federal Government doesn’t have role, it doesn’t mean to say that we shouldn’t have a view, in fact this Productivity Commission examination which has really laid bare in a very stark and political way the facts about gambling in Australia was initiated by the Federal Government.

MITCHELL:

And you copped a bit of stick for it too.

PRIME MINISTER:

We did, and I don’t apologise for having initiated it. I think we’ve done the community a service in revealing in quite a clinical fashion the extent of the problem. You see in the past, most of the people who talked about gambling tended to come from churches or the welfare sector and people said : oh well they’re just being, you know, do-gooders, they’re being wowsers, they’re being this that and the other. Now what you’ve got, on top of that you’ve now got the ‘pointy heads’ if you like, coming to the same conclusion, and that’s a fairly significant alliance and I don’t think it can be and I don’t think it should be ignored and it confirms the view that a number of us had and I think the people in the community have now it’s not something that can be fixed overnight and I’m not holding myself out as having any particular capacity or any particular solutions but the responsibility of somebody like myself is to recognise the social problem, express a point of view about it and then work with relevant people to see what can sensibly be done to ameliorate the problem.

MITCHELL:

And those are the sort of areas you’d look at are they?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well they are some of the areas, but I don’t at this stage want to say, well I’m going to do this, this, this and this and not do that, that and that.

MITCHELL:

What about the issue the States’ reliance on gambling. Victoria in particular, I mean fifteen per cent of the budget is gambling revenue. Is that too much?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well let’s not sort of drift into a headline on “Howard says this or that about Victoria’s revenue raising”.

MITCHELL:

Well, yeah, but I mean if it comes back to you if the revenue drops (inaudible).

PRIME MINISTER:

I know, but it’s not just a revenue thing it is a social behavioural thing and the devastation that is caused for some people by excessive gambling upsets me a lot and it should upset the whole community and just as we seek to help people who’ve got a drug problem then we ought to help people who’ve got a gambling problem.

MITCHELL:

Do you think it’s in the same sort of category? Well the same sort of level, the same sort of extent? The drug problem gets a lot of attention.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well the number of, the total number of heroin users in Australia is I understand two per cent and the people who have a profound social problem from gambling according to the Productivity Commission report is something in the order of two to two-and-a- half per cent. So I mean they are different issues and they have to be tackled in different ways, but the point I’m simply making is that where you have a social problem, governments have some responsibility to do what they can to tackle it. Now I don’t want to raise expectations that I’ve got a solution but it’s not good enough for somebody in my position just to walk away and say oh well, people gamble out of choice and that’s it. People who’d … if you’d have said that about smoking thirty years ago you would never have done anything to try and reduce the incidence, particularly amongst young men and women.

MITCHELL:

We’ll take calls for the Prime Minister in a moment, 9696 1278, I wanted to ask you about the health meeting on today Mr Howard. All the States including your own members of your own political persuasion are saying Medicare’s badly broken, it’s not working. You still stand by it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don’t agree with them. I think there are defects in Australia’s health system but it’s better than any in the world. And I’d rather get a a battler is better getting sick in Brunswick than the Bronx and the reality is that this country’s health system -for all its flaws - is better than most and we stand by the Medicare system. That doesn’t mean to say it can’t be improved, but it doesn’t mean to say that there are significant flaws, but..

MITCHELL:

Well there are all these ideas coming up for improvement, they’re pretty dramatic.

PRIME MINISTER:

They’re also very confusing and very contradictory. If you said to me as of sixteen minutes to nine, now what is the attitude of the State Governments, well I wouldn’t really know because they are very different. Now I want to, I’m always ready and happy to talk to State Premiers, but I don’t think it helps on an issue as important as this for the ad-hoc generation of crisis headlines every few months. Over the last fifteen months the Federal Government has made three very important announcements for health, to strengthen our health system. We’ve increased dramatically the funding for the States by three per cent in real terms each year over five years. We’ve put $1.5 billion or more into incentives for private health insurance and we have also promised in the last Federal Budget to double spending on health and medical research in this country.

MITCHELL:

But the states really are effectively saying that’s all wasted because it’s not working. They’re saying…….

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, they’re wrong in saying that. Nobody could possibly and seriously argue that doubling expenditure on health and medical research in this country is wasted. I mean I have had from every one of the great medical institutes in Australia, particularly from those in Melbourne which of course is in a sense the national centre, the national capital of medical research in Australia and it has some world famous institutes. I’ve had nothing but total support and praise for the Government’s commitment in that area.

MITCHELL:

If it is run down, the States run it down, I mean I’ve seen argument from your Federal Minister that States have cut so much out of it.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that is true in a number of cases, yes, that is true. Now look we don’t like in a sense making those points but you have to understand that no self respective federal government is going to sit by and allow itself every few months to become the punching bag for alleged deficiencies in state health services. Now, I accept that not all is well. I accept that there are flaws there are deficiencies, there are areas where improvements can be made. But I do not believe it is accurate, nor do I believe it is helpful for there to be a campaign of crisis inducement as far as the atmosphere surrounding health delivery in this country is concerned because there is a lot about our health system that is working extremely well. We have marvellous doctors, terrific nurses and some terrific public and private facilities. I think we have to take the temperature out of the debate, we have to try as far as possible to extract it from the cross fire of political exchange at both the federal and state levels and sensibly discuss areas where improvements can be made. I want to make it very clear we are not going to dismantle Medicare.

MITCHELL:

That’s what I was going to ask, there’s no question of Medicare goes……

PRIME MINISTER:

There’s no way we’re going to dismantle Medicare. The Liberal party at a federal level years ago had a different view about the operation of Medicare. Before the change of Government in 1996 we made a very careful examination of this and we committed ourselves in that campaign to maintain Medicare. We said we’d seek to improve and strengthen it and we didn’t rule out changes that were consistent with the maintenance of Medicare and we’ve made many….

MITCHELL:

What about the Medicare levy? Is that high enough?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we don’t have any plan to raise it. I can give no other answer than that.

MITCHELL:

We’ll take a couple of quick calls, Merle hello, go ahead please.

CALLER:

Good morning Neil. I just wanted to make a quick comment about the poker machines. They’ve been in NSW I think for anything up to 40 years.

PRIME MINISTER:

43 years.

CALLER:

Well there you are. I’m a constant visitor to NSW Sydney, my sister was very much addicted, I got swept in there, I think they’re very boring. But I believe there’s not enough responsibility put on the individual, no matter who it is in whatever walk of life. We always seem to want to blame somebody else or something else but I think that it is an individual choice and I mix with a lot of people and nobody goes playing poker machines.

PRIME MINISTER:

No, well I think you’re mad to play poker machines.

MITCHELL:

Ever played one?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think once about 30 years ago. I think they are boring and I can’t understand how anybody would want to….I mean I am not a gambler but I don’t seek to impose that view on other people.

MITCHELL:

Do you think you are a wowser Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER:

No I don’t but I am a concerned citizen about the human misery that’s inflicted on some people.

MITCHELL:

Brian, go ahead please.

CALLER:

Thank you. Thanks for the opportunity to speak to you Mr Howard. You referred to poker machines or gambling as a social problem.

PRIME MINISTER:

Excessive gambling.

CALLER:

Yeah, I see it as an economic problem especially for small business because it’s inarguable that every dollar that goes through a poker machine is a dollar out of a retailers till and from personal experience I’ve seen many many small businesses going under and it can be attributed only to poker machines.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I know that’s a widely held view and I guess intuitively I would have held that view too although I’m bound to say in the interest of objectivity that the Productivity Commission’s report was not as strong in finding that as you and I might have suspected. Now they acknowledge that there was some impact but they weren’t as strong in that area as you and I might have expected but my intuition has been and I guess is still the same as yours.

MITCHELL:

Thanks Brian. Thank you for calling, we’ll take a quick break and come back with more with the Prime Minister in a moment.

The Prime Minister is on the line from Newcastle. Mr Howard, some of the first Kosovo refugees leave the country today. I’m told 1,000, as many as 1,000 want to stay permanently. Is there a chance they’ll be allowed to stay.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I guess we’ll sort of look sensibly as far as we can at each case. The general view was taken when we accepted them that they were here for temporary safe haven purposes and we’re reluctant to alter that but in all of these things we’ll try and behave in a sensitive sensible fashion.

MITCHELL:

So it’s a possibility?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well yes but I would prefer they went back because it’s always important in these situations that consistent with humanitarian behavior if you say you’re going to take people on a certain basis if you then alter that later you disappoint other people who are trying to get into the country and who think the rules can be changed to accommodate people who for some other reason are actually in Australia.

MITCHELL:

In retrospect was it the right thing to do, do you think?

PRIME MINISTER:

Absolutely I have no doubt in the world it was the right thing to do and it demonstrated to the world that Australia had a heart and we made the lives of 4,000 people who emerged from a tragic situation that much more bearable and I’m proud of the fact that we were able to do it. I mean, our per capita response was terrific, the Americans only took 20,000 and we took 4,000 and their population is far greater a proportion than ours.

MITCHELL:

Speaking of the Americans again, the US official Alan Greenspan has been quoted overnight as saying he’s willing to increase interest rates again, that’s creating some nervousness on markets around the world already. What’s your reaction to that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don’t talk about the current or future level of interest rates.

MITCHELL:

Ok. What about unemployment, are we at rock bottom? I see predictions from Treasury we could go lower.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes I read that research. I think there’s something in that. The productivity of the Australian economy has got better and there’s every reason to believe that we could go lower. We could go significantly lower if the Senate would pass our unfair dismissal laws and if we can guarantee the jobs of young people by entrenching youth wages in our system and I repeat my request to the Labor party and others in the Senate to change their obstructionist attitude on those two things.

MITCHELL:

The banks have got a fair deal of egg on their face over the deal with John Laws, I’m starting to wonder if they really understand people, the banks, what do you think?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think it’s a bit unfair to just sort of in one sweep say a large industry sector is out of touch for not behaving reasonably.

MITCHELL:

They’ve been on the nose for a while.

PRIME MINISTER:

It’s a very big organisation. I mean banks are large organisations. Australian banks are very profitable. They’re very well run. One of the bull points of the Australian economy that I was able to reputably make in New York and in Japan was that we had a well run stable, well supervised reliable banking system. Now, part of that is due to the activity of the authorities of the Reserve Bank and the other regulatory authorities…..

MITCHELL:

But then you look at NAB profit today, $2.1 billion record profit, you hear the public screaming about fees.

PRIME MINISTER:

Look I understand that and that’s why you need more competition and that’s why I’ve repeatedly said that we’re not going to look at the possibility of further bank mergers until there’s more competition in the Australian banking system. But I do recognise that whilst it’s easy for people to take pot shots at the banks and many do and on occasions I have criticised the banks and I don’t apologise for having done that because I think they’ve made errors of judgment and we are in a free society, people criticise governments every day and governments have rights to criticise others that they think they’re justified. I think something has to be said for the fact that one of the strengths of the Australian economy is that we do have stable financial system. It’s seen around the world as one of the best and we are also seen as having a world class regulatory system for our financial institutions and that’s one of the reasons why Australia has the capacity to become a world financial centre.

MITCHELL:

This is almost related. I see Peter Reith is suggesting executive salaries are too high, do you agree with him?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well some of them in the eyes of the ordinary punter are far too high.

MITCHELL:

Do you think they’re too high? Or is it a legitimate……..

PRIME MINISTER:

Well you can’t control them but you can’t blame somebody who’s on a low wage struggling to raise a large family and working their heart out, you can’t blame them for feeling just as though some of the salaries paid are a little excessive. Now I think you have to have a sense of proportion about this. We can’t hope to have top class chief executives in this country unless we pay them the market rate and I totally support that and you’re being unrealistic that if you don’t do it. But I think on occasions they just go beyond what is necessary and that creates a very bad impression and I think this is something where business ought to engage a bit of self regulation.

MITCHELL:

Self-regulation to keep them down.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well to stop them being in some isolated cases so large as to create a very bad impression.

MITCHELL:

Fair enough. The radio industry, do you think, what do you and Meg Less suggestion we need full disclosure for people who host talk radio programmes. A bit like a pecuniary register.

PRIME MINISTER:

I have never believed that you can regulate honorable behavior. People are either, behave whether it’s in commerce or politics or any other walk of life, if somebody doesn’t have an instinct for good behaviour and honour, well, no amount of regulation is going to change that but we do live in an era now where people are required to disclose everything under the sun. Politicians are, and if you make a technical error in filling out a form you get belted from one end of the field to the other. I suppose that’s part and parcel of it. I’d be interested to examine that, I don’t want to say just at the flick of the fingers yes I’m in favour of that. I’d like to think through the ramifications of it but I have a very simple view Neil on this which I’ve said before and I repeat and that is if people want to read commercials that’s fine, some do, some don’t, I don’t express the view, I don’t object to it but clearly if I hear somebody say something on radio then I assume that that is that person’s view and it’s been in no way influenced by a commercial arrangement.

MITCHELL:

Or indeed a question, if next time you’re interviewed by John Laws, would you wonder where the question was coming from?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don’t want to get into personalities. I’ve stated a principle. To be fair to him and to be fair to others it’s appropriate that I state a principle. There are certain inquiries going on and the man is entitled to natural justice like anybody else is.

MITCHELL:

They’ve been having a look at the ABC now.

PRIME MINISTER:

I beg your pardon.

MITCHELL:

There’s even talk about having a close look at the ABC now.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I’m once again, I’m not going to start dragging the ABC into it anymore than it may be in or out of it now. I mean, I have stated a principle. I think it’s a very simple principle. I don’t think it’s very hard and as soon as this issue came up I stated that principle. That remains my view. There are inquiries under way. I don’t seek to pass individual judgements on individuals.

MITCHELL:

Just quickly you mentioned the view of being Sydney-centric at the beginning of the discussion. The Premier was, our Premier here, was a little concerned that you and Bob Carr was swanning around the United States. Was that Sydney-centric?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I thought that was a bit strange of Jeff to say that because he received, according to my advice, he received exactly the same invitation to go to that conference in New York and he couldn’t go for reasons I fully understood. It was a fairly lately delivered, late delivered invitation because the conference was put on at the last minute and it just happened that Bob Carr was in New York privately and he was able to go but I’ve actually seen the invitation that was delivered to Mr Kennett and an indication from his office that he couldn’t go. Look I’m not Sydney-centric, I’m Australian-centric.

[ends]


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