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AUS: Transcript - Howard Interview

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

Subjects: East Timor, Steve Pratt and Peter Wallace, Branko Jelen, Defence capabilty, China and Taiwan relations, Olympic tickets, Driza-bone, Austudy, memorial for Reverend John Flynn, defence spending, Victoria election, buy Australia campaign, business tax reform, republic referendum, Rafter at the US Open

MITCHELL:

The Prime Minister, Mr John Howard, good morning.

PRIME MINISTER:

Hello, Neil.

MITCHELL:

Mr Howard, the situation in East Timor I find quite frightening, are Australian lives in danger?

PRIME MINISTER:

There is always a risk for personnel in a situation like this. We hope they 're not in immediate danger but they are in some danger - our police are, our UN workers. I have personally made it very clear to the Indonesian President in the discussion I had with him last weekend that if any Australian lives were lost or any injury were done to Australians that would have horrendous consequences for the relationship between our two countries. I am worried about them and I've been worried about them for a number of weeks. We hope that the latest indications that the Indonesian authorities are taking more seriously their responsibilities continue, that there is a greater determination by the Indonesians to bring the situation under control. They have a responsibility to protect lives, to protect unarmed UN personnel, unarmed UN police. That was the understanding and the basis on which those police, including the Australian AFP contingent, went in.

MITCHELL:

Are the Indonesian authorities on the ground not following that obligation?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, one can only be disturbed at some of the reports and the vision coming out of Timor over the last 24 hours. Now, the poll itself seemed to be a triumph for a free expression of will. I don't know the outcome. Whatever it is I hope it is fully respected by everybody, particularly the Indonesian Government. And the Indonesians deserve credit for having held the ballot. I've said that all along and I'll say it again, they at least, this government has at least given the people of East Timor the right to determine their future. That's more than any previous government has done and they deserve credit for that. It would be a terrible shame for their reputation quite apart from the lives already lost and the lives potentially at risk if the situation were to get out of hand.

MITCHELL:

Will we evacuate Australians, are we ready to evacuate Australians?

PRIME MINISTER:

We are ready to do so. I do not believe the situation has reached that point and it would be alarmist and inappropriate of me to suggest it has reached that point. But we are ready and we will, of course, execute any evacuation plan if that becomes necessary. I don't believe it will. I hope it doesn't. And it's in everybody's interest that the situation be kept fully under control.

MITCHELL:

Has there been contact with the United States' Government on this? They seem to be talking strongly about [inaudible].

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, there's an ongoing contact with the United States. I haven't myself had any immediate contact with the United States. Neil, clearly you can't have a peacekeeping force in somebody else's country unless the government of that country agrees. It was always the case that Indonesia was not going to agree to have a peacekeeping force before the ballot was held and Dr Habibie's spokeswoman made that plain this morning. I heard her say so. She restated long-standing Indonesian government policy. I mean, I've known that. Everybody has known that. And people who've been running around saying there should be peacekeepers there now have just been deliberately ignoring that and in effect saying that, you know, whether the Indonesians like it or not. Now, once the ballot is over then it may well be that there is a different attitude on the part of the Indonesian Government. And there have already been some indications to that effect but this thing has to be handled intelligently. We are, of course, following it day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute almost. And Alexander Downer has been in regular contact with his Indonesian counterpart. So, overall, we remain hopeful. We are disturbed at the violence that has been apparent over the last 48 hours. We regret deeply the loss of life of apparently three UN workers. We remain concerned but not alarmed about the safety of Australians. I don' t want to overstate that but I don't want any Australians to think that we are in any way complacent. But there was always a risk. I made that plain when the civilian police were committed. There's always a risk in these situations and you can't guarantee that something won't go wrong. But we've taken every precaution that can be taken in circumstances like this.

MITCHELL:

You said that you'd made it clear there would be horrendous consequences for relations with Indonesia if any Australian life was lost or anybody was injured. Does that mean you'll hold the Indonesian authorities responsible for the situation in East Timor and responsible for the security of the Australians?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, they are responsible. They're responsible û the Indonesian military and police authorities, armed military and police authorities, are responsible for keeping order, of course they are. That's the whole basis on which the civilian police, not only from Australia but also from other parts of the world, went there. Now, as I say, I hope nothing goes wrong. We remain optimistic that it won't but you can't discount the danger. And I 've never disguised the fact that if you send civilian police and UN workers into a volatile situation such as this there is a danger.

MITCHELL:

It is a side-show, to an extent, but was Tim Fischer correct, did he do the right thing or was it an embarrassment to help smuggle tapes out of Timor?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, I think Tim can answer for himself. Tim went there as a leader of a delegation. He's quite able to answer for himself. I mean, I would not expect that Tim would be engaged in any side-show. I would have thought he would have acted with the best of motives.

MITCHELL:

I wasn't accusing him of it. I was thinking more of the action by Richard Carleton.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, he's been very heavily criticised but I wasn't there. I think Tim's the bloke to talk about that.

MITCHELL:

Yep, I've spoken to him yesterday. Another issue - the CARE workers, Pratt and Wallace. There are claims that they were tortured, was Australia aware at any stage that they were being tortured?

PRIME MINISTER:

I have not been told of that, no. I wasn't not aware of it.

MITCHELL:

Now the allegation is made what is the responseà

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, all the information that's come to me is not to that effect but I'll have that investigated.

MITCHELL:

You haven't been briefed on it.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, until now, until the allegation has been made and it's only just now it's been made there's been no suggestion that they were tortured. And the reports I had from people who saw them, including Malcolm Fraser and the Australian Ambassador in Belgrade, Chris Lamb, who I saw in Canberra two months ago and he gave me a detailed briefing, all the indications were that although the conditions were very spartan and they were under an enormous amount of personal stress I had not previously been told nor had it previously been suggested that they had been physically tortured. Now, obviously anything that's claimed in that area will be investigated but up until now that's not been a claim that's come to my notice.

MITCHELL:

Obviously we're able to speak more freely now that they are released from custodyà

PRIME MINISTER:

Except that their colleague, Branko Jelen, is still in captivity and he is equally innocent therefore some of the constraints that applied before Steve and Peter were released continue to apply if we remain concerned as an international community about getting Branko out. That's the only caveat I' d put on perhaps what you're about to ask and how I might reply.

MITCHELL:

Okay, what I was about to ask was is there absolutely no doubt that these men were guilty ofà

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh look, absolutely. We didn't have a before and after release line on that issue. There's never been any suggestion to me that they were other than bona fide aid workers.

MITCHELL:

Now, this is related to both areas I suppose, related to defence - can we defend ourselves? I mean, we've got the head of the army, Lieutenant General Frank Hickling reported today saying that we have major equipment shortages in defence, we can't really fight a war, is that right?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, it's fair of the army commander to be speaking up and making claims in relation to equipment. We don't face a military threat in the immediate future. Nobody is going to invade Australia in the immediate future and when you say, can we fight a war, I think you really have to say, if a major military threat to Australia were to arise would we be in a position to respond. Well, a major military threat wouldn't arise overnight. You do have warning of these thingsà

MITCHELL:

It would take a while to build up a defence.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, but it also takes a while û I mean, let's face it, who is going to attack Australia overnight û nobody. I mean, nobody's in a position to do so. The military capacity that this country needs to develop is a military capacity to deal with situations like East Timor and we are ready to do that. Even Laurie Brereton, the spokesman on Foreign Affairs for the Labor Party, who's been pretty partisan on the Timor issue, admitted on radio this morning that we were ready, the Australian Army, was ready to play a role if needed in some kind of peacekeeping involvement in East Timor.

MITCHELL:

But we do have Lieutenant General Hickling going further though. He's talking about helicopters, ground based defences, the need for, I suppose, protection from nuclear and chemical defence, the need for defence against these things.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, once again you have to relate need to perceived threat. And I'm not sounding complacent. I mean, bear in mind, under our government defence is the only area that's been quarantined from any cuts, the only area, and we' ve put a floor under defence spending and I've not ruled out the need to increase defence expenditure in the future.

MITCHELL:

The situation in China makes this increasingly relevant, doesn't it? I mean, several reports this week that the United States may well ask Australia for help if the situation between China and Taiwan escalates.

PRIME MINISTER:

I think there's an obligation on both China and Taiwan to handle their relations without resort to hostilities and that's a view that I've put publicly and it's a view that I'll be putting to the Chinese President when he comes to Australia in the next few days. We support a one-China policy very strongly. We have had the policy now on both sides of politics for a number of years. I don't believe it will come to a war between the mainland of China and Taiwan and I think there's an obligation on the United States to use its undoubted influence on Taiwan to ensure that that doesn't come about.

[COMMERCIAL BREAK]

MITCHELL:

Mr Howard, more Olympic trouble that we've seen, a problem with the tickets, they've changed the schedule and people have bought tickets for events that mightn't be on. What's your reaction to that?

PRIME MINISTER:

If I were, you know, in that situation I'd be a bit cranky but gee, I can't give a running commentary on SOCOG.

MITCHELL:

A lot of people do.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, that's right but look, I don't run SOCOG, you better get Michael Knight on the phone or Sandy Holloway or John Coates and ask them. But I can't accept responsibility for what SOCOG does. They run it under an Act of the New South Wales Parliament. I am deliberately trying to be very cooperative in relation to the games because I want them to be a huge success. But making them a success obviously involves keeping the fans happy.

MITCHELL:

Okay. Felicity, go ahead please.

CALLER:

Good morning Neil. Good morning Mr Howard. I have just got a little bit of good news for all Australians. I am not sure whether Mr Howard is aware that Driza-bone was sold to the English several years ago, like a lot of our Australian icons. A private equity group has just faxed the previous Managing Director that it has come back into Australian hands so it's now back in the fold.

PRIME MINISTER:

That's very good news isn't it.

CALLER:

It is very good news indeed andà.

MITCHELL:

Are you part of this Felicity?

CALLER:

Well, I am not part of it, Neil, I am just, you know, what do you call it, the power behind the throne I guess.

MITCHELL:

Oh, are you married to theà

CALLER:

I am married to one of theàto the chief of one of the private equity fundsà

MITCHELL:

Fantastic.

CALLER:

à.put it in there.

PRIME MINISTER:

I've got a Driza and somebody gave me a Driza some couple of years ago and it's a very distinctive Australian product and that is good news.

MITCHELL:

Thanks Felicity. Hello Janelle.

CALLER:

Oh hello Mr Mitchell, Mr Howard. Look, I am ringing about Austudy, I am a bit nervous. My son receives Austudy, he goes to uni, and we have received notification, he got his group certificate from Centrelink and as of this year he is not allowed to claim any education expenses when he returns his taxation form. I was just wondering why.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, there's always been a limit on private educational expenses. It hasn' t, sort of,àyou say he's not entitled to claim any educational expenses?

CALLER:

Yes because he receives Austudy.

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh, I am sorry, I see what you mean. Well, is there necessarily anything wrong with that? I mean, isn't the purpose of Austudy to provide help for people who study in circumstances where they are not earning an income or earning only a very modest income? Isn't that the idea that the taxpayer provide a living allowance, some support while somebody is studying because that person has no other means of support. So therefore if that person is earning an incomeà

CALLER:

Yes. He works eight hours a week at a service station.

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh, eight hours a week for a service station.

CALLER:

Yep, that's what he works and plus he hasà

PRIME MINISTER:

But doest that take him over the tax free threshold?

CALLER:

Just over.

PRIME MINISTER:

What eight hours a week?

CALLER:

Yep. So he's not allowed to claim any education expenses.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, look, I can understand his disappointment of that. What are his education expenses? There's only quite aàthere's quite a small limit, quite a ceiling on that though isn't there? It's only a few hundred dollars.

MITCHELL:

All right Janelle, thank you very much for calling. Mr Howard, I remember asking you about this once before about the memorial for the Reverend John Flynn.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes.

MITCHELL:

It's reported today that the boulder marking that memorial is being removed tomorrow, it's gone, it's going. I know you were concerned about it before.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I was. My understanding - and I checked about this because I heard, you know, some talk about it last time - my understanding was that there had been a very, sort of, there had been an amicable arrangement reached between those who were concerned about not disturbing the memorial but also those who were sympathetic to the aboriginal groups involved. And it was my understanding that an amicable arrangement had been concluded, is that not your understanding?

MITCHELL:

Well, I am getting mixed messages. What's yourà

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I must say in the light of what you have said, and a story on page three of the Herald Sun this morning, there are mixed messages but the arrangement thatàI was briefed on this last night because amongst other things it might come up this morning. And that was the information that I had been given but in view of what you have said, I'll go and check it again.

MITCHELL:

Thank you. Hello Martin, go ahead please.

CALLER:

Oh, morning Prime Minister. Morning Neil. I just wanted to raise again the matter of our defence capability. Prime Minister, you say that you are not wishing to sound complacent but you sounding exactly like Neville Chamberlain with peace in our time. It seems to me that we have regional responsibilities and whilst we may not perceive an immediate threat to Australia there's plenty of activity in the region which indicates there's a good deal of instability and we may be called upon to assist at any time. And we don't have the capability to do so. Little peacekeeping forces are really beside the point.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I know the history of Europe in the 1930s, I have studied it very closely. And whilst I am not in any way complacent I think to compare other situation in our region with situation in Europe and with Nazi Germany in the late 1930s is not an accurate comparison. I really, I just can't accept that. I do agree with you that our emphasis has to be on the capacity to be involved in regional peacekeeping operations of varying sizes. And if you look back at the last 30 year period virtually that's gone by since the end of the Vietnam War that has really been the constant need and call on Australia's military capacity. Now I repeat, we haven't cut defence at all. It's the one area that's been quarantined. I have never ruled out and I do not rule out as late as today the possibility that in the not too distant future we will need to increase defence spending in this country. And I would be willing to argue anywhere with the Australian public the need to do that, and to reorder the priorities of this country to ensure that it comes about. So we are not complacent but it's all too easy just to sort of make the comparison with the 1930s because there were calamitous consequences through the appeasement of that time without sitting down and seriously comparing now with the 1930s. And frankly the circumstances are very different in our own region.

JOURNALIST:

Yep. Thank you Martin. Mr Howard, during the election campaign you don't muzzle your backbenchers do you?

PRIME MINISTER:

No I don't.

JOURNALIST:

Are you aware that that's what's happening here?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I've read all of that. I mean look, I'm not going to give a commentary on Jeff Kennett's campaign. You ask me what I do, well I don't. But each to his own.

JOURNALIST:

I can't imagine you running ad that says û ôJohn f---ing rulesö- either can you?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, once again I don't want to talk about the Victorian campaign.

JOURNALIST:

But obviously you think he's going to win don't you?

PRIME MINISTER:

I reckon he'll win, yes I do. More so he deserves to win.

JOURNALIST:

Easily?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well comfortably. Look, there can be a protest vote and you never take an election for granted. I don't take this election for granted. If you ask me do I think he deserves to win û of course he does because he's been a very good Premier and it's been a very effective government and there isn't a strong alternative. Do I think that he will win overwhelmingly, easily û well I don't know. It's quite possible that some people will say gee we can afford to afford to give him a flick. And frankly that would be a big mistake because if too many people do that, well you can be in danger. And I think it's a huge mistake for people toà..you can't take anything for granted in modern politics because it's so, you know, so less tribal and predictable than it used to be.

JOURNALIST:

I believe you're launching a 'buy Australia' campaign tonight.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes I am.

JOURNALIST:

Will the Government give preference to Australian purchases?

PRIME MINISTER:

We are not disposed to give huge preferences but we always give some margin. But you've got to be very careful of the precedent that you create, the implication it carries on the world trade scene. But certainly we want to encourage people to exercise their own personal preference in favour of purchasing for Australia. I mean we've got to worry about our responsibility of the taxpayer and sometimes you do the right thing by the taxpayer by buying the cheaper, suitably equivalent important product because it's so much cheaper.

JOURNALIST:

The Ralph Report on taxation, business taxation, I read today that it's not even allowed to leave the Cabinet room it's soàthere's so much nerveà.or so edgy about leaks. Are we going to have that made public soon, will there be decisions soon on business tax?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well yes. We have started briefing everybody very very intensely. There've been discussions in the Cabinet, the Ministry, discussions within the Government parties, and I hope that we'll be able to announce some of the decisions and make some of our attitudes public within the next few weeks. We've worked very hard on that and I think the public and the business community in particular will be very happy.

JOURNALIST:

Similar think on the republic, you've told me that you plan to make aà..well at least one or several statements quoted to the poll. Have you decided when you'll do that?

PRIME MINISTER:

No. But closer I'll be making some considered statements. People know my view but I don't want to be in a situation of just giving a running commentary on each and every comment that's made.

JOURNALIST:

There's a bit of tension between your Ministers. Mr Abbott, [inaudible] ethnic cleansing and Joe Hockey belting him back.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yeah, well, a bit of static. It doesn't matter.

JOURNALIST:

A bit over the top isn't it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well look, once again I'm not going to start commenting on every contribution a person makes. I mean inevitably people will make contributions. But there is a veryàthere's a considered mature argument to be made in favour of the stability of the present system and against mucking around with something that has worked so well. And I will be making my contribution, perhaps several.

JOURNALIST:

You're not concerned aboutà.

PRIME MINISTER:

Closer to the event.

JOURNALIST:

You're not concerned about your Ministers having a bit of a bit of a go at each other?

PRIME MINISTER:

Neil, I said long ago that we'd allow a free vote and we're allowing a free vote and I don't think the thing is being conducted other than in a thoroughly open and gentlemanly fashion.

JOURNALIST:

Now Mr Howard, I'm a bit worried about the Americans. We've had the problem with the lamb now Patrick Rafter injures his shoulder. He plays four-and-a-bit sets. He goes off with a crook shoulder and they boo him. I reckon I've got about 300 faxes from people wanting to support Pat Rafter. It was a bit rough wasn't it?

PRIME MINISTER:

I thought it was very unsportsman like of them to do it. Out of character I 've got to say with the behaviour of the crowd at Boston on the 1st day of the Davis Cup which Janette and I witnessed a few weeks ago. But I think pretty poor. Rafter is the last bloke to quit in phony circumstances. He's absolutely the last bloke to do that and I thought it was pretty tinny of them to do so.

JOURNALIST:

Thank you for your time. Are you coming down for the Grand Final in a few weeks?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh yeah, I'm coming down on Sunday to come to the launch of Mr Kennett's campaign. But I'll be down in Victoria next week and I'll certainly be down for the Grand Final.

JOURNALIST:

Thank you very much for your time.

PRIME MINISTER:

Okay.

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