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AUS: Howard Interview

23 September 1999

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP INTERVIEW WITH HOWARD SATTLER û RADIO 6PR


Subjects: Deployment of troops into East Timor, Indonesian Government, demonstrations, Peter Costello, republic referendum, AFL and NRL grand finals

SATTLER:

Good morning, Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning, Howard.

SATTLER:

Thanks for joining us on the programme today. On the scale of your toughest decisions in office how does the one to send the troops to East Timor rate?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh, in terms of responsibility, nine-and-a-half. It's far and away the most responsibility laid and the most significant decision that we've taken in terms of not only the moral and other responsibility involved in it but also what it represents for a change in direction for Australian defence and national security policy in this part of the world. What we've seen over the last few weeks, and particularly over the last week or two, is a significant change in the direction of Australian foreign policy and the abandonment of a generation of what I might call loosely, acquiescence in Indonesian sovereignty, and Indonesian will over East Timor. We want close relations with Indonesia. We have no quarrel with the Indonesian people. It's a very important relationship with us. But, in the end, we had to make a stand in relation to East Timor, particularly after that vote where almost 80 per cent of the East Timorese people voted for independence. The other thing you've got to remember is that Indonesian herself is changing. You hear a lot of anti-Australian voices coming out of Indonesia but not all the voices of Indonesia are anti-Australian on East Timor.

SATTLER:

Well, you're right, we don't have a quarrel with the Indonesians.

PRIME MINISTER:

We don't. We have a lot to share together in the years ahead. And we'll forever be neighbours and I hope forever we'll be close and have an important relationship. But we have to recognise that there are differences and, in the end, this country must always be prepared to do what it regards as the right thing. We tried to get an alternative solution. We tried to persuade the Indonesians to maintain law and order themselves. When that had clearly not occurred we had no alternative but to push and we successfully did so. And in a record time the Security Council of the United Nations passed a resolution giving authority for a peace enforcement operation. And I'm very proud that Australia was invited to lead it, was able to respond immediately to that invitation, not only to provide armed forces but also to provide the leadership. And Major General Cosgrove is already exhibiting the great qualities that has made him one of Australia's finest combat soldiers.

SATTLER:

All right, but we're copping flak from the outgoing government and, I think, outgoing President of Indonesia too, and his spokeswoman, a lady called Dewi Fortuna Anwar who seems to be actually whipping up animosity towards Australia and blaming Australia for those troops being there. Are you disappointed with those comments?

PRIME MINISTER:

I would prefer they weren't being made but I understand why they are being made.

SATTLER:

Well, why are they being made?

PRIME MINISTER:

Because he has a domestic political constituency and because his decision to allow a ballot in East Timor was not a popular decision. He actually showed a lot of guts in going out on a limb and saying I'm going to give the East Timorese people a say in their future. And because the vote went so heavily against East Timor remaining part of Indonesia, his critics are saying, there you are, it's your fault that we are going to lose this part of our territory.

SATTLER:

But it seems to me that they're almost trying to rewrite history, some of those people up there, because if I'm not wrong, didn't we sponsor Indonesia 's own bid for independence in 1949?

PRIME MINISTER:

Australia û well, back in 1946 û Australia supported the Indonesian aspiration for independence from the Dutch.

SATTLER:

They seem to have forgotten that.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I can understand your saying that but I'm glad that you remind your audience that over the years Australia has tried to be a good friend of the Indonesian people. Not only did we do that in 1946, in 1997 and 1998, when the Asian economic downturn hit Indonesia very hard, we in Australia gave help. We were one of the strongest supporters of Indonesia. And as a result of Australian representations the conditions imposed by the International Monetary Fund were a lot more reasonable and a lot more accommodating to the social and economic conditions of Indonesia. If it hadn't been for Australia's intervention with the International Monetary Fund then the burden put on Indonesia as a condition, the reform burden put on Indonesia as a condition of getting help from the IMF would have been a lot more severe. So we have been a consistent friend of Indonesia's but we' re not willing to allow that friendship to cloud the reality of what has happened in East Timor. And the reality is that the people of that territory, in the most appalling conditions of intimidation, have said loud and clear they want their freedom. And they're entitled to have that and the world owes them the opportunity to enjoy what they clearly voted for.

SATTLER:

All right, but what are you saying to Indonesia when there are street demonstrations, there are attacks on our Embassy û I think the latest one there were even shots fired at the Embassy û I mean, have you protested to the President about that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, of course we have made it clear to the Indonesians that we don't agree with any damage being done to our property, any more than I agree with people preventing employees of the Indonesian Embassy in Canberra going about their lawful business.

SATTLER:

Is that happening, is it?

PRIME MINISTER:

It did happen.

SATTLER:

And it's not on.

PRIME MINISTER:

It's now stopped. Nor do I approve of people damaging and defacing property belonging to Garuda Airlines, stopping people using the services of that airline. Howard, this is a difficult and delicate situation. We are simultaneously leading the international effort to help and protect the people of East Timor and, at the same time, looking to our own future and doing what we should be doing to keep the relationship with Indonesia not only intact but on a proper basis. Now, that's not a basis of acquiescence. It's not a basis of saying, well, it's a relationship we must preserve at any cost because that was the attitude unfortunately taken in earlier years. That's not my attitude and it's not the attitude of this Government. But we 'll try very hard to pursue both of those objectives. And they're not irreconcilable because our troops are not there to attack Indonesia. They' re not there to do any harm to the Indonesian population. They are there to enforce the peace, to protect the people of East Timor, to protect the UN mission and to facilitate humanitarian assistance.

SATTLER:

What do you think of Australians cancelling holidays to Bail?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, all of those things are understandable. I'm not aware of anything that makes Bali less safe or more dangerous than it's previously been. But you always get that kind of reaction.

SATTLER:

But also as retribution against the Indonesian [inaudible] who are involved in East Timor.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, people entitled to do that. I never seek, as Prime Minister, to tell people how to behave as individuals. I don't think that's my role. You accept that in a community of 19 million people they will have diverse views and they'll react in a different way.

[Commercial Break]

SATTLER:

Prime Minister, you have no doubt seen or been briefed on the Financial Review's front page story today where Treasurer Peter Costello appears to have put a timetable on his future and, I suppose, with that yours and he says he's only got another budget or two in him û do you agree?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I can understand, having been a Treasurer myself, I can understand that Peter finds the job very arduous. It is. He hasn't been in it quite as long as I was.

SATTLER:

What were you, about five or six years?

PRIME MINISTER:

I was five-and-a-bit years and Peter's had three-and-a-half. So he's got, what, another couple of years to go before he gets up. But I think he's done a very good job. He actually raised the article with me. He was a little surprised, so he told me, with the tone of it. He said he was just stating the obvious that he didn't want to stay Treasurer forever and I think that's perfectly understandable.

SATTLER:

Well, for him, what will life be after being Treasurer, have you got anything in mind for him?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, we'd naturally talk about it.

SATTLER:

And what do you conclude about it?

PRIME MINISTER:

What do I conclude about it? Well, he obviously doesn't want to stay in that job forever and I can understand that. There are all sorts of jobs people can have in Government.

SATTLER:

Yeah, well there's one called Prime Minister, do you think he's a chance for that in a couple of years?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh look, I can understand Peter having ambitions to be Prime Minister. I can understand that and I thinkà

SATTLER:

Well, you've always encouraged your senior ministers to have ambition, haven 't you?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, I think it's, I mean, I'd be the last person in the world to decry ambition in another. I had it and I think we all get a bit too, sort of, hung up about other people having ambition. I can understand it. I think Peter has been a very good Treasurer. I have got a lot of very good people. I mean, right at the moment Alexander Downer is performing brilliantly as Foreign Minister. He has handled this East Timor thing exquisitely well, I think very, very well. And a lot of the credit for getting that peacekeeping operation together has got to go to Alexander.

SATTLER:

So he's Prime Minister material is he?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, I am not anointing anybody. I don't anoint people, nobody anoints people. The leadership of the Liberal Partyà

SATTLER:

But, I mean, are these people capable of being Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, I think I have got a lot of very capable people and the point I am about to make to you is that the Liberal Party decides, the party room decides these things. I don't decide them and this idea that it's some kind of gift wrapped parcel to be handed aroundà

SATTLER:

But the Treasurer is really putting a timetable on it isn't he?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, that's not what he is doing at all.

SATTLER:

Well, he saysà

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no, I am sorry. I have had the advantage of a discussion with him about it and you'll find if you ask himà

SATTLER:

What about being Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no, about the article, about the whole thing was just a throw away line stating the obvious that he didn't want to stay Treasurer forever. And I think thatà

SATTLER:

Now, the Opposition are trying to force him toà

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh, well, of course, yes. Well, look, you'd expect that. But, Howard, the team is working well. He is a very good Treasurer. I don't think the Government has been in better shape. We have achieved an enormous amount this year. I have got to tell you that I am responding to the challenges of the job and enjoying those challenges immensely.

SATTLER:

I know, but he says a couple of years, a couple of more budgets. What do you say as Prime Minister, a couple more years or what?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh, I wouldn't put any time limit on those things. I don't. They are matters for the party but I can just say to you that as I feel at the moment I have never felt more in control of the situation.

SATTLER:

So as far as you're concerned you are there indefinitely are you?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I have always said when asked that question that I take these things one term at a time but I have never felt more in control of the job.

SATTLER:

That means you will definitelyàyour ambition is to lead the party at the next election, is that right?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh look, Howard, break it down. I have given you the answer.

SATTLER:

That's a reasonable question.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yeah, I know it is and I have given you a reasonable answer.

SATTLER:

All right. Now, you mentioned John Moore, the Defence Minister.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes.

SATTLER:

There is confusion, certainly out here in our world, about whether or not we are going to be calling up more people for the reserves. Now, it seemed that the Defence people were saying 'yes we are, we are going to need them in the current environment, we don't know how long the troops are going to be in East Timor'. And the Minister's Office was saying 'well, we haven't got anything in mind in that regard'.

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no, no. That's not right. John will be saying something more about this later today. But you'll find that the situation is completely under control.

SATTLER:

So do we need more people toà

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, obviously after a reasonable period of time you need to rotate them, you do.

SATTLER:

How long do you imagine, you must have had a thought about this, that we will require United Nations troops in East Timor because it's all very well to say we are there to protect them now but, you know, they are pretty fragile. And if we all bailed out of there I have got to suspect that there would be some people might come across, back across the border from West Timor.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, it's very hard, Howard, to put a precise time limit. I can't do that, I am not going to try and do so. I think it's silly for me to try and do so. I name a period of time and then if it's passed or it's not reached they say 'well, Howard got it wrong'. It then becomes a benchmark.

SATTLER:

But what's the minimum?

PRIME MINISTER:

I can't tell you that.

SATTLER:

They'll be there until Christmas won't they, surely?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I'd be very surprised if they were home before Christmas, very surprised.

SATTLER:

Yeah. Right, the Prime Minister is on the line, if you want to give him a call in the few minutes left you can.

I think everybody in the Liberal Party has got to admit you got a bit of a shock on the weekend at the Victorian election result. What lessons are there for the Federal Government in this?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, there are no direct lessons because it was run by the Victorian Liberal Party on State issues and it was run according to the wishes and the particular style of Mr Kennett. And I don't say that critically, I just say it factually. And I have talked to Mr Kennett on two or three occasions since the election so don't think from what I have just said that I am in any way having a go at him. I am not, I am just making the obvious point.

SATTLER:

He's rather contrite now isn't he?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I'll come to that in a minute but I am just making the point that it was a separate State election. What lessons are there? There are always lessons. But one of the lessons, and I understand this but it can always be reinforced, is that you never take the public for granted.

SATTLER:

And they did?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I think there was an element of that. There was an element, I think, that they looked as though they were. Now, that wasn't entirely their fault. And when you get an unexpected result you always look around for reasons afterwards and some of the reasons you come up with are accurate and some aren't. But I will never take the Australian public for granted.

SATTLER:

Particularly the bush.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, anywhere. And the very first thing I told my party room after we won in 1996 when we had such huge numbers and everybody was euphoric, I said 'never lose touch with the people, don't take them for granted and don't assume that the big majority we now have won't dissolve at the next election '. Now, of course, we did lose seats at the next election and I regard the election that we'll be coming to in a couple of years time is something that we will have to fight very hard to win. The Government at the moment is travelling well. We have got a lot of runs on the board. We are handling difficult issues with skill. But that doesn't guarantee us the next election. And I'll be fighting that on the basis that we can easily lose it. And that's the attitude that I instill in my party room.

I don't take the Australian people for granted, I don't regard the position I hold as something that is my right. It's a gift of the Australian people through the Liberal Party and I have never regarded the Australian people, I have never taken them for granted and I have never sought in any way to behave in a fashion that suggested I did. Now, that lesson was reinforced at the weekend and we can all benefit from that because we are ultimately the servants of the Australian people. We are not there by some, sort of, divine appointment. They are not lucky to have us. We are privileged to be invited to serve and that is the attitude that we should always bring to government.

SATTLER:

All right. Well, I have got to serve my listeners too and one of them wants to talk with you.

PRIME MINISTER:

Okay.

SATTLER:

Hello Michael.

CALLER:

How are you going Howard?

SATTLER:

The Prime Minister is on the line.

CALLER:

How are you going Mr Howard?

PRIME MINISTER:

Pretty good.

CALLER:

I'd just like to congratulate you on standing by East Timor and arranging for the ballot for their independence and sending Australian soldiers over there to help protect them.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you.

CALLER:

The only thing I can't understand is while we are doing all that you oppose independence of our own country.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, we are independent already.

CALLER:

Well, we are not our own country 100 per cent, like East Timor will be.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I am sorry, I don't agree with that. I have just spent several, you know, days talking to just about every world leader and I have never felt more independent in my life.

CALLER:

Yeah, but you know, despite that weà

PRIME MINISTER:

You are talking about the republic aren't you?

CALLER:

Yeah. Well, you know, just the difference. You know, we may be independent but a few years ago the Queen of England sacked an elected government by the Australian people. They had the power to do that then.

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no, the Queenà.actually, that couldn't be more wrong. That is a big mistake if that's your argument for a republic because when the Whitlam Government was dismissed by the Governor-General the Speaker of the House of Representatives conveyed a resolution carried by the Labor majority condemning a dismissal conveyed it to Buckingham Palace. And the response that came back was that the authority to handle these matters was firmly vested by the Australian Constitution in the Governor-General and the Queen had no power at all to intervene. It's very interesting you should raise that issue. If that is an argument for becoming a republic it's a very bad argument because the Constitution of Australia clearly places the authority to commission and remove the commissions on Australian Prime Ministers in the Governor-General. And on the one occasion in Australia's history where it's occurred and the Queen has been appealed to, Buckingham Palace has actually said she doesn't have any power to intervene.

So we couldn't be more independent. I mean, I don't mind arguments of another kind being advanced in favour of a republic although I am going to vote 'no' because I think our present system is terrific and very stable but please don't tell me that this country is not independent. We have behaved as a sovereign powerful independent country over the past few weeks and it puts paid to any suggestion that in some way we are subservient to others.

SATTLER:

Who is going to win the Grand Final on the weekend?

PRIME MINISTER:

St George Illawarra and Carlton.

SATTLER:

Oh, okay, so the AFL Grand Final is what I was really interested in.

PRIME MINISTER:

I thought you might be but I was being a little bit perverse in my response.

SATTLER:

All right, so the Blues will win.

PRIME MINISTER:

The Blues will win. I know that's against other predictions but I think they have come into the peak of their form and I think that victory, that one point victory, was a stunner against all of the odds. And I think they are on a bit of a trot.

SATTLER:

John Elliott told you that did he?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I haven't spoken to John. We don't, sort of, talk everyday but I'll look forward to seeing him at the Grand Final breakfast on Saturday morning in Melbourne and also at the game which I'll be going to and then I'll be doing the same thing the next day in Sydney.

SATTLER:

You are going to be footballed out by Sunday night.

PRIME MINISTER:

I will be footballed out completely but it will be great.

SATTLER:

All right. Good luck to you.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thanks a lot.

SATTLER:

Thanks for joining us on the programme today and I'll maybe see you in Melbourne.

[ends]

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