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AUS: Howard Interview

1 October 1999

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


MITCHELL:

Mr Howard, good morning.

PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning.

MITCHELL:

How old are you?

PRIME MINISTER:

I am 60.

MITCHELL:

Do you ever feel old?

PRIME MINISTER:

No. The answer to your question is, it's completely moveable.

MITCHELL:

The older we get.

PRIME MINISTER:

That's right. It's an utterly moveable thing. It's one of the oldest sayings in the language about you are as old as you feel. It was a great night.

MITCHELL:

What's the idea behind it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, just to recognise the immense contribution of the older section of the population. I mean, they are the generation of Australians who live through war, depression, the post-war reconstruction. They are now watching their grandchildren and they themselves are joining in this fantastic information technology age. The stories last night were just awe inspiring. There were 38 awards given to senior achievers and there were people who had been prisoners of warp, people who dedicated their whole lives to caring for people. There was one lady there who had a profoundly handicapped child and a husband who had been ill for 30 years and a large family to boot. On top of that, she devoted her life to looking after handicapped people. They were just fantastic stories. And, of course, Slim was a great choice. He has got fantastic energy. He made me feel weary when he was describing the programme that he had racing around Australia and he just keeps going. As you say, he is 72, he's alert, articulate and a great entertainer.

MITCHELL:

Do you think you'll still be Prime Minister when you are 72?

PRIME MINISTER:

I reckon not, no. I won't have a wife if I am!

MITCHELL:

Some more serious matters - Timor. Will Australian troops, peacekeeping troops, under what is being called 'hot pursuit', will they chase militia into West Timor?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh, look, I think from a practical point of view that is not going to arise. This is really is a bit of a....it is in the papers, it's a bit of a nitpicking beat up. The mandate is about East Timor. And there was a theoretical question put and it was answered by the Defence Minister and I think some of the criticism of him this morning is unfair. In practical terms, as Peter Cosgrove pointed out, we are focussed entirely on East Timor and there is no way we are going to disrespect Indonesian sovereignty.

MITCHELL:

Won't it be a matter of concern to the Indonesians though, if there is even speculation that we could go into West Timor?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, as I have said, we are going to respect Indonesian sovereignty in West Timor, absolutely.

MITCHELL:

So what happens if we are chasing them, we just stop at the border?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, we haven't got anywhere near that situation. And I don't think it's helpful for me to hypothesise. We are dealing with a delicate situation, delicate in the sense that it involves the operational behaviour of the Interfet forces. Delicate in the sense that it impinges on our relationship with Indonesia. Look, we do not want any unnecessary disputes with Indonesia despite the difficulties of the past few weeks and they are likely to go on for a while. Our medium and long-term goal is to have a close productive relationship with Indonesia. We have never sought any other and I regard the relationship with Indonesia as very important and I say again to the Indonesian Government and the Indonesian people that this country seeks in the long-term a productive, mutually respectful relationship. We value the importance of Indonesia to us. We have not sought the tension that has arisen. It has arisen because we felt we were left with no alternative other than to lead the drive for the international force because of the breakdown of order in East Timor.

MITCHELL:

The United States I notice is talking about tougher reaction towards Indonesia in a diplomatic sense if necessary. Do we still have room for that? Can we get tougher diplomatically?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, we are not seeking to get tougher with Indonesia.

MITCHELL:

Are we still training the troops, the personnel..?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, the military connections, I understand, are in suspension. We haven't sent those people home to my knowledge but any other military cooperation is completely in suspense.

MITCHELL:

The word was there'd be exercises this month, I think,...

PRIME MINISTER:

No, they are not going to happen.

MITCHELL:

Do we have any promises or guarantees from Indonesia about sheltering militia within West Timor? They won't do it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, there have been general assurances given that refugees in the rest of Indonesia from East Timor won't be harassed. As to the sheltering of militia well, I think we just have to deal with the situation as it arises.

MITCHELL:

They haven't promised us...

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I mean, there are things said in a generic way but we have to really deal with situations as and when they arise in relation to that. But our aim is to do the job under the supervision of the United Nations in East Timor. And that job is being done very well at the present time and I congratulate General Cosgrove and all of the members of the force. They'll be joined by a contingent from Korea in the next week which is very welcome. And we hope to have more from the Philippines over the weekend. The New Zealanders are increasing their contribution and I thank Mrs Shipley for that to almost 1,000 - a full battalion.

And I say again, as far as Indonesia is concerned there is tension and that is unavoidable but we are not seeking to make it any worse. But we, of course, believe what we have done in relation to East Timor to be absolutely right and if Australia had not taken a lead, in my view there would not have been a multi-national force in East Timor. Well, certainly not as quickly as it has. And this is a difficult situation and it's easy, I suppose, at the edges for people to nitpick and ask questions and say, you know, didn't somebody say this and didn't you say something slightly different and doesn' t that mean that there is confusion. Now, that is in a situation that is as fast moving as this and as difficult as this, that is easy to, sort of, do and if one sets out to do that I suppose along the way you can say there are differences.

But the central essence of what we are doing is fundamentally and overwhelmingly correct. We seek peace and order in East Timor. We seek a peaceful climate for the people of that territory. We also want in the medium and longer term to have a good relationship with Indonesia. But a relationship where each respects the other, where we understand the importance of Indonesia and we understand the pride of the Indonesian people, the size of that country, the difficult transition to democracy. And I respect them for undertaking that journey.

MITCHELL:

Do you think they haven't perhaps respected Australia in the past?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I wouldn't say that. What I mean by reference to respect is that no relationship can work unless each allows for differences of emphasis. And the other thing we have got to remember is that we are talking in this situation about values in a way that are not peculiarly Australian or peculiarly Asian, we are talking about really values that are universal.

MITCHELL:

Yes, but it does concern me when I see comments both from some Indonesian officials and Dr Mahathir, the Malaysian Prime Minister, talking about we don't want white faces there. I mean, even yesterday Dr Mahathir is talking about we want Asians not white bullies with guns.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, you know what I said in relation to Dr Mahathir's comments. I mean, they were wrong and I made it plain that they were quite unacceptable to the Australian Government. And we at a military level, our military would be very happy to work with the Malaysians.

MITCHELL:

But isn't this introducing an element of almost a racial element to relations in this area?

PRIME MINISTER:

Neil, I have to be...I mean, I never use expressions that can be construed and the Australian Government doesn't. I do not want to comment for reasons I ask you to understand in this difficult situation, more than to refute the substance of the allegation made by Dr Mahathir. It was wrong, and I have made it very plain that our troops are acting quite impeccably and completely in accordance with their mandate.

MITCHELL:

The Indonesian Ambassador leaving the country said that Australia's relations with Indonesia were tense, which I suppose is obvious, but we are on a step ladder, we're on the top step and somebody's got to fall off. What do you think he means by that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I am not sure. Look, it is tense but it's, in my view, still a relationship that both sides deep down see value in preserving and building on as time goes by. But we have to live through the next period which is going to be a tense and difficult period and we can't hope for, sort of, early dividends in the relationship. What we must do is to avoid any unnecessary aggravations. But consistent with what we are rightly doing, I mean, we are rightly part of the United Nations force in East Timor. It was right that we be involved and it was also in Australia's national interest and there was no alternative. And we have been internationally very supportive of Indonesia's position and understanding. I mean, when Indonesia was hit by the Asian economic crisis the country that argued most strongly for the International Monetary Fund to give it a fair go was Australia.

MITCHELL:

Just in terms of our future in the region, or our future role in the region, it is inevitably need a stronger defence force now does it not?

PRIME MINISTER:

I believe we do need to spend more on defence. We are examining the ways in which more might be spent in the most productive way. We are having another defence white paper prepared. It's too early at this stage to say well we need to spend it here and there but not somewhere else.

MITCHELL:

If it is personnel how do you encourage people to join the Army? You are something of a supporter of national service aren't you?

PRIME MINISTER:

I have always had the view that if the national need required national service I would argue for it. But the national need at the moment doesn't. All the military advice we get is that we don't need it but I have said that if we ever needed it then I wouldn't flinch from arguing for it. But we don 't need it at the moment therefore I am not arguing for it. How do you get more people? Well it can, very interestingly enough, many of the military people have told me that in the past few weeks there has been an upsurge of interest in recruitment. I guess it has got something to do with where there is activity in a area like that then people are more attracted to it.

MITCHELL:

And where do we get the money?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, we have to make decisions on that over the next few months. It is too early to take a decision on that and I don't want to set any alarm bells ringing anywhere. Fortunately we are in a strong financial position.

MITCHELL:

But the options are that if you want more money, other than the surplus, is to cut spending or to increase taxation.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, we will examine the whole situation. You will understand Neil that I can't announce it this morning because quite honestly we haven't looked at it. There are a whole range of options that are available to us. It depends on projections of growth, it depends on mid year updates of where the surplus is likely to be in a year or two's time. It depends on if you do increase defence spending when the impact of that increase will take place because defence spending is made up of what you might call running costs which is the cost of maintaining the forces and on top of that capital equipment. Now capital equipment falls in a rather lumpy fashion. You could have a year or two where you have got a big expenditure and you could have another year where its smaller. So...

MITCHELL:

Do you think people would be prepared to pay tax, extra tax?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think the Australian public will support increased defence spending. How they will express that support is a preference between different ways of financing it. It is too early to say, but I find in the community a recognition that we may have to spend more. I certainly won't be reluctant to argue for it. The Labor Party has said that it will support increased defence spending and I welcome that, it is very important that it be approached in a bipartisan fashion.

MITCHELL:

Would it be an option to delay the tax cuts?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well the tax cuts are part of the GST, there is no need at all to delay them, none whatsoever.

MITCHELL:

We'll take a quick break and come back with more including calls for the Prime Minister.

[Commercial break]

MITCHELL:

The Prime Minister is with me. We'll take some quick calls, just keep them quick because there is a lot to cover. Steve, go ahead please.

CALLER:

Good morning Mr Prime Minister

PRIME MINISTER:

Hello Steve

CALLER:

I would just like to, regarding the so called Howard Doctrine. I think you have come in for a bit of a shellacking rather unfairly on the thrust of your comments. I think there are a lot of things about so called white, western or European society, however you would want to categorise it, that we can be justifiably proud of. Things like the separation of powers, things likeà.

MITCHELL:

Steve, I'm sorry, but do you have a question rather than a speech?

CALLER:

...Free trade unions, I could go on and one...

MITCHELL:

Sure, but I would rather you didn't.

CALLER:

I think there is absolutely no reason why the Prime Minister of one of the countries in our region that actually adheres to those principles.

MITCHELL:

Thank you Steve, thank you very much

PRIME MINISTER:

Can I just say, very quickly, Steve, that I have always said that one of the great assets that Australian brings to our region is that we are distinctive. We have a lot of European associations, we are a projection in may ways of Western civilisation in this part of the world, we have very significant Asian Australian population, they nourish our nation a lot and we have a lot of links with North America. And that, I think, brings us very special assets when we come to deal with the region and we should not apologise for those assets, but see them as plus.

MITCHELL:

Thanks Steve. Warren. Hello, go ahead please.

CALLER:

Good morning Prime Minister

PRIME MINISTER:

Hello, Warren.

CALLER:

I was very, very surprised with our military. I thought our military was a lot bigger force than what it was. And raising the question this morning of increased taxes or cutting spending, I think, personally, as an Australian citizen, I'd rather pay more taxes and have a bigger defence force.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, that's an interesting view. We're going to approach this in a very careful, constructive way. And, as I said earlier, I welcome the expressed support of the Opposition for more defence spending and we just want to try and get it right in a patient and careful way.

MITCHELL:

Thanks for calling, Warren. Were you aware, Prime Minister, that the INTERFET troops have actually opened fire for the first time, the Gurkhas fired over the heads of two suspects who were running away in a town of Com which is where there were arrests recently of 15 people?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I get constant reports. I'd prefer not to say what report I've known of and when if you don't mind.

MITCHELL:

Yes, this is a wire report.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, I understand that but I hope you'll understand that I get a lot of very detailed, regular briefings and there are some things where it's obviously not appropriate for me to say when I may have known something.

MITCHELL:

Fair enough. Just talking about the size of the army û there's a $600,000, I suppose, grant in a sense, to be put towards cadets being announced today by your Government. What's the idea behind that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, it was part of our policy, I think, stand corrected, originally in 1996, to have a provision for that. And we have also co-operated with some State governments, particularly the Western Australian Government that has put a greater provision for cadets and I think it's very welcome.

MITCHELL:

Do you think that will flow through to the armed forces, is that the idea?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh no, I don't think that automatically follows but I think what we're doing with this is sending a message to young people that we place a higher priority on people joining the cadets than might have been the case 10 or 20 years ago. I think then there was a degree of unfashionability about it. I think it has become part of the mainstream disposition of younger people now and I think that's a very good thing.

MITCHELL:

Do you think young people are up to the discipline of the services?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think the young people of Australia today would be just as good as their fathers and grandfathers.

MITCHELL:

Did you do nasho?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I was in that age group that fell between û you may remember years ago we had a three month and then we went over to a situation where you had one in three that did the three months and I was in that age group and I wasn't one of the three. And then it disappeared altogether and then later on it came back for Vietnam for 12 months.

MITCHELL:

Can I ask you about something else û welfare. Fifty billion dollars a year on welfare, we can't afford that, can we?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, we can providing we continue to be a strong country economically and provided welfare is given only to people who need it.

MITCHELL:

Will you be looking at the criteria for the welfare groups?

PRIME MINISTER:

We won't be putting any limits on what this reference group can have a look at. We want to make certain our welfare system is modern, contemporary. We need a social security safety net but Jocelyn Newman has coined this, I think, very engaging phrase that rather than it being a hammock or a safety net we want it to become a trampoline.

MITCHELL:

But is the end result to have fewer people on welfare?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, but not take people off welfare who deserve support but to have fewer people on welfare because we give them a greater incentive to get back into the workforce or to do something else.

MITCHELL:

What are the problem areas? I know the disability pensions got an enormous problem.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, that has grown and that obviously needs to be examined. There has to be a proper examination of that, not with the view to taking it away from people who need it but with a view to ensuring that it is properly targeted. There's always a delicate balance here. The Government has got to provide a social security safety net but we would rather it be something that, trampoline like, encourages people to leave their dependency behind and get back into the workforce. And this is something that's recognised very widely in the community now. It's the right time to have a big debate on the future of welfare.

MITCHELL:

Are you looking at extending work-for-the-dole or the mutual obligationà

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, we certainly will be looking at ways of extending mutual obligation. We haven't made any decisions yet. We don't rule that out and nor we should. Work-for-the-dole has been a stunning success. As, indeed, has been the privatised Job Network. We are the first nation in the world to have a privatised Job Network and when we moved away from the old CES people predicted doom and disaster and the reverse has happened. The Job Network is easily outperforming the old Commonwealth Employment Services.

MITCHELL:

What do you think about the dole army, serve for the dole, serve in the army?

PRIME MINISTER:

I'm not attracted to that. I don't think that's the right spiritàthat's not the right way to build an army.

MITCHELL:

It's reported today that you're also looking at the prospect of requiring single parents to look for work when their child reaches a younger age [inaudible].

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we haven'tà.we don't have any proposal.

MITCHELL:

But are these the sorts of things that are floated in the paper that we haven't seen yet, discussion paper?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well what we're doing is having a reference group do a green paper.

MITCHELL:

But you've seen the discussion paper obviously.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I see a lot of papers Neil. But something doesn't become a paper until the government adopts it. And we've not adopted any discussion paper. What we have adopted is having a reference group chaired by the head of Mission Australia, Patrick McClure, and there'll be other private sector people on it. And they will be given a very broad remit to have a look at the whole gamut of welfare, against a few principles including the maintenance of a social security protection for people who need it. But also the principle of mutual obligation which is a very good principle. We give people help which they deserve, but we ask if they can to give something back in return.

MITCHELL:

I find it very hard to believe that there's 600,000 people in this country who are so ill they can't work.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that's one of the issues that ought to be looked at. Very definitely.

MITCHELL:

Is that a matter of the criteria then? You reassessà.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well obviously that is one of the issues that has to be examined.

MITCHELL:

Would you have target - $50 billion if youà?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I don't think you should set yourself a target. I think what you should do is have a set of principles and make sure that the system complies with those principles and if it's properly balanced, the principles, if they're properly balanced then you'll get a proper spending of the taxpayer's dollar. But if your concern is that we might be wasting money than my answer to that is I don't want any taxpayer's money wasted and we want a social security system that protects those who need protection, but avoids people receiving support who don't deserve that support.

MITCHELL:

Do you believe we are wasting some money in that $50 billion?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I guess there has to be some area where expenditure is being incurred that oughtn't be incurred. But perhaps some people would argue that there are some areas of need that are being unmet. And I'm sure in principle that 's probably the case.

MITCHELL:

Now a totally different area, are you losing a bit of patience with some of the Kosovo refugees? We have reports of some trashing of facilities, of some theft and people very reluctant to leave the country.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well no. I find those incidents regrettable, and the community will lose patience if they are repeated. And I do understand the trauma that these people have been through. And it has been a very successful exercise. My understanding is that of the 4,000 that came something in the order of 3,000 or thereabouts have been returned and there are more likely to go soon. And generally speaking people have been very grateful for the safe haven they've been given. I guess in 4,000 people you'll get some who are unreasonable, and as there are people who go overseas as Australians who don't always bring credit to this country. But the great bulk of them according to my information, I spoke to Philip Ruddock about this the other day, have been immensely grateful and they've behaved impeccably.

MITCHELL:

As a former smoker, what do you think about the GST reducing the size of cigarette packets? They say they won't have big packets any more.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don't want to sound a wowzer. I mean I smoked for 20 years and I gave it up 20 years ago, and it was the best thing I've ever done for my health. And I don't go around sort of saying aren't I marvelous having given it up. There's nothing more painful than that. I just think people should be discouraged by every reasonable means from smoking because it's clearly bad for your health.

MITCHELL:

[inaudible] GST though wouldn't it, to reduce the size of cigarette packets?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that's not our call. That's the call of the cigarette companies. We imposed a tax regime. They're certainly very dear, and on economic grounds alone it's not very attractive to smoke. But all I can say is it's the best thing I ever did to my health and I'm immensely grateful that I did it and so is my family.

MITCHELL:

Thank you for your time. I imagine you noticed the rugby league result on the weekend. Melbourne actually holds the premiership and your team was beaten.

PRIME MINISTER:

It was, and I congratulate the Storm. I went into the Storm dressing room after the match. They were in a very happy mood. Had a beer with them. Glenn Lazarus really is a great bloke, and I congratulate them. I'm sorry St George lost, but on the day the better team won and that's what it's all about.

MITCHELL:

Prime Minister, thank you.

[Ends]

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