Q+A: Susan Wood interviews John Howard
Q+A: Susan Wood interviews John
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Q + A – March 24, 2013
Interviewed by SUSAN WOOD
JOHN It is very close. It’s closer than it was back in 1996, when I became Prime Minister. I felt we’d gone through a bit of a period in which both sides had taken it for granted, and we’d each got a bit lazy about the relationship. And I always thought that wonderful expression of Dr Johnson’s about keeping one’s friendships in good repair applied to Australia and New Zealand.
SUSAN You said last year at the Oxford Union that many Australians are condescending to New Zealanders.
JOHN Yes, some of them are. Yes.
SUSAN In what way?
JOHN Well, they just are.
SUSAN Just think we’re too small to bother with?
JOHN It is a little bit of that, but it’s changed and I tried in my own small way as Prime Minister of Australia to accelerate the process of that change.
SUSAN You did also, in 2001, change the way New Zealanders are treated there, and there are now some New Zealanders, a decade and a bit later, who are pretty much an underclass – second-class citizens, the way they’re treated in Australia. Is that what you intended?
JOHN Oh, I never intended to create a situation where people felt second-class in the country in which they were living, but there were justifiable reasons, from Australia’s point of view at the time, to make that change, and as to whether there should be changes made now – well, I’ll leave that to the current leaders of the two countries.
SUSAN No student loans, no access to student allowances. We’re talking people who may have lived in the country and paid taxes for many years. No unemployment, no sickness benefit. Up to 150,000 Kiwis in that boat. Does that sit comfortably with you?
JOHN But can I say that, you know, addressing that issue now and the figures that you're quoting are today’s figures. That really is a matter for the current Prime Minister of Australia…
SUSAN But do you think—?
JOHN …and the current Prime Minister of New Zealand.
SUSAN So you think you did the right thing, then?
JOHN I think what was done then, given the responsibilities that we had to people in Australia and the Australian population, I thought the decisions that were taken were fair, and there was an understanding reached between the two governments at the time. I don’t think I was seen as an Australian Prime Minister who was in any way unfriendly or unsympathetic to New Zealand. I’d have though quite the reverse.
SUSAN What I’m asking you though – do you think it’s fair now, with 2013 eyes?
JOHN I think what…
SUSAN But you were the architect?
JOHN I think what is judged as fair now is in the remit of the current leaders of the two countries.
SUSAN But I’m asking you as the architect of the legislation.
JOHN I know you are, and I’m giving you the answer that I’m giving you.
SUSAN Well, you're not giving me an answer.
JOHN Yes, I am. You may not like it, but I am giving it to you.
SUSAN So would you at least acknowledge that the Bondi surfer, the dole-bludging Bondi surfer is a myth?
JOHN Well, I regard it as a myth.
SUSAN Because Helen Clark used that language at the time.
JOHN I mean, they’re expressions— I mean, I never used those expressions, to my recollection.
SUSAN What would you do if you were the leader now? Would you change it?
JOHN Well, look, I’m not, and I’m not going to put myself in that position, because one of the rules I’ve tried to follow in my post-political life is not to give running commentaries on day-to-day issues. I’ll defend the things I did as Prime Minister.
SUSAN Do you have regrets over what you did as Prime Minister?
JOHN I don’t have any regrets about the major policy decisions that I took. Obviously, there are some individual things that I’d have done differently, but—
SUSAN Would you have apologised, for instance, for the Stolen Generations? Would that be something you would have done?
JOHN No, no, I don’t have a different view on that.
SUSAN Do you think you owe New Zealanders an apology for what we’re seeing as this underclass now in Australia?
JOHN No, I don’t.
SUSAN The NZIER, which is our Institute of Economic Research has done some numbers – because as we know, a lot of people go from New Zealand to Australia – and they are saying that if this continues until 2025, it will cost New Zealand $30 billion in lost human capital. Australia very much on the plus side of that ledger, isn’t it, when we’re talking about the brain drain and taking New Zealanders?
JOHN Yes, but without in any way intruding into the area of whether there should be changes now, because that’s a matter for John Key and whoever is the Prime Minister of Australia—
SUSAN But you wouldn’t oppose changes?
JOHN Well, that is a matter— Look, if current leaders want to make changes, then let them make them, and when I know what they are, I’ll have a view.
SUSAN Why, do you believe, wages are so much higher in Australia?
JOHN Well, because Australia’s economy has grown more strongly for a combination of reasons, and one of the reasons, of course, is the resource endowments that we have, and we are very fortunate providence has given us all that stuff and a lot of other people want it.
SUSAN We are very well resourced, actually, for our size. We have a lot of minerals, gas, oil in the ground. Do you think we should be digging it up, monetising it?
JOHN Well, I think any country should sensibly use natural resources. I don’t believe in leaving natural resources in the ground indefinitely. I know that’s a modern view that a lot of people have, and I think they’re wrong. And I think any nation that’s got natural resources should use them sensibly, and I think it’s possible. And the world is changing in relation to the exploitation of natural resources. The veritable—
SUSAN So is New Zealand sort of wasting an opportunity by not digging up what we have in the ground, by not getting the oil, the gas, the coal and everything else?
JOHN Well, I haven’t come here to give New Zealand lectures about what to do. I’m making a general observation that could apply with equal force with attitudes in Australia. There are some people in Australia who don’t believe in digging anything up. Some people in Australia think we should phase out coal. Australia’s the largest coal exporter in the world. I mean, that’s economic lunacy, the idea of phasing out the export of coal from Australia.
SUSAN Let’s talk about the on-going difficulties with Australia, which we have seen this week. Why, though, with this – I mean, Labor doing their best to self-destruct – is Tony Abbot not more popular?
JOHN Well, according to every single poll that’s been conducted over the last year, if there was an election held, the Liberal Party would win comfortably. The fact that his own approval ratings may not be as high as some people think they should be is quite immaterial.
SUSAN Is he a misogynist, as Julia Gillard tried to paint him as?
JOHN Absolutely no. That’s just ludicrous, desperate nonsense.
SUSAN She scored a bounce in the polls, though, when she said that, didn’t she?
JOHN Well, I don’t think their poll position’s too good as we talk, irrespective of whether it’s Kevin Rudd or Julia Gillard. I don’t think it’s going to make any difference, because they are equally culpable for the policy difficulties the current government has. Kevin Rudd authored the biggest policy failure of all of the current Labor Government, and that’s the destruction of an effective asylum-seeker policy. And the collapse of our border-protection policy has been the biggest single policy failure of this Labor Government.
SUSAN So if you had to characterise this current Labor outfit – because there's a lot of hate behind the scenes, obviously, and I don’t think that’s too strong a word – how would you describe it?
JOHN The level of personal vitriol surprises me. It’s quite deep. And the things that were said about Kevin Rudd last year when the leadership ballot was held at the beginning of 2012 – I mean, they were quite extraordinary. And the Labor Party should never have got rid of Rudd in the first place. I’m no fan of his, but I haven’t seen anything quite like this, and it’s all happened so quickly. But you never know in politics, and the Liberal Party shouldn’t get too complacent and shouldn’t assume it’s automatically going to win. The public can sense that. Australians are very good at sensing that. And so are Kiwis.
SUSAN John Howard, thank you for your time.