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John Howard London Press Conference Transcript

5 July 2000

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER

THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP

PRESS CONFERENCE AT THE BRITANNIA HOTEL

LONDON

Subjects: Centenary of federation; tax reform; political momentum; republic debate

E&OE………………………………………………………………………………………

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, ladies and gentlemen, can I just open this news conference by saying of course that today is the 100th anniversary of the passage through the Parliament of the Act which gave force to the Australian Constitution. That is the immediate event that this visit to London commemorates. Can I say that so far the almost total emphasis of my visit has been on economic and government to government issues. I had an extremely valuable dinner last night with the leaders of all of the major British Banks, the Governor of the Bank of England and many other leading British men and women and again at lunch today, I was a guest at a luncheon organised by Sir Evelyn de Rothschild of Rothschild’s bank. And I had an opportunity of meeting the Chairman of eight or ten of the major British companies that have ongoing investment in Australia. And I think those two gatherings alone and there are others reinforce the contemporary importance of the economic relationship between our two countries.

I think I made the observations last night that although Japan is our best customer and Korea is one of our best customers, 70 per cent of the outward investment from Australia goes to Britain and the United States and of course it was our ability to shift exports away from East Asia during the Asian economic collapse to both North America and Europe that helped provide significant support for the Australian economy at a time when we were going to face very significant challenges from the down turn in Asia.

Some of the other aspects of the visit, of course, will be in vogue over the next few days. Tonight is an opportunity at the gathering at the Guildhall to say something in the broad about the history of the relationship between Australia and Britain. It is an occasion for me to speak very directly to an influential British audience about our views of that relationship, but more importantly the strengths of contemporary Australia, particularly, but not only, our economic strengths.

But I would be very happy to answer any questions about the visit or any questions about any matter of domestic Australian politics that may be within my knowledge.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, how embarrassing was it at the key crowning event today that the British Prime Minister mistook Australia for America?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I think that was just a slip of the tongue on his part. I think of all the British Prime Minister’s we’ve dealt with none probably has a more intimate knowledge of Australia than Tony Blair, after all he did live in Australia for a number of years and he has very close friendships with Mr Beazley and Mr Gallop and many other leading figures in the Australian Labor Party. Look, I make no point about that. It’s the sort of slip of tongue that anybody can make and I certainly see it in that light.

JOURNALIST:

He did seem a little embarrassed…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, look, really in fairness to the man I don’t want to dwell on it. He clearly didn’t mean to say that, it was clearly a slip of the tongue and I’m not going to dwell on it at all.

JOURNALIST:

What did you think of the spectacle of question time at Westminister….

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, it’s different from ours. Let me put it that way. It is different. Beg your pardon?

JOURNALIST:

It’s better than ours…

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I don’t necessarily agree with that. I don’t think the government is as accountable in the British system as the government is in the Australian system. I mean, one appearance by the Prime Minister a week for half an hour. I mean, our is far more accountable. Far, far more accountable. No, I think ours in terms of Parliamentary accountability, I think the Australian system is better.

JOURNALIST:

Didn’t the slip up highlight what the critics are saying that the celebration should be at home in Australia…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, it ought not to.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, a couple of days into this trip do you now regret the scale of the entourage that has accompanied you…

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I don’t.

JOURNALIST:

But despite your efforts to say this is an economic visit…

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I’m not trying to say it’s just that…

JOURNALIST:

Well you said there’s an emphasis on it…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well there is an emphasis on many aspects of it.

JOURNALIST:

But that doesn’t seem to be getting through back home…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I don’t know whether that observation of yours is true or not.

JOURNALIST:

Well there’s plenty of stuff in the media…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, there is plenty of stuff in it. But sometimes the stuff in the media doesn’t have any impact on people.

JOURNALIST:

But just on that point Mr Howard, how disappointed are you about the nature of the coverage back home which doesn’t focus on the central elements of this trip.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, it doesn’t surprise me because media treatment of many things in Australia is often trivial and it often misses the substance. But this issue is not the only one where I would make that observation. I think much of the media focus in Australia on the tax debate missed the point of that. And if you set your, you know, you made all your decisions based on how the media might treat it you would often make very different decisions.

JOURNALIST:

But do you feel disappointed about this.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I am critical of the trivialisation of it by sections, sections might I say, of the media. I think there have been some exceptions to that. But it doesn’t surprise me because it’s one of those things that some sections of the media find easy to have a go at. I mean, it is of the three Federation events, the passage of the Act, the Inauguration of the Commonwealth and the sitting of the first Parliament are the three great Federation events and the proposition that you wouldn’t celebrate the first of those events here in London is rather absurd. And, in any event, it was the original intention of Mr Beazley to come. And his withdrawal was purely based on political, cynical political reasons. Now, he is entitled to behave in a cynical fashion. But that was the reason. He obviously made the calculation that there would be some political advantage. It wasn’t based on any consideration of principle. I did not find when they were in government that Labor Ministers behaved like Trappist monks.

JOURNALIST:

Do you expect that the criticism will be sustained or perhaps even get worse now that you are moving into a period of the lighter and the fluffier.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I don’t think it’s lighter and fluffier. Look Geof I’m, I can’t sort of answer in any other way. I think it is a totally justified observance. There is a lot of substance in the bi-lateral relationship and I don’t know how many different ways I can say that.

JOURNALIST:

Just on the subject of the investment relationship Prime Minister, you were focusing on this in a speech you gave yesterday, where do you think the economic and investment relationship is going in the future and do you think it is true to say that people really don’t have much of any awareness of it.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I don’t think, I think it’s very much in the character of a relationship that has been there almost from the beginning of time and that people take it for granted. I mean a lot of people who think about foreign investment, they tend not to think of British investment, they tend to just assume that there has been some of that there from the beginning. I think many Australians are surprised when you tell them for example that after France Australia is the largest exporter of wine to Britain. I think people are surprised to find that after the United States Britain is the largest foreign investor in Australia. I think most Australians would be quite astonished to think that there is so much direct Australian investment in the United Kingdom. I think the relationship, economically, will get stronger. I do think it is very important for political leaders to reinforce the economic achievements of Australia not only to British financial audiences but also to American, Japanese and other financial audiences that are important to Australia in the longer term.

There is in our own country and it’s the same around the world a lot more direct personal interaction between business leaders and political leaders. I would say the Prime Ministers and Treasurers of today have far more direct and open dialogue with business leaders than they did 30 or 40 years ago. And there are a lot more examples of personal interaction between them and that’s why it is necessary for leaders of major British and American companies to meet from time to time the Prime Minister of Australia and to meet the Treasurer. And I think it is very important to take opportunities to reinforce those associations.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister earlier in the day at Westminster a number of MPs put up a motion calling on the Federal Government to provide further assistance to the child migrants trust, which the government addressed some time ago to assist them travelling etc, would you consider that.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I haven’t seen the terms of it. I don’t make any commitments, but I’ll have a look at what’s being put up.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister in urging Australians to focus on their history, I wonder if there are parallels here with yourself – do you see the GST as the single biggest achievement of your political career.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, Dennis, from a policy point of view, from a long term policy point of view, it’s hard to find any that is more important. But in a political career you measure your achievements by not only the policy achievements of a longer term character but also by the stand you take in relation to unexpected events, and I’m thinking in particular of things like gun control. And you also, of course, make some allowance for political achievement. It’s legitimate in the life of a politician to record not only the policy achievements but also the political achievements. And of course there are some political achievements that I take a quiet satisfaction out of. And one of them surrounds March of 1996.

JOURNALIST:

Has this been personally the most satisfying.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, from a policy point of view, Dennis, I can only put it this way, from a policy point of view I don’t think I’ve been associated with something which will have a greater and more long lasting, beneficial economic effect on Australia than this.

JOURNALIST:

Do you have any plans at all for this weekend.

PRIME MINISTER:

Do I have any plans for this weekend? I don’t have anything settled at the moment. No, I’m just sort of hanging loose a bit on this, I just want to see how things develop. But I don’t have any official engagements scheduled at the moment. You realise I’m going to India on Sunday night. But as to what I’m doing for the rest of the weekend, what you want to make plans to be out of town and you don’t want to miss a big story?

JOURNALIST:

How do you think the tennis is going.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I think it’s going well for Australia. I’m just following it.

JOURNALIST:

Jelena Dokic plays again tomorrow – will you be trying to get along to see her.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, look, I mean are you sort of, I mean I’m interested in this gathering consensus. Do I hear a gathering consensus? Well, look I have a very heavy programme tomorrow. I’m not making any commitments about adding anything to it.

JOURNALIST:

Could I just ask you about the British image of Australia – to what extent do you think the British image of Australia is up to date or is it still somewhat old fashioned. What’s your own impression of that.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, my impression, Paul, is that it’s probably a bit more up to date than we imagine. I think certainly in my dealings with the business community here, they have a very up to date view of Australia. And because of the much greater incidence of younger people from Britain visiting Australia than used to be the case, I mean one of the things that was brought home to me in the Childers disaster and going up to the memorial service was to just be reminded again that at any time there are 30,000 British backpackers in Australia. I mean I had a working holiday in this country in the 1960s. The travel horizon of most young Englishmen then was to go to the continent or perhaps to the United States, never really to go to Australia. Now that has changed a lot and I think the family experiences are of a lot more familiarity with Australia. But, as in all countries, there are stereotypes which are old fashioned and negative. There are a lot of old fashioned negative stereotypes in Australia about different countries in the world, particularly in Asia and also I guess here as well but I think it’s probably more contemporary than many of us imagine.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister are you aware that John Olsen is now holding a minority government after dumping one of his own people…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I’m aware of some of those developments, yes.

JOURNALIST:

Does it concern you.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think that’s a matter that Mr Olsen ought to comment on, I am not going to give a running commentary on that.

JOURNALIST:

It is just that now we have Kate Carnell in [inaudible] in the last week as Liberal Leader and then you’ve got John Olsen now, I am just wondering whether or not . . .

PRIME MINISTER:

And what’s that all sort of leading to?

JOURNALIST:

Are you concerned about some, you know, your state and territory colleagues? They seem to be going through a bit of a rough patch.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well my state and territory colleagues are always you know, of concern and interest to me and they’re always close to my heart. But I can’t answer questions on behalf of Mr Olsen, that’s a matter for him to do.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, Lynton Crosby apparently was a bit concerned about a television advertisements back in Australia for a chicken chain that referred to your trip overseas. Is that perhaps a little oversensitive to have them stopped?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think he’s an excellent National Director. That was a decision that Lynton took, it wasn’t something that involved me, or to my knowledge anybody connected to me.

JOURNALIST:

But there were references to you in the ad.

PRIME MINISTER:

Beg your pardon? Oh, you’re talking about the material, and I am talking about the . . .

JOURNALIST:

Is that not a little oversensitive?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don’t think so, but anyway you should ask Lynton that.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, the sun’s finally shining, the Harrod’s sale has started, we have Wimbledon, doesn’t it really disappoint you that you can’t , you and your colleagues don’t feel free to have a little fun on this trip.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I have too much work to do to even allow my thoughts to wander in that direction. Far too much work.

JOURNALIST:

How intensive was the political advice to you not to come on the trip.

PRIME MINISTER:

There was virtually none. I did not actually get any, any serious counsel from anybody. Well, look Paul, you can’t - I mean I am the serving Prime Minister of Australia. I make an arrangement to respect an important part of this country’s history. It is my judgement that that’s the right call. I don’t then turn around because of a few newspaper headlines and noise from the Opposition of the most opportunistic kind and change those plans. I mean I have too much respect for the history of the country and I have too much regard for the relationship between our two communities to do that. And I think that would have been the most, the most pathetic display on my behalf if I had done so.

JOURNALIST

Have you had any feedback from people that you have met and talked to expressing their surprise and disappointment about Mr Beazley’s absence

PRIME MINISTER:

I have from a number, yes.

JOURNALIST:

Who from?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I am not going to name them, I don’t think it’s fair.

JOURNALIST:

So, what sort of comments have you heard.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well a general view that it was a pity that the Opposition Leader wasn’t here as well, given that all of his Labor colleagues at a state level were here, and his former Labor prime ministers, the former Labor prime ministers with Mr Keating’s exception, were also here. I mean the event was not intended in any way to be a partisan event and I am after all dealing with an incumbent Labor prime minister of Britain.

JOURNALIST:

Did Mr Blair make comment about Mr Beazley’s non-attendance.

PRIME MINISTER:

No, he didn’t and I didn’t expect him to. They’re good friends, they’re very close friends. And I wouldn’t expect him out of courtesy to his friend to say anything of the kind.

JOURNALIST:

But in hindsight Prime Minister, fairly smart politics…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well in . . . I beg your pardon?

JOURNALIST:

It undermines Mr Beazley’s position…

PRIME MINISTER:

What?

JOURNALIST:

To have Labor premiers along on the trip.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well look, I don’t want to get into that. I mean I have a position on this, I have played it very straight. I realise there are people who have been critical of me, who are being opportunistically critical. I think that the Beazley position is, given the fact as I say that when it comes to overseas visits, Labor Government’s have always seen them as an appropriate part of your responsibilities and they are. I don’t know that I can say anymore. I am not going to make any particular capital out of the fact that Labor premiers are here, I simply draw attention to the fact that they all readily accepted it and of course Mr Carr’s sense of history has always been much better than Mr Beazley’s.

He at least understands and Mr Beazley apparently doesn’t, that the, that it wasn’t two public servants that negotiated with Joseph Chamberlain a hundred years ago.

JOURNALIST:

So Mr Beazley got the history dead wrong did he.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well there seemed to me to be a disconnect between my understanding and his.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister you mentioned that Mr Beazley had originally intended coming, was that something he indicated to you.

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I had that indicated to me through, through people in the Centenary outfit.

JOURNALIST:

Are you disappointed that Mr Keating didn’t come Mr Howard?

PRIME MINISTER:

He’s always welcome. He’s a former prime minister and I would, and he was extended the same courtesy, he chose not to. I don’t want to, I don’t want to reflect on his motives. I don’t want to add that dimension to the story.

JOURNALIST:

One of the difficulties is that you are stressing two things to us – you are saying on the one hand that we’re here for history making celebrations and then you say, to address protests or criticisms of it, you say it’s really about cementing economic relations, talking up business, there just seems to be a confusing message.

PRIME MINISTER:

No I don’t think there is Alex. What I am saying is that it is both. I am not. I mean surely we don’t just think of everything in one dimension. I mean the reason we’re here at this particular time is because it celebrates the history of the passing of the Constitution Act. That’s the reason we’re here now. But, in the process of honouring that particular event, we also reinforce a relationship that not only has an historical dimension, which is particularly symbolised by the fact that it was a hundred years ago today that the Act was passed. But we also reinforce an economic relationship. I’m not saying, I am not saying at one time it’s this and another time it’s that. I am saying it is both and I mean I expected people to try and score some political points out of this, but I think it is an important event and I think you do need to have time to mark your history and I think that is the attitude that Mr Whitlam and Mr Hawke and Mr Fraser and Sir John Gorton have taken and it’s certainly the attitude that Mr Carr and the other Labor premiers have taken. And I am sorry that Mr Beazley chose not to do that, but he’s got a right to try and exploit the event for his own partisan political purposes, which he’s done. Now, the Australian people will make a judgement about that. I think from a point of view of the Australian interest, he’s fallen short of what he should have done. But he thinks there’s some political advantage in it, well he’s entitled to do that, I mean I am not his political keeper. Others have obviously persuaded him that that is the correct political call, they’ve persuaded him to be completely opportunistic about the GST.

I mean one of the good things from my point of view about Australian politics right now is that the wheel has started to turn as far as momentum and longer term advantage is concerned. For the last couple of years we have been in an essentially defensive position because we have been fighting to get in place a very big reform which is easy to attack. And a climate of defensiveness has been created. Now we have broken free of that now because we have got it in. And you all know that the early reaction of the Australian public is a lot more positive to that reform than most of you thought it would be. And certainly the Labor Party thought it would be. Now that wheel has really turned in quite a significant way and that’s going to alter quite a lot of things. And it’s going to put a lot more spotlight as it should on the alternative prime minister, and Mr Beazley is the alternative prime minister. The Opposition Leader in our system always is. And I think it’s very important that we appreciate the significance of last weekend.

JOURNALIST:

Have you had any discussions with Senator Lees while you have been in London.

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I haven’t, I haven’t. I saw her at a distance this afternoon, but I have not had any discussion with her.

JOURNALIST:

From what you’ve just said on tax, you’re saying the worst is over, the worst is behind the government on tax, from now on…

PRIME MINISTER:

Paul from a political momentum, management point of view – yes I do. I am not, that doesn’t alter the fact that I believe it will take up to six months for the thing to bed down. But I mean we were in that sort of both hands tied behind our backs situation for months on tax. It was easy for the Labor Party to adopt a hit and run approach. They could run a scare, by the time it was denied they’d move onto another one. Now that’s a lot harder now because you are dealing with reality. And even our fiercest critics at least acknowledge that we have, we have worked very hard to implement something that’s difficult. And the momentum is now going to shift and there is going to be a far greater focus on the Labor Party and a far greater demand made of the Labor Party to produce some alternative or some better rationalisation of the completely opportunistic attitude they’ve taken towards this very important national issue.

JOURNALIST:

Can you just give us an indication as to how important tax will be as an issue at the next election?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don’t think it will be as important at the next election as a lot of people are thinking at the present time.

JOURNALIST:

At the same time as you say the spotlight may shift to the Leader of the Oppostion, do you see with this change of momentum a change in the way you will be able to address issues?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think what it means Matt is that we are no longer in a, in a holding pattern as it were in relation to tax. We’re able to say, there it is, it’s not as bad as Labor said it would be. You’ve got tax cuts, you are able to experience being better off. You know that what we’ve been saying on that has been correct. And it will put us in a far more offensive, far stronger position and I think that’s inevitable.

JOURNALIST:

What sort of areas then do you [inaudible]?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh, look, I’m not going to get into new areas today, it’s far too early for that, although obviously …

JOURNALIST:

But you will soon?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, we will obviously be dealing with the forward agenda. And there is quite a lot of other things that the government will now be able to turn its mind to. But the point I’m making is there has been quite a big change in the atmospheric of Australian politics over the last week.

JOURNALIST:

The top marginal rate is still very high in relation to tax. Do you rule out the possibility of going to the election with a second tax package?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, Paul, I, I mean whenever you people give me questions like will I rule something out and then I don’t sort of say, well no I won’t or yes or no you’ve then got a headline, but let me say, let me best answer it in this way by saying that I would like to see people absorb what’s involved in the current tax package before I start talking about others.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, you break bread with Prince Charles tonight and you have an audience with the Queen, is it, in those discussion that you will have will there be a serious edge, or…?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I don’t know, I mean I think tonight Prince Charles is one of his, he is certainly attending the dinner tonight. I don’t know that there will sort of be a bi-lateral discussion of any consequence. I just don’t know. I mean, I’m not planning anything in particular. I will be having, as is appropriate, an audience with the Queen tomorrow and protocol requires that I don’t canvass either advance in advance or afterwards the subjects discussed.

JOURNALIST:

I mean apart from some of the pomp and circumstance of these things, do they have any great meaning at all?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well they certainly have as, there are many courtesy and formal exchanges in our lives, Geoff, that are part and parcel of life. I mean even if you were a republic you would have audiences between, or you wouldn’t call them that, you would call them meetings between the Prime Minister and the President. I mean, let’s not go over all that debate again, but there is always in any constitutional arrangement there are forms and courtesies to be observed.

JOURNALIST:

How do you think Australians would react to Queen Camilla?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I’m not going to hypothesise on that, I’m sorry.

JOURNALIST:

Well, why not, she is potentially the Queen of Australia?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well because I chose not to hypothesise about it. I mean you can ask the question and I can chose not to hypothesise about it.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, was it always intended that the Queen would be part of the programme? Wasn’t she going to be on holidays or something?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I think it would be the subject of considerable criticism if she hadn’t been.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, this is your first visit to Britain since the republic referendum. What sort of mood, what sort of …?

PRIME MINISTER:

Do you think I should have come more often?

JOURNALIST:

No. What sort of mood do you detect in Britain about that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, it is as it’s always been, it’s our business. I mean there are some people who will ask you about it out of interest. But most people take the view that it’s our business what constitutional arrangement we have, I haven’t found any sort of sense in my dealing with British people that they sort of expect us to do one thing or another. They all take the view that whatever you decide that’s you business, not for us to tell you. I’ve never found it any different.

JOURNALIST:

Is it a question that’s coming up on this [inaudible]?

PRIME MINISTER:

I’ve had, I’ve had probably two or three people raise it with me. Ask me, you know just talk about it. But it’s not something that’s top of mind, but it’s something that attracted interest here, obviously. But not in a sense of people saying, well you know, you should do this or you should do that. I’ve found an absolute impeccable respect for it being entirely a matter for Australia and for Australians to determine.

Thank you.

JOURNALIST:

Just one question on tax, you said that it would probably run out of or not be as important issue at the next federal election. Is that mean that the GST would have run out of steam [inaudible]?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I don’t think by-elections have got anything to do with it. I just think what I’ve said is that it will not be as important as these people think.

Thank you.

Ends.

ENDS

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