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PM Howard I/V Re: Pre-emptive Strikes

1 December 2002

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER
THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP
INTERVIEW WITH LAURIE OAKES,
SUNDAY, CHANNEL 9

Subjects: Victorian election; Federal election; terrorism; x-ray facilities; mid-year Budget review; Justice Mary Gaudron; gun control.

LINK TO COMMENTS ON PRE-EMPTIVE STRIKES
E&OE

OAKES:

Prime Minister, welcome to the last Sunday of the year.

PRIME MINISTER:

Good to be with you.

OAKES:

The Victorian election threw up a pretty shocking result for the Liberal Party. What are your thoughts?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it was a very bad result. It was entirely predictable. I thought Robert Doyle was right when he said you can't do nothing for three years and then expect to turn it around in a few weeks and the scale of the victory is very impressive and I congratulate Mr Bracks on his win. It's not unusual though ... it's not uncommon, let me put it that way, for State Governments to have big wins. You can go back to the 1970s when Neville Wran had two very big wins, coined the term the "Wranslide", and Bjelke-Petersen in the '70s had a very big win over Labor in Queensland. I think what we have, and have had for a long time but it's even more pronounced now, is we're living in a completely non-ideological climate at a state political level. It's less ideological federally, but it's virtually non-ideological at a state level and therefore issues of competence and discipline and leadership style are even more dominant in state politics. And unfortunately, unless a State Opposition develops and maintains a visibility and an alternative sense of energy and activity immediately after it goes into Opposition, the likelihood is that at the subsequent election it'll have an even bigger loss and that is really what happened in Victoria yesterday and what happened in New South Wales in 1999...

OAKES:

Well, then...

PRIME MINISTER:

...and it's what happened in Tasmania. And if I've got a plea to anybody coming out of yesterday it's to the state parties in Western Australia and South Australia to get very busy and very active to make sure that they have an alternative visibility and program well before their respective state elections.

OAKES:

There's a been a fair bit of criticism of the Liberal campaign in Victoria. I suppose that's inevitable when you're on the losing side, but the state director who ran that campaign, Brian Loughnane, is earmarked to become the new federal director of the party. Do you think that might be revisited?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, there's been no decision taken on that. Brian is a very good state director. Remember Brian was the state director when we did extremely well in the Aston by-election which signalled the ... us coming back into the federal game last year, so people ought to remember that. I think the major blame has to lie with the failure of the state parliamentary party - and I know it's hard to say this, a lot of people out there feeling devastated and I feel sorry for them, but you've got to be realistic about this - I think their failure to develop from the very beginning ... and it's very hard, I know, all of that, develop from the very beginning an alternative approach. I think they spent too long pretending that somehow or other it had been an accident that Kennett was defeated. Once an election has been decided you've got to deal with the new reality, you can't revisit it. And just as the Beazley Labor Party federally misread the 1998 election result and therein lay the seeds of their defeat in 2001, so I think Victorian Liberals and state Liberals around Australia have not adjusted rapidly enough. I mean, once you've been beaten it's no good sort of saying the electorate got it wrong or pretending it was all a big aberration, you've got to get on with the new reality. And the reality was not got on with quickly enough and then, of course, you had the Dean fiasco, which did slow any momentum towards bringing the parties back together. We were never going to win, it was a question of whether we could minimise the scale of the defeat. I think what the Dean fiasco did was to blow that right out of the water.

OAKES:

Now, the fact that voters can give you a big win and then a year later give the Labor Party a big win in Victoria, that suggests that people are not voting according to the brand name of the political party any more. Does it indicate that voters like a certain kind of unassuming, non-flashy, reassuring leadership style?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I'll let other people make judgments about that. I mean, I am who I am and I've never tried to change and I'm not going to change. But I do think politics is less ideological, it's less tribal - that's an expression I use - and therefore you will get these variations. The starkest possible example of that is Queensland, where in the last state election the Coalition was annihilated, yet federally we held every seat and won back Ryan and won the seat of Dickson from Cheryl Kernot. So, there is a great capacity on the part of people to vote differently, that's because they no longer feel tribally attached to political parties in the way they did, therefore they look at issues and they look at competence. I think the other thing is that there is a bit in the argument that they feel that the Coalition can manage the economy well, and is more predictable and reliable when it comes to issues of national security and defence, those sorts of issues. And there is something in the argument that some people are saying, well, I'm very happy to have the Liberals running things nationally, but I'll have a Labor government at a state level. Now, I don't think that's for, you know, forever - and, look, I'm constantly keeping a weather eye for changes in the mood, and I don't take anything for granted. I think the next federal election will be a very big fight for us because we'll be running for our fourth term, and therefore I say to my federal colleagues don't smugly imagine that we've settled into some new political paradigm in Australia whereby voters will vote Labor at a state level and they'll return you at a federal level. They're very canny, Australian voters, they very rarely, in my view, get it wrong. We normally get the results we deserve at a state and a federal level, and that means you've got to always be on the lookout for any kind of complacency.

OAKES:

Now, this result, I assume, will unsettle some of your Liberal colleagues federally. Do you think it will add to the pressure on you to stay on?

PRIME MINISTER:

Laurie, I don't want to speculate about that. You know my position on that issue, and I've got nothing to add to what I've previously said.

OAKES:

Well, I know your position is that you've said you'll make a decision about your future after your sixty-fourth birthday, but I assume that you've started to think about it, haven't you?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think about things all the time, Laurie.

OAKES:

Well, what kind of things might affect that decision?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no ... I'm simply not going to... I've indicated a position and I don't have anything to add to that.

OAKES:

Well, Peter Costello has said that you've discussed it with him. Can you tell us at least what those discussions took the form of, how far you went?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don't have anything to add.

OAKES:

Okay. Well, let's talk about the Labor side, where I think you will speak aloud on the leadership issue there. Do you think that there are lessons in Victoria for Simon Crean, and do you think he will survive?

PRIME MINISTER:

Laurie, I'm going to surprise and disappoint you and say that there's something incredibly unctuous and patronising in a way about an incumbent Prime Minister speculating about the leadership of the Opposition, and I don't think the Australian people like that kind of smart-aleckry from me, or from anybody, and I'm just ... I'm going to leave the Labor Party to themselves. I'll leave Simon Crean to his frontbench colleagues and to his caucus, and I won't be offering him any advice at all.

OAKES:

All right. Well, let's talk about terrorism. Do you agree that the threat of terrorism to Australia is likely to last at least until 2006? Is that the way you see it?

PRIME MINISTER:

I can't put a year on it, I don't think anybody can. It will depend on how successful the worldwide war is; it will depend on how the Australian community responds. But we are more exposed now than before, we're not as exposed as a country like Israel or the United States, or indeed a country like the United Kingdom, but we are more exposed and we do have to change certain things. But we don't have to change our way of life and I don't want us to change our way of life, but we just have to be willing to accept delays at airports and if we, as I hope to do, introduce a far more extensive x-raying and examination of hold luggage for domestic flights that is going to cause delay. And I won't kid to the Australian people about the need for that and I think that the Australian people will accept the need for that.

OAKES:

You say a more extensive system. A week ago you were talking about x-raying all luggage on domestic flights.

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh yeah, and I'm not walking away from that but we're looking at the issue in Cabinet over the next few days.

OAKES:

Okay. Now, why are you only looking at it? Now, why has it taken so long to institute screening of baggage on domestic flights when the Justice Minister Chris Ellison told a senate committee back in March that the government was addressing the issue then?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, we have introduced it very extensively and I think in relation to certain countries considered to be the biggest risk of all for international flights and the reason that we put international before domestic is that the advice we had was that was the greater.

OAKES:

But he was specifically talking about domestic flights ...

PRIME MINISTER:

I ...

OAKES:

... nine months ago ...

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, mmm.

OAKES:

Can I quote him?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yeah, sure.

OAKES:

He said to that Senate committee, of course you can have a bomb in the hold but it has to be accompanied luggage. That then is a situation where you could have a suicide bomber and we do not rule out that possibility. Nine months later, nothing's been done.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I can only repeat what I said earlier, that ... a week ago, that we have a number of proposals and they're being examined on Monday. I don't know the background to that statement.

OAKES:

You don't think some people might think you've been irresponsible in doing nothing at the moment.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I suppose, in a climate like this, there ... you know, how long is a piece of string? I mean, you can ... it's a question of having a balance. And the balance that we have struck so far is that there has been a greater risk because of all the advice we have in relation to international flights. And a lesser risk, albeit some risk, than in relation to domestic flights and that's why we did the international first.

OAKES:

Well, why is it that only now, fourteen months after the attacks on the US, we're doing something about security in Parliament House and our other potential Australian targets? Why didn't we see them as under threat a year ago?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I don't accept that we've done nothing about security in Parliament House and, in any event, security in Parliament House ...

OAKES:

Well, I go in there every day and I don't see very much.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, Laurie, you wouldn't because people know you and they see you as a very benign, non-threatening figure. I mean, that stand ...

OAKES:

Not everybody.

PRIME MINISTER:

... that stands to reason. But, you know, once again here's this balance thing. I mean, I would hate to think that the Australian public could still, you know ... would lose the right and the opportunity to more or less wander at will through the nation's parliament. I mean, what are on about in this country? What are we defending? We, after all, are defending a way of life and an attitude. Now, once again, it's a question of a balance. I mean, you can put armed soldiers around the Parliament House. God forbid, let me say that. I don't want to see armed soldiers around Parliament House, I do want to see more security precautions taken. There have been, I'm aware of them, I don't think it makes sense to, you know, blurb them all out over national television, but there have been a lot of security steps taken. But, once again, it's a question of balance.

OAKES:

Prime Minister, we'll take a break. We'll return shortly.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you.

[commercial break]

OAKES:

Welcome back. Prime Minister, you're meeting Premiers on Friday to discuss among other things, I think, the terrorist threat. What do you want from them?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, a continuation of the cooperation we've had so far. They have, by and large, cooperated very well and that's terrific because this is a big national interest ... national issue that transcends political division and if we can have a continuation of that that will be excellent. The arrangement we put in for a new Commonwealth-state officials committee on counter terrorism, that has worked very well. I've seen, you know, good cooperation and I want to thank the Premiers for the very positive attitude they've taken in the national interest.

OAKES:

Are you considering the idea of a national supremo of counter terrorism to coordinate the whole thing?

PRIME MINISTER:

There are a lot of different ways particularly at a federal level that we can approach it. I'm looking at a number of options. By and large I believe the coordination arrangements do work very well, I think our intelligence services have performed very well, that doesn't mean to say you can't improve it. I've looked at the proposals of the Strategic Institute that came out last week, I'll put them into the mix. I'm not saying I agree or disagree but it's an idea and a line of thought to be considered.

OAKES:

Now, the nation's on high alert following that generalised warning about possible attacks on Australian soil before Christmas, have you received any more intelligence on that matter?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, we get intelligence all the time and I can best answer that by saying that I haven't had anything since that would warrant us altering or adding to the advice that was given by Senator Ellison the week before last.

OAKES:

We've seen reports in the newspapers in recent days about ASIO apparently establishing that JI had training camps in the Blue Mountains and in Western Australia and that it targeted university students as prime recruits. Are those reports true and can you elaborate?

PRIME MINISTER:

I can't say anything other than that some of the reports about training have been exaggerated.

OAKES:

Were there training camps in the Blue Mountains?

PRIME MINISTER:

I haven't had any information to that effect.

OAKES:

And Western Australia?

PRIME MINISTER:

Not that would justify what's been said.

OAKES:

Now, you've been arguing for a new approach to pre-emptive defence, you want the UN to change its charter, I think. Does that mean that you ... if you knew that, say, JI people in another neighbouring country were planning an attack on Australia that you would be prepared to act?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh yes, I think any Australian Prime Minister would. I mean, it stands to reason that if you believed that somebody was going to launch an attack against your country, either of a conventional kind or of a terrorist kind, and you had a capacity to stop it and there was no alternative other than to use that capacity then of course you would have to use it. Now, that situation hasn't arisen because nobody is specifically threatening to attack Australia and what I was talking about the other day was that when the United Nations Charter was written the idea of attack was defined by the history that had gone before, and that is that of an army rolling across the border of a neighbouring country, or in the case of the Japanese and Pearl Harbour bombing a base. Now, that's different now, you don't get that now. What you're getting is non-state terrorism, which is just as devastating and potentially even more so. And all I'm saying, I think many people are saying, is that maybe the body of international law has to catch up with that new reality, and that stands to reason.

OAKES:

It's fair to say, isn't it, that the SAS is not only perfectly tailored to make that kind of pre-emptive strike in another country but that's really what we've got it for.

PRIME MINISTER:

Laurie, there's no situation that I'm aware of at the moment that raises that issue, and I don't really want to go down that path any further other than to state the obvious that any Prime Minister who had a capacity to prevent an attack against his country would be failing the most basic test of office if he didn't utilise that capacity if there's no other alternative.

OAKES:

Now, before we move on to domestic issues, I'll ask you quickly about the possibility of war in Iraq. If there is a war there and the Labor Party opposes an Australian commitment, how do you think the community will react?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, Laurie, there are several hypotheses in that.

OAKES:

Yeah.

PRIME MINISTER:

And I'm just not going to do other than to say I hope the United Nations' process works, we want it to work. And the world should remember that if it hadn't been for American insistence and American leadership the United Nations would not now be back in the game.

OAKES:

If it did come to war, do you think it would be a drawn-out affair?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, once again, I hope it doesn't come to war, and in those circumstances I want to underwrite that hope by not speculating about what might happen if it does come to war.

OAKES:

You've promised that if Australia is to commit to forces to a war in Iraq you'll get full parliamentary approval, have a full debate. How can you do that?

PRIME MINISTER:

We will have a full debate. The authority to decide whether or not Australian armed forces go overseas rests with the executive government. It's always been the case, and that was a principle clearly and unconditionally enunciated by Bob Hawke in 1991 when we sent forces to the Gulf. What I've said is that consistent with the government taking whatever decision if in the future we were to commit forces anywhere, and I'm not just talking about Iraq...

OAKES:

No.

PRIME MINISTER:

... there would be a full parliamentary debate.

OAKES:

But if this war, if there is a war, broke out in January, which is what's being tipped in some circles, how would you get parliamentary approval? Would you recall parliament?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, there's always the capacity to recall parliament if you have to, yes.

OAKES:

So you would do that before committing forces?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, the decision - whether we're talking about Iraq or anything else - the decision is one for the executive government. But I have said, as my predecessors have said, if we take the decision to commit forces we will have a parliamentary debate. And I would want to have a parliamentary debate quickly if there were any decision. I hope there isn't, I think we all do.

OAKES:

But you'd want it before the troops left?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, Laurie, I'm not going to commit myself to such specificity in relation to a hypothetical event, except to re-state the principle, and that is that if we make any decision in the future it's an executive decision. But, I would want any such decision in relation to any commitment to be the subject of a very speedy parliamentary debate.

OAKES:

On domestic issues, the mid-year budget review came out the other day showing there's still a budget surplus forecast. Does that mean you've got money to spend?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I think it's very good we have a surplus, and it's a tribute to economic management and Peter Costello's work that we have that, but...

OAKES:

Will you spend it next year?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, hang on, I think there are couple of potential calls on it. One of them is maybe further expenditure for the drought, although we've built a lot of drought expenditure into the figures, there could be more. There's also the possibility of additional defence and intelligence spending. There's some built in ... additional built in there, but there's still the possibility of more. And I guess the other thing is that when you have a low level of government debt and you have a surplus, there comes a time when people might want some of the surplus returned by way of general or specific tax cuts.

OAKES:

I was going to ask you about that. Are you going to do something about bracket creep? You're being branded at the moment as running the highest taxing government we've ever had.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, that's not right, that is not right and the figures in the last budget show it. But we are still a government that believes where you have a capacity to do so you should reduce taxes. I'm not making any promises in any particular areas, I'm just stating the principle that if you've got a bit left over the automatic assumption shouldn't be, oh whacko, we'll spend it. The assumption rather should be that we should find some capacity to give it back to the people who own it, and that's the taxpayer.

OAKES:

Prime Minister, there's a High Court vacancy, Justice Mary Gaudron is retiring. Have you chosen a replacement yet?

PRIME MINISTER:

No. I've had a discussion with the Attorney-General about the matter and I expect it will be discussed further over the next few weeks.

OAKES:

It's been strongly suggested to me that the Attorney-General, Daryl Williams, has put himself forward. Is that true?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, definitely not.

OAKES:

And would he be considered?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, he likes being Attorney-General and he's got a first class legal mind, and I think you need somebody with a very good legal mind as Attorney-General.

OAKES:

The issue of gun control - the states have so far refused to endorse your plan to ban a whole range of handguns. You were saying to me you've called down a curse upon them. Do you think the Premiers will come to heel when you meet them on Friday?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I noticed the day after Mr Costa was dragging his feet on this, I noticed Bob Carr very sensibly preparing the way to support me on that. I hope he does. This is another issue that ought to transcend political differences, everybody wants the tightest possible laws on guns in this country. You can have a bit of a carve-out for sporting shooters, but it's got to be a limited carve-out and one that can't be eroded at the edges by people who aren't really sporting shooters. But we want to make a decisive statement as a community on this, we do not want to go down the American path, we want to turn our backs on that. We did it with long arms and we ought to grab the moment and do it on handguns, and I hope next Friday we can do it. And I think the Australian public, whether they vote Liberal, Labor or whatever will give us a tick for doing so. Because it's the right thing for the country, particularly for the women and children of Australia.

OAKES:

I notice you threatened that if the states didn't agree you, the federal government, would go it alone because you claim to have the constitutional power...

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I didn't claim to, I said I'd see if we could.

OAKES:

Right.

PRIME MINISTER:

It's pretty ... I think the constitutional thing is a bit debatable, there may be something in some areas, and I'm getting some advice on that. But overwhelmingly the easiest way of doing it and the surest way of doing it is for us to pool our constitutional power and pass comprehensive uniform laws the way we did with long arms, the way we're proposing to do with the embryonic stem cell legislation, this is the sort of co-operative federalism that people want. They want Australian outcomes for Australian challenges and Australian solutions. I think people are less and less interested in parochial state differences, and more and more interested in solving problems in a national fashion according to a national need.

OAKES:

Prime Minister, we thank you.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you.


[ends]


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