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Howard on Pauline Hanson; War on Iraq; family etc

Transcript Of the Prime Minister the Hon John Howard MP Interview With Karl Stefanovic, Today Show, Channel Nine

Subject: Economic management; tax inquiry; Budget; US Alliance; 10th Anniversary; Port Arthur; Pauline Hanson; War on Iraq; Janette Howard; family values.

E&OE……………………………………………………………………………………

STEFANOVIC:

The Prime Minister John Howard will tomorrow celebrate a decade in power, no doubt buoyed by opinion polls suggesting the majority of Australians consider him the country's best leader of the modern era. And many voters want him to stay on in the top job indefinitely. In the first of our two-part special, I asked the PM what's on his agenda for the future.

PRIME MINISTER:

I think I've led a good government. I'm very lucky that I've had good people around me, like Peter Costello who's done a fantastic job as Treasurer and Alexander Downer. And also very important the Coalition with the National Party and the strength of that Coalition has been quite fundamental to our success, but there are always more things to be done, and in the end it's the happiness and security of the Australian people that matters most.

STEFANOVIC:

What more is a priority for you?

PRIME MINISTER:

You've got to continue the economic strength, we've got to deal effectively with the big generational challenges; water, which is a great conservation challenge of our time, making sure that we have the right policies in relation to energy, having an open mind about developing nuclear power if that becomes a viable option for Australia. Handling the ageing of the population, encouraging more older people; and I mean starting with, say, the age group between 55 and 64, to stay in the workforce longer. We have a declining population. We are all getting older and the nation is ageing, and we have to handle these issues.

STEFANOVIC:

Mr Costello has launched a tax inquiry, as you well know. Do you think Australians are overtaxed?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I don't. I don't think any of us, however, will object to paying less tax, but by international standards we are not overtaxed. A lot of people compare us with, say, America and they say, well the federal income tax in America is less but they don't add in the state income tax and in some states in America the city tax and then they don't add in the retail turnover tax which is the rough equivalent of our GST. So if you look around the world we're not as heavily taxed as many people suggest but I think it's human nature to always think that the burden could be lower.

STEFANOVIC:

Do you think the burden will be lower come May for Australians?

PRIME MINISTER:

I'm not going to speculate about that. There are big tax cuts coming on the 1st of July flowing from last year's Budget but I'm not going to get into any of that?

STEFANOVIC:

Just a little something-something for us?

PRIME MINISTER:

No.

STEFANOVIC:

Our viewers are anxiously watching.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yeah, well, I think the thing that your viewers also are watching is interest rates and they're also watching the quality of services as well as the level of tax.

STEFANOVIC:

Do you think that an attack on Australian soil is inevitable?

PRIME MINISTER:

I'm more hopeful than that, but I think it's highly possible. I cannot rule it out. And we have a tendency to lapse into complacency, but there is a danger and that's why we do have to change our laws and we have to do things we wouldn't otherwise do. Around the world the undeniable fact is that the common element in all the acts of terrorism in recent years has been a perversion of the Muslim religion. I stress a perversion. Not a true practice of it, because Islam repudiates, as does Christianity and Judaism, terrorism and violence, but that's been a common thread and that is why it is reasonable to talk about extremism within the Muslim community without being accused of being prejudiced against Muslims. You don't have fundamentalist and evangelical Christians blowing up Trade Centres. You have criminal elements in all societies but what these people are doing is justifying their actions according to a religious belief. Now, that is just quite different and something that we have to confront in a sensible way.

STEFANOVIC:

There are many out there who say that our alliance with the United States, and it's an argument you would've heard before, but our alliance with the United States means that we are more of a target.

PRIME MINISTER:

Whether we are or we're not, the reality is this country has been a terrorist target long before Iraq. Osama bin Laden first talked about Australia in the context of our intervention in East Timor. Does anybody suggest that we should not have done that because it offended Osama bin Laden? Once this country allows its foreign and defence policy to be determined by terrorists then it ceases to have respect in the world.

STEFANOVIC:

Does it annoy you, the constant talk about succession?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, that's natural.

STEFANOVIC:

Is it natural for the Australian people to want to know?

PRIME MINISTER:

I'm encouraged by it in a sense because they see the next Prime Minister in the context of the Liberal Party. And that's good. I mean, the Liberal Party has got a lot of very able people in it, there's no doubt of that. And if I go under that bus, which I furiously avoid every day, I mean, Peter Costello is a logical successor to me as leader of the party and therefore as Prime Minister of Australia.

STEFANOVIC:

You're fit, you're healthy. The polls say that people don't want you to move on anywhere. Why would you go?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh Karl, that's just a nice, clever way of asking a question I've been asked before and you'll understand why I give you the same answer, which is the truth and I said certain things back in 2003 and I meant them then and I still mean them.

STEFANOVIC:

Honestly, I was thinking about it last night though that why would you go? I wouldn't see any reason why you would.

PRIME MINISTER:

What's your next question?

STEFANOVIC:

What does John Howard want to be remembered for in terms of his time in Office?

PRIME MINISTER:

I just want to be remembered as having done my best for Australia. I can't say more or less than that. I mean, I love this country. I regard it as the greatest privilege that any person could have to have been Prime Minister of Australia. I mean, it is an unbelievable privilege and if I am remembered as somebody whenever time in the future people think it's appropriate to remember me, if they do at all, then to have done my best for Australia will be enough for me.

STEFANOVIC:

John Howard will mark his 10th anniversary with historically high personal approval ratings, due in part to his handling of the economy and the War on Terror. He has transformed the country economically, politically and culturally. There is no challenger on either side of politics that comes close to the respect the Prime Minister enjoys in the electorate.

I began the second half of our special interview by asking the Prime Minister about one of his greatest achievements, his 1996 election victory. Prime Minister let's take a look back now, a trip down memory lane, if you like. March 2, 1996.

OAKES:

The man who'll be Australia's 25th Prime Minister arrived at a Liberal celebration at a Sydney hotel to claim victory.

PRIME MINISTER:

I remember it very vividly. I was elated. After 13 years in opposition we finally had an opportunity to form a government, and I was very humble and I was profoundly grateful that the Australian people had given me this huge privilege and my team this enormous opportunity. So I'll never forget that night. It was a great night.

STEFANOVIC:

Starting with April of that year. The Port Arthur massacre.

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh I recall that very vividly. I recall the extraordinary outpouring of amazement and grief in the country and I knew out of that there was an opportunity to grab the moment and to bring about a fundamental change in gun laws in this country. I did not want Australia to go down the American path. There are some things about America I admire, there are some things I don't and one of the things I don't admire about America is an almost drooling, slavish love of guns. I think they're evil.

STEFANOVIC:

I remember the images of you standing before an audience, a rally, with a bulletproof vest on.

PRIME MINISTER:

I was told at the time to wear it. I'm sorry I took that advice. I would've appeared without it. It was just that I was told I ought to wear it and I regret now having done so.

STEFANOVIC:

The other thing that happened, I think a little bit later, was Pauline Hanson.

HANSON:

We are in danger of being swamped by Asians.

PRIME MINISTER:

I believe that a couple of things she said in her maiden speech were wrong. She said that we were being flooded with Asians, I thought that was a wrong thing to say and she was a little dismissive of the needs of the Aboriginal community, I thought that was wrong. But I didn't regard the people who followed her as being racist. And I thought it was a huge mistake at the time to overreact, I did not overreact. I was criticised by the media, I was even criticised by some people within my own party for not taking a strong enough stand against it. I believed the more you attacked her the more notoriety she achieved and I am sure that with the benefit of hindsight that the judgment I took at the time was absolutely correct.

STEFANOVIC:

September 11, the World Trade Centre attacks, you were in Washington at the time. How did that change the world?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh, enormously. It shook the world to its; the Western world to its foundations. I mean to have such an audacious and successful attack on the citadels of the most powerful country in the world was a shattering event and you have to have been there to have understood fully the impact it had on the American people. I mean, we were shaken to our core by the attack in Bali which killed 88 Australians, but that did occur in a foreign country. Just imagine the impact of an attack on a major centre in Melbourne or Sydney or Canberra. It would be life changing and that's what it was for the Americans.

STEFANOVIC:

Is there anything that weighs on your mind in regards to our troops being in Iraq?

PRIME MINISTER:

I worry all the time that we may suffer casualties. That's what I worry about. It's the hardest thing you do is to send young men and women away to fight. I've never forgotten saying goodbye to our troops in Townsville in 1999 when they went to East Timor. It all turned out fantastically, didn't it?

STEFANOVIC:

I think probably one of the most controversial decisions was to send our troops to Iraq, in your tenure. Do you regret that the decision was based on false intelligence?

PRIME MINISTER:

I regret that the information we were given didn't turn out to be accurate. I do not regret the decision. I genuinely believed the intelligence, so did, incidentally, the then Leader of the Opposition. He said Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The argument at the time was not whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, everybody believed that. The argument at the time was how you dealt with it. Whether you went further through the United Nations process or whether you took military action. We decided with the Americans and the British to take military action.

STEFANOVIC:

Mrs Howard, have you consulted her, used her guidance on some of the big decisions?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh, yes, yes. There are certain things I don't talk about for obvious reasons of confidentiality, but on major issues anybody in my position who has a close marriage, to say they don't talk to their wife or husband about big things is really hard to credit.

STEFANOVIC:

Does she have an opinion on you staying home a little bit more in the future?

PRIME MINISTER:

Her view always has been that's, that's whatever I feel most contented with.

STEFANOVIC:

Do you very much live for politics?

PRIME MINISTER:

I still enjoy politics immensely but the greatest love in my life is my family. I've been very lucky, I have a wonderful wife and I've got three great healthy kids and we're all very close and that's the greatest thing I've achieved. I've been very fortunate in that, but I, of course, I am stimulated by politics, by public life. You can't get as far, I guess, as I have without being so and I don't tire of it. I can't think of a day I've woken up in the last 10 years where I think I'd like to be doing something else. Not a day.

[ends]

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