TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER
THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP
INTERVIEW WITH LIAM BARTLETT, RADIO 6WF
24 October 2001
BARTLETT: Prime Minister, good morning.
PRIME MINISTER: Good morning Liam. Nice to talk to you and your listeners again.
BARTLETT: I'm tipping you'd be very disappointed not to be here on the goldfields this morning. It's magnificent up in Kalgoorlie.
PRIME MINISTER: You're making me feel envious. But I have to make the point to your listeners that I've probably visited the electorate of Kalgoorlie more than any Prime Minister in the last 40 years. I've been to that electorate including to the city of Kalgoorlie on a number of occasions in support of Barry Haase who's a magnificently hard working Liberal federal member.
BARTLETT: Yeah we talked to him yesterday. He's only got a 2% margin. [inaudible]
PRIME MINISTER: He's got a very thin margin and it's going to be a tough battle. But he's a good bloke who punches very hard for his electorate. It's the biggest electorate in the world so it's a tough ask but he's done a very good job.
BARTLETT: Prime Minister, as some of our listeners heard about 15 minutes ago on AM and also yesterday this campaign has become very personal in the last 24 hours hasn't it? It became very ugly yesterday.
PRIME MINISTER: Well it became ugly, to use your expression not mine, when Mr Beazley sought to link an immense human tragedy with an alleged failure of government policy. Now if he hadn't done that I would merely have said that I felt saddened for that terrible human tragedy. That boat sank in Indonesian waters, it sank in Indonesian waters. It had nothing to do with the actions of the Australian Government and he sought quite contemptibly to link that with the policy of the Government.
BARTLETT: Prime Minister, you and two of your senior ministers made an absolute meal out of it didn't you. Was that an attempt to keep the issue [inaudible] on?
PRIME MINISTER: No. What are we just meant to say oh yes you're right Mr Beazley, it's our fault? I mean I am not going to stand by silent and allow people to besmirch the good name of this Government. I don't care what the circumstances are. I'm not going to have the good name of this Government besmirched. I was very saddened by an immense human tragedy and I hope all Australians were. It was quite wrong of the Opposition Leader to jump in first thing yesterday morning after saying he felt sorry and I don't doubt that. He then jumps in and says oh but really in effect it's the fault of the Howard Government. Now that was contemptible and I'm not going to have……
BARTLETT: He said it pointed to a failure of policy.
PRIME MINISTER: Well who's in power though.
BARTLETT: Are you twisting his words?
PRIME MINISTER: No I'm not. I mean what does a failure of policy mean if it doesn't mean that in some way we are responsible for this tragedy.
BARTLETT: Hang on, let me ask you this….
PRIME MINISTER: I'm sorry, let me tell you this. I've got the words in front of me.
BARTLETT: Prime Minister, you called it a despicable slur [inaudible].
PRIME MINISTER: I did and it was.
BARTLETT: Do you honestly think Kim Beazley blames you for the deaths of 370 boat people?
PRIME MINISTER: Well this is what he said….
PRIME MINISTER: No no, can I just……well I'm reacting to his words. I'm reacting to his words. I mean am I meant, if he says something that has a plain English meaning, am I meant in order to excuse him from the consequences of his own allegations to reinterpret his words and say oh no he didn't really mean it. Of course he meant it. And if I hadn't pointed it out he would have gone on saying it . I mean the proof that I was right was that, having in the morning said that it pointed to a failure of policy, by mid afternoon he was saying that the people responsible were the people smugglers. So in the morning it was us. In the afternoon after I attacked him it became, as it should have been in the morning, the people smugglers.
BARTLETT: Can I ask you that question again – do you honestly think Kim Beazley blames you for the deaths of 370 people?
PRIME MINISTER: I honestly believe that is what he was inferring yesterday.
BARTLETT: Do you honestly think that?
PRIME MINISTER: I do believe that. Well what else can it mean. Can I read you the words again? "But it's a major human tragedy if that has occurred and that is a very sad thing indeed. What it points to is the failure of policy". In other words he was directly linking the two. The policy he's talking about is the policy of the Government. We're the Government. That's the only possible policy that he was referring to and that is the impression that he wanted to create. You know that, your listeners know that, he knows that and that's the reason why by mid afternoon he was changing his tune.
BARTLETT: But why…..
PRIME MINISTER: You can ask me questions about this for the rest of the interview if you want to. I mean I'm quite happy to talk about other issues. But I want to make it very clear to you and to your listeners – Mr Beazley endeavoured to besmirch the name of the Government, he endeavoured to leave an impression in the minds of the Australian public that in some way the Government was to blame for this tragedy. Now that was contemptible and ….
BARTLETT: You've made it clear so let's move on.
PRIME MINISTER: Okay that's fine.
BARTLETT: Why haven't you been able to establish an effective working relationship with the Indonesian President, Megawati Soekarnoputri?
PRIME MINISTER: I don't think any Australian government in the present circumstances would be able irrespective of its political colour to obtain the sort of agreement from Indonesia….
BARTLETT: Why not? What's the problem?
PRIME MINISTER: Because Indonesia's priorities are different from Australia's. Indonesia has issues which are far more important to her than reaching an agreement with Australia on this issue. I'm not saying….
BARTLETT: What far more important than even sitting down and having a formal meeting, a ten minute…?
PRIME MINISTER: Well we've had meetings. We talked about it. I had three separate meetings with the President of Indonesia some weeks ago when I went there in August.
BARTLETT: You and your ministers have said in the past [inaudible] issue in order to fix it to get Indonesia's involvement on an official level. Now you weren't able to hold official talks with her during APEC. Two months ago she wouldn't take your phone calls and a deputisation of no less than three of your ministers failed to make any real headway. What's the problem?
PRIME MINISTER: Well the problem is that Indonesia has more important thing on her plate. I mean Mr Sciacca yesterday, and he's the Opposition spokesman on immigration and he would be Minister for Immigration in a Beazley government, when he was asked whether he could guarantee that if Labor were in power they would get an agreement, he said no I can't.
BARTLETT: I heard you run that line out on AM.
PRIME MINISTER: What do you mean run that line?
BARTLETT: What is the problem?
PRIME MINISTER: The problem is that Indonesia has higher priorities than reaching an agreement with Australia on this issue irrespective of who is in power. It won't make the slightest bit of difference who is in power in Australia. Indonesia will reach an agreement with Australia on this issue when that is a sufficiently high priority. You've got to remember that Indonesia is a country of more than 200 million people. It has immense economic and security challenges. And whilst this is a very high priority issue for us it is not nearly as high a priority for Indonesia. I just simply repeat that Mr Sciacca who is going to be the Immigration Minister if Mr Beazley wins, he's admitted that they can't guarantee they're going to do any better. Now this is not the fault of Australia. This is that there is a mismatch between our priority and Indonesia's priorities. We will go on seeking that agreement and we did have some success last week when a vessel was escorted back into Indonesian waters. We notified Indonesia that we were doing that and they of course raised no objection to it. Now that is a step forward. That was a good outcome. But nobody should be under any illusion that if you had a Labor government then miraculously hey presto you have an agreement. I mean Con Sciacca's blown the cover on that.
BARTLETT: All right. Prime Minister let's take some calls from our listeners around the state.
PRIME MINISTER: Sure.
BARTLETT: Let's talk firstly this morning to Clyde. Good morning Clyde.
CALLER: Good morning. Could I have a word with Mr Howard please?
BARTLETT: He's listening Clyde.
CALLER: Good good. Just a couple of real quick questions. If you win the next election would you then consider that you had a mandate to privatise Telstra? And the second question is why don't we call you 'Honest John' any more?
PRIME MINISTER: Well as for the second question that description whenever it's been used either positively or not so positively has been used by other people. I wouldn't presume to make that kind of commentary on myself. So you can answer that question. I won't try and do so. As to the first question, if we win the election I will regard myself as having a mandate to implement our policy on Telstra and our policy on Telstra is that there'll be no further sale of shares in Telstra until we have fixed what we regard as a number of additional things that need to be fixed in country Australia.
CALLER: Thank you very much.
BARTLETT: Thanks very much for your call. Prime Minister can we just make that clear. So if you win government the road is then open for Telstra…..?
PRIME MINISTER: No, they're your words not mine. Our policy is that there'll be no further sale of shares in Telstra until we have fixed the remaining difficulties in relation to services in the bush that have been identified in the Besley Report.
BARTLETT: But that's very open isn't it?
PRIME MINISTER: I think it's very clear. It's very clear that there'll be no further sale until the bush is happy.
BARTLETT: And if you fix them to the satisfaction that you perceive the bush will be happy with it will be completely privatised?
PRIME MINISTER: Let's deal with the happiness of the bush when these deficiencies as we see them have been addressed.
BARTLETT: But who will decide that happiness?
PRIME MINISTER: I think it will be very apparent whether or not we have fixed things to the satisfaction of country people. I can't be clearer.
BARTLETT: Well how will it be apparent?
PRIME MINISTER: Because they will make a judgement on whether we have adequately addressed the difficulties.
BARTLETT: How will they do that? What sort of polling would you use?
PRIME MINISTER: Look there are all sorts of ways in which you can assess the attitude of people. But the policy is….
BARTLETT: How would you do it for Telstra?
PRIME MINISTER: Can I just finish please? The policy is that we will not further sell shares in Telstra until we have addressed the continuing concerns of people about the adequacy of communications in country Australia.
BARTLETT: All right. So how would you adjudge if that was addressed?
PRIME MINISTER: In a number of ways.
BARTLETT: Can you give me one?
PRIME MINISTER: Well we will certainly consult representatives of rural Australia. Bodies such as the NFF. That's for opening. We will consult the political representatives of rural Australia which currently are largely Coalition members because we have stronger support in the bush than does the Labor Party. But that's the second way and that's not a bad start.
BARTLETT: Let's take another call. Vera May joins us. Good morning Vera May.
CALLER: Yes. Good morning Liam and good morning Mr Prime Minister. Mr Howard I do want to take you to task over a statement you made earlier this morning which rather horrified me in this instance that an attack on America is an attack on Australia. Now the attack on America has been brought about by the raw deal that the Arab countries of Europe have had at the hands of America over the last ten years or more. Now we have no beef with them whatsoever. The hatred that is there which should have been sorted out a long while ago and until you get that sorted out America will not have peace. So please do not say that that was an attack on Australia. It is not. We have no beef with the Arab people. Thank you very much for listening and I look forward to your reply.
PRIME MINISTER: Well my reply is I don't agree with you. It was an attack on Australia in a number of ways. You appear to have forgotten that something like 23 or 24 Australians died in the World Trade Centre. They were innocent victims of that attack. They meant no offence to anybody. They were going about their daily lives and they were without any kind of justification robbed of their lives. So in that sense it was very directly an attack on Australia. It was also an attack on Australia in the sense that the values that were under attack, and that is the right if free people around the world to live their lives in peace without disruption and without threat of violent deaths without any justification, that was under assault. And protecting that right is as important to Australia as it is to America. And unless the countries of the world that hold those values dear stand together and work together and in an appropriate way respond militarily together then you will have in increase in terrorism. Anybody who imagines that it will go away by us rolling ourselves into a ball and pretending we're not part of the world are deluding themselves and haven't read or absorbed the lessens of history.
BARTLETT: Thanks for the call. We're talking to the Prime Minister on ABC Radio right across the state of Western Australia. And the next caller is Hamish, Prime Minister. Hamish good morning.
CALLER: Good morning. Can you hear me alright.
BARTLETT: Yes we can.
CALLER: Look just a quick question, Prime Minister. Firstly I'm a small business. I do not have a problem with the GST. I do not have a problem with Pay as you Go. I think they're fine okay. But I do have this major problem. I have five children and my wife and myself are presently in a situation with the ATO along with 60,000 other taxpayers. Plus their families which would probably equate to more than 120,000 people. We presently have our whole house and everything that we've been working for for the last fifteen years on the line. We have a major concern that it's been handballed between political parties and nothing's been done about it of any substance and they've handballed it to the courts. I believe that the government should do the right thing and should put their foot down and show leadership in this situation and you know what this deal is this managed investment problem. It's not going to go away unless your government draw a line in the sand and say okay when these product rulings came out by the ATO prior to that lets let that go by the go. Anything since that time lets deal with it in a proper and orderly way. Now I've got everything at stake here and I am very concerned. And I know that the Senate Economic Committee handed down an interim report but that went no way far enough to providing us with any surety of our future. We are going to be a welfare case ….
BARTLETT: I think we get an idea about what you are talking about. Let's get a reaction from the Prime Minister.
PRIME MINISTER: Well Hamish I know what you are talking about. I in fact discussed this issue with a group of people in Kalgoorlie some months ago and directly following that a number of commitments were made by the Taxation Office. It does have an independent discretion under the law in this issue and the government. There are test cases. Indications have been given that interest and penalties won't be recovered in the full measure where tax is found to be due and payable. It's not possible in a situation like this just to have a blanket write-off because there is an enormous amount of revenue involved. There are a variety of schemes. Some of them if I can use very general layman's language some of them were more apparently esoteric and hard to believe were credibly based than others. And the process of the court hearings is to sort that out. I am not happy with the way the issue was handled by, various stages by the Tax Office. I think there was in some cases too long a delay. But in other cases I have to say that ordinary taxpayers are entitled to have a situation where if they meet their liabilities and don't try and take advantage of arrangements that provide very generous benefits then other people won't be allowed to do either. One of the things I've promised to do if I am re-elected is to appoint a new office of the Inspector-General of the Taxation Office so that people who have legitimate complaints about the way the Taxation Office has handled certain matters can in fact take those to this person.
BARTLETT: Will that go some way to alleviating the problems these people are facing.
PRIME MINISTER: Well I think it would certainly go some way towards, a significant way towards that kind of thing not occurring in the future. But Liam you've got a dilemma here. On the one hand you have a lot of people who've gone into these schemes. They've been ruled ineligible and they are now in very significant financial difficulty and I am extremely concerned about that, and we want to mitigate it where possible. But on the other hand you have a lot of people saying we were offered these schemes and we decided not to go into them because we didn't believe in the end they would be accepted. And so you have to try and balance those two considerations. And it's not an easy thing to do.
BARTLETT: Right. Let's take some more questions. James joins us from Bunbury. Hello James.
BARTLETT: Hello James.
CALLER: Hello, yes. Just curious Mr Prime Minister. Away from the political scene what is your relationship like with Kim Beazley because is it as cut throat as it is made out to be.
PRIME MINISTER: No. I have no personal dislike of him.
CALLER: Do you two ever get together for ….
PRIME MINISTER: We don't make a habit. If we're thrown together at a function we can talk in a perfectly civil fashion.
PRIME MINISTER: There's no problem. Look I just treat people on their merits and you know if he tries to slur my reputation or that of my government I'll have a whack at him.
CALLER: I understand.
PRIME MINISTER: And that's fair enough. But I'm not, I mean I disagree with him politically but I don't carry any personal hatred of him. Life is too short for that.
CALLER: I agree with you. I think off the cameras I think you guys still respect each other and you do have a sort of see each other as being friends and that type of thing.
PRIME MINISTER: Well I don't know about friends. But look as I say I have no personal dislike of him. I disagree with his politics and I thought he was incredibly opportunistic and did himself and the cause of politics a great disservice yesterday.
CALLER: Okay. Well best of luck for everything Mr Howard and have a good day.
PRIME MINISTER: Thank you.
BARTLETT: Well thank you James and thank you for your call. Let's talk to John. Hello John.
CALLER: Good morning Mr Howard.
PRIME MINISTER: Good morning John.
CALLER: I just want to. I'm an ex World War II digger and an ex prisoner of war of the Japanese. And I want to, it's long overdue to thank you for what you've done for the ex-servicemen of this and women of this nation. I want to support your policies because you since you've been in office you've taken the hard decisions. You have not, you've put aside your personal achievements but what you have achieved you've done in the name of the nation. It's a crucial factor for this coming election, we should put aside our petty differences and selfish interests and think of the nation as a whole. We're living in dangerous times and I want to thank you for all the, what you are doing for the present generation of ex-service men and women. What post war people don't realise, they don't seem to realise that during the Second World War we would not have survived as a nation without America. And I was a prisoner of war of the Japanese and would not be speaking to you this morning if the Americans hadn't come to our assistance. So we owe them a great deal. You know the Japanese had their pound notes printed for when they took this country. So that's what the people post war generations don't seem to know this. So my purpose is to thank you for what you have for the nation. More than ever this country of ours, we need you and your government. So I urge all people out there if they are undecided, we need a strong leader at this point.
BARTLETT: Alright, thanks John.
CALLER: Thanks again Mr Howard.
BARTLETT: I think that speaks for itself doesn't it.
PRIME MINISTER: Thank you for your very kind remarks.
BARTLETT: Let's go to Allison. Allison good morning.
CALLER: Hi Liam, good morning Prime Minister. My question is pretty simple. Prime Minister do you think it's fair that nursing home workers get paid $11.44 an hour and secondly do you think there's a nursing home crisis and thirdly would you support a campaign for a dollar an hour increase so that we can attract young people into our nursing home industry?
PRIME MINISTER: I don't… taking each of those questions, I don't believe that there's a nursing home crisis. I believe that we need to maintain a constant and improving level of support for nursing homes. We also need to find increasing resources for alternatives to nursing homes, that is why in the time we have been in government we have increased from 4,000 to 25,000 the number of aged care packages. Those packages provided to keep people in their own homes much longer than used to be the case. I think we have a shortage of nurses in this country. I have always had a soft spot for nurses. I don't think generally speaking the contribution they make is as widely recognised and respected in the community as it should be. We need, we do need to get more nurses. Now that is a collective responsibility of the entire community and…
BARTLETT: Prime Minister as you know those aged care workers have been struggling with various issues for quite a while. For the sort of work they do, do you think $11.44 an hour is fair?
PRIME MINISTER: Well I think you can always argue that people should enjoy higher wages. One of the advantages of having a Coalition government is that we support an industrial relations policy that allows far greater flexibility….
BARTLETT: …would you…
PRIME MINISTER: …guarantee of the award. Well, look, I think they do a fantastic job and I am in favour of giving them very good conditions. But you need in order to deliver them good conditions you need to have a system that allows greater flexibility of employment. Isn't tied rigidly to an award. Allows development of workplace practices that enable nursing home employers through productivity arrangements to deliver higher outcomes and our industrial relations policy certainly does that. We've had something to say about nursing homes for country people. I can tell your questioner and your listeners that we'll have something more to say on the nursing home issue in a little while and during the course of the election campaign. It is an important issue and we have gone a long way to addressing the deficit that we inherited five and a half years ago.
BARTLETT: Right let's take another call. Tom good morning. Hello Tom
CALLER: Good morning Mr Howard. Mr Howard I would like to ask a question regarding the GST in country areas. I find that there's a big discrepancy with the GST. I personally think it is illegal because of the price variation between country and city. You have a country like England which is only about say the size of Victoria and there wouldn't be a big variation in prices but in Australia we have.
PRIME MINISTER: No they are all universally higher than they are in Australia.
PRIME MINISTER: The prices in England are universally higher than they are in Australia so there is quite a big variation.
CALLER: No not a variation within
PRIME MINISTER: I know, I understand that point but I think it is fair to make the point that the standard of living in this country is infinitely higher than it is in the United Kingdom.
CALLER: Well the thing is that we, the problem I have is that there is such a difference in the tax. Like for example, I'll give you an example. The Sunday Times in Perth is a $1.30 plus GST or a dollar I think that's right and in the Northern Territory for example its $3.20 plus GST which makes the gap even wider with the extra tax and it's exactly the same item.
PRIME MINISTER: There is no doubt that some items irrespective of the GST are dearer. Those items were dearer in the country before the GST.
CALLER: That's right.
PRIME MINISTER: I mean the introduction of the GST has not produced the price differential. I accept that and there are just some things that are dearer equally there are some things like housing that are much cheaper. The cost of servicing the average home loan in a major city is much higher than it is in country areas and what we have endeavoured to do in relation to a lot of these things and we've done it in relation to fuel is through the reform of the taxation system to provide lower levels of excise on diesel and to try and accommodate some of these cost differentials. But it's not right to say or infer as I think your question seeks to do that in some way it was the introduction of the GST which produced cost differentials between the city and the country. And bear in mind that the GST tax reform has made our exports cheaper and more competitive and a great deal of the benefit of that has flowed through to country people.
BARTLETT: Can I just ask you a question about that. Thanks for your call Tom. Just before we run out of time. The GST rollback has been decried from your camp in broad terms. Peter Costello called it peanuts. The estimated saving of about $30 a quarter. Do you think $30 a quarter is nothing?
PRIME MINISTER: I think the claimed savings on power bills will be close to gobbled up by additional administrative costs and the power utilities have begun to issue that warning already. And that is the basis of Peter Costello's claim. And I think it is entirely relevant. I think in this election campaign there are two issues we've got to focus on. We've got to focus on who can best deliver national security in the broader sense and who can best economically manage the country. Part of economic management is having the courage to reform things when they need change. We had the courage to introduce a new tax system. It wasn't popular it wasn't easy but in the long run it's been of enormous benefit to the Australian community. Most people believe that we should now move on and look to the future rather than to have our third election campaign on the GST.
BARTLETT: Prime Minister thanks very much for your access this morning.
PRIME MINISTER: You're welcome.
BARTLETT: For listeners right throughout Western Australia we appreciate that. Thank you very much.