Howard defends asylum seeker policy

AM Archive - Wednesday, 24 October, 2001
Reporter: Mark Willacy

LINDA MOTTRAM: Prime Minister, John Howard, says he will continue to defend his Government against what he calls 'contemptible slurs' over its asylum seeker policy.

Mr Howard has accused Labor Leader, Kim Beazley, of insensitivity and of trying to score cheap political points over the deaths of the 353 asylum seekers on that boat that sank off Indonesia.

Mr Beazley describes it as a major human tragedy and he says that it points to a failure of policy.

Well the Prime Minister will use another policy launch today to try to continue the momentum the Government feels it has in an uncertain international climate with the release of the Coalition's defence policy in Perth. It comes as Morgan Bulletin poll gives Labor a three point lead over the Government on a two-party preferred basis.

Mark Willacy is in Perth with the Prime Minister. He spoke to Mr Howard for AM.

MARK WILLACY: Mr Howard, what message does it send to voters when they hear the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader making a policy debate out of the deaths of 353 people?

JOHN HOWARD: Well I didn't do that. Mr Beazley was the person who first drew a link between our policy and those tragic deaths. If he had not said that this would not have been an issue. He started that. I didn't. And I think what he did was contemptible, absolutely contemptible for him to try and draw a link, and then, worse still, having been exposed he then pretends he didn't say it.

I mean, later on in the day, having said that the deaths pointed to a policy failure he actually said he didn't say anything, which I think is just compounding his original mistake. He was the person who tried to make a political point out of the tragic deaths of 350 people. Now I think that was contemptible. If he had not said that I would not have said anything.

MARK WILLACY: Your Immigration Minister, though, Philip Ruddock, seems happy to make a policy debate out of it though as well. He said, and I'll quote, "If there is a linkage it's in the failure to be able to get reforms through that would have addressed the perception of Australia being an easy touch". He seems happy to engage in that debate.

JOHN HOWARD: No, no, but he had denied the linkage. He had denied the allegation made by Mr Beazley. I mean Mr Beazley kicked this off by expressing his sympathy and then saying this points to a policy failure.

Now that an outrageous casting of the first stone. An ugly thing to say and quite unacceptable and no amount of, you know, duck shoving and attempts by people who are trying to spin Mr Beazley out of this to say, oh, you know, he said that, somebody else said something else. He started this by making that outrageous claim.

Now naturally the Government has got to defend itself. It was a terrible thing that those people died, but that's not the fault of the Australian Government, it's not the fault of the Indonesian Government, it's the fault of the people smugglers and I think it is just absolutely insensitive and contemptible for Mr Beazley to put that kind of construction on it.

MARK WILLACY: So will you leave the matter there then given the type of debate. You're saying it's a contemptible debate, will you leave it there and move on?

JOHN HOWARD: Look, I will defend the Government against contemptible slurs. I'm not going to have the reputation of this Government slurred by Mr Beazley. If he stops the slur I'll have nothing further to say about it, but don't imagine for a moment that he can just walk away from this without carrying the blame for having tried to exploit to his political advantage the deaths of 350 people.

MARK WILLACY: The point Mr Beazley was trying to make that it was a policy failure the Government had not engaged enough with Indonesia to deter these people from coming. Will you attempt once again to meet with President Megawati Sukarnoputri, even get her on the phone to try and deal with this whole issue?

JOHN HOWARD: Look, even Mr Sciacca, Mr Beazley's own immigration spokesman, has not been able to give a guarantee that Labor would do any better. This has got nothing to do with who is in power in Australia. It's got everything to do with the priorities of the Indonesian government and Mr Beazley knows that, and Mr Sciacca knows that. We are in an election campaign.

I spoke to the Indonesian President about this issue a couple of days ago. Whoever wins the election - if it's me - then I'm going to get in touch with her with a view to having a further discussion about this and other matters, but I don't expect Indonesia to quickly change its position because being quite honest about it, Indonesia's priorities are different from ours in relation to this. It's not that they are indifferent to it .

MARK WILLACY: Would it be a sign of good faith though to .

JOHN HOWARD: A sign of good faith, I mean a sign of good faith - we have been constantly trying to achieve an agreement but Indonesia has different priorities but this vessel sank tragically, not because of the Australian Government, as Mr Beazley alleged, and nothing he says now can alter that fact. He made that allegation at his doorstop at the Marriott Hotel in Brisbane yesterday morning, and nothing he subsequently said can absolve him from the responsibility of having tried to politically exploit the tragic deaths of 350 people.

MARK WILLACY: Pakistani President, Pervez Musharraf, says his country now has two and a half million Afghan refugees and he says Australia wont even accept a boatload of 200. Given our involvement in the campaign against terrorism aren't we obligated to maybe accept a few more people that are fleeing this sort of regime?

JOHN HOWARD: Look, look, Mark. Even if you look at that argument for a moment a few hundred is not going to make a difference when you're dealing with two and a half million. The way to deal with this problem is to help it at the source, change it at the source, not to imagine that by us taking a few hundred you're going to make any indentation into that huge problem.

We have done something. We have put a lot more money towards the United Nations agencies for expenditure in Pakistan. The great bulk of about $23 million announced only a few weeks ago by the Government, extra money going to UN agencies and I think what the world must do is to help Pakistan cope with this problem, but nobody should be na´ve enough to imagine that you can resettle around the world two and a half million people and taking a few hundred extra is not going to make any real difference to that - two and a half million people and what you have to try and do is to help the government of Pakistan handle that problem.

MARK WILLACY: You've pledged to outline what you call your intellectual case for agreeing to deploy Australian troops in the campaign against terrorism, what is that case?

JOHN HOWARD: Well that case - have I got half an hour? I mean I can't give a half hour speech in 30 seconds. With great respect that is an unreasonable question.

We should be involved because what happened on the 11th of September was an attack on Australia as much as an attack on America. Australians died. Our values were under assault as were America's because they're common values.

If we imagine we can, you know, fold ourselves into a little ball and the whole thing will pass us by we're deluding ourselves.

Now they're the elements of the case, but I'll be going into a great deal more in argument when I deliver this address later in the week.

MARK WILLACY: You're announcing your defence policy today. What new initiatives from the Government's point of view are involved?

JOHN HOWARD: Well we'll be making a number of additional points about the detail and the order of many of the commitments contained in the White Paper, and bear in mind that we have committed a massive increase in defence expenditure, this is some of the money Mr Beazley says we shouldn't be spending. Every time he stands up and says we've depleted the surplus he's attacking additional defence expenditure. He can't have it both ways.

But we are going make a number of additional commitments in relation to defence personnel and I'll be outlining a number of the priorities areas of expenditure within the overall scope of the White Paper.

MARK WILLACY: Commentators have been critical of the Government for lacking a third term, as they put it, saying basically all you're offering is more of the same, a bit of certainty in uncertain times. Obviously your first term was workplace relations reform. Second term taxation reform. Is there a big ticket item in the third term that you can put to people?

JOHN HOWARD: Well that's the Labor Party argument that we don't have a third term agenda. Third term agenda has already been in significant measure laid out in all the policy announcements I've made over the last twelve months.

Welfare reform is a third term agenda item. Defence expenditure and restructuring is a third term item. Further industrial relations reform is a third term item. Additional initiatives to attract venture capital to review the operation of competition law. They are third term agenda items.

There will be a number of initiatives in health that will be revealed in the next little while that will be third term agenda items. Additional support for people, older people to stay in their own homes - community care packages, that's a third term agenda item.

Tackling the problem of salinity, that's a third term agenda item. If you had another little while I could go on. That is a very substantial agenda and there will be quite a number of further major policy announcements to be made.

MARK WILLACY: What about relief for pay as you go taxpayers. Is there something, a carrot you could maybe dangle there for people like .

JOHN HOWARD: Well you employ the language, the carrots - I mean we're not engaged in some kind of crude option. In the end you can't do anything for the average person unless you have a strong economy and the strongest third term agenda item I offer is continued strength for the Australian economy and like we've had over the last five and a half years.

We face difficult times and we can manage the Australian economy better than the Labor Party and that is the greatest offering I make in the social economic area.

You can't spend extra money on education and health unless you have a growing economy and we've demonstrated over the last five and a half years that we can deliver a growing economy and we'll continue to do that in our third term if the Australian people give us the third term.

LINDA MOTTRAM: Prime Minister, John Howard, with Mark Willacy in Perth, and we've invited Opposition Leader, Kim Beazley on to AM tomorrow.

X-URL: http://www.abc.net.au/am/s398546.htm

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