TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER
8 November 2001
Subjects: illegal immigration; Telstra; higher education; economic management
JOURNALIST: Mr Howard, Dennis Shanahan at the Australian. You've talked about policies being a continuum of the years past, but one of the issues which has dominated the campaign has been border protection, those policies that you've introduced are literally only weeks old. Many of them were meant to address short time problems. What are your long term solutions for border protection given the unsustainable strain that the pacific solution places on both our Navy and on our fiscal situation.
PRIME MINISTER: Well Dennis I think you have to first of all deal with the short and medium term as well as projecting forward to the longer term. Everyone knows and I have myself said on many occasions that if people didn't endeavour to come to Australia in the first place there wouldn't be a challenge. They endeavour to come to Australia for a combination of reasons, one of the reasons is that until quite recently it has appeared to the rest of the world that it's been fairly easy to get to Australia and once you get to Australia it's been fairly easy to stay here.
Now, we set about with a number of the changes we made, we only got final Parliamentary approval to some of them, to alter that. And our policy at the present time, which I don't accept is unsustainable, our policy at the present time is to send a message to the rest of the world that what was previously perceived to be the situation is no longer the situation. And there is evidence, intelligence and otherwise, to the effect that the number of people coming into the pipeline is beginning to slow. There were or was a bank up of people in Indonesia and, of course, inevitably they arrived in Indonesia prior to many of the actions the Government has taken that has sent a different signal to the rest of the world. We will continue to discuss, if re-elected, with the Indonesian Government, as we have done previously, the possibility of achieving a different approach and an agreement about the departure of people from Indonesia. It is said by our political opponents that all is needed is a change of government to bring that about. That, of course, is demonstrably not the case. People such as Ali Alatas have made it very plain that there is really no discernible difference between the two sides of politics so far as Indonesia is concerned.
The reasons why it's been difficult to get an agreement with Indonesia to date goes not to the political colour of the Australian Government but goes to the domestic political priorities of Indonesia, which are not going to change if there were a change of government on Saturday. This is a difficult issue and it's an issue which gets down to the fundamental right of this country to decide who comes here. And I yield to nobody in my determination to maintain the absolute right of Australia to decide who comes here and the circumstances in which they come. And I repeat what I have said on a number of occasions throughout the election campaign, I do not believe that the strength of this policy would be maintained if Mr Beazley were to win on Saturday. I believe the internal pressures within his own party to bring about a change of policy would be immense and I believe just as he's changed before he will change again.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, Sarah Clarke, ABC Television news. Number one, will you state your preference on whether you believe that Telstra should or would be better off fully privatised and your Party's preference? And number two, if you trusted Mr Besley to point out the problems of Telstra in the bush and then endorsed his report, why not bring him back to be the final arbiter on whether or not Telstra should be sold off and when it should be sold off?
PRIME MINISTER: Sarah, what I'll do is state the Government's policy. The Government's policy is we won't sell another share in Telstra until we are satisfied that things in the bush are up to scratch. The idea of talking to Tim Besley, he's always pleasant to talk to, I may well, having done, you know, all the things that he said, talk to the NFF - hear that Ian - and talk to all of my rural colleagues and talk to a lot of other people, I may well further talk to him. But the position is, Sarah, we're not selling another share until communications facilities in the bush are up to scratch.
JOURNALIST: What about your preference, though, your preference on whether or not you believe…
PRIME MINISTER: Sarah, I'm stating Government policy and my preference is exactly the same as Government policy, what a surprise.
JOURNALIST: Paul Bongiorno, Network Ten, Prime Minister. We have a clear idea of what a Howard Government would set out to achieve in its third term but it's also a fact that no Prime Minister can lay out how his successor will implement or lay down his policies. Would the Australian people know, for example, that a Costello government would have a different view, for example - and it's only an example, Prime Minister - on the republic, reconciliation and saying sorry and even how a Costello government might deal with a boat load of people trying to get in illegally?
PRIME MINISTER: Very hypothetical. There are only two governments on offer on Saturday, a Beazley government or a Howard government and you know my views on those issues.
JOURNALIST: Mr Howard, Fran Kelly, the 7.30 Report. Defence sources are saying today that the photos released by the Defence Minister's office some weeks ago of the people in the water from that sinking boat were captioned when they were handed to the Government and that those captions clearly showed that the people were in the water because the boat was sinking, not because people had been thrown overboard, children had been thrown overboard. Will you now ask the Minister of Defence to release those photos with captions as originally provided by the Navy?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, Fran, I don't know what defence sources you're referring to but let me just take you through the sequence on this very quickly. The claims that were made by Mr Ruddock and Mr Reith on the Sunday, I think it would have been Sunday the 7th of October, it was just after the election was called, they were based on advice from defence sources. My own comments were based on my discussions with Mr Ruddock and Mr Reith. On the 9th of October I received an ONA report that read in part as follows: Asylum seekers wearing life-jackets jumped into the sea and children were thrown in with them. Such tactics have previously been used elsewhere, for example, by people smugglers and Iraqi asylum seekers on boats intercepted by the Italian Navy.
Now, I make the offer to Mr Beazley and, I'm sure he will respect the sensitivity of it, that if he wants to have a look at the ONA report in its entirety he's very welcome to do so and I'm very happy for him to do so. Now, look, the whole basis of our claim was the advice we received. Now, if you get that kind of written advice and you get the sort of advice that both Mr Reith and Mr Ruddock received at the time, that's the basis of the allegations that are made. Now, I mean, you can ask endless questions about releasing this or that but the basis of the claims were the advice not the video. The video didn't come into…the discussion of it didn't come into the public domain until, I think, the 10th on evening television and then in the newspapers on the 11th. But can I say with respect, Fran, that although this is important - I don't want to trivialise it because it was a traumatic, emotional turn to the issue - it's not really, you know, directly on the issue of whether you agree or disagree with the policy that we are pursuing. I mean, the Australian people are concerned about the policy that we're pursuing. Those who support it, support it and those who don't, oppose it. But that's the central issue in the debate but I have to say to all of you who've sort of raised queries about this, if you get….if the Defence Minister and Immigration Minister get verbal advice from defence sources and the Prime Minister gets that kind of written advice I don't think it's sort of exaggerating or gilding the lily to go out and say what I said.
JOURNALIST: Laurie Oakes, Nine Network. That's not a bad question Prime Minister. I'd like to ask you that question. I'd also like to ask this one: the unemployment figures today show the unemployment rate in October is up by 0.4% to 7.1%, full time employment fell by 56,800. Can you tell us please do you expect unemployment to get worse before it gets better and how much worse? And could you explain for us how these figures, tens of thousands of Australians losing their jobs, bolster the Coalition's claim to superior economic management?
PRIME MINISTER: Well let me say in relation to those figures Laurie that total employment increased by almost 18,000 in October. The increase in the unemployment rate was due to a change in the participation rate. And if you'r talking about employment trends the answer to your question is that employment rose by 17,900 in October, notwithstanding considerable economic uncertainty. It's now right of me to say, accurate of me to say, that since March of 1996 we've created 851,200 new jobs. The unemployment rate now is of course lower than what it was when we came to office. I'm not going to attempt to forecast about future unemployment levels. It is undoubtedly the case that we are facing more difficult economic times. We can't escape it. The world economic downturn and the fact that America has now had a quarter of negative economic growth, that Japan is in recession, and that other nations are in recession, of course that's going to have an effect. I'm not saying to the Australian people that we can remain unscathed from the world economic downturn. What I'm saying is that because of what the Coalition has done over the last five and a half years we are better able to face that downturn, and because of our superior economic credentials we'll be better able to lead Australia through that downturn than our opponents. That is what I'm saying.
JOURNALIST: Louise Dodson from the Age Mr Howard. I wonder given that there is some uncertainty about this video about the children being pushed overboard, do you regret saying that those people shouldn't be allowed….they're not the sort of people we'd like to have in Australia?
PRIME MINISTER: I don't regret saying, I should go back and have a look at exactly what was said, but I don't regret ever saying that people who throw children overboard aren't welcome in Australia.
JOURNALIST: But given there's some uncertainty about whether they did….
PRIME MINISTER: Well in my mind there is no uncertainty because I don't disbelieve the advice I was given by defence. And can I just say again Louise when you get defence giving advice, and the statements I made were based on advice, I wasn't there, neither of the ministers were there. They get advice, it is then confirmed in writing in terms that I have described. I think in those circumstances it's perfectly reasonable and legitimate of me to say what I said and I don't disbelieve the defence advice.
JOURNALIST: Malcolm Farr from the Daily Telegraph. You would agree I'd presume that Australia as an advanced western industrialised country should be able to boast of having at least one university within the top ten, fifteen universities of the world. Why is it that after five and a half years of your Government we don't and we don't look like having an entry on that list for quite a while yet?
PRIME MINISTER: Well Malcolm I don't know what particular league table or measurement you're talking about. I don't mean that response disrespectfully. I just don't know. But I do know that the OECD comparisons of all the levels of education in Australia show that Australia at a primary, secondary and tertiary level is at or above the OECD average. The one area where we're below it is in the area of pre-school which is totally the responsibility of the states.
JOURNALIST: Mr Howard just to Saturday there's quite a strong field of independents running this election in the Lower House seats. There is a possibility of a hung Parliament. Do you fear that more than you fear a Labor victory.
PRIME MINISTER: There's nothing worse than a Labor victory….for Australia. I would simply say to people who are listening to this program that you can't sort of have both. I visited the electorate of New England last weekend and my pitch to the people of New England, some of whom think the idea of having an independent is compatible with having a Coalition Government. It might come down to the wire, I don't know. I don't mind saying that the preference deal Labor has struck with the Democrats and the Greens is pretty good for them. It's making our task a lot harder. So any conservative rural voter for example in the electorate of New England, don't imagine that you can have an independent and also have me. I mean, you know, from some of them I mightn't like the answer they give. They've got to make the choice. But I suspect the great bulk of them want the Coalition to be returned but they might think well we can have a bit on the side. In the end that could prove to be totally illusory. Obviously I would like the Coalition to have a clear working majority. That's what I'm going to be fighting for until 6:00pm on Saturday night. And I don't get into hypothesising about what I might not do if that is not the case. But whatever you do don't vote Labor.
JOURNALIST: Paul Cleary from the Financial Review Mr Howard. I'd just like to point out that Mr Reith did say on ABC Radio on October 10 that there was a video which confirmed that the people were thrown overboard. Will you discipline Mr Reith in light of those remarks? But also my substantive question is about what you've said in the past about refugees, that the Coalition's acceptance of more refugees per capita from Indo-China in the Fraser Government was one of your proudest achievements. You've said that a number of times. The Vietnamese in particular have gone on to become entrepreneurs, they run great restaurants, they represent 1% of the population yet 5% of their kids are at university. Aren't the Afghanis like the Vietnamese in that they're risk takers, they're risking everything for a better life, and aren't they the sort of people you want in this country?
PRIME MINISTER: Can I just say Paul that I was proud of what the Fraser Government did in relation to the Vietnamese people, very proud. We had a particular and special responsibility in relation to them because we had largely, in relation to most of them, fought on their side in the Vietnam War we had a particular responsibility in relation to them. But I thought that was great policy. And I'm not making any general aspersions or unfairly comparing the Afghani or the Iraqi people with the Vietnamese. What I'm saying is that we believe you've got to run an orderly refugee program and we are facing a situation….I mean it's very easy for people to criticise what the Government is doing. I ask my critics to contemplate the alternative. I ask my critics to say to me and to tell the Australian people, you dismantle what is called the Pacific Solution, what is the alternative. The alternative is that you will be sending a signal, I mean if after everything that has happened if we reverse policy that will be seen as a magnet, in current economic circumstances, to great and increasing numbers of people to endeavour to come to this country. And that will present an enormous difficulty for Australia.
And can I say to you that I'm not the only person who has concerns about this. I think I've said before that when Tony Blair rang me to say he couldn't come to CHOGM he talked about the aftermath of the 11th of September and he drew a link between that aftermath and the problem of asylum seekers. I mean can I just read something to you? 'Here in this country', this is the quote, 'and in other nations around the world laws will be changed, not to deny basic liberty but to prevent their abuse and to protect the most basic liberty of all - freedom from terror. New extradition laws will be introduced, new rules to ensure asylum is not a front to terrorist activity, terrorist entry. This country is proud of its tradition in giving asylum to those fleeing tyranny. We will always do so but we have a duty to protect the system from abuse.' Now they were the words of the British Labour Prime Minister to the party's annual conference in Blackpool or Brighton, I forget which, on the 2nd of October of this year.
Now I haven't said, I haven't made the allegation that there are terrorists on any particular boat loads of people, what I am saying is that we have a heightened obligation to make absolutely certain who is coming to this country, which further underlines and validates the attitude this government has taken and I'm not alone in saying that because the sort of argument that I used is almost identical to the argument that the British Labour Prime Minister used to his own party conference a little over a month ago.
PRIME MINISTER: I'm sorry?
JOURNALIST: Mr Reith's comments on October…
PRIME MINISTER: Well I'll have a look at Mr Reith's comments, I think Mr Reith has been an extremely good member of the Government and I have a very warm regard for what Mr Reith has done. And can I just say to you again Paul the claims that were made were based, about children being thrown overboard, were based on advice before the video even came into the public domain.
JOURNALIST: Reka Bakta from the Indian Post Prime Minister. You mentioned the aging population and the young families, can I reiterate it again, the percentage of older citizens are growing, population is not supplemented by new births as we desire, fertility rate is frighteningly low. With the growing economy we need a larger workforce, you did mention in the Great Hall the aged population working longer. You have yourself given 64 as the benchmark, two years from now. Isn't increasing immigration intake the answer?
PRIME MINISTER: Well can I just say a couple of things, I don't believe in any kind of compulsory retiring ages and can I say I think if the nation had a vote again as it did in the late 1970's about the retiring age for federal judges it would probably deliver a different verdict because I think there's been a complete change in the last generation. It's one of those issues that I've watched go from one side to the other in the time that I've been in parliament. In the late 1970's it was all about sort of having early retiring ages, so forth, I think all of that has turned around.
In relation to your question about immigration, before that irreverent interjection, can I simply say to you that there's a lot of popular mythology about the impact of a different immigration intake and I've said in the past that I've got an open mind from year to year about the level of the intake and we have varied it somewhat between years since we've been in office, and I retain an open mind on that. The reality is, and this has been borne out by a lot of treasury studies I've seen, that you would have to have a massive increase in the level of immigration to have a noticeable effect on the demography of this nation. A really quite massive increase and I'm not opposed to having a debate about the level, I mean we have a debate all the time about it and we have certain principles that we'll continue to maintain a completely non-discriminatory policy, we have shifted it more in favour of skilled people. But there is a bit of mythology that all you've got to do is lift the migrant intake by a couple of hundred thousand a year and you fix the demography, you don't. And you would have to increase it massively according to the studies I've seen to have any appreciable impact and that would of course you know create tensions in other parts of the economy, not least the environment and unless you're going to direct people where they go then you create problems in their city or area of first choice. So I think there's a degree of mythology about that. I think the current migrant intake is appropriate, but as I say I've got an open mind from year to year about the level, as has the government.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, James Grubel from AAP. Can I just return to the economic management comments you made earlier. Given today's higher unemployment rate do you think that now gives the Reserve Bank some room to move on interest rates? I note this week it made no announcement, do you think it's because of the election that's coming on the weekend. And finally how would your approach to economic management help prop up the Australian dollar which is languishing in the low 50's?
PRIME MINISTER: Well I'm not going to give any advice to the Reserve Bank at this gathering. It's a matter for them what the rate is. And I don't normally talk about the future direction or otherwise of the Australian dollar, I simply make the observation I think we have a super competitive exchange rate.
JOURNALIST: Tony Wright of the Bulletin Mr Howard. Yesterday Kim Beazley had pointed out to him that he'd spoken of you as the most considerable conservative of the generation. And then went on basically to say that well yes he did feel good things for you at times and that…
PRIME MINISTER: He went on to bag me did he?
JOURNALIST: And that he felt that it was reasonable to say those sort of things, even about a Liberal because he was a man generous of heart and there was nothing wrong with that. I wonder whether you could give your assessment of Kim Beazley at this stage of the campaign, putting aside the heat and dust of it for a bit and find something nice to say about him. Or would that constitute weak leadership?
PRIME MINISTER: No it wouldn't, look, I've said a number of things about Mr Beazley. I bear him no personal malice. I disagree with him on a lot of policy issues, I don't think he's very resolute on many but I once said and I freely acknowledged on a well known current affairs programme at the weekend that I had said it, that if there were a war cabinet I'd put him in it, but I'd be the Prime Minister.
JOURNALIST: Tony Walker, Financial Review Prime Minister. This follows on from several questions about the jobless rate, but with the jobless rate at 7.1 per cent and trending up and if elected…
PRIME MINISTER: And what?
JOURNALIST: And trending up.
PRIME MINISTER: Trending up, well I'm not …..
JOURNALIST: Well we could have a debate about that I guess. But to ask the question, if elected does this provide an argument for a further loosening of monetary policy and stimulatory government spending to maintain economic growth. That's the first question. And the second question is do you categorically rule out running a budget deficit in the first two years of a third Howard Government before your much talked about retirement?
PRIME MINISTER: Well in relation to further fiscal stimulus, Tony if you believe, if you believe and others believe that the jobless situation is going to worsen and I'm not saying that, you're saying that, that makes a complete nonsense of the fiscal stimulus represented by the additional discretionary government spending that has been undertaken over the last 12 months… I mean hasn't Mr Beazley spent most of this election campaign running around Australia saying that we have wasted money, that we wasted it on defence, we wasted it on road funding, we wasted it on a whole lot of other things that have provided a very necessary fiscal stimulus, the $12 billion of tax cuts. I mean if you look back over the last couple of years I think the timing of the tax cuts and the timing of those expenditures have together been major contributors to the ongoing strength of the Australian economy. As far as the question of deficits are concerned it is not the policy of the Coalition, it is not my policy to run a budget deficit in any year.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister Gerard McManus from the Sunday Herald Sun. Two days out from the election the Labor Party still have not produced their immigration policy.
PRIME MINISTER: No.
JOURNALIST: I was just wondering why anyone in the Liberal Party has failed to capitalise on this clear vacuum in the Labor Party's policies?
PRIME MINISTER: Well I will now. Perhaps they can't make up their mind what to put in it. But I'm serious, I think immigration is an issue where there are very deep divisions inside the Labor Party. I would reiterate the point I made earlier that I do think if Mr Beazley wins on Saturday he will be under enormous pressure not to maintain the line that I have in relation to border protection.
JOURNALIST: Michael Harvey from the Herald Sun Prime Minister. One of your themes in Government has been that the things that unite are greater than the things that divide us. How much has that suffered in this campaign with its emphasis on the desirability of people from other countries, et cetera. And what would you do…
PRIME MINISTER: Well hang on, you say this emphasis, on the what? Just what are you inferring by that Michael?
JOURNALIST: I think that the backdrop and the overtone to this campaign on issues which have dominated and the way in which they've been responded to on the desirability of certain people to come to this country, that's just one. Well if I can take it in a boarder sense then. My question is what long term plans would you have as a re-elected Prime Minister to repair some of the divisions in the community over these issues.
PRIME MINISTER: Well can I just say Michael that I think that is a, I think it is a false representation of our position, a completely false representation. We have not sought to exclude people on the basis of their race or country of origin. We have sought to exclude people on the basis that they have sought to come here illegally and we would have the same attitude whether they came from Japan or Britain or America or anywhere else. It's got nothing to do with their race and its got nothing to do with their religion. It's got everything to do with the circumstances in which they have sought to come here. I don't find the divisions of which you speak of. I don't find them as deep as you imply. I think Australians find this, as I do, a difficult issue. I don't find it one of the easiest or the more enjoyable parts of the job that I have had over the last five and a half years and of course, like any human being, I was very touched by that tragedy in Indonesian waters and that poor man who lost his three daughters. I'm human like everybody else and that touched me very greatly and that is why I was so angry that Mr Beazley sought to imply in some way that I and my colleagues were responsible for it. But you have to, in the position I have, you have to, you should respond to your emotions but you've also got to respond to the other responsibilities that you have Michael but I do want to emphatically reject totally the notion implicit in your question that the basis of the exclusion of these people is ethnic. Well I am sorry Michael, that is how I heard your question. If that is what you, if you didn't mean that then, I accept you didn't mean it and that is good and we don't have a difference but we have sought to exclude them, not on the basis of their religion or their ethnicity but on the basis of the improper way in which we believe they have sought to come here.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister I asked you a question in Melbourne yesterday about the analysis of this campaign by Mr Oakes that a key element of your election strategy was dog whistle politics. You told me at the time you hadn't seen it. Have you now looked at it and how do you respond?
PRIME MINISTER: Well yes I have now seen it and I have now read the column. I don't agree with the analysis by Mr Oakes. I don't believe at all what he says is accurate and I reject it completely. This election, as you know, is being held against the background of a set of circumstances that have come upon us. It's being held at the time it's constitutionally required. I find the suggestion in that article is inaccurate. It's politically offensive. People are entitled to attack me, I am not personally offended by it because I'm used to a fair degree of personal attack and journalists are entitled to state their views plainly and passionately.
Look, I have done what I have done in relation to border protection because I genuinely believe that it is in the national interest to do so. I haven't done it because I am catching up with somebody else on the subject. I've done it because I genuinely believe it. I think if we were to reverse that policy now we would send the wrong signal around the world and I think the challenge we would then face would be enormous. You have got to control you borders. It's a fundamental exercise of national sovereignty. That is all I have sought to do. I know it is subject to a lot of criticism and a lot of that criticism has a moral overtone to it and like everybody else I examine criticisms of my behaviour that have moral strictures contained in it like other strictures but I am satisfied within myself that what we are doing is in the national interest. Others wait. Others have waited interminably to come to this country and I have found as I have moved around many people who went through that long process of waiting would be offended if the Government abandoned its policy and believe what the Government is doing in relation to this is fundamentally correct.