Australian Broadcasting Corporation


Late night news & current affairs



Broadcast: 08/11/2001

Prime Minister explains the race issue during the election campaign

TONY JONES: We planned an interview with Mr Howard tonight and Mr Beazley tomorrow night to round off our election coverage.

Our interview with Mr Howard is now in two parts, the first of which ranges over the issue that has dominated this campaign -- the effort to stem the flow of asylum seekers.

Following that interview, and after Vice-Admiral Shackleton, the Chief of the Navy, put out a statement attempting to clarify his earlier comments, Mr Howard requested a second interview with Lateline on the issue.

Compere: Tony Jones
Reporter: Tony Jones

TONY JONES: We had planned an interview with Mr Howard tonight and Mr Beazley tomorrow night to round off our election coverage.

Our interview with Mr Howard is now in two parts, the first of which ranges over the issue that has dominated this campaign -- the effort to stem the flow of asylum seekers.

And I spoke to Mr Howard in Canberra late this afternoon.

Mr Howard, whoever wins this election, will there be a need for healing on the question of race?


That question is based on the inference that what we are doing on asylum seekers is racially based.

I want to reject that.

It's not racially based.

The reason that we are adopting our policy on asylum seekers is that people seek to come here illegally.

We're not saying that we'll allow some people to come of a particular race and we'll reject others.

If that were the case, then you would be perfectly entitled to allege or infer that it's based on race.

It wouldn't matter what country the people were coming from, we would still adopt the same attitude, if they were coming from England, or from Japan, or from the United States.

People who seek to come here illegally would all be treated the same way.

It is not based on race.

And I reject completely the inference that the whole policy is racially based.

I think that's insulting to the Government and it's also insulting to many Australians who support the Government's policy.

TONY JONES: Alright.

In spite of your intentions, most people know when there's been a big shift in the racial climate in Australia and that appears to be one of the main reasons so many prominent people have come forward to speak out against your policy in recent days.

JOHN HOWARD: Well, I don't accept that either.

I don't believe that there has been a shift in the racial climate.

I really don't.

I think that is just, with great respect to people who are articulating that view, I think that is provocative in itself.

TONY JONES: Alright, but listening to what they're saying about you.

"The policy is wrong.

It's inhumane."

Malcolm Fraser.

"He has manipulated prejudice to his personal political advantrage."

John Hewson.

"We need a new approach."

Julie Bishop.

"Appealing to the worst in our natures."

Fred Cheney.

"Howard is a throwback."

Ian McPhee.

Now, these are all people from your own party.

Why are they so terribly worried about what's happening?

JOHN HOWARD: Can I just say one thing about --

what you have done is to unfairly quote Julie Bishop.

The new approach that she was referring to was in the context of some observations -- and I've seen the whole text of it -- in some observations about an agreement with Indonesia which, of course, we all support, if it can be achieved.

I think you're being very unfair to her.

TONY JONES: Well we could -- "It is vital that there's an agreement with Indonesia."

JOHN HOWARD: Yeah, that's right, that's right.

Well, I'm, I'm, I'm in favour of an agreement with Indonesia but, in the end, in the end, Tony, whenever you have a difficult issue, you're going to have critics.

And I have taken and the Government has taken a stand on this, because we believe it to be in our national interest that we send a signal that we are no longer a country of easy destination.

For too long, the view was taken that we were.

We are in favour of taking refugees.

We continue to take more, on a per capita basis, than any country except Canada.

And we'll continue to have that policy.

But we are not going to have people present themselves in a way that is illegal and to present themselves in a way that disrupts the normal operation of our refugee policy.

TONY JONES: Alright, now you have made the point that you would have the same attitude if these were people from Britain or the United States or Japan, I think you just said.

Why then haven't you moved with equal force to track down the 54,000 people who have overstayed their visas and are now in this country illegally, according to your own immigration website, most of whom come from Britain and the United States?

JOHN HOWARD: Well, we continue, we continue to do all sorts of things in relation to illegal immigrants but, obviously, there are illegal immigrants from a lot of countries and not just -- you say the majority from Britain and the United States -- I don't know whether that's true or false.

TONY JONES: Well, that's what the Department of Immigration website says.

JOHN HOWARD: Well, I would like to get my own direct advice on that.

But you're dealing there with a situation where people have actually arrived in the country and, obviously, once people are in the country, it's harder to find them.

And that really is, is, in a sense, an argument in favour of what we're doing.

I mean, once people have arrived in a country, there are all sorts of argument as to why it is difficult to ask them to go and it is far better, in our view, to send a signal that illegal immigration is not something that we're going to accept.

TONY JONES: Now, Mr Howard, I was going to ask you if you admonished Peter Reith for having suggested that there may have been a link between the asylum seekers and terrorism during these days.

But then it appears that you made the same link yourself.

JOHN HOWARD: Well, I certainly haven't admonished Peter Reith because all he did was to make the wholly reasonable point that, unless you have a careful screening process, you can't guarantee that people who come here illegally may not have terrorist links.

I wasn't alleging that any of the boat people were terrorists.

And what I have said is exactly the same thing that Tony Blair said when he addressed the British Labour Party conference in October.

It's exactly the same thing as the Deputy Secretary of State, Jim Kelly, said in Indonesia.

I find it a whole unexceptionable statement.

I'm not saying there are terrorists on the boats.

I'm simply saying you can't guarantee there aren't people who have such links, unless you have a very effective and a very strong screening process.

I think that is a personal reasonable, logical statement to make.

TONY JONES: But, in the present climate, with our own troops committed to a war against terrorists, what could arouse people's fears of asylum seekers more than the suggestion that they may be terrorists?

JOHN HOWARD: Well, Tony, therefore, what I've said, what Jim Kelly has said and what Tony Blair has said is -- I mena, Tony Blair's troops are involved as well.

Are you saying that he's arousing fears in Britain?

I mean, look, I've got responsibility to ensure, as best I can, that this country is protected.

And I think the people who are talking about the inflaming of passions are my critics.

I don't find, as I go around Australia, that people are inflamed.

I think people are angry about what happened in the United States, they are keen that we be part of that coalition, they believe we are living in more difficult, more sombre times and circumstances and they want this country to protect -- this Government to protect -- the country's borders.

I don't find people behaving in an irrational, racist fashion and, quite frankly, on their behalf, I resent the suggestion being made that anybody who supports the Government's policy is in some way supportive of racism.

I think that's a wholly unreasonable remark to make about many people in the country who agree with what the Government is doing.

TONY JONES: Is this another case of John Howard versus the elites?

JOHN HOWARD: They're your words.

I'm not putting it that way.

TONY JONES: It's a question.

JOHN HOWARD: The answer is no.

This is John Howard in favour of protecting Australia's borders.

TONY JONES: Now, you mentioned Tony Blair and he also said soon after the quote that you quoted during the press conference there, he also said, "The world must show as much its capacity for compassion as for force."

Now, bearing in mind that many of these asylum seekers are fleeing from the very terrorist-backed regime in Afghanistan that we are fighting, do you feel compassion for them?

JOHN HOWARD: Look, I feel, I feel compassion for a lot of people.

I felt compassion for that man who lost his three little girls.

Of course I do.

I'm touched by all human tragedy.

What we have done in relation to the burgeoning refugee problem in Afghanistan and Pakistan is to provide a lot of additional money, about $23 million, or the bulk of that $23 million, to UN agencies.

We are prepared into the future to join other international efforts.

Of course, I feel a compassion.

I've got to balance that with a long-term concern for the protection of our borders and the longer-term interests of the Australian community.

I mean, of course I feel compassion.

TONY JONES: Now, you mentioned that man who lost his three little girls.

In fact, there were two men, both designated as refugees, both of whom lost three little girls.

One of them is being refused permission to go and visit his wife who is now grieving in Indonesia, as you well know.

Why did you, if you felt this compassion for him, if you were so touched by his story, why did you not let him go back to his wife with the possibility of then coming back to Australia?

JOHN HOWARD: Well, it raises the whole question of --

I mean, there's, there would be no difficulty if he was going to Indonesia.

It was a question of his coming back.

TONY JONES: That is the problem, isn't it?

JOHN HOWARD: Yeah, but, I mean, if the policy --

yeah but, if the policy is altered in one case, questions are going to be raised as to why it should not be altered in other cases.

And, when you're administering a policy, you have to have flexiblity but you also have regard to the precedents it establishes for the future.

TONY JONES: You do have to have flexiblity, it was within your power, these were exceptional circumstances, you could hardly imagine circumstances more extreme.

You're a father yourself.

Do you not think that Australian voters would have forgiven you for allowing that man to go back to his wife and then come back to Australia?

JOHN HOWARD: Well, Tony, it's you who are choosing to put it in crude political terms like that, not me.

TONY JONES: Well, I mean, were you advised?

Let's talk about the politics of it.

Were you advised that the images of him going back to Indonesia would have somehow mitigated against the tenor of your campaign?

JOHN HOWARD: Certainly not, Tony, that's close to being an offensive question.


JOHN HOWARD: Because it is.

I never take advice on the political impact of something like that.

TONY JONES: It's not too late before the election to change your mind on this issue.

Is there a chance now of you saying to him, "You can go back to your wife."

JOHN HOWARD: Tony, the decision is in the hands of the Immigration Minister.

Under law, it's not in my hands.

I just want to, for the record, reject your suggestion that I would seek day-to-day political advice as to the political impact of a decision like that.

I do find that question being close to offensive.

TONY JONES: Now, Peter Reith said today that he still has not seen the infamous and apparently inconclusive video which he claimed showed children being thrown into the sea.

Should he have made it his duty as Defence Minister and subsequently as the person who was holding that position in keeping before the election.

Should he have made it his duty to see that video.

JOHN HOWARD: Well Peter Reith said he'd been advised that the video showed that.

At all times, Peter Reith and I have acted on advice in relation to this.

Now, I don't think he necessarily should have because the central issue here is the policy, the question of whether children were thrown into the water -- unpleasant, emotional though that may be -- it's not directly relevant to the policy.

It is, it is an issue but it's not directly relevant to the policy.

I don't think Peter's been at fault here.

He merely acted on advice.

I actually had written advice from ONA which I read out at the press club and I'm quite happy to make that available to Mr Beazley.

Now, we act on advice and, if the advice we get is one direction, we repeat it, if it's another direction, well, we repeat that as well.

I mean, I wasn't up there with HMAS 'Adelaide'.

I wasn't a direct participant in any of the events and I can only repeat the advice that I have received.

TONY JONES: Well, the chief of the navy, Vice-Admiral David Shackleton says the navy did not advise the Government that a group of asylum seekers threw their children overboard.

JOHN HOWARD: Well, I've seen a wire report of what he said.

TONY JONES: So have I.

I've got it here.

JOHN HOWARD: Yeah, but he did go on to say that a child believed to be aged 5 or 6 was held at a railing and threatened to be hurled overboard.

If that's correct, that's pretty rep reinsible -- reprehensible as well.

The advise we -- advice we had and this is the first I've heard anything to the contrary from Admiral Shackleton and its five, six weeks since the original advice, the advice was what Mr Reith and Mr Ruddock retailed into the public --

TONY JONES: Not according to Vice-Admiral David Shackleton.

The advice was not that children had been thrown into the sea, not at all.

JOHN HOWARD: Well, Tony, all I can say is that I had written advice from ONA to that effect.

I mean, if Admiral Shackleton is now saying that that written advice is wrong, then I will talk to him about that and find out the sequence of events but I've got to make the point that Mr Reith and Mr Ruddock and I have been saying these things in public now for some weeks and, if in fact what we were saying in wrong, in fact, then it would have been helpful if we had been told.

TONY JONES: You'd regret it, having made the statements you'd made then, if it were wrong?

JOHN HOWARD: No, no, no.

I don't regret repeating what I've been told and, if I have a written report in front of me that says in plain English, it says that people wearing life jackets jumped into the sea and children were thrown into the water and this was similar to a practice that had been followed in other parts of the world, why would I regret repeating some advice I had been formally given?

Prime Minister, only if it proved to be wrong subsequently and the suggestion that asylum seekers had actually done this, had been out during an election campaign in this overheated atmosphere of an election campaign.

Tony I have reason to regret remarks I make which are hurtful or wilfully wrong or wilfully false.

I haven't done anything like that on this occasion.

I've been given advice and in good faith.

I've spoken on the basis of that advice.

TONY JONES: Now, I don't have -- but you might regret the implication or the sense that it would give the Australian people about what these people were doing out there on these boats.

JOHN HOWARD: Tony, are you therefore saying that it's fairly in order to hold a 5- or 6-year-old child up at a railing and threaten to throw it overboard?

You surely don't think that's a nice thing to do.

TONY JONES: Certainly not Mr Howard.

I'm just asking questions.

JOHN HOWARD: I'm answering by posing a retorqueal question to you.

You're asking me about regrets.


Regret for having made a statement based on advice I are had received.

TONY JONES: We have to leave it there.

Thanks for joining us.

JOHN HOWARD: Thank you.

TONY JONES: The PM in his first interview with us earlier this evening.

Following that interview, and after Vice-Admiral Shackleton, the Chief of the Navy, put out a statement attempting to clarify his earlier comments, Mr Howard requested a second interview with Lateline on the issue.

Here's that second interview.

TONY JONES: Well, Prime Minister, welcome back.

JOHN HOWARD: Thank you.

TONY JONES: Who was it that convinced Admiral Shackleton to make this new statement?

JOHN HOWARD: I think that's a bit offensive for him.

I certainly didn't speak to him and I didn't ask the Defence Minister to speak to him and I'm not aware that anybody has spoken to him.

I think that's a pretty offensive question.

Because the statement makes it very clear that we did receive advice that defence believed children had been thrown in the water and I think it's a bit offensive to a senior serving officer of the ADF to make that kind of remark.

I certainly didn't speak to him.

To my knowledge, Mr Reith hasn't spoken to him.

I certainly didn't ask that any pressure be put on him.

TONY JONES: No-one from your office has spoken to him, obviously, in that case.

JOHN HOWARD: I'm not aware that anybody in my office has spoken to him.

But I just want to make it clear I have not put any pressure on him and I did not ask anybody to put any pressure on him.

TONY JONES: All right.

Now, as you say, the statement confirms and it says, "The minister was advised that defence believed "children had been thrown overboard."

He's not saying, though, and he didn't say at any time in his press conference, in fact he pointedly did not say it, that any children were thrown overboard.

JOHN HOWARD: Well, Tony, I think, with great respect, you are splitting hairs in that we have said all along --

TONY JONES: Splitting hairs as to whether children -- JOHN HOWARD: No, will you please, will you please not interrupt?

I have said all along that the statements we have been made have been based on advice and I had ONA advice -- let me remind you again from my earlier interview -- which stated categorically that children were thrown in the water.

Now, I don't, I don't -- I mean, there's, we are spending a lot of time on this but of course the media is absolutely obsessed with this issue.

And, can I just say to you again, at all stages, the comments I made were based on advice and a belief that that advice was correct.

I have no reason to believe other than that Mr Reith was given advice to that effect and the Admiral has confirmed it tonight.

TONY JONES: But Mr Howard, it was your Government, it was you and your ministers, who said categorically that these children had been thrown in the water and now it appears there still is doubt as to whether that happened.

JOHN HOWARD: Well, Tony, I was given unconditional advice to that effect.

TONY JONES: What's your advice now from the Vice-Admiral?

Is he telling you that children were thrown in the water?

Because he wasn't saying that at his press conference.

JOHN HOWARD Tony, I haven't spoken to the Vice-Admiral and I don't intend to speak to the Vice-Admiral.

It will only then be misconstrued, as your opening question indicated.

TONY JONES: That was a question trying to elicit a point, Mr Howard.


You were inferring that somebody heavied the Admiral, yes you were.

Your question had no other connotation but, anyway, let's move on.

TONY JONES: Mr Howard, it now seems pretty clear that those still pictures of the children in the sea in life jackets were taken after the boat had sunk, which was considerably later than the allegations that they were thrown into the water.

Now those pictures were represented to the Australian public as pictures of children who'd been thrown overboard by asylum seekers.

Was that the case?

JOHN HOWARD Well, Tony, I will suggest that you speak to Mr Reith about that, because those pictures were issued by his office.

I'm not suggesting, in pointing you in Mr Reith's direction, that he's misrepresented the situation, but it's better that he deal with that because he knows all about the pictures and he issued them.

And Mr Reith has been in the air flying back from Perth over the last few hours so it's not been possible for me to speak to him.

TONY JONES: Would you agree with this -- if those pictures were taken after the boat was sunk and then represented to the public as pictures of children who'd been thrown overboard by asylum seekers, would that be a scandal?

JOHN HOWARD: Oh, look, I'm not going to answer your hypothetical questions.

TONY JONES: But we still don't know the answer, do we?


To a hypothetical question?

TONY JONES: No, we don't know the answer as to when those pictures were taken.

JOHN HOWARD: Well, Tony --

TONY JONES: We don't know if any children were, in fact, thrown overboard.

JOHN HOWARD: Tony, we do know this -- that I was given unconditional advice that children had been thrown overboard.

We do know this -- that the Vice-Admiral confirmed that advice came from defence, of that belief.

We do know this -- that if you want some further information on those pictures, you should speak to the minister's office.

I have not been able to speak to him because he's been in the air and I don't intend to sort of guess a response on something like this.

TONY JONES: Mr Howard, do you undertake to give us -- or the Australian public, I suppose -- a clear answer as to when those pictures were taken and as to whether or not any children were in fact thrown overboard by asylum seekers?

JOHN HOWARD: Well, Tony, I can only rely on advice, 'cause I wasn't there and I repeat the advice I received from ONA was unconditional.

There's nothing I can add to that.

I can't make it any more firm than that and you've heard from the Vice-Admiral and, as far as the pictures are concerned, I suggest you speak to Mr Reith about it but, really, to ask me to go any further than that is ridiculous.

I can't because I wasn't there and at all stages I have acted on advice.

TONY JONES: There were plenty of naval personnel who were there and humanably they could provide those answers.

JOHN HOWARD Well, Tony, I am not a serving officer in the navy and the question of answers to that is really a matter for the navy, the Vice-Admiral has said that Defence conveyed a belief to the minister that children had been thrown overboard.

Now I would think that's pretty categorical.

TONY JONES: It's not categorically if he was saying defence.

If he'd said the navy, that might be different.

JOHN HOWARD Oh, so what, the navy is not part of defence?

TONY JONES: Well, it's not clear in his statement what he's referring to --

JOHN HOWARD Oh, really, really, really, this is becoming ridiculous.

TONY JONES: All right Mr Howard, we will leave it there.

Thanks for joining us tonight again.

JOHN HOWARD Thank you.

Back to