Howard Says He’ll Consider Retirement After 64th Birthday

Prime Minister John Howard says he will consider retirement after his 64th birthday.

Howard’s statement was made on his 61st birthday today in an interview with Philip Clarke on ABC Radio 2BL. It suggests he intends to contest the election due next year and consider standing aside mid-way through his third term.

Transcript of interview with Prime Minister John Howard by Philip Clarke on ABC Radio 2BL.

CLARKE: Mr Howard, good morning.

HOWARD: Good morning Philip, good to be with you.

CLARKE: And I’m happy to say happy birthday.

HOWARD: Thank you.

CLARKE: It is the Prime Minister’s birthday you see. Prime Ministers do have them. Did John Della Bosca know it was your birthday last week?

HOWARD: Oh well, you know I’m all in favour of long lunches.

CLARKE: Was he having an early birthday lunch for you was he?

HOWARD: Well they’re a great institution- that restaurant is opposite my office in the city and I view it with a new reference. I’ve actually lunched there, it’s a very nice restaurant let me say. I wouldn’t want to in any way suggest it isn’t. It’s a very pleasant place.

CLARKE: I guess it sort of gets the Prime Ministerial seal of approval for all sorts of reasons now.

HOWARD: It sure does.

CLARKE: Just before we begin – tragic news overnight from Paris, the crash of that Concorde aircraft – terrible killed everybody on board. Miraculously, as I said earlier this morning, doesn’t seem to have created much loss of life on the ground. In the circumstances you only give thanks probably.

HOWARD: Well we certainly can. I mean it’s a terrible incident. I suppose made a bit more dramatic by the fact that the Concorde was an icon of British Airways and Air France and something that was very futuristic when it was launched back in 1969. Certainly I travelled on it once about 22 years ago.

CLARKE: Did you? What, soon after it came out did you?

HOWARD: Well no it had been going for about eight or nine years. It was a flight from London to Washington and it certainly made an extraordinary difference to trans-Atlantic air travel but there’s not a lot one can sort of say other than express the horror and distress. But you are right – it is amazing that so few people on the ground lost their lives because the plane crashed so quickly after take-off and inevitably it was over a densely populated area.

CLARKE: All right. Well the GST is here. We’re all paying it. Business activity statements [inaudible] shortly. Business is getting used to it – the poll indicates that by and large people have accepted the GST without the fuss and hullaballoo that some had predicted. I suppose if there’s pain to be felt it will be further down the track and you probably expect some of that a little later do you?

HOWARD: Oh well I expect that there will be some challenges when the first payment has to be made by business. But just as I think that the pain of the introduction on the 1st of July was exaggerated by the critics of the tax change, so I think some of the build up to that first payment and the problems associated may end up being exaggerated as well. Now when something like this happens it is a huge change. It has gone very well, better than our critics predicted but I don’t want to sound in any way smug about that or complacent.

We’re ready and the Tax Office is ready to help small business who have difficulties that we can assist with in relation to getting ready. They should of course make sure that the money that they are collecting under the new GST dispensation that that is ready and available for remittance to the tax authorities either in a month’s time, obviously in relation to the big companies they’ll have their accounting systems but the smaller companies that will make their first payments in October or November, they’re the ones that have to make absolutely certain that the tax they’re collecting is earmarked, set aside so that come the time they can send it in.

CLARKE: Yep. All right. And I mentioned that to begin with because you’ve achieved what you long set out to achieve – substantial reform to the tax system – it’s here. Early indications are that the community is prepared to accept it as well. You met in Cabinet yesterday for what I understand was a pretty free-wheeling sort of Cabinet discussion. Where do you go to from here?

HOWARD: Well there are a lot of other things that we need to do. It is true that this country’s needed tax reform for a long time and we’ve fought for it in the face of a lot of difficulty and we’ve had no help from the Labor Party. We had very constructive help from the Democrats to get it through and I thank them for that. The Democrats and the Government disagree on a lot of things but they were very constructive in relation to tax and therefore played a role in shaping it. In contrast to the Labor Party who really wanted it to fail and who are now committed to this absurd proposition to roll back which means throwing people back into doubt and confusion. I mean it’s as if you’ve built a new house with only a few little things to be done before it’s ready for occupancy and then somebody comes along and says oh look we’re going to tear those walls down and we’re going to start all over again in these rooms and so forth. I think most people will recoil in horror at that proposition.

But there are a lot of other things on the agenda. One of the things that’s coming up very soon is welfare reform. Not a process that’s going to involve cutting benefits. We’re not in the business of cutting people’s pensions or benefits. The debate about the adequacy of benefits now in terms of maintaining the safety net, that debate has subsided. Everybody accepts that we need a decent social security safety net in this country. And everybody accepts that you don’t throw people onto the streets and leave them without means of support.

CLARKE: I mean that’s the policy the same as some elements such as Mark Latham have been talking about on the Opposition, haven’t they?

HOWARD: Yes.

CLARKE: That’s the notion of dependence, the notion of doing something for it in a way. Of being . . .

HOWARD: Well the Labor Party, I mean the Labor Party opposed Work for the Dole when it was first brought in. I’m not quite sure

CLARKE: That’s the direction of policy.

HOWARD: But I mean we support the notion that you have a safety net that if people getting the benefit of that safety net are reasonably able to do so they should give something back in return. And I think the community accepts that as a principle and there are ways of extending that. There are ways of refining it. There are ways of helping people get back into the labour market. And there’s reference this morning to single parents. Now the purpose there is not to deny the benefit to single parents. We’re not wanting to persecute single parents but we are recognising that as children get older reintroducing people to the labour market who may have been out of contact with the labour market, getting people more job ready is and should be part and parcel of the process. Now they’re the sorts of things that I gather have been examined in the McClure Report. And Patrick McClure is the head of Mission Australia, one of the big welfare organisations in this country, and he’s about to present his final report to the Government and we’ll be making that public, that’s the intention. We’ll be inviting responses on it and pretty speedily indicating the Government response. Now this is once again sensible, steady reform. Not reform that says to people we’re not going to help you, but reform that says there are ways of getting people more job ready and we want to embrace those ways.

CLARKE: Did you talk about the Airport in Cabinet yesterday, the Sydney Airport I mean?

HOWARD: Only very glancingly.

CLARKE: I mean I see John Anderson this morning that the move of regional airlines to Bankstown under a reinvigorated enlarged Bankstown would happen, over his dead body.

HOWARD: Well naturally and properly and to his credit, he is representing the interests of regional commuters.

CLARKE: Is that the direction it’s going? The Sydney Airport debate? Towards a smaller Badgery and enhanced Bankstown? Therefore longer life for KSA?

HOWARD: It’s not really possible to give a clear yes or no to that. There are a whole lot of options. We will be addressing our minds to that very soon and taking a decision well before the end of the year. Any suggestion that we are going to put off a decision on this after the next election is wrong.

CLARKE: Is it?

HOWARD: Yes.

CLARKE: So we will have a final . . .

HOWARD: We will have a final decision well before then.

CLARKE: Which will well and truly decide forever the future, of … but it will be the decision that will be …

HOWARD: Well it will be the decision that will shape the future, for the foreseeable future yes.

CLARKE: If the direction we’re going is not as bigger Badgery’s a smaller Badgery’s.

HOWARD: Well I don’t want to get in to what direction we are going at the moment. I just want to dispel any notion that our intention is to put this off until after the next election. The public wants a decision on this. The Government should make a decision on this well before the end of the year and certainly before the next election which of course is not due until the end of next year.

CLARKE: All right, the NSW Libs. You were there last weekend and backed a reform package which simplified the structure, although I saw a graph of the simplified structure and it’s [inaudible].

HOWARD: We you know you know it’s like an organisational chart for a big company or even the ABC, I mean nothing is simple.

CLARKE: Kerry Chikarovski’s got a task ahead of her though. Does she have your support?

HOWARD: Yes, she does. The question of the leadership of the parliamentary party is a matter for it. And I just make this observation – you don’t change the leader of a political party unless you are completely satisfied that the person you’re changing to is going to be clearly and dramatically better.

CLARKE: Do you see any better ones?

HOWARD: Well I don’t see myself. No I don’t, it’s difficult being an opposition leader and I think she has a tough task ahead. But all opposition leaders have tough tasks. I was reminded yesterday that when Mr Carr won the premiership of New South Wales and re-entered the campaign that gave him the premiership of New South Wales with quote a modest approval rating. Those sorts of things in the end don’t matter a great deal if you’ve got good policies. The most important thing that an opposition can do, whether it’s state or federal is to tell the public what it believes in and what it will do if it is in government. This is even more important now that the public perceives that the differences between the two political parties are less ideological than they used to be. They are asking more and more what individual political parties should do, so it’s a matter for them but of course I support her, I support the leader of the party.

CLARKE: Your advice is to stick with her for the moment?

HOWARD: Well that’s a matter for them but I express the view that you don’t change somebody unless you are satisfied that the person you are changing to is dramatically better.

CLARKE: On West Timor, the tragic death of that New Zealand soldier on the peace keeping force. I mean the first UNSCOM, the first, sorry loss in the …

HOWARD: Very tragic indeed.

CLARKE: Indeed. I mean could Indonesia be doing more? Do you blame Indonesia for what happened?

HOWARD: Well it’s hard to know. Certainly we’ll press the Indonesians very strongly as Mr Downer will do. He is now on his way to Bangkok and he will see the Indonesian Foreign Minister there on Saturday. And I know that both Mr Downer and the New Zealand Foreign Minister will be pressing the Indonesians to investigate and to do even more to reign in the militias. As to the precise circumstance, I don’t know and I can’t make absolute allegations and I am not going to do so. But clearly more needs to be done to contain the militias on the border and this is a very sad and grim reminder that our own forces are still fighting in a very dangerous theatre, there are 1,500 Australian troops still in East Timor.

CLARKE: Yeah, there are.

HOWARD: And they are in a theatre of danger. Now we have been I guess lulled in to a complacent

CLARKE: But shouldn’t be should they? I mean, they shouldn’t.

HOWARD: No, no they should not be but whenever you are in a difficult situation like this, there is always danger. I don’t want to over-dramatise it, but equally I would not be frank with the Australian public if I didn’t say that those men and women are still in a dangerous position. It should not be dangerous. It should be purely a peacekeeping role, but yesterday’s incident which tragically involved the death of a New Zealand soldier shows that it is still quite

CLARKE: Yeah, I think if you read the circumstances of his death too you will understand that is was, it was a horrific situation, indeed dangerous. He was the lead scout in a patrol which was fired upon and attempting to take cover he was shot, he was shot dead.

HOWARD: There is significant dangers still. Now there’s an onus on the Indonesian government to do everything it can.

CLARKE: To do more about it

HOWARD: Now I’m not, I don’t have any evidence of the Indonesians having been complicit in this and therefore I am not going to make that allegation, that would be unfair and irresponsible. But it is fair and responsible and the right thing for me to do and Mr Downer will do it very directly to the Indonesian Foreign Minister to ask of them, press upon them the need to redouble their efforts to reign in the behaviour of the militias.

CLARKE: My guest is the Prime Minister, Mr Howard. Mr Howard, can we take a break from politics, because it is your birthday?

HOWARD: Sure.

CLARKE: And just talk about what it is like to be 61. Am I able to reveal that?

HOWARD: Yeah, you can reveal that. It’s a very simple calculation.

CLARKE: This morning, this week, a lot of discussion about women in their 60’s this week and survey studies have shown women seem to testify that sixty is a great time of life for them, a lot of their responsibilities and cares have gone. Is it the same for men? How do you feel about that?

HOWARD: Well certainly

CLARKE: Significant birthday?

HOWARD: Speaking for myself, my family are now young adults in that sense – the responsibilities of piloting, trying to pilot children through teenage and so forth, you are over that hump. But of course I guess there are new patterns to relationships. I am very fortunate, my wife and I are very lucky we have, we think touch wood, we’ve got three pretty stable happy children. And we are very, as a family, we are quite close and we enjoy life now, we’ve always tried to do so. We certainly do now. I have a lot of responsibilities in, obviously in my position but I’ve always taken the view that the most intelligent thing and the best thing you can do with your life is to live it for the moment. If you dwell too much on what you might have done or should have done in the past, or contemplate with too much intensity what you might do in the future, you lose sight of the moment. And the best thing anybody can ever do with their life is to accept the natural aging process, accept the natural progression of life and to get the best you can out of it. Certainly most Australians alive now enjoy a better and higher standard of health and vitality into their 60s and 70s than used to be the case.

CLARKE: I remember [inaudible] once saying, and this is an Australian who has made a tremendous contribution to all areas of public life.

HOWARD: And is certainly a very fit and active man both mentally and physically well in to his 80s.

CLARKE: Indeed, you know I think if you’re to use that hackney phrase is a great Australian, he probably was. And, but he said looking back on his life and someone said what are the great achievements of your life and this is the man after all, who’d have many you would have thought, he said I’ve still got children who talk to me.

HOWARD: Yes, well look that is obviously the most

CLARKE: I mean is that the way you feel?

HOWARD: Well I regard the relationship that I’ve established with my family, with my children, my wife, my children, and my extended family as the most important component of my life without doubt. And one’s relationship with children is I think measured a lot by your capacity to enjoy their company at every stage of their life. And when I hear people say, oh you know I used to enjoy the kids when they were very young, I feel in a sense a bit sorry when I hear that because in a way the trick is to try and enjoy them at every age. Now that involves the process of the adjustment, it involves an acceptance on the part of the parent that children grow up, they assert and they have the total right to have complete independence and you have to keep adjusting. You have to know when to say things and not to say things. And you have to know when to accept that the attitude of twenty-five year olds now is different from the attitude of twenty-five years olds thirty years ago, and the attitude of nineteen year olds now. If you can do that, but also it’s a two-way street. You can’t have a relationship which is just give in one direction and you have to I guess, as part of the parenting process, encourage your children to accept that they have responsibilities in a relationship as well. It’s not just one-way traffic now. We try hard and I think all parents who are realistic will, when they’re asked how are things going, they say well as sort of ten to nine in the morning, terrifically. It’s all realistic.

CLARKE: This is not meant to be a loaded question at all, but looking ahead, do you see yourself as the sort of person who, I mean some men I think see themselves as working for ever, always working, always staying busy, keeping busy, don’t look on the notion of retirement as an option. Other men think, look you know I have made a contribution I am happy to retire, there are other things I want to do in life. Where do you …

HOWARD: I don’t …

CLARKE: That is not a loaded question, it’s not.

HOWARD: No, look that is a fair question and I will be very frank in answering it. As far as my own political future is concerned, I have said before that if the Party wants me to lead it to another election, which will be at the end of next year, I am happy to do so. After that obviously one has to recognise, I’ll then be in my 63rd or 64th year, and you start to ask yourself and that’s fair enough. And nothing is forever. And I don’t have the view that I am so indispensable and so important and so vital that you know the Liberal Party will be bereft without me that is an arrogant view. By the same token, I have good, I have very good health and I am applying myself to the job very effectively and I am enjoying it. I see myself doing other things. I don’t propose to talk about them because that immediately incites a whole lot of debate and speculation and discussion how soon, when, what in what form. And there is nothing to be gained by that.

But I think it’s incredibly important to be mentally active. I was talking and I don’t think you’ll mind my revealing a conversation when I was in England, I spoke to the current Governor of the Bank of England and he was, I inquired after somebody who’d been the Governor twenty years ago and I met him when I was Treasurer, Gordon Richardson, and he said well, he thinks Gordon was still in his middle 80s racing around the world as a consultant to major banks and expressed a view that it was that kind of activity, that mental activity that kept him healthy. So I think there’s a message in that. It’s not so much that you keep doing the same thing forever, but the idea of intellectually, and mentally switching off after a particular age, that’s never appealed to me. You can do different things. You can do them at a different pace. You have an accumulation of life skills and experience which can be of help to different organisations and to different people. I think it’s a question of perhaps changing direction and changing the pace and changing the emphasis and the style of your contribution to society. It’s not a question of backing off. But you do I guess in the later years, you have an opportunity if your health holds up to do different things and to do some things you haven’t been able to do while you’ve been full on.

CLARKE: Like increase your golf handicap for example?

HOWARD: Well, try to reduce my golf handicap.

CLARKE: I saw a picture of you some time back with the clubs that your wife had given you.

HOWARD: She was getting out of the way. She thought my swing was a bit erratic. I have taken to playing golf quite energetically over the last couple of years. It’s, the improvement I’ve got to tell Philip is extremely slow.

CLARKE: Well, here on the breakfast show, I am sure you know Prime Minister, the most treasured prize we can offer anybody is a Maxwell flyer, which is a golf ball personally signed by golfing guru Jim Maxwell, of course who has handicap that you and I quite frankly would envy. You would like one wouldn’t you? A Maxwell flyer? Where are you standing – near the bunker? Have you got your hand out? Have you got it? Excellent.

HOWARD: Yes, thanks.

CLARKE: Prime Minister, good to talk with you.

HOWARD: Thanks.

CLARKE: And happy birthday.

HOWARD: Thank you.

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