Extraordinary Interview: John Howard Quizzed On Abbott And One Nation

Prime Minister John Howard has had a willing encounter with an ABC interviewer who quizzed him over Tony Abbott’s involvement in the legal action against One Nation.

Howard appeared on the AM program. He was interviewed by Catherine McGrath.

Transcript of John Howard’s interview with Catherine McGrath on AM.

MCGRATH:

Mr Howard, good morning. Tony Abbott said last night that in 1998 he thought it was very important that the One Nation juggernaut, he called it, be stopped. Did you think that back then?

PRIME MINISTER:

Catherine, can we just cut to the chase on this whole thing. Five years ago everybody knew about Tony Abbott’s activities. The Labor Party knew about it. They knew about the fund. They knew about Coleman and Wheeldon. And it is the height of hypocrisy for the Labor Party now to turn around and say – outrageous, shocking new disclosures, slush fund revealed. They knew about it, and they remained silent about it. More than that – I believe they secretly endorsed and on occasions not so secretly, what Tony Abbott was doing. See the real hypocrisy of this Catherine is that for five years the view of the Labor Party and many sections of the media has been that I was too soft on Hanson. People said I should have gone after One Nation even more. Now they are criticising Tony Abbott, and by implication me, for having gone after One Nation. Now you can’t have anything that justifies Peter Costello’s great description that hypocrisy thy name is Labor.

MCGRATH:

Can we go back to 1998?

PRIME MINISTER:

But I have gone back to 1998.

MCGRATH:

You have, you have.

PRIME MINISTER:

But I think it’s necessary to go back to ’98. I mean my view Catherine is that One Nation failed politically for two reasons. It failed because it had no solutions to Australia’s challenges. You can always awaken discontent in people. You can always complain. But in the end, the average Australian demands of all political leaders that they offer solutions. And I think Pauline Hanson failed politically firstly because she offered no solutions, and secondly the party was racked by chronic internal wrangles and disputes that any political party that continues to manifest that over a period of years is going to lose support.

MCGRATH:

Can I ask you though, going back to that initial question – Tony Abbott said the juggernaut should be stopped. Did you think that too?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I thought One Nation should be exposed politically. I believe that it was perfectly legitimate to pursue a belief, as Tony did, that there was something improper or invalid about the party’s registration. But that was in no way the prosecution for a criminal offence of Pauline Hanson.

MCGRATH:

[inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER:

No but I think it is important because what the Labor Party has been saying by implication, and Craig Emerson has used these words, that Tony Abbott sought the prosecution. I saw him say that. Now he knows, you know and your listeners know that prosecution is something related to a crime. It’s not related to a civil action. You sue for damages or you apply for something in a civil action. You don’t have to be a lawyer to know that. We all know that.

MCGRATH:

Well Tony Abbott was involved in a civil action.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes he was. No politician is in any way responsible for Pauline Hanson being in jail. Tony Abbott’s not, Peter Beattie’s not, I’m not, Kim Beazley’s not, Simon Crean’s not. So that was done independently. And the question of what now happens is a matter for the appeal process.

MCGRATH:

So can I ask you though – if you thought back then that One Nation should be exposed politically, when you read it in the media in late 1998 that Tony Abbott had set this up and when he disclosed it formally to you, what did you think? Did you think, oh good on you Tony, that’s the way to go?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I knew that he was pursuing it but…

MCGRATH:

What did you think about it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well Catherine I had a lot of things to think about then. I was trying to remake Australia’s taxation system. I was trying to make sure that we weathered the onslaught of the Asian economic crisis. I was worried about jobs for people and I was worried about a burgeoning difficulty in East Timor with Indonesia. I think it was the end of 1998 that I may have written a now famous letter to the then President Habibie. So I had a lot of other things on my mind. I mean, let’s keep a sense of perspective. This wasn’t the most important thing on my radar.

MCGRATH:

No, I’m not suggesting it was. I guess I’m just giving you an opportunity to explain to our audience who’d probably like to know, did you think – good on you Tony?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well look Catherine, Tony was pursuing this. I was broadly aware of what he was doing. It was in the papers. And for the Labor Party or anybody in the media now to turn around and say that this is a dramatic new revelation that demands explanation, I mean that is… to use the vernacular, give us a break.

MCGRATH:

Well I’m trying to focus in on you really rather than Mr Abbott.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes I gathered that. I’m quite aware of that.

MCGRATH:

I guess people would like to know what you thought that this was really going to… you know, for example Peter Coleman says this morning that one of the problems was that the more you argued against One Nation, the stronger they became and the backlash was very strong. So fighting them this way could really do them some damage.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well Catherine, in fact one of the criticisms that was made of me at the time was that I didn’t attack them enough. One of the reasons I didn’t attack them a lot was precisely that, and I think the judgement and the vindication of time and history is that that approach was correct. But I recognise that there are a lot of people in the community and amongst the [inaudible] who didn’t agree with me and criticised me for it and held it against me, and so I think there was a range of views even in my own party as to how to deal with this. It was an important issue historically and both now. A range of people in my own party may have disagreed. But that only underlines the fact of how hypocritical it is for people to now turn around and in effect say – you attacked them too much. I mean you can’t have it both ways, can you?

MCGRATH:

And further to that, you explaining that you stood back a little bit for that reason, did you also…

PRIME MINISTER:

No, stood back is your words. I just stand by what I described as my reaction.

MCGRATH:

Yes. But did you also to some extent feel this action, this involvement of Tony Abbott will have some effect as well?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look Catherine, it’s five years ago. I had a lot of…

MCGRATH:

But you must have had a thought about that.

PRIME MINISTER:

A lot of thoughts, and I’ve given you a lot of them. Let’s move on to something else.

MCGRATH:

Can we talk, to finish off this issue and then to move on to health and the water issues, on the question of honesty, when Tony Abbott did that interview it was before the trust was set up, it was before things were made public. It was in 1998. And he was asked whether there were ever any party funds or other funds being offered to Terry Sharples. He said absolutely not.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yeah I’ve seen that.

MCGRATH:

[inaudible] complete answer.

PRIME MINISTER:

Look Catherine, I’m not going to redebate what was debated between Kerry O’Brien and Tony Abbott last night for 15 minutes on the 7.30 Report. Tony has given his explanation. I have always found him to be an honest person. I do take his point that you can draw a very clear distinction between a direct offer of money and saying to somebody, particularly where pro bono lawyers are involved, you’re not going to be out of pocket. Now that’s his view and I’ve always found Tony a very straight up and down bloke. In fact, one of the criticisms of Tony Abbott is he’s too upfront.

MCGRATH:

This moves on to the wider issue that has been discussed for many months in this country about the honesty of the Government, information given over issues – children overboard, over ethanol, etc, etc. Now could I ask you whether you think, in terms of the issue of whether complete answers are given, are complete answers given to the public? If the public wants to know answers…

PRIME MINISTER:

Catherine I have always striven to be very open and direct with the public. There are occasions where in the interests of security and where there is a legitimate national interest involved, it is not possible to be other than very non-committal. As far as the question of weapons of mass destruction are concerned, which is one of the issues cited, I simply rest my case. Everything we said on that was consistent with the intelligence assessments we have received, and I think people should await the completion of the Iraq survey group’s work before jumping to hasty conclusions about that.

MCGRATH:

Now you know, you’re very aware that there is public opinion about the honesty of politicians on both sides – not only your government, but governments previously. Now if for example – I want to give this example because it gets to the core really of what…

PRIME MINISTER:

Is it a real example or is it a manufactured one?

MCGRATH:

Well it is actually a manufactured one but let me ask it and we’ll…

PRIME MINISTER:

No, hang on, hang on. I mean this is silly Catherine. I mean this…

MCGRATH:

Well what I want to ask you about is…

PRIME MINISTER:

No I’m sorry. You said you want to ask me something that you admitted was manufactured. Now, come on.

MCGRATH:

What I want to ask you about is full answers.

PRIME MINISTER:

This is not serious journalism to ask me something you admit is manufactured.

MCGRATH:

Well alright. What I wanted to ask you is if you meet someone in the street…

PRIME MINISTER:

[inaudible] ask me manufactured questions.

MCGRATH:

If you met someone in the street and they expect to get a full answer from the Prime Minister…

PRIME MINISTER:

Catherine, this is silly.

MCGRATH:

Well Prime Minister, can I ask you…

PRIME MINISTER:

If you have a serious, real question to ask me, I’ll answer it. Otherwise I think we ought to move on to something that your listeners are interested in.

MCGRATH:

Well I just want to ask you this question. If someone was asking someone if they’d donate money to the Salvation Army, for example, and this person doesn’t donate money but donates their time…

PRIME MINISTER:

Catherine, I’ve already indicated…

MCGRATH:

… is that a full answer? Is that a full answer?

PRIME MINISTER:

I know what that is related to. It is related to a reprise of the debate between O’Brien and Abbott last night. I’ve already indicated I don’t have anything to add to that.

MCGRATH:

Well I think our listeners might want to know what a full answer is on the general issues Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER:

Catherine I have already indicated I don’t have anything to add to that.

MCGRATH:

Perhaps another time we can…

PRIME MINISTER:

It is a waste of time of your listeners with manufactured questions…

MCGRATH:

I wanted to give you that opportunity to discuss that.

PRIME MINISTER:

[inaudible] manufacture things.

MCGRATH:

Prime Minister, if we can move onto the issues of health and water. On the health issue, the ACT has signed the agreement. The others are refusing to sign still and the New South Wales Government is indicating that it’s going to take a very strong line. There is a front page story in the Sydney Morning Herald today about a cancer patient having to drive back to Tumut because her operation can’t go ahead. The New South Wales Government is going to hold a press conference in the Prince Alfred emergency ward this morning highlighting this issue. It’s a real problem for a lot of people. This is the real barbecue stopper, isn’t it, the health issue?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well of course it is.

MCGRATH:

Is there going to be a resolution?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well Catherine, let’s deal with the facts. The first fact is that the hospitals in New South Wales are owned and operated and controlled by the New South Wales Government. The Federal Government has no role in their operation. And the question of whether beds are available or operations can be performed is the responsibility of the hospital authorities and the New South Wales Government. That’s the first fact. The second fact is that over the last five years the states collectively have reduced their share of the funding of their own hospitals and we have increased our contribution. We contributed more over the last five years to the operation of the state’s hospitals than they did. Third fact is that for the next five years we have offered a funding increase of 17 per cent over and above inflation, a $10 billion increase, and the states have said it’s not enough.

MCGRATH:

Will they sign up by Sunday, do you think?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well hang on. Just let me finish the facts and then I’ll get to the speculation. They have said that they want more, even though we’ve offered an increase of 17 per cent, and they are not even willing to promise their own patients that they will match our increase. Now they are the facts. Let me say to the states – one way or another, we can talk about health at Friday’s meeting. I’ve indicated that. I think the agenda items that have been pre-agreed should be dealt with. But I don’t mind talking about health. We’ve made a generous offer but we’ve also made a final offer, and that should be understood. I noticed the ACT has signed up and the ACT said they got major concessions from the Commonwealth, will improve the number of GPs, improve our after-hour GP access, improve the operation of our hospitals by freeing up hospital beds, etc. Well can I say to the other states, those sorts of deals are available under our offer, but you’ve got to sign up to get the benefit of those deals.

MCGRATH:

If we can move on to the water issue. You’re offering $125 million to be matched by the three states. Are you going to reach agreement, do you think?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that’s in relation to the Murray. I hope so. It’s a big offer and it’s proportionate to what the Commonwealth contributes to the Murray Darling Basin agreement. It hasn’t been plucked out of the air. It’s got some history to it and it is proportionate. But more importantly, I hope we can reach agreement on a national system for recognising, and that will in lead in time to the trading, of water rights around the country, based upon the principle that if you take somebody’s property right away, then there has to be reasonable compensation. And our officials have done an enormous amount of work on this, and the big news that could come out of COAG on Friday would be an historic agreement on water. Health is important, but in the end it’s an argument about funding. The water thing is very much an argument about the future of water in this arid continent of ours, and if we can rise above political differences together on Friday and reach agreement on water, I think the Australian pe

MCGRATH:

Prime Minister, thanks for your time this morning.

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