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Howard: 'I'm Not Rattled'

January 29, 2004

Following Mark Latham's opening address to the ALP National Conference, the Prime Minister, John Howard, was quick to summon journalists to The Lodge in Canberra for the following doorstop conference.


This is the transcript of the doorstop interview called by the Prime Minister, John Howard.

11 seconds of silence

PRIME MINISTER:

Who's going to ask the first question?

JOURNALIST:

Why have you called us here today, Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER:

[laughs] Beautiful day.

JOURNALIST:

What do you think about Andrew Bartlett staying on as leader of the Democrats?

PRIME MINISTER:

That is a matter for the Australian Democrats.

JOURNALIST:

Do you acknowledge though that in 99 per cent of workplaces around Australia, he would no longer have a job?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don't want to give a commentary on the decision of another political party. I think the facts stand for themselves.

JOURNALIST:

What do you make of Mark Latham's speech today?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it was meant to be about the future, yet the very first policy promise on industrial relations would take us back into the past by abolishing workplace agreements, restoring the role of the IRC and strengthening the role of unions. That will strike at the very productivity gains which have underpinned a strong economy. The speech was also silent on how he would keep the economy strong and interest rates low.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, what do you think about Mr Latham's comments on introducing a needs based funding formula for Australia's schools, and what would that do to private schools in this country?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it sounds very much like the thin edge of the wedge. We have a very effective funding system for independent schools. Every child that is sent to an independent school reduces the financial burden on state schools. That talk of his will be seen by many parents as the thin end of the of the wedge for an attack on the basic funding arrangements for independent schools. An envy approach to independent schools is not something the Australian people want. They want choice. And all parents who send their children to independent schools are entitled to some help from the Government. Some are entitled to more, according to their circumstances, and that is the funding formula that we now have.

JOURNALIST:

On the issue of the relationship with the United States, Mark Latham says he will never describe, or I suppose agree with, the description of Australia as a deputy sheriff. That the alliance relationship, which Labor backs, should be an equal relationship. Do you think that will go down well with voters?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think what is important is that his behaviour in public life to date has been to denigrate the contribution that the United States relationship has made to this country. Of course any relationship has got to be on the basis of mutual respect, and the relationship between Australia and the United States has never been stronger, despite his attempts to weaken it.

JOURNALIST:

Were you pleased to see Mr Blair survive the Hutton inquiry Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes I welcome that. I have always thought Tony Blair was an honest man of considerable courage on the Iraqi issue, and whilst it was a British inquiry, it is significant for the debate in Australia because much of the intelligence on which we relied was British and American intelligence for obvious reasons. And the fact that Lord Hutton, a respected judge, found that the intelligence agencies had not been subject to political interference in Britain in relation to that dossier, that's relevant here. We didn't manipulate intelligence in Australia any more than Tony Blair, according to Lord Hutton, manipulated this particular piece of intelligence, and those who have accused us of taking Australia to war on a lie owe me as much an apology as those who made an equal accusation against Tony Blair, owe him an apology.

JOURNALIST:

So you're expecting the Australian intelligence report to make similar conclusions to the Hutton report?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well look I'm not going to speculate on what is in that. That is a report that is subject to certain processes. But we acted on extensive intelligence. We did not distort that intelligence, we did not tell the intelligence agencies what to put in their reports to us, and we made an honest decision based on the information then available to us, just as Mr Blair did. And I am saying to those who accused us of dishonesty - they owe us an apology.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, was any of the intelligence wrong?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that remains to be seen. You can only ever make a judgement based on the intelligence you have. If you wait for proof beyond all reasonable doubt, as I said more than a year ago, you face a potential Pearl Harbour situation.

JOURNALIST:

Do you have doubt now?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think it's still too early to make a final judgement because investigations are still going on, and there are many possibilities. But I have no doubt that the judgement we took at the time was right. I have no doubt that it was a fair assessment based on the intelligence available to us - intelligence that I did not manipulate and intelligence that was honestly given by highly competent intelligence agencies.

JOURNALIST:

The US free trade agreement seems to be in some difficulty. Will you or have you intervened personally?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I'm following it very closely Don - very closely indeed. It's too early to say finally what is going to happen.

JOURNALIST:

We keep hearing the PBS isn't an issue, yet it does seem to be continually raised by the US negotiators. What exactly…

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh people raise lots of things…

JOURNALIST:

They seem to be spending a lot of the time talking about it.

PRIME MINISTER:

People raise lots of things, but can I just repeat our position, and our position is that we're not going to agree to anything - anything - that increases the price of drugs for Australian consumers.

JOURNALIST:

Should the Australian cricket team go to Zimbabwe?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, that is ultimately a matter for the Australian Cricket Board or Cricket Australia as it calls itself to decide.

JOURNALIST:

There are reports out of Nigeria today that the Nigerian Government has signed an accord with the the North Korean Government to share missile technology - have you heard anything?

PRIME MINISTER:

I have not seen or heard of those reports.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, Mark Latham has assigned one his Shadow Ministers to look at community relationships including the issue of loneliness in the community - do you think there's a role for politics to address that kind of problem?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, I haven't seen the detail of that proposal but loneliness is an issue in society, it's a particular issue in the big cities and whether there are solutions that Governments can offer, I have an open mind on that. It's not something that I reject automatically because I have been aware for a long time and I've spoken years earlier of the challenge of loneliness in big cities, particularly cities the size of Sydney and Melbourne. It's a product of changed family structures, it's a product of people living longer, especially women. And it is a sad reality that a lot of people are lonely. That is why community groups that give people company and that is why safety on the streets, and why safety on public transport, all of which are predominantly state responsibilities are so very important. If you're an elderly lady in an outer suburb of Sydney and you are lonely, that you feel frightened to go out at night, it's a pretty sorry pass and the solution to that of course, is very much in policies that improve public safety and see that those people who terrorise and harass elderly vulnerable citizens on buses and trains are dealt with.

JOURNALIST:

Just on asylum seekers - do you think it's significant that the Labor Left faction has endorsed Labor for refugees position to release asylum seekers from detention?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I think what is most significant is that the policy that Mr Latham supports is a dramatic weakening of our current position. I mean effectively what Mr Latham is saying is that instead of turning boats around which has been the underpinning of our approach over the last couple of years. They're affectively going to bring them to Australia for processing. That will send a green light to the people smugglers to resume. Now if despite that weakening, the conference decides to further weaken it you will have a very different situation than either Mr Beazley or Mr Crean had. I never thought that Mr Latham was going to be weaker on border protection than either Kim Beazley or Simon Crean. But it appears to date that he is and if the left gets its way he'll be even weaker still.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, you warned your colleagues not to underestimate Mark Latham, not to take anything for granted - has he demonstrated so far that he is an effective or potent Opposition leader?

PRIME MINISTER:

The final answer to that will be on election night, the date of which I can't tell you.

JOURNALIST:

Has he got you rattled at all?

PRIME MINISTER:

I wouldn't have thought anybody's ever had me rattled in politics. I've seen them all over a very long period of time. I treat every Opposition leader with care and respect. I didn't take Mr Crean lightly, I didn't take Mr Keating lightly, I didn't take Mr Beazley lightly. I don't take Mr Latham lightly - I don't think the Australian public wants me to do that. They want me to do good things for them and they want me to argue the weaknesses of Mr Latham's proposals and if he has any sensible suggestions or he mentions something that I already have a particular sensitivity about such as the loneliness of elderly people in our cities - I'll agree with him.

JOURNALIST:

What's the gathering for?

PRIME MINISTER:

We enjoy each other's company.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, thousands more students will miss out on a university place this week. Do you suggest like your Education Minister that they pay full fees?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I think what is significant is that the Labor Government in Britain has adopted an education policy which is modelled on the education policy that we have just put through the Federal Parliament. The reality is that the HECS system was introduced by Labor with our support and Labor is just turning its back on reality in opposing as it continues to do the arrangements that have gone through parliament, they will be in place over the coming year and there will chaos and confusion if there's an attempt in two or three years time even if Labor were to win the next election to bring about all those changes. I mean, it's just extraordinary that third way Labor in Britain has embraced a policy which allegedly third way Labor in Australia is totally opposed to.

JOURNALIST:

But that policy was the original HECS policy, Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER:

No, we are talking about what is essentially building on that. In any event there is a fundamental equity in saying to the Australian people - if it's alright for foreigners to pay full fees - why isn't it alright for Australians? Why discriminate against Australians in favour of foreigners?

JOURNALIST:

So you think people who get in with five marks less because they can pay a fee should be allowed to?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I think you should have an appropriate number of places which we do which are funded with a HECS component and then over and above that t is reasonable to allow full fee paying places and it is unreasonable to discriminate as Labor does against Australians in favour of foreigners.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, when Mr Latham made his idea known about having a Senate inquiry into the possible Free Trade Agreement and possibly knocking off bits of it, effectively knocking off the lot the other day. You called a quick doorstop. You're strategy seems to be not to give him an inch, not to let him…

PRIME MINISTER:

No my strategy is if he says something that's wrong or ill informed, I'll point that out and what was wrong and ill informed about that was that we already have a mechanism for review of treaties. We have a treaty committee and we have that mechanism and he showed an ignorance of that my proposing a senate committee. You don't put a whole treaty for parliamentary approval. If you have to legislate consequent from that treaty in individual areas, you do so and he seemed to be completely unaware of both of those realities and that's why I made that comment and he was just being politically opportunistic. He doesn't even know what's in the free trade agreement, yet he's proposing a Senate inquiry. We don't even know whether we've got a free trade agreement yet but he's proposing a Senate inquiry. That smacks to me of the automaticity of opposition of somebody who really is profoundly distrustful of our relationship with the United States.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, clarifying your role in the FTA, you've said you were monitoring…?

PRIME MINISTER:

That's right. I don't have anything to add to that.

JOURNALIST:

You haven't been involved yourself?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, look, I'm not going into the detail of my involvement, except to say that I'm following it very very closely.

JOURNALIST:

Alexander Downer said yesterday, that while as you said it was a matter for Australia in the end, the Government would prefer the tour not to go ahead?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don't have anything to add. It's a matter ultimately for the cricket authorities to decide. Thank you.

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