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Hugs And Unfair Dismissals: Howard Meets With Berlusconi

John Howard has met with the Prime Minister of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, as part of his European trip.

Silvio Berlusconi, Prime Minister of ItalyThe two men discussed Industrial Relations reform, prompting a question to Howard about whether he would consider a three-year trial of the unfair dismissal laws legislation his government has before the Parliament. The legislation provides for the abolition of unfair dismissal laws as they apply to small businesses employing fewer than 50 people. Howard gave guarded support to the idea and is quoted as saying: “Three years, very interesting time!”

It might have been more appropriate for Howard to have discussed media ownership laws with Berlusconi, considering the Milanese media magnate’s colourful history. Berlusconi developed his RAI (Radio Televisione Italiana) into Italy’s third biggest private company and Europe’s second-largest media conglomerate. His sense of showmanship (he worked as a crooner on cruise ships whilst studying Law at Milan University) led to him forming a new political party, Forza Italia (‘Go Italy’) in 1994. He stormed to the prime ministership in four months of campaigning orchestrated by his television stations. Luciano Benetton reportedly said that “Silvio Berlusconi’s love of politics is motivated by fear of losing his television interests”. A brief term as Prime Minister was characterised by massive conflicts of interest, resulting in a 16-month suspended jail sentence and Berlusconi’s political demise. He returned to the Prime Ministership in 2001.

Berlusconi’s exploitation of lax media ownership laws would be of interest to Howard as he attempts this year to repeal the cross-ownership laws that prevent a ‘prince of print’ from also being a ‘queen of the screen’. The legislation, like the unfair dismissal laws, faces a difficult time in the Senate.

As an illustration of the newsworthiness of the trip, Howard was also asked whether this was the first time he had been hugged by a foreign leader at a press conference. His response: “First time I’ve been hugged by a who? No. I think Xanana Gusmao and then the Secretary of State, but he’s not a leader.”

  • Listen to remarks by John Howard (27s)

Transcript of joint press conference held by John Howard and the Prime Minister of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, at Palazzo Chigi, Rome, Italy.

PRIME MINISTER BERLUSCONI: Good afternoon. I just had a most interesting lunch with the Australian Prime Minister. We’ve touched upon various issues and we agreed upon all the issues that we have addressed. That is the management of the State, the economy, the need for reforms, the regional crisis, the initiative that rich countries have to carry out to help poor countries and thus alleviate poverty and reduce the migratory pressures of the poorer countries towards the richer countries.

I must say, I really had a very pleasant lunch with the Prime Minister and his delegation. I have been invited to go to Australia and this is an invitation I will certainly accept after I have carried out the work I have to carry out here in Italy and after the EU Presidency. So thank you once again to the Prime Minister and congratulations for the work he has done for the renewal of the state in the liberal sense and thank you once again.

PRIME MINISTER HOWARD: Thank you very much Mr President of the Council, Prime Minister, it is a great delight to be here with you and I want to thank you and your Government for the great hospitality you have extended to me and my party. Our meeting today was an enthusiastic reaffirmation of the very close affection and friendship between our two societies.

Added to that was my great admiration for the reform program that you’ve committed yourself to as Prime Minister of Italy and the change that I believe that that commitment is bringing to your country and also to the European Union. It’s no secret that on many policy areas we have a similar approach. I have followed with interest your changes to industrial relations law and the Australians travelling with me would be very familiar with my long-standing commitment to change and reform in that area.

We did discuss in great detail the international situation, the future of the European Union, the difficulties in the Middle East, the importance of addressing in a practical way underprivilege and poverty, and one practical thing that we have agreed on was that an Australian group – both government and private sector – will come to Italy very soon to consider the approaches adopted by the G8 countries of tying foreign aid to compliance by individual countries with particular accounting standards and government practices. Which in part are designed to prevent the leakage of foreign aid into corrupt hands and corrupt practices because it remains one of the impediments to support in a liberal democracy, with foreign aid that sometimes people feel that their taxes are not being used in the way in which they should be used.

We also agreed to accelerate the examination of the work to holiday, working holiday visa arrangements between Australia and Italy. I think there would be hundreds and thousands of, in both countries, who would love a breakthrough in that area and we’re going to see what can be expedited in relation to that and also to have some further contact between the television networks of the two countries to promote an even better understanding and knowledge of what is involved between Australia and Italy. Now, in other words it’s been very, very good session. Thank you.

JOURNALIST: Mr Berlusconi, a question from your new friends in the Australian television networks. Do you regard Mr Howard as one of your political soul-mates, in a sense, in a general sense? And in terms of industrial relations reform, do you think the Australian experience has relevance now to Italy?

PRIME MINISTER BERLUSCONI: Yes I must say that I have followed with very much interest the activities carried out by the Prime Minister. Also because I must say that I have known Australia through my Diplomatic Counsellor Gianni Castellaneta, who has been Ambassador to Australia for many years. And therefore through him I have been given the opportunity to get to know the activities of Prime Minister Howard and I must say that I really do share his views about the activities he has carried out and his ways of answering, addressing the problems that have been found. So I really congratulate and express my appreciation for his activity. I really do so knowing exactly what he has done and identifying myself in the solutions he has found to the problems that he has addressed.

JOURNALIST: [Question through interpreter] One question is talking about the exchange and the contacts between the Australian television and the Italian television. The question is to the Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi about Moscow. The Director has resigned from the cultural activity, has resigned from its office [inaudible] and we don’t know about the Director of the Cultural Institute in London, if he is going to be reconfirming his office. The question is, are there some difficulties in the dissemination and promotion of cultural… Italian culture abroad. And the second question is to the Australian Prime Minister, talking about opportunities of joint ventures between the Italian and Australian businesses for the Beijing 2008.

PRIME MINISTER HOWARD: Well I got the second question I certainly hope there are. We have a lot of expertise in relation to Olympic Games contracts, either on our own or in partnership with Italian firms and enterprises. We would hope there are some opportunities in relation to Beijing in 2008 and I’m very pleased because I think I saw the other day that an Australian firm had won a contract for the Turin Winter Olympics in 2006. We are very pleased about that so we think there’s a lot of opportunities there.

PRIME MINISTER BERLUSCONI: I can only answer this question next week. I’m meeting this week the Deputy Minister Beccini with regards to the activities of promotion of Italian culture abroad and the representatives of such activities. And so I can only answer this question after I’ve met the Deputy Minister Beccini and I apologise but I have to leave because at 4pm I have a TV dial up for the inauguration of the first link between Europe and Greece of the electric cable which will has been laid 1,000 [inaudible] and I’m now having this TV connection at 4pm. Thank you and once again, I apologise for this.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister is that the first time you have been hugged by a foreign leader during a press conference?

PRIME MINISTER HOWARD: First time I’ve been hugged by a who? No. I think Xanana Gusmao and then the Secretary of State, but he’s not a leader.

JOURNALIST: Mr Berlusconi had explained that he had learnt something from our approach industrial relations, I just wondered whether you would consider their compromise as I understand it on unfair dismissal where they are suspending the unfair dismissal laws for three years as a trial, is that something that would appeal to you to get the reform through in Australia.

PRIME MINISTER HOWARD: Well it’s an interesting approach, it’s not something that we’ve so far seen any evidence from the Democrats or the Labor Party that they would support but if the Democrats or the Labor Party were to indicate tomorrow that they would be prepared to cancel the unfair dismissal laws on a trial basis of three years, it is something that I will certainly look at. Three years, very interesting time!

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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