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Australia
Prime Minister John Howard
Interview with Radio 2UE's Alan Jones
September 17, 2001

JONES:

The Prime Minister is on the line, Prime Minister good morning.

PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning Alan.

JONES:

Welcome home Prime Minister, were you staying at Blair House in Washington were you?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I was staying at the Willard hotel which is very close to the White House.

JONES:

The White House they say was intended as a target.

PRIME MINISTER:

That’s what is said, either the White House or the Capitol. As it happened the actions apparently of three incredibly courageous passengers on the flight that crashed in Pittsburg resulted in the flight not reaching its destination and those people along with so many others who’ve worked so incredibly hard and taken such incredible risks, not least the police and the firefighters of New York are the real heroes of this awful tragedy.

JONES:

So you were only three kilometres from the Pentagon when it was hit. What did you know about this, what did you see, what did you hear?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I was doing a press conference and just before the Press Conference started my Press Secretary Tony O’Leary told me that the first plane had hit the World Trade Centre. I said something about that at the beginning of my news conference and apparently while the news conference was going on the plane hit the Pentagon, I didn’t hear anything, I went back to my room, opened the curtains and there you could see the smoke billowing out of the Pentagon. I had been to the Pentagon the afternoon before to see the American Defence Secretary. And then after that my party was asked to go by the Secret Service to the Australian Embassy where there were quite a lot of other Australians and the new American Ambassador Tom Schieffer to Australia. And it was there that I spoke to a lot of people and conducted a news conference and immediately got in touch with Mr Anderson the Acting Prime Minister to convene a meeting of our security group which did occur early in the morning, about half past one or whatever the equivalent time was in Canberra and that group put certain things into action because at that stage we had no idea of whether there would be knock-on behaviour around the world, we still don’t know that now.

JONES:

It makes it pretty personal doesn’t it when you’re with your wife and your son and you’d been to the spot the day before and you’re meeting with the President of the United States and you find that the leader of the world democracies is virtually under siege.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it certainly does and it makes you ponder the random character of life, you are lucky, others are unlucky. I like everybody else I know people who just by circumstance, a former economic adviser of mine was working with Morgan Stanley which is a bank that had 3,500 people in the trade centre, it was only because he was off on paternity leave that he wasn’t in the building and several hundred of his mates are unaccounted for. That’s the sort of thing that…. there are numerous stories like that. I’ve spoken this morning to the Australian Consul General in New York Ken Allen who’s doing a great job with his staff to look after the relatives of the Australians who are still missing, I’m afraid it must be now presumed dead. You’re looking there at somewhere between 80-100, perhaps.

JONES:

Yes the worst peace time disaster ever for Australia.

PRIME MINISTER:

It is, because of the enormity of the loss of American lives we tend to overlook the fact that 80-100 Australians may have died in this and that is as you say the biggest peace time disaster that this country’s had.

JONES:

Prime Minister President Bush has called it a war, it’s very hard to fight a war when the geography is unknown and people are openly prepared to die so that their enemy will not live.

PRIME MINISTER:

That is very difficult, it’s one of those situations that defies previous experience except perhaps to a limited extent with suicide bombing missions by zero pilots during the Pacific War, you had a little bit of that then. But this strategy of people training for a number of years to die in the process of killing others, a strategy for fighting that is very hard, and it will take a lot of time, it’s not one of those things where some kind of single big strike is going to enable people to say well the problem has been solved, it’s not like that and quite wisely both President Bush and the Vice President Richard Cheney are preparing the American public and therefore the world public for that realisation. And it is something that could go on for some time, and it’s not going to be something where you can declare an early victory and it will not be in my view something just like the Gulf War.

JONES:

The Daily Telegraph today in Sydney editorialises in part and says with the threat of terrorist counter attacks against any nation that aids the United States, Australia must be vigilant, particularly in maintaining the sovereignty of its borders. It is for this reason Mr Howard should reintroduce the Border Protection Bill this week when Parliament resumes regardless of the outcome of the appeal to the full bench of the Federal Court today. What is your reaction to that?

PRIME MINISTER:

We’re having a Cabinet meeting this morning to consider all of those issues.

JONES:

So there’s a likelihood that you will reintroduce that legislation?

PRIME MINISTER:

I can assure your listeners Alan that we will be taking all the steps that are available to us legally to fully protect our borders.

JONES:

So to strengthen the laws to enable you to turn away illegal boat arrivals.

PRIME MINISTER:

We should have the right to have, we should assert the right to give ourselves a legal position that fully protects us.

JONES:

And you’ll be ensuring one way or another that occurs?

PRIME MINISTER:

Absolutely.

JONES:

Prime Minister to shift from that, unless there’s something else that you’d like to say to listeners about the position in America that you’d like to share with my listeners ‘cause I want to ask you some questions about Ansett.

PRIME MINISTER:

Please go ahead Alan.

JONES:

You must surely be concerned at the increasing revelations about the role of Air New Zealand in all of this, in June the Chief Executive Gary Toomey assured markets that Air New Zealand didn’t need a bail out and had more than adequate cash. We’re only a couple of months on and Ansett has been left to die.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well he not only assured the markets he also told me in late in June that the company, the group that is, had reserves of a billion dollars, it was in a difficult position, he said that and that was quite well known, it did need a capital injection and that was why there was very strong support for the Singapore Airlines increase in ownership of Air New Zealand and the resulting money was to be used as a capital injection into Ansett. That was the plan. But he said that they had a billion dollars and it would last for a year. Now that was the common view around the markets, not only late in June but probably into early August according to Qantas and others the view was being put by the Air New Zealand group around the markets until early August.

JONES:

But it’s now being said that deliberately Air New Zealand whose board knew virtually nothing about aviation, and it’s quite clear that Air New Zealand was wading way out of its depth and Ansett was twice the size of it to start with, but was actually transferring its corporate fuel bills onto the Ansett account and ripping $30 million a month, or adding $30 million a month to Ansett’s costs. Now it must be clear that Australia surely has to approach this matter to the New Zealand Government to determine what kind of liability Air New Zealand holds for the collapse.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well certainly Alan there has to be a proper investigation of that. I’ve read that allegation. I have no direct knowledge of whether it’s true or false. But the Australian Securities and Investment Commission has already commenced an examination. There must be a full examination in a cooperative way by the comparable Air New Zealand body. Of course the shareholders of the group, the employees of Ansett, the Australian public, the Australian Government is entitled to a full explanation and a full accountability from those involved in this. And there won’t be any barriers put in the way of that and there are bodies and they have already started to conduct their investigations and I can assure your listening public that that investigation will be carried out to the full.

JONES:

There are suggestions that also Ansett earned $70 million a year freighting cargo on behalf of Air New Zealand. When Air New Zealand became 100% owner of Ansett that charge was waived.

PRIME MINISTER:

That could well be the case Alan, I mean, I don’t, the Government didn’t have any shares in Ansett. Ansett was a private company, it always has been. And Government’s cannot know the inner workings of private companies. What they can do is pass laws that allow investigations to be made, prosecutions to be brought and people to be made accountable when something goes wrong. And those mechanisms are now in motion. And that kind of approach and that kind of investigation is certainly going to take place.

JONES:

Now for you, the Prime Minister of Australia, you’ve got places like Singleton and Forbes and West Wyalong and Cowra, down in Cootamundra in New South Wales. Virtually the whole of regional Western Australia. Most of regional Tasmania. Significant areas of regional South Australia without any airlines service. It is an obligation of the Government to see that that circumstance doesn’t continue isn’t it?

PRIME MINISTER:

It is and that obligation will be met.

JONES:

How?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we have started to do that by Qantas picking up additional routes. We’ll be having a discussion this morning at Cabinet about arrangements being made to cover the areas that have not been picked up by Qantas and by Virgin. I don’t know how it will ultimately work out but there are negotiations going on between the liquidator and companies and parties interested in buying or being involved in aspects of Ansett’s operation including operations of Ansett subsidiaries which cover not only the trunk routes like Sydney – Melbourne, but also those regional routes that you speak of. We have a special responsibility in relation to those regions. And we’ve made it clear that that responsibility will be met.

JONES:

What timeframe?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I hope that more can be said about that today by the Deputy Prime Minister. We’ll be getting a report from him as a result of what was done over the weekend, when our Cabinet meets this morning.

JONES:

Right now there’s talk of a staff buy-out by licensed aircraft engineers and pilots and others. Would your Government, I mean given that the circumstance in America as you saw at the weekend, I mean there’s talk that 100,000 jobs could be lost there. Midway just closed their doors and shut up shop. Continental are saying they might apply to be covered by bankruptcy provisions and they’re asking the Government to fund some money. Singapore Airlines is government owned. What would be wrong with government assisting a staff buy out of Ansett?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well once you start supporting one particular group of people involved in owning a company why don’t you support another?

JONES:

Well I’m simply saying you’ve got an obligation to the bloke who’s selling pies and soft drinks at Merimbula for example, who’s now out of business. I mean there’s no plane coming in.

PRIME MINISTER:

Alan, I understand that but there is no limit to the calls that would be made on the Government if it begins to subsidise direct commercial operation. I was asked by Gerry McGowan who used to run, who runs Impulse, three months ago whether the Government would give him a cheque to keep his airline going. And I very reluctantly said no Gerry, and I know well I can’t do that because if I do that for you I’ve got to do it for other people.

JONES:

Now we do it in relation to health care.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes but health care isn’t a commercial operation in the same way. What you’re doing there is you’re subsidising the individual taxpayer. Alan once you get on the sticky paper of a Government underwriting commercial investments and commercial operations there is no end.

JONES:

But when we had a two-airline agreement….

PRIME MINISTER:

How do I say no to your friend if I say yes to you.

JONES:

We had a two-airline agreement didn’t we? And everything worked functionally, it seemed to be satisfactory. Then everyone came in and talked about competition policy and deregulation, and all that sort of stuff. Then Peter Beattie was waving around and wearing a Virgin Blue cap for some European outfit wiping out Australian custom and Australian business, and now we found an icon of Australian aviation absolutely gone to the wall. I mean it doesn’t make sense to the battler out there who becomes a victim.

PRIME MINISTER:

No but it also doesn’t make sense to the battlers to guarantee a duopoly in an industry irrespective of the terms and conditions under which that industry operates.

JONES:

It didn’t go broke, they provided services.

PRIME MINISTER:

Alan, Alan, the idea that you can maintain a duopoly forever, and bear in mind that Qantas, and the old Australian Airlines, which is a merger, which was absorbed into Qantas, I mean both of those companies were privatised by the former Labor Government, which we supported incidentally, so we don’t want too many sermons from the other side about things like privatisation and ending the two airline policy because a lot of that occurred under the former government, which we supported. But you can’t in my view take the view that forever a particular arrangement in an individual industry is perfect. Now we are going through a lot of difficulty and a lot of pain at the moment. The Government is the only party at the moment that’s put money on the table to help the problem. We are guaranteeing the workers entitlements.

JONES:

Are you?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, we’re guaranteeing…

JONES:

I heard that on Friday. That’s what I thought. And I thought well good on you because these poor battlers, these poor buggers shouldn’t have to suffer. But now I read that there’s a redundancy cap of eight weeks.

PRIME MINISTER:

Alan, I said that on Friday. I said that right at the beginning, right up front. Because the community standard, most people have redundancies which are not greater than eight weeks. And if you have a completely uncapped redundancy guarantee from the Government it will only encourage employers and employees in other industries in the future to load up the redundancy entitlement as part of a wage settlement and there’ll be an ever escalating bill to be met by the taxpayer. Alan I said that eight weeks on Friday. I said it right up front and there’s been no change on that.

JONES:

So if someone has more than four years service with Ansett they…

PRIME MINISTER:

I don’t know the full … I’m getting details on that this morning. But what we’re saying is that holiday pay, long service leave, unpaid salary, annual leave. They are the statutory entitlements. We’re guaranteeing those. And we’re going to guarantee, according to the decision we took on Friday, up to eight weeks redundancy which is the general, average redundancy package that most employees in Australia get.

JONES:

OK, I’ve got to go to the news.

PRIME MINISTER:

I said that on Friday, right at the very beginning.

JONES:

I’ve got to go to news, but thank you for your time.

PRIME MINISTER:

OK then.

END


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©2001 Commonwealth of Australia.