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Australia
Prime Minister John Howard
Interview on AM Programme, ABC Radio
September 19, 2001

WILLACY:

Mr Howard we’ve just heard the latest from Washington but some commentators back here are saying we’re the only country to give the US a blank cheque when it comes to support. What are the limits on our commitment to the US?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we’ve said that we will support the Americans to the limit of our capability. Obviously if we’re asked to contribute in a particular way it will be for us to decide whether we can or will do that. But there’s no point in a situation like this being an 80% ally. You are either a 100% ally of a country that was a 100% ally of Australia’s in World War II and made the difference between Australia’s survival or going under to the Japanese assault. We have to remember it. We have to remember the history that America came to our aid. We have been close allies ever since This is an assault as much on the freedom and the values of Australian society as it is on the freedom and the values of American society. I’m sure the Americans will behave in a targeted yet lethal fashion. That is what we have encouraged them to do. And we’ve indicated that we’ll be part of that response if that is what they want.

WILLACY:

So does a 100% ally like Australia actually leave open the option of troops do they?

PRIME MINISTER:

We leave open the option of any kind of military involvement which we are capable of and would be appropriate. And yes, that includes troops.

WILLACY:

What about the prospect…

PRIME MINISTER:

Can I just make the point that we made special forces available to the Gulf only a matter of 3 years ago. In the final event they were not needed but we actually sent Special Forces and that decision had bipartisan support in Australia at that time. So it’s not unusual for Australia, cooperating with an ally like the United States, to commit limited forces. It’s a very serious, unprecedented assault on so much of what we stand for and so much of what we hold dear. And in those circumstances it is an occasion, it is a time for a strong response. And that is what I am giving. And I know that the Australian people will overwhelmingly support it.

WILLACY:

Well the polls in the US show the people are overwhelmingly supportive there of some sort of retaliation and also show that they’d be comfortable if innocent people were hurt in retaliation. Are you comfortable with that prospect?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, I don’t ever want innocent people hurt. And if innocent people end up getting hurt in this that will be sad and will not be something that I want or something that the United States want. But talking about innocent people being hurt – there were 5000 innocent people killed probably by the terrorist attack so please let us not first invoke the spectre of innocent deaths in the context of the American response. Let us first recognise that innocent people died in their thousands in New York last week.

WILLACY:

Yesterday one of your MP’s Peter Slipper claimed in Parliament that there was an undeniable link between asylum seekers and terrorists. Do you agree with that analysis?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I haven’t seen what he said. I’ve been asked about this before. My view is that every country has a right to fully protect its borders. The question of the character background and so forth of the people that have sought to come to this country illegally, the evidence on that is mixed. Some of them have criminal records. Many of them don’t. Not all of them have fled tyrannical regimes as is almost universally suggested by the Government’s critics.

WILLACY:

But does Mr Slipper’s language here – does that do anything to bring calm to this whole debate in the wake of the attacks especially in the US?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well what I… I haven’t seen precisely what he said but look, speaking for the Government and Mr Ruddock’s speaking for the Government on this, we are not trying to exaggerate links between terrorism and illegal immigration. However, every country has a redoubled obligation in the light of what has happened to scrutinise very carefully who is coming into this country. And I argued for what we have done in relation to illegal immigration before the tragic events of last week. The tragic events of last week have not altered our policy on illegal immigration. Our policy on illegal immigration is not a product of the tragic events of last week.

WILLACY:

Obviously this policy has given you a bit of a fillip in the polls. What’s your interpretation of today’s Morgan Bulletin Poll. What do you put you’re dramatic… the dramatic…

PRIME MINISTER:

I don’t run a commentary. But I will say this. I don’t believe that poll. And I would counsel supporters of the Government to realise that we live in a very volatile political climate. The next election will still in my judgement be tough for the Government to win. We’re going for a third term. I think the Government’s fortunes have improved steadily over the last 6 months. We will face a very clear choice. One of the things that is working in the Government’s favour is that we have a clear position on things whereas the Labor Party keeps running from one side of the street to the other. But I would say to my fellow parliamentarians and I would say to Liberal Party supporters throughout the nation, the next election is going to be very tough. I knew that three months ago and nothing that’s occurred in the past few weeks or the past couple of months alters that fact and people should keep their head down, understand the gravity of the times in which we’re living and the sort of serious sensible response the Australian people want from us.

WILLACY:

Well you’ve agreed to fund the Ansett workers entitlements to the tune of about $400 million and then take their place as Air New Zealand creditors. If you recover any money will you then give it back to air travellers?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yeah, we’ll find a way of handing it back yes.

WILLACY:

Have you got any ideas?

PRIME MINISTER:

We’ve got a number of ideas but let’s get it back from Air New Zealand first but I can assure you we’re not going to pocket it.

WILLACY:

You’re guaranteeing redundancy payments for workers of up to eight weeks. The community standard as you put it. But what about those loyal Ansett employees owed thousands or tens of thousands in some cases in redundancy.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well in a situation like this you’ve got to balance the burden you put on the travelling public with the obligation. And we took the view that we pay, you pay long service leave, you pay holiday pay and salary in lieu of notice, all of those legal entitlements if I can put it that way. All of those entitlements that actually accrue as time goes by. And in relation to redundancy, most people when they’re made redundant don’t get more than eight weeks. Now, there are some very big redundancy packages in Ansett and we have taken the view that as the taxpayer is picking up the tab then it’s reasonable to pay the community standard in relation to redundancies. And we are, you know, we’re assuming all of the responsibility for this, both economically and politically….

WILLACY:

What about the responsibility for the 2000 catering workers, for example, who aren’t getting their entitlements from Swiss Air, will you be helping pay them out?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, what we’re doing is we’re paying for people who are employed by Ansett or Ansett’s wholly owned subsidiaries. You can’t sort of keep going, wave after wave, through the economy because where do you end…

WILLACY:

Is there any support …

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, the best support we can give to them and the best support the unions can give to them is to cooperate as quickly and as speedily and in as non-political way as possible with the administrator to see if elements of Ansett can be resurrected.

WILLACY:

[Inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER:

No, this is a very important point. I mean, the best thing anybody can do for those connected with Ansett and the airline industry is to cooperate and not play any politics in relation to the work of the administrator. And we saw a deplorable example yesterday where Tony Abbott was actually trying to tell the Ansett workers what we were prepared to do for them and he was told by the President of the ACTU, in company with the Leader of the Opposition, that Mr Abbott was not even going to be able to address them. He was the one person who actually had some good news for them and he was sent packing by the ACTU.

Now, this is not a political dispute. When I arrived back from America last Friday morning the first thing I did, even before I’d left the terminal at Sydney Airport, the first thing I did was talk to Ansett workers and to representatives of the union. I didn’t start talking politics. And I gave an indication then and those who were present, they’re straightforward and I’m sure they’re able to remember it, I gave an indication then that we were prepared to help on the entitlements. Now, I want from everybody, in relation to this issue, if they’re fair dinkum about helping the workers, they’re fair dinkum about helping small business, let’s not play any politics.

WILLACY:

Well, on politics the Government says it will change its wider workers’ entitlements scheme to mirror the Ansett bail out but the Ansett bailout’s funded by a special levy, how will future workers’ entitlements be…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, what we’re going to do with the more generous, general scheme – and we’ll be announcing some more details of that later – that will be funded out of general revenue but we do reserve the right, if you have a big liquidation that involves a lot of people, if it imposes an unreasonable strain on the budget then we reserve the right in future to have some kind of special levy in order to fund that so that you don’t have an unreasonable strain on the budget. Bear in mind that as time goes by, as a result of the awful events of last week and a general slowing of the American economy, there could be a slowing in Australia. We’re doing much better than most at the moment so therefore we have to be very careful about our budget position. The surplus has been affected already by a number of things that we’ve had to do and whilst we’re still in surplus and expect to remain in surplus it’s not unlimited and we have to issue the sort of cautions I’ve just issued in relation to the cost of worker entitlement schemes.

WILLACY:

Well, as a New Zealand, Air New Zealand creditor, or soon to be a creditor, what do you make of the management of Air New Zealand and Ansett? You’re obviously going to be going after them so what do you make of their management leading in to this?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, the evidence so far available is that it’s been very poor and very negative and people are right to be angry. They shouldn’t allow their anger to spill over to a general hostility towards New Zealand and New Zealanders. I don’t want the Trans-Tasman relationship, which is very important to this country, quite precious to this country, to be contaminated by the perceived inadequacies of a board of directors of a New Zealand based company. That would be unfair to New Zealand and unfair to the association. But let me say to the Ansett workers, we understand their anger, we’ll look after your entitlements in the way I’ve explained and then we will seek a legal remedy against Air New Zealand and try and replenish the Australian budget to the extent that we can.

WILLACY:

Mr Howard, thanks for joining us.

END


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©2001 Commonwealth of Australia.