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Australia
Prime Minister John Howard
Interview With Neil Mitchell of Radio 3 AW
September 21, 2001

MITCHELL:

First today a message direct from the Australian Prime Minister Mr John Howard in our Sydney studio. Mr Howard, good morning.

PRIME MINISTER:

Good morning Neil.

MITCHELL:

This is a time of extreme uncertainty, of international nervousness. What is your message to the people of Australia?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well my message is that we must as free people and free societies work together and respond together to the threat of terrorism. We can’t divorce ourselves from what happened in the United States. It could happen in this country, although the scale of risk is lower here than in some other countries. But there’s nonetheless a risk. And this country will help and cooperate with the United States to the limit of its capacity. That’s my message. I would ask that people not, I will put it very bluntly, stop spending, stop engaging in normal life, normal economic activity because we have to get on with life. We can’t be afraid of living. We have to, while recognising what has happened, and while acknowledging that it has changed the way we think about the world, and has probably given everybody an added sense of insecurity, it’s important that the Australian spirit, as much as for the American people the American spirit, triumph over these sorts of challenges and this kind of adversity.

MITCHELL:

What is your reaction to the decision of the Afghanis not to hand over Bin Laden but to encourage him to leave?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that’s not satisfactory. The American demand was that he should be handed over and brought to justice. I believe the Americans were justified in doing that. I do feel for the Pakistanis. Their leader, Musharref, has displayed a lot of courage. It’s difficult for him. He’s right on the Afghani border, Afghanistan border. He’s under a lot of pressure from the United States. He’s come out very strongly against terrorist activity as has the President of Indonesia – the leader of the largest Muslim country in the world. This is not a reaction against Muslims. I want to emphasise that Islamic Australians, Australians of Arab descent, should not be marginalised and generically pursued and criticised and vilified as a result of what has happened.

MITCHELL:

I think that’s happening a little. I don’t think it’s widespread.

PRIME MINISTER:

No I don’t think it’s widespread and I’m pleased about that. And it doesn’t surprise me that it’s not widespread because most Australians, overwhelmingly Australians are decent, fair-minded people. And there were Islamic people in the World Trade Centre. That figure of thousands that you mentioned earlier, that would have included Islamic Americans. It would have included people of the Islamic faith from other parts of the world. This kind of barbarous behaviour has no ethnic boundary.

MITCHELL:

It’s such a hard figure to come to terms to isn’t it?

PRIME MINISTER:

It is very hard … it is the greatest level of loss of human life in one event or one series of events in the United States since the Civil War in the 1860s. That is a measure of the historical significance of it.

MITCHELL:

Does the United States, given the decision of the clerics, does it have any option other than to launch some action against Afghanistan?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I don’t think the Americans do have any alternative. But as to when and how, that is ultimately a matter that they will decide. It is obviously desirable that it be done in a way that doesn’t involve death or injury to innocent people if that is at all possible. It is obvious that if all of the nations of the world cooperated in handing over people suspected of terrorism for a trial, that would avoid the need for any kind of American military strike. If the Taliban, if others who encourage and harbour and relieve and give comfort and support to terrorists were to cooperate, then I’m sure that an American military strike would be avoided. But it looks at this stage as if that is not going to happen. But I know the Americans will display patience. They are angry. They believe they have a moral responsibility to retaliate on behalf of those thousands of innocent people who died in such terrible circumstances. But they also have an obligation they know to the rest of the world to display restraint and discretion and to respond with care using lethal force on desirable and legitimate targets but not on targets that aren’t legitimate.

MITCHELL:

Is there … do you agree there is a moral responsibility for vengeance, for revenge?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think they must be seen to be responding on behalf of those people. They have … if they can bring terrorism to an end without military action we would all love that. That is an unimaginable objective at the present time. It seems to be unachievable. I think everybody would love a situation where suddenly the Taliban said yes you can have Bin Laden, you can have these other suspected terrorists. Let them be put on trial and if they are found guilty let them be dealt with. I think everybody would prefer that to happen. People would be happy with it.

MITCHELL:

Because the promise now from the clerics is if there is any action there will be a holy war.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that’s what I’ve read, yes. Once again I don’t want to see that as their final word. Clearly there will be a lot of diplomatic jockeying and there will be a lot of further pressure applied. And I think that’s very legitimate. The Americans will want to try other angles and other approaches. They feel very angry. But they also understand the consequences, the potential consequences of responding in a military way. But they are duty bound and honour bound to respond effectively.

MITCHELL:

The London Times reports the US and Britain have got a 10 year plan to eradicate terrorism including military, financial, diplomatic, political, weapons. Is Australia part of that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, we’re not directly part of that but we would cooperate with the Americans and the British, indeed, with anybody else, but there’s a certain amount of cooperation and a lot of action goes on already. We share intelligence with the Americans and the British. They are the two countries in the world with whom we have the closest intelligence relationship and that is quite important. It’s quite a unique intelligence relationship and the sharing is very open and very explicit, so that’s very important.

MITCHELL:

Are we looking here at a long-term, or what amounts to a war?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I think we are looking at a campaign of attrition. Most people think of war in the sense of two armies or navies or air forces opposing each other. I don’t believe we’re really looking at that. That was a point Donald Rumsfeld, the American Defence Secretary, made last night. But we are certainly, unavoidably, I think, looking at some kind of military action if Afghanistan and others won’t respond to legitimate American pressure to hand over the terrorist suspects. I mean, we’ve got to go back to basics and understand what the Americans are saying. They are saying that Bin Laden is the prime suspect and that is based on not just hunch, it’s based obviously on some evidence. They are, therefore, saying we would like him handed over so he can be put on trial. Now, if those who have the capacity to hand him over don’t do so then the Americans have to ask themselves, what else can we do short of taking military action.

MITCHELL:

Do you have any doubt that Osama Bin Laden is the man behind this?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, the material that I’ve read about and the material around suggests that the Americans are justified in calling him the prime suspect.

MITCHELL:

Israeli intelligence is suggesting Iraq sponsored this attack, is that likely?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I wouldn’t rule that out but I’m not saying that I’m convinced that that was the case. We would have to have an open mind on that. There are documented and published suggestions of some of the hijackers having been in touch with people in Iraq. I read another report of that in one of the newspapers this morning.

MITCHELL:

I guess that expands the possibility of any military action from Afghanistan to include Iraq.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I have to be careful how I speculate in a situation like that but going back to basics once again, the American’s dilemma is that if they can’t, by diplomatic pressure and by the weight of world opinion, encourage those who are currently harbouring suspected terrorists to hand them over they then have to ask themselves what other alternative do we have. If they don’t then do anything at all then hasn’t terrorism scored a very significant victory?

MITCHELL:

Have you spoken to President Bush since you’ve been back in Australia?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I haven’t. There hasn’t been, at this stage, any need to.

MITCHELL:

What’s the situation with the two Australians still being held in Afghanistan [inaudible]?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, I remain very concerned about their position and we continue to do everything we can at a diplomatic level to help them. The latest information I have is that they are going through a trial. I don’t know much about how fair or otherwise the trial is. I hope it is. And we are hopeful that that trial will be completed soon and we are naturally hopeful about the outcome. The alleged crime is that they tried to convert people to Christianity in an avowedly and hardline Islamic country. Now, clearly it was against the rules but according to human civilised standards that we observe in this country it hardly qualifies as a crime, does it?

MITCHELL:

Mr Howard, given our military pledges, our military involvement, do the Australian people have to prepare themselves for the possible loss of Australian lives?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, if Australia is involved militarily there’s always the possibility of loss of life no matter how small the involvement might be, no matter how remote the possibility can be and that will depend. And I guess that is the question that I can better answer if or when, depending on the circumstances, Australia were involved, if Australia’s involved and the nature of that involvement is known and agreed to then I can, I guess, talk even more directly about that. But, Neil, the reality is that whenever there is any kind of military involvement there’s always a danger of loss of life and that’s the nature of military service and that is why there should always be a special place in our community for people who wear a uniform, whether they wear it as soldiers and sailors or whether they wear it as police or fireman or emergency services. We saw in New York the terrible danger to which police and firefighters are exposed when something goes wrong. I mean, there were people in the building, the rest of us looked on in horror, the firemen and the policemen went in to try and rescue them and they died in their hundreds.

MITCHELL:

There is no doubt, though, that we will be involved in a military sense at some stage, is there, because this is, as everybody’s saying, this is a long-term campaign?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, ultimately that will be a strategic decision that will have to be taken. We have indicated to the Americans that we would be willing to participate. It is clearly in our national interest to be part of any response if the Americans ask and that response is appropriate. We’d obviously only be involved to the limit of our capability. We have other responsibilities but you are either a close ally of the United States or you’re not and you can’t be a fair weather friend, you can’t cherry pick our most important alliance, you have to be wholehearted about it. The Americans came to our aid during the dark days of World War II and saved us from the Japanese thrust and that should never be forgotten. They were crucial. This country would have gone under in World War II if it hadn’t been for the Americans and no Australian of any generation should ever forget that.

MITCHELL:

We read about Bin Laden having cells in as many as 50 countries around the world. Is it likely there is one in Australia?

PRIME MINISTER:

It’s possible. I said earlier, you can’t assume that Australia is immune from the threat of terrorism. We are not as high on the scale of vulnerability as other countries but we are on it and you can’t rule it out.

MITCHELL:

And our support for the United States probably increases that possibility doesn’t it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, that’s hard quantify but, once again, if we want terrorism stopped and stamped out, if we want it resisted, we have to be part of the process of bringing about that result. We can’t have it both ways. We can’t will a terrorist free world and then say, oh but we’re not going to participate in any way or take any of the risks that are involved in trying to wipe it out because, in the end, that won’t buy us immunity. To use the old expression, if you keep feeding a crocodile all that will happen is he will eat you last.

MITCHELL:

Prime Minister, the economy, you said Australians should keep spending which in this climate is a difficult thing for them to do. What will the Government do to encourage people to keep spending, to encourage the economy?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, we’ve done a lot already and the good news is that our economy enters this very difficult and unexpected period in very good condition, a lot better condition than the American economy or the Japanese or the European economies. So that is the good news. We’ll keep interest rates low. We won’t be running around putting up taxes. We’ll run a budget surplus but we won’t be fanatical about the size of the surplus. We’ll have a surplus. It has been put under a bit of pressure. We have to spend more money in relation to asylum seekers. We may have to outlay some more money on defence. We are, of course, putting some money into worker entitlement schemes, so there’ll be a lot of – although in the case of Ansett the bulk of that will be recouped by the ticket levy and I also hope in time replenished and we can pay some of the ticket levy money back particularly to the tourist industry, be replenished by recovering some money from Air New Zealand who, we believe, has a legal responsibility to meet those entitlements.

JOURNALIST:

Is it correct that you have decided in principle to extent the first homebuyers’ scheme with grants of up to $14,000?

PRIME MINISTER:

We haven’t made any decision, Neil. We are talking to people in the industry about what they believe ought to occur and we’ll then, after those discussions and after an examination of our budgetary position, we’ll have a look at what we ought to do. It has been dramatically successful. It gave a terrific lift to the housing industry right when it needed it but it’s not something that will go on indefinitely. I don’t think anybody in the industry says it should indefinitely stay at 14,000 for new homes. There are a number of options. You could terminate it as originally announced. You could keep it going indefinitely, which is really not an appropriate option, or alternatively you could look at some phase down over a period of time. We’re looking at, essentially, whether you keep it going in its present form for a while after the end of the year or you have some kind of phase down.

MITCHELL:

Do you agree there is now new pressure on Australian interest rates?

PRIME MINISTER:

There’s not really upward pressure on Australian interest rates, no.

MITCHELL:

I was thinking downward after the US decision.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, that is something the Reserve Bank will look at when it meets at the beginning of next month. Our interest rates are a little higher than American rates and the reason is our economy is performing more strongly. We don’t automatically follow American rates either up or down. But we are influenced by American rates. That’s a matter that the bank will look at. I think the bank made the right call earlier this week when the Governor said well sure we’ve looked at what’s happened in America but the Australian economy is going along pretty well and there’s no reason to bring forward consideration of interest rate levels separate from the normal meeting of the Reserve Bank, which is I think the first Tuesday in October.

MITCHELL:

In an atmosphere like this of course everybody wants to try to talk the economy up and to be positive but 92,000 manufacturing jobs gone in 15 months, these extraordinary international pressures now. Do you believe there’s a realistic chance that Australia can avoid recession?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think there’s a very realistic, more than a realistic chance that we can avoid a recession. We can’t avoid some backwash. The important thing though is we are in a better position to handle it because of the underlying strength of our economy. Just imagine where we would be if our budget were already significantly in deficit, our interest rates were high, we hadn’t changed our tax system, we didn’t have a super competitive exchange rate. If you just factor all of those things in, we had a much slower rate of growth, then our position would have been much weaker. So my assessment Neil is that we can’t avoid some backwash. I still hold the view though that the American economy is so resilient and the American people are so entrepreneurial that people who write off the American economy and condemn it now to a prolonged recession are probably going to be proved wrong. The Americans have a great capacity to climb out of economic difficulty. They are naturally the most entrepreneurial people in the world and they have a collective entrepreneurial spirit which will enable them to pull out of this.

MITCHELL:

Just a couple of quick things if I may to wrap up Prime Minister. The implications for the airlines, the international airlines out of this are enormous – increased insurance costs and the rest. Will the Australian government help with that? I think there’s an appeal already coming from a number of airlines, international airlines to governments to help in these increased costs.

PRIME MINISTER:

We are looking at that. The problem area is really what you might call third person or third party property damage, not so much the insurance if the plane crashes in relation to the people killed or injured, but damage done to buildings as exemplified of course by the World Trade Centre. We are looking at that and I’m prepared for the Government to play a part provided the exposure to the Australian people is not too great. But I am prepared for the Government to play a part in that because these are unusual circumstances. Governments around the world are looking at that. The American airline industry faces an unprecedented crisis. People are panic stricken about flying in America. It’s not the same in this country. Paradoxically Australia right at the moment has more passengers than planes, the Americans have more planes than passengers.

MITCHELL:

Is there any hope of Ansett flying again do you believe?

PRIME MINISTER:

Not in the form in which it previously flew. I’m optimistic that parts of Ansett can be sold off. I know also that there are a number of large proposals around at the present time for a revived but trimmed down Ansett to fly. There are a lot of issues involved in that and the industrial relations conditions are part of it. Obviously they have to be competitive with those offered by Virgin and Qantas if a restored and relaunched Ansett were to get ahead. So I’m not, you know, I don’t want to unnecessarily raise hopes but I do believe there are a lot of people interested.

MITCHELL:

Just quickly Prime Minister, will your Government be pursuing costs over the court action brought by the lawyers and the civil libertarians over the asylum seekers?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I haven’t specifically spoken to the Attorney General about that and I’d have to do so. I’m just not quite up to speed on that. But I know there’s some criticism of it but I’m a bit puzzled at that. This is not a normal pro bono legal case. You didn’t have an impoverished litigant. To my knowledge the lawyers in a sense didn’t have clients in the normal sense of the word. They were appearing for a public advocacy group – the Victorian Civil Liberties Council. Well you don’t really, with respect, you can’t compare the Victorian Civil Liberties Council with an impoverished individual who’s pursuing a legal claim. There is a slightly different situation. This attempt being made by some lawyers to say well because the government might pursue costs we’re undermining our previous appeal for more lawyers to do pro bono work. Look the clients, if I can put that in inverted commas, if they exist in this case are quite different and atypical from the normal client who is very deserving of pro bono legal work.

MITCHELL:

Just finally Prime Minister, personally a very tough time. Publicly you’ve been emotional several times.

PRIME MINISTER:

I have.

MITCHELL:

How do you feel at the moment?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I’m sombre. I think the world has changed. I think the last few weeks have been awful…the last ten days since the attack on Washington and New York City. I don’t think I can ever quite feel the same. I don’t think millions of people around the world will ever feel the same. It’s hit home to Australia because it was upon a city, upon a people with whom we identify with immediately. We can put ourselves in that situation more readily perhaps than we can if attacks occur in other parts of the world. Not that we’re insensitive to those, not that we think a life lost in a remote part of the world we know little of is any less tragic.

MITCHELL:

Do you think about politics at a time like this? Do you think about the election and does all this affect the timing of an election because all the polls and analysts say well John Howard can’t lose now? Do you think about the politics?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well you know, if I could…I mean just imagine what, if we could turn…..I mean nobody wanted those events to occur. I mean we will have an election. It will be before the end of the year as I’ve said to you. Exactly when I still don’t know. But the last thing anybody wanted is to see any domestic political impact from something like this. I mean it’s just so terrible and we all close our eyes and hope we could turn the clock back and somehow or other have stopped it happening.

MITCHELL:

Thank you very much for your time.

PRIME MINISTER:

A pleasure.

END


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©2001 Commonwealth of Australia.