Prime Minister John Howard
Interview With Neil Mitchell of Radio 3 AW
September 21, 2001
First today a message direct from the Australian Prime Minister Mr John Howard
in our Sydney studio. Mr Howard, good morning.
Good morning Neil.
This is a time of extreme uncertainty, of international nervousness. What is
your message to the people of Australia?
Well my message is that we must as free people and free societies work together
and respond together to the threat of terrorism. We cant 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 theres
nonetheless a risk. And this country will help and cooperate with the United
States to the limit of its capacity. Thats 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 cant
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, its 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.
What is your reaction to the decision of the Afghanis not to hand over Bin Laden
but to encourage him to leave?
Well thats 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. Its difficult for him. Hes right on the Afghani
border, Afghanistan border. Hes under a lot of pressure from the United
States. Hes 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.
I think thats happening a little. I dont think its widespread.
No I dont think its widespread and Im pleased about that.
And it doesnt surprise me that its 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.
Its such a hard figure to come to terms to isnt it?
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.
Does the United States, given the decision of the clerics, does it have any
option other than to launch some action against Afghanistan?
Well, I dont 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 doesnt 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 Im 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 arent legitimate.
Is there do you agree there is a moral responsibility for vengeance,
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
Because the promise now from the clerics is if there is any action there will
be a holy war.
Well thats what Ive read, yes. Once again I dont 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 thats
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.
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?
Well, were not directly part of that but we would cooperate with the Americans
and the British, indeed, with anybody else, but theres 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.
Its quite a unique intelligence relationship and the sharing is very open
and very explicit, so thats very important.
Are we looking here at a long-term, or what amounts to a war?
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 dont believe were 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 wont respond to legitimate American pressure to hand over the
terrorist suspects. I mean, weve 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, its 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 dont do so
then the Americans have to ask themselves, what else can we do short of taking
Do you have any doubt that Osama Bin Laden is the man behind this?
Well, the material that Ive read about and the material around suggests
that the Americans are justified in calling him the prime suspect.
Israeli intelligence is suggesting Iraq sponsored this attack, is that likely?
Well, I wouldnt rule that out but Im not saying that Im 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
I guess that expands the possibility of any military action from Afghanistan
to include Iraq.
Well, I have to be careful how I speculate in a situation like that but going
back to basics once again, the Americans dilemma is that if they cant,
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 dont then
do anything at all then hasnt terrorism scored a very significant victory?
Have you spoken to President Bush since youve been back in Australia?
No, I havent. There hasnt been, at this stage, any need to.
Whats the situation with the two Australians still being held in Afghanistan
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 dont 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?
Mr Howard, given our military pledges, our military involvement, do the Australian
people have to prepare themselves for the possible loss of Australian lives?
Well, if Australia is involved militarily theres 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 Australias 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 theres always a danger of loss of life and thats 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.
There is no doubt, though, that we will be involved in a military sense at some
stage, is there, because this is, as everybodys saying, this is a long-term
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. Wed 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 youre not and you cant be a
fair weather friend, you cant 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 hadnt been for the Americans and no Australian of any
generation should ever forget that.
We read about Bin Laden having cells in as many as 50 countries around the world.
Is it likely there is one in Australia?
Its possible. I said earlier, you cant 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 cant rule it out.
And our support for the United States probably increases that possibility doesnt
Well, thats 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 cant have it both ways. We cant will
a terrorist free world and then say, oh but were 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 wont buy us immunity. To use the old expression,
if you keep feeding a crocodile all that will happen is he will eat you last.
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?
Well, weve 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. Well keep interest rates low. We wont
be running around putting up taxes. Well run a budget surplus but we wont
be fanatical about the size of the surplus. Well 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 therell
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.
Is it correct that you have decided in principle to extent the first homebuyers
scheme with grants of up to $14,000?
We havent made any decision, Neil. We are talking to people in the industry
about what they believe ought to occur and well then, after those discussions
and after an examination of our budgetary position, well 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 its not something
that will go on indefinitely. I dont 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. Were 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.
Do you agree there is now new pressure on Australian interest rates?
Theres not really upward pressure on Australian interest rates, no.
I was thinking downward after the US decision.
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 dont automatically
follow American rates either up or down. But we are influenced by American rates.
Thats 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 weve looked at
whats happened in America but the Australian economy is going along pretty
well and theres 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.
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 theres a realistic
chance that Australia can avoid recession?
I think theres a very realistic, more than a realistic chance that we
can avoid a recession. We cant 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 hadnt changed
our tax system, we didnt 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 cant
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.
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 theres an appeal already coming from a number of airlines,
international airlines to governments to help in these increased costs.
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
Im 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. Its
not the same in this country. Paradoxically Australia right at the moment has
more passengers than planes, the Americans have more planes than passengers.
Is there any hope of Ansett flying again do you believe?
Not in the form in which it previously flew. Im 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
Im not, you know, I dont want to unnecessarily raise hopes but I
do believe there are a lot of people interested.
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
Well I havent specifically spoken to the Attorney General about that and
Id have to do so. Im just not quite up to speed on that. But I know
theres some criticism of it but Im a bit puzzled at that. This is
not a normal pro bono legal case. You didnt have an impoverished litigant.
To my knowledge the lawyers in a sense didnt have clients in the normal
sense of the word. They were appearing for a public advocacy group the
Victorian Civil Liberties Council. Well you dont really, with respect,
you cant compare the Victorian Civil Liberties Council with an impoverished
individual whos 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 were 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.
Just finally Prime Minister, personally a very tough time. Publicly youve
been emotional several times.
How do you feel at the moment?
Well Im 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 dont think I can ever quite feel the same. I dont think
millions of people around the world will ever feel the same. Its 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 were
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.
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 cant lose now? Do you think about the politics?
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 Ive said to you. Exactly when I
still dont know. But the last thing anybody wanted is to see any domestic
political impact from something like this. I mean its 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.