Why I Love John HoWARd #84.I don't usually watch Lateline and I also prefer not to just copy and paste a whole interview. In this case, though, it is far too entertaining not to share.
John Howard is just too wily for Tony Jones, and watching TJ trying to pin down JH just rocks my world. It was worth the lack of sleep from yet another late night.
Howard denies Iraq in civil war
Reporter: Tony Jones
TONY JONES: We return now to our interview with Prime Minister John Howard. Prime Minister, thanks for joining us again.
JOHN HOWARD, PRIME MINISTER: Pleasure.
TONY JONES: Now Iraq's Defence Minister, the former interim prime minister, says there is a civil war now in his country. Do you take any responsibility, along with the other leaders who planned this war and what appears to be a poorly planned regime change for what is happening now in Iraq?
JOHN HOWARD: Well Tony, I'll come back in a moment to my responsibility. But let me say in relation to Dr Allawi's comments, he is not a completely disinterested observer. There is still a negotiation going on about the form of the new government in Iraq, and he is something of a critic of the existing Prime Minister. So let us allow for a certain amount of domestic Iraqi politics in relation to that observation, which in fact, I don't accept. I don't agree that there is descent into civil war.
I think since the bombing of the mosque a few weeks ago the situation has got a lot worse. On the other hand - and it seems almost counterintuitive, given the images that are coming out of Iraq at the moment - there's a lot of evidence that progress is being made. Up to 25 per cent of the security burden is now being carried in a significant way by the Iraqi forces. And they have played a major role in the assault last week which involved one of the biggest airborne operations of the last three years. So I think you have to see Dr Allawi's comments in that context.
I don't run away from my responsibility. I committed Australia to the military operations. I believed on very valid grounds, I still believe history will judge it to have been the right thing to have done. But it will continue to go through a difficult phase, transiting from tyranny to democracy is neither smooth nor easy.
TONY JONES: Well not according to Dr Allawi, that's for sure. He says we're losing each day an average of 50 to 60 people, if not more. He says, leaving aside other politics of it - he is living there - he says, "If this is not civil war, then God knows what civil war is".
JOHN HOWARD: Well the point I'm making is you can't leave aside the domestic politics. The significant thing through all of the difficulty, the significant thing is that Iraq in a period of 12 months has had three democratic ballots, with an increased number on each occasion participating and in a welcome fashion the Sunni, the minority who previously ran the country under Saddam, they participated in large numbers in the last ballot. Now all of that is very welcome and I think you have to put that against the undoubted gruesome pictures. But you've also got to remember that you didn't have pictures when Saddam ran the country. People were just murdered in stealth by the tens of thousands and the world didn't know about it.
TONY JONES: And now they're being murdered still as you say, and the images - perhaps you call them counter-intuitive, or the notion that you're talking about being counter-intuitive, compared to the images. We saw just last week the most horrific images of a massacre of Shiites. We now hear people like Allawi saying there's a dissent into civil war. If it does come to that and bear in mind the killing has not lessened, it's getting worse, will there be a moral responsibility on the leaders who led this campaign for a war?
JOHN HOWARD: Well, I am prepared to defend what I did on moral grounds. I think Iraqis have a better future now than they would have had if there had not been a military operation. Because if there hadn't been a military operation, Saddam would still be running Iraq. I mean, the people who criticise the coalition, carry the burden of explaining and defending the proposition that it would have been better for Saddam to have gone on running Iraq.
Now the latest opinion polls in Iraq indicate that the majority of Iraqis don't believe that despite the difficulties that they continue to go through, that's not in any way to downplay my concern about what is happening. But I think what it underlines is that whenever you criticise what the coalition did, what I did and what President [George] Bush and Prime Minister [Tony] Blair did, you have to be prepared to defend the alternative. There seems in the eyes of our critics to be some kind of undefined benign third way that would have delivered a change of regime and none of the difficulties of past weeks and months.
TONY JONES: Does anything, though, that you've seen, including the mass killings, including the growing sectarian violence, make you think twice about the wisdom of regime change?
JOHN HOWARD: Well I don't resile from the decision that I took. I accept the responsibility and I'll continue to argue that what we did was correct.
TONY JONES: If the sectarian violence continues, if there is a dissent into civil war would you consider pulling out Australia's troops rather than exposing them to it?
JOHN HOWARD: A premature pulling out of Australian troops would accelerate a deterioration in the situation. If people are concerned to stop a further deterioration, they will support the maintenance of Australian troops and American troops and British troops and other troops in Iraq. Nothing is more calculated to worsen the situation than for there to be a premature pull-out. That would be a big mistake and would play into the hands of the terrorists.
TONY JONES: Do you rule out sending more troops if the situation worsens?
JOHN HOWARD: We don't have that in contemplation, but I've decided not to rule out anything in that department because I don't know precisely what is going to happen in the future. We don't, however, have any current intention and I think it's unlikely. But you asked me the direct question, "Will I rule it out?" No, I will not categorically rule it out.
TONY JONES: Brendan Nelson has already outlined last week a new role for the Australian troops. He says they'll be engaged in ground force protection overseeing and protecting Iraqi security forces. That could mean direct involvement in fighting, could it not?
JOHN HOWARD: Well I think the exact involvement is to be worked out. But the idea is that we would have a role which is the most important thing we could have, which is a role in helping the Iraqis to look after the country themselves. I mean, that has to be our operate objective.
TONY JONES: Operating alongside them in potential combat situations? Because that's what appears to have been contemplated?
JOHN HOWARD: I can tell you that the detail has not been finalised and you should not read anything more into the Defence Minister's remarks. We're going to work that out and we don't precisely know at this stage when the Japanese are leaving al-Muthanna. They haven't made a final decision on that and as late as Saturday when I spoke to their Foreign Minister, that was the position.
TONY JONES: Do you know what province the Australian troops will be when the Japanese leave? Brendan Nelson appeared to indicate it could be a number of provinces in the south?
JOHN HOWARD: Well it would be in the southern area. We're not talking about an increase in the number of troops we have there, so obviously the operations in which they could be involved would be limited by the size of the force.
TONY JONES: But they could be moving into areas the British are leaving, for example?
JOHN HOWARD: Not necessarily, but that is still to be defined because we still don't know ultimately when exactly the Japanese are going and whether they will leave behind any residual force elements and given that our initial task was to provide a secure environment for them, that's relevant.
TONY JONES: All right. From Iraq to the Iraq kickback scandal, when exactly did officials in your department and in your office first hear about the trucking company Alia and its links to Saddam Hussein's regime?
JOHN HOWARD: Well I would have to go and talk to everybody in my department to try and answer for the department and I'm not going to try and hazard a precise guess. Let me just generally tell you when this issue really came onto the radar screen for me. It really came onto the radar screen for me at the beginning of 2005 and I've alluded to this, but perhaps I do it in a little more detail on this occasion.
In the beginning of 2005 I was told by my department - and it came out of our mission in the UN in New York - that Mr Volcker was unhappy with the level of cooperation he was receiving in relation to his inquiry and that he entertained suspicions about AWB. In response to that, I gave clear written instructions immediately that there had to be full cooperation and full transparency and full disclosure. In essence the words that I, in fact, noted on the minute that I received from my department. And I also told Mr [Mark] Vaile that he should write to the company in the strongest possible terms saying that they had to cooperate in full with the Volcker inquiry.
Now AWB Limited then was still denying any kind of wrongdoing. Now, Tony - I know you've heard me say this before, but it doesn't rob the statement of its validity - we do have an inquiry. And the man is a very good lawyer, Mr [Terrence] Cole. He's got the powers of a royal commissioner. He's already asked for two extensions to his terms of reference. If he wants another extension, he will have it. If he wants me to appear or any of my ministers to appear, we will do so. In no way has the Government tried to obstruct the inquiries conducted by the commission.
TONY JONES: You're happy for your ministers to appear before the Cole commission and even yourself, you're prepared to go before the Cole commission?
JOHN HOWARD: Yes. I have said that. This is the third or fourth occasion on which I've said this, so...
TONY JONES: What about all the officials in your office and in the Prime Minister's Department who may or may not have seen intelligence seven years earlier than you did, back in 1998 when the intelligence community knew that this was happening, that Alia was paying money to -
JOHN HOWARD: Well hang on - when you say "this was happening," what do you mean by 'this'?
TONY JONES: What I mean by that is it was known in 1998 that Alia was a company in control of Saddam's Government and it was receiving kickbacks.
JOHN HOWARD: At that stage the connection with AWB was by no means established. But see, aren't we doing, with respect - and I know we could do this in an interesting fashion - but isn't this the job of Mr Cole.
TONY JONES: You know what it's like. The free media asking questions about these issues. As new information comes to light and you know the Opposition has accused you of actually lying about the sort of documents that were available when first documents were given to the Cole inquiry and then another group of documents went there and the intelligence documents only just emerged.
JOHN HOWARD: Tony, we do have a free media and thank heavens and long may it remain. And I'm very happy to sit and answer questions but in the end in something like this, trying to sort of reach a definitive conclusion about a tiny skerrick of evidence presented on one day before the inquiry is never going to give you a satisfactory answer. The only way that we can really get a satisfactory answer on this is to wait until the commissioner brings down his findings, and I'm sure we'll all await that with interest. But in the meantime of course I'm happy to continue answering questions on the issue from you, or anybody else.
TONY JONES: Let's switch to an even more current issue. Industrial relations with the new regulations out today. Why is it necessary for the federal minister to personally assess individual contracts?
JOHN HOWARD: Well that's not quite right. The assessment and power to strike out clauses from the individual contracts is in the hand of the employment advocate. There are press reports today that inaccurately say that power is in the hands of the Minister and the collection of information by the Minister, which has been the subject of a number of news reports today is essentially a replication of what's in the act at the present time.
TONY JONES: Is it true though Prime Minister that workers are prohibited from putting into their own contract a form of words to protect themselves against unfair dismissal for a reason that is harsh, unjust or unreasonable?
TONY JONES: No, no, what is prohibited is a provision in the law, in a contract rather, which overturns the amendments made by the act passed last year. And that is that any firm that employs fewer than 100 people is exempted from unfair dismissal provisions and all that we are doing here, as we have done under earlier forms of the legislation. All we are doing here is making sure that the Parliament, having said, "You can't have this remedy," that that decision by Parliament is not subverted by that remedy being inserted in an agreement. Now we've had that before in relation to freedom of association. Under the old Workplace Relations Act you couldn't have a clause in an agreement which overturned the prohibition on compulsory unionism - you couldn't under the old law have revision that says a person can't join a union. That would have been outrageous.
TONY JONES: Speaking of the unions very briefly are you prepared to see leaders like Greg Combet go to jail for refusing to obey these new rules?
JOHN HOWARD: I don't know why he keeps saying that. Section 350 of the Workplace Relations Act says somebody can't go to jail no matter what the laws, what other provisions in the act says, through the non-payment of a fine. So I think Mr Combet is erecting a bit of a straw man in talking about that.
TONY JONES: Let's move on if we can to the ABC. Now does the corporation's chairman Donald McDonald retain your complete confidence?
JOHN HOWARD: Oh, complete confidence. Everyone knows that he is a very close personal friend of mine. That in a sense is irrelevant to the question of his competency for the job, but I don't run away from that fact and he and I will remain friends long after we've both left our current positions, whenever that may be.
TONY JONES: Does he have your support to continue in the role beyond the five-year period which is coming up fairly soon?
JOHN HOWARD: Well the question of whether there is a change in the chairman on 30 June is a matter that we haven't in any formal way addressed and that's something that I'll need to talk to my colleagues about.
But I want to say that I think he's done a very good job. It's a difficult job. There are plenty of critics and that's not to say that I agree with everything the ABC has done, or I agree with that every single current affairs program on the ABC is completely and utterly balanced. But I do believe very much in the ABC as an Australian institution. I believe in a public media to balance the commercial media. And I also believe that it has a role in covering other facets of Australian life as well as current affairs and I think one of the reasons Mr McDonald was appointed in the first place was that he brought to the position by dint of his previous experience in the arts and so forth an understanding of all of that, which is important for anybody who fills that position.
TONY JONES: You'd be aware of the article in last week's Bulletin suggesting that hatred and animosity towards him within your own Cabinet. I mean, are you aware of that hatred and animosity?
JOHN HOWARD: No, I thought that was a very unreasonable and inaccurate article. That's not to say that there aren't critics of the ABC. I think you'd be astonished if I said otherwise. But that particular article had an unrepresentative venom about it which I do not say is representative of the views of the cross-section of views of the Cabinet.
TONY JONES: Final quick question. As a matter of principle, would it be wrong for a major corporation like the ABC to have a change at both levels of management at the same time - the chairman and managing director - wouldn't that be destabilising?
JOHN HOWARD: Well it depends entirely on the circumstances and the personalities and the merits of each individual situation. I don't think you're dealing so much with issues of principle there.
TONY JONES: Prime Minister, we will have to leave you there. We're out of time and we thank you very much for taking the time to come and talk to us tonight.
JOHN HOWARD: Thank you.