The Prime Minister screwed ABC listeners in Adelaide a beauty this morning, but in the process he also copped his most aggressive interview for the year from Matthew Abraham.

After gushing with Tory sycophant, former Andrew Peacock brother-in-law and cash-for-comment veteran Jeremy Cordeaux yesterday, Howard offered just 15 minutes from his torrid 3-day Adelaide schedule to speak to Matthew Abraham on ABC local radio.

The phone interview lasted just 15 minutes, with Howard in a particularly testy mood. There was time for just one talkback caller, and the Rodent guillotined it as quickly as he could.

Why? The answer was clear on 5AA at 9 o’clock. There was Howard live in the studio, with another cash-for-comment veteran, Leon Byner, taking calls for half an hour. Byner, as did Cordeaux, beat the PM mercilessly with a feather but in the little time he was given, Abraham was near his antagonstic best:

9 July 2004


Subjects: Comments by Richard Armitage; values; detention; nuclear waste dump; Rann Government; federal election; superannuation.

ABRAHAM: Prime Minister John Howard joins 891 Mornings, Prime Minister good morning.

PRIME MINISTER: Good morning.

ABRAHAM: And thank you for making the time available. Prime Minister, onto the main international issue if we can start by that and these statements by US Deputy Secretary of State, Mr Armitage, that the Labor Party is divided over the Iraq policy, there are divisions within the Labor Party. Would you accept that sort of thing if you were in a similar situation, if those criticisms and observations were being made of your government?

PRIME MINISTER: Well there are two issues in this, the first is whether the statement is factual or not, and I think when you remember what Mr Rudd was saying on behalf of the Labor Party until Mr Latham abruptly changed policy, there probably is a good factual basis. But aren’t we dealing here also with this capacity of Mr Latham’s to dish it out but not take it. I’ll tell you what I wouldn’t have found acceptable, the idea that a senior political figure would make a personal attack on a serving American President. Mr Latham a few months ago, it was last year I’m sorry, before he was Opposition Leader but when he was a senior Labor figure, said that George Bush was the most dangerous and incompetent American President in living memory. Now apparently it’s okay for him to say that, but when a member of Mr Bush’s administration states something that a lot of people in Australia believe and that is that there is division in the Labor Party on Iraq then there’s something fundamentally wrong and unacceptable with that, I think that’s a double standard. But can I also make a point…

ABRAHAM: Well Malcolm Fraser thinks it’s unacceptable for the US Government to make those observations.

PRIME MINISTER: I have a long standing practice of not commenting on anything that Mr Fraser says, I’ll deal with the substance of the issue and that is that it’s apparently okay for a personal attack to be made by Mr Latham on the American President but when a member of President Bush’s administration points out something that many people in Australia believe to be a fact about Labor policy that is somehow or other an undemocratic intrusion. But can I make a…

ABRAHAM: So one bad turn deserves another?

PRIME MINISTER: Well no, no, no I think it’s not a question of one bad turn, it’s a question of whether or not there is consistency in Mr Latham’s stance on these things. But could I make a broader point, and that is if we are an independent grown up country, does it matter? Australians are not going to be influenced by this, any more than they’re going to be influenced by Michael Moore’s movie, Fahrenheit 9/11, I mean we pride ourselves quite rightly…

ABRAHAM: Why wouldn’t we be influenced by that?

PRIME MINISTER: Yes but in the end aren’t we living in an open society? I mean aren’t you Matt of all people as a journalist in favour of free discourse? Surely we are mature enough to make an assessment of whether we make any notice of Richard Armitage or we take any notice of Mike Moore, surely in the end the average Australian will make his or her mind up. So quite honestly I don’t think these things have any real influence on how Australians react, and I think this complaint from Mr Latham and others that somehow or other this is an unwarranted instruction is an echo of an earlier day when we felt a sense of insecurity and felt somehow or other that our fate was always going to be determined by what others said and did. I think Australia has grown beyond that and quite honestly we do live in a world now where everybody seems to talk about everything, I mean I’m frequently asked to express views about American politics, I’m frequently asked to express views about British politics, it happens a lot and I just think the whole idea that this is going to have a huge impact on Australia is far fetched, I don’t think it will have any impact at all, whether you agree with Mr Armitage or not I don’t think it’s going to alter in the slightest and I think we’re quite grown up and strong and independent enough to absorb these things and make our own judgement, which I’m sure the Australian people will do.

ABRAHAM: Now Prime Minister, we under that Mr Armitage was referring to senior Labor officials who were in the US for last month’s Australian/American leadership dialogue meetings and this is where he heard of divisions. Now this programme understands that Mr Armitage was not at the session that dealt with Iraq, he turned up to the dinner session, however two Labor people had private meetings with Mr Armitage, one was Kevin Rudd, the Foreign Policy spokesperson, the other was Kim Beazley, former minister. Now who do you believe Mr Armitage is referring to? Kevin Rudd or Mr Beazley?

PRIME MINISTER: Look Matt I wasn’t there, I don’t know myself, because I haven’t spoken to him, the basis of these comments. I’m reacting to the issue. I’m not going to get into a discussion about who said what in a conversation that I wasn’t part of, break it down, ask me something else…

ABRAHAM: Wouldn’t you be interested? I mean you referred to Kevin Rudd.

PRIME MINISTER: Matt, I’m talking about something that I know he said, because he said it publicly and he said it in a letter he wrote to me, that’s what I was talking about. I’ll talk about things of which I have knowledge, I’m not going to speculate about things of which I do not have knowledge. If you want to know what was said you talk to Mr Beazley, Mr Rudd, or Mr Armitage, I wasn’t present and I’m not going to get into the speculation, I’m simply making the observation that it’s apparently okay for Mark Latham to personally attack the President of the United States, but when a member of that President’s administration says something critical of the Labor Party all hell breaks loose. I mean that is ridiculous and that is a double standard.

ABRAHAM: Now Prime Minister, onto your vision thing yesterday, what do you mean when you say you’re worried about a coarsening of our society?

PRIME MINISTER: I think there are trends in our society towards less civility, there are trends towards more aggression, it’s illustrated by the growing incidents of road rage, it’s illustrated by the, I use the example of David Hookes’ tragic death where a disagreement, minor altercation can lead to a far more tragic thing, I don’t know that I can be any more specific than that because there are court proceedings pending. But I think there has been a deterioration in civility, I think we are seeing from the media a higher level of voyeurism…

ABRAHAM: Are you focused on reality television, Big Brother and so on?

PRIME MINISTER: I don’t know if I’d especially, you know generically speaking, attack that. But these things are difficult, but equally if you don’t say anything about them somebody in my position is ducking his responsibility.

ABRAHAM: But if you don’t say something about them, if you talk the talk but don’t walk the walk where does that leave that? What are you going to do about it? If you express concerns about a society.

PRIME MINISTER: I think that is an ultra-regulatory view of government, I think there are some things where people in my position can actually talk about them without necessarily producing a government law or a government regulation, I think that is a very regulatory, with respect, narrow view to take of the role of the government. I think people do have, in my position, do have responsibilities to express views, but the idea that you can pass laws to make people more polite to each other, of course you can’t, that is an absurd proposition and you know it.

ABRAHAM: Well we do pass laws that do regulate human behaviour…

PRIME MINISTER: But not ordinary civility Matt, you know that.

ABRAHAM: I do, but you have been Prime Minister of this country for nearly a decade now.

PRIME MINISTER: Yes, eight and a half years.

ABRAHAM: Are you saying that this coarsening of society, lack of civility, has occurred under your watch?

PRIME MINISTER: I think it’s a trend that’s been going on for quite a long time.

ABRAHAM: Would you concede, or accept, that some of your policies may have contributed in some way to this coarsening of our culture, and I point specifically to your detention policies, the fact that for many a year now children have been locked up in detention? I mean it’s no coincidence the older Bakhtiari boys are big fans of Big Brother and Merlin.

PRIME MINISTER: I think that is drawing a fairly long bow and you know that too. No, I don’t believe that policy has contributed to it, no I don’t because the sort of things I speak of are trends that are not only occurring in Australia they’re occurring in other societies as well.

ABRAHAM: You’re in Makin today.

PRIME MINISTER: Yes, I’ll be going to Makin, yes I will.

ABRAHAM: And does Trish Draper as a candidate reflect the values you’d like to see in Australian society?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, she certainly reflects the values of hard work. She reflects the dedication and effort and hard work and love and commitment to her children of somebody who’s been a single mother for a long time. She has raised three sons and I met them and she’s done a very good job. So if you’re asking for a testimonial to her character as a mother and as a hard working local member, I’m not only very happy to give it on this programme, I’ll be very happy to give it in her electorate as well. She is a person who’s identified with many of the battlers of her electorate…

ABRAHAM: What by going overseas with her boyfriend on a taxpayer funded trip?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, she has dealt with that matter. She has repaid the money, even though she was entitled under the rules that then operated to do it and she has repaid the money which is more than perhaps others may have done in similar circumstances.

ABRAHAM: Matthew Abraham talking to John Howard here on 891 Mornings. Prime Minister, the nuclear waste dump, will you now rule out South Australia having a nuclear waste dump, just finish with it.

PRIME MINISTER: I’m not ruling anything out. What I am doing is saying that we’re going to in light of the federal court decision we’re going to examine the manner. This is a difficult issue. There has to be a low level waste dump somewhere in Australia but nobody wants it and it’s very easy for premiers and local figures to run negative campaigns all over the country wherever it is proposed to have it. I can understand why people in South Australia don’t want it. It’s one of these very difficult issues because it is inheritably unpopular but we did have a scientific investigation. We were satisfied on the basis of the advice we were given but the court has made a ruling and we’re going to look at the matter and we’re going to look at it in a measured calm way. We obviously take into account the concerns that people have expressed. We obviously have to in reply point out that those concerns will be expressed by Australians wherever you propose it.

ABRAHAM: Would you make a clear announcement before or during the federal election campaign? In other words, because Nick Minchin, there was a review and he announced a review before the last election and it just basically strung it out and got you through the election campaign.

PRIME MINISTER: We’ll look at the matter at Cabinet, I’m not going to say anymore than that.

ABRAHAM: So you won’t rule out?

PRIME MINISTER: Matt, I will answer your question, I’ve just done so. So can we…

ABRAHAM: Okay, we’ll move on…

PRIME MINISTER: No, well I’ve given you an answer, I know you don’t like it but it happens to the case that we are dealing…

ABRAHAM: Sometimes we want more…

PRIME MINISTER: Well, but sometimes it’s not possible to give more because the appropriate part of the government hasn’t considered it and we’re going to talk about it on the next occasion that Cabinet meets.

ABRAHAM: The Morgan Poll today and the Newspoll this week shows the Rann Government, Mike Rann the most popular Premier in Australia, again the Rann Government is sitting pretty for whatever reason. But it also, the Morgan Poll shows that people are saying well we like having a State Labor Government and we can have a Federal Liberal Government. Do you take any comfort in that? I mean, is…

PRIME MINISTER: I haven’t seen that poll, well not the second part.

ABRAHAM: But do you think it could be a factor for Australia working to your advantage?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I do think a lot of people will hesitate before having Labor everywhere, I do. I think there are a lot of people who think that if you’ve got eight state and territory Labor governments the idea of having a federal Labor government as well so that there would be no alternative to Labor anywhere in the country, there are some people, even Labor supporters who might baulk at that. Now that doesn’t necessarily reflect the finding of the Morgan Poll but I do believe that when people realise that if they vote in a Latham government there will be no governments other than Labor governments everywhere in the country and there won’t on my recollection have been another occasion when that’s happened, certainly not in my living memory, I’d have to search the records if there was however briefly at some point. But in areas like industrial relations and union power, a lot of people will take fright at the idea that you would have Labor everywhere.

ABRAHAM: So in a way they may feel well we have a moderating influence. We can have a state Labor government looking after our backyards in a way, hospitals, schools and what have you, with federal funding of course. But the big issue, the big picture issues like national security and so on, well we have a different view there.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, certainly the national security and managing the economy are unqualifiedly national issue, they’re federal issues and even our critics will acknowledge that we’ve done a good job with the economy. There’s debate over where we should have gone into Iraq but I think even our critics would acknowledge that we have responded strongly to the terrorist threat, but even our critics would acknowledge that we’ve put more resources into defence. So those two big national issues, the government does have a very strong record and we’ll certainly be campaigning on that record and, as I pointed out in my speech yesterday, you can’t do these other things unless you have a strong economy and the country is secured and adequately defended.

ABRAHAM: Prime Minister, do you have a few more minutes, can we take a couple of calls, how are you placed?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I’ve just got to check with Tony O’Leary, when have I got to go Tony? I’ve got to go, look, literally in one minute.

ABRAHAM: Okay, let’s just talk to Peter from Coromandel Valley just quickly so we’ll at least get one call in. Peter, good morning.

CALLER: Good morning.

ABRAHAM: Quick question.

CALLER: Good morning Mr Howard. I want to know about self managed superannuation. I’m a 68 year old semi-retired small businessman. I’ve strived all my life to arrange my affairs through self managed super to be completely independent of the social security system and with the continuing changes to the rules, it seems to me that your government is endeavouring to force people like myself into the hands of the large financial institutions because of the continual need to update trust deeds and seek legal advice.

ABRAHAM: Okay, you want a simplified super by the sounds of if…

CALLER: That’s right.

ABRAHAM: We can put that to Prime Minister John Howard just quickly.

PRIME MINISTER: Peter, we’re not trying to force you into that. I, in the short time available, I can’t perhaps analyse exactly what your concerns are. If you wanted to leave your telephone number and name with the station I would be very pleased to get somebody from my office to ring you and have a talk to you.

ABRAHAM: Okay, now we will do that. Okay just finally, Prime Minister when you settle down at night you know in the beanbag with your ugh boots on, what are you watching Big Brother or re-runs of Leave it to Beaver?

PRIME MINISTER: At this time of the electoral cycle Matt I’ve got to watch Lateline.

ABRAHAM: We’ll take that one. Prime Minister, thank you. [ends]


CRIKEY: This whole episode again demonstrates that the media are very much motivated by beating each other to the story. Abraham was obviously dirty about being given third-string status and let fly accordingly. Cordeaux and Byner enjoyed the longer studio visits from the PM and treated him with kid gloves. Wouldn’t it be nice if the media simply treated all stories on their merits? Afterall, the whole Mark Latham rumour-gate was motivated by nervous journalists worried that they were going to be scooped by Sunday.