John Howard Interview - 1996

Edited transcript of Liz Jackson's interview with John Howard, during the 1996 Election Campaign, for the Four Corners' program "An Average Australian Bloke", first broadcast 19 February, 1996.

Date: 05/10/2004

Liz Jackson: I wanted to talk about your family background in so far as that will give us... people a sense of what might have shaped your political views, so can you give us a sense of the kind of background that might have had an influence on the views that you now have. What was your family background?

John Howard: I grew up in a strong family, we had strong family bonds. I was the youngest of four boys, I didnít have a sister, sorry about that, but thatís how it goes, and we, my dad owned a small business, a garage, and both of my parents were very dedicated family people and I really owe them everything as far as teaching me values and their loyalty to me was magnificent. It was magnificent, their hard work. They both left school at 14, and it was... I was brought up in a home that sort of believed in the values of hard work and honesty and commitment to oneís country, and commitment to oneís community.

Q. A political home? Was politics something that was discussed?

A. Mmm, yes, politics ... my father wasnít an active member of the Liberal Party, although he was a financial member. We talked about politics a lot.

Q. Was there much talk then, about the Labour Party?

A. Oh yes, we didnít like Ďem, we thought they were hopeless. My dad was a small businessman. Anybody who was in small business thought the Labour Party was the pits... Dad had a very small business, and therefore the Unions didnít bother him. He only had two or three employees, and whether they were Union members or not, I wouldnít know, but itís not something that bulked very large in our lives, but the small business ambience was very strong. The idea that the best thing you could ever do was start with nothing, and build up a small business through hard work.

Q. Was your mother ambitious for you?

A. Oh, yeah. yes she was. She was, very ambitious. I think most mothers are ambitious for their children...

Q. Were there any instances in which you had heated political debates with your brothers, any of them?

A. Oh, one of my brothers, in his 20s, joined the Labour Party. I think he was probably influenced by the Vietnam War. Heís 3 years older than I, and heís a University Lecturer. Oh, we had a number of heated debates.

Q. When you say you were caught up in the Vietnam debate, you of course, supported Australiaís involvement in it...

A. Yeah, yeah...

Q. ...with hindsight, any rethinking of that position?

A. No, I donít... I donít... I, I recognise that there may be aspects of it that could have been handled and explained differently, but it was a powerful debate at that time and...

Q. And it was right for us to be there?

A. Well, I supported the decision that was taken by the Government then, yes.

Q. And now?

A. Well, I, I have no reason to ... I mean I think the view I took at the time was correct. Yes.

Q. When did you first form the ambition to become Prime Minister of Australia?

A. I think I probably flirted with the idea when I was at primary school, but, seriously, I ... I always felt when I was at secondary school, that I would go into politics. And, I guess, you donít ... you donít suddenly wake up one morning and say, "I'm going to be Prime Minister", I mean, you sort of think about it, and you romance about getting into Parliament, and being in politics.

Q. Do you like television?

A. Love it.

Q. What do you watch? Whatís your favourite show?

A. Ah, well, I watch ... I watch ... the news and current affairs (laughs here). Four Corners, I always watch Four Corners.

Q. How would you describe yourself?

A. As a person somebody very much with quintessential Australian values. I'm direct, I'm unpretentious and I'm pretty dogged and I hope I've got a capacity to laugh at myself and not take myself too seriously.

Q. So if you chose three words, they'd be?

A. I hope... I'd like to be seen as an average Australian bloke. I can't think of... I can't think of a nobler description of anybody than to be called an average Australian bloke.

Q. Is an average Australian bloke the sort of bloke who's going to be prime minister of Australia?

A. But people can have other qualities than just being described as an average Australian bloke. I think you've got to have a combination of identifying somebody, but also respecting in them certain values.

Q. What do you see as your leadership qualities?

A. I think I'm seen as trustworthy. Iím seen as having determination and persistence and I'm seen as having a capacity to reach achievable answers to difficult issues.

Q. One of the other things that voters are asking themselves now is, what does John Howard stand for? So I'd like to run through a few of the issues.

A. Sure.

Q. That will be big in this debate, Medicare being the first. When did you change your mind about Medicare?

A. What part of it?

Q. Well for instance, that it was a total disaster, when did you change your view that Medicare was a total disaster?

A. I have ... I have accepted for some years now that the Australian people like Medicare and they want to keep it.

Q. When did you change your view that bulk billing was a rort?

A. nce again, the Australian people made a decision that they wanted to keep bulk billing and they therefore ... in ... on all of these sorts of issues, anybody who has the same view year in and year out, irrespective of the expression of public opinion, stupid.

Q. So you changed your view on bulk billing and Medicare generally because of public opinion?

A. They... public opinion played a very major part on both of those issues, yes. Because... because in public life you have to take account of what the public thinks. You can't totally ignore it.

Q. What do you think of the view that politicians should stand for what is right, not what is popular?

A. I think... I think on most occasions that is absolutely correct, but it must also be tempered by the recognition that if people express a definitive view, you have to accept that their right to make the decision is superior to yours.

Q. So those are your words in 1986, that the politicians should stand for what is right.

A. I remember...

Q. Not what is popular, but you've now changed that view to accommodate...

A. ...I remember them very, very clearly.

Q. But you're now ... the new John Howard can qualify that view and say unless sometimes we can take into account what's popular and now we can change according to what's more popular? Is there now a qualification on that statement is there?

A. No, I donít think ...

Q. Is that a change in ...

A. No... thereís really no inconsistency, I mean there are a lot of things that I argue for that arenít necessarily popular.

Q. I think that you would have to concede there are increasingly few areas in which you are prepared to take the unpopular position? What are the unpopular views that you now hold?

A. Oh, I think ... I, I think if you went out and did a poll of foreign investment most people would say that they are against it, but ... I would not like there to be an increase in foreign investment, but I support the need for Australia to take continued amounts of foreign investment, I mean, there are numerous areas like that.

Q. Any other bitter unpopular pills ... that you would like to tell us that you have?

A. I think foreign investment is a good example.

Q. Iíd like to talk about industrial relations...

A. Mmmm...

Q. Do you accept that you have changed your view on industrial relations?

A. Where?

Q. From certainly your policy position has changed, would you accept your policy position has changed?

A. No,I donít. You tell me where Iíve changed.

Q. In 1993, you advocated a $3 youth wage, have you changed your view about that?

A. I have on that.

Q. Were you correctly reported in 1994 as saying that the coalition would scrap award base minimum wages?

A. In 1994? I donít remember that particular attribution, but can I say that ...

Q. You have... have had the view that...

A. No... No... I... I....

Q. ... award base minimum wages should be scrapped?

A. No... no... I ... I have had the view that cutting wages is not the path to prosperity and one of the great myths propagated about my attitude to industrial relations is that I believe in lower wages. Iíve never believed in lower wages. Never. Never believed in lower wages, Iíve never believed in lower wages as an economic instrument.

Q. $3 is a low wage...

A. But that was connected with job creation for young people, and I wasnít arguing then that existing wages should be cut, I was arguing that a lower entry price, so to speak, into the labour market would help to reduce youth unemployment. That was the rationale behind it, but the public said no, and when the public says no in a democracy, youíve really got to take notice of them.

Q. Will your Government show a bias towards traditional families?

A. I think what we will do is remove the existing bias against... for example... sole income families where one parent, be it the mother or the father, elects to stay at home when children are very young, I think, I think there is a bias in the system against them, and I would like to do something about that bias. I canít promise to get rid of it altogether, but Iíd like to try and address that problem.

Q. So, for the 60 per cent of families that donít fit that model, where one parent stays at home and the other goes out to work, youíll shift the bias away from them?

A. No, I havenít said that. Youíve said that, I havenít.

Q. But you think thereís an imbalance at the moment?

A. I think there is a bias against a particular group, but by removing that bias you donít necessarily affect the status of the rest of them.

Q. What do you think of the view that, constantly referring to the family is meaningless unless Governments are prepared to show some bias towards traditional families?

A. They were some words ... er... that I think I used myself. I seem to recognise them, and I think that one way that Governments can show understanding of the role of... particular groups of families is to attack the bias that exists against them.

Q. So you are prepared to show some bias towards traditional families, you stand by that statement of 1985?

A. Look, Iím not... I really am not going to spend my time in this program playing word games... Iím telling you in plain, simple English, that one of the objectives of our policy is to remove an existing bias against families where one parent elects to be at home full time to care for children when they are young. Now thatís... thatís the policy statement, and Iím not really going to start playing word games about things I said ten months, or 20 years, or ten years ago - that really is pointless.

Q. Are you still a staunch advocate of Constitutional Monarchy?

A. If there were a Referendum tomorrow, I would vote to retain the present system. I am not a Republican. I have never denied that, but I am a democrat above everything else. I might have a different view in five or ten yearsí time. I want to hear the Debate, I want to let the Australian people, through a Constitutional convention, express their views.

Q. Do you think Australia will be a Republic by the Year 2000?

A. Iím not certain that it will.

Q. ...but itís possible?

A. Oh, anything is possible.

Q. Can you give us a John Howard vision for the Year 2000 to the Australian public, such that they will see yes, this is the person we would like to be PM?

A. Let me respond to your question by saying this, I would ... by the Year 2000 I would like to see an Australian nation that feels comfortable and relaxed about three things: I would like to see them comfortable and relaxed about their history; I would like to see them comfortable and relaxed about the present and I'd also like to see them comfortable and relaxed about the future. I want to see an Australian society where the small business sector is providing more jobs for young people. I want to see an Australian society that sees this country as a unique intersection of Europe, North America and Asia. Australia is incredibly lucky to have a European heritage, deep connections with North America, but to be geographically cast in the Asian/Pacific region and if we think of ourselves as that strategic intersection, then I think we have a remarkable opportunity to carve a special niche for ourselves in ... in the history of the next century.

Q. But do you think... to pick up on those words, comfortable and relaxed, do you think that's a dynamic enough vision to inspire Australians as they move into the next millennium? Do you think people think, well - I want to feel comfortable and relaxed? Is that dynamic enough for Australians?

A. I think... I think people do want to feel comfortable and relaxed.

Q. They don't want to feel excited?

A. Well you can't possibly hope to feel excited about something unless you feel comfortable and familiar with it. If you really want to drive Australians away from interest in something, you... you disturb their sense of ... of sort of comfort about it and you will succeed in driving them away from it.

Q. But if you're making a pitch for the vote John, certainly you're comfortable and familiar to people, but are you dynamic and enticing and exciting enough to take the country into the next millennium?

A. Well, that is a decision that the Australian public will make. I do know this, that they will see in me somebody who they can trust a lot more than my Labor opponent. They will see in my Labor opponent somebody who's been there for 13 years, which is a very long time. I think above everything else, they will see in me somebody who will govern for all of us and not just for some of us.

Q. The critical question for a lot of voters though is, who is the real John Howard and throughout this interview, just looking at three issues in particular... On Medicare you say, I've listened to what people want. On the youth wage you said, I listen to what people want. On Republicanism, I'll listen to what people want. You've built your political reputation on standing up for what you believe in, what you believe is right. Do you think that by saying, well I'll now listen to what everybody else thinks is right, you're jeopardising your greatest political asset?

A. If you look back over the last 15 years, and the two biggest ideas that have either transformed or had the potential to transform the Australian economy have been financial deregulation and industrial relations reform.

Q. But you didn't deliver either of those.

A. And both of those ... both of those concepts, both of them were creations of John Howard and each of them was bitterly opposed by Paul Keating when John Howard first put them forward, each of them was bitterly opposed by Paul Keating and John Howard, when the latter first put them forward. When you look over the last 15 years and the great battle of ideas on re-structuring the Australian economy, I was the author of the two greatest ideas that have affected the Australian economy over that period of time.

Q. Are you the most conservative leader the Liberal Party has ever had?

A. (Laughs.) Probably youíd have an enormous debate on that.

Please note: This transcript is produced by an independent transcription service. The ABC does not warrant the accuracy of the transcript.