Howard: Immigration debate isn’t ‘racist’
John Howard has called for a "mature" debate on Australia's immigration rate as Scott Morrison prepares to meet with state premiers tomorrow on whether to slash the annual intake.
The former prime minister weighed in on the debate today during a candid speech in Canberra where he also opened up about being faced with the Port Arthur massacre and his wife's battle with cancer in just the first few months of his tumultuous first year in office.
Prime Minister Morrison's promise to cut the immigration intake in next year's budget, after a consultation process with the states, comes after Tony Abbott and Pauline Hanson initially called for the government to dramatically slash the immigration rate earlier this year.
Mr Howard defended the government's right to set the intake, and to debate changes to the rate, today saying: "Surely we should have enough maturity to be able to debate the size of the immigration program without even a suggestion that the people who want to cut it are motivated by racism."
Premiers have been asked to report to the Prime Minister on how many migrants their states need and have the capacity to cater for in terms of services and infrastructure by January 31.
Mr Howard weighed in on the debate during a frank speech in Canberra to mark the upcoming January 1 release of confidential cabinet papers from his first two years in government.
He also opened up about his wife Janette being diagnosed with cancer in July 1996 just months after he was elected and while the government was trying to secure landmark gun control reforms and tackling an $8 billion budget "black hole".
"You focus on the immediate challenge, and we were in it together," Mr Howard said, noting that they hadn't reconsidered tackling so much in the first year because of her health.
He also spoke about the Port Arthur massacre, where 35 people were killed and 23 wounded by gunman Martin Bryant just eight weeks after he was elected.
Mr Howard revealed he believed the government's gun control reforms in response to the tragedy were part of the reason One Nation's political "insurgency" gained ground in the late 1990s.
But there was never any doubt that he had to try to secure the national gun control laws despite "genuine push back" from parts of his own government and from regional voters, particularly in Queensland and Western Australia.
"I believed overwhelmingly that if you couldn't do this, and you weren't prepared to chance it, what's the point of being in government," Mr Howard said.
He was in Sydney when he learnt about the massacre and travelled to Canberra that night for an emergency meeting.
"It was there that I started thinking about national gun laws," Mr Howard said.
"It was a terrible tragedy and to this day I remember going down to Port Arthur.
"It was a very early reminder for me that one of the jobs of the prime minister is to comfort and console and hug people who have had a big tragedy and what you have to do in a situation like that is to act natural and don't hold back but also keep in control of your emotions.
"You should never become a complicating factor to a problem by losing control of your emotions - but you must nonetheless show sympathy."
The Liberal Party giant, Australia's second longest serving prime minister, also spoke today about his "mistakes" in office, including that he should never have allowed Australia to be branded as America's "deputy sheriff" in the Pacific region.
He also offered up advice on how to deal with ambitious backbenchers, saying that it was "very, very important for political leaders to spend an enormous amount of face time" with their colleagues, particularly as most people who go into politics have healthy egos.
He rejected the notion that the Liberal Party's broad church had hard and fast factions of conservatives and liberals despite the infighting that has spilled over into public brawls in the past five years, resulting in the ousting of two prime ministers.
Mr Howard also dismissed the label "far right" for some sections of his party, saying: "What's 'far right' about having a conservative position on social issues? It's not 'far right', it's just conservative."
He also noted that the Labor Party was "very cocky" in the lead up to the 1998 election but ultimately the Coalition held by winning seats in key areas.
"Some of my colleagues got nervous but nobody fundamentally believed that we hadn't been doing a good job," he said.