This clip needs a rather lengthy introduction.
It was supposed to be a career highlight: a one-on-one interview with Australian Prime Minister John Howard, secured after weeks of secret negotiations and quite a lot of begging. The interview was to be conducted on behalf of my employer, Dow Jones Newswires, as well as CNBC Asia television, which was then affiliated with DJN and based in Hong Kong.
The event is seared into my memory as not just the most embarrassing interview of my life, but one of my most embarrassing moments ever.
Here’s what happened …
When the appointed time for the interview arrived, my freelance camera crew and I were set up in a room within the Prime Minister’s chambers in Parliament House in Canberra. We’d been there a while, the crew arranging the lights, the cameras and the furniture while I sat facing an empty chair and ran through my long list of questions with my heart hammering in my chest and my breakfast threatening to reappear any second.
Even before an advisor told me the Prime Minister was running late, I was feeling faint. I had absolutely no experience in television and was feeling out of my depth having to face the PM one-on-one.
The minutes ticked by. And ticked and ticked. Forty-five minutes after the scheduled time, it seemed like my exclusive was going to be bumped from the PM’s schedule completely.
Another 10 minutes passed.
Suddenly there was a flurry. An advisor marched in announcing “four minutes, you have four minutes”. (It was supposed to be a 20-30 minute interview.)
Hot on the advisor’s heels was the Prime Minister, looking a bit frazzled but holding out his hand for me to shake.
There was a lot of stammering and awkwardness on my part as I re-introduced myself to him. (I went to most of his press conferences in Canberra but rarely got a question up over the braying mob.)
Very aware of the time constraints, I shut up and motioned to the chairs the camera crew had set up. We stepped up to ours seats and sat down … and immediately leaped up as if we’d been zapped by electric cattle prods.
The chairs were too close together! When we sat, the Prime Minister’s knees were straddling mine.
The Prime Minister and I looked at each other in horror. The cameraman muttered “we don’t have time to change the lighting if we move the chairs”. The shared look of horror continued. For several achingly long seconds.
He cleared his throat audibly. I gulped silently.
“Oh. My. God. I am so sorry,” I gushed.
Mr Howard, who had a daughter slightly younger than me, smiled, a wary smile that warmed a bit after a moment. I think it was obvious this wasn’t some kind of set-up.
“Let’s just get it done,” he said.
My face was burning with embarrassment as I lowered myself back into my chair and arranged my knees between the Prime Minister’s. (Don’t ask me how we decided that we’d do it that way. I think it just seemed the least personal.)
My memories of the interview still make me cringe. I fluffed my questions and was unable to concentrate on his answers because I could only focus on the heat I could feel emanating from the Prime Minister’s knees as I tried not to actually touch him. In my panic at having to whittle down my list of questions to one or two, I lobbed the softest ones first, desperately hoping he’d throw me a bone because I didn’t have enough time to dig for one.
I have zero recollection of the actual interview, only scurrying back to my office while the camera crew rushed off elsewhere to send the footage to Hong Kong at incredible expense.
When the package went to air, I looked as petrified as I felt. As a bonus, I also looked cross-eyed.
The Prime Minister, on the other hand, who often came across as wooden and aloof, was warm and affable in the interview. He smiled and let out a few friendly chuckles as he responded to my questions, which I’m not sure even made any sense. My boss later congratulated me on my skills at putting the Prime Minister at ease, told me I had a real knack at getting people to relax in interviews.
That was my last foray into television.
So, there’s no link to the televised segment, if it still exists somewhere. Instead, here’s the story I managed to pull together in the wake of my exclusive Prime Ministerial interview fiasco.
UPDATE: Australian PM Confident On Eve Of U.S. Visit
11 May 2006
(Adds analyst comments, background)
By Barbara Adam Of DOW JONES NEWSWIRES
CANBERRA (Dow Jones)–Australian Prime Minister John Howard embarks Friday on his 12th visit to the U.S., confident the economy can withstand the current oil shock and an eventual downturn in global commodity prices.
Howard, who has previously been a guest at U.S. President George W. Bush’s Texas ranch, will enjoy the rare honor of a state banquet at the White House during his trip.
Close allies in the war on terrorism, the U.S. and Australian leaders plan to discuss security issues, including the U.S. and Australian military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We’ll obviously also talk about the Iranian issue, which is one of the biggest challenges the world faces at the present time,” Howard said in the interview with Dow Jones Newswires, which was also broadcast on CNBC Asia Television.
The growing importance of China, which Howard hopes to visit later this year, is also on the Howard-Bush agenda.
“He (Bush) will obviously want to know our views about the instability in a number of parts of the Pacific region, for which Australia has very direct and prime responsibility,” Howard said.
The nuclear cooperation pact signed in March by the U.S. and India may also be discussed, although Howard said there was no change to his government’s policy of refusing to sell uranium to countries, including India, that weren’t signatories to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty.
Howard’s trip highlights the strength of the alliance between the U.S., the world’s biggest economy, and the much smaller Australia, said Michael Fullilove, program director for global issues at Sydney-based international think-tank, the Lowy Institute.
“For Australia the U.S. is a powerful ally,” Fullilove said. “For the U.S., Australia is a reliable ally, the only country to have fought beside the U.S. in every major conflict in the 20th and 21st centuries.”
Awkward Rebalancing Act
The U.S. government expressed strong support for Howard, who was in Washington five years ago during the Sep. 11 terrorist attacks. Howard was also swift in committing Australian forces to Bush’s “coalition of the willing”.
Australia stands as one of America’s closest allies and partners and continues to work with the U.S. toward the its common goals, the White House said in a statement issued through the U.S. Embassy in Canberra.
Fullilove said Howard’s trip came at a time when Washington appeared to have exchanged its “muscular” foreign policy for a more prudent one. “Diplomacy has become the comeback concept for the U.S.,” he said.
Howard will also have to negotiate a rebalancing in the importance of other key bilateral relationships as China is poised to eclipse Japan as Australia’s largest trade partner, Fullilove said.
Unlike Japan, which is also allied to the U.S., China is regarded as a strategic rival, he said. That puts Australia in a potentially awkward position with its key ally as it pursues closer trade ties with China.
Oil Price Requires Econ Adjustment
Howard plans to call on Canada where fellow conservative Stephen Harper was recently elected as prime minister.
The return leg of the trip takes in Ireland, Howard’s first prime ministerial visit after a decade in power to a country with strong historic ties to Australia through immigration.
The extended trip comes only days after the government handed down a budget that distributed A$36.7 billion in income tax cuts and a A$6.2 billion in tax breaks for compulsory retirement savings.
Economic growth is forecast to pick up pace to 3.25% in 2006-07, extending a decade and a half of expansion that has pushed unemployment in Australia to near 30-year lows.
Howard believes the promised tax cuts will help Australian households cope with the burden of higher fuel costs, as global oil prices continue their upward climb.
Australia’s economy would be growing even more strongly if it weren’t for high fuel prices, Howard said.
“But we will have to adjust,” he said.
“Australia can’t change the world price of oil any more than the U.S. can.”
“It’s a world phenomenon driven by the excess of demand over supply, particularly out of the growth in China and now India and also the underinvestment in refining capacity, which has been a fault for a number of years,” Howard said.
Some economists fear the tax breaks will put upward pressure on interest rates, just a week after the Reserve Bank of Australia raised the official rate a quarter of a percentage point to a five-year high of 5.75%.
Howard rejected suggestions the government was taking a gamble on interest rates in its latest budget.
“The governor of the Reserve Bank … said on a number of occasions we could afford tax cuts and also that his main concern was both the size of the surplus and sharp movements from year to year in the level of the surplus,” he said.
“(When you) take those things into account, there’s no reason to believe that the budget of itself will contribute to upward pressure on interest rates.”
Treasury has forecast a surplus of A$10.8 billion in the year ending June 30, 2007, down from a projected A$14.8 billion surplus in the current financial year.
The size of the forecast surplus potentially gives the center-right government scope to reward taxpayers once again before the next election, due late next year.
Howard refused to speculate about next year’s budget. Instead, he pointed out Australia’s economy was well positioned to cope when global commodity prices normalized, as forecast, in two years time.
“We have been very conservative and very prudent,” he said.
“If there is some drawback in commodity prices we’ll be in a very strong position to accommodate that change.”
Howard said Australia’s strong employment growth could also be expected to cushion the impact of any downturn in commodity prices.
“When you have strong employment growth you have fewer dole payments and you collect more tax because more people are employed,” he said.
“That equation tends to be forgotten when people are looking at the strength of the Australian budget.”
-By Barbara Adam, Dow Jones Newswires; 61-2-6208-0901; email@example.com
-Edited by Owen Brown