View Comments
Howard s Bali pain lives on
Howard's Bali pain lives on

There is now a stoop to John Howard's shoulders that was not there five years ago and an unfamiliar hesitation in his step as he walks into his 53rd-floor office and glances at the view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge through the sweeping windows of his eyrie.

A decade and two prime ministers ago, on the other side of those steel arches, Mr Howard was rattling around Kirribilli House in the early hours when the phone rang.

Bali Remembered - Watch the John Howard interview

The caller was one of his advisers.

"I think I was up for some reason - whatever it was, I was up," Mr Howard said.

"I may have just got up and made a cup of tea.

"I was in the study in Kirribilli House when I got the phone call from Malcolm Hazell.

"He said there had been a terrible explosion - 'I've got bad news for you, a bomb's gone off near the Sari Club in Kuta beach. It's flattened it. There has been a loss of life'."

Ten years on from the Bali bombings, five years after being ousted from public office, Mr Howard has spoken candidly about the part he played in the aftermath of the tragedy and, reluctantly, revealed details about the effect it had on him personally and his politics.

As reports and updates rolled in on October 13, 2002, Mr Howard said he knew increasingly the terrorist attacks were shaping to be a major tragedy that would change Australia for ever.

"I felt in a way, if there were any lingering innocence of Australia as a country, it was completely blasted away that Sunday morning," he said.

In the hours to come, he focused on authorising measures for the assistance and evacuation of the injured.

Former prime minister John Howard during the interview. Picture: Tony Feder

He called Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and then opposition leader Simon Crean and briefed him.

Mr Howard said that in the rush to react, he did not have time to contemplate the human face of the tragedy.

That came later.

"When you're busy and doing things, there is not a lot of time to reflect," he said.

"It was only over the next day or so that I began to reflect more as a person, as a father."

Mr Crean painted a much fuller picture of that initial phone call from his old opponent.

He was in bed in his Melbourne home when he heard the news about Bali on a clock-radio. He said Mr Howard had more on his mind than details of the tragedy.

"He (Mr Howard) rang to alert us to the problem and the magnitude of it," Mr Crean said.

"He said he would keep us informed. He said that, you know, he was questioning in himself whether this was a consequence of our … preparedness to join the war (in Iraq), the coalition of the willing-type thing, and whether we'd made ourselves a target. There was that sort of a conversation.

"I think it was a genuine question he had to ask himself."

John Howard visits the site of the twin bombings. Picture: Mal Fairclough/The West Australian

From the walls in Mr Howard's office, photos of the former prime minister standing with world leaders stare back, US president George Bush among them.

In August 2002, Mr Howard flagged that conflict in Iraq was more likely than not and Australia would be asked to support America.

After the attacks, Mr Howard dismissed suggestions his decision to tie the nation closely to the US and its war on terror had made Australians a target in Bali.

"It crossed my mind because some people alleged it," Mr Howard said. "I dealt with it by pointing out… that no self- respecting nation can allow its foreign policy to be dictated by terrorist threats."

The Friday after the bombings, Mr Howard and Mr Crean arrived in Bali in a show of bipartisan support.

"It was a shocking scene," Mr Howard said.

"The most difficult part of it, and the reason why more than anything I went there, was to talk to the relatives who had lost friends and loved ones.

"I owed it to them as the prime minister to say how sorry I was, how upset I was, how upset the nation was."

Both men spent an evening speaking with the affected people in private at the Australian consul's residence. Both said it was heartbreaking.

Mr Howard admitted his apparent "we'll get the bastards who did this" comment to a group of bereaved Australians was a "raw comment" that he nonetheless remained committed to when emotions were not running high.

The language of the campaign trail is still Mr Howard's native tongue.

John Anderson and Prime Minister John Howard console Michael Baldacchino, son of one of the bombing victims at a memorial service outside the Australian consulate in Bali. Picture: Mal Fairclough/The West Australian

The idealistic thunder in his chest and the fire in his rhetoric have not faded post-politics but there are chinks in the polished sentences Mr Howard still armours himself with, small things that betray the man behind the hard-bitten politician.

The West Australian presented Mr Howard with a small folder of photos taken of him in Bali.

He talked about each image briefly, as he flicked through them, one by one.

Mr Howard the politician rattled off names and details, a dry and factual account, when confronted with pictures of him touring the bombsites with officials.

But Mr Howard the man stumbled verbally, his voice softer, when he flicked through photographs of him in Bali navigating the emotional aftershock after the explosions.

He paused over a picture showing him hugging a distraught woman.

"I remember that, and that girl," he said. "She had lost, I think, I think she had lost a brother."

He came to a photo that captured his face twisted in emotion. He fumbled and dropped the pile of pictures to the floor.

When he was presented with the photo again and asked if what he had seen and experienced had moved him to shed a tear in private, he became agitated.

"Well, I can't remember," he said. "I no doubt felt upset on many occasions.

"My job there was to help people who lost loved ones. This is not about me. That wasn't about me.

"All I can say about my feelings was that I felt a profound sense of sorrow for what had happened to innocent Australians.

"And I did my best to support them. That was my whole goal."

Mr Crean said that the long hours spent consoling the friends and loved ones of victims had taken an emotional toll on him and on Mr Howard.

But it was the youth of some of the 88 Australians killed, many of whom were close in age to his younger son Richard, which Mr Howard said affected him profoundly.

He turned to his wife Janette for support.

"Janette shared a lot of these difficult moments with me," he said.

"My youngest was about 19. We just felt so keenly for the parents of all those young men and women who died."

Mr Crean said he and Mr Howard spent the five-hour flight back to Australia talking about politics, about matters of national security and about how the tragedy had affected them as people.

"We talked about it on the way back, there is no question about that," he said.

"We were in the plane for five hours up and the five hours back, so we had plenty of time to reflect as well and talk through the issues and how we would handle it.

"It was important given what had happened to put politics aside."

But politics, "a hard game" as Mr Crean put it, intruded in the weeks, months and years after Bali.

Recriminations about who knew what and when before the attacks flew.

Mr Crean said he believed the Liberal Party used fear as a political tool after the Bali attacks, an assertion Mr Howard rejected.

Tougher laws introduced to counter terrorism had been proved valuable by the convictions they had led to, Mr Howard said.

And Bali had been, he believed, "a reminder" of why Australia had committed troops to Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001, attacks.

The Howard government later increased the Australian troop commitment to Afghanistan and held firm on Iraq.

Mr Howard said he still stood by those decisions but, when pressed, said they were not easy ones to make or live with.

"It's never an easy decision to send young people into battle, knowing that some of them will get killed or badly wounded," he said.

"That is never easy. It's very hard.

Prime Minister John Howard, with wife Janette, at a service at St Paul's in the Canberra.

"I feel very keenly the loss of life. I feel a sense of responsibility because I originally committed those soldiers to service in Afghanistan and that commitment had been continued by my two successors."

So, were Mr Howard's decision and his politics after Bali driven by genuine fear on his part?

The veteran politician would not be drawn.

"I was concerned about the terrorist threat to the Australian people and the clear existence of that was there to be seen by all Australians," was all he said.

Mr Howard said he would return to Bali to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the bombings.

At every turn, Mr Howard was constantly on guard to keep his emotions suppressed.

But one of the most telling observations about his struggle comes from an unexpected witness.

Safety Bay resident June Corteen, whose 39-year-old twin daughters Jane and Jenny were killed in the attacks, was crippled by grief when she attended the first anniversary of the bombings in 2003.

"I was crying so hard that I had a gentleman on one side and a lady… helping me … leading me up the path," she said.

"This man at the top (of some stairs) had his arms out. I was just so upset that I just went straight into his arms.

"It wasn't until I stopped crying and looked back that I realised who I'd actually hugged.

"It was John Howard.

"I looked at him after he had been through the 600 people who had lost relatives and friends in the bombing. And he looked absolutely drawn. He looked … drained."

Perhaps the stoop to his shoulders cannot solely be attributed to Mr Howard's 73 years.

He would not say.

"It meant an enormous amount to me but this is not an interview about me. What I did then was not about me, it was about them," Mr Howard said.

"It wasn't about what people thought about me. It was about what I could do to help them.

"I don't want to say anything now, nor did I want to say anything then, that distracted from the total focus on the feeling that the rest of the country had for them."