GEORGE NEGUS: Madam President.
.. Is that the way I should address you?
MICHELLE BACHELET, CHILEAN PRESIDENT: Oh, yeah, that is wonderful. Thank you.
GEORGE NEGUS: Welcome, welcome back to Australia because it is not your first visit. And in fact you lived here for a short period of time. That is most unusual.
MICHELLE BACHELET: Well, it is. It happens that my brother came here looking for better perspectives and possibilities. He was an Australian citizen. We came to visit him, we were in some difficult conditions. We lived here, me and my mum, I mean, five months. So I get a lot to know Sydney at that time. It was a little bit long ago, it's like 22 years ago but No, 32 years ago, sorry. 32, yes.
GEORGE NEGUS: It's a very unusual aspect of a very unusual life. I don't really know where to start to talk to you because your life reads like a political thriller. Could we talk about the dark period in your country's history where you suffered, your family suffered greatly. Your father died as a result of torture by the Pinochet regime, as a military officer he opposed.
MICHELLE BACHELET: Yes, he opposed, yes.
GEORGE NEGUS: And then you and your mother were tortured as well.
MICHELLE BACHELET: We were in jail, yes.
GEORGE NEGUS: Can you ever put that kind of horror of those Pinochet years behind you? I know you would like to but can Chile and can you as President ever put that behind you?
MICHELLE BACHELET: Oh yes, we can. In one way we can. What I mean is we're not thinking on that all the time. It suddenly appears, for example, when you find a cemetery full of people who were supposed to be 'disappeared' and they're really executed, and you find the bones, for example.
GEORGE NEGUS: Disapararo, is that the word?
MICHELLE BACHELET: Desparecidos.
GEORGE NEGUS: Desparecidos.
MICHELLE BACHELET: It's detained and disappeared ones, I would say. And that sort of thing brings you again the pain. But on the other hand, we are able to live a normal life because we love life. I mean, all the people who have been struggling against poverty and for social welfare is people who loves life and equality of life. I'm not a religious people so I don't use the word 'forgiveness' in a religious way, but you know what, I really believe that, and my feeling, my mother feeling, is to learn from our experiences. We say that only if we do not forget we won't repeat the mistakes. So, for example, we think we have to know the truth of what happened to the people, that we must have justice. I mean, the justice has to work. And I think our society is looking at the future but understanding that the future, the only way we will build the future is not forgetting the past.
GEORGE NEGUS: Do you believe what has happened to you? I mean, from an exile as you were when you were living here, to the President of your country is quite an amazing journey that you have gone through.
MICHELLE BACHELET: Well, you know, I never had it as an objective. I just wanted to fight for recovering democracy, and later on to consolidate democracy. And I never thought of myself as a possible president of the republic. But I think working hard and being very honest and having a great closeness with the people, the people suddenly saw me as the best choice in the election, and that's interesting. But I think people wanted not only to have a wonderful possibility and economy but also to have also a country who is more, you know, human, who is more social-protected and more So I think in some ways they saw me first as a woman..
GEORGE NEGUS: Which some people would say..
MICHELLE BACHELET:..as a mother or something like that. I don't know if that is true but some people.
GEORGE NEGUS: A single mother.
MICHELLE BACHELET: A single mother.
GEORGE NEGUS: A woman.
MICHELLE BACHELET: A woman.
GEORGE NEGUS: An agnostic in a Catholic country.
MICHELLE BACHELET: Yes. Well, yes. But also as a woman with my history that was able to be a minister of defence. I had no contradiction because I understood that we will never repeat the mistakes we have done in the past. So I think people saw me a little bit like a symbol of reconciliation.
GEORGE NEGUS: A symbol of change.
MICHELLE BACHELET: Something like that.
GEORGE NEGUS: A symbol of a different kind of change.
MICHELLE BACHELET: I think that one important thing that president Lagos did in its government I mean, I'm talking symbolically, that he put women in places where traditionally only men was, I mean symbol of power.
GEORGE NEGUS: But it is amazingly progressive for what has been seen for so long as a conservative country, a conservative Latin-American nation.
MICHELLE BACHELET: Well, I think it's still a conservative country in some ways. But there is sort of, I would say, a difference between what people really does and what people says. Because for example, you know, people who are divorced, they say they're against divorce and things like that but they are already divorced. And, you know, there are sort of some moral issues sometimes that are important and religious and religion has a very important role in our society still.
GEORGE NEGUS: So there is a Chile and a Chile, and you represent the other one.
MICHELLE BACHELET: No, I represent both because I can understand that we are all Chileans and that the president cannot impose to the people one way of looking at things. What we have to guarantee is all the alternatives.
GEORGE NEGUS: Can I ask you about being a Socialist? Do you feel sometimes in a world where ideologically the West mainly Western countries have moved to the right in the last decade or so, do you feel like the odd person out or an odd person out to be a self-professed Socialist in a world that would like to think socialism is a thing of the past?
MICHELLE BACHELET: Well, the thing is that there are always discussions on the parties about this. But Chile is a country who has made some options, I would say pragmatic options in the sense of saying “This is the world we live and what we have to do in this world?” And in that sense I would say I feel a Socialist because I have the same beliefs and values and principles, and I believe in a world who will give opportunities and equality to the people. But I think I understand that the world has changed. And maybe you have the same objectives, the same goals but you have to change the strategies, or the instruments, how you grow into those goals. And just an example, Chile since 1990, when we recovered democracy, we have poverty of 39% of the population, and 20% are extreme poverty. And Chile had had the structural reforms during the military regime, economic reforms. But we decided that we have to choose a new way of doing things, to choose to continue growing that's important.
GEORGE NEGUS: Less idealistic and more pragmatic?
MICHELLE BACHELET: I mean a little bit… I don't know if you can put up that way. But I say let's do whatever works and that will be good for Chile so you can continue growing because if you don't have a growth, you have nothing to redistribute.
GEORGE NEGUS: So you are accepting the reality of the market economy, for instance?
MICHELLE BACHELET: Yeah, we do have a social market economy, a social market economy.
GEORGE NEGUS: You call it a social market economy? What is the difference?
MICHELLE BACHELET: The difference is that we can use some strategies that would have at the same time a very high level of social policies regarding income distribution, regarding improvement of the health condition, of housing condition, of the detention system and so on. I would say the main difference is the role of state. We believe the state must be very strong. We do not believe in a society of consumers. We believe in a society of citizens. Now the poverty is 13.7% from 39%.
GEORGE NEGUS: How come as we speak there are people on the streets of Santiago protesting against your government, And those have been called the “inequality protests” because you came to power with a promise of removing inequality in your country.
MICHELLE BACHELET: Yeah, I am working on it.
GEORGE NEGUS: And now your own supporters are up in arms about it.
MICHELLE BACHELET: Well, it's not exactly my own supporters. Really it was more a mobilisation against labour conditions, really.
GEORGE NEGUS: Why are people are upset? Why are they on the streets?
MICHELLE BACHELET: Because they want everything yesterday. I mean, I didn't do any promises that I won't be able to fulfil because I'm not populistic.
GEORGE NEGUS: So you're asking be patient, basically?
MICHELLE BACHELET: A little bit, yes. We have only 1.5 years of government and they want everything. And I understand that because they said that they were mobilising, so I understand.
GEORGE NEGUS: You are 20% less popular than you were when you were elected, is that part of the frustration and the lack of patience?
MICHELLE BACHELET: Of course.
GEORGE NEGUS: Maybe people expected you to be a miracle worker, and that's always a fairly fraught with danger situation, isn't it?
MICHELLE BACHELET: But I think it is many other things. You know, we were talking about a symbolic change but also cultural change. And women… I mean, I don't want to do a man-style of doing things, I do a female-style of doing things.
GEORGE NEGUS: Don't send a woman to do a man's job, send a woman to do a woman's job.
MICHELLE BACHELET: Yeah. Yeah. Because it is a woman's job too. And the thing is that sometimes people, because women speak softer, and I am a patient kind of woman, I am not hysterical and so on, so I'm not screaming to everybody, people view it sometimes as weakness, and not at all. I have another kind of leadership, you know. And I think this is important too when people say “What about this new President?” There are so many cultural changes that are going on in our country, but positive, all positive ones. But there has been a resilience, you know resistance, I would say – better. Some resistance to this new way of doing things.
GEORGE NEGUS: We're talking to you in Australia. Have you met John Howard, the Australian Prime Minister?
MICHELLE BACHELET: Oh, yes. Well, I met him last APEC, in Vietnam.
GEORGE NEGUS: And how was that? I mean, he would probably regard you as a dangerous left-winger.
MICHELLE BACHELET: Well, it was a normal relation between head of state.
GEORGE NEGUS: Do you speak the same language, as it were, politically? Because he's definitely not a dangerous left-winger.
MICHELLE BACHELET: Well, as always in these bilateral meetings everybody says what their position is, and it's a very respectful meeting. It was a nice meeting.
GEORGE NEGUS: George Bush, you have met?
MICHELLE BACHELET: Oh, yes, I met him.
GEORGE NEGUS: And how was that? Was that… 'Cordial' is usually what politicians say.
MICHELLE BACHELET: It is cordial of course. And we had a very, I would say, frank discussion. F
GEORGE NEGUS: Full and frank?
MICHELLE BACHELET: Frank, I'm always very frank and honest with all my colleagues, I would say. It was all normal.
GEORGE NEGUS: Are the political differences obvious when you talk with men like John Howard and George Bush? Is it obvious that you see the world differently?
MICHELLE BACHELET: Well, it depends. Of course if we talk about FTAs and things like that, we might have a similar approach. And if we talk, for example, about other issues – Iraq or so on – we have a different opinion. So it depends.
GEORGE NEGUS: What is your position on Iraq?
MICHELLE BACHELET: Well, Chile's position was in the past when we were in the Security Council, against the invasion of Iraq. And we think we were right.
GEORGE NEGUS: Can we finish on this note, 'Forbes' magazine described you as the number 17 on the 100 most powerful women in the world. How does that grab you, being regarded as an incredibly powerful person?
MICHELLE BACHELET: Well…the thing is clear because they choose women who were prime ministers or presidents or CEOS of big, big, big enterprises. And I think that, of course, to be a woman and to be in an important and relevant positions, unfortunately, it is still not the most frequent issue in our world. So still a novelty, a new thing, you know, to have women in powerful positions.
GEORGE NEGUS: So it would be better for you if women were included in the most powerful people in the world rather than the most powerful women in the world?
MICHELLE BACHELET: Yeah, yeah. But I can imagine that would bring us to a very low position, all of the women.
GEORGE NEGUS: In your case, I doubt that. Thank you very much for talking to us.
MICHELLE BACHELET: Thank you, George.
GEORGE NEGUS: Lovely meeting you.
Interview: Michelle Bachelet Interview