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Transcript of doorstop interview: Adelaide: 17 July 2006: [Help the Australians who are in Lebanon].
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MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS HON ALEXANDER DOWNER, MP
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 17 July 2006
TITLE: Doorstop, Stirling, Adelaide.
MR DOWNER: Obviously I just want to talk a little bit about Lebanon. Our first priority is to do what we can to try to help the Australians who are in Lebanon. A number of them - we can’t put a figure on it - want to get out and we are doing our best to try to create a
safe environment in which they can get out. There is no point in providing buses and ships for them to get out if those buses are going to end up being attacked and people killed. So, we have been talking to the Israelis as well as the Lebanese authorities and our plan is to endeavour to get a number of people out on buses during the course of today, getting them across the border into Syria and eventually transported through to Jordan. We will obviously be discussing the safety of this operation with the Israelis - we’ve done that already to some extent and we’ll be having further discussions with them once the working day starts in Israel. But, the important thing is that we’ll do what we can to try to get people out, but we won’t do things that are going to endanger people’s lives to a greater extent than their lives would be in danger by remaining put. So, we’ve got to get that balance right.
We’re also taking steps to charter a ship which we could use to take people from Lebanon to Cyprus, but that will still take us another few days, and of course, getting a safe port that could be used in Lebanon is a bit of an open question at the moment as well. So, I can only say that we’re keeping on working at it. The one country that got some people out using a bus, they were very lucky not to have been killed, very lucky, and we certainly don’t want to take risks like that which will actually put people in greater danger than they’ll be if they stay put in their hotels, or wherever they’re staying in Lebanon.
JOURNALIST: Which country was that?
MR DOWNER: It was Italy.
JOURNALIST: And what’s the nature of your talks with Israel? Are you actively talking about how you might create a safer environment?
MR DOWNER: Well what we’re doing with the Israelis is describing to them the sort of route that we’d be planning to take, with a hope that they will take into account what we’re doing and when we’re doing it. Obviously I’m not going to go into the details of that, but that is the type of discussions that we’ve been having with the Israelis. Obviously the Israelis are sympathetic to the extent that they know we want to get people out, but I think it’s made a lot
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of sense for us to be talking to the Israelis as well as, obviously, the local Lebanese authorities in order to get people out.
JOURNALIST: Surely you have a rough figure of how many Australians are wanting to get out of the country?
MR DOWNER: I don’t know exactly how many are wanting to get out. At this stage I can tell you this; there are about 25,000 people with Australian citizenship in Lebanon. Now, a very large number of those people are people with dual citizenship so they are also Lebanese citizens and many of them live there permanently. So you can assume that the bulk of those people wouldn’t be planning to leave. Secondly we have about four and a half thousand people registered with our Embassy. Of those, there are certainly some who are agitating very enthusiastically, and for those people we’ll do our best. There are some that want to leave. There are some who think it might be safer to stay put rather than to run the gauntlet of going on a bus. So there are all of those things to be taken into account. Now, in terms of prioritising people, for those who urgently want to get out, we hope that we can get two or three bus loads of them out during the course of today, and, if that is successful and the buses aren’t held up, then we will be able to repeat the operation and hopefully in time we’ll be able to get a ship there as well - depending on how much demand there is.
JOURNALIST: When you’re talking about prioritizing people, who do you mean?
MR DOWNER: Well people who want to leave - people who urgently want to leave, particularly where there are children involved and the parents are especially concerned about their children, we’d obviously give priority to them. But otherwise, over and above that, it will be on a first come, first served basis.
JOURNALIST: Eight Lebanese Canadian citizens have been killed in (inaudible), have you seen the situation there?
MR DOWNER: But the Italian bus was very nearly hit I’m told. So let’s not (inaudible) this situation. It’s a war situation and in a war there are high risks - there are risks trying to get out of the country, there are risks staying in the country - and there isn’t a risk free environment there that we can create. We can just do our best and as far as the Government in Australia is concerned, we have to take the advice of the Ambassador and staff who are there on the ground.
JOURNALIST: Is Israel being too heavy handed? I mean, should they be backing off a bit? International criticism is mounting and America seems to be backing Israel, what’s Australia’s position?
MR DOWNER: Well our position is that Hezbollah, and for that matter Hamas, should not fire rockets into Israel. They should not be trying to kill Israelis and mounting an act of aggression against the Israelis - inevitably the Israelis will respond. I mean that must have been well known when they decided to kidnap Israeli soldiers and fire missiles into Israel, against Israeli civilian targets - they must have known the Israelis would respond vigorously to that and Israel has a right to self-defence in international law. So I wouldn’t detract from
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that at all.
JOURNALIST: (Inaudible) reaction right from the word go, with the (inaudible)?
MR DOWNER: I think the worst reaction has come from Hezbollah who kidnapped Israeli soldiers - which is obviously going to generate a very aggressive reaction from Israelis and in turn they then fired missiles into civilian targets in Israel. Inevitably, in those circumstances, the Israelis will respond robustly - the Israelis always respond robustly and the reason they respond robustly is that for Israel, this is matter of life and death. I mean, Hezbollah and Hamas believe that Israel doesn’t have a right to exist. That’s not true of the Arab governments through most of the Middle East, but it is true of Hezbollah and it is true of Hamas, and it is true of Iran as well - which supports those organisations. And so the Israelis understandably, when confronting terrorist organisations that don’t believe they have a right
to exist, the Israelis are going to respond fairly vigorously. It’s incumbent on the Lebanese Government and other governments in the region to do what they can to try to stop these terrorist organisations mounting attacks on Israel.
JOURNALIST: Are Australia (inaudible) prepared to take a different stance to say some of the other European countries?
MR DOWNER: Other countries will take a different stance from Australia. But, they have all sorts of different motives and interests and reasons for doing that which I don’t question, but which I understand. And we have our own perspective. And our perspective is that you will never have peace in the Middle East until terrorist organisations like Hezbollah, Hamas, countries like Iran, recognise Israel’s right to exist. For as long as they don’t recognise Israel’s right to exist, the Israelis are going to be very robust in dealing with any attacks on Israel from those organisations.
JOURNALIST: Minister, is there any update in relation to the Australian Defence Forces along the border patrol who have apparently come quite close to the action along the Israel/Lebanon border?
MR DOWNER: No I haven’t got any update on that.
JOURNALIST: Back to the evacuation though, is there any possibility of Australians piggy backing on the French or British evacuations?
MR DOWNER: There is some possibility in terms of the British, possibly the French, deploying naval (inaudible) into the region and Australians being able to be evacuated with the support of those ships, those warships. So, that’s something we’re discussing with those countries at the moment. I think, as far as the British are concerned, they would certainly provide assistance to Australians, but their ships are quite a way away, their arrival is not imminent, so we do have to put into place arrangements a bit more quickly than that.
JOURNALIST: The New Zealand Government is planning to evacuate their citizens on the HMAS (inaudible) would that be a safer…
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MR DOWNER: … Yes but that’s days away. It probably would be safer, but it’s days away, so it means people would have to remain in a war zone for longer. New Zealand has many fewer assets than we have - they don’t have an embassy, I’m sure I’m right in saying,
in Beirut, we do have an Embassy - we’ve reinforced that Embassy. We’ve moved our Ambassador in Cairo up to Damascus so that he’s closer, he’s accredited to Damascus. So, we can more easily deal with the situation than New Zealand can. It’s not really comparable. But, I would hope that the British would agree to taking Australians if HMS Illustrious gets there.
MR DOWNER: Today, I hope so.
JOURNALIST: In then next hour or two?
MR DOWNER: I mean it’s night there at the moment, while I am talking to you, but, at day break today, we hope that we’ll be able to begin the process of taking some people by bus and trying to get them to the border. Bearing in mind the discussions we’ve had, obviously with the Lebanese authorities but also the Israeli authorities. But, this is a difficult and hazardous exercise. We think, on the basis of the discussions we have, that we have a route that will be reasonably safe, but, you know, there’s nothing perfectly safe in Lebanon at the moment.
JOURNALIST: People who have arrived back in Australia have been quite critical, well, some of them, have been quite critical of your Department, saying that there wasn’t any help available to them, saying information…
MR DOWNER: Look, if you go overseas and the security environment deteriorates very rapidly, it’s always difficult. I’m quite sympathetic on the one hand for people who are concerned and frightened and frustrated when they get into war zones, or there’s a hurricane
that hits or whatever it might be. It doesn’t mater where it is, whenever there’s a group of Australians caught up in some sort of international security environment or a natural disaster - there’s always a handful who will say the Government should have done more. We had that with Hurricane Katrina - we always have it. I mean, there is limit - (inaudible) 15,000 or so kilometres away - to what the Australian Government can do. I mean, we don’t have tens of thousands of troops in Lebanon. We don’t have a kind of a thunderbirds group that we can just send in who can bring the conflict to an end and safely whisk Australians away. It just doesn’t exist. So, we have to deal with reality. I can understand their frustrations of course, I mean, fair enough.
JOURNALIST: Considering that other countries have managed to get their citizens out…
MR DOWNER: Not many. Very few.
JOURNALIST: .. is Australia behind the eight ball?
MR DOWNER: No, Australia is never behind the eight ball.
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JOURNALIST: Just on David Hicks, have you been updated by the Americans, after the Gevena Conventions - after they decided to re-institute the Geneva Convention…
MR DOWNER: But I don’t see any particular issue here. Obviously from our point of view, it’s important that people in Guantanamo Bay are treated humanely, on the one hand, but you see on the other hand, where we come from, is that we think terrorist organisations are killers and any Australian who gets involved with a terrorist organisation, who goes off training with Al Qaeda and fighting with (inaudible) jihad and so on, Laskar-e-Toiba rather, they’re going to get into trouble. People, if I could say this, people should not get involved in the most egregious and evil terrorist organisations in the world. They shouldn’t do it.
JOURNALIST: Has there been any update on the court process that could be used?
MR DOWNER: No, no updates today on this issue.
JOURNALIST: Does the Government (inaudible) with regards to David Hicks?
MR DOWNER: No, the government is absolutely determined in the fight against terrorists and terrorism. We are one of the more determined governments on earth in the fight against terrorism - there is no question of that. Our record is there. We haven’t been equivocal, we haven’t been half hearted. We realise the importance of fighting a very tough battle against the terrorists, and it is, of course, unfortunate that debatable issues arise - which inevitably they will, but this is not a simple matter - it is a complex matter, and, in David Hicks case, as I’ve said before, we hope he will be bought to trial as soon as is possible, but he has had full access to the American civil courts system. They have used the American civil courts system to such an extent that Osama Bin Laden’s driver is able to win a case in the Supreme Court against the United States Government. You can’t say that that shows a lack of justice and David Hicks has piggy backed on the back of that. But, in the end, we would like to see this matter go to a court as quickly as possible - the more there are appeals and controversies about it, the longer it takes.
JOURNALIST: There are reports that the US Government is having its citizens to be evacuated from Lebanon. Is there any possibility that that could happen with Australians?
MR DOWNER: We will do our best to get them out of Lebanon - but obviously they will then have to find their own way home - that is normal. That’s what we do. We always will do our best to try to get people out, difficult as it is, and sometimes it is quite expensive. As you can imagine, chartering buses in this environment is about, let me think, somewhere between five and ten times as expensive as it would normally be - you can understand the perspective of the company and the bus drivers - but, we’ll have to bear that cost and get them out of the country as best we can and after that, we’ll get them somewhere safe and they’ll be able to make their way home if that’s what they want to do.
JOURNALIST: There’s a poll in the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald today regarding the leadership and voters are saying that they believe Costello’s side of the story but still support Howard. Do you think, why do you think it is that voters have gone that way?
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MR DOWNER: I think the view of the general public is perfectly clear. I think they think John Howard has done and does do an excellent job as the Prime Minister and they clearly think Peter Costello does an excellent job as the treasurer and the public view is quite
clearly that that’s how they’d like it to stay.
JOURNALIST: Even though they think John Howard’s lying?
MR DOWNER: Labor voters are inevitably going to put the worst possible interpretation on anything that the Prime Minister says or does, I mean, that’s part of being Labor - you have to hate John Howard.
MR DOWNER: I think the Prime Minister - I’ve said it over and over again - I don’t really have anything to add to what I’ve said on many occasions - and that is that the Prime Minister has done an excellent job - he’s won four elections. He’s, I think, been one of the truly great Prime Ministers of Australian history and when he chooses to retire, he should be allowed to retire. But in the meantime, he should be able to continue to get on with his job. As for the Treasurer, I think he does an excellent job as a treasurer - he’s been an exceptionally good Treasurer and it’s been a great team over ten years, it’s not just the Treasurer, it’s other Ministers, present and past who have done exceptionally good jobs and I think the public expects the team to continue in places it is.
JOURNALIST: Do you think it sends a message to the PM about what decision he should make?
MR DOWNER: Well, he’ll say whatever he wants to say when he wants to say it, just as it should be.