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Meet The Press -

View in ParlView



July 23rd 2006


MEET THE PRESS PRESENTER GREG TURNBULL: Hello and welcome to Meet the Press. The world's focus this
week has been on the chaos and carnage in Lebanon as Israel has ruthlessly bombed and hunted down
its Hezbollah enemies. Hundreds of civilians dead, half a million Lebanese made homeless and a
humanitarian crisis as thousands try to flee the war-torn country.

MAN: I really can't put the words together to tell you what we went through with a 4-year-old kid,
you know, 5 years old. You're locked up for seven days in a garage. It's no way - no way it's safe.

WOMAN: What would John Howard say if one of his sons was stuck in Lebanon, what would he do?

PRIME MINISTER JOHN HOWARD: My counsel and my response to them is that we are doing all we can, but
we are in a war zone. And when you get into a war zone, particularly when you are an innocent third
party, it's very difficult.

GREG TURNBULL: We'll talk to the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Kevin Rudd and also
to an outspoken representative of the Lebanese community here in Australia. But first to what the
nation's papers are reporting this Sunday July 23, and of course the Middle East dominates all the
papers. The 'Sunday Telegraph' says - a Sydney father fears his two young sons are dead after
Israeli bombs flattened a town in southern Lebanon. The 'Sun-Herald' says - US Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice will visit Israel shortly to try to end the hostilities, and in Melbourne the
'Age' says - Israeli armoured vehicles have crushed a border fence and entered Lebanon. We'll stay
with the crisis in the Middle East and how it's affected thousands of Australians in Lebanon. Our
first guest this morning is Shadow Foreign Minster, Kevin Rudd. Kevin Rudd, welcome to the program.


GREG TURNBULL: What's the latest you've heard on this report of two young Sydney boys who are
missing in southern Lebanon?

KEVIN RUDD: Greg, there are conflicting reports about whether these two young children have been
killed or not. Their father must be going through extraordinary anguish at this time. But we simply
don't know, and we've tried to check with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade before coming
on air this morning. What it does point to is the extremely difficult and dangerous situation in
southern Lebanon right now. Even in my own office, we have, in the course of the last week, been
processing some hundreds of cases involving friends and loved ones of the Lebanese community in
that country and about 90 cases involving people in the south of the country, in particular around
the village of Aitaroun. I think the challenge for the Australian Government remains to agree with
the Government of Israel a safe and secure humanitarian corridor to get these Australian citizens
out of the southern part of that country where it is an appalling war zone right now.

GREG TURNBULL: Kevin Rudd, looking back on the week, what's your view of how the Australian
Government has handled this crisis, and that includes of course the Australian embassy on the
ground in Beirut.

KEVIN RUDD: I think it was last Saturday I went out and made a statement saying that it was
critical for the Australian Government and for the Minister, Mr Downer, to get all hands on deck.
By then it had been some days since the war had erupted, and we were concerned that the Minister
had been a bit slow off the mark. I've got to say, though, in fairness to our diplomats and
consular staff on the ground, this has been a massive logistical exercise, one of the biggest ones
we've ever attempted, and I take my hat off to the professionalism and the courage of our diplomats
and consular staff on the ground in Beirut in organising something on such a massive scale. Let's
all hope, when the first families start getting off the plane - the charter flights from Cyprus
today in Australia - that we, in fact, see the safe return of all Australian nationals from the
region. I go back to what I said before, Greg, the big challenge is this - to avoid the loss of any
Australian lives in this terrible, bloody conflict, we need a humanitarian corridors through to the
south of the country where still hundreds of Australian nationals lie effectively trapped.

GREG TURNBULL: It certainly seemed to be beyond the control of those on the ground, Ambassador
Lyndall Sachs and others obviously working very hard and, as you say, in difficult circumstances,
but there just seem to be too many people seeking help in a war-torn environment and beyond the
resources of that post.

KEVIN RUDD: Well, this I think, Greg, is the key challenge, and it goes to, how do we organise our
consular resources globally, and I think we need to learn as a nation out of this extraordinary war
which is now erupting in the Middle East. You see, one thing where I am critical of Mr Downer's
performance is the fact that the numbers of diplomatic and consular staff over the 9 or 10 years
that he has been the minister has in fact been drifting down. When he took office there were some
600 plus Australian-based staff attached to our embassies and consulates overseas. As of, I think,
early this year that was down to a little better than 500. All that occurs at a time when you now
have, at any one time, a million Australians offshore. You have some five million visits by
Australians around the world each year, and we now live, regrettably, in an age of terrorism where
the threat of terrorist attacks could hit any part of the world. That's why I intend today to write
to Mr Downer and suggest that he and I make a joint reference to the Parliamentary Joint Committee
on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade to conduct an independent investigation of the organisation
of our Consular services worldwide - how they are staffed, do we have enough? And I believe we
don't. Should we have ready reaction teams? And I propose that we do, capable of reinforcing small
embassies like that in Beirut at the drop of a hat when crises emerge. And on top of that, to sort
out the question, for example, of what costs should be recovered from those individuals who are
assisted by the Australian Government when they finds themselves in difficulty.

GREG TURNBULL: This question of assisting Australians overseas has been quite controversial this
week, partly because some of the people in Lebanon have dual nationality but are full-time
residents of Lebanon, but it raises this issue of whether, at the end of the day, the Australian
Government is some sort of underwriter of people's travel insurance. Where do you stand on the fact
that Australians demand assistance there and then also on the question of costs for getting them
out of Lebanon in the first place and then back to Australia?

KEVIN RUDD: Greg, you raise a very fair question. I'm sure many of the viewers of this program
would be thinking the same question themselves. Mr Downer and I agreed on this one thing, that in
the case of the Lebanon crisis that when it comes to the immediate evacuation - people out of the
war zone and to Cyprus or to Turkey - that's something that the Australian Government should look
after. We are a nation and a people who doesn't look upon our own as a minor concern. We take their
safety, their security, in the same ways as we take our own safety and our own security. But then
that turns to a more complex question of when it comes to then returning people all the way to
Australia, how should those costs be borne? I notice Mr Downer said the other day that he didn't
distinguish between Australian citizens and dual nationals. He's announced overnight that some
costing regime should be applied to certain categories of people coming back to Australia. I think
we need to establish a general policy on this for the future, and the best way of doing it is
through the independent Parliamentary inquiry which I have recommended, and I hope Mr Downer agrees
with, so that that can be one of the joint recommendations which come out of that. Let's take the
politics out of it. Let's do it on a bipartisan basis and set up some rules and guidelines for the

GREG TURNBULL: Kevin Rudd, there's so much to talk about on this matter, I think we'll stick with
it after the break because I want to come to you with the panel on the question of the rights and
wrongs of this dispute. I notice Condoleezza Rice this morning is quoted in the paper as saying
that this war that we are seeing are the birth pangs of a new Middle East. I want to ask you about
that bit of spin from Washington. We'll also talk after the break about East Timor and some
politics at home.

GREG TURNBULL: You're on Meet the Press where we're talking to Shadow Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd.
Welcome to our panel, Fran Kelly from Radio National Breakfast and Stephen Spencer from Radio 2GB.
Kevin Rudd, can I come to the question of the rights and wrongs of what we've seen over the last
week? Certainly, as I mentioned, Condoleezza Rice described it, I think extraordinarily, as the
birth pangs of a new Middle East, which was a bit of spin to put on 300 dead civilians. But
certainly the Australian Government, and I think the opposition are at one with the - at least
understand Israel's position on this. Here's how the Prime Minister put the argument through the

PRIME MINISTER JOHN HOWARD (Wednesday): It remains the very strong view of the Australian
Government that this current turmoil and this current outbreak of war was a direct result of the
absolutely irresponsible and provocative action of Hezbollah of going into Israeli territory and
capturing Israeli soldiers.

GREG TURNBULL: Is that your view, Kevin Rudd?

KEVIN RUDD: The key challenge now is how we bring this appalling war and the carnage associated
with it to an end. On the causes of it, though, Greg and that's your question, let's just face some
facts. Hamas, Hezbollah, terrorist organisations, backed by the governments of Syria and Iran,
launched rocket attacks against the state of Israel and on top of that, violated Israeli territory,
killed and captured Israeli troops. These organisations are also committed as a matter of policy to
the elimination of the state of Israel, as is the Government of Iran, which backs them and provides
them with the rockets which are being fired into Israel. Any state, including Israel, therefore has
a right to self-defence, particularly against any other organisation or government which is
committed, as a matter of policy, to eliminate Israel from the map. At the same time, it's
important that we recognise that there are no governments and no states around the world which
have, as a matter of right, the right to attack targets which are of a non-military nature, and
that includes civilian targets, it includes also economic infrastructure. The key challenge now is,
what are the steps forward to bring the carnage to a close? And that's why we need an immediate
cease-fire involving Hezbollah and Hamas abandoning their rocket attacks, Israel ceasing its
hostilities, the return of Israeli - captured Israeli troops as well, and most importantly, I
think, Greg, the introduction of a UN or multinational force capable of taking security control of
southern Lebanon, which is where Hezbollah have launched these attacks from.

FRAN KELLY, RADIO NATIONAL BREAKFAST: Kevin Rudd, the call's there for an immediate cease-fire and
that international force, is the Australian Labor Party's position that that should happen
immediately? Because the US and Israel of course are saying, "No, no, not yet, we're not there
yet." You've called today for urgent humanitarian corridors. Should that immediate ceasefire be
just what it says, immediate, and are you pushing, privately, Israel for that?

KEVIN RUDD: Well, Fran, I've discussed this at length with the Israeli Ambassador in the course of
the last few days, and our view is that what we need now is a cease-fire which has those
characteristics - Hezbollah and Hamas ceasing their rocket attacks, the return of captured Israeli
troops and Israel ceasing all hostilities. But that then creates the secondary problem of, what do
you do with the security vacuum or the security mess which then results in southern Lebanon? That's
why you need the commitment, as a matter of urgency, of a multinational force or a UN force to take
control of the security of southern Lebanon. And the final element of what needs to be done now,
and we sometimes are losing sight of this, is the humanitarian crisis which affects the people of
Lebanon right now. One of the reports I read last night has some half a million already internally
displaced persons, a lack of food, a lack of shelter, a lack of medicine in the southern part of
the country. Mr Downer correctly has announced $2 million of immediate humanitarian assistance. I
think we should do more than that given the scale of the challenge which now presents itself, and
also we need to get those humanitarian corridors opened up to get civilians out.

FRAN KELLY: But Kevin Rudd, isn't the immediate statistic - the most important one - the 300
civilians dead. We've got more than 300 civilians dead. Israel says this is just what it needs to
do to protect itself. The Australian Government, the US Government and many other governments
around the world supporting that, but why isn't that disproportionate force?

KEVIN RUDD: Well, what I said quite plainly before, Fran, was that any state, including Israel, has
a right to self-defence, particularly against organisations and states which are committed to the
destruction totally of the state of Israel...

FRAN KELLY: An unfettered right to any level of attack?

KEVIN RUDD: At the same time - no, let me say this. At the same time, no state, including Israel,
is it acceptable for such a state to engage in military attacks against non-military targets, be
they civilian or economic. I think that states our position with absolute clarity in terms of
what's going on in Lebanon at present.

STEPHEN SPENCER, RADIO 2GB: Could I just turn to the politics of this? Before the last election
Mark Latham announced a position you thought was pretty stupid - troops out of Iraq by Christmas.
He was the leader; you had to support him. Has Kim Beazley done this to you again by attacking the
handling of the evacuation by the Government?

KEVIN RUDD: What Kim was pointing to the other day was what I in fact had raised last Saturday,
more than a week ago now. Let's put all this into some context. The war erupts across the border
between Israel and Lebanon I think last Thursday a week ago. By Saturday there is not a great deal
of activity coming out of the Foreign Minister. That's why I went on to the nation's airwaves on
Saturday and said it was imperative for the Government, and the Minister in particular, to get all
hands on deck because blind Freddy could tell you we were going to face a huge evacuation crisis
from the country. What Kim was doing during the week was simply reinforcing the fact that the
Government had been slow to the start. The challenge now is to bring the evacuation to a safe
conclusion, particularly as we still have hundreds of Australians in the war zone in the south of
the country.

STEPHEN SPENCER: Just picking up on something you said earlier about Australia doing more to help
with the crisis, would that involve Australia taking more refugees from Lebanon if necessary?

KEVIN RUDD: We have a global quota that both sides of politics agree on in terms of our annual
refugee intake, somewhere between 12,000 and 16,000 depending on the year. I'm sure that the
Australian Government would look kindly upon legitimate applications for refugees coming from that
part of the world. We've always been generous on these questions in the past. It's important we are
generous on them in the future, particularly given the depth of the humanitarian crisis facing this
community in southern Lebanon right now, and also recognising the fact that Lebanese Australians
have made such a huge contribution to our country's development as well.

FRAN KELLY: Kevin Rudd, can I ask you quickly on another foreign policy issue? Last week the Prime
Minister went to East Timor, announced our troops would be pulling out. We would leave a small
contingent there till the election next year. Is that enough in your view, enough of an Australian
military presence?

KEVIN RUDD: Fran, I'm very concerned that the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister Mr Downer may
end up repeating some of the mistakes they made during 2003, 2004 and 2005 on East Timor. The
bottom line is what happened back then is that Australia pulled out its troops too early as part of
the UN peacekeeping force at that time. And within six months of troops being pulled out in the
middle of 2005, we had an eruption of political instability and a deterioration in security in East
Timor itself. Part of the reasons why that occurred is because the security vacuum occurred or took
place once Australia had pulled out. I'm very concerned that we don't repeat the mistakes of the
past. I'm very concerned that East Timor's politics remains fragile still as of today, and we don't
have elections until next year. Mr Downer talked about an immediate draw-down of Australian troops.
Prime Minister Horta had a different view. We tend to support what the East Timorese Prime Minister
has said because we need to stabilise this place through until the elections next year. There's too
much going on in the arc of instability to Australia's north at the present. We've had too many
failures of foreign policy, be it in the Solomon Islands and in East Timor on the part of the
Howard Government. The Australian Defence Force seem to always get called in to fix up the mistakes
made in foreign policy. Let's make sure this doesn't happen again.

GREG TURNBULL: Kevin Rudd, we thank you very much for your time this morning from Brisbane.

KEVIN RUDD: It's good to be with you.

GREG TURNBULL: Kevin Rudd there. Coming up after the break, the Lebanese community in Australia -
it's view of the crisis in Beirut. And in our cartoon of the week this week, Bill Leak in the
'Australian' has an optimistic Alexander Downer turning up at the Beirut dock shouting, "All

GREG TURNBULL: You're on Meet the Press. The Federal Government was widely criticised for its
apparently slow response to rescuing Australians trapped in Lebanon through the week. The Prime
Minister reacted strongly though against one suggestion that his Government was dragging the chain

PRIME MINISTER JOHN HOWARD (Thursday July 11): And I really do reject very strongly to the
suggestion made by some spokesmen on behalf of the Australian Lebanese community that we have
deliberately abandoned Australians. We will never do that. And it is very unfair.

GREG TURNBULL: Thousands of people took to the streets in Sydney and Melbourne yesterday in protest
over the war in Lebanon. Among those at the Sydney rally was a prominent representative of the
Lebanese community Dr Abraham Constantin, and he's our guest this morning. Dr Constantin, welcome.


GREG TURNBULL: Do you remain critical of the Australian Government response in relation to the

ABRAHAM CONSTANTIN: Before I answer your question, Greg, let me state from the outset, the
Australian Lebanese community is very proud of being an integral part of Australian society. We do
firmly believe that the Australian Government is doing its best, and we are grateful that the
Australian Government is doing its best to evacuate all Australians from Lebanon. The statement
that was made, I certainly do not agree with it. Initially there was a - an element of surprise to
the whole war. We were surprised. We were shocked. The whole community was shocked. The whole
international community was shocked, but things have improved in terms of the evacuation process,
and we are grateful for what the Australian Government is doing.

STEPHEN SPENCER: Dr Constantin, some of the other Lebanese communities leaders have said things
like this was racist, that the Government's deliberately dragging its feet because these were
Lebanese Australians, the implication being your community's not very popular at the moment and the
Government didn't want to be showing favour to you. Do you think some of those criticisms have
harmed the Lebanese community?

ABRAHAM CONSTANTIN: Well, the community did feel in the beginning that they were second-class
citizens by things not being done as quickly as they would have liked them to be done. But this is
a war zone, as the Prime Minister had said. It is a war zone, and it is difficult, and we can't
evacuate safely unless we effect a cease-fire. Israel is not accepting the conditions of a
cease-fire. We must have a cease-fire, so we're working under very hard conditions in Lebanon to
evacuate Australians.

FRAN KELLY: One columnist this week has already branded some of the community leaders - not
yourself, I hasten to add - and some of those people over there as "complaining, squealing,
whining, insufferable ingrates." Are you concerned that this whole thing, this notion that people
felt like maybe they were being treated as second-class citizens is going to cause a backlash
within the Australian community?

ABRAHAM CONSTANTIN: I don't believe so. We live in a democracy and people are entitled to their
opinions. That journalist is entitled to his opinion. We are entitled to our opinion.

FRAN KELLY: I suppose that's already tapping into some tensions between the two communities.

ABRAHAM CONSTANTIN: Well, we are an Australian community, and we all should work together. Our main
problem at the moment is to make sure the Australians are evacuated safely, and an effective and
immediate and unconditional cease-fire occurs in Lebanon to stop the slaughter of innocent

GREG TURNBULL: Let's talk about the rights and wrongs of the war for a moment, and let's have a
look at the view from the Israeli Government as expressed through the week by the Israeli
ambassador. Here's what he said.

ISRAELI AMBASSADOR INAFTALI TAMIR (Monday): This was an onslaught on the Israeli sovereign
territory. Not provoked, not, I would say, wanted by Israel at all. It is a terrorist organisation
that wants to destroy the state of Israel. We are not going to support that sort of an effort, and
I would say that Syria and Iran standing behind the same groups that I'm alluding to, the Hezbollah
and Hamas.

GREG TURNBULL: Dr Constantin, I take it - I wonder, do you agree with any of that because yesterday
at the rally in Sydney you described what's happening in Lebanon at the moment as genocide.

ABRAHAM CONSTANTIN: Well, let me respond to His Excellency. It suits the Israelis to always brand
anybody that doesn't agree with their opinion a terrorist. What is terrorism? It's defined in the
dictionary as an act which causes fear in people, and, in the words of the Lebanese Prime Minister,
and if I may add, Israel looks at the Lebanese Prime Minister as a friendly Prime Minister, what
Israel is doing is nothing short of state terrorism. So let's be fair and look at things from
either side.

FRAN KELLY: Is it genocide?

ABRAHAM CONSTANTIN: It is certainly a genocide. This will be written in the history books as
Lebanon's holocaust. Dozens of kids are being burnt in their cars. They're asked by the Israeli
Army to leave their towns. Mothers and fathers put their kids in vans and trucks and try to flee
and all they see is rockets coming towards them and burning people by the dozens. You should see
the dismembered bodies of children in the south of Lebanon.

STEPHEN SPENCER: But does Hezbollah bear any responsibility for this? Does Hezbollah, launching the
rockets, kidnapping the Israelis, and, in short, do you think Hezbollah is a terrorist

ABRAHAM CONSTANTIN: Well, Stephen, this is not the first time skirmishes happened on the border
with Israel. Previously on various occasions Hezbollah took Israeli soldiers, Israel took Hezbollah
militants. They've always negotiated. Why is it different this time? It gives the Lebanese a view
that this is not a reaction, it's not an issue of two soldiers, it's a planned and systematic
attack on the sovereignty of the Lebanese nation.

GREG TURNBULL: Dr Constantin, just finally if I may, in view of the attacks on infrastructure and
dwellings and buildings in Lebanon, would you like to see a one-off special injection of aid from
the Australian Government, indeed from the world community, because Lebanon is really going to be -
has been set back decades by this, hasn't it?

ABRAHAM CONSTANTIN: Well, it's taken us 20 years back. If I may add, the comment made by the
Minister for the British High Commission in Lebanon this morning, he said he asks the American -
and that's from a British point of view, he asks the Americans to come down to Lebanon and see in
their eyes the destruction and the killing of civilians occurring on the ground this morning.

GREG TURNBULL: Dr Constantin, thanks for your time this morning.


GREG TURNBULL: We are out of time. Thanks to our guest, Dr Abraham Constantin, and our panellists.
Until next week, it's good-bye from Meet the Press.