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Minister discusses proposed French nuclear tests, appointment of a new Indonesian Ambassador to Australia, and Australia's relationship with Malaysia -

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HELEN MCCOMBIE: Diplomatically, it's been a trying week for Australia. We've failed to secure a seat at next year's first Asia-Europe summit and the rift with France has widened by the day with the weapon of trade sanctions now being brandished in the battle over nuclear testing.

Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans, is in our Melbourne studio and here to talk with him, Sunday's political editor, Laurie Oakes. Good morning, Laurie.

LAURIE OAKES: Good morning, Helen. Senator Evans, welcome to the program.

GARETH EVANS: Good morning, Laurie. Always a pleasure to talk with you, except when it isn't!

LAURIE OAKES: Overnight, the French Minister for European Affairs has said that the French may reduce their test program from eight tests to seven. Is that a bit of a win?

GARETH EVANS: Less is always better than more, as I've had occasion to say in the past, to my cost. But, obviously, we are not going to rest on this one until we get right back to zero. Whether that's chasing a will-o'-the-wisp, I don't know, but we're certainly going to be trying.

LAURIE OAKES: Do you think the decision had anything to do with Australia's action?

GARETH EVANS: I don't think so, so far. We can't expect by ourself to make any particular difference to what has to be one of the more counter-suggestible heads of government in the world at the moment. But I think if the protest continues to build up internationally the way it has been, including with the European allies and including with domestic opinion taking flight against the decision in the way it obviously is, we have to give ourselves a chance.

LAURIE OAKES: Do you think today's Hiroshima Day protest can have any impact on this counter-suggestible President Chirac?

GARETH EVANS: I think it's all part of the pattern of response that is developing. The French have conspicuously failed to explain to anybody why these tests are necessary for any purpose at all. They've conspicuously failed to diminish the concern about their danger and they've certainly failed to persuade anybody that the testing is other than harmful to our larger nuclear policy objectives in terms of non-proliferation and the early signing of a test ban treaty.


LAURIE OAKES: Will you be taking part in any of the demonstrations today?

GARETH EVANS: I've got some commitments that will keep me away from that. It's not that it is any reluctance to do so but I've got party commitments.

LAURIE OAKES: You don't think it would have been good symbolism for you and/or the Prime Minister to be out there with other Australians today?

GARETH EVANS:I'm perfectly happy to. It just didn't work out that way.

LAURIE OAKES: Australia is to send a parliamentary delegation to lobby other European countries next month. Isn't that a bit late?

GARETH EVANS: No. It's part of an ongoing process which it is important to sustain. I mean we were never going to be successful by firing all our bullets in the first day or week or even month. It was an exercise that needed to capture attention and to be built up layer by layer, and I think the effort that is going into this is showing the worth of that approach.

LAURIE OAKES: But you believe that the French could start testing as early as next week. Shouldn't we whack the delegation off straightaway?

GARETH EVANS: Well, I don't know whether they are going to start testing next week. There's been a lot of speculation that it'll be earlier rather than later because they are getting so wounded, vulnerable and generally embarrassed by the whole business that they obviously want it over with. It's no particular point in going to Europe next week in fact because everybody is out to lunch - on holiday really - until the end of August and there won't be too many appointments able to be made. But we'll just keep trying to belt away. Today, for example, I've got an article in the leading French right-wing newspaper, Figaro, making again all the points that we want to make and trying to redress the balance of the publicity coming from those sources in the French media.

LAURIE OAKES: That leads me to my next point, I guess. The delegation is to be led by Gordon Bilney who is a junior Minister. Why aren't you heading it, or even the Prime Minister, if we think this stuff is so serious?

GARETH EVANS: One of the great advantages of Gordon is that he is a fluent French speaker and I think he can perhaps to that extent - and a Francophile, as well a being a Francophone - and I think he may ....

LAURIE OAKES: You could have said that about the Prime Minister.

GARETH EVANS:All of us, in a sense. But I mean the point is that he's a very effective Minister. It'll be a useful additional mechanism.

LAURIE OAKES: You mentioned your interview with the Figaro. The questioning there seems to suggest that the French regard this as a huge Australian plot to shove them out of the Pacific and reduce their influence in Asia. Are they that paranoid?

GARETH EVANS: There's always been that element running through it and that easy dismissal of our concerns on the ground that we had a heap of hidden agendas. I guess the main point of that article is to respond as succinctly and brusquely as I could to just those points, saying that they were nonsense. Our real agenda is what you see is what you get is the nuclear policy and the environmental issue.

LAURIE OAKES: That interview dealt quite a lot with the French response to the government decision to bar a French company for tendering for a defence contract. Do you think the States should do more, as Robert Ray believes?

GARETH EVANS: As Robert also said in that interview, they shouldn't be doing any more if what that would involve is damage to State or Australian interests. We are not in the business of punishing Australians. The business we're in is that of sending a message to France and exactly the same kinds of criteria ought to apply to their decision-making and matters economic as we've applied to our own response at the Federal level.

LAURIE OAKES: The reason I ask that is that there's a Sunday newspaper report today that the New South Wales Government is considering buying three French helicopters for their police force. Isn't that the kind of area where you'd expect a State Labor government to make a stand?

GARETH EVANS: I think it's up to the State Labor Government to make its own decisions about that in terms of an overall balance of interests. You've got to make a judgment as to what the impact will be on the French by these decisions, as compared with what the negative impact will be on Australian taxpayers if we have to buy more expensive goods and things of that kind. We haven't gone down the route of economic sanctions or officially directed boycotts because we've made the judgment that to do so would cause us more harm than we would inflict. But that's a judgment that can always be revisited.

LAURIE OAKES: Is our policy to protest only where it doesn't hurt us or it doesn't involve a sacrifice by us? That's what it sounds like and it doesn't sound like a fair dinkum principle protest, if that's the case.

GARETH EVANS: It sounds like a more intelligent one, to me, than one which would involve holding your foot up in the air and blasting holes in it. We are pretty good at doing that and there's all sorts of people who are constantly asking me to go down that particular policy direction on this, as on other issues, but the idea is to do that which will be persuasive and effective at the end of the day. I think the kind of exercise we mounted this week in Brunei, with 18 major countries, including the French, there around the table getting an absolute earful right across the international spectrum made a huge amount of impact and it's exactly the sort of thing we should be focusing our primary attention on.

LAURIE OAKES: The French are partly right, aren't they? We are trying to mastermind an international protest against this.

GARETH EVANS: We never made any secret about that. We never made any secret about the fact that we're generating an information campaign, not in any prejudicial way but simply letting the facts and the arguments speak for themselves and get a hearing.

LAURIE OAKES: How serious is the rift with France? Will it be a long-term rift, or will we be back happily drinking Perrier water after the end of the tests?

GARETH EVANS: I think both sides, despite all the sound and fury, are doing their best to quarantine it to the nuclear issue because both sides have appreciated that there are benefits to be gained from having a more balanced and sensible longer term relationship, whether you are talking about policy in the Pacific or whether you are talking about trade and investment or whether you are talking about larger political cooperation in international forums. It's in nobody's interest to let this get totally out of hand but is in everybody's interests for us to continue to be sharp and clear and direct and effective in our response on this particular issue.

LAURIE OAKES: There's been pretty general agreement that the Government got the domestic politics of this issue wrong at the beginning by underestimating the anger of Australians. Do you think you've got it right now? Do you think you are now winning votes rather than losing them on this?

GARETH EVANS: It's not been about winning or losing votes. It's been about trying to get the policy right and trying to get the effective impact right with the French. So many of these things are just a function of perceptions. What I said right back in day one in Tokyo was only a quarter reported. I opened up with a barrage against everything that was wrong with the decision. What was reported was the qualification. It's forgotten very quickly that Mr Howard's initial response was one of great support for the precise position that the Government had adopted. There's an awful lot of vulgar opportunism going on here, particularly on the part of the Opposition. But the important thing is for us to focus on the main game, which is getting a bad decision changed.

LAURIE OAKES:While we're talking about Europe - I haven't checked it but I think this weekend, as well as being the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, also is the anniversary of the beginning of World War I - Sarajevo and all that. How concerned are you with what's happening in the Balkans now and how worried are you that that could lead to a wider conflict?

GARETH EVANS: The breakdown of the diplomatic negotiation process is a real worry I think, and you're looking at the possible emergence of, again, a war of all against all. For all the criticism that's been made of the UN operation over the last three or four years, at least it's had the benefit of curbing some of the wider fighting that looked inevitable back in '91 and '92, as well as of course of keeping roughly two million people alive through the humanitarian operation. But if the attempt to get a negotiated solution breaks down, if every action of the kind we're seeing at the moment breeds a new round of reactions, then there is an alarming prospect of a wider Balkans war erupting. I don't think it's going to suck in anybody else, as it did with the First World War, but certainly there's an awful lot of bloodshed looming ahead unless people are prepared to go back to the negotiating table, which is what we urge them to do.

LAURIE OAKES: You don't see a risk of the Serbians coming in and the Russians being dragged in in their wake?

GARETH EVANS: No, I don't think so. I had long talks last week with the Russian Foreign Minister Kozyrev about that, as well as with many other country leaders and Foreign Ministers in the last two or three weeks, and I think everybody is deeply conscious of the need to avoid that kind of scenario.

LAURIE OAKES: We are nearly out of time but I would like to ask you about Indonesia. Following the rift over Mantiri - the problem of the new ambassador - things were at a pretty low ebb but last week we had the television footage of you hugging Ali Alatas. Did that cuddle signify the end of the problem?

GARETH EVANS: It signified that we've never had a problem in terms of our personal relationship, despite the wistfulness of the media to the contrary who were deeply hoping for some kind of very visible row. Obviously, it was a difficult time - the Mantiri one - for both of us but the relationship between Indonesia is so strong at so many different levels now that, as Alatas and I have been saying for so long, we can handle squalls of this kind in an intelligent way.

LAURIE OAKES: So when would you expect the Indonesians to name a new ambassador?

GARETH EVANS: I would hope that that issue will be resolved by the end of this year and I think it's on its way to resolution.

LAURIE OAKES: Are there any names circulating now?

GARETH EVANS: There are some that have been the subject of discussion, but it's some distance away yet from being resolved.

LAURIE OAKES: Subject of discussion between the two governments?

GARETH EVANS: I've certainly had some talks with Alatas about all that and obviously some intense thought is going on in Jakarta at the moment about who might be most appropriate.

LAURIE OAKES: Is Australia trying to ensure that it's a civilian rather than a military officer?

GARETH EVANS: We'd prefer it was a civilian but that's not the main point. The main point is just to ensure that it's someone who hasn't got any kind of track record of either involvement in, or support for, actions in East Timor or elsewhere that are obviously distasteful.

LAURIE OAKES: While you were in Brunei, it was finally acknowledged Australia would be excluded from the first Asia-European summit. That is a failure of Australian diplomacy isn't it? There's no way round it.

GARETH EVANS: I don't accept that. You had nine out of the 10 countries who are the core group there who were positively welcoming in their enthusiasm for Australian participation. You had one country, for reasons we are all familiar with, determining to keep us out for at least the first time round in order to make some kind of a point. But you also had a clear-cut decision that we'd be invited in in subsequent meetings. That represents, I think, a huge watershed for us in terms of our acceptance in the region, and a triumph really for the kind of policy that we've been pursuing for the last decade.

LAURIE OAKES: So we're still paying for the Prime Minister calling Dr Mahathir recalcitrant?

GARETH EVANS: It's not just that. There's two or three other issues that have been around and I think will go on being something of a subtext in our relationship with Malaysia. The irony is, while all this is happening, our bilateral relationship economically and in terms of other cooperation is going very well indeed. So I think you've just got to keep these things in perspective. It's not all that serious.

LAURIE OAKES: Senator Evans, we thank you.