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Transcript of press conference: New York: 26 September 2012: United Nations leaders' week; UN Security Council bid; Egypt; Malawi; Islamic protests; Lindsay Tanner; Freedom of Information; Iran

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Subjects: United Nations leaders’ week; UN Security Council bid; Egypt; Malawi; Islamic protests; Lindsay Tanner; Freedom of Information; Iran

PM: This morning I've had the privilege of attending the opening session of leaders’ week here at the UN General Assembly.

I had the opportunity to hear the address of the Secretary-General, to hear the address of the President of Brazil, President Rousseff, the address of President Obama of the United States of America, and I also had the opportunity to hear the address of President Yudhoyono of Indonesia, and congratulate him on the making of that address.

So the leaders’ week here at the General Assembly has started in full and in earnest. I've also had the opportunity during the course of the day to conduct a number of bilateral meetings.

I've met with the Prime Minister of Japan, with the President of Egypt, with the President of Liberia and the President of Malawi, and engaged in a broad set of discussions with those four leaders.

I will shortly have the opportunity to make a statement at an event which is focused on peacebuilding. We're familiar with the concept of peacekeeping, it's what Australians do. And indeed since the UN was first founded, more than 65,000 Australians - Defence Force personnel and police - have deployed overseas to help build peace in other countries.

We’ve participated in more than 50 missions under the mandate of the UN or multilateral missions. Peacebuilding is catching the concept that to make a lasting peace often you need to do more than just settle the peace, you need to help rebuild the country.

This is work in which Australia has had experience. Whether it be in the Solomons or in East Timor, we have a proud track record of peacebuilding. And I will have the opportunity to speak at an event for the UN Peacebuilding Commission to talk about Australia's experience.

That event will lead to a declaration to try and sharpen the focus of the world on peacebuilding, which is so often required when countries that have a low development status are also emerging from conflict.

Later today, I will host a reception for UN representatives, an Australian reception, I am looking forward to that. We are anticipating quite a large crowd. And that will give me the opportunity to

speak to many of the people who are attending here at UN leaders’ week and many of the permanent representatives who are here in New York representing their nations.

So I’m happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: Just firstly, are you feeling better and secondly, what is your take on the vote? How are the numbers looking?

PM: As to the first question, I am a bit better, thank you very much. On the second, I'm not going to be engaging in a running commentary on all of this.

We're encouraged by the level of support that we are seeing for Australia's bid for the Security Council. So I am encouraged by the support we're receiving. But it is going to be a close contest and part of the work here during the week is talking to nations about putting their support for Australia.

JOURNALIST: The Egyptian President said that today the American press said he sees the US as a friend but not necessarily an ally. After your meeting with him, are you concerned by that? He is of course a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood as well?

PM: We are dealing with a new Egypt, a new democratic Egypt and it’s not surprising that as this new Egypt emerges, that it will take time for people to establish relations with the new Egypt. It will just take time for people to work through.

I had a good and comprehensive discussion with the President of Egypt about issues in his country, as it under goes this democratic transition and issues in the region in which Egypt lies, the region in which he lives.

We also had some conversations about religious tolerance, so it was a good widespread conversation.

JOURNALIST: No one would wish any illness on you at all but it would have been disappointing for you no doubt to have missed so many events yesterday including dinner last night with Barack Obama. How disappointing was it and did it derail your efforts this week on the lobbying front?

PM: Certainly not. I did miss a couple of events yesterday. I didn't feel able to deliver a 25 minute address right at that moment. So Senator Carr admirably stepped in and did a very good job, as I understand it. And I didn't have the opportunity to attend the reception hosted by the President and Mrs Obama.

But my program has proceeded normally today and will for the rest of the week.

JOURNALIST: The President of Malawi made a point she was disappointed that you hadn’t managed to get to Malawi for the Organisation of African Unity. Did you find that, can they sway the vote one way or the other (inaudible) can make a difference in this vote?

PM: Two things happened with the hosting of the African union meeting in Malawi. First, because of circumstances in Australia, that is we were moving imminently to the start of the carbon price, I made the decision that I needed to be attending to that work in Australia.

Second actually the African union meeting moved from Malawi to another country, so it wasn't ultimately hosted in Malawi.

I’ve had a good conversation with the President of Malawi today, and I did of course forward apologies for not being able to attend the African union meeting. And Parliamentary Secretary Richard Marles attended in my stead.

JOURNALIST: I've seen two estimates of how much Australia's spent on the race in the last five years, $24 million and $40 million, maybe it's a US versus Australian dollars. How much have you spent and how do you think that compares to Luxembourg and Finland?

PM: If that is an American accent then I‘d possibly remind our dollar is worth more than yours at the moment. So if we were doing a conversion into US dollars we’d be taking the number down.

The amount allocated over a five-year period was $24 million. Of course, though, much of the work that our Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade does routinely has been brought to bear to assist with the bid.

JOURNALIST: The President made much of the recent violence in the Arab world and the Muslim world against the video. What did you make of these points made by President Obama and have picked up any tone from other leaders that you've been meeting with on that issue?

PM: I thought President Obama gave a very moving speech, starting as it did with the life story of Chris Stevens, the ambassador who lost his life in Libya. And I thought by starting with a human tale it helped him tell the broader story, which is that intolerance, which leads to violence and leads to death, is a needless tragedy. That real people lose their lives, real people with families and that there is never an excuse, never an excuse for violence no matter what is said, violence is never the answer.

JOURNALIST: He touched on another point, a conundrum if you like, these competing interest of freedom of speech and also the problems that are associated with social media and the ability to spread messages around the world instantaneously which sparked those riots. Can you comment on that and how in a free world we deal with that sort of issue?

PM: I think we'd all say we don't want to see anybody engage in incitement to hatred and in Australia of course we’ve got laws to deal with these issues and I believe that they are appropriate laws.

But living in the world we live in today, it's well and truly possible for something to get rapid dissemination around the world, coming from somewhere where there are no laws for dealing with racial vilification or incitement to hatred, and the content be around the world almost instantaneously.

The technology makes that possible. What guards reactions though, is how human beings choose to react and I think the point that President Obama was making very strongly, and one I very strongly believe in too, is that there is never appropriate to react with violence.

I think the President made the comment today that you can engage in more speech if something has deeply offended you, not violence.

JOURNALIST: Just on the meetings with the leaders today, do you get the sense that they can still be swayed by UN Security Council votes or do you get the sense that positions are now locked in with it being so close?

PM: I think like any election in any field, there are a range of people who make up their mind very early. There are a range of people who make up their mind closer in and there are some who don't make up their mind until they're actually putting the pen to the paper.

That’s true in our own domestic elections. I think that will be true of the Security Council bid as well.

JOURNALIST: Is it a good thing that it's a secret ballot? Might that actually be in Australia's favour?

PM: I think all of the voting procedures are really a matter for the UN.

JOURNALIST: You keep on using the term allocated in terms of what this has cost - $24 million allocated - there must be a figure on what’s actually being spent towards this bid? What is the figure of what has been spent and if there is no figure, how do the Australian people work out if it's value for money?

PM: I think from a commonsense perspective, you would understand, if we have an ambassador in a particular nation who is doing his or her routine work, and then we ask them as well to commence lobbying for our bid for the Security Council, that that becomes part of their day-to-day work.

Now we would have had the ambassador in that location anyway, we would have been paying his or her salary anyway, we would have been paying for the rest of the people who are in the diplomatic mission anyway, but we have asked them to take on a particular task.

That is why I'm using the terminology what has been directly appropriated, as to what has been absorbed into the ordinary workings of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

JOURNALIST: How do they assess whether it’s value for money then if there is no bottom line?

PM: I think Australians can look at what's been specifically appropriated because we would have devoted the rest of the money to our foreign affairs engagement in any event.

JOURNALIST: Lindsay Tanner is re-emerging in today's papers - probably not a surprise to you - but saying he didn't think Kevin Rudd should have been knocked off and in a separate essay he has decried the state of the Labor Party saying it's lost its purpose, it's motivated by political expediency rather than inner belief. Do you have any views on that?

PM: I can be very clear about the Government's purpose and the Government's purpose is to keep the economy strong, to make sure that not only today but tomorrow, Australians have got the best of opportunities and we maximise our prosperity as our region changes.

And then we find a way to share that, that is fair and meets the needs of the Australian people, which is why you have seen us in the last few months, and you will continue to see us as a government, very focussed on delivering better schools, very focussed on delivering better dental care and very focussed on delivering a National Disability Insurance Scheme, all great Labor reforms.

JOURNALIST: On the subject of Bank of Japan policy, (inaudible)?

PM: No, we didn't have a discussion about quantitative easing.

JOURNALIST: Can I ask, your Government is in the courts this week seeking documents from the Australian Financial Review, can you tell us why it feels necessary to do that and, given the history of the Labor Government's commitment to FOI and the subsequent perhaps failure to deliver on some of those policies of openness, would it not be good for a court to decide on the scope of the retractions from FOI documents?

PM: We have strengthened FOI legislation. The matter involving the Financial Review is a very particular issue turning on its own facts and it's being dealt with by the Minister for Climate Change.

JOURNALIST: (Inaudible) is time running out for Iran or would you like to see tougher action more immediately?

PM: Look, what President Obama said this morning was that there is still time and space for diplomatic action to do its work and I agree with that. We have a sanctions regime against Iran. We think there is still time for diplomacy to make a difference.

JOURNALIST: Tomorrow you are going to stand up and tell the UN General Assembly in part making your case for the Security Council. Could you tell Mr And Mrs Average in Australia why we should get a seat on the Security Council, in their language?

PM: I will do my best, Phil, having been set a challenge in very particular terms. The UN Security Council is at the core of the work that the UN does. When there are big and difficult issues in our world it's the UN Security Council that comes in to play to try and fix them.

We're a nation that's got an interest in peace and stability in our region and around the world. In an interconnected world, you can't draw a boundary and say that's us and nothing that happens beyond the boundary matters.

Things that happen around the world matter to us. And so we've had Australian lives taken by terrorists. So proscribing terrorist organisations matters to us, that happens at the UN Security Council.

Missions in order to go to nations to deal with security issues come from the UN Security Council. Difficult questions like the question of Syria are things that should be dealt with at the UN Security Council.

Sometimes they can seem a long way from our shores but in a modern, globalised world things that can seem a long way from your shores can still affect you.

Global terror is a very good example of that.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister what was it that struck you down yesterday? Was it food poisoning?

PM: It was a stomach bug of some indeterminate origin. All I can tell you is one other person on the travelling party got struck down by the same thing. So we don't quite know whether that means we ate something the same or whether it's a virus. But I’m alright now.

Thanks very much.