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Transcript of press conference: South Pacific Forum, Pohnpei, PNG: 24 August 1998: forum issues; East Timor

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Mr Downer: I don’t have an awful lot to say and you have one or two things I gather you want to ask me. We have a press release we are putting out today announcing assistance by the Australian Government to PNG and Forum Island countries to help with the problem of the millennium bug. This may not be a very high profile issue for a lot of people at the moment but by the Year 2000 it could be a very high-profile issue if not properly addressed and as a country which is doing a great deal at the moment to address this issue at home, we feel that we have a lot to contribute to the region. So what AusAID is doing is first of all is getting a contractor. They are choosing a contractor at the moment who will analyse the work to be done. Obviously we don’t have a lot of time to do this, and then we will assist those Forum Island countries. Otherwise, we’ve had the opening ceremony and last night we had an informal dinner and I can say to you that it is, not surprisingly, a relaxed and friendly atmosphere, a very positive atmosphere, and I’m very happy to be here to participate in this gathering. I know quite a lot of the Pacific Leaders from not only previous visits around the region but also from the Forum Leaders meeting that was held in Japan in September last year. So I’ve met with them as a group, as well as many of them individually, and it’s good for us all to catch up with each other again. We’ve got a few issues on the agenda to work through and I suspect we’ll be able to achieve a reasonably positive outcome. Certainly the officials talks have gone well in the lead-up to the Forum and we’re basically pretty happy with the report that’s has been produced by the officials to the Forum. I must congratulate the Australian officials on their proficient work.

Q: Were you a bit disappointed that Sir Geoffrey Henry felt the need to drag up what happened at last year’s Forum in his opening remarks? He seemed to be having a little bit of a go at Australia which doesn’t seem to be in the spirit of what’s happening this year.

M r Downer: It doesn’t matter to me. You’ll have to put that question to Sir Geoffrey Henry. He makes his own judgements but I think the spirit of the meeting is that last year was a tough meeting. This year the atmosphere is a lot easier, a lot more relaxed, a lot more positive. I think everyone knows that.

Q: Has any disappointment been expressed that the Australian Prime Minister didn’t make it to this year’s Forum?

Mr Downer: No, there hasn’t been any discussion about that. As you will appreciate, there are several Prime Ministers who haven’t been able to make it this time and it’s understood in every case why they can’t. It’s not often that the Australian Prime Minister hasn’t been able to come but it does occasionally happen and nobody has expressed any concern about that.

Q: What do you think of the situation in New Caledonia after the presentations last night?

Mr Downer: W ell, I think that it’s dangerous getting into making too many predictions at this stage. I think there was an inclination amongst leaders to accede to the two requests that came from the New Caledonians last night to grant New Caledonia some sort of observer status. There’s a very positive view of what’s happened in New Caledonia. Everyone’s very relieved that, if you like, the two sides of the argument have been able to come to something of a difficult consensus. But nevertheless there is still the referendum to take place on, I think, the 8th of November, and beyond that, the French Parliament will have to legislate to make the appropriate changes. But there is a bit of a sense that all that will pass through fairly easily.

Q: The Micronesian President in his speech this morning was saying that he accepted that there had been mistakes made in their economies and they had to change but he also was also warning that they wouldn’t accept any blanket solutions for their island nations. Do you take that as a sign that there is still some reticence to deal with the economic problems in South Pacific countries?

Mr Downer: Well 1 thought his speech was a very constructive speech. He made the obvious point that countries have different circumstances. They have cultural differences so possibly they’re going to address these issues in slightly different ways. Then obviously the leaders at the South Pacific Forum meeting are political leaders and so they need to think about how their electorates are responding to their reform programs and how to mould the programs, market them more effectively to their own

communities. They have to do that in different ways because their circumstances are different. But I think there’s a strong commitment to the overall economic reform program, to economic responsiblity and just a recognition that there’s more than one way to achieve the desired outcome.

Q: Some of the officials yesterday seemed to be suggesting that the whale sanctuary idea was getting in the way of more useful discussions.

M r Downer: I heard the story that a Fiji official had been quoted by AFP as expressing some reservations by Fiji but I know from my officials that Fiji has been supportive of the whale sanctuary idea. We haven’t been devoting a disproportionate amount of time to this issue but every member of the Forum is able to raise an issue that they want addressed, and many do. Obviously the dominant issue is going to be the economic reform issue. We understand that. We support that. After all, we’re the second biggest aid donor to the Forum Island countries and if you take PNG, we’re the biggest aid donor to the whole of the region. We, more than almost anyone here, have a very big vested interest in there being an appropriate economic reform program being put in place by each country so we’re not trying to diminish that. We have every incentive to promote it but it’s an issue that we wanted on the agenda, with New Zealand, and we’re not finding a great deal of resistance to it from the Forum members.

Q: You will have heard of the Sydney Morning Herald report this morning alleging a systematic cover-up by your department of the events in East Timor in 1975. Your comments?

Mr Downer: Well first of all, I’ve spoken with my department about this and they are systematically going through the allegations made in the report to see whether if any of them shed new light on what has happened over the last 23 or so years. That’s the first thing I’d say. The second thing is that we inherited as a Government the inquiry by Tom Sherman QC. I made one change to that inquiry in that I allowed Mr Sherman full access to all documents in my department and for the first time ever access to intelligence information as well. His report was produced without any pressure from me or from, more to the point I suppose, from the officials in the department, it was produced in as a subjective way, I assume, as he could produce. He certainly wasn’t told by my department what to do. His report was subsequently made public. People are able to read it, discuss it, comment on it. I also gave a copy of that report to the Indonesians and specifically a copy to Mr Alatas, and I asked that the Indonesian Government would provide us with any further information that the Indonesians had on this matter. They haven’t so far provided me with any additional information but we have urged the Indonesians to provide with any information which could throw still further light on this report but look, the fact is that it was a pretty extensive report. I really want to emphasise that, personally, as the Minister since only March 1996,1 would have no motive whatsoever for any information to be covered up in relation to those events. I was happy for the Sherman inquiry to look at all documents including the intelligence information. And as I understand it, he did, he spent a long time doing the report but I have asked my department to go through the information

in the Sydney Morning Herald and if there is anything new in that report, to draw it to my attention. But so far, they tell me, having examined it during the course of this morning, they’ve found nothing particularly new in the report.

Q: The SMH story does claim that information was suppressed ...

Mr Downer: Well in the end I’m the Minister now in 1998, this is a very very long time after the event. I’m happy for any claims to be investigated. I don’t have any problem with that and my department is happy to be very open and I’m sure that those officers working in the department will be very open. All I can suggest people do is talk to Foreign Ministers who were in office during all of those years - Mr Peacock, Mr Street, Mr Hayden and Mr Evans. I don’t know whether they can throw any light on this matter but these people are all around, they are all well and active - perhaps with the exception of Mr Evans. It’s hard to

interpret some of his activities.

Q: So your department is saying there’s nothing .... are they making any comments on the claims that information was suppressed?

M r Downer: They’re putting out a statement during the course of the day that will explain their position but to the best of my knowledge, the department did not involve itself in a deliberate cover-up, but the point is, was there anything to cover up and the answer to that lies in the Sherman report. And I really want to emphasise that, personally, I have nothing to cover up at all. But the ICJ says that a new investigation should be established and various Indonesian figures should be hauled before this

investigation. Well it surprises me that jurists would say that. ,No Australian inquiry has the power to haul Indonesians before it. It’s not possible for them to do that. But as I’ve said, we have lobbied the Indonesian Government, we’ve asked them to provide us with any further information they may have, they have not provided us with any further information. I don’t have much more to say on this. I am quite happy for my department to answer these questions and they are putting out a statement explaining their position. Of course, the relevant officers in the department over all those years, many of them have retired, you’re talking about a

long period of time.