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Transcript of joint press release: Canberra: 25 August 2013: Syria; campaign plans; National Broadband Network; Mr Abbott's $70 billion of cuts; paid parental leave; carbon price

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Campaign Transcript


E & O E - PROOF ONLY _____________________________________________________________

Subjects: Syria; Campaign plans; National Broadband Network; Mr Abbott’s $70 billion of cuts; Paid parental leave; Carbon price _____________________________________________________________

PRIME MINISTER: I think all Australians are horrified by what they’ve seen on their television screens happening in Syria. It is almost for me too horrible to believe that in the year 2013 that we could see civilians - men, women and children - being slaughtered by what appear to be chemical weapons. Based on reports from Doctors Without Borders, otherwise known as MSF, we now have their reports of 355 deaths and some 3,600 injured as a result of this attack. Last night, together with the Foreign Minister, and others, we received a briefing from relevant national security officials here in Canberra. There are three or four points I wish to make to you. The first is the Government's assessment is that the indications point strongly in the direction of the use of chemical weapons and indications also point in the direction of the Syrian regime. However, definitive conclusions on this await final and full access to the site by UN weapons inspectors. On the question of UN weapons inspectors, the UN High Representative on Disarmament Affairs arrived in Damascus yesterday. There is already a team of weapons inspectors in Damascus.

Where the rubber hits the road now is for the Syrian regime to grant access to these inspectors and the UN High Representative to this site. The burden of proof now lies with the Syrian regime to establish their culpability or absence of culpability on this matter. Therefore, in the UN Security Council where Australia is active and a member, our efforts are focused primarily on forging the consensus necessary with other members of the UN Security Council to support access by the weapons inspectors to this site and to obtain immediate compliance by the Syrian regime to their unfettered access to this part of Damascus. This is the next most critical and urgent step. Australia, as you know, assumes the presidency of the UN Security Council in a week's time. This will be a testing time for our Ambassador who is qualified, highly qualified in these matters, Ambassador Quinlan. We will be working with all members of the Security Council, both the permanent five and the non-permanent members to forge the consensus necessary to ensure that, firstly, that this access is obtained rapidly and secondly, that if it is concluded that the Syrian

regime is responsible for a chemical weapons attack, that we would then act in concert with other countries to determine an appropriate set of responses.

Furthermore, Australia also has for a long time been active in international diplomacy on the question of chemical and biological weapons. There is a group of 42 member states in the United Nations which has been long chaired by Australia which is called the Australia Group. That is because of our longstanding work on a chemical weapons convention going back to the days of Gareth Evans. Australia, in the capitals of the world, those 42 capitals at present, is working to forge consensus around a common position to place maximum pressure on the regime in Damascus to accept weapons inspectors to this site now. That is what we're doing through our diplomatic network around the world as we speak. Since we met last night, we've also sought information from our officials on the question of Australian military personnel who are currently in the region. This is an important matter. We have a small number of Australians who are currently attached to UN Missions on the Golan Heights, both on the Syrian side and on the Israeli side, as well as Australian troops who are also active on the Israeli-Lebanese border. Our concern, of course, is for their well-being. We've confirmed from the Defence Chiefs that these Australian personnel have been trained in handling chemical weapons attacks and are all equipped appropriately to handle any such attack should there be any proliferation of this event that we've seen in Damascus. We will be seeking further reports during the course of the day on any other Australian personnel in the wider Middle East region and I have in mind there our forces currently in the Sinai under the multi-national force which is present there.

The final point I would make before I turn to the Foreign Minister and his recent discussions with both the British and French Foreign Secretary and Foreign Minister respectively, is to note the statement which has been issued by the White House overnight, Australian time, which refers to the convening of a National Security Council in Washington and the reported use of chemical weapons by the Syrian Government on Wednesday the 21st August near Damascus. It states and I think it is important for all Australians to note this, that in coordination with international partners, and mindful of the dozens of contemporaneous witness accounts and record of symptoms of those who have been killed, the US intelligence committee continues to gather facts to ascertain what has occurred. Furthermore, on the response question, the President also received a detailed review of a range of potential options that he had requested be prepared for the United States and the international community to respond to the use of chemical weapons. These matters will be the subject of discussion in a continuing series of meetings in the UN Security Council in the days ahead. My responsibility as Prime Minister is to keep the Australian people informed of this during this caretaker period and consistent with the caretaker conventions to ensure that Mr Abbott is also informed from officials as to what is happening in capitals around the world and in the events unfolding in Damascus itself. I might turn to the Foreign Minister and then take your questions.

BOB CARR: Both the Foreign Secretary of the UK, William Hague, and the Foreign Minister of the French Republic, Laurent Fabius, share our concern and their assessment of the available material is again, as the Prime Minister put it, everything points to chemical weapon use in the eastern suburbs of Damascus and, second, to that use having been instigated by the Assad Government. The assessment of the

Australian Government by our intelligence community accords with that, that the French and British shared with us. The Prime Minister spoke with some detail about the work we'll be doing on the Security Council, but in addition to that, our work with the Australia Group is worth underlining. This group came together to give effect to a universal ban on chemical weapons by seeing that the component parts of chemical weaponry were not able to move across borders. We're circulating the draft of a strong statement to all these members to recruit these 42 nations concerned and educated about the problem as a constituency in the major world forums on this matter. Australia had a leadership role back in the time of Gareth Evans when it came to elevating the importance of a universal and effective ban on chemical weapons use. This gives credibility to us showing some leadership with this constituency at this grave time.

PM: Finally before taking your questions, I will be speaking later today with the French President and other leaders as times are identified to monitor closely these developments and I conclude these remarks where I began, and that is, for me it is gut wrenching to see this unfolding. The thought that these sorts of attacks could occur against unarmed civilians and with the graphic and horrific deaths of children and women, men and families, unfolding before us, it is like a medieval barbaric scene rather than something we would expect on our television sets in the year 2013. We, as a responsible member of the international community, and particularly with our responsibilities in the UN Security Council, take these matters as being central to our foreign policy responsibilities, not marginal. Over to you folks.

JOURNALIST: PM, if there is a military response, is Australia prepared and willing to be involved in that?

PM: The first point I would make is that, as the Foreign Minister indicated before, working through the assessment as to what has occurred and who is responsible for it, we've indicated our conclusions based on information to hand so far. The next critical step is for the international community, with the support of the UN Security Council, or in the absence of that support, to have weapons inspectors on the ground with access to this site now - now. If, for example, Sarin is used in these attacks and there are a number of reports to that effect, Sarin is a chemical element which can disperse. When it's located within human bodies it takes longer to disperse but there is an urgency in terms of the definitive conclusion. Therefore, the priority now is to forge the international consensus necessary to pressure the Syrian regime into accepting these inspections to start happening now at this location. The third element in this is if this conclusion is reached, then what constitutes an appropriate set of responses? I underline the gravity of the statement that I've just read out from the White House from President Obama's meeting with his own National Security Council within the last 24 hours.

JOURNALIST: What are the leaders going to use to put pressure on the Assad regime?

PM: Obviously, the UN Security Council has the full force of international law. So there are two approaches in my judgment. The first is to cause the regime to conclude that unless they voluntarily accede to untrammelled access for weapons inspectors to these sites now, then the UN Security Council itself will consider a

resolution requiring them with the full force of international law to do so. That, of course, would require the support of both China and Russia and that is where the diplomacy currently lies. Whether it is voluntarily or, shall I say, through full force of the council, is to be determined but what must happen is to get the regime to open the doors to these inspectors as a matter of urgency. I go back to what I said before. The burden of proof, in my judgment, now lies with the Syrian regime and if they have nothing to hide then they will provide access to this site as of now.

JOURNALIST: Do you have an open mind on the question of any military involvement?

PM: I think it is unproductive and unwise to begin to speculate on any form of action and what shape that may take. The business of responding to international crises, as this is emerging as one, is to take it calmly and methodically, step by step. What we're doing through our international diplomatic and military network is liaising with all relevant governments in the world. I spoke again with the US Ambassador this morning and I’ll keep in touch with him again this afternoon and furthermore, to do so with the Australian military as well across their contacts across the world. Australia has had a lot of engagement in the international community on chemical weapons questions and a lot of accumulated expertise. We will continue to do this in the days ahead, using the full recourse of our global diplomatic network. As I said, we assume the presidency of UN Security Council at a most critical time in the recent history of international events. I would emphasise the fact that in assuming the presidency of the council, we will need to be mindful of our global responsibilities and this means working with every single member of the council to get the consensus necessary to get the action that is needed, done.

JOURNALIST: You mentioned the Iraq War this morning and the lessons we learnt in terms of intelligence we received and decisions of making military interventions on those intelligence. How are we applying those lessons to the Syrian situation. You’ve already mentioned possible military responses?

PM: I think you mentioned that, and others did, I think I deliberately did not. So what I am saying is that mindful of recent history and wrong decisions which have been made in the past, the response to adopt here is one which is calm and methodical and seeks to have the evidence before us. What I've said, as directly as I can, is where we believe as the information to hand, the indication now lies, but there is a proof point and the proof point lies with access to the site by weapons inspectors. Let's also emphasise one other point. It is the Syrian regime which is in possession of stockpiles of chemical weapons. That has been established for a long period of time. The Syrian regime we also know has a number of delivery vehicles capable of putting such weapons into targets. So the burden of proof lies with Damascus, the burden of proof lies with the regime. But on the question of learning the lessons of the past let's do it calmly and methodically but with a sense of urgency given that we do not see this happen again. This is 330-odd people dead - men, women and children - according to Doctors Without Borders and on top of that, I think the figure I read out before was something in the order of 3,600 injured. These are human beings. These are members of the human family and we have a responsibility as a major contributor to the international order for the last 50 or 60 years not to simply say that this is a marginal concern.

JOURNALIST: Are you planning to stay in Canberra for the next couple of days, or will you go back to campaigning tomorrow? Can you tell us your plans for the next couple of days.

PM: Well I’ll continue to campaign in the general election and as for what I'll be doing later today, I'm sure all those good folks in the media section of my office will tell you in due course where I'm heading to next. On the broader campaign of course, there will be debates in the media today about Mr Abbott's priorities and my priorities for the Australian people right across the economy and jobs and health and education and paid parental leave. We will be encouraging fully in that debate.

JOURNALIST: You’ve previously called for a no-fly zone over Libya. Do you think there is a case for one over Syria?

PM: In the case of Libya, as I recall it, then as Foreign Minister, is that had we not acted then decisively we faced the butchery of Benghazi, an entire city, which at that stage was in rebel hands which was somewhat removed from Tripoli as Gaddafi's forces steamed down the road towards them. There was a matter of urgency within days of an entire city being butchered. Having been mindful of what had happened earlier in in places like Srebrenica, and earlier in places like Rwanda, I wasn't going to stand around as the Foreign Minister of Australia and say this is just a normal situation. So that was the set of circumstances we faced there. Each set of circumstances is different and that's why we need to get all the evidentiary questions tested first.

JOURNALIST: Do you think that's a possibility in this case, though?

PM: Well, I’ll attend to the advice provided by our military experts on that question. When the President of the United States refers to a full range of options, then we should also be mindful of what may be developing across the board and I say that without particular reference as to what might be included within that list.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, why didn't you seek a briefing earlier in the week rather than waiting until after you'd filmed a cooking show?

PM: I think I've covered those matters in this morning's interview on ABC "Insiders". I don't know if you saw the interview. I stand by everything I said in that interview. I think I've answered those questions comprehensively.

JOURNALIST: Regardless of the cooking show, why not seek the briefing days ago?

PM: The bottom line is, events had reached a certain order of magnitude by yesterday morning that following my contact with the Secretary of the Prime Minister's Department, he recommended that such a briefing occur. Furthermore, he recommended that the earliest it could profitably occur would be last night or today. And furthermore, he confirmed that in his own statement I'm advised last night, I believe that answers all the questions you've just raised.

JOURNALIST: PM, will Australia seek briefings or discussions with Russia specifically given their position on Syria in the past?

PM: Certainly, on the Security Council our obligation is to deal with all the P5 members including the Russians and the Chinese and I know Ambassador Quinlan works closely with both his Russian and Chinese colleagues on these matters. So that diplomatic engagement is occurring obviously in New York but it's also occurring in Beijing and Moscow as we speak.

JOURNALIST: You said you were campaigning today. You can just clarify whether you suspended the campaign yesterday?

PM: Absolutely not. If you want evidence of that, let me make two points as I said in an interview just before. Number one, I think given the escalation of developments in Syria, I underlined the content of the statement issued by the White House in the period overnight, including the preparation for the President of the United States a range of potential options to be considered both for the United States and the international community, that had I not been in the business yesterday of saying to the Australian people that this crisis is developing at a pace of knots, then legitimately I would have been criticised for not doing so. Secondly, if I can go to the other question, on the question of the continuation of the campaign, as I said yesterday, following my statement on Syria, I immediately resumed, continued, the campaign debate on the question of the National Broadband Network. That was, if you like, physical evidence that the campaign was continuing. I think it is important to bring all those things together. On the question of the broader campaign, just let me make this point. If you're done with questions on Syria? Any more on Syria? One on Syria, yes.

JOURNALIST: There's talk of US cruise missiles. Have you have discussed this with the US Ambassador and do you think this is an appropriate option to have?

PM: I won't go to the question of military strategy or military tactics. The hierarchy of the proper consideration of these things is number one, making sure that we have formed the right judgments based on the information at hand, hence my answer to the question before. Number two, then with friends, partners and allies and the rest of the international community, to forge an absolute consensus around unfettered access for weapons inspectors. Number three, to then consider a full menu of appropriate responses. I don't think it is productive to speculate on the content of those responses.

On the question of the campaign more broadly can I say this. Mr Abbott today is reported as saying that if the Australian people elect him as the Prime Minister, they will know what sort of government they're going to get. My question for Mr Abbott is: Mr Abbott, what the Australian people want to know today is where your $70 billion worth of cuts will fall on their jobs, jobs in the car industry, on their schools, and on their hospitals and on their National Broadband Network and on their Schoolkids Bonus. That's what they want to know. The other thing the Australian people want to know about Mr Abbott is his unfair, unfunded and economically irresponsible paid parental leave scheme. How is that to be funded? Who will be cut as a result of that? Which schools, which hospitals, which core services for the Australian people and

which jobs will go. I still cannot believe that on the question of priorities for Australia's future that Mr Abbott has judged that a $22 billion paid parental leave scheme is his core priority for the future when it means cutting the Schoolkids Bonus for 1.3 million families, it means cutting 3,000 frontline health workers and it means axing a large slice, in fact, most, of the National Broadband Network.

One final point on the paid parental leave scheme which, I think, has become the central symbol of Abbott's priorities for the future, he's saying he wants that as his priority. Well, this priority of his, apart from giving $75,000 to millionaires or billionaires, it hits self-funded retirees to the tune of about $1.7 billion. It also hits part pensioners who have investments as well. It also hits charities. It also hits a whole bunch of people out there with investments. Instead, he's saying that apart from all those impacts on people's real savings and investments and superannuation investments, he's saying that this $22 billion scheme to give $75,000 to billionaires, is more important than, and certainly greater in quantity, than what we spend as an Australian Government every year on all childcare payments. All childcare payments. That's a huge number. It's bigger each year than what we are putting into the National Broadband Network. It's bigger each year than so many other core priorities for the Australian people.

So my core message today is if Mr Abbott is saying to the Australian people at his campaign launch today, two weeks before an election, if you vote for Mr Abbott you'll know what sort of government you're getting, if that is the case, Mr Abbott must now stop being evasive, be upfront about where his $70 billion worth of cuts will fall and on top that, explain to the Australian people how on earth this unaffordable and economically irresponsible and unfair paid parental leave scheme is in any way justifiable. Last question.

JOURNALIST: Mr Rudd, you said this morning that Labor didn't have a mandate for the Carbon Tax. Given Mr Abbott is going to an election pledging to repeal the Carbon Tax, will you commit Labor now to not opposing the repeal of the Carbon Tax after the next election?

PM: I'm in the business of taking the argument up with the Australian people as to why the Government should be returned. The core element here is that we believe that climate change is real. Mr Abbott through multiple statements over many years ultimately doesn't. His so-called Direct Action Plan is a piece of camouflage. It’s a policy that doesn't work and it is monstrously unaffordable. Our position is clear. It is the one that I was elected on in 2007 which was to bring in an Emissions Trading Scheme and we are transitioning to an Emissions Trading Scheme within the period that I outlined some weeks ago. It is the right approach.

Mr Abbott thinks he can sort of walk off the planet and leave action on climate change to everybody else. That's not our way, it's not responsible, and for him to effectively abolish the Clean Energy Development Corporation or Finance Corporation says everything about his priorities. We've made progress on climate change. The percentage of emissions, the level of emissions now coming out of electricity generation is falling. Overall emissions are basically maintaining where they were before. We are not doing this under Mr Abbott's scheme. It is going to do this. Unless Australia acts on climate change, let me tell you this, other countries will

think we're getting a free ride and they won't act. And if other countries don't act on climate change given they're the world's biggest emitters, the Chinese and the United States, then frankly this country is in serious strife in the future. As Prime Minister of the country I'm in the building business, building the industries and jobs of the future, building the Better Schools of the future, building the health and hospital system of the future, building the National Broadband Network of the future, but building a clean energy future for all Australians as well. That's my plan. That's what we're doing. I've outlined how we'll get there. On each of those points, Mr Abbott plan is cut, cut, cut, cut and cut the ETS to bits, and cut the Clean Energy Finance Corporation as well. Thanks, folks.

JOURNALIST: Does that mean given your current policy is to bring forward the move to a market mechanism, that therefore if there was a Labor opposition after the election, that you couldn't countenance the scrapping of the ETS -

PM: What I'm saying very loud and clear because I’m in the business of contesting this election with the object of securing the return of the Government, I'll be arguing for Government policy and what we would do if elected to government. Our plans are clear. Our budget bottom line is clear. That's out there in the economic statement. Two weeks to go, I’m sure all of you would be putting appropriate pressure on Mr Abbott in terms of where his details lie between now and then or are you going to sit down quietly until the day before the election and go “shock and horror”, what’s happened? You know what the game is here. All of you, you’re experienced journalists.

Mr Abbott is going to be as silent as possible about where his $70 billion worth of cuts will fall, as silent as possible about what he'll do to the Goods and Services Tax, as silent as possible despite Eric Abetz’ outbreak at the other day about what happens to penalty rates and overtime. Try to push to one side the whole priority attached to climate change and not to discuss effectively how he'll slice and dice the National Broadband Network. Put all that to one side, in his view, as the best way of not frightening people before the election, and then conduct his so-called Independent Commission of Audit Queensland-style, go shock and horror, so much more needs to be done and all of our commitments are now out the window, cut, cut, cut, slash and burn. That is as cynical an approach to national politics as you can get. I keep making these arguments. There's a corporate responsibility in the Australian democracy for everyone to actually have a clear idea as to what his future plans in detail will be. It is not an idle debating point. Post-election, if Mr Abbott succeeds in the election, I don't want to be in a position of having not warned the Australian people about where cuts will fall, about where schools will be cut and hospitals cut and how the National Broadband Network will be sliced to pieces. It is my responsibility to argue our plans for future and I have and I'll continue to do so and to put a spotlight on the alternative. That's my responsibility as well. But also to put a spotlight on the underlying tactic which is to be such a microscopic target on such a huge pile of cuts and an absurd priority with his unaffordable paid parental leave scheme to slide through to election day and hope nobody notices. Thanks folks.