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Pierre Hotel, New York: transcript of press conference: East Timor; Afghani refugees; aid to Afghanistan; defence spending; detention centres; meeting with Dr Kissinger; economy; trade; David Hicks.



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29 January 2002

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP PRESS CONFERENCE - PIERRE HOTEL, NEW YORK

Subjects: East Timor; Afghani refugees; aid to Afghanistan; defence spending; detention centres; meeting with Dr Kissinger; economy; trade; David Hicks.

E&EO………………………………………………………………………………………

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, what’s the significance of the UN discussions about Timor?

PRIME MINISTER:

It’s an occasion for the Secretary General’s report and the report will be delivered for the Secretary General by Sergio de Mello who’s been the UN Administrator in Dili for the past two years, and it’s the normal report you would expect on the mandate in advance of the independence celebrations on the 18th to the 20th of May. And Sergio de Mello will present his report, I will then speak and I’ll be followed by Jose Ramos Horta on behalf of the people of East Timor. And it’ll be an opportunity for me to recapitulate our commitment to East Timor’s future, to emphasise our willingness to continue to contribute a significant component, up to 25% of the ongoing United Nations’ force, and also reaffirm a continuing and very generous bilateral aid program for East Timor.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, you want other countries to do more, but how likely or practical is that in the post September 11 environment?

PRIME MINISTER

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PRIME MINISTER:

Well I’m not going to sort of lecture other countries. I would hope that there would be some burden sharing but we’re going to lead by example and we’ll be emphasising our own commitment both of money and of military forces. But there has been a very successful United Nations operation. It’s been one of the more successful United Nations operations and it’s of course that’s been in no small measure due to the willingness of Australia to play such an immediate and an effective part.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard is the figure .. contributing what we are already contributing, or more?

PRIME MINISTER:

In relation to what?

JOURNALIST:

East Timor.

PRIME MINISTER:

You mean financially? Well what we’ve already committed to is quite generous and at this stage I don’t have a proposal to lift it but it is quite generous.

JOURNALIST:

[inaudible] outline some sort of timetable for when Australia would look at pulling back that commitment?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it’s really a question of the United Nations. I mean we are there now as part of the United Nations force. We’re not deciding how long. But our position is that we’ll continue to be there for so long as we are needed and I don’t want there to be any doubt in anybody’s mind that Australia will be there to help East Timor for the long haul. We see ourselves as having a particular responsibility, not the sole responsibility, I want to emphasise that, but we do have a particular responsibility and we’re quite happy to shoulder our special share of the burden.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, Hamid Karzai has indicated that he wants to ask you to accept Afghan refugees when he meets with you this week. What will be your response?

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PRIME MINISTER:

Well I’ve seen some reports attributed to him, to what he said…he made some remarks to that effect. He also made some remarks to the effect that the asylum seekers would be welcomed back in Afghanistan. I think rather than telegraph in advance or say now what I might say to him, I’m looking forward to meeting him.

JOURNALIST:

Well he obviously telegraphed in advance what he’s planning to ask….

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I’m not going to respond in advance. I will be content to talk to him. We will of course accept any Afghani refugees judged to be such, or our share of them. As to the others, well, that is a different matter. But I think it’s an opportunity for me to talk to him. But it’s fair to say that I noted his remarks that you’ve mentioned. I also noted his remarks that people who’ve left Afghanistan because of an apprehension about the Taliban are in his words welcome to come back home and I think that itself is a very welcome comment.

JOURNALIST:

That sounds like a no.

PRIME MINISTER:

No I would have thought it was anything but, anything but.

JOURNALIST:

So you would consider resettling some?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I’m sorry, we’re at crossed purposes, we’re at crossed purposes. He is reported as saying two things. I better say this so we don’t get further crossed purposes. He’s reported as having said two things: that asylum seekers would be welcome to go back to Afghanistan, and he was also quoted as saying that he would like Australia to take some Afghani refugees or Afghani people. I’m not quite sure whether he said refugees, asylum seekers or people. So he said both of those things. Now I think that is both interesting and welcome.

JOURNALIST:

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Are you thinking of any possibility of some sort of new aid for Afghanistan to deal with the problem of refugees or asylum seekers leaving the country? In other words to deal with the prominent source.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we already pledged quite a large amount and in fact….

JOURNALIST:

[inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we’ve only just recently increased it. I in fact authorised an increase on the eve of the Tokyo conference. We were going to pledge a total amount of $33 million and I authorised that be increased to $40 million. And we are contributing very significantly and certainly equal to or above what we should be, given our size and capacity. Look I don’t rule anything out in this area in the future but having just authorised an increase I’m not going to start speculating about yet another one. I’ll have a discussion with Mr Karzai about a lot of these things. I’m looking forward to meeting him. He’s got an enormous challenge. He has got a war-ravaged country and the pledging conference that took place in Tokyo was very successful but the proof will be, as always, in the delivery. It’s one thing to get large pledges, it’s another thing to see everybody make good the pledges. Clearly the situation in Afghanistan is different now from when it was when many of the people who’ve come to Australia as asylum seekers left there because the Taliban is gone. Now that is a point that we have made. It is a point incidentally I read in the press had been made by the British government which is talking about the possible return to Afghanistan of some thousands of asylum seekers in the United Kingdom, and it’s a point that is acknowledged by Mr Karzai himself. Now he’s made those comments in advance of any meeting that I’m having with him and obviously the whole issue will be discussed along with other things and our view plainly is that if people who are not judged to be refugees ought to return to the countries from which they came and if they are welcome to go back to those countries, which in the case of Afghanistan they clearly are, and if the reason for them leaving in the first place is no longer there which is also plainly the case in relation to Afghanistan and the Taliban, then there is strongly a case for them returning.

JOURNALIST:

Are you satisfied that the processing of the asylum seekers is proceeding fast enough and as fast as can be done? [inaudible] And can anything more be done….?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think you should really direct that question to Mr Ruddock. It’s something that goes to

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the detailed administration of the Immigration Department. My broad question is yes but as to the detail of it you should….

JOURNALIST:

[inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER:

No I’m sorry, as to the detail of it I’m not going to answer that while I’m out of Australia because I think that is something that is a detailed question about the administration of the Immigration Department and I don’t pretend to have enough immediate knowledge because there can be changed circumstances. I mean I was asked a question last night about the closing of Woomera. Now I did not know at that particular time because I’d been travelling that a group had asked that that detention centre be closed. So I’ve got to be careful when I’m a bit out of touch with what’s occurring.

JOURNALIST:

This is more a long term issue Mr Howard and surely it goes to the core of the problems the Government now has. So isn’t it a whole of government issue rather….?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I’m giving you a broad whole of government answer and my broad whole of government answer is that I’m broadly happy with the processing process and the handling of it.

JOURNALIST:

[inaudible] Woomera in terms of down the track….

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I saw some remarks attributed to Mr Ruddock in the Australian media this morning and I agree with them.

JOURNALIST:

[inaudible] so would an overflow option be something you’d….

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I agree with what Mr Ruddock said. Look I’m not going to get into every last little detailed question. I mean I know we don’t get any other particular question to ask. I’m not going to sort of wander into the detail of what are, you know, things to do with the

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administration of Mr Ruddock’s department. He’s better able to answer those than I. I will only create difficulties if I try and get into detailed operational answers.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, how seriously is the Government taking the suicide pact by a number of the youngsters in Woomera?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well threats of suicide are a common element of people in detention all around the world for a variety of reasons as a way of bringing about a change in policy which is brought about with detention. So the answer therefore is you never ignore those things but equally you have to understand that they are overwhelmingly calculated to bring about a change of policy.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, what was the purpose and outcome of this morning’s breakfast ?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it was an opportunity for me to have breakfast with Dr Kissinger whose reputation is immense. I like him. He’s always very informative. The other people at the breakfast were the former US Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin; and Mr Bill McDonough who’s the Chairman of the New York Fed and the Deputy Chairman of the Open Market Committee of the Fed which of course sets interest rates; and Mr Stapleton Roy, former United States Ambassador to Indonesia and a senior person from the State Department. I must say they are four people who gave me some wonderful insights from a non-government point of view of the whole world political situation particularly in relation to terrorism, the Middle-East, India and Pakistan, and of course the views of Mr McDonough and Mr Rubin on the economy were very valuable. So it was a great way to start a visit such as this to get their views.

JOURNALIST:

Just talking about the economy, Alan Greenspan’s comments recently about the strength of the US economy. Do you share that sentiment? Can you just talk about what the implications of that are for the Australian economy….?

PRIME MINISTER:

The Australian economy is like all economies heavily influenced by the American one. It’s not totally driven by the American economy. We’ve shown that because our growth has been stronger and we’ve avoided the recession that America is going through at present. But if the American economy as many people believe does begin a mild recovery

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about the middle of this year that will be very beneficial for Australia and it will come at a good time because it is expected that there’ll be some moderation of the strong growth in the housing sector by about the middle of this year so that will come at a very good time. I do remain broadly optimistic about the American economy. I expressed the view last night was it that with interest rates having being kept so low for so long and inevitably the animal spirits will take over and lift things and lift things very dramatically.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, President Bush last week announced that [inaudible] going to spend more money on defence. Can I ask whether or not you’ve been thinking about something similar in Australia , and also get your response to the Bulletin report today that the budget surplus might be swallowed up by the defence budget blowout?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we have already committed ourselves to an increase to defence spending.

JOURNALIST:

[inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER:

Not at present no. I mean we have already made a very big increase, an increased defence commitment of $23 billion over a period of ten years. Australia is significantly increasing her commitment to defence. As to the second part of your question I’m not going to comment on speculation about this or that alleged budget blowout.

JOURNALIST:

[inaudible] $500 million blowout to the defence budget, is that close?

PRIME MINISTER:

I’m not going to comment on it.

JOURNALIST:

[inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER:

I’m not going to comment on it.

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JOURNALIST:

Could the steel dispute [inaudible] grow into as big a conflict as the lamb issue….

PRIME MINISTER:

I’m not going to compare bigness of disputes. We’re not happy about what is proposed by the Americans in relation to steel, that’s why I’ve written to the President. I don’t want to try and sort of say whether it’s going to be bigger or smaller or the same as lamb. We’re not happy and particularly as we have made a lot of changes in our own steel industry and a lot of change has been forced on communities like Newcastle and Woollongong and in South Australia and other ways. There’s been a lot of retrenchments, a lot of downsizing. And we don’t subsidise our steel industry so naturally we’re not happy about proposals by the Americans to do so and that’s why I’ve written to the President.

JOURNALIST:

[inaudible] no indication of a reply?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I’ve only written in the last week.

JOURNALIST:

Have you received a report from Mr Vaile on his current trip?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I’ll be seeing Mr Vaile in a couple of days time. We overlap at the Davos Connection drinks at the Waldorf.

JOURNALIST:

Can I ask about David Hicks? In the New York Times today President Bush has said that he would…..

PRIME MINISTER:

He’s reported.

JOURNALIST:

….reported to have said he would consider [inaudible] Colin Powell [inaudible] UN convention, prisoners of war…

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PRIME MINISTER:

But not as prisoners of war.

JOURNALIST:

Right. Can you give us some idea as how that might affect your thinking?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don’t think it will alter it.

JOURNALIST:

[inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER:

I don’t expect it will make any material alteration because what in affect, as I understand it, the argument is that the Geneva Convention or the principles of the Geneva Convention should apply in relation to treatment. Well whether they’re illegal combatants or prisoners of war it doesn’t alter the way in which they might be treated as far as food and clothing and medical attention and so forth are concerned. I think that’s basically what the Secretary of State has in mind. But our position in relation to Hicks is what I have already outlined.

JOURNALIST:

[inaudible] his father’s request that yourself or another government official….?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I won’t be able to go and that would not be possible.

JOURNALIST:

[inaudible] legal advice on Mr Hicks’s position of whether he can be tried in Australia or….?

PRIME MINISTER:

We’re getting legal advice on his position yes.

JOURNALIST:

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Are you concerned that there are some [inaudible] in the UN who were not as keen with Australia to provide military support for…?

PRIME MINISTER:

I’m not going to single out any individual countries for criticism. We want proper burden sharing. We are prepared to carry our share of the burden which in the case of East Timor is a larger share for a whole combination of reasons of which you will be familiar and with which you would be familiar. But I’m not going to single out individual countries for criticism.

JOURNALIST:

Ansett [inaudible] sale. Do you believe that is the best possible outcome?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well can I leave that for Mr Anderson to deal with. Thank you.

[ends]