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Transcript of doorstop: 8 September 2005: Hurricane Katrina; MDG's.

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DATE: September 8 2005

TITLE: Doorstop - Hurricane Katrina, MDG’s

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Look, I just wanted to, I guess, confirm because there's been information given to the media already about Ashley Macdonald, the one Australian left that we have had concerns about as a result of Hurricane Katrina. He's been found in a prison about ten miles south of Baton Rouge. We understand that he was arrested on the Sunday before the cyclone and he'd been in the prison ever since. We've extended consular assistance to him. A Federal Police officer who was helping our consular staff try to track him down has discussed the situation with Ashley Macdonald now, and for privacy reasons, you'll understand, I won't go in to the nature of that conversation, or the reason that he's in prison. That will all come out as time goes on. Our expectation is he won't be spending a great deal of time in this prison, but he was taken to the prison by police. So that means that we are now able to account for all of the Australians that we've been concerned about.

Over and above that there are five Australians who are long-term residents of New Orleans, or the New Orleans area, who we understand have almost certainly been evacuated, and because they are long-standing residents of the United States they haven't taken the opportunity to contact consular offices. We're not able to confirm where they are but we understand that they are likely to be okay. So that means that the substantial part of our consular function is likely to be complete.

I spoke this morning with our Ambassador to the United States, Dennis Richardson, and took the opportunity of thanking him and the consular staff for the wonderful work that they have done. I am sorry that some people in Australia have decided to politicise this very, very difficult exercise. It obviously has not reflected well on Mr Beazley and his team, and I think that the Australian public understand that. Mr Beazley, I note, has decided not to repeat the absurd arguments that he was promoting earlier this week, and I'm glad that he has decided to abandon those silly ideas. But consular staff have done a wonderful job, and they've worked very long hours, and very hard, and I appreciate their work.

Journalist: Do you have any explanation as to why Mr Macdonald's credit card details were used in a motel in Baton Rouge?

Downer: The police, including the Australian Federal Police and the local Louisiana police, are dealing with that. It's not really a matter for me to get in to.

Inquiries: (02) 6277 7500 1

Journalsit: Was he arrested in New Orleans?

Downer: I'm not sure. I assume that he must of been arrested in Baton Rouge, bearing in mind that his material was there. I don't think that he actually got to New Orleans.

Journalist: Should the Embassy have been notified as soon as he was arrested, or shortly afterwards?

Downer: Well usually police do notify embassies but that happens in particular if the Australian who has been arrested asks for the embassy to be notified. Otherwise a local police force anywhere in the world might not necessarily think to do that. We would hope that they would do that, but they wouldn't automatically do that unless they were asked to do that by the relevant Australian.

Journalist: It seems that an Australian Federal Policeman is the one who has solved this mystery. Otherwise he could have been in this situation...

Downer: Well, a combination of the consular office, the Federal Police and the Louisiana police as well, helped, so they all worked together, yes.

Journalist: (Inaudible)

Downer: Well, that's right. I don't think that, without breaching the Privacy Act here, and I'm careful myself operate within the law, but the fact is that he's not likely to spend a long period of time in prison. I suspect that he will be released from prison fairly soon.

Journalist: Do you think that it was his lucky day that he was arrested?

Downer: He was arrested the day before the hurricane.

Journalist: Would you say in the circumstances that it was good fortune?

Downer: I would say all people who for one reason or another were thinking of going to New Orleans but did not end up in New Orleans were either sensible or lucky. That's what I would say.

Journalist: At least he was secure, though.

Downer: Yes, that's right. He certainly was secure.

Journalist: Did we jump too early yesterday, Minister, in this sighting? Did we get it wrong yesterday in Parliament?

Downer: I think we got it right, as it turns out. I think we were quite right that having found - having traced his - through his credit card - traced him to the motel we were able to establish almost certainly - if you look at what I said not absolutely certainly but almost certainly that he was alive. That was an enormous relief to us. It seemed - the only other alternative was that his credit card or his wallet could have been stolen by someone else but the manager of

Inquiries: (02) 6277 7500 2

the motel had said that an Australian had been there and somebody else there also testified to the police that he had been there so we felt reasonably confident that he was still alive and so we were very relieved that we tracked him down. We got it about right.

Journalist: What did you make of Wilson Tuckey's comments this week criticising family member who have loved ones in New Orleans? Did you think he was a bit rich with those comments?

Downer: Well, look, the situation is this, that some of the people in New Orleans were permanent residents and it's very hard for us to make judgments about the decisions they made. Now it is true to say in the days before Hurricane Katrina came there was a mandatory evacuation order issued for New Orleans by the local authorities. The Mayor, the Governor of Louisiana and the President of the United States himself in - and I think almost unprecedented move - came out and said people should leave. Now why didn't some people leave? Well in some cases they have said there was such a crowd of people leaving it seemed almost impossible. Some people have said they had to depend on public transport and they couldn't find public transport. There are all sorts of explanations. But it wasn't the place to go to if you were a tourist when there was a mandatory evacuation order issued and there was clearly going to be a hurricane. What the effect of the hurricane would be no one knew. But look people make those decisions. Our job isn't to set ourselves up as moral judges of these people; our job is to try to help them get out of a situation like that. Almost every day of the week we are dealing with Australians who get into strife and I might privately think that that is a very silly thing to have done but whatever I might privately think the thing is that we've got to try to get them out.

Journalist: - - - changes the United States wants to make to the UN Millennium Development Goals?

Downer: I think when you talk about the UN Development Goals - I think - Millennium Development Goals - I think what's happened here is there's been a confusion of analysis. What has happened here is that a draft has been produced by the UN Secretariat in response to proposals from a committee which Gareth Evans was part of for reform of the United Nations. Many countries, if not all, many countries have put forward proposals for changes to that paper. There would be thousands of amendments so for some reason or other there is a focus on the United States putting forward some amendments but no focus on any other country putting forward amendments. Now in our particular case we're part of the core group which is trying to see if it's possible to achieve some kind of a consensus on this document so that the summit can be a success next week. My judgment at the moment is that it's going to be very hard to get countries around the world to agree to a substantial document. I'm not very optimistic about that at the moment. As a matter of fact I think the part of it that is most likely to attract a consensus is the part that deals with development assistance to developing countries but I think in areas like reform of the United Nations Security Council, the establishment of a United Nations Peace Building Commission, the establishment of a Human Rights Council, the so-called responsibility to protect provisions - we actually support all of those things but I don't think we're going to get sufficient consensus from many of those initiatives and I don't think the United States deserves to be particularly singled out. I mean you can single out any range of countries, but in our case we're trying very constructively to help build a consensus and I'm not sure. I have got a bit pessimistic about it, but I don't particularly point the finger at the United States.

Inquiries: (02) 6277 7500 3

Journalist: Mr Downer, do you think MPs are out of touch in terms of how much it's costing families to fill up a tank of petrol at the moment?

Downer: I'll come back to a tank of petrol.

Journalist: Sorry - would you support the US on - - -

Downer: My wife is always on the phone about that.

Journalist: Do you support the US though in its changes it wants to make?

Downer: Well, I haven't looked at every - they've got 190 amendments, but I mean if you take all of the amendments that different countries have been putting forward you'd be talking about thousands of them. Well we have had a different view from the United States in relation to a reform of the United Nations Security Council which I suppose is the most prominent of all of the reforms. The United States has not been supportive of the so-called G4 proposal to add Japan, India, Brazil, Germany and two African countries as permanent members of the Security Council. They've said they supported Japan but that's all. We go further than that. So we have some differences with the United States and we have some points of agreement with them. We don't support everything they say, no, but we don't support a lot of the different amendments that are put forward. We don't support the Chinese position in relation to Security Council reform, which is to have no reform at all for the time being.

Journalist: Do you think MPs are out of touch in terms of how much it's costing families to fill up their family car now with the price of petrol skyrocketing?

Downer: I think they're very much in touch. Not only does it of course affect all of our families and just for what it's worth my electorate office is next door to a service station so I can't help but be very closely in touch with the way petrol prices have gone up. But I think the Australian public, whilst feeling the pain of increases in petrol prices - and they've gone up I think about 40 per cent in the last few months - has been a simply massive increase in petrol prices. They understand that this is caused by events which are completely outside of Australia's control and I would identify two things: first of all most recently the impact of Hurricane Katrina on the oil exploitation facilities and storage and refining facilities in the Gulf of Mexico. Secondly, the enormous increase in demand for oil from China as a result of a massive growth in the Chinese economy and that production and refining has not been able to keep pace with the very rapid growth in demand so I think - look the public understand that and they also understand - I mean we all understand that it causes pain for people. Of course it does. At the service station next door to my electorate office petrol prices have gone into the $1.20-$1.30 range from being in the 80s and the 90 cents.

Journalist: Do you know how much it costs to fill up your family car?

Downer: Well it varies. It depends where you go, on the day and the hour of the day….By the way I usually just put $50 in and I can assure you that doesn't fill it up any more.

Journalist: - - - to commemorate the first anniversary of the bombing of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta tomorrow?

Inquiries: (02) 6277 7500 4

Downer: We are - there's going to be a ceremony that will take place and we'll obviously - some ceremonies here but also in Jakarta.

Journalist: And how are things going as far as the diplomatic offices in Jakarta - have they been reinforced now?

Downer: Yes. Almost all of the work is done to strengthen the security at the Australian Embassy. Obviously the measures we had taken saved the lives of the people inside the building but didn't save the lives of the Indonesians who were in the perimeter of the building but saved the lives of the Australians in the building. Those security measures have not only been reinstated, because some of the windows, for example, were blown out by the blast and the fence was blown - parts of it were blown apart. That is not only being rebuilt but reinforced and it's either complete or it's very nearly complete, that work.

Journalist: Mr Downer, do you support new tougher counter terrorism laws? The Prime Minister has called a meeting to discuss this in the party room. Would you support that?

Downer: Well the party room will make a decision on whatever the meeting is about and you'll hear about it in the fullness of time.

Journalist: But you would support such a - - -

Downer: Well I'll leave that to Phillip Ruddock to talk about.

Journalist: Just on petrol briefly, there has been an argument - a taxation argument - that the GST is a tax on a tax despite what the Howard Government has obviously done in relation to excise. Do you think that further down the track there does need to be a further discussion or a further look at that - at the taxation that is applied by the Federal Government to fuel?

Downer: Well the GST, 100 per cent of the revenue from the GST that is collected through petrol goes straight through to the state governments. I'd be interested to know whether the state governments would be willing to forego any of that revenue during this increase in petrol prices. My guess, I didn't agree with Paul Keating on much, but I do agree with the famous Keatingism that you never want to stand between a state premier and a bucket of money. I think that there's a lot to be said for that saying. I doubt that they would be prepared all to come together and say, "We would like to receive less of the GST revenue from petrol, and could you provide a refund of some kind?" I don't think that that is going to happen.

Journalist: But if they're going to get a big windfall of it, do you think that they could look at other taxes - the payroll tax - and try and get a big windfall...

Downer: They have had a massive windfall from a whole range of different reasons. They have had a massive windfall from land taxes, they've had a higher growth in property prices, they have had a massive windfall because the economy has grown strongly from GST revenue. You very well ask what they do with all that money. You may very well ask.

Journalist: What's the latest with the new embassy in Jakarta?

Downer: Look, that's still a long way off. We have another block of land. I think I said a year ago - the site we have is less than perfect in two ways: one, is security, for example, one - I

Inquiries: (02) 6277 7500 5

Inquiries: (02) 6277 7500 6

think it's one - of the lanes on the road, which is a multi-lane highway in front of the Embassy and has to be blocked off for security reasons. And that's obviously not very convenient in terms of the motorists, the Indonesian motorists. But, secondly, the Embassy itself, when it was built, simply wasn't big enough. So we would like in time to build a new embassy. We do have another block of land, but that's not going to happen for some period of time.

Journalist: Mr Downer, it's been nine months since the US has had a permanent ambassador to Australia. Has the Government made any representations recently to find out why they have been dragging their heels?

Downer: There hasn't been any representations. They've let us know what the issues are. That's really a matter for them. Take it up with the State Department. They have a spokesman who talks every day.