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Mayo Electorate Office, Stirling, South Australia: transcript of doorstop interview: Malaysian PM comments, Kopassus, Labor's Craig Emerson.



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6 November 2002, Mayo Electorate Office, Stirling, South Australia

Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer

Doorstop Interview, Malaysian PM comments, Kopassus, Labor's Craig Emerson

Journalist: What's your reaction first of all from the Malaysian Prime Minister today, who says Australia is unsafe for Muslims?

Downer: I think it's always wise for the Australian Government to avoid the temptation of getting into a debate with Dr Mahathir. That's been a very productive path for us. And he's often controversial and too often very silent about controversy with him. I'd make another point though and that is that two or three weeks ago we had the United Nations list Jema'ah Islamiyah as a terrorist organisation, and we very much appreciated the fact that Malaysia was one of the countries that co-sponsored the listing of Jema'ah Islamiyah with the United Nations. As a result of the listing of Jema'ah Islamiyah under our legislation we are able to interrogate people with links with Jema'ah Islamiyah and I think it's entirely appropriate that Australian authorities should (inaudible) interrogate people who do have links with terrorist organisations. It's very important that that is done. There's nothing more important than the security of the Australian people. We also note that Dr Mahathir's Government has not only interrogated but in many cases arrested members of Jema'ah Islamiyah under the Internal Security Act that operates in Malaysia. And we appreciate the decisive action the Malaysian Government has taken against Jema'ah Islamiyah and terrorist organisations. So I think the truth is when you put political rhetoric aside what the Australian and Malaysian Governments are doing to address this issue is very similar and we appreciate the position taken by the Malaysian Government against Jema'ah Islamiyah.

Journalist: What about comments that Australian travel advisories are too harsh?

Downer: At the end of the day, the Australian Government's obligations are first and foremost to the Australian people. And if we're criticised from time to time by other governments for our travel advisories, we have to stand by our primary obligation which is the protection of the Australian people. If we took the view that we should downgrade travel advisories in the face of international pressure and then Australians were killed or injured because they didn't have information that we did have, then we would be grossly derelict in our duties. Our first responsibility is the security of the Australian people. That is the Australian Government's first responsibility and we know what happened in Bali. We just can't be too cautious with our travel advisories.

Journalist: How justified are his concerns that (inaudible)

Downer: Well I think that not to ascribe (inaudible) to Dr Mahathir. A number of people in Asia have expressed disappointment about a number of western countries upgrading their travel advisories in recent weeks which includes Bali, when there have been quite a lot of claims made by intelligence agencies of possible terrorist attacks and they would rather the travel advisories were downgraded, but at the end of the day the Americans, the British, the Europeans, the

Australians, we all have a primary responsibility to protect our citizens and the sooner the issue of terrorism is resolved throughout the region and beyond, the sooner travel advisories can obviously be downgraded.

Journalist: Do you think the issue of terrorism will ever go away?

Downer: Well do I think the issue of extremist Islamic trans-boundary terrorism can be resolved? I think the answer to that is yes it can be. But it can be resolved only in the end, by very effective domestic measures taken by all countries, including us, including Malaysia and that's why countries like Australia and Malaysia have taken such decisive action in recent times. And secondly there has to be extremely close co-operation between countries of the region and or beyond. Of course with the United States, we've obviously been in touch with them (inaudible). And I think that's sort of heading in the right direction, but it's going to be a long and tough challenge to overcome it.

Journalist: Do you think these Malaysian sentiments are as a result of the ASIO raids of the last week or so?

Downer: Just listening to what Dr Mahathir had to say, it is clear he was watching a television report of the ASIO raids. I understand from what he said on the radio that was (inaudible).

Journalist: Inaudible

Downer: Well as I said I just think at the end of the day, we all know here in Australia that there's never anything to be gained from getting into a long debate with Dr Mahathir. I mean every few months there's the opportunity to get into a debate with him about something he said and every few months I decline the invitation to get into that debate. So this time, just like every other time, I'll let the ball fly through to the keeper.

Journalist: Where are we up to with our (inaudible)

Downer: The Labor Government of Mr Keating and Mr Beazley and Mr Crean used to have training between our SAS and Kopassus, the special forces of Indonesia, but in 1998 we decided that we thought that the close relationship Labor had preferred was in inappropriate given the human rights abuses by Kopassus, and we have made no steps to reinstate those training programmes, not to the best of my knowledge, certainly to the best of my recollection, have the Indonesians approached us to reinstate those training programmes with Kopassus. I'm pretty sure, look I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure they haven't approached us since 1998 about reinstating training programmes. But even if they did, I mean we're not in the process of going down that path and we've made it clear that we think some sort of a military relationship with the Indonesian Defence Force, which is known as TNI, is appropriate because we're next door neighbours. It's a sensitive issue, you've got to get the balance right. We've upgraded it a little bit since 1999, the time of the East Timor crisis. But we just take it step-by-step. We're not rushing into anything.

Journalist: Mr Downer, you've said you'd like to find appropriate ways to strength the links with Kopassus, what would be those appropriate…

Downer: No, no, not with Kopassus. With the Indonesian Defence Force. I deal every day with people putting words in my mouth. Well that's what we do. We have some Indonesians coming to Australia for officer training, going to the Australian Defence College. Those sorts of personal

links which I think actually are quite important and quite useful. But the extent to which we get back into the kind of tight embrace which used to exist between the Australian Defence Force and the Indonesian military when Labor was last in power, I think it would be quite some time before we ever got back into that sort of situation. You can't really predict, it depends on circumstances. The Indonesian military is now under civilian control in the way that it used to be at least up until 1998, and arguably beyond 1998. They have a civilian Defence Minister, the President herself is a civilian. The Indonesian military isn't as powerful, isn't as ubiquitous as it used to be. So it's not completely different, but it's a slightly different organisation from the one that existed at the time of President Soeharto, or even at the time of President Habibe. So we take all of that into account as we think through how we should appropriately build links with the Indonesian military.

Journalist: The suspects in the Bali bombing. There's two of them? (Inaudible)

Downer: Two or three. Two I think, yeah. The important thing for me to say here is I don't think it's appropriate we get into a running commentary about the investigation. I think it's better that if there's to be any commentary about that, it comes from the police, and in our case from the Australian Federal Police, who are working with the Indonesians. The investigation is obviously going ahead and we appreciate the co-operation there's been with the Indonesians. But it's obviously far from complete. Let's face it, there's a long way to go yet.

Journalist: What about reports today that David Hick's father, Terry Hicks, has come out and said that he can't get in contact with you regarding getting David home or getting in contact with him?

Downer: Well I heard this, and I checked with my office. I have an electorate office right here and I have an office in Canberra, and there's a Commonwealth Parliamentary Office in Adelaide too, and he has made no contact with any of my offices, and it's just a (inaudible) of the phone book. He's perfectly welcome to ring and speak to people who work for me. But at the end of the day it's more appropriate that he should speak with people in the Attorney-General's Department and I understand he has had a conversation with the Secretary of the Attorney-General's Department and so, in those circumstances I think that's the path he should follow.

Journalist: He says he tried to get in touch with you he went to Canberra on October the 11th, and (inaudible).

Downer: October the 11th. That was the day before Bali. That was a Friday and I was in Melbourne that day. I wasn't in Canberra on October the 11th. But as I said he certainly hasn't in recent times, and look the real point here is that David Hicks in custody in Guantanamo Bay, because he was involved with al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. And he was taken into custody, by I think the Northern Alliance originally and subsequently the Americans as he was a combatant in a war which was bring fought between the United States and its allies, including Australia, on the one hand and al-Qaeda and the Taliban on the other. And he was on the side of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, so it's not surprising he's got himself into a great deal of difficulty. I mean I don't think Australians, if I may just reflect the general view of Australians, I don't think Australians have an enormous amount of patience and tolerance just at this moment, for people who've been involved in terrorist organisations which may have been involved in a whole range of different terrorist acts, including the Bali bombings. We think it is very likely that al-Qaeda may have been involved in the Bali bombings. We're not 100 per cent sure of that, but we think and the Indonesians think, that there are clear indications that al-Qaeda may have been behind it. In those circumstances, to be honest with you, we just have to be rigorous in making sure we do

everything we can to clamp down on terrorist organisations and if people have been involved in these terrorist organisations, then obviously they're going to get themselves into some sort of difficulty.

Journalist: Inaudible

Downer: In the case of the people in Vietnam, I'm not going to get into a debate if I may say so, with Mr Hicks, but I'll make this point to you if you want a comparison. There are three people in Vietnam who have been arrested for drug trafficking. Two of them are young children, one of them is 14 and one of them is 12. All we have said in relation to those people who've been taken into custody is that we'll endeavour to make contact with them through our consulate in Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City. In the case of David Hicks in Guantanamo Bay, he's been visited on more than one occasion by Australian officials and has had the opportunity to talk to them.

Journalist: Do you think he has been disingenuous in terms of what the Australian Government has done?

Downer: I think Terry Hicks is inevitably concerned about his son. And I think a parent should be concerned about their children.

Journalist: Mr Downer just quickly on another issue, the deferral of the ASEAN plus Australia meeting, is that a snub?

Downer: It is absolutely not. On the contrary I was rather pleased that at the ASEAN Summit yesterday in Phnom Penh, when I think the Cambodians raised the issue of the possibility of a summit meeting with the Australian Prime Minister at some stage in the future, that there was a positive response to that. I understand from people who were at the meeting that no-one spoke against the idea of a summit with Australia. And officials are now going to look at the mechanics of how that could happen. There are questions to be asked about how often would the summit take place and what would be the nature of it, how long would it last. All of these sorts of issues need to be worked through and they need to be worked through with us as well. We don't have strong views about that, but we will have a view about all of those sorts of questions, and I'm pleased in what was inevitably a rather tumultuous environment for the region coming after the Bali bombings, that when this was raised by the Cambodians at the meeting at Phnom Penh, there was a positive response to it, that's good. I mean how can it be a snub if there's a positive response. No-one spoke against it.

Journalist: Are you confident though of it actually ever getting up.

Downer: I think it will, yes. They have set in place one summit with India and it took two or three years to put that process in place. Now they've said to us that they would be interested in the idea of a summit with Australia, but we need to talk through the details of how this could happen. And I think that's very constructive. I think our response to that is positive. There could be some value in such a summit. And it all helps with what is a very important project for Australia, and that's building more constructive and close relations with the ASEAN countries. Not always very easy but it's a long-term process. These things don't just happen overnight or in a week. Patient steady diplomacy ultimately will yield us those rewards.

Journalist: Labor's Craig Emerson has said in Melbourne today that the Howard Government is anti-Asian.

Downer: Craig Emerson?

Journalist: Labor front bencher.

Downer: I just think that the problem for the Federal Labor Party is that it's getting to a point where it is just desperate. Given that we just sold $25 billion worth of LNG to China. Given that we've had large numbers of visits by Asian leaders. Given all of the engagements as a Government we have with Asia, I think it is profoundly foolish to make that kind of remark. This Mr Emerson you talk of, is obviously somebody who is desperately trying to get the Federal Labor Party into the media and I would say, look, try not to go down the path of abuse. The challenge for the Labor Party is to just walk away from abuse and start to develop some ideas and policies of their own. And this sort of language, those kinds of claims, one could only describe them as pathetic.

Journalist: Inaudible

Downer: I don't think it's well founded but I can understand them saying that. I've made this point I think immediately after the Bali bombings, it occurred to both me and the Prime Minister that there could be an anti-Islamic sentiment that could flow from that within Australia, and both he and I and others have worked very hard to try to explain to people - I mean it is very important that Australians understand - that we don't have an argument with Muslims. I mean there are 300,000 Muslims in Australia and just about all of them are constructive members of the Australian community. We have an argument with the extremists and terrorists, and it is quite wrong to equate Islam with terrorism. It is quite right to equate organisations like al-Qaeda and Jema'ah Islamiyah which pervert the message of Islam, distort the message of Islam, hijack Islam for their own outrageous causes and their own bloodthirsty acts. It is very important that right across Australia people understand that Australia shouldn't and doesn't have an argument with Islam and with Muslims. But it is very important that we maintain the integrity and the strength of our multicultural multi-faith society. If people want to be Muslims or Hindus or Anglicans or Catholics or Buddhists, in a country like Australia they are welcome to be. And they are not to be stereotyped because of their religious beliefs or indeed their ethnic origins, their ethnic backgrounds. But I actually think coming out of Bali, let me say this, I think just after September 11 last year there was some anti-Muslim sentiment. I recall a mosque in Brisbane being attacked and one or two other incidents. But I have to say to you, I think coming out of Bali there hasn't been too much in the way of anti-Muslim sentiments. There may have been one or two incidents, but it hasn't been too bad. But they're right to draw attention to the fact that it's very important that that great tradition of tolerance and multiculturalism in Australia be maintained at this difficult time.

ENDS……………………………………………………………….6 November 2002