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Transcript of Press Conference with the Prime Minister: Parliament House, Canberra: Troop deployment to Afghanistan, Telstra, Rau family.



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TRANSCRIPT SENATOR THE HON ROBERT HILL Minister for Defence Leader of the Government in the Senate

_______________________________________________________________________________________

PRESS CONFERENCE WITH

PRIME MINISTER JOHN HOWARD

Parliament House Canbera

12.30pm on 13 July 2005

E&oe___________________troop deployment to Afghanistan, Telstra, Rau family

PRIME MINISTER:

Well ladies and gentlemen, Senator Hill and I have called this news conference to announce decisions taken by the Government in relation to a military commitment to Afghanistan. As I think you’re all aware. We made a commitment in the wake of the attack on the United States in September of 2001 and that Task Group essentially of SAS personnel performed extremely well and enormous progress was made. And on military advice it came out at the end of 2002.

It’s fair to say that the progress that’s been made and the establishment of a legitimate Government in Afghanistan has come under increasing attack and pressure from the Taliban in particular and some elements of Al Qaeda. We have received, at a military level, requests from both the United States and others and also the Government of Afghanistan and we have therefore decided in order to support the efforts of others to support in turn the Government of Afghanistan to despatch a Special Forces Task Group which will comprise some 150 personnel, comprising SAS troops, Commandos and supporting elements. We would expect that group to be in place by September of this year. It will be deployed for a period of twelve months. It will have a security task which is very similar to the task that was undertaken by an SAS taskforce that went in 2001. It will operate in conjunction with forces of the United States. There will be a separate Australian national command, although the SAS Task Group will be under the operational control of United States forces.

The Government has been informed by the Chief of the Defence Force that the commitment is well within the capacity of the ADF. The commitment will be for a period of twelve months and that will mean, amongst other things, that the forces will be back in Australia well in advance of the holding of the 2007 APEC meetings in Australia which will of course require a heightened security capacity in this country. The Government has also decided to task the ADF to examine the possibility of sending a Provincial Reconstruction Team to Afghanistan. This Provincial Reconstruction Team could involve up to 200 personnel and if a final decision is taken to send it, then it would go in probably about April, May or June of next year. We intend to discuss aspects of this with our allies and with the Government of Afghanistan. We see great merit in there being such a reconstruction

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team, but it’s important that discussions be held with our allies and with the Government before a final decision has been taken.

I want to emphasise of course that with the despatch of any military commitment there is the possibility that casualties will be suffered. The Australian military forces have been very fortunate in the military engagements of recent times. But although there have been casualties, they have not been extensive. And I simply want to state the obvious, and that is that any military deployment will involve the possibility of casualties. We think it’s important that the progress made in Afghanistan is preserved and consolidated and that the resurgence of violence and the resurgence of attempts by the Taliban to undermine the Government of that country are not successful. It is also the case that because of the termination of our troop commitments in East Timor and the Solomon Islands we are, relatively speaking, in a better position to provide this assistance now than would have been the case a little while ago.

To anticipate, at least one of your questions, can I say that in relation to the SAS, the estimated cost is in the order of; additional cost that is, is in the order of 50 to 100 million dollars. I don’t have any cost estimates in relation to the PRT because a final decision on that matter has not been taken.

Could I also take the opportunity of saying that on behalf of the Government, that I believe that the current military commitment that Australia has in Iraq is appropriate. We have not received any requests from the British Government or from senior defence officials of the Ministry of Defence in London to increase our commitment or indeed to replace British troops in a particular part of that country. As I said at the weekend, there’s always a possibility that all sorts of hypothetical situations get raised at a military level. But I do want to emphasise that there has been no approach by the British Government or by senior people in the Ministry of Defence. I believe, the Government believes that the current commitment is appropriate and we have no current intention of increasing our military commitment in Iraq. We think it’s the right balance, the right mix and they’re doing an excellent job. I will, of course, have something more to say, as will the Defence Minister, closer to the time of the departure of our SAS and other personnel to Afghanistan, but needless to say, they will have the total support of the people of Australia. They will have the good wishes and prayers of all Australians for their safety. Military operations are always dangerous and there’s a real risk that because we have, relatively speaking, been very fortunate in relation to casualties to date, a sense of complacency, almost assumption that nothing bad can happen. In truth, that is not the case. SAS work is very challenging. They are superbly trained. There are none better in the world, but they, nonetheless will face very significant risks and we must bear that very much in mind.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister where will the SAS troops go to in Afghanistan? What part of Afghanistan will they…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that will be something that has to be discussed. It’s at this stage what I would call, and you would understand, to be an operational matter.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard have you been briefed very comprehensively on the security situation in Afghanistan. Are you able to give us any sort of rundown? There’s obviously been some resurgence on the part of the Taliban and possibly Al Qaeda. Could you just give us a rundown?

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PRIME MINISTER:

Well I can do little more than confirm what you have said. I don’t want to go into details and locations and so forth for reasons you will understand. But we don’t want to overstate the resurgence anymore than we want to understate it and Senator Hill may wish to add something to this because he is in touch with it on a day to day basis. We have seen a situation where we; we meaning the allies, had great initial success and the Taliban was routed and a legitimate government was installed. And in recent months there has been a resurgence and it’s very important in the war against terror because of the obvious connection between Al Qaeda, the Taliban and Afghanistan that those attempts of recent times, renewed attempts to undermine the Government of Afghanistan are not successful, and that involves not only a renewed security effort but it also involves a consolidation of the, what you might call, the hearts and minds side of the operation as well, and that’s why we’re looking at the PRT.

JOURNALIST:

Was a decision to delay a decision on deploying the PRT due to any concerns about having enough infantry protection for them, or were there other reasons?

PRIME MINISTER:

No we wanted to be satisfied that in taking that decision we discussed how they would be deployed, where they would operate, who they would work with, and that involves some discussion with other people.

HILL:

So there are many different options obviously particularly as ISAF seeks to extend in its third phase, which is moving into the west and then ultimately its fourth phase which is moving into the south. Now there’s already been some spread of PRTs out beyond Kabul, but as that is further extended, which is the objective, many different options will be available for Australia. We think it’s therefore better to confer with others who are already there. Many countries already involved in the

PRT process and under the head of ISAF, but if we confer with NATO which now has the leadership of ISAF, to confer with the British who established a leadership in the north, the Italians have established a leadership in the west, then we’ll be able to better present options for Government which could be done next year. We’ll make decisions that fit our capabilities and the areas of greatest need.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, you said that Australia pulled out of Afghanistan at the end of 2002 according to military advice. Do you concede now that that advice was flawed or was it just optimistic?

PRIME MINISTER:

No I don’t, I don’t it was flawed at all. You’ve got to remember that when Australia withdrew those forces, they were withdrawn against a background that it had always been the Australian position that we would provide some support of an elite kind at the sharp end, and that we were never disposed at the beginning to have that long-term - what I might loosely call peacekeeping role. And when we left, I can’t recall the precise number, but there were forces from quite a number of other countries maintained there and therefore I don’t think for a moment it was flawed. And could I, at this juncture take this, take the opportunity of rejecting these rather breathless posturings of Mr Rudd on this issue. The reality is that when we

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announced our decision for the SAS to pull out of Iraq (sic) that was warmly endorsed by the Labor Party. The then Leader of the Opposition said it was a welcome decision, it was fantastic news and that he was delighted that the troops were going to be home by Christmas. There was no suggestion then from the Labor Party or from Mr Rudd of cutting and running. I mean this is a latter day, well after the event, patently transparent piece of political posturing and it has no substance in the historical record of any kind, and it’s one of those sort of breathless pieces of posturing that the Member for Griffith is renowned for.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister why shouldn’t Australia be seen by history as optimistic, we pulled out of Afghanistan and we now have to go back, we pulled out of Iraq, we now are back there…

PRIME MINISTER:

We didn’t pull out of Iraq.

JOURNALIST:

Well sorry…

PRIME MINISTER:

Hang on, we didn’t pull out of Iraq. I thought we had quite a debate last year about not pulling out of Iraq.

JOURNALIST:

But in terms of sharp end, Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no. You pull out in my view when you do something contrary to what you’d always planned to do. And we always said in relation to Iraq, now come on you’re talking about history, let’s get this straight. We said at the very beginning in relation to Iraq that we would offer troops at the sharp end, and you can’t have it both ways. You can’t have a go at us keeping to that, yet when we made our announcement about the forces in Al Muthanna, some people tried to argue that was contrary to what we previously said about having people at the sharp end. So, look, what has happened is that we, there’s a lot of progress made at the beginning, enormous progress, in recent months there has been a resurgence and it’s very important that all countries play a role in making sure that that resurgence is not in any way successful and that the legitimate Government of Afghanistan is supported, consolidated and reaffirmed, and that’s a responsibility of the entire international community. We think the best way we can play our part in those new circumstances is what I have announced.

JOURNALIST:

How do the national command arrangements work, how will that work? And who will be the national command?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I may have to be augmented by the expert on this, but my understanding is it will work similarly as it worked in Iraq and as has worked in Afghanistan in the past. The Australian forces operate according to Australian military law and we

have a separate national command, but in a theatre sense we’re under the operational command of the Americans and that makes sense because of the preponderance of numbers.

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JOURNALIST:

Have we got an Australian commander?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well there will be one nominated but that’s something that we’re going to, we’re going to, Robert maybe in the position to foreshadow that, but I’m not.

JOURNALIST:

(inaudible) Afghanistan?

PRIME MINISTER:

As we did last time, yes.

HILL:

We tend to operate as a separate task group. We would seek our own area of operations. We intend to operate within the overall operational picture of the United States. They have a very large number of forces including, obviously significant tier one special forces and basically we’ll be under our own national command as we have been elsewhere.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, you’ve got an open ended commitment in Iraq and yet a 12-month deadline on this, how can you be so confident that the job will done in 12 months?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well one of the reasons why we’re putting a 12-month commitment on it is that we do assess that there will need to be a greater elite security capacity in this country in the lead up to the APEC meeting.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister can we just ask a question in relation to the Rau family? The Palmer report will obviously be tabled tomorrow but can the Government ever give a guarantee that such events won’t take place again given the difficulties in identifying some people, and how much further reform do you think is required in the Department of Immigration?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that is not a question about the Rau family, that’s, I mean I understand why you ask it, it is an easy journalistic question to ask. Look I am not going to get into the business of giving an absolute guarantee that a mistake will never be made in

the future. What I can promise you is that the changes to be undertaken in the wake of the Palmer findings and under the leadership of the new Secretary of the Department, will address the circumstances that resulted in the Rau mistake being made in the first place. Now if you’re asking me to put my hand on my heart and say that I can guarantee you that mistakes like this won’t be made, I can’t do that. No Prime Minster credibly can do that, I mean you could say it and hope that no error is ever made in the future but what I can put my hand on my heart and say to you is that there will be a serious addressing of these issues undertaken by Andrew Metcalfe who is the new Secretary of the Department and in cooperation with other people. Let me also put in a word for the Immigration Department, I know that they’ve become an object of criticism in the media. It’s very easy when you’re dealing with thousands of people and when an error is made in relation to one or

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two, it’s easy to blacken the reputation of the entire Department. Obviously mistakes were made and they shouldn’t have been made and clearly changes have got to be implemented to reduce the likelihood of those mistakes in the future, I accept that fully but I wouldn’t want it to be thought that the Government doesn’t believe that over the long haul and given the strains on it, that the Department hasn’t done a very good job because I think it has.

JOURNALIST:

Are you now going to consider compensation for these two women?

PRIME MINISTER:

That is an issue that I will take advice on in the wake of, the Government will take advice on, in the wake the Palmer Report. I won’t say more at this time.

JOURNALIST:

On Afghanistan. How much of the fact that there has been a resurgence of Taliban and terrorist activity in Afghanistan, at least in the propaganda sense has been contributed to by the fact that Iraq is now a recruitment ground for terrorists?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I’m probably not the person you should direct that question to. I mean others will have a view on that. I think the capacity of the Taliban and the resilience and the resurgence of it is something that is separate and apart from what is happening in other parts of the world. I’m not saying there isn’t a connection of some kind, I mean there are obviously links amongst terrorists all around the world but there was a free-standing resurgence capacity, let me put it that way in Afghanistan before Iraq.

JOURNALIST:

Apart from the deployment to Iraq decision, did the NSC finalise any further decisions on domestic security in the wake of the events in London?

PRIME MINISTER:

We discussed the tragedy in London at some length. We have sought some further advice and information and if there are any decisions to be announced coming out of that process then they will be announced. It’s fair to say Geoff, we talked about the issue and there are a number of things that we are examining that might be done to further strengthen arrangements. But we’ve got to recognise that there is a point in relation to additional security precautions that you reach and that if you go further you start to become potentially counter-productive. I think I used the example at the weekend of searching every bag carried by every person who got on a train in the major cities of Australia, plainly that is not realistic. Yet if you say to me are we doing everything we can do? I would have to say to you, well you’re not doing everything you can do if you’re not searching every bag, but then you would understand that you can’t search every bag without bringing the free movement of people to an effective halt. But there are several areas, I mean one area that we, one or two areas, that we are looking at and when we’re in a position to say more we will.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister is there a fixed duration for the foreshadowed deployment of the Provincial Reconstruction Team?

PRIME MINISTER:

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We haven’t got to the stage, we haven’t taken a final decision on that. Clearly we want to examine a number of things and if we do take a final decision, if we do take a final decision to send it, well we’ll address that issue then. It’s inappropriate to address it now.

JOURNALIST:

(inaudible) Taliban or Al Qaeda have over the opium poppy trade in Afghanistan?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look I don’t comment about the details of intelligence.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister just on another issue. A survey released today by the New South Wales Farmers’ Association showed that 80 percent of farmers are still against the sale of Telstra. You’re meeting with Telstra’s new boss today, are you going to tell him that the Government’s still a long way off from selling Telstra?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I’ve met him and I’ve told him what the Government’s policy is and the Government’s policy will not change, and that is we believe, subject to being satisfied that services in the bush are up to scratch, that we believe we should proceed with the sale of the remaining tranche of Telstra. That will be our policy, clearly the details of that have to be discussed within the Coalition parties. We have invested and Telstra’s invested an enormous amount in upgrading services in rural Australia and we do not believe that the path to guaranteed high performance telecommunications services in the bush lies in the near permanent maintenance of this current arrangement where the company is half owned by the Government and half owned by individual taxpayers. Eventually the absurdity of that arrangement has to begin to effect services and that is one of the, if not the, fundamental reason why we remain very committed to the policy of the sale of Telstra. But we’re sensitive to bush concerns, as you know I am always sensitive to the views of my fellow Australians who live outside the capital cities and I always listen to them very carefully. And my mail as I go around the country is that people really want assurance about the future availability of technology upgrades and so forth, rather than having some rooted philosophical warmth towards total Government, or even majority Government ownership of a telephone company.

JOURNALIST:

Did you discuss any specific roles with, for the SAS with President Musharraf when he was here and would you expect them to operate into Pakistan…

PRIME MINISTER:

The answer is no.

JOURNALIST:

(inaudible) legislation on Telstra?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh I can’t tell you that just now, I mean I think soon but we’ve got to go through the final decision process within the Coalition. I think when that happens is the time to talk about legislative timetables.

Thank you.

[ends]