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Hyatt Hotel Jakarta, 17 September 1996: press conference

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EOE.....

Ladies and Gentlemen, this as you know is the first visit I have paid to Indonesia as Prime Minister. I have been here on a number of earlier occasions and I have met the President on two previous occasions in 1985 and in 1992.

It had been intended that the visit take place a few weeks earlier, but for personal reasons of which you are aware, my visit had to be rescheduled and I particularly appreciated the courtesy and co- operation of the President and the Indonesian government in assisting with the rescheduling of the visit.

It is a very important visit to me personally, but more than that, it is an important visit for the new government.

It has enabled me to tell President Soeharto directly and on several opportunities over the past day, the great importance the new government in Australia attaches to the bilateral relationship between Australia and Indonesia.

I can say to you today that as a result of the discussions that I had, particularly with President Soeharto this morning, and previously briefer discussions yesterday, that the bilateral relationship is in very good shape, there is a very clear understanding between the two of us of the importance of the relationship each to the other, and the contribution that the strong relationship makes to the region.

It is an opportunity for me to tell the President of the economic reform plans domestically that the new government in Australia has, the importance of those reform plans to the continuing development to the Indonesian economy. It was an opportunity for me to say that it was a relationship which had developed over a long period of time to which governments of both sides of politics in Australia had made distinctive contributions. I told the President that inevitably with a change of government, certain things would be done differently, styles would be different, there would be different nuances, but there was an essential continuity insofar as the Australian government was concerned to both the depth and the quality of the relationship.

We are very different societies, we have our own distinctive practices, our own particular histories, our own cultures, our own systems, but we have a desire to get on. We have a recognition of the importance of that and I am very pleased indeed to have had this opportunity to talk so directly and so frankly with the President. He received me with very great friendliness and courtesy for which I thank him, having showed an obvious interest in the nature of the relationship and the quality of it, and I can say that I am very very well pleased with the visit and with our exchanges and I want again to express to the President and to the government of Indonesia my immense gratitude for the very hospitable, gracious and courteous way in which I have been received and the evident trouble to which the Indonesian government has gone in arranging the visit and in that, giving a token of the importance it attaches to our bilateral relationship.

QUESTION....inaudible

PRIME MINISTER:

Because it's self- evident; it's true, it's the situation. I always believe in these situations that one speaks in a friendly, factual, candid fashion. I think in fact it's a remark that has been made in Asia by my immediate predecessor - I think in fact in Singapore - there's nothing new about it but I believe in a relationship between countries such as Australia and Indonesia it is better to understand the differences and understand who we are and who we are not, so that we can expend our energy on focusing on those things and those interests that we have in common.

QUESTION:

...could you also explain what you meant last night when you said that you did not see Australia s a bridge between Asia and the west?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, very readily Mr Middleton. I don't see Australia as a bridge between Asia and the west in a cultural political sense because to see us as a bridge between Asia and the west in a cultural political sense would be to imply that countries in Asia were incapable of forming their own political and cultural associations with the nations of the west and that in some way they needed the assistance of Australia to interpret them to the west. I think that would be verging on the patronising to suggest that.

On the other hand, quite clearly in an economic and a business sense in which I am sure I would have used that kind of language or language very similar to it in the past, and I'd use it again in a language (?) scene, in a business or commercial sense, Australia is clearly a base in the eyes of many companies in western Europe for operations into this region. A bridge if you like in that sense - a business/commercial sense, although in many cases no such bridge or base is needed. It's a question of the particular circumstances. But I used it in the context of political and cultural considerations.

QUESTION:

You said last night we should not presume to have the answers to each others problems. Did you raise the issue of human rights with President Soeharto and the development of the pro- democracy movement in Indonesia?

PRIME MINISTER:

The question of human rights generally and the situation in East Timor particularly was raised by me in my discussions with the President this morning in the context of my observing that there are particular traditions and particular political systems in different countries.

Ours is a political system which admits as a fundamental complete freedom of press expression, and it is inevitable, and I mention this in the context of East Timor, that it is inevitable that human rights concerns will be raised from time to time and debated in Australia and certainly debated and canvassed in the Australian press. It was in that context that the issue of human rights was raised. I then went on to make the observation that it was important that where there were differences and concerns there be a sensible dialogue between governments on those, that they not be allowed to influence or have a negative or deleterious impact on the overall relationship.

QUESTION:

...inaudible

PRIME MINISTER:

I extended that invitation to him immediately I became Prime Minister and as far as I am concerned that invitation stands but the question of the President's travel plans is entirely a matter for him.

QUESTION: ...inaudible

PRIME MINISTER:

It's exactly what I have said. I was asked a question about human rights and I explained the context in which I raised the issue.

QUESTION: ...inaudible

PRIME MINISTER:

I don't seek to parse and analyse every difference and every nuance between myself and the former government. I think we've become a little bit obsessive with that. There is a basic continuity, but there are differences and those differences will emerge - the differences of emphasis, the differences of style. I wasn't necessarily asserting that there was a particular difference in that are that you raised. There may be over time but let's take that as it comes. I am not obsessed with finding differences between the way in which I conduct myself overseas and the way in which any of my predecessors conduct themselves overseas, as for others to do, I think we have had an overload of this obsession with leadership styles.

QUESTION:

But do you see any essential change in emphasis on this issue of human rights?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think that's something that over a period of time, Mr Burton, that will evolve.

QUESTION:

Mr Howard did you actually express any concern about the way in which the pro- democracy riots were handled in Jakarta?

PRIME MINISTER:

That matter itself did not come up in our discussions this morning.

QUESTION:

Mr Howard it seems you've developed a good working relationship with the President. How would you classify that relationship?

PRIME MINISTER:

I found him a friendly, engaging, highly intelligent man who showed to me - and bear in mind that he is only the second or third head of government that I have met as Prime Minister, although he is not the second or third head of government I have met in my political career - I found him intelligent, I found him engaged. I found him very interested in our relationship and I found him very knowledgeable about our relationship and I came away with the feeling that this was a man who valued Australia, who valued Australian opinions and who valued the association with Australia and would work very hard to keep it. I hope he went away from the meeting feeling the same about me. That is a matter for him to say.

QUESTION:

Mr Howard did you raise the question of Australia's ambassador to Indonesia and was there any discussion about the appointment?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, it wasn't necessary because the appointment of the new Ambassador to Indonesia has been approved on the Indonesian side, there are a number of formalities in Australia to be completed before the announcement can be made. I want to say that the manner in which it was dealt with on the Indonesian side was very expeditious, very helpful and a small earnest of the desire, as I saw it, by the Indonesian Government to do what it could in the prelude to my visit to help things along.

QUESTION: ...(inaudible)

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, we spent most of our time this morning talking about the economic relationship and he and I both agreed on the importance of progress being made at the Subic Bay meeting of APEC leaders. He, of course, is very strongly committed to the APEC process, he played a very major role in getting it together. We both believe that the details of the action plans are more important. It was one thing to indulge the rhetoric of action plans, it was another thing to actually put particular proposals on the table and show a willingness to go ahead with them. He is certainly entitled to talk to the economic record that his country has enjoyed the reduction in levels of poverty, the continued strong rate of economic growth, the greater international economic respect that Indonesia has gathered over the last twenty or thirty years.

I said that I thought the pro- competitive thrust of a new Government's policies in Australia, particularly in areas such as the labour market, which are not only important domestically because of their impact on reducing unemployment. A point that I will be emphasising in my speech to the business luncheon in a few moments, but the other micro- economic reforms we have in mind will be very important to improving Australia's competitiveness in the region.

I think it's important for any Australian political leader to understand that we still have a long way to go so far as competitiveness is concerned. If any Australian political leader believes that, because the Asia Pacific region is the fastest growing region in the world, and a huge market share is going to fall into our country's lap, they are deluding themselves. There was some research released in Australia only a couple of days ago which underscored that point that we perhaps should have been doing even better, a lot better. And until we can rid of some of the domestic economic rigidities, in particular our arthritic labour market system we're not going to do better.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, the desirability of Australia participating in the Asia European summit, and was he able to offer any support on that score?

PRIME MINISTER:

I didn't raise that specifically, our position on that is very well known. It's important to us but not as important as a lot of other things.

QUESTION:

Mr Howard did you take the opportunity to explain your government's policy on the DIFF programme, why you are abolishing it?

PRIME MINISTER:

I didn't. It wasn't raised by the President and I think that issue is very well known. It's been traversed. It may be raised by other Ministers in discussions I have later this afternoon but our position on that is very well known and in the election promises we made it plainly known and I saw no reason to raise it. He didn't. If it were to be raised with me this afternoon by other Ministers I would explain the background of it and also the post- cancellation of the programme arrangements which will involve the continued support of a number of projects in Indonesia.

QUESTION:

Was South China Sea on the agenda? Probably you discussed some other hot points in Asia Pacific region with the President or other Ministers?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I certainly in the course of my discussions we talked about Cambodia and we talked about China. We talked about the relationship between Australia and the defence relationship between Australia and the United States and the importance of that to us and the importance of ... I certainly touched upon the importance of the United States involvement in the Asia pacific region and we talked about China. The importance, I said it was important to have a balanced view about China and we certainly shouldn't create an unnecessary impression of isolation on the part of China. The President talked about the expansion of ASEAN and the desirability of not isolating Burma too much in that context.

QUESTION:

Mr Howard, earlier you said in the context of human rights you raised the issue of East Timor. Just wondering why you raised it, why you chose not to talk about the riots, why you chose to talk about East Timor and didn't talk about recent events in Jakarta?

PRIME MINISTER:

I regarded it as appropriate to the flow of the conversation and discussion and the exchange, the dialogue between us that I should have raised East Timor in the context of human rights, in the context of East Timor and East Timor in the context of human rights.

QUESTION:

And what was President Soeharto's response Mr Howard?

PRIME MINISTER:

He heard what I had to say about it. He didn't make any specific comment. I think it's a matter for him to make comments on the response of the Indonesian Government to both of those issues.

QUESTION:

In your policy regarding the acceptance of immigration levels to Australia...inaudible... so far they accept too many Vietnamese also accept ... Asian countries. I just want your point of view regarding...

PRIME MINISTER:

There is no element in our immigration policy specifically to discriminate against people according to their country of source. There is certainly nothing in our immigration policy that is designed to or is meant to have the effect of or in fact does have the fact of working against, unfairly, against people from Indonesia. It's a non- discriminatory immigration policy and we actually reserve the right to vary its overall level, the mix between family reunion and other categories according to our assessment of Australia's national need and national interest. But, in our recent review of the immigration policy which did result in some reduction in the overall level and some alteration of the balance between the categories we do affirm in every particular the non- discriminatory character of that policy and it remains a non- discriminatory policy both as to country of origin and ethnic background.

QUESTION:

In the context of the importance of Australia's relations with China will you be meeting with the Dalai Lama back in Australia?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, my position on the Dalai is that I will, providing our mutual programmes make it possible, I will see him in Australia next week.

QUESTION:

Are you worried about repercussions to China in going ahead with that visit, that meeting?

PRIME MINISTER:

No. I have explained to the Chinese authorities that naturally the Australian Prime Minister decides according to Australian interests who the Australian Prime Minister sees. I understand the sensitivities of the Chinese Government. I hope it also understands that the Dalai is a religious leader, he's been to Australia before and we have a proper reputation as a country of religious and political tolerance and it's in that context that any meeting between us if it can be arranged it will take place.

QUESTION:

Mr Prime Minister did President Soeharto raise the issue of a possible sale of Indonesian aircraft to Australia and would you take an offer like that seriously, would you consider that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, that offer will be considered in accordance with the other proposals in a completely dispassionate fair manner. The Indonesian proposal will not be discriminated against in any way nor, it must be said and I'm sure the President acknowledges this, nor can it be given any favorable treatment so we'll listen to what our authorities have got to say about which is the best aircraft to suit the Royal Australian Air Force if it goes ahead with replacing the aircraft in question. We'll just assess the bids on the Americans but I'm very pleased, very pleased indeed that in an area such as this, which in the past has tended to be seen as a preserve of the Europeans and Americans, I'm very pleased that there is an Indonesian bid in the field. I'm very pleased indeed.

QUESTION:

You're Government's decision to cut economic assistance to Indonesia, why did you choose eastern Indonesia in particular to cut the economic assistance there?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I think that if you're talking about the decision, you're talking about DIFF are you?

QUESTION:

Yes.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I don't think the final word have been said on the aftermath of DIFF. I'm sure the discussions that we're having with your Government about the funding of a limited number of projects and I think when you've seen the final word on that you'll have a better idea of the impact.

QUESTION:

Mr Howard, did the President give any hints about his own political future beyond the 1998 election?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I didn't ask him. He didn't ask me how long I was staying either so... I don't really regard that as, I think its touch rich when you are first meeting with somebody as heads of respective heads of governments to sort of be asking what your political future is. I think that's entirely a matter for him and the Indonesian people.

I think the base, it ought to be understood, the proper basis, particularly at the beginning of a contact between a new government and a continuing government is the observance of one or two ground rules about associations and one of them is that we are different societies and nobody pretends we're not and we have our history, our practices, our cultures, our attitudes, our way of handling things and so does Indonesia and I think it is very important that we respect those differences and focus on the common interest and certainly the attitude that I've taken. That does mean that from time to time it obviously comes up in the area of human rights, it does mean that from time to time because we are the sort of society - and I say we as Australians are the sort of people and the sort of society we are happen to come up. I for example I reiterated to the President that we have a press in Australia which is robust and open and says what it wants to say and that's part of Australia and it won't change. And I for one have never apologised for that because it is an important part of our society. On the other hand I respect the fact that the way of doing things in this country, I understand the fact that there are differences and I didn't come to this country to be deliver lectures. I came here to reaffirm the importance to the new government of a relationship and to do it in a way which was consistent with and to support the traditions and the attitudes and values of my country and expecting that we are to have a strong relationship there has to be give and take and acceptance on both sides.

QUESTION:

Some of the human rights groups argue that because the relationship is now robust that we can actually push these matters a bit harder?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I note that and I think we just continue the dialogue.

QUESTION:

Mr Howard, given the importance of the economics of the business relationship and the talks you had with Soeharto today, do you think that this point of Australia not being a bridge to Asia might have been put more clearly? It was an important speech last night, it was your first opportunity to address the Indonesian President and his Cabinet. Do you think it might have been put more clearly?

PRIME MINISTER:

No I don't.

QUESTION:

Do you think there's any inconsistency saying we can't be a bridge in a social and cultural sense in saying ....

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh I don't think there is anything inconsistent at all. I mean the idea of a bridge in a political and cultural sense implies that we're needed to interpret one and the other and it is only through us that the two can interact and co- mingle. I think that is quite patronising and offensive and just plain wrong because the knowledge that Western society is being passed off as Asian is sketchy and equally denies understanding of Asia pacific culture from many European countries because of past historical associations is very strong indeed. On the business side there is no doubt in the world that it's ...

QUESTION:

Prime Minister how important do you think it is to let leader's know that Australia is in fact a multicultural society now but in fact there are in fact many Asian Australians and put that way changing and diversifying the way Australia looks and sounds.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I think it is important but I don't think that it is the only thing about Australia. There are all sorts of things that are important but I don't ... when I talk about Australia overseas and when I represent Australia overseas I talk about and I seek to represent a distinctive set of values and traditions and history which over a period of time has been tempered and mellowed and altered by a whole lot of things. By economic change, by social change, by the experiences of war, by large scale immigration first from Europe, more recently from the Middle East and from Asia, but all of those things together contribute nonetheless to a distinctive, to a country as distinctive as Australia. When I said Australia wasn't Asian. I didn't say Australia was something else other than Australian. We have our own distinctive cultures, traditions and attitudes and we should never define ourselves by reference to others, we should always define ourselves by our own distinctive special characteristics to which obviously a contribution from many cultures and many experiences and many traditions have been made.

QUESTION:

Mr Howard how regular do you intend to make these visits to Indonesia?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I don't want to set myself to a particular number. I will keep regular contact with the President. I now know as a result of our contact over the past two days that if circumstances require, it would be very easy for us to talk to each other on the telephone, it would be very easy for us to exchange ideas and attitudes. We'll see each other again at the APEC meeting at Subic Bay. As to the future, I would expect to visit Indonesia again on a number of occasions during my Prime Ministership. I don't really want to commit myself to a number otherwise if I don't get up to that exact number then I get a difficult question at one of these things.

QUESTION:

What is the Australian position concerning the acceptance of new members at the APEC Manila summit?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I think it is a question of hastening slowly in relation to that. I think there's probably a bit of a consensus around and this was a view expressed to me today by the President as well that we sort of not go too quickly on that. I'm not saying that we should not accept new members in the future, and there's obviously an argument that's been advanced in relation to Vietnam as I understand but beyond that you will get if you go to another country, a group of countries, you then raise another threshold of expectations elsewhere. I wouldn't want it to be suggested that I want to close the membership books - I certainly don't - on where they are at the present time, but think you have to take those things in measured steps.

QUESTION:

Did you discuss the security agreement?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, we discussed it briefly last night. I mean, I did have some discussions with the President over dinner last night, although it was discussed very briefly. But there's not a lot to discuss because it was agreed, it was negotiated by the former government, we endorsed it, we made some criticism - I won't bring it up now - not about the substance of it, I might say, at no stage did we criticise the substance of it. We had some remarks to make about the process but they were entirely restricted to the domestic political debate but I ... no further purpose. Most of our discussion today was really about what we could do to deepen the economic relationship. We spent some time for example about the supermarket to Asia initiative that I launched last week and the growing interest of businesses, men and women in investing in this country. That was certainly the focus.

PRIME MINISTER:

Mr Howard, Mr Keating on his visits over here raised a number of times the question of a republic as part of Australia's national identity and engaging in Asia. Is that the kind of ...

PRIME MINISTER:

No. I've got to say he certainly didn't raise it with me. I think quite properly because that is a matter for Australia. I think you are well aware of my well held views on that issue. I think the question of Australia's constitutional future is entirely a matter for Australia. I have never believed for a moment whether Australia remains a country with its present constitution will become a republic is going to make one iota of difference to how we engage in the region. Lee Kuan Yew who know something about attitudes of the region towards countries such as Australia have had to say in no unmistakable terms when he addressed the National Press Club in Canberra seven years ago. I would never raise Australia's flag or Australia's constitution with the leader of a foreign country. I think that would be demeaning to Australia and embarrassing to the foreign leader.

QUESTION:

You said that Australia is not an Asian nation but if you look at the investment, migration and education movement from Asia into Australia, a great deal of investment in Australia - is Australia becoming a Eurasian nation?

PRIME MINISTER:

I find this sort of passion to define Australia by reference to others not something I embrace. Australia is a distinctive society to which many other societies and not least of course in the past European society and western civilisation generally and more recently the cultures and the societies of Asia and other parts of the world have made a contribution, but the result is something quite distinctive and something quite special and just don't want my country defined by reference to any other country or any other part of the world. It is quite distinctive.

QUESTION:

Megawati Sukarnoputri said last week that she'd like to see Australia support moves towards greater democracy in Indonesia. What would be your response to her on that point?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I've got a couple of remarks to make generally about the political and economic evolution in the speech I'm going to make in a moment. I really have made a very a deliberate decision in coming here not to get involved in the domestic political debate in Indonesia. That doesn't mean one doesn't have views and doesn't mean to say that will ever be the case that you are going to say something about what happens inside another country but I think it is important to Australia that this be a visit that allows both President Soeharto and myself to affirm the importance of the relationship. It's a relationship which will never be based on uncritical acceptance of everything that occurs in the other country and that applies on both sides, but it has survived and shown great durability and because of a determination on the part of leaders, successive leaders in Australia and one leader since 1968 substantially here in Indonesia to place the broader interest and the long continuity in the relationship above personal unhappiness with domestic occurrences within the boundaries which ...(inaudible) ... the relationship.