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Hyatt Regency, Adelaide: transcript of doorstop interview: [P-3C Orion aircraft to be deployed in war against terrorism; Iraq; East Timor; terrorist threats; Al Qaeda]



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SPEECH Senator the Hon. Robert Hill Minister for Defence Leader of the Government in the Senate

 

11 Sep 2002 MIN 1109022/02

TRANSCRIPT

Doorstop interview

Hyatt Regency, Adelaide

2:00pm, Wednesday 11 September 2002

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JOURNALIST:

Firstly, can you just give us an idea of the significance of the P3s that have been committed now into the Persian Gulf?

SENATOR ROBERT HILL:

Well I think it’s an illustration that we recognise that the war against terrorism is not going to be over early and it’s going to take an ongoing commitment. But we’ve confirmed that the aircraft will be made available in the early part of January next year. We’ve been asked to commit them for up to a year [inaudible] over the Persian Gulf in support of ships and in other in tasks involved in the war against terrorism.

JOURNALIST:

Do you think an attack on Iraq is inevitable?

SENATOR ROBERT HILL:

Well it can be avoided of course. If Saddam Hussein will heed the demand of almost all of the international community and end his program of weapons of mass destruction and allow inspectors back in, in unfettered way to give confidence to the international community that he has ended that program. So it certainly can be avoided. If you ask me on the basis of his record to date am I in any way confident that he will respect the demands of the international community then I’m not confident of that.

JOURNALIST:

Senator Hill, the answer is, on his current form a war is inevitable?

SENATOR HILL:

Eventually you run out of other alternatives. Now I’m pleased that the international community is going to make another effort in a collective way to press him to end this program and to allow the inspectors back in. I think that’s a good thing. My preference is obviously for collective responses rather than unilateral responses. It’s up to him to heed the message but beyond that there is a clear will of key players that are just not going to take the risk forever. It’s one of the lessons of the 11th of September. When you interpret the risk, you know the problem, you see that the threat is developing, you address it at that time, you don’t wait for the attack. He should see that. He should recognise that this is the demand of the international community that he end this program - remove the risk in effect - and then we don’t have further war and we have a safer world.

JOURNALIST:

Is there an update on the situation in East Timor?

SENATOR HILL:

Well as I think you probably know, we after receiving intelligence yesterday that suggested a generic threat we decided to reinforce Australian embassy and Australian homes there and some other Australian interests. The generic threat was against the interests of Australia and the United Nations. Today we’ve taken one step further after further assessment of the information and closed our embassy for the time being. And I haven’t got anything further than that. Basically we have responded in the way that we think is proper. The other thing we did was to make public the fact we took some troops out of our battalion, we used them to reinforce Australia’s interests in Dili. We made public the fact that we’ve done so because we believe the people particularly in East Timor have a right to know that we have this information. We have taken an extra precaution today in closing our embassy and we trust that this has averted any potential problem.

JOURNALIST:

And how long is that embassy likely to stay shut for? Is it a matter of days or weeks?

SENATOR HILL:

Well we haven’t set a time but we’d hope that it will only be for a matter of days.

JOURNALIST:

What was the nature of that threat?

SENATOR HILL:

I can’t give detail because obviously within the threat is intelligence that hopefully can help us avoid such threats in the future. But other than to reaffirm what I said here today. And that is that we do know that the terrorist threat extends beyond Afghanistan and the Middle East. We know that the tentacles of terrorism stretch into our region. We know there was a threat that may well have become a reality to our high commission in Singapore at the beginning of this year. After the events of last year, we just don’t take the same risk as might have been taken in the past.

JOURNALIST:

There has been no other reports of threats or any other possible terrorist attacks around Australia

today at all?

SENATOR HILL:

I haven’t heard of any. But we don’t have any evidence of intelligence of a direct threat to the Australian mainland. The US obviously has intelligence that’s caused it to close several missions in South East Asia. I think what it illustrates is the need to keep working with the South East Asian countries to address the terrorist problems that they’re facing because ultimately if they are not dealt with at source, they become problems elsewhere.

JOURNALIST:

Were there any additional homeland security measures put in place for today?

SENATOR HILL:

I don’t think so, no.

JOURNALIST:

Do you, you gave I suppose relatively upbeat assessment of the successes that the coalition has had against al Qaeda. Do you believe there should be more emphasis placed on that?

SENATOR HILL:

In a way that -it’s important to recognise that there have been very significant successes. Al Qaeda was based in Afghanistan. We’ve been able to destroy its training camps and many caches of ammunition. The Taliban that succoured and supported it has been destroyed. But we haven’t defeated al Qaeda because al Qaeda is an international network. Certainly destroying its bases and its planning apparatus in Afghanistan is a significant step in the right direction. But as we see by other threats around the world almost on a daily basis, there is still a challenge out there that needs to be addressed.

JOURNALIST:

But should we focus more on the successes or at least should they be taken, there be some more emphasis on them? So that there’s not this sense of al Qaeda is all pervasive, unknowable and it’s ultimately unconquerable?

SENATOR HILL:

It’s a difficult question to answer because I certainly believe that we should be hopeful and we have demonstrated that we can destroy this major terrorism operation at its source. But we should not also be over optimistic and therefore drop our defences. Because we know the tentacles of terrorism, the ideology of that terrorism extends well beyond Afghanistan and we’re seeing manifestations of that as I said almost on a daily basis. So yes, recognise what’s been achieved and recognise the sacrifices and efforts that our defence forces and the like have made to achieve the outcome to date. But also recognise that this is going to be an ongoing challenge for a long time yet.

JOURNALIST:

Do you think Osama bin Laden is dead or alive?

SENATOR HILL:

I don’t know.

JOURNALIST:

Do you have any feeling about that? Any idea? He’s not been heard of really for well over a year. Do you think - ?

SENATOR HILL:

That is inconsistent with his modus operandi in the past. He’s tended to want to broadcast what he claims to be his achievements and his goals. It suggests that he might not be alive. But on the other hand maybe he doesn’t think it’s the right time to put his head up. We’ve got to assume - we know that there’s still a range of al Qaeda leaders that are unaccounted for. We know that there are still threats and in fact al Qaeda operations taking place at various places in the world. The important thing is that we address them. It’s not - we’re not so interested in bin Laden or any other individual. What we’re interested in is ending this terrorist threat so the whole world can live in safety.

JOURNALIST:

With the additional air patrols into the Persian Gulf region by Australia early next year, is that a sign that we really are ready to commit more in the region and are prepared to answer the call if necessary?

SENATOR HILL:

We said in the beginning that we would invest two of our P-3 Orions in the peace operation, in the war against terrorism. They weren’t in fact used at that time and we spent the time upgrading the equipment and retraining and the like. So having made this, making this decision now to put them into the operation next year sends a signal that we recognise that this is not going to be a short-term challenge. There is going to be an ongoing responsibility that will extend well into next year. And that we’ll continue to make our contribution.

JOURNALIST:

Minister, [inaudible] in the demands that have been made that George Bush and indeed the Howard Government lay out the case for war against Iraq. People think that is making a case that shows Saddam Hussein’s complicity in September 11. Is that mistaken?

SENATOR HILL:

The case against Iraq doesn’t hinge on Iraq being directly involved in the events of September the 11th. The case against Iraq - or against Saddam Hussein in particular - is that he has a program of weapons of mass destruction. He’s been prepared to use those weapons against his own people in the past. He’s invaded other nations. He still supports international terror and therefore he is a risk. As the weapons continue to develop, the risk becomes, the risk increases. And the lesson of September 11th is that when you see a risk developing of this type you don’t wait for the consequences. You’ve got to face up to it. And that’s what we’ve said. We don’t want another war. What we want is for him to end that program in order that we can all live more safely.

JOURNALIST:

If [inaudible] end that program, how soon do you think a UN-backed coalition should act?

SENATOR HILL:

Well I think we should allow the UN to go through the processes because it’s only UN in the sense that there does seem to be a collective demand developing. I’m pleased there is a whole range of powerful players that now seem to be more engaged and prepared to apply pressure through the United Nations Security Council. And I hope that that message will be heeded. And I hope that there may be something in that broader message that Saddam Hussein heeds that he won’t in a message

that’s been sent from the United States, Britain, us and some others.

JOURNALIST:

Couldn’t this drag out for months, years, months?

SENATOR HILL:

Well I think the point that’s been made by President Bush and others, is that the longer is drags out the greater the threat. And therefore it can’t be allowed to drag out indefinitely if you want to end the program - to end it as quickly as possible - in order to contribute to a safer world.

JOURNALIST:

Do you have any sense that Saddam Hussein has accelerated his process of stockpiling and acquiring weapons of mass destruction. That would be a logical thing to think at the moment - that he’s peddling like hell to get these things made, to make as many of them as he can?

SENATOR HILL:

One of the difficulties is we know a certain amount about the program but on the basis of his past record we suspect that there’s even more. When we entered Iraq on the last occasion we found that the weapons program had developed further than what our intelligence had indicated. We know that weapons - particularly chemical and biological - remained after the Gulf War and that he threw out the international inspectors. We know that he’s continued to develop those weapons and we know that he aspires to a nuclear weapon. If he can obtain fissile material and he can do that quicker than what some of the analysts believe. So it’s been an ongoing process. And we know that the longer it is allowed to continue, the further developed will be the weapons and it’s not only the warheads, but the methods of delivery and therefore the graver the threat.

JOURNALIST:

Does Australia have the capacity to send anybody into Iraq? There’s been suggestions that we’d be absolutely stretched to the limit if we do.

SENATOR HILL:

Well our operational tempo is at historical levels at the moment, that’s true, and there is a limit to what we can contribute. But we do believe in coalitions, we do believe in collective responses. And if we were asked to assist - if there is a decision, if unfortunately it gets to that stage and we’re asked to assist - we will address that in our national interests, which includes an assessment of our capabilities. We have contributed in the past.

JOURNALIST:

Just briefly, back on East Timor, would it be fair to say that there was an assumption that the embassy might be a target?

SENATOR HILL:

Yes, if we’ve put further protection around the embassy and around the Australian housing and around other Australian interests, you can draw that assumption. But the threat wasn‘t in relation to any particular place - it’s a generic, it’s a threat against Australian interests.

Okay.

ENDS