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Transcript of doorstop: Sydney Airport: 30 January 2004: delegation to N.Korea, Iraq, WMD, bird flu, Nguyen Tuong Van.



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MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS HON ALEXANDER DOWNER, MP

TRANSCRIPTION:

DATE: 30 January 2004

TITLE: Downer doorstop Sydney Airport - Delegation to N.Korea, Iraq, WMD, bird flu, Nguyen Tuong Van.

ALEXANDER DOWNER - FOREIGN AFFAIRS MINISTER: I just want to take the opportunity this morning to announce that I've decided to send a delegation of Australian officials to North Korea. They'll be leaving today. The delegation is led by Murray McLean who's the head of the division responsible for North Asia. It'll include an official from the Australian Nuclear Safeguards Office and other officials who will provide assistance to them.

This delegation will be going to Pyongyang and they will be discussing with the North Koreans the urgent need for North Korea during the course of February to re-engage with the United States, Japan, South Korea, Russia and China in what are called six-party talks to achieve nuclear weapons disarmament on a verifiable basis.

I think it's important that Australia plays an active role in making … in contributing to trying to bring peace to the Korean peninsula. This is a very important issue from Australia's point of view. We have very substantial security as well as commercial interests on the Korean peninsula, especially of course with South Korea, Japan and China. And any deterioration in the security situation on the Korean peninsula would have disastrous consequences for Australia's economy, and cause a tremendous loss of jobs and obviously add to instability in the region.

So this is an important contribution that Australia is making. It's our own initiative. When the delegation completes their talks, they will move to have discussions with other parties with an interest, and particularly those who have been involved in the six-party talks. But this is a practical sort of contribution that Australia can make to regional security.

REPORTER: But given the protracted nature of this (indistinct), what can an Australian delegation hope to achieve?

DOWNER: Well, Australia's one of those countries with very close links to the United States, with an alliance with the United States, yet we have diplomatic relations with North Korea which the United States doesn't have. And we're able to engage with them in ways that a number of other countries, particularly those which have alliance relationships with the United States typically can't. I mean, Japan can't and the United States itself can't.

We should use the fact that we have diplomatic relations with North Korea to push forward this process. I'm optimistic that our contribution will make a difference. I think the North Koreans will be interested in what we have to say. And ultimately, remember North Korea's a country with enormous economic problems. We've already ourselves been increasing our food aid to North Korea. They know Australia is an important source of supply of raw

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materials if ever they're to get their economy going, so I think they take Australia pretty seriously.

REPORTER: Given the potential for instability on the Korean peninsula, would you characterise it as the most pressing problem facing the international community at present?

DOWNER: Well, it's certainly one of them. I mean, from our point of view in the Asia Pacific region, it is certainly the most serious security issue, and obviously there are other security issues in other parts of the world. The Taiwan Straits issue's obviously always a concern, and as we enter into a period where there will be elections in Taiwan, that is something that we'll be monitoring. But no, I think it's fair to say that the North Korean issue, the proliferation of nuclear weapons in North Korea, at least their ambitions to do that, are the … that stands as the most important security issue in the Asia Pacific region.

REPORTER: Given the closed nature of North Korea, are you concerned about the impact that the bird flu would have on that nation?

DOWNER: I'm not sure about North Korea but I'm concerned about bird flu or avian flu, depending on what you want to call it. I think this is a real problem. Last year, the region suffered from the SARS virus and I'm concerned that bird flu could have an impact on economies in the region. I think also it has the potential to have an impact on tourism, not just into the region but tourism into Australia, just as our tourist industry has gone through a very substantial recovery out of the back of the SARS crisis in the region.

So I was very pleased that the Thais convened a meeting of countries in the region that had been afflicted with bird flu, and we've also adjusted our travel advisories, really in a very modest way to recommend Australians keep away from places where they could get into contact with live chickens, because obviously that at this stage is apparently how you could contract bird flu.

REPORTER: If I can ask you about the Labor Party conference, Mr Downer. Surely, you couldn’t fault the press for the amount of positive coverage the Opposition Leader has received, can you?

DOWNER: Well, it’s not for me to set myself up as a commentator on what journalists do day in and day out. They seem to set themselves up as commentators on others, which I suppose is as it should be. But … well, Mark Latham yesterday made the “I have a platitude” speech. There’s no substance in the speech. I thought on national security issues, he demonstrated what we’ve said all along, that the Labor Party, including Mr Latham, are very weak on national security.

The Labor Party Leader makes a speech but he doesn’t articulate a commitment to the proliferation security initiative to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Doesn’t seem to be concerned about that issue, yet that’s one of the greatest issues humanity faces. And Australia is one of those countries which is up there actively dealing with the problem. Doesn’t make any reference to North Korea.

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I mean, the government is out there doing something practical, addressing the nuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, the Leader of the Opposition is out there apparently trying to tell us what his mother used to say to him about the kids and the people who live in his street. The two versions of that I know, his mother obviously was a fairly loquacious woman, but I’m not sure which version we’re meant to believe of what she actually says was said.

But the serious point here is that if you want to be the leader of Australia, you have to be strong on national security in an era when we’re confronting the threat of terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and we’re dealing with failed and failing states.

REPORTER: But isn’t the problem…

DOWNER: And there’s no effort by … I mean, here is the longest series of platitudes I think anyone’s ever read, and all sorts of controversy about what’s been deleted from the speech, and no reference to some of these core issues that Australia has to confront and the role Australia has to play in participating and resolving these problems.

REPORTER: But couldn’t that criticism be levelled at the government as well, (indistinct) … has just degenerated to a volley of platitudes and catch phrases?

DOWNER: No. Well, the government is out there doing things, I’m explaining today how we’re sending a delegation to North Korea to address the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction on the Korean peninsula. Yesterday … Mr Latham can’t even find time to refer to the problems of North Korea. I mean, there was a small section on foreign policy which has come from the computer of one S. Crean, which is nothing more than a bunch of platitudes. I mean, it doesn’t have any substance to it at all.

You know, while I accept that he doesn’t want Australia to develop a system which would stop ballistic missiles hitting Australia, I think it’s an extraordinary thing for a leader of a major political party not to want to make sure we have appropriate defensive systems for this country. We should be working with other countries, in particular the United States, on missile defence. It would be good if we could make it work. And I think there’s very good potential for it to be an effective system. But no, he’s against it. He’s against constructive initiatives working with our allies and our neighbours to counter some of the most serious issues that the world faces.

REPORTER: The question was asked of the Prime Minister yesterday, does Mark Latham have the government rattled? What do you say?

DOWNER: Every three years there’s an election. Every election’s close and at the end of this year, presumably … or at … anyway, a time of the Prime Minister’s choosing, there’ll be an election and the government will do its best to win the election. It’s never easy to win elections in Australia, and … no, I think you … you know, people like John Howard and Peter Costello and me, we’ve been around a long time, we’re phlegmatic about the challenges that we face.

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But every election we face challenges, we would never take for granted that if Simon Crean had led the Labor Party into an election, we would have won it. We don’t take it for granted with Latham or anyone else.

REPORTER: So you’d have to concede that Mark Latham hasn’t self-destructed.

DOWNER: (Laughs) Well, that’s … my oh my, what a tremendous achievement that is. But in any case, I would say …if he wants… if Mr Latham wants to be the Prime Minister of Australia, he'll have to do a little bit better than his “I have a platitude” speech.

REPORTER: Mr Downer, can I ask you about an Australian national who is facing the death penalty in Singapore …for heroin trafficking. I think the verdict is due later today. Do you have any concern about that penalty?

DOWNER: I do. I am very concerned about it. I will have to wait and see what the verdict is but I made representations to the Singapore government last year. I think the last time I made representations to the Singaporean government was to say to my colleague, Professor Jayakumar, who's the Foreign Minister of Singapore, and I did … think I did that in November.

But we have been trying to, you know … we've made two points. First of all, if people are involved - if they are involved, we don't know in this case - but if they are involved in the drug trade in any way, shape or form, we're against that. And countries are right to arrest and detain and prosecute people in those circumstances.

But on the other hand, we don't favour capital punishment and so we have been trying to persuade the Singapore government that if this Australian is convicted, we don't want him to face capital punishment. So we’ll just have to wait and see.

REPORTER: Is there any scope for, I guess, them to be persuaded or is it a mandatory (indistinct)?

DOWNER: Well, there are … number one, of course, there's an appeals process, and number two, the President of Singapore has the power to exercise clemency. So … by the way, I think I'm right in saying ever since the foundation of modern Singapore, the President's only exercised clemency on five or six occasions. Don't hold me to that but it's on very few occasions.

REPORTER: Mr Downer, two very senior figures in the BBC have fallen on their swords. Do you think that's appropriate, considering what was being found in the Hutton inquiry?

DOWNER: Well, a lot of the Hutton inquiry relates to the UK and to the death of Dr Kelly which is obviously a very tragic thing. So you know, in a sense I don't think we'd offer too much gratuitous comment on that, about what happens in the BBC. But I'd make this point. What the Hutton inquiry did, amongst other things, was demonstrate perfectly clearly through judicial inquiry that the British government didn't, to use that British phrase, sex up

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intelligence reports or didn't spin a line, didn't lie about intelligence on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.

Now, I know there are people in Britain and there are people in Australia who were opposed to measures to overthrow Saddam Hussein's regime. And of course, people are entitled to any opinion they like. But they should be extremely careful going around accusing other people of being liars, and what this has done, what the Hutton inquiry has done, is demonstrate that the British government as well as the Australian government were sincerely, honourably and honestly passing on the information that was given to them by intelligence services about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.

We know from what Dr Kay has been saying that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction programs and they were very serious programs. We had information before the war which we passed on. The British government had information that they passed on. There were some people in this country, including people in the Labor Party, but there were journalists as well who went around saying that Mr Howard and I and Tony Blair and Jack Straw and others had been lying.

Now, what the Hutton inquiry demonstrates is that that is untrue and I think those people do owe both the British and the Australian governments an apology for accusing them of dishonesty and deceit because they’re a very serious charge, and that serious charge has been dismissed by the Hutton inquiry.

REPORTER: But David Kay has said that it was a failure of intelligence. Was there a failure in intelligence in Australia?

DOWNER: Well, David Kay, I … I mean, I'm very interested in the way those people who were opposed to the steps taken to overthrow Saddam Hussein selectively quote what David Kay says. I don't notice very much focus on David Kay saying that he actually, on the basis of what he knows, not only was it the right thing to go to war and overthrow Saddam Hussein's regime but the WMD threat … the threat, if you like, to international security was greater than had been realised. That he had very substantial weapons of mass destruction programs and he was concerned about weapons of mass destruction possibly being shipped across the border into Syria.

Now, you know, he hasn’t found and the Iraq survey group hasn’t found actual stockpiles. And we know that. But we’ll have to wait and see whether those stockpiles are found. But whether the stockpiles are found or not, what has been found is that it was true. Saddam Hussein did have weapons of mass destruction programs, he was a threat to the region, he was a threat to international security and the world is a much better place for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

REPORTER: (indistinct) … the conclusion that was drawn is that the intelligence agencies just aren’t reliable.

DOWNER: Well, no, I think, you know, you always have to make judgements about intelligence, but he clearly did have weapons of mass destruction programs. He clearly wasn’t cooperating with … as he was meant to with the United Nations inspectors. And you see, it’s not just

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Britain and … there’s another great myth that is pushed by those who didn’t want to see Saddam Hussein overthrown.

The claims about Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction were not just supported by Britain, the United States and Australia. They were supported by the United Nations, they were supported by countries like France and Germany, there wasn’t any debate when Security Council Resolution 1441 passed through the Security Council in November of 2002 over whether Saddam Hussein might or might not have weapons of mass destruction programs.

There was a debate about … as you know, there was a debate about what the best solution would be, whether it was best to keep in place the stringent economic sanctions that there were, which were actually enormously painful for the people of Iraq, and to continue the cat and mouse game between UNMOVIC and Saddam Hussein - or whether it was better just to overthrow the regime and start all over again. I think we did the right thing. But that was what the debate was about, the debate wasn’t about WMD.

REPORTER: Given the problems with the intelligence that (indistinct), does that indicate that the United Nations did prove itself to be an effective checking mechanism in…In that the United Nations voted to pursue a more cautious (indistinct)…

DOWNER: Well, the United Nations … I mean, honestly, the premises of your question are quite wrong. First of all, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein did have weapons of mass destruction programs and the Kay report is making that perfectly clear.

There’s no doubt that this was an absolutely barbaric regime. So in the end, the choice is whether you’d feel more comfortable and whether the world would feel more comfortable with Saddam Hussein still in power, or whether the world feels more comfortable without him. And I’ll tell you who the ultimate judges of this are going to be, the ultimate judges of this are going to be the people of Iraq. I mean, what somebody in Sydney, what Mark Latham at the Labor Party conference may think is one thing, but what the twenty-five million people of Iraq is a serious thing … what they think is a serious thing. And the twenty-five million … almost all of the twenty-five million people of Iraq are delighted to see the back of Saddam Hussein, a man who used weapons of mass destruction against his own people.

So I don’t think, in the end, the wrong thing was done, I think it’s been the right thing to overthrow his regime, I think that the United Nations … the United Nations is made up only of its member states. It’s as strong or as weak as its member states. Now, it has a situation in the Security Council where five countries have a veto, France decided to exercise a veto. Do I think the French policy was right? No. Because Saddam Hussein would still be in power today if the French policy had been pursued and I think the world would be a worse place for that. And I think the Iraqis agree with me.

REPORTER: That’s the Downer doctrine for unilateral action?

DOWNER: Well, it wasn’t unilateral action. See, again, this is the sort of mantra of the left. There was a Security Council Resolution 1441 and this action was taken on the basis of Security Council Resolution 1441. Which said that if Saddam Hussein didn’t fully cooperate with the United Nations inspectors, he’d face serious consequences. Now, even Hans Blix made it clear he

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wasn’t fully cooperating with the United Nations inspectors and he did face serious consequences.

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