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Transcript of Press Conference of the Prime minister the Hon John Howard MP: Sydney: 1 January 2005: Regional tsunami summit; death toll; aid donations.



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PRIME MINISTER

1 January 2005

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP PRESS CONFERENCE, SYDNEY

E&OE…………………………………………………………………………………..

Subjects: Regional tsunami summit; death toll; aid donations.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well ladies and gentlemen I will attend the meeting that’s been called in Jakarta on Thursday the sixth of January. This will be a very important opportunity for leaders of countries in the region and also representatives of other countries, including the United States, to discuss ways of further enhancing the aid effort, of coordinating the aid that’s already been offered and making sure that the response is appropriately pitched to the medium and longer term. I understand the Secretary of State Colin Powell accompanied by the President’s brother will represent the United States. Australia’s response has already been very generous and very significant. I’m very proud of the way in which our country has responded. I want to thank our military personnel and also the civilian medical people, the officers of Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade who have worked so hard ever since the tragedy occurred. I want to thank them very warmly for what has happened. I continue along with all other Australians to be anxious, very anxious indeed about the extent of Australian casualties. The official death toll of course is 11. There are another 111 in respect of whom grave fears are held and then in addition to that a number of about 1000 are still unaccounted for. It is impossible for me, or indeed for anybody to accurately predict what the final toll will be. Quite clearly it is going to be much greater than the official toll of 11 and the fact that 111 are described as being people in respect of

whom grave fears are held is an indication that the final number is going to be significantly greater. I can only express on behalf of all Australians our sense of despair and sympathy with those who are waiting to know, and some will never know exactly what has happened to their loved ones. And as has been already been indicated it is likely that many bodies will not be recovered. Every attempt is being made in cooperation, particularly with the authorities in Thailand to ensure that the

process of identification proceeds but certain steps have to be taken and certain rules have to be observed and we are dealing with a situation in another country. I just want to assure the relatives and friends of those who are still waiting for news on what’s happened to their loved ones that every attempt is being made by the Australian embassy people, the Federal and state police, forensic experts and everybody else associated with this enormous task. Australia and the world has so far responded very generously. But it is a measure of the task in front of us that that generosity will need not only to be sustained but significantly added to in the weeks and months ahead. The threat of disease is real and the task of reconstruction will be immense. Any questions?

JOURNALIST:

Given that you are suggesting generosity will need to be sustained, are you expecting further contributions from the Government?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh, yes you can expect that there will be further initiatives from the Government in relation to aid. What we have done to date is appropriate to the circumstances but we will be providing more assistance in different ways. It is important in a situation like this to be quick and up and front with significant initial aid and then after a period of time when a proper assessment is made of the medium and longer term needs to supplement that initial aid with further assistance.

I do incidentally want to again thank the Australian public for their extraordinary generosity once again our fellow Australians have displayed the warmth and generosity which is a hallmark of our people and our nation in the way in which they have responded, the way in which many people around the world have responded is a wonderful reaffirmation of the essential humanity of the world.

JOURNALIST:

What are you hoping to achieve by attending Thursday’s meeting?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I will be representing Australia and seeing in cooperation with the leaders of other countries in the region of what we can and should further do to respond to this crisis.

JOURNALIST:

Does this mean we will be taking more refugees from these countries that have been affected?

PRIME MINISTER:

The most important thing at the moment is to stabilise the situation within the countries concerned to try and stop the spread of disease. The greatest contribution we can make is to restore conditions of reasonable habitation within the countries themselves.

JOURNALIST:

Well until that’s done will Australia consider taking refugees?

PRIME MINISTER:

The best thing we can do is help on the ground in those countries.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, it seems that while the relief operation is in full swing, still in some of these really devastated areas the aid has been but a trickle?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, that is unfortunately the case because when something of this magnitude occurs, everything is dislocated, everything is thrown into chaos. Infrastructure is destroyed, communications disappear and it is tragically inevitable that the aid does not get

through as quickly as everybody in the perfect world would like. We are living in a tragically imperfect situation. What is good from Australia’s point of view is that we have people on the ground now helping, doing things, providing fresh water, providing medical assistance, providing emergency relief. We actually have people doing this work and they have been doing this work now in some cases for several days and that is a tremendous tribute to the practical way in which Australia has responded. It’s easy for all of us to make speeches, it’s easy for agencies to try and describe the magnitude of the problem. The imperative in a situation like this is to get things to work and to get aid through and I’m very pleased to say that Australian aid has got though and Australian aid is beginning to relieve however small might be the contribution compared with the overall devastation is starting to relieve the suffering of some people.

JOURNALIST:

What can you tell us about the return of the first bodies?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I can tell you that where identification takes place the remains will be returned.

JOURNALIST:

Do you know anything about [inaudible]?

PRIME INISTER:

No, I can’t add anything to what has already been on the media on that.

JOURNALIST:

You are clearly saying though that these issues of dealing with the possible spread of disease and other matters will take precedence over the ID-ing of bodies.

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I’m not saying that at all. The two things can be dealt with together. The disease challenge is particularly acute in Aceh, whereas from Australia’s point of view and I don’t want to sound in any way selfish about this from Australia’s point of view, the identification of remains is a more acute issue in Thailand. Because it’s in Thailand and Sri Lanka where most of the Australian tourists were affected. Very few Australian tourists were in Aceh and there are big disease challenges everywhere but they are particularly acute in Indonesia and in Sri Lanka and in India, whereas the identification of Australian victims is particularly a challenge in Thailand, to a lesser extent in Sri Lanka. So the two issues are separate and it’s not a question of choosing one over the other.

JOURNALIST:

The greater contribution of the United States….

PRIME MINISTER:

It is important that everybody help but it is also important that at a time like this that we all work together. We mustn’t get into any sort of apportionment of who has done more than somebody else. I mean let’s all just pitch in and for heaven sake at a time

like this can’t the world pull together and stop worrying about who did something first or who did something faster or slower. We should forget all of those things and we all should work together. Of course I welcome the involvement of the United States. The United States is the wealthiest country in the world and her involvement is always very welcome and it’s a very generous open hearted country and I’m sure the United States will make a massive contribution to relieving this problem. My responsibility is to make sure that Australia’s response is effective, it’s practical, it’s generous and it’s across the whole of government and that is exactly what it has been to date and I again what to thank the Australian people for their generosity.

JOURNALIST:

Do you fear that the Australian death toll might surpass that of the Bali bombings?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, I’m not going to get into comparisons of other targets except to say that it is going to go higher. Self evidently there are 11 confirmed deaths, there are 111 for whom grave fears are held and I understand that classification is arrived at in relation to people who were known to be in areas that were very badly affected and for whom or in relation to whom no trace has been found and then on top of that you have something like 1000 people who are unaccounted for. Typically for example somebody who might have been backpacking in Thailand and mum and dad haven’t heard from them for a few days since the tragedy. Now that is the sort of classification. Now, beyond saying that to try and actually put a figure on it I would only be speculating but sadly it is going to higher than 11 and obviously if there are 111 for whom grave fears are held, it gives you some idea of what the order of magnitude might be. But I am not going to tie myself to a particular number or I’m not going to compare it with any other tragedy.

JOUURNALIST:

As of today the worldwide relief figure stands at around $1 billion, you obviously consider that will be a fraction of what will be required. And secondly will the meeting look at mechanisms in the future, medium to longer term?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well the answer to both questions is yes. The worldwide response to date is very appropriate to a first response. I think it has been very generous and if all of that can be effectively translated into practical help that will be terrific. But there is a longer term reconstruction challenge and there is a medium term challenge to prevent the spread of disease although I guess quite a significant portion of that billion dollars will go towards, particularly towards preventing the spread of waterborne diseases which is the biggest thing in challenge, which is placed in the aftermath of something such as this.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, the Opposition …

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think what we have done to date bearing in mind that we will be doing more is appropriate. I’m not going to get into that sort of some kind of exchange with the Opposition on this. I mean look this is not an occasion for political exchanges it is an occasion to recognise the fact that Australians of all politically persuasions have been incredibly generous and have done the right thing and what Australians want is their political leaders to work together to help and do the right thing. I think Australians have been wonderful. I think many Australian companies are now beginning to make big contributions and a couple of very large ones which I welcome very warmly. I naturally would like to see more. We have already contributed $60 million and we will be contributing more in different ways. I think that when the full scale of Australia’s contribution is known then nobody will be able to say that we haven’t more than pulled our weight.

JOURNALIST:

Would you urge corporate Australia, more companies…?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think that the companies have already begun to be very generous. I noticed a couple of million dollar contributions. I saw a million dollar contribution from Westfield and one from Qantas and that is very generous. I obviously would like to see as many big donations as possible from Australian companies. Business conditions in Australia are good and many companies can afford to make significant donations and many are. But this is not a question of sort of harassing people. I think the country has been incredibly generous to date and I’m very proud of the way in which my fellow Australians have responded to this enormous humanitarian tragedy and I just want to say again that my thoughts are very much with Australians who are still anxiously awaiting news on their loved ones. We can only begin to imagine their agony as each day goes by and they haven’t heard.

JOURNALIST:

Do you have any personal views about some of the images?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don’t think, I’m not in a judgmental frame of mind. I’m in a frame of mind of wanting to do what I can to help the people who need help. I don’t think this is an occasion for me to give moral lectures to people, everybody is answerable for their own conduct and I’ll leave it at that.

JOURNALIST:

Will you be increasing Australia’s defence commitment?

PRIME MINISTER:

Our defence commitment? Well to the extent that defence personnel are involved in the aid commitment the answer is yes. But we are not sending any defence assets as defence assets we are sending them as aid assets. But it just shows the versatility and the capacity of the Australian Defence Force that they can very rapidly be used as a great instrument of humanitarian relief and peace as well as be an effective fighting force and I just want to say again to the members of the ADF is something like 1000 of them now in different ways are involved in this aid effort and that number could grow, it will only grow though, if what they are doing contributes to the aid effort.

Thank you