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Transcript of doorstop interview of the Foreign Minister: 30 October 2004: New University; Osama Bin Laden; Thailand; Latham.



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MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS HON ALEXANDER DOWNER, MP

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DATE: 30 October 2004, Adelaide

TOPICS: New University / Osama Bin Laden / Thailand / Latham

FOREIGN MINISTER ALEXANDER DOWNER: From the Federal Government’s perspective, we’ve been working very closely with the State Government on this proposal to establish a fourth university in Adelaide. We’re very excited about it.

I think this deal with Carnegie Mellon has the potential to create a truly great centre of excellence for the Asia-Pacific region right here in Adelaide. This will help to catapult Adelaide as a city to being one of the education centres of the Asia-Pacific region, which is one of the ambitions I have for Adelaide.

I’m delighted that the Federal and the State Governments have been able to work hand in glove on this issue. We’ve had very good conversations with Carnegie Mellon. Carnegie Mellon already has some links through the TAFE sector with South Australia, which go back some years. So it’s been a natural fit for a new private university.

As far as the Federal Government’s concerned, we may be able to help the new university with some property arrangements, although the details of where the university physically would be established have not been concluded. And students who are Australian students going to a private university will be eligible for the new fee help system, which is a system of public loans to private students, somewhat similar to, but not the same as the HECS system. So obviously that will give a lot of Australians access to this university.

But a very important emphasis will be on the university being a centre of excellence for the Asia-Pacific region in areas like information technology, business studies and public administration. And so we’ll of course be drawing students from south east Asia, north Asia, India, also from the Middle East.

I think it’s a very exciting proposal. It’s going to be great for Adelaide. It’s going to be great for South Australia. And overall, I think it’s a great proposal for Australia as a whole.

ROBERT CHAMPION DE CRESPIGNY: I was just going to comment. One of the core - of the six building blocks that the Economic Development Board came down with, the number two was education and higher education, feeling that if this state’s going to prosper, higher education’s got to be a cornerstone for us going forwards.

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Now the unique thing about this Carnegie Mellon University is it’ll offer our students in this state, interstate and overseas students the opportunity to get a US postgraduate degree. That’s one of the very few in the region and of course the only in Australia. I think it’ll mean some of our children will come home to study. Some won’t go away.

And of course, the - as the Foreign Minister said, the attraction to international students to be able to come to such a safe place as here to be able to study is quite unique, and we think it’s a wonderful opportunity for the state.

QUESTION: Economically, what are international and interstate students worth to us here?

ROBERT CHAMPION DE CRESPIGNY: Oh I don’t know what the total sum is. We don’t do as well here, for example, as they do in - at Monash University or Curtin University in Western Australia. Our universities, I think, have competed very well and this’ll only enhance that opportunity.

MINISTER DOWNER: It’s a big issue though that South Australia does get a proportionately smaller share of foreign students studying in Australia than other states. And I know it’s one of the objectives of the State Government and it’s certainly a view I share as a South Australian Federal Minister, that we must get a bigger share of the foreign students market.

And the other thing is that the foreign students market is always going to be highly competitive. Now Australia’s had an edge in that competition; in recent years we’ve done very well. But we cannot rest on our laurels. We can’t just keep promoting the same product year in and year out and not expect the Americans, the Canadians, the British and others to start emulating it and catching up.

We’ve got to be innovative and creative and distinctive, and building a new private university in cooperation with a very big name American university, Carnegie Mellon, is going to give South Australia that extra edge in terms of attracting foreign students to South Australia.

QUESTION: Mr Downer, don’t you think there’s already too many universities in South Australia? There’s been an argument for quite a time that they should be merging rather than creating an extra university.

MINISTER DOWNER: Well I don’t think there are too many universities in the sense that I think the universities we have are very good universities. But South Australia shouldn’t ever be a state that is complacent. We should never take the view that well what we have is fine.

We’ve got to keep looking, all of the time, at innovative ways of trying to take the education sector forward in this state. I - we’ve got good universities in South Australia - three very good universities.

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But if we can complement those three very good universities with a truly great private university, which is working in closely with an American university like Carnegie Mellon, you know, that’s going to be of enormous benefit to the three universities we already have.

So it’s not a question of dividing up the market that we already have with an extra university. It’s a question of growing the market here in South Australia for Australian, and most importantly, foreign students to study here.

QUESTION: Yeah, sorry. Is this the only university in Australia that’ll be offering an American degree?

ROBERT CHAMPION DE CRESPIGNY: At the moment it is. But you know, this’ll also offer - and I think it’s important from the previous question - it’ll offer public administration courses. We don’t have them here. Our public service is crying out for more postgraduate study. Public policy - and there will some overlap, but in fact what we’ve found, I think, was quite unique - was the fact there wasn’t so much overlap in these core start-off courses.

QUESTION: When were the other universities informed about the new [indistinct]?

MINISTER DOWNER: Last night.

QUESTION: So what was - would their reaction be?

MINISTER DOWNER: Well look, their reaction is a matter for them, I think. I think what the State Government is going is setting up a feasibility study. It’s going to have a working group which will operate out of the Premier’s Department. And the existing universities - the state-based universities here in South Australia will be consulted. They’ll be involved in all of that process.

And I think the reaction of the three vice-chancellors that the State Education Minister, Stephanie Key, and the Acting Premier and I met with - and Jane Lomax Smith met with last night - their reaction was that they looked forward to getting more information and working with the feasibility study.

QUESTION: And how did it come about? Whose idea was it?

MINISTER DOWNER: Ah well this is something that was thought up - I can tell you when it was. It was in February of this year, in a discussion late at night which involved the Premier and me and a number of other people on the Adelaide to Darwin railway.

QUESTION: A rare case of bipartisan cooperation here?

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MINISTER DOWNER: Oh well I wouldn’t go so far as saying rare. There are areas where the State and the Federal Government have a coincidence of views and are able to work together. You know, party politics has its place, but three weeks ago I collapsed exhausted from party politics and put that behind me for another two and a half years.

ROBERT CHAMPION DE CRESPIGNY: But also Minister, I think it’s important to say we’re all South Australians. You heard the Minister say when it was introduced, this is about how South Australia competes in one of the great growth areas in this region. Isn’t it really? This is about South Australia.

QUESTION: What economic benefits will this actually bring though?

ROBERT CHAMPION DE CRESPIGNY: Well if the students come, an enormous economic benefit. You know, I think we saw during the - typically if a visitor comes here for a weekend, they spend a thousand dollars. A student here for a year, people argue, whether its 15 or $30,000.

If we could bring in, over time, another thousand, 2,000 or 3,000 students, this is a major change for the city behind us.

MINISTER DOWNER: And just to say this, just imagine if we can turn Adelaide - as somebody was putting it yesterday - if we can turn Adelaide into the - in educational terms into the Boston of Australia and of this part of the world - of the south east Asian region - that is going to be enormous for South Australia. It really is.

If we can get Adelaide promoted as the national education centre, you will get a lot of spin-offs. If this university is very successful, that’ll only help to build the quality of the existing state universities and I think you’ll get other institutions and you’ll get businesses that will spin off from it as well.

So it has the potential to make an enormous difference to South Australia.

QUESTION: What about the fee structure? How much would students expect to be paying for [indistinct]?

MINISTER DOWNER: That’s all got to be worked out yet. That hasn’t been worked out.

QUESTION: And how much do they pay in the US to attend this university*?

MINISTER DOWNER: Well the cost structure won’t be the same as in the US.

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QUESTION: Can I ask, student accommodation is a bit at a premium. Can Adelaide cope with it, or is there scope for having a city campus and regional campuses, like say, the University of South Australia, which has Whyalla campus?

ROBERT CHAMPION DE CRESPIGNY: Well look, the feasibility is being done at the moment and as we’ve said, we’re starting off in a smaller way and we’ll grow. But wouldn’t it be a great tragedy if we couldn’t build the vision that the Minister’s just painted - if we couldn’t build that because we couldn’t handle student housing? You know, I think they’re minor challenges for us here.

QUESTION: And will there be scope for regional campuses - something* like Whyalla [indistinct]?

ROBERT CHAMPION DE CRESPIGNY: I would’ve thought if you’ve got a place specialising in giving US degrees, that would be unlikely in the shorter term. Further down the track, I think that’s something they’d look at.

QUESTION: You said that you haven’t actually found a spot yet. What’s your best-case scenario? Where would you like it ideally?

MINISTER DOWNER: We’ve got four or five locations that we’ve given consideration to. But as you can imagine these locations are currently being used by others. So there are - not to put too fine a point on it - some sensitivities about this issue.

We’d like to have a reasonably prestigious location. It wouldn’t necessarily be a green fields location. It might be a case of taking over - you know, it’s going to be small to start with - so taking over a - one or two prestigious buildings that are currently being used by other people, and of course, if that’s the case they’ll have to be transferred.

But look, that is a work in progress that we …

QUESTION: Is that Federal or State Government [indistinct]?

MINISTER DOWNER: Well some of those are state and some of those are federal. The Federal Government owns some fine property in South Australia.

QUESTION: The Sunday Mail believes that the Torrens [indistinct] is one of the locations that you may be looking at.

MINISTER DOWNER: I think that is less likely than likely. The Sunday Mail is a fine South Australian institution, I wouldn’t run too heavily on that one. I’d focus on some other sites.

Inquiries: (02) 6277 7500

QUESTION: Have you thought about locations - have you thought about the name? Is there any indication of [indistinct]?

MINISTER DOWNER: Well part of the question of the name is going to be working out arrangements with Carnegie Mellon and that is a work in progress as well, because for them, there’re all sorts of legal issues they need to look at.

So the Premier is at the moment over there in Pittsburgh, which is where Carnegie Mellon is based. And that’s one of the issues he’ll be talking to - will have been talking to them about over the last couple of days.

QUESTION: Mr de Crespigny, your view on it - on the naming?

ROBERT CHAMPION DE CRESPIGNY: Well you know, obviously it won’t be Downer University, but if you could run with Champion de Crespigny University it might sound more marketable, mightn’t it?

MINISTER DOWNER: Or Rann University.

[Laughter]

QUESTION: Have you got your eyes on any buildings on North Terrace at all, Mr Downer?

MINISTER DOWNER: Ah no. I don’t think …

ROBERT CHAMPION DE CRESPIGNY: Look I don’t think it’s worth speculating yet. There are five places that the Carnegie Mellon people were all excited about. This is a state with the most beautiful buildings and I don’t think it’s going to be as big a challenge. But as the Minister once again said, people are in these buildings so we’ve got to work through it.

QUESTION: So Mr Downer, have I sort of got the story right, that on the train going up for the first Ghan trip, you were all having a nice time and you sat down, you did a workshop and came up with this idea. Is that what happened?

MINISTER DOWNER: That is what happened. Yep. That’s exactly what happened. We were sitting there …

ROBERT CHAMPION DE CRESPIGNY: Working hard.

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MINISTER DOWNER: Working hard, yes. Working hard late at night.

And this of course is a wonderful federal-state project - the Adelaide-Darwin railway. And the Premier and I and some others were there enjoying ourselves. And we had a - we were talking about the future of South Australia. And it was one of the issues that came up, that we could turn South Australia into an Asia-Pacific education hub if we could get a new institution like this up and running. And we’ve been working on it ever since.

Of course, Robert more recently has been working on it. But we’ve harnessed his energy and his experience and he’s played a very important role in all of this in recent times.

QUESTION: So while we all thought you were getting free wine and free tickets, you were actually working pretty hard then by the sound of it.

ROBERT CHAMPION DE CRESPIGNY: Terribly hard.

[Laughter]

MINISTER DOWNER: Well we were for that half hour.

[Laughter]

QUESTION: They only took a half an hour to come up with this idea [indistinct]?

MINISTER DOWNER: I would’ve thought so, yeah. Great ideas come in those sorts of ways. And it’s so often true in history. I mean, there are other things I would do, I suppose, if I were the Premier of South Australia, but that’s not something that’s ever going to happen.

So I was happy to have the opportunity to sit with the Premier there, and for several days, on a train, and it’s an opportunity to talk through a lot of issues.

QUESTION: Minister, can we talk about the bin Laden …

MINISTER DOWNER: Can. Have you finished with this issue?

QUESTION: Yep. Happy, yep.

MINISTER DOWNER:

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Okay. I just - well let me say about Osama bin Laden. First of all, we’ve got to understand who we’re dealing with here. Osama bin Laden is an Islamic extremist fanatic. He wants to destroy our way of life; the types of societies we in the west, including in Australia, have. And he wants to destroy the moderate governments of the Islamic world.

And here is a fanatic, coming out again, demanding the implementation of his ideology and our message to Osama bin Laden is that we will defy and defeat you.

QUESTION: Is his message going to affect the American election? It comes seven days before the American election. It probably wouldn’t help Mr Kerry’s chances and probably Mr Bush. But do you think that was his target?

MINISTER DOWNER: I couldn’t say - certainly not going to comment on, you know, any views I might have on what impact it would have on the American electorate. I mean, in any case, I’m much better educated on the Australian electorate than the American electorate.

But look, he may have chosen - Osama bin Laden may have chosen this time to make the comments he’s made in order to try to influence the American election.

But my point is, whenever he says these things and whenever these Islamic extremists and fanatics say these things, our message to them is a simple message, and that is, we will defy you and we will defeat you. And countries like Australia must not flinch in the face of these fanatics. We must show an utter determination to confront them and defeat them.

QUESTION: So are you going to change the travel advice for Australians travelling to the United States or anything to do with, as a result of this?

MINISTER DOWNER: No. No we won’t.

QUESTION: A little bit closer to home, Mr Downer. The Thai Government’s commissioned an inquiry into the death of 80 Muslims. What kind of an impact would that have on regional security for Australians and the region that we are in?

MINISTER DOWNER: Well it’s been very important that they set up a committee of inquiry and had they not done so, I think that would’ve caused some difficulties for them.

But I very much welcome the fact that the Thai Government’s set up this committee of inquiry and we look forward to seeing what the inquiry produces when its report is complete.

QUESTION:

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They’ve been fairly slow in responding to this; it’s been several days. Has that been a good enough response, do you think, to offset the anger that might result in it, and maybe even a calling to arms from Muslim extremists?

MINISTER DOWNER: Well I think it’s - regardless of the timing of it - I think it’s very important that they do set up a proper inquiry and the inquiry’s seen to be, you know, free, fair and independent. And they are doing that. And so that’s very welcome. And that mistakes that have been made, if that’s what the inquiry finds, can properly not be repeated and processes used not repeated so that this sort of thing doesn’t happen again.

QUESTION: What will it directly mean for Australian security and regional security in the area - something like this?

MINISTER DOWNER: Well it’s a point I’ve made which, you know, with the greatest respect to our media - I’m not really criticising the media in saying this - but it’s not been reported in the media. But I have made the point on a number of occasions that there is a great deal of terrorist activity - or there is a great deal is an exaggeration - there is a significant amount of terrorist activity in southern Thailand.

During the course of this year - now we’re in October - the end of October - there’ve been an estimated 350 or so deaths in southern Thailand as a result of the activity of Islamic extremists. The Thai authorities have been wrestling with this problem during the course of the year, and obviously, you know, there has been a tragic event that has taken place in the last few days. And they’ll have to have an inquiry and they rightly are having an inquiry into that.

But there is a significant problem in southern Thailand and this is something the Thai authorities are going to have to focus on in a major way.

QUESTION: Well what about the extremist groups like al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah? Do you - is there something that they could hang a hat on and increase terrorist activities on?

MINISTER DOWNER: You know, as I often say in answer to those sorts of questions, I have no evidence of that. But anything is possible. I mean, regardless of whether it will actually change the operation of organisations like al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah, and the answer is that I don’t think it will change the nature of their operations. They may use this incident for propaganda purposes as they do many other incidents.

And that of course is why it’s - one of the many reasons why it’s important that the Thai Government has a proper inquiry into this.

QUESTION: Will the Australian Government offer any help or anything [indistinct]?

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MINISTER DOWNER: I don’t think they need any help. I think they’re quite capable of doing it themselves.

QUESTION: Can I ask …

MINISTER DOWNER: I just wanted to say something finally about Mr Latham. Mr Latham is today going down to Tasmania - back to Tasmania to say something about his policies and how he’s going to change a lot of his policies.

Now look, today it is three weeks since the last federal election. Three weeks ago, Mr Latham was trying to convince all of us that his policies were the answer to Australia’s problems. Two weeks ago, he said, ‘Well actually no, they weren’t all right, those policies’. Even though he’d been telling us they were right three weeks ago, two weeks ago he said they were 80 to 90% right.

Today he’s telling us that well, actually the policies aren’t really right at all. We’ve got to change our national security policy because we’ve mucked up our policy on Iraq. We’ve got to change our forest policy. I’m afraid that was a bit of a disaster. That Medicare Gold doesn’t really add up, so that’s not much of a policy anymore.

Now if you want to be the Prime Minister of Australia you have to be somebody with a lot of strength and with a passionate belief in what you’re doing for this country. Somebody who, during a period of three weeks, who can go from believing 100% in his policies to 80 to 90% of his policies, to not really believing in his policies at all, is somebody who will never become the Prime Minister of Australia.

QUESTION: You really believe he’ll never be the Prime Minister?

MINISTER DOWNER: I believe he’ll never be the Prime Minister of Australia. I think the Labor Party will change their leader to somebody else before Labor wins an election, because here is a leader who has been driven by political stunts, by Dick Morris, the American political guru, and his policy of triangulation, which didn’t work for Mr Latham.

That’s where all that reading to children and you know, banning plastic bags and things like that - that’s all come from Dick Morris; pure Dick Morris. Green Valley - came from Green Valley - telling us what suburb of Sydney he came from over and over again; pure Dick Morris. And now that Dick Morris didn’t work, so he’s onto something else.

Now look if you want to be the Prime Minister of this country, you have to believe in things. You have to have a strength and a passion about you, which John Howard has. And look, to be fair, I think Keating and Hawke had - whether I agreed with them or not.

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Inquiries: (02) 6277 7500

But Latham - he changes his mind week by week and we’ve seen that. I mean, now he’s abandoning all the policies that he told us three weeks ago he passionately believed in and were centrally important to Australia. How can you say you want to lead the country, but abandon the policies that you believe were passionately important to the future of the country, just because you’ve lost an election? I mean, it doesn’t work.

QUESTION: Mr Howard when he was Opposition Leader did that several times [indistinct] …

MINISTER DOWNER: He did not.

QUESTION: … immigration [indistinct] …

MINISTER DOWNER: He did not. Oh - he - Mr Howard did not abandon his policies. This is the thing about Mr Howard - and I appreciate your question. The thing about Mr Howard is you knew in 1996, when he was running for the second time to be the Prime Minister, you knew what Mr Howard stood for. We’ve always known what John Howard stood for.

But you know, he’d been a Treasurer for a number of years. He had a lot of experience. He was a mature politician in 1996. Mr Latham is not.

QUESTION: The first time he stood, he had different policies, and particularly on immigration, and he lost then, and [indistinct] …

MINISTER DOWNER: He actually didn’t have different policies on immigration in 1987. A comment he made was in, I think you’ll find, 1988, and that was never incorporated as one of the Coalition’s policies.

There’s no point in Mr Latham comparing himself to others. Mr Latham needs to compare himself to Mr Latham. He needs to be somebody who believes in things; has a passion for things. But no, he doesn’t. He believes in Dick Morris and has a passion for climbing his own ladder of opportunity, mainly at the expense of the rest of us.

QUESTION: Who do you think has a better shot at the top job in the Labor camp?

MINISTER DOWNER: Ah well, I’ve always said they should’ve gone for Kim Beazley. They didn’t. I don’t know what they’ll do in the future. Somebody will emerge, but it won’t be Mr Latham.