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Transcript of press conference: 2 June 2008: Perth: [Italy and UK visits]



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MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS HON STEPHEN SMITH, MP

TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE

DATE: 2 June 2008

TITLE: PRESS CONFERENCE - PERTH

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, thanks very much. Later today I'll be leaving Perth, travelling to Italy and subsequently the United Kingdom. In Rome I'll be attending the high level conference on global food security, which was organised by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation. And whilst I'm in Rome I'll also have bilateral conversations with representatives of the new Italian Government.

Later in the week I'll travel to the United Kingdom where I'll have a bilateral meeting with my UK counterpart, David Miliband, and other meetings with representatives of the United Kingdom Government.

The purpose of the UN Food Security Conference is to make the point that we now have a developing world crisis, so far as food prices and food security is concerned. And the reason for Australia's high level attendance is that we believe this is a significant and emerging issue which Australia wants to be at the forefront of.

If you look at the World Bank's report, in recent days, you'll see that for some staple foods we've had, over the last three years, an increase in price of over 100 per cent. And the average food price has seen an increase of 80 per cent. This is putting enormous pressure not just on developing nations but also on developed nations. And Australia is well placed to seek to

address this emerging crisis. And there needs to be both an immediate response, but also a longer term public policy response.

So far as the immediate response is concerned, Australia has contributed $30 million to the World Food Program for immediate humanitarian assistance. And this follows on the $60 million that we have contributed in the course of the last financial year.

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The longer term public policy response requires much greater effort, so far as trade liberalisation is concerned, and in this context the Doha round of the WTO is very important in the forthcoming weeks and months. Increased production is always important and Australia is very well placed, as an agricultural producing nation, particularly with world-recognised and world quality research, so far as production increase is concerned.

One of the problems we have, of course, is that with the increasing amount of protein, a lot of food stock's now being used for animal feeding rather than for human consumption. So Australia is well placed in all of these areas. Firstly, a good record so far as humanitarian

assistance is concerned; a strong record as far as trade liberalisation is concerned, and very good, world class credentials, so far as production and agricultural research is concerned.

So this is an important United Nations sponsored conference. The United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will be there. I'll be having a bilateral meeting with him as well as representatives of other nation states attending. As well as attending the conference in Rome, and in addition to seeing representatives of the new Berlusconi Government, I'll be meeting with representatives of the Vatican and that, of course, is relevant given His Holiness's attendance in Australia in July for World Youth Day.

So far as the bilaterals in the United Kingdom are concerned, this of course follows on from the Prime Minister's recent visit to the United Kingdom where we made the point that we want not only to enhance our ongoing, very good relationship with the United Kingdom but also enhance our working relationship with the European Union, and enter into a partnership framework, so far as the EU is concerned. But they're a range of relevant matters to speak to my UK counterpart, David Miliband, about, and they range from Afghanistan to Burma, and a range of other relevant public policy issues.

Before responding to your questions on those fronts, can I just make some remarks about Iraq. Firstly, can I say how pleased I am that today we see the effective implementation of the Government's election commitment to withdraw our troops from Iraq, to withdraw the Overwatch Battle Group.

And people should just pause for a moment to remember what the Liberal and National parties said when we made that commitment. They said that the US alliance would be split, that this would be a disaster and I recall the then Defence Minister, Brendan Nelson, the now Leader of the Opposition, saying this would be a disaster of mammoth proportions.

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And what you're now seeing is the withdrawal of Australian combat troops from Iraq in an orderly way in consultation with our allies, the United States, but also in consultation with the United Kingdom and the Iraqi Government. And this is being done very smoothly, implementing our election commitment.

And it's interesting just to observe what the Liberal and National parties are now saying. We've got John Howard out there today saying that if he had been re-elected the troops would not be withdrawn. You've got Brendan Nelson out there saying that he agrees with the decision, although before the election he was saying that such a withdrawal would be a disaster of mammoth proportions. And you've got Senator Minchin out there today saying

that he regrets the fact that the troops are being withdrawn.

So, as in so many issues, on withdrawal of troops from Iraq, with the Liberal and National parties, it's one story before the election and a different story after. And even after the election they can't get the story straight. They don't know what they stand for or what to stand for.

I'm happy to respond to your questions on those and other issues.

QUESTION: Is the job done in Iraq?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we believe that the withdrawal of our troops has been appropriate for some time. That's why we gave the election commitment. The job is not done in the sense that there continues to be the need for both humanitarian assistance and capacity building in Iraq. And that's why in recent times we've made a substantial contribution to capacity building and humanitarian assistance in Iraq, whether it's assistance on agricultural scholarships or whether it's police training.

And so, we've made a very strong commitment so far as those matters are concerned and that was reflected by the recent Budget. So, we believe it's appropriate for us to play an ongoing role in re-building the capacity of the Iraqi Government and the Iraqi people. But for some time we've had the view that it's inappropriate for our combat troops to be there. And we're very pleased that today we're implementing the election commitment that we gave to the Australian people.

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QUESTION: Given that there's so many Australians still there, and you've withdrawn some of those, is this a bit of a PR tactic to show you have kept the election promise when, in fact, there's still a large number of Australians there?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well we've always made it clear that we would have assets in the Middle East, that they would continue to be there for logistical and other support. So we've always made that clear. The qualitative difference is that we don't believe, and this has been our view for some time, that an ongoing combat contribution in Iraq is appropriate. And that's why we gave the election commitment and that's why we are withdrawing.

There is other logistical support that's there for the Middle East generally, and in addition to that, of course, you've got over a thousand troops in Afghanistan which we do regard as being essential in our national interest, but also essential in the interests of the international community.

QUESTION: Do you now think it was worth in there in the first place?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we've withdrawn them. We gave an election commitment which indicated that we wanted to withdraw them. At the time we gave that election commitment the Liberal and National parties said that the world as we knew it would be split asunder, that our alliance with the United States would be wrecked and that there would be a disaster of mammoth proportions.

None of those things have occurred. Our alliance relationship with the United States is first class and all of the reports from Iraq are, in recent months, that circumstances, both security and otherwise, are on the improve.

QUESTION: And did they contribute to that? Did they do something, achieve something positive?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we're certainly very proud and pleased with the efforts of our troops there. We've made that clear. And when they return they'll be welcomed for the good work that they've done. But our public policy position has always been crystal clear. We would not have sent troops there in the first place and having come to office we've withdrawn then in accordance with our election commitment.

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QUESTION: What if the situation escalated? Would you send them back?

STEPHEN SMITH: We have no intention of returning troops to Iraq. Our focus now is on a substantial challenge in Afghanistan. And we've made it clear, again in recent times, that our commitment to Afghanistan is one for the long haul, and that is also both a commitment of military assets, a commitment of troops, but also humanitarian assistance and also capacity building along the same lines as I've referred to for Iraq.

QUESTION: Has our involvement made us more of a terrorist target?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the Australian Government constantly warns Australians about the dangers of travelling overseas in particular locations. And that's reflected by our travel advisories. We remain vigilant and concerned to ensure that when Australians travel overseas they are aware of the hazards that they face.

QUESTION: What about [indistinct]…

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, one of the reasons for our return of the troops was to ensure that we had adequate defence assets and troops in our own region; not just in Australia, but in our region. I think the Defence Minister has made the point very clearly, today and previously, that one of the rationale for our return of the troops was to ensure that we weren't overstretched, to ensure that we did have a capacity, should exigencies arise, to be able to

deal with peace and security issues in our own region.

QUESTION: I understand the idea of overstretching our resources. But in terms of making us more of a terrorist target? Will you answer that question? Are we more of a terrorist target now as a result of our involvement in Iraq?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I simply make the point I've made in the past, and I make again, it's not for me to give a running commentary on the threats or the worries that Australians face when they are overseas. They should rely on our travel advisories. And I'm not proposing to give a running commentary on how that may have changed in the past as a result of the actions of others. Suffice to say that we remain of the view that international terrorism is a threat to Australia.

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For some considerable time, we have been of the view that the heart of that threat or risk, so far as the Middle East has been concerned, is Afghanistan not Iraq. And that is why we have a qualitatively different approach to Afghanistan than we do to Iraq, and that's been our view for some time.

QUESTION: What do you say [indistinct] food. The Premier and the Minister for Agriculture are basically calling for a nationwide halt to GM research. Now, going - given that you're going over for the food security meeting how - how is that going to affect Australia's ability to supply the world food markets? And I mean, can you see a conflict there if the ban is enacted?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, genetically modified approaches to food production is a contentious issue and there are different views firmly held by State governments and by different nation states. And that's an issue, obviously, that not just Australia but other nations need to address.

But I think the key point for Australia is that we are very well placed in terms of production of agricultural produce and one of the things which gives us an advantage is that when it comes to agricultural research, production techniques, the view of Australia is that we have world class research and can apply world class research techniques.

There are a whole range of issues which go to production of food and the difficulty of food security. Genetically modified food and attitudes to that is one. Adverse consequences of climate change is obviously another. Issues of use of food stocks for biofuels or bioenergy is obviously another. So these are all part of the mix.

We know that we have an emerging crisis, so far as food: food security and food prices is concerned. The causes for that are not simple, they are complex, and the policy response requires not just an immediate humanitarian assistance where that's appropriate, but a longer term view of the issues that I've referred to, whether it's trade liberalisation, whether it's increased production by using scientific techniques, or whether it is responding to the substantially increasing consumption of some of the emerging economic powerhouses like China and India.

QUESTION: So you can see GMO foods being a possible solution to the world food shortage. Is that correct?

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STEPHEN SMITH: Well, there are strong views differently held on genetically modified food. It's one of the issues that'll fall for consideration.

QUESTION: What's the Australian Government's position on it, though?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it's an issue that we're obviously well aware of. There are different views held by the various State governments, and we are in consultation with the state governments about that question. But very much of the regulation so far as genetically modified food is concerned is vested in the State's responsibility, and that's why you'll find not just the State Government of Western Australia but other states having a view about that. But obviously we have a conversation with the States about their attitudes.

Whether people have to look at the question of genetically modified food in the context of food security is obviously, in my view, a live issue and one that people will have to contemplate. Just as they will have to contemplate the use of food stocks for bioenergy or

biofuels and just as they will have to contemplate the adverse consequences of dangerous climate change for food production and where food is produced.

QUESTION: Is there a period of conflict there, that when you're in the states, if you go…

STEPHEN SMITH: No, no. No.

QUESTION: …go to people and say, well, we might supply more food…

STEPHEN SMITH: It's a…

QUESTION: …states that are vying amongst each other.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the point I'm making is that Australia can be a producer of food without necessarily having to rely upon genetically modified food. One of our great strengths, in terms of a food producer, has been increasing production through the use of scientific techniques. That is one of our great strengths. And the agricultural research, in terms of agricultural production, is one of the hallmarks of Australian research. We're very well regarded.

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So you shouldn't assume that our strengths in research necessarily take us down a path of genetically modified food. It's not the case. But obviously that will be a live issue, but it's one in which, no doubt, my colleague, the Agriculture Minister, will continue to have discussions with the states about.

QUESTION: Do you expect to see more riots and bread shortages in Egypt? I mean, the solutions - the long-term solutions obviously are long term and may take a while, so do you expect more of that sort of thing?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we certainly hope not, which is why we say in the first instance that there has to be an immediate humanitarian response. Which is why a month ago I announced, on behalf of the Australian Government, that we would apply $30 million to the World Food Program. And that was a substantial contribution so far as Australia was concerned and it came on top of our regular annual contribution, which is in the order of $60 million.

So in the first instance, there has to be recognition that there is a humanitarian assistance issue here, and that's one of the issues, obviously, that the conference needs to address. Whilst it's not a so-called donors' conference, there needs to be an immediate response so far as

humanitarian assistance is concerned. But then there are longer term issues that we need to address, whether those issues are trade issues, whether those issues are agricultural production issues, whether those issues are biofuel or bioenergy, or whether those issues relate to genetically modified food.

QUESTION: Is it possible to bring down the prices of staples like bread fairly rapidly, or is that going to take a while?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I think that's a longer term problem and issue. As I say, the World Bank recently published a report which showed in some commodities an increase over the last three years of over 100 per cent, an average increase over the last three years of 80 per cent for staple food. So I think the significance of the high level conference is that the world formally, for the first occasion, is making the point that this is now an issue that we have to address. It's got to be addressed not just individually by nations but also by the world community generally.

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But there'll be no instant solutions here, other than trying to apply humanitarian assistance for those nation states who need it most. And hopefully that will avert or avoid any of the adverse consequences that you've referred to.

QUESTION: Robert Mugabe turned up at the conference two days ago. What are your thoughts on that?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I've seen suggestions that Mr Mugabe will attend the, the food conference. Can I say frankly I regard that as obscene. This is a person who has presided over the starvation of his people. This is a person who has used food aid in a politically motivated way, so Robert Mugabe turning up to a conference dealing with food crisis or food security or food issues is in my view frankly obscene. This is the person who has effectively used starvation as a political weapon against his own people.

QUESTION: Is there a policy paralysis in your office with submissions piling up?

STEPHEN SMITH: I've seen that, I've seen that anonymous suggestion and I've also seen that the department has given a response to it. And I'm happy for the department to publish the statistics. But, can I just make this general point - in a job like this, the job's never done. The work is never complete. The job is never done. And so I frankly don't pay much attention to what anonymous people might regard as a snapshot of a working day.

The job is never done in this business. And in the end, the Australian people will make a judgement about whether the foreign policy that we adopted, and the public policy that we adopted, was ultimately for Australia's national interest.

And I have to say that in the first six months we're very pleased with the progress that we've been making on the three fundamental pillars of our foreign policy approach - our alliance with the United States is first class, despite the fact the Liberal Party said that it would be torn asunder if we pulled troops out of Iraq.

Our engagement with the United Nations, which we regard as a priority, is now fully back in harness, including with our announcement of our candidature for a United Nations Security Council position for the 2013/14 term.

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And our re-engagement with Asia and the Pacific, particularly our much better relations with the Pacific, including Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, is very well advanced.

So we're very pleased with the progress that we've made on those three fronts in the first six months. Can I just make this point - the job is never done. The work is never complete. And ultimately it won't be an anonymous comment; it'll be the judgement of the Australian people

as to whether they believe that we've performed well in these areas.

QUESTION: Is that work going to get harder given budgetary constraints having to see diplomats come out of Europe and so forth?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well we've, applied budgetary measures, as you know, to respond to the difficult fiscal position that the Government finds itself in; again largely as a result of years of neglect on inflation so far as our predecessors were concerned. But we remain confident that we're in a position to implement our foreign policy priorities, despite the modest cuts that have occurred in DFAT.

QUESTION: According to the report, the problem is due in part because you're indecisive, and because…

STEPHEN SMITH: [Laughs]

QUESTION: … everything has to be cleared by the Prime Minister.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I'll allow other people to make a judgement about the first matter; that's a matter for others not for me. Secondly, the second point is just wrong, and the journalist concerned was told it was wrong. It's just not the case.

QUESTION: When are you going to appoint a High Commissioner to London? Is that something we can expect soon?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well can I say that we have an Acting High Commissioner in London. She has been there since Richard Alston, Richard Alston's term expired in January or February. Since that time we've seen a Prime Ministerial visit, which went very well; and I'm about to go myself.

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So we have got very much confidence in the Acting High Commissioner. When it comes to an appointment of a High Commissioner to London, the Government will make a decision and announce its decision at a time of its own choosing.

QUESTION: Just on the issues surrounding Fran Logan at the moment, do you think that it's appropriate for a Minister to proposition a female staff…

STEPHEN SMITH: Well I'm not proposing to be drawn on any of the matters related to the State Parliament or the State Government or the State Opposition.

QUESTION: But do you think a comment like that is even…

STEPHEN SMITH: I'm not proposing to be drawn on those matters. I've made that clear.

QUESTION: You must have an opinion though on it?

STEPHEN SMITH: I may well have an opinion, but I'm not proposing to be drawn on it.

QUESTION: Indonesian travel advisories - are you guys planning on reviewing those after some criticism from the Indonesian Government?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, they're constantly reviewed. Our travel - this is the point I was making earlier - that our travel advisories for all nations are constantly reviewed. They are continually reviewed, and the Indonesian Government has put a view to us. Indeed, some of you might recall when Foreign Minister Wirajuda came to Perth in January or February, it was an issue which was raised at the time.

So the Indonesian Government has raised this matter with Australia from time to time. But our position remains the same - our travel advisories of Indonesia and for other nations are constantly reviewed.

QUESTION: How often?

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STEPHEN SMITH: Regularly. And on an ongoing basis. If circumstances change quickly, our travel advisories change quickly to reflect those circumstances. But, we regularly monitor and review our travel advisories. But, please understand this, what is paramount and utmost in our minds is the safety, security and welfare of Australians travelling abroad. That is what we regard as the most important aspect of our travel advisories.

The recent commentary has occurred as a result of a change to the United States travel advisory so far as Indonesia is concerned. But if you actually look at the United States travel advisory or country specific commentary for Indonesia, it very much reflects the sort of

commentaries that ours does as well. But, our travel advisory for Indonesia, as it is for other nation states, is continually under review. And from time to time it changes.

QUESTION: There hasn't been an attack aimed at westerners in Indonesia for almost three years, so what it is about Indonesia that you're particularly concerned about? The continuing existence of…

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, as I have said before, my response to that is that people should check our travel advisory. That's the first point. Secondly, but we remain, in general terms, very concerned about the potential for terrorist activity in South East Asia generally. We are very pleased with the cooperation that we have, that Australia has with Indonesia on counter-terrorism, and enforcement mechanisms. And I have congratulated the Indonesian

Governments on their efforts.

And so we have a very good, strong and close and productive working relationship with the Indonesian Government on counter-terrorism measures, and that will continue. A lot of that comes underneath the work that we do under the action plan, under the Lombok Treaty, but we also have a Memorandum of Understanding so far as counter-terrorism is concerned. But,

our view of the situation in Indonesia, sorry, is reflected by our travel advisory, and people who are contemplating travelling to Indonesia should consult that travel advisory.

QUESTION: If I can briefly just go back to Iraq for a moment - how long have the Aussie troops that have started guarding the embassy [indistinct]?

STEPHEN SMITH: Ah, well we have always made it clear that we would have a contingent providing personal protection and security for our diplomats and that will be ongoing.

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QUESTION: [Indistinct].

STEPHEN SMITH: Well until circumstances change that will be ongoing.

QUESTION: And also, just the remaining troops, what kind of, what can you tell us at least about the role that they'll be performing as they stay on?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon has detailed that previously and today, so I'm happy to leave the detail of that to him.

QUESTION: Do you think…

QUESTION: What do you say to claims that we're cutting and running? What would you say to that?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, that is not our analysis, firstly. Secondly, that was the analysis of the Liberal Party, and part of their analysis was that if troops were withdrawn from Iraq two things would occur - firstly that there would be a disaster of mammoth proportions in Iraq; that hasn't occurred. On the contrary, our circumstances on all advice is that circumstances in Iraq have, have improved in recent months. And secondly that our alliance with the United States would be torn asunder. That hasn't occurred either.

So, that phrase was the Liberal Party's analysis. And I again draw your attention to their current analysis. Today we have John Howard saying that if he had been re-elected the troops would not have been pulled out. Before the election you’ve got Brendan Nelson saying that if the troops were pulled out it would be a disaster of mammoth proportions. Today you've got him saying he agrees with it, but you've got Nick Minchin, the Opposition Defence Minister, saying he regrets it. So I'm not sure they know what to stand for on Iraq, or what they stand for.

QUESTION: Just back to WA politics - we've obviously had a number of issues surrounding a pretty bitter pre-selection process, and obviously a number of allegations involving MPs on both sides of the fence. Do you think that an early election would settle some of those problems?

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STEPHEN SMITH: Well not having been drawn on your earlier question, I'm hardly going to be drawn on the question of a timing for an election is entirely a matter for the Premier, and I'm very happy to leave it to him.

QUESTION: Do you think the Premier should call an election?

STEPHEN SMITH: I'm very happy to leave it to him.

QUESTION: Can I just ask, just a quick question about Afghanistan?

STEPHEN SMITH: Yeah.

QUESTION: Why Afghanistan? And then also, how many troops and how long [indistinct]?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, our very strong view so far as Afghanistan is concerned is that, is that this is an essential task on the part of the international community to combat the dangers of international terrorism; that very much the hotbed and the heart of international terrorism is

today found in Afghanistan. That's why we very strongly argued, in the run up to the Bucharest conference, that there needed to be a greater contribution from NATO forces and the international community.

We've got over 1000 troops in Afghanistan. As we have said, we're in Afghanistan for the long haul. We're certainly not proposing to increase the number of troops we have in Afghanistan, but we believe that that is an essential task that we're performing.

At the same time, we also have made a substantial humanitarian and capacity building contribution to, to Afghanistan, on the basis that we can't just be there for peace and security's sake. We're there for peace and security, but also to try and help give the Afghan Government and the Afghani people the capacity to manage their own affairs. And eventually we hope that will be, will be the outcome.

QUESTION: The British lost in Afghanistan, and the Russians lost; do you [indistinct]?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well what we're trying to do - and we don't underestimate the difficulties - is to bring about peace and security, but also bring about a position through

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humanitarian assistance and capacity building where the Afghani people and the Afghani Government can manage their own affairs. That's our public policy objective.

CONVENOR: All right, one more question.

QUESTION: Is there any developments on the UN appointment for Alexander Downer?

STEPHEN SMITH: Ah, well, it'll be a matter for the United Nations to, to announce what if any arrangements it's made so far as Mr Downer is concerned, as a possible UN envoy to Cyprus. That's the first point. Secondly, so far as the Australian Government is concerned, both the Prime Minister and I have made it clear that Mr Downer has our 100 per cent support. And that, and that if he is appointed to that task, we will welcome that very much.

I think it's a matter of public record that the view of the Australian Government was enquired of, and I made it very clear through our mission in New York, that Mr Downer had our 100 per cent support. We would regard him as being an eminently admirable appointee to that role, and hopefully that'll be at the United Nations decision. But it'll be a matter for the United Nations to decide, for the United Nations to make such an offer, and then subsequently for Mr Downer to accept or reject as the case may be.

UNIDENTIFIED: All right, thanks.

STEPHEN SMITH: Cheers.