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Foreign Minister discusses questioning of Dr Mohamed Haneef; Iraq; and Liberal Party leadership.

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DATE: 12 July, 2007

TITLE: Interview - 5AA Adelaide - questioning of terrorism suspect, Iraq, leadership.

PRESENTER: Australia’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Alexander Downer, is on his way to the Adelaide airport, flying out again, and there are always issue on the plate and several right now. Alexander Downer, thanks for joining us.

MR DOWNER: It’s a pleasure.

PRESENTER: We continue to hear about Dr Haneef. The Federal Police have asked for an extension of time and so on. When is there a point where you as a Government might say we’ve either got to change the Act or do something different?

MR DOWNER: It’s one of these difficult situations. I accept that. But if, in an investigation, you are able to obtain information which leads you ultimately to save peoples’ lives, it’s a great thing. But if on the other hand, you deliberately put in place obstacles to

obtaining that information and people get killed, then people are going to ask a lot of questions about how that happened. Now that’s not to cast any aspersions onto that person but that is the basis of the legislation. So in the end, it’s up to the magistrates to decide if the case put by the Federal Police is compelling enough.

PRESENTER: It may be starting to surprise some of us that he hasn’t even been questioned yet. Can you explain what is going on there?

MR DOWNER: This is all being handled by the Federal Police. I’m not sure that it’s appropriate to go into any of the details of what they are doing here, suffice to say that they have obtained a lot of information, an enormous amount of information apparently, and it is taking them a good deal of time for them to deal with all of that information. That’s one of the reasons why the legislation was changed to be able to detain people, of course with the approval of a judicial officer - approval of a magistrate or a judge - because (inaudible) to get information and to sort through a great deal of information, computer software and sorting through papers and so on.

PRESENTER: To the ever moving debate on Iraq, what are you reading about what is happening with the conservative side of politics - the President’s side of politics - in the United States?

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MR DOWNER: I think there are a variety of views - first in the Republican Party. Firstly, there are, I think the bulk of them, who clearly support the President’s position. Some of them are understandably concerned about the political consequences of the President’s position.

PRESENTER: Are they also concerned, Minister, about the reality on the ground now?

MR DOWNER: I think it is far too early to make any conclusive judgements about the surge, which does suggest to me that a lot of the comments that are being made are politically motivated. The surge has only been underway, fully underway, for two or three weeks. So when you see American politicians coming out and saying the insertion of the extra 21,000 troops has failed, I don’t know how they could possibly say that on the basis of two or three weeks worth of work.

What I can say is that I’ve been there myself in the last couple of weeks and I’ve met with General Petraeus, the General in charge of the American troops in Iraq. I was, to be frank with you - and some of your listeners will share this sentiment - I was surprised to hear how optimistic he was and his optimism was born out of the success that the extra troops were already having in a very short period of time, of a week or so, in Al-Anbar province in the west where Al-Qaeda has been entrenched in Iraq and how they were having a good deal of success against Al-Qaeda.

So my attitude to it is you should wait and see how successful it is. But the surge, in any case, is going to last until March or so next year. I think, from our point of view, we don’t need to get caught up in all of the politics of Democrats, Republicans, and intra-Democrats and intra-Republicans rivalry.

PRESENTER: What about Labor’s assertion this week that, as you mention, terrorism and that’s why we’re there constantly, why aren’t our troops in the place where the terrorism is most happening and that is in Baghdad, if you were that keen about that?

MR DOWNER: I think that’s a terrible thing for the Labor Party to have said because I was with our troops in the middle of Baghdad - well it was two weeks ago today I think. There we were in an ALAV - Australian armoured vehicle - driving through the streets of Baghdad, and I was reflecting myself on the courage and the professionalism of our soldiers there. We do have soldiers in Baghdad and we do have soldiers in the south who, at the moment, are conducting a training course for 700 Iraqi army recruits. At the end of the day, all of the foreign forces are going to, or nearly all of them, are going to have to leave Iraq ultimately - everyone agrees on that. The Iraqis are going to have to take control of their own security and they can’t do that without sufficient and well enough trained troops and what I think we’re doing, effectively, is training up those troops.

PRESENTER: Minister, to the local scene - you got involved with things yesterday and the price of carrots. We’ve been talking this morning about the question of leadership change. Why, the question is effectively, why persist with a leader where it is now being said that the people are simply not listening anymore?

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MR DOWNER: I seem to recall that people were saying that sort of thing about John Howard back in 1998. If John Howard stood down every time his poll ratings fell relatively low, I suppose he would have lasted about 18 months as the Prime Minister. He’s been there nearly 11 and a half years now and I think at the end of the day, he is a very reliable, a very safe Prime Minister and somebody who has delivered enormous prosperity in this country. I think Australia stands tall wherever you go in the world. I often say the ultimate test of a Prime Minister is where would you rather live today than in Australia? Where is a better country than Australia, for all the problems we’ve had? He’s presided over it for a good deal of time and he’s done a very good job.

PRESENTER: Is there no prospect for change then?

MR DOWNER: I don’t think there’s any prospect of change. John Howard has been through the vicissitudes of politics like no other politician I have ever known - I’ve been through a few myself but not as many as he has - and he is a dogged and determined and a good man. I think, in the end, the public do recognise that.

PRESENTER: Alexander Downer, thanks for your time this morning.

MR DOWNER: It’s a pleasure Keith.