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Acting Prime Minister discusses aviation security; ethanol and National Party leadership.

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Parliament House, Canberra ACT 2600


2SM, 14 AUGUST 2003

Subjects: Aviation security, ethanol, National Party leadership.

PRESENTER (TRICIA DUFFIELD): Australia is a global player and plays an increasingly critical role on the world stage, according to US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. Mr Armitage, who's in Australia at the moment, has underlined what we have learnt through bitter experience: we are not immune to global terrorism. In fact, we are a target for it.

His comments follow warnings from our own Prime Minister that Australia can expect a terror attack, that it's not a case of if but when. As the world grows increasingly nervous about an imminent attack, British Airways has cancelled all flights to Saudi Arabia. They have received credible intelligence of a serious threat to UK aviation interests there and so have suspended all flights to Saudi Arabia.

Now Australia's aviation security regime will face closer government scrutiny in the wake of new threats by al Qaeda and warnings from ASIO. Federal Transport Minister John Anderson says a committee of Australia's most senior public servants will conduct a continuous review of security procedures affecting aviation. He joins me on the programme now. He's Acting Prime Minister today and also, of course, Federal Transport Minister.

Good morning Minister. Thanks very much for time this morning.

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Good to be with you. It always is.

PRESENTER: Let's have a look at what's happening in our aviation security regime. I know we've already stepped up security to an enormous degree at airports and on aircraft. What are you looking at doing now in the light of these most recent fears about increased threats to security?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Really we just want to make certain that we're, if you like, in a process of continually looking for information, receiving every source of information we can find out there, making certain that it is all being carefully analysed and that we're responding appropriately.

We can't afford to be a sitting target. We can't afford to be static. On the other hand, we don't want to impose unnecessary costs and inconvenience or alarm people unnecessarily

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when there's no sound reason for doing so. Very difficult value judgements have to be made. We try to make certain that they're done so on the best possible intelligence.

PRESENTER: How is that intelligence going to be gathered? You're getting together a committee; you've got the Secretaries Committee of National Security, which is chaired by Peter Shergold, undertaking this review. How do you manage all that? How does it actually work?

It's a bit of a big ask, but if you could explain in layman's terms, I guess, how that actually steps out in practical terms?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, those people draw intelligence from every source available, really, whether it's from the transport technology side, which my department might bring to it, whether it's the international and diplomatic field, which appropriate officials can bring to it, whether it's defence, whether it's the counter terrorism people themselves.

We pull together all the strands of information we can. This is really ensuring we do have a continual process of assessing the threat level and working out our responses. This is to get a good stand back, objective view by some of the country's most capable people to see whether there are any holes.

If you like -- this might be a funny way to put it -- but if you like, put yourself in the shoes of a terrorist who's examining the way we do aviation security and probing for weak links. But we get in first. Is there something here that we're missing? Is there a pattern of surveillance or a pattern of security arrangements there that's so regular they can see a way through it? Should we in fact -- I used the word yesterday -- make it a little less predictable and more random?

That's the objective. It is to try to spot any weak links, any areas where it can be tightened, without going so overboard that we unnecessarily raise people's fears or costs so much that it becomes prohibitive and we start to cripple our economy. That would be to hand a victory to the very people we can never let win.

When that's done they will report back to the National Security Committee of Cabinet for action as required. It might be something that's in my portfolio that we need to do in relation to greater security on airplanes themselves. Or it could be something in the policing area. It could be something in the foreign affairs area.

PRESENTER: I suppose there's a lot more onus and a lot more responsibility on airport and airline managers to make some of those assessments as well. You’re asking that they actively manage what's going on in their fields of responsibility and that's quite a big call for these people. We have the case of British Airways making their judgment and cancelling all flights or suspending flights to Saudi Arabia, is that the sort of thing that you would see as a responsibility of our airlines and our airport managers?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: I'd see those sorts of things as shared responsibilities and we do try to make certain that we're giving them up-to-date information. Particularly in relation to our airline industries, there are times when we have to give trusted people in the airlines quite detailed and sophisticated and sensitive information and they handle it very wisely. But I think the initial assessment task is one that belongs to government. In terms of working that through with the industry and addressing any difficult situation that comes up

that requires judgments about what ought to be done I see that very much as a responsibility that we share.

Remember the aviation industry has the greatest interest of all in ensuring that its passengers are safe. The Australian industry - for example, I was just looking at the accident statistics last night - we've never lost an Australian in a high capacity jet aircraft accident in Australia and we want to keep it that way. And of course the aviation industry of all has the greatest incentive perhaps of anyone to keep their customers safe.

PRESENTER: If there are credible threats to, say, UK aviation, certainly in the United States and then these reports that al Qaeda was looking at least using Australian airlines as a form of transport for terrorists and whatever, do we also have international obligations, do we share security with other airlines and that sort of thing? How does that work, when we start talking about an international responsibility?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: We would interact with the agencies of other governments rather than their individual companies. But we certainly cooperate; we believe that's part of our responsibility to other nations. At the same time, of course, we benefit enormously from the frank and open exchange of information that we enjoy from other countries who are committed to the fight against terrorism. We simply cannot allow terrorism to win and every one of us has a part to play in that.

PRESENTER: It's interesting that we're talking about this this morning. Last night in Sydney, the rail network was the focus of hundreds of police that were put on the job because of reports of an overheard conversation, that people thought might relate to terrorism. It caused chaos, but I think most people were fairly happy that we were able to swing into action so quickly.

What are your thoughts on that particular sort of operation? Are we going to be seeing more of that sort of thing and what was your assessment of it?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: What deeply worries me is that it seems that in our modern society, for various reasons, we have more people than I would like to think we would who think it's great fun to garner some attention. They have some deep psychological need. Well, let me put it bluntly, in some way they're very sick in the mind. They will engage in these sorts of things to get a scare campaign going, frighten the living daylights out of people and cost the taxpayer a great deal of money, and I suppose they sit back and

think it's great fun.

PRESENTER: What did you think, though, of the response? From what you would have seen, have you had any feedback yourself about what was involved in that response?


PRESENTER: What did you think of it just from your observation, did it seem to be a well carried out response?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: I think we are getting our act together. I think we're very good at these things. Australians have an organisational skill and flexibility in the sort of spirit of cooperation amongst the various forces that look after us and secure our safety. That really means that we come up fairly well and we do put enormous confidence in our authorities and in the people who man them, the men and women who man them in this

country. I’m a great defender of our various authorities and agencies, I have to say, and I think we've learnt a lot. We've set out to learn a lot to make sure that we have proper response plans in place, and I would make no political comments there because I think both at state and Commonwealth level there's been terrific cooperation and it's a pretty impressive record.

PRESENTER: I thought one of the good things about it was that even though some people were a little bit peeved, most people were happy that there had been a response even though it turned out to be nothing proven and a hoax or whatever. But most people seemed to be happy. I thought it was a good sign that people are accepting that we do have additional security and so on and have to live with it and so be it. And if you miss your train or there’s chaos for a brief amount of time then so be it. I thought that was a good sign.

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Better to arrive late than never. We simply have to win this battle. Civilisation, as we know it and treasure it will come to an end if the terrorists win. That’s what they want to happen. We cannot allow that to happen.

PRESENTER: Onto another subject, ethanol. Here we were travelling along really well and it looked like this ethanol plant was going to get up and many people in regional and rural areas were saying thank goodness, we need this really badly to kickstart us. It looks like politics is going to muddy it all up. What is going on with this company and with these claims of murky relationships and lying to parliament and so on? Can you please give us at least a perspective from your point of view about what is happening with this ethanol plant?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: I must say that this is a bit of a low point, as far as I’m concerned. I come from a town in the north west of New South Wales, Gunnedah. Manildra’s active there, they have a flour mill there.

PRESENTER: We go to Gunnedah and we’ve had many people saying this is going to be great for the region and all that sort of thing. It just looks like it’s going to be derailed by politics.

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: I’m hopeful that we’re very close, or have been, to snaring a major new plant, a very big capacity plant. But now we find this ruthless political attack on ethanol in general and I think more specifically being used as a vehicle to get to the PM to try to paint him as having misled parliament over a meeting he had with the principal of Manildra.

PRESENTER: But he sort of said, perhaps I did not give the full story. So he’s actually admitted in part that he feels that he may have done something that wasn’t entirely truthful. We all want the ethanol thing to go ahead, I would think. But do you think that in this case perhaps there should have been a little bit more care taken about the process of it all?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Let me make two points about that. The first is that to derail the industry, the potential for Australia to have a renewable fuels industry, with all of the damage that it could do in terms of lost opportunity for towns like mine. I’ll be frank about it. Gunnedah’s lost two coal mines and an abattoir and a pet food factory and had the most disastrous floods and droughts I’ve ever known in my forty-six years in life. Now we’ve got the real prospect of a proposed ethanol plant not happening.

But worse than that, there’s another existing industry under threat because of this political campaign. These claims that the PM misled parliament are surely not worth that sort of

dislocation to people’s opportunities and livelihoods. I am frustrated and angry beyond belief that people could be so opportunistic as to do that.

But let make the second point. The key claim by the Labor Party was that at a meeting on the first of August last year, Dick Honan, who’s the head of Manildra, must have raised the issue of a shipment of cheap ethanol coming here from Brazil, which plainly would have had the potential to cut off at the knees any new emerging Australian industry.

Can I just say that I’m involved in this debate, I think I know it reasonably well. No-one in this country knew about that shipment until at the very earliest, the twentieth of August last year. On the key substantive issue of whether the PM and Dick Honan discussed at that meeting a shipload of cheap ethanol coming here which would blow the Australian industry out of the water, he couldn’t have.

He didn’t know and I believe that he didn’t know anything about it at that stage. The government certainly didn’t know. I’m the Deputy Leader of the Government and I didn’t know until after the twentieth of August last year, which is over three weeks after the meeting that all this is about. All this row, all this vitriol, all this poison which has the potential not only to cut off valuable opportunities for towns like Gunnedah. At this stage, you’d have to say, it is putting at risk one of the few valuable remaining value-adding industries that we have in that town.

It’s no wonder sometimes people get cynical about the way people behave, and I just pray to God I’ve never engaged in that sort of political opportunism myself and I think it reflects appallingly on those responsible for it.

PRESENTER: Let’s hope that, politics aside, what looks like is going to be a huge boon to that area certainly gets the go ahead, and that the process is transparent and clear and above board and that it’s done in a right way and that politics can be left out of it.

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: Well, my conscience is clear. I’ve worked very hard for an ethanol industry. I keep seeing that I’m being labelled as the chief proponent of it or advocate for it in this place and I’ve said, ‘look, it’s got to be able to compete with other fuels, it has to be able to make it in the marketplace.’ But why would you try to deny it the opportunity?

The cotton industry is very big in my area. It’s one of the few industries that’s really grown in recent years and bought a lot of prosperity and jobs. It got a kickstart from government in the early 1960s, from a Labor government, to be fair to them. It got going. Now, it’s completely self-sustaining. They’ve become environmentally responsible. Some of your listeners, I know, will be interested to know that, but it really has. It’s made giant strides. It’s now, I believe, a sustainable industry that looks after its water and soils much better

than it used to, and it deserves support. But that industry would now say, we don’t want government support, we don’t want any handouts, we don’t want any protection, we’re fully fledged. We have the opportunity to do the same, and we desperately need those industries in rural and regional areas. I mean, do we want everybody crowded in to the Sydney basin? I love Sydney, but do we really want everyone hugging the coast?

PRESENTER: Too many here anyway.

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: And let me make one other point. We’ve done some work recently which shows that every job we create out of these industries in electorates like

mine, we create another matching job, I hate to say it, apparently more highly paid, in Sydney.

PRESENTER: I know. It’s a huge boon to the area, and I think we would all benefit from it. Now, if this fight is continuing, I mean you’re thinking about retirement down the track, this would certainly be something that you couldn’t walk away from until it was established, surely?

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: I think I have the parameters basically set for this industry to be given a really good fighting chance. We’ve got three or four that I know of, not just in my home town, but in surrounding towns that really were set to start moving. They were engaged in serious talks with the oil companies. This idea that the oil companies are all against it is not right, either. I’m pretty upset with the way some of them let the anti-ethanol campaign run, and that all started in the parliament too, with Bob McMullan claiming that an engine in Sydney had been blown up by using ethanol, and it turned out to be kerosene. I have yet to hear of an engine being damaged by the use of ethanol.

I’m a car enthusiast. And up to ten per cent, I wouldn’t hesitate to put… in fact, I’d consciously go and look for a petrol station that had a blend up to ten per cent to put in my car. And I’m a car enthusiast. I’m one of those Aussie boys who loves V8 Holdens, amongst other things.

PRESENTER: Right, and you drive safely, I would hope, as well, setting a good example to our young people.

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: I’m Transport Minister, so I have to, don’t I?

PRESENTER: I forgot about that. Well, that wouldn’t go down too well at all. Well, it certainly seems that you will be around until you at least see this ethanol thing put to bed, whichever way that eventually happens.

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: We’re trying to get a national water plan up. We’re trying to get the New South Wales interstate track integrated into the national grid.

PRESENTER: You’re not going to be retiring for another decade, I can tell.

ACTING PRIME MINISTER: There’s a lot of important things to do.

PRESENTER: Thank you very much for your time on the programme this morning.

Media contact: Bill McKinley 02 62777680