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Prime Minister discusses maritime security; August parliamentary sitting; Telstra and cross-media ownership; Flood report and intelligence agencies.

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Tuesday 20 July 2004

Prime Minister discusses maritime security; August parliamentary sitting; Telstra and cross-media ownership; Flood report and intelligence agencies


TO NY EASTLEY: In response to criticism that it wasn't doing enough to protect Australia's maritime security, the Howard Government will today announce its plans to commit an extra $100 million over four years. 


In Brisbane, the Prime Minister will announce increased x-ray facilities, onboard customs checks and the appointment of specialist immigration officials. The Maritime Security package will also include the establishment of a new Government taskforce to review security for offshore oil and gas rigs. 


John Howard is meanwhile continuing to examine the Flood Report into Australia's intelligence services, before it's publicly released, and he's told AM he doesn't believe there is a case for big changes or for a fundamental rearrangement of Australia's spy agencies. 


The Prime Minister outlined the maritime security changes first to our Chief Political Correspondent Catherine McGrath. 


JOHN HOWARD: There'll be additional money to increase the rate of container examination, the x-ray facilities in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Fremantle. There will be support to enable customs to board more vessels at the first port of arrival in Australia.  


That will include random checks, it will extend the customs closed circuit television network, it'll post specialist immigration officials to ports to assist with border control, and we're also proposing to amend the Migration Act to allow passengers on round-trip cruises to be more easily checked should that be deemed necessary in the future. 


CATHERINE MCGRATH: Well, dealing with those first of all if we could. Increasing the rate of container examination, how much will it be increased by? 


JOHN HOWARD: Something by about 25 per cent, about a 25 per cent increase, and it will actually bring the rate of inspection up to the standard of comparable countries. 


CATHERINE MCGRATH: Because currently that rate is about five per cent. 


JOHN HOWARD: Yes, it'll be, yes… but it's… but it's going to, it's going to be increased to bring it into line with comparable countries such as the US, USA and Canada and so forth. 


CATHERINE MCGRATH: Now would you work towards 100 per cent x-rays? 


JOHN HOWARD: Well, I don't think you can ever work towards, ever hope to have 100 per cent. A lot of this is done on the basis of risk assessment and on the basis of intelligence, and obviously you like to have it as high as possible, but from a practical point of view and a resource point of view, you do try and base it on risk assessment and intelligence. 


CATHERINE MCGRATH: Now, you said you'll allow customs officers on board at the first point of arrival. Labor has talked about - as you know - a sea marshals program where they would be conducting surveillance and conducting operations offshore. Now, isn't that a better way to go? 


JOHN HOWARD: Well, I think a lot of it depends on intelligence, Catherine, and obviously if you get intelligence then you do certain things irrespective of what the standard approach might be. 




JOHN HOWARD: …Well, meaning that if you have intelligence that a ship is carrying a terrorist you don't wait until the ship is safely berthed before you start doing something about it. That's the point I'm making. 


CATHERINE MCGRATH: Now, what about oil and gas rigs, Prime Minister? 


JOHN HOWARD: Well, we're going to review the security arrangement for Australia's offshore oil and gas facilities, we're going to have a dedicated taskforce within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and that taskforce also consider Australian Government capabilities for interdicting ships and other vessels at sea. 


CATHERINE MCGRATH: So what sort of level of protection do you think there is at the moment for those oil and gas rigs? 


JOHN HOWARD: Well, there are a number of measures and procedures that exist to protect those assets. Obviously, once again it's a question of intelligence. You don't have the resources to have an armed patrol and there's no need to have an armed patrol, because you do have a capacity to - with intelligence services - to be forewarned of attacks that are likely to occur on them. 


CATHERINE MCGRATH: There was much made several months ago about the danger of ships carrying actually dangerous goods within them, in effect floating bombs. Are there any procedures to be announced on Tuesday to counter that? 


JOHN HOWARD: Well, I think all of the emphasis must recognise the importance of timely intelligence. I mean, there is no limit to, I guess, the inspections and the surveillance you can undertake, and you have to accept for the orderly dispatch and conduct of business, you can't have a regime that makes that impossible. 


And I think the use of timely and effective intelligence remains the most effective antidote against something such as that. 


CATHERINE MCGRATH: After you announced the changes to port security, there'll be the first Cabinet meeting with your new reshuffled team. From that should we presume that Parliament will sit in August as planned? 


JOHN HOWARD: Well, the current arrangement is that Parliament will sit, yes, that's a reasonable assumption. 


CATHERINE MCGRATH: But if an election was held earlier, or called earlier, then obviously it wouldn't sit. 


JOHN HOWARD: Catherine, it is reasonable to assume and natural to assume that Parliament will sit as planned. 


CATHERINE MCGRATH: Your new team, the new Communications Minister, Senator Helen Coonan said on the weekend that she was looking at possible refinements on Telstra and cross-media ownership. What sort of things can the public expect? 


JOHN HOWARD: Well, the basic policy is going to remain the same. We still believe that the existing cross-media laws are anachronistic, we think it is in the interest of telecommunications in this country that Telstra no longer be half-owned by the Government and half-owned by private shareholders, it would be better if it were all entirely owned by private shareholders.  


I think Helen was expressing the natural view of the incoming minister that you look at the details and the nuances of the policy, but the fundamentals of that policy is not going to change any more than the fundamentals of our policy regarding commercial television licences and so forth. That's not going to change either. 


CATHERINE MCGRATH: Prime Minister, just finally you've had a bit more time to look at the Flood Report into Australia's intelligence services. Are you any further down the track in determining whether or not there needs to be changes to the ONA after this? 


JOHN HOWARD: Well what I'm going to do, Catherine, is after the Government has finished its consideration of the Flood Report I'm going to release the unclassified version to the public, and I'm going to announce the Government's response to Mr Flood's recommendations. 


Let me express my own view, and that is that I think we are very well served by our intelligence services, and I don't think there is a case for any big changes, any fundamental rearrangements. 


I think our intelligence services did a very honest and cautious and conscientious job in relation to both Iraq, and in relation to other intelligence challenges that this country has had. 


CATHERINE MCGRATH: Do you have any regrets at all with the way the Flood Inquiry was set up? I mean, one thing that Labor is criticising is the fact that within the terms of reference, there's no examination of the political impact on the intelligence services. 


JOHN HOWARD: Catherine, there was no political interference in the intelligence services. We have not heavied the intelligence services. We have not manipulated intelligence. Of course Labor is critical. Labor is always critical. I suppose they feel they have to be automatic oppositionists. 


We set up the Flood Inquiry in the way recommended by the Parliamentary Committee which included from the Labor Party, Mr Beazley and Senator Ray. We did exactly what we were asked to do by that committee. 


CATHERINE MCGRATH: But won't that question remain? I mean why not ask him, why not have asked him to look at the political side of it as well? 


JOHN HOWARD: Catherine, I think you ought to have a look at the report when it comes out. Why don't we do that? Why don't we have a look at the report? Why don't you have a look at the report, or your colleagues have a look at the report when it comes out? 


Can I just repeat again, we did exactly what we were asked to do by the Jull Inquiry. We didn't set up our own inquiry. They recommended that somebody of Mr Flood's standing and experience have a look at the intelligence services, and that's what we ended up doing. 


TONY EASTLEY: The Prime Minister John Howard speaking to Chief Political Correspondent Catherine McGrath.