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Foreign Minister discusses Australia's world importance; Iraq; and Turkey.

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DATE: November 26 2003 TITLE: Interview with Derryn Hinch - Radio 3AW Melbourne

Journalist: Not middling, not piddling. We are up there.

Downer: Well I think we underplay ourselves far too much. Australia is a significant country. I often draw people’s attention to one of those statistics you read out, that Australia’s economy, out of 200 countries in the world, is about the 12th biggest. And if you compare us, say to a country like Malaysia - well Malaysia’s economy is about the size of Queensland’s. Indonesia’s economy is about the size of Victoria’s. So, when you hear people talking about Australia being a ‘small country’ or inconsequential, I always think it sounds as though they’re almost apologising for a country which is really a significant and a very effective country.

Journalist: I use the expression of a rush of blood to the head. How much of your speech, or your view was influenced by the fact that we were a quick and I believe correct member of the Coalition of the Willing? We (inaudible) John Howard …can do-see-do with George Bush or Tony Blair?

Downer: Not especially that issue, though it’s an important issue obviously. But not that issue alone. I think what we’ve done from Bougainville to East Timor, to the Solomon Islands, to the War Against Terrorism, to helping the Indonesians develop a counter-terrorism capability, to the role we play in international trade, to our artists, our actors and actresses, our sports stars obviously - the tremendous achievements of Australia in that field. They all project the image of a country that is an incredibly effective and successful country.

Journalist: And we fight above our weight in a lot of areas.

Downer: In a lot of areas. In almost every area. And I think sometimes - it pays to be critical of particularly - dare I say this because your listeners will all agree - but you should be critical and challenging of politicians and people with power, and all that sort of thing. But when you think about the rest of the world, and then you think about Australia, where else would you want to live rather than Australia? And if you feel that, and most people in Australia would feel that, well it illustrates my point. Australia is a very effective and a very successful country for all its faults.

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Journalist: I hate giving any politician, especially somebody in government a free kick, whether it be Liberal or Labor. But I think one of the most awesome things I have seen in politics or international relations in recent times, has been the fact that within 24 hours, the two most powerful and important men in the world - being the President of the United States of America and the President of China - appeared in Australia.

Downer: Well if Australia was a little country, if Australia wasn’t an important country, of course they wouldn’t come to Australia. These are enormously busy people. They have vast agendas to deal with. And Australia is part of their agenda. They think Australia is a significant enough country to spend time in. They think our leaders, whatever we think about our leaders - and your listeners will have mixed views about that - but whatever we think of our leaders, they think that our country is such that they should spend time with them.

Journalist: Has it been a deliberate attempt - and I think it has been a deliberate attempt - by you and by Prime Minister Howard, that you have managed to straddle the problem of the East and the West? With the United States of America, because of the Coalition on the Willing, and also the fact that we’ve got the $25 billion natural gas project with China. But you have managed to actually straddle something that in the past I don’t think Liberal and Labor leaders have not been able to do.

Downer: Maybe their circumstances were different. So far be it for me to criticise my predecessors. But think of the circumstances - we have a rapidly growing economy in China and obviously, for us 20 million Australians we want to make the most of that and that relationship. But at the same time we live in a very unstable world, and we live in an unstable part of it. I would have thought at any time in our history, this was one of the last times that we would want to walk away from our alliance relationship with the United States. You’ve got terrorists in South-East Asia. You’ve got a rogue state in North Korea. You’ve got other uncertainties in the region. We don’t want to kick the Americans out of our region, whatever reservations we might have about some of their specific policies.

Journalist: You come from a Party, and your father was deeply involved in politics and the Party, that came from Sir Robert Menzies who was British to his boot heels, and he said so …I did but see her passing by, but I shall love her ‘til I die, he said of the Queen. But now, pragmatically, John Howard and you, as his Foreign Affairs Minister, have (inaudible) United States of America, he said, is the most important nation for the long-lasting and lengthy long-time security of Australia.

Downer: Yes, well what we have to do in government, is not allow ourselves just to be driven by emotion and sentiment. We’ve got to be driven by our perceptions of the national interest, and explain that to the public. Now our perception of the national interest, as I was saying a moment ago, is that it makes an enormous amount of sense for us to have a close relationship with the United States. There might be some downsides to it, but overall it makes an enormous amount of sense in this uncertain world. And given the sheer weight of the American economy. On the other hand, that should be done in a way that doesn’t preclude us from building ties with an emerging power like China. And the challenge for a foreign policy maker is to try to get that balance right. And we’ll always have our critics of course, but on the whole we haven’t done a bad job in getting that balance right, at least for the time being.

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Journalist: OK, now we managed to some would say cleverly, get our troops out of Iraq before the Americans, who are now being knocked off like flies sadly. How do you see that ending, and could you perceive us going back in?

Downer: I don’t think so, no. We made it clear to the Americans right at the outset when we got down to the point earlier this year, of agreeing with their request to send troops, that we would do it but we have a lot of responsibilities in our region and we didn’t want to spend a lot of time there - so we would help them with the war, but when the war was over we wouldn’t be involved in peace-keeping operations. And they accepted and understood that. And they’ve not come back to us and asked us to send troops to reverse our policy. And I don’t think they will. So that was the circumstance, and I just think history has shown that we were wise to do that because we had the Solomon Islands crisis blow up quite soon after. Now we’ve had to deploy quite a lot of our troops to the Solomon Islands, at least initially. And we’ve had the capacity to do that because of the way we managed our contribution to the Iraq War.

Journalist: Final point - a country I was in last year, Turkey. I was in Istanbul. Your Department has just issued a warning to Australians not to go there if it’s - to use the old expression - for non-essential travel. Why?

Downer: Because we think it’s possible, we’re not sure, but we think we should tell the public that it’s possible there could be yet another terrorist attack in Turkey. And so if they’re thinking of going to Turkey, we would advise them to defer any non-essential travel to Turkey.

Journalist: You’ve received, either personally, or through your Department, you’ve received intelligence about this from the British haven’t you?

Downer: From the British, that’s right. But I think we should take it seriously and just make sure people are very cautious.

Journalist: It shows how the War on Terror though, has changed and escalated that Muslim countries - Saudi Arabia, Turkey - are being hit very hard by these suicide bombers.

Downer: It’s a very significant point, because it demonstrates for people who may not have been aware of this, but the targets for these fanatical terrorists are not just Americans or America’s allies, or Westerners. They are also moderate Islamic regimes. And Turkey is a moderate Islamic regime. So, the other thing I would say about it is of course, that it’s turning a lot of Muslims, not surprisingly, against the terrorists. And if anything good can come out of the evil of terrorism...

Journalist: That’s the truth - if anything good is to come out of it, it’s the fact that some moderates are saying ‘hang on, we’re the good guys too, we’re not the enemy’.

Downer: Exactly.

ENDS……………………………………………………………….November 26 2003