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Foreign Minister discusses costs of evacuating people from Lebanon.



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MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS HON ALEXANDER DOWNER, MP

TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE

DATE: 8 May, 2007

TITLE: Interview - 2GB with Ray Hadley - cost of Lebanon evacuation.

PRESENTER: Now I asked the Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, to join me and despite the fact that he is very busy on the eve of the Budget, he’s consented to have a talk to us. He’s on the line. Minister, good morning.

MR DOWNER: Good morning Ray.

PRESENTER: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us. In relation to the fax I received from the flight attendant, is any of this true?

MR DOWNER: I’ll come back to the hotel. But as to giving any people who were evacuated cash, no advances or cash payments were made at all to any of the evacuees from Frankfurt. Absolutely none of them. Their hotel accommodation was paid for - I don’t know the actual hotel - but I can tell you how much it cost. It cost $105 per day per person, including meals, and we paid for that. I think the total cost for the period 23-27 July last year was $190,000 and then there were some telephone calls that we paid for - $6,000 - and then were some medical issues as well that cost $15,000. But none of that was given to these people. That was all paid for by the Embassy in Berlin.

PRESENTER: So the claim is false?

MR DOWNER: It is false, yes.

PRESENTER: Ok, good. Thank you for clearing that up. Were you a bit stunned to read that some people were whinging about you asking - as a Government - for $828 a head, if they did have insurance or if they did have a refundable fare?

MR DOWNER: Yes, I was, because they were told this at the time. This is not news to them - look, some of them may say the letter never got to us, or we were never told, or that might have happened - but there was an attempt to make sure everybody knew at the time. Look, people fell into different categories. There were some people who had, they lived in say, Sydney - a lot of them lived in Sydney - they had return airfares anyway. They can get the return airfare refunded so we say ‘give us some of the money’ - the taxpayers - the $820. Some people had travel insurance and we say, ‘well, claim on that’ and then that will cover the $820. Some people, by the way, were permanent residents of Lebanon. Now, they had an

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Australian passport but they, nevertheless, lived permanently in Lebanon. Now in that particular case, we said to those people ‘if you want to go back to Australia, even though you live in Lebanon, then you will have to refund us’. But other than that - and I think all of that was reasonable, that was made public at the time - I put out a press release at the time and

there was very little controversy about it. I’ve seen a couple of people on the radio and TV complaining.

PRESENTER: Well you’ll be heartened - and I know you can’t listen to it - but we had probably five or six calls about it and two or three of those people were in the situation where they were evacuated and said ‘of course we wish to repay the Government for their generosity’. It appeared that the squeakiest wheel got the most oil because there was one whinger and they received a rather prominent position on page three of the Herald.

MR DOWNER: Yes. Oh well, that’s life. That’s always happens, doesn’t it?

PRESENTER: Yes.

MR DOWNER: Look, I think on balance here - when you say, and you just said it in your introduction - that the Government spent $31 million, $32 million on this evacuation, remember that’s taxpayers’ money. That’s a lot of money. We’ve got to do what we can to protect the taxpayer’s interests. We’re not into giving a travel agency service and free holidays for people here. We are, of course, humane and try to evacuate them in the worst possible circumstances. But to us ask them, in circumstances where they can, to repay is not an unreasonable thing.

PRESENTER: I think so. Thanks for your time. I appreciate it at short notice.

MR DOWNER: It’s a pleasure. [Ends]