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Monday, 15 September 2003
Page: 20006

Mr CREAN (2:20 PM) —My question is to the Prime Minister. Did the Prime Minister or his office receive reports from Australian officials which outlined the conclusions of the British Joint Intelligence Committee referred to earlier? Prime Minister, when did you or your office first receive such reports?

Mr HOWARD (Prime Minister) —I have already indicated that the chief assessment itself was not—and this is in accordance with normal practice—itself passed to my office or to me. I understand it was not passed to other ministers, but I would have to check to be absolutely certain about that. It was certainly not passed to me, because it is not normal practice for that to occur. But it is further my understanding—and I know this to be the case—that documents such as that would have gone into the mix and would clearly have informed the advice that we received. That is the position.

I repeat that it was the judgment of the government. Governments are elected to make judgments, and if they make the wrong judgments the people punish them. That is what democracy is all about. My obligation as Prime Minister was, on the basis of the information available to us but also on the basis of other assessments, to make a judgment about what was in Australia's national interest. I accept that the Labor Party reached a different conclusion. I accept that the Labor Party did not want us to join the coalition action against Saddam Hussein. I understand that. They never made any secret about it, and to this day they have not repudiated that position. I understand that, and in the great democracy that is Australia that is the right of the Australian Labor Party. I do not contest it for a moment.

I assert that it is not only my right but also my responsibility as the leader of the government to make a judgment about what is in the longer term interests of this country. And it was the judgment of the government—and rightly so—that the longer term proliferation and terrorism risks of leaving Saddam's weapons in place outweighed the shorter term risks addressed in the JIC report. The JIC report added nothing particularly new to the total mix of things. The Leader of the Opposition can develop a lather as often as he likes, but it does not alter the fact that judgments were formed, assessments were made, and the JIC report obviously made a contribution to that. Can I remind the Leader of the Opposition that he asked me a question on 24 March this year—I have the full text of it. It was a question about travel advisories and, quite properly so, about appropriate warnings to the Australian people. In the course of that answer I had this to say:

... threat levels against Australian interests in a number of countries overseas—especially in the Middle East—have been raised because of the war in Iraq.

In other words I was saying on 24 March that, because of the war in Iraq, in the short term the threat levels had to be raised in relation to Australian interests. Is that disguising anything?

Mr HOWARD —He says, `What about here?' I am glad you interjected with that—I thought you would—because I went on to say that the overall threat level in Australia has not changed.

Mr Crean —Yes!

Mr HOWARD —Well, what are you asking me questions for?

The SPEAKER —Leader of the Opposition! The Prime Minister has the call.

Mr HOWARD —The overall threat level has not changed since the beginning of the war in Iraq. That is why we did not raise the warning in Australia: because the security advice was that the threat level in Australia had not been lifted as a result in the war in Iraq but the short-term risk to Australian interests in the Middle East had. That is why we raised the travel advisories. That perhaps will help to inform the Leader of the Opposition on the difference between the short-term potential retaliatory consequences of military action and the longer term goal of preventing the proliferation of weapons and thereby reducing the possibility of a massive terrorist attack in Australia.

Let me repeat again what I said at the time of the debate. I said that our view was that, if a country like Iraq were not denied weapons of mass destruction, other countries would seek also to have those weapons. And the more rogue states that had those weapons, the greater would be the opportunity for those weapons to fall into the hands of terrorists. That is the judgment the government made. I stand by that judgment. I believe it was the right judgment, and I believe it was a judgment supported by the Australian people.