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Wednesday, 4 December 2002
Page: 7147

Senator BROWN (2:28 PM) —My question is to the Minister representing the Prime Minister. Following the Prime Minister's politically culpable comments on Sunday, threatening a potential pre-emptive strike in the neighbourhood in certain circumstances, what has been the reaction from neighbouring governments, including those of Malaysia and the Philippines? What action is the government taking to mitigate the ongoing damage to Australia's relationships with the neighbourhood? Which are the unfriendly countries to which the Prime Minister was referring when he made those comments? Finally, do you agree with the Prime Minister that there have not been damaged relationships with Asia as an outcome of his culpable comments?

Senator HILL (Minister for Defence) —It would be helpful if Senator Brown would accurately reflect the statements that were made by the Prime Minister rather than invent something to suit his short-term political purposes. He could have said, for example, that the Prime Minister specifically said, `And there is no other alternative available.' So it is an issue of protecting Australia and Australians when there is no other alternative available.

Secondly, he specifically went on to say that that situation has not arisen, because nobody is specifically threatening to attack Australians. When Senator Brown gets up here and asks which are the unfriendly countries to which the Prime Minister was referring, the Prime Minister was not referring to any particular country at all. I would have thought that that pulls the rug out from under the whole question. What we are wanting to do is to protect Australians from terrorists. The Prime Minister saying that that is his commitment is something that most Australians would appreciate. If it can be done through peaceful means, through law enforcement means, obviously that is our preference.

Senator Brown mentioned a number of the regional countries. We have been pleased to work with those countries cooperatively, helping them to more effectively address terrorism within their own states. It is a sad thing if terrorists in Indonesia kill Indonesians, but others are also being killed, including Australians. That is why it is important that we work cooperatively to effectively address this issue. We are doing it with Indonesia. We have done it with other regional states through a whole range of methods. We are now better sharing intelligence, which is something that they have sought and that we have realised is useful. We are giving them the benefit of our quite sophisticated methods of policing. There is a whole range of different ways in which we are making progress towards effectively addressing this threat; but, by nature, terrorism is extremely difficult to effectively address, and we will continue the effort.

Senator BROWN —I ask a supplementary question of the minister. Haven't the Prime Minister's comments in fact been injudicious and led to a very negative reaction in the region? Minister, in light of the Prime Minister's behaviour, what effort is being made to stop blundering heads in the government from exacerbating the situation, including by the comments from the Special Minister of State, who referred to a neighbouring head of government as `Prime Minister Muppeteer' in this place on Monday? Will the government move to close down on that sort of comment and to turn around the damage being done—because of injudicious comments from cabinet ministers, including the head of cabinet, about our neighbourhood—to Australia's reputation and relationships with that neighbourhood?

Senator HILL (Minister for Defence) —If Senator Brown again refers to the actual question and answer, he will find that the question was put in the following terms to Mr Howard:

Does that mean that you ... if you knew that, say, JI people in another neighbouring country were planning an attack on Australia that you would be prepared to act?

Of course, the Prime Minister said, `I have a responsibility to protect Australians. I will do my best to protect Australians.' That is what Australians would expect of him, I respectfully say to Senator Brown.