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Transcript of press conference: Canberra: 22 July 2003: Solomon Islands; David Hicks; ABC; Tony Blair; Iraq; Newspoll; meeting with indigenous leaders.



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PRIME MINISTER

22 July 2003

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP PRESS CONFERENCE, CANBERRA

Subjects: Solomon Islands; David Hicks; ABC; Tony Blair; Iraq; Newspoll; meeting with indigenous leaders.

E&OE…………………………………………………………………………………….

Ladies and gentleman, I've called this news conference to confirm that at its meeting this morning the National Security Committee of Cabinet ratified an approval of the arrangements for Australia's involvement in the Solomon Islands assistance mission. The Australian contribution will comprise of approximately 1500 Australian Defence Force personnel, 155 Australian Federal Police and 90 personnel from the Australian Protective Services. These personnel will be part of a total mission that will comprise about 2225. The Defence personnel will be under the command of Colonel John Frewen. The AFP contingent will be led by Federal Agent Ben McDevitt and Mr Nick Warner, a senior officer of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and somebody extremely experienced in Pacific Island issues will be in charge of the mission and the three of them together will actively coordinate and cooperate in discharging their responsibilities.

I want to say that this is a very important exercise in Australia being a good neighbour. It is important to Australia that things in our part of the world on our patch aren't allowed to deteriorate. We were asked to be involved by the Government of the Solomon Islands. The Parliament of the Solomon Islands has approved the request, legislation has been passed providing the necessary immunities. And whilst, as always, the Australian Defence personnel and police will behave with appropriate restraint and proper respect for the attitudes and the culture of the people of the Solomon Islands, the rules of engagement are sufficiently strong to properly, as they should, look to the safety of our personnel.

But it not something that is without risk, and I want to make that very clear, there's always a danger of casualties in something like this. Nobody should see it as just a easy, straightforward, uncomplicated operation. All operations have unexpected turns and whilst it would be our hope that the combat component of the Defence deployment could be out in a fairly short period of time, I'm not going to try and put a number of weeks or months on that, it would be silly to try and do so. The police presence in different forms is likely to remain for quite some time. The initial purpose of the exercise is to restore order and then to begin the process of civilian reconstruction in the broader sense of that term. We do have a nation

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which has been fast approaching the failed state situation. The criminal justice system is barely functional, there's been wholesale collapse in relation to the other elements of governance in the Solomon Islands. It's important to see this as a partnership between Australia and other nations in the Pacific.

I want to thank Fiji, and Tonga, and Samoa, and Papua New Guinea, and New Zealand for their contributions. And it is important that it be seen in that context. This is not some kind of colonial hangover exercise by Australia, it is a response to the request of a friend and the operation itself will carry the name of Operation Helpem Fren, which depicts very much the motivation of Australia and the sense of comradeship that we are extending to the people of the Solomon Islands. This is our responsibility. I think the Australian people recognise that it is not in the interests of this country that we have failed states on our doorstep, and it would be a failure of our duty as a relatively large and prosperous, stable country in the region, not to extend a helping hand to a neighbour who's asked for our help, particularly when it is going to be done in cooperation with other countries in the region.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, how developed is your policy, or the Cabinet's policy now, on the region? You've mentioned we have an interest in not having a series of failed states around us. But given that some other countries have quite bad law and order problems or bad economic problems, have you developed a policy to deal with the so-called arch of instability, the arc of instability, or are you approaching all these things on a case by case basis?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, it's always a mixture of the two. You… every case is different and you, of course, don't act and can't act… certainly can't normally act unless you're asked, particularly as the countries aren't posing any particular immediate threat. But when we decided earlier this year to respond differently to the Solomon Islands than had been the disposition in the past, we recognise that that involved a change in policy. We have already, of course, begun… had begun a recognition of the need to change when at the last Pacific Island Forum meeting we began to talk a lot more about the need to try and deal with some governance issues and governance capacity on a regional basis. For example, the proposal that we trained police in Fiji for use in different parts of the region. The reality is that, with the greatest goodwill in the world, many of these countries are too small to be viable in the normal understanding of that expression and we really have to develop an approach that I could loosely call, you know, pooled regional governance. You have to… it applies with airlines, it applies with policing, it applies with a whole lot of other things. But it's just not possible if you've got an island state of fewer than 100,000 people to expect to have all of the sophisticated arms of government. Now we have this situation and the question of whether countries should have been given independence or the question of the adequacy or other of former colonial powers is all a very interesting academic, historical exercise which somebody else could write about. But the Government has got to deal with current day reality and one of the first things we should be doing, I believe, is to encourage as many opportunities as we can for countries in the region to actually pool what they need to do and what meagre resources they have. I mean it is just not sustainable for a very small country to have an airline, but it might be sustainable to have an airline that provides perhaps fewer services than that country might ideally want, but can provide services on a regional basis.

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JOURNALIST:

Is Australia going to take some lead in a proposal or [inaudible] South Pacific Forum?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we have already done so at the last forum meeting and I’ll be raising quite a deal of this at the next forum meeting in Auckland.

JOURNALIST:

Is there a detailed and unambiguous mandate covering this mission?

PRIME MINISTER:

A mandate from… well yes, there will be a formal agreement and the ultimate authority of course is the legal request of the government of the Solomon Islands.

JOURNALIST:

When will that be available? Can we…

PRIME MINISTER:

As soon as the ink is dry on it.

JOURNALIST:

What about costings for this arrangement?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well you’re looking at something in the order of I think two to three hundred million dollars annually.

JOURNALIST:

And that’s for the whole operation?

PRIME MINISTER:

In the first year. Now, how annual that figure is or whether it increases or decreases will depend upon the length of the operation.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, won’t these small countries see this Australian-led pooled regional governance of a new form of colonialism?

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PRIME MINISTER:

No, it isn’t. The point I’m simply making is that if you have a country of fewer than 100,000 people and you have a couple of other around 50,000 and they all want to have an airline because they’re very isolated, the point I’m making is that it’s better to try and have one airline that covers the whole area than to have four separate airlines. That’s the sort of thing I’m talking about. I can’t for the life of me see how that’s got anything to do with colonialism. I think it’s got a lot to do with commonsense.

JOURNALIST:

Does it extend further than services Prime Minister, to governance issues, in your view?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that is a matter ultimately for the countries concerned. It’s not something that we’re going to seek in any way to impose but part of our responsibility, particularly as we are being asked to be heavily involved in this cooperative intervention, particularly because we provide a lot of aid, is to provide ideas and to provide some kind of leadership about how you deal in a practical, commonsense way with a self-evident problem. I mean it is just self-evidently the case that very small states find it very hard to survive, but particularly if they try and have a bit of all of the modern, the appurtenances of modern government. And it makes a lot more sense to try and pool their needs and pool the available resources and provide some basic element of governance and service on a regional basis.

JOURNALIST:

We wouldn’t end up paying for this, would we?

PRIME MINISTER:

This is not something that I would see as in any way automatically leading to increased assistance from Australia. I mean we’re not putting it forward as some new thing that we’re going to pay for. What we’re really saying to them is that we think you would be better off if you organised your affairs in this fashion.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, under the rules of engagement with the Solomons exercise, will the Australian Federal Police be armed?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, the Australian Federal Police will not generally speaking be armed, for the same reasons as they were not armed in East Timor. The people in the close personal protection detail around the Prime Minister will carry arms. That the normal custom in relation to close personal protection, but they will in the generality not carry arms for the same reasons as were explained at the time of East Timor. And this is at the request and upon the advice of the Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police. This is in no way being imposed on the police. I want to make that very clear.

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JOURNALIST:

There will be an armed tactical response unit as well, won’t there?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we’ve got the necessary military components to look after the police.

JOURNALIST:

Will the rules of engagement include the shoot to kill approval in dangerous situations for the army?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well the rules of engagement will provide for an adequate response if there is a proper apprehension of physical danger.

JOURNALIST:

Does that include shoot to kill?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well of course it does, yes.

JOURNALIST:

Will there be any civilian officials going? You didn’t mention…

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes there are some civilian officials going, but just a small number.

JOURNALIST:

From which areas?

PRIME MINISTER:

From DFAT, some from Treasury and probably some from Defence as well. But only a small number.

JOURNALIST:

What type of a military force of the 1,500 will actually be on the ground providing security…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well the number of combat people will be in the order of about 450, of which some 225 to 250 will be Australians, and about 115 from Fiji, and smaller numbers from I think Tonga and Samoa. There is a New Zealand rifle company but that is being kept in reserve in New

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Zealand. But there are a lot of logistic people and there are of course a very large number, several hundred, on the Manoora. But the actual number of combat people is much lower than the 2,225 might suggest. But when you add in the logistics and so forth, it does add up.

JOURNALIST:

Are we getting any financial assistance from either France or Japan?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well the Japanese Prime Minister indicated that he would consider a contribution from Japan in the stages further down the track. I’m not quite sure of the exact status of the French offer.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, the conservative party in Britain is accusing Prime Minister Tony Blair of having misled the country on the reasons for going into Iraq. Are you in a position to help your Tory cousins by telling them your view that Blair got it right?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that’s a very interesting question Malcolm. Good try. Look, I stay out of domestic British politics. I’m the leader of the Liberal Party of Australia, which has good fraternal relations with the conservative party of the United Kingdom, but I also as Prime Minister of Australia have enjoyed a close working relationship with Mr Blair. I shared Mr Blair’s broad views on the commitment in Iraq. I haven’t changed those views and I haven’t my view that Mr Blair displayed conspicuous political courage in the lead-up to the war in Iraq, and I don’t intend to change those views.

JOURNALIST:

Well Prime Minister, does it concern you that 66% of Australians polled think you lied about Iraq?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it concerns me that you have just misquoted the poll. They didn’t say that. They didn’t say that at all.

JOURNALIST:

Well knowingly, [inaudible]..

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no, well I’m sorry. No, what you just said itself was an untruth. The poll did not say that. So before we start, you know, flinging words like that around, we had better get our facts right. What the poll said, it’s interesting if people have a look at it, is not all that surprising. What it said was that 36% thought they had been deliberately misled, which is exactly the same number of people who in the final Newspoll on participation in the war opposed Australia’s participation, 25% said they didn’t think they had been misled knowingly or unknowingly, and 31% said they thought they had been unknowingly misled. And

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interestingly, those two together is almost identical to the total number of people who supported our involvement in the war. Look, I don’t think those results are particularly surprising given that the survey worked in relation to WMDs still going on in Iraq. It doesn’t surprise me particularly. I think the other point I should make is that I stand by what I said at the time. We entered the war in Iraq based upon the failure of the Iraqi government of the time to comply with the United Nations resolutions. We had intelligence assessments of WMD capability, and we reacted appropriately to those assessments. We did not mislead the Australian public but we did have those assessments. I stand by those decisions. I stand by those assessments. I don’t regret the decisions the Government took. And I think people should hasten slowly in reaching final judgements about the survey work that is going on and the search for WMD. In the end, we should wait the final outcome of that before we rush to final judgements.

JOURNALIST:

[inaudible] public perceptions that they were misled may undermine the way that you can operate in relation to other security areas and concerns…

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, ultimately public perceptions are things that are in the hands of the Australian public and they can be influenced by the behaviour of political figures. It’s for the Australian public to make an ongoing assessment of me and of my colleagues. I have never in the time I have been Prime Minister presumed to say to my fellow Australians that they should think this or that about me. I have too much respect for their commonsense and their intelligence to try and do so. They will make judgements about me over a long period of time and I will, as I always have, I will accept those judgements. I believe that I continue to retain the confidence of the Australian people and I think I have reason to believe that, but that's ultimately a matter for them. But I acted in good faith, I was given intelligence assessments, I didn't massage them, I didn't manipulate them and I stand by the judgements that the Government made on the basis of those intelligence assessments. And in defence of our intelligence agencies, let me say again something that I made very clear before the war, and that is that you're dealing with judgements and assessments, you're not dealing with sort of proof required to convict somebody before a criminal court jury.

JOURNALIST:

On assessments Prime Minister, did the assessments you got before the Iraq war give much support to the idea that this might descend into a prolonged guerrilla style conflict? The assessments you had before going to Iraq, what was the likelihood given then of it developing to the situation we have now, of a sort of a…?

PRIME MINISTER:

There was always the possibility that the post-conflict situation would be difficult and I don't think you will find suggestions in what I said to the contrary. I think everybody accepted that the post-conflict situation was going to be difficult. One of the interesting things about the assessments that were made were that in relation to the resistance of the Iraqi forces, they turned out to be remarkably accurate, very accurate. I mean, that's not talked about much now because it's irrelevant to the post-conflict debate and it's of no use to those who would seek to attack the Government's position. But that intelligence was extremely accurate, some of the predictions about - and they were predictions… speculation rather than firm predictions

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- about the dire consequences of the conflict such as the firing of the oil fields and the flooding of the Tigris Euphrates Valley and the hundreds of thousands of refugees, fortunately none of those turned about to be right. And fortunately also, the concerns about Stalingrad type battles. And, you know, some new book by Anthony Beevor on the subject of bloody street battles that that didn't turn out to be right either.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, are you satisfied that if Messrs Hicks and Habib put before one these US military commissions that they would get a fair trial and proper due process?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, there are discussions going on at the moment and I could perhaps give a fuller answer to that question when those discussions have been completed. I would expect that those discussions will produce a change by way of improvement in the procedures before the military commissions. But it's a bit too early to say at the moment exactly what they will be.

JOURNALIST:

… does that suggest that you're not happy with the system of the military process in the US at the moment?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, it suggests that there's always room for improvement, Dennis. We can also improve ourselves, we can always be more constructive.

JOURNALIST:

Is it possible that these two men if convicted might serve some or all of their time in an Australian prison?

PRIME MINISTER:

It's too early Ian, to answer that. I don't know.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard…

PRIME MINISTER:

Could I, however, repeat what I said in Gwangyang in Korea last Saturday that there does seem to be an idea, and I know you don't hold it, but some people hold it, that there's some automatic right of repatriation to Australia, to an Australian who's committed an alleged offence overseas. I mean, that is just not true anymore than a foreigner who comes to this country and commits an offence has some automatic right of repatriation to his or her country. We have no right to demand anybody come back to Australia if they have been charged with an offence committed on foreign soil, none whatsoever. It is a question of negotiation and obviously, the relative laws of Australia as applying to their conduct compared with the laws of the United States, is a factor in the minds of the American

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Administration, particularly if they have certain views about the conduct of the two people, the alleged conduct of the two people. Now, Michelle was trying.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, you said a while ago that you'd follow up with ONA, some matters in the wake the uranium issue. Have you done so and what's been the outcome?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I forget the exact context in which I used it. It was really just the chronology of what occurred. And what has been the outcome? Well the outcome is essentially what I've said and that is that particular reservation of the INR was not drawn to my attention and now having the opportunity on the plane to the Philippines of reading the entire national intelligence estimate I, and having found it buried under an annex dealing with aluminium tubes, and bearing in mind the overwhelming weight of the national intelligence estimate, I'm not entirely surprised.

JOURNALIST:

Does that document go to anyone in your office, Miles Jordana in particular?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I'm told no.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard the ABC has rejected 66 of the 68 complaints of the Communications Minister put to it regarding the war coverage. Does that.. is enough for you? Are you happy with that, or do you think there is grounds for pursuing that complaint further?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I haven't read… Murray Green isn't it? I haven't read Mr Green's reply. I guess it's inevitable if you have an internal review assessment, there's always a tendency to declare yourself not guilty, I understand. And I'm not saying that, I know Mr Green well, I'm sure he's a very conscientious man and he's done a conscientious job. Probably it's better to have some kind of… with the public broadcaster have some kind of arms length assessment of these things, I think that is better.

JOURNALIST:

Did you think the coverage was biased?

PRIME MINISTER:

I thought a number of the items on Iraq on that programme were unbalanced, yes.

JOURNALIST:

Would you look at compelling the ABC to introduce an external complaints…?

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PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I haven't given any thought to compelling the ABC. Obviously, I'll have discussion with Senator Alston on this issue. But I thought the judgement of a former ABC employee and former 60 Minutes producer in relation to some of these matters, namely Gerald Stone's judgement, was fairly accurate.

JOURNALIST:

Has any decision been made on ethanol levels?

PRIME MINISTER:

No.

JOURNALIST:

Is that something that you are discussing in Cabinet today?

PRIME MINISTER:

I never discuss what we've discussed, until we've discussed it.

JOURNALIST:

Have you received…?

PRIME MINISTER:

And then I might announce it.

JOURNALIST:

Have you received any progress reports from the WMD survey team in Iraq?

PRIME MINISTER:

I have been provided with information of a general kind about what they're doing, but I'm not at this stage in a position to say more.

JOURNALIST:

Any evidence?

PRIME MINISTER:

I'm not at this stage in a position to say more.

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JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, have you any concerns at this stage about the new rocket ballistic missile that was unveiled by Iran yesterday, while we're talking about this part of the world and weapons of mass destruction?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, self evidently, yes but I want some more information about its capacity and what it means. I mean, Iran is a country of concern, but as to what it means in a complete strategic sense, I haven't had an assessment yet. One more and then we might go.

JOURNALIST:

Can I ask you about your approaching visit to Cape York?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes.

JOURNALIST:

Richard Ah Mat and Noel Pearson are obviously very supportive of you. I wonder if you are happy to support their proposal of an alienable welfare system where you can have local communities taking welfare from constituent members if they are judged not to be…?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, I have the strongest possible view that the Government should be willing to listen to new approaches from indigenous communities and not try and impose in the sometimes mistaken belief that our approach to these things is appropriate for indigenous communities. The course of conduct and a set of modalities that might work in a middle-class non-indigenous society that doesn't work in societies that are racked with alcoholism and violence and other social challenges that we should try to understand have to be dealt with in different ways. I'm mean I'm interested to hear, I'm not going to say at this stage, obviously I haven't

even had the proposition explained to me. How could I possibly have a view on it, a final view on it, at this stage. But I do have a view that they should be listened to, and the purpose of my meeting tomorrow with indigenous leaders to talk about domestic violence, is to do that. And the purpose of going to the Cape is to hear more about their views. I have read very carefully the Perkins Memorial Lecture, which was delivered by Noel Pearson last year, which I thought was very thought provoking, and it made a very compelling case for some new approaches to a problem that has clearly worsened under the current approach. I mean, the point we have to understand is that what Pearson is saying is that things have got worse. I mean, he said a generation ago you had role models and authority figures in Aboriginal communities that did exercise leadership, and that is now different. And that really says that the methodologies of the last generation have not worked. In fact, they’ve made things arguably even more desperate. Now, I think all of us have got to listen to that. And don’t see this as a debate about whether you’re in favour of the current approach versus assimilation. I mean, put aside some of the old language. I think it’s unhelpful because the old language carries with it the prejudices of the past in this debate. But when you get people of this standing and character saying that current policies aren’t working, gee you’ve got to at least listen very carefully to what they’re saying and not sort of get knocked off course by

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somebody saying, oh he just wants to get back to assimilation, he wants to… He doesn’t want to do anything of the kind. He wants to help and he wants to try and produce something that responds to their cry from the heart. They’re asking for help. They really are. And we all have a responsibility to do something about it. Now, that doesn’t mean to say there can’t continue to be a legitimate, vigorous debate on the so-called rights agenda and I’m not trying to sort of push that aside. I have views on that which are well known and I’m not going to alter them. Other people have views on that. They’re not going to alter that. I understand that. But for the purposes of dealing with these issues, let’s put all that aside - our differences aside - on that, put them on hold. And I’m encouraged to believe that Aboriginal leaders have that same view themselves, and let’s see if we can’t do something a little differently or a little better, and part of that process is to listen to what people like Mr Pearson and others are saying.

JOURNALIST:

But you’re not putting a proposal to them tomorrow Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER:

I am going to listen to what they have got to say, and at this stage I’m not going to disclose what I might say in response. My primary exercise, my primary desire, goal, etcetera, is to hear what they have got to say because self-evidently they see a crisis. They have described it as a crisis. It is. That’s not to say domestic violence is not a problem in other parts of the Australian community any more than, you know as we have been reminded this morning as a result of that survey arising out of the events at Waverley College last year, that excessive drinking is not a problem in many parts of Australian society. But both those are particular challenges in Aboriginal communities, and we’ve got to recognise that and we’ve got to do something about it.

JOURNALIST:

Does this hark back to your election night promise to give Aboriginal affairs a priority?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I made a reference to that in 1998. This is unrelated to previous things I have said. I think we unnecessarily restrict opportunities for freer interaction if we keep relating it back to earlier sort of statements and try and define it in terms of that. I think there is a somewhat different mood in this whole area and I have a responsibility at a national level to try and respond. I’m not asking people to give up their strongly held views about the rights agenda any more than I will give up mine. Let’s make that very clear. But I am very anxious to work with Aboriginal leaders to try and respond to some of these huge social problems because they are our fellow Australians and they are, as a group, the most disadvantaged in our community. I have always recognised that and I have repeatedly said it. We do have a responsibility to try and help, and they have a responsibility to lead in their own communities, and they have a responsibility to work with us to try and provide solutions. Now that’s the spirit that I am trying to bring. How it will work out, I don’t know, and I’m not wanting to raise expectations that you can produce solutions quickly. You can’t. But clearly current policies aren’t working. And I’m not saying that - this is being said by respected Aboriginal leaders, and we really do have to try and find a different approach. And the first thing that we have to do is to listen to what the credible leaders of the Aboriginal community have to say on the subject. Thank you. [ends]