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Transcript of doorstop interview: Parliament House: 8 August 2006: [Asylum seekers; sex offender in South East Asia; HIV/AIDS in the Pacific; interest rate rise; ethanol in petrol; border protection Bill]

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8 August 2006


Doorstop interview - Parliament House, Canberra JOURNALIST: This programme you're talking about today (inaudible), specifically, what will be seen on the ground in the next two or three (inaudible)?

MR DOWNER: Well we'll see a number of things. First of all there are infrastructure projects - improving the quality of hospitals, hospital care - improving equipment in them. Secondly, a very important component of this is to be training health professionals - everybody from Doctors and Nurses through to the health administrators. I think one of the greatest problems that developing countries have is not lack of understanding or lack of technology, its lack of sufficient health professionals coupled with weaknesses in systems, in terms of distributing health care. Some of the systems are chronically weak and we can obviously make a very good contribution to improving those systems.

JOURNALIST: Minister, there are some claims about asylum seekers being killed in Afghanistan - have any of your officials made inquiries in Kabul?

MR DOWNER: No, I've only heard about it through the media. I'm not aware of the details of these people. If those making the claims wish to approach us to provide us with all of the details, we'll obviously be happy to look into people being killed and the circumstances in which they might have been killed - that they have been killed - how have they been killed? Who are they? What were the circumstances that led to them coming to Australian and not being accepted in Australia? All of these questions. If people want to have an argument about this, or a debate about this, all of those questions need to be answered. And if they give us the information we'll obviously, through DIMI and my Department do what we can to find out.

JOURNALIST: Have you had any updates on the condition of the Australian man who was injured in Iraq?

MR DOWNER: No, I haven't. Not during the course of today. He was very badly injured. I think he had burns to around 90% of his body. He is now in hospital in Frankfurt and his situation is very serious, so we can only hope and pray he gets better.

JOURNALIST: Can you tell us anything about an Australian gentleman that's been arrested on child sex offences, I believe committed in three different countries in South East Asia?

MR DOWNER: I only understand that he's been arrested. Our Embassy endeavored to offer consular assistance and he said he didn't want consular assistance. It's a matter, of course, for the police.

JOURNALIST: Minister, your programme for malaria in Vanuatu, Solomons - is Australia looking at things like the basic diseases like malaria? Have we been putting too much of our focus on HIV/AIDS? Are we now turning back more to some of the long standing disease problems?

MR DOWNER: No, we're not de-funding or cutting back on our HIV/AIDS programmes because I think, particularly in Papua New Guinea, this is a truly serious problem and we've got to put more and more effort into trying to help Papua New Guinea address it, otherwise it is going to continue to spread like wildfire which is what has been happening. We want to do more than we've been doing, and we have been running programmes but we want to do more than we have been doing to address the malaria problem and the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu are two very good places to focus on. Since there are solutions to the problem of Malaria, we need to work at them. Obviously to solve the whole problem would be simply a massive task, but to start implementing programmes there I think is going to be very useful.

JOURNALIST: Minister, have the voters in Mayo found last week's interest rate rise over dramatized? How are they feeling about it?

MR DOWNER: Understandably, people in the electorate of Mayo who have mortgages, that's quite a lot of people, especially younger people in Mayo, they are not happy to see their interest rates go up. And it's my task, as their local member, who does also have a mortgage, not only to understand their concerns, but to make sure I represent their concerns. They are concerned about interest rates going up - they've gone up by a quarter of a percent - they'd rather they didn't go up. They're concerned about the high price of petrol. I think in Mayo they understand why these things happen - they're not naive, they don't think that if you made Kim Beazley the Prime Minister, suddenly there would never be any problems left in the country or indeed in the whole world - which is the kind of impression he tries to give. And I think they're well aware that the Government's very focused on these issues, is trying always to find solutions to them.

JOURNALIST: Would it be a wise move to subsidize the use of ethanol in petrol?

MR DOWNER: I think you'll find the Prime Minister will have more to say about these energy issues a bit later and why don't we just leave it to that. There was a good discussion in the Cabinet yesterday about a whole range of different aspects of energy pricing and the public's access to energy, so, why don't we just wait until the Prime Minister makes a statement.

JOURNALIST: Just on the border protection bill, do you think it's got the support of the Government to pass the bill?

MR DOWNER: Just about everybody supports it - maybe not everybody, but just about everybody supports it. I think we have to strike the right compromise in Australia between, on the one hand, fulfilling our obligations to people who claim

refugee status, but on the other hand, ensuring that our country isn't abused for reasons which are more political than humanitarian. I don't want to see people using Australia to, if you like, make political points and get international publicity, scoring off our country, and off Indonesia or other countries in the world, when those claims might not be terribly credible. On the other hand, where people have a very genuine claim, and they obviously have escaped from genuine, true persecution, then we're obviously happy to help them. So, as a country we have to get the balance right, and I think with all of these things it's about balance. Some countries have, I think, been, if you like, insufficiently vigilant, and you end up with an enormous quantity of people coming in who don't really have terribly credible claims and of course ending up with a lot of consequences flowing from that. Other countries may be far too parsimonious in terms of the support that they provide to refugees or people who claim refugee status. So, you've got to get the balance right, it's never easy, but I think this gets the balance right.

JOURNALIST: Are you expecting any back benchers to cross the floor on this?

MR DOWNER: Some may, it's a free world. It's a free world. But I think this is a good policy which strikes a good balance. On the one hand it protects Australia's national interests and our country, but on the other hand it retains the humanitarianism

which is also one of our characteristics.


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