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Transcript of doorstop interview: Australian International Cultural Council meeting, 28 March 2003: Hobart.



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E and OE

28 March 2003

Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer

Doorstop Interview, Hobart

Downer: I'm delighted to be back in Tasmania again, this time to Chair the Australian International Cultural Council meeting. And it's very appropriate that our International Cultural Council, which brings cultural leaders from all over Australia to have the meeting here on the opening day of the Tasmanian Festival - Ten Days on the Island, which is of course being directed by Robin Archer, who has done the Adelaide Festival so well in the past. And personally I look forward to participating tonight in the opening ceremonies and in particular going to the opera. But the International Cultural Council represents people from all around Australia and is about promoting Australian arts and culture internationally. And we very much want to make sure we're able to promote Tasmanian artists, Tasmanian ideas and Tasmania more generally in the international community. That's good for tourism but it's also good for Tasmanian arts and culture if there is a global perspective of what can be done in Tasmania. And frankly, I think the Ten Days on the Island Festival is going to be a great success. Everything Robin Archer does she does well. I think it's going to be a great success and I'm very happy to give it support and demonstrate the enthusiasm from the Commonwealth Government for the festival. And if there are any questions you want to ask about Iraq of course I'm happy to answer those.

Journalist: Just wondering if you had a comment of the division that seems to be rife with (inaudible) over forestry (inaudible)?

Downer: In the end you probably have to get sponsorship from where you can get it, and artists will have different views about issues such as forestry I can well imagine. But, in the case of Tasmania it's important to get the business community sponsoring arts events, in my view. I don't think you should turn your back on that. You can't just depend on the support of the State Government, or sometimes with the arts, the Federal Government as well and the Australia Council. The local community have to get behind it and forestry companies are part of Tasmania, that's part of Tasmanian life.

Journalist: Just on the conflict in the Gulf, how are pictures of Iraqis taking food aid and shouting pro-Saddam slogans affecting the campaign?

Downer: I think there are two things I'd say today. First of all, the speed of the war is going to some extent to be determined by a commitment to keeping to a bare minimum civilian casualties. And it is very important that people understand that you could conduct a war more quickly, but to do so you would have to conduct it more ruthlessly, and without concern for civilian casualties. So, where there are so called ‘high collateral targets', there are targets which may be on the one hand legitimate military targets but could cause substantial civilian casualties, in those circumstances the Coalition is very restrictive in attacking those targets. So, inevitably this policy, which is the right policy of taking into account civilians, the welfare of civilians, is going to make the war a little more slow than would have otherwise been the

case.

Journalist: Inaudible

Downer: I don't think that's right. The Iraqi people have long memories, and they remember very well what happened in 1991 when in particular Kurds and Shia Iraqis came out in support of the Coalition and the attack by the Coalition on the regime of Saddam Hussein. But then when the war was over and Saddam Hussein remained in power, he took revenge against those people who had opposed his regime during the first Gulf War. And Iraqis remember that and until Iraqis feel that the regime of Saddam Hussein is definitely doomed, then they will be very very cautious in what they say and what they do. They will be very cautious and indeed it's important for us to transmit a message to the Iraqi people that they should take into consideration the fact that military action still has some time to go. We'll obviously do what we can for the people of Iraq in humanitarian terms, including in the short term. But they obviously have to take into consideration the risks of retribution from supporters of Saddam Hussein in the period between now and the conclusion of the war. They need to be cautious.

Journalist: What does the Australian Government think is reasonable in terms of Australia's financial commitment?

Downer: Well when you say financial contribution, there are two aspects to that. Let me make a couple of points about those. First of all in terms of the military cost, the cost of the deployment of our military - that's obviously being worked out in the context of the Budget. That's being worked out right now. We can afford, this financial year, within the parameters already set in this year's Budget, the costs of that deployment. But the costs will be, beyond that, that's something that will be announced in May by the Treasurer in the Budget.

Journalist: Will we have to wait til the Budget, to know that?

Downer: Well the Budget will have all that information. But the second thing is, there obviously is a cost to us in providing humanitarian assistance. So far we've committed about $17.5 million in assistance to specific agencies to help with humanitarian relief. We've also committed ourselves to providing 100,000 tonnes of wheat to the Iraqi people. The cost of the wheat, including the distribution, the bagging, the milling and so on of that wheat, that could run up to $80 million dollars, a figure in that vicinity. So already we've committed ourselves to something close to $100 million in humanitarian assistance to Iraq. Now whether we'll commit more on top of the $100 million we've already committed, that remains to be seen. And we'll have to wait and see what the requirements are when the conflict's over.

Journalist: From a military aspect, what are the plans or the contingencies for a rotation of troops should the conflict drag on for a long period of time? I mean is it likely that we'll see perhaps the 1st Battalion from Townsville go to Iraq, that full-blown battalion?

Downer: No.

Journalist: What are the contingencies?

Downer: That is suggesting that we would send different formations from the formations we have now, which are essentially Special Forces and some Air Force components and Naval components. We're not looking at making any change to the structure of our contribution.

Journalist: So how will you rotate the troops?

Downer: We don't know how long the conflict will go on for yet, and so we can't answer that question.

Journalist: Minister, the consideration that you've given to the new Iraq, after the war - what role if any will the Iraqi National Congress play in that new Iraq?

Downer: I think overwhelmingly people within Iraq, the Iraqis of Iraq as distinct from expatriate Iraqis, will have the predominant say in the structure of a new government that will emerge in Iraq. These people who are expatriate Iraqis will obviously be able to do their best to try to win political support from the people within Iraq. And that will really be a challenge for them, not much a challenge for the Coalition. It's not for us just to install people. Ultimately it's going to be a matter for the Iraqi people who they elect.

Journalist: Inaudible

Downer: I think that does very much remain to be seen - what role they would have. What we want to do is of course, once the conflict is finished, ensure that the Iraqi people are able to determine the type of government they have. Now that is likely to include a large number of elements of the polity of Iraq, including some of the expatriate elements. But how that will work out, that will be a matter for the Iraqi people. These people - expatriate Iraqis, people of the Iraqi National Congress and so on, the challenge for them will be to win the support of the Iraqi people, not just to expect us to do that job for them.

Journalist: Do you think it'll be acceptable to the international community if in fact from that point in time the Iraqi people again chose the Baath Party, with or without Saddam Hussein.

Downer: I don't think there's any danger that that would happen. This is a regime that has been - well certainly today is the most brutal regime on earth. I don't think for a minute the Iraqi people have appreciated the barbarism of Saddam Hussein and his regime. After all remember there are something like four million Iraqi refugees spread around the world, people who have fled the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein. We're reminded how brutal that regime is in recent times. The Iraqis have, we understand, executed prisoners who they'd taken, including possibly two British prisoners. The Iraqi regime puts military assets next to civilian assets, into housing estates, next to hospitals and schools. The Iraqi military are now using, and the regime in particular, are using hospitals and schools to store ammunition. They're putting anti-aircraft batteries on top of the roofs of schools and hospitals. This is a regime that will stop at nothing. They are definitely trying to maximise civilian casualties for propaganda purposes. This is not the sort of regime people would vote for in a general election. We're pretty confident of that.

Journalist: (inaudible) what do you know about them?

Downer: We understand from the British that they believe that the two British soldiers who have been found dead, and photographed dead were executed.

Journalist: I didn't see this report, but apparently on SBS last night, the report on David Hicks, some information that he says he wasn't part of Al-Qaeda. Have you followed events at

all, or what's the latest information?

Downer: I haven't heard of the report. We have information about David Hicks. The reason he has been detained is that he was detained by the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan where he was fighting for the Taliban-Al Qaeda coalition against the allies. And he of course has quite openly admitted and there's plenty of evidence to prove it - that he's been part of a number of different Islamic extremist movements, and not just in Afghanistan, but certainly in the case of Afghanistan that was the context in which the Northern Alliance seized him. And obviously he has subsequently been interviewed to a considerable extent and has been able to provide information about Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. And that information has been useful.

Journalist: Inaudible

Downer: He's being detained as a combatant in Afghanistan, in a war against inter alia, Australian troops, and he will be detained until that war is complete.

ENDS…………………………………………………………..28 March 2003