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Transcript of joint press conference with the Defence Minister: Parliament House, Canberra: 8 May 2006: Reconstruction Task Force in Afghanistan; Budget; Access Card; Private Jacob Kovco; Beaconsfield mine; Richard Carleton.\n



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PRIME MINISTER

8 May 2006

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP JOINT PRESS CONFERENCE WITH THE DEFENCE MINISTER, THE HON BRENDAN NELSON MP,

PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA

Subjects: Reconstruction Task Force in Afghanistan; Budget; Access Card; Private Jacob Kovco; Beaconsfield mine; Richard Carleton

E&OE………………………………………………………………………………………..

PRIME MINISTER:

Well ladies and gentlemen, the Minister and I have called this news conference to announce that the Government has now settled on the size of the Reconstruction Task Force that will be going to Afghanistan. The number of ADF personnel to go will be 240 and that number follows extensive consultations with the Government of the Netherlands. It will be known as a Reconstruction Task Force. It will work on reconstruction and community based projects as part of Australia’s commitment to securing a stable and democratic future for Afghanistan. In addition, the Government has decided that the deployment of the two Chinook helicopters will be extended until April of 2007 to support the RTF and the Netherlands-led Provincial Reconstruction Team. The Chinooks will conduct airlift support and aero-medical evacuations in support of the ISAF Mission.

The 240 personnel will begin going to Afghanistan in July and will proceed in appropriate numbers at an appropriate pace, which I won’t commit myself to, over the weeks and months following that. Australia, I might remind you, has already contributed $110 million to assist reconstruction and development in Afghanistan and earlier this year, the Minister for Foreign Affairs announced an additional $55 million in aid through to June 2007, which is part of an indicative amount of $150 million that Australia has committed over the next five years.

This deployment of 240 personnel has of course been previously foreshadowed, but the size and composition had not been determined. It has been determined after extensive discussions with the Netherlands. It is a further reminder of our very strong commitment to the coalition

effort in Afghanistan. The situation in Afghanistan requires a continued strong coalition presence. Like all operations in that country there is danger. The situation in Afghanistan still remains in a number of parts of the country quite fraught and it’s important that any commitment we make be underscored in that context.

www.pm.gov.au

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, how much will this cost and where will the troops be based?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I’m not going to indicate, for reasons I hope you’ll understand, precisely where. I mean it will be in the Oruzgan province, but precisely where I don’t want to speculate at this particular stage. Dr Nelson may have a view on the cost.

NELSON:

The cost of this is around $270 million. The extension of the Chinook helicopters til April to support medium airlift and aero-medical evacuation as the Prime Minister says, and the approximately 40 additional; the extra cost of that’s at $20 million. So we’re looking at around $270 million and whilst Afghanistan is remote for Australia, this is very much in the interests of the next generation, fighting terrorism in this country.

JOURNALIST:

The operation of this is under the NATO umbrella Prime Minister, do you see this as the start of a trend, where we’re more likely to become involved in operations with NATO?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I think NATO is involved in Afghanistan. We’re not involved in Afghanistan because NATO is involved in Afghanistan. I don’t think you should read anything NATO-wise of any kind into this particular decision. It just happens that we have decided that the best way in which we can assist with these additional people is for them to be part of a Netherlands-led Provincial Reconstruction Team. I don’t see this is in any way signalling anything other than a reinforcement of the commitment we made after the attacks in September of 2001 to the coalition effort in Afghanistan.

JOURNALIST:

Will Australia or Australian troops, be providing security for our reconstruction team, or will the security be entirely made up of the Dutch?

MINISTER NELSON:

About half of the 240 being deployed are tradies and engineers who will be involved in building water reticulation programmes, roads, flood mitigation and a variety of infrastructure projects which are nominated by the Afghanis themselves. And about half of the force will be light infantry including ASLAV’s and Bushmasters. In other words, the Australian Reconstruction Task Force will be under Australian command. Their immediate protection will be provided by Australian infantry and cavalry and of course we’re working in partnership with the Dutch military forces. They are deploying about 1400 including F16s and Apache helicopters. And I might also add, I should say to Australians that we are very impressed with the military capability of the Dutch forces that are being deployed to Afghanistan. We’re very confident that we’ll be able to work with them very closely and we’re very confident in their abilities.

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JOURNALIST:

What about protecting security in the region closer to home. Given how much Australia’s soldiers have been called on in recent years, more so than they have been in many years, if more assistance is required in the region, to the Solomons for example, East Timor, how are the Defence Forces placed there and will there be extra money in the Budget to help them to be able to be deployed quickly in the region?

MINISTER NELSON:

Well clearly the Government doesn’t deploy its troops and its equipment unless we can sustain it and also if we can concurrently run operations in other areas where we anticipate they might be needed. We have got about 2000 of our defence force personnel deployed now in some nine operations, predominantly internationally. If under the other circumstances we are required to deploy, whether it is in our region or remoter parts of the world, we are ready, willing and able.

PRIME MINISTER:

It will be, I can assure you there will be adequate funding for our defence commitments, both known and reasonably foreseen in the Budget.

JOURNALIST:

Have you spoken to the defence force chief about the misinformation you were given in the days after the Kovco death?

MINISTER NELSON:

Look, firstly Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston, and I enjoy a very close working relationship, I probably talk to him more often than my wife actually, and he is doing an exemplary job. In terms of the tragic circumstances surrounding the death of Private Kovco, as you are aware the board of inquiry will commence very shortly. Group Captain Warren Cook will commence his work this week. The terms of reference have been discussed at some length with Mrs Shelly Kovco and also Private Kovco’s mother Judy Kovco. I am advised that both of them are comfortable both with the composition of the board of inquiry, the timeline for the board of inquiry, and the terms of reference and I don’t think…

JOURNALIST:

You don’t think it was a mistake to give too much information too early?

MINISTER NELSON:

Well I think that what is important is, as the Kovco family themselves point out, what is important now is that we let the board of inquiry get on with its work and get to the bottom of it and we’ll also be able to soon release the report of the dreadful circumstances involving the body mix up.

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JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister many economists suggest that interest rate cuts now would be irresponsible and fuel…

PRIME MINISTER:

Interest rate cuts?

JOURNALIST:

Sorry tax cuts, tax cuts now would. Let me start that again. Prime Minister…

PRIME MINISTER:

(Inaudible) monetary policy since the creation of the Reserve Bank.

JOURNALIST:

Many economists are suggesting now is not the time for tax cuts. That cuts would fuel inflation and put upwards pressure on rates, your response?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don’t intend on saying anything about those matters.

JOURNALIST:

Your most senior public servant working on the smartcard has resigned over differences about what he thinks should be done, the protections built in and so on. What is your response to his fears?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don’t intend to comment on the decision taken by an individual public servant. So far as the smartcard itself is concerned, it is a very good decision, it has received very wide support and I am very confident that there will be appropriate safeguards balanced against the evident advantages in protecting the revenue and ease of transactions that the card will bring. I have

been impressed since the announcement was made by the large number of people, particularly in the younger section of the community, who say thank heavens we are going to have something that reduces the enormous number of cards that we have to carry in order to interact with Government agencies. I think this will be a real winner with the wider community and many of the fears that people have expressed are somewhat dated and misunderstand the character of what we have in mind.

JOURNALIST:

He’s not dated though. He has been going around the world with the minister to look at these projects.

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PRIME MINISTER:

I don’t intend to add to what I have said in answer to your first question.

JOURNALIST:

Is it a good idea to be leaving Australia so soon after the budget and leaving the selling of the budget entirely to the Treasurer?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think the Treasurer is very capable of selling the budget, but can I, I am glad you asked me that question. I think many of the views about the capacity of people to comment on domestic political matters while they are out of the country have now, to use a term I used a moment ago that Michelle picked up, have become quite dated. The fact is that with

instantaneous communications you are not really out of the country in a political communications sense, especially when you are in a capital such as Washington or Ottawa or Dublin. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if I did a number of interviews back into Australia whilst I was away. I don’t think in anyway it’s inappropriate and bear in mind also that the timing of these visits, you must take into account on occasions the convenience of your hosts. But I’ll certainly be here in the days immediately following the Budget and if it is necessary for me to make a comment about misguided criticisms of the Budget by the Opposition I can assure you and the travelling media, I guess some of you will be coming with me, if only to escape the cold weather of Canberra, I will be very, very happy to provide interviews.

JOURNALIST:

Is that a commitment not to invoke anything like Bob Hawke’s London Convention?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don’t think I have invoked that very often, once or twice. Well I mean there are always exceptions to a new rule. But, I think you will find me fairly ready to comment on any aspect of the Budget, I think you can safely say that. I think we might wrap it up, I beg your pardon?

JOURNALIST:

How dangerous is the area where we are sending our troops and how well prepared do you think Australians are for the possibility of casualties given that it is a Taliban stronghold?

PRIME MINISTER:

Any commitment to Afghanistan carries with it danger and I have never in any of the commitments, I have never pretended to the Australian public that they are risk free and that there won’t be casualties, there is always a danger of casualties. We have been very fortunate and that’s both providential and also a product of the extensive training and the great care we take to ensure maximum safety and in some cases sensible pre-positioning of forces so they are acclimatised to the overseas conditions. But I am not going to go into the specifics of where they are to be located, other than to say as the press statement I am releasing today indicates that they will be in the Oruzgan province. Afghanistan is in many places a dangerous country and that has been evident from the casualties that have been suffered by other forces in recent days and this is a risky mission and it is a reminder to all Australians

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again of the risks that are undertaken by our men and women when they go overseas. I think we might wrap it up at that.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, is there any chance you will go to Beaconsfield before you go overseas?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think as far as Beaconsfield is concerned the most appropriate thing to do at this stage is not to do other than just hope and pray that the men are got out as soon as possible, to pay tribute to a wonderful community spirit. It’s just been terrific to see the way that community

has worked together. The mayor, the churches, the union leaders, all of them have come together. The emergency workers, and most importantly of all, those that have actually gone down and dug through to try and rescue their mates. Its been an inspiring example of Australian mateship and everybody deserves credit. It’s a terrific thing to see a community working together. Obviously we all hope that they’re got out and the time to respond to those things is when, as we all hope and pray, it occurs. I think to start talking about things beyond that is not appropriate.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister will you miss Richard Carleton, he gave you a rugged working over every now and then?

PRIME MINISTER:

I’m glad you asked me that. Can I say I thought he was a vigorous, robust, provocative, colourful television personality. He interviewed me on numerous occasions, at various points in my political career. I remember a memorable interview at the Cooba Motel at Berridale in

September of 1985 in front of a log fire. I remember many interviews we conducted, he conducted rather, when I was Treasurer. So our experience goes back a long way. He will be missed. He was a colourful bloke. He was direct and he believed in entertainment. He thought his main mission was to entertain the public and keep the audience awake and he didn’t mind

tickling us all up in a very, very serious, provocative way. So I extend my deep sympathy to Sharon and to his three children and very importantly to all of his colleagues at Channel Nine and also many of his former colleagues at the ABC, of which there may be one or two here, including yourself Jim, because he was a friend to a lot of us and he was part of the scene. I thought in moulding public opinion about the intersection of politics and economics, the `carwash’, as it became known, or the Carleton Walsh Report played a very significant part.

Just before we end, there’s just one other thing that Doctor Nelson wanted to mention.

MINISTER NELSON:

Yes, just to formally advise you that the third contingent for the second full rotation in Al Muthanna will occur. We’ll be deploying around 470 Australian troops, predominantly from Second RAR in Townsville and the Second 14th Light Infantry in Brisbane. They will continue to provide protection to the Japanese engineers in Al Muthanna. I spoke last Friday week to the Japanese Defence Minister Nukaga and he informed me formally of the Japanese rotation of their engineers. We will continue to protect and support the Japanese engineers and a very impressive range of culturally sensitive and important projects that our troops are

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involved with with the Japanese, and should the Japanese announce the retirement of their engineers and withdrawal at some stage in the future, well then we are disposed to redeploying our troops to undertake further training of Iraqi security forces and other roles in southern Iraq.

JOURNALIST:

The same length of period for this deployment?

MINISTER NELSON:

Well the length of period for this deployment is six months. We anticipate the Japanese Government will probably announce withdrawal of their engineers during that period of time. We are well prepared to usefully redeploy our troops in the cause of supporting Iraqi security and democracy where a lot of progress has been made, notwithstanding some of the dreadful things that have occurred in some parts of the country.

JOURNALIST:

Doctor Nelson, have you had any fresh pressure from the British to put our troops into Basra?

MINISTER NELSON:

Well we have naturally discussed the deployment with not only the Iraqis and Iraqi Government, but also our allies, the United States and the United Kingdom. We have discussed and considered a whole range of options and the outcome, when we ultimately deal

with redeployment following the Japanese engineer withdrawal, it will be a result of consensual agreement with the key governments that are involved. Thank you very much.

[ends]

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