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Doorstop, Commonwealth Offices, Sydney, 10 February 1996


GE: On behalf of the Australian Government can I say that we deplore and condemn in the strongest possible terms this latest bomb outrage in London. Whatever the difficulties or uncertainties there might in the peace negotiations, there is never any excuse at all, at any time, for engaging in this kind of cowardly terrorist assault. I can only urge - on behalf of the Australian Government - the IRA and its supporters to get back to the negotiating table. And peaceful process of negotiation is the only way we're ever going to move the situation forward in Northern Ireland.

Q: Why is this a set-back to the peace process?

GE: Wel, obviously the announcement of the cessation of the cease-fire commitment. And obviously this happening, whether it's official or unofficial IRA, it does put at risk all the gains that have been achieved in recent times. But beyond that I don't think there's anything more I usefully say on this subject. That says it all.

On the Downer foreign affairs policy release, let me say this. This is a limp, feeble little pop- gun of a policy, which really isn't going to do anything to restore the Coalition's credibility in external relations. Credibility has already been badly dented by the composition of its foreign affairs team. I mean, the Bluey and Curly of Australian foreign policy - Fischer and Downer - really don't give you all that much confidence about their capacity to handle effectively any kind of foreign policy. But that said, the sort of policy they've announced today has got very large dollops of motherhood and me-tooism in it. The me-tooism is not too bad, I guess, in this area of policy, because it is important there be as much bi-partisanship as humanly possible. But that acknowledged, there's an awful lot about this policy that is simply... [noise break]

If we look behind the rhetoric to the detail there's an awful lot about this policy which is ill- - informed, wrong-headed, empty, excessively timid or simply out of date. Let me give you examples of what I mean under each of those heads.

First of all, as to being ill-informed. The number of references to upgrading our diplomatic relations with Japan, utterly failing to acknowledge that Japan's Ministerial Council with Australia is the only meeting of this kind it has with any country in the world and our relations are extraordinarily mature and well advanced. He talks about establishing pol-mil talks with South Korea, utterly in ignorance of the fact that, at Australia's initiative, those talks have been scheduled for June this year. They talk about establishing a consulate in Surabaya in Indonesia,. utterly ignorant, apparently, of the fact that we already have an Austrade office there and the question of upgrading that into a consulate has been the subject of a current review.

I say the policy is wrong-headed for, among other reasons, the excessive emphasis on relations with North-East Asia as distinct from and at the expense of South-East Asia. This can only reinforce the impression that Alexander Downer left the other night, when he couldn't name the current Prime Minister of Thailand that the Opposition is simply ignorant about the significance of South-East Asia to Australia and the extent of our current relationships. It can only reinforce the impression the Singapore Business Times gave in an editorial in October last year, after the speech by Mr Howard, when they said - "How is Mr Howard going to be able to deal with South East Asian leaders?". It's particularly wrong- - headed in terms of its discussion of Australia's relations with Vietnam, and in particular the repeated expression of a determination to abandon the My Thuan Bridge project in favour of a re-allocation to other aid purposes simply fails to recognise, first that this is Vietnam's highest, stated aid priority, and secondly that this bridge will be crucially necessary if we are effectively able to deliver community services to the local populations who are presently inaccessible to those services. All this will seen by Vietnam as simply reinforcing the terrible impression Mr Howard gave last year when he refused to meet their leader Do Muoi. The policy is also utterly wrong-headed in its failure to acknowledge the extent of the domestic economic change in Australia, which has so dramatically improved our competitiveness by some 40 per cent in our period of office; and, in particular, our industrial relations climate, which has fundamentally transformed the conditions under which we engage with Asia; and fundamentally changed Asian perceptions about us.

I say the policy is empty because there are innumerable reference to up-grading ties with various countries and either those references add no detail at all, or to the extent that they do give detail accounts of various strategies - as with China, Japan, South Korea - they do so in a way which simply mirrors exactly what is happening at the moment.

I say the policy is excessively timid, indeed almost cringing in some respects, in terms that it delete all confidence about Australia's role in the region and the world. Because it utterly fails to acknowledge or understand that Australia can play with the kind of creativity and imagination and energy. We've already showed, a very significant policy role, for example, on the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. There is absolutely no commitment in its policy statement to any continuation of the effort to actually achieve the elimination of nuclear weapons from the face of the world. And no acknowledgment of the kind of leadership a country like Australia can play on that issue. Again another example is the Indian Ocean. There is absolutely no acknowledgment of the crucial, catalytic role that a country like Australia can play and has been playing in the last year in getting that moving.

Finally, and most importantly, there is so much about this policy which is simply out of date. Which is simply Menzies era without the eyebrows. It's an environment painted by the Opposition of a situation emerging where Australia looks out nervously and anxiously towards its own region. Where its seeks again major reliance on old friendships with the United States and Europe. Not even beginning to show an understanding of those relationship, for all their continuing importance, are simply not where the action these days is. Some of the rhetoric is there about Australia's engagement with Asia, but the substance absolutely is not. The Opposition simply doesn't get it about Asia. They simply don't understand - and this policy is very a clear demonstration of it - that Australia's connection with Asia is absolutely crucial to our economic future; that's where the next generation of jobs are coming from. We shouldn't be hearing the kind of threats from our region which so worried Menzies and so worried Alexander's dad. We should be grasping with both hands the opportunity that our geography now gives us.

Q: What about the policy on East Timor?

GE: To the extent that the policy is articulate at all on East Timor it does seem to mirror the kind of approach being adopted by the present Australian Government. Namely to take advantage of the very close ties, the trust and confidence that has now been established with the Indonesian Government to make a very strong and direct continuing case to the Indonesian govemment for positive change of policy. Draw down of military presence,. much more sensitive aid policy and a recognition of the need for at least some significant degree of political autonomy. There doesn't seem to be any difference, that I can see, between our policies in that respect.

Q: What about inconsistency within the Government in that area?

GE: Well, there's no basis for that criticism. The complaint made about what I said as compared to what Mr Keating said is utterly without substance. No Prime Minister is every going to flag in advance the detail of his discussions on particular topics. It would be counter-productive to do so. And it's my certain knowledge that in nearly every one of his encounters with President Soeharto, the Prime Minister has in fact raised the question of East Timor and done so in terms that are utterly consistent with the kind of policy I've just described.

Q: Don't the difficulties with BHP highlight Mr Downer's point that we should be doing more with the United States?

GE: Well, we're always going to have difficulties with the US Congress on some of these issues. And the important thing is to be able to respond in the robust and effective way that we've been doing hitherto. We did take on the Americans head-on in the context of the Uruguay Round. And made some very critical gains as a result. We're not taking lying down the passage of legislation of the kind that is proposed, having extra-territorial reach, having a detrimental effect on major Australian businesses abroad. And our relationship with the United States Administration is at the moment, I think, second-to-none compared with any other country of our stature in the world. And there is absolutely no reason to believe that the Opposition could possibly do any better. And when you get someone like Tim Fischer constantly raising again the spectre of using the Joint Facilities as some kind of bargaining chip on these economic key issues, you have a reaction in the United Sates which is simply a lot of profound head-shaking: "Will this guy never understand the significance of these joint facilities on a larger, global security environment and stop making a fool of himself?" Which is, of course, exactly the position that we've adopted on that issue.

Q: Is there anything new in this policy?

GE: To the extent that there is anything new, is it not good; and what is good in it, is not new.

Q: What about the points on Taiwan/China?

GE: The notion that this government has somehow stood for the creation of an anti-China power bloc is one of the innumerable further examples I could have given of absolute wrong- - headedness in this particular document. There is nothing I've said or done, or that anyone else in the Australian Government has said or done, that could possibly give rise to such a suggestion. What we are talking about - as is the Coalition in this policy - is building a web of bilateral and multilateral security and defence cooperation relationships in the region which will strengthen the overall security environment. But so far as China is concerned, we are in the engagement business, we are not in the containment business.

(About campaign progress)

GE: We're doing fine. We're doing fine. And I think we've got a real bounce at the moment. There's absolutely no doubt about that. Particularly putting very clearly and unequivocally on the record what we're going to be doing in terms of the funding of our proposals. Really we will put that question very sharply in front of John Howard's nose. And I hope that you fellows actually ask him some serious questions about that. I think we can also expect to get a big bounce out of the debate. Paul Keating is a very formidable performer, as we all know, in this sort of environment. This is the head-to-head context that we've been waiting to see. Add to that the obvious bounce that we've had from the health policy, which is getting a terrific reception, I feel. Plus the revelation of the emptiness of the bag of environmental policy promises that have been made, I think we can see the real amount of momentum in the last three weeks of this campaign.