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Transcript of press conference: Phillip Street, Sydney: 12 December 2005: Riots in Cronulla; Youth Mental Health Foundation; East Asia Summit; AWB.



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PRIME MINISTER

12 December 2005

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP PRESS CONFERENCE PHILLIP STREET, SYDNEY

Subjects: Riots in Cronulla; Youth Mental Health Foundation; East Asia Summit; AWB.

E&OE……………………………………………………………………………

PRIME MINISTER:

Ladies and gentlemen, I had originally called a news conference this morning to announce the Youth Mental Health Foundation with the Health Minister Mr Abbott and his Parliamentary Secretary Mr Pyne, and the Members of that Foundation - and they are all present. But before proceeding to that, I thought I should say something about the incidents that occurred in Cronulla yesterday. Let me say for myself and for the Federal Government and I know for the entire Australian community that mob violence is always sickening and always to be unconditionally condemned. Attacking people on the basis of their race, their appearance, their ethnicity, is totally unacceptable and should be repudiated by all Australians, irrespective of their own background and irrespective of their politics. This is first and foremost a question of the application of the law of this country to people who have broken it. Anybody who broke the law yesterday should be apprehended and prosecuted. Anybody who broke the law on Cronulla Beach the previous weekend should likewise be apprehended and prosecuted. I fully support the actions of the police. It is always a difficult role and I feel for those young officers, some of whom have not confronted this kind of behaviour in Australia before.

I think it’s important that we do not rush to judgement about these events. I do not accept that there is underlying racism in this country. I have always taken a more optimistic view of the character of the Australian people. This nation of ours has been able to absorb millions of people from different parts of the world over a period of now some forty years and we have done so with remarkable success and in a way that has brought enormous credit to this country. And it’s very important that we keep that in mind. And I think it would be an enormous mistake if we began to wallow in

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generalised self-criticism, because the overwhelming majority of Australians have the proper instincts and decent attitudes and decent values.

It’s important at a time like this that we reaffirm the non-discriminatory character of our immigration policy. It’s important also that we reaffirm our respect for freedom of religion in this country, but it’s also important that we place greater emphasis on integration of people into the broader community and the avoidance of tribalism within our midst. I don’t think Australians want tribalism. They want us all to be Australians. And that should be the dominant driving force of all post-settlement policies that apply after people have come to this country. And there should be a constant exhortation of all people irrespective of their background to absorb the fundamental values of the Australian community. And they are good values. They’re time honoured values. They include equality before the law. They respect the equal rights and roles of men and women within our community. They respect the right of people to practice their own religion without harassment and also they respect the right of people who have no religion if that is their choice.

But overwhelming the desire of the Australian community is to have a nation which is united behind all of those values and in a nation that wants nothing other than a full commitment to this country’s future from all people, irrespective of their background. It means of course that newcomers to this country must embrace our values. It means that those who were born here must respect and accept as fellow Australians, those who have chosen to make this country their home. Now they may sound as a statement, the obvious, or those things may sound as a statement of the obvious. But I think sometimes on occasions like this it is a good idea to state the obvious because sometimes it is lost sight of. And the most obvious thing about yesterday is that the law was broken and people who break the law should be punished. And if the law was broken last weekend when lifesavers were bashed, then those people should be punished as well. And first and foremost this does involve a challenge to the maintenance of law and order. I don’t think we should begin to categorise it at this stage as anything other than that. Do you have any questions on that before I proceed to the other issue?

JOURNALIST:

So you’re saying there was no element of race or racism in the riots on the weekend?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I said what I said. I do not believe Australians are racist. I thought the behaviour yesterday was quite unacceptable and I said that attacking anybody on the basis of their race or their colour or their appearance is quite unacceptable.

JOURNALIST:

Do you think anything the Government said over the last few years has set the tone for the actions on the weekend?

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PRIME MINISTER:

Which Government?

JOURNALIST:

You’re Government.

PRIME MINISTER:

My Government? No certainly not. What do you have in mind?

JOURNALIST:

Your position on Iraq….

PRIME MINISTER:

My position on Iraq?

JOURNALIST:

Do you think that’s had any influence on people feeing alienated?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well my position… my position on Iraq? You’ve got to be joking.

JOURNALIST:

Do you think the emphasis on terrorism, on the element of terror, home-grown terrorism in Australia has made people feel more worried about certain sections of the society?

PRIME MINISTER:

It’s impossible to know how individuals react, but everything that this Government has said about home-grown terrorism has been totally justified, totally justified and it is a potential threat. To suggest that one should remain silent on something like that, knowing what I know, because that might antagonise somebody else is a complete failure of leadership.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister you did mention tribalism. Can you talk a little bit more about that? What is it that…

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PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think most Australians, put simply most Australians want a nation where, irrespective of our background and always accepting the right of people to retain affection for their own culture and to honour it as well as their own religion and to honour that, we should encourage to the maximum extent possible, everybody to become part of the integrated Australian community, that’s what I mean and I think any emergence of so-called ethnic gangs is a manifestation of tribalism and something which in different ways, we should try to discourage.

JOURNALIST:

What is causing this though? What is causing (inaudible)

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don’t think in a brief press conference such as this we can tabulate all of the reasons, I am simply making the point that one of the aims of policy should be to reduce it.

JOURNALIST:

Do you think what happened yesterday was an example of tribalism and… Australian Anglo/ethnic gangs?

PRIME MINISTER:

No I think yesterday was fuelled by the always explosive combination of a large number of people at the weekend and a large amount of alcohol plus an accumulated sense of grievance, the full extent of which I don’t pretend to know. Irrespective of what caused it, what happened yesterday is to be condemned. It is never acceptable to target somebody because of their race or appearance, never.

JOURNALIST:

Why has it taken you until now to condemn this situation? It’s been building up for a week or (inaudible) a month?

PRIME MINISTER:

Me? Well I would have thought that condemning something before yesterday, when… what was I going to condemn?

JOURNALIST:

Well pressure’s been building up. I mean publicity’s been…..

PRIME MINISTER:

What was I supposed to do?

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JOURNALIST:

Perhaps you could have called for calm earlier, perhaps….

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh, call for calm, yes.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard the New South Wales Liberal Party has said that part of the problem is the softly, softly approach of the New South Wales Police to street violence. Do you agree with that? Have we been too soft on the street violence in New South Wales?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh I’d like to know the full extent of what they’ve said before I comment on that.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister just on the abortion pill RU486, can you confirm a conscience vote will be held on the issue when Parliament resumes?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, I announced that last week. I did.

JOURNALIST:

But will a conscience vote be held when Parliament resumes?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well not on the first day, we’ve got to debate it, but there will be a vote on that bill early in the Parliament in the new year, but we’ve got to have a bit of a talk about it first, we won’t have a vote on the first day.

JOURNALIST:

Did you do any deal with Steve Fielding in return for his support on the VSU legislation?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, absolutely not, though I can dramatically reveal that that particular issue was not even discussed during our conversation.

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JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister tribalism often reflects a feeling of alienation. There are many in the Muslim community that feel alienated at the moment, why do you think that is?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well there would be a combination of reasons for that but I do not believe it is justified to blame the rest of the Australian community for that. That doesn’t mean to say we all can’t in our own way do different things to reach out to each other and I’ve endeavoured to do that in different ways. But I think what we have to do is to focus on first principles and the first principle out of yesterday is that those who committed crimes should be punished.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister on one other issue, the Inspector-General of Taxation has indicated he’ll be conducting a review on whether or not the Taxation Office has consistently applied some of the laws on prosecution of tax, particularly with big settlements at stake, are you satisfied that there has been consistency in approach, particularly after the Gerard affair?

PRIME MINISTER:

Consistency of approach since Gerard? Well there’s not a lot of time gone by since then.

JOURNALIST:

Well it was 2003, I mean are you satisfied that the Taxation Office does apply….

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I am not aware of any circumstances that suggest otherwise. The Inspector-General of Taxation can do what ever he’s entitled to do within his statute, I am not aware of this latest move for which you refer and…

JOURNALIST:

Front page of the Financial Review Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER:

Beg your pardon, front page of the Financial Review? Well I have to say I was doing other things this morning.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, just returning to the events of yesterday. Do you see any parallels between what happened yesterday and the events in Paris last month?

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PRIME MINISTER:

No, no I don’t I think that would be an absurd exaggeration and to completely misunderstand the character of what happened yesterday, I mean any more than I drew a parallel, would draw a parallel between what happened in Macquarie Fields and what happened in Paris.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister do you think this is just a one-off or is there actually some deeper problem which could lead to this happening again?

PRIME MINISTER:

What I said was that I think it is a big mistake to sort of jump to too many conclusions and it’s important that we primarily see it as a question of the law having been broken. I offered some general observations about the obligations of all of us and we shouldn’t take our harmonious society for granted but equally we shouldn’t quiver away in introspection against the background of what we’ve been able to achieve as a country over the last 40 years. I mean this is still a very open, tolerant, decent country, it was on Friday, it still is today and we shouldn’t allow the behaviour of a few to make us believe otherwise but we should patiently try and work out why it happened and we should patiently find solutions to any problems that emerge.

JOURNALIST:

(inaudible) Aussie, Aussie, Aussie and draping themselves in the flag and talking about Lebs and Wogs, how can you say that’s not an example of tribalism of a sort and that also it wasn’t just a few, there was thousands people involved in this?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well to start with I don’t know how many of the thousands of which you speak were actually participating in the particular manner that you have described and look I thought what I saw on television last night and what I read about in the paper this morning was absolutely to be condemned and deplored and is completely unacceptable, I don’t know how many times I need to say that but I think it’s drawing a long bow to say that is representative of a sense of tribalism within the majority of the Australian community, that is the point I am making.

JOURNALIST:

So Prime Minister do you just see this as a policing problem, of something that went wrong down in Cronulla or is it a more serious problem about something in our society, as Mr Baird was suggesting on radio this morning?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I heard what Mr Baird said this morning and I don’t think he was suggesting that.

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JOURNALIST:

He was calling for meetings of all the local community leaders, he was clearly saying that this is something we need to address (inaudible) that leaders need to be involved?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think it’s, the point I am making is that there is always the danger when something like this happens, instead of trying to find out beyond the ground reasons why it has happened, to say that this indicates that there is a fundamental weakness or sickness in our society, I think that is always a mistake. I think it’s important not to under-react to something like this but I also think it’s important not to overreact.

JOURNALIST:

Well do you think there was an under-reaction to what the locals say has been kind of consistent harassment by gangs over periods of months?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I am not in a position directly because my attention has been on other matters over the past week, I do, I am not in a position directly to make a judgement about that, some people allege that and some people dispute it, I think that is something that will emerge over the fullness of time.

JOURNALIST:

But Prime Minister whether or not there is (inaudible) society.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don’t believe there is.

JOURNALIST:

Fine. In terms of… there were thousands of people, as my colleague said they were saying… to start off there was a text message saying, let’s gather together to get the Wogs and the Lebs, they sort of shouting out (inaudible). Do you think that that event is completely (inaudible) of racism?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I thought yesterday’s behaviour was completely unacceptable but I am not going to put a general tag of racism on the Australian community, I am simply not going to do that.

JOURNALIST:

Just those people who participated in it.

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PRIME MINISTER:

Look I think it is a term flung around sometimes carelessly and I am simply not going to do so.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister we’ve also read in the paper this morning that some of the victims of yesterday’s violence were saying that it’s not over and that they would return perhaps next weekend. Is there anything you’d like to say to them or anyone else that wants to continue…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well nobody in this country has the right to take the law into their own hands and that applies to the behaviour of people yesterday, it applied to the behaviour of people on the beach the previous weekend and it will apply to the behaviour of people who try and retaliate and any action that the NSW Police take in response will have my full support.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard the East Asia Summit which you’re going to, can we turn to that for a moment, what are your hopes for that Summit? And do you want it to become a regular thing rather than a one-off, given that there are noises that Australia shouldn’t even be there?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think we are going to be there and I think those noises are an echo of the past rather than of the future. I would hope that it occurs on a regular basis. I don’t see the East Asia Summit supplanting APEC as the principle forum covering economic and political interaction in the region.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister there’s a story in the paper again this morning that there’ll be a big announcement on lots scholarships for (inaudible)

PRIME MINISTER:

I won’t be making any such announcement.

JOURNALIST:

Do you want to talk about whether or not that, that is a…. that you will welcome that development or…

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PRIME MINISTER:

What, I am sorry?

JOURNALIST:

Well that… (inaudible) Colombo Plan?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I have just told you I won’t be making any such announcement.

JOURNALIST:

(inaudible) AWB…

PRIME MINISTER:

AWB Limited.

JOURNALIST:

Yes.

PRIME MINISTER:

It’s no longer the Wheat Board.

JOURNALIST:

I know. Flashback into the past. But it’s the (inaudible) inquiry starts today, the opposition again on the weekend said that it’s a cover-up, that the Government’s covering up (inaudible) of course the Commissioner doesn’t have the powers to actually question the Australian Government in their involvement, what’s your response to that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well my response to that is that there is no suggestion that the Australian Government was in any way involved. This inquiry has been set up as a result of the Volcker Report - Volcker reported about the activity of AWB Limited, he made no comment of any kind which was adverse to the Australian Government, I don’t think it’s normal for governments to set up inquiries into themselves where there has been no allegation of wrong-doing.

JOURNALIST:

But the Volcker Report didn’t have the power to actually look into governments and therefore….

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PRIME MINISTER:

The Volcker Inquiry didn’t have the power to do a lot of things but it did have the power to report on the conduct of people and it could have reported adversely as it did as I recall it in relation to an Indian minister. It reported adversely in relation to him and he stood aside. Now if Volcker had reported adversely in relation to a member of my government then we would have behaved accordingly but he didn’t, therefore we, of course, quite properly have not established any term of reference affecting the Government because there is no suggestion that the Government has done anything wrong. I think we can move on. If Mr Abbott and Mr Pyne and Mr Ryan Stokes will come forward.

I just wanted to announce ladies and gentlemen that in the 2005/2006 Budget the Government announced funding of $69 million over four years for promoting better mental health initiatives. And the centrepiece of this initiative is the establishment of the Youth Mental Health Foundation. And that Foundation will receive funding of $54 million over four years amongst other things to improve the coordination of mental health services for young people, develop a Centre of Excellence to promote evidence-based practice in youth mental health, improve the skills of GPs and other service providers in managing mental illness in young patients and increase community awareness of youth mental health issues and encourage young people to seek help when they need it. As I think we all know, young people are particularly vulnerable to mental illness. Three-quarters of mental health problems begin before the age of 25. And mental illness can be brought on or exacerbated by drug and alcohol misuse and there has been a growing acceptance in recent times of the direct link between cannabis use and mental disorders and we need to do all we can to improve the capacity of the health and other social support systems to respond.

I’m pleased to announce that a consortium led by Orygen Research Centre at the University of Melbourne has been selected to establish and operate the Youth Mental Health Foundation. Other members of the consortium working with Orygen are the Brain and Mind Institute, the Australian Psychological Society and the Australian Divisions of General Practice. And I’m delighted to announce that the Foundation’s Advisory Board will be chaired by Mr Ryan Stokes, who’s with the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary. He’s the Chairman of Pacific Magazines and he’s President of the Seven Network Asia. Mr Stokes will bring to the Foundation very strong leadership skills, I think it’s fair to say some media savvy and a good understanding of mental health issues developed through his previous role as Chairman of the Brain and Mind Foundation.

This initiative owes a great deal to both Chris Pyne, the Parliamentary Secretary and also the Minister for Health. Mental health is a huge problem. It’s been calculated that 17 per cent of the Australian population is affected in varying degrees of severity with mental health problems and the challenge of mental health disease for the young is one that it tremendously important, both to the present and the future of this country. Now I’m very pleased to make this announcement and I’m delighted to congratulate and welcome Ryan Stokes and to thank him for his contribution and to wish the Foundation well. I think it will make a very important contribution to tackling mental health problems amongst the young within Australia. Do you want to say anything Tony or Chris?

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ABBOTT:

Thanks PM. Look I think that the Howard Government has a good story to tell on mental health. Over the last decade we’ve increased our mental health spending from about $800 million a year to $1.3 billion a year in real terms. We have brought in the Better Outcomes in Mental Health Programme and under this programme some 4,500 GPs now have additional skills and training in diagnosing and treating mental illness. So this very important initiative today does build on the solid foundations of increased spending and more expertise in mental health that the Government has laid over the last decade. Chris?

PYNE:

Thanks Tony. Can I just say that I think the young mentally ill in Australia will be thanking the Government, the Howard Government for this initiative today. In the same way as the Government created and funds beyondblue, which has tried to address the stigma surrounding mental illness over the last few years and has great impact, that was a creative initiative, done a different way to the way Government often operates. And the Youth Mental Health Foundation will be very much the same. This is an independent foundation supported by Government with expert advisory groups attached to it. But it will support non-Government organisations in the field who are already providing services for the mentally ill but struggling often to do so. It will bring them together in clusters, provide the sort of professional support that they need as well as service provision and I think it is a great feather in the cap to the Howard Government. I have no doubt it will start to make an impact on the dearth of services which exist for the young mentally ill in Australia.

PRIME MINISTER:

Mr Stokes.

STOKES:

Thank you. Thank you. Well first I want to reiterate the comments. I think this is a fantastic initiative that the Government has launched. Without a doubt it’s a huge issue facing the community. I’m very pleased to be able to contribute. I think the balance between the Federal Government’s contribution to this issue as well as the consortium that has been chosen to lead this in the direct application into this area is probably the best partnership contribution that can be made to addressing this issue. And hopefully it will lead to some great outcomes for a lot of the youth within Australia that face these issues on a daily basis. Thank you.

JOURNALIST:

(inaudible)

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, what’s that?

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JOURNALIST:

(inaudible)

PRIME MINISTER:

I’d be very surprised if it weren’t. I think it’s a wonderful organisation, a wonderful and active branch of the Christian Church and it obviously has a capacity to reach sections of the Australian community with a Christian message which has eluded that of other churches, for whom I retain of course a great deal of respect and personal support.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister has Cabinet yet discussed the issue of troops in Afghanistan?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don’t normally give a progress report on Cabinet meetings. We’ve only just started to meet, I felt I had to come out and make this announcement and also have an opportunity of commenting on the other matters and if there’s anything I feel necessary to say when the Cabinet meeting finishes, I will.

Thank you.

[ends]