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Transcript of doorstop interview: Adelaide: 27 March 2004: Labor's Iraq confusion.

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27 March 2004


Minister for Foreign Affairs

Doorstop Interview, Adelaide

Downer: I want to talk a bit about Mr Latham today. The Latham policy on the withdrawal of troops from Iraq is now a policy in a state of total chaos. This morning Mr Latham's spokeswoman is reported as saying that Mr Latham actually wants to keep the ship we have in the Persian Gulf, protecting Iraqi waters, he wants to keep that there, he wants to keep the C130s we have flying in and out of Iraq providing important logistical support for Coalition forces there, and also particularly for Australians. He's thinking maybe he'll keep the soldiers who are protecting our Embassy there, rather than withdrawing them, but he hasn't quite made up his mind about that. Which means that according to the latest policy of Mr Latham, all the Labor Party would do in Government is withdraw the air traffic controllers - and there are about 100 of them - and the 55 or so Australian troops who are providing training for the new Iraqi Army.

Now I've said all along when it comes to national security, it's very important to think your policies through carefully and to formulate those policies on the basis of good advice and good judgement. Mr Latham has changed his policy three times during the course of the last week. First of all, before the week started, the Labor Party's policy was that Australia should put its shoulder to the wheel in Iraq. On Tuesday, without any consultation with his Shadow Cabinet, Mr Latham rushed out and said that all our troops should be out of Iraq by the 30th of June - but if he gets elected, and it's later than that, by Christmas.

Today we read in The Age from Mr Latham's spokeswoman that actually no, he doesn't really think we should withdraw all of the troops, we should just withdraw the air traffic controllers and the people doing essential work in training the new Iraqi Army. Now, regardless of what people think of each one of those positions, this is incoherent chaos. It is an abominable example of policy making on the run. We look forward to hearing by the time the sun sets tonight, whether Mr Latham has yet another position on this issue. But these are issues that get to the heart of Mr Latham's credibility. His credibility in terms of his capacity to make sensible policies, and his credibility in terms of a potential Prime Minister who would manage our national security. And I think it's a sad thing for

Australia that we have an Opposition Leader who is managing a national security policy on the basis of complete chaos.

Journalist: So what are you saying? You would like to see it stay the way it is?

Downer: We have a formulation there at the moment of troops in Iraq. And there are two reasons why we think we should stick with the policy we have. In the first place we obviously want to have troops there to protect our Embassy. If we withdraw the troops from protecting our Embassy, well then we'll just have to close it down. And that's the advice of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Secondly, in the wake of the Madrid bombings and the election of the new Socialist Government in Spain and its commitment to withdraw troops from Iraq, the last thing any of us in the international community want is another country to come out and say it'll withdraw its troops from Iraq. We need a solid and unified international effort to defeat the terrorists in Iraq, and to give Iraq the opportunity to become a free country. If you say you're going to cut and run, then obviously that gives great encouragement to people who want the international security forces out. And they are the people who are killing Iraqis as well as Coalition troops because they want to create a fundamentalist Taliban-style Islamic state in Iraq,

not a liberal democracy. So we have a good policy on this.

I've offered briefings to Mr Latham so he could understand what we were doing. He refused to have those briefings, even though he promised he wouldn't change his policy until he had been briefed. And now, I offer again a further briefing to Mr Latham. He's had three positions in one week. He should sit down with officials from my Department tomorrow, Sunday. I offer the facilities of my Department tomorrow. I'll get the officers in from their day off, and get them to give Mr Latham a briefing so he can understand fully what's involved. And then he can go and discuss this issue with his Shadow Cabinet on Monday and come out with a coherent policy. But three policies in one week on a fundamental national security issue is grossly irresponsible.

Journalist: Inaudible - so you believe if Latham was elected he would put either national security or Australian lives at risk?

Downer: What we can conclude from today is that if Latham is elected, he won't have any idea what he's doing. Here is a man dealing with a fundamental national security issue, who's had three positions in one week, who is now in state of complete chaos on this issue. Yesterday he said we need to bring the troops back from Iraq to protect Australia, but actually what he's proposing 24 hours later is to bring back air traffic controllers and 55 people training the new Iraqi Army to add to the 50,000 Australian Defence Force personnel here in Australia. And according to his vivid imagination, this is going to make a difference to defending Australia. It's just not been thought through. It's embarrassing for him.