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Transcript of Press Conference: Australian High Commission, Abuja, Nigeria: Subjects: Meeting with President Obasanjo; Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting; higher education legislation; Zimbabwe; Pakistan; trade; Mark Latham.



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PRIME MINISTER

4 December 2003

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP PRESS CONFERENCE, AUSTRALIAN HIGH COMMISSION, ABUJA, NIGERIA

Subjects: meeting with President Obasanjo; Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting; higher education legislation; Zimbabwe; Pakistan; trade; Mark Latham.

E&OE…………………………………………………………………………………….

PRIME MINISTER:

Well ladies and gentlemen, welcome. I had a meeting this afternoon as you know with President Obasanjo and the bilateral relationship between our two countries is in very good shape and it was a good continuation of some of the issues we canvassed in our meeting in Canberra in February of last year. The Commonwealth meeting starts tomorrow, it’s my hope that it is not dominated by Zimbabwe, and I don’t believe it will, it’s very clear that unless there is fundamental change inside Zimbabwe, if you apply the proper Commonwealth principles, then Zimbabwe cannot be readmmited to the Councils of the Commonwealth. The fact that Robert Mugabe has not been invited here indicates to me that a sensible proper approach is being adopted towards the situation and I’m very hopeful that the issue can be dealt with, some markers put down for future dealing and then we can move on to some of the other issues that are important, including having as united a view on trade as we possibly can because the welfare of developing countries is very much bound up with getting a good outcome at the Doha round and the prospects for that after the Cancun meeting did not look particularly bright.

Could I just mention one domestic matter, and I know I may be questioned on others, but I would like to say how absolutely delighted I am that the higher education legislation was passed through the Senate. This is landmark tertiary education reform, it will open up the university sector with greater competition, it will provide new opportunities, in many respects it’s the biggest change in university education for 20 or 30 years. I congratulate Brendan Nelson’s who’s handled this exercise with very great dedication, he’s been on top of the detail and he deserves every praise from the Government and from me for the work that he’s done. I would also like to thank the four independents in the Senate for being willing to negotiate constructively with the Government, in stark contrast to the Labor Party who under its new leader refused utterly to enter into any kind of discussion, it seems that Latham Labor is no less negative than Crean Labor. It would have been possible for certain things to have

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been supported by the Labor Party without prejudice to their right to argue other things in the forthcoming election campaign. But I do thank the four independents for the constructive approach that they’ve adopted and I’m absolutely delighted that these new changes have now passed into law, I think it will provide a new era for the education system at a tertiary level and open up new opportunities and I thank the vice chancellors who overwhelmingly have adopted a very positive and constructive approach to this whole issue.

Any questions?

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, on the question of Zimbabwe, would you be prepared to countenance any decision or any approach by CHOGM that were to allow Zimbabwe to come back into the Councils of the Commonwealth short of the principles that you’ve adopted at Coolum and have carried through with the troika?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh I wouldn’t support that, no. I certainly wouldn’t. But I don’t think that will happen Jim. I don’t think that will happen. But if you want to know Australia’s position, Australia’s position is quite consistent, while ever Zimbabwe remains in breach of the Harare principles it ought not to be readmitted to the Councils of the Commonwealth.

JOURNALIST:

Did President Obasanjo, in your meeting with him, talk about Zimbabwe, did he indicate that he would continue your line or would he…?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think he’ll quite properly take his own council and adopt his own approach but I had a good discussion with him about this issue, let me put it that way.

JOURNALIST:

What do you see as the way forward? Is it CMAG? Is it a continuation of the troika?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think there are a range of options, the important thing is to accept, or to continue to accept the principle that while Zimbabwe is in breach of the Harare principles and the Millbrook declaration then she can’t be readmitted to the full Councils of the Commonwealth. Now how in a procedural sense you continue to give the expression of that I have an open mind, but the principles are quite clear, the book was thrown at Fiji, the book was thrown at Pakistan, at Nigeria, there’s no reason why the consistency shouldn’t continue in relation to Zimbabwe.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, the Canadian’s seem to be suggesting they might be willing to listen to allow Zimbabwe (inaudible) standards to be readmitted before the next CHOGM, some time within

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the next two years and not to have to wait til the next summit. What’s your attitude to that idea?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don’t know the detail of that, I’d have to know more about that, it would depend on who was to make the judgment, I find it hard to say yes or no to something like that without knowing it. I mean my principle is, Australia’s principle is that while there is breach then no readmission.

JOURNALIST:

What’s your feeling on how CHOGM will react to Pakistan…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well if you apply principles consistently Pakistan is moving to the situation where it ought to be readmitted.

JOURNALIST:

Mr McKinnon said yesterday that you can’t just judge a democracy based on (inaudible) in every three years, there are a lot of other principles that have to be applied.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I’m just in favour of applying the Harare principles. I think we have to be consistent, I think Pakistan has gone a long way and my view would be that it’s getting very close to the point where Pakistan could be readmitted.

JOURNALIST:

Will it be readmitted at this summit do you think?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think there may be some debate on that, but there may be some mechanism agreed where a decision is made perhaps by the Secretary-General and the Chairman-in-office, perhaps by CMAG to, in the name of the full body, to readmit Pakistan after perhaps some other steps have been taken, there is some debate about whether the legal framework which describes the political situation, the constitutional situation in Pakistan whether that should be put into law or remain a presidential decree, there’s some debate, some countries are arguing it should be put into law, or go through parliament rather than just remain a presidential decree.

JOURNALIST:

… reconciliation again as a member of the Commonwealth be in some way a reward too for its role during the war on terrorism?

PRIME MINISTER:

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Well I certainly have great respect for the role that Pakistan has discharged in the war against terrorism. However that is not the dominate reason why I’m arguing for Pakistan to be readmitted, because the dominate reason is that Pakistan has followed the rules and has changed the system and the last election that was held in Pakistan was seen as a credible exercise in the democratic process, so that’s the main reason but I certainly myself am very mindful of the contribution that Pakistan has made and I believe that General Musharraf has exercised a great deal of courage.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, you’re hoping on a clear statement on trade from this meeting. What’s the value of having a statement from a body like CHOGM on trade?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well one of the values is that CHOGM has a lot of developing countries that stand to gain from dismantling of barriers, particularly against agricultural exports but also includes a number of developed countries and one prominent member of the European Union, we hope it might be contagious.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, do you agree with the assessment of (inaudible) on a lot of these African, Caribbean and Pacific nations who are also members of the Commonwealth actually sided with the European Union because of concessions to the European Union…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I see that, that is an issue, yes I realise that but in the long run it is indisputable that a dismantling of these barriers would do more than any other single act by the developed world to help developing countries.

JOURNALIST:

Why haven’t they understood this argument though, has it been a failure of diplomacy on our behalf…

PRIME MINISTER:

That’s our fault is it? The failure of diplomacy on our part?

JOURNALIST:

Why aren’t they agreeing…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think if you are in a situation where you have a short term arrangement that gives you some benefit compared with other developing countries you don’t likely want to give it away but if you look at the broad situation of developing countries, they would be much better off without these barriers.

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JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, back on the issue of Zimbabwe, the role of Zimbabwe’s neighbours, the other African states, is there a risk that solidarity could be put ahead of the standards of the Commonwealth and trying to achieve democracy in Zimbabwe?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well Sally, I understand the feeling of what were once called the frontline states and I understand the history of it and I respect that fact but there are broader issues and more important issues involved, I don’t want to predict the reaction of those countries, I’m optimistic that the matter can be dealt with sensibly in accordance with the Harare principles.

JOURNALIST:

Have they already crossed that line more in favour of solidarity rather than…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well there’s nothing to be gained by my making a judgment on that.

JOURNALIST:

Just looking back home Mr Howard, are you glad to see that Latham Labor’s embracing the stars and stripes?

PRIME MINISTER:

Is it?

JOURNALIST:

Well they appear to be in slightly a softer position on the alliance with the United States.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well look I remain of the view that you’ve got to do more than engage in a bit of inept tokenism in the display of flags to sort of show maturity in relation to our alliance with the United States. My criticism was that the highly personal nature of the attack on the current President of the United States was not only irresponsible but it also demonstrated a streak of political tribalism which is not appropriate for an alternative Prime Minister and a press conference displaying the flag of a foreign country when there’s no representative of that foreign country present is inept tokenism.

JOURNALIST:

You understand the thinking of the Administration probably as well as anyone in Australia, do you think that Labor’s, that the Labor Party’s utterances of the last few days would win them over?

PRIME MINISTER:

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Look, it’s not a question of looking at it from American Administration’s perspective, I mean I’m looking at it from Australia’s point of view, I mean the Americans can speak for themselves and it’s perfectly legitimate for an opposition in Australia to attack American policy, I mightn’t agree with them, I mean I took a different view on Iraq from the Labor Party but the Labor Party had a perfect right to disagree with American policy on Iraq, that’s not the issue, but it became intensely personalised and I have to make the point again that the British Prime Minister, who happens to be a Labour Prime Minister, I know has exactly the same view on Iraq as the American President, I think the world knows that. But he of course has you know remained sort of third way proof from any kind of criticism.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, some of the attacks on Mr Latham at home have become increasingly personal including from Mr Abbott who’s referred among other things to the circumstances of the collapse of Mr Latham’s first marriage. Is that a form of tribalism that you endorse?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don’t believe that those sort of issues should be raised on either side of politics and they have been raised in relation to Mr Abbott in the past by you know who, I think both of them should stay out of that sort of stuff. That’s my view, that’s my very strong view.

JOURNALIST:

Will you have a word to Mr Abbott?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look I don’t indicate who I would speak to in my Government, I’m just making it very clear that I think that those sort of things should be kept out of the political arena. But that stricture applies as much to the other side as it does to anybody else.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, Mr Latham says in relation to his past announcements on the United States and other things that he wants everyone to draw a line under that and to look forward and not back, is that…

PRIME MINISTER:

Can I say that is just pathetic, I mean this happened only a few months ago and he repeated his words on Neil Mitchell’s programme a couple of days ago, I mean come on, we’re in the big school now and you can’t say oh yes, I might have done that but I mean forget about that and we’re starting all over again, I mean it’s not quite as easy as that, I certainly sort of haven’t found it quite as easy as that over the years and you know I don’t know that anybody else should. Look, you know we’re dealing here with the most important relationship we have anywhere in the world and we’re dealing with the attitude and the remarks and the maturity of the alternative prime minister, we’re not dealing in some kind of academic exercise where you can sort you know tear up the page and start again.

JOURNALIST:

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Mr Latham, Geoff Clark has apparently called on you to have him reinstated as the ASTIC chair, have you given any thought to that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that is a matter that should be dealt with in accordance with the law and I leave it to Senator Vanstone to handle.

JOURNALIST:

Well it has been in the sense that he’s been…

JOURNALIST:

Geof, I don’t have anything add to what I’ve just said.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, you described the use of the American flag by Mr Latham and Mr Rudd as inept tokenism. What was your first reaction when you heard about it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I mean I know from my own experience that the normal custom is that you don’t have the flag of a foreign country at a press conference unless there’s a representative of that foreign country there and much and all as I respect the United States and regard the relationship as important, it is another country and if I, self-evidently appear at a news conference with a representative of another country, that country’s flag is there but I mean it is inept tokenism and it’s just not appropriate to have the flag of another country at a domestic news conference, I mean just imagine if a member of the Coalition turned up a press conference with an Australian flag and say the Indonesian flag, or the Union Jack or something, well people would say what on earth are they doing that for, unless of course there were representatives of Indonesia or Great Britain present.

JOURNALIST:

Is there a colloquial description for that behaviour that springs to mind?

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, Tony Blair will be leaving CHOGM early on Sunday and missing the final session and missing the formal wrap up on Monday to be back in London in time for the parade of the England rugby team. Does that undermine the whole meaning, undermines the strength of the Commonwealth?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look I wouldn’t begrudge the Prime Minister of Great Britain the opportunity to be associated with a sporting victory, you’ve got to take your chances when they come in that business. No, look I’ve already spoken to Tony Blair, I congratulated him, the English rugby team performed very very well and they certainly deserved to win on the night, much and all as it grieved the following of the Wallabies.

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JOURNALIST:

(inaudible) but is that more important than…

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, I am not going to criticize Mr Blair, Mr Blair and I are very good friends, he’s a very fine leader of his country, even though he comes from a slightly different side of politics from me, I’m certainly not going to criticize him for that.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, just back to Latham again, into about three days of his election as the …

PRIME MINISTER:

Mr Latham.

JOURNALIST:

What did I say? Sorry, well…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I mean I don’t mind…

JOURNALIST:

You might want to drop the mister after the question. Three days after his (inaudible) Leader of the Opposition on television, on the 7.30 Report, defending himself as not having a fixation on bottoms. Now to explain that, that goes to his comments about…

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, well I really don’t want to comment.

JOURNALIST:

I’m not asking you to comment on that, the question is, you know three days into his position and he’s doing that, are you relishing the coming months?

PRIME MINISTER:

Geof, let me make it very clear, I treat all of my opponents very seriously, I don’t regard the next election as anything other than very hard for us to win, I do not underestimate any of my political opponents, and that includes Mr Latham.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, do you see any irony in the fact that you’ve got your education reforms through Parliament without the support of the Labor Party, and Tony Blair’s education reforms are

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stalling, really the only hope he’s got of getting them through the Commons is with the support of Conservatives.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I really don’t think it’s proper for me to make gratuitous comments about a domestic political matter in the United Kingdom. I’m following that debate with interest but it’s not really appropriate Dennis, not really.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, just finally on Zimbabwe, what benefits have there been for the Zimbabwean people of the suspensions from the Councils of the Commonwealth, what evidence do you have that it’s working?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I’ve never argued that it would be of direct benefit or necessarily alter their status except to the extent that it brought pressure to bear for change. The reason Zimbabwe was suspended was because the election was rorted and that was the finding of the Commonwealth observer group, led by Botswana. That’s the reason. We hope that it will contribute to improving things and bringing about change and that in the long run will be a benefit, but I have great sympathy for the people of Zimbabwe, they’re in a wretched situation at the present time and their country’s in an appalling state and change is desperately needed but you have limited tools at your disposal and we’re trying to use them.

Thank you.

[ends]