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Transcript of doorstop: Adelaide: March 26 2004



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MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS HON ALEXANDER DOWNER, MP

TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE

DATE: March 26 2004

TITLE: Doorstop, Adelaide

Journalist: Mr Downer, you say you’ve been speaking with the incoming Spanish Government to try and get them to keep their troops in Iraq. What’s the details there that you can give us?

Downer: When I went to sign the condolence book at the Spanish embassy last week, I took the opportunity of having a discussion with the Charge d’Affaires - the Ambassador is back in Spain - so the acting Ambassador, and I said to him that I hoped very much that in the light of the Madrid bombing and the election, that Spain would reconsider its position in relation to its troops in Iraq, that it would transmit the wrong message if Spain withdrew their troops from Iraq. I told him that - look, regardless of what has actually happened in Spain, and why it happened, the perception would be out there in the international community that somehow their withdrawal of troops from Iraq coming after the Madrid bombing, was a response to the Madrid bombing. And it would look as though Spain was being influenced by terrorists. And I think he understood the point and passed it back to Madrid. Now I don’t know that it’s necessarily a fair judgement about Spain or the Spanish Socialist Party, but unfortunately it’s a perception and you can see that reflected in a lot of media commentary, particularly international media commentary about the Spanish election and the commitment of the incoming Prime Minister to withdraw the troops. Now the Spanish have qualified their position, which is encouraging. They’ve said that with a new United Nations Security Council resolution they may reconsider. Let’s wait and see. I think there is likely to be a new Security Council resolution between now and the 30th of June. And I hope in the light of that, the Spanish will decide in the end to keep their troops there.

Journalist: Inaudible.

Downer: There are two reasons. One is that if we were to take our troops out as Mr Latham suggests, well then we would leave our Embassy and our Embassy staff there without adequate security. We would have to close our Embassy there. They wouldn’t be able to do all the things to promote our interests in Iraq that otherwise they can and they are doing. Secondly, I think it sends a terrible message to the international community, just as we’re delivering for the Iraqi people a liberal, democratic and free society that they have yearned for for so long, that we a significant country - not a little country - we’re a significant country, we decided to cut and run. It would transmit a very negative message. Now I’ve said to Mr Latham that we’d be happy to give him briefings. And so in the light of that I would just repeat my offer to make officers of my Department available and the Australian intelligence community available. We would be happy to make them available through this weekend, even if it’s on Saturday or Sunday the doors of my Department will be open to Mr Latham if he wishes to go there and get the briefing. I think before you make any announcements or decisions on major national security issues, you need to do several things. First of all you need to be properly briefed by the professionals. Secondly, you need to consult your own colleagues, your Party, your Shadow Cabinet. In his case Mr Latham hasn’t done any of

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those things. He has made an announcement on a Sydney radio station. The only contact he’s had with anybody on this issue that we’ve been able to track down is a meeting with Bob Brown in the Styx Forest in Tasmania during the course of last week. Now this sort of Styx Forest diplomacy, I don’t think is the way Australian national security should be handled. I really don’t. And this debate can be put behind Mr Latham. It can be set aside, it can be a case of letting bygones be bygones if he’s prepared to take the opportunity through this weekend to get himself fully briefed, have a meeting of his Shadow Cabinet early next week, and announce a much more coherent policy. And I think Australians would appreciate that. You see he always says we’re looking for a bit of honesty in politics, a bit of integrity. Well let’s see him make policy on national security with honesty and integrity. Not just make it up in the Styx Forest with Bob Brown.

Journalist: Inaudible.

Downer: He said in December last year, when he first became the Leader of the Opposition - and this was when he was going through his deeply serious and friendly phase - he said then that he would be making no decision on the Australian troops in Iraq until he had been fully briefed by the Departments of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Defence. Now since then he’s not made any approach to my Department or to me, or to the Defence Department or the Defence Minister, for those briefings. And yet suddenly he makes an announcement without even consulting his Shadow Cabinet and his Caucus, after he’s been in the Styx Forest with Bob Brown. This is one of the things on Bob Brown’s wish-list, his ten point wish-list for Mark Latham that he put out when Mark Latham first became the Leader. It’s pretty obvious where Mark Latham’s got the idea from. But he started off, Mr Latham started off well. It was quite the right thing to say, when he said in December he didn’t know enough about it and he would need to be briefed. But he hasn’t been briefed so according to his own judgement of December, he still doesn’t know enough about it. He’s quite right. He doesn’t know enough about it. He wants to be the Prime Minister of our country and he’s making policy on the run in this sort of way on national security issues. I’ve seen it done in all kinds of areas, but on national security issues you have to think about these things very long and very hard.

Journalist: So do you think it’s a case of a grasp for populism?

Downer: You’d have to ask Mr Latham what has driven him here. I think one of the interesting things about today, Friday the 26th of March is that on most days since Mr Latham has become the Leader we’ve had him and his Labor colleagues out there in the media every day selling their wares - which is what you should do in opposition - they’re quite right to do that. But today they’ve suddenly all gone to ground. They’ve suddenly become somewhat invisible. So, I think they’re having a little bit of a think about this and wondering whether they’re heading in the right direction. That’s good. What they should do is spend the weekend sitting down in my Department with my officials, and Defence officials, and people from the Australian intelligence community getting on top of the issue, and then working out a policy next week and announcing a policy. And Australia will move on if they do that. But otherwise I think the public has a right to be a little concerned and a little confused about what Mr Latham’s about.

Journalist: US President George Bush has been accused of making a major blunder overnight, showing photos (inaudible) the Oval Office. What’s your take on that?

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Downer: I heard something on the radio about it, I concede that. But I haven’t seen any footage of it. And I don’t offer you any comment on that. That’s a matter for the American people and the President himself, not a matter for me.

Journalist: Well Bob Brown’s said it’s absolutely disgraceful that he should do that given the lives lost in Iraq. Do you have any response to that?

Downer: Bob Brown seems to be the man who’s running Mark Latham, so I follow what Bob Brown says much more closely these days than I used to before Bob brown basically hijacked Mark Latham in the Styx Forest and told him what his Iraq policy should be. But beyond that I offer no comment on George Bush and these comments. I really haven’t focused on it.

Journalist: Inaudible.

Downer: Look to be honest with you I heard something on the news this morning on my way to Melbourne Airport and beyond that I really couldn’t comment on it.

Journalist: Inaudible.

Downer: The Australian Wheat Board has negotiated a contract for about 480,000 tonnes of wheat to be exported to Iraq. I think this is terrific news. We’ve done very well of course in our wheat sales to Iraq over the years. It’s been a very important market to us. What’s very encouraging is as we move into a new era in Iraq, the Wheat Board is still managing to maintain a very big market share for Australian wheat growers. And they’ve done a god job and I think the Government, my Department and our office in Baghdad, they’ve all done a good job to make these wheat contracts possible. I think since March we’ve negotiated now something like half a billion dollars worth of wheat contracts with Iraq. So that’s excellent news.

Journalist: Inaudible.

Downer: Of course they would. We obviously wouldn’t be able to negotiate wheat contracts through our Embassy in Baghdad if we didn’t have an Embassy there. It’s just common sense. We need an Embassy there. It’s been an important trading partner for us historically, you’re right. It’s a big export market. I think given the role we played in helping to liberate the people of Iraq, there’s tremendous goodwill towards Australia. We didn’t get rid of Saddam Hussein for commercial reasons obviously, but nevertheless the goodwill to Australia means we can make great gains commercially in Iraq. It’ll be very good for South Australia. It’ll be very good for Australia as a whole. But if we don’t have an Embassy there then we won’t be able to help (inaudible) commercially as well as politically in that country. And we can’t have an Embassy there unless we have proper security for that Embassy. I don’t think if there was a change of government in Australia, an incoming Labor Government would, against the advice of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, leave diplomats there without military protection. Of course they wouldn’t. We’d never make a political point about that - of course the Labor Party wouldn’t want to see them hurt. So, in other words, they would withdraw the Embassy and we would have much less capacity to do this sort of work.

ENDS…………………………………………………………….March 26 2004

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