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Transcript of media conference: Zimbabwe; UN Security Council position; Japan: 2 April 2008

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DATE: 2 April 2008

TITLE: Media conference - Zimbabwe, UN Security Council position, Japan

STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks for turning up. I just want to make some remarks about Zimbabwe, then I'm happy to answer your questions on that and, and any other issues.

Firstly, earlier this morning I spoke to our High Commissioner

in Zimbabwe to get an assessment from the Australian perspective, of the things on the ground in Zimbabwe. I'm told that things are calm, tense, but calm. No indications at this stage of any violence which is very welcoming.

I think it's true to say that it is difficult to get a clear assessment

of events as they are unfolding. Certainly you would experienced that, given the media access restrictions that we find in Zimbabwe. I think it's also the case that, not just our mission, but other missions, United States, United Kingdom, are also having difficulty getting a clear picture of events as they emerge. So I think it's important to monitor events as they unfold and to not get too far ahead of ourselves.

There are some things though that we can say I think with

certainty. Firstly, it's quite clear that the Opposition has done very well. It's quite clear that Mr Tsvangirai, despite all the difficult circumstances of the election, has done very well. In the last count that I saw published by the Zimbabwean Electoral Commission, had 85 seats to the Opposition, 85 seats to Mr

Mugabe's Zanu PF and half a dozen to others. I haven't yet seen,


nor do I believe has anyone else, any published results by the Commission so far as the presidential ballot is concerned.

So we know that the Opposition Leader Mr Tsvangirai has done

very well, and just on those figures the two-thirds majority that would enable, for example, Mr Mugabe to change the constitution, is no longer available.

The second thing we know is that everyone remains very

concerned - very, very concerned that Mr Mugabe, by fair means or foul, may well try and steal this election and that's why we've been urging, in the last couple of days as I again do today, urging the Zimbabwean Electoral Commission to publish

the results as quickly as possible. That will be of great assistance. Firstly, there will be a formal result published by the Commission, but secondly, it will enable people to make comparisons between the already publicly available and published results, polling station by polling station, which have been published by the Opposition Parties and also by non-government organisations in Zimbabwe.

Can I say that yesterday I took steps to put myself in the

position of being able to speak to some of my colleague Foreign Ministers. Firstly, the South African Foreign Minister, the Zambian Foreign Minister and the Tanzanian Foreign Minister and also the Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom, Mr Miliband. Late last night, Canberra time, I spoke to Mr Miliband. In the early hours of this morning I attempted to speak to the Foreign Minister for South Africa Dlamini Zuma, who was travelling in Sudan, but the communications problems made it difficult and we've arranged for that to occur later this evening. And I'll be speaking to the Tanzanian and Zambian Foreign Ministers later this evening as well.

I had a very good conversation with Mr Miliband and I advised

him of a number of things. Firstly, there is a longstanding interest in Zimbabwe so far as Australia is concerned, and


unfolding events in Zimbabwe are a matter of acute concern to the Australian Government and the Australian people.

Secondly, we want to see an orderly and peaceful outcome to

the election. Thirdly, we want the election results to be verified and the will of the people respected. And fourthly, if there is a transition, if there is a transition to a new government, then the Australian Government will work closely and carefully with any new government which seeks to respect the will of the Zimbabwean people, but also wants to uplift the lives of Zimbabwean people. This is not something that can be said of the brutal Mugabe regime over the last couple of decades. And Mr Miliband and I had a very productive conversation. You'd of course be aware that Prime Minister Brown spoke to the South African Leader Mr Mbeki in the last couple of days.

The reason, of course, for making the phone calls was to again

record Australia's interest, particularly to indicate to the African - my African colleagues, members of the South African Development Community that Australia has a keen interest in events unfolding in Zimbabwe and to make the point to them that we believe it's important that the Zimbabwean Electoral Commission publish the results as a matter of urgency and the will of the Zimbabwean people be respected.

Obviously, given that it's the early hours of the morning in

Zimbabwe, more information coming to hand will take the course of the day, but I hope to be in a position to provide reasonably regular updates as events do unfold in the next couple of days.

I'm happy to respond to your questions on that.

QUESTION: Mr Smith what do you know about what's happening inside Mr Mugabe's office?


STEPHEN SMITH: Well I think like everyone else, I'm not in the position to give any certain information about that. There is a lot of speculation and it needs to be, I think treated as speculation.

There have been suggestions, for example, that a deal has been

brokered between Mr Tsvangirai and Mr Mugabe. That's been strongly denied by Mr Tsvangirai in a press conference in the late hours of last night Zimbabwe time.

There have also been suggestions that - that Mr Mugabe and Mr

Tsvangirai have spoken by telephone. I'm not in the position to verify that one way or the other.

But obviously what is occurring here is, on the part of the

Opposition, an attempt to ensure that the democratic will of the Zimbabwean people is respected and to seek to effect an orderly transition to a new government. And obviously it's clear that Mr Mugabe, for some time, has been wanting to resist that.

One thing which I think does appear to be emerging is that his

attempt to steal the election has largely been through a delay in the election outcome, rather than through military force, or military means. All the advice we've received is that the military are effectively on stand-by, but do not appear to be taking an active role, or an active interest in matters. And I certainly hope that remains the case. The last thing we want here is violence to break out.

QUESTION: Mr Smith, in your conversations with your foreign counterparts, did you discuss the potential for rigging the elections and if evidence does emerge, of rigging, the response from Australia and the international community?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I've had one conversation with Mr Miliband, an attempt at an organised conversation with the Foreign Minister of South Africa which, because of communications problems - she was in


Sudan - that's been put off till today. But I made the point to Mr Miliband, as I will to my African colleagues, one, we want the will of the people respected. Two, if Mr Mugabe tries to steal the election then certainly there should be a very, very strong view expressed by the international community that it doesn't respect any such stolen election.

And I think what - what we now need to do is to make the point

crystal clear that we want the will of the Zimbabwean people to be respected. We want the election result published as quickly as possible. And we want all pressure placed on Mr Mugabe to prevent him from seeking to steal the election.

There was one over here, sorry.

QUESTION: Mr Smith would an Australian serving on the Security Council assist, or as the federal Opposition maintains hinder efforts to democratise countries like Zimbabwe?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, Australia has a very strong view about human rights and the Australian Government has put that view very strongly about Zimbabwe and also in recent times about Tibet. Taking those values and those virtues to the Security Council can but enhance.

Can I just make some general comments. I've seen those

suggestions from the Opposition. I'm not sure what the Liberal Party and the National Party stand for on the Security Council.

When the Prime Minister announced that we would be putting

our name forward as a candidate in 2012 for the 2013-14 Security Council position, the initial reaction of the leader of the Opposition was to say that this was a legitimate thing to do, the Shadow Foreign Minister effectively welcomed it and now I'm not quite sure what they're saying. I don't think the Opposition knows what it stands for in this matter, or what to stand for.


The Government knows very clearly what it stands for. The

Government wants to take a much more active role in international affairs both generally and through the United Nations. We haven't been on the Security Council for over 20 years. Mr Downer himself has publicly recently expressed regret that the Government that he was a member of decided not to pursue an earlier claim.

We think it's important and we think that Australia, as one of

the top 20 economies - 15th or 16th of the world economies - with a robust parliamentary democracy, as a well-developed, prosperous nation, we want to be a good international citizen, we want to take those values and virtues to the rest of the world. We could and we should.

I've often seen this expression, you know, Australia punching

above its weight. It's an expression I hate. I don't think we do punch above our weight. I think we punch below our weight. We need to do more and this Government wants us to do more and we will ensure that we do more, whether it's about Zimbabwe, whether it's about the United Nations, whether it's about Tibet.

QUESTION: Mr Smith, on the visit by the Prime Minister to Japan, does the Government have any regrets about this issue getting out of hand diplomatically?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well I've seen a lot of commentary and, as I've said earlier in the week, frankly, I don't agree with it. The relationship between Australia and Japan as nation states and the relationship between the Australian Government and the Japanese Government is fundamentally a very good one.

We have an economic, security and strategic partnership with

Japan. When I went to Japan, as one of four or five ministers who, in the course of the Government's term have been to Japan, met with the Prime Minister, met with my counterpart,


and met with the chief Cabinet Secretary. We underlined all the fundamental trappings of the relationship between Australia and Japan.

And I again make the point, if our relationship with Japan was

not a fundamentally good one, we would not have been able to withstand the very strong disagreement we had over whaling.

Now, the Prime Minister has made it clear, consistently, he's

always proposed two trips to Japan in the course of this year. There have been itinerary difficulties, as his itinerary and the Japanese Prime Minister's itinerary have been considered. I'm very pleased, as is the Prime Minister, as I'm sure the Japanese Prime Minister is, they've now been able to find a date some time in early to mid June which will be in addition to the Japanese Prime Minister's invitation to our Prime Minister to attend the G8 summit in July.

QUESTION: Extra diplomatic activity in the last three to five days though on this?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well officials have been trying to get a date, both officials from Japan and Australia, as I understand it, for some time, since January, and I'm very pleased that we've now got a date. I don't know the precise date but I know that it's early to mid June.

QUESTION: An extra effort put in over the last few days?

STEPHEN SMITH: The attempts to get or secure an appointment or a bilateral have been ongoing since January this year. The Prime Minister has made it clear on a number of occasions that he would do two trips to Japan this year, one for the G8 and an additional one and I'm pleased that that's now been organised for June.

QUESTION: Is there a danger this trip though could run into difficulties due to the political turmoil that's going on in Japan at the moment? I


mean there's no guarantee we'll have the same Prime Minister of Japan in June.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, last time I looked most democratic nation states had elections. There's one coming up in the United States and we'll deal with the new United States administration as productively as we deal with the current one. There's an election due in Japan some time towards the end of this year or next year. Whatever the expression of the democratic will of the Japanese people is, we will work productively, cooperatively, into the future with a re-elected Japanese government or a new Japanese government.

That again reflects the nature of the relationship, the

fundamentally good relationship between Australia and Japan.

QUESTION: Australia will get a good hearing with the current - if the Prime Minister is still there, given the problems he's facing domestically?

STEPHEN SMITH: When I saw the Japanese Prime Minister in January or February of this year, when I was there, I got a very good half hour hearing from him where we went through the fundamentals of the relationship between Australia and Japan.

I'm absolutely confident, as I'm sure the Japanese are, that

precisely the same type of conversation will take place between the two Prime Ministers.

And I just make this point, I've also seen the comments or the

reports made by Japanese officials themselves who have made the point that since the government came to office, I've been to Japan, Simon Crean's been to Japan, two or three other ministers have been to Japan. There's been a lot of commentary about Australia and Japan, and, frankly, a lot of it misses the fundamental strength of the relationship between our two


countries and the fundamental good relationship between our two governments.

QUESTION: Can you comment on [indistinct] what the Japanese, you know, think tanks, and academics, and business people and the politicians are saying though is that they've never before had a world leader who speaks mandarin.

The rise of China has become such an important issue. There is

something a little bit threatening just - the Japanese are feeling within themselves. Now, can you comment on that?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, again I've seen the commentary that Japan is concerned by the rise of China. When I spoke with the Prime Minister of Japan, and when I spoke with the Foreign Minister of Japan, they were both very pleased with the trip that the Japanese Prime Minister had made to China and very much looking forward to the Chinese leadership going to Japan later this year.

And I also make this point, Australia has very important

relationships with a range of countries. We have our alliance with the United States, the fundamental bedrock of our defence, security and strategic arrangements.

We have a strategic partnership, economic, defence, strategic

and security partnership with Japan.

We have an emerging and growing important economic

relationship with China and we conducted in February of this year the first of the strategic dialogues with China.

We want to have a better relationship. Take our relationship

with India to a new level. You can do all of these things - all of these things - and have a good bilateral relationship with any number of countries and not have that adversely impact on other


bilateral relations. It can actually be win-win here. It's not a zero sum game.

The Australian aspiration is we want to have a good relationship

with the United States, with Japan, with China, with India, with the Republic of Korea, and all of these things can be effected, just as we want, as the Prime Minister has made clear in recent days, Japan and China to have a good relationship, India and China to have a good relationship, United States and China to have a good relationship. All of these things are strategically open to the world in this century.

QUESTION: Just on Zimbabwe, Mr Smith, in your discussions, have you received any indication that Mugabe maintains the confidence of the military?

STEPHEN SMITH: I won't comment on information that I've received for the obvious reasons. I think the analysis is that it appears to be the case that whilst the military is standing by to ensure that there are no outbreaks of violence, that it is not currently motivated to take up military action in its own right to thwart the will of the Zimbabwean people. That is the current assessment.

But as I say, all the current commentary or current analysis,

which I've seen, as you would have seen in the media - but as I say, we've got to take this one step by step. It is very early days.

Mr Mugabe is not the sort to indicate he's proposing to

voluntarily retire overnight, and we have been very concerned that he will try and steal the election, either by not respecting the outcome by having a cause to delay, or a cause to rig, or more seriously, by use of military force.

Currently, the assessments, and the reporting and the

commentary is inclined to the view that the military are not, at


this stage, motivated to rescue Mr Mugabe. Whether that is the eventual outcome, time will tell.

We certainly hope that there's no military intervention.

QUESTION: Mr Smith, have you had any discussion about other countries possibly offering sanctuary to Mr Mugabe? Also, is there any discussion about relatives of the current government, particularly students or children living here in Australia?

STEPHEN SMITH: I haven't had conversations of that nature with anyone that I've spoken to.

QUESTION: Have we had any communication with the Zimbabwean

Embassy here in Australia, and, if so, have they…

STEPHEN SMITH: I haven't had direct contact. My contact has obviously been with our High Commissioner on the ground in Zimbabwe. But I'm sure that there has been officer to officer contact with their representatives here. And, certainly, our High Commissioner and the mission in Zimbabwe has been in regular contact with other like-minded nation states, in particular, the United Kingdom and the United States, and also in conversation with the relevant African nation states.

QUESTION: Mr Smith, [indistinct] change of government in Zimbabwe that Mr Mugabe would be safe living there, or would he have to move?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, let's take it step by step. In the first instance, obviously, if there is a transition to government, what, if anything, happens to Mr Mugabe is, in the first instance, a matter for the

Zimbabwean people and any new Zimbabwean government.

Our principles are twofold. Firstly, we will happily work with

any new Zimbabwean government which respects the will of the


Zimbabwean people. First point. And second point, we'll happily work with any Zimbabwean government which wants to uplift the lives of the Zimbabwean people and not oppress them, as we've seen for the last - more than 25 years under a brutal Mugabe regime.

QUESTION: Mr Smith, does the Federal Government support opening a dialogue with Hamas?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I've seen that suggestion. I've made the point privately, and I'm happy to make it publicly, that the Australian Government, in the first instance, would not be prosecuting that view.

If, for example, the Government of Israel, as part of the peace

process, presumably in conjunction with the United States, wanted to go down that road, then it would be a matter for the Government of Israel and for the Government of the United States.

But in the first instance, that is not an argument that we are

prosecuting. On the contrary. You'd be well aware of the classification in terms of terrorist organisations that we have domestically for Hamas.

QUESTION: Mr Smith, are you saying you wouldn't work with Mugabe if he stole the election?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I haven't noticed that we've been working with him closely for the last 25 years.

QUESTION: [Inaudible question]

STEPHEN SMITH: My view of…


QUESTION: [Inaudible question]

STEPHEN SMITH: Well firstly, my view of the brutal Mugabe regime are well known, that's the first point. Secondly, I'm not proposing to change that view.

Our representatives are in Zimbabwe, and our aid and assistance

program is there in Zimbabwe to seek to render much needed assistance to the ordinary Zimbabwean, the ordinary Zimbabwean citizen. That's reflected by our aid program, which is, essentially, a food aid program, and it's reflected by the work that we do.

All our urgings of our mission in Zimbabwe have been, we want

to see Zimbabwe return to a democratic state where people's human rights are respected and where the average Zimbabwean citizen might actually have the chance of a decent and prosperous life rather than the appalling economic, social and human rights conditions that they've been living under for the last couple of decades.

Is everyone happy? Sorry, yes Brendan.

QUESTION: Mr Smith, look, I may have missed this, but…

STEPHEN SMITH: So may have I.

QUESTION: … the election in Taiwan recently, is that - I'm not sure, have you made any official comment on that or do you have any views on…

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, firstly, I'm very happy to see Dr Ma elected. I'm also very happy to see the so-called referendum defeated, and I'm optimistic that Dr Ma's election will help to reduce tensions across the straits.


I think that, from an optimistic point of view, it should and

could be a good development, and, certainly, his election to the extent that an election outcome in Taiwan is welcomed has effectively been welcomed by Chinese authorities as well.

But I was particularly pleased to see the referendum defeated

and I'm optimistic about the reduction of tension across the straits as a result of Dr Ma coming to office which takes place, from memory, in early May of this year.

Thanks very much, cheers.