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Transcript 20855

Interview with David Speers Sky TV

Photo of Howard, John

Howard, John

Period of Service: 11/03/1996 to 03/12/2007

More information about Howard, John on The National Archive website.

Release Date: 13/08/2003

Release Type: Interview

Transcript ID: 20855

SPEERS:

Prime Minister, thanks for your time. ASIO Chief Dennis Richardson has warned that it's only a matter of time before another catastrophic terrorist attack, be it chemical, biological or even nuclear. Do you share this assessment?

PRIME MINISTER:

I can't really argue with what he said. He is the head of ASIO. He's across all of the intelligence data. It may sound a rather grim warning, but that's the kind of world we live in and nobody should underestimate how much the world changed on the 11th of September 2001. And whilst the likelihood of that kind of attack is sadly for the Americans greater in their country than any other country, we have to brace ourselves for the possibility that there could be a terrorist attack in Australia. We will do everything we can to stop it occurring, but I can't promise and guarantee that it won't occur. I can only promise and guarantee that we will do everything we humanly can to stop it happening.

SPEERS:

Well he's also said that the fact that we are in close alliance with the US and were an early starter to join the war against terrorism, that has contributed to us being a target, even though we were before September 11 as well. He has pointed to this fact - that the US alliance makes us a target. Do you agree with that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well he listed a whole lot of things. One of the points he did make was that countries that weren't close to the United States had suffered attacks. We are primarily, this is my view, a target because of who we are and that is a point that Mr Richardson has made. In fact it's the very first point in his speech about the reasons why we are a target. The other point that I thought was interesting is what he said about Iraq. As I read it, he was saying that our involvement in Iraq did not in the short-term make us more likely to be attacked by terrorists, although he said in the longer-term the jury was out.

SPEERS:

But on this issue of our alliance with the US, does that put us at some greater risk?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think we were at risk before the 11th of September. Obviously, as he said in his speech, we're seen, to use the language, as part of the Christian Zionist conspiracy. In other words, we are primarily a target because of who we are. And in any event, you have to ask yourself - if you are a target because you have done the right thing, does that mean you do the wrong thing? One of the reasons for Osama bin Laden wanting to attack Australia, or be critical of Australia, was our involvement in East Timor and they actually quoted that. Does anybody suggest that what we did in East Timor was wrong and that we shouldn't have done it because of the wrath that has been brought forth because of that action?

SPEERS:

One step the Government is taking in its fight against terrorism is to restore limited ties with Indonesia's Kopassus special forces unit. Now, the Foreign Minister says that we won't be dealing with any members of Kopassus who may have links with terrorist organisations. How do we pick and choose?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we'll do our best to deal with people who haven't had those links. We're not living in a perfect world and in the past we've often, because of the national interest, had to work with groups that contain within them people who have not behaved properly because there is a broader national interest at stake. And the broad national interest at stake is for example the protection and rescue of Australians who might be involved in the attempted hijack of a plane carrying Australians. It could be a Garuda plane, it could be a plane of another carrier, but there could be Australian passengers, and Kopassus is the only unit in Indonesia that has got that anti-hijacking, counter-terrorist capability. And in a limited way, and assuring ourselves as best we can that we're not dealing with the baddies, we have to cooperate with them.

SPEERS:

But if Indonesia can't weed out those baddies, as you call them, how can we?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we can do our best to ensure that the people we work with are people who have not been involved in these activities, but as I was saying David, we are not living in a perfect world and if I have got to choose between an imperfect association or leaving Australians more exposed than they should be, I will choose the imperfect association because that is what I believe is in the best interests of the Australian people.

SPEERS:

Later today Prime Minister you're heading to New Zealand for the South Pacific Forum. A Senate committee has recommended an investigation into whether an economic and political community can be set up in this South Pacific region. Can you see benefits from that?

PRIME MINISTER:

I thought that was a very good Senate report. It contained a lot of constructive suggestions. I haven't had all of them considered. But the whole thrust of it was very forward looking and very sensible and I would expect that quite a number of the ideas either mirror current Government policy or will in the future.

SPEERS:

How far does that go? Are we talking a...

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think it's too early for me to be speculating about those sorts of things. Let's crawl before we walk. And the first thing is to try and get some joint efforts in relation to governance. I'll be taking a proposal about police training facilities in Suva. Clearly these small countries don't have the capacity to train their own police. Policing is very important. If we can have a Pacific centre of police training, that will be of enormous benefits.

SPEERS:

So it's only police training, not a regional police force?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well one thing can lead to another.

SPEERS:

Okay. And how much would that cost Australia?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well the amount of money I think we have in mind offering is about $15 million in relation to the training. But I'm going to produce a paper. I'm going to circulate a discussion paper at the meeting which contains a raft of proposals for discussion, a raft of ideas about where we might see the pooling of resources. I mean obviously a thing like an airline - it's unrealistic for countries with populations of one or two hundred thousand to think they can effectively maintain an airline without an ongoing subsidy from outside. In those circumstances, there may be more sense in trying to build some kind of regional carrier, providing perhaps slightly fewer services than people would like ideally, but providing them on a basis that's sustainable.

SPEERS:

You'll also, or Australia is also putting forward at the South Pacific Forum it's own candidate to take the key post of Secretary General, former diplomat Greg Irwin. It's a post traditionally held by one of the smaller states. Why the change? I mean, is there a danger here that this could be seen as a neo-colonial attitude from Australia?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh, come on. Neo-colonial because we dare to say that an Australian might on merit be the best person? I mean David, that's ridiculous.

SPEERS:

But as well as the intervention in the Solomons...

PRIME MINISTER:

But the people of the Solomon Islands wanted it. I mean we have to sort of deal in reality and not in old jargon. Neo-colonial is old jargon. We've passed through that. We're in an era now where these countries are just going to disappear in chaos and ill-governance if we don't intervene. And we're doing it with their approval, at their request, with the full support of our neighbours, with the endorsement of the United Nations and the overwhelming support of the Australian people. Now, as far as the Secretary Generalship is concerned, we've put up a candidate. I hope he wins because he's the best person offering, but if he doesn't, well we accept that and we will work with whoever is chosen. But there has never been a rule, a firm rule, that says you can't have an Australian in this position. I think that is sort of inverse neo-colonialism.

SPEERS:

Well after Auckland, you move on to China for talks with the new leadership there. Has China in your view been doing enough to encourage a peaceful solution on the North Korean nuclear standoff?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes I do. I think China has been very constructive. I welcome it. I know the Americans appreciate what China has done and I've learnt that very directly from the Administration. And we appreciate what they've done and we will continue to encourage China to play a constructive role. And it's very important that I have this meeting at this time. I have not met the new Chinese leadership before. China is very important to Australia, both politically and economically, and it's a very timely visit in the national interest.

SPEERS:

This new leadership, the so-called fourth generation, do you see that as being a step, or is there a prospect this new leadership could increase the momentum towards democracy in China?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that's a matter for China. I'm not going to speculate about that at the present time. China is expanding economically and inevitably as you expand economically, you reach out to the rest of the world. There are pressures to become a more open society politically. The way in which that might occur and the pace at which it occurs is a matter for the Chinese people.

SPEERS:

Do you ever see democracy as a prospect in China?

PRIME MINISTER:

That's a matter for China. The last time I was in China, I addressed the cadres of the central committee of the Chinese Communist Party. I thought that was a big advance. Being a Prime Minister of a country with a centre-right government, I thought that's a sign of the times and a pretty encouraging sign of the times.

SPEERS:

The other issue no doubt you'll be discussing is trade. The LNG - the liquid natural gas deal that was struck almost a year ago today - worth up to $25 billion over 25 years, is that a good launch pad if you like for free trade agreement negotiations to get underway with China? Is that something you'll be...

PRIME MINISTER:

Well it's more than a launch pad. It's both the reality of a huge deal, the biggest in our history, but also a symbol of the trusting character of the relationship. China chose Australia because we are reliable, we're stable, we're predictable, we deliver on time and we have a very good product. That's why we were chosen. Now that is very good news for the future. The question of the formal trading arrangements between our two countries, it's important but it's less important than the fact that the trade is expanding, we've doubled our exports over the last five years, now that's a huge achievement and it demonstrates incidentally that you can deal economically with China whilst having very close relationships with the United States.

SPEERS:

Well just on that, you've spoken a lot since the war in Iraq about Australia's need to develop even closer ties with the US, you say that their status, their global influence is only going to increase over the next 50 years. Is there ever a point do you think in which China may get a little worried about that superpower status, hyper-power status that the US has and want to re-exert itself?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think it's more likely that as China continues to strengthen, China will want to deal from that position of strength with America in a constructive way, I'm quite optimistic about the future course of a Chinese/America relationships. I know that the leadership of both countries has a pragmatic view and we use our influence in both places to encourage co-operation and very constructive dialogue, not competition.

SPEERS:

Just quickly on a couple of domestic issues, you've been accused this week of misleading Parliament over your meeting with Dick Honan last year. Today, the Herald is reporting that your Department asked the Australian Embassy in Brazil to keep tabs on a shipment of ethanol that was coming from Brazil. Is that a misuse of embassy staff there to try and look after Dick Honan's Manildra group?

PRIME MINISTER:

Good heavens no. What the embassy was doing, and I have no doubt it made enquires, what the embassy was doing, and the normal thing that a post would do because the Government was considering a change of policy to remove the excise exemption and that would have the effect of, because we were going to apply a domestic production subsidy, that would have had the effect of making imports much dearer. Now whenever a decision like that is taken some companies benefit and some companies are disadvantaged, but I'm sure that enquires were made and that was an entirely routine proper thing to have been done, just how many enquires were made I don't know but that matters not because the important thing is that we were thinking of changing policy and we wanted to know what was happening, this was just a question of gathering the facts.

SPEERS:

Was that information that you gathered. through the embassy, passed onto Manildra?

PRIME MINISTER:

That the information was gathered and it was information about the timing, I think about the timing and the quantity of the shipment, there's nothing particularly secret about the information, we just wanted to establish when it was coming, apparently, and what the volume was so that we could take the right decision. You say passing it onto Manildra, I think in fact we first would have heard from Manildra about the possibility of the shipment coming, I'm not quite sure of that chain of events but I'm not of the least bit embarrassed about the fact that the embassy made enquires, that's their job. I mean how can we make a decision on policy that affected imports when we didn't know what the imports were.

SPEERS:

Well also Prime Minister one of your backbenchers Alby Schultz this morning has accused some of your Ministers of intimidation, churlish behaviour, he's been outspoken against your plan to sell off the rest of Telstra and he's been surveying his electorate, they're apparently telling him that they want to sell off Telstra and Ministers are putting pressure on him. He's written to you, are you going to take this up with any of your Ministers?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I haven't seen his letter but I understand from somebody on my staff who's spoken to him that he's written to me about some grants affecting his electorate and he's not making any allegations of bullying about Telstra. I understand Alby's views and I listen to them, he's a very effective member, he represents his people very vigorously, I'll continue to talk to him on the issue and he won't be intimidated or bullied in any way, people would be wasting their time trying to intimidate or bully Alby, he's not somebody that takes to that kind of thing but I'm quite sure none of my colleagues would be doing that. He's got a view and I'll listen to it but the Government's kicked this around a lot and there's pretty strong support to go ahead with the sale, I think it will be because we have upgraded telecommunications in the bush, I've found going around Australia during the recess that people, whatever their views are on the sale of Telstra, they do believe conditions in the bush have got better and that we have got things more or less up to scratch in the bush as I've promised and that's the thing that matters to them.

SPEERS:

Prime Minister, thanks for your time.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you.

[ends]

Transcript 20855