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Transcripts from the Prime Ministers of Australia

Transcript 22371

Doorstop Interview East Timor.

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: 18/07/2006

Release Type: Interview

Transcript ID: 22371

PRIME MINISTER:

Well ladies and gentlemen I would like to start by saying how pleased I am to have been able to meet and talk with Dr Ramos-Horta the new Prime Minister of East Timor. I do know him well, but this is the first time we've come face to face in his new position. He faces a huge challenge but he has the goodwill and the friendship of Australia and the discussions I've had with him and with the President this morning, I've been able to reaffirm Australia's goodwill towards East Timor and our desire to help, recognising that the future of this country is in the hands of her people. We cannot make a future for East Timor that the people of East Timor cannot make for themselves and it's very important that that be understood. We are here as guests of the Government of this country. We came at the request of the Government and we stay only for so long as the people of East Timor want us to stay.

In a few moments I'll have the opportunity of expressing my personal thanks to the men and women of the Australian Defence Force, led so ably by Brigadier Mick Slater, for the magnificent job that they have done in cooperation with the men and women of the Australian Federal Police and the police forces of a number of Australian states, led by Commander Steve Lancaster. And the quality of the military operation, the quality of the policing work that has been on display over the past two months in this country should make every Australian feel immensely proud. Australians do this, in my view, better than any other. We understand the need to sensitively display a military presence but we also understand the importance of winning the hearts and minds of local people, and the humanitarian arm of the Australian Defence Force and Australian Police is a distinguishing feature of our operations, not only here, but around the world.

Clearly the security situation here is vastly improved on what it was even a month ago or even a few weeks ago, let alone a couple of months ago. At its peak of course Australia had, I think, early in June, more than 3000 military personnel in the theatre, that's Army, Navy and Airforce and on top of that some hundreds of police. Over time of course we won't need anywhere near that number and it's a sign of the success that we won't. And you can expect over the time ahead there to be not only some gradual reduction but also a rebalancing of the force. Part of that, the Kanimbla for example will be going back to Australia shortly and some of the helicopters, because their job has been done. But the Australian force will still be slightly over 2000 even after that occurs and given the nature of the size of our country that's a very big commitment. But we don't want to go prematurely, we don't want to give the impression that we are here indefinitely because it's important that there be an encouragement and incentive for the local political leadership to (inaudible) the changes that are needed.

Can I just again express on behalf of the Australian people my admiration for the work of the Australian Defence Force in the presence of the Chief of the Defence Force Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston, and to Brigadier Slater, who led the ADF with great distinction here. I thank the Brigadier for the great job that he and the men and women of his force have done and the respect they've brought to our country, and also not forgetting for a moment the work of the Federal Police. I think the integrated nature of this operation has been first class and it reflects enormous credit on the professionalism of the Australian Federal Police and also the men and women of the various state police forces that have made a contribution.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister Mr Ramos-Horta said last week publicly that he'd like at least a battalion strength contingent of Australians to be here until the end of next year. Were you able to give him an assurance that that would be the case?

PRIME MINISTER:

He didn't actually repeat that precise request to me so therefore the issue didn't arise. Look we are not going to go prematurely, but it's clearly not necessary to have as many people here now, or in the coming months as we had a couple of months ago or even a month ago because we have done our job and we have been very effective. So we have to keep a balance and it's important that the impression not be given that we are here indefinitely and that therefore it doesn't really matter what happens within the political processes of the country. I have made the point to both Dr Ramos-Horta and to the President that the future of East Timor is in the hands of the East Timorese. It is not in Australian hands. We are there to help. We have demonstrated our friendship in the past, we demonstrate it now, we demonstrate it in the future. But there has to be a balance struck between these two things and we are striking that right balance.

JOURNALIST:

Did you discuss with Dr Ramos-Horta a timetable (inaudible)?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh no specific timetable because we will do that as events unfold but we are not getting caught up with dates. I mean I know there's a passion with dates in relation to all matters, but in relation to this let me tell you that self evidently, having done the job, some re-balancing is now taking place and over time, scaling down, that's obvious. Because we are not going to keep the force we have got now. I mean for us to say well with more than 2000 here now, we are going to have more than 2000 here in a year's time, would be ridiculous. Obviously we have to adjust it according to the circumstances.

JOURNALIST:

(inaudible)not wanting to talk about deadlines but do you think that Australia will be providing - have a significant involvement in providing security for the elections next year, here?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think there will be certainly a contribution needed for that yes, but I am not going to commit myself to numbers or composition.

JOURNALIST:

The UN is currently making an assessment of what its role is Mr Howard. How do you see Australia... what would you like the UN to settle on. Have you got a model in mind, and how do you see Australia working with the UN?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we work very closely with the UN. We came here with the full support and knowledge of the UN. I spoke to the Secretary General before we sent our people in. Although we came legally at the invitation of the East Timorese Government and we'll just talk these things through with the UN and at various points we'll put our penneths worth as to how things should be handled. But I think we can work closely with the UN. This has been a very successful UN operation and I've just met the acting UN representative and he and his team were able to tell me of the progress they have made, so I am pretty positive about all of that.

JOURNALIST:

Do you expect Australia to lead any UN peace keeping force?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well the question of who leads a UN force is of course ultimately a matter for the UN by definition. We put points of view along the way about who should have what roles, let me leave it at that.

JOURNALIST:

Could you see this now primarily going forward Prime Minister as a police mission more than a military mission or how do you ....?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think it's too early to say that it is, overwhelmingly a police mission, but increasingly, and this is my point about re-balancing, increasingly as we go ahead the police part of it assumes a greater prominence. But don't sort of try and compartmentalise that in (inaudible) time.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister you have been very careful on a number of occasions to stress that the future of East Timor is in East Timor's hands not Australia's hands. Do you get a sense, any danger of a sort of dependence culture developing here?

PRIME MINISTER:

No I don't but I think it's important given that we have come back at their request, only four years after independence, I think it's important to make that point, okay?

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister can we just ask you one question about, can I just ask one question about Lebanon? The Canadians have managed to charter three ships, I think. And the United States have chartered a cruise ship. Why is it taking so long for Australia to be able to get a charter vessel (inaudible)?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I am not, as I speak, aware of everything that the Canadians and the Americans have done and whether they've actually been done or they're contemplating doing it and you do sometimes get a bit of wooliness in these matters, but my understanding is that Mr Downer indicated a short while ago that an arrangement has been made with the British that if there is an evacuation using British military vessels, then Australians will be involved in that. We are right at the moment looking at various, and discussing various possibilities. We prefer to discuss those with a certain degree of anonymity and only when things actually come to fruition.

JOURNALIST:

Do you understand why Australians in Lebanon and in fact their families in Australia might be feeling a sense of frustration and fear?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look I can understand why anybody would feel a sense of anguish of fear, or frustration, but I say very firmly that there are no grounds for criticising the Department of Foreign Affairs. There are no grounds for saying we haven't tried. It is a warlike situation and I caution people against too hasty comparisons. Often in these situations countries say certain things are about to happen, and they suddenly don't materialise. I think you should compare outcomes, and we were able to get some people out, and we are working very hard in relation to ferries and buses and all sorts of other ways. So I would say very firmly that Foreign Affairs and the Australian Government is doing all that is humanly possibly in a tragic situation. But that is not in any way to suggest I don't sympathise with people in Australia whose loved ones are in danger.

[ends]

Transcript 22371