PM Transcripts

Transcripts from the Prime Ministers of Australia

Transcript 22928

Press Conference, Brunei - 15 November 2000

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: 15/11/2000

Release Type: Interview

Transcript ID: 22928

Subjects: Meeting with President Wahid; Irian Jiya; budget surplus; APEC trade outcomes; bilateral trade agreements.

E&OE……………………………………………………………………………………

Ladies and Gentlemen since last talking to you I’ve attended the opening session and the ABAC dialogue. Subsequently I had a bilateral meeting with President Wahid of Indonesia. That was a very positive meeting. He thanked me for the very understanding approach that Australia had taken at the Pacific Islands Forum regarding Indonesia’s sovereignty over Irian Jaya or West Papua. He saw that as the act of a country that took Indonesia’s interests into account. He in fact described it as the act of a friend of Indonesians.

I inquired about the internal conditions in Indonesia economically and he gave me quite a positive read out on that. At this stage it appears possible that a ministerial meeting between the three to five ministers on either side will take place on the 7th and 8th of December. That was the date that was discussed at the meeting, the date suggested by the Indonesians which would indicate that they are all available for that and I understand it’s a date that was confirmed subsequently at a news briefing by the Indonesian Foreign Minister. I indicated to President Wahid that the invitation to him to visit Australia remained open and that is a matter of course for him to consider against the background of some criticism within his own country of that trip-taking place. I think you’re all aware of that and it’s pointless my adding more than to reiterate our well understood position that he’s very welcome to come to Australia at a mutually convenient time.

I did tell him of the forthcoming Australian Defence White Paper and I indicated that some senior officials from the Defence Department would visit Jakarta before the White Paper was released to brief the Indonesian Government in advance about the White Paper – to put it in the context of a proper response by Australia to her changed strategic environment so that those who might seek to make mischief regarding the relationship would not be able to do so. He appreciated that as a courteous gesture. We are, of course not only briefing Indonesia, but we also intend to brief other partners in the Asian Pacific region in advance about the Defence White Paper. It is a proper and prudent measure to take so that there is no unnecessary misunderstanding.

I would say it was a good meeting. It was one that had a very positive, friendly tone. We all know the background of the relationship. We also know that there is a desire at a political level for both countries to strengthen the relationship.

Another matter he raised was the possibility of Indonesia becoming a dialogue partner with the Pacific Islands Forum and he asked whether Australia would sponsor Indonesia as a dialogue partner and I said that we would and I’ll raise that matter at an appropriate time and certainly at the next meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum which is going to take place next year. I think that would be a very sensible thing to occur. The Forum has a number of dialogue partners and it’s very natural that Indonesia should become one and we will support that very strongly and the fact that Indonesia’s approached Australia to raise that matter is a positive thing in the context of the bilateral relationship.

So I can report it was a good meeting and I’d be very happy to answer questions on it or indeed on anything else.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister you seem to have a very good relationship with the President himself but did he give you any sense that he is able to bring with him and to that relationship the rest of the Indonesian establishment which up until now appears to have been a block to developing a relationship?

PRIME MINISTER:

Paul, it’s a question of time and evolving circumstances.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, for decades Australian government’s Labor and Coalition ignored the pleas for an act of proper self determination in East Timor and also it’s arguable that Australian governments were very weak in response to gross human rights violations in East Timor – could we be making the same mistake again in relation to Irian Jaya in the future we’ll see bloodshed there because of a weak Australian response now to their pleas for independence or a proper independence vote?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that question’s based on a number of assertions. I don’t have time to repudiate some of them but I don’t believe that you can draw an automatic parallel if historical circumstances were different. There was not a common colonial overlordship in relation to East Timor. That is a distinguishing feature. There was an act of self-determination sanctioned by the United Nations. Criticised by a lot of people but it was nonetheless there and for those who argue that all of these things should be done under the benediction of the United Nations you can’t totally ignore that.

JOURNALIST:

Just on that point there was only a 1,000 people in all the population of Irian Jaya.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yeah I’m aware.

JOURNALIST:

In your view was that a fair vote?

PRIME MINISTER:

I’m not expressing a view on it. I’m simply pointing out to you there was a judgement made by the United Nations.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister how would you describe your relations with the President and our relationship with Indonesia now as compared to when you first met him which I think was back in Japan over a year ago?

PRIME MINISTER:

It was a very friendly meeting. I think the relationship is better. We have made progress. But it was always going to be slow and people have a – on the one hand we are meant to sweep away any of the East Timor impact over night and yet we are also simultaneously exhorted not to lose sight of the possibility that there may be another, a parallel situation emerging. I mean it’s an interesting proposition. Look we ought to have a good relationship with Indonesia but it’s got, as I have always said, it’s got to be based on mutual respect. That we are different countries and you can’t force a relationship on two countries which is not a natural outcrop of their common interests. If you try and do that you create an unreal situation and I do believe very strongly that that is one of the things that has had a negative influence on Australia’s relations with a number of countries in the region and most particularly Indonesia. But there will always be areas where we are a long way apart because we have different cultures but equally because we are in the same region and we have a common future. There’s an obvious national interest in every Australian Prime Minister trying to build a good relationship but it’s got to be built on mutual respect. I mean we have dignity and we have interests. Indonesia has dignity and Indonesia has interests and you have to accommodate both of those things and we are making progress. Let me say that in answer to your question. We are making real progress. The atmosphere is getting better. But it was always going to be a bit difficult. You can’t go through what we went through in East Timor without it being difficult.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister you mentioned the point of mutual respect, would you now expect Indonesia to brief Australian governments on any major internal defence shift – in their thinking or planning?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well Glen I’m not aware that there is one.

JOURNALIST:

The question…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, therefore it’s a hypothetical question.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard how much progress can you make while there continues to be militia violence in West Timor and the border with East Timor? And did that subject come up during your talks with the President?

PRIME MINISTER:

No that wasn’t something that we – I mean I canvassed that at our last meeting – and it continues to be the subject of discussion at other levels, particularly the foreign minister level. In answer to your question Alison it is obviously a constraint but by definition the relationship can be improved that’s why you’re asking a lot of questions about it. If it was absolutely perfect you wouldn’t be asking me any questions. And we all know it can be improved. The important thing is whether we’re making progress and the other important thing, equally important thing, is whether progress is being made on the right terms and that is consistent with Australia’s dignity and in a way that is respectful of the interests of both sides.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister are you aware of developments in Fiji with the High Court ruling the government unconstitutional? Do you have a response to this?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes I am aware of those developments.

JOURNALIST:

Your response?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I find it very encouraging because it’s the rule of law working and I would call on everybody in Fiji to respect the decision of the courts. Obviously there are rights of appeal but what you’re hearing now is the High Court of Fiji saying that the democratically elected parliament remains the sovereign authority in that country. That is exactly what Australian has been saying all along. And I think that is good. It means one of those key ingredients to a free society, that is an incorruptible judiciary remains in Fiji and I welcome the decision. And obviously the remaining parts of due process have to be followed and if there is a right of appeal that has to be exercised and so forth, but that decision is utterly consonant with everything that Australia has said about Fiji and I therefore react very positively to it.

JOURNALIST:

Do you think the military will respect that decision in terms . . .

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that is a matter for the military and a matter for the authorities. I would hope they would and it would only further aggravate the outside world’s view of Fiji if the military were not to do so. And here you have the judicial system of Fiji working and saying that, the parliament elected democratically by the people is the sovereign authority. People defying that are defying the rule of law and there is no way that Australia would do other than condemn any such defiance.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister you talked about briefing President Wahid on the Defence White Paper. Who are the people who might try to make mischief in relation to that and what are you talking about?

PRIME MINISTER:

Not my briefing - if you didn’t brief. There are some people who might be more critical than others of Australia within Indonesia. It’s far better that we make it plain. We’re not giving away any state secrets but what we are doing is making plain why we are revamping our defence arrangements so that there’s…people are not able to then say this is all aimed at Indonesia. It’s not. It’s aimed to legitimately strengthen Australia’s inner arc defence capacity and also our defence of Australia capacity. It’s a proper thing to do. We’re not only going to do it in relation to Indonesia. We’ll obviously talk to the Americans and others within the region.

JOURNALIST:

Did you ask for President Wahid’s support on the question of oil prices and if not do you expect that at the retreat he will give you support anyhow?

PRIME MINISTER:

Paul I had raised that with him when I saw him in New York a few weeks ago and because it is on the agenda tomorrow and because the chairman of the meeting, the Sultan of Brunei, said at the leaders’ meeting this afternoon which you wouldn’t have been told about, that it was going to be discussed tomorrow there’s really no point.

JOURNALIST:

What level of support do you think Indonesia will give to your position?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that’s a matter you will have to ask Indonesia about. It wouldn’t make sense on grounds of courtesy or otherwise for me to say now what I thought Indonesia might do at the meeting tomorrow. That’s hardly the courteous thing for me to do.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, the ministerial meeting, that will be in Canberra?

PRIME MINISTER:

That will be in Canberra. Yes.

JOURNALIST:

Are you ruling out the prospect of visiting Indonesia to meet President Wahid rather than him coming to Australia?

PRIME MINISTER:

I’ve been to Indonesia on three occasions as Prime Minister. I think the time has come for a visit by an Indonesian President to Australia.

JOURNALIST:

Are you confident the ministerial meeting will proceed and are there any hurdles to cross …

PRIME MINISTER:

Well Robert there have, you know, there have been arrangements made in the past and they’ve been altered. I would like it to proceed, I can’t say anymore than that.

JOURNALIST:

Is there anything that has to be resolved before that . . .

PRIME MINISTER:

Not that I am aware of.

JOURNALIST:

Did the President explain why the ministerial council had failed last time? Why the ministerial council didn’t go ahead?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, but I didn’t ask him and I could see no point.

JOURNALIST:

On the question of . . .

PRIME MINISTER:

I mean if the objective is for the meeting to take place, what is the point of asking why it hasn’t taken place? I mean he is not to be brought to account by my interrogation, I mean that is just not the way to do it.

JOURNALIST:

On the issue of your suggestion that you think the relations with Indonesia have improved, how do you benchmark that given that the militia’s activity on the Timor border continues and other hostility occurs and also that President Wahid can’t see his way through to get to Australia, because of domestic pressures?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well when you say something’s improved, you are dealing in relativities, you are not dealing in superlatives or absolutes or ideals. And it’s better now than it was. How do I benchmark that? The fact that there is still positive discussion about the ministerial council meeting taking place, I don’t want to put it anymore strongly than that. The fact that this meeting was requested by him and not the other way around. The fact that Australia should be asked by Indonesia to sponsor her association with the Pacific Forum. And the general ambience of our discussions. Now how do you benchmark ambience Jim? All I can do is . . . well you know it’s just a feeling in the air.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard on Irian Jiya, in many ways President Wahid was the man who put this in play? I mean it is his government that’s raised the issue of a name change for Irian Jiya, talking about West Papua. It’s his government that’s negotiated the flying of the flag. What sense did he give you of where he thinks this process is going to go? That he’s asking you to stick with the old position, where is he taking [inaudible]?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well he’s asked me to sponsor their dialogue partnership.

JOURNALIST:

Did he give you a sense though of where he thinks that Irian Jiya or West Papua are going to go now that he’s put that into play?

PRIME MINISTER:

The sense I have is that he sees it as a very difficult issue and he will try and do the right thing consistent with Indonesian sovereignty. That’s the sense I have. But it is a difficult issue because on the one hand there is obvious support within the territory for some kind of separation or autonomy. It is equally the case that the worst nightmare for a government of Indonesia is growing fragmentation of the republic. That is something that we have to respect and that is the point I made to the Pacific Forum countries. There is always, there is a classic dilemma in all of these situations between the security of continuing central authority against the natural desire of people at the periphery to have greater autonomy. It’s not something that’s new to diplomacy, it’s not something that’s new to the experience of nation states and there’s no universal rule, that’s really the point I would make in relation to Craig Skeehan’s question, there’s really no universal rule, it can vary. And I have heard people passionately argue for autonomy for territory A, but equally passionately argue that it’s against the broader interests for territory C to have autonomy. There is no universal rule, you have to try and look at each individual set of circumstances.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, it might be time as you say that an Indonesian President came to Australia - given the importance of the relationship and given what you’ve said about Indonesian sensitivities having been burned by our role in East Timor, why does it matter so much that an Indonesian President has to come here, rather than you go and visit him first? And then him come here?

PRIME MINISTER:

Tim, nothing ever matters so much, but the other point I’d make, the other points I’d make is that you don’t a relationship make by the order of a visit to, and for anybody to imagine that against the background that you would sort of win an extraordinarily new vista by my going to Jakarta before the President comes here, I think that would be an error. But there’s also the question of as I said earlier, of the relationship has got to be on a proper basis and the fact is that the, I have been to Indonesia on three occasions as Prime Minister. There has not been a presidential visit by an Indonesian leader to Australia since 1974. An Indonesian president has never been to Canberra, never. And I did say earlier that you’ve got to conduct these relationships on a basis of mutual respect. I mean we can’t on the one hand say well look you do this, you do that to secure the relationship. There are other people who think that the best way to have a good relationship is to have it based on a certain degree of candour and self-respect on both sides. And I think that is best met by the way in which I am approaching this issue.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, Kim Beazley has attacked your leadership role at APEC today . . .

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh yes, yes.

JOURNALIST:

Saying that you’ve . . .

PRIME MINISTER:

Today is Wednesday is it?

JOURNALIST:

Using the recalcitrant word . . .

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh the ‘r’ word.

JOURNALIST:

Yes, the ‘r’ word.

PRIME MINISTER:

He likes ‘r’ words, doesn’t he? Rollback. Recalcitrant. Republic.

JOURNALIST:

Do you think you’ve provided enough leadership from the Australian perspective within APEC during . . .

PRIME MINISTER:

I think I have brought the greatest thing that can be brought to a relationship with a region and that is to use another ‘r’ word, that is a sense of realism. There was a degree of unreality about the approach being adopted by Mr Keating and Mr Beazley when they were in charge of Australia’s affairs and I think it created an unreality and an imbalance in our relations with the region. We have very close associations both at a country level and increasingly at a personal level with so many of the leaders. Our relationship with Korea is very strong. Our relationship with China is arguably now on a more realistic basis than it’s been for a long time. We’re not claiming some special relationship as some of my predecessors did, but it’s on a realistic basis. Our relationship with Malaysia has difficulties, but it always has had difficulties. I am not the first Australian prime minister to have some difficulties although I should report to you I had a perfectly amiable discussion today in the formal gathering with the Prime Minister of Malaysia. And I think our relationships with the region are strong, but realistic and that is how they should be.

JOURNALIST:

Goh Chok Tong spoke this morning about his hope that a series of bilateral relations, trade agreements could expand to become a regional free trade area, do you share his optimism? And . . . oh, I’ll leave it that.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well Robert I am very, very open-minded about that. My philosophy is very much that you do what you can to get an advantage for Australia. Now clearly we have a strong preference for progress on a multilateral front, because if you make progress on a multilateral front you can achieve so much more. But if while you’re waiting to achieve progress you can get some margin for Australia with a bilateral agreement either with one other country such as Singapore or with a larger group of countries within APEC then you do that as well. Because that will not only give you gains, but it will also act as a spur for the achievement of greater progress on the multilateral front.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister if I can go to the budget surplus and the reappraisals for that - can you give a rough idea of what proportion of the $4.3 billion will go into repaying debt?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well clearly at least $2.8 billion of it and probably more.

JOURNALIST:

So you’ll have, that’s $1.5 billion you’ll save . . .

PRIME MINISTER:

No, no I said probably more.

JOURNALIST:

Probably more?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well when I say clearly I mean in the past I’ve said that we weren’t going to run down the budget surplus so it would be inconsistent with that for me to say that we were prepared to put up with a surplus of less than $2.8 billion. But I haven’t done that calculation and you should not assume that the debt repayment imperative is simply acquitted at 2.8. So you know I think it is very important, and the reason I say that and I don’t know what the Treasurer said today, but I imagine he would have said roughly the same thing. The reason I say that is that repaying debt has valuable, soothing effects and valuable stabilizing effects on a whole lot of things including interest rates and I was at great pains to say at the Premiers’ Conference and elsewhere that I didn’t want to run down the surplus, meaning I didn’t want to be in a situation where we repaid less than what we plan to repay at Budget time. Now if we are able to repay a bit more but also meet some other obligations and initiatives well we should do so. We haven’t made a decision on that.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister if it’s such a balm or salve, why not use the lot? Why not pay the whole $4.3 billion.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well you have, you know it is always a balancing act Jim. That’s an argument I suppose for never having any new spending initiatives, you’ve got to balance it out . .

JOURNALIST:

When it was $2.8 billion you were quite prepared to use the lot. Now it’s $4.3 billion and not at 1.5, [inaudible] why not use the lot?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we think that some of it should be used to renew the nation’s infrastructure. We think spending on roads is not irrelevant, it is not trivial, it’s not time wasting ,we think its very valuable for people in the Australian community. It’s a question of balancing all of these things. You can’t be a spend thrift, you certainly can’t but equally you don’t want a situation where you are unwilling to expend money in areas of traditional Federal Government responsibility. And things like roads and defence and others are clearly in that category. We are in a position to pay off a lot of debt. The more we can pay off but consistent with your other obligations the better and it’s never a totally exact science this But obviously we are not going to run down the surplus that we projected at budget time. We now look as though we are going to have a bigger surplus. That gives us the capacity to do something in the roads area which is very important. And for the rest, well, as I said in answer to Malcolm, don’t assume that we are not going to pay off more than the 2.8, that would be a … we haven’t made a firm decision about that. We are not required to. We don’t know everything that is around the corner. But don’t assume we won’t, but it is just not possible to be any more precise than that.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, in regards to the retreat tomorrow will you flag the oil issue, what else do you hope the retreat will bring forward in Australia’s interest?

PRIME MINISTER:

The thing I want most of all is a renewed commitment from all of the leaders at this APEC meeting for a new world trade round, preferably in 2001. That’s what I want, and that would be the best thing that they could do for the original Bogor ideal. That is, try and reach agreement that calling on countries around the world should have a trade round.

JOURNALIST:

Do you think there is the momentum to get that up though?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well there is from a lot of countries. Yes. More so amongst some than others. Certainly President Clinton made some very good remarks about it and the Singaporean Prime Minister is very strongly in favour of it, we are very strongly in favour of is, so I am optimistic?

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, a few of your fellow leaders here are dealing with political unrest and some difficulties.

PRIME MINISTER:

Are dealing with political unrest?

JOURNALIST:

At home, difficulties at home. Does that make you feel a little bit more secure, relatively speaking?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I always feel secure in a sense that democracy in Australia is safe and I will end up being judged on my merits and if I am found wanting according to the democratic process, well I will be voted out of office. But it is interesting when you look around the world, it is interesting to reflect on the quality of democracy in Australia. Might I also say that its computing efficiency too. One of my colleagues remarked today that right at the moment the Australian Electoral Commission could get a few handsome consultancies.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, what’s wrong with the Malaysian argument on a world trade round of agenda first then a date?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don’t want to particularize it but the proposition that you should have an agenda first and then a date I think runs the risk of losing momentum or perhaps not even generating momentum in the first place. I think it also misunderstands the dynamic of international meetings. The very fact that you are at a meeting and the very fact that there is a focus creates a pressure and a dynamic all of its own and in the end you can’t discount that.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, clearly you will be taking a different position at the retreat to President Clinton on labour standards won’t you?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don’t know what stance precisely President Clinton will be taking, but my view is that you should keep environmental and labour standards separate from trade issues. I have never believed that you should mix them up. I mean we have a forum. I said at the business meeting this afternoon that what APEC leaders should focus on is, if they want APEC to really work, is the original APEC idea. And the original APEC idea was to capture the benefits of more open trade and globalisation for the citizens of all of our societies. If you are concerned about labour standards you deal with that in another forum and environmental issues, you deal with that in another forum. And if you want to enlist the aid of developing countries, you don’t intrude those issues into a trade forum. It’s a mistake. Now if that puts me at odds on that aspect of things with the United States, then so be it.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, will leaders be talking about the content of the, what should be the content of the trade round tomorrow?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh, I think in general terms, yes. But I mean our position on that is clear. We want everything on the table. We are sick and tired of a world trading system that treats industrial tariffs and protection with a far different yardstick than agriculture. I mean, not only is the system loaded in favour of those who practice agricultural protection, but amongst the agricultural producing countries of the world, Australia is grossly disadvantaged. So we suffer a double penalty at present, and we are very tired of that. I will have one more question, then we might go.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, what was the essence of the business message today?

PRIME MINISTER:

I thought they were open. Didn’t you have a feed of that … I am sorry. Well, there was a general expression of support for the goals of APEC from the business community. I made the comment that I thought that all the leaders of APEC countries had a lot more work to do in selling the benefits of globalisation and trade openness to their societies. And I commended to the gathering a very fine publication of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade which I think I mentioned at the news conference this morning. And I do really seriously commend to all of you who are very interested in the subject as I know you are, a reading of that document. It does bring together in a very good way material on this. It makes the very strong point that those countries that have opened up, have got much higher living standards and it also draws attention to a very interesting study by the World Bank which you may or may not have seen which shows that the argument that the gap between rich and poor is widening in relation to people is wrong. It’s not. It’s in fact closing. The proposition that it is widening according to World Bank analysis is based on a comparison of rich and poor countries, as distinct from rich and poor people. I suppose it is a bit like the difference between the popular and the electoral college vote. You can get a different result depending upon what yardstick you use. If you actually look at populations, you will find, particularly given the improvement that’s occurred in China and India, you will actually see that on a population comparison the gap has in fact narrowed somewhat. I think it is an important element in the discussion.

I think we might give it a miss after that.

Thank you.

Transcript 22928