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Transcripts from the Prime Ministers of Australia

Transcript - 23094

Press Conference

Photo of Abbott, Tony

Abbott, Tony

Period of Service: 18/09/2013 to 15/09/2015

More information about Abbott, Tony on The National Archive website.

Release Date: 15/11/2013

Release Type: Transcript

Transcript ID: 23094

Subject(s): CHOGM

PRIME MINISTER:

It’s good to be here in Colombo, Sri Lanka for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. This is obviously my first Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. Australia is the outgoing chair of the Commonwealth. I'll be speaking as the outgoing chair at the opening in half an hour or so.

The great achievement of Australia's chairmanship is the Commonwealth Charter, which is a remarkable liberal and humane document which all of the 53 members of the Commonwealth have subscribed to. If all of the 53 members of the Commonwealth can largely live up to the values of the Commonwealth Charter, the world will certainly be a better place in the years and decades to come. The Commonwealth joins 53 countries, large and small, rich and poor, north and south, 30 per cent of the world's population, 20 per cent of the world's land mass, sadly only 15 per cent of the world’s GDP but we are working on getting that up.

It's an association not based on geography, not based on power, not based on economics, but based on values and these are the values which are now enshrined in the Commonwealth Charter which is in large measure the best work of Australia's chairmanship. I want to thank everyone associated with the work that was needed to get the Charter together. I think this is a very important document that will be very good for the future of the Commonwealth.

It was also good to meet with David Cameron just a few moments ago. David Cameron is a good friend of Australia. Britain is Australia's oldest friend. We share so much in common - history, values, interests and I'm determined to work as closely as I can with the British Government in the months and years ahead.

QUESTION:

Mr Abbott, will you be raising issues of human rights concerning the Sri Lankan leader directly, and have you been holding back your criticism because of the need for cooperation over boats?

PRIME MINISTER:

Two points, first we have to appreciate that Sri Lanka experienced a horrific, a horrific civil war, a quarter century long civil war of almost unimaginable ferocity. The best thing you can do in a situation like that is end it. I think we should welcome the ending of this horrific civil war. Having ended it, obviously it's important that there be reconciliation. The Sri Lankan Government has made various commitments, and I would expect those commitments to be honoured. My understanding is that the Sri Lankan Government is doing its best to honour those commitments and that's what we want. We want a Sri Lanka where people of different ethnicity, different faith, can live and work together in peace and harmony in ever-increasing freedom and prosperity. This country has a great deal of potential. It can be one of the jewels of Asia and I want to encourage that, not discourage it.

QUESTION:

There has been plenty of talk here obviously about Sri Lanka's human rights. Back home, you've got reports of a mother being separated from her child, reports of strong arm tactics on Manus and Nauru to force people to go home. Are you concerned at any stage this could start hurting Australia's standing in the Commonwealth, or further abroad?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, I have read reports of various things that we would rather not see, reports that a mother and a baby were separated. Obviously I deeply regret that, but we have got to ask ourselves why have any of these things happened, and they have happened because people have come to Australia illegally by boat. If you want to avoid these things, you've got to stop the boats. I don't, as it were, apologise for what happens when people come to Australia illegally by boat, because I am determined, as the new Government is determined, to stop this dangerous, this horrible business. The worst thing that has happened as a result of the resumption of the people smuggling trade under the former Government is that there have been more than a thousand deaths at sea and that is the fundamental humanitarian objective of the Australian Government, to stop the boats, because the only way to stop the drownings, to stop the inhumanity, is to stop the boats.

QUESTION:

You've said you don't apologise for anything that's happened, does that mean that whatever the tactics are, however extreme they get, the end justifies the means essentially?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, you are putting words into my mouth. What I am saying is that we will do what is necessary to stop the boats. We will act appropriately in the circumstances. Now, I accept that some people won't like it. Some people might judge it harsh, but we will do what is appropriate and necessary to stop the boats, and if people want the kind of comfort and convenience that some are demanding, well, don't get on a boat and come to Australia illegally.

QUESTION:

What does ‘whatever it takes mean’, Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER:

It means that we will do what it takes appropriately and properly to stop the boats.

QUESTION:

Will you be raising the issue with the Sri Lankans - people smuggling and some sort of joint effort or increased joint effort to stop the boats coming from here?

PRIME MINISTER:

We have got very good and close cooperation with the Sri Lankan Government and with the Sri Lankan navy when it comes to stopping the boats. I'll be thanking the Sri Lankans for the cooperation which they have extended to us on this important issue and I will have more to say about this in the next day or so.

QUESTION:

You will meet with the commander in chief of the Sri Lankan armed forces, will you raise the issue of naval complicity in people smuggling?

PRIME MINISTER:

I understand that a Sri Lankan naval officer has recently been arrested. I think this demonstrates the absolute determination of the Sri Lankan Government to crackdown on people smuggling and to stop the boats.

QUESTION:

Mr Abbott, will you raise any suggestion within - I gather you are meeting with the leader from Nauru today. Will you be asking for any further assistance in terms of processing there? Will you be offering anything else from Australia?

PRIME MINISTER:

Again, I will be thanking Nauru for its help and cooperation on this matter. I hope to have a chance to catch up with Prime Minister Peter O'Neill of Papua New Guinea, and I will similarly be thanking him for his and his Government's help and cooperation on this matter. Australia is determined to act appropriately and reasonably with our friends and neighbours to stop the boats including under the Bali Process with Indonesia and look, I’m pleased to say that while this problem is certainly not at an end, it is improving and while the boats certainly haven’t stopped, they are stopping. My understanding is that based on the latest figures there’s been a close to 80 per cent reduction in illegal arrivals by boat under the new government.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, you will be meeting with Nawaz Sharif today as well, I mean you talk about the fact that we are seeing an improvement in the boat numbers but obviously Pakistan is very keen to push back its Afghan refugees and that’s obviously got repercussions for Australia. I know that we’ve been in trilaterals with Pakistan and the UN. Will you be raising this issue with Nawaz Sharif and how they’re going to stagger that push back so that it doesn’t blow back in Australia?

PRIME MINISTER:

I’m just not going to go into the specific details of what I might be discussing with the Prime Minister of Pakistan except to say that I will be working as closely and as cooperatively as I can with all friendly countries to address this problem.

QUESTION:

You talk about the Charter as well and that being one of our proudest achievements but there’s obviously been talk in recent days that Sri Lanka taking the Commonwealth chairmanship for the next two years is making a mockery of that Charter, particularly given it’s likely in the next fourth months it will have to explain itself again before the Human Rights Council and potentially even be the subject an International War Crimes investigation. Does that not make a mockery of our charter and the Commonwealth in general?

PRIME MINISTER:

The fact that Sri Lanka is hosting this Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, the fact that Sri Lanka has subscribed to the Charter, demonstrates its good faith and demonstrates its determination to try to live up to the Charter. Now, it’s not always easy to live up to these ideals. The important thing is to constantly strive to come closer to our best selves. That’s the important thing and Sri Lanka since the end of the civil war is undoubtedly much more free, much more prosperous and has got a much better future and that’s good for everyone.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, apart from the Charter, is there anything else that you’d like to achieve at your first [inaudible] hoping to tackle as well?

PRIME MINISTER:

This is my first meeting. There’s quite a lot of heads of government here. Not all of the 53 countries have sent their head of government but there’s something like 30 heads of government here and I think my ambition for the first meeting is probably modest, to meet them, to get to know them, to let them know where the new Australian Government stands and obviously we are determined to improve our border security, to improve our fiscal situation, to boost our economic growth and to be the best possible international citizen that we can be consistent with our values and ideals and commitments to the Australian people.

QUESTION:

Does your Government support calls by William Hague [inaudible]?

PRIME MINISTER:

I’m not aware of those calls. I think the important thing is for the Sri Lankan Government to press ahead with the task of reconciliation. Sri Lanka made some generous and appropriate commitments at the end of the Civil War. It’s doing its best to honour those commitments and I look forward to that continuing.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, it just seems to be, to be honest, a little absurd given how strong Canada has been about the human rights record here and even David Cameron has been to hear what you’re saying to us now and how generous you’re being about Sri Lanka.

PRIME MINISTER:

When you’ve got a horrific civil war the best thing you can do is to stop the fighting and the fighting has stopped and millions of people who were previously exposed to daily death and destruction are now free of that death and destruction. Now, war is ugly. Civil wars are the ugliest wars of all. That’s why it’s so important that they be brought to an end and that once they are brought to an end that people act to bind up the wounds and that, as I understand it, is exactly what the Sri Lankan Government is doing.

QUESTION:

Peace shouldn’t be ugly though, should it, I mean peace shouldn’t be ugly and [inaudible] was talking yesterday about how the Sri Lankan Government is still dealing with torture by state security forces. I mean, this is peace time now.

PRIME MINISTER:

Obviously the Australian Government deplores any use of torture. We deplore that. Wherever it might take place, we deplore that. But we accept that sometimes in difficult circumstances, difficult things happen. The important thing is to act as quickly as you can to bind up the nation’s wounds and to build a better future and it is absolutely undeniable that Sri Lanka today is a far better place than Sri Lanka during 26 years of unimaginably awful civil war and while I don’t necessarily approve of everything that happened in those terrible times, I am pleased that the war is over. I am pleased that Sri Lanka is progressing economically, socially, it’s advancing towards the goals of justice and freedom under the law that all of us aspire to and my fundamental task while I’m here in Sri Lanka is to encourage the better angels of our natures to work, to reassure the people of Sri Lanka that they have a good friend in Australia, an Australia that will encourage and promote the reconciliation process.

[ends]

Transcript - 23094