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Transcripts from the Prime Ministers of Australia

Transcript - 23576

Press Conference, Houston

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: 14/06/2014

Release Type: Transcript

Transcript ID: 23576

Subject(s): Visit to Indonesia, France, Canada and North America

PRIME MINISTER:

We are on the last leg of what has been a very extensive trip. It is trip that has been all about Australia’s prosperity and about Australia’s security. It’s been about trade, about jobs and about the safety of the wider world and I think it has been a successful trip.

It started off in Batam Island with President Yudhoyono. It was a very important opportunity to strengthen what is a key relationship for our country with someone who has been a very good friend of Australia as well as an outstanding President of Indonesia.

I then went to Normandy for the commemoration of D-Day. It’s an established practice for Australian prime ministers to attend significant anniversaries of D-Day; Bob Hawke went in 1984, followed by Paul Keating, followed by John Howard and now myself on the 70th anniversary.

It was an opportunity to catch up with some significant leaders, obviously President Hollande of France, Prime Minister Cameron of Britain, Chancellor Merkel of Germany. It was also a chance to, I guess, remind Australians of the commitment that Australia has historically made to France. The French are more aware of Australia’s sacrifice in the defence of freedom in World War I than we are. This is why I regard it as so important that we do build a significant interpretive centre at Villers-Bretonneux to mark the centenary of World War I.

Then, of course, I was in Canada. The relationship with Canada is an easy one, it’s a comfortable one but it’s not one that we want to be complacent about because Canada is a very, very like-minded partner and we can learn a lot from Canada – as well as work well together with Canada. I was really thrilled that Prime Minister Harper chose to spend so much time with me when I was in Ottawa.

I was then in New York to visit the world's most important financial centre it’s good to note the impact of Australians such as James Gorman the head of Morgan Stanley as well as people like Robert Thomson and Rupert Murdoch in that great world city. While in New York I had the opportunity to catch up with Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida and one of the potential Republican candidates in the 2016 election.

Then of course to the very significant visit to Washington starting with a trip to Capitol Hill where I met with the Senate leadership - much of the House leadership including the Minority Leader Pelosi, the Speaker John Boehner - to talk about a whole range of issues particularly the Trans Pacific Partnership which is an important step forward in the quest for freer, global trade.

Obviously, the highlight of the visit was the talk in the Oval Office with the President. I was thrilled that as well as the President we had the Vice-President Biden, Secretary of State Kerry, National Security Adviser Rice, Treasury Secretary Lew, Trade Representative Froman – this was a remarkably high-powered gathering. It was followed up by meetings with the Secretary of State that afternoon, a separate breakfast with Janet Yellen and Secretary Lew the following morning. The ceremonial welcome at the Defence Department, the meeting with Secretary Hagel, lunch with the intelligence chiefs and of course last night here in Houston talk with the resources sector.

It's been a very good visit, a very constructive visit because we did finalise the Force Posture Agreement. We have announced a Consulate General here in Houston which has such potential for Australia's resources sector.

I'm very pleased that as well as visiting the Texas medical centre this morning, on the way home I will have the chance to drop by the Pacific Command in Honolulu because this is a very substantial military force – a military force which has so much significance for Australia's security.

I suppose I should conclude by observing that it was nice to now be a co-author with President Obama. Our piece on security was published by the LA Times and also by The Australian yesterday.

So, all up, yes, an extensive trip but a significant one for Australia's place in the world. We sometimes underestimate our clout around the world. Yes, we are a middle power nevertheless we are a significant –even a substantial – middle power. We are strong enough to be a useful friend without being so big and having such a history to be difficult or intimidating and we should use our weight in the world for our own good, for the good of our friends and allies and neighbours and for the promotion of the values which are so important if every human being is to live in peace and freedom in the months and years to come.

QUESTION:

Mr Abbott on the issue of being a useful friend, has the national security committee of cabinet discussed Iraq? Have you come up with any potential options in terms of working with the Americans and what do you know of those 90 or so Australians [inaudible] with DFAT in Iraq?

PRIME MINISTER:

It's a very serious situation in Iraq. No one should underestimate just how serious it is. The group which is now in apparent control of large swathes of Iraq and parts of Syria is a group that was too radical for Al-Qaeda. They are an extremist splinter group from the most extreme terrorist group the world has seen so let's not underestimate just how serious this situation is.

Let's not underestimate what a humanitarian disaster for the people of Iraq this is, as well as what a threat to the security of the Middle East and the wider world this could turn out to be.

As you would expect, the Americans are weighing their options right now. They will talk to us, we will talk to them. Let's see what emerges, but at the moment, we just need to appreciate just how serious a situation this is.

QUESTION:

Has your own national security committee met on this at all and are there any options in your absence or [inaudible]?

PRIME MINISTER:

The important thing at the moment is to let the Americans decide what they think is an appropriate way forward, in what is a difficult and complex situation. We'll keep talking with them and if there is a need for decisions, the decisions will be made.

QUESTION:

Are there any Australians as contractors or otherwise in Iraq that you are aware of?

PRIME MINISTER:

There are Australians in Iraq, obviously, and Julie Bishop and I will have more to say about that in the days ahead.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, the White House has ruled out sending troops on the ground in Iraq. What sort of options would that lead for us in any sort of conflict?

PRIME MINISTER:

Let's wait and see, this is a complex, difficult and a developing situation. Let's just wait and see what the appropriate response is, and then there will be the sort of discussions that close allies have with each other and then we'll take things forward.

QUESTION:

Senator John McCain said yesterday that the White House Chief of Staff or the joint Chief of Staff should resign, that the White House is dithering and that [inaudible] needs to be dealt with within days. Is that the kind of [inaudible]?

PRIME MINISTER:

As you know, I discussed this matter with the President, with the Secretary of State, with the Defence Secretary, with the Intelligence Chiefs. This is getting around the clock attention in Washington and indeed elsewhere. The important thing, though, is to respond appropriately and usefully. You don't want to make an incredibly difficult situation worse. That's why it's important to weigh the options, to look at the situation as it is unfolding and then make the right decisions.

QUESTION:

Mr Abbott, given the potential for the situation to blow out into something larger are you confident the US can still maintain its focus [inaudible] and at the same time it’s being dragged back towards the Middle East?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think it is possible for a country and a polity as sophisticated and as substantial as the United States, for them to be focused on a number of things at the same time. I have no doubt that the Americans are fully engaged with our region, even though obviously their immediate attention at the moment is back in the Middle East.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, I understand you spoke to Hillary Clinton [inaudible]?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, it was a very genial conversation, we talked quite a bit about a whole range of issues – the conversation went for about 20 or 25 minutes. I started off by congratulating her on her book. As an author myself, of no particular note I hasten to add, I appreciate the effort that goes into a book and I appreciate just how gruelling book tours can be. We started off that way and then we got on to more serious subjects. But she's a good friend of Australia. She's a very good friend of Australia. She knows our country well, she's worked effectively with Australians over the years and whatever the future holds for Hillary Clinton, she's going to be a significant person in the US.

QUESTION:

On a personal level, how do you describe your relationship with Barack Obama?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, I don't want to claim more than I should, but in what is now three meetings, that was my third meeting this week in Washington, I think we are on the same - we can level with each other. I think we are substantially on the same page on most issues. I've got to say that it is always important for the Prime Minister of Australia to have as strong as possible a relationship with the President of the United States, given the importance of the United States to Australia and given the significance of our alliance for the wider world.

QUESTION:

Would you describe yourself as mates?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, I'd certainly like to do that, but it's probably how he would describe me is probably more important than how I would describe him.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, as you prepare to head back to Australia, can I ask a domestic issue which is - you have got the McClure Report [inaudible] sitting in your office to address when you get home, we are reporting that carers might be encouraged to get back into the workforce, that could be a contentious issue. Could you talk about what you are trying to achieve with this next series of welfare reforms in response to the McClure Report and is it the case that carers might have to go back into the workforce under your changes?

PRIME MINISTER:

We made some pre-election commitments to carers and we will keep those commitments. The McClure Report is really a discussion starter at this point. It's not a report full of recommendations. It's a discussion paper which we hope will start a national conversation about how we have a system which is fair, but simpler. I mean, we have a very extensive social security system, we need an extensive social security system, we should have an extensive social security system but I think it could be simpler as well as fairer and that's what the discussion's all about.

QUESTION:

On the carbon tax Prime Minister, Clive Palmer wants, in the legislation, a guarantee that energy prices will drop for consumers – that is what you promised. Will it be in the legislation?

PRIME MINISTER:

There are a number of pieces of legislation. One element of the carbon tax package is beefing up the ACCC to ensure that the price reductions from the removal of the carbon tax are passed on to consumers. So, I'm sure when we have a chance to fully brief crossbench Senators and crossbench Members of the House they will appreciate this.

QUESTION:

But is it a guarantee the prices will fall? Did the ACCC - they can only do so much. Can they guarantee prices will fall?

PRIME MINISTER:

We can guarantee that appropriate cost reductions will be passed on because that's the job of the ACCC. It's to police this kind of behaviour. It policed this kind of thing when the GST was introduced and the wholesale sales tax came off back in 2000. It can do the same thing again.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, have you or your Government changed your position on the legal status of East Jerusalem?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, there has been no change in policy - absolutely no change in policy. There's been a terminological clarification. We absolutely refuse to refer to ‘occupied’ East Jerusalem. That was what the argument between Senator Brandis and the Greens was all about but there has been no change in policy - simply a terminological clarification. We strongly support a two-state solution. We continue to support resolutions 242 and 338. We are giving - I think -$56 million in aid this year to Palestine. No change in policy.

QUESTION:

How concerned are you though Mr Abbott that some countries in the Middle East might take offence to just a terminological clarification. I understand some people - some representatives have expressed concern, there might even be a suggestion that some kind of retribution economically. Is that going to be a problem?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, this is an area where people are inevitably extremely sensitive. My understanding is that there have been some discussions between some Ambassadors in Canberra and the Department. My understanding is that there is going to be a meeting between some of the Ambassadors and Foreign Minister Bishop in a couple of days' time.

We are very happy to clarify the position and on trade, people trade with us because we are a good trading partner. They trade with us because we are a good trading partner and nothing that has happened in the last couple of days could detract from that.

QUESTION:

With respect, what does a terminological clarification mean and why do you need to do this?

PRIME MINISTER:

There was an argument in the Senate and Senator Brandis needed to clarify exactly what the position was, given the argument that took place between him and one of the Green Senators. I stress, there has been no change whatsoever to our strong support for a two-state solution, to our position on resolutions 242 and 338, our commitment to a significant aid programme to Palestine – $56 million in the current financial year.

QUESTION:

[Inaudible] talking about the sensitivities of this issue, so a change – a significant change – in terminology about the way Australia described the situation is the result of the Government backing in Senator Brandis' argument in the Senate as the basis on which this has been made, or did you make a decision, was there any discussion with Cabinet, to say we know this is going to have profound implications we are changing our terminology?

PRIME MINISTER:

If I may say so, you are trying to make more than there is about this. I think it's important that everyone say and do things which are constructive – that everyone say and do things that are constructive. Now, it's also important that we say and do things that are truthful, but, in the end, given the particular sensitivities in the Middle East right now, with a group which is too extreme even for Al-Qaeda in charge of large parts of Iraq, with summary executions and decapitations apparently going on in the streets of Iraqi cities and towns. I think we all have to be conscious of being constructive and certainly that's what the Australian Government is determined to be – to be a constructive international citizen at a difficult time.

Thank you.

[ends]

Transcript - 23576