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Transcript - 23829

Doorstop Interview, Arnhem Land

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: 15/09/2014

Release Type: Transcript

Transcript ID: 23829

Subject(s): Visit to Arnhem Land

Location: Arnhem Land

PRIME MINISTER:

It’s good to be here at Gulkula in Yolngu Country. It’s good to be able, now, to take up the invitation of Galarrwuy Yunupingu, made to me at the Garma Festival last year.

It’s important that our national leaders focus on the whole of our country, including some of its remote parts and obviously this is a remote part of Australia but as all of you are demonstrating, thanks to modern technology, it is possible to be in a remote part of Australia and still be very much in touch with the rest of the world.

Yesterday, there was a really rather magnificent Welcome to Country provided at Yirrkala. It was terrific to see something of the art centre. I am looking forward to going back there later on on this visit. I then had quite a long meeting with Galarrwuy Yunupingu and I was able to say, personally to him, how honoured I am to be on his country and how pleased I am to be able to take forward the reconciliation agenda. Galarrwuy has been dealing with many Prime Ministers over the years. I am his seventh. Let’s hope that a further significant progress can be made, because for decades now people like him have been doing their best for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of our country and it is important that we learn from the mistakes of the past and build on the successes of the past. That is part of what I hope to do here in Yolngu Country over the next few days.

Then there was a meeting with quite a number of the local clans. It was terrific to have the chance to sit down not just with Galarrwuy but with people like Djambawa Marawili, who is a member of my Indigenous Advisory Council with some of the other traditional elders of East Arnhem Land. The message that they gave to me was that they want to work with government; they believe that government is full of good intentions but often strangles good intention with too much red tape.

I have to say as a government that is committed to reducing red tape it is good to find that kind of attitude from the people here in this particular part of Australia.

Today, I was able to look at some of the efforts that local people are making to improve their economic circumstances because people here want their land to be more than just a ceremonial and cultural asset, they want it to be an economic asset too. Today, we saw drilling in the hope that local people will ultimately be able to operate their own bauxite mine. We saw some timberwork, both the harvesting of timber and the milling of timber. Some of the timber in this magnificent building is locally found and milled timber and the fact that the building in which we are is so beautiful suggests that under the right circumstances there is a potential economic business here in timber.

Later on today, I'll be on one of the local cattle properties, so through mining, through timber and through cattle, there are economic opportunities here, provided people are prepared to seize them.

There will obviously be some discussion over coming days of the recognition of indigenous people in the Constitution and this is an important objective of my Government, it's an important bipartisan objective, but in the end what matters is the ordinary lives of the Australian people. In order to have a better life for indigenous people, particularly remote indigenous people, there are a few simple things that need to happen. The children need to go to school, the adults need to go to work and communities need to be safe. As always, this will be my constant preoccupation because without a decent education, without a work culture, without safe communities – where people can be confident that they can go to bed at night and be undisturbed, people can be confident that they will be secure in their own homes – without that, progress is very, very difficult. It so often becomes a matter of fine words but not practical deeds.

So, this is important and I'm pleased that over the next few days I'll be joined by quite a few of my Ministerial colleagues. I have, for all of this time, Minister Nigel Scullion here, Parliamentary Secretary Alan Tudge here. Today, I'll be joined by the Assistant Health Minister, Fiona Nash; I'll be joined by the Assistant Infrastructure Minister, Jamie Briggs. These are the first of the Ministers who'll be up here over the next few days.

Yes, this is a remote place but in its own way it's the heart of our country and it's important that government is aware, not just of what happens in Canberra and Sydney and Melbourne and along the coast of New South Wales and Queensland, it's important that government has a good handle on what happens in remote Australia. As I said, thanks to the wonders of modern communication, it's possible for national leaders to be here in East Arnhem Land and still very much in touch with the wider world and you'll see a demonstration of just how in touch it is possible to be in a few moments when I have a conference call with the Director-General of Security, the incoming Director-General of Security, because despite everything that's happening, the ordinary business of government must go on. I need to be able to do this kind of work here and be in touch with what's happening in Canberra and if things happen in the wider world I need to be able to be on top of them here. It's a two-way street.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, are we at war with ISIL? The United States – the White House Chief of Staff and John Kerry – have said America is at war. At what point, if we're not at war, do we join the war, is it when the combat command is issued to the Air Force?

PRIME MINISTER:

Different people use their own language. What we did yesterday, as a Government, with the full support of the Opposition, was deploy an Australian force to the Middle East. Obviously, we have a mind to engage in combat operations against ISIL, should the circumstances be right, and we'll be in a position to make final judgments about that in the next week or so. But this is a mission – it is a mission to be ready to join an international coalition to destroy this hideous death cult. There's a world of difference between what's happening now and what's happened on previous occasions in the Middle East. First of all, it is a very broadly based coalition including a number of significant Middle Eastern countries and it is absolutely with the welcome, with the invitation, with the cooperation, with the support of the Iraqi Government. Our planes, should they go into action, will be operating at the request of the Iraqis. Our Special Forces, should they act as military advisers to the Iraqi armed forces and to the Peshmerga, again, will be acting very much with the welcome, the invitation, with the total support of the Iraqi Government.

QUESTION:

Notwithstanding that, Prime Minister, if Australian jets fire on Islamic jihadists in Iraq and/or Syria, we know there's a chance that those Australian-fired weapons will kill Australian citizens. Did Cabinet think about the possibility that some of the Australians who are fighting the cause over there might be killed by Australian fire and how do you feel about it?

PRIME MINISTER:

It was one of the principal reasons for committing to the anti-ISIL fight that there are Australians there in significant numbers who wish to do us harm. There are at least 60 Australians who are fighting with terrorist groups in the Middle East, particularly ISIL. There are at least 100 Australians supporting terrorist groups in the Middle East, including ISIL. These are groups and people who are pledged to wage war on everything that does not conform to their particular view of the world. These are ideologues of a new and hideous variety who don't just do evil but they exult in doing evil. Now, if they are killed in conflict, they know the risks, they took their chances, they broke Australian law. They are doing something which is a very serious offence under Australian law and I say again to any Australian who might be thinking of travelling to the Middle East to join in terrorist activity – don't.

Don't.

It is very dangerous. It is wrong. It is against God. It is against religion. It is against our common humanity, as Prime Minister Najib of Malaysia said just the other day, and it may well become much more dangerous because of the presence of Australian forces.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, this is an open-ended commitment, it seems, and how long could it last? Months or years?

PRIME MINISTER:

There's a very specific objective here. The objective is fundamentally humanitarian and we realise that fundamentally humanitarian objective by helping the Iraqi armed forces to disrupt and degrade ISIL. Hopefully, to drive ISIL entirely from Iraq. So, that's our mission – to secure a fundamentally humanitarian objective by disrupting and degrading ISIL and if we can do that, not only do we make Iraq a safer place, we make Australia a safer place, we make the world a safer place, because this ISIL movement in recent months has been acting as a magnet for extremists from right around the world.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, can you assure people that this won’t drag on – that our involvement won't drag on for years?

PRIME MINISTER:

I'm not saying that this will be over in weeks or even necessarily in just a few months, but there is a very specific and clear objective to disrupt and degrade ISIL, to do as much damage as possibly can be done to ISIL, and hopefully to drive it from Iraq.

QUESTION:

You said the emphasis here should be on practical deeds and not fine words, so what's going to come out of this week? What practical outcome is going to happen?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, as a result of this morning, some trees were planted, some timber was felled, some timber was milled, and as a result of this afternoon some veterinary work will be done on the local herd. These are practical things. They're a sign that local people are doing their best to use their land, not just as ceremonial and a cultural asset but as an economic one too. And it's good that the highest members of the Government and the public service are in a position to see the enthusiasm of the Yolngu people to make the most of their circumstances, to try to join the real economy as well as simply continuing to occupy their traditional lands.

QUESTION:

On that point, you saw that drill this morning. Now, bauxite has been pulled from this land for 60 years. That was a very simple piece of equipment. Were you surprised to see a white man operating it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, this is something that the Yolngu people are planning to do and it's not unusual when you are planning a new operation to bring outside contractors in to do the preparatory work. But obviously there were local people involved as well and the hope of the local leaders is that at least some of these local people will not only train up to operate their own bauxite mine but will be able to take jobs in the Rio mine which is already operating just down the road.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, you were very clear with Parliament that we needed clear objectives to go into Iraq, a clear mission for our troops, and a risk assessment that satisfied Cabinet. I think you've spoken about the objectives. Is there a clear mission for our troops and has Cabinet had the benefit of a risk assessment and, if so, what did it say?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, these are all good questions. The decision that we have made yesterday is to deploy a force to the Middle East with a view to going into Iraq in the days ahead, should certain further decisions be made. It was not a decision to commit to combat operations as such. It was a decision to deploy to the United Arab Emirates. Obviously, we have a mind to commit to combat operations under the right circumstances, but that is a subsequent decision that has not yet been made and it will be made on the basis of a full assessment of the risks. It will be made with a clear understanding of all the rules of engagement. It will be made on the basis of appropriate written invitations to back up the oral welcome that we have received from people like the new Prime Minister of Iraq. So that risk assessment will be there and it will be there in detail before any final decision to commit to combat operations is made.

QUESTION:

Do you have a timeframe on the decision?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, our force will take up to a fortnight to be in place in the Middle East. Obviously, as I said yesterday, there is a meeting of the United Nations Security Council which will be taking place towards the end of the month. I'll be in New York on 24 September for, amongst other things, a meeting that President Obama will chair. I am confident that Iraq is going to be very much front and centre of the agenda for that meeting. The threat posed by ISIL to countries right around the world because of the fighters that are being brutalised, radicalised, and militarised in Iraq and then returning elsewhere, that will all be front and centre and it's after that meeting takes place, after the coalition has crystallised that final decisions are likely to be made.

QUESTION:

[inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER:

Why don't we finish questions on security issues and then we’ll go back to questions on indigenous issues.

QUESTION:

Can I just ask the details of a report overnight from Human Rights Watch that more than 30 Iraqis were killed by an Iraqi government air strike? 24 of them were kids. Do you have any reports on that and do you have any concerns about what the Iraqi government’s doing?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, I'm not aware of the report. I'm not aware of the report and if it's true it would be deeply and utterly regrettable – deeply and utterly regrettable. But we have to appreciate that there is a context here and in a context where hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced by the ISIL movement, thousands of people have been deliberately killed, often in the most gruesome possible way – beheadings, crucifixions, mass shootings into pits. There's a world of difference between deliberate killing and accidental killing and I think it's important to maintain that distinction.

QUESTION:

What's your response to the Greens criticism that this Government is following the US blindly into this conflict?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I think it's simply false. It's simply false. We have made a clear-eyed assessment of our national interest. We've made a clear-eyed assessment of the best means of protecting our citizens, of advancing our values. And we believe that our national interest, our citizens' protection, our national values and ideals, are best realised at this time by the commitment of a force to the Middle East, with a view to combat operations against this death cult.

Let us not underestimate the gravity of the situation that ISIL have created. This is a terrorist movement unlike anything we have ever seen because it does not just do evil, it exults in doing evil and its ambitions are not just local, they are global.

QUESTION:

If the objective is to disrupt and to degrade, is there not a danger that they will simply regroup and come back if they're not destroyed?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, that's obviously a danger and if it is possible to degrade them to the point of extinction, well, that obviously would be good. But our objective as I say, fundamentally humanitarian, to disrupt and to degrade as far as we can.

QUESTION:

Do you personally support the idea of establishing a quota for indigenous parliamentarians?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, Amos, we’ll come back to that.

Is there any further security issues?

QUESTION:

Just one, Prime Minister. Is there any circumstance in which Australia would allow people who are over there fighting for the wrong side to come back through a window?

PRIME MINISTER:

If there is such a window, it is the intention of this Government to close it and to close it as quickly as we can. As you know, there's one tranche of legislation on agency powers, on security agency powers, that is currently before the Parliament and I expect it to be dealt with in the next sitting fortnight. There's another tranche of legislation on terrorist offences, that I expect to be introduced into the Parliament in next sitting fortnight and it will hopefully progress through Parliament as quickly as possibility. There's a further tranche of legislation on the metadata that we wish to continue to have access to for crime fighting purposes, and that I hope will come in well before the end of the year.

So, there's legislation before the Parliament and coming before the Parliament to ensure that as far as is humanly possible, if you leave this country to engage in terrorism and you come back to this country, you will be arrested, prosecuted, and jailed, for a very long time. Because the only safe place in this country for someone who has been radicalised, brutalised, and militarised by experience with ISIL is a maximum security prison.

QUESTION:

What’s the mechanics of leaving someone on an Australian passport overseas that can’t get back in? Are you saying they can't get back in or that they will be charged once they’re in here?

PRIME MINISTER:

Australian citizens have a right to return to Australia but if they have committed very serious crimes and fighting with a terrorist group abroad is a very serious crime. The Government has a duty to protect the community from people like that and we will ensure that as far as is humanly possible they are arrested, prosecuted and jailed for a very long time indeed.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, there’s currently a campaign on the Gold Coast to stop a local mosque going ahead. I know you have said that this decision was not about religion but are you concerned that it could encourage intolerance towards Muslim people?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, it shouldn’t because as we saw in a Sydney park yesterday there are thousands and thousands of Muslim people who are happy to join Team Australia. The great thing about Team Australia is that we welcome everyone who is prepared to have a go and that's what the vast majority of migrants to this country do. They choose this place, they make a conscious decision for Australia in a way that the native born never had, and that's why not for a second will you find me or members of my Government doubting the commitment to Australia of any of our migrant communities, including the Islamic community. They are good Australians, and I want to ensure that it stays that way.

QUESTION:

Do you have an exact timeframe for the deployment of troops, and are you ruling out any Australian involvement in Syria at this stage?

PRIME MINISTER:

The force that we announced yesterday will be leaving for the Middle East over the next few days, certainly within a fortnight. I expect the force to be in place in the UAE and different elements of the force will be leaving over coming days. So, it will be there in the Middle East, available for combat operations, should that decision be made as quickly as possible. So that's the situation that we're in. There was a further element to the question?

QUESTION:

Have you ruled out any Australian involvement in Syria?

PRIME MINISTER:

Syria, yes. There's a big difference between combat operations within Iraq that will be conducted with the full approval of the Iraqi Government and combat operations inside Syria which is effectively ungoverned space and whose government Australia does not actually recognise. So, there is a clear legality to the combat operations that Australia has in mind in Iraq which would not be applicable to any operations inside Syria. So, I'm not ruling it out under all circumstances, but it's not part of the Australian Government's intention at this time.

QUESTION:

On recognition, a number of indigenous leaders have put the case that the referendum question needs to be substantive to be meaningful. Are you confident that that expectation will be realised?

PRIME MINISTER:

The point I make, Michael, is that we are really still at the beginning of this journey. We're not approaching the end. There is a lot of good will, there is a firm intention on the part of this Government, on the part of the Opposition, I think on the part of the Parliament generally, to embark on this journey, but it's got to be a successful one. There'd be nothing worse than having a go at this and finding that it fails because we've been too ambitious, or in the process of trying to do something wonderful, we've ended up dividing the country. So, I think the immediate priority is to put a timetable and a process in place and then we'll be in a better position to work on the precise form of any recognition referendum.

QUESTION:

In your view, Prime Minister, what would be required to get this over the line?

PRIME MINISTER:

The support of the overwhelming majority of the Australian people. It was a great unifying moment when something like 90 per cent of voters supported the 1967 referendum and my hope is that something similar to that can be achieved now. As we know, the 1967 referendum was legally unambitious, but it was spiritually very ambitious indeed, and sometimes the more legal ambition you've got, the less spiritual and ethical and cultural achievement you'll grasp and I think it's important to carefully weigh and consider these things in the weeks and months ahead.

Amos?

QUESTION:

Prime Minister is it correct that you’re being advised by your office to consider a quota system for indigenous parliamentarians such as is in New Zealand, and do you personally support that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, all sorts of people will put forward all sorts of proposals in coming weeks and months and I think it’s a mistake to rule them in or out. Generally speaking, the only proposals that I would rule out at this stage are proposals that would divide our country, and sometimes you only know whether a proposal would divide the country after it's been out there for a while and you've had a chance to gauge the reaction.

So, my job here is not to be a private pontificator; my job is to be, as far as I humanly can, a national leader and national leaders do not rush into final decision making given that the urgent task now is to bring forward a timetable and finesse a process. Once that's done, I think we're in a good position to start serious discussions over what the proposal might be.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, we've been to a number of employment ventures here today. Will you also be meeting on this trip with people who are unemployed in this region?

PRIME MINISTER:

You only have to go into a remote community to meet with people who are either unemployed or underemployed, and so of course I'll be meeting with people who are unemployed and underemployed and I will be doing everything I can to ensure that as quickly as possible there are more opportunities for that to change. The best form of welfare is work, preferably in a viable business that is participating in the real economy, but if that kind of work is unavailable, some kind of work programme, Work for the Dole, what used to be called CDEP – Community Development Employment Programmes – they're all a step in the right direction. As most of you would know, Andrew Forrest has brought down a really significant and impressive report which talks about what we need to do to try to ensure that indigenous people in indigenous communities are best prepared for whatever work's available and what businesses need to do and what governments need to do in order to maximise the employment outcomes for indigenous people.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, you’ve spoken twice about the risk of dividing the country. What do you think would cause that? Under what circumstances do you think it would occur and what would the long-term consequences be?

PRIME MINISTER:

Again, the last thing you would want with a proposal of this nature is to have it defeated or even very narrowly carried after an acrimonious debate. This is about Australia’s fundamental identity. It's about reconciling Australians to the reality of our country, it's about assimilating our past properly – all of our past, the bad as well as the good – coming to terms with it, moving forward as one united people, to use Noel Pearson's terms, “With an indigenous heritage, a British Foundation and a multicultural character.” These are the three foundational elements, if you like, in modern Australia and it's my hope that whatever we do ultimately settle on is something that can reflect that and bring us together with hope and optimism for the future.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, did Yunupingu have a clear message for you in your meeting?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think that the principal focus of that particular discussion was on the need to move forward in all areas and, obviously, I agree and I am particularly honoured to be in the presence of someone who has been such a significant part of indigenous Australia over four or five decades now. So, I'm very conscious, yes, of the need to move forward on the recognition question, but also of the need to move forward on other equally important but different questions like the ability of people in places like this to use their land as an economic as well as a ceremonial and cultural asset, on the importance of real jobs for people, on the importance of getting the kids to school, the adults to work and the community safe. So, it was a pretty broad ranging discussion.

QUESTION:

Given the difficulty of a prosecuted and successful referendum and the delicacy that you outlined, would you agree with what Senator Scullion said earlier that 2015 is probably too early, 2016 is complicated by the election, therefore a referendum must necessarily be 2016 or thereafter? Is that your view?

PRIME MINISTER:

This is something that I would like to finalise in coming weeks. I think it is important to let all Australians know that we are fair dinkum about addressing this issue, and the way to demonstrate that we are fair dinkum about addressing this issue is to set a timeline. So, I think you can be confident that sometime in the next few weeks a timeline will be determined.

QUESTION:

Mr Abbott, on a lighter note, what's it like running the country from a tent in Arnhem Land?

PRIME MINISTER:

I've only had about 18 hours of this and, so far, I seem to be able to change into official gear without too much difficulty and I’ve managed to do my emails, to make my phone calls, I’m about to have a conference call with the Director-General of Security, so it’s going ok so far. Now, Paul, just one question and then we’ll finish.

QUESTION:

You’ve started down the line of this question, but you emphasised timetable and process for the constitutional change. What chance do you think they might crystallise for you during this week’s stay, that you might leave here with a better idea of timetable and a better idea of process?

PRIME MINISTER:

I would caution people about expecting an announcement over the next few days, but I do think we can crystallise this to the point of finalisation within a few weeks. I think it’s important that everyone knows where our country is hoping to go. We can’t pre-empt the outcomes of this process, we shouldn’t try to pre-empt the outcomes of this process, but there does need to be a clear process in place with an end point for our consideration.

Thank you.

[ends]

Transcript - 23829