PM Transcripts

Transcripts from the Prime Ministers of Australia

Transcript 11032

Press Conference, Hyatt Regency Hotel, Auckland, New Zealand

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: 13/09/1999

Release Type: Interview

Transcript ID: 11032

13th September 1999

E&OE………………………………………………………………………………………

Ladies and gentlemen, I would just like to give a brief report on today’s Leaders’ meeting and then take your questions. It’s fair to say that APEC is now back on track after having lost some momentum in Kuala Lumpur. We have sent a strong message to the meeting in Seattle in December in support of a comprehensive world trade round. And it’s significant coming from a group that represents 60 per cent of world trade. We have reached agreement on key aspects of what that new round should be based on. It should be comprehensive, covering agriculture, services and industrials. It ought to be concluded within three years. It should work for the elimination of agricultural export subsidies and export restrictions. A single package, nothing agreed until everything is agreed which strengthens the hand of agricultural exporters.

The agreement includes a standstill, that’s no new protectionist measures, while the round is being negotiated and it called on all WTO members to match it. We have made some good progress on APEC’s practical agenda of trade facilitation and technical assistance. I announced a $5 million Australian social protection facility to help APEC economies develop effective systems to protect children and families and we are releasing today a report funded by APEC into the impacts of the Asian financial crisis on the children of Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines. And the purpose of this $5 million support package is to help the less developed countries in APEC design safety net systems to assist particularly children in their communities. And this is on top of a $31 million Australian programme to alleviate the social impact of the Asian crisis.

We reaffirmed our commitment to reform of the international financial system and we are pleased that there will be substantial representation from APEC economies, including Australia, in the new groups which have been set up to look at reforms. And that these groups are examining many of the recommendations in my taskforce on reform of the international financial system.

We welcome progress on strengthening economic governance in APEC economies, a major Australian initiative at Kuala Lumpur. And finally, and most importantly, the crucial discussion on the East Timor issue which took place in the margins of the APEC meetings shows just how valuable APEC has become as a conduit for high level political discussion and high level diplomacy. And when you think of it, it brought together all of the major players at a national level really involved in the East Timor issue and included, of course, a senior representative of the Indonesian Government. It included the American President, it included representatives of other ASEAN countries, myself, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, the Prime Minister of Canada - a country that has a long tradition of making effective contributions to peacekeeping roles. And also importantly the President of China and also the Prime Minister of Russia.

I think it's just tremendously important to understand that coincidentally but very productively, all of those interests were represented and all of those people were present. And it goes without saying that we did devote a lot of time during the margins of the meeting talking about East Timor. And I think the advent of the APEC meeting here is extremely fortuitous. The fact that all of us came together and I was able in particular to talk to a lot of people very intensively over a period of time, all of that made a very significant contribution to the breakthrough that occurred last night and the hope that that represents, providing it’s fully followed through, the hope that that represents of providing some relief to the extremely distressing situation in East Timor. Are there any questions?

JOURNALIST:

How concerned are you that (inaudible) being followed through?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, there is no reason why it oughtn’t to be and I don’t have any evidence to suggest it won’t. Perhaps it is my natural caution but also a recognition with something as complicated as this hurdles can arise. But I don’t expect there to be any. There is a determination on my part, there is a determination on the part of the American President. Both of us agreed as we parted this afternoon that we had to drive the thing forward strongly and we are both very keen that it did come about. And there’s importantly a very heavy involvement now by the ASEAN countries. This is predominantly, not exclusively, but this is predominantly a regional operation. There will be a contribution from the Americans, there will be a contribution from the Canadians and the British and perhaps also from some other Europeans. But very importantly, you have got the ASEANs very heavily involved, you have got Australia involved, you have got New Zealand involved and that is as it should be. Because we in the region should assume the primary role of providing assets and resources and diplomatic commitment. Not the only role, we need the blessing of the United Nations and we need an involvement by the United States. But this is certainly an example of where the region can work and work very effectively with Australia playing a major and effective and appropriate role as an influential middle power in the region.

JOURNALIST:

How important is it for you, Mr Howard, that Australia retains leadership of the peacekeeping force? I mean, would you be happy to share it with an ASEAN nation or…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, look, we have been asked to lead it and as far as I am concerned that is entirely appropriate, entirely appropriate.

JOURNALIST:

Are you expecting the UN to endorse the peacekeeping force as soon as Wednesday and how long after that would you…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I have been tied up in a meeting today. My understanding is that everything is being done as quickly as possible but Mr Alatas has got to be given some time to get to New York and Mr Downer is going to New York as well. And I know and I will be arguing and pushing for the matter to be set up as quickly as possible. But some time is needed to put things in place but we are a lot closer to it now than we were this time yesterday. We have actually got the agreement of the Indonesian Government and that was absolutely crucial and it clears away the major hurdles. So I am quite certain these other matters, crucial though they are, delicate though they may turn out to be, are matters that can be dealt with so that we can get it established as quickly as possible.

JOURNALIST:

Are you aware of any reservations Indonesia may have about our leadership role?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, none have been expressed to me by any representatives of the Indonesian Government.

JOURNALIST:

Were you surprised by the speed with which Prime Minister Habibie finally agreed?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, I don’t in this situation want to start analysing his actions. I don’t think that’s helpful, I am grateful for the decision that he announced last night. I think he showed great wisdom. I remind you of what I said last night and that is that he told me a week ago that this is what would happen if the martial law didn’t work. So there’s nothing at all to be gained by my sort of holding forth publicly about his behaviour or his motives. He’s done the right thing; I thank him for it. It was the best thing to do in the interests of Indonesia, it was the best thing to do in the interests of the people of East Timor.

JOURNALIST:

What contact have you had with the Indonesian Government, if any, since the announcement last night? Have you spoken to Dr Habibie?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I have been tied up in the meeting and I will be, and it’s just a question of arranging a time. And I have spoken on numerous occasions both last night and today with the Minister who is here representing him - Ginandjar who is a very senior figure and, of course, who has spoken to senior people in the Indonesian Government including General Wiranto.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, a New Zealand Government source suggested today that perhaps Australia would be asked to accept a Commander, a Force Commander, from another…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, you have heard my answer on that. I am not particularly interested in, you know, unnamed New Zealand sources or indeed, unnamed any other sources. You know our position on that and that is the position that was put to us by Mr Annan. He asked me a week ago whether we would accept leadership and we said yes and we don’t have a different view a week later and it is also the view of the President of the United States. So I am not particularly interested in those circumstances in an "unnamed" New Zealand source.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, what do you hope this decision represents for the people of East Timor?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I hope it represents an opportunity for them to gradually rebuild their lives, an end to the brutality which has clearly been going on in that province for some time and particularly over the past week. The real prospect that the ballot that was conducted in which they so clearly voted for independence, that will be given full effect to but we shouldn’t have any illusions about how hard it’s going to be for them and how much help they will need and the Australian people will be giving more help because we will be seen by the world community as having a particular responsibility and I know that the Australian people, having been so distraught and concerned about the plight of the people of East Timor, will understand the priority that we must give. Beyond the provision of people in a peacekeeping operation, we must give to the people of East Timor.

JOURNALIST:

How do you see Australia’s relationship with Indonesia unfold from this point, and now that we have reached this point, what do you see as the implications for Australia’s (inaudible)

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I’m not going to try and answer all that now; it’s not appropriate, I want to give that some reflective and quiet thought. Clearly the relationship has been under strain, it’s not been easy, and I understand the sensitivities of the Indonesians, but we saw it as being the right thing for us to argue strongly and to take the lead in relation to East Timor and I have no regrets. If I had my time over again I would not have handled things any differently. I was forthright – careful but forthright – in my dealings with the Indonesians, I told Dr Habibie exactly what I felt and how Australia believed the issue should be handled and we have been understanding of the Indonesian position and I hope that our relationship can over time be put on a very positive basis. I said yesterday talking to Mr Bongiorno, that one of the things we had to avoid in diplomacy was to exaggerate the character of relationships.

This country over the last 20 years – that’s Australia – has had far too many special relationships and it’s a phrase that’s dropped far too readily from the lips of far too many Prime Ministers. You have ongoing - to vary I think it was Palmerston - you have ongoing interests and you have special interests but this idea that you have a special relationship with every country whose leader might visit your shores and with whom you establish a reasonable personal rapport is a mistake.

I think what you have to do in your relationships with countries is to build on points of common and mutual concern, benefit and interest, look for a focus on those things that you hold in common rather than those things that push you apart, but don’t get carried away with the character or quality of particular relationships and don’t succumb – and all of us are a bit guilty of this- I’m not saying that I haven’t been guilty of it in the past – but I think others have been guilty of it a little more intensely than I have. But I just think it’s very important that we keep a sense of perspective about our relationship with countries. There are few countries in the world with which any nation has a special relationship and I think we’ve just got to be careful about that and if we have lower expectations of a relationship with a nation, we mightn’t be so angered and disappointed when strains emerge in the relationship.

JOURNALIST:

So how special is our relationship?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, can I perhaps try Karen as I had tried you earlier.

JOURNALIST:

Thank You. You mentioned it was fortuitious, the timing of the APEC meeting. APEC is strenuously resisting having any role other than an economic role in the past but given the obvious value of the timing of this meeting in relation to East Timor, is there now not an argument for APEC to have a more formal role?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, because it’s worked perfectly without a formal role. If you had tried to put it on the agenda you wouldn’t have gotten anywhere. I mean it was the very fact that we were meeting here and used the facility of the meeting to do all the work in the margins that it was productive. If we had wanted it listed, you’d have got into a mess.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, President Habibie’s spokeswoman yesterday said that the Indonesians would prefer Asian faces in the force and [inaudible]. What do you say to those in Indonesia…

PRIME MINISTER:

[TAPE BREAK]…that some people in Indonesia are sensitive to the role that we’ve taken, I mean, it would be foolish of me to deny that because we’ve taken the leadership role. I mean, somebody had to argue the case and somebody had to sort of lay out parameters of what could be achieved and what couldn’t be achieved and without exaggerating it, if Australia had not done so I don’t think anybody else would have. It was because we chose to do the right thing that inevitably some people have been critical, but I don’t think you should ever see these things in terms – I don’t know whether she said Asian faces – if she said that, well I don’t think you should ever talk about these things in those sorts of terms for the most obvious of reasons..

JOURNALIST:

[inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I think what you do is you’ll have in the force, you’ll have a mix, a very broad mix of countries. You’ll have a lot of ASEAN countries; you’ll have faces from all different countries. I don’t seek to use the expression that she uses, it’s not something that I’d want to do, but as far as … look our position is clear, we were invited to take a leadership role and we responded positively to that, it’s entirely appropriate that we do so, we would welcome the high level participation of ASEAN countries in any headquarters arrangements, but those details are to be worked out by the Secretary-General of the UN because the peacekeeping force will be operating under the aegus of the United Nations.

JOURNALIST:

Are you able to give us any idea yet of what Australia’s initial commitment will be?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, the initial commitment that we have made is up to 2,000.

JOURNALIST:

But I mean in ..[inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER:

No I can’t do that. That’s a matter of defence planning. I haven’t had a chance because I’ve been tied up as you know. I will be going back to Canberra tonight and I’ll be seeing the CDF tomorrow, and the Defence Minister tomorrow and perhaps I’ll then have a better idea, but its just been quite literally impossible given that we only got the result early this morning to get into that sort of detail, please.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, will Australian soldiers be at greater risk in East Timor than soldiers from, say, the ASEAN nations who participate?

PRIME MINISTER:

On the face of it I can’t see that any section would be at more or less risk. But that is an operational matter. I would not seek in any way to have a situation where one section were "protected" and others were exposed – of course not. But that is a command matter, that is an operational matter. I’m sorry, I’m puzzled as to the question.

JOURNALIST:

Well, you’ve identified some sentiment in Indonesia that might be concerned about the leadership role Australia has played in putting together …

PRIME MINISTER:

No, what I said was that I could understand some sensitivity about Australia’s role generally but look, I don’t think for a moment our soldiers are going to be at greater or lesser risk and certainly there won’t be any arrangements made that will put them at either greater or lesser risk. All soldiers are at risk – all military personnel, even if they’re not strictly defined as soldiers – all military personnel are at some risk even in a peacekeeping operation and I’ve never sought to disguise that from the Australian people.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, do you regard our relationship with the United States as special?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh look, I haven’t sought to give a … it’s very close obviously but we have very close relations with a number of countries but having sort of declaimed and having advocated against and implored not only Prime Ministers but also by implication journalists about lapsing into that sort of language, you won’t trap me into doing so.

JOURNALIST:

How long will it take to put this force together?

PRIME MINISTER:

Where are you from?

JOURNALIST:

I’m from the Asian Wall Street Journal.

PRIME MINISTER:

What’s your name?

JOURNALIST:

John [inaudible]

PRIME MINISTER:

How are you?

JOURNALIST:

How long will it take to put this force together so you can get it on the ground?

PRIME MINISTER:

I can’t answer that question. It will be done as soon as humanly possible and consistent with good military preparation and consistent with the wishes of the sovereign governments who are contributing forces. I can’t tell you exactly how long. The President and I agree it should be done as quickly as possible. That was the last exchange we had before we parted about half an hour ago. No I can’t ….don’t press me on the detail, I can’t tell you at this stage.

JOURNALIST:

Without giving any of the details, can you just explain where some of the logistical …

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I’m not going to get into that. Look, all of that is being…there have been extensive discussions between the Australian Defence Force and the Americans and there are some ADF personnel in America at the moment and they’ll be available to talk to the Secretary-General of the United Nations. As far as I know some of them may have already done so. All of that is on the way but I am simply not able, because I have been tied up at this meeting today, I am not able to go into that kind of detail. I may be able to in a couple of days time but I simply cannot now.

JOURNALIST:

Given our role in supporting the ballot and also given our role leading the UN troop commitment, what sort of ongoing responsibility do you think that Australia is going to face when we see this new nation of East Timor emerge which is going to be a terribly…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I have always said that we’d have to play a very big role. I said that almost a year ago. If you comb through the records you will find that I have been saying to the Australian people for some time that we would have a big responsibility. And I hope that the measure of concern that Australians have legitimately expressed about what has occurred in East Timor recently will be matched by their support for the assets that we will have to make available to help this new, fledgling, very small, very poor, very vulnerable community. And that’s what it will be. I mean, one of the reasons why we thought there may be some possibility of a transitional arrangement was our recognition of how vulnerable the company would be. Now, plainly that was not to be. The people of East Timor voted against it so we obviously have to move towards independence. But look, we’ll be required to do a lot. There’s no doubt about that and that is as it should be. The country is on our doorstep and we are, relatively speaking, a rich society. It’s in our area, right on our doorstep. We have an historical involvement. We have played a major role in advocating the processes that have led to independence. It is our responsibility to carry the bulk of the burden, not all of it and we are not going to carry all of it but we are certainly prepared to carry the lion’s share of it.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, given that there will be a burden for some considerable time, what implications does this have for our current level of defence spending?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, Russell, I had never ruled out the possibility that we may have to increase defence spending. And nothing that’s happened over the last week would encourage me in the foreseeable future to rule it out. I think it is quite possible that this country will have to spend more money on defence in the years ahead.

JOURNALIST:

Do you think that’s one of the lessons of this whole episode?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I guess it’s a reminder rather than a lesson. I said before this episode fully unfolded that I thought that was likely. I think it has brought home to the community, it has perhaps reminded and educated the Australian community of the volatility of the region in which we live. Now, I don’t want to overstate that but it is a reality.

JOURNALIST:

So is this your view that …you said we may have to and you have obviously thought this thing through. Is it your view that this will be necessary?

PRIME MINISTER:

What I said a moment ago is my view.

JOURNALIST:

Will your quiet reflection on this episode include the extent to which we rely on America in regional problems?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, it will include everything. But bear in mind that there is absolutely nothing wrong with the proposition at all and there’s nothing inconsistent in the alliance relationship, in the closeness of the alliance relationship, which prevents a situation whereby a country like Australia takes the lead in relation to something in its own region with effective and useful and valuable and necessary American support. There is nothing in the Australian- US alliance which says that every time we are involved together the Americans have to provide the lion share and take the lead, particularly when it’s something right on our doorstep. I mean, I think it’s important to keep this American thing in perspective. We wanted them in but we were never saying that they had to carry the lion share of it and we accept it.

JOURNALIST:

How would you describe how the alliance has worked in this situation? Last week there were suggestions of strain, how would you sum up the way….

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I thought the alliance has worked. I do. I mean, the fact that we have a satisfactory outcome and the fact that the Americans got very engaged and involved, it has worked. I mean,…and it remains still the most important alliance and association in political and military terms that Australia has. And nothing that has occurred over the last week has in any way altered that.

JOURNALIST:

Given Australia’s leadership role in the exercise that’s about to happen, will Australia be prepared to take more than the usual numbers of displaced people among the East Timorese as refugees?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, what I told the Secretary-General was that we would be very compassionate and very considerate and we would play our part. I don’t want to be more specific than that. I am not going to start saying we’ll take more than the next person, I don’t know what the next person is willing to take. But we will obviously do our bit. We took more than anybody else per capita from Indo China. Given our remoteness from Europe we took a lot from Kosovo, on a per capita basis more than many countries closer to Serbia. So I don’t think this country has been [inaudible] when it has come to taking refugees from different parts of the world. Two more questions from people who have not asked any. Mr Akerman.

JOURNALIST:

Talking about the US alliance, do you think that America was slow and that you had to…that they spent an unrealistic amount of time getting them [inaudible]….

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, look, there are things on the record and I don’t seek to unsay them. And there’s nothing that I have said over the last week in relation to this matter that I in any way retract. I don’t think there is any point in saying any more than that.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, can I ask about APEC, after all that’s why we got here today….

PRIME MINISTER:

Well hang on, I did acknowledge somebody else.

JOURNALIST:

Janine [Inaudible]. I am just wondering how long you expect it to be to stabilise the situation in East Timor?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, that really is something that I would like to get some operational advice on. The situation according to our advice on the ground is something of, sort of devastation. There’s been a lot of buildings destroyed, there has been significant loss of life, there’s been a significant movement of populations. It’s very difficult for me to, sort of, without a more detailed assessment and I don’t think you really get that until you have additional personnel in there doing proper assessments, and when I have that I think I can probably answer that question. Thank you very much.

[ends]

Transcript 11032