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Transcripts from the Prime Ministers of Australia

Transcript 11057

Interview with Howard Sattler, Radio 6PR

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: 16/09/1999

Release Type: Interview

Transcript ID: 11057

Subject(s): East Timor

16 September 1999

E&OE……………………………………………………………………………………….

SUBJECT: East Timor

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister John Howard joins me on the line to talk about well, of course, East Timor. Prime Minister, I have to say sincerely I do appreciate your time very much today.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, thanks Howard, it’s always a pleasure to talk to you.

JOURNALIST:

How many hours a night are you averaging sleep these days?

PRIME MINISTER:

Not a lot, not a lot. But it’s an important, in fact, it’s a critically important issue. We haven’t had a more important foreign policy challenge and national security challenge for decades. And it’s important that the whole resources of the Government be devoted to it and they certainly are.

JOURNALIST:

Do you think that we, in any way, could have better anticipated what was going to occur in East Timor?

PRIME MINISTER:

People are now after the event saying that. What are they saying? They are saying that before it happened we should have got an international peacekeeping force into East Timor.

JOURNALIST:

Now, we have interviewed on of those people today, a lawyer called Mark Plunkett who…

PRIME MINISTER:

Yeah, I know. I have seen Mr Plunkett. Now, everybody knows how hard it has been to get the peacekeeping force agreed to over the last week. If we had tried to get a peacekeeping force into East Timor before the ballot the ballot would never have occurred. There was no way on earth the Indonesians were going to agree to a peacekeeping force before the ballot.

JOURNALIST:

Even if we squeezed them economically…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, when you say squeeze them economically in…well, to start with you wouldn’t have mobilised the rest of the world to do that. The thing that has mobilised the rest of the world, Howard, is a combination of 78.1 per cent of the East Timorese voting for independence and the appalling reaction to that decision by people on the ground in East Timor. Until then, until those two things came together you would never have got the peacekeeping force in. And do you think China and Russia and the Security Council would have refrained from using their vetos in a situation where we were asking for a peacekeeping force before the ballot had taken place.

JOURNALIST:

Well, up to two days ago Russia was still saying it might …

PRIME MINISTER:

Of course. I mean, it is a miracle that we were able to get that resolution through and if you put that resolution up two or three months ago it wouldn’t have got to first base. So the people who are now saying, ‘oh, you should have done this, you should have done that’, are either being politically opportunistic or they are just living in a world of unreality. I mean, I am appalled at what has happened. We have acted with maximum speed. We have been very successful in gathering international support and that resolution has gone through the Security Council far more speedily than I thought it might. And I really am very grateful to the Secretary-General for that. And, very importantly, I am very grateful to the defence forces for having got our men ready. I mean, we did what we could do in Australia to be ready. But the fact that Australia is able to send people in so quickly is a credit to the fact that we prepared. I mean, months ago we decided to raise the second brigade to a point of readiness because we thought something might occur. So we did what we could do here in Australia. But I say to you those people who are now running around and saying, oh, well you should have done more, you should have got the Americans and everybody else organised, I think they are just being…they are just scoring political points or they are being unrealistic.

JOURNALIST:

So what has happened is worse than you could have contemplated isn’t it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh, I think what has happened according to all the reports is worse than anybody predicted.

JOURNALIST:

Do you think that we have been played off a break particularly by the Indonesian military?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, it’s easy to say that but I don’t think they think they have played us off a break. I think many of them are angry that Australia has successfully achieved what it has achieved. I mean, we don’t have any argument with the ordinary people of Indonesia.

JOURNALIST:

No, not at all. You have made that point very strongly.

PRIME MINISTER:

And it is very important that Australians understand that. And we do have a long-term interest in good relations with Indonesia. But you can only have good relations with a country on a basis of mutual respect and you can’t act in international affairs to preserve a relationship at all costs. And what we have done over the past few months has been done because we think it’s the right thing to do, not necessarily to pursue a particular relationship with a country. But we came to the conclusion at the end of last year that the Indonesians should consider allowing the people of Timor an act of self-determination. And I put that view to Dr Habibie and he responded, he in fact went further, and he said we’re going to have a ballot on independence. And I think Dr Habibie deserves credit for doing that and he also deserves credit for taking Indonesia down the path of democracy. And we have to remember that Indonesia’s attitude towards things in a year’s time may be very different from what it is now. And that’s why it’s important that we understand the long-term value of the relationship between the two communities and why our relations as societies are more important than the current differences between the two governments.

SATTLER:

But could he be doing more to hose down the animosity towards Australians in his country? One of his senior advisers, Dewi Fortuna Anwar, has said that Australians are likely to be singled out when they go into East Timor, for bullets I mean.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, naturally I’m concerned about that and it does underline the fact that it’s going to be a dangerous mission. On the other hand, he is leading a party that won fewer seats than the opposition party in the election. There’s a lot of doubt about his own future. There’s a lot of debate about who the next President would be. And I don’t want to exacerbate the situation by saying too much about the internal politics of Indonesia. I don’t think this is quite the right time to be…

SATTLER:

No, but the hiatus situation which has created up there – because, for instance, the East Timorese independence vote is not ratified until maybe some time in November, that only makes things worse, doesn’t it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, of course it does, and that means that we need to get the peacekeepers in as quickly as possible. Now, the resolution’s been passed by the Security Council, our men are ready and we’re obviously working on getting them in as soon as possible.

SATTLER:

When will they be there do you think?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, very soon but I can’t really be pressed any more on that.

SATTLER:

All right. Did you read the Financial Review this morning, the story about an Indonesian spy operating in Canberra?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I did read that story and naturally I was concerned but I can’t really and won’t comment any further on what is a security matter.

SATTLER:

Okay but, I mean, there is some veracity in it, is there?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I didn’t say that. I said I was concerned when I read the report.

SATTLER:

Yeah, you’re not dismissing it.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I never dismiss things like that, Howard, I take them very seriously.

SATTLER:

All right, and so 2,000 go in with the first wave.

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, the first wave. Our commitment is 2,000 initially and then up to 4,500 in the final stage of the operation. And we will, of course, be leading the group and I have no doubt that the men will, as always, do great credit to Australia.

SATTLER:

Are you going to see them off?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes.

SATTLER:

Okay, give them our best will you?

PRIME MINISTER:

I certainly will, Howard.

SATTLER:

Thank you very much for your valuable time today because, as I said, it is very valuable at the moment.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, it’s always a pleasure to talk to you.

SATTLER:

Thanks a lot.

PRIME MINISTER:

Okay.

[Ends]

Transcript 11057