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Transcript - 23832

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: 16/09/2014

Release Type: Transcript

Transcript ID: 23832

Subject(s): Visit to Arnhem Land

Location: Arnhem Land

PRIME MINISTER:

It’s good to be here in Gunyangara on Yolngu Country. It’s good to have had the chance this morning to see more of the work that is being done by Gumatj Business Enterprises. It’s very encouraging to see the enthusiasm of local people here for not only a self-sustaining community, but also for wider commercial operations. The furniture which is being made here is of a high quality and at least some is available for public purchase. The cattle station operations which I saw yesterday are sustaining the meat sales here in this and other local stores and that's very encouraging. This is a community that wants to create an economy as well as a society and a culture and it’s important for government to do whatever we reasonably can to support that.

As well as talking about the fundamentals of life in these places – the kids going to school, the adults going to work, the communities being safe – obviously, there has been an opportunity over the last couple of days to talk about constitutional recognition. While it's too soon to talk about the precise wording of any constitutional change, it's very clear that Yolngu people are as enthusiastic as other indigenous people right around our country to see this great historical wrong righted in some way. It’s important that it's righted in ways that unite Australians, that don't divide us needlessly, and there is a long way to go before we get this done. But, it is a great and noble cause. It's one that I am personally committed to. It’s one that the Coalition has been committed to at least since John Howard announced our commitment back in 2007. It has bipartisan support. It's supported, as I understand it, right across the Parliament.

Obviously, as well as honouring my commitment to spend serious time up here on Yolngu Country, the commitment that I made to Galarrwuy Yunupingu at the Garma Festival last year, it’s important that the ordinary business of government go on, and an important part of government business right now is our deployment to the Middle East with a view to engaging in combat operations in Iraq.

As many of you would know, there was a major conference of 30 nations in Paris overnight. That conference agreed that it was important to assist the new government of Iraq with all means necessary, including appropriate military assistance. So, there were 30 countries, including most of the major Middle Eastern countries, that were represented at a senior level in Paris at this conference. Their commitment was to assist the new Government of Iraq with all means necessary, including appropriate military assistance. So, there is a growing international coalition determined to stamp out, as far as we can, the ISIL death cult. The mission of Australian forces in Iraq, should they be committed to combat operations in the days and weeks ahead, will be to disrupt and degrade ISIL operations as part of an overall humanitarian objective to protect people in Iraq and right around the world from this murderous death cult. But, it's pretty clear that there is a growing international coalition – a coalition of the concerned – a coalition of people who, in President Hollande's words, accept that this is a global problem and it requires a global solution.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, can you confirm SAS troops have left for the Middle East?

PRIME MINISTER:

It’s not the custom of this Government, or any Australian government, to talk about where our Special Forces are.

QUESTION:

In terms of the dictionary definition of a war, it’s an armed conflict between groups, not necessarily nations, so why aren't you calling this, for example, a war against terror?

PRIME MINISTER:

Subject to further decision making by the Cabinet and the NSC, we intend to engage in operations to disrupt and degrade the ISIL movement and, yes, they will be combat operations and they will be conducted forcefully by Australia and by our allies and partners. But, strictly speaking, this is a mission in support of the Government of Iraq. It is a mission in support of the legitimate Government of Iraq. It is fundamentally humanitarian to protect the people of Iraq and the people of the wider world from this murderous death cult. So, I'm simply describing it as it is. It is a mission to protect and, yes, it is very likely to involve combat operations inside Iraq.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, Melissa Parke has expressed concerns about the speed with which all of this is unfolding – the Labor MP. One, do you have any sympathy with the view put by Melissa Parke, and two, do you have any concern that the apparent support you had from the Opposition – bipartisan support – might be cracking?

PRIME MINISTER:

I'm very grateful for the bipartisan support from the Opposition and I want to thank Bill Shorten and his team for the very constructive approach that they've brought to this. It's right that, on matters of national security, the Government and the Opposition should stand shoulder to shoulder and I'm very pleased that that's exactly what's happening now. I can fully understand why Australians, including some Members of Parliament, are anxious about anything that looks like Australia reaching out to this conflict but the point I keep making is that this conflict is reaching out to us. We might not want to get involved but, like it or not, they want to involve us. There's at least 60 Australians that we know of fighting with this murderous cult. There’s at least 100 Australians that we know of supporting this murderous cult. That's why it's important that Australia take suitable strong action in coalition with our international partners.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, can you rule out Australian forces supporting or taking part in military action against ISIL in Syria?

PRIME MINISTER:

No, I'm not ruling out some action in Syria, but it is not part of the Government's current intentions because, as I've said quite frequently over the last few days, the legalities of operations in Syria are quite different from the legalities of operations in Iraq. In Iraq, we would be operating with the full support, cooperation and welcome of the democratically-elected Iraqi government. Syria is essentially ungoverned space with a regime that we don't recognise. So, while I entirely support President Obama, who’s said that he is prepared to conduct American combat operations inside Syria, it is not part of the Australian Government's current intention.

QUESTION:

Is there a risk of Iraqi soldiers sympathetic to ISIL turning on their Australian trainers, as happened in Afghanistan, and how do you deal with that?

PRIME MINISTER:

I have said from the beginning that any combat operations inside Iraq would be hazardous – highly hazardous. There is no risk-free way to engage in combat operations. We will do everything we humanly can to minimise the risks. We will ensure that our people go in with appropriate protection, but nevertheless, we look forward to working with the Iraqi security forces, with the Peshmerga, to help them to protect their own country and I do want to stress that the situation today is very different from the situation in Afghanistan, it’s very different from the situation in Iraq in 2003. You have this murderous advance through Northern Iraq – this stunningly successful advance through Northern Iraq – by this death cult. We’ve seen the beheadings, the crucifixions, the mass executions. We’ve seen the hundreds of thousands of people displaced. We’ve seen the pure hatred and evil unleashed by ISIL on everyone who doesn't share their particular view of the world – the Shia, the Turkmen, the Kurds, the Yazidis, the Christians, Sunni who don't instantly capitulate to the ISIL advance. I think there is every indication that the new and much more inclusive and much more broadly-based government in Baghdad will be able to rally the country against the ISIL incursion and, obviously, we want to be as helpful as we can in conjunction with our international partners.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, you avoided using the word 'war' before, but don't you acknowledge that exactly the definition you gave is effectively us at war?

PRIME MINISTER:

What I'm talking about is Australia's readiness to engage in combat operations inside Iraq with the support and welcome of the Iraqi government. Australian forces have no intention of engaging in independent combat operations. Yes, we are prepared to be military advisers to the Iraqi security forces and to the Peshmerga but this is a fight, there's no doubt about that, this is a fight, and we are determined to act forcefully with the full support and cooperation of the Iraqi government, to be as helpful as we possibly can, because as President Hollande said, this is the world's fight. It's not just Iraq's fight and we want to be there, not just to help protect the Iraqi citizens against this evil but ultimately to help protect our own citizens against this evil.

QUESTION:

Mr Abbott, are the Arab nations doing enough in this fight?

PRIME MINISTER:

We saw all of the major Middle Eastern countries in Paris at the conference that was convened by President Hollande. Again, I return to the words – a determination to assist the new Iraqi government by any means necessary, including appropriate military assistance. So while the precise form of military assistance is in the process of crystallising, there is a very clear consciousness by all the major governments in the Middle East of the danger that this ISIL movement poses to them. There is no existing government which is not under mortal threat from the ISIL movement.

QUESTION:

Mr Abbott, seeing as you are here, have you had any opportunity to brief Indigenous leaders on what we are doing in the Middle East? Have you engaged them in that discussion and was there any support given to you?

PRIME MINISTER:

Paul, look, we haven't specifically discussed that, although obviously I've let them know that, from time to time, I'm going to have to duck out of my programme here to discuss the international situation and Australia's potential involvement in these issues abroad, but one of the things I was able to do this morning is do PT with Norforce. Norforce is a largely Indigenous unit. I have to say that I was pleased to participate with these fine men and women – members of the Australian Armed Forces – and I think they understand that the armed forces of our country, from time to time, are required to engage in operations abroad.

QUESTION:

Are you still committed to stay here for the full week given everything that's happening?

PRIME MINISTER:

It's possible that I may have to leave a little earlier but, certainly, I intend to have a very deep and full engagement up here as I committed with Galarrwuy about a year ago. It is very important that I keep faith with the people of East Arnhem Land and I certainly am determined to ensure no-one feels short-changed. I understand there have been previous Prime Ministerial visits to Yirrkala but I'm absolutely convinced that there has never been a Prime Minister who spent several days in camp at Gulkula.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, when would you leave if you were going to leave earlier?

PRIME MINISTER:

I'm not going to speculate on the programme.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, the Rirratjingu will meet with you this afternoon and one of the things they will be pushing is 99 year township leases for Gunyangara. Are you predisposed to their argument?

PRIME MINISTER:

I'm happy to go on to local Indigenous issues but have we finished with security questions?

QUESTION:

There was one more. Have you, from your base in Gulkula, been in touch with world leaders? What sort of conversations have you had? Do you mind discussing that? How are you finding working from this place?

PRIME MINISTER:

The miracle of modern technology is that you can make a secure call almost anywhere and I've been able to do quite a bit of that over the last couple of days. You just saw a meeting between myself, the Defence Minister, the CDF, the National Security adviser, the secretary of the Department of PM&C. We had a very good discussion about the Paris conference and the various developments overseas so it is very easy, given the wonders of modern technology, to do all these things even from a relatively remote location. I'll continue to do that over the next few days.

QUESTION:

I know it is early days but does the Government have any idea how much our involvement in Iraq may end up costing?

PRIME MINISTER:

We don't have a specific costing but the ballpark is about a quarter of a billion every six months. It's a significant amount of money but there is a sense in which, when national security is at stake, when Australia is called upon to shoulder our fair share of the world's burdens, we rally to the cause. We always have and, as far as I'm concerned, we always will.

QUESTION:

Would you like to see next week's meeting result in a UN resolution supporting the action?

PRIME MINISTER:

It's not strictly necessary because anything that happens in Iraq will be done with the full support of the Iraqi Government and the Iraqi Government is fully entitled, at law, to invite its friends and partners to assist its security forces.

QUESTION:

Bill Shorten has talked about the need to increase our refugee intake from Iraq and Syria. Will you consider that?

PRIME MINISTER:

We have already acted there. Because we have largely succeeded in stopping the boats, because we don't have illegal arrivals by boat filling our humanitarian intake, we are able to now provide places to people who are stuck in camps abroad and what we've already announced is that there will be an additional 4,400 places available to people who have been displaced by the ISIL advance. So, I think that's a very strong step in the direction that the Opposition Leader is keen on.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, you indicated yesterday that you might, that it was possible that within a week Cabinet would meet to give the subsequent authority for our forces to move into Iraqi air space? Have your briefings, or at least the briefing in the meantime, led you to refine when that Cabinet meeting – when that point might be reached in the process?

PRIME MINISTER:

We are in the process of deploying our forces to the United Arab Emirates. The process is underway. It will be completed in coming days. There is a certain amount of training up that is then required once forces are in country. Obviously the Security Council meeting, which President Obama is chairing towards the end of next week, is quite significant. So, we will make decisions as and when they are required.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, there are reports of US air strikes on Baghdad, is this something you support and think Australia should be involved in?

PRIME MINISTER:

I'm just not going to comment on reports that I'm not aware of.

QUESTION:

You are not aware of the reports of US air strikes?

PRIME MINISTER:

I'm not aware of those reports.

QUESTION:

Can we move on to the issue that you’re dealing with here?

PRIME MINISTER:

Of course. Now Paul raised the issue of a township lease. Look, I'm very supportive, in principle, of people being able to use their land as an economic asset as well as simply a ceremonial and cultural asset. And, plainly, if a township lease could be established over Yirrkala, that would enable Canberra-style home ownership to be established. So, I'm certainly very supportive of this. Obviously, there are legalities that need to be gone through and let's hope that all of that can be progressed. It is plainly dependent upon what local people wish, but plainly, there is some strong local support for this and let's hope it can be facilitated.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, how do you respond to concerns that you haven't done enough to push for this referendum? There are concerns that not enough resources have been put in and you had promised to drive this. Have you and your Government failed to do so?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, there’s always going to be enthusiasts who say, "You haven't done enough," but I think that no fair-minded observer would say that we've been neglectful of this or other indigenous issues. And I'm hoping, within a space of days rather than weeks, to have more to say on this.

QUESTION:

In the run-up to the referendum, would something like the GST campaign be in order to get it over the line?

PRIME MINISTER:

I'm hoping that this is going to be something that Australians embrace. I'm hoping that it is going to be a unifying moment. Obviously there will need to be a sustained national conversation about it, but I really don't want to see this as a party political football. If it is a party political football, if it does involve two different camps shouting at each other, plainly we haven't done this as well as we would like.

QUESTION:

Are you any closer to a question having held a couple of days' worth of discussions?

PRIME MINISTER:

It's important to say something significant about our country which acknowledges the pivotal role of indigenous people as the First Australians and which well expresses the reality of modern Australia, is that we have an indigenous inheritance, a British foundation, a multicultural character. This is the description that Noel Pearson has been using for some time now. I think it does well encapsulate the truth about modern Australia, the glory if you like, of modern Australia. We are a very embracing inclusive country that reaches out to people, we have a strong identity – I think that’s something that anyone who comes to this country appreciates. I’m not saying that it’s going to be easy to put this in appropriate words into our Constitution, but nevertheless that’s the task, that’s the challenge and it’s one that I think we as a nation are up for.

QUESTION:

If you’re hoping to say something within days and not weeks, as you say Prime Minister, presumably tomorrow’s meeting with indigenous leaders is quite significant then. What is your benchmark of success out of that meeting?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, again, I don't want anyone to invest any particular meeting with too much significance. Every meeting is important. Every opportunity for senior people to come together and discuss this is important, but I don't want to ruin what should be an inclusive national journey by getting ahead of myself and by encouraging people to get ahead of themselves.

Now, it’s an important discussion that will take place tomorrow. I believe I had an important discussion with Galarrwuy Yunupingu and other Yolngu leaders last night. So, a lot of discussions are taking place and a lot more discussion will have to take place in all sorts of different contexts, including around the family dinner tables of our country in the weeks and months and years ahead. This is a very important journey and I want it to have the right outcome and the right outcome is successful change that brings our people together. So, certainly it's a significant meeting tomorrow, but please, don't be too disappointed if we don't have the Gulkula declaration at the end of it.

QUESTION:

Are you open to a question that says racial discrimination is unacceptable in modern-day Australia?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, of course racial discrimination is unacceptable. What none of us really want to see is the ordinary legislation of Government, the ordinary operation of the executive and legislative power too readily subject to second-guessing by non-elected judges and that's the difficulty with trying to entrench that kind of a clause in the constitution. It will essentially mean that judges can second-guess much more of the ordinary legislative agenda of Governments of both sides than has been the case up until now.

So, I'm not ruling things in and out at this point in time except to say that I want this, all of us should want this to be an inclusive, unifying, embracing national journey. I know that's ambitious, but nevertheless, that's what we want it to be and I think that to start being too prescriptive too soon is to jeopardise the great journey upon which we should all be embarked.

One final question, just because you've come a long way.

QUESTION:

Just on what you've seen in the last few days. Yesterday and this morning you've seen businesses run by Gumatj that are supported by royalties, this afternoon you’ll go to a YBE which is commercial but depends on money from Rio Tinto for its contracts. Do you think what you're seeing here is a model that is applicable anywhere else?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think it's an encouraging start. What we see here with Gumatj is some enterprises which at this stage are mainly sustaining the community, but which have the potential to scale up and become commercial. And I guess that's obviously what Gumatj want, to scale this up so that it's not just there for the community but it is there for wider society. And I guess this is a good start, let's see where it can go in the months and years ahead but the great thing is to see the skills of local people and the work that they've been doing.

That table that I was lucky enough to help finish off this morning is a really classy bit of work and I'd certainly recommend people go and have a look at some of the items in the furniture shop and if we can see more of that, if we can see arrangements entered into between Gumatj and some of the major furniture retailers, and obviously that means talking about being able to knock it down and erect it in people's homes and so on, that's the kind of thing that it would be terrific to see as the next step. And I can see Minister Scullion nodding in agreement and I suspect being the innovative kind of bloke he is that he'll be talking to some of the big retailers about what might be possible because these are people who want to have a go; they're people who already have significant skills. This is a go-ahead community, a dynamic community, a community that's got a lot of skilled management and I think there's enormous potential here.

Thanks.

[ends]

Transcript - 23832