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Prime Minister right not to visit Dili

ACT Leader Richard Prebble says the Prime Minister is right in not visiting Dili.

Mr Prebble rejects any suggestion that the Prime Minister's decision indicates any lack of support by the Government for our troops. "While the Prime Minister was seriously considering a visit I advised that while I understood her desire to indicate to our troops the Government 's 100% support for them, during an election campaign it would be misinterpreted," Mr Prebble said.

"I also drew it to the attention of the Prime Minister that Indonesia still legally claims East Timor and her actions could have possible long term serious ramifications for New Zealand's relations with Indonesia.

"While it's important that we stand up to Indonesia over East Timor, it's also important that we do not unnecessarily damage our long term relations with this very important nation.

"I believe that the Prime Minister should send the Governor General who would be symbolic of not just the Government's support for our troops but the whole nation's. The Governor General is the commander in chief and so has a legitimate reason for going to inspect his troops," Mr Prebble said.


letter to PM
27 September 1999
Rt Hon Jenny Shipley MP
Prime Minister
Parliament Buildings

Dear Prime Minister

Further to our telephone conversation today, I write to you regarding the speculation that you may make a visit to East Timor during the election campaign.

While I understand your desire to indicate the government's support for our armed forces personnel, I fear that your action will be misinterpreted by some and deliberately misinterpreted by others.

You have achieved a major Parliamentary achievement for which you are entitled to take credit - total support right across the political spectrum for the Government's policy in East Timor.

The ACT Party has been working very hard over the last three years to try to get a bipartisan non political defence policy. It was a perhaps the major achievement of Derek Quigley's select committee review of our military needs that Labour and the Alliance for the first time publicly conceded that if New Zealand was to be involved in peace keeping, then the armed forces and the army in particular needed substantial new investment and that an effective armed force is expensive.

I don't have to remind you that as recently as early this year, regarding Kosovo, both Labour and the Alliance were opposed to the UN peacekeeping. No doubt there are still powerful factions in each party opposed to the concept of UN peacekeeping.

I believe you should take no action that may make it difficult to maintain cross-party support for the peacekeepers in East Timor.

We know this is not a 30-day mission and our troops may be there for three years. Experience teaches us that it's hard to maintain public support for our armed forces when it's a long, dangerous and expensive campaign.

I've written to you before, anticipating that your political minders might suggest such a visit. I do believe that it's appropriate that we publicly indicate support for our armed forces and I know that you as Prime Minister are keen to do so.

My suggestion is that you ask the Governor General to go.

There is also a foreign policy consideration. Indonesia is a very important nation with a population of over 100 million. A visit by you as Prime Minister without an invitation from the Indonesians may well be interpreted as a deliberate insult. While New Zealand needs to be firm in its support for the people of East Timor, it is not in New Zealand's long term interests to be unnecessarily antagonistic to an important neighbour with whom we should be seeking good relations.

The Governor General is the commander in chief of the armed forces and should be going in that capacity. It may be subtle but it's an important distinction. The Governor General is non political, so a visit from him would could not be misinterpreted and would be symbolic of the extraordinary range of support there is in the whole country for our defence personnel in East Timor.

Yours faithfully

Hon Richard Prebble CBE

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